Home > I Shall Wear Midnight (Discworld #38)

I Shall Wear Midnight (Discworld #38)
Terry Pratchett


A Fine Big Wee Laddie

Why was it, Tiffany Aching wondered, that people liked noise so much? Why was noise so important?

Something quite close sounded like a cow giving birth. It turned out to be an old hurdy-gurdy organ, hand cranked by a raggedy man in a battered top hat. She sidled away as politely as she could, but as noise went, it was sticky; you got the feeling that if you let it, it would try to follow you home.

But that was only one sound in the great cauldron of noise around her, all of it made by people and all of it made by people trying to make noise louder than the other people making noise: Arguing at the makeshift stalls, bobbing for apples or frogs,* cheering the prizefighters and a spangled lady on the high wire, selling cotton candy at the tops of their voices, and, not to put too fine a point on it, boozing quite considerably.

The air above the green downland was thick with noise. It was as if the populations of two or three towns had all come up to the top of the hills. And so here, where all you generally heard was the occasional scream of a buzzard, you heard the permanent scream of, well, everyone. It was called having fun. The only people not making any noise were the thieves and pickpockets, who went about their business with commendable silence, and they didn’t come near Tiffany; who would pick a witch’s pocket? You would be lucky to get all your fingers back. At least, that was what they feared, and a sensible witch would encourage them in this fear.

When you were a witch, you were all witches, thought Tiffany Aching as she walked through the crowds, pulling her broomstick after her on the end of a length of string. It floated a few feet above the ground. She was getting a bit bothered about that. It seemed to work quite well, but nevertheless, since all around the fair were small children dragging balloons, also on the ends of pieces of string, she couldn’t help thinking that it made her look more than a little bit silly, and something that made one witch look silly made all witches look silly.

On the other hand, if you tied it to a hedge somewhere, there was bound to be some kid who would untie the string and get on the stick for a dare, in which case most likely he would go straight up all the way to the top of the atmosphere where the air froze, and while she could in theory call the stick back, mothers got very touchy about having to thaw out their children on a bright late-summer day. That would not look good. People would talk. People always talked about witches.

She resigned herself to dragging it again. With luck, people would think she was joining in with the spirit of the thing in a humorous way.

There was a lot of etiquette involved, even at something so deceptively cheerful as a fair. She was the witch; who knows what would happen if she forgot someone’s name or, worse still, got it wrong? What would happen if she forgot all the little feuds and factions, the people who weren’t talking to their neighbors and so on and so on and a lot more so and even further on? Tiffany had no understanding at all of the word “minefield,” but if she had, it would have seemed kind of familiar.

She was the witch. For all the villages along the Chalk, she was the witch. Not just for her own village anymore, but for all the other ones as far away as Ham-on-Rye, which was a pretty good day’s walk from here. The area that a witch thought of as her own, and for whose people she did what was needful, was called a steading, and as steadings went, this one was pretty good. Not many witches got a whole geological outcrop to themselves, even if this one was mostly covered in grass, and the grass was mostly covered in sheep. And today the sheep on the downs were left by themselves to do whatever it was that they did when they were by themselves, which would presumably be pretty much the same as they did if you were watching them. And the sheep, usually fussed and herded and generally watched over, were now of no interest whatsoever, because right here the most wonderful attraction in the world was taking place.

Admittedly, the scouring fair was only one of the world’s most wonderful attractions if you didn’t usually ever travel more than about four miles from home. If you lived around the Chalk you were bound to meet everyone that you knew* at the fair. It was quite often where you met the person you were likely to marry. The girls certainly all wore their best dresses, while the boys wore expressions of hopefulness and their hair smoothed down with cheap hair pomade or, more usually, spit. Those who had opted for spit generally came off better, since the cheap pomade was very cheap indeed and would often melt and run in the hot weather, causing the young men not to be of interest to the young women, as they had fervently hoped, but to the flies, who would make their lunch off the boys’ scalps.

However, since the event could hardly be called “the fair where you went in the hope of getting a kiss and, if your luck held, the promise of another one,” the fair was called the scouring.

The scouring was held over three days at the end of summer. For most people on the Chalk, it was their holiday. This was the third day, and it was said that if you hadn’t had a kiss by now, you might as well go home. Tiffany hadn’t had a kiss, but after all, she was the witch. Who knew what they might get turned into?

If the late-summer weather was clement, it wasn’t unusual for some people to sleep out under the stars, and under the bushes as well. And that was why, if you wanted to take a stroll at night, it paid to be careful, so as not to trip over someone’s feet. Not to put too fine a point on it, there was a certain amount of what Nanny Ogg—a witch who had been married to three husbands—called “making your own entertainment.” It was a shame that Nanny lived right up in the mountains, because she would have loved the scouring and Tiffany would have loved to see her face when she saw the giant.*

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