Witches Abroad Page 2

'You've lost, Desiderata Hollow.'

'So it goes.' Desiderata got to her feet, a little unsteadily, and picked up a cloth.

The figure seemed to be getting angry. It clearly felt that people who had lost ought to look downcast, and not as if they were enjoying a joke at your expense.

'Don't you understand what losing means?'

'Some people are very clear about that,' said Desiderata. 'Goodbye, m'lady.' She hung the cloth over the mirror.

There was an angry intake of breath, and then silence.

Desiderata stood as if lost in thought.

Then she raised her head, and said: 'Kettle boiled just now. Would you like a cup of tea?'

No, THANK YOU, said a voice right behind her.

'How long have you been waiting?'


'Not keeping you, am I?'


'I'm making a cup of tea. I think there's one biscuit left.'


'If you feel peckish, it's in the jar on the mantelpiece. That's genuine Klatchian pottery, you know. Made by a genuine Klatchian craftsman. From Klatch,' she added.


'I used to get about a lot in my younger days.'


'Great times.' Desiderata poked the fire. 'It was the job, you see. Of course, I expect it's very much the same for you.'


'I never knew when I was going to be called out. Well, of course you'd know about that, wouldn't you. Kitchens, mainly. It always seemed to be kitchens. Balls sometimes, but generally it was kitchens.' She picked up the kettle and poured the boiling water into the teapot on the hearth.


'I used to grant their wishes.'

Death looked puzzled.


'No, no. The people.' Desiderata sighed. 'It's a big responsibility, fairy godmothering. Knowing when to stop, I mean. People whose wishes get granted often don't turn out to be very nice people. So should you give them what they want - or what they need?'

Death nodded politely. From his point of view, people got what they were given.

'Like this Genua thing - ' Desiderata began.

Death looked up sharply.


'You know it? Well, of course you would.'


Desiderata's expression softened. Her inner eyes were looking elsewhere.

'There were two of us. Godmothers go in twos, you know. Me and Lady Lilith? There's a lot of power in godmothering. It's like being part of history. Anyway, the girl was born, out of wedlock but none the worse for that, it wasn't as if they couldn't have married, they just never got round to it... and Lilith wished for her to have beauty and power and marry a prince. Hah! And she's been working on that ever since. What could I do? You can't argue with wishes like that. Lilith knows the power of a story. I've done the best I could, but Lilith's got the power. I hear she runs the city now. Changing a whole country just to make a story work! And now it's too late anyway. For me. So I'm handing on the responsibility. That's how it goes, with fairy godmothering. No-one ever wants to be a fairy godmother. Except Lilith, of course. Got a bee in her bonnet about it. So I'm sending someone else. I may have left things too late.'

Desiderata was a kindly soul. Fairy godmothers develop a very deep understanding about human nature, which makes the good ones kind and the bad ones powerful.

She was not someone to use extreme language, but it was possible to be sure that when she deployed a mild term like 'a bee in her bonnet' she was using it to define someone whom she believed to be several miles over the madness horizon and accelerating.

She poured out the tea.

'That's the trouble with second sight,' she said. 'You can see what's happenin', but you don't know what it means. I've seen the future. There's a coach made out of a pumpkin. And that's impossible. And there's coachmen made out of mice, which is unlikely. And there's a clock striking midnight, and something about a glass slipper. And it's all going to happen. Because that's how stories have to work. And then I thought: I knows some people who make stories work their, way.'

She sighed again. 'Wish I was going to Genua,' she said. 'I could do with the warmth. And it's Fat Tuesday coming up. Always went to Genua for Fat Tuesday in the old days.'

There was an expectant silence.


'Hah! No-one grants a fairy godmother's wishes.' Desiderata had that inward look again, her voice talking to herself. 'See? I got to get the three of them to Genua. Got to get 'em there because I've seen 'em there. Got to be all three. And that ain't easy, with people like them. Got to use headology. Got to make 'em send 'emselves. Tell Esme Weatherwax she's got to go somewhere and she won't go out of contrariness, so tell her she's not to go and she'll run there over broken glass. That's the thing about the Weatherwaxes, see. They don't know how to be beaten.'

Something seemed to strike her as funny.

'But one of 'em's going to have to learn.'

Death said nothing. From where he sat, Desiderata reflected, losing was something that everyone learned.

She drained her tea. Then she stood up, put on her pointy hat with a certain amount of ceremony, and hobbled out of the back door.

There was a deep trench dug under the trees a little way from the house, down into which someone had thoughtfully put a short ladder. She climbed in and, with some difficulty, heaved the ladder on to the leaves. Then she lay down. She sat up.

'Mr Chert the troll down at the sawmill does a very good deal on coffins, if you don't mind pine.'


'I got Hurker the poacher to dig the hole out for me,' she said conversationally, 'and he's goin' to come along and fill it in on his way home. I believe in being neat. Take it away, maestro.'


He raised his scythe.

Desiderata Hollow went to her rest.

'Well,' she said, 'that was easy. What happens now?'

And this is Genua. The magical kingdom. The diamond city. The fortunate country.

In the centre of the city a woman stood between two mirrors, watching herself reflected all the way to infinity.

The mirrors were themselves in the centre of an octagon of mirrors, open to the sky on the highest tower of the palace. There were so many reflections, in fact, that it was only with extreme difficulty that you could tell where the mirrors ended and the real person began.

Her name was Lady Lilith de Tempscire, although she had answered to many others in the course of a long and eventful life. And that was something you learned to do early on, she'd found. If you wanted to get anywhere in this world - and she'd decided, right at the start, that she wanted to get as far as it was possible to go - you wore names lightly, and you took power anywhere you found

it. She had buried three husbands, and at least two of them had been already dead.

And you moved around a lot. Because most people didn't move around much. Change countries and your name and, if you had the right manner, the world was your mollusc. For example, she'd had to go a mere hundred miles to become a Lady.

She'd go to any lengths now . . .

The two main mirrors were set almost, but not quite, facing one another, so that Lilith could see over her shoulder and watch her images curve away around the universe inside the mirror.

She could feel herself pouring into herself, multiplying itself via the endless reflections.

When Lilith sighed and strode out from the Space between the mirrors the effect was startling. Images of Lilith hung in the air behind her for a moment, like three-dimensional shadows, before fading.

So ... Desiderata was dying. Interfering old baggage. She deserved death. She'd never understood the kind of power she'd had. She was one of those people afraid to do good for fear of doing harm, who took it all so seriously that they'd constipate themselves with moral anguish before granting the wish of a single ant.

Lilith looked down and out over the city. Well, there were no barriers now. The stupid voodoo woman in the swamp was a mere distraction, with no understanding.

Nothing stood in the way of what Lilith liked more than anything else.

A happy ending.

Up on the mountain, the sabbat had settled down a bit. Artists and writers have always had a rather exaggerated idea about what goes on at a witches' sabbat. This comes from spending too much time in small rooms with the curtains drawn, instead of getting out in the healthy fresh air.

For example, there's the dancing around naked. In the average temperate climate there are very few nights when anyone would dance around at midnight with no clothes on, quite apart from the question of stones, thistles, and sudden hedgehogs.

Then there's all that business with goat-headed gods. Most witches don't believe in gods. They know that the gods exist, of course. They even deal with them occasionally. But they don't believe in them. They know them too well. It would be like believing in the postman.

And there's the food and drink - the bits of reptile and so on. In fact, witches don't go for that sort of thing. The worst you can say about the eating habits of the older type of witch is that they tend to like ginger biscuits dipped in tea with so much sugar in it that the spoon won't move and will drink it out of the saucer if they think it's too hot. And do so with appreciative noises more generally associated with the cheaper type of plumbing system. Legs of toad and so on might be better than this.

Then there's the mystic ointments. By sheer luck, the artists and writers are on firmer ground here. Most witches are elderly, which is when ointments start to have an attraction, and at least two of those present tonight were wearing Granny Weatherwax's famous goose-grease-and-sage chest liniment. This didn't make you fly and see visions, but it did prevent colds, if only because the distressing smell that developed around about the second week kept everyone else so far away you couldn't catch anything from them.

And finally there's sabbats themselves. Your average witch is not, by nature, a social animal as far as other witches are concerned. There's a conflict of dominant personalities. There's a group of ringleaders without a ring. There's the basic unwritten rule of witchcraft, which is 'Don't do what you will, do what I say.' The natural size of a coven is one. Witches only get together when they can't avoid it.

Like now.

The conversation, given Desiderata's absence, had naturally turned to the increasing shortage of witches.*

'What, no-one?' said Granny Weatherwax.

'No-one,' said Gammer Brevis.

'I call that terrible,' said Granny. 'That's disgustin'.'

'Eh?' said Old Mother Dismass.

'She calls it disgusting!' shouted Gammer Brevis.


'There's no girl to put forward! To take Desiderata's place!'


The implications of this sank in.

'If anyone doesn't want their crusts I'll 'ave 'em,' said Nanny Ogg.

'We never had this sort of thing in my young days,' said Granny. 'There was a dozen witches this side of the mountain alone. Of course, that was before all this' - she made a face - 'making your own entertainment. There's far too much of this making your own entertainment these days. We never made our own entertainment when I was a girl. We never had time.'

'Tempers fuggit,' said Nanny Ogg.


'Tempers fuggit. Means that was then and this is now,' said Nanny.

'I don't need no-one to tell me that, Gytha Ogg. I know when now is.'

'You got to move with the times.'

'I don't see why. Don't see why we - '

'So I reckon we got to shift the boundaries again,' said Gammer Brevis.

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