Fire roared through the bifurcated city of Ankh-Morpork. Where it licked the Wizards' Quarter it burned blue and green and was even laced with strange sparks of the eighth color, octarine; where its outriders found their way into the vats and oil stores all along Merchant Street it progressed in a series of blazing fountains and explosions; in the streets of the perfume blenders it burned with a sweetness; where it touched bundles of rare and dry herbs in the storerooms of the drugmasters it made men go mad and talk to God.
By now the whole of downtown Morpork was alight, and the richer and worthier citizens of Ankh on the far bank were bravely responding to the situation by feverishly demolishing the bridges. But already the ships in the Morpork docks-laden with grain, cotton and timber, and coated with tar-were blazing merrily and, their moorings burnt to ashes, were breasting the river Ankh on the ebb tide, igniting riverside palaces and bowers as they drifted like drowning fireflies toward the sea. In any case, sparks were riding the breeze and touching down far across the river in hidden gardens and remote rickyards.
The smoke from the merry burning rose miles high, in a wind-sculpted black column that could be seen across the whole of the Discworld.
It was certainly impressive from the cool, dark hilltop a few leagues away, where two figures were watching with considerable interest.
The taller of the pair was chewing on a chicken leg and leaning on a sword that was only marginally shorter than the average man. If it wasn't for the air of wary intelligence about him it might have been supposed that he was a barbarian from the Hubland wastes.
His partner was much shorter and wrapped from head to toe in a brown cloak. Later, when he has occasion to move, it will be seen that he moves lightly, catlike.
The two had barely exchanged a word in the last twenty minutes except for a short and inconclusive argument as to whether a particularly powerful explosion had been the oil bond store or the workshop of Kerible the Enchanter. Money hinged on the fact.
Now the big man finished gnawing at the bone and tossed it into the grass, smiling ruefully.
"There go all those little alleyways," he said. "I liked them."
"All the treasure houses," said the small man. He added thoughtfully, "Do gems bum? I wonder. 'Tis said they're kin to coal."
"All the gold, melting and running down the gutters," said the big one, ignoring him. "And all the wine, boiling in the barrels."
"There were rats," said his brown companion.
"Rats, I'll grant you."
"It was no place to be in high summer."
"That, too. One can't help feeling, though, a-well, a momentary-"
He trailed off, then brightened. "We owed old Fredor at the Crimson Leech eight silver pieces," he added. The little man nodded.
They were silent for a while as a whole new series of explosions carved a red line across a hitherto dark section of the greatest city in the world. Then the big man stirred.
"I wonder who started it."
The small swordsman known as the Weasel said nothing. He was watching the road in the ruddy light. Few had come that way since the Deosil Gate had been one of the first to collapse in a shower of white-hot embers.
But two were coming up it now. The Weasel's eyes, always at their sharpest in gloom and half-light, made out the shapes of two mounted men and some sort of low beast behind them. Doubtless a rich merchant escaping with as much treasure as he could lay frantic hands on. The Weasel said as much to his companion, who sighed.
"The status of footpad ill suits us," said the barbarian, "but, as you say, times are hard and there are no soft beds tonight. "
He shifted his grip on his sword and, as the leading rider drew near, stepped out onto the road with a hand held up and his face set in a grin nicely calculated to reassure yet threaten.
"Your pardon, sir" he began.
The rider reined in his horse and drew back his hood. The big man looked into a face blotched with superficial burns and punctuated by tufts of singed beard. Even the eyebrows had gone.
"Bugger off," said the face. "You're Bravd the Hublander, aren't you?"
Bravd became aware that he had fumbled the initiative.
"Just go away, will you?" said the rider. "I just haven't got time for you, do you understand?"
He looked around and added: "That goes for your shadow-loving fleabag partner, too, wherever he's hiding."
The Weasel stepped up to the horse and peered at the disheveled figure.
"Why, it's Rincewind the wizard, isn't it?" he said in tones of delight, meanwhile filing the wizard's description of him in his memory for leisurely vengeance. "I thought I recognized the voice."
Bravd spat and sheathed his sword. It was seldom worth tangling with wizards, they so rarely had any treasure worth speaking of.
"He talks pretty big for a gutter wizard," he muttered.
"You don't understand at all," said the wizard wearily. "I'm so scared of you my spine has turned to jelly, it's just that I'm suffering from an overdose of terror right now. I mean, when I've got over that then I'll have time to be decently frightened of you."
The Weasel pointed toward the burning city.
"You've been through that?" he asked.
The wizard rubbed a red-raw hand across his eyes. "I was there when it started. See him? Back there?" He pointed back down the road to where his traveling companion was still approaching, having adopted a method of riding that involved falling out of the saddle every few seconds.
"Well?" said Weasel.
started it," said Rincewind simply.
The sun rose slowly, as if it wasn't sure it was worth all the effort.
Another Disc day dawned, but very gradually, and this is why.
When light encounters a strong magical field it loses all sense of urgency. It slows right down. And on the Discworld the magic was embarrassingly strong, which meant that the soft yellow light of dawn flowed over the sleeping landscape like the caress of a gentle lover or, as some would have it, like golden syrup. It paused to fill up valleys. It piled up against mountain ranges. When it reached Cori Celesti, the ten mile spire of gray stone and green ice that marked the hub of the Disc and was the home of its gods, it built up in heaps until it finally crashed in great lazy tsunami as silent as velvet, across the dark landscape beyond.
It was a sight to be seen on no other world.
Of course, no other world was carried through the starry infinity on the backs of four giant elephants, who were themselves perched on the shell of a giant turtle. His name-or Her name, according to another school of thought-was Great A'Tuin; he-or, as it might be, she-will not take a central role in what follows but it is vital to an understanding of the Disc that he-or she-is there, down below the mines and sea ooze and fake fossil bones put there by a Creator with nothing better to do than upset archaeologists and give them silly ideas.
Great A'Tuin the star turtle, shell frosted with frozen methane, pitted with meteor craters, and scoured with asteroidal dust. Great A'Tuin, with eyes like ancient seas and a brain the size of a continent through which thoughts moved like little glittering glaciers. Great A'Tuim of the great slow sad flippers and star-polished carapace, laboring through the galactic night under the weight of the Disc. As large as worlds. As old as Time. As patient as a brick.
Actually, the philosophers have got it all wrong. Great A'Tuin is in fact having a great time.
Great A'Tuin is the only creature in the entire universe that knows exactly where it is going.
Of course, philosophers have debated for years about where Great A'Tuin might be going, and have often said how worried they are that they might never find out.
They're due to find out in about two months, and then they're really going to worry ...
Something else that has long worried the more imaginative philosophers on the Disc is the question of Great A'Tuin's sex, and quite a lot of time and trouble has been spent in trying to establish it once and for all.
In fact, as the great dark shape drifts past like an endless tortoiseshell hairbrush, the results of the latest effort are just coming into view.
Tumbling past, totally out of control, is the bronze shell of the Potent Voyager, a sort of neolithic spaceship built and pushed over the edge by the astronomerpriests of Krull, which is conveniently situated on the very rim of the world and proves, whatever people say, that there is such a thing as a free launch.
Inside the ship is Twoflower, the Disc's first tourist. He had recently spent some months exploring it and is now rapidly leaving it for reasons that are rather complicated but have to do with an attempt to escape from Krull.
This attempt has been one thousand percent successful.
But despite all the evidence that he may be the Disc's last tourist as well, he is enjoying the view.
Plunging along some two miles above him is Rincewind the wizard, in what on the Disc passes for a spacesuit. Picture it as a diving suit designed by men who have never seen the sea. Six months ago he was a perfectly ordinary failed wizard. Then he met Twoflower, was employed at an outrageous salary as his guide, and has spent most of the intervening time being shot at, terrorized, chased and hanging from high places with no hope of salvation or, as is now the case, dropping from high places.
He isn't looking at the view because his past life keeps flashing in front of his eyes and getting in the way. He is learning why it is that when you put on a spacesuit it is vitally important not to forget the helmet.
A lot more could be included now to explain why these two are dropping out of the world, and why Twoflower's Luggage, last seen desperately trying to follow him on hundreds of little legs, is no ordinary suitcase, but such questions take time and could be more trouble than they are worth. For example, it is said that someone at a party once asked the famous philosopher Ly Tin Weedle "Why are you here?" and the reply took three years.
What is far more important is an event happening way overhead, far above A'Tuin, the elephants and the rapidly expiring wizard. The very fabric of time and space is about to be put through the wringer.
The air was greasy with the distinctive feel of magic, and acrid with the smoke of candles made of a black wax whose precise origin a wise man wouldn't inquire about.
There was something very strange about this room deep in the cellars of Unseen University, the Disc's premier college of magic. For one thing it seemed to have too many dimensions, not exactly visible, just hovering out of eyeshot. The walls were covered with occult symbols, and most of the floor was taken up by the Eightfold Seal of Stasis, generally agreed in magical circles to have all the stopping power of a well-aimed halfbrick.
The only furnishing in the room was a lectern of dark wood, carved into the shape of a bird-well, to be frank, into the shape of a winged thing it is probably best not to examine too closely-and on the lectern, fastened to it by a heavy chain covered in padlocks, was a book.
A large, but not particularly impressive, book. Other books in the University's libraries had covers inlaid with rare jewels and fascinating wood, or bound with dragon skin. This one was just a rather tatty leather. It looked the sort of book described in library catalogues as "slightly foxed," although it would be more honest to admit that it looked as though it had been badgered, wolved and possibly beared as well.
Metal clasps held it shut. They weren't decorated, they were just very heavy-like the chain, which didn't so much attach the book to the lectern as tether it.
They looked like the work of someone who had a pretty definite aim in mind, and who had spent most of his life making training harness for elephants.
The air thickened and swirled. The pages of the book began to crinkle in a quite horrible, deliberate way, and...
This is a story about magic and where it goes and perhaps more importantly where it comes from and why, although it doesn't pretend to answer all or any of these questions.
It may, however, help to explain why Gandalf never got married and why Merlin was a man. Because this is also a story about sex, although probably not in the athletic, tumbling, count-the-legs-and-divide-by-two sense unless the characters get totally beyond the author's control. They might.
However, it is primarily a story about a world. Here it comes now. Watch closely, the special effects are quite expensive.
A bass note sounds. It is a deep, vibrating chord that hints that the brass section may break in at any moment with a fanfare for the cosmos, because the scene is the blackness of deep space with a few stars glittering like the dandruff on the shoulders of God.
Then it comes into view overhead, bigger than the biggest, most unpleasantly armed starcruiser in the imagination of a three-ring filmmaker: a turtle, ten thousand miles long. It is Great A'Tuin, one of the rare astrochelonians from a universe where things are less as they are and more like people imagine them to be, and it carries on its meteorpocked shell four giant elephants who bear on their enormous shoulders the great round wheel of the Discworld.
As the viewpoint swings around, the whole of the world can be seen by the light of its tiny orbiting sun. There are continents, archipelagos, seas, deserts, mountain ranges and even a tiny central ice cap. The inhabitants of this place, it is obvious, won't have any truck with global theories. Their world, bounded by an encircling ocean that falls forever into space in one long waterfall, is as round and flat as a geological pizza, although without the anchovies.
A world like that, which exists only because the gods enjoy a joke, must be a place where magic can survive. And sex too, of course.
He came walking through the thunderstorm and you could tell he was a wizard, partly because of the long cloak and carven staff but mainly because the raindrops were stopping several feet from his head, and steaming.
It was good thunderstorm country, up here in the Ramtop Mountains, a country of jagged peaks, dense forests and little river valleys so deep the daylight had no sooner reached the bottom than it was time to leave again. Ragged wisps of cloud clung to the lesser peaks below the mountain trail along which the wizard slithered and slid. A few slot-eyed goats watched him with mild interest. It doesn't take a lot to Interest goats.
Sometimes he would stop and throw his heavy staff into the air. It always came down pointing the same way and the wizard would sigh, pick it up, and continue his squelchy progress.
The storm walked around the hills on legs of lightning, shouting and grumbling.
The wizard disappeared around the bend in the track and the goats went back to their damp grazing.
Until something else caused them to look up. They stiffened, their eyes widening, their nostrils flaring.
This was strange, because there was nothing on the path. But the goats still watched it pass by until it was out of sight.
There was a village tucked in a narrow valley between steep woods. It wasn't a large village, and wouldn't have shown up on a map of the mountains. It barely showed up on a map of the village.
It was, in fact, one of those places that exist merely so that people can have come from them. The universe is littered with them: hidden villages, windswept little towns under wide sides, isolated cabins on chilly mountains, whose only mark on history is to be the incredibly ordinary place where something extraordinary started to happen. Often there is no more than a little plaque to reveal that, against all gynecological probability someone very famous was born halfway up a wall.
Mist curled between the houses as the wizard crossed a narrow bridge over the swollen stream and made his way to the village smithy, although the two facts had nothing to do with one another. The mist would have curled anyway: it was experienced mist and had got curling down to a fine art.
The smithy was fairly crowded, of course. A smithy is one place where you can depend on finding a good fire and someone to talk to. Several villagers were lounging in the warm shadows but, as the wizard approached, they sat up expectantly and tried to look intelligent, generally with indifferent success.
The smith didn't feel the need to be quite so subservient.
He nodded at the wizard, but it was a greeting between equals, or at least between equals as far as the smith was concerned. After all, any halfway competent blacksmith has more than a nodding acquaintance with magic, or at least likes to think he has.
The wizard bowed. A white cat that had been sleeping by the furnace woke up and watched him carefully.
"What is the name of this place, sir?" said the wizard.
The blacksmith shrugged.
"Bad Ass," he said.
"Bad -- ?"
"Ass," repeated the blacksmith, his tone defying anyone to make something of it.
The wizard considered this.
"A name with a story behind it," he said at last, "which were circumstances otherwise I would be pleased to hear. But I would like to speak to you, smith, about your son."
"Which one?" said the smith, and the hangers-on sniggered. The wizard smiled.
"You have seven sons, do you not? And you yourself were an eighth son?"
The smith's face stiffened. He turned to the other villagers.
"All right, the rain's stopping," he said. "Piss off, the lot of you. Me and -- " he looked at the wizard with raised eyebrows.
"Drum Billet," said the wizard.
"Me and Mr. Billet have things to talk about." He waved his hammer vaguely and, one after another, craning over their shoulders in case the wizard did anything interesting, the audience departed.
This is the bright candlelit room where the life-timers are stored -- shelf upon shelf of them, squat hourglasses, one for every living person, pouring their fine sand from the future into the past. The accumulated hiss of the falling grains makes the room roar like the sea.
This is the owner of the room, stalking through it with a preoccupied air. His name is Death.
But not any Death. This is the Death whose particular sphere of operations is, well, not a sphere at all, but the Discworld, which is flat and rides on the back of four giant elephants who stand on the shell of the enormous star turtle Great A'Tuin, and which is bounded by a waterfall that cascades endlessly into space.
Scientists have calculated that the chance of anything so patently absurd actually existing are millions to one.
But magicians have calculated that million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten.
Death clicks across the black and white tiled floor on toes of bone, muttering inside his cowl as his skeletal fingers count along the rows of busy hourglasses.
Finally he finds one that seems to satisfy him, lifts carefully from its shelf and carries it across to the nearest candle. He holds it so that the light glints off it, and stares at the little point of reflected brilliance.
The steady gaze from those twinkling eye sockets encompasses the world turtle, sculling through the deeps of space, carapace scarred by comets and pitted by meteors. One day even Great A'Tuin will die, Death knows; now, that would be a challenge.
But the focus of his gaze dives onwards towards the bluegreen magnificence of the Disc itself, turning slowly under its tiny orbiting sun.
Now it curves away towards the great mountain range called the Ramtops. The Ramtops are full of deep valleys and unexpected crags and considerably more geography than they know what to do with. They have their own peculiar weather, full of shrapnel rain and whiplash winds and permanent thunderstorms. Some people say it's all because the Ramtops are the home of old, wild magic. Mind you, some people will say anything.
Death blinks, adjusts for depth of vision. Now he sees the grassy country on the turnwise slopes of the mountains.
Now he sees a particular hillside.
Now he sees a field.
Now he sees a boy, running.
Now he watches.
Now, in a voice like lead slabs being dropped on granite, he says: Yes.
There was no doubt that there was something magical in the soil of that hilly, broken area which -- because of the strange tint that it gave to the local flora -- was known as the octarine grass country. For example, it was one of the few places on the Disc where plants produced reannual varieties.
Reannuals are plants that grow backwards in time. You sow the seed this year and they grow last year.
Mort's family specialized in distilling the wine from reannual grapes. These were very powerful and much sought after by fortune-tellers, since of course they enabled them to see the future. The only snag was that you got the hangover the morning before, and had to drink a lot to get over it.
Reannual growers tended to be big, serious men, much given to introspection and close examination of the calendar. A fanner who neglects to sow ordinary seeds only loses the crop, whereas anyone who forgets to sow seeds of a crop that has already been harvested twelve months before risks disturbing the entire fabric of causality, not to mention acute embarrassment.
It was also acutely embarrassing to Mort's family that the youngest son was not at all serious and had about the same talent for horticulture that you would find in a dead starfish. It wasn't that he was unhelpful, but he had the kind of vague, cheerful helpfulness that serious men soon learn to dread. There was something infectious, possibly even fatal, about it. He was tall, red-haired and freckled, with the sort of body that seems to be only marginally under its owner's control; it appeared to have been built out of knees.
On this particular day it was hurtling across the high fields, waving its hands and yelling.
Mort's father and uncle watched it disconsolately from the stone wall.
"What I don't understand:" said father Lezek, "is that the birds don't even fly away. I'd fly away, if I saw it coming towards me."
"Ah. The human body's a wonderful thing. I mean, his legs go all over the place but there's a fair turn of speed there."
Mort reached the end of a furrow An overfull woodpigeon lurched slowly out of his way.
"His heart's in the right place, mind:' said Lezek, carefully.
"Ah. 'Course, 'tis the rest of him that isn't."
"He's clean about the house. Doesn't eat much," said Lezek.
"No, I can see that."
Lezek looked sideways at his brother, who was staring fixedly at the sky.
"I did hear you'd got a place going up at your farm, Hamesh," he said.
"Ah. Got an apprentice in, didn't I?"
"Ah," said Lezek gloomily, "when was that, then?"
"Yesterday," said his brother, lying with rattlesnake speed. "All signed and sealed. Sorry. Look, I got nothing against young Mort, see, he's as nice a boy as you could wish to meet, it's just that --"
"I know, I know," said Lezek. "He couldn't find his arse with both hands."
They stared at the distant figure. It had fallen over. Some pigeons had waddled over to inspect it.
"He's not stupid, mind," said Hamesh. "Not what you'd call stupid ."
"There's a brain there all right:" Lezek conceded. "Sometimes he starts thinking so hard you has to hit him round the head to get his attention. His granny taught him to read, see. I reckon it overheated his mind."
There was a man and he had eight sons. Apart from that, he was nothing more than a comma on the page of History. It's sad, but that's all you can say about some people.
But the eighth son grew up and married and had eight sons, and because there is only one suitable profession for the eighth son of an eighth son, he became a wizard. And he became wise and powerful, or at any rate powerful, and wore a pointed hat and there it would have ended ...
Should have ended . . .
But against the Lore of Magic and certainly against all reason-except the reasons of the heart, which are warm and messy and, well, unreasonable -- he fled the halls of magic and fell in love and got married, not necessarily in that order.
And he had seven sons, each one from the cradle at least as powerful as any wizard in the world.
And then he had an eighth son . . .
A wizard squared. A source of magic.
Summer thunder rolled around the sandy cliffs. Far below, the sea sucked on the shingle as noisily as an old man with one tooth who had been given a gobstopper. A few seagulls hung lazily in the updraughts, waiting for something to happen.
And the father of wizards sat among the thrift and rattling sea grasses at the edge of the cliff, cradling the child in his arms, staring out to sea.
There was a roil of black cloud out there, heading inland, and the light it pushed before it had that deep syrup quality it gets before a really serious thunderstorm.
He turned at a sudden silence behind him, and looked up through tear-reddened eyes at a tall hooded figure in a black robe.
Ipslore the Red? it said. The voice was as hollow as a cave, as dense as a neutron star.
lpslore grinned the terrible grin of the suddenly mad, and held up the child for Death's inspection.
"My son" he said. "I shall call him Coin."
A name as good as any other said Death politely. His empty sockets stared down at a small round face wrapped in sleep. Despite rumor, Death isn't cruel -- merely terribly, terribly good at his job.
"You took his mother," said Ipslore. It was a flat statement, without apparent rancor. In the valley behind the cliffs lpslore's homestead was a smoking ruin, the rising wind already spreading the fragile ashes across the hissing dunes.
It was a heart attack at the end, said Death. There are worse ways to die, take it from me.
lpslore looked out to sea. "And my magic could not save her," he said.
There are places where even magic may not go.
"And now you have come for the child?"
No. The child has his own destiny. I have come for you.
"Ah." The wizard stood up, carefully laid the sleeping baby down on the thin grass, and picked up a long staff that had been lying there. It was made of a black metal, with a meshwork of silver and gold carvings that gave it a rich and sinister tastelessness; the metal was octiron, intrinsically magical.
"I made this, you know," he said. "They all said you couldn't make a staff out of metal, they said they should only be of wood, but they were wrong. I put a lot of myself into it. I shall give it to him."
He ran his hands lovingly along the staff, which gave off a faint tone.
He repeated, almost to himself, "I put a lot of myself into it."
It is a good staff, said Death.
Ipslore held it in the air and looked down at his eighth son, who gave a gurgle.
"She wanted a daughter," he said.
Death shrugged. Ipslore gave him a look compounded of bewilderment and rage.
"What is he?"
The eighth son of an eighth son of an eighth son said Death, unhelpfully. The wind whipped at his robe, driving the black clouds overhead.
"What does that make him?"
A sourcerer, as you are well aware.
Thunder rolled, on cue.
"What is his destiny?" shouted Ipslore, above the rising gale.
Death shrugged again. He was good at it.
Sourcerers make their own destiny. They touch the earth lightly.
Ipslore leaned on the staff, drumming on it with his fingers, apparently lost in the maze of his own thoughts. His left eyebrow twitched.
"No," he said, softly, "no. I will make his destiny for him."
I advise against it.
"Be quiet! And listen when I tell you that they drove me out, with their books and their rituals and their lore! They called themselves wizards, and they had less magic in their whole fat bodies than I have in my little finger! Banished! Me! For showing that I was human! And what would humans be without love?"
Rare, said Death. Nevertheless --
"Listen! They drove us here, to the ends of the world, and that killed her! They tried to take my staff away!" Ipslore was screaming above the noise of the wind.
"Well, I still have some power left, he snarled." And I say that my son shall go to Unseen University and wear the Archchancellor's hat and the wizards of the world shall bow to him! And he shall show them what lies in their deepest hearts. Their craven, greedy hearts. He'll show the world its true destiny, and there will be no magic greater than his."
No. And the strange thing about the quiet way Death spoke the word was this: it was louder than the roaring of the storm. It jerked lpslore back to momentary sanity.
lpslore rocked back and forth uncertainly. "What?" he said.
I said No. Nothing is Final. Nothing is absolute. Except me, of course. Such tinkering with destiny could mean the downfall of the world. There must be a chance, however small. The lawyers of fate demand a loophole in every prophecy...
The wind howled. Lightning stabbed at the earth erratically, like an inefficient assassin. Thunder rolled back and forth across the dark, rain-lashed hills.
The night was as black as the inside of a cat. It was the kind of night, you could believe, on which gods moved men as though they were pawns on the chessboard of fate. In the middle of this elemental storm a fire gleamed among the dripping furze bushes like the madness in a weasel's eye. It illuminated three hunched figures. As the cauldron bubbled an eldritch voice shrieked: "When shall we three meet again?"
There was a pause.
Finally another voice said, in far more ordinary tones: "Well, I can do next Tuesday."
Through the fathomless deeps of space swims the star turtle Great A'Tuin, bearing on its back the four giant elephants who carry on their shoulders the mass of the Discworld. A tiny sun and moon spin around them, on a complicated orbit to induce seasons, so probably nowhere else in the multiverse is it sometimes necessary for an elephant to cock a leg to allow the sun to go past.
Exactly why this should be may never be known. Possibly the Creator of the universe got bored with all the usual business of axial inclination, albedos and rotational velocities, and decided to have a bit of fun for once.
It would be a pretty good bet that the gods of a world like this probably do not play chess and indeed this is the case. In fact no gods anywhere play chess. They haven't got the imagination. Gods prefer simple, vicious games, where you Do Not Achieve Transcendence but Go Straight To Oblivion; a key to the understanding of all religion is that a god's idea of amusement is Snakes and Ladders with greased rungs.
Magic glues the Discworld together -- magic generated by the turning of the world itself, magic wound like silk out of the underlying structure of existence to suture the wounds of reality.
A lot of it ends up in the Ramtop Mountains, which stretch from the frozen lands near the Hub all the way, via a lengthy archipelago, to the warm seas which flow endlessly into space over the Rim.
Raw magic crackles invisibly from peak to peak and earths itself in the mountains. It is the Ramtops that supply the world with most of its witches and wizards. In the Ramtops the leaves on the trees move even when there is no breeze. Rocks go for a stroll of an evening.
Even the land, at times, seems alive ...
At times, so does the sky.
The storm was really giving it everything it had. This was its big chance. It had spent years hanging around the provinces, putting in some useful work as a squall, building up experience, making contacts, occasionally leaping out on unsuspecting shepherds or blasting quite small oak trees. Now an opening in the weather had given it an opportunity to strut its hour, and it was building up its role in the hope of being spotted by one of the big climates.
It was a good storm. There was quite effective projection and passion there, and critics agreed that if it would only learn to control its thunder it would be, in years to come, a storm to watch.
The woods roared their applause and were full of mists and flying leaves.
On nights such as these the gods, as has already been pointed out, play games other than chess with the fates of mortals and the thrones of kings. It is important to remember that they always cheat, right up to the end ...
And a coach came hurtling along the rough forest track, jerking violently as the wheels bounced off tree roots. The driver lashed at the team, the desperate crack of his whip providing a rather neat counterpoint to the crash of the tempest overhead.
Behind -- only a little way behind, and getting closer-were three hooded riders.
On nights such as this, evil deeds are done. And good deeds, of course. But mostly evil, on the whole.
On nights such as this, witches are abroad.
Well, not actually abroad. They don't like the food and you can't trust the water and the shamans always hog the deckchairs. But there was a full moon breasting the ragged clouds and the rushing air was full of whispers and the very broad hint of magic.
In their clearing above the forest the witches spoke thus:
"I'm babysitting on Tuesday," said the one with no hat but a thatch of white curls so thick she might have been wearing a helmet. "For our Jason's youngest. I can manage Friday. Hurry up with the tea, luv. I'm that parched."
The junior member of the trio gave a sigh, and ladled some boiling water out of the cauldron into the teapot.
The third witch patted her hand in a kindly fashion.
"You said it quite well," she said. "Just a bit more work on the screeching. Ain't that right, Nanny Ogg?"
"Very useful screeching, I thought," said Nanny Ogg hurriedly. "And I can see Goodie Whemper, maysherestinpeace, gave you a lot of help with the squint."
"It's a good squint" said Granny Weatherwax.
The junior witch, whose name was Magrat Garlick, relaxed considerably. She held Granny Weatherwax in awe. It was known throughout the Ramtop Mountains that Miss Weatherwax did not approve of anything very much. If she said it was a good squint, then Magrat's eyes were probably staring up her own nostrils.
Unlike wizards, who like nothing better than a complicated hierarchy, witches don't go in much for the structured approach to career progression. It's up to each individual witch to take on a girl to hand the area over to when she dies. Witches are not by nature gregarious, at least with other witches, and they certainly don't have leaders...
Now consider the tortoise and the eagle.
The tortoise is a ground-living creature. It is impossible to live nearer the ground without being under it. Its horizons are a few inches away. It has about as good a turn of speed as you need to hunt down a lettuce. It has survived while the rest of evolution flowed past it by being, on the whole, no threat to anyone and too much trouble to eat.
And then there is the eagle. A creature of the air and high places, whose horizons go all the way to the edge of the world. Eyesight keen enough to spot the rustle of some small and squeaky creature half a mile away. All power, all control. Lightning death on wings. Talons and claws enough to make a meal of anything smaller than it is and at least take a hurried snack out of anything bigger.
And yet the eagle will sit for hours on the crag and survey the kingdoms of the world until it spots a distant movement and then it will focus, focus, focus on the small shell wobbling among the bushes down there on the desert. And it will leap . . .
And a minute later the tortoise finds the world dropping away from it. And it sees the world for the first time, no longer one inch from the ground but five hundred feet above it, and it thinks: what a great friend I have in the eagle.
And then the eagle lets go.
And almost always the tortoise plunges to its death. Everyone knows why the tortoise does this. Gravity is a habit that is hard to shake off. No one knows why the eagle does this. There's good eating on a tortoise but, considering the effort involved, there's much better eating on practically anything else. It's simply the delight of eagles to torment tortoises.
But of course, what the eagle does not realize is that it is participating in a very crude form of natural selection.
One day a tortoise will learn how to fly.
The story takes place in desert lands, in shades of umber and orange. When it begins and ends is more problematical, but at least one of its beginnings took place above the snowline, thousands of miles away in the mountains around the Hub.
One of the recurring philosophical questions is:
"Does a failing tree in the forest make a sound when there is no one to hear?"
Which says something about the nature of philosophers, because there is always someone in a forest. It may only be a badger, wondering what that cracking noise was, or a squirrel a bit puzzled by all the scenery going upwards, but someone. At the very least, if it was deep enough in the forest, millions of small gods would have heard it.
Things just happen, one after another. They don't care who knows. But history . . . ah, history is different. History has to be observed. Otherwise it's not history. It's just . . . well, things happening one after another.
And, of course, it has to be controlled. Otherwise it might turn into anything. Because history, contrary to popular theories, is kings and dates and battles. And these things have to happen at the right time. This is difficult. In a chaotic universe there are too many things to go wrong. It's too easy for a general's horse to lose a shoe at the wrong time, or for someone to mishear an order, or for the carrier of the vital message to be waylaid by some men with sticks and a cash flow problem. Then there are wild stories, parasitic growths on the tree of history, trying to bend it their way.
So history has its caretakers.
They live . . . well, in the nature of things they live wherever they are sent, but their spiritual home is in a hidden valley in the high Ramtops of the Discworld, where the books of history are kept.
These aren't books in which the events of the past are pinned like so many butterflies to a cork. These are the books from which history is derived. There are more than twenty thousand of them; each one is ten feet high, bound in lead, and the letters are so small that they have to be read with a magnifying glass.
When people say "It is written", it is written here.
There are fewer metaphors around than people think.
Every month the abbot and two senior monks go into the cave where the books are kept. It used to be the duty of the abbot alone, but two other reliable monks were included after the unfortunate case of the 59th Abbot, who made a million dollars in small bets before his fellow monks caught up with him.
Besides, it's dangerous to go in alone. The sheer concentratedness of History, sleeting past soundlessly out into the world, can be overwhelming. Time is a drug. Too much of it kills you.
The 493rd Abbot folded his wrinkled hands and addressed Lu-Tze, one of his most senior monks. The clear air and untroubled life of the secret valley was such that all the monks were senior; besides, when you work with Time every day, some of it tends to rub off.
"The place is Omnia," said the abbot, "on the Klatchian coast."
"I remember," said Lu-Tze. "Young fellow called Ossory, wasn't there?"
"Things must be . . . carefully observed," said the abbot. "There are pressures. Free will, predestination . . . the power of symbols . . . turning-point . . . you know all about this."
"Haven't been to Omnia for, oh, must be seven hundred years," said Lu-Tze. "Dry place. Shouldn't think there's a ton of good soil in the whole country, either."
"Off you go, then," said the abbot.
"I shall take my mountains," said Lu-Tze. "The climate will be good for them."
Now read on ...
When does it start?
There are very few starts. Oh, some things seem to be beginnings. The curtain goes up, the first pawn moves, the first shot is fired - but that's not the start. The play, the game, the war is just a little window on a ribbon of events that may extend back thousands of years. The point is, there's always something before. It's always a case of Now Read On.
Much human ingenuity has gone into finding the ultimate Before.
current state of knowledge can be summarized thus: In the beginning, there
was nothing, which exploded.
Other theories about the ultimate start involve gods creating the universe out of the ribs, entrails, and testicles of their father. There are quite a lot of these. They are interesting, not for what they tell you about cosmology, but for what they say about people. Hey, kids, which part do you think they made your town out of?
But this story starts on the Discworld, which travels through space on the back of four giant elephants which stand on the shell of an enormous turtle and is not made of any bits of anyone's bodies.
But when to begin?
Thousands of years ago? When a great hot cascade of stones came screaming out of the sky, gouged a hole out of Copperhead Mountain, and flattened the forest for ten miles around?
The dwarfs dug them up, because they were made of a kind of iron, and dwarfs, contrary to general opinion, love iron more than gold. It's just that although there's more iron than gold it's harder to sing songs about. Dwarfs love iron.
And that's what the stones contained. The love of iron. A love so strong that it drew all iron things to itself. The three dwarfs who found the first of the rocks only got free by struggling out of their chain-mail trousers.
Many worlds are iron, at the core. But the Discworld is as coreless as a pancake.
On the Disc, if you enchant a needle it will point to the Hub, where the magical field is strongest. It's simple.
Elsewhere, on worlds designed with less imagination, the needle turns because of the love of iron.
At the time, the dwarfs and the humans had a very pressing need for the love of iron.
And now, spool time forward for thousands of years to a point fifty years or more before the ever-moving now, to a hillside and a young woman, running. Not running away from something, exactly, or precisely running toward anything, but running just fast enough to keep ahead of a young man although, of course, not so far ahead that he'll give up. Out from the trees and into the rushy valley where, on a slight rise in the ground, are the stones.
They're about man-height, and barely thicker than a fat man.
And somehow they don't seem worth it. If there's a stone circle you mustn't go near, the imagination suggests, then there should be big brooding trilithons and ancient attar stones screaming with the dark memory of blood-soaked sacrifice. Not these dull stubby lumps.
It will turn out that she was running a bit too fast this time, and in fact the young man in laughing pursuit will get lost and fed up and will eventually wander off back to the town alone. She does not, at this point, know this, but stands absentmindedly adjusting the flowers twined in her hair. It's been that kind of afternoon.
She knows about the stones. No one ever gets told about the stones. And no one is ever told not to go there, because those who refrain from talking about the stones also know how powerful is the attraction of prohibition. It's just that going to the stones is not ... what we do. Especially if we're nice girls.
But what we have here is not a nice girl, as generally understood. For one thing, she's not beautiful. There's a certain set to the jaw and arch to the nose that might, with a following wind and in the right light, be called handsome by a good-natured liar. Also, there's a certain glint in her eye generally possessed by those people who have found that they are more intelligent than most people around them but who haven't yet teamed that one of the most intelligent things they can do is prevent said people ever finding this out. Along with the nose, this gives her a piercing expression which is extremely disconcerting. It's not a face you can talk to. Open your mouth and you're suddenly the focus of a penetrating stare which declares: what you're about to say had better be interesting.
Now the eight little stones on their little hill are being subjected to the same penetrating gaze.
And then she approaches, cautiously. It's not the caution of a rabbit about to run. It's closer to the way a hunter moves.
She puts her hands on her hips, such as they are.
There's a skylark in the hot summer sky. Apart from that, there's no sound. Down in the little valley, and higher in the hills, grasshoppers are sizzling and bees are buzzing and the grass is alive with micro-noise. But it's always quiet around the stones.
"I'm here," she says. "Show me."
A figure of a dark-haired woman in a red dress appears inside the circle. The circle is wide enough to throw a stone across, but somehow the figure manages to approach from a great distance.
Other people would have run away. But the girl doesn't, and the woman in the circle is immediately interested.
Chapter OneCorporal Carrot, Ankh-Morpork City Guard (Night Watch), sat down in his nightshirt, took up his pencil, sucked the end for a moment, and then wrote:
"Dearest Mum and Dad,
Well here is another fine Turnup for the Books, for I have been made Corporal!! It means another Five Dollars a month plus also I have a new jerkin with, two stripes upon it as well. And a new copper badge! It is a Great responsibility! This is all because we have got new recruits because the Patrician who, as I have formerly vouchsafed is the ruler of the city, has agreed the Watch must reflect the ethnic makeup of the City-"
Carrot paused for a moment and stared out of the small dusty bedroom window at the early evening sunlight sidling across the river. Then he bent over the paper again.
"-- which I do not Fully understand but must have something to do with the dwarf Grabpot Thundergust's Cosmetic Factory. Also, Captain Vimes of who I have often written to you of is leaving the Watch to get married and Become a Fine Gentleman and, I'm sure we wish him All the Best, he taught me All I Know apart, from the things I taught myself. We are clubbing together to get him a Surprise Present, I thought one of those new Watches that don't need demons to make them go and we could inscribe on the back something like 'A Watch from your Old Freinds in the Watch', this is a pune or Play on Words. We do not know who will be the new Captain, Sgt. Colon says he will Resign if it's him, Cpl. Nobbs -- "
Carrot stared out of the window again. His big honest forehead wrinkled with effort as he tried to think of something positive to say about Corporal Nobbs.
"-- is more suited in his current Roll, and I have not been in the Watch long enough. So we shall just have to wait and See --"
It began, as many things do, with a death. And a burial, on a spring morning, with mist on the ground so thick that it poured into the grave and the coffin was lowered into cloud.
A small greyish mongrel, host to so many assorted doggy diseases that it was surrounded by a cloud of dust, watched impassively from the mound of earth.
Various elderly female relatives cried. But Edward d'Eath didn't cry, for three reasons. He was the eldest son, the thirty-seventh Lord d'Eath, and it was Not Done for a d'Eath to cry; he was - just, the diploma still had the crackle in it - an Assassin, and Assassins didn't cry at a death, otherwise they'd never be stopping; and he was angry. In fact, he was enraged.
Enraged at having to borrow money for this poor funeral. Enraged at the weather, at this common cemetery, at the way the background noise of the city didn't change in any way, even on such an occasion as this. Enraged at history. It was never meant to be like this.
It shouldn't have been like this.
He looked across the river to the brooding bulk of the Palace, and his anger screwed itself up and became a lens.
Edward had been sent to the Assassins' Guild because they had the best school for those whose social rank is rather higher than their intelligence. If he'd been trained as a Fool, he'd have invented satire and made dangerous jokes about the Patrician. If he'd been trained as a Thief,* he'd have broken into the Palace and stolen something very valuable from the Patrician.
However ... he'd been sent to the Assassins . . .
That afternoon he sold what remained of the d'Eath estates, and enrolled again at the Guild school.
For the post-graduate course.
He got full marks, the first person in the history of the Guild ever to do so. His seniors described him as a man to watch - and, because there was something about him that made even Assassins uneasy, preferably from a long way away.
In the cemetery the solitary gravedigger filled in the hole that was the last resting place of d'Eath senior.
He became aware of what seemed to be thoughts in his head. They went something like this:
*But no gentleman would dream of being trained as a Thief
Any chance of a bone? No, no, sorry, bad taste there, forget I mentioned it. You've got beef sandwiches in your wossname, lunchbox thingy, though. Why not give one to the nice little doggy over there?
The man leaned on his shovel and looked around.
The grey mongrel was watching him intently.
It said, "Woof?"
It took Edward d'Eath five months to find what he was looking for. The search was hampered by the fact that he did not know what he was looking for, only that he'd know it when he found it. Edward was a great believer in Destiny. Such people often are.
The Guild library was one of the largest in the city. In certain specialized areas it was the largest. These areas mainly had to do with the regrettable brevity of human life and the means of bringing it about.
Edward spent a lot of time there, often at the top of a ladder, often surrounded by dust.
He read every known work on armaments. He didn't know what he was looking for and he found it in a note in the margin of an otherwise very dull and inaccurate treatise on the ballistics of crossbows. He copied it out, carefully.
Edward spent a lot of time among history books as well. The Assassins' Guild was an association of gentlemen of breeding, and people like that regard the whole of recorded history as a kind of stock book. There were a great many books in the ...
Where to finish?
A dark, stormy night. A coach, horses gone, plunging through the rickety, useless fence and dropping, tumbling into the gorge below. It doesn't even strike an outcrop of rock before it hits the dried riverbed far below, and erupts into fragments.
Miss Butts shuffled the paperwork nervously. Here was one from the girl aged six:
'What We Did On our Holidys: What I did On my holidys I staid with grandad he has a big White hors and a garden it is al Black. We had Eg and chips.'
Then the oil from the coach lamps ignites and there is a second explosion, out of which rolls - because there are certain conventions, even in tragedy - a burning wheel.
And another paper, a drawing done at age seven. All in black. Miss Butts sniffed. It wasn't as though the gel had only a black crayon. It was a fact that the Quirm College for Young Ladies had quite expensive crayons of all colors.
And then, after the last of the ember spits and crackles, there is silence.
And the watcher.
Who turns, and says to someone in the darkness:
YES. I COULD HAVE DONE SOMETHING.
And rides away.
Miss Butts shuffled paper again. She was feeling distracted and nervous, a feeling common to anyone who had much to do with the gel. Paper usually made her feel better. It was more dependable.
Then there had been the matter of ... the accident.
Miss Butts had broken such news before. It was an occasional hazard when you ran a large boarding school. The parents of many of the gels were often abroad on business of one sort or another, and it was sometimes the kind of business where the chances of rich reward go hand in hand with the risks of meeting unsympathetic men.
Miss Butts knew how to handle these occasions. It was painful, but the thing ran its course. There was shock, and tears, and then, eventually, it was all over. People had ways of dealing with it. There was a sort of script built into the human mind. Life went on.
But the child had just sat there. It was the politeness that scared the daylights out of Miss Butts. She was not an unkind woman, despite a lifetime of being gently dried out on the stove of education, but she was conscientious and a stickler for propriety and thought she knew how this sort of thing should go and was vaguely annoyed that it wasn't going.
"Er ... if you would like to be alone, to have a cry-" she'd prompted, in an effort to get things moving on the right track.
"Would that help?" Susan had said.
It would have helped Miss Butts.
All she'd been able to manage was: "I wonder if, perhaps, you fully understood what I have told you?"
The child had stared at the ceiling as though trying to work out a difficult problem in algebra and then said, "I expect I will."
It was as if she'd already known, and had dealt with it in some way. Miss Butts had asked the teachers to watch Susan carefully. They'd said that was hard, because ...
There was a tentative knock on Miss Butts's study door, as if it was being made by someone who'd really prefer not to be heard.
She returned to the present.
"Come," she said.
The door swung open.
Susan always made no sound. The teachers had all remarked upon it. It was uncanny, they said. She was always in front of you when you least expected it.
"Ah, Susan," said Miss Butts, a tight smile scuttling across her face like a nervous tick over a worried sheep. "Please sit down."
"Of course, Miss Butts."
Miss Butts shuffled the papers.
"Susan. . . "
"Yes, Miss Butts?"
"I'm sorry to say that it appears you have been missed in lessons again."
"I don't understand, Miss Butts."
The headmistress leaned forward. She felt vaguely annoyed with herself, but ... there was something frankly unlovable about the child. Academically brilliant at the things she liked doing, of course, but that was just it; she was brilliant in the same way that a diamond is brilliant, all edges and chilliness.
"Have you been . . . doing it?" she said. "You promised you were going to stop this silliness."
"You've been making yourself invisible again, haven't you?"
Susan blushed. So, rather less pinkly, did Miss Butts. I mean, she thought, it's ridiculous. It's against all reason. It's - oh, no ...
She turned her head and shut her eyes.
"Yes, Miss Butts?" said Susan, just before Miss Butts said, "Susan?"
Miss Butts shuddered. This was something else the teachers had mentioned. Sometimes Susan answered questions just before you asked them ...
She steadied herself.
"You're still sitting there, are you?"
"Of course, Miss Butts."
It wasn't invisibility, she told herself. She just makes herself inconspicuous. She... who ...
She concentrated. She'd written a little memo to herself against this very eventuality, and it was pinned to the file.
You are interviewing Susan Sto Helit. Try not to forget it.
"Susan?" she ventured.
"Yes, Miss Butts?"
If Miss Butts concentrated, Susan was sitting in front of her. If she made an effort, she could hear the gel's voice. She just had to fight against a pressing tendency to believe that she was alone.
"I'm afraid Miss Cumber and Miss Greggs have complained," she managed.
"I'm always in class, Miss Butts."
"I daresay you are. Miss Traitor and Miss Stamp say they see you all the time." There'd been quite a staff room argument about that. "Is it because you like Logic and Math and don't like Language and History?"
hesitated. There was no way the child could have left the room. If she
really stressed her mind, she could catch a suggestion of a voice saying
"Don't know, Miss Butts."