Привет в ночь бдительности над свиньями – Happy Hogswatch! Can't find the Russian for "The price of flight is to be able and prepared to fly anything" – at least, Google Translate offers phrases, but I'm not sure if they only relate to buying air tickets. I'd quite like to get this one right…
And thanks to reader rga156 and a Russian-spaeaking friend who suggested Стоимость авиабилета подразумевает способность и готовность лететь на чем угодно. as a title... "Stoimost' aviabileta podrazumevayet sposobnost' i gotovnost' letet' na chem ugodno.", or "the cost of one's flight ticket is the ability and the willingness to fly anything".
v0.3. Adding a line which I realised was a sitter and begged for inclusion. Also a small but necessary correction made. Thank you to the reader who spotted it!
In which Olga Romanoff realises her deal with flight is like Jason Ogg's bargain with blacksmithing. If you aspire to be the greatest flying Witch on the Discworld, you have to be prepared to fly anything. Even if it's as bizarre, pointless and ludicrous as putting horseshoes on an ant. You get it in the air. And come down again. And walk away from it. A bit of a spin-off from Strandpiel for Hogswatch. For new readers who have not yet tackled Strandpiel: this one can stand alone as it's fairly self-explanatory. Rebecka Smith-Rhodes gets a very small background cameo as she is not the central player in this tale but has to be there, as the foreigner in Discworld's "Russia". She learnt to speak a bit of Rus as trainee Witch to Irena and Olga. Eddie is from the Discworld's expy of South Africa and is a wizard who wanted a quiet life, but who ended up, after meeting her during a small but nasty war, married to the globe-trotting Olga. Married to a witch who can get around the world quickly, their married life with twin children involves a lot of travel and two family homes, one in Ankh-Morpork and one in a town which may, in a roundabout way explained elsewhere, end up being called something not entirely unlike Johannasburg. Like Ponder Stibbons, another reluctant recipient of a Honour, he is in this world married to a woman with a lively outgoing adventurous streak and is a father of children who promise to be interesting. Xenia Galena is a Witch plus; the plus bit is Shamaness, one who navigates other Worlds apart from this one.
As for how Olga Romanoff got the call-sign of Syren for ground-control purposes... see the footnote for Chapter 59 of Strandpiel, which homages a truly terrible late-Victorian work of melodramatic steampunk sci-fi which has the central character of imperious Russian Princess, Olga Romanoff, with a passion for flight and getting even with the all-powerful British Empire. Olga Romanoff, Syren Of The Skies. Well. that was truly a gift...
Hanna von Strafenburg is a Witch from Überwald, and a deliberate homage to methodically crazy German test pilot Hanna Reitsch, a woman distinguished by flying one of the very last aircraft to get in and out of Berlin in April 1945 against determined opposition - she used the Unter den Linden as a stopgap runway - and a woman who also test-flew some of the more insane Luftwaffe prototypes and survived. Hot damn: discovered an equally nutty woman test pilot for Germany was called Melitta von Stauffenburg. Distantly related to the von Stauffenburg who lead the plot against Hitler, she was - apparently - shot down by an American warplane in the aftermath of the August 1944 bomb, and survived the crash - at first - only to have a relapse and die of her wounds later. Hmmm... Anyway. My Air Police needed a borderline insane test-pilot. Who better...
Now Read On...
The Duchy of the Border Marches of Zlobenia and Far Überwald, December. The conversation is of course in Rus. It is largely presented here in Morporkian for the benefit of readers.
The old Witch sat in the rocking chair on the wooden verandah of her isba. She looked out, impassively, at the people who had gathered in the cleared space outside her home. All looked worried; some had been weeping. The gloomy forest, fir trees with the first dusting of snow, provided an appropriate background. Several Pegasi, the marvellous white flying horses of faraway Ankh-Morpork, were placidly cropping the grass and undergrowth. The local population had marvelled to see them in the sky overhead, and had not been surprised to see them come down in the vicinity of the local babiushka and ved'ma, who lived by choice in an isolated isba some way from the village. You expected that sort of thing from Natalia, who had lived long enough to pass on from being a mere babiuschka to the state on its further side, that of babayuga.
"You made it back, then." Natalia said to the group of Witches who had landed on the flying horses, dismounted, and walked to the isba, the local kulaks falling back to allow their passage. People here respected their ved'mas. And when one of them was also Lady Olga, daughter of the Grand Duke, it meant you had to be doubly careful.
They had watched Lady Olga, who under her cloak was dressed as a Cossack, in loose tunic and britches, high riding boots and ushanka fur cap, a long sabre at her left hip and a coiled knout whip on the other. Thoughtful peasants knew what the whip could be used for. Even more thoughtful peasants observed that something about Lady Olga suggested she was, in her essence, a coiled whip. Oh, she'd never actually used it on anyone and it was probably there as part of the authorised walking-out uniform for a lady of the nobility, just a necessary fashion accessory. She probably didn't need to. She was a ved'ma too. Worked these days for the cunning and devious Lord Vetinari in Ankh-Morpork, people said. And if he can get somebody like Lady Olga working for him and taking his instructions, then he really was a devious cunning old bastard.
Most of the other witches with her were not that worthy of attention.
"Oh, that's only young Irena. Grigori Politek's girl. Taking a risk coming back, isn't she? You're a kulak, a peasant. Run away without your Grand Duke's leave, you get knouted if he catches you. Grand Dukes don't like that sort of thing. Got the wrong sort of ideas, too."
"Always was a bit mouthy, young Irena. You know, a bit Bolshevik. Hear she got the dangerous ideas out of her head. Went ved'ma."
"Yeah. Bolshy little brat."
They wondered about the one who looked as if she hadn't been born to wear the telegroika padded winter clothing. Really vivid red hair, a lot more vivid than Lady Olga's auburn red, wearing some sort of shorter, wider sword at her left hip, and an ushanka fur cap like a normal person, but with a plain black insert on the crown with no distinguishing Horde or Host markings embroidered into it. It was noted Lady Olga and Bolshie Irena were wearing the white-cross-over black heraldry of what Pyotr Simenovich recognised as the Vulga Horde, a distant and feared Cossack host from a faraway river.
"They travelled a bit, then." Pyotr said, knowingly. "Our local lads are Ron Cossacks, of course. Different Horde colours."
They studied the redhead again: pretty girl, trying to blend in but not quite fitting, stood out like a carrot in a field of good honest beets. Probably foreign of some kind, but definitely ved'ma. The others were Rus. Definitely. Young girls, devyushkii in late teens or early twenties. Rus faces, Rus clothing, definitely Rus figures. The little dark one there, pleasingly wide in the hips, big round face, likely to make some lucky fellow a good child-bearing wife. But all toting Cossack sabres at the left hip. Apart from that one there, older than the rest, got a sabre on each hip…
"Brung a Wizard with them, too."
"Da. But Lady Olga's just said to him, fall back, stand over there. Take the children."
Olga Romanoff ignored the gathered peasantry, acknowledging they were here for the same reason she was. She made the Witch bow to the old lady. The delegation of Witches with her bowed too.
The old lady in the rocking chair studied them. She fitted the definition of crone: hooked nose, bright intelligent eyes, yellowed skin stretched tightly over old bones. She nodded back.
"We received the message, Natalia Svetlanavichniya. Of course we should be present."
The old witch nodded.
"Horoscho. Now aren't you going to introduce me to people? Oh, and your husband over there and the kiddies. Bring me the kiddies, Olga Anastacia. I can show them the oven…."
There was a brief pause. The old witch cackled.
"Joke, Olga Anastacia! Can't an old lady about to die make a joke on the way out? Besides, that devuschka of yours has got magic. Can feel it from here. That's interesting. Not much of interest goes on when you're a hundred and three."
Vodka and hospitality had been provided, and a Going-Away party had commenced. Olga's husband Eddie had been invited to join them, and their twin children had been told to Be Good and Respectful. Olga had winced when the twins had indeed been Shown The Oven, a far larger thing than it needed to be. The old witch had said it had been there when she took over from the previous ved'ma, and told the children the usual heavily embroidered horror story. Valla had dutifully shrieked at the hair-raising bit about an old Witch who really liked little girls, ideally roasted for three hours at two hundred degrees.
"Little boys, tougher meat. I reckon five hours to tenderise it."
Vassily had stuck his chin out, belligerently.
"That is so?" he had demanded. He glared up at the old witch, five years old and without fear. He placed a hand on the hilt of the wooden practice shaksha he'd been given by the Vulga Cossacks, their acceptance of him as one of the Horde.
Then, as his father winced and his mother did the thing with the palm of her hand and her forehead, Vassily had opened the doors of the big, old, and cold oven, and climbed inside…
"Do your worst, old ved'ma!" he shouted, his voice echoing from inside the oven.
Natalie cackled softly.
"He ain't dumb, Olga. He figured it out. Take ages to heat it up from stone cold, and anyway, notice how he's used his sword to wedge the door open so I can't close it on him? That's a good lad you got there. Bravery and brains, a rare thing to see together. When he takes over from his grandfather, reckon this place has got a good Grand Duke. Better one, too! Your little girl shrieked so as to be polite and make an old lady feel better, but I reckon she saw through it too. You're doing well with them two."
There had been another round of vodkas. The foreign witch with the really vivid red hair had asked, in halting and fractured Rus, about, err, this cottage-belongs-Witch,,, err, feet of ducks? Can walk? Stories you hear. Errr."
The other witches had laughed at this. One of the younger girls, who had trained with her in faraway Lancre, did a bit of explaining in the outlandish Morporkian tongue, the one Natalia had picked up a few phrases of, but never really bothered to learn.
Natalia cackled again.
"Nie, Rebecka Yohannavichniya! Think about it. I experimented, da, but it worries people. And you learn. Crockery rattles. Falls off shelf. No suspension. Shakes a lot. And bottom of isba not waterproof. Ducks wish to swim. Gets wet under feet. Not good idea."
"Takes ages to dry out. Too much aggravation." Olga translated.
"Ah. Thank you." Rebecka Smith-Rhodes said, after a few moments of reflection.
"Never believe all you hear, devyushka." Olga said, kindly. She added, in Rus, "Not from round here. She's in the Pegasus Service now. We're taking her on trips like this to broaden her out a bit."
Hoofbeats were heard. Lots of hoofbeats. Growing closer.
Olga nodded to the older Witch, the one who wore the two sabres.
"On cue. Speak to them, Xenia Galena?"
The witch in the long flowing black coat nodded, and slipped out.
The Cossack horde, well, more of a sub-Horde, really, a Horde-ette, a sotnia of men in the service of Grand Duke Nikolas Romanoff, rode forwards, cracking their whips in the air on general principles, half-heartedly intending to use them on the backs of any kulak unintelligent enough to get out of the way quickly, let their voices rise in song as they rode. The coach they escorted rode in their wake.
Then the song died as the sotnia came to an abrupt halt, the sub-gallop fading to a canter and then an abrupt stop. There was the screeching sound of coach brakes being applied. Horsemen piled up in confusion.
The hetman of the Cossacks cantered forward a little way, as a lone singing voice, who hadn't caught up with current reality, carried on the song, then realised he was on his own and let his voice falter into confused silence.
The Hetman looked down at a slender dark-haired woman dressed in black, who stood in their path, hands nonchalantly in her pockets. He read the heraldry on the crown of her fur cap, white cord edged in gold on a red ground. It was the only splash of colour about her. He also took in not one long Cossack sabre, but two. So far they were still sheathed.
He swallowed nervously and dismounted. He bowed, very respectfully.
"Shamanskaya. What is your wish? How may we assist?" he asked.
Xenia Galena, ved'ma and shamanskaya to the Vulga Horde, looked up at him. She took her time in replying.
"That you, and the one you escort, approach this place with respect and reverence." she said.
"It will be as you wish, shamanskaya."
"Don't have too much in the way of Family." the old Witch said. "And witches are spread a bit thin in these parts. Not many to see me go, but I'm glad my pupils came back this last time. Brung a few promising girls with them. I'm pleased."
"How could we not?" Irena Politek asked. "You taught us, Natalia. We should be here to see you off."
"Da. And my people are out there. To see me off. And those bloody Cossacks."
She grinned up. "There's a book on the shelf there. More notes, really. About how to make up the ointments for saddle-sores. Whichever girl takes over here needs to know that. A good ointment for saddle-sores gets you a long way with Cossacks."
Xenia Galena grinned, her primary task having been completed. The Cossacks were waiting outside, reverentially, not making noise or throwing their weight around. And the people they'd escorted, who were tactfully not asking entrance to the isba. Or, worse, demanding it.
"But you knows that, young woman." Natalia said.
"Da, babayuga. That, and care of horses." Xenia agreed.
Natalia grinned. She looked up at her former pupils.
"Olga, Irena. It's all yours to dispose of as you both see fit. There's one thing. Sent it on its own way to Ankh-Morpork. It'll find you."
Olga and Irena looked at each other. Mystery. Their old teacher had a "You're both bright. You'll figure it out" look on her face. One last lesson.
"Just get a good girl in place. I know you will. Don't need to be here to approve of your choice. "
Shortly after that, an old witch died.(1) Present at her bedside, as non-Witches have to be, were the Cossack Hetman, the head peasant of the village, and Grand Duke Nikolas himself. Irena thought this a capsule of her people's society: the Peasant, the Nobility, the Cossack, and the Witch, who stands apart.
"Hmmph. What happens next?" Nikolas Romanoff asked, one arm around each of his grandchildren.
The Village Headman touched his cap respectfully. "There must be a ved'ma, esteemed Ladies." he said. "The people need to know who is to be their ved'ma."
The Hetman shuffled uneasily. He said nothing, but felt a stirring of discomfort from those bloody saddle-sores. Somebody had to be there to make the ointment…
"Leave it to us." Olga said, knowing in this place, where it had all began for her, she was senior Witch.
Her father nodded. He looked uncertain for a moment. There were limits to the power of an otherwise autocratic Grand Duke in a feudal society. One of those limits was stretched out, cooling, on the bed.
"Damn fine woman, Natalia." he said. "Had our differences, of course. But good at what she did. Hard to replace."
"Every Witch is." Olga remarked. She nodded to Irena. The two of them respectfully covered the body in the bed. The next stages were for them to do, and only them. They'd been her pupils.
Nikolas stood back, respectfully. After a while he left the isba, without being asked, and everybody but Olga and Irena left with him.
Later there was a burial, and a solemn wake. With vodka. The young Lancre-trained witch Natasha Vasilisa, one of those who had performed the sabre dance at the Witch Trials, was to take the steading. It had been Decided.
The Air Station, Pseudopolis Yard, Ankh-Morpork. A week or so later.
"Well, that's over." Captain Olga Romanoff said, settling behind the commanding officer's desk. Here, she commanded the City Watch Air Police and directed the Pegasus Service. It was a busy working life. With, she admitted, unparelleled opportunities to travel and see the world. And all she'd wanted to do was to be a working Witch with a special interest in flight and flight technomancy. Everything else, since her first exposure to broomsticks and the thought "I really, really, want to do this!" had just happened.
"Indeed." Lieutenant Irena Politek agreed. Her life had taken pretty much the same vector; a Witch with a special interest in flight. "And how is the Baroness this morning?"
Olga glared at her old friend. A surprising outcome of her recent visit Home had been that her husband Eddie had been subjected to the usual terrifying intimidation from his father-in-law; a man who had been utterly opposed to his daughter marrying not just a commoner, but a middle-class tradesman to boot, a bloody Wizard. That was usual. Grand Duke Nikolas, possibly prompted by the Grand Duchess, had softened slightly on the arrival of twin grandchildren. Olga suspected Lady Sybil Ramkin had been having quiet words in the backgtound to Smooth Things Over, Duchess to Grand Duke, social peers working out a little solution. But there was no denying Nikolas adored his grandchildren and because of that had been inclined to cut a little slack to the damn bloody jumped-up damnable wizard.
Eddie had been presented with an ornate scroll signed by all four Grand Dukes, her father and his three brothers, normally bitter rivals with an eye on the grand prize, the dormant title of Tsar Of All The Ruskiya. If anything could unite any three of them, it was to prevent the fourth becoming Tsar. It was a long-running stalemate.
But they'd agreed on this. As a face-saving thing, the low-born husband of the putative Grand Duchess Olga and father of a future Grand Duke was hereby elevated, by common consent of the Council of Grand Dukes, to the title of Baron de Cocquamainie. As you could not have a Grand Duke with a commoner father. The idea was unthinkable. And he clearly had to be one social level below his wife.
Which made Olga into a Baroness by marriage. Govno, another bloody title. What also irked was that after hearing of Eddie's social elevation, people in and around the Air Station were now beginning to refer to Olga, in a covert way, as "The Red Baroness". It felt right, she admitted with reluctance, even if it made her wince.
Eddie, a Rimwards Howondalandian and one born into a Republic, had also winced. A lot.
"The Baroness is fine, thank you for asking. But here she is a Captain. Let us focus on the day, if you please?"
They discussed Watch needs for Air Policewomen for the day and made deployment plans. The Service currently mustered seventeen Pegasus pilots, another fifteen full and Special Air Policewomen, two or three Mokos(2) who piloted the flying carpets, and twenty-five or so Feegle and Gnomes, either Navigators for the Pegasus Service or who flew the birds of prey used for additional patrol vehicles. It was a formidable force. Lord Vetinari also intended them to be a more martial Air Force, if called upon, in the event of any regrettable international misunderstandings with a country like Klatch, and they also kept a vigilant eye open for any incursions by Elves. The pilots were taught more specific air-combat skills in the event of need. Vetinari made sure the Klatchians knew all about this, and Olga was perfectly aware at least one of the three Mokos in the Service reported back, frequently, to a handler at the Klatchian Embassy. Olga tolerated this, reasoning it was handy to know who the spies were, and ensured they didn't get any of the really important stuff that needed to be kept secret. Besides, the rare flying carpets, hard to obtain, were useful and needed specialist care. You couldn't use just any old carpet shampoo, for one thing.
The morning mail arrived, delivered by a dogsbody Watchman assigned to the mail room. Routine stuff. Apart from the big square parcel which had probably caused Davey in the Post Office's Dead Letter Room a few headaches; addressed in Cyrillic script written in the crabbed hand of an old lady un-used to writing things down, next to which somebody had added a transliteration into Morporkian characters as if they'd done it letter-by-letter out of a dictionary.
Amazingly, it had arrived it its intended recipient. Along with the sticker saying "insufficient postage paid" and an advisory warning label to say "suspected magical device in transit" with a warning that this contravened Post Office regulations and an additional fine applied.
Olga sighed. There'd sooner or later be a memo from Inspector Pessimal to say that he'd allowed it this time, and paid the penalty fees from Petty Cash, so could Captain Romanoff please make up the $AM 1.35 owing at her earliest convenience…
Olga couldn't locate a letter opener. Irena improvised, drawing her sabre and using this, carefully, to slice through the layers of wrapping paper.
Inside was a box.
And inside the box was a perfectly ordinary mortar and pestle, separately wrapped, with a letter.
The letter was from Natalia.
If you are reading this, devyushka, then you will know I am dead. I bequeath this gift to you and to Irena, my first pupils in Witchcraft, that you might both work out its Secrets…
Irena thoughtfully put the pestle into the mortar and rattled it around, as if grinding herbs. Every pupil witch got to know this at the hands of her tutor, a woman usually pleased to have somebody to delegate the donkey work to.
I charge ye both not to touch the mortar with the pestle unless you have need. Keep them separate at all times…
"Slava bogu!" Irena shouted, in surprise.
"Irena? I'd take the pestle out of the mortar, if I were you…" Olga said, with forced and studied calm.
The mortar shrank down again to its normal kitchen-utensil size. It had suddenly swelled to the size of a large bucket on contact with the pestle. And had still been growing.
Irena studied the mortar in one hand and the pestle in the other. She had a look of deep suspicion on her face. Olga stood up and pushed her chair back.
"I think we had better take this thing outside, don't you?" she said.
The flat roof of the Air Station was populated by people going about their usual morning tasks. A Pegasus flight was saddling up; Olga recognised Hanna von Strafenburg and Rebecka Smith-Rhodes , who would shortly be setting out for the Palace to receive mail and briefings for the Hubward States run. The noise of hammering, drilling and Dwarfish singing from the technomancy sheds, where broomsticks and other flight-related equipment was maintained. Squawking from the aviaries punctuated by Feegle threats of "see me, ye gannet ye, nae diving for fish wi'me on ye back, ye ken?" (3)
"Thought they were fulmars." Irena remarked. "Or cormorants." She set the mortar down carefully on the edge of the landing circle, put the pestle inside it, then stepped back very smartly. Heads turned to watch as the mortar swelled to the size of a large armchair. The pestle inside grew correspondingly in size. It settled and rattled slightly; as it tilted, the mortar rose off the ground, hovered, and leaned to one side.
"Olga. Look." Irena said.
"Oh. One of those." she said.
"I've heard of them. Looks bloody dangerous to me."
"Da." Olga agreed. She beckoned a passing Dwarf ground technomancer. "You. Get me a parachute. Thank you."
"Olga. You're not intending to fly in it, are you?" Irena asked.
Sergeant Hanna von Strafenburg was looking hopeful. She had beckoned her wing-mate Rebecka Smith-Rhodes to halt a moment, and had cantered her Pegasus over to take a closer look. Olga grinned up at her. She knew Hanna usually claimed test-pilot rights on any new and unproven flight technomancy. Hanna had a reputation for being methodically crazy like this.
"Not this one, Hanna." Olga said. "For one thing, you're due at the Palace for a flight-briefing. You've got a rookie pilot to train in. And besides. This is my people's magical cultural heritage. So I get to fly it. It's expected."
Olga got into the offered parachute. She tightened the straps and checked the ripcord was where her right hand expected it to be. Then she contemplated how the Hells you got into a very large mortar-and-pestle to fly it.
"Looks odd, with your knees pulled up to your chin like that." Irena said. "And cramped."
"Hmmph." Olga said. She experimentally moved the pestle in front of her. She reminded herself she wasn't single. She had a husband and two children. She shrugged. She had an untried and un-tested flying Technomantic Device which she'd have to learn to fly as she went along. No operating manual. I'm well over thirty and I'm wearing a parachute. Which I did not pack myself so I will have to take on trust that it works. But if I do this thing properly, I will not need to use the parachute. Olga Anastacia, do you want to live forever? And flying a desk is so boring…
"Irena, you are in charge till I return."
Olga angled the pestle forwards. There was a dopplering yell as the mortar got airborne. It sounded one-part surprise and two-parts exultation. Irena uncovered her eyes and watched the large rounded cup-like thing as it made an unsteady parabola into the sky above Ankh-Morpork.
"If you return." Irena Politek said, softly. She watched the wavering dot dwindle into the distance over the City, and shook her head.
Unseen University, Ankh-Morpork.
The group of wizards gathered on a flat rooftop and looked up at the shattered ruins. They contemplated the wreck in silence.
"So the balls exploded, Stibbons." the Arch-Chancellor remarked.
"Yes, sir." Ponder Stibbons replied. "There was a massive unscheduled surge of magic down below somewhere…"
"In yer H.E.M." Ridcully said, flatly. "And the device designed, at great cost, to channel and vent the magic harmlessly - gave in. And exploded."
"The repair costs are estimated at six thousand dollars." said the Bursar. Ponder winced again. Just his luck that the Bursar was on the median line of his personal sine curve and was therefore being horribly efficient.
The fourth Wizard present patted Ponder's shoulder with fellow-feeling. Doctor Edouard de Kockamaainje was an exchange Wizard from Witwatersrand University in Rimwards Howondaland. His working week meant following where his wife went; fortunately for him, this was not too difficult at all. He tended to divide his week between two countries and two Universities; his family had homes in both countries. It could get confusing.
"I got this from Direktor van Rijnswaand."(4) he said, sympathetically. "When the experimental devices for monitoring the migration petterns of Hermit Elephents on the veldt got trempled on. Or, efter we tried to conceal them in vegetation ettrective to elephents, they were eaten. Fifteen thousand rand, turned into elephent kak."
Two younger research Wizards shared a look of brotherly empathy in the face of narrow-minded seniors who deplored the cost of advancing the frontiers of magical knowledge. Especially the fact they unjustly got blamed when costly devices went up bang, or got trampled on, or were inadvertently eaten by, large pachydermous animals.
Ridcully considered the wreckage of the flyball governor. The central shaft was still there, and the collars that had allowed the big brass balls to fly and spin and harmlessly vent surplus magic. The only problem was that too much surplus magic had been generated, all at once. The city had been treated to a short sharp shower of shrapnel and cogwheels. Vetinari had been sarcastic and said it was a mercy it had happened at three in the morning during a thunderstorm.
Ridcully shook his head.
"Bet you're sorry you joined us, lad." he said to Eddie. "Or dare I say, Baron?"
Eddie winced. Ridcully patted his shoulder. "If it helps, lad, Vetinari made me a Lord and young Stibbons here into a Knight. Last Hogswatch honours list."
"It is only velid in the Four Duchies," Eddie said. He really wasn't sure how this would play out at home. His country was a Republic. And his in-laws scared the hells out of him. Ridcully nodded.
"Random discharge of magic. A sudden unexpected spike in the magical flux. Caused the regulating device to explode. Hmmph."
He was about to say more, then the apparition passed by. The woman inside the Thing waved at them and shouted
"Eddie! Don't forget to pick the kids up from school…."
There was silence among the Wizards as the improbable Thing receded into the distance and gained height again.
Ridcully noted that the wreck of the Regulator had picked up and one broken arm was rapidly orbiting the central spindle. It was an otherwise windless day.
"Doctor de Kockamaainje? Did I just witness yer wife flying past, sitting very uncomfortably in what looks like an over-large mixin' bowl?"
"I wish I could say "no", sir…"
"Random surges in the magical flux." he repeated. The arm of the rapidly rotating spindle obligingly creaked and fell off. He looked at Ponder. "Get it fixed, lad. I'll approve the bills. Where's the Bursar… oh, no. Where are the dried frog pills?"
"We're going to have to get him to land first, sir…"
Olga was getting the hang of it by now. Tilt pestle right – left bank. Tilt it left – right bank. Raise it slightly up the inner wall of the mortar, taking care to keep it in contact at all times – climb. Pull it down – descend. She wasn't sure what would happen if she tried to loop-the-loop. The thing was stable in level flight, but it felt as aerodynamic as a housebrick. She sensed looping or inverting it would be terribly unwise. Things might fall out. Like the pilot, or more importantly, the control pestle. Lose that, and she'd be in a rapidly shrinking kitchen utensil with the magic gone. Reflexively, she checked her parachute was still on. She also applied the long-ago-learnt reflex to watch the sky behind her. Elves could pop into Disc space at any moment and they liked to get behind you and stalk. She loosened the sabre in its scabbard, her only weapon, and made sure she could draw it if this was needed.
Olga looked over her shoulder and frowned. This was air. Not water. But the passage of the bowl was leaving a very clear trail behind her, like the eddies and wake left by a ship. Another mystery. She flew on. Another couple of circuits around the City, then land at the Air Station… she frowned again. How did you safely land a large mixing bowl? There wasn't a manual for it and nobody had flown such an improbable aircraft before. And generally you only ever got one go at getting it right…
Below her, Nick Highpriest huddled into his hooded and fur-lined coat and sighed deeply. Being a member of AMUFORA wasn't any fun at all. People in this town tended to treat you as if you were weird, or something. However patiently, rationally, or logically he tried to make the case for the Discworld having been visited by spacecraft from other worlds, however painstakingly he tried to explain the self-evident Truth, people shied away from him. And what made it difficult was that people tried to explain away perfectly good UFO sightings as "don't be daft, that were a witch on a broomstick!" or "Look, lad, that was the Bursar from the University. He gets these funny turns now and again where he thinks he can fly." Or "That's just Joe-Malik-Le-Tahksi, nice lad for a bloody Klatchian, picking up a fare. He ain't abducting nobody and you'd better be careful with all that stuff about probing, Gods know where you get that funny idea from."
After a while his eyes drifted off the face of the person he was patiently explaining things to, and settled on a point just behind their left shoulder. He knew this at least wasn't good communication and tried to correct for this. The Ankh-Morpork Unidentified Flying Object Research Association knew this was a failing, at least.
He sighed again. There hadn't been a decent, inexplicable, strange thing in the sky for some time now. Okay, there were a bunch of mad Witches at the City Watch who flew all manner of things. But, he argued, it was not beyond the bounds of possibility that the aliens could be putting out some sort of technomantic mind-field to deceive you into thinking you were only seeing a Witch on a broomstick, that this was an illusion spell masking the underlying reality being one of the Greys on a high-technomantic anti-gravity device. You couldn't rule it out, could you? Those white horses with wings, for instance. You see them flying up and then they suddenly disappear. They could be getting beamed back to the Mothership, right?
He wondered about dropping in at Sham Harga's for a nasty-but-cheap coffee.
And then he saw It. His first genuine UFO for a long time. This was it, the real deal. Like a rounded sphere, viewed from underneath. Fingers trembling with excitement, he fumbled for a pocket iconograph as it banked and he saw the pilot was a woman, or apparently so, in shining silver that gleamed in the weak winter sun. She appeared to have long brown-red hair and she was wearing some sort of outlandish alien helmet… her knees were drawn up and she was manipulating some sort of control rod that gleamed as white as the material of the spacecraft… he lifted the iconograph and sighted.
"Forget it, friend." said the demon from inside. "Right out of ink and almost out of paper. Told you I needed a refill, did'n'I?"(5)
He howled with frustration as the woman in the spacecraft gave him a friendly wave. Then flew on, down in the direction of the Isle of Gods. The spacecraft left a visible rippling wake in its trail. After a while this too faded and left no trace.
One of those left-ear people who hang around the Air Station convinced we're up to no good, Olga thought. Recognise him. Had to caution a couple of the girls who have got warped senses of humour from putting out those stories about it being Area Fifty-Seven, or something, where Vetinari sanctions fiendish experiments which are, naturally, seriously hushed up afterwards… still. At least our security is a lot better these days, after that Assassin got in(6). We were getting complacent… but our having really tight security is also proof we're up to bad things. We would not need such heavy security if we were not up to no good.
She put Nick Highpriest out of her mind. She now had to land the bloody thing. Safely. And it involved being at a height where a parachute would be of no use whatsoever, if she fouled it up. Olga focused and gained height again. She banked a lazy circuit round the city, and focused on the approach to the Air Station. A lot of people were gathering down there. She winced, realising if the Squadron Commander pancaked a landing in front of everyone, it was going to look embarrassing, at the very least.
The omniscope communicator in her top pocket buzzed. She pulled it out one-handed.
Ground control calling Syren… ground control calling Syren…
"Syren here. Making approach to land. Over."
Syren, do you require assistance? You are clear to land. All other activities suspended. Over.
"Syren responding. Unfamiliar air vehicle, landing procedure unclear, operational parameters not known. Should be able to get this thing down. Over."
There was a burst of noise from the other end of the line. And a new voice. Exasperated.
Olga, everything comes down and lands. Eventually. The trick is for it to land, not crash! Can you land that thing safely?
"Thank you for your concern, Irena. I believe I can land this thing. Just clear the deck, could you? Just in case? Over."
She saw the ground control Dwarf, Mig Oyeff, probably, go into the circle with the coloured ping-pong bats and perform the usual complicated ballet. Nobody knew why this happened or what it was actually for. It just seemed right. And aviators developed their rituals, over time.
Olga focused on losing height and speed in the usual safely measured increments. Observers saw a large white bowl skipping over the air like a stone skimmed over water, that kissed the surface of the air station landing circle, bouncing gently till it skidded to a halt within a few feet of falling over the far rooftop. Olga exhaled, gathered herself, and lifted the pestle away from the mortar. She had the sense to swing her legs up and over as the mixing bowl, and the pestle in her right hand rapidly shrank to normal kitchen utensil size.
Irena ran to her.
"Ye Gods, you made a pig's ear of that, Olga Romanoff!" she shouted. "You nearly bloody well rolled over the opposite edge!"
"Da. But I didn't. And you know what they say? A good landing is one you can walk away from."
She picked up the bowl.
"If you're in no hurry to try it out yourself, we can find space for this in the special hangar." Olga said. "Next to the things in the iron box which we do not talk about very much. (7) Add a note. Store mortar and pestle separately and never let them touch. Important."
Olga walked through a circle of admiring Air Service pilots and groundcrew, the metal of her Watch-issue breast and backplate gleaming metallic silver in the weak winter sun. She took off her flying helmet. She had lived to fly another day and would be seeing Eddie and the kids tonight. If he remembered to pick them up from school, that was.
After a while Olga looked back over her shoulder as another flyer came in to land. Irena raised an eyebrow.
"I kind of picked him up. Wasn't able to shake him off. Can you get somebody to give him a cup of hot sweet tea and a dried frog pill or two? There are some in the First Aid box. Oh, and clacks the University to say he followed me here, and we'll keep him safe for them to collect? Spassibo."
She beckoned the Bursar of Unseen University to come with them. He trustingly followed. Just another day at the air Station...
(1) DEATH always found these to be challenging gigs. A room full of witches, all aware of His presence, all of whom he'd met before, who were all expecting him to do right by the deceased. And if one of them was a shamanskaya who was making it clear from her demeanour that He wasn't even in the Top Ten Interesting Things she'd encountered in the worlds beyond.. thought of writing this bit, but it would have digressed for too long.
(2) MOKO; Morporkian of Klatchian Origin. Police shorthand. Ankh-Morpork had its immigrant Klatchian community, many of whom flew magic carpets as a taxi-for-hire service.
(3) Maritime patrols were a relatively new thing, keeping a watch over the seaborne approaches to the city. The Flight-Feegle were experimenting with seabirds of various sorts to find the right ones for patrol.
(4) it was a matter of interest that everywhere in the world (outside the central continent) where there was a college of wizardry, the Arch-Chancellor, the Director or the Principal Head of Studies was called "Rincewind", or a variation of a theme. Fourecks, Aceria and the Foggy Islands all had senior wizards with an oddly familiar name. Rimwards Howondaland was no exceltion.
(5) This is an iron law of Forteana. Cameras inexplicably fail to take images. Recording devices always fritz. To some minds, this in itself is sure proof of the Paranormal.
(6) The Assassin had been on a mission. It involved a Man in Black daring terrible perils to bring chocolate to his girlfriend. As some things are understood by narrative causality, he had not been pursued too strenuously - everybody knows it's all because the lady loves Higgs and Meakin's finest Assorted Milk Chocolate Platter - but Olga had seriously reviewed base security afterwards.
(7) Elven yarrow stalks, captured enemy technomancy which needed special handling. So far the flight technomancers hadn't been able to reverse-biothaumically-engineer how they operated. Hanna von Strafenburg, naturally, had tried to fly one. Even she had said "once is enough" afterwards.
Background notes, from an FB discussion on the nature of Witchcraft in Russia….
Reading up on Russian witchcraft traditions and wondering if it's not impossible to put out a Hogswatch short. Ideas are multiplying. thinking of my Discworld Russian witches and their unique background in the Craft... a Hogswatch present that appears on the desk of City Watch Air Police and Pegasus Service commander, Captain Olga Romanoff. (backstory: after a few adventures, Olga and her friend Irena complete their training as Witches in Lancre and bring something new and exotic to Lancre witching. After Sam and Sybil pass through Lancre on their way back from Überwald (end of The Fifth Elephant: they take the long way home and see a few sights: Lancre is on their journey) . Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax suggest, in as many words, if his Air Watch consists only of a couple of Feegle on flying birds, he might want to consider a couple of young witches we got from forn parts, buggers for flight and flying. Vimes reconsiders - he knows he said "no bloody magic users in the Watch", but by now he realises Witches have their heads screwed on better than Wizards. And from its beginnings in two Witches, the Air Police expands and in a later story acquires Pegasi - flying horses - after his Gorgon constable gets a nosebleed. Scroll forwards by a decade or two, and we have the expanded Air Watch.)
the Air Watch is composed of witches of all nationalities with a passion for flight, backed by ground-crew Dwarfish technomancers who have ideas to push the frontiers of flight, some of which are less crazy than the others. Olga has risen to Captain, or perhaps Wing-Commander. But she realises her bargain with flight is like the Lancre blacksmith's bargain with shoeing - if a flying Device is brought to her then she has to make it fly, however weird or unlikely it seems. And one day, the parcel containing the mortar and pestle arrives on her desk... with Far Überwaldean stamps and address on it.