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The Uninvited Guest

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"How do you feel about being invited to christenings?"

I THINK NOT. I WASN'T CUT OUT TO BE A FATHER, AND CERTAINLY NOT A GRANDAD. I HAVEN'T GOT THE RIGHT KIND OF KNEES.

~ Terry Pratchett, Mort

~*~

They invited him anyway.

~*~

Old Man Stetherhook had been floating in and out of the world, or the bits of it he could see from his small bed, for weeks now. Each time he opened his eyes the pain came flooding back, and each time he promised his battered body it would be the last time, that he would release the ropes that tied him to the world. Then he'd open his eyes and see his family, some combination of children and grandchildren and always, always his wife, and tighten his hold.

This time, he opened his eyes long enough to see the circle of his solemn children and red-eyed wife, and then the strange woman who knelt by his bed. She wore a pointed black hat.

He to tried shape her name, but his lips were no longer connected to his will. He couldn't even ask for help.

"Nothing else for it," the woman whispered, for his ear alone. "I can't keep the pain out long enough to fix the damage. But if you want to go, I can ease your passing."

He looked to his wife, who bent to kiss his forehead. Relieved, he shut his eyes.

The woman touched his hand. "I have to know it's what you want." He tried to squeeze her fingers, but only managed the barest hint of pressure.

It was enough. The woman leaned close to his ear and whispered permission to let go.

Some might have said it wasn't hers to give, but there weren't many of those, and they wouldn't have stood a champagne flute's chance in the Lancre gorge of stopping her.

She was careful, as she sat back and watched, not to look past the family into the room's shadowy corners.

Peter Stetherhook's eyes opened once more, fixed on his wife, and glazed over. His last breath left his body in a contented sigh.

The woman left a few minutes later, pulling her cloak tight against the late winter cold. She stopped at the sight of the tall, black-robed figure who stood on the path. He held the reins of a white horse in bony fingers. He looked down at the witch, two pinpoint blue lights shining from the depths of his hood.

GOOD EVENING, MISTRESS WEATHERWAX.

His greeting wasn't so much heard as it was felt, echoing around the depths of her mind. "You shouldn't be here," she snapped, reaching for the broomstick propped up against the cottage fence.

I WAS WAITING FOR YOU.

Coming from Death himself, the words would have frightened most folk out of their wits, but a witch wasn't most folk. Granny Weatherwax fixed him with a glare that would have turned anyone else into a whimpering blob of fear. "Can't see why you'd do that. Best be on your way."

I HAVE-- Death looked down at his feet. I HAVE A FAVOR TO ASK.

"I already done you one tonight. That's enough, I'm thinking."

THIS IS NOT A PROFESSIONAL MATTER. IT IS, IN FACT--

There was a pause. If Death had had a throat, he would have cleared it.

PERSONAL.

Death did not understand much at all about human beings. It was highly unlikely that he knew how potent a combination of curiosity and the possibility of having someone with his particular power beholden to her could be for any human, especially if that human happened to be a witch.

Especially this witch.

She tapped a finger on the handle of her broomstick.

Death remembered Albert's instructions on the nature of magical words.

PLEASE.

Granny sighed. "I can see I'll have no peace at all if I don't say yes. What do you have in mind?"

~*~

The Duke's palace was the tallest building in Sto Helit. Which wasn't saying much. It was surrounded, for the most part, by cottages and cabbages, and like everything in Sto Helit, smelled faintly of sauerkraut. This morning, just as the sun peeked over the rim of the disc, the duke's palace smelled particularly pickled. This was in no small part due to the spilled beer and wine and the sleeping guests who lay scattered around the great hall. Thick snores came from the hearth and the head table alike.

The people of Sto Helit weren't used to parties at the palace--that is to say, they weren't used to being guests at those parties. The old duke had often pressed them--literally, in some cases-- into service for his soirees, but the new duke and duchess had more democratic ideas. The people of Sto Helit didn't trust those ideas at first, but once they'd received the gilt-edged invitations to the christening of the couple's first child, and found out just what the words "open bar" meant, they had joyfully embraced them.

They'd embraced them so heartily, in fact, that they'd drunk to the baby's health until their own was in danger. The bar had been very open indeed, flowing with all kinds of things that were fizzy and guaranteed to make your head feel light as feathers so long as you kept drinking. The minute you woke, though, gravity would take its due, with the special vengeance of a Law of Nature denied. To avoid paying this toll, the good people of Sto Helit were sleeping where they'd dropped the night before, hoping to avoid the inevitable.

So hard were they hoping, their dozing minds deliberately tuned out the sharp clacking of a pair of sturdy boots across the courtyard, through the hall, and right up to the high table, where Duke Mort and Duchess Ysabell, as they preferred to be called, slumped in their chairs, snoring in perfect harmony.

The toe of a hobnailed boot nudged the Duke's shin. His snore stuttered, then dropped right back into its previous rhythm.

Granny Weatherwax twisted her lips as she surveyed the mass of bodies. Must have been one hell of a party. It was as if everyone in the palace had been enchanted. At least she hadn't had to fight a forest of briars to get inside.

"Ahem," she said, clearing her throat with the delicacy of a troll in a china shop. Several folk by the hearth stirred.

Duke Mort opened his eyes to a world of black, decided gratefully that it must still be night, and closed them again.

Granny muttered something entirely impolite and searched the head table for useful implements.

Mort was clanged fully awake by the crashing of two silver platters very close to his head. Bits of cabbage rained down. Beside him, Ysabell groaned. Mort looked into the black and up--into blue eyes.

But they were eyes, he realized blearily, gratefully, and a tiny bit guiltily. Blue eyes under grey hair and a tall, pointed black hat.

"Was't?" Ysabell mumbled.

"It's--"

"A guest," said Granny Weatherwax. "Good morning, your dukeishness. And duchessishness."

Mort forced himself to his feet and managed a bow that nearly toppled him. The witch pressed a cup of hot tea into his hands, and he drank gratefully, not at all concerned about where it came from, or how it could be hot when the fire had gone out. He passed it down to his wife, who still wasn't quite awake.

"Stand up, dear," said Mort, through gritted teeth that were the only things keeping his brain from pounding right out of his skull. "We have a guest."

Ysabell drained the rest of the cup and stood--then took a good look at the old woman who stood regarding them with mild interest. "Hold on," she said as she brushed shredded cabbage out of her hair. "We didn't invite you--or anyone like you." She looked at Mort. "Did we?"

"Noooo," Mort said cautiously. He had grown up in the Ramtops, after all; he knew better than to cross a woman in a pointed hat. And somewhere in the depths of his throbbing skull was a memory, a tight ball of stories about one particular witch that unfurled a little more with every sharp glance from those blue eyes. "We, uh, we wanted a very ordinary christening. Except for... " He looked at Ysabell, and gulped.

"But he didn't come."

"Wouldn't," snapped Granny, and then, inspired by the thread of story that had brushed her mind earlier, she added, "And you didn't think to get fairy godmothers for your child?"

"But--" Ysabell began.

"She did have a number of godparents," Mort said hurriedly. "Queen Keli, of course, and an actuary, and a lawyer."

"We wanted to make sure she has a good head on her shoulders," said Ysabell, lifting her chin.

"A lawyer?" Granny sneered. "Is that the best you could do?"

"Well, there was one other. . . " Mort was starting to sweat, and it wasn't just the ceremonial outfit he'd slept in. "That is, Ysabell's, uh, father--"

"Adoptive father," Ysabell said.

"He sent me in his place." Granny pulled a piece of white card from a pocket in the depths of her cloak and held it out. The gilt writing shimmered in the early morning sunlight. "I'm new to fairy godmothering, but I'm a quick study."

"But we didn't want any fairy godmothers," Ysabell said. She had to tilt her chin nearly vertical to meet the witch's gaze. "We don't hold with that sort of thing. Anymore," she added at the raised eyebrow. "We don't want Susan to have to cope with fairy gifts. They always go wrong."

Granny gave a little cough. "Susan?"

"My daughter," snapped Ysabell, with the lioness fierceness that Granny only knew secondhand.

"Who does not need a fairy--"

Mort nudged his wife. "Be careful," he said. "She's no fairy."

"Yes, well, that's obvious, isn't it?" Ysabell said impatiently. "She's a w--"

"Weatherwax," said Mort, who, despite his nervousness, knew better than to let this go on.

Ysabell turned a blank look on him. "A what?"

"Mistress Weatherwax. Where I grew up, everyone knew about her. She's not just a witch," Mort explained. "She's the witch."

The corners of Granny's mouth twitched.

"You know her?"

"I know of her. My father used to say--" Mort's brain stopped his tongue just in time. His father had said all manner of things about witches, this one in particular, but Mort had developed some wisdom--and a healthy sense of self-preservation--since he'd last been home. "That she's the best witch on the disc."

"It doesn't matter how good she is, we simply can't have this sort of thing. We're done with it, remember? I'm sorry, Miss, but--"

"Mistress," Mort hissed frantically.

"--you'll have to leave."

"Really," said Granny Weatherwax, crossing her arms over her chest. Her voice betrayed no emotion, but when she began tapping one finger against her elbow, Mort had the urge to dive under the table.

"Um, will you just excuse us for one moment?" Mort pulled Ysabell away from the table. Granny picked up a cabbage roll and munched on it thoughtfully.

"Maybe it's not a bad thing, her being here," Mort whispered. "She really is a powerful witch."

"That's exactly why I don't want--"

"And Susan's so--so--"

"So what?" The ice in Ysabell's voice could have blighted crops.

Mort's knees had gone a bit wobbly, but he would rather face the wrath of Ysabell than challenge Mistress Weatherwax. "You have to admit, it's a bit... unusual. In five months, I've only heard her cry a handful of times, and yet she always gets her own way."

Granny Weatherwax harrumphed through a mouthful of cabbage.

"And you think a witch can help?" Unlike Mort, Ysabell made no effort to keep her voice low.

"I'm not the one who invited her. Or--didn't invite her--but you know what I mean. Why do you think he sent her?"

Ysabell shrugged. "Maybe he didn't. Maybe she stole the invitation somehow."

"How would she do that?" Even Mort's faith in the Granny's power didn't extend that far.

"He asked me to come in his place." Granny patted a slight bulge under her cloak, and they heard a rustle of paper. "Even sent a gift."

"Why didn't he come himself?" asked Ysabell, and for that moment, she sounded more like a daughter than a duchess.

"I don't expect he felt comfortable at a party that was all about life. Could be he sensed you weren't completely sure you wanted him. Then again, maybe he did think I could help." Granny shrugged. "Hard to tell, with him."

Ysabell looked at the mound of gifts that had been given the night before--booties and bibs and rattles and a book about tax law--and then at Mort. "Maybe," she said.

Mort's shoulders sagged with relief. One thing--one of the many things--he remembered his father telling him about Mistress Weatherwax was that saying no to her would be like saying no to the mountains themselves--it'd just get you buried in an avalanche, and the last thing you'd see would be a patch of icy blue.

His relief lasted for nearly a full second. Then Granny clapped her hands once. "Let's have a look at the girl. My first go at fairy godmothering, and I get to be the uninvited one. The interesting one. Reckon I'm doing it right."

"I won't have to burn any spindles, will I?" Mort wasn't sure he could find even one. Cabbage leaves were hard to spin, though Cutwell the wizard kept trying.

~*~

Granny strode down the hall so briskly that Mort had to half-trot to keep up. Ysabell tried too hard to make it look as though she wasn't trying to keep up, and was left behind.

"The baby's room--" Mort started, but broke off when he ran into Granny, who'd come to a dead stop in front of an open door.

The room looked as though someone had thrown spring at the wall like a handful of wet noodles to see what would stick. Soothing pastel rainbows softened the walls. The tapestries featured bunnies in waistcoats and dresses frolicking through extraordinarily clean cabbage patches. The downy white carpet swallowed the toe of Granny's boot when she ventured one foot onto it. High windows focused sunbeams on the crib, which was crowned with a ruffled canopy. Fat, fluffy toy bunnies sat at a child-sized table having tea, and smaller, slightly less fluffy bunnies populated a toy warren. It was peaceful, sunny, charming, and perfect.

Granny shuddered.

"What," she whispered, "have you done?"

Ysabell, puffing as she caught up, said, "We tried to give her a proper start. We wanted her to have a normal, happy life."

Granny bit her tongue to keep from pointing out that "normal" and "happy" didn't often go together, not in her experience. Instead, she pointed out the obvious. "There's no baby in here."

"Yes, well. . . " Mort hesitated.

"She wouldn't sleep in this room," Ysabell said.

"Fussy, eh?" Granny would have yelled, too, if someone had plopped her in a room with all those rabbits watching her every move. "Got the colic?"

"No," Ysabell said. "She refused to sleep."

"Just sat up in her crib all night, eyes as big as saucers," said Mort. "The minute we'd come fetch her in the morning, she'd fall asleep in the breakfast room, in the great hall, in the kitchen--anywhere but here."

"But she doesn't fuss at all," Ysabell said. She exchanged a helpless glance with her husband. "Everyone says she's a such a good baby, but--"

"They don't have to live with her Looks," Mort finished.

"What's wrong with her looks?" asked Granny. "Babies are supposed to be squishy and red."

"No, not the way she looks, the--the way she looks at us."

"She just stares," said Ysabell, "until we figure out what she wants." She looked into Granny's eyes, and fought the urge to squirm. "Like that," she whispered. "Exactly like that."

"Huh," said Granny, with a dawning suspicion. "Where is she now?"

Mort pointed to a door at the end of the hall.

This room wasn't so aggressively pretty and calm; the only ruffles were on the rocking chair, which matched the furniture in the first room, but not the simple wooden crib in this one. On a narrow bed, a young woman in grey, probably the child's nurse, snored softly.

Inside the crib, Susan Sto Helit sat up, awake without fussing, staring at the newcomers as they walked over to the cradle.

She was a fine enough baby, thought Granny, who didn't pay much attention to children, as a rule. Blue eyes, a delicate fuzz of white-blonde hair, and a hint of a dark streak on one side. And unlike most babies at her age, who sat leaning forward with their hands bracing them, keeping themselves upright by wobbling back and forth quick enough to confuse gravity, Susan sat with her back straight, daring gravity to have a go at her. Even at five months she had the bearing of someone with a practical nature, someone who...would do what needed doing.

Hmm.

"She's got her grandfather's eyes," Granny said.

"He hasn't got eyes," Ysabell pointed out. "And I was adopted."

Granny figured she'd get farther talking to the child. She leaned over the crib railing. "Goochie-goo," she ventured. Susan stared back, unblinking.

"Is you a good baby?" Granny's attempt at a coo sounded more like a crow's screech. The baby, good or not, simply stared.

"You see what I mean?" Ysabell wailed. "She already has a personality. It isn't normal!"

Granny tried again. "Good morning, Susan. I trust you slept well." The baby blinked, and broke into a wide grin. Granny picked her up and carried her, at arm's length, to the rocker. She sat down, and they took a good look at each other.

Whether or not he was a father, or had proper eyes, Death had passed the color down to his granddaughter. The blue was astonishing; it pulled Granny in, and down, and...out, into a vast field of eternity. That was nothing particularly new; staring down Death was what Granny did best.

But in the middle of the baby's gaze, as if curled up in a very tiny fist, Granny sensed something very, very human, and entirely, essentially, Susan.

It was a deeply disconcerting sensation, to look into those eyes, and Granny understood why Mort and Ysabell weren't wholly comfortable with their daughter, so much so that Death had sensed it from...wherever it was he spent his time.

Mort finally broke the silence, clearing his throat. "Mistress Weatherwax?" he croaked. "Is she--is everything--"

"She already knows who she is," Granny said, holding Susan's gaze as she stood and handed her to Ysabell. "Not what she is, not quite yet, but she's on her way, no doubt about it. Try for normal all you like, but it's never going to stick."

Ysabell, who was a quick study despite her stubborn streak, sniffed in a way that meant she was going to try her heart out, thank you very much.

Granny peered at Mort. "You're from over Sheepridge way." He nodded. "Mebbe she gets it from you."

"Gets what from me?" He looked at Ysabell and Susan, panicked. "What's wrong with her?"

"Oh, nothing's wrong. She's--well, if I didn't know better, I'd say she's part witch."

"But that's impossible. Don't you need training to be a witch?"

Granny snorted. "Training? Five months old and she's already using headology on you." More than that, Granny recognized at least part of what she'd seen in Susan. She was destined to stand on the edges, to be the kind of person who dealt with things. That was witch business, if Granny had ever heard of it. But she wasn't sure Mort and Ysabell could handle that much truth--or, whispered a tiny voice in her mind, if they would ever need to. There was something about them, an air of...of time, displaced and borrowed, that made Granny wonder how much of their daughter's life they would ever really know.

"Are you saying," Ysabell said quietly, and just a little bit dangerously, "that our daughter has a destiny? Because--" and here her voice wound tight around itself as she clutched Susan closer, "--we won't raise her as a witch. We don't want her involved with stories and destinies and--" Mort squeezed her shoulder and she took a calming breath. "We've already had quite enough of that for all of our lifetimes, thank you very much."

Granny, who had her own reservations about stories and destinies, knew that they found you no matter how far and hard you ran, if you were the right shape. And Susan Sto Helit was exactly the right shape for a certain kind of story. But it wasn't the one she'd originally suspected.

"The thing is," she said, "she won't be a witch, not exactly. Witches are tied to the land, to a place and a time. To be a witch here, she'd need to have cabbage in her blood and loam in her soul." Susan already had a great deal more than cabbage running around in her tiny little head, but Granny didn't say that. "Not sure what she's going to be, but whatever it is, she'll be it, hard and true."

Mort and Ysabell didn't look at all reassured by that. Granny decided it was time to change the subject. She took the package from her cloak and handed it to Mort. Inside was a blanket, soft as rabbit's fur and utterly black.

"Uh..." said Mort, but Susan was already reaching for it. Frowning slightly, Ysabell put child and blanket into the crib, and Susan curled up and went to sleep on top of Death's gift.

A silence followed, one that would have driven most humans deaf, their eardrums bursting with the weight of everything that was most emphatically not being said.

"We did invite him," Mort finally said.

"A black baby blanket?" Ysabell said, more peevishly. "What was he thinking?" She reached over the side of the crib and tried to pull the blanket out, but Susan's little knuckles whitened around the corner she'd gripped.

Granny sighed. "I know you want what's best for your daughter," she said. "But it might help if you put her in touch with where she comes from, if you take my meaning. He won't come to you, but he won't stop you coming to him." She nodded at the crib. "Especially if you bring her."

While Mort and Ysabell exchanged guilty looks, Susan opened her eyes for the briefest possible moment, and winked at Granny.

"Well," said Granny, to hide her start, "Now that that's all sorted, I'll be going."

She was halfway to the door when Ysabell said, "What about your gift?" Granny turned back. "My gift?"

"For Susan. Your. . . fairy godmother gift."

If possible, Granny seemed to grow even taller. "I thought you didn't hold with that stuff."

Mort looked from Granny to the crib and back. "What can it hurt?" he said with a half-laugh that was pure nervousness. "I mean, you know, good looks, charming personality, a sweet singing voice, they're always good things, aren't they?"

"Depends on the fairy godmother," Ysabell muttered. She was trying, again, to get the blanket out of Susan's grip, tugging at it through the bars without success.

"All right then," Granny said. The look she gave the couple pushed them out of the way as she marched back to the crib and leaned over it.

Granny touched the tiny fist curled around the blanket and put her lips to Susan's ear. "I give you the gift of anger," she whispered. "When things need to be put right, when you stand on the edge of the fear that would take away your very name, you will have anger to see you through to the other side."

Susan's eyelashes fluttered, and she drew the blanket in close. Granny nodded, then turned back to Mort and Ysabell, who stared at her, perplexed. "I'll just see myself out, then."

"Wait!" Mort jumped in front of her as she headed for the door, but drew back at her raised eyebrow. "I just--what gift did you give her? So we can put it in a proper thank you note." He ended on a desperate squeak.

Granny nodded over his shoulder, to where Ysabell was advancing on the crib, reaching for the blanket.

"You're about to find out."

~*~

Out beyond the courtyard and the nearest cluster of cottages, Granny found the white horse and its cloaked rider waiting in a windbreak.

THEY ARE WELL?

"I'd say so. They haven't a clue what they have on their hands, but--" She shrugged. "--that's true of most parents."

AND MY GIFT?

"She's curled up on it, sound asleep." If not, Granny thought with satisfaction, she was waking the whole palace with her screams. "You could have gone in, you know. They did invite you."

THERE ARE BOUNDARIES. THEY SHOULD BE RESPECTED.

"And that's why you needed a witch." The witch. Granny's satisfaction bloomed into a smirk.

YES. THANK YOU. Death pulled an hourglass from his cloak and studied it for a moment, then turned his skull to Granny again. DO YOU. . . REQUIRE ANY ASSISTANCE IN RETURN?

"Not today, I should think." Granny's tone made it plain that there would be such a day, and that it would be of her choosing.

NOT EVEN A RIDE HOME?

"No, thank you. I have a laying out and a funeral to see to, and I'm sure you have other duties waiting."

Death twisted the hourglass this way and that, and the sun caught the falling grains and made them glow. There weren't, Granny noted, very many left in the top half.

THIS IS TRUE. GOOD DAY TO YOU, THEN, MISTRESS WEATHERWAX. Death untied Granny's broom from the horse's saddle and handed it to her with a prolonged and somewhat creaky bow.

"And to you, sir." Granny's own bow was quick.

Death mounted Binky, checked the hourglass, and whispered a location into the horse's ear. As they rose above the plains of Sto Helit, he was careful, out of professional courtesy and respect, not to dwell on the sight of the world's greatest witch running up and down the cabbage rows, cursing a blue streak at her broom.