The Wee Free Men Page 2

But sometimes her father insisted that there had been Achings (or Akins, or Archens, or Akens, or Akenns—spelling had been optional) mentioned in old documents about the area for hundreds and hundreds of years. They had these hills in their bones, he said, and they’d always been shepherds.

Tiffany felt quite proud of this, in an odd way, because it might also be nice to be proud of the fact that your ancestors moved around a bit, too, or occasionally tried new things. But you’ve got to be proud of something. And for as long as she could remember, she’d heard her father, an otherwise quiet, slow man, make the Joke, the one that must have been handed down from Aching to Aching for hundreds of years.

He’d say, “Another day of work and I’m still Aching,” or “I get up Aching and I go to bed Aching,” or even “I’m Aching all over.” They weren’t particularly funny after about the third time, but she’d miss it if he didn’t say at least one of them every week. They didn’t have to be funny—they were father jokes. Anyway, however they were spelled, all her ancestors had been Aching to stay, not Aching to leave.

There was no one around in the kitchen. Her mother had probably gone up to the shearing pens with a bite of lunch for the men, who were shearing this week. Her sisters Hannah and Fastidia were up there too, rolling fleeces and paying attention to some of the younger men. They were always quite eager to work during shearing.

Near the big black stove was the shelf that was still called Granny Aching’s Library by her mother, who liked the idea of having a library. Everyone else called it Granny’s Shelf.

It was a small shelf, since the books were wedged between a jar of crystallized ginger and the china shepherdess that Tiffany had won at a fair when she was six.

There were only five books if you didn’t include the big farm diary, which in Tiffany’s view didn’t count as a real book because you had to write it yourself. There was the dictionary. There was the Almanack, which got changed every year. And next to that was Diseases of the Sheep, which was fat with the bookmarks that her grandmother had put there.

Granny Aching had been an expert on sheep, even though she called them “just bags of bones, eyeballs, and teeth, lookin’ for new ways to die.” Other shepherds would walk miles to get her to come and cure their beasts of ailments. They said she had the Touch, although she just said that the best medicine for sheep or man was a dose of turpentine, a good cussin’, and a kick. Bits of paper with Granny’s own recipes for sheep cures stuck out all over the book. Mostly they involved turpentine, but some included cussin’.

Next to the book on sheep was a thin little volume called Flowers of the Chalk. The turf of the downs was full of tiny, intricate flowers, like cowslips and harebells, and even smaller ones that somehow survived the grazing. On the Chalk flowers had to be tough and cunning to survive the sheep and the winter blizzards.

Someone had colored in the flowers a long time ago. On the flyleaf of the book was written in neat handwriting Sarah Grizzel, which had been Granny’s name before she was married. She had probably thought that Aching was at least better than Grizzel.

And finally there was The Goode Childe’s Booke of Faerie Tales, so old that it belonged to an age when there were far more e’s around.

Tiffany stood on a chair and took it down. She turned the pages until she found the one she was looking for and stared at it for a while. Then she put the book back, replaced the chair, and opened the crockery cupboard.

She found a soup plate, went over to a drawer, took out the tape measure her mother used for dressmaking, and measured the plate.

“Hmm,” she said. “Eight inches. Why didn’t they just say?”

She unhooked the largest frying pan, the one that could cook breakfast for half a dozen people all at once, and took some candies from the jar on the dresser and put them in an old paper bag. Then, to Wentworth’s sullen bewilderment, she took him by a sticky hand and headed back down toward the stream.

Things still looked very normal down there, but she was not going to let that fool her. All the trout had fled, and the birds weren’t singing.

She found a place on the riverbank with the right-sized bush. Then she found a stone and hammered a piece of wood into the ground as hard as she could, close to the edge of the water, and tied the bag of sweets to it. Tiffany was the kind of child who always carried a piece of string.

“Candy, Wentworth,” she shouted.

She gripped the frying pan and stepped smartly behind the bush.

Wentworth trotted over to the sweets and tried to pick up the bag. It wouldn’t move.

“I wanna go-a toy-lut!” he yelled, because it was a threat that usually worked. His fat fingers scrabbled at the knots.

Tiffany watched the water carefully. Was it getting darker? Was it getting greener? Was that just waterweed down there? Were those bubbles just a trout, laughing?


She ran out of her hiding place with the frying pan swinging like a bat. The screaming monster, leaping out of the water, met the frying pan coming the other way with a clang.

It was a good clang, with the oiyoiyoioioioioioinnnnnggggggg that is the mark of a clang well done.

The creature hung there for a moment, a few teeth and bits of green weed splashing into the water, then slid down slowly and sank with some massive bubbles.

The water cleared and was once again the same old river, shallow and icy cold and floored with pebbles.

“Wanna wanna sweeties!” screamed Wentworth, who never noticed anything else in the presence of sweets.

Tiffany undid the string and gave them to him. He ate them far too quickly, as he always did with sweets. She waited until he was sick, then went back home in a thoughtful state of mind.

In the reeds, quite low down, small voices whispered:

“Crivens, Wee Bobby, did yer no’ see that?”

“Aye. We’d better offski an’ tell the Big Man we’ve found the hag.”

Miss Tick was running up the dusty road. Witches don’t like to be seen running. It looks unprofessional. It’s also not done to be seen carrying things, and she had her tent on her back.

She was also trailing clouds of steam. Witches dry out from the inside.

“It had all those teeth!” said the mystery voice, this time from her hat.

“I know!” snapped Miss Tick.

“And she just hauled off and hit it!”

“Yes. I know.”

“Just like that!”

“Yes. Very impressive,” said Miss Tick. She was getting out of breath. Besides, they were already on early slopes of the downs now, and she wasn’t good on chalk. A wandering witch likes firm ground under her, not a rock so soft you could cut it with a knife.

“Impressive?” said the voice. “She used her brother as bait!”

“Amazing, wasn’t it?” said Miss Tick. “Such quick thinking…oh, no…” She stopped running and leaned against a field wall as a wave of dizziness hit her.

“What’s happening? What’s happening?” said the voice from the hat. “I nearly fell off!”

“It’s this wretched chalk! I can feel it already! I can do magic on honest soil, and rock is always fine, and I’m not too bad on clay, even…but chalk’s neither one thing nor the other! I’m very sensitive to geology, you know.”

“What are you trying to tell me?” said the voice.

“Chalk…is a hungry soil. I don’t really have much power on chalk.”

The owner of the voice, who was hidden, said: “Are you going to fall over?”

“No, no! It’s just the magic that doesn’t work.”

Miss Tick did not look like a witch. Most witches don’t, at least the ones who wander from place to place. Looking like a witch can be dangerous when you walk among the uneducated. And for that reason she didn’t wear any occult jewelry, or have a glowing magical knife or a silver goblet with a pattern of skulls all around it, or carry a broomstick with sparks coming out of it, all of which are tiny hints that there may be a witch around. Her pockets never carried anything more magical than a few twigs, maybe a piece of string, a coin or two, and, of course, a lucky charm.

Everyone in the country carried lucky charms, and Miss Tick had worked out that if you didn’t have one, people would suspect that you were a witch. You had to be a bit cunning to be a witch.

Miss Tick did have a pointy hat, but it was a stealth hat and pointed only when she wanted it to.

The one thing in her bag that might have made anyone suspicious was a very small, grubby booklet entitled An Introduction to Escapology, by the Great Williamson. If one of the risks of your job is being thrown into a pond with your hands tied together, then the ability to swim thirty yards underwater, fully clothed, plus the ability to lurk under the weeds breathing air through a hollow reed, count as nothing if you aren’t also amazingly good with knots.

“You can’t do magic here?” said the voice in the hat.

“No, I can’t,” said Miss Tick.

She looked up at the sounds of jingling. A strange procession was coming up the white road. It was mostly made up of donkeys pulling small carts with brightly painted covers on them. People walked alongside the carts, dusty to the waist. They were all men, they wore bright robes—or robes, at least, that had been bright before being trailed through mud and dust for years—and every one of them wore a strange black square hat.

Miss Tick smiled.

They looked like tinkers, but there wasn’t one among them, she knew, who could mend a kettle. What they did was sell invisible things. And after they’d sold what they had, they still had it. They sold what everyone needed but often didn’t want. They sold the key to the universe to people who didn’t even know it was locked.

“I can’t do,” said Miss Tick, straightening up. “But I can teach!”

Tiffany worked for the rest of the morning in the dairy. There was cheese that needed doing.

There was bread and jam for lunch. Her mother said, “The teachers are coming to town today. You can go, if you’ve done your chores.”

Tiffany agreed that, yes, there were one or two things she’d quite like to know more about.

“Then you can have half a dozen carrots and an egg. I daresay they could do with an egg, poor things,” said her mother.

Tiffany took them with her after lunch and went to get an egg’s worth of education.

Most boys in the village grew up to do the same jobs as their fathers or, at least, some other job somewhere in the village where someone’s father would teach them as they went along. The girls were expected to grow up to be somebody’s wife. They were also expected to be able to read and write, those being considered soft indoor jobs that were too fiddly for the boys.

However, everyone also felt that there were a few other things that even the boys ought to know, to stop them wasting time wondering about details like “What’s on the other side of the mountains?” and “How come rain falls out of the sky?”

Every family in the village bought a copy of the Almanack every year, and a sort of education came from that. It was big and thick and printed somewhere far off, and it had lots of details about things like phases of the moon and the right time to plant beans. It also contained a few prophesies about the coming year, and mentioned faraway places with names like Klatch and Hersheba. Tiffany had seen a picture of Klatch in the Almanack. It showed a camel standing in a desert. She’d only found out what both those names were because her mother had told her. And that was Klatch, a camel in a desert. She’d wondered if there wasn’t a bit more to it, but it seemed that “Klatch = camel, desert” was all anyone knew.

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