It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a witch in possession of goods to sell, will be in want of a table to sell them on.
However little known the feelings of such a witch may be on first entering Winchett Dale for the Autumn Witches’ Market, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding creatures, that she is considered as the perfect witch for one or other of their many tables…
My sincerest apologies for opening of this diary entry. My chroniclers have recently introduced me to some books from your world in the Great Beyond. I am quite taken with some of them, seeing many parallels between our separate worlds, and couldn’t resist combining the two. And while I might not agree that any truth can be ‘universally acknowledged’, it is nevertheless true that the autumn witches’ market is a source of great excitement to the creatures of Winchett Dale, and that this isn’t down to the witches, their wares, or the occasion – but to the aforementioned tables themselves.
Some background. Four Witches’ markets are held every year in Winchett Dale’s bustling village square, each marking the beginning of a season. On the first day of winter, spring, and summer respectively, we are visited by the roaring booms of The League of Lid Curving Witchery led by my old friend Ursula Brifthaven Stoltz, a white-hare witch. All three markets pass by without serious incident. Witches dismounting from their heavily laden booms will be offered a table by the village creatures to display their wares, who fetch them from their houses and set them up in the square for the witches to arrange their items upon. Occasionally, things become a little twizzled (witches can easily become suddenly fussy and competitive at large events) with squabbling over the best pitches turning into hissed threats and frizzing wands drawn. But generally, these three markets are cordial affairs, their main purpose being to uphold the sometimes-fragile peace between creatures and witches in an atmosphere of jovial celebration. Indeed, most end with guzzworts and grimwagel-wine (the favourite drink of any discerning witch) being amicably consumed by both creatures and witches deep into the night before the League takes to its roaring vroffa-brooms and departs into the twinkling-lid above.
All well and good, you may say. So what is so different about the autumn witches’ market? And why are tables so important? Questions I shall now hope to answer.
First is to appreciate that (for reasons in all my years in Winchett Dale I have never truly fathomed) the villagers treat the autumn market quite differently, having turned the day into their very own secret clottabussed competition. I say ‘secret’ only in the sense that the witches themselves have no knowledge of it whatsoever, mistakenly assuming the market is the exact same as the others. The only clue is the fact that the tables they are offered are often significantly bigger. Much bigger, in fact. Indeed, some appear to have been specially ‘enhanced’ for the day, made twice their size by planks nailed crudely on the sides. Some are so big that they have to be dismantled before leaving the house, then reassembled in front of the waiting witches outside.
It is a clottabussed spectacle I have witnessed many times, as puffing creatures labour to get their huge tables into the square, bits dropping off everywhere, accompanied by the frantic clanging of hammers as they’re nailed back on.
All the while, the witches merely wait, observing the spectacle as if nothing was amiss, and this was any normal seasonal market, waiting for the creatures to finish before ambling over and choosing a table. The whole exercise is conducted in a curious near silence as the creatures retire to the edge of the square to watch the witches set up their stalls.
And what, you may be wondering, do the witches bring as their ‘wares’? Mostly, it’s as you’d suspect; a motley collection of old hats, brooms and toy-wands for young creatures to play with. For the parents, it’s old boots, robes and shoes for the mothers, a selection of bizarre healing tinctures for the fathers. Then just a lot of curious pickled stuff floating in dusty jars. A glopp-up of witchy-stuff that no one really wants or needs in anyway, whatsoever. Not that the witches are particularly bothered if nothing goes. After all, neither they nor the creatures believe in monies of any kind, the purpose of the day being simply to come together as peacefully as possible. Any transaction is done by way of swapping. Take something from a witches’ stall and you must invite her to your house to choose something she may want. In return, she will also perform a quick cleaning and tidying spell. Mostly, the whole day is a saztaculous success, enjoyed by all.
However, the autumn witches’ market harbours a very different agenda. A secret agenda, utterly clottabussed, and based on an ancient tradition started way before my time in Winchett Dale. So, although I may wince at the awkward appearance of so many huge tables, it is party to something belonging to this village for more than anyone can remember, and to try to stop it would be both futile and disrespectful.
What happens is this. Throughout the day creatures will secretly count the number of falling autumn leaves that land on an unknowing witch’s table, hence the need to provide the largest landing space. Secret leaf-monitors patrol the entire market, pretending to be interested in the witches’ wares, discreetly brushing the leaves into small leather pouches. At the end of the day, the Leaf Counting Committee meets in secret in a small upstairs room in the Winchett Dale Inn to count the fallen leaves, declaring the winner to the waiting creatures downstairs once the witches have departed.
Where’s the harm in that? you may say. An age-old tradition endures (despite its clottabussedness). The witches’ tables are quickly cleared of their wares to ensure the biggest leaf-landing area for the rest of the day. And in turn, the witches once more take what they want from the creatures’ houses before casting their tidying spells. Surely, everyone’s a winner?
Which would be case, if it wasn’t for one often-forgotten rule: if a single leaf were to land on a witches’ hat instead of the table, an undignified disqualification would have to immediately ensue. So, you see my dilemma. Although this particular incident has (thankfully) never happened in my time here, there were two occasions when it came very close. In both instances, the entire village held its breath as a single leaf gently drifted from the clear autumn sky towards a waiting witches’ hat. And on both occasions, the desperate table’s owner could think of only one response, scrittling forward to stand behind the witch, paw raised to dash the hat from her unknowing head. Fortunately, disaster was averted on both occasions by a majickal puff of wind at the very last blinksnap, causing the leaf to veer away from the wide brim and land cleanly on the table. On both occasions, my hare’s-heart was in my mouth. To swipe a witches’ hat from her head is perhaps one of the most clottabussed, dangerous and twizzly things to even consider, yet alone actually do in front of all her friends.
So, I hope I can be forgiven in saying that when I realised the autumn witches’ market was just last week, I already felt my nerves and twizzles rising.
On the day itself, I made my way through Wand Wood and down into the village, serenaded by the approaching roar of vroffa-brooms circling high above the village square.
“Morn’up, Slivert,” I said to Slivert Jutt, landlord of The Winchett Dale Inn, watching the scene from his front door.
He nodded as I joined him, pointing up into the gathering cloud of witches laden with bags of wares. “Well, let’s just hope this year passes without any leaf glopp-ups. There seem to be more witches than ever.”
I glanced skyward, the noise overwhelming as the first witches began landing in the square to wild whoops and yells. Behind, in the inn, the appointed leaf-monitors were already strapping leather pouches to their belts. “What’ll we do,” I asked, “if a leaf does accidentally land on a witches’ hat this year?”
Slivert frowned, his face deadly serious. “Take cover. As fast as you can.”
Within a few short blinksnaps the square was full of more witches than I’d seen before, perhaps two hundred or more. I swallowed hard, realising the dreadful potential of all those extra brims to catch leaves.
As expected, the village creatures soon began heaving their huge tables out into the square. Few seemed to have realised the problem, so intent we they on trying to work out wind-direction to find the best place to leave them.
I could see nothing but imminent disaster. I turned to Slivert. “How about if I were to cast a spell on all the trees that not a single leaf would fall today?”
He raised his eyebrows. “And could you? Every tree in the dale?”
I shook my head, knowing my majick wasn’t nearly up to such a ganticus task. “But we have to do something,” I said, watching as the witches took their places, sometimes up to four to at a table, eager for the market to begin. With so many extra hats, the horrible truth now began slowly dawning on the watching creatures. For even a single leaf to float down between so many brims was nigh on impossible, meaning the only way to avoid disqualification from their secret competition would be to knock an awful lot of witches’ hats off.
Once again, a simple, harmless tradition in Winchett Dale had gone totally glopped, as proved when a worried disidula broke ranks from the assembled villagers and nervously approached his table, home to four witches with especially wide-brimmed, black hats.
“Excuse me, ladies,” he began, swallowing hard as their piercing eyes met his. “It’s one witch per table, I’m afraid.”
‘Why?” the meanest witch immediately shot back, silence quickly descending over the entire square.
He cleared his throat. “Well, you see, it’s just that with so many of you, it’s difficult for us to see all your saztaculous witchy-wares.”
“Saztaculous witchy-wares?” the witch ominously repeated, picking up a dismal mini-broom, branches already falling from the brush on the end. “Now just what do you think about this is ‘saztaculous’?”
The disidula looked back at his creature friends, wincing slightly as they urged him to carry on. “The build quality?”
The four witches burst into cackles. “Hear that, sisters? This splurk admires ‘the build quality’ of this broom!”
Ignoring the laughter, the disidula tried again. “With just one witch to a table, us creatures will be able to see all your wares.”
The witch pointed at her three suspicious. “What about their wares?”
He thought about this, trying not to look too twizzled. “P’rhaps you could take it in shifts?”
He nodded. “Divide the time equally between yourselves?”
The witch, unimpressed, drew out her blue frizzing wand, levelling it at the terrified disidula. “Listen to me, spurk! We haven’t flown all this way to do ‘shifts’. If we say there’s four to a table, there’s four to a table. Why not? You always make the tables so much bigger for the autumn market. Plenty of room for all of us.”
He could only weakly nod and agree.
Sensing a weakness, she twirled her wand slowly around his face. “Or is there another reason we should know about for these laughably big tables? Something utterly ridiculous you creatures are hiding from us? Because I think that could end up very splurked for all of you if there is.”
I watched in alarm as all the other witches in the square began drawing their wands. We were perhaps just a few blinksnaps from the most dreadful incident. If just one witch discovered the secret leaf competition, carnage would ensue.
“No,” the disidula finally said, trying to laugh at the same time. “Nothing of the sort. Why on earth would we want to do that? Look at us, we’re just a harmeless bunch of simple clottabusses. To even think we’d have the brains to think up any sort of secret agenda would be to give us far more credit than we ever deserve.” He finished with a loud gulp, then added, “Honestly.”
The witch’s eyes narrowed for what seemed like an age, scrutinising every inch of his face, appearing to see right into his soul. Eventually, she nodded, satisfied, putting away her wand and instructing her fellow systers to do the same. “Well, let’s get on with it,” she loudly announced, beckoning the hesitant creatures back out into the square. “Roll up, you clottabussed splurks! There’s plenty of ludicrous witchy-tat for all of you!”
The creatures cautiously edged themselves out into the square, all thoughts of the secret leaf competition replaced by an ever-increasing anxiety that the witches might catch on at any second. Especially if a leaf did actually land on one of the many wide-brimmed hats, and they had to knock it off to avoid disqualification.
In fact, so awkward was the atmosphere, I felt sure the witches would catch on. Shambling villagers half-heartedly took wares from the tables wishing the whole thing was over. The witches themselves seemed not to notice, but surely it was just a matter of time?
I turned to Slivert. “This will be one of those days we all try and forget.”
“If we live to see the end of it,” he quietly replied. “There’s still a long way to go, yet.”
I took a deep hare’s breath as a sudden, unwelcome gust of wind now bought the first autumn leaves from Wand Wood, circling high over the square and making their way down, dancing in the stiffening breeze, the chances of them dodging between all those black brims to a table now as increasing remote as my chances to somehow majickally avert disaster. I closed my eyes, waiting for the mayhem.
Then, against all odds, the saztaculous sound of an irritated, familiar voice by my side. “We know, you know.”
“Ursula!” I replied, trying not to show my immense relief at the frowning white-hare witch beside me. “So glad you’re here. Where have you been? Things are about to go very glopped-up.”
She regarded me with the cold indifference only a superior white-hare witch can when dealing with a clottabussed majickal hare. “Where I have been is no business of yours. Ever.” She looked at the miserable spectacle in the square, tutting between her gleaming white teeth. “You still haven’t worked it out yet, have you?”
“Worked what out?” The leading leaves were far too close, teasing and drifting just a few feet above the nearest hats.
She sighed. “We know. All witches know about your splurked ‘secret’ competition. We’ve known for years.”
Slivert and I looked at each other, dumbfounded. The witches already knew? It didn’t seem possible. Completely clottabussed – and we’d both witnessed more than enough clottabussedness to last many clottabussed lifetimes. “For how long?”
“From the first blinksnap you splurks bought out a table with two wardrobe doors nailed onto the sides.” She turned to me, her deep brown eyes a perfect mix of pity and disdain. “Just ridiculous, Matlock.”
I watched as Slivert ran into the square, urgently whispering to a trembling creature slowly raising a shaking paw over the nearest, tempting hat. The creatures’ eyes widened in shock, word quickly spreading to every creature. I couldn’t tell if they were twizzled, relieved or embarrassed. But slowly they began to back away from the tables.
“And,” Ursula continued, “from that very first time, we witches have held our own secret competition that you splurks have absolutely no idea of, either.”
“Your own competition?”
She nodded. “For us, it is the table which has the least number of leaves at the end of the day that wins.”
“The least?” I said, incredulous. “You’ve been running your own secret competition on the same day as ours that is also somehow the exact opposite?”
“Of course. Why else would there be so many big hats around each table?”
Slivert couldn’t help but chickle. “I have to hand it to you witchy-folk. We’ve been getting’ ourselves right twizzled over nothing.”
“As always,” she agreed. “Once again, you’ve been out-clottabussed by splurked witches.”
“So what do we do now?” I asked, the villagers huddling against the edge of the square as the witches now sought to protect their tables by actively catching each falling leaf on the brims of their hats. In truth, I felt sorry for the creatures, their ‘secret’ tradition exposed and overtaken by another, the excitement gone, the clottabussed preparations utterly pointless. I don’t think I’d ever seen them quite so down.
Ursula gently chewed on her bottom lip, a sure sign she was deep in white-hare witch thought. At length, she turned to Slivert and I. “I propose a new leaf competition, open to all, creatures and witches alike. Importantly, with no more secrets.”
Slivert and I waited as she finalised her thoughts. However ferocious she sometimes appears, over the many years of our friendship I’ve learnt there’s often another, more thoughtful side to Ursula Brifthaven Stoltz she’d rather most folk didn’t see. Or be so foolish as to ever comment on. A swift, stinging rebuke from her frizzing wand quickly greets any such suggestion. Please take my word for this – as it’s very painful.
“My idea,” she said, “is this. Each table has the creature who built it standing on it, holding a witches’ hat, catching as many leaves as they can. Witches can use their wands to guide the leaves. But instant disqualification if used against either another creature or witch.”
Which all sounded eminently reasonable to me.
“But what does the winning table win?” Slivert asked.
“The creature keeps the hat. The witches fly off with the table between them.”
He frowned. “Not sure that’ll work, Ursula. After all, what use is a witches’ hat to a creature? And just how are you witches going to fly off with a ganticus table?”
At which point Ursula smiled. “Exactly. Make the competition splurked, the prizes clottabussed, and everyone will soon lose interest in it. Then perhaps we can all enjoy a much more civilised and tzorkly day.”
Which – with the intervention of a smart white-hare witch – is exactly what happened. When all was explained to both creatures and witches, they quickly agreed on two things; firstly, that the new competition was an almighty dud, and, more importantly, that secrets were ‘clottabussed’ and ‘splurked’ respectively. Instead, this year’s autumn witches’ market was an altogether more relaxed affair in keeping with the other three seasonal markets, before everyone retired to the Winchett Dale Inn to celebrate.
“This,” Ursula said, clinking her glass of Grimwagel wine against my tankard of guzzwort as the singing started, “is the only tradition I think we should celebrate on market days.”
Later, when I returned to my crumlush cottage on the far side of Wand Wood, I discovered the reason Ursula had been late to the square. The place was spick and span, clean and tidy from top to bottom. And on the kitchen table, waiting for me, a note:
Matlock, you splurk! Quite how you manage to get a place this untidy is beyond me. Next time, at least try to clean your potionary jars before leaving the house. Who knows, perhaps you could even make it a tradition?
And next to the note, fragile in exquisite autumnal colours, a single, saztaculous leaf.