She gripped the bristles with her knees and urged the stick upward.
It took several minutes to catch up with Granny, who was lying almost full length along her broomstick to reduce wind resistance. Dark treetops roared far below them as Magrat came alongside. Granny turned to her, holding her hat on with one hand.
'Not before time,' she snapped. 'I don't reckon this one's got more'n a few minutes flight left. Come on, get a move on.'
She reached out a hand. So did Magrat. Unsteadily, the broomsticks bucking and dipping in one another's slipstream, they touched fingertips.
Magrat's arm tingled as the power flowed up it. Granny's broomstick jerked forward.
'Leave me a bit,' shouted Magrat. 'I've got to get down!'
'Shouldn't be difficult,' screamed Granny, above the noise of the wind.
'I mean get down safely!'
'You're a witch, ain't you? By the way, did you bring the cocoa? I'm freezing up here!'
Magrat nodded desperately, and with her spare hand passed up a straw bag.
'Right,' said Granny. 'Well done. See you at Lancre Bridge.'
She uncurled her fingers.
Magrat whirled away in the buffeting wind, clinging tightly to a broomstick which now, she feared, had about as much buoyancy as a bit of firewood. It certainly wasn't capable of sustaining a full-grown woman against the beckoning fingers of gravity.
As she plunged down towards the forest roof in a long shallow dive she reflected that there was possibly something complimentary in the way Granny Weatherwax resolutely refused to consider other people's problems. It implied that, in her considerable opinion, they were quite capable of sorting them out by themselves.
Some kind of Change spell was probably in order.
Well, that seemed to work.
Nothing in the sight of mortal man had in fact changed. What Magrat had achieved was a mere adjustment of the mental processes, from a bewildered and slightly frightened woman gliding inexorably towards the inhospitable ground to a clearheaded, optimistic and positive thinking woman who had really got it together, was taking full responsibility for her own life and in general knew where she was coming from although, unfortunately, where she was heading had not changed in any way. But she felt a lot better about it.
She dug her heels in and forced the broomstick to yield the last dregs of its power in a brief burst, sending it skimming erratically a few feet from the trees. As it sagged again and started to plough a furrow among the midnight leaves she tensed herself, prayed to whatever gods of the forest might be listening that she would land on something soft, and let go.
There are three thousand known major gods on the Disc, and research theologians discover more every week. Apart from the minor gods of rock, tree and water, there are two that haunt the Ramtops – Hoki, half a man, half a goat, and entirely a bad practical joker, who was banished from Dunmanifestin for pulling the old exploding mistletoe joke on Blind Io, chief of all the gods; and also Herne the Hunted, the terrified and apprehensive deity of all small furry creatures whose destiny it is to end their lives as a brief, crunchy squeak . . .
Either could have been candidates for the small miracle which then occurred, for – in a forest full of cold rocks, jagged stumps and thorn bushes – Magrat landed on something soft.
Granny, meanwhile, was accelerating towards the mountains on the second leg of the journey. She consumed the regrettably tepid cocoa and, with proper environmental consideration, dropped the bottle as she passed over an upland lake.
It turned out that Magrat's idea of sustaining food was two rounds of egg and cress sandwiches with the crusts cut off and, Granny noticed before the wind whipped it away, a small piece of parsley placed with consideration and care on top of each one. Granny regarded them for some time. Then she ate them.
A chasm loomed, still choked with winter snow. Like a tiny spark in the darkness, a dot of light against the hugeness of the Ramtops, Granny tackled the maze of the mountains.
Back in the forest, Magrat sat up and absent-mindedly pulled a twig from her hair. A few yards away the broomstick dropped through the trees, showering leaves.
A groan and a small, half-hearted tinkle caused her to peer into the gloom. An indistinct figure was on its hands and knees, searching for something.
'Did I land on you?' said Magrat.
'Someone did,' said the Fool.
They crawled nearer to one another.
'What are you doing here?'
'Marry, I was walking along the ground,' said the Fool. 'A lot of people do, you know. I mean, I know it's been done before. It's not original. It probably lacks imagination but, well, it's always been good enough for me.'
'Did I hurt you?'
'I think I've got one or two bells that won't be the same again.'
The Fool scrabbled through the leafmould, and finally located his hated hat. It clonked.
'Totally crushed, i'faith,' he said, putting it on anyway. He seemed to feel better for that, and went on, 'Rain, yes, hail, yes, even lumps of rock. Fish and small frogs, okay. Women no, up till now. Is it going to happen again?'
'You've got a bloody hard head,' said Magrat, pulling herself to her feet.
'Modesty forbids me to comment,' said the Fool, and then remembered himself and added, quickly, 'Prithee.'
They stared at one another again, their minds racing.
Magrat thought: Nanny said look at him properly. I'm looking at him. He just looks the same. A sad thin little man in a ridiculous jester's outfit, he's practically a hunchback.
Then, in the same way that a few random bulges in a cloud can suddenly become a galleon or a whale in the eye of the beholder, Magrat realised that the Fool was not a little man. He was at least of average height, but he made himself small, by hunching his shoulders, bandying his legs and walking in a half-crouch that made him appear as though he was capering on the spot.
I wonder what else Gytha Ogg noticed? she thought, intrigued.
He rubbed his arm and gave her a lopsided grin.
'I suppose you haven't got any idea where we are?' he said.
'Witches never get lost,' said Magrat firmly. 'Although they can become temporarily mislaid. Lancre's over that way, I think. I've got to find a hill, if you'll excuse me.'
'To see where you are?'
'To see when, I think. There's a lot of magic going on tonight.'
'Is there? Then I think I'll accompany you,' the Fool added chivalrously, after peering cautiously into the tree-haunted gloom that apparently lay between him and his flagstones. 'I wouldn't want anything to happen to you.'
Granny lay low over the broomstick as it plunged through the trackless chasms of the mountains, leaning from side to side in the nope that this might have some effect on the steering which seemed, strangely, to be getting worse. Falling snow behind her was whipped and spiralled into odd shapes by the wind of her passage. Rearing waves of crusted snow, poised all winter over the glacial valleys, trembled and then began the long, silent fall. Her flight was punctuated by the occasional boom of an avalanche.
She looked down at a landscape of sudden death and jagged beauty, and knew it was looking back at her, as a dozing man may watch a mosquito. She wondered if it realised what she was doing. She wondered if it'd make her fall any softer, and mentally scolded herself for such softness. No, the land wasn't like that. It didn't bargain. The land gave hard, and took hard. A dog always bit deepest on the veterinary hand.
And then she was through, vaulting so low over the last peak that one of her boots filled with snow, and barrelling down towards the lowlands.
The mist, never far away in the mountains, was back again, but this time it was making a fight of it and had become a thick, silver sea in front of her. She groaned.
Somewhere in the middle of it Nanny Ogg floated, taking the occasional pull from a hip flask as a preventative against the chill.
And thus it was that Granny, her hat and iron-grey hair dripping with moisture, her boots shedding lumps of ice, heard the distant and muffled sound of a voice enthusiastically explaining to the invisible sky that the hedgehog had less to worry over than just about any other mammal. Like a hawk that has spotted something small and fluffy in the grass, like a wandering interstellar flu germ that has just seen a nice blue planet drifting by, Granny turned the stick and plunged down through the choking billows.
'Come on!' she screamed, drunk with speed and exhilaration, and the sound from five hundred feet overhead put a passing wolf severely off its supper. 'This minute, Gytha Ogg!'
Nanny Ogg caught her hand with considerable reluctance and the pair of broomsticks swept up again and into the clear, starlit sky.
The Disc, as always, gave the impression that the Creator has designed it specifically to be looked at from above. Streamers of cloud in white and silver stretched away to the rim, stirred into thousand-mile swirls by the turning of the world. Behind the speeding brooms the sullen roof of the fog was dragged up into a curling tunnel of white vapour, so that the watching gods – and they were certainly watching – could see the terrible flight as a furrow in the sky.
A thousand feet and rising fast into the frosty air, the two witches were bickering again.
'It was a bloody stupid idea,' moaned Nanny. 'I never liked heights.'
'Did you bring something to drink?'
'Certainly. You said.'
'I drank it, didn't I,' said Nanny. 'Sitting around up there at my age. Our Jason would have a fit.'
Granny gritted her teeth. 'Well, let's have the power,' she said. 'I'm running out of up. Amazing how—'
Granny's voice ended in a scream as; without any warning at all, her broomstick pinwheeled sharply across the clouds and dropped from sight.
The Fool and Magrat sat on a log on a small outcrop that looked out across the forest. The lights of Lancre town were in fact not very far away, but neither of them had suggested leaving.
The air between them crackled with unspoken thoughts and wild surmisings.
'You've been a Fool long?' said Magrat, politely. She blushed in the darkness. In that atmosphere it sounded the most impolite of questions.
'All my life,' said the Fool bitterly. 'I cut my teeth on a set of bells.'
'I suppose it gets handed on, from father to son?' said Magrat.
'I never saw much of my father. He went off to be Fool for the Lords of Quirm when I was small,' said the Fool. 'Had a row with my grandad. He comes back from time to time, to see my mam.'
There was a sad jingle as the Fool shrugged. He vaguely recalled his father as a short, friendly little man, with eyes like a couple of oysters. Doing something as brave as standing up to the old boy must have been quite outside his nature. The sound of two suits of bells shaken in anger still haunted his memory, which was full enough of bad scenes as it was.
'Still,' said Magrat, her voice higher than usual and with a vibrato of uncertainty, 'it must be a happy life. Making people laugh, I mean.'
When there was no reply she turned to look at the man. His face was like stone. In a low voice, talking as though she was not there, the Fool spoke.
He spoke of the Guild of Fools and Joculators in Ankh-Morpork.
Most visitors mistook it at first sight for the offices of the Guild of Assassins, which in fact was the rather pleasant,- airy collection of buildings next door (the Assassins always had plenty of money); sometimes the young Fools, slaving at their rote in rooms that were always freezing, even in high summer, heard the young Assassins at play over the wall and envied them, even though, of course, the number of piping voices grew noticeably fewer towards the end of term (the Assassins also believed in competitive examination).