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Page 18

“Why not? What's so self-evident?”

Treatle turned and looked down at her. He hadn't really paid much attention before, she was simply just another figure around the campfires.

He was the Vice-Chancellor of Unseen University, and quite used to seeing vague scurrying figures getting on with essential but unimportant jobs like serving his meals and dusting his rooms. He was stupid, yes, in the particular way that very clever people can be stupid, and maybe he had all the tact of an avalanche and was as selfcentred as a tornado, but it would never have occurred to him that children were important enough to be unkind to.

From long white hair to curly boots, Treatle was a wizard's wizard. He had the appropriate long bushy eyebrows, spangled robe and patriarchal beard that was only slightly spoiled by the yellow nicotine stains (wizards are celibate but, nevertheless, enjoy a good cigar.

“It will all become clear to you when you grow up,” he said. “It's an amusing idea, of course, a nice play on words. A female wizard! You might as well invent a male witch!”

“Warlocks,” said Esk.

“Pardon me?”

“My granny says men can't be witches,” said Esk. “She says if men tried to be witches they'd be wizards.”

“She sounds a very wise woman,” said Treatle.

“She says women should stick to what they're good at,” Esk went on.

“Very sensible of her.”

“She says if women were as good as men they'd be a lot better!”

Treatle laughed.

“She's a witch,” said Esk, and added in her mind: there, what do you think of that, Mr so-called cleverwizard?

“My dear good young lady, am I supposed to be shocked? I happen to have a great respect for witches.”

Esk frowned. He wasn't supposed to say that.

“You have?”

“Yes indeed. I happen to believe that witchcraft is a fine career, for a woman. A very noble calling.”

“You do? I mean, it is?”

“Oh yes. Very useful in rural districts for, for people who are -having babies, and so forth. However, witches are not wizards. Witchcraft is Nature's way of allowing women access to the magical fluxes, but you must remember it is not high magic.”

“I see. Not high magic,” said Esk grimly.

“Oh, no. Witchcraft is very suitable for helping people through life, of course, but -”

“I expect women aren't really sensible enough to be wizards,” said Esk. “I expect that's it, really.”

“I have nothing but the highest respect for women,” said Treatle, who hadn't noticed the fresh edge to Esk's tone. “They are without parallel when, when -”

“For having babies and so forth?”

“There is that, yes,” the wizard conceded generously. “But they can be a little unsettling at times. A little too excitable. High magic requires great clarity of thought, you see, and women's talents do not lie in that direction. Their brains tend to overheat. I am sorry to say there is only one door into wizardry and that is the main gate at Unseen University and no woman has ever passed through it.”

“Tell me,” said Esk, “what good is high magic, exactly?”

Treatle smiled at her.

“High magic, my child,” he said, “can give us everything we want.”


“So put all this wizard nonsense out of your head, all right?” Treatle gave her a benevolent smile. “What is your name, child?”


“And why do you go to Ankh, my dear?”

“I thought I might seek my fortune,” muttered Esk, “but I think perhaps girls don't have fortunes to seek. Are you sure wizards give people what they want?”

“Of course. That is what high magic is for.”

“I see.”

The whole caravan was travelling only a little faster than walking pace. Esk jumped down, pulled the staff from its temporary hiding place among the bags and pails on the side of the wagon, and ran back along the line of carts and animals. Through her tears she caught a glimpse of Simon peering from the back of the wagon, an open book in his hands. He gave her a puzzled smile and started to say something, but she ran on and veered off the track.

Scrubby whinbushes scratched her legs as she scrambled up a clay bank and then she was running free across a barren plateau, hemmed in by the orange cliffs.

She didn't stop until she was good and lost but the anger still burned brightly. She had been angry before, but never like this; normally anger was like the red flame you got when the forge was first lit, all glow and sparks, but this anger was different-it had the bellows behind it, and had narrowed to the tiny bluewhite flame that cuts iron.

It made her body tingle. She had to do something about it or burst.

Why was it that, when she heard Granny ramble on about witchcraft she longed for the cutting magic of wizardry, but whenever she heard Treatle speak in his high-pitched voice she would fight to the death for witchcraft? She'd be both, or none at all. And the more they intended to stop her, the more she wanted it.

She'd be a witch and a wizard too. And she would show them.

Esk sat down under a low-spreading juniper bush at the foot of a steep, sheer cliff, her mind seething with plans and anger. She could sense doors being slammed before she had barely begun to open them. Treatle was right; they wouldn't let her inside the University. Having a staff wasn't enough to be a wizard, there had to be training too, and no one was going to train her.

The midday sun beat down off the cliff and the air around Esk began to smell of bees and gin. She lay back, looking at the nearpurple dome of the sky through the leaves and, eventually, she fell asleep.

One side-effect of using magic is that one tends to have realistic and disturbing dreams. There is a reason for this, but even thinking about it is enough to give a wizard nightmares.

The fact is that the minds of wizards can give thoughts a shape. Witches normally work with what actually exists in the world, but a wizard can, if he's good enough, put flesh on his imagination. This wouldn't cause any trouble if it wasn't for the fact that the little circle of candlelight loosely called “the universe of time and space” is adrift in something much more unpleasant and unpredictable. Strange Things circle and grunt outside the flimsy stockades of normality; there are weird hootings and howlings in the deep crevices at the edge of Time. There are things so horrible that even the dark is afraid of them.

Most people don't know this and this is just as well because the world could not really operate if everyone stayed in bed with the blankets over their head, which is what would happen if people knew what horrors lay a shadow's width away.

The problem is people interested in magic and mysticism spend a lot of time loitering on the very edge of the light, as it were, which gets them noticed by the creatures from the Dungeon Dimensions who then try to use them in their indefatigable efforts to break into this particular Reality.

Most people can resist this, but the relentless probing by the Things is never stronger than when the subject is asleep.

Bel-Shamharoth, C'hulagen, the Insider - the hideous old dark gods of the Necrotelicomnicon, the book known to certain mad adepts by its true name of Liber Paginarum Fulvarum, are always ready to steal into a slumbering mind. The nightmares are often colourful and always unpleasant.

Esk had got used to them ever since that first dream after her first Borrowing, and familiarity had almost replaced terror. When she found herself sitting on a glittering, dusty plain under unexplained stars she knew it was time for another one.

“Drat,” she said. “All right, come on then. Bring on the monsters. I just hope it isn't the one with his winkle on his face.”

But this time it seemed that the nightmare had changed. Esk looked around and saw, rearing up behind her, a tall black castle. Its turrets disappeared among the stars. Lights and fireworks and interesting music cascaded from its upper battlements. The huge double doors stood invitingly open. There seemed to be quite an amusing party going on in there.

She stood up, brushed the silver sand off her dress, and set off for the gates.

She had almost reached them when they slammed. They didn't appear to move; it was simply that in one instant they were lounging ajar, and the next they were tight shut with a clang that shook the horizons.

Esk reached out and touched them. They were black, and so cold that ice was beginning to form on them.

There was a movement behind her. She turned around and saw the staff, without its broomstick disguise, standing upright in the sand. Little worms of light crept around its polished wood and crept around the carvings no one could ever quite identify.

She picked it up and smashed it against the doors. There was a shower of octarine sparks, but the black metal was unscathed.

Esk's eyes narrowed. She held the staff at arm's length and concentrated until a thin line of fire leapt from the wood and burst against the gate. The ice flashed into steam but the darkness - she was sure now that it wasn't metal - absorbed the power without so much as glowing. She doubled the energy, letting the staff put all its stored magic into a beam that was now so bright that she had to shut her eyes /and could still see it as a brilliant line in her mind/.

Then it winked out.

After a few seconds Esk ran forward and touched the doors gingerly. The coldness nearly froze her fingers off.

And from the battlements above she could hear the sound of sniggering. Laughter wouldn't have been so bad, especially an impressive demonic laugh with lots of echo, but this was just -sniggering.

It went on for a long time. It was one of the most unpleasant sounds Esk had ever heard.

She woke up shivering. It was long after midnight and the stars looked damp and chilly; the air was full of the busy silence of the night, which is created by hundreds of small furry things treading very carefully in the hope of finding dinner while avoiding being the main course.

A crescent moon was setting and a thin grey glow towards the rim of the world suggested that, against all probability, another day was on the cards.

Someone had wrapped Esk in a blanket.

“I know you're awake,” said the voice of Granny Weatherwax. “You could make yourself useful and light a fire. There's damn all wood in these parts.”

Esk sat up, and clutched at the juniper bush. She felt light enough to float away.

“Fire?” she muttered.

“Yes. You know. Pointing the finger and whoosh,” said Granny sourly. She was sitting on a rock, trying to find a position that didn't upset her arthritis.

“I - I don't think I can.”

“You tell me?” said Granny cryptically.

The old witch leaned forward and put her hand on Esk's forehead; it was like being caressed by a sock full of warm dice.

“You're running a bit of a temperature,” she added. “Too much hot sun and cold ground. That's forn parts for you.”

Esk let herself slump forward until her head lay in Granny's lap, with its familiar smells of camphor, mixed herbs and a trace of goat. Granny patted her in what she hoped was a soothing way.

After a while Esk said, in a low voice, “They're not going to allow me into the University. A wizard told me, and I dreamed about it, and it was one of those true dreams. You know, like you told me, a maty-thing.”

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