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Portal Authority

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Reality isn't what most people think.

People like to pretend that reality is solid, which it mostly isn't, and immutable, which it couldn't be and remain real. Animals, insects and vegetation come into being, grow and die in swamps, despite an abundance of stagnant pools of water. Even in ice-coated wastelands that most people[1] ignore, mites, earthworms, lichen and of course the odd beetle live their lives in blithe disregard of the inhospitable climate. Life, as the proverb states, finds a way—and that almost always involves adaptation and change, even when magic isn't involved.

When it is, adaptation and change still happen, but very, very quickly. Especially if magic has already convinced reality that something that wasn't originally part of it really and truly belongs there.

Like, for example, an inter-dimensional portal. Or, if you want to use an even simpler term, a door.

The thing about doors, as so many frustrated house-dwellers have discovered over the years, is that once a door has been cut into a wall, then you can paper over the door, brick it up or simply keep it locked at all costs—but none of that turns a door back into a wall again.

Not even if you've managed to convince yourself that the door is no longer there.

[1]Except for natives, scientists, explorers, tourists, environmentalists, meteorologists, storytellers, and any other person throughout the multiverse who might view icy wastelands with interest and/or enthusiasm. This is a surprisingly large number…surprising to those who consider themselves "most people," anyway.
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***

Big Jim Beef the troll did not deserve what happened to him that day. There he was, guardin' Lancre Bridge just the way King Verence wanted, standing in the middle of the bridge while wearing a large metal helmet that was more fragile than he was and holding a yellow-and-black-striped pole horizontally [2]

…and then suddenly a portal opened up under his feet and dumped him onto a large, flat, green expanse of oograah[6]. Well…mostly green. Where the rays of the rising sun were touching the oograah. And, more importantly, where the sheep weren't.

Big Jim had no idea how he'd ended up on a flat green meadow, especially one filled with bleating and panicking sheep, when he knew perfectly well that practically every piece of land in Lancre was pointed, if not actually vertical, which was not the ideal topography for sheep that belonged to anybody. Wild sheep could leap fearlessly from precipice to precipice, but tame sheep—which these prob'ly are, he thought, since some of 'em have markings on their wool and others are half-sheared—were a very different story.

The thought flashed across his mind that Aaoograha hoa—literally, "She Who Must Be Avoided"—would expect him to recapture the sheep and bring them back to their owners. You didn't anger her. And you didn't argue with her, either. Elves and vampires alike had tried battling her, and they'd both lost badly.

Several faux-amphibolite pebbles attached to his silicon brain[7] reminded him that not only were the sheep not his, he didn't know whose they were, how to capture them or—and this was the important one—how to get back home. Big Jim pushed that thought away almost as soon as he thought it. Not knowing things was scary, but not doing things and having Aaoograha hoa find out was even worse. And she would find out, because she always did.

Besides, he had a long pole for herding them, didn't he? Humans in pictures always herded sheep with long sticks. So he should be fine.

Swinging his striped pole, he trudged after the hysterical sheep, trying to herd them back to the spot in the meadow where he had appeared only a few minutes before. So intent was he on his improvised shepherding that, a few moments later, he didn't notice the blond human with the shield strapped to his back who was jogging through the meadow.

[2] Trolls make ideal border guards for small mountain countries. It's extraordinarily hard to sneak past them, even in daylight; they're patient and not easily bored; any average-sized scouting party from a hostile nation is, at best, evenly matched against one troll [3]; and despite their fearsome reputation, they're not perpetually belligerent. [4]
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[3] Unless the scouting party also has a troll or two in its ranks, of course, but it'samazing how few military commanders make such provisions.
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[4] Trolls are ambulatory monoliths several feet higher, broader and thicker than even the most muscular human, and most of them carry powerful blunt instruments. Ramtop trolls have an added advantage over their brethren who live, say, on the Sto Lat plains in the south, in that their silicon brains work superbly in the mountains, where it's cold for most of the year. Of course they aren't perpetually belligerent. Apex predators generally aren't. They don't need to be. [5]
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[5] Though Big Jim was willing to make an exception if anyone crossing Lancre Bridge was foolish enough to mention billy goats.
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[6] In the troll language, any vegetation from moss to giant redwoods. Getting enthusiastic about plants has never really caught on with trolls.
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[7] Or, as a human would say, "the reptilian portion of his brain."
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***

The first thing that Steve Rogers thought on jogging through Sheep Meadow in Central Park at 6:00 a.m. on that June day was Huh, I haven't seen actual sheep here since I was around fourteen.[8]

His second thought was, Why is there a giant monster chasing them while swinging a enormous striped pole?

There should have been Third Thoughts. Maybe there were. However, Steve didn't react well to the presence of the monster (or alien, or weapon) . Clearly he had to capture it and find out what it had been sent to do.

He wasn't in his Cap uniform, but his shield was strapped to his back. Freeing it swiftly, he ran diagonally toward the rock monster, hoping that he could use his shield against it.

It was just Steve's luck that a large group of sheep saw him coming and ran in every possible direction, plus a few that they'd invented for the occasion, trapping him mid-flock. And it was also just his luck that Big Jim Beef, frustrated beyond words by the human running toward him and scattering the sheep he'd spent so long herding, swatted him away with the pole.

The pole broke against Steve's shield. That was the good news. The bad news was that while the pole looked long and slender in Big Jim's boulder-sized fists, it had still been crafted from what a human would deem a large tree trunk, and Big Jim had swung it very fast.

Mass times acceleration equals force everywhere in the multiverse.

Steve Rogers, still clinging to his shield, was sent flying backwards…and right into the portal.

[8] The flock of domesticated animals noted for their wool and meat was moved to the mountains of another state in 1934. After all, the administrators of Roundworld's Central Park couldn't simply let the starving homeless people who were living there eat the Sheep Meadow sheep. That would have been silly.
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***

 

He woke up in a very old-fashioned cottage which did not look as if it belonged anywhere within the environs of New York, being tended by a stern, white-haired old woman whose flawless posture would have made his sergeant in boot camp bite his bars in half with appreciation. Weirdly—or so it seemed to him—she was wearing a long black dress that wouldn't have been out of place on someone dressed up as a witch for Halloween. Well…before costume designers had decided that while babies and small children could wear complete costumes, ten- to twelve-year-old girls needed to have their midriffs showing, and any girl—or was it "woman" these days?—from her mid-teens up could make do with a few strips of fabric, long stockings, and a costume name like "Sexy Pumpkin" or "Sexy Cookie Monster."[9]

A real witch outfit, he thought, trying to distract himself from what felt like enormous fires breaking out in various parts of his body. There was something reassuring about a traditional witch. He just couldn't figure out what kind of tourist attraction he'd blundered into. He didn't hear any people outside. And the lights didn't seem to be working. Had there been a blackout?

Other memories began to drift back. Sheep. The rock monster.

He sat bolt upright, and then sank back down onto—what was he lying on? A mattress stuffed with straw? He must have glanced at it, whatever it was, because the woman answered him…and in what sounded like a foreign accent. Not the kind you heard on what Tony Stark probably would have called "elitist costume dramas" [10] either, the sort of accent that Steve's Irish mother would have spat fire at. The old woman's accent was pure countryside. Interesting detail. Not what he would have expected from a guide at a tourist attraction.

"I wouldn't move about too much," she said, her tone suggesting that his failure to listen to her would be both unwise and completely what she expected. "You took a nasty fall onto Lancre Bridge, even if you was holdin' a shield, and I'm surprised you wasn't 'alf broken into pieces when Big Jim Beef knocked you sideways for interferin' with his sheep herdin'. You're lucky he didn't hit you with his fists. Though I suppose that some o' the sheep landin' on you when they came back through the portal makes up for that."

Steve examined himself, now noticing that his T-shirt was gone and that both arms and torso were bare, swathed in what he had to think of as improvised bandages, and polka-dotted with hoof-shaped bruises. He winced at the thought, and then very quickly wished that he hadn't.

"Big Jim Beef?" he asked weakly.

"The troll." She waited for his reaction of surprise, got it, and then shrugged. "Y'know how some men likes bein' called Rocky? Well, Big Jim decided that if humans could name themselves after rocks, trolls could name themselves after meat."

"Sorry. I'm still stuck back on 'troll'."

"What, no trolls where you come from? A big city filled with stone towers so tall Big Jim said he could see them above the trees?"

Steve started to exclaim, "No!", but paused at the last minute. Because…well, there were extra-dimensional aliens who had been worshiped as gods, right? And the Dark Elves, who had some serious issues with Asgard, according to Thor. And they'd all fought the Centauri, thanks to a certain Frost Giant. For all he knew, there might be trolls. He just hadn't run into any yet. [11]

Four words boomeranged then, hitting him with what almost felt like a physical blow. "Where I come from?"

The woman—and really, Steve was having a terrible time not thinking of her as Minerva McGonagall—sighed patiently. "That meadow you was runnin' through. You didn't enter it through the portal, so you was most likely runnin' through that city of stone towers before them sheep and Big Jim got yanked through. The meadow'd be some sort o' town common, o'course. No call for it to be in the middle of a big city otherwise. I hope," she added in a reproving tone, "that you hadn't done whatever the person chasin' you thought you'd done. You might've, but there's not many thieves as would stop in the middle of escaping to try to save sheep from a shepherd."

Part of Steve's mind was jumping up and down, screaming at him that of course this wasn't New York, and how had he ever thought it was for a single second? The rest of him felt as if he'd been squashed by a two sentence thought: I'm in some other world. And I don't know how to get back home.

Carefully, he weighed all the things he could say in response. "I haven't seen many shepherds in my life," he slowly replied. "Only in pictures. None of them looked anything like Big Jim. And I'm not a thief. I'm…a kind of knight, I guess you'd say. I work with a team called the Avengers. My name's Steven Rogers." He could not imagine this woman calling him—even for a second—Steve.

The old woman looked down her eagle-like nose at him. "Left your sword and armor at home, then, did you?"

"Well," Steve said, thinking of his Captain America uniform, "the armor, at least." Not that he'd believed he needed it. Not for a simple jog.

She gave a comprehensive sniff that somehow seemed to comment on the utter silliness and impracticality of humans in general. "I am Mistress Weatherwax," she said in a regal tone as she walked away from his bed toward the hearth and began ladling something green and semi-solid from a cauldron into a teacup. "This is my cottage. You'll be biding here for a time, I expect. Until we can find a way to reverse what happened."

We. Well, that was somewhat optimistic. At least she didn't regard him as an enemy. And she did believe that there was a way for him to go home.

These nervously hopeful thoughts were interrupted by Mistress Weatherwax shoving the teacup filled with green sludge into his hand. "Drink."

Steve looked first into the cup, wished he hadn't, and glanced at Mistress Weatherwax instead. One glimpse of those hard, sharp, sapphire-blue eyes told him that refusing to drink the sludge was a battle he would lose, and fairly quickly.

"What's in it?" he asked, not sure that he really wanted to know.

"Herbs," she said instantly. "Lots and lots of herbs. Very nat'ral, herbs. That's how you know it's good for you. Because it's got herbs in it."

"But some herbs aren't good for you." He looked around for a nightstand to place the cup on and realized that there wasn't one. "Which ones are in this…this…?"

"Medicine. And never you mind. Do you think that I don't know what I'm doing? 'Taint the first time I've ever nursed the sick, you know!"

There was a slight shift in her voice's tone—one that Steve had heard many times before from Bucky, Natasha and Tony. It said: I am pushing your buttons, and I know it.

Steve paused and studied the sludge, which politely went gloop.

"This is a test, isn't it?" he asked.

For a second—possibly not even that long—there was a gleam in Mistress Weatherwax's eyes, like that of an experienced teacher who has just seen a student grasp a tricky lesson that might have misled them. Then it was gone.

"Don't have the faintest idea what you mean," she huffed, turning her back on him and stumping back over to the stove. "You got hurt in an accident, and now you need medicine. Don't know how you could see a test in that. What could I be testing you on?"

"Strength?" suggested Steve, still scrutinizing the primordial chaos in his teacup. "Patience?" He sniffed the cup. It smelled like old gym socks. "Trust?"

And, realizing that there wasn't going to be a more effective way to prove that he trusted her, he pinched his nose shut with one hand and tipped the cup into his mouth with the other.

It was foul stuff. It tasted like soybeans, boiled collard greens, sunflower seeds, cashews and pine nuts, all which had been beaten to a pulp and then mixed in oatmeal and prune juice. Steve was never quite sure how he'd managed to get it down. Perhaps his taste buds rebelled by turning themselves off.

To be fair, he got all but two things down. They were in his mouth before he realized what they were, and he spat them into his left hand quickly. They looked like…

"Excuse me, what are these?" he asked, holding up two metallic gray discs about the size of his thumbnail. "They were in the medicine—"

Steve had gotten no further than that when the cup and the discs were in Mistress Weatherwax's hands.

"Don't worry," she said, sounding enormously satisfied. "The nailheads—fresh made today— was just there to tell me…well, what sort of person you are."

"And what sort's that?" Steve snapped.

"Not the sort that created the portal." She favored him with a wintery smile. "There, that's worth knowin', innit?"

[9] Steve felt that it would do the designers a great deal of good to don their supposedly sexy costumes and then go outside in them after dark. In Maine. Or Montana. Or Minnesota. And preferably during a completely seasonal snowstorm.
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[10] Often before watching them in the Avengers Tower, because Tony had a weakness for swashbuckling, extravagance, style and all things a bit over the top and a reluctance to let reality get in the way of good, old-fashioned snark.
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[11] Though both Thor and his counterpart on Earth-616 could have told him that rock trolls were unambiguously real. Actually, very little is as real as a rock in (or on) which life has formed. - back to text

***

Exactly who had created the portal, however, Steve Rogers was not to learn for some time. This was mainly due to Granny Weatherwax taking Nanny Ogg and Queen Magrat aside a few days later and telling them that she would just as soon the boy didn't hear too much too soon.

"He was boggled by somethin' as ordinary as trolls," she said gloomily over tea in the palace armory, to which she'd invited herself and Nanny Ogg. Tea had been Granny's idea. The armory had been Magrat's. "Trolls. I can just picture how he'd react to the notion of…Them. If there ain't any where he comes from, he's not going to see Them as a threat, is he now? He might even want to help Them."

"You're sure he's not one of Them?" Nanny asked, stacking a tiny watercress sandwich triangle atop an equally tiny cream cheese triangle and happily taking an enormous bite of both.

"You didn't see the blood, Gytha. There was plenty of it leaking out of him, and none of it were greenish-blue. And if that ain't proof enough that he weren't possessed, neither, he nearly swallowed two iron nailheads your Jason made. Iffen he was one o' Them—or were bein' used by Them—and had touched even one nailhead with a fingertip, he'd have been shrieking blue murder from the pain. Two bits o' iron actually inside the body—"

"—probably would have killed him," Magrat finished. "Though," she added, feeling rather than seeing Granny giving her the fishy eyeball, "I don't object to that. We've already had two invasions here in Lancre, one of—"

"Careful," Nanny said softly.

"Vampires. And the other…well, not."

An awkward silence fell.

"Do you think that Steven Rogers really is a knight?" Nanny asked eventually. There was just the barest emphasis on the word "rogers," but it transformed the name into a complete sentence. [12]

Granny sipped her tea. "Doubt it. No calluses on his thumb and fingers where he'd be grippin' the sword. But I can't think of a good reason he'd be luggin' a shield about. Highwaymen mostly don't use 'em. Guards have weapons. So do soldiers. So do mercenaries. He doesn't even have a knife to cut some meat with. Ain't good sense, not havin' a weapon."

"None of it makes any sense!" Magrat snapped, the words bursting out of her. "A portal opens on Lancre Bridge—a portal that's still there, by the way—and a troll from Lancre and about twenty sheep from…I don't know, near the bridge, I suppose…get pulled into it just long enough to attract the attention of a young man from another world before he, the troll and the sheep end up back in Lancre. The troll brings the young man to you"—she nodded at Granny—"and then very carefully carries the sheep one at a time down Lancre Gorge because the portal's smack in the middle of the bridge and walking through it means either ending up in the wrong world or banging into a transparent wall ." She paused. "Twenty trips up, twenty trips down. That's a lot of climbing, Granny."

"If a thing's worth doin', it's worth doin' well," Granny said virtuously. "I'm sure Big Jim knows that, fine upstandin' troll that he is."

The other two backed their chairs away in case of a sudden lightning strike. When none came after several minutes, they relaxed.

"Anyway," Magrat said, as if there hadn't been any nervous pause in the conversation, "there are too many portals. Or maybe too few. There's the one on Lancre Bridge, which leads to Steven's world. There's the one in the Dancers, which leads to the…the world of the Lords and Ladies. It's like looking at two sides of a triangle and not seeing the third side. Where's the portal from Their world to Steven's? There needs to be balance, and there isn't any."

There was a sharp indrawn breath from Nanny Ogg. Granny Weatherwax, on the other hand, looked as if she'd just drunk a draught of the bitterest vinegar from the largest beer stein on the Disc. [14]

"There's a better question," she said, her gaze hard enough to strike sparks off of the castle's stone walls. "We know that They want our world. But what do They want in his?"

[12] "Rogers" being both Lancre slang for an activity involving couples which Nanny Ogg thoroughly approved of and a delicious dessert which she had actively promoted[13] in her famous cookbook, The Joye of Snacks.
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[13] And continued to promote even after the book's publication, because while it is possible to have too much of a good thing, it is, sadly, much more common to have less of something than you want, and even more common to have far, far less than you need. This is true whether you are eating rogers or eating Rogers.
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[14] This would be either the four-foot-tall wooden" Soldier's Stein" crafted by, so the legend says, an anonymous soldier in the company of the Borogravian army known as the Ins-and-Outs, or by the 1.2192-meter tall stein carved from stone by Snorri Skulesson, an Uberwaldean dwarf. Though the two steins are exactly the same size, the dwarves maintain that theirs is, in a metaphysical sense, larger, as it was precisely the same height as Snorri himself. For the anonymous soldier to produce something equivalent to Snorri's work, the dwarves say, he would have to have produced a stein as large as the average human. The question remains undecided as we go to press.
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***

It didn't take long for Steve to recover. What did take him a while was accepting that he was, for the moment, trapped on Discworld.

"Why can't I just walk through the portal on Lancre Bridge again?" he insisted after Granny, Nanny and Magrat (carrying her baby and wearing her crown[15] because she'd decided to be both a mother and a witch-queen in hopes that one or the other would inspire Steven the Not-Knight to listen) walked up to him as he was hoeing the vegetable garden behind the Weatherwax cottage and informed him of the problem. "I'll go home, I'll tell my friends about the problem, Tony and Bruce will invent something to close the portals, and all six of us will find a way of dealing with the…well, whatever the things are that you don't want to name."

"It ain't that simple," Granny explained. "The one on the bridge, it's there but it's closed. And the barrier round the Dancers is closed…for now. And hope it stays closed, too."

"We think," said Magrat, who could see that he still looked confused, "that two portals can't be open at the same time. Too much energy, do you see? Too much magic. If you use too much magic at once, it attracts…attention. There're things that eat magic, you see."

"Which is the same as sayin' that the things eat life," Nanny Ogg concluded, lighting her pipe. "And reality. Not a good idea to give 'em an openin', if you can help it. The Gentry ain't smart, not by a long shot, but opening two sets of linked portals at the same time…too much is too much. They like conquerin', not sharin'. Lettin' something suck the life and soul out of what they want most—there's a word for that. Losin'. The Starry Ones don't deal well with losin'. Never did."

Steve thought of the Red Skull, of H.Y.D.R.A., of the Centauri, and of Loki.

"All right," he said. "I understand the mentality, even if I don't know what we're facing. What would you suggest that we do?"

"Not much you can do about anything," Granny said stiffly in a tone that had echoes of keys turning in locks, doors being bolted and iron portcullises slamming down. "This is witch business. You're not a witch. So you can't help."

"What if I were a witch? Would you let me help then?"

He'd only meant it as a hypothetical. A hint, perhaps, that if Mistress Weatherwax (a name that he still found more comfortable than "Granny," even though most people called her the latter) would let him help in that situation, she should certainly allow him to help in this one. So he was not remotely prepared for the appalled expression on her face as his words sank in.

"No," she said through pale lips. "Absolutely not. A man bein' a witch! It's not decent! Men can't be witches. When they try, they turn into warlocks. And wizards…well, they ain't witches. They get all their magic out of books and study."

"Where does a witch get her magic from, then?" Steve demanded, thinking that it couldn't be that difficult.

"From herself," Granny snapped. "And from hard work. Years of it. And you don't want to stay here for years. So make yourself useful, but leave the magic to Gytha and Magrat and the other witches hereabouts."

And me, she added but did not say out loud. She didn't have to.

"He can be useful around my place," Nanny Ogg said with a grin.

Granny merely shook her head. "Gytha Ogg, may you be forgiven," she said and strode off in the opposite direction.

"Doin' heavy chores when the men is away at work is what I was goin' to say," Nanny called after her. "There ain't no wrong in that, is there?"

Magrat sighed. "I'd better get back to the palace," she said, as Young Esme dragged the Royal Crown of Lancre over her mother's left eye, giving her a rather rakish look. "I'm not very good at calming Granny down when she gets like this."

"Nobody is," replied Nanny. "Not even me. I've just known her since she were a tyke, so I deals better. You go tend to Young Esme. And you"—she fixed a fierce eye on Steve—"best pack what you've got. Esme's in a three-day sulk if I ever saw one, and you need to keep out of her way. You can sleep in our barn. The animals won't mind."

As Steve hesitated, wondering if he was supposed to take this invitation seriously, she added sharply, "Well, get along, then! Grab your stuff and follow me. Leave her a note if you like, but don't try talking to her. Not yet."

As if in a dream or a trance, Steve propped the hoe against the cottage and, after wiping his feet, entered, hoping against hope that he could find a scrap of paper and a bit of charcoal.

[15] Much to the joy of her eighteen-month-old daughter, Princess Esmeralda Margaret Note Spelling, who was thrilled that Mama was wearing such a delightfully yankable toy on her head.
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***

Steve was kept busy for the next three days chopping and lifting wood, moving heavy bottles of what he had to think of as moonshine, trying to comb or brush the smelliest cat in the world, visiting and doing chores for the sick, the old or both [16], and babysitting both Young Esme and Nanny's grandchildren. And the three after that. And the three after that. It wasn't until the tenth day that he sat down at the kitchen table and asked Nanny why what he'd been doing had remained undone for so long.

"Oh, someone was doing 'em," Nanny answered, grinning. "But now they're your jobs. After all, you asked if you could be a witch."

Steve was about to protest that he hadn't asked for that at all, but the sudden realization of "This is witch training?" popped out of his mouth instead.

Nanny nodded. "Best I can manage on short notice. O' course, it'd be better if you were in your teens somewhere, but…" She shrugged. "Not so shabby." She cocked her head to one side, momentarily looking like a thoughtful dog that was listening very hard. "Not what you expected, exactly?"

"No."

"Most things ain't." A pause. "Witching's not showy. If you're lookin' for fireballs and lightning and battlin' terrible evil from the dawn o' time—that's not what we do. We just…get things done."

"What things?"

"Whatever needs doin'."

Steve considered this silently for a few minutes. "How do we find out where the open portal to my world is?"

"We think we know. Well…we know what country it's prob'ly in. Or what universe. Take your pick."

"There's a big difference between countries and universes!"

"Most places. Not there."

Steve took a deep breath. "Look," he said, straining for patience. "You've got to tell me who or what we're up against. And why portals between worlds are such a big problem. You keep dropping hints, but I don't know what you're hinting at."

After all, he told himself, this isn't Earth, which everyone and their brother seems to want to conquer or destroy. I've been here on the Disc for what, a month? Six weeks? And no one's invaded yet.

Nanny frowned for a moment, then stood up, walked over to the kitchen counter, and pulled a canister of bright yellow toward her. "FLOUR" was written on it in intricately curly crimson letters. Its lid was also yellow, with a handle formed by a ceramic cluster of white-spotted, bright red mushrooms, which would have looked cheery either to someone who knew nothing about mushrooms or to an Assassin who knew everything about them. [17] She removed the flour canister's lid, grabbed a cup from the cupboard, expertly scooped out about a quarter of a cup, replaced the lid, and shoved the canister back where it had been before. Then she carried the cup over to the table, stuck her finger in her mouth, and then, after dipping it in the flour, began to write five letters on the table:

E L V E S.

Once Steve had gotten a good look at the word, Nanny rubbed it out. "It's not good to say it or write it," she mumbled. "It draws their attention."

Steve's mind whirled, half with news reports and half with stories Thor had told him after the fact. Words clanged together in his mind. Svartalfheim. Malekith. The Convergence.

"I think the third portal is going to that country inside the stones," he said, his voice sounding very far away. "But the Dark Elves—they weren't even from Earth, so I don't think that the portal could have started on Earth. And they were wiped out two years ago, anyway. They couldn't possibly be coming to the standing stones."

Nanny drummed her fingers, floury and otherwise, on the table. "The Queen of Them's always had a fancy for colonies and conquest," she said grimly. "She's tried it here before. And doors do swing both ways. Maybe she's decided that she could start influencin' your world bit by bit while sendin' some of her people—or political rivals, likely—to that Svarthelm place. Three kingdoms for one stone, if you get my meanin'."

[16] It went without saying that many of the people Nanny considered old were chronologically younger than she was. Witches are more than capable, as they would put it, of getting on in years, but they tend to think of old age as something that happens to other people.
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[17] Or, as in this case, to a grandmother who just loved what several of her grandchildren had bought her for Hogswatch two years before, because grandchildren.
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***

Despite everything, Steve's Oggish "witch training" went on. Steve had no desire to do anything but go home and stop another invasion, but Granny—well, he supposed that he had to call her "Esme " rather than" Mistress Weatherwax" or "Granny" if she was going to make him think of his old girlfriend—had turned very Peggy Carter on him, pointing out that fighting every elf that he could find on Earth wouldn't necessarily destroy all of the Elf Queen's armies or subjects.

"I could slip between a couple of the Dancers and enter Their world that way," he suggested one day when the three of them were meeting. [18] Well, he supposed it was a meeting. "It could work."

Esme snorted. "Without knowing where the portal is in her world? We could wander around forever and not see where it was nor how to disable it! Foolish, I calls that."

"We can't enter her world or dimension or whatever it is because it's too big and we wouldn't find the portals," Steve said, counting on his fingers. "We can't shut down the portals from here in Lancre. We can't use the one on Lancre Bridge; the elves"—

"Don't call 'em that!"

"—the elves are preventing it from working because another one's in use and too much magic at once attracts creatures from the Dungeon Dimensions." Steve sighed, rubbing his tired eyes. "I just want to go home."

Neither of the witches commented on that, unless Nanny's muttered, "Pity that shield of yourn isn't iron" counted.

"Isn't there some way that we could track it from outside the stone circle? Above it, maybe?"

"Well, it'd be tricky," Esme said, turning the thought over and over in her mind as if it were on a rotisserie. "Nothing likes occupying that circle's airspace, including brooms. But we could try."

And that was how Steve ended up flying above the Dancers behind Esme on her broomstick, clinging very hard to what little stick was visible in front of him. Holding onto Esme definitely wasn't permitted; she'd told him so. "Though I don't see why you'd want to, a young man like you."

"I'm ninety-five!" Steve snapped at last. "I'm just aging slowly, thanks to a super-soldier…" He stumbled over the word "serum." "…potion. I'm decades older than you are!"

A snort. "Really. Can't see how I missed it, myself."

Steve shook his head, grinning despite himself. Esme reminded him remarkably of Peggy at times.

He had a terrible feeling that he was going to miss her dreadfully once he got home.

[18] Three, not four. Magrat had no problem with the idea of combining motherhood and a career, but she had no desire to deal with a frustrated hero, an angry head witch, and a teething baby all at the same time.
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***

Locating the portal inside the Dancers involved, so far as Steve could tell, tape measures, iron hairpins that appeared to turn like compass needles above the stones, and a whole bunch of arguing between Esme and Nanny. Steve kept quiet and watched the hairpins...

...which were pulling to the left and clustering around something. A circular something.

"I think we found it," he said, keeping his voice low. He wasn't sure why. No one could hear them up here except for the occasional bird. But he did so anyway. "I guess now I climb down into it--"

"And do what?" Esme demanded, skewering him with a glare. "And end up on that Smarthelmet place instead of your world, with no way to get back? Thought you'd got a better brain than that."

Steve thought it over and then winced. "The iron in the hairpins. If they get close enough to the portal--touch the teleportation beam, maybe, since they're surrounding it--the iron's magnetism might disrupt it. Not hugely, but enough. So the...Lords and Ladies would have to stop using this portal...not long, but for a while. The portal from their world to Lancre isn't working yet; it's not what you call 'Circle Time.' So their only alternative would be to open the portal on Lancre Bridge. And it doesn't work nearly as well, because it's outside the Dancers, not inside."

"Dunno about teleportation beams nor magnetism," Nanny Ogg commented, "but it sounds about right."

Esme gave her an abbreviated nod. "Right, then. Steven, you get on Gytha's broomstick. I'll deal with the portal."

"Why?" Steve demanded.

A desert would not have been drier than her voice. "Because Gytha's broomstick is faster, so she can get you to the bridge before I can. And because I don't like that ignorant madam callin' herself Queen. She's got a bad habit of trying to crush people's minds and spirits. Got no time for selfish children what can't grow up ruinin' people and spoilin' the world with their tantrums." A pause. "And they're my hairpins, so I'll see to them."

Steve protested, or tried to. He pointed out that he'd been a soldier. That he was strong and hard to hurt. That he'd worked with teams before. That he'd led teams. That he could help them do this. That saving people was his responsibility.

None of it made the slightest bit of difference. Nanny Ogg flew her broomstick alongside Esme's, helping him switch from one to the other before he thought too much about it, all the while making proper noises of agreement. They were flying away at a great speed before he'd even completed his list.

"Why did you do that?" he yelled, attempting to outshout the wind. He was pretty sure that you couldn't fly faster than the speed of sound on a broomstick, but Nanny Ogg appeared to be giving the good old Lancre try.

"You said you wanted to help," Nanny yelled back. "So Esme's givin' you a chance."

As simple as that. Steve wondered what he was supposed to say.

They were nearly at Lancre Bridge now. Nanny slowed down, then began descending and circling around as if she was sneaking up on the portal, or at least trying not to let anything know that she was remotely near it.

"She don't approve, mind," she said in a more normal tone. "She thinks you need lots more practice in headology. But whatever happens, you'll end up on your side of the portal where your team is. And maybe that man, wossname, Bruce Banter, can invent something to lock the door to that empty world what the Queen wants. Or that other one, Tony Starkers." She turned around and gave him a one-toothed smile. "Love to see if he lives up to his name."

That was when it hit Steve. This was goodbye. When this was all over, he'd be sealed away in one world and the witches would be in another. He wouldn't know what was happening to them or how fast time was passing. They--especially Esme--wouldn't know if he was even alive.

It was like being frozen all over again, only knowing that it was going to happen. The fact that Esme Weatherwax reminded him of Peggy Carter was just the icing on a very unpleasant cake. Oh, she didn't look like Peggy. She didn't talk like her, either. But Esme's no-nonsense approach and sardonic tongue--not to mention her stainless steel spine--were stirring old memories.

She didn't love him. That he knew. And he wasn't in love. He was even more sure of that. But he was in like. Even more, he respected Esme, and that deserved a decent goodbye. Not "I'm going off on a mission and will probably never see you again, but I'll keep speculating at 2:00 a.m. about all the horrible things that could have happened to you." No one deserved eternal uncertainty.

Then Gytha landed on Lancre Bridge, and there was no more time for thinking.

"See you," he said, bowing his head slightly as he squeezed her hands. "Give my best to Magrat and the princess. And tell Esme--" He had no idea what he wanted to tell her. "Tell her I'll see her."

The portal on the empty bridge--for Big Jim wouldn't go near the bridge at the moment--began shimmering. Coming to life, Steve thought as he tucked his head down, sprang forward and jumped through the temporarily operational door.

***

Sheep Meadow, Central Park. Maybe eight o'clock in the morning, if he was reading the sun correctly. The Meadow didn't look much different than before, except that now it contained perhaps fifty or sixty people, all of whom were watching him.

They looked wrong.

They were all flawlessly beautiful--perfect hair, perfect eyes, perfect skin (in a dozen or so shades). They could have been rich people from anywhere in the universe, but their clothes were wrong. One woman--well, possible woman, because who knew about elves?--was wearing a cone-shaped dress made of wooden planks; it came down to her knees. Another was wearing a golden torque with either a robe or a gown that had been woven together out of what looked like shiny black trash bags. They seemed to have just thrown on anything in the assurance that they would look fantastic no matter what happened.

Terrible camouflage, if you knew what they were. If you didn't...well, they just looked like a lot of rich people who had more money than sense.

Maybe that was the case.

What, he wondered, would Esme Weatherwax do?

She'd know that they already knew she wasn't one of them. And she'd use that.

He sauntered forward, trying to forget that he was dressed like a refugee from a Renaissance Faire--except for the round shield slung over his left shoulder. "Hello," he said, giving them what he hoped was an oily and obsequious smile. "The Lady sent me." Lady Liberty, that is. " There's been a change in plan."

"Truly," said one who was dressed like a cross between a French musketeer and a futuristic emperor. His tone said that Steve was lying through his teeth. "And what is this...change?"

Steve hesitated for a minute. "The witches know," he said at last, hoping that these elves were as familiar with the Lancre witches as the witches were with them. "They know. The whole plan to go to Svartalfheim is a trick. You can't move there; you can't even survive there. The place is a prison. Worse, it's a graveyard. And you don't have any tools that you can use to rebuild it."

"We have magic," drawled the musketeer-emperor. "And we don't need your help."

Steve put every ounce of scorn that the witches would have used into his voice. "Do the words 'it's a trap' mean anything to you? What makes you think that magic works there? Look, I'm telling you, I can bring you to a place of safety, I promise."

"You swear this is true?" said another elf. This one towered over the musketeer-emperor and was wearing a peach-colored Spandex outfit that outlined all the veins and arteries in blue and scarlet. The Anatomical Model, Elven Edition.

Steve nodded. "I swear. Cross my heart and hope to die."

The Anatomical Model smiled, sunlight glinting off of two sets of sharp teeth. "If you're lying, you will."

"It's the safest place in the world for you." At least as far as the human race is concerned. "It looks like an office building, but the sign on it is code."

More of them seemed to be listening now. "Code?"

"Yes. It's got a giant A on it." He did his best to rephrase the next sentence so that it wasn't quite a lie. "What do you think that A is for if not for Alfheim?"

***

The iron hairpins hadn't disrupted the Lancre Bridge portal for long. Granny had known that they wouldn't. That was the part that she'd come to terms with. She'd expected but hadn't come to terms with waves of power from the re-starting portal, waves causing airquakes that knocked her off of her broom and sent her flying into the icicle world of the elves. Thick, heavy boots and voluminous skirts cushioned her fall somewhat, but she was still limping and sore when two elven guards arrived and frog-marched her off over the fields of ice to see the Queen.

She struggled some--not enough to tire herself, but enough to demonstrate that it was really her and not an illusion or a doppelganger. It didn't do to be too peaceful, especially when your enemies knew bloody well that you weren't.

The guards escorted her into an immense hall of stone, copper and bronze which seemed to be a cross between a great hall and a crypt. Perhaps the elves didn't know the difference. There weren't many courtiers there, either; presumably a lot had gone on ahead to New York or Svartleblartle. The Queen was seated on an outsized throne of intricately carved white, black and clear ice which seemed peculiarly designed to snag the garments of whoever came near it.

"You," said the Queen. "I might have known you wouldn't be able to keep out of my business." The glamoured face twisted strangely, as if its owner wasn't certain how to look angry and beautiful at the same time. "Well, now you're here on, as you once put it, my turf."

"If you say so."

"You can't hope to pit your pathetic scraps of magic against mine. Not here. And there's nothing for you to Borrow here."

Granny glanced around dismissively. "Not much, no."

The Queen laughed lightly. it sounded like the wind brushing against fragile icicles--brittle and inches away from shattering. "And your dear, dear friend hasn't called on the King this time."

"She asked. I told her there was no need."

"No need?" The Queen's eyes blazed. "You stand there, you smug, worn-out old woman, so sure of yourself, so certain that you can't be beaten...and you've already lost! You have nothing! No magic, no power, no allies--not even so much as a fingernail's worth of iron!"

"Oh, you're wrong there." Four soft calm words, but a locomotive smashing into the Queen would have had no less dramatic an effect.

"What are you talking about?" The Queen's voice was no less arrogant, but now it was just a fraction higher, while the skin around her eyes was just slightly tighter.

A smile spread across Granny's face like ice cracking in a spring thaw. "I brought plenty of iron with me. I couldn't have got past the Dancers with iron, but there's no barriers in the air, now, are there?"

"No," whispered the Queen.

"And once I landed, your guards brought me all the way to your throne--at your orders. And your orders are always obeyed here, aren't they? It can't be otherwise. So here I am, armed with iron. Or footed, rather." Granny stuck one narrow, hobnailed boot out from under her black skirt. "How much iron does it take to taint your land? A flake? A touch?"

"You're still trapped in here."

"That's as may be. But I think your situation's worse. I wouldn't count it an advantage to be stuck in a world where someone wore death on her feet. And I've no mind to stay, either. So here's what you're going to do. You're going to shut down the portals."

"No!"

"Yes. Any of your people stuck on Svart-wossname will stay there. The same goes for them as on Roundworld. And let this be the last time that you try for Lancre. I'm weary of your nonsense, Madam. And I've a feeling that there's a Roundworld lad what bears no love for you and yourn neither."

"I could order your feet cut off," snarled the Queen. "How would you walk your poisonous hobnailed shoes all over my land then?"

"Oh, I couldn't. Your throne would just be surrounded by pools and pools of frozen blood. I might even get it on your throne. Or you. I don't imagine I'd feel much need for restraint." Granny's spring thaw smile widened. "Tell me...did you know that human blood contains quite a bit of iron?"

***

Two Octodays later, Steve and Esme were attending a dance in Slice. This was mostly due to Steve challenging Tony and Bruce--post-battle, naturally--to get the Lancre Bridge portal working for just one more round trip, please. Technology apparently worked as well as if not better than magic, at least when the science bros put their minds to it.

Esme had been reluctant to go to the dance ("I'm much too old, and I can't be having with that") but Steve had convinced her that it was a combination thank you and goodbye to her and a way of satisfying a promise to an old friend that he couldn't quite keep any other way. And so she'd agreed. "But no funny business," she'd warned him.

They were conspicuous on the dance floor--Esme with her good black wool dress and her hobnailed boots and Steve in his Captain America costume, minus the mask and the cowl. Also, Esme stepped on Steve's feet one out of every three times. At the moment, he was blessing the designer of his uniform.

"I'm surprised your friends are even talking to you now," she said, "after you arranged to have the elves invade."

"The building itself is designed to protect against invasion. The Avengers didn't have that bad a time. And there weren't many elves. About half opted for Svartalfheim instead. The ones who fought at the Avengers tower--some got killed. Some were captured. They're not going to be back for a while. I'm surprised that any of them even listened to me. I wasn't especially tricky."

"You wasn't afraid when they tried to scare you and you spoke of the Lady--the Queen. As far as they were concerned, that meant you was a loyal servant...for the moment. But you're right. You could have been much trickier."

"I'll work on it." Steve spun Esme around, or at least tried to with limited success. "How did you get out of Their country?"

Esme muttered something about being physically flung out between the Dancers. It obviously had not been the most dignified exit in the world.

"Is this livin' up to your expectations?" she asked, very clearly changing the subject. "Still don't know why you picked me."

"In one way, no. In another, definitely."

It wasn't the Stork Club. It was a barn with an improvised orchestra. Not the right place. Not the right time.

But definitely the right sort of person. A brave, stubborn woman who wouldn't quit, no matter what. A woman with a thing for hats that made a statement.

"Definitely," he repeated, looking at those sharp sapphire eyes, and smiled.

***

THE END