Esme has always intended to walk the witch's path alone.
Ever since Lily left, that is. Before that they'd talked a bit about being sister witches together, a bit. Esme hadn't ever believed it would be real. When two sisters became witches, everyone knew there was always one a good one and a bad one.
Esme had intended to be the bad one, but sometimes life doesn't work out neatly.
So Esme Weatherwax walked up Nanny Gripes' garden by herself, intent on being, if not the bad witch, a witch, as hard as she could be. The best witch she could possibly be. A better witch than Lily.
A witch alone.
It's inevitable that there would be other training witches, of course, but Esme somehow doesn't expect it. Certainly she doesn't expect to meet one when she's been sent out for Herbs.
She's grumbling about it as she picks goosegrass and chickenwort in the still-chilly early spring air, when she hears a voice say, "Don't suppose you'd hand some of that over."
"Get your own patch, I worked for this," says Esme without turning around.
"Didn't think so," said the voice, cheerfully. Esme finally looks. It's another girl - small, round, and freckled, with a wide grin and friendly eyes.
She looks fluffy and silly, but Esme is smart enough to see the razor-blade mind behind the apple-cheeked face, the power in the work-roughed hands. Whoever she is, she's used to scraping and fighting and getting her way. Witch's hands, Esme thinks.
She's seen the girl around, of course. This is Lancre, where everyone knows everyone else.
"I'm Esme," she says, making the first move. "Witch in training."
"Gytha. Likewise." Gytha begins to hunt around for the goosegrass, which in the spring is starting to wither and fade.
"What are you doing here?"
"Same as you, I reckon. Looking for herbs."
"Herbs," says Esme, viciously pulling up a leaf. "I tell you, these old witches, they don't know nothing."
Gytha clicks her tongue in sympathy. "It's up to us to show 'em up, then."
Gytha finds her again three days later, in the woods again.
"What are you doing here?" asks Esme. "I told you, this is my patch."
"I'm not looking for herbs. Thought maybe we could be friends," says Gytha.
"Witches don't have friends," says Esme, folding her arms. She's good at that, all angles and jutting corners. When she walks she slices the air in front of her. Her sharpness goes before her and above her, protecting her from rain and men's attention alike. It's something she's cultivated.
It doesn't work on Gytha. She just raises an eyebrow and asks, "Why not?"
"Because both of you would want to be the best witch that ever was, and only one of you could be," Esme says. "You'd always be looking behind your back."
"What, pull out your hatpin, it's you and me, womano-a-womano?" says Gytha.
Esme reflects on this phrase somewhat uncertainly. She's pretty sure it's not right, but then, she's never been Abroad, so she doesn't know, and it's always better not to reveal your ignorance.
"Something like that," she says.
"Sounds a bit tiring, really. Not sure I'd want to be the best witch if that's all there is to look forward to. I'd settle for being second-best. Nobody wants to be the second-best witch, do they?"
"Nobody wants to be the second-best witch because there's nothing in it," says Esme, expression caught halfway between scorn and disgust. "Everyone knows that."
Gytha's gaze is pleasant, friendly, and full of secrets. "Well, I reckon I won't have to fight for it, then."
Esme glares suspiciously at her. She can't actually see any deception. She can't see truth, either, but then Gytha is a witch, isn't she. Witches are good at truths. Layers and layers of them, hidden under each other.
"Friends," she says aloud.
"Best witch and the second-best," says Gytha. "Ought to be a team to write home about, eh?"
"Maybe," says Esme.
Gytha immediately begins treating Esme as if they are indeed friends, maybe or no. It's a matter-of-fact sort of alliance against the older witches and what they both think of as their tyranny at first, but of course Gytha listens and pries and pulls Esme into conversation about all sorts of things.
Like this conversation, which Esme think she'd rather not have.
"What about boys?" Gytha asks, which is what starts it.
"What about boys?" says Esme, making a face.
"Well, if you can't have friends, have you got to avoid them, too, for reasons of witchiness?" Gytha kicks her shoes off and lays on the grass.
"Ain't got to," says Esme, making her best attempt to indicate that she would be anyway. Boys have never been that interesting.
"So you do it voluntarily?" Gytha props herself up on her elbows and waggles her eyebrow. "Never had a man?"
"Never had time," says Esme. She shrugs. "There was a boy - "
"No. I turned him down. He wanted me to marry him but I never got the time, as I said. More important things to do."
Gytha regards her for a moment. "Fair enough," she says. "They do take up a lot of time. Worth it, in my opinion, but if you ain't interested I can see where that wouldn't be much of a lure."
Esme nods. Children, love, romance - they've never been that appealing to her. If she wants something to keep her warm at night, there's no shortage of hot-water bottles; if she needs protection, she'll get a dog, although the truth is that Esme has always felt that the day she can't protect her own self is the day she'll lay down and die.
The extraordinary thing about this conversation, what differentiates it from almost every other similar one Esme has ever had to suffer through, is that Gytha stops asking. She doesn't tell Esme that she'd be happier if she'd just settle down, which other people have an irritating habit of doing.
If nothing else it's worth that to spend time around her. Someone who sees Esme is different, and doesn't question it, just lets it be.
One day Gytha ambles up to the hill where Esme is sitting in the darkening evening. Esme has her eyes closed, listening and feeling, touch all the little lives around her, and Gytha's complicated human brain shines in her mind like a humming tangle of gold-and-silver thread.
"Hello, Gytha," she says, without opening her eyes.
Gytha stops. "I should have guessed sneaking up on you couldn't be done."
"You walk loud," says Esme, although that's not true.
Gytha sits down on the grass beside her and passes a bottle over wordlessly. Esme raises an eyebrow at her.
"Thought we could share a drink," says Gytha, shrugging. "We're young and beautiful, etcetera."
"Speak for yourself," says Esme.
"Come on, it'll be fun." Gytha settles more comfortably on the hill.
"What is it?" asks Esme, sniffing suspiciously at the bottle.
Gytha looks shifty for a moment. "Cider," she says.
Esme gives her a look, but takes a sip. It's very like being punched in the jaw.
Her voice raises to a sawlike screech. "Gytha Ogg, may you be forgiven! That is not cider!"
Gytha grins. "It's made of apples," she says.
"Apples and what?" Esme pushes the jug back over to Gytha.
"That don't tell me what else you put in there."
"It's a family recipe, Esme." Gytha's face takes on a distinct pout.
"Never do that to me again," says Esme, wheezing slightly still. "I never drank something that felt like it'd start rotting my insides just by the smell before and I don't aim to take up the habit."
"Your loss," says Gytha, taking a pull from the bottle. She immediately begins coughing.
"See there," says Esme.
"Growing pains," says Gytha, pounding her own chest. "Come on, then. We can't talk about boys coz you ain't interested, so let's talk about something else. Something big and important. That's what people do when getting drunk under the stars."
Esme, not an expert on youthful exploits, scowls in lieu of saying anything. "Like what?"
"Your sister ran off, didn't she?" asks Gytha, with the shameless nosiness of the average cat. "Heard about it all summer. Biggest piece of news in Lancre there for a while."
"She had no sense," says Esme, which is her most damning condemnation.
"Not like you, eh?"
Esme, for all her usual keen eyes, can't tell if this is teasing or serious. She folds her arms over her chest defensively. "I've got sense. Witches have got to have sense."
"You miss her?"
Esme opens her mouth to say she didn't, and runs straight into a wall.
Because losing Lily had felt like losing a piece of herself.
Esme hadn't realized that. Anger had carried her through the arguments and the break, through tearing up Lily's leftover clothes and taking over their little room, making it hers. Through caring for their mother in her final illness.
But she misses having a sister. There's something hollow in her chest where a thread used to be, a connection that's been severed now. She's not sure she ever liked whatever piece of her it is Lily was, but she knows it was vitally important, something that had always been there.
Esme sighs. "Give me a drink."
"Thought you didn't aim to start," says Gytha, though she passes the bottle.
"You said getting drunk under the stars, and who am I to defy tradition?"
"From what I've seen of you, you do it any time it's convenient."
"That a criticism?" asks Esme. She sniffs at the bottle and makes a face. Oh, well, no preparing for it.
"Just something I sees," says Gytha, over the sound of Esme's coughing. "With my witch senses."
"Ha," says Esme. But she takes another sip.
They both fall asleep there. Esme remembers it for a long, long time.
Long after they see Lily again, after Esme has beaten her, so long that it should seem out of the blue but somehow doesn't, Gytha asks, "You ever miss having a sister?"
Esme considers. She considers births, and how she's been at every single one of Gytha's. She considers arguments, and never really making up, just carrying on as if it'd never happened. She considers the unconditionality of their friendship, how they have simply always been there for each other. She considers bags of sweets that may or may not have been waved.
She glances sideways at Gytha, and a tiny smile tugs up at the corners of her mouth.
"Not anymore," she says.