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Page 12

“They say it has many doors, but the ones in this world are in the city of Ankh-Morpork,” said Hilta. Granny looked blank. “On the Circle Sea,” Hilta added. Granny's look of polite enquiry persisted. “Five hundred miles away,” said Hilta.

“Oh,” said Granny.

She stood up and brushed an imaginary speck of dust off her dress.

“We'd better be going, then,” she added.

Hilta laughed. Esk quite liked the sound. Granny never laughed, she merely let the corners of her mouth turn up, but Hilta laughed like someone who had thought hard about Life and had seen the joke.

“Start tomorrow, anyway,” she said. “I've got room at home, you can stay with me, and tomorrow you'll have the light.”

“We wouldn't want to presume,” said Granny.

“Nonsense. Why not have a look around while I pack up the stall?”

Ohulan was the market town for a wide sprawling countryside and the market day didn't end at sunset. Instead, torches flared at every booth and stall and light blared forth from the open doorways of the inns. Even the temples put out coloured lamps to attract nocturnal worshippers.

Hilta moved through the crowd like a slim snake through dry grass, her entire stall and stock reduced to a surprisingly small bundle on her back, and her jewellery rattling like a sackful of flamenco dancers. Granny stumped along behind her, her feet aching from the unaccustomed prodding of the cobbles.

And Esk got lost.

It took some effort, but she managed it. It involved ducking between two stalls and then scurrying down a side alley. Granny had warned her at length about the unspeakable things that lurked in cities, which showed that the old woman was lacking in a complete understanding of headology, since Esk was- now determined to see one or two of them for herself.

In fact, since Ohulan was quite barbaric and uncivilised the only things that went on after dark to any degree were a little thievery, some amateurish trading in the courts of lust, and drinking until you fell over or started singing or both.

According to the standard poetic instructions one should move through a fair like the white swan at evening moves o'er the bay, but because of certain practical difficulties Esk settled for moving through the crowds like a small dodgem car, bumping from body to body with the tip of the staff waving a yard above her head. It caused some heads to turn, and not only because it had hit them; wizards occasionally passed through the town and it was the first time anyone had seen one four feet tall with long hair.

Anyone watching closely would have noticed strange things happening as she passed by.

There was, for example, the man with three upturned cups who was inviting a small crowd to explore with him the exciting world of chance and probability as it related to the position of a small dried pea. He was vaguely aware of a small figure watching him solemnly for a few moments, and then a sackful of peas cascaded out of every cup he picked up. Within seconds he was knee-deep in legumes. He was a lot deeper in trouble he suddenly owed everyone a lot of money.

There was a small and wretched monkey that for years had shuffled vaguely at the end of a chain while its owner played something dreadful on a pipe-organ. It suddenly turned, narrowed its little red eyes, bit its keeper sharply in the leg, snapped its chain and had it away over the rooftops with the night's takings in a tin cup. History is silent about what they were spent on.

A boxful of marzipan ducks on a nearby stall came to life and whirred past the stallholder to land, quacking happily, in the river (where, by dawn, they had all melted: that's natural selection for your.

The stall itself sidled off down an alley and was never seen again.

Esk, in fact, moved through the fair more like an arsonist moves through a hayfield or a neutron bounces through a reactor, poets notwithstanding, and the hypothetical watcher could have detected her random passage by tracing the outbreaks of hysteria and violence. But, like all good catalysts, she wasn't actually involved in the processes she initiated, and by the time all the non-hypothetical potential watchers took their eyes off them she had been buffeted somewhere else.

She was also beginning to tire. While Granny Weatherwax approved of night on general principles, she certainly didn't hold with promiscuous candlelight - if she had any reading to do after dark she generally persuaded the owl to come and sit on the back of her chair, and read through its eyes. So Esk expected to go to bed around sunset, and that was long past.

There was a doorway ahead of her that looked friendly. Cheerful sounds were sliding out on the yellow light, and pooling on the cobbles. With the staff still radiating random magic like a demon lighthouse she headed for it, weary but determined.

The landlord of The Fiddler's Riddle considered himself to be a man of the world, and this was right, because he was too stupid to be really cruel, and too lazy to be really mean and although his body had been around quite a lot his mind had never gone further than the inside of his own head.

He wasn't used to being addressed by sticks. Especially when they spoke in a small piping voice, and asked for goat's milk.

Cautiously, aware that everyone in the inn was looking at him and grinning, he pulled himself across the bar top until he could see down. Esk stared up at him. Look 'em right in the eye, Granny had always said: focus your power on 'em, stare 'em out, no one can outstare a witch, 'cept a goat, of course.

The landlord, whose name was Skiller, found himself looking directly down at a small child who seemed to be squinting.

“What?” he said.

“Milk,” said the child, still focussing furiously. “You get it out of goats. You know?”

Skiller sold only beer, which his customers claimed he got out of cats. No self-respecting goat would have endured the smell in the Fiddler's Riddle.

“We haven't got any,” he said. He looked hard at the staff and his eyebrows met conspiratorially over his nose.

“You could have a look,” said Esk.

Skiller eased himself back across the bar, partly to avoid the gaze, which was causing his eyes to water in sympathy, and partly because a horrible suspicion was congealing in his mind.

Even second-rate barmen tend to resonate with the beer they serve, and the vibrations coming from the big barrels behind him no longer had the twang of hop and head. They were broadcasting an altogether more lactic note.

He turned a tap experimentally, and watched a thin stream of milk curdle in the drip bucket.

The staff still poked up over the edge of the counter, like a periscope. He could swear that it was staring at him too.

“Don't waste it,” said a voice. “You'll be grateful for it one day.”

It was the same tone of voice Granny used when Esk was less than enthusiastic about a plateful of nourishing sallet greens, boiled yellow until the last few vitamins gave in, but to Skiller's hypersensitive ears it wasn't an injunction but a prediction. He shivered. He didn't know where he would have to be to make him grateful for a drink of ancient beer and curdled milk. He'd rather be dead first.

Perhaps he would be dead first.

He very carefully wiped a nearly clean mug with his thumb and filled it from the tap. He was aware that a large number of his guests were quietly leaving. No one liked magic, especially n the hands of a woman. You never could tell what they might take it into their heads to do next.

“Your milk,” he said, adding, “Miss.”

“I've got some money,” Esk said. Granny had always told her: always be ready to pay and you won't have to, people always like you to feel good about them, it's all headology.

“No, wouldn't dream of it,” said Skiller hastily. He leaned over the bar. “If you could see, er, your way clear to turning the rest back, though? Not much call for milk in these parts.”

He sidled along a little way. Esk had leaned the staff against the bar while she drank her milk, and it was making him uncomfortable.

Esk looked at him over a moustache of cream.

“I didn't turn it into milk, I just knew it would be milk because I wanted milk,” she said. “What did you think it was?”

“Er. Beer.”

Esk thought about this. She vaguely remembered trying beer once, and it had tasted sort of second-hand. But she could recall something which everyone in Bad Ass reckoned was much better than beer. It was one of Granny's most guarded recipes. It was good for you, because there was only fruit in it, plus lots of freezing and boiling and careful testing of little drops with a lighted flame.

Granny would put a very small spoonful in her milk if it was a really cold night. It had to be a wooden spoon, on account of what it did to metal.

She concentrated. She could picture the taste in her mind, and with the little skills that she was beginning to accept but couldn't understand she found she could take the taste apart into little coloured shapes ....

Skiller's thin wife came out of their back room to see why it had all gone so quiet, and he waved her into shocked silence as Esk stood swaying very slightly with her eyes closed and her lips moving .

. . . little shapes that you didn't need went back into the great pool of shapes, and then you found the extra ones you needed and put them together, and then there was a sort of hook thing which meant that they would turn anything suitable into something just like them, and then ....

Skiller turned very carefully and regarded the barrel behind him. The smell of the room had changed, he could feel the pure gold sweating gently out of that ancient woodwork.

With some care he took a small glass from his store under the counter and let a few splashes of the dark golden liquid escape from the tap. He looked at it thoughtfully in the lamplight,

turned the glass around methodically, sniffed it a few times, and tossed its contents back in one swallow.

His face remained unchanged, although his eyes went moist and his throat wobbled somewhat. His wife and Esk watched him as a thin beading of sweat broke out on his forehead. Ten seconds passed, and he was obviously out to break some heroic record. There may have been steam curling out of his ears, but that could have been a rumour. His fingers drummed a strange tattoo on the bartop.

At last he swallowed, appeared to reach a decision, turned solemnly to Esk, and said, “Hwarl,ish finish saaarghs ishghs oorgsh?”

His brow wrinkled as he ran the sentence past his mind again and made a second attempt.

“Aargh argh shaah gok?”

He gave up.

“Bharrgsh nargh!”

His wife snorted and took the glass out of his unprotesting hand. She sniffed it. She looked at the barrels, all ten of them. She met his unsteady eye. In a private paradise for two they soundlessly calculated the selling price of six hundred gallons of triple-distilled white mountain peach brandy and ran out of numbers.

Mrs Skiller was quicker on the uptake than her husband. She bent down and smiled at Esk, who was too tired to squint back. It wasn't a particularly good smile, because Mrs Skiller didn't get much practice.

“How did you get here, little girl?” she said, in a voice that suggested gingerbread cottages and the slamming of big stove doors.

“I got lost from Granny.”

“And where's Granny now, dear? ” Clang went the oven doors again; it was going to be a tough night for all wanderers in metaphorical forests.

“Just somewhere, I expect.”

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