The Ramtop Mountains were home to an excess of topography: too many peaks to individually name, and razor thin valleys cut between that looked more like someone had given the gods a butcher knife than any real intent to geography. The mountains had everything a mountain range ought to: trees, snow, barren rock, ice, strange men who were considered enlightened because they refused to shave, explorers and heroes falling off the map with regularity. There were villages, towns; even a kingdom cut into the few flat-ish areas that could support life.
The Ramtops also happened to be home to a great deal of magic, especially in the Kingdom of Lancre. More specifically, it was home to witches. This was primarily because wizards didn’t tend to do well in rural environments. Oh, they could, there was nothing stopping them in specific: it was simply that, to the average wizard, if you could wield extraordinary cosmic power at your fingertips you wanted a chance to use it. At the very least you wanted to be recognized for not using it. Having magic, to a wizard, meant you ought to be seen with some sort of awe, respect, and above all else be left alone, preferably with a cheese board. Wizards did not want to deal with rural backwaters where the most complicated question they might ever be able to unleash their massive intellects on would be something along the lines of ‘what is this growing on my foot, and is it catching?’
Witches, on the other hand, understood the rural: backwater, backwards and otherwise. They knew where the cheese was made. They left erstwhile dungeon dimensions alone to focus on the more important things, i.e. the dimension they were currently in, and yes, Jakob, it will be catching if you keep scratching at it, put this poultice on and stop going about without your boots.
Wizards asked what the world was and what it was all for. Witches told the world what it was, and that it ought to stick to what it knew.
Contrary to popular belief, witches came in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and they did not start out old and craggy by default(1). They started out young and ended up old, just like most creatures on the Disc: the warts and green skin were accessories; some were just more naturally gifted than others(2). It was why, apart from the pointy black hats that marked the pair of women walking down Bad Ass into Lancre Town, they could have been mistaken for the average villager instead of a witch in training. Neither were hunched, and both were young. You couldn't have called either ugly - but beautiful was just as bad a fit. Tall and handsome, Esmerelda (Esme) Weatherwax had neither warts nor blackened teeth despite all her best efforts. The most magical part of her appearance were her eyes: everyone called them piercing, or unnerving, or both.
Gytha Ogg was her opposite in every possible way. She had rosy, sunburnt skin where Esme was pale; she was short and round and cheerful where her friend was all steely seriousness. While Esmerelda Weatherwax could take one look at you and know which of your bits you’d skipped in the bath, Gytha Ogg was, to many, more frightening - she could look and know who you'd been thinking about while washing.
At the moment, they had better things to talk about than anybody’s washing up. "I still don't like it, Esme." The road from Bad Ass to Lancre was downhill, but Gytha had to walk double-time to keep up with Esme’s longer stride."If Old Mother Blackcap wanted us to be there, wherever they’re to be, she would have said."
"That's how I knows it's a good idea," Esme sniffed. "We’re just to stay away, and what they say goes, is that it? I'm all for learnin, I am, and I'm never one to put myself where I ain't welcome, am I? They go on about how there’s a right and proper time and place and don't ever bother to explain just how that time and place don’t have room for us? Bah!" Esme picked up the pace, and Gytha was left half skipping to keep up.
It wasn’t that Esme was alone in wanting to know what was going on. Gytha could admit to herself that she was curious to know too. It was the sort of thing that you couldn’t be curious about, secret meetings in the dark. It was just that they’d only been witching for not even a year now, and what if it was something they needed to be taught about first? "Old Ms Tiddle said it was the old magic. If we're getting involved with it, shouldn't we -"
"Ms Tiddle called us silly girls when you was out."
"She did!" Esme seemed to realize she was leaving Gytha behind and slowed so she could catch up. "She and Old Mother Blackcap sent me out from the cottage, right out, after having me make the tea, and then sat and said we were nothing but silly gels." The tone of Esme's voice suggested that 'silly girl' was somewhere lower on the tree of insults than even 'strumpet' and 'thinks she's better than she is'.
"They said that to you?" Gytha was caught between disbelief and confusion. The local witches - including their teachers - certainly complained about all the girls being flighty or worse, but it was always in the way that adults always talked about how things were ‘so much better back in their day and how youth ruined everything’. "That's not like Ms Tiddle at all."
Esme looked sidelong at and then away from Gytha, "Not to me, no,"
"Esme Weatherwax! You were spyin?"
"I was in the area!" Esme protested. "It's not my fault my ears could hear!"
There was a certain hook to that that made Gytha pause, hands on her hips. "Esmerelda Weatherwax, you was borrowing? Whose ears heard that? An without that someone knowing! What if you got stuck?" Again, Gytha didn't add, because she valued their friendship and Esme did not like to be reminded about that week she spent as a rabbit.
"Well I didn’t get stuck!” Esme stopped and turned to face Gytha, her mouth a stubborn line. "I was just fine. I've gots the hang of it now, and I'm standing right here, ain't I?"
"You had to be close to the cottage to do it - did you just lie in a ditch somewhere? What if someone found you? They'd think you was dead!"
"Well, no one did," Esme protested. "And besides! They called us silly. It'll be a cold day before I let some old biddy call me silly." Esme marched down the path to the village proper, spine so straight Gytha could have used it for a ruler. They'd only been friends for a summer, but she already knew that if Esme's back was that straight and her head held that high, you could use her stubborn pride as a foundation for a new bridge - and she'd be there even after all the stones washed out.
Quiet fell as Gytha trailed after Esme. Esme had a bee in her bonnet about this, no mistake, and there wasn't going to be any talking her out of it. Gytha considered trying. Statements such as ‘don't you think getting so worked up about it might be silly?’ and ‘adults need to have a place to gossip and talk the same as all of us’ floated past her mind, but Esmerelda Weatherwax was not going to swayed by either of those, was she? In fact, she’d probably only want to do it more - and if she tried to talk Esme out of it she ran the risk being left behind. No matter what, there was no way Gytha was going to let Esme have all the fun.
And anyway: Esme might be right. Older witches were constantly going on about things being 'too much' for them to learn now, and - as far as Gytha thought about things - that wasn't right at all. You learnt about things all the time, didn't you? And then you learned the hows and the whys after, once you had the chance to really get the meat of it. So learning about whatever they were going to do, this first of Ember, well that was an important first step. You didn't say ‘oh no, here's a magical box of delicious cookies but you mustn't ever open it because of archaic reasons we're all afraid of’ and expect anyone with an abundance of youth, if not sense, to leave it well enough alone, did you? Of course not. Besides, Gytha Ogg was from a long line of Oggs, and the Oggish way of doing things was to do what you thought was a good idea at the time, and do it as hard as you could. It generally worked out well enough.
Well, that was that then. If Esme was off to a good bad decision, Gytha wasn’t going to stay and tend the fire. Mind made up, she drew up next to Esme. "Do you know where they'll be? If we're going to go too, it'd look pretty foolish if we got there and they weren't."
"No." Esme's voice was sharp with annoyance. "But I'll follow em."
"How? In the dark? On foot? You still can't hardly ride a broom, and they'd see you if you tried besides."
"I'll figure it out. No one says you have to come."
"Now you're just being stubborn." Gytha sighed, then grabbed Esme's arm, linking them together so that Esme had to keep pace with her for a while. “I'm comin. We'll ask Nanny where they'll be. If anyone knows, she will." Gytha nodded, sharp and firm when Esme gave her a look. "Nan sees more than people think she does. You don't have to have magic to use your eyes, she says."
"But it helps," Esme pointed out.
Gytha decided to let that one slide.
Gytha always thought her Nan should have been a witch, but her Nan had said that she could never get her shambles right and sooner or later she realized that some folks just had the gift of seeing the world as it is and that was enough for the likes of them. It meant her Nan ‘didn’t have no business up on the hill’, but she knew exactly where the girls would find their teachers and fully supported them going off and ‘findin out the things they didn’t know’.
With Nan’s advice, they followed the animal trail up the hill and through the trees. It was cold; cold enough there was frost on their breath. Esme led the way, never double checking where they were. It was admirable. Even if they were to get totally lost, Gytha thought, they'd at least have done it with absolute certainty.
Not that she was worried about getting lost. Up ahead they could see white smoke: steam from a fire put out with water. It meant they were on the right trail. As they drew closer, it felt like a weight was settling across Gytha’s shoulders. The world got colder in a sharp and sudden way, frost spreading fine spiderweb fingers across the ground, the whole world turning a silver and black and white and foreboding. Ahead was the clearing, where there was the circle of witches who were --
"Is that dancing?" Gytha asked, shocked. "They came up here to dance?" With their clothes on, thank goodness. Not that dancing with your clothes off was a bad thing, but it needed to be done in the right circumstances, like somewhere warm and private perhaps where you wouldn’t risk an accidental hedgehog.
The witches were in a circle, Gytha realized. Perhaps for protection? She couldn’t wonder what for, unless it was against the Morris dancers. No one ever wanted unexpected dancers, but these didn’t look unexpected with the circle and all. They weren’t dressed right neither: all in black against the night so they looked like shadows. And there wasn’t any music, no drums or bells, but Gytha could feel the beat in her bones, deep down, as she watched them dance. It was enough to set her toes tapping.
“Esme?” she tore her attention away from the circle to her friend - who was white as a sheet and ramrod straight. Gytha couldn’t think of a time she’d ever seen her friend so frightened. Actually, she couldn’t think of a time he’d ever seen Esme scared.
Esme’s hand shot out and grabbed her arm hard enough to bruise. Gytha didn’t notice the shadows that were reaching for them: Esme spun them both around and threw them down the trail. The pair of them tumbled down in a mess of arms and legs and quiet cursing. Gytha was pretty sure she hit every root, stone and stump on the way.
They came to a stop about halfway down, Esme holding her eye that was very likely going to be black in the morning and Gytha groaning and picking brambles out of her hair. "I lost my hat!" she hissed, glad she wasn’t the only one who was going to be bruised in the morning. "What was that about?"
"Better your hat than your head. Something was looking for a way in."
Gytha watched as Esme shook her head, reached up, and only then realized her hat had gotten lost in the tumble as well. She glared up the trail and Gytha wondered if they’d be going back for their hats, but Esme just shook her head again, hard and sharp. "We'll come look for our things in the light. Get up, let's get back before they start down here and find us looking exactly as silly as we are."
"So now we're silly?" Gytha levered herself to her feet with effort and shook out her skirts, feeling put-upon. "What exactly was looking for a way in? I didn’t see nothing but our teachers and them dancers." Dancers she’d almost wanted to join. That wasn’t right: she’d been tappin her feet, sure, and she’d been almost thinkin of joining in. "I never thought I'd want to dance in the dead of night in the cold quite so much before, but there was somethin..." she admitted.
"And that wasn't the worst of what was out there," Esme pronounced, tugging her cloak around her tighter and heading back far less assuredly than before but managing to stay on the trail. "There were minds, Gytha. Things that felt... old. Forgotten. If they'd gotten at us - we was out of the circle. That would have been the end of it."
"The end of what?" Gytha asked, eventually slinging herself under Esme's shoulder to help her walk in a straight line.
"Us," Esme said, simply.
Gytha decided not to ask anymore questions.
The night was strangely silent, foreboding and while not as cold as it had been near the clearing, Gytha was starting to shiver when a single sound broke the silence. A tiny, forlorn meow.
"Here puss," she called, instantly. "You poor thing, what are you doing out in this weather?" She slid out of supporting Esme to look around, listening intently. Gytha Ogg was a cat lady in the making and anything that sounded that cold needed to be looked after, especially on a night like this. "Where are you?"
"Our luck, it's a mountain lion intending on taking your face off," Esme had stopped to lean against a tree and catch her breath. "You can't go chasing after an animal in this dark."
“I went off with you to find our teachers, didn’t I? This can’t be half so difficult." Gytha huffed, calling out and listening as the tiny meow was repeated. Right now all she had to show for the night was a bunch of bruises and a feeling like the older women were going to be laughing at them. "If you wanted to help you could look around and see if you can feel it's mind. It's probably half frozen, the poor thing."
Esme shuddered. "I'm not opening my mind to anything that might be hanging around here, or did you not listen when I said those things up there was hunting?"
Gytha peered around a rotten log, and found the poor thing frostbitten and curled up in a bed of dead leaves. "Found him!" she announced so Esme wouldn’t get too snippy. "Why he's just a kitten! I don't know how he got up here on his own. Poor thing really is half frozen." She made her way back to Esme, buttoning the creature into her coat. In the moonlight it was an unremarkable blob of fur, possibly striped, impossibly dirty, and clearly chilled to the bone. It curled up on her chest under her coat and scarf but stuck its head out to examine the world.
"What are you going to do if it turns out to be possessed by some sort of evil spirit, then?" Esme demanded of Gytha: In hindsight, it probably hadn't been the best idea to point at the creature as she asked. It took a solid minute to pry it’s teeth out of Esme’s finger.
"Nan will have bandages once we're home," Gytha assured, handing Esme a hanky to wrap the bite in for now. "And we can get you a cut of meat for that eye. Unless you want to be Old Esme With a Squint to everyone."
"You’re incorrigible,” Esme grumbled.
Gytha considered that. “Exactly right. I’m a witch.”
“That's no kitten," Esme continued as they headed back down the trail to Nan’s. The idea of a warm cup of tea and something to sterilize her hand seemed to be motivating her. "It's a demon in a cat's body."
“He’s a cat, that’s just how they is.” Gytha said cheerfully. “Part of the rules of the universe or somesuch I’m sure.” Gytha looked at the kitten that was curled up under her scarf and purring loudly. "That's the perfect sort of familiar for a witch to have."
Tiffany Aching (a witch, even if she hardly ever wore black clothes, let alone a anything more witchy than a pointed hat) looked up into the smiling face of Nanny Ogg and then over at the sleeping form of Greebo the cat who was curled in front of the fireplace.
"Greebo's a demon?"
"Oh, of course not!" Nanny laughed, cheeks red and eyes twinkling as she took a pull on her pipe. "I'd not be letting a demon cat sleep in my bed now, would I? He was just a lost kitten who didn't like getting pointed at, which makes him demon enough for Esme. Mind you, she'd have called anything that night a demon or nasty spirit or whatever else had spooked her, hanging around the dance. You can bet she went and demanded answers, in her time, to what all that was about - and the next year we were brought right along proper. Probably so we didn't try to sneak in again."
"Did they know you'd done it? The other witches?" Tiffany asked, unable to help herself - it was just so rare to hear about Mistress Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg as girls, younger than her, even, getting into trouble. "Did you get in trouble?"
"Of course they knew!" Nanny slapped her knee. "They were witches, some of em probably knew before we even did it! But we didn't get caught so they didn't say nothing. I think they decided losing our hats and Esme's black eye were punishment enough. Embarrassing, anyway, since Esme had to make up a reason for her eye and when she couldn't fast enough I said she ran into a tree." Nanny grinned, inviting Tiffany in on the joke. "She didn't forgive me for a week for that, since it was even the truth!"
Tiffany giggled at the thought, even if she couldn't imagine Granny with a black eye, no matter how hard she tried. "So that's how you met Greebo? The night of the Dark Dance?" Tiffany paused and then stared down. "But that's - if you were younger than me he'd be-"
"Oh yes," Nanny agreed, sounding fond as she looked at the sleeping cat that had stayed with her longer than any animal had any right to, except perhaps for some pet rocks, or turtles(3). "Greebo's special, in his way, but he's no demon. I can't say he's entirely cat, mind, but he suits himself just fine. Besides, Greebo isn't the moral of the story, Miss Aching, now is he?"
"No?" Tiffany ventured, because Nanny did always have a reason for telling her stories, even if it was just to see how red in the face she could make you turn until you suddenly remembered you had some very important cheese that needed turning elsewhere. "What was?"
Nanny tapped her pipe off and then pointed it at Tiffany. "That you aren't the only one who can get caught up in the dance, or any other sort of Mischief. And that expecting us witches to tell you everything is always bound to get you into trouble. We all make mistakes, mind. You'll just have to find out your way of dealing with them!" Nanny put her pipe to her lips and took another draw. "Shame about your feet though. Could have done with some more gardening this winter."
"Nanny!" Tiffany laughed, tucking her toes under her, no longer worried about accidentally making floorboards sprout leaves. "I think my feet have done enough!"
Nanny just rocked in her chair and smiled. On the floor Greebo turned over and dreamed of octarine bells and moonlight and chasing down a wolf just because he could.
And the disc turned.
(1) Excepting in rare cases, eg Ms Bedelia Button who due to her mother being caught in a wayward time storm while giving birth, had the rather unique (mis)fortune of being born backwards ie: at the ripe old age of 87.
(2) And for those who lack, Boffo’s Catalog has all that any witch could need
(3) and really, what was the difference?