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An Argument of Witches

THROUGH THE UNBARRED door, Lord Lankin creeps into a crumbling old manor house. Up the creaky stairs, snuffing out the candles in the sconces as he passes, he opens an unbolted door and prowls into a nursery, where a young nursemaid rocking a cradle looks up, gazes into his eyes, and then pulls a sharp pin from her basket . . .

Sitting in the Great Hall at Lancre Castle with their allies and friends, Tiffany and the witches of Lancre contemplated the construction of a battle plan.

It had taken some effort to get everyone there and settled down. Geoffrey had done a marvellous job rounding up reinforcements from all over, flying hours in every direction with Tiffany’s message, to every witch she could name.

Even blind Mrs Happenstance and Long Tall Short Fat Sally had turned up, with Mrs Proust from Ankh-Morpork. And there was a group of younger witches too: Annagramma Hawkin, Petulia Gristle, Dimity Hubbub, Harrieta Bilk and others. Under Queen Magrat’s watchful eye, Letitia ticked them off Tiffany’s list as they arrived.

Having a queen backing you up was a good thing, Tiffany thought, as Mrs Earwig came in and started bossing everyone around – Magrat swiftly put a stop to that, for even Mrs Earwig found that she couldn’t argue with royalty. But dealing with witches all together was like carrying a tray full of marbles. Witches were very good at rubbing one another up the wrong way, and little feuds turned up and went away and disappeared and started again. It was silly and everybody knew it, but they couldn’t help themselves.

Geoffrey came into his own on occasions like this. Whenever bickering broke out, he was there with the perfect word or a sympathetic smile. Seeing his calm-weaving doing its subtle work was a joy, Tiffany thought. You could almost see the calm coming out of his ears.

‘Ladies,’ Tiffany said, calling the meeting to order. ‘Here’s the problem. The elves are back again, this time in force. And if we don’t stop them soon, things will get very bad indeed. I know some of you have encountered elves before’ – she looked at Nanny Ogg and Magrat – ‘but many of you have not. They are a formidable foe.’

Nightshade was standing at the side of the hall, almost too demure in her dairymaid’s dress. She didn’t seem very formidable, but a few of the older witches were eyeing her as though they had just encountered a bad smell.

Mrs Earwig tutted and looked as though she was about to say something, but Petulia got there first. ‘Tiff, are you sure that it’s wise to have an elf here listening to this?’ she asked.

‘Don’t you worry, my girl,’ Nanny Ogg said. ‘If our little friend tries anything, there will be fireworks and no mistake. Certainly no more elf!’

‘The last time this happened, didn’t the King of the Elves intervene?’ Annagramma Hawkin asked, looking at Nanny Ogg.

‘He did indeed, but he almost didn’t. Tiffany’s been to see him already, and it seems Old Horny ain’t interested,’ Nanny answered. ‘Can’t rely on him in any case.’

‘Time moves differently in his realm,’ Tiffany explained. ‘Even if he did decide to do something, it might be now, or next month or next year.’

‘What about the wizards?’ asked another witch. ‘Why aren’t they here?’

Nanny snorted. ‘Ha! That lot. By the time they got a spell ready, the elves would be over the Ramtops and far away.’ She adjusted her position and sniffed. ‘No, this is witches’ business. Them wizards have all got their bums on chairs and their noses stuck in books.’ She said this last word with a sideways glance at Mrs Earwig who was, of course, known for her love of writing.fn1

Magrat cut in quickly. ‘We also have all the support of Lancre that Verence and I can muster.’

‘Well, that’s my Shawn,’ said Nanny with satisfaction. Shawn Ogg was the army of Lancre, as well as its bottle-washer, butler, gardener, trumpeter and – a role Shawn would have liked to lose – the man who checked the garderobes and removed all the night waste. ‘And I reckons our Jason can provide us with a few horseshoes. Being as he’s the blacksmith,’ Nanny added for those who might not know.

Geoffrey coughed. ‘I’ve been working on a few ideas with some of the older gentlemen,’ he said softly. ‘We have . . . something I think might be useful.’

‘And there’s Hodgesaargh,’ said Magrat. Hodgesaargh – the royal falconer – was a surprising asset, since elven glamour didn’t seem to work on him, probably because he spent so much time with his beloved birds that a part of his brain was a falcon by now, and hence unprepared to share space with any other predator. It was generally believed that this was also what stopped the birds from pecking out his eyeballs.

Mrs Earwig laughed confidently. ‘So what is the problem, may I ask? There are plenty of us here. Surely more than enough for a few elves.’ She looked scornfully at Nightshade.

Nanny Ogg exploded. ‘No, there’s not enough of us! How many witches have we here?’ She looked around the room. ‘Ten, twelve mebbe – more if you includes Geoffrey and Letitia, and the young girls still training – but only half of us bein’ senior witches what has much real experience. The elves are sneaky. They’ll have the glamour on you afore you knows it. They come quietly – like a silent but deadly fart – and they get you before you can pinch your nose. Even Esme Weatherwax could barely withstand the power. She fought hard, and you all remember what she was like. They didn’t get past her – but it was a close thing. Ladies, these ’ere elves are horrible. We’re right to be fearful. They do . . . things to you. Get at you.’

‘It happened to me too,’ said Magrat. ‘The glamour makes you feel small and worthless. Those of us who have faced it before can’t warn the rest of you enough.’

‘I fear you are exaggerating. There’s nothing glamorous about that,’ Mrs Earwig said scornfully, pointing at Nightshade.

‘Well, you’ve certainly never met no fairy. If’n you had, you would have scars,’ Nanny spat. She had turned an interesting colour and Tiffany intervened quickly before sparks really began to fly.

‘Ladies, ladies, I think it would be useful to have a little demonstration of the power of an elf. Nightshade, would you be prepared to give us a taste of your glamour?’

There was a collective intake of breath as the assembled witches realized what Tiffany was suggesting.

‘Be careful, Nightshade. Very careful. Those of us who have met the glamour before will keep an eye on you. I sincerely hope that we won’t have a problem.’

And Nightshade smiled – not a particularly pleasant smile, Tiffany noticed.

‘Ladies,’ said Magrat to the others, trying to prepare them. ‘To be a witch is to be full of yourself – and in charge of yourself as well. It would be a good idea to watch one another when the glamour starts to take hold.’

‘Tish and pish!’ said Mrs Earwig. ‘I am my own woman, and always will be. I am a witch, whatever you might think, and I don’t deal in fairy tales.’

In a syrupy voice, Nanny Ogg said, ‘You just write them, Mrs Earwig.’

‘But not as reality,’ said Mrs Earwig. ‘That’s allowed.’

Nanny Ogg looked at her face and thought: We will see.

‘Ladies,’ asked Tiffany, ‘are you all ready?’ There were some nods and yeses, so she said, ‘Nightshade, please show us your glamour.’ And she grasped the shepherd’s crown in her pocket – this was a moment when she knew she would need to keep a strong hold on her sense of her self. Yan tan tethera, she chanted softly to herself. Yan tan tethera.

Nightshade began slowly, her foxy little dairymaid’s face filling with a shining light, with beauty, with style, and then she was suddenly the most wonderful thing in the hall.





The air was thick with glamour and Tiffany could almost hear the witches fighting it. The inexperienced ones – Annagramma, Petulia and Letitia, Dimity and Harrieta – suddenly seemed flaccid, their faces like dolls.

Petulia – like many of the other witches – felt a beguiling feeling that the world was all hers, all of it, with everything that was in it. And then, her dream – as did theirs – unravelled. Who did she think she was? No one liked her, no one wanted her. She wasn’t worthy of anything. No one wanted her. Everyone knew she didn’t have any skills. It would be so much better if she was dead. Maybe it would be better if she simply let the pigs stamp her down into the mire, and even that wouldn’t be bad enough. She screamed.

Tiffany moved towards Nightshade, and almost like a bubble bursting, the elf let go, and her glamour was all gone. But everyone in the hall looked shaken. Except, Tiffany noticed, Mrs Earwig.

‘So, what happened?’ the older witch snapped bossily. ‘What are you all doing?’

‘Mrs Earwig, did you not feel as though you were small, nasty and a waste of space? Totally without redemption?’

Letice Earwig’s face held nothing but puzzlement.

Nightshade looked at her, and back to Tiffany. ‘It was like hitting a rock,’ she said. ‘This one has something interesting . . . something missing.’ She turned to stare again at Mrs Earwig. ‘Are you sure you are not an elf?’ she queried.

‘How dare you! I am just Letice Earwig. No one can stop me being me!’

‘Perish the thought,’ said Tiffany. ‘But everyone else was affected. And that, ladies, was just one elf. Imagine what it will be like when we are facing a horde of them.’

‘It was like seeing my father,’ said Geoffrey. ‘I heard a voice telling me that I was no good and I never would be. A mouse, a maggot, no one worth crying for. He was never satisfied about anything.’

His words sang into the room, and the witches’ faces showed that each knew exactly what he was talking about.

With the demonstration finished and Nightshade back in her unassuming dairymaid guise, the bickering was almost over.

‘Well, fellow witches, there we have it,’ Tiffany said. ‘We know who we are after and what we have to do, which is to keep the elves away from this world. It’s very unlikely that we could kill them all.’ She hesitated. ‘What we have to do is make them see that dealing with us will not be easy, and it might be a very good idea to go back to where they came from.’

‘So,’ Queen Magrat said, ‘how long do we have to get ready?’

Tiffany sighed. ‘We don’t know,’ she said. ‘But they will come soon, I feel.’ She looked at Nightshade, who moved now into the centre of the room.

‘The when,’ said the elf, ‘will surely be at the full moon. A time of . . . endings.’

‘Tonight, then . . .’ Magrat whispered.

‘And if I know Peaseblossom,’ continued the elf, ‘the where will be on every front where the barriers may be weak.’

‘What do you think, Tiff?’ said Nanny Ogg. ‘They’ve been coming into the Chalk already, right? And they’ve been up here in Lancre – through the Dancers.’

Nightshade nodded. ‘They will come through both those gates,’ she said. ‘And afterwards fan out.’ She shivered.

Tiffany was taking charge now. ‘Well, we’re going to need to face them on two fronts then. Here in Lancre, and over in the Chalk.’ She looked around the room. ‘We’ll have to split our forces.’

‘Well,’ said Nanny Ogg, ‘you can count on me. I’ve always been a fighter. You has to be a fighter to be a witch. We don’t have to worry – they does. If you can get an elf down and kick it about a bit, it’s not goin’ to be so glamorous as it was. Take it from me, even elves has soft parts which don’t like no boot in ’em.’

Tiffany glanced at Nanny’s boots. They looked as though they had been built by a blacksmith, and in Nanny’s case they probably had been. A kick from one of those and it would be ‘So long, elf!’ It might not kill them, but you could certainly say that all the glamour would have been kicked out.

‘They know where the stone circles are,’ she said, ‘but by Thunder and Lightning they had better keep away. After all, we know where the stones are as well, and we humans are clever, and we can sometimes be very nasty to boot. When we need to, I suspect.’ She turned to Nightshade, who had been watching everyone carefully. ‘What do you make of it, Nightshade?’

The elf smiled and said, ‘You humans are a strange people. Sometimes soft and stupid, but also surprisingly dangerous. There are very few of you, and very many of the elves ranged against you. Yet I believe that traitor Peaseblossom has no idea what he will be facing. And I’m glad of that.’

Tiffany nodded. Magrat, Nanny Ogg, the surprisingly strong Mrs Earwig – there was more to Letice Earwig, she realized, than the occult jewellery and fancy outfits suggested – the other witches of Lancre, Mrs Proust, Geoffrey and Mephistopheles. It would have to do.

‘I think Lancre will be well served by you all,’ she said, looking around. ‘But I must go back to the Chalk. It’s my land.’

‘Who will you have to help you in the Chalk, may I ask?’ said Mrs Earwig.

‘Well,’ said Tiffany, ‘there’s Miss Tick – a formidable lady, as I am sure you will all agree, who sends her apologies for her absence today.’ Or would, she thought to herself, if I could have found her again. ‘Also Letitia.’ She looked at the young Baroness, who was trying to look brave. ‘And there’s the land itself, of course. But remember, I have some other admirable allies. We are not on our own.’ She had been keeping an eye on the pile of broomsticks by the door, and even though they hadn’t been invited she could see the face of Rob Anybody, and by the look of it a significant number of his clan. She laughed; they must have come up with Magrat and Letitia, she thought. ‘Ladies,’ she announced, ‘please allow me to introduce . . . the Nac Mac Feegles!’

There was a susurration amongst the witches as the room started to fill with a sea of blue skin and tartan – not all the witches had met the Feegles before. Tiffany heard Nanny Ogg whisper not quite quietly enough to Queen Magrat, ‘Put anythin’ drinkable in the cellar.’

‘Ach, ye are a cruel hag, so ye are, or my name isnae Rob Anybody,’ Rob moaned.

Magrat laughed. ‘Rob Anybody, you are a war all by yourself, man! Welcome to the palace but please don’t drink everything. At least, not until we have won the war.’

‘Now ye are talking, lassie – I mean, your queenship. Where there’s a war there’s a Nac Mac Feegle.’

There was a barrage of cries of ‘Crivens’ from the clan and Rob Anybody shouted, ‘Aye, get ’em doon, and the kickin’ starts.’ There was another cheer then and Big Yan jumped up and shouted, ‘Ye will need to tak’ note, ye weans. We dinnae say yes tae Mister Finesse, but we jes’ kick ’em.’

Hamish added, ‘Whan Morag swoops doon on top o’ ’em, her beak ’n’ talons’ll tak’ their breath awa’. And she’s a heavy girl.’

‘Be happy that they are on our side,’ Tiffany said. She looked reprovingly at Mrs Earwig, who had a snooty look on her face. ‘It’s true that they are rough diamonds, but no better warriors can be found anywhere on the Disc.’ And she hoped that Mrs Earwig didn’t hear the mumbling:

Daft Wullie. ‘What’s this? Did we stole any diamonds?’

‘It’s a manner of speaking, ye daftie.’ Rob Anybody.

‘But we got no manners. We treasure the fact, ye ken.’ Wullie, again.

‘It’s an idiom.’

‘Who’re you calling an idiom?’

Tiffany laughed to herself. It appeared that the kelda had been seeing to the clan’s range of expressions.

Rob waved his claymore in the air, making one or two witches retreat a step or two, and then he leaped up onto a table and glared down the hall. ‘Weel, I see the Lady Nightshade is with us the noo,’ he said. ‘Ach, the big wee hag and the kelda seem tae think that we shouldnae do anything aboot this elf – we are tae leave her alone. Although,’ he continued, looking at Nightshade, ‘we’ll be watching her carefully, verra carefully indeed. Oor kelda is soft, oor kelda, as soft as stone, ye ken – she is nae one to let a body break their troth and get away wi’ it!’

‘Dear sir, Mister Feegle,’ said Mrs Earwig. ‘This is a council of war, so we should be discussing strategies and tactics.’

‘Ah weel, ye can if ye wish, but we are Feegles and we dinnae mess about wi’ things like that. It’s all aboot usin’ yon claymore to best offence. And if ye dinnae get that right, your last resort is to nut ’em.’

Tiffany took in Mrs Earwig’s face and said cheerfully, ‘Could you do that, Mrs Earwig?’

She was given a Look, and Mrs Earwig said, ‘I will nut as I see fit.’ And to Tiffany’s surprise, the other witches applauded, and for once Mrs Earwig was wreathed in smiles.

‘I tell ye, I would nae cross yon carlin,’ said Rob Anybody.

‘Nae me,’ said Big Yan. ‘She’s as sharp as a she-wolf.’

‘So wheer’s yon battle, then, hag o’ the hills?’ Rob demanded.

There was another roar from the assembled Feegles, and a forest of little swords and clubs were thrust into the air.

‘Nac Mac Feegle, wha hae!’

‘A guid kickin’ for the wee scunners!’

‘Nae king! Nae quin! We willnae be fooled again!’

Tiffany smiled. ‘If Nightshade is right, the elves will ride through this coming night – when the full moon shines in the skies. Ladies – and Geoffrey,’ she addressed the assembled witches. ‘Go and get some rest. I must fly back to my steading now, but goodnight and good luck.’

‘Let the runes of fortune guide and protect us all,’ Mrs Earwig added portentously, always determined to get the last word in.

Tiffany loved the little room she’d had since she was a child. Her parents hadn’t changed anything, and unless it was raining or blowing a gale, she slept with the window open.

Now, weary from the broomstick ride back, tense with the expectation of what the night might bring but hoping to get a few hours’ rest, she savoured the atmosphere of the little room, finding strength from its familiarity.

A strength that came from feeling that she was exactly where she should be. An Aching.

‘I get up Aching, and I go to bed Aching,’ she whispered to herself, smiling. One of her father’s jokes, and she had rolled her eyes when hearing it again and again as a child, but now its warmth curled over her body.

And there was the china shepherdess on the shelf.

Granny Aching.

And next to it she had placed the shepherd’s crown.

Aching to Aching, down the generations.

Land under wave, she mused. That was what the name Tiffany meant in the speech of the Feegles. Tir-far-thóinn, ‘Tiffan’, the kelda would call her. The sound of her name was magic, real magic from the beginning of time.

It was a soft night. She told herself that she really ought to get some sleep – she’d be no good without some rest – but she lay there, the cat You snuggled up against her warmth, listening to the owls. Hootings were coming from everywhere, as if they were warning her.

Outside her window, the moon was rising, a gloriously full silver orb to light the skies, to lead the elves in . . .

Tiffany’s eyes closed.

And a part of her, the soul of her, was in a chalk pit, the shepherd’s crown in her hand, its five ridges catching the light of the full moon, and it was glowing, like an aquarium out of time.

Now she could hear the roar of the ancient sea beneath her, its voice trapped in the millions of tiny shells that made up the Chalk.

And she was swimming . . .

Great strange fish were coming towards her, big and heavy-looking with teeth.

At that point, Dr Bustlefn2 floated into her mind and took his cue. ‘Dunkleosteus,’ he said as a creature the size of a house floated by. ‘Megalodon’ was huge and carnivorous – more teeth than Tiffany had ever seen in one go. Then there were sea scorpions – armour-plated, clawed horrors. But none of them paid any attention to her. It was as if she had a right to be there.

And then there was a smaller creature, an explosion of blue spines that did notice Tiffany.

‘Echinoid,’ whispered Sensibility Bustle.

‘That is correct,’ said the creature. ‘And I am the shepherd’s crown. Deep in my heart is the flint. And I have many uses. Some call me the sea urchin, others the thunderstone, but here, now, in this place, call me the shepherd’s crown. I seek a true shepherd. Where can a true shepherd be found?’

‘We shall see,’ Tiffany heard herself saying. ‘I am Tiffany Aching and my father is a king among shepherds.’

‘We know him. He is a good shepherd, but not the best. You must find the king of shepherds.’

‘Well,’ said Tiffany, ‘I’m just a witch, but I will help you if I can. I work hard, mostly for other people.’

‘Yes,’ said the echinoid. ‘We know.’

I’m talking to a creature from under the sea, thought Tiffany. Is that right? First Thoughts, not Second Thoughts, her mind reminded her.

‘It is strange,’ said the voice of Dr Bustle in her head. ‘But not so strange as falling down a rabbit hole with a pack of cards.’

Let me think about it, her Second and Third Thoughts said. If talking creatures from the sea turned up everywhere, we’d all know about it, so this must be something just for me.

The voice came from nowhere, as though it was part of that ocean from Time: ‘Tiffany Aching is the first among shepherds, for she puts others before herself . . .’

And the shepherd’s crown was warm in her hand, a golden light glowing from within its depths. An heirloom handed down from generation to generation of Achings – down to Granny Aching, on to Joe Aching, and now to Tiffany herself . . .

Then the sea had gone and she was back in the pit, but the magic was still there, for slowly, oh so slowly, she could see bones pulling themselves free of the chalk, rising to draw together . . . to make two figures . . .

Thunder and Lightning! Granny Aching’s sheepdogs. The best dogs any shepherd could ever have. Dogs for the first among shepherds.

Now they were at her feet, their ears pricked, and Tiffany felt as if she could almost reach out to touch them. Almost. But not quite. For if she should touch them, be part of them, would she too be drawn into the chalk, to be bones like them . . .?

‘Come by, Thunder. Away to me, Lightning,’ she whispered, the familiar commands filling her with courage.

Then she was suddenly awake, back in her room, You draped across her feet and an owl’s huge eyes hanging in the dark of the trees outside.

And someone was tapping on the window.

While the moon shone gloriously full over the stone circles, lighting a path for her wayward children, who rode through in their splendour . . .

fn1 Most everyday working witches believed the best use for a book was on a nail in the privy.

fn2 Part of him anyway, his memories being relocated to Tiffany’s mind following an episode early in her witching life. The rather pedantic wizard’s knowledge, especially of ancient languages, came in very handy sometimes, like when she wanted to read a peculiar menu in Ankh-Morpork.


Date: 2015-12-11; view: 1131

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