YOU WOULDN'T LIKE IT, he said. TAKE IT FROM ME.
“I've heard that some people do it all the time.”
YOU'VE GOT TO BE TRAINED TO IT. YOU'VE GOT TO START OFF SMALL AND WORK UP. YOU'VE NO IDEA HOW HORRIBLE IT IS TO BE AN ANT.
YOU WOULDN'T BELIEVE IT. AND WITH YOUR KARMA AN ANT IS TOO MUCH TO EXPECT.
The baby had been taken back to its mother and the smith sat disconsolately watching the rain.
Drum Billet scratched the cat behind its ears and thought about his life. It had been a long one, that was one of the advantages of being a wizard, and he'd done a lot of things he hadn't always felt good about. It was about time that ....
I HAVEN'T GOT ALL DAY, YOU KNOW, said Death, reproachfully.
The wizard looked down at the cat and realized for the first time how odd it looked now.
The living often don't appreciate how complicated the world looks when you are dead, because while death frees the mind from the straitjacket of three dimensions it also cuts it away from Time, which is only another dimension. So while the cat that rubbed up against his invisible legs was undoubtedly the same cat that he had seen a few minutes before, it was also quite clearly a tiny kitten and a fat, half-blind old moggy and every stage in between. All at once. Since it had started off small it looked like a white, catshaped carrot, a description that will have to do until people invent proper four-dimensional adjectives.
Death's skeletal hand tapped Billet gently on the shoulder.
COME AWAY, MY SON.
“There's nothing I can do?”
LIFE IS FOR THE LIVING. ANYWAY, YOU'VE GIVEN HER YOUR STAFF.
“Yes. There is that.”
The midwife's name was Granny Weatherwax. She was a witch. That was quite acceptable in the Ramtops, and no one had a bad word to say about witches. At least, not if he wanted to wake up in the morning the same shape as he went to bed.
The smith was still staring gloomily at the rain when she came back down the stairs and clapped a warty hand on his shoulder.
He looked up at her.
“What shall I do, Granny?” he said, unable to keep the pleading out of his voice.
“What have you done with the wizard?”
“I put him out in the fuel store. Was that right?”
“It'll do for now,” she said briskly. “And now you must burn the staff.”
They both turned to stare at the heavy staff, which the smith had propped in the forge's darkest corner. It almost appeared to be looking back at them.
“But it's magical,” he whispered.
“Will it burn?”
“Never knew wood that didn't.”
“It doesn't seem right!”
Granny Weatherwax swung shut the big doors and turned to him angrily.
“Now you listen to me, Gordo Smith!” she said. “Female wizards aren't right either! It's the wrong kind of magic for women, is wizard magic, it's all books and stars and jommetry. She'd never grasp it. Whoever heard of a female wizard?”
“There's witches,” said the smith uncertainly. “And enchantresses too, I've heard.”
“Witches is a different thing altogether,” snapped Granny Weatherwax. “It's magic out of the ground, not out of the sky, and men never could get the hang of it. As for enchantresses,” she added. “They're no better than they should be. You take it from me, just burn the staff, bury the body and don't let on it ever happened.”
Smith nodded reluctantly, crossed over to the forge, and pumped the bellows until the sparks flew. He went back for the staff.
It wouldn't move.
“It won't move!”
Sweat stood out of his brow as he tugged at the wood. It remained unco-operatively immobile.
“Here, let me try,” said Granny, and reached past him. There was a snap and a smell of scorched tin.
Smith ran across the forge, whimpering slightly, to where Granny had landed upside down against the opposite wall.
“Are you all right?”
She opened two eyes like angry diamonds and said, “I see. That's the way of it, is it?”
“The way of what?” said Smith, totally bewildered.
“Help me up, you fool. And fetch me a chopper.”
The tone of her voice suggested that it would be a very good idea not to disobey. Smith rummaged desperately among the junk at the back of the forge until he found an old double-headed axe.
“Right. Now take off your apron.”
“Why? What do you intend to do?” said the smith, who was beginning to lose his grip on events. Granny gave an exasperated sigh.
“It's leather, you idiot. I'm going to wrap it around the handle. It'll not catch me the same way twice!”
Smith struggled out of the heavy leather apron and handed it to her very gingerly. She wrapped it around the axe and made one or two passes in the air. Then, a spiderlike figure in the glow of the nearly incandescent furnace, she stalked across the room and with a grunt of triumph and effort brought the heavy blade sweeping down right in the center of the staff.
There was a click. There was a noise like a partridge. There was a thud.
There was silence.
Smith reached up very slowly, without moving his head, and touched the axe blade. It wasn't on the axe any more. It had buried itself in the door by his head, taking a tiny nick out of his ear.
Granny stood looking slightly blurred from hitting an absolutely immovable object, and stared at the stub of wood in her hands.
“Rrrrightttt,” she stuttered: “Iiiinnn tthhatttt cccasseee -”
“No,” said Smith firmly, rubbing his ear. “Whatever it is you're going to suggest, no. Leave it. I'll pile some stuff around it. No one'll notice. Leave it. It's just a stick.”
“just a stick?”
“Have you got any better ideas? Ones that won't take my head off?”
She glared at the staff, which appeared not to notice.
“Not right now,” she admitted. “But you just give me time -”
“All right, all right. Anyway, I've got things to do, wizards to bury, you know how it is.”
Smith took a spade from beside the back door and hesitated.
“Do you know how wizards like to be buried?”
Granny Weatherwax paused at the bottom of the stairs.
Later, night fell gently as the last of the world's slow light flowed out of the valley, and a pale, rain-washed moon shone down in a night studded with stars. And in a shadowy orchard behind the forge there was the occasional clink of a spade or a muffled curse.
In the cradle upstairs the world's first female wizard dreamed of nothing much.
The white cat lay half-asleep on its private ledge near the furnace. The only sound in the warm dark forge was the crackle of the coals as they settled down under the ash.
The staff stood in the corner, where it wanted to be, wrapped in shadows that were slightly blacker than shadows normally are.
Time passed, which, basically, is its job.
There was a faint tinkle, and a swish of air. After a while the cat sat up and watched with interest.
Dawn came. Up here in the Ramtops dawn was always impressive, especially when a storm had cleared the air. The valley occupied by Bad Ass overlooked a panorama of lesser mountains and foothills, coloured purple and orange in the early morning light that flowed gently over them (because light travels at a dilatory pace in the Disc's vast magical field) and far off the great plains were still a puddle of shadows. Even further off the sea gave an occasional distant sparkle.
In fact, from here you could see right to the edge of the world.
That wasn't poetic imagery but plain fact, since the world was quite definitely flat and was, furthermore, known to be carried through space on the backs of four elephants that in turn stood on the shell of Great A'Tuin, the Great Sky Turtle.
Back down there in Bad Ass the village is waking up. The smith has just gone into the forge and found it tidier than it has been for the last hundred years, with all the tools back in their right places, the floor swept and a new fire laid in the furnace. He is sitting on the anvil, which has been moved right across the room, and is watching the staff and is trying to think.
Nothing much happened for seven years, except that one of the apple trees in the smithy orchard grew perceptibly taller than the others and was frequently climbed by a small girl with brown hair, a gap in her front teeth, and the sort of features that promised to become, if not beautiful, then at least attractively interesting.
She was named Eskarina, for no particular reason other than that her mother liked the sound of the word, and although Granny Weatherwax kept a careful watch on her she failed to spot any signs of magic whatsoever. It was true that the girl spent more time climbing trees and running around shouting than little girls normally did, but a girl with four older brothers still at home can be excused a lot of things. In fact, the witch began to relax and started to think the magic had not taken hold after all.
But magic has a habit of lying low, like a rake in the grass.
Winter came round again, and it was a bad one. The clouds hung around the Ramtops like big fat sheep, filling the gulleys with snow and turning the forests into silent, gloomy caverns. The high passes were closed and the caravans wouldn't come again until spring. Bad Ass became a little island of heat and light.
Over breakfast Esk's mother said: “I'm worried about Granny Weatherwax. She hasn't been around lately.”
Smith looked at her over his porridge spoon.
“I'm not complaining,” he said. “She -”
“She's got a long nose,” said Esk.
Her parents glared at her.
“There's no call to make that kind of remark,” said her mother sternly.
“But father said she's always poking her -”
“But he said -”
“I said -”
“Yes, but, he did say that she had -”
Smith reached down and slapped her. It wasn't very hard, and he regretted it instantly. The boys got the flat of his hand and occasionally the length of his belt whenever they deserved it. The trouble with his daughter, though, was not ordinary naughtiness but the infuriating way she had of relentlessly pursuing the thread of an argument long after she should have put it down. It always flustered him.
She burst into tears. Smith stood up, angry and embarrassed at himself, and stumped off to the forge.
There was a loud crack, and a thud.
They found him out cold on the floor. Afterwards he always maintained that he'd hit his head on the doorway. Which was odd, because he wasn't very tall and there had always been plenty of room before, but he was certain that whatever happened had nothing to do with the blur of movement from the forge's darkest corner.
Somehow the events set the seal on the day. It became a broken crockery day, a day of people getting under each other's feet and being peevish. Esk's mother dropped a jug that had belonged to her grandmother and a whole box of apples in the loft turned out to be moldy. In the forge the furnace went sullen and refused to draw. Jaims, the oldest son, slipped on the packed ice in the road and hurt his arm. The white cat, or possibly one of its descendants, since the cats led a private and complicated life of their own in the hayloft next to the forge, went and climbed up the chimney in the scullery and refused to come down. Even the sky pressed in like an old mattress, and the air felt stuffy, despite the snow.