As a much better author has remarked before me, a story doesn't have a set beginning, or a true ending. The hero will have to find a place to stay for the night after he rides into the sunset; the princess may discover that her white knight is a dimwit drunk. But neither does a story manage to be complete in itself. There are others, small ones, often untold but alongside nevertheless.
Let's imagine this one as a tapestry. One that doesn't show a picture of a valiant knight fighting the dragon to save a maiden inside the tower* but a flat world resting on the back of four elephants, who in turn stand on a giant turtle that seems to be drifting through space. It's pretty in a plain sort of way. Look closer. See that knot there, close to the middle? That's the part about how Rodney doesn't dislike the idea of physical… interaction, per se; he just never got around to actually doing it. And see that shoddy bit, just to the left of that one tusk? That's the part where John really should have known better, if he'd remembered the stories his grandmother used to tell.
But let's not get lost in details. A tapestry is always more than its threads, and this story isn't really about how Granny Weatherwax taught Rodney how to Borrow, not really. No, take a look at the whole picture: you can start from the top if you want to, but how about we concentrate on this bit close to the centre, where if you squint you can just make out the needlepoint mountains of Lancre. See that black dot? That's a cottage, with tiny wooden extensions, inexplicable pipes and patches of sheet metal, undersized windows and odd little carvings, all concealed by a looming, twisted roof of thatch. A witch's cottage.
*Neither does it show what the knight does after he's rescued the maiden. This isn't one of those tapestries.
John could feel Rodney's glare all the way from the other side of the cottage as he elbowed the door open to place the milk bowls outside. The retreating winter still had the ground frozen solid, though most of the snow had thawed by now. The cats were already waiting, shoving each other aside as soon as John had limped out of the way. He'd brought the broom down a little too fast for a decent landing and sprained his ankle, earning himself a lecture about flight safety and an unnecessary bandage. The downside of Rodney being a witch was that the guy knew too much to be anything but paranoid. The upside was that Rodney knew too much to be anything but awesome. And he was made for witchcraft. His cottage fit him like a cloak, skewed and tailor-made and with a hundred extra pockets, and he tinkered and scribbled like he didn't have a care in the world besides his cats and murderous lemons and John.
John… didn't quite know what to do with himself. He was an assassin, but there was no one to be inhumed here. The mere thought of anyone paying to get rid of King Verence II was absurd. Rodney let him fly as much as he wanted and sometimes let him play around with the numbers that made up Rodney's formulas, but that was it. Much as he liked this place, he had no use here. Much as he liked Rodney, the inactivity was driving him bonkers. Rodney was driving him bonkers.
Two of the cats twined around John's legs, a third one head-butting his calf. He crouched down to pet them. Within moments, he was surrounded by half a dozen loudly purring cats; little killing machines without anything to kill. Just like him.
"Maybe I should go," he told them, scratching a fat orange tabby behind its ears. It looked up at him through slitted eyes. "I don't even know why I'm still here." He sighed. Who was he kidding? He knew why he hadn't left yet. But Rodney… they were friends, and that was all very nice, but what John wanted wasn't exactly friendship.
"You know, anyone else who tried that would have lost their arm by now," Rodney said dryly from the backdoor. The scent of lunch wafted through the air and tickled John's nose. John looked down at the cat whose fur he'd been ruffling, and Greebo stared back up at him with his one good eye.
"Oh," John said, but he didn't take his hand away. Greebo liked him.
"They like you," Rodney went on, like he'd just read John's thoughts.
"Lancre cats don't like anyone." Rodney snorted and shook his head as one particularly stubborn black cat tried to climb on John's knee and was swatted away by Greebo. "Perhaps you've got Lancre in your blood," he mused, "and they think you're one of them."
"Or maybe they just like the guy who's feeding them," John said with a meaningful glance at the cat that had started rubbing up against Rodney's leg.
Rodney grinned. "Maybe." He cocked his head at John. "What about you? Want to be fed?"
"Meow," John said, and Rodney laughed.
There's something to be said about genetics. They make the pygmy bunnies of Überwald green-furred and the eighth son of an eighth son pure magic. They make grass grow to a certain height, cats see in the near-dark, and small chicks run when they spot an eagle soaring overhead.
John really did have Lancre in his blood. For some people, that alone was proof enough that he belonged to them.
"Did you know that young man of yours has been at the Dancers?"
Rodney dropped the shovel and straightened, groaning as his spine cracked like someone stepping on a pine cone. They really needed a new hole for the outhouse, but so far the earth had resisted his attempts at digging. Giving up for the day, he turned.
Granny Weatherwax was staring down her nose at him, arms crossed over her chest. Nanny Ogg was standing a step behind her, near-toothlessly munching on… something. Rodney didn't even want to know. He threw a quick glance around, but Agnes was nowhere to be seen.
"Yes, yes, elves, evil, I know." He waved his hand. "He's just a city boy with too much time on his hands; it's not like he's dancing around there naked."
"I used to dance around naked," Nanny said cheerfully. "That's how I met Mr. Ogg."
"Yes, thank you for that mental image," Rodney said with a grimace, "now I'm scarred for life."
"You can always imagine your boy." Nanny winked, and Rodney felt heat colouring his cheeks what he knew was an unflattering red.
He was well aware that John was an attractive man. He was merely... biding his time. And, all right, so maybe he wasn't quite sure what to do about this… thing… between them, but he'd be dancing the Morris himself before he let Nanny give him any hints.
"It's no good, lurking around them Dancers," Granny said with a narrow-eyed look at Nanny. "It's the first of spring. Barriers are thin round this time."
Rodney swallowed, his hands closing and opening around nothing but air. "It's not circle time." Besides, even if it were, John wouldn't do anything as stupid as stepping through.
"With them ears of his," Granny said, "I reckon he don't need circle time."
John stood leaning against a barren tree, hands in his pockets as he looked at the stones in front of him. There were eight of them, the size of a tall man, standing in a rough circle around snow-covered ground. Outside the circle, grass had tentatively started to grow on the half-frozen moor. The path leading up to the stones had been overgrown, like no one had been up here for a while.
He didn't even remember how he'd found this place. Every time he was up here, he told himself to ask Rodney about it. Every time he turned his back on the stones, he forgot.
A ray of sunlight broke through the clouds, but it was broken before it could reach the ground, hanging in mid-air like a wheat-stalk cut off by a scythe. John straightened and stepped closer to the stones without knowing why. An invisible force tugged at him and stripped him of his weapons. Something seemed to move inside the circular space, a mirage of red and black. His hand was shaking as it reached for the stone closest to him, moving as if through treacle. Or against resistance.
His palm touched the stone.
Something flashed before John's eyes, but he didn't blink, his glassy stare focussed on the woman in front of him. Her dress was as red as blood. Her eyes were as cold as the snow around her. Her smile…
"Kneel!" she ordered, her sharp voice echoing through the rooms of his mind, shattering vases and slamming doors with a force that made the plaster rain down from the walls. By the time John's knees hit the frozen ground, a few remaining lights might have still been on.
But there was nobody home.
John's knives were sticking to the Dancers like iron spines to a magnetic hedgehog. Rodney eyed them unhappily. There were footsteps in the snow on the other side, and they weren't all that reassuring, either. Faint boot prints led up to the Dancers, but it didn't look like anything had come out in their place. Small mercies.
Rodney shifted his weight, eyes still on the standing stones. He had no particular inclination to step into Their territory, and if John had… Rodney tried to ignore the hollow feeling behind his breastbone at the prospect that John might already be dead. He hadn't known him for all that long. There was no reason for him to think that the cottage would feel awfully empty with just him living there. And, fine, so John had faced down a crazy assassin for Rodney; that didn't mean he owed him anything.
He could fly his own broom again.
The setting sun painted John's knives a golden red. Rodney let out a long, slow breath.
Granny Weatherwax tended to do these things without magic; something about headology and engaging the enemy on your own turf. She would probably close the barrier with some well-placed traps and be on her way, home in time for supper.
Rodney wasn't Granny Weatherwax.
He stepped through.
Passing the barrier was like stepping through a vat of honey. You could move, but there was a resistance that made your movements slow as syrup dripping from a spoon. Something passed by him the moment he went, escaping into the outside world, but he couldn't do anything about that now. Granny would see to it that no one got hurt.
The other side of the Dancers was cold and white, gripped tight in the fist of an endless winter. Snow swirled around him, catching in his eyelashes, and in the distance he could see a castle, spires of glass reaching into the sky. Behind him, the standing stones loomed at three times his size, if not more.
Rodney knew he was going to die here.
Of course, he'd also known he was going to choke on lemon pie when he was thirteen and be burned alive a few months ago. Contrary to popular opinion*, he'd found that knowing the exact moment of one's demise usually gave one ample opportunity to take the appropriate countermeasures.
*i.e. Granny Weatherwax's opinion. This is witchcraft we're talking about.
For everything that steps into the circle, something else can come out. It's a simple exchange: big things for big things. Little things for little things. Unwitting ferrets for red-eyed killer bunnies.
The unicorn had been Outside before. It remembered the mountains, the forests, the breathing darkness that was already beginning to rise around it.
The Queen was kind of pretty even without the glamour, if far too thin to be a beauty. Her red dress emphasised her slim frame and her black eyes were huge in her triangular face. She sat on her throne and regarded Rodney like a cat looks at a new toy to play with. Several of her elves slouched around the throne room, all of them cruel-faced and grinning.
John was sitting on the floor next to her, blank-eyed and pale. One of her hands was toying with his hair, as if he were a favoured pet. Rodney gritted his teeth.
"I've come to take him home." He nodded at John.
The Queen looked bored. "His great-grandfather was one of mine." She ran the backs of her fingers down John's cheek. He didn't react at all. "This is his home."
Fine. If that was how she wanted to play it.
"He's been living under my roof for the past five months," Rodney said loftily. He polished his fingernails on his jacket to show how little she impressed him. "I have a claim on him as well."
The Queen leaned forward, her dark eyes glittering.
"Do you mean to challenge me?"
Rodney raised his chin.
The glamour hit him like a brick to the head. Rodney gasped, raising a shaking hand to his temple even as he staggered. The next blow sent him to his knees, made him curl in on himself. He was nothing. He was less than nothing. He was a speck of dust in an ancient room, and the Queen had opened the door to let the wind blow in for the first time in a hundred years. Rodney whimpered as the true scale of his insignificance became apparent to him. All that was left to him was his will, and how pitiful to think he could pit it against hers and prevail.
The Queen nudged him harshly with her foot. "Did you really think you could win him from me?"
Around them, the elves laughed. Rodney took a shuddering breath. John.
"Yes," he rasped. "As a matter of fact, I still do." He pulled himself together and staggered to his feet, forcing them to keep his balance. He straightened slowly, wincing as something in his back slid into place with an audible 'pop'. The Queen was staring down at him, shock colouring her triangular features, and Rodney snorted as he reached down to dust off his pants, specks of insignificance sticking to his hands and glittering in the air.
"What, didn't you notice? These days, it's all about overcompensating." He cleared his throat. "That, and multitasking."
The unicorn was angry. There was a buzzing in the back of its head that wouldn't go away, nagging and whispering and wrong. It was nothing like the Queen looking through its eyes, directing its feet like she used to do back Home.
For a while, the unicorn had been alone in its head. Now there was a voice, arguing in a language it didn't understand, buzzing, buzzing, and the unicorn just wanted it to stop. It might not know what the voice was saying, but it knew where the whispers were coming from. Moonlight glinted on silver hooves as it dashed across the moor toward the gap between the two stones the humans knew as Piper and Drummer.
The voice had to be stopped. Now.
"You're an assassin! Shouldn't you be able to look out for yourself?"
John didn't answer. He was slung over Rodney's shoulders, heavy and limp. Rodney kept stumbling under his weight as he ran through the snow, his boots skidding whenever he hit a patch of ice. He retained his balance. He couldn't afford not to. Besides, they were almost there, so close to the Dancers he thought he could almost touch them.
Behind them, the horses were catching up, the sound of cheering growing louder. The Queen was playing fair, which in her case meant that Rodney got to take John out of the castle unchallenged.
Now he only had to get off her land.
An arrow zipped past his ear and hit a stone, and Rodney stumbled again. This time, gravity finally had her way with him and pulled him down. He rolled even as he fell, trying to get back to his feet, but They were upon them now. Rodney went down again as a horse kicked his leg, pain blooming like an early spring flower. John was lying next to him in the snow, staring unblinking up at the sky. Around them, the horses parted.
"A good hunt," the Queen said, satisfaction in her voice. Beneath her, the huge black horse pranced, as mad as she was. "I won."
"You want a pet?" Rodney panted, gripping John's wrist tight enough to bruise. So close, just a few more steps… "You can have it."
He threw himself across John as the unicorn jumped between the stones with a furious whinny, a blurry of motion as it thundered over them, hooves barely missing Rodney's head. An elf shouted as the horn passed inches from his face; the horses shied.
"No! Get him!" the Queen demanded, but Rodney had already stumbled to his feet, dragging John behind him as he fought his way through the snow, away from the chaos behind them. Six steps to the Dancers, five. The unicorn screamed. Two steps.
They passed through.
The thing about magical barriers is that they're tricky. There are no walls between the Dancers, only doors. They might be locked tight for most of the time, but that doesn't mean that they're impossible to open.
One of the keys was currently lying a few steps away from them on the mostly-frozen bracken of the Lancre moorland, his mind still ringing with the tunes of stillness and subservience. The song was fading as the moon dipped toward the mountaintops, its light reflected on half a dozen knife blades still sticking to the nearby stones, but he didn't move.
John had Lancre in his blood. What he needed, though, was iron.
The small cart rattled its way along the mountain road. John squinted at the pale blue sky, his vision blurred by the vibrations of the wood beneath him. That, and the headache.
He sat up with a groan, and something slid off his chest to hit the cart's floor with a clang. He picked it up.
It was a horseshoe. A quick patting down of himself revealed several more in his pockets, an iron poker under his back, and what looked like most of Rodney's kitchen equipment arranged around him.
Rodney turned around from where he was sitting on the driver's seat.
"You're awake," he said unnecessarily.
"Yeah." John reached up to scratch his head, and found that he was wearing a helmet. "Um, what's with the portable smithy?"
"What do you remember?"
"I…" John thought about it, but his memories seemed oddly skewed. "Snow," he said finally. "And… the standing stones? I went up there, but…" He broke off helplessly. "Rodney, what happened?"
"You went through to the other side," Rodney said, like that made any sense, "which was bad. I got you back, which is good."
There had to be a lot more to the story, but Rodney didn't look like he was going to talk about it any time soon. The corner of his mouth was turned down, his grip tight around the reins. John decided to let the matter drop for now.
"Why are we in a cart?"
"We're leaving," Rodney blew out a short breath, "as the only way for you to stay here is by permanently carrying around at least three pounds of iron, which, you might agree, is rather impractical. Ankh-Morpork is out for obvious reasons, so I thought maybe Quirm. A friend of mine lives there, Radek Zelenka. For a wizard, he isn't half-stupid."
"But-" But Lancre was Rodney's home. He couldn't just up and leave it, least of all for John. There had to be a way to… "Wait, you just said I could-"
"I am not having sex with you while you're wearing more horseshoes than a racing stable."
John stared at Rodney, feeling like he'd just been hit by a stage coach*. "What?" he finally croaked.
Rodney looked like he would have crossed his arms if he hadn't been holding the reins. "We've been dancing around this for long enough, haven't we? Personally, I'm getting tired of the suspense, so I figure we should just get to it."
"Geez, Rodney," John drawled, "you really know how to woo a guy." But the tips of his ears were burning, and he caught himself grinning.
Rodney grinned back.
*This is a simile. John wasn't smeared across a hundred metres of dirt road, and he still had all his limbs.
A little ways outside of Quirm, there's a cottage, with tiny wooden extensions, inexplicable pipes and patches of sheet metal, undersized windows and odd little carvings, all concealed by a looming, twisted roof of thatch. A witch's cottage. Inside, there are cats, dozens of them, strolling in and out through the half-open backdoor. The main room holds a desk that's strewn with books and quills and paper, and another desk that holds boxes of strange contraptions and bits of what might be booby-traps. In the bedroom upstairs, there's a wardrobe containing two sets of clothing; one mostly made of black silk, the other in earthen tones except for the three black robes hanging in a corner. On top of the wardrobe, a pointy black hat reaches almost to the ceiling.
It's cramped, and sometimes seems too small for one, let alone two. But it's a home.