Once upon a time...
"Why do all of your stories have to begin with 'Once upon a time,' Jake?" Will said as his horse plodded along the road. Will did not say so out loud, but he considered his urge to ask this question to be proof that he and Jake had truly exhausted all better conversation topics for the day. They had been travelling since early morning, and Will's horse was not yet exhausted but was doing a very good job of pretending to be, possibly because it was still holding a grudge over barely escaping with its life after being used as troll bait the week before.
"For the exact same reason as the other twenty times you asked me," Jake replied from atop his own horse, which was also plodding along the road but, having no knowledge of the troll bait incident due to having been acquired after the fact, was doing so far less passive-aggressively than Will's horse. Young, full of energy, and ignorant of the sacrifices its new master might someday ask of it, Jake's horse would have been happy to keep trotting along the road until nightfall if only Jake would stop holding it back. However, Jake was more interested in talking to his brother than traveling swiftly and so continued to let Will's horse set their pace. "It's because it creates a sense of timelessness and the repetition of the structure helps create a sense of stylistic unity."
"But do you really need any of that?" Will said. His horse continued to plod along.
"No," Jake said, "no one really needs any of that, but that doesn't mean it isn't nice to have it. Do you really need us to 'get back to our roots' as you call it and take a non-supernatural case when real life magical phenomena have been practically throwing themselves at us left and right, begging us to study them?" He gently pulled back on the reins as his horse tried, yet again, to increase its speed.
"They haven't been begging us to study them. They've been demanding that we hold still so they can eat us," Will said, and here at least was one point both he and his horse could agree on.
Realizing that there was no point in arguing with the cold, hard truth, Jake changed tactics, saying "You really should read my newest story and tell me what you think, Will." He fished the battered and scorched old journal from his satchel and held it out for his brother, who made no motion to take it.
"Maybe later," Will said, not even looking at the proffered tome. In fact, he had already read the story, sneaking a look while Jake was asleep right after he finished it, and the longer Will could go without being forced to tell Jake that it was terrible the better it would probably be for the both of them. "You know what reading on horseback does to my stomach." It was an old and obvious lie, but at least it was also a lie which Jake had long ago given up trying to refute. That did not make the look of hurt on his face any easier to bear, though. With a mental curse, Will tried to kick his horse into a trot. The horse gave an ill-tempered snort, put its ears back, and continued at exactly the same pace as before. Jake continued to match their speed but said nothing more.
It was a very long three more hours before they reached their destination.
They had been investigating rumors of a hut deep in the woods said to contain not only a witch with terrible razor-sharp claws but also an ogre with a knife, a giant with a club, and an evil spirit whose shrieking foretold the death of all who heard it. Will knew that such rumors were patently ridiculous and said as much to Jake once they were out of the hearing of the local villagers, but after more than a year of fighting against genuine supernatural occurrences wherever they went, Will was happy to investigate a good old fashioned case of fraud which would have been obvious to its victims if they weren't so superstitious. It was almost like going back to their roots, but this time they would be revealing the fraud instead of committing it, so Jake had no reason to object to their involvement, at least not on moral principles.
Unfortunately for Will, despite a very careful search of the premises, they had failed to find anyone pretending to be a witch, an ogre, a giant, and/or a ghost. They had also failed to find anything resembling a real witch, a real ogre, a real giant, or a real ghost, though the case of the ghost, Jake had insisted that the absence of evidence was not evidence of absence, since ghosts were, by their natures, intangible. Instead, they had only found a cozy little hut, remarkable only for its very solidly constructed stone fireplace and the fact that the small building was populated by a hen, a cat, a dog, and a donkey. It was an odd assemblage of livestock, to be sure, possibly edging into the unnatural if the animals had all wandered to this isolated location of their own volition, but so far the situation seemed to call for the attention of a housekeeper more than the Brothers Grimm. This was what led to Will's current predicament.
Without a fraud to debunk of a supernatural case to investigate, there was nothing for Will and Jake to do but spend the night at the hut and then head back to town in the morning. A quiet night alone with Jake (Will refused to count the animals, because they were animals and no other justification was necessary) without the distractions of an inn, tavern, or other public house where Will could put some bodies between himself and his brother using the convenient excuse of gathering information from the locals and drumming up business meant there was no way he would be able to keep putting off giving his opinion about Jake's terrible story.
Will escaped outside for a short while to tend to the horses, grateful that they showed no inclination toward wanting to join the other animals inside the hut, but he knew he was only delaying the inevitable. Sure enough, when Will finished securing the horses for the night and reentered the hut, he found Jake with his book already out and opened to the proper page.
"Please, Will, I really want you to read this and give me your honest opinion about it," Jake said, once again offering the book to Will.
"Gladly," Will lied. This time, he had no choice but to reach out and take it. Will took a seat by the fire and began to read. He really wished that they had at least found a witch today, because fighting for their lives would have been preferable to this torture.
There was no sound in the small hut aside from the crackle of the fire and the occasional rustle of turning pages. The night outside of the hut was even quieter, but none of the hut's occupants paid any attention to that exterior silence as one man and four animals all seemed to be holding their breath with eager anticipation. The eagerness of the man, one Jacob Grimm, was understandable. The apparent eagerness of the aforementioned hen, cat, dog, and donkey, was hopefully nothing more than the figment of a tired mind, because if it was not, then their emotional investment in the current goings on was worrisome on a practical level and pathetic on an existential one. Will did his best to ignore the lot of them, but he could feel all five sets of eyes boring into him as he continued reading. He turned another page.
A short time later, he reached the last line of the handwritten story then went back and skimmed the whole thing over again to make sure that he had really just read what he thought he had just read, because maybe Jake had found time to make some revisions and improvements since Will had first taken that clandestine peek at it. No, the words remained the same, without so much as an altered punctuation mark as far as Will could tell. Years of life as a conman had given Will plenty of practice keeping his face neutral while his thoughts raced, but he had no hope of fooling Jake with the all-too-familiar act. He needed to think of something encouraging to say, and he needed to do it fast, but what kind of positive spin could he put on a story which started with a talking bratwurst and went downhill from there?
Will had been trying to be less stingy in his support of Jake's efforts, so he could not simply tell Jake to throw it all out and start over again, but the least critical comment he could think of was that the story was perhaps heavier on selling its moral and less concerned with coherent plot than Jake's usual work. Maybe, Will thought, it would be better if he didn't say anything at all. Will sighed, closed the book, and handed it back to Jake. Will and Jake, Wilhelm and Jacob, collectively known to the rest of the world as the famous Brothers Grimm: unfortunately, for all that they claimed to be able to work in perfect sync due to having a total understanding of each other, they could not actually read each other's minds, and therefore Jake did not know when to leave well enough alone when it came to wanting Will's opinions about the folktales he collected.
"Well," Jake said eagerly, "what did you think?"
"Er...," Will said, silently wishing for some kind of distraction, any kind of distraction at all. The donkey sidled closer and huffed warm, grass-scented breath down Will's neck in a manner that seemed to be demanding an answer from him. The dog whined and pressed his head against Will's knee while staring up at him with pleading eyes. The hen fluttered her wings at Will and clucked in what might have been encouragement. Even the cat flicked one ear forward and then back as if pointing between Will and Jake, and the twitching of her tail increased in speed, though she did not rise from her seat in Jake's lap to personally pester Will like the other animals.
Will continued to hesitate, and second later his stalling was rewarded with the exact distraction he had been hoping for when a man kicked open the door and shouted, "Who are you, and why are you defiling my lair with common beasts?" He was neither very handsome nor very ugly. If not for the expression of extreme anger upon his face, then his looks would have been wholly unmemorable. His clothes were rumpled and filthy, especially from the knees down, as if he had just spent a week or more slogging through swampland and occasional brambles. In one hand, he held a basket of what appeared to be lumps of phosphorescent tree fungus. In the other hand, he held a polished piece of knotted wood too short to be a walking stick but of a very good size to be a cudgel.
"I'm sorry," Jake said, gently lifting the cat from his lap so he could stand and once again proving that he was never any good at keeping his mouth shut in the face of someone looking to do him harm, "but the animals were already here when we arrived. Also, did you just say, 'lair'?"
"I did," the man said. He stepped over the threshold and into the hut. He still looked angry, but his face split into an evil looking grin as he continued, "What is a witch without the inviolability of his lair? You've trespassed, and now you must pay." He took another step forward.
"And now you're being ridiculous," Will said, because sometimes things just needed to commented on, self-preservation be damned. "Real witches never admit to being witches, and wh--"
"They do when they aren't going to let their victim live to tell anyone else about it," the man interrupted, grinning even wider. He took yet another step forward then lashed out with the piece of wood.
Finely honed reflex caused Will to duck out of the way, even though the man had not yet been quite close enough to hit him when he swung the cudgel, and that was why Jake was the one to be enveloped in a tornadic cloud of opaque yellow-green smoke. And that was when Will realized that the man was not swinging a cudgel but an oversized magic wand.
"Jake," Will screamed, suddenly oblivious to all thoughts beyond saving his little brother. He tried to throw himself into the smoke to pull Jake to safety, but the miniature maelstrom whirled with such force as to be impenetrable. Or maybe the spell contained a component which produced an invisible barrier. Either way, there was no getting through it. Will tried again anyway, too focused on trying to reach Jake to see the witch swinging his wand around for another shot.
Fortunately for Will, four other sets of eyes in the room did see it, and the owners of those eyes all leapt into action to prevent the attack. The cat flung itself claws-first at the witch, coming down hard on his extended arm and then climbing him like a tree so as to gouge deep into the flesh of his face. The hen dropped shrieking from the rafters and pecked and scratched at all the parts of the witch's head which the cat had not yet reached. As the witch flailed blindly and bellowed in pain, the dog sank its teeth into his leg. Thus bedecked in angry animals, the witch staggered around the hut in a frantic dance until he ran into the edge of the stone fireplace hard enough to jar his attackers loose. What should have been a moment of victory for the witch was instead the exact opening in the fight which the donkey had been waiting for. With the cat, hen, and dog dislodged from the witch, the donkey was now free to kick the witch straight into the fire, where he quickly burned away to nothing, not even leaving behind enough ashes to bother putting in a mirror-lined box. With the death of the witch, his spell was broken and the swirling cloud of yellow-green smoke swirled itself away up the chimney, leaving behind a gasping and slightly nauseous but otherwise unharmed Jacob Grimm lying on the floor. Will was at his side in a fraction of an instant. Seeing that both brothers were safe, the four animals returned to their repose, feeling the satisfaction of a job well done.
"Jake!" Will said, hauling his brother up into a half-sitting position and clutching him close. "Are you all right? Talk to me!" He tried patting Jake's cheek only to have his hand knocked away with more force than a dying man would be likely to manage.
"I'm fine," Jake panted, once he had enough breath in him to do more than wheeze, "but sometimes I miss being a fraud. So. Damn. Much."
"You do?" This was news to Will. "Really?"
"Yeah, I do," Jake said. He squirmed out of Will's grasp and stretched out on the floor with his hands behind his head and his legs crossed at the ankles. A faint smile played across Jake's lips as he stared up at the rafters of the hut where the cat and the hen were currently perched. The hen stayed where it was, but the cat gracefully leapt down the floor, then sauntered over to Jake, settled on his chest, curled itself into a loaf, and started purring. "I miss the lack of things trying to kill me," Jake said. "I miss your certainty that nothing went bump in the night apart from us." He slid one hand out from under his head and began stroking the cat, which expressed its appreciation by purring louder. "I don’t miss it enough to give up what we have now, though."
Will was quiet for a moment, just sitting and looking at Jake. Jake had almost died tonight. Will probably could have died tonight too, but he wasn't quite ready to process that part yet, so instead he focused on Jake. Jake: the man who, despite his brush with mortality just minutes ago, looked a thousand times more contented with his lot in life right now than he ever had in all their years of taking small risks for big gains while scamming the innocent. That look of contentment on Jake's face was enough to let Will speak with perfect honesty when he said, "Yeah, I don't miss it enough to give this up either." The hour was growing late now, but the donkey had claimed the low-slung wooden pallet which passed for the only bed in the hut and Will was not inclined to argue with anything with such a mighty kick just now, so he stretched out on the floor next to Jake, jostling him with his elbow just because he could. They were brothers; it's what they did.
The cat glared poisonously at Will for the disturbance before returning to its meditative purring, but Jake just laughed and 'accidentally' elbowed Will right back while pretending to shift positions to make the cat more comfortable. Eventually, both brothers settled down. The dog sidled up to Will, flopped half across him, more or less pinning him in place, and showed no intention of moving any time soon. Will saw no reason to protest this development. The room grew dimmer as the fire burned lower.
Will was beginning to think that Jake might have fallen asleep when Jake broke the silence by asking, "So, are you ever going to tell me what you thought of the story, Will?"
Will could not prevent a groan from escaping his lips.
Jake just laughed and said, "If you don't tell me it's terrible, then I'm going to have to keep coming with even worse things until I manage to wring an honest opinion about one of them out of you."
"You wouldn't!" Will spluttered. "You didn't!"
"Of course I did!" Jake said indignantly. "There was a mouse who boiled itself alive while trying to imitate a talking bratwurst. What kind of an author do you take me for?"
"Why don't you write up a version of what happened tonight, so I can give you an honest opinion about that one, and then we can both pretend that other story doesn't exist." As far as Will was concerned, this was his best idea ever.
"I don't know," Jake said sleepily. "I'm starting to get attached to it." Jake yawned, draped an arm across Will's chest just like he had been doing ever since he was a child, somehow managing to not disturb the cat in the process. Will did not try to push him away. Jake continued, "I might leave it in the book just for laughs, even though it wasn't based on anything we picked up on a case."
"Or we could go out and find better things for you to write about," Will suggested.
"Well I have been wanting to investigate those rumors about the treasure guarded by magic dogs with enormous eyeballs," Jake said.
The cat and dog both made soft noises of foreboding, and Will felt inclined to agree with them. "Let's skip that one and let someone else deal with it," he said. "Thanks to this witch, we still haven't gotten back to our roots and dealt with some good old fashioned human trickery. A few days ago I heard news that somebody kidnapped a bunch of princes and left swans in their place. Magic dogs with giant eyes might rip a fellow apart, but how much trouble could swans cause? Let's investigate that one instead."
"Sure," Jake said.
And that is exactly what they did next.
And they lived happily ever after, with just the right frequency of occurrences of life-threatening terror to keep them from getting too bored. They also learned that swans can cause quite a lot of trouble indeed, but that is a story for another day.