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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.
The 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 ironthings 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.