The wizards stood in a loose circle as Ridcully made his speech, his usual strident tones muted, as though his voice was further away than the rest of him. This has been known to happen, of course, but in this instance it was caused only by simple, human sorrow. Or, more properly, wizard sorrow. Even in times like these, that distinction is important.
He hadn't needed to break the news, as such. It didn't take a great wizard to feel it when something as powerful as this happened. Even Rincewind had known.
Ridcully was not the kind of man who was often lost for words. Now was no exception, and his speech had already lasted a little longer than the average root canal treatment. He had spoken on the nature of mortality, the relationship between creator and created, and, in the absence of interruption, the importance of hygiene, because it never hurt to remind people. For once, the wizards did not shuffle, or mutter, though the chorus of stomach growling was growing steadily towards deafening, given that they were a few hours out from their last meal. He decided to quit while he was ahead.
'A moment of silence, then, gentlemen.'
One by one, they removed their pointy hats, their eyes cast down in silent reflection. The Bursar wiped away a tear, lip trembling. The Dean, who’d snuck in to join his former colleagues, a situation that was for the moment passing without comment, reached out to pat him awkwardly on the shoulder, a gesture akin to a long hug in this particular sub-section of society. Nobody asked the Bursar if he'd taken his dried frog pills. He didn’t need them, not today. The weight of the news was heavy enough to tether him.
A close observer may have noticed that Rincewind’s eyes were cast a little higher than the rest, and that he maintained a white-knuckle grip on his battered hat. He’d been through - and, indeed, had managed to avoid going through - a lot to be here, and he’d be buggered if someone got his hat off him in a moment of off-guard contemplation.
‘It’s too damn soon,’ said Mustrum, sounding almost back to his usual self. The other wizards echoed the sentiment, with much throat-clearing, foot-shuffling and head-nodding. All except the librarian.
‘Ook,’ he said, his sad eyes brimming over.
It means exactly the same thing.
Vimes would have arranged a 21-gun salute, if it weren’t for a few key facts. Firstly, he would find the very notion that there could ever be 21 gonnes in existence horrifying, let alone the thought of handing them out to certain of his officers. Secondly, the closest equivalent would be asking Detritus to set off the Piecemaker, which would qualify as a 21 gun salute all right. It would also subsequently require the attendance of many Igors to patch up the unwitting bystanders, who may have been unwittingly standing by up to six city blocks away. Thirdly, there are shifts to be worked. Ankh-Morpork won’t police itself. It’s not like the old days, there are dozens of coppers on the beat now. Hundreds. You can’t just stop the disc from turning. Personal, as a wise man once said, isn’t the same as important. Still, he had made sure the word went around that there would be a moment of silence at the watch house, strictly voluntary.
He had been obliged to repeat this last several times to Detritus, who kept insisting on closing one craggy eye in a wink as slow and as subtle as glaciation.
‘Voluntary, sir,’ he kept saying, throwing in a nudge that would have knocked an unprepared man off his feet. After the third time, Vimes had tried to save himself any further bruised ribs.
‘Detritus, I want you to listen to me very carefully. When I say voluntary, I mean voluntary. There will be no need to convince, cajole or otherwise compel any officer to come along. Is that clear?’
There was a pause, during which time Vimes drew out his cigar case, selected one, bit the end off and lit up. He was on his third draw by the time Detritus had fully processed his orders.
‘So… voluntary with no wink?’
‘Voluntary with no wink, Sergeant.’
Detritus had saluted smartly at this, and taken his leave.
Almost all the officers were there, anyway.
When Vimes thought about it, he wasn’t surprised. This wasn’t like a normal funeral, where half the lads1 might never have had more than a passing acquaintance with the officer in the box. This time, they owed their lives to the man they were mourning. A look around the room satisfied him that they all knew it, too, and would have turned up regardless of who had told them to, or not to. And, really, to hell with the shifts. The city could do without them for half an hour. He had a feeling that even in the depths of the Shades, things would be quiet today.
He was smoking another cigar. He’d been through more today than he had in the past week. Two weeks, even. It was a sign of the times that Sybil wasn’t remonstrating with him to take it outside, though she had been unable to stop herself from bringing him a glass ashtray - gods knew from where - to replace the half-full coffee mug he’d been using. No doubt she’d put the offending mug in bleach, too, all the while explaining to Young Sam that yes, smoking was for adults only, and no, he couldn't keep the ash for his experiments. The thoughts flitted across Sam’s mind almost unheard as he surveyed the troops around him.
There wasn’t much talk among them to begin with, but a silence spread nonetheless. The humans, dwarves, gnomes, vampires, werewolves, goblins, golems, gorgon and others of the watch looked to their Commander with serious eyes. They filled the room and spilled out down the steps and, Vimes imagined, for some distance along the pavement outside. A stony scraping sound from the roof sent his eyes darting upwards and his hand to the truncheon he no longer wore at his waist, before he realised what it meant: Constable Downspout and his roof-dwelling brethren had come to pay their respects. His upturned eyes found Wee Mad Arthur, Buggy Swires and assorted other of the Watch's smaller members (though if any of them had heard themselves referred to this way, there would be much to answer for), sitting among the rafters, looking down at him.
Vimes didn’t know what to say to them - to any of them. He’d managed to talk his way out of - and in to - countless situations, but now he was struck entirely dumb. What was he supposed to say? That everything could be alright? No. That felt like a lie before it even reached his lips. He looked to his oldest companions, seeking inspiration.
Colon and Nobbs stood together, to one side. Nobby’s face, never an oil painting, was contorted to gargoyle proportions and beyond. Even Colon’s usual ruddy cheeks were pale, and when he tried to smile at Vimes, the sadness there made Sam look away.
Carrot and Angua were more in the middle of the crowd, because even on an occasion like this, the captain was a magnet for the officers around him. It was Carrot people took their problems to, him they wanted to ask for advice. Not for the first time, Vimes thought that it should really be Carrot standing here, ready to address the expectant crowd. And then he looked at the Captain’s face, really looked, and saw the matching shining tracks on either side, running from the corner of each eye to his chin. They were hard to make out, as Carrot was the kind of man who routinely shone in any case, but they were there. A glance at Angua told him two things: one, that she knew about those shining tracks and two, if Vimes tried to make Carrot speak now, willing as the Captain may be, she would never forgive him. And the undead really know how to hold an undying grudge.
Cheery was next to catch his eye. She was crying openly, tears rolling into her beard. Vimes watched, tragically fascinated, as a drip formed and fell from the end of the thick plait she wore it in. How much would a dwarf have to cry to saturate her beard like that? He suddenly decided he didn’t want to think about it.
Igor stood next to her, with his arm around her shoulders - or, Vimes corrected himself, someone’s arm. He was the perfect height for this, as long as she stood on his right. Next to him was Reg Shoe. Sam hoped for a second that Reg would have some pro-undead tirade to launch into, or some insight that would soothe the unnaturally silent gathering of watchmen here today, but Reg only slowly shook his head. Even he, the man who had never taken anything lying down in his life, including death, was defeated today.
Sam drew a deep breath, though what he’d say with it he had no idea. He was interrupted by a voice from his side.
‘Dad?’ It was a stage whisper a classically trained actor would have swooned over.
Glad of the distraction, though aware that he was delaying the inevitable, Vimes crouched.
‘What is it, Sam?’
‘Why is everyone crying, Dad?’
‘Someone died today,’ he answered, scanning the small face anxiously for signs of distress. Young Sam seemed to mull this over. Vimes was pretty sure he understood the concept of death - after all, that was why they’d bought him all those ill-fated goldfish, wasn’t it? - but he wasn’t sure what might come next. He’d directed his eyes outward, solemnly assessing the sheer volume of people there, and now brought them back to Vimes’ own.
‘I think it’ll be OK, though.’ His high voice carried easily round the room.
‘Do you?’ Vimes asked him, feeling as though an ember from his now-extinguished cigar was caught in his throat. ‘Why’s that?’
The room was more hushed than ever, and Young Sam glanced back around once before he answered.
‘Well...’ he said, thoughtfully, ‘...we’re all still here, aren’t we?'
Vimes put his free hand on his son’s shoulder, and looked into his curious eyes.
‘Yes, Sam. We’re still here.’
Young Sam nodded, with the satisfied air of one who has life's mysteries figured out. Not for the first time, Vimes felt a mix of emotions as he looked at his son. He nodded back, though he was unable to match the easy smile on Young Sam's face.
He stood up, and drew another breath, this time ready to speak. The silence in front of him was punctuated now with sniffs and suspicious throat-clearing.
‘It was too damn soon for him to go. We all know that.’
More sniffs and treacherous hitched-in breaths from all corners.
‘But we’re still here, all of us. We’re going nowhere except back out there to keep the people safe.’
A few murmurs of assent from the bowed heads, and one hand cautiously rose into the air.
‘Well, Mister Vimes, it’s just that I’m off shift now, see...’
‘It was more of a metaphor Nobby. But thank you for your contribution. I’m sure the people will feel just as safe, if not safer, knowing that you’re off the streets.’
Nobby’s wan face brightened for a second, before creasing in a half-baffled frown.
‘That’s all,' Vimes said, addressing the room again. 'Remember him in your own way. And on your own time,’ he called over the rising hubbub. He could hear his words repeated towards the back of the room, the simple message passing from mouth to ear, reaching the gathering outside.
He felt a peculiar bubbling sensation in his ears, and looked up to the roof again. Wee Mad Arthur had produced a set of mouse pipes from somewhere, and stood alone, playing for all he was worth, if his bulging cheeks were any indication. Vimes himself couldn't hear the music, but the solitary figure made for a dramatic scene. He preferred not to consider that it was possible the isolation was down to the ghastly drone of the mouse pipes having chased everyone else off.
Vimes suspected that the tears in the corner of Arthur's eyes might not be a simple by-product of his fervent playing, but he didn't draw any attention to it. It wasn't the Feegle way to mourn. It wasn't the Vimes way either, if it came to it, and he turned away from the lone piper. The room was clearing, and Sybil was waiting for him. The three of them would go home, and tomorrow he'd once again take up the business of keeping the peace. Unless something came up today that just couldn’t wait, of course.
Constable Washpot watched the Vimes family leave. He knew the Commander's thoughts about religion, which closely mirrored the thoughts of almost all his other colleagues, and while he was always on hand with a timely pamphlet or verse from the Book of Om, he felt quite strongly that this was not the time to try to make any converts. Now was the time to hide his light under a bushel, as the Great God Om had when he presented himself as a humble tortoise, in order to better learn the ways of man.
It was to this tortoise, and not to the mighty bull, that he offered up his prayer. He closed his eyes and asked the Great God Om and the Prophet that, should they encounter the recently-freed soul, they not hold any sins or blasphemies against it. For the errors of man are many, but the forgiveness of the Great God is all.
Somewhere, in the unknowable space that could be loosely referred to as heaven, Om turned to Brutha and sighed.
'What does he want us to do? It's not exactly my division, is it?'
Brutha shook his head.
'No, but that's not really the point.'
'Then what is?'
'It makes him feel better to pray to you. Makes him feel that he's doing something. Humans hate feeling powerless, you know.'
Om did know, and nodded gloomily. Even a god could mourn the loss of his own creator.
1. [Vimes used the word ‘lads’ in a strictly unisex way. Once, when asked, he’d said ‘if it’s good enough for Jackrum, it’s good enough for you, my lad.’ Nobody had understood but, equally, nobody had ever asked again.]↩
Chapter 3: Chapter 3
I've put off writing this, and now it's been a year, and I'm still not going to get it right. But here goes.
Tiffany landed on the unfamiliar soil with a thud and a series of running steps that were more necessary than graceful. She had aimed for a point well before the gathering she'd seen from above. She still didn't quite have the knack of landings. Perhaps now she never would.
Her trudging steps at last brought her to the rise of the hill, and back in sight of her sisters who waited for her round the cauldron. She nodded, silently.
'Wotcha, Tiff,' said Nanny, her usual boisterous tones falling flatter than Tiffany herself had done on many failed landings.
Agnes gave a brief bow, her pale face serious. Magrat took her eyes off little Esme for the merest fraction of a second to offer a hasty, harried smile. Granny was the only one to step forward. She swept down in a low bow that was spoiled only by a sudden mewling sound from her ankles. You poked her snowy head out from the folds of Granny's cloak, peering up at Tiffany with her sapphire eyes. Tiffany bowed in return, solemn and low. Undeterred by the interruption, Granny stood straight again.
'You came as soon as you could?' she asked, seeming indifferent.
'No,' said Tiffany, noting the surprise on every face but Granny's. 'Mrs Treacle's bandages needed changing, and then I met some of the village girls on my way back and they wanted to talk about... well, nothing I'll trouble you with. Then the cheeses needed turning, and the log box was low.'
'Couldn't you have asked the Feegles to do that?' Magrat asked, eyes still on the pudgy toddler wandering ever closer to the fire the cauldron sat on.
Tiffany thought that Magrat couldn't have had much to do with Feegles in the past1.
'They have business of their own today,' she said, unable to believe that a woman so otherwise clever as the Queen would ask such a question. Magrat nodded in response.
'Mourning,' she said shortly.
'Celebrating, I should think,' Nanny said, her voice muffled round a cigar she'd produced from somewhere about her person. 'They don't think it's sad news, see? He's gone back to the land of the living.' Here she adopted a surprisingly good Feegle brogue. 'He'll bide fine and come back before too long.'
Tiffany's felt a prickling behind her eyes at this sentiment. She wished she could believe it.
'Judging by the reports of mysteriously missing liquor in the village, they're planning a real hoolie,' she said, keeping her voice steady. Feegle words had a very grounding effect, even if they did still sound strange rolling off her tongue. She noticed Nanny's concerned look. 'No more than a quarter bottle from any one house,' she reassured her, and Nanny's expression softened again. She could never have stood by while a poor family lost their precious store of whisky, scumble, or whatever they'd managed to brew up in the bathtub. Thieving was all very well, especially for Feegles, but there were limits.
'Still,' Tiffany continued. 'There was a certain amount of wailying, and when I last saw Rob I thought he was going to twist his beard right off.' The memory of that fiercely greiving face was almost too much, and she turned her mind away.
'So you didn't come as soon as you could?' Granny broke in, dryly.
'I did not. I came as soon as I should,' Tiffany replied, her back straight, eyes meeting the older witch's without a flinch and certainly without a stray tear.
A moment's pause, and then a satisfied nod.
Little Esme fell down with a muffled thump, her round face comically surprised. Magrat had dressed her in what she thought of as the modern style, and the Princess had on a tiny pair of dungarees in some hard-wearing material, an enthusiastically if not accurately knitted cardigan, and a bobble hat. She reached towards her toes, which were bare and muddy, grabbing them effortlessly, and crowed. Magrat lifted her and held her tightly enough to elicit another squawk, whereupon she returned the baby to her feet and let her continue her toddling explorations.
'What should we do?' Magrat asked, of all of them.
'Nothing to do, love,' Nanny said. 'I mean, your Queen-ness. Can't change what's gone.' She took another puff of her cigar, sending out perfumed clouds2. 'I know what I'm going to do, though.'
They all waited, expectantly.
'Have a drink,' she said, an answer that should have surprised nobody. 'Agnes...' Nanny started, but tailed off when she saw that Agnes was already standing at the cauldron, spooning out portions into a lovely set of earthware cups that, on closer inspection, were decorated with a fetching moon and stars motif. Seeing that Magrat was too busy watching Esme to help, and knowing that Nanny Ogg had always considered herself more the brought-ee than the bringer, Tiffany started over to distribute the steaming, tan-coloured potion. She took a cautious sniff before handing one over to Granny, but her initial instincts had been right. It was nothing but tea. A cauldron full of tea. It might just be enough for a situation this grave.
When Tiffany turned away from handing Nanny her cup, she heard a peculiar rustling sound. Her eyes darted up, taking in the empty horizons around her, the lack of trees or bushes, the full lines of sight that would let her see anything coming a mile or more off. The rustling was accompanied by a twanging more usually associated with a banjo that has undergone a series of unfortunate events, and when Tiffany turned back, Nanny was clasping a metal hip flask that could easily have accommodated three tankards of ale. Nanny winked, a hint of her usual self shining through the stiff veneer that lay over them all.
'Keep it where nobody thinks of looking,' she said, then sighed. 'Not at my time of life, anyway.' She poured a generous tot into her mug, which now threatened to overflow, before holding the flask aloft. 'Anyone else?'
Tiffany shook her head automatically, and was surprised to see Granny hold out her own mug. If Nanny was surprised, she kept it to herself, only adding a glug of whatever libation she was carrying today. Granny sipped it genteely, with no outward sign of discomfort. Tiffany thought this might be taking a considerable amount of will. Agnes had poured her own cup - last, of course - and she now stepped up to receive a dose. She held the cup in her left hand, and her arm was stretched out as though impatiently leading the rest of her. Magrat, who had refused the hot drink because of its child-magnet properties, surprised Tiffany most of all by holding out a beckoning hand. At this, Nanny did allow herself a blink or two before depositing the flask in the reaching fingers. Magrat took a swig as dainty as possible from such a heavy vessel, and returned it, coughing and eyes watering.
Nanny looked again at Tiffany. Tiff knew she had much to do before the day was out, and that unlike Nanny Ogg, she couldn't get it all done with the fires of alcohol fumes dancing in her brain. But... perhaps her spirits were so damp that they needed a little fire.
She allowed a few drops to fall into her tea, nodding to show that was enough. Nanny replaced the stopper on the flask, but didn't stow it away just yet. She may have had a feeling she'd be needing it again.
They all raised their mugs, as though as an unspoken signal, and took a sip. Little Esme babbled to herself happily, blissfully unaware of the atmosphere around her.
'It was too damn soon,' Granny said in a no-nonsense voice. 'Ain't nobody going to deny that. But we and those such as we know that the end isn't always the end. We owe him a great debt. That debt may never be repaid. So we just go on and do what needs doing. If we do right, the reckoning will be in our favour, when it comes.'
Magrat was sniffling, despite the unsentimental nature of this eulogy. Tiffany noticed Agnes' left hand, the one she wasn't holding the tea with, tremble for a moment before the girl gave a sudden outburst.
'It's not fair!' she cried, tears appearing in her eyes. Tiffany had a fleeting impression of running mascara, though of course Agnes never wore such a thing. 'What are we supposed to do without him?' Her face was sharper than before, her expression wild in a way that Tiff had never seen it.
'Not really the right question,' Nanny said, taking another puff of her cigar. 'What did we do when we had him?'
Agnes's left sleeve was put into use as a makeshift handkerchief. 'Nothing we can do. 'Cept for what we always do,' Nanny added thoughtfully. 'Which is everything. Now come on Perdita, you know Agnes hates it when you wipe her nose on her sleeve.'
Agnes' face - which Tiffany now understood was not Agnes' alone - screwed up in a tight ball of determined grief, and she swiped at her nose defiantly.
'I don't care! She's just as upset as me, but she's trying to pretend she's not. You all are!' More tears swam from her eyes, and this time Tiffany definitely saw another face for a moment, her third sight showing her Perdita as she really was.
Granny sniffed. A sniff like that could stop traffic.
'Was never for me, pretendin. I'm not the sort to go about thinking one thing and saying another.' The coven waited, breathless. 'Your heart's on your sleeve, girl. Mine's in my chest, doing its job. Don't think you're the only one that feels it. We all feel it today. Some of us just don't have the time for sayin it.'
Perdita's features smoothed back out into Agnes again. She looked for a moment as though she wanted to apologise, then shrugged. 'She's been like that all day.' Her left hand, never to be entirely restrained, snatched the cup from the right and brought it up to her lips. Agnes closed her eyes as she took a long sip, then opened them again. 'Think she's got the right idea about some things, though.' Her voice was slightly hoarse, only partly from the contents of the cup.
Nanny smiled knowingly, and added another measure to her own drink, which by now was surely only distantly related to the tea it had once been.
'It's traditional,' she said, catching Granny's disapproving look. 'Got to toast the dead.'
'A man is not dead while his name is still spoken,' Granny said, almost primly.
Tiffany realised that none of them had spoken his name aloud. She didn't want to. It would sound too much like a funeral bell.
Little Esme began to fuss, and Magrat instantly crouched down to soothe her, and incidentally to disentangle You, whose fur the Princess had been trying to lick.
'I'd best take her home,' she said. 'It's nearly time for her sleep.' She lifted the enormous bag she had with her, stopping to retrieve a stray sock puppet, and swung it across her shoulder.
'When shall we five meet again?' asked Nanny, taking less delight than normal from the foolishly arcane words.
'Oh, well...' Magrat floundered, some of her old, uncertain self showing through. 'You know. Soon. I... We... Soon.' Tiffany knew that Magrat didn't have much time to spend with the witches these days. A natural side effect of combining motherhood with educating a small kingdom on the benefits of a nourishing vegetarian diet, alongside her many other Queening duties.
'Not if we see you first,' Nanny said, the punchline losing some of its punch in the face of such a poor setup. Magrat smiled hurriedly, then swept the baby into her arms.
'Nice to see you again, Tiffany...' the spill words despite the circumstances echoed in Tiffany's mind. It was the kind of thing normal people said to each other, wasn't it?
Magrat executed a half-bow, half-curtsy, seriously hampered by her full arms. The others responded in kind, though with less shifting of weight and clutching of belongings, and Nanny waved a wrinkled hand at the toddler, who was now gazing at them all glassily.
'Bye bye, poppet,' she said, opening and closing her fingers in the way that people do when faced with a baby. Little Esme extended a plump fist and tried to copy her. 'Little cherub,' Nanny mumbled, forgetting her sadness for a moment. The Princess' eyes fell shut, and she rested her cheek on her mother's shoulder, one wool-clad arm draped carelessly off to one side.
They watched Magrat's back as she made her determined way back down the hill. She hadn't ridden a broomstick for years, and anyway, there was no safe, or at all practical, way to attach a baby seat. Their meeting today had been brief, nothing more than a blink of the gods, but it had been necessary. For all the words they'd left unspoken, they had needed to be together, to raise a glass, to acknowledge what had befallen them.
'I'd best be going, too,' Tiffany heard herself say. Whatever Nanny had in that flask had left her a little lightheaded, and she needed to get her feet back on solid ground before the temptation to drown her sorrows became too strong.
'You won't stay for one more?' Nanny asked. 'A night-cap?'
'It's the middle of the day, Gytha,' Granny snapped.
'A day-cap?' Nanny asked, intonation unchanged. Tiffany shook her head, relieved to see that some things, at least, would always be the same. The older witches' bickering was soothing in its constancy.
'Well, I will,' said Nanny, undaunted, and took a gulp that would have half-killed anyone else, before topping her cup back up to the same level. Tiff thought she could see the air shimmering over it.
'Goodbye,' she said, turning to Agnes. The two of them had never gotten to know one another well, and their interactions were always oddly formal. Agnes bowed to her, reinforcing this thought.
'Safe travels, Tiffany.' Her eyes still shone from Perdita's outburst. Tiffany turned away from them.
She bowed to Granny, who returned the gesture. Their eyes met and held.
'Be well, Tiffany Aching. We have our own ways to forge, now.'
Tiffany nodded, turning away already, eyes stinging. Up until today, she'd thought that she was forging her own path very well, thank you oh so very much. But the emptiness she'd felt this morning, the draining of her sense of purpose, the numbness of her words and actions, told her that she'd been wrong. There had been something guiding her, after all. And now she was alone.
Well, perhaps not quite. As she walked back off to a safe distance for embarrassment-free broom starting, she noted blue figures appearing from the scrub grass around her. How they'd got all the way to Lancre she might never know, and where they'd been hiding in this barren landscape was a question she'd never ask. She was only glad that they had come.
The Feegles joined their hag, getting under her feet and raising her from the ground, and soon any thoughts of starting her broomstick were gone. She would let the Feegles bear her weight, just for a short while.
1. [This was a notion that Tiffany would be disabused of in future.]↩
2. [Like the kind of perfume that might be sold from a vendor with a tray round his neck, and stings the eyes and, indeed, skin when applied.]↩