Esk wanted to say
Let's go home, but she knew that if she
did the boys would run for it. Instead she said,
Mother says there's
a key on a nail in the privy, and that was nearly as bad. Even ordinary
unknown privy held minor terrors like wasps' nests, large spiders, mysterious
rustling things in the roof and, one very bad winter, a small hibernating
bear that caused acute constipation in the family until it was persuaded
to bed down in the haybarn. A witch's privy could contain anything.
I'll go and look, shall I? she added.
If you like, said Gulta airily, almost successfully concealing
In fact, when she managed to get the door open against the piled snow, it was neat and clean and contained nothing more sinister than an old almanack, or more precisely about half an old almanac, or more precisely about half an old almanack, carefully hung on nail. Granny had a philosophical objection to reading, but she'd be the last to say that books, especially books with nice thin pages, didn't have their uses.
Esk nodded. In the Ramtops witches were accorded a status similar to that which other cultures gave to nuns, or tax collectors, or cesspit cleaners. That is to say, they were respected, sometimes admired, generally applauded for doing a job which logically had to be done, but people never felt quite comfortable in the same room with them.
Smith picked up a hammer from his bench, looked at it as though he had never seen it before, and put it down again.
But, he said,
if it's wizard magic she's got, learning
witchery wont' be any good, will it? You said they're different.
They're both magic. If you can't learn to ride an elephant, you
can at least learn to ride a horse.
What's an elephant?
A kind of badger, said Granny. She hadn't maintained
forest-credibility for forty years by ever admitting ignorance
Skiller turned very carefully and regarded the barrel behind him. The smell of the room had changed, he could feel the pure gold sweating gently out of that ancient woodwork.
With some care he took a small glass from his store under the the counter and let a few splashes of the dark golden liquid escape from the tap. He looked at it thoughtfully in the lamplight, turned the glass around methodically, sniffed it a few times, and tossed its contents back in one swallow.
His face remained unchanged, although his eyes went moist and his throat wobbled somewhat. His wife and Esk watched him as a thin beading of sweat broke out on his forehead. Ten seconds passed, and he was obviously out to break some heroic record. There may have been steam curling out of his ears, but that could have been a rumour. His fingers drummed a strange tatto on the bartop.
At least he swallowed, appeared to reach a decision, turned solemnly to
Esk, and said,
Hwarl, ish hnish saarghs ishghs oorgsh?
His brow wrinkled as he ran the sentence past his mind again and made a second attempt.
Aargh argh shaah gok?
He gave up.
His wife snorted and took the glass out of his unprotesting hand. She sniffed it. She looked at the barrels, all ten of them. She met his unsteady eye. In a private paradise for two they soundlessly calculated the selling price of six hundred gallons of triple distilled white mountain peach brandy and ran out of numbers.