Strandpiel Book Two
Dasvidanya, part four
In which an old Witch departs. Not without surprises along the way
Overlaps The Price of Flight chapter one which will be heavily referenced.
As always, this is V0.06. More corrections. One annoying numerical error I jsut spotted and a suggested improvement to the Russian. Bloody typos and FF randomly chopping out bits of sentences - why does it do this, annoying habit!
A continuing family saga charting the interlinked lives of family and friends on at least two continents, with a cast of characters both living and dead. In this chapter, an old Witch passes on. "Not before bloody time"
The scene is now set for the later events of Price of Flight. I want this to be right as it's pivotal for a lot of things to come and links to at least one other storyline. So it will be long and fairly detailed.
Story notes will be added at the end for anyone wanting insight into how these stories get constructed.
Friday morning, the Air Station, Pseudopolis Yard, Ankh-Morpork
Captain Olga Romanoff, feeling a little bit short of sleep and with a slight hangover, studied the group of new recruits in front of her. To her right, Sergeant Hanna von Strafenburg had called them to attention and – Olga realised without needing to look – was now glaring at them, daring any of them to so much as quiver in place without an order.
She sighed. It was all part of the procedure when dealing with recruits. Especially these recruits – Olga was trying hard to be positive about it and not to think of them as a liability wished on her by Lord Vetinari. Sometimes you had to be military. No escaping it.
"Stand them at ease, Sergeant." she requested.
She smiled kindly at the recruits, recognising they'd had a uniquely hard time of it since being provisionally accepted for Air Watch training. There'd even been a shortage of City Watch uniforms in Stores at the time(1); Irena Politek had solved that by calling in a favour, and the Navy had released some surplus fatigue uniforms they had in store, suitable for men in shore bases doing general labouring and fatigue work on the dockside.
At least the recruits were acceptably and consistently uniformed, in a sort of faded blue-grey colour denoting they were not quite City Watch – yet. Olga also noted, with quiet approval, they were making the most of their Navy blues, accepting that they were old and faded, and looked as if they were visibly striving to look as neat, tidy and presentable as they could. All were clean-shaven – Hanna and other instructing NCO's had insisted on this – and had the sort of watchful, wary, alertness of recruits anywhere when confronted with a stern sergeant who was parading them before her commanding officer.
"Sergeant von Strafenburg and Sergeant Detritus tell me you're shaping up acceptably." Olga said, by way of an opener. "You're looking well turned out and I'm sure if I inspected you, I'd find only minor deficiencies."
Olga smiled at them again.
"You've all had basic Watch training. You've also had your Street induction. I hope it didn't come as a shock to you that you are required to be Watchmen, and to perform in this role to an acceptable standard. Well done for getting this far. With the help of Professor Stibbons, we selected forty of you from your graduation at Unseen. I believe sixteen of you dropped out or failed to make the grade. Nichevo."
She studied the group of clean-shaven Wizards again, recognising and appreciating qualities like commitment and perseverance.
"The training you have received so far has been strenuous. Unfortunately right at the start, some of you had visibly been developing Wizard physiques. Nichevo, maybe that's inevitable. Also, you were typical undergraduate wizards. Big dinners, lots of beer, little physical exercise. We had to put that right and develop your physical fitness. Besides, you all aspire to be aircrew. Let me tell you this straight: I do not want excess physical weight on my air vehicles. The ideal aircrew on a two-seater weighs light, fits the available space, and remains alert. Therefore, good diet and lots of exercise. For the last twenty-six weeks."
She smiled, benevolently.
"I'm pleased to be able to tell the six of you, who have been selected as the best out of the twenty-four who remain, that the hard work has paid off. Gentlemen, you get to go into the air today. For the first time."
Even Hanna permitted a cheer and an expression of delight. Olga smiled again.
"There is a mission planned to Zlobenia. You will be on it. Some of you will be passengers on Pegasi. Others, on two-seater brooms. I wish to assess you on how you react to being in the air for the first time. You will be observed. Each of you will be aware that your Pilot is absolutely in charge, and you will take her orders without question. There is also a flight-navigator present. I advise you to treat him with respect, as he will not put up with any nonsense. Also, you will be passing through Transition. Your reaction to Transition will also be observed and assessed. And when you land, one of my part-time officers, Vasilisa Budonova, will take charge of you all and allocate tasks. She will be in charge and you will accept her instructions without question. Later in the day, you will be picked up, returned and debriefed. Any questions? No? Then when you fall out, go to the crew room where you will meet your assigned pilot and Navigator. And well done for getting this far in your training."
Olga waited for them to be dismissed and sent to the crew room for further briefing. She smiled at Hanna. Almost alone together on the flight-deck and standing well to one side, they could now talk more freely.
"This way, we find out who doesn't have a head for heights. Merely airsick, we can deal with. People learn to fight that. Acrophobia, on the other hand. Harder to train them out of. We simply do not know, until they've been up there. And nor do they."
Hanna indicated her assent.
"The pilots have their instructions." she said, neutrally.
Olga noted Hanna's careful reservation.
"They are to stunt their broomsticks just a little." Olga said. "Not full on aerobatics. Just enough. To assess how their aircrew respond to turbulence and bumpy flying. Not the Pegasi, obviously. But the four who fly on brooms."
"A Pegasus might hit an air pocket." Hanna said, thoughtfully. "And suddenly drop by fifty feet. But I agree it is not a good idea to take risks with one."
"Our aircrew recruits need to know flying is not always a smooth ride on a clement day." Olga said. "Part of their training."
They contemplated the aircrew recruits together. Lord Vetinari had adjudged on a long-standing disagreement between Olga Romanoff, Sam Vimes and Mustrum Ridcully, and after reminding Olga and Irena of his personal commitment to gender equality, had suggested she take a draft, and see how they fared.(2) The senior officers of the Air Watch had then conferred on how to make the best if it and how to give a draft of male recruits a fair try. "You never know." Irena Politek had said. "Some of them might work out, and we could get a couple of good useful people."(3)
Sam Vimes, who had bitten through a cigar in his annoyance that he had been over-ruled and was now forced to recruit Wizards to the City Watch, had said "We've been ordered, Olga. Make the best of it."
Olga watched the Pegasi and the two-seater brooms being prepared. The 110 models had mounting posts fore and aft for repeating crossbows, but she had ordered the weapons to be removed as un-needed excess weight. They'd be flying over Zlobenia, for one thing, which was a friendly country. And the aircrew recruits were Wizards. Olga knew enough about the thought-patterns of Wizards, especially student Wizards and recent graduates, and she was definitely not going to put lethal weapons in their hands. That was holding up hostages to fortune.
"They'll have to be given weapons instruction sometime, Olga." Hanna said.
"Da." Olga replied. "For now, Hanna, I want them to be thoroughly instructed in stripping, rebuilding and maintaining the weapons. Standard crossbows. Pistol crossbows. And the automated repeating crossbows. Really thoroughly. Weeks worth of thorough."
"I understand you. So they can do it in their sleep while wearing blindfolds."
"Da." Olga said. "Hanna, is there any way of simulating a blockage at eight thousand feet, while the pilot is taking evasive action? Which the air-gunner is required to clear, so the weapon is serviceable again?"
Hanna von Strafenburg considered this.
"Give me time. I believe we may be able to do this. As a simulated exercise."
"And weapons safety. Especially weapons safety."
They watched the first flight, two Pegasi, taking off. Hanna frowned.
"I'm certain I did not authorise that." she said, watching the two recruit Wizards awkwardly mounting up. One needed to be assisted into the pillion saddle, his Air Witch supervising. Olga shook her head as the Witch dismounted and helped boost her passenger into the rear seat.
"I clearly instructed them as to which recruit flew with which pilot. They are not following clear instructions."
"They've swapped passengers?" Olga asked, watching. Yulia Vizhinsky did seem to be taking her time ensuring her passenger knew how to get onto the pillion. But then, this was standard training…
Olga watched Serafima Dospanova, on the lead Pegasus, who seemed unperturbed and unhurried. She was watching her wingmate's flight preparations. There was, Olga reflected, a sort of look on her face. She knew that sort of look. She'd been around flying Witches for a long time. And nobody got to command a group of flying Witches without being able to recognise undercurrents.
She looked to her right, as another little suspicion grew. Hanna was a good Sergeant, a very good Sergeant, but as a Witch she still needed a little kindly guidance in certain areas.
"Hanna?" she said. "I would stand back here. Allow them to think they've scored a little victory. Or, perhaps better, let them know you have noticed, but on this occasion, you have chosen to overlook it. Everybody wins."
Hanna still didn't quite look as if she'd got it. Olga sighed, and decided to spell it out a little more.
"Besides, I'm married to a wizard myself. I am the last one who should step forward and raise an objection."
The two Pegasi took off. Hanna's face turned to surprise.
Olga nodded, trying not to laugh, which would have been unkind.
"Da. Young woman. Young man. I wondered why Yulia was trying to get duties that took her where our aircrew recruits are. Although, not for very long. Vorona, her best friend, is complicit. So they alter the flight plan, and they swap aircrew."
Hanna considered this.
"Is this sort of thing likely to happen a lot?" she asked.
"Well, what do you think? I agree we should not forbid this. But we should monitor it. To be aware, but not to intervene, unless it affects discipline, operational readiness, or our ability to do our job."
The next flight was readying, four two-seater broomsticks. Nadezhda Popova would be commanding. She joined Olga and Hanna.
"You saw that, did you?" Olga asked.
Nadezhda considered this. She smiled slightly.
"Da. I saw no reason or cause to intervene. Save for reminding the young man, discreetly, that Yulia was a Fledgling. And I am Mother Hen. He got the point."
They watched the second flight saddling up on the two-seaters, with ground-Teks fussing around making last minute adjustments.
Nadezhda switched to Rodinian.
"We should spend time with our friend." she said, referring to Hanna. "You and I are married. With children. Others lack our experience."
Olga agreed. She tried not to look at Hanna, but wondered if there ever had been a boyfriend in any way at all. Probably not.
She reverted to Morporkian.
"Until now, it has not been an issue. It is something that will happen. Yulia may be the first. But not the last. Accepting men into the Air Watch will be a big change. The carpet pilots are valued and accepted, so we already do this. But… not to this extent."
"Most of the Teks are men…. Well, male." Hanna said. She looked over in the direction of Ground Teknik Inga Skiftnyckelsdottir, who was engaged in a fine adjustment of bristles and fairing on a 110.
"Most of them. Yes." Olga agreed, watching Ground Teknik Of The Rose The Thorn, who was assisting Inga with adjusting the metal fairing cover.
Hanna changed the subject.
"It is almost time for the second flight to take off." she reminded them. "Your orders were clear. The Pegasi first. Then wait fifteen minutes before launching the brooms."
There was still a hint of reproach in her voice.
Olga suspected she understood why.
"It was necessary not to tell them everything." she explained. "I want further information concerning what happened yesterday in Feegle Space. Experiments. More flights."
"The pilots have been briefed." Nadezhda said. "Four of us flew yesterday. Jayjay and Stacey were separately briefed by me as to what they may expect. All were told, do not tell men. Necessary. Also, I collated witness accounts from all who flew yesterday. Copies were sent to Palace with your report."
She saluted and asked permission to take her place. Olga returned the salute, and watched as she took her place on the leading broom.
"Count them down, Sergeant von Strafenburg."
The four two-seaters took off, the Wizard recruits generally, for now, stiff and awkward in the rear-facing crew seats.
Olga and Hanna waved them off. They watched the brooms climb. Every so often, a broom might lose formation and lurch in flight. The pilots appeared to be taking it in turns to do this. Olga smiled.
"It was necessary, Hanna." Olga repeated. "You were not there in Feegle Space yesterday when we ran into difficulties. Yesterday there were six Pegasi. Everybody aboard was a magic-user. Thirteen of us. I believe there is a threshold, where too many magic users in Feegle-Space provokes an illusion spell. I want to know clearly where that threshold is. I do not believe two Pegasi together will trigger the effect. But on this flight, there are four magic-users aboard. If they pass without incident, I know the threshold is higher."
"So in the second flight, you double it. Four units, eight magic-users." Hanna remarked. "Four of them have never passed through Transition before. And are therefore most suggestible. Guinea-pigs."
"Da. But on two-seater broomsticks. I am not risking Pegasi." Olga said.
They sensed, above them, the octarine flash of Transition.
"When the pilots return and report, we will know." Olga remarked. "Meanwhile, as I promised to Vasilisa yesterday, she receives a working detail for the day to assist in clearing up. Well over a thousand people attended the going-away. There will be much litter to clear. We retrieve them at five or when they are done, whichever is later."
They turned to return to the Air Office.
"What is your schedule for today, Hanna?" Olga asked.
"To saddle up Blitzen, ensure Firebird is fit for flight, and to be at the palace at ten to be briefed for the Hublandic States run. NoThing, Gudarnajävlasburg, Frivoli, Wrecksjavik and Hell's Sink. Five stops."
Olga checked the time. Just after nine. Good. She needed a quick conference with Irena. Hanna could be Control till then. If the delivery run to Krapovits went according to plan, the first of the pilots would be back by then and she could collate reports. There was that damn Hazards And Incident Reporting Committee Meeting at the palace later in the day… it would be advantageous to be able to demonstrate she had made the experiment, with the broomsticks, to try and quantify where the illusion magic crept in.
"And how is the Baroness this morning?" Irena Politek asked, politely.(4)
Olga tried not to scowl, and reminded Irena about business they needed to attend to.
"By the way, Olga, Vetinari's rescheduled that meeting for eleven-thirty." Irena said. "Stroke of luck, really. The Wizards won't want to be kept for too long, not so near to lunchtime."
"Khoroscho." Olga said. "Has the mail arrived yet?"
Irena said that as always, this depended on whichever dogsbody had been assigned to the post room and how good at it they were.
They discussed deployments and assignments for a while, until a knock on the door announced the Watchman, from Inspector Pessimal's office, who had been assigned to sorting and distributing the incoming mail and internal memos.
Irena and Olga were not surprised to discover one item was a large square parcel with Zlobenian stamps on it.(5) These approximated to a postal cost, as if the person doing the posting had stuck them on at random, but there were still "outstanding postage due" penalty stickers on the outside.
After a few minutes, Olga leant back in her chair and said
"Irena. I think we had better take this thing outside. Don't you?" (6)
The previous afternoon, in a Domovila in the administrative region of Krapovits Oblast, in a Grand Duchy in the Border Marches of Zlobenia and Far Überwald.
Natalia had been granting Last Words to Witches for quite some time now. As she had said, she had time to kill before she died, she'd never been interested in playing cards, and she didn't want to start on the vodka just yet, so she was going to talk to everyone, one at a time, look into the old scryin' bowl, and send 'em off with a few Last Words. Something to remember the passin' of a Babayaga by. Somethin' they'll never forget.
Her favoured Assistant Witch, Vasilisa Danutovna, stood beside her as she ran down the list of visitors.
"Now think on, girl!" she said, to the latest interviewee, one of the Rodinian girls who'd been sent to Lancre to learn Witchcraft.
"My mother was a Svetlana. You're a Svetlana. Don't disgrace the name, and make me proud!"
She softened slightly.
"'Cos I might come round to check. That's not un-known in this Lancre place. Okay, Vasilisa. Who's next?"
"Any preference, Babayaga?"
"Nah, just round up one I ain't seen yet. That one you call Skripka, maybe. Get the feelin' she might be a bit too clever for other people's good. Fiddle player, isn't she? Well, I'm going to give her a tune she can dance to."
Vasilisa went to find Yulia Viszhinsky, and wondered about the comin' round to check part. She had heard the stories about Lancre, the ones that circulated among people there… and Death was not necessarily the end for a Witch. It just meant she had to work a bit harder at communicating with people.
Outside, more people were gathering and more carts and wagons full of people, food, and drink, were showing up. Family groups were sorting themselves out and claiming spots inside and outside the perimeter of the old Witch's gardens.
Rebecka Smith-Rhodes, unheeded for now, noted that although the place was filling up, nobody was in a hurry to go close to the two upright wooden posts, both crudely carved into approximate human figures, that delineated the Gateway to the Domovila.
Remembering what she had been told on the flight over and driven by curiosity, Bekki went to take a closer look. People parted to make a path for her, possibly recognising Witch, or possibly recognising Assassin. She was reminded again how ambiguous her sort of black clothing was. Still, people were respecting it and making way.
She felt it from twenty yards away, like a strong wind. The posts, the Gate Guardians, were aware of her. And the message was strong and unmistakeable.
Do not pass through this gate.
She bowed acknowledgement, and approached closer, with caution and respect. She noted the Guardians were letting her do it. For now. Again, the image of three cloaked horsemen rose in her mind. She studied it. One cloaked in black, one in white, one in red. All were spear-armed, or possibly lance-armed, and were sitting their horses on the other side of the gate. Just watching.
She frowned. Everyday Bekki, in the normal world, saw nothing on the other side of the Domovila gate. But that didn't mean they were not there. And something was wrong with perspective on the other side. The riders she sensed could have been ten yards away. Or a hundred. Or half a mile away. There was forest in there, yes. But there was also rock. And marsh. And tundra. The suspicion of still waters in the distance.
She watched the subtly changing landscape for a while, then she knew what it was.
"Gnarly ground." she said, out loud. Gnarly ground was the reason why Lancre had – potentially – the largest land area of any nation on the Disc. Geographers were still arguing about whether it counted. And, more to the point, how to get an accurate map of it.
She studied the view for a while, different if you looked directly between the gateposts, appreciating why she'd been told not to fly over it. She heard someone coming up behind her.
It was Vasilisa, the young witch everyone knew would be staying here as Witch in her own steading. Bekki had trained with her in the Air Watch and they knew each other slightly, but only slightly.
"Never wise to come to Domovila alone, Firebird." Vasilisa said. "Especially one who knows least. Babayaga saw you in her seeing-bowl. Told me come and get you. Before you walk in. Also that it gives her chance to speak privately to Irena Yannesovna, without me listening."
Bekki bowed to the gateway again. Vasilisa's impassive face seemed to register a glimmer of approval. She bowed too.
"Think Other World likes you." she said. "If you walk in not knowing, it may have let you out again. After while."
"I'm not going to ask." Bekki said.
"With Domovila. Land responds to what you are. Bring bad thoughts, then bad things happen. To a good person, it is kinder. May even teach you good lesson. But other things in there too. Also walk in deep forest. Vodnik. Leshii. In still waters, Rusalkas. Dangerous things."
They walked back to the house together, Vasilisa fending questions from anxious people.
Behind them, a large and attractive pure white cat strolled, unconcerned, from between the gate-posts of the Domovila. Watchers might have seen it nonchalantly stretching up and speculating on using the wood as a scratching-post. Then it lost interest, and strolled away, keeping to the forest perimeter of Natalia's home.
Neither Witch saw this.
Irena Politek made the witch-bow to her former tutor, then took the offered guest-stool on the other side of the table. Alone in the small room, Vasilisa having been sent to fetch that red-haired foreign girl with the curious streak before she does anythin' interestin', Irena tried to look passive and unconcerned.
Irena also knew that this would be the absolutely last time she would have a private conversation with the woman who had seen her potential as a Witch and who had been her first tutor and sponsor into the Craft. This was to be cherished and stored as a final memory of Natalya.
She waited, in the moment, as Natalya bent over the bowl. She felt relieved that Vasilisa had been tactfully sent out of the room on an errand, so that it was just the two of them. It wasn't that she mistrusted Vasilisa or thought the girl was prone to gossip. Irena knew this to be absolutely not the case. In a moment like this, some things were understood. It had to be Natalya and her pupil. Alone.
Irena watched, cherishing the dwindling moments, as her old tutor cackled delightedly to herself, then raised her head from the skrying bowl.
What has she seen? Irena thought, stilling a moment of disquiet.
Their eyes met, the old witch radiating a knowingness she wasn't immediately prepared to share. Although Irena could recognise boffo when she saw it, she still felt uneasy. A dying Babayaga could indeed see truly into a future for others which had run out for her.
"There was this girl." Natalya said, speaking from two decades into the past. "Eleven year old. Maybe twelve. Got called to the isba at three in the morning. I remember Yanessa Politeka was bloody frantic. Grigori and his sons was puttin' out a fire. Side wall of the isba blown right through. Bits everywhere, Mrs Shezardina next door got the fright of her life."
"Yes." Irena said. "I remember."
"Dint take much figurin' out." Natalya remarked. "Young girl, developin' magic. Along with all the other stuff goin' on with a young girl when she gets to that age. So of course they comes a callin' by night."
"Most people what gets night terrors just lies there. You can't move. You lies there, you sees they is creepin' closer, you can see 'em, you wonder what they're going to do to you when they gets up close, you can't move a muscle, some people widdle themselves. Some people lies there, froze up, tryin' to get an arm to move, so you can try to thump 'em. But this young girl."
Natalya grinned again.
"She worked it out. That it din't matter that she was paralysed. She could thump 'em with her mind. You chucked a fireball at 'em. Sent the little buggers runnin', the ones as weren't blasted to buggery, but you din't take into account you was livin' in a wooden house. Hell of a mess."
"I remember." Irena said, faintly.
"Well, can't have a girl runnin' round who has hot dreams." Natalya said. "Your mother was all for me takin' you as a pupil, after I explained. Grigori Politek, cheeky bugger, tried to argue, sayin' daft things about magic being an invention of the bourgeois state and another mechanism for the capitalist class to oppress the workin' proletariat. Had to put your dad straight on that."
Irena tried not to wince. She loved her father still but knew he could have difficulties with fitting magic into the framework of a materialist socio-economic political philosophy. He had been very quiet for a long time after Natalya had put him straight, she recalled. He'd also withdrawn his opposition to his youngest child and only daughter learning to control Witchcraft. If only for fire-prevention reasons.
"So I got you." Natalya reminisced. "And the other one. Proper little madam she was, at first."
Irena considered the other one.
"Yes. She was. Did her good, though."
"And your dad had a point about волшебники." the old Witch agreed. "If you wants magic users what believes in a repressive social system 'cos they tends to come out on the top of it and benefitin', it's them bloody buggers. Your typical vedmu, as opposed to a ved'ma , he just wants the big dinners and the fancy robes an' a salaried position as Court Wizard to the Tsar, for preference. They got a bloody College of Wizardry down in Blondograd. Snooty buggers."
They considered what the Manifesto would describe as the pure primitive communism of witchcraft, untainted by Capitalist ideology or bourgeouis sentiment, born out of the good hearts and pure souls of the agricultural proletariat. Thoughts like this had helped Irena square the circle of political ideology and practical everyday witching.(7)
"Anyway. Time presses, and I ain't got much left." Natalya reminded her. She looked into the still dark liquid again. Irena watched, attentively.
"You come a long way, Irena Yannesovna. A long way. Your family ain't mouzhiks. They're the next rung up, kulaks. But in a place like this, that's as far as people born into the mouzhik class ever gets. It's a ladder what's only got the two rungs. Either you're a peasant who owns her own boots, or you ain't. Mouzhiks and kulaks. But you got out. Told you you would. You became a ved'ma. Witches makes their own rules and their own way. Even Nikita Romanoff realises that. Made sure he realised that."
She grinned again.
"Remember the first time you come back? How everyone tried to run you out of town 'cos you'd broke the unwritten rule? Knew that would happen and I waited on the edge of town for you. You had to learn that lesson, girl." (8)
"I remember." Irena said, closing her eyes at the memory of an old humiliation, of discovering her home town wanted nothing to do with her.
Natalya looked on with sympathy.
"Never learnt much Morporkian." She said, reflectively. "But I heard as how they calls that crab-bucket. All them crabs in a bucket. One tries to get out, the rest pull it back in. Good picture, that. You was the crab what got out. They hated that. But remember what I told you then? You weren't a peasant no more and if you still thought in your own head that you was, then you'd best shift the thought out? Well. You did it, devyuschka."
Natalya smiled. There was approval there, even a sort of love.
"You got a place. A position. That devious bugger Lord Vetinari values you. You and Olga Anastacia have both come a long way since you started off here. You is the one in a million. A mouzhik who stopped being a mouzhik and found her true place in a bigger world. You gets to see that world. Barring a couple of trips to places like Rigour and Blondograd and a few years with the Ron Host, all my life's been here. No complaints, been a good life."
She looked far away for a few moments.
"Well, I might get a chance to tour around a bit. To see this great big Discworld. Quite hopin' I do, after four o'clock this afternoon."
Irena understood this. This was an old Witch talking. And Witches made their own way even after Death.
"Anyroad. You've helped create this Air Watch thing. That's impressive. Gettin' so many witches together and not getting' no argument or fightin' is like herdin' cats. Never really seen anythin' like that before. You've even brung on a couple of pupils. Which reminds me. When we're done, I'd like to talk to that one you call Firebird. Your pupil. That's interestin'."
"Could be a language barrier sort of thing there. I don't speak Morporkian and her Rodinian ain't good enough yet. So you do the interpretin', Irena? Spassibo."
She bent over the bowl again.
"Let's see. It should have cooked by now. "Irena Yanessovna Politeka. Good career, well thought of, got a place and a position. Happy life, satisfaction. But there's this one thing that's startin' to niggle. How old are you now? Middle thirties? Time moves when you ain't watchin' the clock. And that particular clock, my girl, is tickin' for you and you is starting to hear the tick."
She studied the bowl again and cackled.
"You're not opposed to the idea of men." Natalya said. "But this is something you've kept pushin' over to one side 'cos they gets in the way. Men are big kids. They demands your time. Your attention. And you've wanted to fly, be in the air, travel, be a Witch. You've fallen in the trap, devyuschka. Loads of Witches do. You think "save that for later" and then one day there isn't a later. Reckon you're realisin' that. You've seen Olga Anastacia find a useful man and marry. You love her kiddies. There's the other girl, Nadezhda Veranovna. You adore her little girl. You bring on Firebird, and you've known her since she was hatched. Useful young Witch there, you done well with her."
Natalya grinned. This time there was sympathy in the grin, the grin of an old lady on the way out who'd seen it all and was at peace with the world.
"It ain't hard to work out, Irena. There's a large chunk of you that's sayin' "I want something like that for myself" and "Have I left it too late?"
"Da." Irena admitted, letting her head droop. "Pravda."
"Now we're getting' somewhere." Natalya remarked. "You want my frank opinion, girl, you not marryin', or next best thing to, and your not havin' a kiddie, would be an awful waste. Your mother worries, for one thing. Also, the experience rounds you off. And I reckon you got a good few years to bring this about. Well. The good news is. There's a man. At least one. But the one I'm seein, you'll know him when you meet him. Keep your eyes open. He'll be good for you. The ba… the other news. He'll come with a bit of luggage. But you'll rise to it. You allus have. Keep your eyes open for…" the old witch squinted down into the bowl. "skobari."
Irena realised this would be everything.
"Also, your mother would love grandchildren. However you get them and bring them to her. Now if you can go and get Firebird? Oh… and the shamanka girl, Xenia. Got a feelin' I need her here too."
Irena rose to leave and made a deep, respectful, Witch bow. Inside she wondered So many questions… and why horseshoes?
Godsmother Irena, looking deeply thoughtful, led Bekki into the old Witch's parlour. It was a small room but still gave an impression of space. A large window looked out over the open space outside, which while crowding with people, was still empty around the window. Nobody wanted to get close to that window.
She saw the old lady sitting at the table, the corner alcove with all the pictures immediately behind her. Xenia Galena and Vasilisa Budonova were standing immediately behind her, one startlingly blonde, the other deeply dark. It looked symbolic of something or other.
"Boffo. Probably." Bekki thought, making a deep and instinctively respectful Witch bow. The old lady spoke in Rodinian.
"Please be seated, Rebecka Yohannovna." Godsmother Irena said. Bekki realised her godsmother was there to interpret. It made sense. She sat on the stool. The old lady gave her long, intense, scrutiny. Recognising test, Bekki tried to be as emotionless as possible. She gathered this earned marks on your scorecard in Rodinia. She held the old woman's gaze, trying not to mind that her eyes were beginning to water.
Natalya grinned and nodded. She began speaking. After the first couple of sentences, Godsmother Irena took up the translation.
"Daughter of a vedmu, a Wizard. And of a zhenshchina-ubiytsa."
Irena smiled slightly.
"That means woman who kills for a living. As near as our language gets to "Assassin", devyushka".
She returned to intent listening and translating.
"From what I read, your mother isn't a bad person. Could have gone to the bad many years ago, but she realised the way she was heading and chose a different road. Your father's also pretty good, for a bloody damn Wizard. Seems like you got good parents, Firebird."
She looked down into the dark liquid again. She cackled, and called Irena over. Irena looked with her. Then both looked at Bekki and laughed.
"Обратите внимание на ее сестру." Natalya said to Irena. Irena nodded, and did not translate.
Bekki, who had caught the words "her sister" winced, and didn't even bother to try being impassive.
"What's Famke done now?" she said, before she could stop herself. Whatever it was, if Famke had turned up in the crystal-ball-equivalent of a Witch several thousand miles away, when this reading was meant to be about her, Rebecka, it had to be something spectacularly Famke, something only Famke could pull.
"Let's just say she's got a big personality." she said. She turned back to the old witch.
"Станет ли она одной из нас? Правда?" Irena asked. Behind her Vasilisa, who was sneaking a look, grinned at Bekki. She said
"Да. Сестра приедет к нам в нужное время. Но это о Ребекке Жар-Птице. Правда.
Again, Irena did not translate.
The old Witch turned to Bekki and spoke again, through Irena.
"Witches have been around you since the day of your birth. Irena Yanessovna was midwife at your birth. She became kuma to you, your Godsmother. And your teacher in Witchcraft. Did well at it too."
There was a hint of smugness in Irena's translating. Bekki frowned. She hadn't known this till today, that Irena had actually birthed her.(9)
"Three good wishes got laid on you by Witches. Four, in fact. That's unusual. That you'd learn to fly and you'd travel far, Вы бы хорошо владели языками."
Irena paused for just long enough for Bekki to get the sense of the Rodinian that you'd be good at languages.
"Also that you'd be good with animals and people and that you'd be a peacemaker."
Irena paused as the old witch spoke again.
"From what I can see, all that's working out pretty well. Good wishes, well chosen ones. Also your mother taught you how to fight, when you need to, and your father gave you a great big dollop of Wizard magic. You're not quite seventeen, and you've only just got your own Steading. Barely been there a fortnight."
She looked back into the bowl again.
"Got an aunt I wouldn't like a fight with. She's lookin' after you. Good woman."
The old witch looked up and shook her head.
"You learn something new every day." Irena voiced her words. "I always thought Howondaland was just full of people with black skin and grass skirts, chucking spears. Never dreamt there was white people there too."
She frowned. Irena grinned and interpreted her words more demotically.
"They look a right bunch of bloody-minded buggers. No wonder your mum escaped and your auntie only went back there reluctant."
Irena grinned, and added, in her own voice, " And just wait till I get to mention this bit to Johanna."
The old lady tutted and shook her head.
"We got mouzhiks and kulaks. Your lot have got black people. Maybe we ain't so different. Anyway. Rebecka Firebird. Your immediate future. Watch out for scissors. I mean that. Important. Something's going to be coming for you. It doesn't know you're there yet. But when it does. It'll be chasing you with scissors. You're a threat to it. It will not like that."
She looked down into the water again.
"This I tell you, Firebird. The old man will try to kill you. The old lady will let him. The scissors come out of the girl. And the younger woman is not so innocent. There's also a decent lad in the middle of this who's at his wits end and doesn't know how to stop it. It's a test, Firebird. Keep your wits about you."
"Need to talk to you later, devyuschka." she said. She returned to interpreting.
"There's a lad keen on you. You got yourself a good lad there, Firebird. But life's going to get in the way. Next three years you'll hardly see each other at all. Army want him, for one thing. Prizyvnik. Novobranets. He don't have a choice. You'll still be keen on each other, but you both gets long times apart."
The old lady looked up at Irena. There seemed to be an understanding there.
"Best of both worlds for you, Firebird. You get the time to build a Steading without a man getting in your way too much. But you still get the man. And in three years you get to ask yourself: Can I stand seeing more of this man, can I stand being married to him? And you will think long and deep about this, devyushka. Can't see which way you jump, though."
Bekki tried not to wince.
"Last things I'm seeing: watch out for sheep. That's all. Sheep can be dangerous. Also, before the end of this year…" the old lady grinned. "You know the thing about the Queen saying "Off with her head!" Well. Imagine you're on a chessboard. White pawn or something like. And the Black Queen comes stamping into sight. She sees you. And she knows the rules of the game. She has to point at you and shout "Off with her head!" And you know what's going to make her mad as Hell? She doesn't want to. But she'll still have to say it anyway."
Bekki tried not to look perplexed.
"Sorry, devyushka. That really is what I'm seeing. Chessboard. People as pieces. You as a pawn. Black Queen takes White Pawn."
The old lady looked around her. She pointed at Xenia Galena.
"Ты. Черный конь."
Xenia nodded. She didn't look surprised, Bekki thought.
Natalya pointed at Irena.
"Ты. Ольга Анастасия. Белые Кони."
Irena frowned, and nodded.
Natalya turned back to Bekki.
"Tricky moment." she said. "But your head stays on. Pravda."
Bekki digested this and wondered. Thinking this was everything, she made to stand up, Witch-bow and leave. Godsmother Irena made a little shake of her head. Bekki remained seated.
"One last thing to show you." Natalya said, pleasantly. "I'm done with the telling futures thing now, where you're concerned. But I'm to show you this."
She looked up. She spoke to Vasilisa in fast Rodinian.
"Da, Babayaga" she said, and left the room.
"Going to show you a bit of magic." the old lady said. "This is the sort of magic that takes more than one witch. And a shamanka."
She nodded to Xenia Galena. Xenia smiled back, then smiled pleasantly at Bekki. She wondered what was going to happen. At least three Witches showing her a bit of magic. This would be heavy stuff.
Vasilisa returned. She was carrying what Bekki recognised as a set of matryoshka dolls, which she knew would have one doll nested inside another until you got down to the smallest and last. Each cylinder would depict a well-rounded and heavyset matronly woman, dressed in traditional Rodinian costume. From the look of the outer one, ornate red and gold predominated. The set had the look of something old and cherished. There wasn't any obvious magical feel to it.
Vasilisa passed the set to Irena, who studied it, then passed it to Xenia. Xenia held the matryoshka with both hands and contemplated the doll set for a while. Then she bowed and passed the set to Natalya, who set it on the table in front of her, pushing the skrying-bowl to one side. She needed assistance in holding the dolls safely, Vasilisa giving her discreet assistance in bearing the weight. Dark water slopped from the bowl as it moved. A puddle soaked into the tablecloth. Bekki noticed this, then reasoned that, justnow, the old lady probably wasn't going to be bothered overmuch about getting the stain out of a white tablecloth. Laundry would soon be Somebody Else's Problem.
"Got these a long time ago." She said, thoughtfully, as the five witches gathered round. "Anyway. You paying attention, Firebird? Good."
She nodded to Xenia.
"Do the honours, shamanka? These old fingers are a bit stiff today. Doubt they'll get better. Spassibo."
Xenia Galena looked directly at Bekki. Vasilisa and Irena briefly rested hands on the outermost doll.
"Listen well, Firebird." Xenia said through Irena. "This is Sonya Marmeladova Rostova. A long time ago she was ved'ma in this place and lived in this isba."
As Bekki watched, she saw the doll-like painted face on the matryoshka swirl and change and become more realistically human. Not a generic doll-face now, it had reality, and character, and humanity. Still a painted rather than an iconographic image, it depicted a woman in the prime of life, maybe about fifty years old.
Then Xenia Galena gently twisted the doll about its waist and lifted the upper half away. She removed the nested dolls from inside and reunited Sonya Marmeladova Rostova's upper and lower halves.
Then she lifted up the smaller nest of dolls and showed the blank painted doll-face to Bekki.
"Sonya Marmeladova Rostova taught Tatiana Yulianovna Ostinova, who became ved'ma in this Domovila."
Again the painted on doll face swirled and reshaped and became real. This was a different woman, also in the prime of life, in her forties or fifties.
"Surprised, Firebird? The isba where they lived remembers them. The Domovila honours them." she said.
She reassembled the second doll next to the first, and lifted the smaller nested set. Again Bekki saw a painted doll face.
"In her turn, Tatiana Yulianovna Ostinova took a pupil. Natalya Svetlanavichnya Filipovna came here first as a pupil, and then ved'ma, and finally Babayaga. Today her life here ends. But the isba remembers her. And will honour her memory."
This time the doll took the face of Natalya. But far younger, in her forties.
"Good to see their faces again." the old Witch said. "Thank you, shamanka."
Xenia smiled. A third doll, with Natalia's face, joined the other two.
Bekki was now getting an inkling as to whose face she would see next…
"Natalya Svetlanavichnya Filipovna took her pupils. One was Irena Yanessovna Politeka. Who went elsewhere in the world but remains a pupil of this Domovila."
The fourth doll now had the face of Godsmother Irena. Bekki admired how good a likeness it was.
Godsmother Irena's doll-self went to stand next to the other three. Xenia brought out the fifth and final doll.
Bekki looked down…
"And Irena Yanessovna Politeka. Who chose her own pupil."
Xenia stumbled slightly over the strange foreign name.
"Rebecka Yohannovna Smit'-Rhodes-Stibbons."
Bekki looked down into her own face. She frowned. Had her own painted likeness just winked at her? She waited for Xenia to set down the fifth doll.
Xenia closed her eyes, focused and twisted slightly. The fifth and innermost doll of the set, the one which is solid and cannot be opened, split into its upper and lower halves. Xenia reached in and brought out a sixth doll. It glowed in silver and octarine, as if it was not fully of this world. Bekki could not make out a face or much more than the shape of a matryoshka doll. But faces, or the suspicions of faces, flickered briefly across her mind. One of them, gone before she could get any detail, was Black Howondalandian.
Then there seemed to be a collective exhalation. The glowing ghost-doll was gone and there was only a solid matryoschka doll. Xenia passed this to Bekki. It was completely solid, turned from a single piece of wood, and there was no telltale break running round the waist.
"Кто знает, Жар-птица?" Xenia asked.
Bekki understood this. She also noted the magically enhanced faces fading from the dolls, including her own.
"Who knows, Firebird?"
"I think I get it." Bekki said. "It's like a chain. Witch to witch. And for me, it leads back here. Through here. And if in the future I take a pupil. They're part of the chain too. That leads back to here."
The old witch smiled when this was translated for her.
"You're right." she said to Irena. "She is bright. Well done."
Xenia reassembled the doll set. She passed it back to Natalya, with a bow.
Natalya shook her head.
"Nyet." she said. "I'm moving on soon. These things were nice while I was alive. Useful. Made the place prettier. But I can't take 'em with me."
She indicated Bekki should come closer.
"Irena and Olga get to decide who gets what after I go." she said. "Save for those things that stay in the house. Vasilisa knows what they are. But while I'm still alive. This is yours, Firebird. I got that you fell in love on sight. Take them, as my gift. I know they're going to a good home where you'll look after them. Maybe, who knows, there'll be a girl to hand them on to, when your time comes."
Bekki took the matryoshka set, wordlessly. Close to, the red and the gold was gloriously beautiful. She bowed.
"Spassibo bolshoye, Babayaga." she said.
Outside, one of many family groups was eating a picnic lunch. This was not unusual. Many families had assembled. But this was the only one who had arrived by private coach, escorted by a retinue of Cossack guards. Cossack guards were posted a respectful distance away, to ensure none of the peasantry came close.
Olga Romanoff was rebuilding bridges with her father. But on her own terms. It helped she had something of worth to bring with her. Having demonstrated that morning that she had status as commanding officer of a powerful Air Watch helped, too. Father could not have failed to notice the formation of seven Pegasi that had circled the Estate House and the town that morning, a statement, rather than a threat.
She looked across the picnic cloth to her mother. Countess Ekatarinya was expressing delight in the company of her grandchildren. Valla and Vassily were on their absolute best behaviour, and Grandmama was suitably entranced by them. She was even being accepting to Eddie, who was sitting awkwardly at the picnic trying not to notice a certain armed-with-swords-and-whips-ness to the Cossack guards.
No, it was Father who was being the problem. He always was. Olga Anastacia had developed the peasant affliction of witchcraft. Granted there was a streak of it in the Romanoff family, for Reasons Of Which We Shall Not Speak(10), and it looked as if it had all dumped itself upon Olga, all it once.(11) Well, she cannot be blamed for that. All we asked, and this is reasonable in the circumstances, that she does what is expected, marries a suitable noble husband, and hides it. If she cannot control the urges, she expresses them strictly in private.
But no. She and the peasant girl abscond. They run off to this Lancre place together.
Olga realised she was thinking in her father's voice and pulled herself back. She smiled at him. He could be pompous, he could be stupid, he had a vastly inflated idea of his own importance, he lived in a world that in Ankh-Morpork had ceased to exist a couple of centuries before, even for its nobility, but he was still her father, the only one she'd ever get.
Nikolas Alexandrovich Romanoff smiled back. A little uncertainly, but it was a fatherly smile. Besides, Olga thought. Grandchildren. On any level, a potent reconciliation tool. And for her father, a way to reconcile without losing face. He'd cut Olga out of the wills and the succession and the inheritance in a moment of anger. She knew he wanted to reconsider and call it back, but he couldn't do that publicly. Not without humbling himself in front of – especially – his three younger brothers.
Olga had gifted him a solution. The succession now skipped a generation. Grand Duke Nikolas would be succeeded, in time, by Grand Duke Vassily. The mother of Grand Duke Vassily would fade into obscurity as Countess Olga. Earlier family breaches caused by Countess Olga's wilful and disobedient behaviour could now be forgiven and forgotten, and she could be reinstated in the Family.
All she needed to do was to see young Baron Vassily got an education fit for one who would become a Grand Duke.
"The Assassins' Guild School." Olga had said, firmly. She didn't like the idea very much, but she conceded it gave a damn good education, especially to sons and daughters of nobility and royalty. Besides, she knew people who taught there. Strict, but not sadists. They delivered quality Education. "You can't object, father. Cousin Tasha went there. You find her admirable and quite perfect. And she will be a Grand Duchess one day, when Uncle Dimitri passes."
Nikolas made a noise partway between a grunt and a harrumph. Olga took this as consent. He looked at his daughter with an expression of haughty weariness.
That rather strange woman who arrived with the letters from Vetinari, he thought. Katyushya seemed to know who she was. Come to think of it, one of those letters was from Sybil Ramkin.
Nikolas felt a warm memory from long ago. Sybil had referred to him as Nikita, asked if he remembered the summer ball at the Selachii's, and she had written fulsomely about the quality of his dancing. She had also reminisced to Katyuscha about long-ago days at school in Quirm. Nikolas recalled his wife had come from a rather liberal family, who had actually sent her to a boarding school. He frowned. The strange woman who had delivered the letters had also mentioned her school in Quirm.(12) She and Katyuscha had reminisced - at length - about a Miss Butts and a miss Delcross and a teacher called Iron Ronnie. Then this Miss Tick had smoothly invited herself to travel with them in the coach. Nikolas was still not exactly sure as to why he'd allowed this. He couldn't remember allowing this, but Miss Tick had travelled with them anyway.
Nikolas drew a deep sigh. He had an uncomfortable sensation of having been out-manouevred.
Sybil had then gone on to lay it out clearly to Nikita and her old schoolfriend Katyuscha. Your daughter Olga is no fool. She has achieved great things in Ankh-Morpork. She has fought in a war. On the winning side. She is a respected Watchwoman and stands in the four or five most senior people in a very big organisation. My husband the Duke of Ankh commands the Watch, and he thinks very highly of Olga, as indeed I do. If she was a son, Nikita, you would be bursting with pride in her.
And as she is no idiot, she has chosen exactly the right man for her. They have given you two fine grandchildren and assured the Romanoff succession. Accept Edward. He is a good husband and a good father. If I were you I'd give him a title. It doesn't have to be a big one. If your issue is that he is a commoner, then elevate him so that he isn't a commoner. A simple solution, don't you think?
Confronted with Ladies who Organise seeking to steer him, there was really only one way Nikolas Romanoff could go. He took a deep breath, and welcomed Olga back to her family. And as he was also a father, he took pleasure in hugging and kissing her.
His wife Ekatarinya, Grandmother Katyuscha to the children, watched with relief and approval. The Ladies had put their heads together. Grand Duke Nikolas Romanoff was being Organised.
He sighed and remembered other advice Sybil Ramkin had sent in her letters.
Nikita? In all earnestness and as an old friend – do not try to send anyone else, natural or supernatural, to try to abduct Olga back. This has not ended well, has it?(13) Besides, Havelock has noticed. He asked why there seem to be more Undead creatures out of Far Überwald about the place than usual, wondered what could possibly be attracting them to the city, and who might actively be sending them. He did not mention any names, but believe me, Nikita – he knows.
Nikolas winced at the memory. Other memories arose.
The envelope had arrived, postmarked for Ankh-Morpork, containing two withered, dessicated, frog-like things. The Witch Natalya had shook her head on seeing them, then had led Nikolas to the edges of the marsh. She had thrown the ugly sinister little things, like scraps of old leather, into the dark waters and had explained.
"An immortal creature. Undead. Lives in dank water. My guess is these two buggers met a fireball coming the other way. What you got here, Nikita, is dessicated vodnik…"
The Vodniks fountained up into the air with a glopping squelch. They glared at Nikolas Romanoff through big bulging frog-like eyes. They did not look happy. Natalya intervened.
"You were approached. An agreement was made. You would be paid regardless of success. You have been paid. The agreement is fulfilled. Now. Bugger off." she said.
"Three of you went out?" Nikolas asked.
Apparently one had, whilst being pursued by the Undead and Witchy members of the Watch, tried to escape by leaping into the Ankh. The third vodnik had simply dissolved. Some waters are too dank and murky even for vodniks.
Reasoning that a witch could be best trapped by supernatural creatures, he'd tried rusalkas next. Both had shuddered at the quality of what passed for freshwater in Ankh-Morpork and had not stayed long. One had made it all the way to the Chalk. Here, a terminally confused rusalka a long way from home, trying to abduct a human child out of instinct and imperative, had met a frying pan coming the other way. (14)
And the leshii he'd sent… had come back. The huge shaggy forest monster had given Nikolas a long reproachful look, shuddered slightly, and merged into his forest again, as that rare thing. A frightened leshii.
Nikolas Romanoff realised nothing in the supernatural world now wanted to speak to him, let alone work for him. Bad news travels fast on the other side of the Domovila Gate.
And old Natalya had grinned and said "Told you. Young Olga's got strength. So has young Irena. I'm bettin' she was the one what threw the fireballs. An' you don't think the rest of the City Watch ain't going to fight for them?"
She eyeballed the man who was technically her feudal overlord.
"If I was you, Nikita, I'd make peace. Accept her back. 'Cos she's going to be Grand Duchess after you, anyway. Whatever she feels about it. Whether she likes it or not."
Natalya had paused.
"She will come back, Nikita. Even if she don't want to. Olga will come back. Best you wait for that and welcome your daughter when she does." The old witch paused. "She ain't actually said "over my dead body", but I reckon when she comes back, it'll be over somebody's dead body. Just don't let it be yours, Nikita Romanoff. A dad should talk to his daughter, and that's hard to do from inside a coffin."
And today, which was going to be the…. Death-day?... for the old Witch, Olga had indeed come back. Nikolas looked at his grand-children and felt thankful. There was a Romanoff heir in Vassily. Who did not appear to have magic in any way at all. If Valentina, beautiful clever Valentina, chooses to become a Witch, then she should. Her brother is my heir. The sister can choose her own path. He felt pride, suddenly, in daughter and grandchildren. It was a good feeling.
Olga's private time with her former mentor came in the early afternoon, after her lunch with her parents. Vasilisa Budonova showed her in, then Witch-bowed to both Witches who had been her tutors, and left the room quietly. This was between them both.
Olga, cherishing what would be the very last time spent with her first teacher, bowed and sat. Natalya bowed her head over the skrying-bowl in deep contemplation.
"Saved you till last, Olga Anastacia." Natalya said. "Just between you and me. All them girls you brought with you are good. You were always something special."
Olga bowed her head slightly.
"They all got something to take away and think about. In the case of Firebird, she got something more."
"Da. The dolls." Olga agreed. She'd seen Rebecka going to stow her gift away in one of Boetjie's panniers. After a while she had made an intelligent guess as to what the carefully-wrapped something was.
"That girl's takin' Witchcraft to a place thousands of miles away what has never had Witchcraft before. Least, not our sort of Witchcraft. She's going to feel all on her own out there, out on the rim, out on the Edge. Reckoned she needs a link, to remind her where her witchin' comes from. Through Irena Yannesovna – and you – it comes from here. So she gets a bit of here, to take with her to Howondaland. Could be she'll find it useful."
"Just to make sure – you knows what thievin' magpies witches can be at a goin' away – I sent a bit of this Domovila to you in the post. It'll make its own way there and find you. And Irena both." (15)
Olga indicated acknowledgement and thanks.
"Anyhow. I told Irena Yannesovna just now she's the one in a million. The crab what made it out of the bucket. She got to be more than a peasant. I'm pleased. You was in the same sort of trap. Nobody gets to be demoted down from nobility, or at least, not easily. You managed it. You got to be less than Noble and the right sort of Nobility at the same time. Took yourself right down to the bottom of the ladder and then climbed it again, on your own account, without having to kick other people off it nor stand on anyone else's fingers on the way back up."
"Considerin' there was once a girl of twelve or thirteen what had been taught to move as if she had a broomstick stuck up her jacksie, that's an achievement."
Olga smiled, remembering.
"But she also had magic. As I recall she was right pissed off that her father had just said "no" to her goin' away to the boardin' school what her mother went to. She really wanted to go to Quirm."
Natalya shook her head.
"I tole you then. Quirm didn't matter. Quirm didn't signify. You'd find the place you really wanted to go to was Ankh-Morpork. Only you din't know that then."
"I was right, wasn't I? But you needed a bit of a journey to get you there. Perspicacia Tick helped. Got you both to Lancre and this other place, Chalk. Then she squares it with your mum. Helps they both went to the same school. Trust, see. Knew each other. Miss Tick did what she always does with the parents. She says to your mum – look, you wanted to send Olga to a boarding school. You'd have had to come to terms with separation and you would have to trust them, that she was being looked after, cared for and would come to no harm. Well, then. Think of Lancre as being like a boarding school for Witches. We'll make sure she gets to write to you, and whatever Nikolas thinks, we will see her letters get here, and your letters get to her."
"Good as her word, she was, Oh, your father went spare when he saw those iconographs of you and Irena working with them sheep in the Chalk. Siege-engine ballistic, in fact, looking at pictures of you in the fields with them sheep, havin' the time of your life. His daughter, playing at being a peasant!"
Olga felt a tear start in one eye.
"Mother got all the letters? And the iconographs?"
"Kept 'em all safe." she said. "Your dad threatened to burn 'em, but I don't think he had the heart. Just bluster."
"Hear you've kissed and made up." she remarked. "That's the thing about funerals. Lots of useful stuff gets said and done. Weddings are for fights. Funerals is for shakin' hands. Always the way."
She bent her head over the bowl.
"Speakin' of sheep." she said. "Blowed if I can see why, but half your girls from the Air Watch. I got sheep. Just that, sheep. Watch out for sheep. Definite warnin' about sheep."
She shook her head.
"You all did some of your trainin' in this place called Chalk?" Natalya asked. "Where sheep are big business, like horses for Cossacks? And there is one powerful ved'ma there. She's fond of sheep. Give her seventy years, she'll be a Babayaga, like the one what passed a year or two back. Met that one once. She and two other ved'mas was on the way back from Genua. They stayed here for a day or two. Glad of the company."
She looked down again.
"Olga Anastacia, all I'm seein' is that sheep are going to give you a headache. Watch out for sheep. Bit of bother loomin'. Two lots of bother, in fact, comin' up within a year and a day."
She looked up and grinned.
"Got to say "a year and a day". Traditional, see. Anyway. Comes as a surprise to people that sheep can get aggressive. You just sees them as dim fluffy things what stands around eatin' grass. Right up until one butts you."
She grinned again.
"You make your name, if it all goes well. Your picture on the front of newspapers. Can't see why…"
The old witch stopped here.
Suddenly she winced and went "Ouch!", then raised a hand to the left side of her chest.
Olga, alarmed, looked round to see if Death had arrived early. It was still only half past one…
Natalya lowered her hand.
"Whatever that was, it stung a bit." she said. "Left bosom, or such as I have left of one. Bit of pain. Probably a reminder I've only got three hours left. If that. Thing that's going to kill me."
She looked down again.
"Whatever it is, Olga Anastacia, I'm getting' that you come out okay with a reputation made. As if you ain't got one already. Lots of people gets to know your name. And it's all tied up with sheep. Somehow."
She looked again.
"Saviour of Ankh-Morpork", apparently. But then, that's newspapers. Don't know much about 'em, but one round Blondograd way is called "Pravda". You thinks, if they're actually tellin' the truth in the pages, why do they think it's necessary to call it "Truth"? To my way of thinkin', callin' a newspaper "Truth" is like sayin' – stand by, we are going to lie to you. Should have called it "Vranyo." Hmmph."
"If they called it Vranyo, Natlalya, it wouldn't be vranyo." Olga replied. Natalya frowned at her.
"Here we go again. Young Vasilisa was like this. Goin' on about Ephebians tellin' lies. Hmmph."
She gathered herself.
"Anyroad. Just when you thinks it's all over, you gets another situation. I'm seein' lots of black people. With spears. And you is at ground level lookin' at them from in front. Howondaland. Another war, Olga Anastacia. And you're mixed up in it. Seein' a red-haired woman. Looks like Firebird but older. Might be her actual mum. And she ain't happy. Carries a black sword."
Olga restrained herself from doing the face-palm thing. Howondaland. Fighting. And that sounded horribly like Johanna Smith-Rhodes.
Why am I not surprised?
"You has to get Firebird out of some bother. Don't ask me what. And I'm seein' scissors. But that's only the beginning."
The old witch looked up. She grinned.
"It's fadin' off now. One very last picture, Olga Anastacia. You can't buck destiny. You will be comin' back here as Grand Duchess. Oh, not for a long while yet. But long whiles is shorter than you think. Can't buck it, girl. You won't want to, you'll resent it and hate it, and knowin' you you'll be it for only as long as it takes for young Vassily to turn twenty-one. Then you'll say "It's all yours, Vaska. As of now I'm the Dowager Grand Duchess, and you are Grand Duke. Don't make a pig's ear of it." Then you'll be off."
Natalya smiled, then slumped and looked her true age. She called for Vasilisa, who came in suspiciously quickly. Olga wondered if she had been listening at the door.
"Take this away, love, and tip it out on the ground?" Natalya asked. "Reckon I'm done here. Spasibo."
Vasilisa bowed, and took up the skrying-bowl.
"That stays with the isba." Natalya called. "Don't let any bugger have that."
Olga and Natalya smiled at each other.
"Do me a favour, Olga love? Get me to my chair on the porch. So the people can see me. And I can give them a great big dasvidanya."
"And is that shamanka girl nearby?"
Xenia Galena appeared. Olga wondered exactly where from, and decided it wasn't important.
"You're on at three-fifteen, girl. To do your piece."
"It is my duty and honour, Babayaga."
"Lots of boffo, girl. Vasilisa? Count the number of people what are going to have a last drink with me. Set out the glasses and the vodka bottle."
"Then set out an extra glass, Babayaga?"
"Of course, girl. He'll have travelled a way to get here. Add some bread and salt. Got to be hospitable."
All conversation stilled and died at the first beats of the shamanka's drum. Watching from the shadowed veranda with the other witches, Bekki knew that inside the fringed leather costume and the all-covering face mask, there would be Xenia Galena. It was just that… she was seeing a black-clad figure wearing a whole-head mask, fitting like a helmet, decked out to look like a skull. This, she gathered, was the genuine old-time religion, with a slow beat on the hide-covered drum and a periodic ululation that was both grief and joy.
Bekki felt especially sorry for the other black-clad priest here, of the Rodinian Orthodox Potato Church, who had graciously been allowed to make the case for his religion and perform the last rites, albeit on a still-living person. He didn't look that old; but he was a plump man, visibly sweating and aware he was being glared at by lots of Witches.
Meanwhile the only priestess who mattered was circling the isba widdershins, marking every completed circle with an act of libation at the gates of the Domovila. Bekki gave up counting people. But there were at least a thousand out there. Awed, watching, some kneeling. All silent. Including the richly dressed couple who had been identified as Olga's parents. And all the time the drumming, the chant rising to song, stilling, hypnotising.
On the seventh circle, the old Witch Natalya gave the instruction to Vasilisa to start filling glasses. Bekki blinked. That white cat… the one who was watching the old lady intently. Just sitting to one side of the chair. Watching. Bekki sensed everyone had noticed. But at the same time, everyone was making a point of pretending they hadn't. She decided to go along with the consensus.
The eighth circuit of the house was almost done and Xenia Galena was slowly moving to the gates of the Domovila again. But this time she paused, stood between the gates, brought the drumming to a fast conclusive climax, raised both arms, and sang a loud high ululating note.
Every plastic Boffo skull on every post of the fence turned to face inwards.
And every plastic Boffo eye socket glowed with an intense blue radiance. Blue light illuminated the ground and the people. A woman screamed.
Bekki heard the old witch cackle.
She blinked again. The tall figure in black leading his white horse through the Domovila gate. Xenia stood back and bowed, her job done. The crowd parted, puzzlement and body language expressing that they were not sure what they were parting for, but nevertheless leaving a passage wide enough for a dismounted rider to lead a horse. Xenia Galena followed on behind, beating her drum in a slow funereal rhythm.
Bekki felt an insistent nudge. She turned to see Vasilisa Budonva, who was carrying a tray of glasses, filled nearly to the brim with a clear fluid that looked, to the uninitiated eye, like plain water.
"Take one, Firebird, but do not drink yet. You will know when moment is right. And then. All in one. No sipping. Important."
Bekki took a glass. She winced. Vodka. Served sto gram, in the Rodinian manner. (16) Vasilisa moved, distributing the glasses, as the cowled and cloaked visitor approached. All the witches looked on intently.
Xenia Galena moved to one side of the steps as the Visitor let the reins of his horse drop. The white stallion stood attentively to one side but did not seek to move off. Xenia stopped drumming and bowed deeply as he ascended the steps.
He met Vasilisa Budonova, who, stolid and impassive, offered the tray with the bread and the salt.
"THANK YOU. ERR… SPASSIBO BOLSHOYE?"
Death considered the offering, as if trying to remember how these things went. Eventually he dipped the bread into the salt and ate it. Bekki, watching, noted that the morsel disappeared through his jaw, at any rate.
At the top of the steps he considered the gathering of Witches. He shrugged. The scythe suddenly appeared in his right hand.
"NATALIA SVETLANOVNA….DAMN, IS IT SVETLANAVICHNYA? I CAN NEVER REMEMBER HOW THESE THINGS GO."
"Either form will do." Natalya said. "And yes, that's me. And you've got time for a vodka before we go."
She nodded to Vasilisa, who offered a tray with a single glass on it.
Death took it.
Natalya, with great effort, got to her feet. Unaided. She nodded at Irena Politek.
"You people have got a slogan, haven't you? Do you want to die on your feet or on your knees? (17) Well, young Irena, I reckon I got the point of that now."
She clinked glasses with Death. All the Witches followed her cue and drank.
"A hundred and three. It's been nice knowing you all, but I reckon it's time. This ain't Прощай навсегда. Well. Might be. For now, I'm sayin'. Dasvidaniya, sestry!"
There was a chorus of "Dasvidania, Babayaga!"
Natalya nodded to Death, and the scythe swung. Vasilisa and Irena deftly caught the falling body of the old Witch as she slumped… and the world slowed.
Bekki, trying not to gag on the heat and fire of a full glass of vodka, tried to take in the eternal moment. She saw the two Witches, now assisted by Olga Romanoff, lifting the body, with respect, care and love, to take her indoors for Laying Out.
She also saw the soul of Natalya separate from the body and stand to one side. Every witch would have seen that.
"Well, that went according to plan." Natalya said. "Where to next, Mr Death?"
Death nodded down to the white cat.
I SHOULD FOLLOW THE CAT, BABAYAGA NATALYA SVETLANOVNA FILIPOVNA. SHE KNOWS.
Am I the only one who saw the cat? she wondered. Or did everybody see it, and is there some sort of agreement not to talk about it?
She watched the white cat trot down the steps and in the direction of the Domovila gate. The soul of the old Witch followed. She did not look back. Except once, at the threshold of the Gate. Natalya looked back at the place that had been her home for over eight decades, then shrugged and followed the cat through the gate. Just very briefly, the eyes of the carven images on the posts flashed blue. Then she was gone.
Bekki, moved, wondered if tears were appropriate or allowable. Vasilisa moved among them again refilling vodka glasses. She hesitated for an instant when she came to Death, and refilled his. Bekki realised she was standing close to him, and cleared her throat.
"Err. Mr Death."
"REBECKA MONIKA IRENA SMITH-RHODES-STIBBONS, I BELIEVE?"
Death inclined his eyesockets to her. They glowed blue.
"I'm glad it's you. I really can't remember the words for "white cat" in Rodinian. Err."
"I BELIEVE THE PHRASE IS "BELAYA KOSHKA", REBECKA. AND NO, I DO NOT BELIEVE THE WITCHES AROUND YOU WISH TO SPEAK OF IT. I WILL SAY YOU HAVE SEEN HER BEFORE. IN LANCRE."
Bekki considered this. Lancre was possibly three thousand miles away from here, wasn't it? Well, maybe two if you took a direct route closer to the Hub. Things sort of curved round a bit. So how could….
Then she got it.
"Gnarly ground. It follows its own rules."
"I REALLY COULD NOT SAY, REBECKA."
But there had been the suspicion of a quick supernova wink there?
"NATALYA MAY BE ANOTHER OF WHOM THE WIDER WITCH COMMUNITY MAY COME TO SAY "MAY HER SOUL HAVE MERCY ON THE GODS." WHO KNOWS? NOW IF YOU EXCUSE ME, REBECKA. I NEED TO THANK MY HOST, VASILISA DANUTAVICHNIYA. OR IS IT VASILISA DANUTOVNA? THEN I HAVE TO BE OFF. BUSY SCHEDULE TODAY. AND YE GODS, THIS VODKA IS STRONG. IF YOU ARE FLYING, ONLY HAVE ONE GLASS. BE SAFE, REBECKA. OH, AND KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR SCISSORS."
The Witches, excluded for the moment while Irena and Olga, assisted by Vasilisa, did the laying-out, gathered on the veranda and saluted the empty chair with their vodka glasses. They watched, with professional interest, as Death took off.
"Not bad." Nadezhda Popova remarked. "Short canter, gradual ascent, steady gait, taking no risks."
"He must have a lot of flying hours and air experience." Serafima Dospanova agreed.
"Do we, err, break the empty glasses or anything, now?" Bekki asked.
Yulia Vizhinsky shook her head and grinned.
"Nyet, Firebird, you're thinking of Ephebians." she said. "Besides. Vodka glasses are hard to get out here. You don't go smashing them just because you toasted a dead woman at her funeral. Wasteful."
Later, Xenia Galena led the funeral profession into the Domivila, where the older Witches in their turn had been buried. Natalya went into the ground among them and the priest, here on sufferance, was allowed to perform an abbrieviated version of the Orthodox Potato Church's funeral service.
Ceremony over, a party went on into the night. Olga, realising she had to round up the flight-Feegle, wherever they had got to, before they had too much vodka, started to send back her Pegasi, in careful groups of two spaced out at long intervals. No strange events or bursts of random magic were reported on arrival.
Much later that evening, Bekki got home carrying her souvenir of the day, the old Witch's matryoshka dolls. These were admired and envied by her mother and sister. (18)
Eventually, she went to bed.
To be continued. It is possible the start of the next chapter will add a few missing scenes and expand on the last few sketchy paragraphs… but 15000 words. One chapter. Too aware i haven't spot-translated all the Russian bits (as before: what I am learning of the language backed with Google Translate. if any Russian reader can suggest better - spassibo!) If Bekki is a pawn on the chessboard, Olga and Irena are the knights, only on hoses with wings. Xenia is the Black Knight on the chessboard, Olga and Irena the White.
The bits pertaininig to "the sister" have been left in Russian, as have the snortling giggles about Famke turning up in her sister's session with the skrying bowl. Otherwise, spoilers. This will be left a little mystery to be discovered in due course. Unless, of course, the indifferent Russian makes sense to people who understand the language.
(1) It didn't occur to me at the time of first writing, but in the story-arc The Civilian Assistant, there is a general strike called by the Guild of Prostitutes that means clothing factories stop working and the Watch, among others, runs out of essential uniform items in Stores. Sam Vimes expresses a wish it gets sorted out soon as he's running out of replacement kit and issues to new recruits. I'll have a deeper think about the chronology but the thought does occur that this might be a crossover. Or else the textile industry in Ankh-Morpork is full of bad employer-labour relations and strikes happen a lot. The Guild of Prostitutes is shaping up as a militant labour-union – you'd expect this, as Ankh-Morpork canonically has a lot of textile sweat-shops.
(2) Vetinari's exact words had been longer and had not used terms like "gender equality" at any point at all. He had reminded Olga and Vimes that since the beginning of his Patricianate, he had seen the absurdity and the human waste of a system that had preferred men at the expense of women. That neglecting or holding back fifty percent of the population from achieving their full potential in all areas of human endeavour meant a society was effectively hamstringing itself and was, metaphorically, causing it to hop on one foot all the time. To that end he had brought about a situation where the major Guilds, formerly men-only, were now fully integrated and fully included female members. The Assassins, for instance. And – he was especially proud of this – the Fools, proving women could be just as fatuous as men. Commander Vimes, your first female recruit, for instance, is now Captain Angua, the third most senior Watch member, and Captain Romanoff stands next to you at this moment, does she not? Well, then. Uniquely, we have a situation where the Air Watch is almost exclusively female, save for a small group of carpet pilots. They are acceptable to you, Captain Romanoff? Good. Then to redress the imbalance and expand – ultimately – your pilot strength, you will now be selecting and training a group of suitably qualified magic users. Wizards.
(3) they had then gone to Ponder Stibbons and asked for his assistance.
(4) Tying into The Price of Flight again…
(5) Zlobenia's stamps necessarily had to be large as they had to have ZLOBENIAN POST on them as well as ZLOBENISJSKI POSTA, ZLOBENI POSTA, ŻŁOBAŃSKI POCZTA, ZLOBENISCHE POST, ZLOBÉNI POSTA, and of course ЗЛОБЕНСКАЯ ПОЧТА. This list is not complete.
(6) Now you can go back to chapter one of The Price of Flight to discover, or be reminded of, what happened next.
(7) And then she went first to Lancre and then to Ankh-Morpork, where the ideology was given a near-terminal working over by real life.
(8) see Clowning is a Serious Business.
(9) Okay, Hyperemesis Gravidarum doesn't explicitly say this. But Irena got a heavily pregnant Johanna to the Lady Sybil. It is not implausible that a Lancre-trained witch might have elbowed the official hospital midwife to one side, especially if that midwife was new to the job, and said something like "I'm birthing this child. You can watch and help out if you like".
(10) The Reason (of which we shall not speak except in a hushed voice in the footnotes) involved a long-ago Romanoff Tsar, whose Tsarina, feeling bored and neglected, had indulged a Court Wizard and, well, complications had ensued. A (prohibited) song tells of this. A streak of magic had been in the Romanoff family ever since. "Go, go, Gaz Putin, lover of Rodinia's Queen…."
(11) This was not quite the complete truth. Her cousin Natasha, the family golden girl and career Assassin, had inherited just enough of the inconvenient magic streak. Not enough for her to have been kicked out of the Assassins' School – she had aced the test with the covert help of friends - but enough weak magic to be useful in appropriate circumstances. Go to the tale Fresh Pair of Eyes for when this surfaced in Natasha.
(12) Nikolas Romanoff had absolutely vetoed his daughter Olga going to the Quirm Academy. Her education had been the traditional Romanoff one, at home with a succession of private tutors.(12.1)
(12.1) Gloomily, Nikolas had wondered if he should have sent her to Quirm. It might have avoided the situation that led to her running away. Kept her from that damn witch… from Natalya the Babiushka.
(13) Now go to my tale Bad Hair Day, where a much younger Olga encounters vodniks in Ankh-Morpork. Hired muscle sent by her father.
(14) Jenny Greenteeth in the Wee Free Men is a freshwater mermaid out of English folklore – yes, England has them – but also ticks the boxes for the Russian entity called the Rusalka. Early thoughts yet, but did Tiffany Aching get a seriously out of place Rusalka?
(15) Again, to The first chapter of "Price of Flight".
(16) Russia has no tome for those poncy little "one-sixth of a gill" pub measures. Fill the glass. Do not merely dampen the bottom.
(17) Attributed to communist revolutionary martyr Rosa Luxembourg. "Red Rosa" was murdered during the short-lived Berlin Revolution in January 1919 by the Freikorps, the precursors to Hitler's Brownshirt stormtroopers.
(18) I have Strange things sketched out for the dolls, but this chapter is already way too long. Also, still haven't done the discussion between Bekki, Nadezhda and Miss Tick re Hartebeeste. And scissors. This will come!
Natalya has Last Words with each Witch present as a sort of going-away present.
Serafima "Vorona" Dospanova: under-developed character. Who is she and what will her immediate future look like?
Alexandra "Lexi" Mumorovka, a Fledgling who is told to lighten up and stop being so po-faced serious
Nadezhda Veranovna Popova, an otherwise contented woman who feels one particular gap in her life.
Yulia Vizhinsky – apart from thinking the face, figure and inferred outlook of violinist Yulia Usova and maybe giving her a musical inclination, just not sure. An Air Watch pilot not previously mentioned.
Rebecka Smith-Rhodes, a visitor and a favoured foreigner seeing Rodinia. She gets a set of matroshkya dolls and a demonstration of their utility to a Witch.
Xenia D Galena, a Shamanka
Tatiana Nadezhdovna Yermaka/Popova – a very young shamanka's apprentice, a Shamanka for Ankh-Morpork
Irena Yannesovna Politek: a single woman who is told to keep her eyes open as the right man may be nearer than she thinks, but for goodness sake not to leave it for much longer. "got a feeling there's more coming to you than you bargained for. Not sayin' you cannot cope, though. You may even like it. Up to you, devyushka."
Olga Anastacia Ekatarinovna Romanoff – advised of coming trials and a big test. Some pointers to the future of the Romanoff dynasty.
Vasilisa Danutovna Budonova: the young Witch taking the Domovila.
Three young Rodinian Witches training in Lancre, brought here for the day, who are so new to the story they do not have names yet. And who may not re-appear after being incidental characters here. (But then, that's what I assumed about a shadowy character called Vasilisa, who was only ever meant to appear in one single-chapter tale as a nod to Russian folklore…)
Plus Eddie de Kokamainje, Wizard, and his son Vassily. Total number of people flown in by Pegasus should therefore number fifteen. Seven Pegasi, six bearing pilot and one passenger, one with two passengers. Thirteen Witches including two children with Promise.
The Patrician's Palace, Ankh-Morpork. Friday afternoon.
To be continued….
Damn. Bloody autopredict seems set on correcting every instance of "Syren" to "siren". Also it's got it into its head that when I type "from" I really mean "form". And getting it to recognise Russian words and names transliterated into Latin forms is… aaargh.
"Также. Ножницы. Остерегайтесь ножниц. Also. Scissors. Beware of scissors." – Xenia to Rebecka.
In the airspace over KO, five Pegasi reappear in formation. One emerges a mile away and has to fly hard to catch up. Words will be spoken later to Wee Archie. (two concerned mothers who have temporarily lost a son and a daughter due to bad navigation, not pilot error) Irena and passenger arrive to make it seven. Irena sees an after-effect from Feegle Space which has not completely dissipated. (MLP homage). It is discovered the two very youngest Witches are responsible, and their mothers have a little word.
Do Not Overfly the Domovila. Important.
The idea of a circuit overflying the local villages and the Estate House, Olga demonstrating to her parents that their wayward daughter has Arrived Home. "Look at me, daddy, I'm flying!"
Xenia Galena, as Shamanka, glares the village priest to one side and opens the gateway to the Domovila, where the old witch is buried alongside those who have gone before. Vasilisa follows on, discreetly, and seeds the grave with the poppyseed-and-earth mix.
Pallbearers will be the village headman, the Cossack hetman, and Grand Duke Nikolas alongside three Witches (Olga, Irena, plus possibly Nadezhda) as this is Symbolic. The other Witches fall in behind.
Later, Bekki gets to discuss the Hartebeeste Problem. Nadezhda and Perspicacia Tick, who arrived by means of her own, will advise on what looks like a Class One Poltergeist. Or else an escapee from Somewhere Else that has latched onto a receptive mind. What they are and where they come from. And how to deal with it. Also aftercare for the Receptive Mind.
The Notes Dump:- on Vorona.
Got a story here. I work on an industrial estate right on the edge of town where everything gives way to countryside; on the way to work the commute passes through a busy road interchange where there's a wide carriageway with a grassy verge in the middle. By rights this should be roadkill central for birdlife - straying onto the road or flying too low to avoid being hit by traffic.
What I saw was an unconcerned crow foraging in the grass in the central reservation. It took off. But instead of taking off directly over the roadway and into the danger zone, it gained height above the central reservation away from traffic. Once it was high enough to be safely above anything coming - not just cars, but also at a height where it would avoid lorries and buses - then it crossed the road to safety on the other side and descended.
It was doing this even when the road was clear and no traffic was coming. I wondered if this was a fluke or a one-off - but no, there were more crows about. One morning I saw what looked like a couple of recently-fledged chicks, not quite adults (is there a word for them, other than "fledgelings"?) - and they too took care to gain safe height before flying over the road.
So - learned behaviour being passed to offspring. Is this a little pointer to speed-evolution among birds - the ones who recognise or survive a threat learn from it - and are the ones who live to breed? Seems oddy fitting it should be corvids.