Lords and Ladies Page 2


“The King will not like that.”

“And when has that ever mattered?”

“Never, lady.”

“The time is right, Lankin. The circles are opening. Soon we can return.”

The second rider leaned on the saddlehorn.

“And I can hunt again,” it said. “When? When?”

“Soon,” said the Queen. “Soon.”

It was a dark night, the kind of darkness which is not simply explainable by absence of moon or stars, but the darkness that appears to flow in from somewhere else-so thick and tangible that maybe you could snatch a handful of air and squeeze the night out of it.

It was the kind of darkness which causes sheep to leap fences and dogs to skulk in kennels.

Yet the wind was warm, and not so much strong as loud - it howled around the forests and wailed in chimneys.

On nights like this, normal people would pull the covers over their head, sensing that there were times when the world belonged to something else. In the morning it would be human again; there would be fallen branches, a few tiles off the roof, but human. For now . . . better to snuggle down. .

But there was one man awake.

Jason Ogg, master blacksmith and farrier, pumped the bellows of his forge once or twice for the look of the thing, and sat down on his anvil again. It was always warm in the forge, even with the wind whistling around the eaves.

"He could shoe anything, could Jason Ogg. They'd brought him an ant once, for a joke, and he'd sat up all night with a magnifying glass and an anvil made out of the head of a pin. The ant was still around, somewhere-some-times he could hear it clatter across the floor.

But tonight. . . well, tonight, in some way, he was going to pay the rent. Of course, he owned the forge. It had been passed down for generations. But there was more to a forge than bricks and mortar and iron. He couldn't put a name to it, but it was there. It was the difference between being a master farrier and just someone who bent iron in complicated ways for a living. And it had something to do with iron. And something to do with being allowed to be very good at his job. Some kind of rent.

One day his dad had taken him aside and explained what he had to do, on nights like this.

There'd be times, he said, there'd be times - and he'd know when they were without being told - there'd be times when someone would come with a horse to shoe. Make them welcome. Shoe the horse. Don't let your mind wander. And try not to think about anything except horseshoes.

He'd got quite used to it now.

The wind rose, and somewhere there was the creak of a tree going over.

The latch rattled.

Then there was a knock at the door. Once. Twice.

Jason Ogg picked up his blindfold and put it on. That was important, his dad had said. It saved you getting distracted.

He undid the door.

“Evening, m'lord,” he said.

A WILD NIGHT.

He smelled wet horse as it was led into the forge, hooves clattering on the stones.

“There's tea brewing on the forge and our Dreen done us some biscuits in the tin with A Present from Ankh-Morpork on it.”

THANK YOU. I TRUST YOU ARE WELL.

“Yes, m'lord. I done the shoes already. Won't hold you up long. I know you're . . . very busy, like.”

He heard the click-click of footsteps cross the floor to the old kitchen chair reserved for customers, or at least for the owners of customers.

Jason had laid the tools and the horseshoes and the nails ready to hand on the bench beside the anvil. He wiped his hands on his apron, picked up a file, and set to work. He didn't like cold shoeing, but he'd shod horses ever since he was ten. He could do it by feel. He picked up a rasp and set to work.

And he had to admit it. It was the most obedient horse he'd ever encountered. Pity he'd never actually seen it. It'd be a pretty good horse, a horse like that. . .

His dad had said: don't try to sneak a look at it.

He heard the glug of the teapot and then the gling-glong sound of a spoon being stirred and then the clink as the spoon was laid down.

Never any sound, his dad had said. Except when he walks and talks, you'll never hear him make a sound. No smacking of lips, stuff like that.

No breathing.

Oh, and another thing. When you takes the old shoes off, don't chuck 'em in the comer for to go for melt with the other scrap. Keep 'em separate. Melt 'em separate. Keep a pot special for it, and make the new shoes out of that metal. Whatever else you do, never put that iron on another living thing.

In fact, Jason had saved one set of the old shoes for pitching contests at the various village fairs, and never lost when he used them. He won so often that it made him nervous, and now they spent most of their time hanging on a nail behind the door.

Sometimes the wind rattled the window frame, or made the coals crackle. A series of thumps and a squawk a little way off suggested that the chicken house at the end of the garden had parted company with the ground.

The customer's owner poured himself another cup of tea.

Jason finished one hoof and let it go. Then he held out his hand. The horse shifted its weight and raised the last hoof.

This was a horse in a million. Perhaps more.

Eventually, he had finished. Funny, that. It never seemed to take very long. Jason had no use for a clock, but he had a suspicion that a job which took the best part of an hour was at the same time over in a matter of minutes.

“There,” he said. “Tis done.”

THANK YOU. I MUST SAY THESE ARE VERY GOOD BISCUITS. HOW DO THEY GET THE BITS OF CHOCOLATE IN?

“Dunno, m'lord,” said Jason, staring fixedly at the inside of his blindfold.

I MEAN, THE CHOCOLATE OUGHT TO MELT OUT WHEN THEY'RE BAKED. HOW DO THEY DO IT, DO YOU THINK?

“Tis probably a craft secret,” said Jason. “I never asks that kind o'question.”

GOOD MAN. VERY WISE. I MUST-

He had to ask, if only so's he'd always know that he had asked.

“M'lord?”

YES, MR. OGG?

“I 'as got one question . . .”

YES, MR. OGG?

Jason ran his tongue over his lips.

“If I were to . . . take the blindfold off, what'd I see?”

There. It was done now.

There was a clicking sound on the flagstones, and a change in the air movement which suggested to Jason that the speaker was now standing in front of him.

ARE YOU A MAN OF FAITH, MR. OGG?

Jason gave this some swift consideration. Lancre was not knee-deep in religions. There were the Nine Day Wonderers, and the Strict Offlians, and there were various altars to small gods of one sort or another, tucked away in distant clearings. He'd never really felt the need, just like the dwarfs. Iron was iron and fire was fire - start getting metaphysical and you were scraping your thumb on the bottom of your hammer.

WHAT DO YOU REALLY HAVE FAITH IN, RIGHT AT THIS MOMENT?

He's inches away, Jason thought. I could reach out and touch . . .

There was a smell. It wasn't unpleasant. It was hardly anything at all. It was the smell of air in old forgotten rooms. If centuries could smell, then old ones would smell like that.

MR. OGG?

Jason swallowed.

“Well, m'lord,” he said, “right now . . . I really believe in this blindfold.”

GOOD MAN. GOOD MAN. AND NOW . . . I MUST BE GOING.

Jason heard the latch lift. There was a thud as the doors scraped back, driven by the wind, and then there was the sound of hooves on the cobbles again.

YOUR WORK, AS ALWAYS, IS SUPERB.

“Thank you, m'lord.”

I SPEAK AS ONE CRAFTSMAN TO ANOTHER.

“Thank you, m'lord.”

WE WILL MEET AGAIN.

“Yes, m'lord.”

WHEN NEXT MY HORSE NEEDS SHOEING.

“Yes, m'lord.”

Jason closed the door and bolted it, although there was probably no point, when you thought about it.

But that was the bargain - you shod anything they brought to you, anything, and the payment was that your could shoe anything. There had always been a smith in Lancre, and everyone knew the smith in Lancre was a very powerful smith indeed.

It was an ancient bargain, and it had something to do with iron.

The wind slackened. Now it was a whisper around the horizons, as the sun rose.

This was the octarine grass country. Good growing country, especially for corn.

And here was a field of it, waving gently between the hedges. Not a big field. Not a remarkable one, really It was just a field with corn in it, except of course during the winter, when there were just pigeons and crows in it.

The wind dropped.

The corn still waved. They weren't the normal swells of the wind. They spread out from the centre of the field like ripples from a dropped stone.

The air sizzled and was filled with an angry buzzing.

Then, in the centre of the field, rustling as it bent, the young corn lay down.

In a circle.

And in the sky the bees swarmed and teemed, buzzing angrily.

It was a few weeks to midsummer. The kingdom of Lancre dozed in the heat, which shimmered on the forests and the fields.

Three dots appeared in the sky.

After a while, they became identifiable as three female figures on broomsticks, flying in a manner reminiscent of the famous three plaster flying ducks.

Observe them closely

The first one - let us call her the leader - flies sitting bolt upright, in defiance of air resistance, and seems to be winning. She has features that would generally be described as striking, or even handsome, but she couldn't be called beautiful, at least by anyone who didn't want their nose to grow by three feet.

The second is dumpy and bandy-legged with a face like an apple that's been left for too long and an expression of near-terminal good nature. She is playing a banjo and, until a better word comes to mind, singing. It is a song about a hedgehog.

Unlike the broomstick belonging to the first figure, which is more or less unburdened except for a sack or two, this one is over laden with things like fluffy purple toy donkeys, corkscrews in the shape of small boys urinating, bottles of wine in straw baskets, and other international cultural items. Nestling among them is the smelliest and most evil-minded cat in the world, currently asleep.

The third, and definitely the last, broomstick rider is also the youngest. Unlike the other two, who dress like ravens, she wears bright, cheerful clothes which don't suit her now and probably didn't even suit her ten years ago. She travels with an air of vague good-natured hopefulness. There are flowers in her hair but they're wilting slightly, just like her.

The three witches pass over the borders of Lancre, the kingdom, and very shortly afterward over the town of Lancre itself. They begin their descent over the moor lands beyond, eventually touching down near a standing stone which happens to mark the boundaries of their territories.

They're back.

And everything's all right again.

For about five minutes.

There was a badger in the privy.

Granny Weatherwax poked it with her broom until it got the message and lumbered off. Then she took down the key which hung on the nail beside the copy of last year's Almanack And Booke Of Dayes, and walked back up the path to her cottage.

A whole winter away! There'd be a lot to do. Go and pick the goats up from Mr. Skindle, get the spiders out of the chimney, fish the frogs out of the well, and generally get back into the business of minding everyone's business for them because there'd be no telling what business people'd get up to without a witch around . . .

But she could afford an hour with her feet up first.

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