The Wee Free Men Page 1

Author: Terry Pratchett

Series: Discworld #30

Genres: Fantasy , Young Adult


A Clang Well Done

Some things start before other things.

It was a summer shower but didn’t appear to know it, and it was pouring rain as fast as a winter storm.

Miss Perspicacia Tick sat in what little shelter a raggedy hedge could give her and explored the universe. She didn’t notice the rain. Witches dried out quickly.

The exploring of the universe was being done with a couple of twigs tied together with string, a stone with a hole in it, an egg, one of Miss Tick’s stockings (which also had a hole in it), a pin, a piece of paper, and a tiny stub of pencil. Unlike wizards, witches learn to make do with a little.

The items had been tied and twisted together to make a…device. It moved oddly when she prodded it. One of the sticks seemed to pass right through the egg, for example, and came out the other side without leaving a mark.

“Yes,” she said quietly, as rain poured off the rim of her hat. “There it is. A definite ripple in the walls of the world. Very worrying. There’s probably another world making contact. That’s never good. I ought to go there. But…according to my left elbow, there’s a witch there already.”

“She’ll sort it out, then,” said a small and, for now, mysterious voice from somewhere near her feet.

“No, it can’t be right. That’s chalk country over that way,” said Miss Tick. “You can’t grow a good witch on chalk. The stuff’s barely harder than clay. You need good hard rock to grow a witch, believe me.” Miss Tick shook her head, sending raindrops flying. “But my elbows are generally very reliable.”*

“Why talk about it? Let’s go and see,” said the voice. “We’re not doing very well around here, are we?”

That was true. The lowlands weren’t good to witches. Miss Tick was making pennies by doing bits of medicine and misfortune-telling,** and slept in barns most nights. She’d twice been thrown into ponds.

“I can’t barge in,” she said. “Not on another witch’s territory. That never, ever works. But…” She paused. “Witches don’t just turn up out of nowhere. Let’s have a look….”

She pulled a cracked saucer out of her pocket and tipped into it the rainwater that had collected on her hat. Then she took a bottle of ink out of another pocket and poured in just enough to turn the water black.

She cupped it in her hands to keep the raindrops out and listened to her eyes.

Tiffany Aching was lying on her stomach by the river, tickling trout. She liked to hear them laugh. It came up in bubbles.

A little way away, where the riverbank became a sort of pebble beach, her brother, Wentworth, was messing around with a stick, and almost certainly making himself sticky.

Anything could make Wentworth sticky. Washed and dried and left in the middle of a clean floor for five minutes, Wentworth would be sticky. It didn’t seem to come from anywhere. He just got sticky. But he was an easy child to mind, provided you stopped him from eating frogs.

There was a small part of Tiffany’s brain that wasn’t too certain about the name Tiffany. She was nine years old and felt that Tiffany was going to be a hard name to live up to. Besides, she’d decided only last week that she wanted to be a witch when she grew up, and she was certain Tiffany just wouldn’t work. People would laugh.

Another and larger part of Tiffany’s brain was thinking of the word susurrus. It was a word that not many people have thought about, ever. As her fingers rubbed the trout under its chin, she rolled the word round and round in her head.

Susurrus…according to her grandmother’s dictionary, it meant “a low soft sound, as of whispering or muttering.” Tiffany liked the taste of the word. It made her think of mysterious people in long cloaks whispering important secrets behind a door: susurruss-susurrusss…

She’d read the dictionary all the way through. No one told her you weren’t supposed to.

As she thought this, she realized that the happy trout had swum away. But something else was in the water, only a few inches from her face.

It was a round basket, no bigger than half a coconut shell, coated with something to block up the holes and make it float. A little man, only six inches high, was standing up in it. He had a mass of untidy red hair into which a few feathers, beads, and bits of cloth had been woven. He had a red beard, which was pretty much as bad as the hair. The rest of him that wasn’t covered with blue tattoos was covered with a tiny kilt. And he was waving a fist at her and shouting:

“Crivens! Gang awa’ oot o’ here, ye daft wee hinny! ’Ware the green heid!”

With that he pulled at a piece of string that was hanging over the side of his boat, and a second red-headed man surfaced, gulping air.

“Nae time for fishin’!” said the first man, hauling him aboard. “The green heid’s coming!”

“Crivens!” said the swimmer, water pouring off him. “Let’s offski!”

And with that he grabbed one very small oar and, with rapid back and forth movements, made the basket speed away.

“Excuse me!” Tiffany shouted. “Are you fairies?”

But there was no answer. The little round boat had disappeared in the reeds.

Probably not, Tiffany decided.

Then, to her dark delight, there was a susurrus. There was no wind, but the leaves on the alder bushes by the riverbank began to shake and rustle. So did the reeds. They didn’t bend, they just blurred. Everything blurred, as if something had picked up the world and was shaking it. The air fizzed. People whispered behind closed doors….

The water began to bubble, just under the bank. It wasn’t very deep here—it would only have reached Tiffany’s knees if she’d waded—but it was suddenly darker and greener and, somehow, much deeper….

She stood and took a couple of steps backward just before long skinny arms fountained out of the water and clawed madly at the bank where she had been. For a moment she saw a thin face with long sharp teeth, huge round eyes, and dripping green hair like waterweed, and then the thing plunged back into the depths.

By the time the water closed over it, Tiffany was already running along the bank to the little beach where Wentworth was making frog pies. She snatched up the child just as a stream of bubbles came around the curve in the bank. Once again the water boiled, the green-haired creature shot up, and the long arms clawed at the mud. Then it screamed and dropped back into the water.

“I wanna go-a toy-lut!” screamed Wentworth.

Tiffany ignored him. She was watching the river with a thoughtful expression.

I’m not scared at all, she thought. How strange. I ought to be scared, but I’m just angry. I mean, I can feel the scared, like a red-hot ball, but the angry isn’t letting it out….

“Wenny wanna wanna wanna go-a toy-lut!” Wentworth shrieked.

“Go on, then,” said Tiffany absentmindedly. The ripples were still sloshing against the bank.

There was no point in telling anyone about this. Everyone would just say, “What an imagination the child has,” if they were feeling in a good mood, or, “Don’t tell stories!” if they weren’t.

She was still very angry. How dare a monster turn up in the river? Especially one so…so…ridiculous! Who did it think she was?

This is Tiffany, walking back home. Start with the boots. They are big and heavy boots, much repaired by her father, and they belonged to various sisters before her; she wears several pairs of socks to keep them on. They are big. Tiffany sometimes feels she is nothing more than a way of moving boots around.

Then there is the dress. It has been owned by many sisters as well and has been taken up, taken out, taken down, and taken in by her mother so many times that it really ought to have been taken away. But Tiffany rather likes it. It comes down to her ankles and, whatever color it had been to start with, is now a milky blue that is, incidentally, exactly the same color as the butterflies skittering beside the path.

Then there is Tiffany’s face. Light pink, with brown eyes, and brown hair. Nothing special. Her head might strike anyone watching—in a saucer of black water, for example—as being just slightly too big for the rest of her, but perhaps she’ll grow into it.

And then go farther up, and farther, until the track becomes a ribbon and Tiffany and her brother two little dots, and there is her country.

They call it the Chalk. Green downlands roll under the hot midsummer sun. From up here the flocks of sheep, moving slowly, drift over the short turf like clouds on a green sky. Here and there sheepdogs speed over the grass like shooting stars.

And then, as the eyes pull back, it is a long green mound, lying like a great whale on the world…

…surrounded by the inky rainwater in the saucer.

Miss Tick looked up.

“That little creature in the boat was a Nac Mac Feegle!” she said. “The most feared of all the fairy races! Even trolls run away from the Wee Free Men! And one of them warned her!”

“She’s the witch, then, is she?” said the voice.

“At that age? Impossible!” said Miss Tick. “There’s been no one to teach her! There’re no witches on the Chalk! It’s too soft. And yet…she wasn’t scared….”

The rain had stopped. Miss Tick looked up at the Chalk, rising above the low, wrung-out clouds. It was about five miles away.

“This child needs watching,” she said. “But chalk’s too soft to grow a witch on….”

Only the mountains were higher than the Chalk. They stood sharp and purple and gray, streaming long trails of snow from their tops even in summer. “Brides o’ the sky,” Granny Aching had called them once, and it was so rare that she ever said anything at all, let alone anything that didn’t have to do with sheep, that Tiffany had remembered it. Besides, it was exactly right. That’s what the mountains looked like in the winter, when they were all in white and the snow streams blew like veils.

Granny used old words and came out with odd, old sayings. She didn’t call the downland the Chalk, she called it “the wold.” Up on the wold the wind blows cold, Tiffany had thought, and the word had stuck that way.

She arrived at the farm.

People tended to leave Tiffany alone. There was nothing particularly cruel or unpleasant about this, but the farm was big and everyone had their jobs to do, and she did hers very well and so she became, in a way, invisible. She was the dairymaid, and good at it. She made better butter than her mother did, and people commented about how good she was with cheese. It was a talent. Sometimes, when the wandering teachers came to the village, she went and got a bit of education. But mostly she worked in the dairy, which was dark and cool. She enjoyed it. It meant she was doing something for the farm.

It was actually called the Home Farm. Her father rented it from the Baron, who owned the land, but there had been Achings farming it for hundreds of years and so, her father said (quietly, sometimes, after he’d had a beer in the evenings), as far as the land knew, it was owned by the Achings. Tiffany’s mother used to tell him not to speak like that, although the Baron was always very respectful to Mr. Aching since Granny had died two years ago, calling him the finest shepherd in these hills, and was generally held by the people in the village to be not too bad these days. It paid to be respectful, said Tiffany’s mother, and the poor man had sorrows of his own.

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