Home > The Shepherd's Crown (Discworld #41)(8)

The Shepherd's Crown (Discworld #41)(8)
Terry Pratchett

She went outside next, to the walled paddock at the back of the cottage, to check on her goats. The itinerary of her thinking was declaring that once again all things were in their rightful place.

Satisfied, or as satisfied as a witch ever could be, Granny Weatherwax went to her beehives.

‘You are my bees,’ she said to them. ‘Thank you. You’ve given me all my honey for years, and please don’t be upset when someone new comes. I hope that you will give her as much honey as you have given me. And now, for the last time, I will dance with you.’ But the bees hummed softly and danced for her instead, gently pushing her mind out of their hive. And Granny Weatherwax said, ‘I was younger when I last danced with you. But I am old now. There will be no more dances for me.’

You kept away from the bees, but stalked through the garden, following Granny as she moved through the herbs, touching a frond or a leaf as she passed, and the whole garden seemed to answer her, the plants almost nodding their heads in respect.

You narrowed her eyes and looked sideways at the plants with what might be called feline disfavour. An onlooker might swear Granny’s herbs were sapient, as they often moved without the wind blowing. On at least one occasion, to the cat’s horror, they had actually turned round to watch her as she sneaked past on a hunting expedition. She preferred plants that did what they were told, which was mostly to stay dead still so that she could go back to sleep.

At the far end of the herbs, Granny came to the apple tree old Mr Parsons had given her only last year, planting it roughly where anyone else would have a fence around their garden – for no witch’s cottage ever needed an actual fence or wall. Who would cross a witch? The wicked old witch in the woods? Sometimes stories can be useful for a witch without, it must be said, any fence-building skills. Granny eyed the tiny apples appearing on the bough – they had only just begun to grow and, well, time was waiting. And so she walked again back to her cottage door, acknowledging every root, stem and fruit she passed.

She fed the goats, who looked at her askance with their slotted eyes. Their gaze followed her as she turned to the chickens, who always squabbled over their feed. Today, however, they didn’t squabble, but looked at the old witch as if she wasn’t there.

With the animals fed, Granny Weatherwax went into the scullery and came back with a switch of willows. She got to work, teasing every piece of resilient willow into the right place. Then, when the thing she had made was clearly excellent and fit for purpose, Granny Weatherwax left it near the foot of the stairs where it would be noticed, for those with eyes to see.

She tidied the remnants of her work back to the scullery and came out again with a small bag. A white one. And a red ribbon coiled in her other hand. She looked to the sky. Time was wasting.

She walked briskly into the woods, You trailing behind, curious as only a cat can be until at least the first eight of its lives have been used up. Then, her task completed, Granny Weatherwax retraced her steps towards the little stream which ran through the woods close by. It gurgled and tinkled.

She knew the woodlands. Every log. Every bough. Every creature that lived in there. More intimately than anyone not a witch could ever know. When her nose told her there was no one around apart from You, she opened the bag, took out a bar of her soap and undressed.

She stepped into the stream, getting as clean as could be. And now, drying herself off and wrapping just her cloak around her washed body, she went back to the cottage, where she gave You an extra meal, stroked her head, and climbed the squeaking staircase to her bedroom, humming an old dirge as she went.

Then Esmerelda Weatherwax brushed out her long grey hair and repinned it into its usual bun with an army of pins, and dressed again, this time choosing her best witch’s dress and least-mended pair of drawers. She paused to open the little wooden window to the soft evening air and carefully placed two pennies on the small bedside table, beside her pointy witch’s hat festooned with unused hatpins.

The last thing she did before she lay down was to pick up a familiar card she had written on earlier.

And a little later, when the cat jumped up onto the bed, it appeared to You that something strange was happening. She heard an owl hoot, and a fox barked in the darkness.

And there was just the cat, You. All alone.

But if cats could smile, this one did.

It was a strange night; the owls hooted almost non-stop, and the wind outside for some reason made the wicks of the candles inside wobble with a vengeance and then blow out; but Granny Weatherwax was dressed in her best and ready for anything.

And now in the deep warm darkness, as dawn began to stealthily steal the night, her soul had a visitor, an individual with a scythe – a scythe with a blade so shadow-thin that it could separate a soul from a body.

Then the darkness spoke.

ESMERELDA WEATHERWAX, YOU KNOW WHO COMES, AND MAY I SAY IT’S A PRIVILEGE TO DEAL WITH YOU.

‘I know it is you, Mister Death. After all, we witches always knows what’s coming,’ said Granny, looking down at her body on the bed.

Her visitor was no stranger, and the land she knew she was going to was a land she had helped many others to step through to over the years. For a witch stands on the very edge of everything, between the light and the dark, between life and death, making choices, making decisions so that others may pretend no decisions have even been needed. Sometimes they need to help some poor soul through the final hours, help them to find the door, not to get lost in the dark.

And Granny Weatherwax had been a witch for a long, long time.

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