Notes: Written for imaginarycircus for Yuletide 2012.

Going It Alone

The worst thing about having Lily for an older sister was that she'd stolen all the best descriptions for herself. Wilful. Bad seed. Trouble. Plus a few others, like 'wanton' and 'harlot', that Esme hadn't particularly wanted, but might have liked to keep rolled up at the bottom of her unmentionables drawer, as it were, just in case she felt like trying them on later.

Hand-me-downs were a way of life in Lancre, but she'd never been the right size and shape to wear her sister's, and she wasn't about to start now.

Their shared wardrobe was still full of Lily's abandoned things. She'd left after a screaming match with Mam, taking no more than the clothes she had on her back - not because she hadn't known that she was going, but for the added drama of the gesture. Lily could never abide doing anything without a dose of drama.

Esme was the only one who'd noticed her sister's jewellery disappearing piece by piece in the days leading up to her departure. Sold by now to buy passage, or, even more likely, entrusted to starry-eyed admirers in return for the promise of favours. That was Lily's style.

She wouldn't be back.

When they'd finally realised that fact, Mam had wept, and Dad had raged. Esme had sat quiet through all of it; made the meals when Mam had sobbed herself into hysterics, fixed the cabinet with wire and twine after Dad had smashed it in his anger. No point wishing Lily back: she wouldn't fill the hole, because that hole had never been Lily-shaped, only made to fit the daughter that they'd wanted her to be.

Esme opened up the wardrobe. Most of it was taken up by Lily's clothes. Fripperies, bright colours, beads and sequins here and there. Her own clothes lurked all but unnoticed in a corner. That had always been the way. Well, no longer. These clothes, this bedroom, and the role of daughter were now hers alone.

Most of what she'd acquired was damned useless to her. You couldn't feed a goat in a dress with ribboned sleeves, or walk a mile through the woods in shoes with pointed toes. But a good bit of lace would strain tea, and beads would fill a tin can noise-maker to scare the birds, and there was never any shortage of uses for unravelled wool and scraps of cloth.

Esme lifted her sister's things out of the wardrobe one by one, and slowly and methodically she tore them into rags.

Some walked the path to a witch's door with fearful desperation; some walked it with false bravado, and some with foolish daydreams. Esme walked it with a tent, and set it up on the lawn.

She'd brought with her a pile of old stockings that needed mending, and set about darning the holes as the hours passed. When it got dark, she built a campfire, and brewed herself a pot of tea.

Some time later, the stiff old door creaked open. Nanny Gripes peered out at her with a candle in a saucer, and the expression of a woman doing her damnedest to avoid showing any sign of curiosity. "Got a question to ask me, then, girl?" she said.

"Nope," Esme said, sitting with her legs crossed as she sipped her tea. "Just observin'."

A brief pause, and then the door creaked closed again, no witch worth her salt willing to concede the seat of wisdom by asking too many questions in one go.

That was all right. Esme could be patient as a rock, when she had some opposition to be patient at.

They said that if you wanted to be a witch you had to gather your courage and beg to be taken on, and try not to widdle your drawers while the old witch looked you over to decide your prospects.

Esme had always believed in making other people ask.

She hadn't intended to visit the Dancers that day, but the stones had a kind of pull that drew you in any time you happened to wander without a clear destination.

Some people would have rushed into the circle without a pause for thought. Others would have heeded the strange sense of dread that stole over them as they neared, and turned away to flee for safer ground.

Esme had never been one for doing things without a thought, and she didn't have much time for any emotions that crept up without the decency to announce why they were there. She approached the stones with the caution of a hunter nearing a beast caught in a trap, imprisoned but still capable of snapping.

There had always been stories about the stones: the kind of stories that circled without belonging to anyone you knew or anyone they'd met, but always just one link further along the chain. The friend of a friend's cousin. The sister of your uncle's wife. Those sort of stories.

They said the circle had its own separate weather sometimes. They said there was a woman who could offer you the world. They said that those who passed through the stones could be gone a hundred years, or age a lifetime in a single night.

They said a lot of things, and half of them were claptrap. The trick was telling one half from the other.

Oh, she was beautiful, the woman in the red dress, sure enough. Beauty like the stars, endless and too distant to touch. And she had power: Esme wasn't so far from being a witch that she couldn't smell it on her. There was a voice that came with power like that, a voice that said, Take it, take it! and under its breath whispered that you could show them all.

But still she hesitated. Power wasn't the only thing she could smell. Desperation had a bad stench of its own.

"Step through!" the woman in between the stones commanded. "The circle time is coming to an end! If you want the knowledge I'm offering, you have to take it now!"

Nobody was ever that desperate to give you something.

Esme stepped backwards instead. "No, I reckon I'll wait, if it's all the same to you," she said.

The woman didn't move away, but her scream of rage seemed to come from further and further away - until, in a blink, she wasn't there at all.

"Huh," Esme said thoughtfully. She turned her attention to the ring of stones. Unassuming lumps of reddish rock, irregular in shape and loosely spaced, but still, somehow, a fence that kept things in. She felt in her pocket among the tangle of twine and other useful things for her knife, to see if the rough rock that made them could be scratched or chipped.

There was more than one way to acquire knowledge.

Esme had never had time for all that courting nonsense: poetry and flowers and endless games to avoid saying what you really thought. Bitterness, some might call it, but she hadn't lacked for suitors: plenty of young men in Lancre with more of an itch in the trouser department than they had good sense. Beautiful Esme wasn't - and glad of it; damned nuisance that would be - but she'd sometimes been called striking; mostly by people she'd struck.

No, it would have been easy to settle - but she had no interest in that. Loneliness was an affliction for those as couldn't entertain themselves, and 'anything's better than nothing' was a damned foolish thing to believe; plenty of things in the world were worse than nothing.

And then there was Mustrum.

A wizard, of all things: ridiculous thing to want to be. All ivory towers and whizz-bangs - call that magic? Ha! And he definitely wasn't much to look at. Stout already - that would be fat in a couple of years, and no doubt that scrappy little beard would be an unkempt bush. Plus he looked like the sort to go bald early.

And yet against all expectations, he seemed to have a mind of his own to keep beneath the pointy hat. Oh, not an intellectual - a term Esme considered a pejorative - but almost the opposite. A practical. Give him a wooden staff carved with eldritch runes to fight his battles with, and the first thing he'd try was to thwack something over the head with it.

Nothing admirable about basic common sense, of course, but it was amazing how few people had it.

The fact he was the only boy who'd faced down her stony rebuffs and come back with dogged persistence probably owed more to bull-headedness than any degree of devotion, but in her clearer moments, Esme had to admit that anyone without that trait wouldn't stand up in her company for long. Some people had force of personality: Esme had hurricane force of it.

Any other boy, for instance, would have availed himself by now of the handy jumping off opportunities provided when you made your proposal on a bridge and it wasn't met with immediate enthusiasm.

Mustrum just peered off the edge for a while, said, "Bet you could get some good fishing in here," and then turned back to look at her. "Well?"

"I'm still thinking," Esme said.

She thought.

She wasn't some soppy girl with starry-eyed dreams of finding the perfect man. A marriage was like a cottage: you found a good foundation, built something that seemed like it would hold together, and then worked on the annoying creaks and leaky bits until they either went away or you got used to them. If she was looking for husband material, Mustrum Ridcully was suitable clay.

If she was looking.

"If we got married, I reckon we could make it work," she said at last. "But I ain't sure that I feel like doing work. I've got other things that I want to be working at first. And there'll be plenty of time."

He took it well enough. No weeping and wailing. Of course, if he'd been the sort, she never would have considered it at all. She left him on the bridge, watching the fish.

She didn't look back. Looking back was for a different sort of girl.

Nobody would dream of thinking Esme Weatherwax could ever be down in the dumps, let alone attempt to cheer her up. But of the people that didn't attempt it, Gytha Ogg was the one who didn't attempt it with the most persistence.

"So I heard your young man made you an indecent proposal," she said, waggling her eyebrows, when they met by chance outside Rob Hopewell's paddock. It was the kind of chance meeting that required a lot of hasty charging up hills followed by nonchalant leaning and surreptitious attempts to get one's breath back.

"You're a nosy baggage, Gytha Ogg," Esme said amiably. "And no, it was a quite a decent one, if you must know."

"Pity." She didn't need to leer. The leer was implied. "You turned him down, then?"

She sniffed. "I can't be having with that kind of foolishness," she said.

"Well, you can't be having it if you keep turning 'em down." Gytha attempted to look coy, which was rather like an elephant attempting to look inconspicuous. "He'll be in need of some consoling, then, I s'pose?"

"You leave him alone," Esme said. "The last thing he needs is some of your consolin'. I remember you consolin' Arthur Weaver after his girlfriend ran off with the butcher. Never seen a boy look so consoled."

"I've got a lot of warmth and love to give," Gytha said.

"And everybody knows it, too."

They walked back to the village in a state of companionable bickering.

Esme had always been a firm believer in going it alone. But there was no point doing everything all by yourself if you didn't bring somebody else along to watch you do it.