The world had not changed. Awf'ly Wee Billy Bigchin Mac Feegle felt it in the earth, smelled it in the air, which had the familiar scent of turf, wildflowers, and wet sheep. Yet some things were different since the Feegles had returned to their mound on the Chalk, and Awf'ly Wee Billy was not sure if he liked that or not.
For one thing, the other Feegles listened to him now, even when he was not reciting poetry or playing the mousepipes. They looked up to him, or rather they looked down at him, but with more respect. He was not yet used to the sudden hush whenever he opened his mouth.
For another thing, Rob Anybody had stayed at the Witch Trials to see Tiffany safe. It went against the grain to leave the Big Man behind, but he had been very firm: they were to go back to the Chalk without him.
"For I hae a geas, ye ken," Rob had said, "and ye hae no'. Jeannie will be glad tae see yiz, an' ye can tell her I willnae be long - in fact I fully expects to o'ertak ye."
But he had not, and Awf'ly Wee Billy had some private doubts as to whether Jeannie would be so glad to see them once she heard that bit of news. The Feegles were all a little afraid of their new kelda. Awf'ly Wee Billy was her brother and knew her temper better than anyone, which was why they had sent him to tell her.
"Jeannie?" he tried, and the hush fell again, but it was an expectant hush, sizzling with attention; he knew all the shadowy galleries above were filled with Feegles, watching him.
The kelda lay beside her leather cauldron; the fire beneath it was banked, and the water barely steamed. Her eyes were closed, her breathing very slow.
None but a gonnagle would dare interrupt a kelda at her hiddlins, and none but a very brave gonnagle would dare interrupt her with bad news. Awf'ly Wee Billy chewed his thumb for inspiration, took a deep breath and began,
"O mighty kelda o' the clan o' the fae!
Alas! I am verra sorry to say
That our Big Man has elected tae stay
To help oour wee hag the hivver tae find
Which means he may no' be back fer some time--"
"Aye," said Jeannie of the Long Lake. She opened her eyes and sat up, and Awf'ly Wee Billy fell silent.
"He's passed from ma sight," she said in a low voice that nonetheless reached the back of the galleries. "Rob isnae in oour world, and he's nae in another."
Awf'ly Wee Billy stared at her, horrified. "Ach, he's no gone back tae the land o' the livin'?"
A hushed voice at the back of the mound began, "Oh, waily waily waily..." but Jeannie paid it no heed. "Nay, I'm thinkin' he stepped between, tae help the wee lassie get rid o' the hivver."
"Between?" asked Daft Wullie, shouldering to the front of the crowd. "Wheer's that, then?"
"The place between this an' the Last Worrld," Awf'ly Wee Billy told him. "Verra easy tae get in, verra difficult tae get oout o'."
Daft Wullie's face lit up. "There's a pub 'tween this worrld and the last? Let's offski!"
The door in the sky closed, then disappeared. So did Tiffany and Granny Weatherwax.
Rob Anybody Feegle stared at the bit of sky where the door had been, while the black sand drifted back down around him like very dirty snow. He scratched his head. It was hard to hold on to memories in this place, but he was fairly sure that he had jumped onto Granny Weatherwax's boot before the door closed.
PARDON? said a voice behind him.
Rob turned and faced Death, who gazed at him quizzically, his skull tilted slightly to one side. "The big aul' hag kens I hae a kelda an' clan waitin'. Whut'd she leave me here for?"
Death's blue gaze flickered. PERHAPS SHE DID NOT.
"Aye, so I'm deid, am I? Well, in that case, fancy a doin'?"
He leapt up and grabbed Death's cowl, but an extremely bony hand plucked him away.
"Put me doon! I'll scud ye wan oan the chin, ya bigjob bauchle o' bones! I'll skelp yer staigie til ye cannae stroan!"
I DO NOT BELIEVE THAT WOULD BE PHYSICALLY POSSIBLE, Death said, holding him out at arm's length once again, and then bending over to set him carefully back down on the sand. I WOULD LIKE TO ASK YOU A QUESTION.
Rob stared at him. "Oh, aye? A question for a question, then." That was the ancient bargain; no Feegle would give anything away for free.
VERY WELL. Death motioned to the endless desert behind him. LOOK.
The desert was not empty; it was full of souls. They winked into view, then vanished again, sometimes leaving inky trails as the sand slowly drifted down in their wake. But there was one soul that just stood there, looking lost.
It was Miss Level.
Rob stared at her, but she did not look back at him; she just gazed into the endless distance, looking as blank as a .* Her necklaces didn't even jingle.
He walked toward Miss Level's still figure, sand crunching under his feet. Death hovered behind him.
"Mistress Level? Can ye no' hear me?"
She did not speak or move, and her empty stare made her look like a doll.
SHE IS NOT HERE. YET SHE IS. Death did not sound pleased. He drew a small jet black hourglass from his sleeve and held it low, so that Rob could see it. There was an oval nameplate on the bottom half of the hourglass, with curly lettering on it. Sand spiraled down from the top half to the bottom half, slow as molasses.
"Aye, I hae the knowledge of the readin'," Rob said, nodding wisely. "It says: Mistress Level."
MISS VICTORINA "TOPSY" LEVEL, ACTUALLY, Death said.
"Aye, weel, we are nae on first name terms, ye ken."
CAN YOU TELL ME WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO HER?
"She--died," Rob said. "But she isnae deid. The hivver only got the wan body, and she hae a spare."
AH. Death nodded. AN ECHO.
"Ye'd ken all aboot that," Rob said. "But she willnae be in a hurry to get tae the Last World and do some boring wee job agin, so ye'd best wait for the rest o' her tae catch up."
Death looked pensively at his long scythe, which made a very soft, low humming noise that set Rob's teeth on edge.
"Sae, y'are here talkin' tae me but y'are everywhere else as weel," Rob said. He was careful not to make it a question.
Death considered this. YES.
"Then kin ye see if the big wee young hag is safe?" Rob asked.
The pinpricks of blue light in Death's eyesockets flickered. NO ONE IS SAFE.
"Aye, point ta'en," Rob muttered. "All I ask is, is she safe for the noo?"
Death said, SHE IS WITH MISTRESS WEATHERWAX.
Rob considered this, and decided that it would do. No more hiver, no more geas. He was free to go home.
He looked up at Miss Level again. She still stared at the sky, unblinking, but her mouth was set in a grim line, like a schoolmistress who has spotted the thumbtack on the seat of her chair. He shivered. Around them, souls kept winking into view and disappearing into the desert; some remained visible longer than others, and walked a few steps in the direction of the mountain range that loomed at the horizon.
"Does she ken wheer she is?" he asked.
Death stared down at him. YOU HAD YOUR QUESTION.
"Aye." Rob stared back, unblinking, and waited.
Death sighed, a sound like the air rushing out of an inflatable raft in the middle of the ocean, and said, IT WILL REMAIN UNTIL SHE DIES, BUT IT IS NOT AWARE.
That was a relief, although Rob did not say so out loud.
BE SEEING YOU, Death said, and grinned.**
Death winked out, just like the souls but with slightly more emphasis, leaving Rob Anybody Feegle with only Miss Level's ghost echo for company. Rob felt in dire need of a sheep kebab, a long draught of Special Sheep Liniment, and a good long nap.
"Ma eyes are hingin' oot ma heid," he muttered, swaying. He took a deep breath. "Nae sleep 'til the Chalk! Nae rest for the wicked!"
He cast about for a good place to step out of this world, but the pale stars wheeling overhead disoriented him. Suddenly the black sand looked very, very soft.
Awf'ly Wee Billy led the crowd of Feegles outside the mound, moving fast to avoid being trampled. He had not wanted to take so many, but it was as difficult to dissuade a Feegle from going into danger as to keep a fairy from stinging you.*** They massed behind him, moving down the hill and onto the Chalk, and when he stopped walking they stopped too.
Daft Wullie came up to him, grinning, and Big Yan slapped him on the back. As Awf'ly Wee Billy got up again, he took note of the way they were looking at him. Since he had come to the Chalk, he had mostly gotten looks of vague disappointment, and comments like, "Ye're oour noo gonnagle? Are ye sure?" or, worse, a kindly meant "Ah, lad, ye'll grow intae it." The looks they gave him now made him feel at least ten inches tall.
But Daft Wullie also looked worried, or as worried as a man covered in tattoos and woad can look. "Rob'll tak a hairy when he sees us," he muttered. "He wouldna want us tae leave oour kelda agin, when she's sae close tae birthin'."
Awf'ly Wee Billy looked back at the mound. Jeannie stood in the opening, watching them keenly, one hand on a tree root to support herself. Soon she would grow too big to leave the mound at all.
"Aye, and oour kelda wouldnae want us to come back wi'oot him," he said softly. "He's got a geas on him, ye ken. An' a geas is a fearrsome thing."
Daft Wullie nodded. "Specially when you happen to be stealin' their eggs."
Awf'ly Wee Billy turned to the crowd of Feegles; a couple had already started fighting and were rolling around on the turf, spitting curses. "Tae me, Nac Mac Feegle!" he yelled, putting all his breath into it. "We gae tae the World Afore Last!"
There was a cheer, and a scattering of individual battle cries: "Tesna o'er til I cut off yer heid!" "Wee folk, braw folk, fightin' all taegither!" "Tae old tae die young!" "Donald where's yer troosers?" "Nae king! Nae quin! Nae master! We willna be fooled again!"
Awf'ly Wee Billy took another deep breath. He closed his eyes, threw back his shoulders, stuck out his foot, and concentrated, wiggling his toes to feel the way. Crawstepping was a skill, and he did not want to make a misstep, not with all eyes upon him.
Worlds sped by his closed eyes. Colors flowed around him, smells deafened him, sounds wove in and out of his ears, but none was the right one. They were looking for a dark place, a non-place, not the world of Fairy or the world of shrimp or the inside of a rabbit's head. Nothing matched. Nothing worked, and Awf'ly Wee Billy was getting a cramp in his calf.
He stood there for a few moments more, and then he sighed and opened his eyes. "I cannae find the way," he said, and looked down in defeat. His heart was heavy.
There was a silence. Then someone at the back said, "Did ye nae say 'twas verra easy tae get intae?"
Awf'ly Wee Billy recognized the voice; it was Not-Sae-Wee Coll, one of the older Feegles. He did not look up. "Aye," he said. "But there's a condition that has tae be met, ye ken. 'Tis the world before the Last World - the normal way o' going to it is tae die."
"Well then, nae problemo!" Daft Wullie said. He unshouldered his sword and rammed the hilt into the turf, stamping on the crossbar with his foot to drive it deeper into the ground. "Right, one of ye lads hold it steidy--"
Awf'ly Wee Billy's head snapped up. The sight of Daft Wullie cheerfully preparing to throw himself onto his own sword was enough to shake him out of his depression.
"Nay!" he yelled, and Daft Wullie looked down at him in surprise. "Hae ye got a better idea, lad?"
Awf'ly Wee Billy did not, but he was not about to let that stop him. "If I canny open a door to the World Afore Last," he said, "we will find someone who can - oour own wee hag, or even the hag o' hags hersel'."
"But they're off ta meet wi' other hags!" said Big Yan. "How'll we get intae sich a gaitherin' wi'oout bein' turned intae puddies?"
"Are we Feegles, or are we no'?" said Awf'ly Wee Billy, and told them the plan.
Tomkin Fletcher was not having a good day. His mother, a witch well-known for her terrible powers of persuasion, had volunteered him for the job of ticketseller at the Witch Trials, and not only had he been stuck behind a gate all day, but every hour seemed to bring some new terror.
Witches were skinflints to a woman, and most complained about the penny entrance fee or even the ha'penny fee for the old folks; he had had nothing but haggling and wrangling all morning, and then, to top things off, Granny Weatherwax had shown up and damn near taken his head off when he mentioned the senior citizen's discount. Or, well, she had not actually done anything - she'd even paid, and never mind that the coins were invisible - but somehow the suggestion had been there, and the memory made his stomach roil.
And now a fresh horror strolled up to him in the bright noonday sun, with the wobbly gait of a sailor back on land. It wore a long black cloak, black boots, a long-sleeved black dress and a pointy hat, which was all as it should be, but there was something terribly wrong with the whole ensemble. Bulges bulged where no bulge should be, not even on a very well-endowed witch, and some of them seemed to be moving. Also, he could not see her face. A jaunty netted scarf covered the neck and chin, and a quantity of ragged grey hair cascaded down from the hat so that only the tip of a hooked nose was visible.
"A verra guid afternoon, me laddio," said the witch. Her voice was very hearty and very deep, and not the slightest bit female.
"That will be one ha'penny, please," Tomkin said, cursing his voice, which swooped on ha' and dived on penny like a swallow over a pond.
"What's a ha'penny?" said the witch, and this time the voice came from knee-height and sounded reedy.
Tomkin stared desperately at the tip of her nose and did not breathe. He stuck out a ticket in one trembling hand.
"Ach, 'tis one o' them wee bitty coins, ye ken," said another voice from near the witch's left elbow, which wobbled alarmingly. "Here, gie' him this..."
There seemed to be a struggle going on in the witch's left arm as something moved from the elbow down to the wrist underneath the dusty black cloth, and then a yellow coin emerged, held between two folds of the sleeve; Tomkin decided it was a hand, mostly because he did not want to think about what else it might be. Instinct took over, and he took the coin and bit it. He took it out of his mouth and stared at it in amazement. It was pure gold. He could buy his mother's cottage with it and have enough left over for a coach and four.
"There's a guid lad," the first voice said soothingly, and the ticket was whisked from between his numb fingers. "Ye can keep the change." Tomkin nodded, too numb with surprise to speak. "Hae ye seen yon Tiffan and Mistress Witherwax at a'?" the voice went on, and he pointed to the roped-off area where the Trials were being held, keeping the coin secure in his tightly-fisted other hand.
"Och, aye. We'll be fer the off, then." The witch seesawed past him, and Tomkin stared after her for a moment, then turned back with a lifted chin to face whatever the world saw fit to throw at him next. Every now and then he opened his fist to stare at the coin.
Awf'ly Wee Billy had been right, to his own surprise. Getting in was easy, provided you were at the right place at the right time. They had not been in time to catch Granny Weatherwax and Tiffany coming out of the world inbetween, but the echoes of that event still hung around the Trials area, where Granny and Tiffany now sat facing each other and exchanging the kind of stares you could build a bridge on, and he found that he did not need their help. When you had echoes, you had a place to look for with the very tips of your toes, and then you had a way in.
He landed on his back, sending a spout of black sand straight up into the air, and rolled just in time to avoid the crowd of Feegles that dropped through the door after him. It was a small wooden door, Feegle-sized, and it had not opened more than a crack, but that was enough. Big Yan stood in the doorway, pushing his feet against the doorjamb and his hands against the door, holding it open. The door might be imaginary, but the strain on his face was real enough.
"Hurry, lads," he yelled down to them as they picked themselves up. "It's nae wantin' tae stay open!"
Awf'ly Wee Billy looked round quickly. As the stories had said, it was a desert, a fitting choice for what was essentially a holding station between the lush green afterlife they lived in and the tedium of the Last World. The stars overhead were all in the wrong places, and he looked down again quickly.
"There he is," yelled Daft Wullie, and they ran after him. There indeed was Rob Anybody, lying curled on the sand and snoring like a blocked drain.
The Feegles halted, panting, and looked at each other. Daft Wullie bent down and grabbed Rob's shoulder. "Oy! Big Man! Time tae go offski!"
Rob did not wake, and Awf'ly Wee Billy began to worry.
Daft Wullie straightened. "Shall I gie him a guid kickin'? Tha' allus wakes me up a treat."
Awf'ly Wee Billy nodded, for lack of any better ideas, and Daft Wullie applied himself, but it did not make any impression on Rob. At length Daft Wullie gave up, panting. He knelt down beside Rob's ear instead, and yelled: "We'll just be off fer a wee swally, then, aye lads?" The answering cheer sounded a bit ragged, and Daft Wullie improvised, "Oour wee hag ha' promised us a pint o' Special Ship Liniment t' man!" That got a good loud roar, but no reaction from Rob whatsoever.
Daft Wullie looked up, stricken. "I think he's deid!"
"Ach, haud yer wheesht, ye daftie," Awf'ly Wee Billy snapped, his nerves betraying him. Daft Wullie's face crumpled up even further, but Awf'ly Wee Billy had no time to feel sorry. He unshouldered his mousepipes with one deft movement, and began to play.
This time he did not play "The Bonny Flowers". He played the most rousing song he knew, the song that set Feegles' hearts beating faster and their eyes flashing, the song that had accompanied terrible battles, sometimes even with enemies other than themselves: "Feegles Wha' Hae".
The Feegles shouted the choruses, stamping their feet and clapping. By the second chorus Rob's eyes opened, and he sat up. "Wheer's the stramash?" he muttered. "Ah'll stoat ye right in th' gub, ye wee rickle a' bones--"
At the same time, Big Yan yelled from above: "Time tae run, lads! I cannae keep it ajee!"
Without being prompted, Wee Colin and Muckle Hairy Duncan hoisted Rob Anybody up on their shoulders, and they ran for it. The door was closing despite everything Big Yan could do, his arms trembling, and Awf'ly Wee Billy saw that they would not make it.
Something swung through the air, humming like a top. It stuck quivering in the doorjamb, propping the door open. Awf'ly Wee Billy stared at it as they hurtled toward the door. It was a scythe.
The Feegles threw themselves through the door and vanished, a yelling Rob Anybody with them. Awf'ly Wee Billy was the last, and he looked back.****
Death stared back at him, his blue pupils flickering like very hot flames.
"Why-?" began Awf'ly Wee Billy.
I LIKE THE QUIET, said Death, and grinned.*****
* Or even more so.
** When you're a skeleton, it's hard not to.
*** What, you thought they did nice things, like granting wishes?
**** Somebody always does; it's traditional. Note that 'traditional' does not mean 'wise'.
***** Very hard not to.