It was midnight, and Samuel Vimes, Commander of the City Watch, was not comfortable on the Chalk.
Vimes had, by this point in his life, been to a number of mountains and interesting geological formations, all of which were built on rock and were therefore pretty okay, as far as these things went; to get to those places, he'd become well-versed in the vegetable-filled vistas of the Sto Plains roads, which were flat, endless, and notably cabbage-scented. He'd even gotten a good handle on the kind of verdant pastures that surrounded the country homes of the wealthy, which even to Vimes's eye were about as successful at mimicking blissful nature as a duchess trying very, very hard to be a dairy maid.
There were commonalities between them all. The quiet -- that was a hell of a thing to get used to. Various farm animals above and beyond those he'd seen driven along his own streets. Frequently, and in abundance, green bits.
It was really the differences between them all that made the countryside disconcerting. The green bits could be lichen-short or a giant mass of those pointed buggers taller than the Watch House. The animals he had to trust were meant for eating, but he couldn't swear that was always the case. And the quiet... that, at least, he'd thought would stay the same. Quiet was just an absence of sound, wasn't it? The city was where all the sound was -- there was so much of it, it had to be exported to other places, a sort of radiating mess of people shouting, fires crackling, and things clanging/crashing/banging/thudding in a squishy way/general mayhem. It was restful, in its restlessness.
Here, though, on the Chalk... it didn't feel like quiet. There wasn't anything absent in it. It was like being in the city again, with eyes watching him, and the people the eyes belonged to just out of sight. Which was damned unnerving out in the middle of nowhere, Vimes thought, leaning against the back door of the enormous travelling recreational coach Sybil had gotten him for his birthday and that they were now, ostensibly, "trying out, dear, and you needed another holiday anyway, let's just stick a pin into the map and see where that takes us, hm?"
Where it took them was a set of hills called, in the local parlance, the Chalk -- short, green grass (green bits! ha!), hundreds of sheep (which he had, that morning, witnessed being shorn, and which was not likely to be an image he removed from his mind quickly), and a sky wider than it had any right to be. Looking up made Vimes feel as if he was somehow precariously balanced on a Disc that could slide out from under him at any second.
He wished he still smoked. It would give him something to do, when he couldn't sleep. As it was, he was stuck with looking at the stars, which even at the horizon were high in number, incredibly bright, and therefore instantly suspicious in Vimes's opinion.
There was a rustling from inside the RC. Probably Sybil, or Young Sam turning over on top of the frankly enormous mound of paper cartoons featuring Captain Cabbage -- Crime-Fighting Hero, Defender of Ankh-Morpork Against the Red Sculpit, and Good Role Model for All Youngsters -- that he kept hidden under his covers and of which he thought his parents were unaware. Vimes rather suspected that the boy had talked Vimes's own imp into providing a light to read by. It was a clever enough idea to let him get away with a bit longer, or at least until Vimes or Sybil needed some leverage in the growing "chores" battle developing between the entirely reasonable parents and the wildly insane nine-year-old.
The rustling came again.
And then, for the briefest instant, the sleeping shape of Young Sam paused in front of Vimes before zipping off, low to the ground and with no visible means of propulsion, across the grass and over the hill, out of sight.
Vimes was not even aware that he'd begun running.
In the part of his head that wasn't swearing in a constant, prayerful stream, Vimes could feel himself trying to tell where he was going by the feel of the streets beneath his feet. But there were no streets here, no bricks or cobbles or hard-packed dirt to give him the edge -- there was only that grass, and soft dirt, loamish stuff that sank slightly under his holiday sandals but seemed to push him back out again, keeping him unsteady and off-balance as he nearly bounced his way after the dark shape of his son, illuminated only by the damned starlight.
He hated the countryside. He was lost here. And it was taking Young Sam.
The shadow was rising -- cresting a hill. Stopping. Right at the top, where there was a very small, very steady fire. Got you, you bastards.
It was only as he got closer that he saw the silhouettes against the flames: a thin, tallish woman; the lump of sleeping child; and dozens of... very tiny shapes.
The woman appeared to be scolding them.
"He is not a sheep!" she was saying as Vimes came close enough to hear. "Which is not to say that it's all right to do that to sheep, either," she added hurriedly, turning her head and looking sharply at one corner of the little mass standing before her. The group of them seemed to collectively shuffle their feet.
"And!" she continued. "While I appreciate the thoughtfulness of the gesture, the way to find Wentworth new friends is not to literally find them and steal them from their parents! Who are probably very, very worried about them -- isn't that right, Commander?" And the woman looked at him.
The little people were, suddenly, gone.
The woman sighed. "Well, that's it for them, then. I'm very sorry -- the Nac Mac Feegle have very loose interpretations of 'helpful' and 'appropriate' and, um, 'bathing', but you probably didn't experience that directly..."
Vimes approached the fire as the woman continued to talk. She was younger than he'd thought at first -- eighteen, maybe, or nineteen, though that was often old enough in parts of Ankh-Morpork. She wore a pale blue dress, her dark hair pinned up, and a very good pair of boots. She also looked familiar.
"Yes, we have met," she said, interrupting her own flow of speech which, he'd noticed, had lulled him rather closer to the fire than he'd meant to get. She looked suddenly apologetic. "Right," she said, "sorry, I should let you come to your own conclusions first. Out loud. I'll wait." And then she stared at him. Smiling that polite, young woman smile, but staring like the points on a copper badge. He'd seen other people -- other women -- with that look.
He didn't really know how many witches were in the city. They never seemed to commit any crimes -- or, at least, things that were obviously crimes -- and so they'd never really crossed his mind as being particularly important. (The girl sniffed.) But he'd been around long enough, seen enough things, to have had that look turned on him a few times... and once had been this girl. Over some other woman's shoulder, yes, Mrs. Proust, with the joke shop that kept giving credit to Nobby even though several coppers had been by to beg her to stop...
He scrambled briefly for the right words for introducing oneself to a witch on her territory, before taking himself firmly in hand and remembering that that was all nonsense he'd picked up from being a duke and didn't actually matter at all. He resettled his feet in the grass, tried not to make a face at the feel, and said, "So you're the witch around here?"
"Yes," she said simply. She looked at his feet. "It's called turf, by the way. Not grass, not really."
They were both still standing. He absolutely refused to be the first to sit -- not out of any sort of politeness, thank you very much, but because he'd rather have his feet under him and ready to run than make nice with this too-young-too-old girl in front of him. "You've got my son, there," he said instead.
Her shoulders slumped a bit. "Yes," she said again. "I'm very sorry. This keeps happening. I'm going to get a reputation soon, I think." She smiled, a bit helplessly. "He looks like a very nice little boy. Hardly any sticky bits at all."
"You'd be surprised," Vimes said, thinking darkly of the apples Young Sam often snuck into his bed to eat while reading his Captain Cabbage cartoons, and the resulting faint tackiness and fruity scent of everything in the nearby vicinity.
"Like my brother, then," the girl sighed. The fire -- not made out of wood, but something that smelled strange and off and made a lump where good solid angles ought to be -- burned squelchily. "He's eight. He's rediscovered sweeties. And the Sergeant Detritus Mystery Papers. He figured out that with enough hard-boiled sweets in his mouth he can sound like Sergeant Detritus without any trouble at all."
"Good lord," said Vimes. He looked around vaguely, as if hoping to spot the bookshop amidst the endless hills of sheep. "How in the world did that--" Vimes quickly revised the word he was about to say, "educational tie-in material become available up here?"
The girl raised one eyebrow. "Broom," she said, as if that was all the explanation needed. And, well, it probably was. A one-woman delivery system. Useful, that. It'd taken days to get here by RC. The distance chafed at Vimes. There were no clacks out this far, either. But... if the girl could travel faster than coach, say, only a few hours... she did so regularly, she must, the Mystery Papers were damnedly punctual and published every Wednesday by some mutual arrangement between the newspaper, the Troll People Fix-It Thing (a lobbying group of which Detritus was a founding, though confused, member), and, somehow, the Post Master... but if the girl traveled to the city anyway, and it was nearly Wednesday already, she might be persuaded to visit Pseudopolis Yard tomorrow to pick up whatever may be waiting for him on his desk, maybe take in some new reports, and get back here by midday. He could easily have something to send back to Ankh-Morpork by end of the day tomorrow, maybe late evening, and then he could keep on top of things, yes, make sure the city knew damned well he was still on the job!--
The girl was back to smiling that polite, young woman smile. It seemed to subtly say, I am not yours to command. It also seemed to say, I see why you need a holiday, it must have taken a team of twenty to shove you through the city gates, have you considered the calming effects of cheese-making, which was not so much subtle as very, very peculiar to read in a single smile.
Vimes coughed and said, "Mine likes the cartoons. Captain Cabbage. Gargoyle-Man. Troll."
She perked up. "Which one's Troll?"
"It's the one with the mild-mannered alchemist who inexplicably turns into a troll whenever he feels too hungry. Something to do with the chemical content of most troll cuisine, I think. Sybil -- m'wife -- thinks it teaches important lessons about healthy food choices. I think the boy just likes it because the troll spends a lot of time breaking things and saying 'Troll smash!'"
"It sounds like the boys would get along, then." The girl stuck her hands in the pockets of her skirts, and looked softly over at Young Sam. "The Feegle aren't always wrong, Commander. They found out that Wentworth's been having trouble finding friends." She made a face. "I'm the witch of the Chalk, but I'm also a witch, which is always a thing apart. Sometimes I bring other people with me."
Vimes thought about being a boy from Cockbill Street, and what that meant when he was sitting at a table full of nobility that had been raised with every right he'd never had. He looked at Young Sam, too, and thought about what it meant to have had a child who would have half of that experience, but three-quarters the other, and maybe another quarter from all the policing, and another forty-five percent from the general danger of being Sam Vimes's son, and some more portions of pie from other places that he either hadn't thought of or couldn't yet imagine -- and wondered what that math would add up to, when Samuel Vimes II was grown to be a man.
"I can understand that," Vimes said.
The girl nodded. "I thought you might. Actually..." She took a breath, as if suddenly nervous. It was strange to see. It was like being confronted by an apologetic hornet. "Would you mind if my brother wrote to your son, sometimes? I realize it's a bit of an imposition, but it would really do Wentworth a world of good to make friends with his interests."
The girl wasn't looking at him. Vimes thought of what the old nobs in the city would say. A son of nobility, writing to a sheep boy in the back of beyond! It'd be worth it just for that, frankly.
But, as he'd rather feverishly been thinking a moment before, there was also the fact that there were currently no direct communication lines between the Chalk -- any of these small baronies, actually -- and the city. And now she was essentially offering to create one.
No watchmen out here. No real reason for him to keep an eye on things. But the boy liked the Sergeant Detritus stories...
"Yeees," he said slowly. "Yes, I think that would be a fine idea. It'd be good for both of them. Weekly, do you think? Or more often, if they really take to one another."
The girl nodded, taking her hands from her pockets and grinning up at him. Oh. She was shorter than he was. He hadn't noticed before. "I think that sounds lovely. I'm glad we met, Commander."
Vimes carefully stepped around her and lifted Young Sam in his arms. The boy slept on, though not without a couple of cartoons slipping from his blanket and landing on the turf by the fire. From this angle, on the other side of the fire, Vimes could see another set of shapes in the dark -- an old wheel, maybe. A broken chimney. He turned back to the girl. "I do have one question, though." She waited. "Your name?"
She blinked. "Oh. I think I-- I'm just used to people knowing who I am." The girl shook her head, almost laughing at herself. "I am going to get a reputation, I think." She straightened, and then swept a hand through the air in front of her dress. And it... became a gown. Black, that somehow glimmered. It turned her into a thing that wasn't just a strange girl in the firelight, but -- and he didn't know where the words came from, only that they were the right ones -- a witch in the midnight sky.
She raised her hands above her head, and as she lowered them slowly, a black, pointed hat appeared and settled comfortably over her pinned hair. "My name is Tiffany Aching," she said. "And these hills are in my bones."
Vimes held his son closer, and tried very hard not to think of how much she reminded him of the dark things at the end of alleys that had scared him as a boy. The dark whispers in dreams. The dark, the dark...
She didn't come closer to him, which was just as well. She only cocked her head, and said, "You fear losing yourself in the world, Commander, because the streets are not the ones you know. Go enough places, though, and you'll learn how everything feels under your feet."
"Not here." He was surprised he could talk at all. He swallowed, and tried again. "Too soft to be a street."
"Too soft? I've heard that before." She stuck her hands in her pockets again -- why did this dress have pockets, too, did all her dresses have pockets? -- and said, "Feel again."
Through his sandals, Vimes felt the turf. He wasn't sure what he was supposed to be doing, but he thought of how he walked when he was proceeding through the city, not looking where he was going but knowing where he was regardless. He felt his knees go loose as if preparing to step forward, and just on the edge of that, just the moment before, as he catalogued the green bits, and the dirt, and the uncomfortable squish of it all, suddenly, beneath it all... "Rock?"
"Chalk," Miss Aching said. "There's a reason we have that name. Keep going."
He had the hang of it now. The balance edge of stepping forward, foot ready to leave but the ground not ready to give it up. The chalk felt a little like the hard-packed dirt by the drover lanes coming into the city, where the cows, sheep, geese were brought. Lower than that, though, beneath that brief feeling of familiarity...
He inhaled. "Home," he said, opening his eyes. He hadn't realized he'd closed them.
"Flint," she said. "Hard. Hard enough to seem like home to a man like you, Sam Vimes. You think the city made you, but you made yourself, I think." Miss Aching shrugged, the movement oddly disconcerting in her black dress. "Provided you know who you are, you'll always know where you are. I learned that from someone a lot scarier than me, by the way. I'm just a girl from the Chalk."
Bet you a dollar, he didn't say.
She laughed like she'd heard him anyway. "Goodnight, Commander. You should get your son to bed. Your wife is waiting for you to come back inside. And I have some more Feegles to scold."
"Goodnight, Miss -- Mistress -- Aching," he said, with every ounce of dignity he could muster, and then very resolutely turned his back on her and walked, walked away, like it didn't take everything he had not to run.
The whole way back, though, even with the night dark and no light to guide his way, he knew where he was going. Yes, he had the hang of it now indeed. He could feel the city streets beneath his feet, guiding him to home.