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On This 'Ane Night

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Wizards were dangerous. They filled their heads with words from books -- though some of the books in the library at Unseen University filled themselves with words from heads -- and missed the important things, like life happening all around them. Men all seemed to think women couldn’t live without them, but she’d seen a fair few women come into their own as widows or witches (or both). Men without women all seemed to live in rooms that smelled of old socks and new ale and something gone off in the cupboard.

Granny Weatherwax wiped her eyes. It had been bad enough leaving Eskarina with her young man at Unseen University those several years ago, but all this Sourcery come back into the world had disarranged all the springs of witchcraft, too. She wasn’t entirely certain how she had drawn the short straw when all the witches of the Ramtops drew lots to see who was going to go down and give the Arch Chancellor a good talking to, but she felt fortunate that by the time she got there, no one needed talking to. Some things were still disarranged, but she was confident enough that the worst was over to take her broom to the edge of town so she could get a running start.

Sadly, that had been the last thing to go well for Granny. Four times the wind had blown her off course, and the talking to she’d saved up was all going into the ears Whephyr the god of wind as soon as she got back. The gods were much easier to shout at in the mountains.

Each time she’d been blown off course, it was a little closer to the chalk downs. Some of the others were positive no proper witch could grow in chalk, and certainly, the deepest earth magic, the one where you made the rocks remember what it was like to be runny, wasn’t possible on the chalk. But the one time she’d been near it before and tried to touch the deep center, Granny had pulled back due to all the tiny voices whispering in her mind.

She found a flat area, not difficult in the downs, and steered her broomstick toward it. The winds were blowing again, right up to the parts that never get cold, and Granny knew that she couldn’t fly in the right direction this night.

The chill of Harvest season was beginning to creep in. On the horizon the sun had just set, leaving the pale green that only came on the very clearest -- and windiest -- days. She glanced over her right shoulder and saw a huge, perfectly bisected moon against the darkness. If this were the hills, she’d say it was about half an hour before the stars filled the sky. On flat land, who knew?

She picked up her battered valise in one hand and her broom in the other and walked toward a distant fire. Distances were also different on the flats, it took her twenty minutes to reach it with the wind seeming to blow her back with every step. At this rate, she might borrow some words from Gytha Ogg to give Whephyr his talking to.

The rattling of the dead leaves was different from the soft soughing of the long needled pine and fir up in the Ramtops. It was a little unnerving. About thirty paces from the fire, there was a fence. Granny stared at it, debating whether to blast it out of her way.

A voice called out. “There’s a gate a small ways to y’r left, Mistress. Or you can climb the fence. If you blast it, the ewes will get out and we’ll lose a lamb or two, belike.”

Granny flung the carpetbag and her broom over the fence and clambered over it after them, very happy for sturdy wool bloomers. She picked up her traps and went closer to the fire.

“Blessings be on this…” Her eye was caught by a sort of room on wheels and she finished with, “hut?”

“All blessings welcomed, Mistress,” said the voice she’d heard earlier. The woman she was faced with was large and warm seeming, even on a chill night. The scent of strong tobacco surrounded her, not unpleasantly.

“Esmerelda Weatherwax, but most folks call me Granny.”

The other woman took her pipe from between her teeth and laughed softly. “Sarah Aching, Mistress, but people o’ the chalk call me Granny.” She motioned to Granny to sit on a clean rock near the fire.

Granny Weatherwax blinked and said, “At least we’ll know which of us is talking.”

“That we will, Mistress Weatherwax, that we will.”

The silence by the fire wasn’t unpleasant, but eventually Granny broke it. “Granny Aching, isn’t it the wrong time of year for lambs?”

“Worst time possible, but whatever them wizards was up to in Ankh Morpork quickened the land an' around here sheep is just parts of the land that move. A ram kicked out, some of the ewes was brought to untimely season, and now we need to warm lambs in the harvest instead of in sowing time.”

Granny Weatherwax had the impression that this was the most Granny Aching had said in a year.

“If you’d blasted the fence, Thunder and Lightning would still ha’ kept the ewes where they was supposed to be, but it would still take a sight o’ work to repair.” She knocked the ash out of her pipe and refilled it. “It’s Jolly Tar, if you care for some.”

“No, the offer is appreciated, though. Do you need some help with the lambing?”

“Might do, might do. Are you good with birthing?”

“I’ve brought a fair few goats into this world, but they’re more intelligent than sheep. People, too. I’ve brought into this world. Not so sure most of them is more intelligent than sheep, sadly.”

“C’n only be as smart as your goats if you let them make their own minds up.”

Granny looked deeply into the fire and said, “Generally do. It ain’t easy betimes, but I only does for them as can’t do for themselves or…”

“Or sometimes when the choice is too hard for people who can’t see the world as it is.”

“Yes,” Granny sighed. “And that’s why they go to Gytha Ogg -- she’s also a witch in the Ramtops, you see -- they go to her with their joys. She’s good at the midwifin’ is Gytha Ogg. Good at the preventin’, too.”

The half moon was just over their heads now. Granny Aching nodded toward it, like greeting an acquaintance in the town. “That’s your place, then.”

“My feets too firmly planted to be on the moon.” A large fluffy sheep zipped past her on the other side of the fire.

“I’ll take a moment, if I may, Mistress. Help yourself to some bread from the covered pot and green soup from the steaming one.” Granny Aching inclined her head and Granny saw a clean bowl and spoon which had been hidden before.

While she was helping herself to a thick vegetable soup and a slice of mixed grain bread, Granny saw the other woman wander a small ways off, pipe puffing. At some point which looked to Granny like any other part of the meadow, Granny Aching planted herself and called “To me.”

Two sheepdogs, who had more good sense than half the wizards at UU to her mind, flew to Granny Aching and listened intently while she said something soft. Then she moved her hand and said, “Away,” and the two dogs, acting in concert ran in the direction of the zipping sheep.

Granny Aching strode back and sat herself down on her previous rock picking the conversation up, just where it had left off. “Not the moon, and you know well,that’s not what I meant Mistress Weatherwax. Nay, you’re an edge witch, the other edge.”

Granny nodded. “They call Nanny Ogg for the difficult births. I’m the one wakened for the difficult deaths.”

She saw the dogs herding the ewe back to the flock, but there were other rustlings in the grass, too.

Granny Aching pulled out three thimbles, sized for little ones just learning their first cross stitchery. A flask was pulled from one of her many pockets and small amounts of something that made Granny’s eyes water was poured into each one. Four blue men peaked over the fallen log the thimbles rested on.

“Rob Anybodys, you know that sheep that’s carryin’ is protected.

“Not takin’ her to eat, just for a small ransom.” He nodded to the thimbles. “There’s four o’ us.”

"True, Rob Anybodys, true. Let the others have at them.” She pulled out a thimble that might have fit her pinky when she was a younger woman, and poured him a slightly larger dollop. “Seein’ as you’re the big man and all. Now you tell the kelda what you did, ‘cause we have an understanding.”

Granny wasn’t quite sure how blue skin could pale, but the Feegle -- she was sure that’s what they were though she’d only heard tales before -- definitely had a pallor.

“She’ll no be pleased.”

Granny Aching smiled around her pipe. “Why do you think I gave you a drop o’ courage before facing her?”

The little man gave a long suffering sigh, picked up the largest thimble in both hands and drank deeply. “C’mon, Wee Willie, Small Willie, Wily Willie. Time to talk to the kelda.” As they turned, Granny saw the flash of their broadswords lashed to their backs.

“Care for some, Mistress? It’s my special sheep liniment. It can warm you from the inside out.”

“Is it like scumble?”

“No,” Granny Aching said, “Scumble lies to you that it’s mostly apples when the next morning you know it’s mostly hammers. This don’t pretend to be nothin’ but what it is: strong drink.”

Granny was about to demur when it occurred to her that hospitality went both ways and there were some rules to receiving it as well as giving it. “I’d like that,” she said, “but not much more than you gave to the big man. I’m not accustomed.”

“Fair spoken.” She took the lid off her flask, poured a splash in and handed it to Granny Weatherwax before taking a swig directly from flask herself.

Granny sipped and tasted tar and oak, smoke and chalk. She coughed a little as her sinuses flung themselves open. “Warming indeed.”

There was a plaintive baa and the women glanced at each other. A second deeper baa came on top of it. “Wondered why you were here, Mistress. Two coming at once.”

Granny nodded. “Give me the first one. She sounds like an easy birth, since I knows more about goats.”

Granny Aching nodded. “My thoughts exactly.”

***
Several hours later, the moon was nearly to the western horizon, and Granny was breaking the ice on a stream to clean her hands. Streams round these parts, it seemed to her, were very docile if they consented to ice over. No Ramtops stream would have stood still long enough to ice. As she dried her hands on a relatively clean sheep, she had an illusion that the land was a wave, or under a wave, for just a moment. Granny wondered if it was her First Sight trying to show her something, or if her second sip of sheep liniment when the last ewe had been successfully delivered of her lamb was clouding her vision.

“It comes at times,” Granny Aching said.

“What does?”

“The future. It lets us see the shape it will take, even after we’re gone.”

Granny nodded. “Is there meaning behind it?”

Granny Aching lit her pipe and puffed it thoughtfully, “Mayhap. You saw the wave.”

“I saw the land and thought it was a wave.”

The other woman nodded. “You see true. Not for a few more years, yet, and I won’t be here to see the most of it. The land is telling me it will be protected by my jigget when she arrives.”

“Yan, tan, tethera. I don’t know what number jigget is.”

“You knew it though. Jigget would be….” for a moment Granny Weatherwax thought the other woman might need to take off her socks, but then she said, “Twenty it is, a jigget.”

“Twenty what?”

“Grandchildren. My jigget will take over protecting the chalk, keeping the land and its people. ‘S more th’n I do. I mostly lets the folks look after themselves, Mistress.”

“Why would I…” There was a moment of stillness. Granny Aching was as much a witch as she was. She knew she wouldn’t live long enough to pass the protection herself. She could step away, thank the shepherd for her hospitality, knowing that it had been repaid by helping to birth and protect the lambs. Or she could be a witch and take responsibility.

The silence lasted a little longer. Granny Aching didn’t prompt or push, and Granny recognized it for the kindness it was. Finally she said, “I’ll see that she knows what she needs to. I’ll show her the edges and hope they’re not too sharp.”

“Aye,” Granny Aching said, “I b’lieve you will.” She began to make certain the fire was well out. “You can have my blankets and catch some sleep,” she pointed with her chin toward the mobile hut. “The wind’ll be calm by noontime and you can take up your journey again.”

In the light of the false dawn, Granny could see the burial mound where the Feegles lived. She trusted this woman to know her land’s weather as well as she herself knew how the winds blew from Lancre to Bad Ass. “Sleep would suit me," she said, heading to the hut, "It’s a long way to fall if you’re not payin’ attention.”

Granny Aching took the last dying ember from the fire, and used it to light her pipe.