Maybe nothing would have happened if Talea hadn’t found the demon in the breadbox.
She’d baked six loaves of fresh humberpine the previous day and had left them in the metal-lined wooden container to cool. It sat on the tiled kitchen counter just to the left of me big oval window cut in the south side of the tree, overlooking the riverbank and the willows that clung there like tipsy spectators at a fishing tournament.
Half a dozen was a lot to make all at once, but thanks to a petite, highly domesticated preserving spell thoughtfully provided by Clothahump, the bread would stay not only fresh but hot for as long as was necessary. It was also more energy-efficient than refrigeration.
When she opened the breadbox to remove some for supper she was startled to see, seated against the nearest loaf, a perfectly formed six-inch-high homunculus. Two curved horns protruded from the sides of his skull, a single smaller one from his forehead. Gossamer rose-hued wings lay folded against his back. He wore long maroon denim pants with matching suspenders, and his clawed feet protruded beyond the ends of thick rubber sandals.
He also owned a hearty appetite. Half the loaf he was seated against had been devoured. She’d caught him red-handed (of course, with demons this was not an especially difficult task).
Startled, he jerked around sharply when she raised the lid of the box, a double-handful of steaming fresh bread clutched in one tiny fist.
“Azmac!” the creature shouted, waving its free hand at her. “Poreon faytul Begone, or I shall make of your life Purgatory resplendent!”
“Get out of my breadbox!” Talea was not in the least intimidated by the baroque threat. Fumbling in a nearby drawer, her fingers wrapped around the handle of a small iron skillet and thrust it toward the loaf.
Dropping its aromatic prize, the demon scrambled toward the back of the box. “Emarion! Sacarath sanctus!”
“Never mind that.” Reversing the skillet, Talea used the handle to dig at the back of the box. “Get out of my bread!”
Though not very big, Talea was deceptively strong, and the demon, sated on humberpine, was decidedly overfed. There was a loud poing as he lost his grip on the rear of the box and went flying, arms and legs akimbo, across the kitchen. He soared neatly over the central butcher block to smack with a slightly wet splat against the rhomboidal window on the far side of the room. There he seemed to hang for an instant, suspended, before sliding down the glass into the dish basin.
Hefting the skillet by its handle, Talea rushed to the sink and peered down among the duty plates and cups. “What were you doing in my breadbox? Does somebody have it in for me, is that it? I’ll bet it’s that stuck-up possum Mrs. Genfine up the river. She always stays upside down when we visit.” She watched while the dazed demon struggled unsuccessfully to stand. “You’re not much of a curse.”
Something buzzed loudly past her head and she twisted sideways, the demon in the dishwater momentarily forgotten. This new specter was smaller than the homunculus, with four bright emerald-green wings and a long snaky tail trailing behind it. A face once removed from toad roadkill sneered back at her. From its four hands hung the crystal saltcellar that had been a wedding gift from her mother.
She snatched for it but it darted just out of reach, taunting her with a high-pitched buzz-accompanied version of some cabalistic mantra that sounded very much like “My Darling Clementine.”
“Now what?” Taking aim with the edge, she swung the skillet. The toadbuzz dodged once, a second time, and then there was a loud bang as the skillet connected. The song faded as the apparition fell on the stove, bounced once, and tumbled off to land on the floor. Unharmed, the saltcellar rolled clear. Ignoring the dazed buzzing of the would-be thief, she knelt to recover it.
“What the hell is going on here?” she mumbled to herself as she put the skillet aside and pulled the big broom from storage. Now, where was the dustpan?
As she bent over to search for it, something smacked her in the rear. Clutching the broom in front of her, she whirled.
It couldn’t be called a demon, though it wore a demonic grin. Considerably larger than the pair of intruders she’d already coped with, it squatted before her on thickly muscled, kangaroo-like legs, its flat fish face regarding her blandly. Lavender scales covered the naked body except for the pair of turquoise tentacles that made swimming motions against the air. Sprouting from the top of the head was a bright, rotating blue searchlight.
She hefted the broom and inspected the newcomer. “What are you supposed to be?”
“Beeble,” it burped. It made another rude body noise and took a tentative hop toward her.
“Keep away from me.” She made a threatening gesture with the broom as she started edging sideways, away from the broom closet. “I’m warning you.”
The bread demon had recovered and was now busily poking through the kitchen cabinets, looking for something else to eat, its red belly hanging pendulously over its belt line.
“What’s going on here?” she muttered. “Jon-Tom!” There was no response. Her husband wasn’t due home from work for a while yet. She was isolated in her kitchen. “Somebody! Anybody?”
She dodged as the hop-searchlight took another bound in her direction, extending toward her face a vile and obscene tongue.
“I warned you.” She swung the broom and smacked the tongue sideways. The protruding organ whizzed several times around the hopper’s head before the tip smacked its owner square in the right eye.
“Ow. Ow, ow, ow!” It hop-retreated, trying to recoil the rebellious organ.
The breadbox demon was in an upper cabinet, scattering her victuals. Broom held high, she charged, shoving the hopper aside. “Damn your demonic ass, get out of my provisions!”
When she reached the cabinet the demon was nowhere to be seen, having sought the depths within. But half a dozen brand-new apparitions flew straight out at her, squealing and screeching. As they circled and darted she swung the broom in frenzied self-defense, fighting to keep them out of her hair.
“Get away from me, get away!” They were a rainbow of colors and a plethora of shapes, none very pleasing to look upon save for one with iridescent compound eyes. It had the body of an undersize, anorexic macaque attached to the wings of a falcon. They came at her from all directions, forcing her to retreat. “Get away, I’m warning you!” she yelled as she flailed with the broom. They were pouring out of the woodwork now: emerging from cabinets and drawers, from cracks in the tree floor, from behind bowls, from beneath the sink, and from the doorway that led to the den. Drooling, grinning, gurgling, belching and farting, laughing and hissing as they crawled, slithered, hopped, and flew toward her. They stank and they gibbered, they uttered incomprehensibilities and obscenities, they messed impertinently with her clean dishes, and pawed through her carefully stacked foodstuff’s.
Dozens of the creatures filled the kitchen, and more were arriving every minute. There was a translucent winged thing that looked like nothing so much as a vampire butterfly, horrific in aspect save for its decidedly befuddled expression. It kept beating against the skylight as if trying to escape.
Something was tugging at the sandal on her left foot. Looking down, she saw a small bright yellow and pink polka-dotted snake with seven heads.
“Excuse me.” The septicephalic slitherer spoke plaintively, its accent unidentifiable. “I seem to have wandered into the wrong mythology. Can you . . . ?”
Talea screamed and jumped backward. “Get out of my kitchen! Get out of my house!” The flailing broom knocked two of the heads senseless, while the other five fell to arguing among themselves.
Something landed on her right shoulder. As she reached up to rip it off, she saw a small fat man with a cherubic expression. He was composed entirely of layers of some resilient white substance that threatened to rub off on her blouse.
“Madame, I don’t know what eez going on heere, but I have work to do elsewhere and I reesent most heartily being sucked in with the rest of theeze undeesciplined and unrefined conjurations.”
“Don’t blame me. I didn’t conjure anything.” She grabbed the puffy white arm and wrenched. The limb promptly came off in her fingers. There was no blood, only a sort of thick black goo that began to ooze from the ruptured joints.
“Now look what you have done. I will meeze my next assignment.”
“Sorry.” She handed back the amputated limb.
“Merci.” With great dignity the creature jammed the arm back into the vacant shoulder socket. It hopped off her shoulder and bounced across the floor, disappearing into the otherworldly tumult.
The majority of phantasms were not nearly so polite. One tried to take a bite out of her left calf. Using the broom, ser left calf. Using the broom, s the heavy wooden kitchen table. Another leaped at her face, scrabbling at her eyes. All three of its own were missing. She caught it on the rounded end of the broomstick and jammed it hard against the cooler. The big box rattled. Have to get the coolant spell renewed, she thought absently.
That was the trouble with being married to a wizard. Or in her case, to a spellsinger. It was all very well and good to go toodling off all the time to save the world or close shattered interdimensional gates or defeat hordes of ravening invaders, oh yes. But try to get something fixed around the house? No way! They never had any time for domestic mundanities.
She picked up the skillet and flung it at another advancing horror. Utilizing all six of its black arms, it plucked the utensil cleanly from the air, studied it intently for a moment, then plunked it down on its already flattened skull, exhibiting an air of considerable satisfaction.
“By the Twelve Crinoline Veils of the Most Repentant Sinner,” she bawled irately, “I want you all out of here! Now!” Yanking open a drawer, she reached for the large skillet stored inside, only to draw back her hand at the sight of the four tiny imps cavorting within. They wore brightly striped scarves around their necks and nothing else as they skated on the fiat metal surface. Tiny wisps of steam rose from beneath their splayed feet.
“Do you mind?” one said, upset at the interruption of his private reverie.
“Do I mind? Get out of my drawer!” She spun around to swing at something that was chewing on the hem of her housedress, then thrust the end of the broomstick at the pan. The skating imps scattered wildly.
Suddenly she felt her feet going out from under her. The broom went flying as she landed on her front, the impact knocking the breath out of her. Looking down and backward, she saw four things that resembled a cross between miniature donkeys and salamanders. Their tack consisted of perfectly fashioned miniature harnesses hooked up to downsized block and tackle, which had been fastened to her ankles.
Seated atop a matching wagon at the back of the alien team was a tiny drover who was mostly long black beard and busy whip. He bellowed orders in a deep, unintelligible mumble as he and his team dragged the frantic Talea toward a gaping, ominous, and hitherto unsuspected cavity beneath the fruit bin. Conflagrant lights alternately flared and faded in me black depths.
She dug at the floor, yelling and screeching, while all around her wee monstrosities and diminutive horrors gibbered contentedly as they reduced her kitchen to rubble.
“That’s enough’.” she roared.
Rolling over, she leaned forward and kicked with both legs as hard as she could. The block and tackle snapped, and both drover and team went flying. Still mumbling and babbling to themselves, they vanished into that abiding black maw.
“My sword,” she muttered as she struggled to her feet. “Where’d I store that damn sword?”
Since marrying Jon-Tom she hadn’t had much occasion to make use of her old weapon. During holidays it was handy for making spectacularly short work of a big roast. Otherwise it slept in storage, her thieving and fighting days being far behind her. But she hadn’t forgotten how to use it.
Was it in with the cutlery? No, not enough room. Behind the stove? No, it would’ve stuck out there. She finally located it jammed unceremoniously in the back of the broom closet. Except for a light glaze of kitchen grease it was perfectly functional.
Hefting the familiar old grip in both hands, she turned in her housedress to confront the room full of clawing, cawing demons. Pots and dishes were scattered everywhere, food containers had been upturned and then contents dumped on the counters, while piquant liquids pooled on her painstakingly polished floor.
“Chaos repossess all of you, Spawn of Hell!” Swinging the sword in broad, powerful, horizontal arcs, she waded fearlessly into the babble.
Heads, limbs, and interesting other body parts went flying as blood of dissimilar colors spurted, mixing with the spilled honey and milk and household cleansers. She knew it was going to take a heavy, not to mention expensive, housecleaning spell to scrub away the carnage, but she was damned if she was going to clean up this mess manually. Jon-Tom was going to have to drop whatever he was involved with and do something about it.
Squealing and striking out with long, pointed arms, a giant blue spider rushed her on stiltlike legs. Skewering it neatly, she swung the sword and bashed its brains out against the baking counter. Green ichor and pink brains bubbled from the crushed chiton, getting all over the batch of sprinkle-topped cupcakes she’d made just the week before. At that sight her fury knew no bounds, and she laid about the kitchen with a will.
Demonic shapes struck at her, or scrambled to get out of her way, or sought escape in cabinets and drawers. Yet despite her successes, progress eluded her. Mocking her efforts, fresh furies materialized whenever another was destroyed. They kept coming at her: oozing up out of the floor, dropping down from the skylight, spiraling up out of the sinks—an endless procession of horrors that reinforced themselves even as she demolished their predecessors.
Gradually she found herself forced to retreat by the sheer weight of numbers. Backed up against the broom closet, her sword strokes inevitably grew shorter and weaker as her assailants pressed their attack.
She’d always envisioned herself perishing on some grand quest of Jon-Tom’s, or at worst while comfortably retired amongst the widows of the local Thieves and Cutpurses Rest Home. Not like this, not in her own kitchen, brought down by a conjuration she’d had no part in and couldn’t comprehend. What had happened to the carefully crafted home protection and insulation spell that usually shielded her sanctum from nefarious external influences? Admittedly it was primarily designed to vacuum and deodorize, but it should have restricted the access of demons, gargoyles, and their ilk as well. That it had failed so spectacularly suggested an even more powerful sorcery was at work.
Her hair tousled about her, housedress in tatters, she continued to cut and thrust with the sword. It was just like old times, except that her arms weren’t nearly as responsive as they used to be, her strokes not quite as economical of arc.
Just when she thought her trembling legs and arms were about to give out completely and that the fanged and taloned mob of necrotic intruders were going to take her down for the last time, there came the sound of a thump from beyond the kitchen doorway.
“Hi, honey,” boomed a cheery voice, “I’m home! Clothahump and I finally got the old Toolawhip bridge braced with a decent suspension spell. Of course, it’s only temporary, but . . .”
Jon-Tom strode around the corner and into the kitchen, whereupon something compact and violet leaped onto his chest and thrust a belligerent bulbous blue nose into his face.
“ Youse better stay outta dis if you know what’s good for you, buddy. Da broad givin’ us enough trouble as it is, see? We don’t need no interference from no kibbitzers, see?”
A startled Jon-Tom clutched the creature by its short, thick neck. It gurgled, and its eyes bulged hugely. Without a word the spellsinger drop-kicked it halfway across the kitchen. It struck a shelf, breaking one of Talea’s favorite fairy vases in the process, and fell motionless to the floor.
“What the hell’s going on here?” He gaped at the bedlam, eyes wide.
“Don’t just stand there.” Talea redoubled her efforts, reinvigorated by his appearance. “Do something!”
Stunned by the scope of the turmoil, he found himself hesitating. Had he left his duar in the cart? No, he’d brought it in with him. It needed some restringing, but it ought to suffice to deal with this. It had better, he thought, seeing how hard-pressed was Talea.
Racing back to the front hall, he yanked the unique instrument from its slot in the carved umbrella stand and tried to think of an appropriate song as he rushed back to the kitchen. Years of practice under Clothahump’s aegis had made him facile. He was infinitely more confident than the awkward young man who’d first found himself transported to this world.
Still, he found himself struggling as he confronted the pandemonium in the kitchen. Historically, the domestic household did not figure prominently in the rock-and-roll lexicon with which he was conversant.
An old ditty by John Mellencamp finally leaped to mind. He began to play, and to sing, his voice and the mellifluous chords of the duar rising strong and pure above the uproar.
From cabinets and vents, from fractures in the floor and the seams around windows, a pink haze began to emerge. Swirling in lazy currents, it picked its way into the kitchen, smelling faintly of pumpernickel and Simellot cheese. There was nothing Jon-Tom could do about the latter. Considering what the miasma could have smelted like, he was rather pleased. Ancillary odors were not his primary concern at the moment.
The slightly moist mist had an immediate effect on the army of invading fiends (or maybe it was the smell). From cabinets and shelves, from pots and pans and dishes, they ceased their activities to stare and sniff r activities to stare and sniff.king and screaming, they proceeded to get the hell out. Nostrils pinched, mouths puckered, they plunged back into the depths of the cupboards, the floor, the ceiling, returning at breakneck speed to the noxious nexi of their respective existences. In their panicked recision they took with them not so much as a cookie.
The duar pulsed and trembled in Jon-Tom’s practiced hands. Unsourced wind caused his iridescent green cape (which was overdue for dry cleaning) to stream out behind him, as though he stood in the forefront of an intense but highly localized squall.
As he strolled deliberately through the kitchen a few of the bolder intruders threw themselves angrily at him, attacking from every direction. The music beat them back, the pink haze forming knots around their necks or club-shaped clouds which smashed them into oblivion.
Her feet and composure regained, Talea warily trailed her husband as far as the sink. She laid the bloody sword lengthwise in the basin, shaking her head. Getting the blade properly clean was going to take a lot of scrubbing. Ichor had a notorious tendency to cling.
Jon-Tom had halted in the middle of the kitchen, his voice quavering. Eighteen years of practice had improved but not perfected the weakest component of his spellsinging. The power of his playing more than compensated, however, for his less than operatic voice.
As she stared, those demons who hadn’t been able to escape, or who had foolishly chosen to attack Jon-Tom, began to swell like balloons. They started to rise, bouncing off the cabinets and finally the ceiling. As Jon-Tom brought the song to an end, they began to burst like soap bubbles. She inhaled despairingly. As if the kitchen wasn’t enough a mess already.
Finally nothing remained save swirling pink mist and a powerful scent of cheese and pumpernickel. As Jon-Tom flung his Fingers against the double strings of the duar in one last dramatic riff, the mist faded and began to dissipate. Taking a deep, relieved breath, he turned to face her.
“Now, then. Will you please tell me what happened here?” His brows drew slightly together. “Talea, have you been experimenting with thaumaturgical cooking spells again? I told you, I’m not that big on fried foods. Sometimes household shortcuts aren’t worth the trouble they cause.”
She waggled an admonishing finger in his face. “Don’t you lip me, Jon-Tom! I haven’t done a damned thing.” Moving to the window over the sink, she fought to open it. Coagulating blood and gore caused it to stick. She waved at the remnants of the pink mist, backing away as fresh air sucked it outside. The heavy stink likewise began to disperse, leaving in its wake a faint memory of dill pickle.
She eyed the shattered crockery, the broken crumbs of baked goods over which she’d labored long and lovingly, the disgusting mess which coated everything, the thin rivulets of unidentifiable fluids which dripped from counters to pool noisomely on the floor, and she wanted to scream. Instead she sank tiredly into one of the snakeskin-upholstered chairs in the breakfast nook.
Jon-Tom carefully leaned the warm duar against the cooler, brushed back his long hair, and sat down next to his distraught wife.
“Okay, so you weren’t messing with spells.” He indicated the kitchen. “How do you explain this?”
She glared at him. “Why ask me? You’re the great spellsinger. Someone have a grudge against you?” She sighed. “I’d kill for a cup of tea.”
He found a reasonably clean empty cup. “Iced or hot?”
“Oh, no,” she said quickly, “no shortcuts!” Rising, she made her way to the stove and checked to make sure that it was set on medium heat. Filling a pot from the sink, she set it on the burner. Beneath, the indentured fire elemental set to work, grumbling audibly. Have to get him adjusted, she thought idly. Thoughtfully, she found a second cup before resuming her seat.
Jon-Tom had been pondering her question. “Clothahump and I have some long-term, overdue debtors, but we’ve never used any strong-arm collection techniques. Nothing that would turn anyone vengeful. At least, I haven’t. I can mention it to Clothahump. You know how he can get about money sometimes.”
“The old miser,” Talea muttered.
“With him it’s not the interest. It’s the principal of the thing.”
She gestured at the kitchen, her arm shaking slightly. “Jon-Tom, I’m reasonably well versed in the nature of the inhabitants of the Nether Regions. I’d have to be, being married to you. But I didn’t recognize half of what materialized here.”
He shrugged. “Other dimensions, other demons. Don’t blame yourself. Even the standard references have to be updated every year.”
She leaned toward him, smiling at sudden memories. “Sometimes I think things were easier when you and I were on the road all the time, fighting and slaughtering, living by our wits. Having fan.”
“We were a lot younger then, Talea. I didn’t have the responsibilities that come with being Clothahump’s junior partner. We didn’t have a home, or a family.”
“You’re forty-one, Jon-Tom. That’s hardly old.”
He stiffened slightly. “I didn’t say it was. Why, by now Mick Jagger must be . . .” He changed direction. “Never mind. This doesn’t tell us what happened here.”
She shrugged. “Maybe I mixed something wrong. Maybe I whistled a happy tune the wrong way. Maybe some netherworld entity has a grudge against you from some years-old encounter you’ve long since forgotten.”
“I could check the records,” he murmured thoughtfully, “but as near as I can remember all old conflicts have been resolved, all numinous debts paid off.”
“You’re sure you haven’t offended any important deities or spirits recently? Trod on the toes of some easily offended Prince of Darkness?”
“Clothahump and I are careful to observe all protocols. We’re very proud of our work habits. Before signing any contracts we run them through half a dozen legal spells and have at least three eternally damned lawyers check them for errors. I’m clean, darling.
“Even if there was a serious problem somewhere, the provoked entity would take up the quarrel with me, not you.”
“I don’t know about that,” she countered. “All I know is what went on in my kitchen. Unless you isolate the causality, it could happen again.” She shuddered slightly.
“I know that.” He put a reassuring arm around her. “Interdimensional manifestations of pure evil don’t just happen. There has to be a reason.” His lips tightened. “It has to be something I’ve done. Or haven’t done.”
They fell silent. After a moment Talea looked up. “Listen.”
In the absence of conversation or chaos a faint, rhythmic moaning became audible. A distinctly unpalatable, eerie, pulse-pounding rise and fall of verbalizations that verged on the incomprehensible. The sound issued not from the Nether Regions, but from above. From upstairs.
Jon-Tom followed his wife’s gaze. They exchanged a look.
“There it is, then,” she told him confidently. “You haven’t offended any paranormal princes, and it’s not a consequence of random chance. The Plated Folk aren’t involved, and neither are the Inimical Outer Guards of Proximate Perdition. It’s much, much worse than that.” Her gaze rose, tracking the inhuman discord.
“Jon-Tom, you have got to do something about that kid.”
As he mounted the spiral staircase cut into the heart of the interdimensionally expanded tree, the music, if such it could be called, grew steadily louder. Actually, some of what he could hear through the heavy-handed, sound-dampening spell was no worse than borderline awful. The awkwardness of the lyrics, however, made him wince.
Standing just outside the room, he was better able to judge the volume within. He estimated that it fell somewhere between deafening and permanent brain damage.
Steeling himself, he hammered on the solid door.
“Buncan! T\irn that racket down and open up! I’ve got to talk to you.”
There was no response from within. Either his son couldn’t hear him over the din, or else he was pretending not to. The instrumental work wasn’t bad, Jon-Tom decided, but as usual Duncan’s voice was excruciatingly off-key. In fact, his singing was so bad he made his father sound like a La Scala heldentenor by comparison.
He pounded on the wood afresh. “You hear me, Buncan? Stop that wailing and open this door!”
Something was coming through the barrier. Jon-Tom retreated to the far side of the hall and watched with interest as a two-foot-long white whale emerged, glanced to right and left, then swam off down the hall. It was attached by a thread to a small wooden boat crewed by half a dozen nautically garbed mini-imps wearing tormented expressions. There was barely room in the boat for their tails.
Standing in the bow was a wee fiend with skin the hue of pea soup. His forked tail flicked wildly back and forth, metronoming time for his crew to row by. One leg was fashioned of white ivory, and his expression was suitably demented.
Chanting a plangent tune, he directed his reluctant rowers in pursuit of the retreating mini-whale. They drifted off toward the stairway and disappeared below.
The inevitable scream reached him a moment later, followed by the outraged and angry voice of his wife, who, from the tenor and tone of her voice, he could tell had had it up to the proverbial here.
“Jon-Tom, you make your son quit that now!” This time he kicked the door. “Last chance, Buncan! Open up. Or I’ll cast an all-encompassing blanket of silence on your room that’ll last for weeks!”
The music within, together with its decidedly unpleasant caterwauling accompaniment, abruptly ceased. With a reluctant creak, the door opened slightly.
Avoiding a cluster of hovering eyeballs that blinked as they looked him over, Jon-Tom pushed his way inside.
“It’s all right,” said a voice from across the room. “It’s just my dad.”
Jon-Tom shut the door behind him. “Don’t get funny with me, young man. I’m not here on funny business.”
Buncan sat up on his bed. “You’re right, Dad. Existence is tragic as hell, isn’t it?”
Jon-Tom walked over to the single oval window, stared out at the neatly kept grounds and the river beyond. After what he felt was a sufficiently lengthy pause of suitably solemn significance, he turned to regard his son.
Buncan balanced the duar easily in his lap. That had to be the source of the trouble, Jon-Tom knew. Using his own singular duar as a template, with the aid of Lynchbany’s finest craftsfolk he and Clothahump had fashioned the new instrument as a gift for Buncan’s twelfth birthday. The boy had kept it close at hand ever since. While no match for Jon-Tom’s own instrument, it was quite capable of propagating a conjuring nexus at the point where the two sets of strings intersected.
Until recently, however, Buncan had not acquired sufficient skill to do anything other than make music with it. This morning’s events showed how drastically that had changed. Making magic with music was one thing. Controlling it, as Jon-Tom probably knew better than anyone else alive, was something else again.
Given Buncan’s genuinely appalling voice, it represented a bona fide threat to anyone unlucky enough to come within hearing distance.
Over the years Buncan had added some decorative modifications of his own to the instrument. Instead of the graceful, curving lines of Jon-Tom’s duar, his son had grafted on spikes and fake claws. Bright green and red parallel lines gave the instrument the look of a runaway migraine.
But it worked. He could see the nebulous blend of reality and nonreality fading at the stringed nexus even as he spoke. Occasional sparks flared and vanished. Yes, his son’s carefully crafted duar functioned like the magical instrument it was.
It was Buncan who didn’t always function properly.
Which, since he was only eighteen, was to be expected. After all, Jon-Tom had been considerably older and more experienced when he’d first made the acquaintance of the mysterious duar and its remarkable capabilities.
He left the window and approached the bed, sitting down near the end and promptly sinking clear to the floor. That seemed to rouse Buncan. The boy mumbled a few off-key words and the bed promptly reinflated. Jon-Tom wished he could say the same for his son’s attitude.
Buncan was clad entirely in gray with emerald accents. Spiral stripes wound down his pants, as though his legs had been thrust into a pair of green tornadoes. His low-top day boots were bright red.
He was shorter than Jon-Tom, a consequence of his mother’s genes, but he retained his father’s red hair. It was cut in a short, stiff brush with twin arcs shaved in the sides ! above and behind each ear. A lanky, almost disjointed build corraled a carefully constructed air of adolescent indolence.
“Look at yourself,” muttered Jon-Tom as he considered j his progeny.
“Can’t do that, Dad. Nearest mirror’s in the bathroom.” “There must be a gene for sarcasm. Until now I was sure it was recessive.”
Buncan grinned slightly but said nothing. Better not to laugh until he found out what was on his old man’s mind.
“And your hair. What’s with this short hair? Why can’t you wear it a decent shoulder-length like your friends?”
“Caswise wears his short. So does Whickwith.”
“Caswise and Whickwith are orang-utans. Orangs are the reverse of humans, follicle-wise. They have naturally short hair on top and long hair everywhere else.”
“Maybe I should try and grow long hair everywhere else. I can probably scribe something hairy.”
Jon-Tom counted silently, giving up at seven. “I don’t suppose you have any knowledge of what just happened downstairs?”
Buncan sat up a little straighten “No, what?” “You nearly destroyed your mother’s kitchen. Not to mention your mother.” “What are you talking about?”
“You’ve been spellsinging again, haven’t you?” Buncan turned away. “How many times have I told you not to spellsing in the house?”
The younger Meriweather looked frustrated. “Well, where am I supposed to practice?”
“On the riverbank. In the Bellwoods. Outside school. Anywhere but at home. It’s dangerous.” He softened his tone. “You’ve got a lot of natural talent, Buncan. You may even be a better duar player than I. But as to spellsinging . . . you’ve got to work on your lyrics, and your voice. It’s taken me eighteen years to learn how to carry a tune adequately. Your pitch, your tonal control, is worse than mine. Sometimes it’s nonexistent.”
“Thanks, Dad,” Buncan replied sardonically. “For the vote of confidence.”
“Son, not everyone has the skills necessary to make magic, much less be a spellsinger. It may be that despite your obvious instrumental talents your true vocation lies elsewhere. It’s all very well and good to be a brilliant instrumentalist,” Buncan perked up at the compliment, “but if the words and phrasing aren’t there, you risk unpredictable consequences of a possibly lethal nature.”
“Dad, you’ve been hanging with Clothahump much too long.”
“Let me put it another way. You could total yourself.” Jon-Tom rose from the end of the bed. “Now come downstairs and take a look at what you did to your mother’s kitchen.”
Buncan sounded uncertain. “You mean my singing . . . ?”
Jon-Tom nodded. “Demons, devils, imps, inimical sprites, and all manner of nasty conjurations. It’s a real mess.”
Buncan rose to follow, sarcasm giving way to contrition. “I’m really sorry, Dad. I thought I was being careful. Will you tell Mom I’m sorry?”
“You can tell her yourself.” Jon-Tom opened the door and headed down the hall. “This has got to stop, Buncan. You’re just not experienced enough to be taking these kinds of chances. Especially in the house. What if you accidentally freed the monster under your bed?”
Buncan followed slowly. “There’s no monster under my bed, Dad.”
“Shows how much you know. Until they reach their twentieth birthday every kid has a monster under their bed.”
His son considered. “Was there one under yours when you were a kid, Dad?”
“I told you, there’s one under everybody’s. I just didn’t know it when I was your age. Mine,” he added as they started down the stairs, “was warty and leprous, and wanted to force-feed me eggplant. I hated eggplant. Still do.” They reached the den and paused there. “I think it was a Republican. “No more spellsinging, anytime, anywhere, until your voice improves.”
“But, Dad . . .!”
“I hate voice school. Sitting in a chair for hours, listening to that stupid nightingale. I’m not a bird, Dad.”
“Mrs. Nellawhistle makes appropriate allowances for the natural limitations of her students. She’s very patient.” She has to be, he thought, with pupils like Buncan. “She really can help you with pitch and tone, if you’ll let her. Spellsinging takes study and work. Or did you just think you could pick up a duar and successfully manipulate the forces of Otherness? If I hadn’t come home when I did, your mother could be lying on the kitchen floor right now, sword in one hand, broom in the other, eviscerated and dismembered.”
Buncan chuckled. “Good ol’ Mom. That’s the way she’d want to go.”
“This is serious. No more spellsinging until your lyric composition and singing have improved.”
“How the hole-in-the-stone can anyone be expected to improve when all they have to work with are these ossified old songs?” Buncan complained bitterly.
Jon-Tom looked shocked. “Those ‘ossified old songs’ are the classics of my world, Buncan. Good, solid, serious rock. I’ve made plenty of magic with them. They constitute a fine basis for spellsinging.”
“Maybe they do for you. Dad, but I just can’t relate to them. I’ve tried. Magic or no magic. No wonder I can’t keep control. I’m just not into the stuff.”
“You’d better get into it. As for controlling anything, you’re eighteen years old, stubborn and bullheaded and inexperienced, notwithstanding you’re convinced you know everything. Maybe you ought to take up another instrument.”
Buncan glanced sharply at his father. “You can only spellsing with a duar.”
“You got it. Then maybe you should take up something else altogether. Woodcarving. I could apprentice you to Genrac the suslik. He’d be glad to teach you. There’s no shame in learning a real trade.”
“I want to spellsing, Dad. The problem’s with the music, not my musicianship.”
“Excepting your lamentable singing voice. Frankly, Buncan, you couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. Unless that changes you’ll only be a danger to yourself and everyone around you, no matter how well you play the duar. Speaking of which, after Clothahump and Semond and I labored so long and hard over your instrument, I don’t see why you couldn’t have left it alone.”
“I don’t just want to play good, Dad. I want to look good, too.”
“Then there’s these ridiculously subdued outfits you’ve started to favor.”
“Dad, cut me some slack, please? I promise, I won’t screw up again. But I’m just not ready to give up on this and go into woodworking or metal husbandry or thieving or any of the other traditional professions yet.”
“Okay. I accept your promise. So much for the easy part.”
Buncan blinked. “What’s the hard part?”
“Keeping your mother from flaying you alive. Follow me.”
Preparing himself as best he could, Buncan did so.
At dinner he was sullen and uncommunicative. Not that it was necessarily a corollary to what had transpired earlier. It was the same pose he’d affected for much of the preceding year.
Feeling sorry for the boy, Jon-Tom tried to mediate, explaining to Talea that it was all just a phase then- son was going through. Having been brought up under different circumstances in a very different society from that of her husband, Talea responded that in her clan such phases were usually handled with a sharp knife. Buncan started to say something but wisely thought better of it.
Only after he felt that his mother had vented most of her spleen did he push aside what remained of his vegetables and snake sausage. “Want me to get your sword now, Mom, or should I just take poison after I’ve finished brushing my teeth?”
“Could we dispense with the sarcasm for five minutes?”
“Hey, what more can I say, Mom? I’m sorry. I didn’t do it on purpose. It’s not like I turned the stove into a salamander.” He hesitated, staring at his father. “All I want is to be like Dad. To do some of the things he’s done. To come near to his achievements, have adventures, perform great deeds. I want to rescue beautiful damsels and defeat evil and save the world. Is that too much to ask?”
“Let me tell you something, son.” Jon-Tom sliced off a cylinder of sausage and poked it into his mouth, chewing reflectively as he gestured with his fork. “It’s true that I helped save the world, and as a full-time occupation I can tell you that it’s very overrated. Not to mention highly stressful.”
“Actually I mink you’ve saved the world twice, sweetheart.” Talea set a fresh bowl of steaming sweet-and-sour potato down alongside the vegetables.
Jon-Tom frowned. “I thought it was just once.”
“No, dear,” she said firmly. “Twice, at least.”
“Really? Anyway,” he continued, turning back to his son, “I’ve been down that road, and it’s not half so glamorous as you seem to think it is. A nice, steady, comfortable practice of magic somewhere, executing medicinal spells to help people get well and plastic surgery spells to improve their looks: That’s what you want. A good living in a proven profession that’s respected and admired.”
“But I don’t just want to make a living, Dad,” Buncan protested. “I want to perform mighty deeds. I want to accomplish great things. I want to see the worlds.”
“Better start with this one. You’re too young and inexperienced for the rest. Besides, there aren’t any great quests at hand presently. I know. I keep a regular check on the ‘Q’ section in the classifieds. Just for old times’ sake,” he explained quickly to Talea.
Buncan tried to meet his father halfway. “Are you trying to tell me there are no great quests left in the world?”
“Not at the moment. Not in this part of it, anyway. The Plated Folk have been quiet ever since Clothahump and I kicked their chitonous butts back over the Jo-Troom Pass. Nothing of similar bellicosity has emerged to duplicate the threat they once presented.
“Meanwhile, business is good. I’m not trying to come down hard on you, Buncan. But you can take it from someone who needed more than eighteen years to overcome a bad voice: Right now you aren’t close to having what it takes, verbally. And without your duar you sing even worse. Sort of a crapella. You need heavy-duty voice training, and plenty of it. It’s something you can’t fix with magic. I tried that route, and it doesn’t work that way. Some things,” he finished grimly, “are beyond the reach of even the most powerful forces to fix.”
“Clothahump could do it,” Buncan muttered. “If he was interested in anybody’s problems besides his own.”
Talea whacked him on the side of his arc-inscribed head. “Don’t speak like that about your goduncle. Even if he is a turtle. He’s been very good to your father and me, when he could just as easily have decorporalized us and had done with it, after all the trouble we caused him.”
“You have to apply yourself to your studies and your training,” Jon-Tom insisted unequivocally. “How can you do that if you’re off on a quest somewhere?”
“On-the-job training?” Buncan ventured hopefully.
“Not a good idea where controlling the forces of Otherness are concerned,” his father replied. “Anyway, my situation was different. I was trapped in this world and had no choice but to experiment. I did just well enough to stay alive. If it hadn’t been for Clothahump . . .”
“That’s right,” agreed Talea. “Let me tell you, when I first met your father he was the most wimpy, hopeless, gangly, driveling . . .”
“Hey!” said Jon-Tom.
Buncan pushed himself back from the table. “I know you both mean well, and I promise I’ll think about what you’ve said. But you’ve fulfilled your dreams, Dad. You’ve been all over mis world and your own. I haven’t been any farther than Lynchbany. I’ve never been beyond the Bellwoods. All I want is what you had.” He rose and headed for his room.
“Don’t be in such a hurry,” his father called after him.
“You haven’t finished your snake,” his mother added.
Following dinner, Jon-Tom helped Talea with the dishes. “He’ll be all right,” he assured her. “He’s just going through a stage.”
“You keep saying that.” She handed him a dripping bowl. “Do all the young people in your world go through stages and phases? Personally I think a few good whacks with a stout cane would cwhacks with a stout cane would c don’t use that where I come from. We use more enlightened methods, like psychology.”
“Does that raise as red a welt as hickory?” She shook her head. “You coddle the boy.”
Jon-Tom looked toward the stairs. “I disagree. I think our little talk had quite a profound effect on him. He’s a bright kid, and he does play well.”
“Yeah, but he sure can’t sing worth a copper. He’s so bad he makes your voice sound good.” She handed him a platter.
He put it on the counter and took her, soapy water and all, in his arms. “You’ll pay for that one, Talea.”
Something twinkled in her eyes. “There were many who said I should have charged.”
For a while they managed to forget all about their obstreperous son.
Later, as they lay on the kitchen floor, Jon-Tom pondered his progeny’s future and saw too many potential problems for comfort. After all, Buncan was not what one would call a dedicated student. His academic shortcomings were the bane of his father’s existence, Jon-Tom having advanced as far as law school in his own world. It wasn’t that the boy couldn’t do the work. It was just that his interests lay elsewhere.
Talea was less concerned. “Buncan will never be a solicitor or physician, Jon-Tom. If he has any special talent, it lies in the field of magic.”
“But he has to do the minimal schoolwork,” he argued. “A basic knowledge of zoology, for example, is critical to the establishment of good business relationships. You need to understand how the needs of a gorilla differ from those of a chimp.”
She put her arms around his neck, leaning against him. “You worry too much. Buncan gets along fine with everybody. All his classmates like him.”
“Getting along isn’t the same as understanding.”
Buncan drew back his fist, but before he could swing, the heavy-bodied adolescent black bear had a paw on his chest, shoving him back and down. Because he’d inherited some of his father’s unusual Otherworld height, Buncan towered over the majority of his fellow students.
But not Fasvunk. The bear came as near as anyone in the school to carrying the mantle of class bully. While no taller than Buncan, he was built far more massively. He adjusted the yellow lizard-skin headband above his eyes, hitched up his matching pants, and beckoned with both paws.
They were surrounded by the rest of Buncan’s class. Archmer the badger held the ball they’d been playing pentagon with.
“C’mon, human,” Fasvunk growled. “You think you’re so special ‘cause your sire’s a spellsinger. Well, I ain’t impressed.”
Breathing hard, Buncan confronted the bear squarely. He wasn’t afraid of Fasvunk, but neither was this how he’d planned to spend his afternoon.
“I don’t want to fight you, Fasvunk. I haven’t got the time.”
“Sure you do, Buncan.” The bear’s gaze narrowed. “Way I hear it, you want to fight everybody sooner or later. Why not start with me?” He snorted and kicked at the ground.
“I never said I wanted to fight everybody. I just said that I wanted to deal with everybody. As for my father, you’re right about him. If you’re not careful he’ll—”
“He’ll what?” said Fasvunk, interrupting. “Turn me into a fish? Force me down on all fours? I thought you could do that yourself. Or do you have to run to your daddy to perform every little spell?”
“Yeah,” came a nasal voice from the surrounding circle. Buncan recognized Othol the anteater. “You’re always carrying that duar around so you’ll have something to scratch your butt with.” A few of the others laughed, but most kept silent, waiting to see the outcome of the confrontation before choosing sides.
Buncan glared. “I’ll take care of you next, Othol.” The much smaller anteater stubbornly held his ground.
Fasvunk took a ponderous step forward, heavy paws held out in front of him in fighting mode. “You got to get through me first, toad-turd.”
Sucking in a breath, Buncan checked to make sure his duar was secure against his back, and adopted a stance. “I can see you’re not going to be reasonable about this. Have it your way. No claws, and no biting.”
“Why not?” Fasvunk grinned. “So you can make the best use of your height? No restrictions, baldy.”
“Suit yourself.” Buncan presented his fists. “No death-dealing, though. I don’t want you ripping out my throat.”
“Hey, would I do that?” The bear opened his right paw, displaying half-inch-long claws. “Just a little nick here and there. Maybe I’ll carve my initials in your ass.” Several of the spectators giggled.
“And maybe,” replied Buncan threateningly, “I’ll twist off that stub you call a tail and shove it up your nose.”
Fasvunk’s smile vanished and he grunted heavily, advancing. “Like to see you try, human.”
“No one’s going to ‘try’ anything,” said a new voice.
The circle patted quickly to admit Master Washwum. Not that it would have mattered if they’d tried to hold their ground. The silverback gorilla went where he chose.
Adjusting his thick glasses, his gaze flicked from one antagonist to the other, his white collar stiff against his bull neck. “What’s this all about, then? You two at it again?” He glared at Buncan. “I thought I told you no more fighting.”
“Hey, he started it!” Buncan gestured at the somnolent black bulk of Fasvunk.
“Wasn’t me, sir.” The bear sounded appropriately chagrined.
The silverback’s nostrils flared. “I have just about had it with both of you. You! Get back to class.”
“Yes, sir.” Fasvunk turned and beat a hasty retreat back toward the buildings, followed by a wake of relieved onlookers.
“And as for you,” the gorilla began, turning his attention back to Buncan.
“You don’t like me,” Buncan said sharply. “You always side with him, or the others.”
“I do not side with anyone, boy,” said the silverback with great dignity. “But even you must admit that you are a caution to me.”
“If it’s about that piece of ensorceled carpet I put in your desk last week, that was intended for reupholstering your old chair. It needs it. I was just trying to do you a good turn.”
“It gave me a turn, all right,” Washwurn admitted. “Half a week’s worth of notes full of interwoven thread; unreadable.”
Buncan kicked absently at the dirt. “It was an accident.”
The gorilla considered his rambunctious pupil. “You are still intent on following in your father’s footsteps, aren’t you? If that is the case, you will find a solid academic background invaluable in your intended line of work. It will be especially helpful if it should develop that certain factors preclude your excelling in that difficult profession. Your voice, for example.”
“Don’t you criticize me too. Master Washwurn. I can play.”
“That’s not enough, a fact I am certain your father has repeatedly pointed out to you. I shall see you back in class. And see if you can’t somehow make peace with that unimaginative lump Fasvunk.”
Buncan’s voice fell to an irritated whisper. “Fasvunk’s a wus.”
Washwurn pretended not to hear. “And get yourself cleaned up.” He turned and with immense self-presence walked back toward the buildings.
Buncan followed him with his eyes. He was alone on the recess ground. His expression tightened as he turned and started running. Not toward the buildings, not after his instructor, but for the line of nearby trees. For the familiar succor of the forest, which did not criticize. For the balm of the Bellwoods, which welcomed without questioning.
He ran aimlessly, the Belltrees tinkling around him. He was a good runner, and it wasn’t long before he’d left both the school and the outer fringes of Lynchbany far behind. The same light breeze which stirred the bell leaves cooled him as he ran. Glass butterflies flitted brilliantly through the branches, and in a half-eaten bush coilpillars flashed metallic scales at him as he charged past.
Exhausted, he finally slowed to a walk. Sympathetic or not, Washwurn would still report the incident and his subsequent absence from class to his parents, Buncan knew. It wouldn’t be the first time. It meant he’d have to endure another lecture from his father. He’d far rather be beaten, but Jon-Tom was too enlightened for that. If only the old man knew how painfully his words fell on his offspring’s ears.
The river lay just ahead. He could follow the big curve around to the far side of Lynchbany and hang out there, with friends who had given up school and even thoughts of apprenticeship. Borgemont the mongoose would be awake soon, and Sissily, human like himself but much prettier, might put in an appearance.
Changing his mind, he headed south, sticking to the forest, heading for the one place where everyone sought answers. What he had in mind would be hard to go through with, perhaps even degrading, but he couldn’t go home yet and he couldn’t go back to school. It was the only place left.
Tenebrous clouds hung over the gigantic old oak. They didn’t worry him, because he knew they were only transitory. The rest of the sky was perfectly clear. It meant that Clothahump was at home and working. From time to time all manner of objects could be seen hovering over his tree: intersecting rainbows, lambent sunshine, tropical downpours, the occasional isolated fragment of befuddled comet. Less wholesome sights ofttimes greeted nocturnal visitors: swarms of dainty dark winged shapes with glowing orange eyes, or ticklish feelers.
Buncan was not afraid of clouds, no matter how threatening. He stepped out of the forest into the neatly mown clearing that surrounded the tree. Immediately a throaty nimble assaulted his ears, and he looked around anxiously.
Dipping out of the center of the boiling clouds was a tightly restrained swirling funnel, the tip of which poked and probed as if feeling for the earth like some necromantic drill.
Buncan’s first thought was to run and warn Clothahump. But what if the wizard wasn’t home? What if some old enemy was taking advantage of his absence to destroy the turtle’s beloved tree?
The duar was heavy against his back. He was completely confident in his playing, but his voice, his lyrics . . . What if he made things worse? What if instead of banishing the apparition he tempted it toward him?
As he equivocated it touched down, corkscrewing across the neatly manicured grounds, sending twigs and leaves and dust flying in all directions. Despite its extensive root system, a bubblebush weed was ripped from the soil to vanish into the howling funnel.
Then the swirling tip touched the tree itself. It grew momentarily darker, denser, before sliding neatly through a half-open upper-story window. He could still hear it, roaring and growling somewhere deep within the irreplaceable bole.
It was time to make a decision. He could race home and relate the tale to his father. Jon-Tom would surely know what to do. Or . . .
He could take action himself. Wasn’t that what he’d been wanting all along?
Unlimbering his duar as he walked, he strode purposefully across the meadow that isolated Clothahump’s tree from the rest of the forest.
When he reached the door he realized suddenly he had no idea how to proceed. More from reflex than forethought, he knocked.
To his shock and surprise, it was opened from within. A fluttering, hovering shape hung in the air before him. The young great homed owl regarded him disdainfully. It wore a short red vest embroidered in gold and silver thread with unrecognizable cabalistic symbols. Talons clutched a broom in one foot and a dustpan in the other.
“Whoooooo the hell are youuuu? And what doooo youuuu want here?”
“Uh, I need to talk to Clothahump.” Duncan tried to see past the hovering owl. He could hear the wailing specter somewhere in the back.
“The Master is busy right now. Come back another tune.” The owl made as if to shut the door.
“Just a minute. Who’re you?”
“Mulwit, his famulus.”
Not for the first time it struck Buncan that Clothahump went through famuli the way an echidna went through termites. Using his bulk, he forced his way past the owl.
“This’ll just take a minute. My dad’s his partner.”
“Youuu’re Jon-Tom’s nestling?” Mulwit looked around uneasily. “It doesn’t matter. Youuu have to get out of here. If the Master catches me talking instead of working, it’ll go hard on me. But I shouldn’t let youuu in. Not now. Not in the middle.”
“Middle of what?” Buncan asked.
“Middle of everything. Go away.” With that Mulwit flew off up a side passage, his great wings scraping the walls with each powerful downbeat.
Left alone, Buncan thoughtfully closed the door behind him before starting up the narrow hallway that led into the depths of the interdimensionally expanded tree. Light globes illuminated the way.
Peering into a study filled with scrolls and books, he found it deserted and moved on.
“Clothahump? Master Clotnahump?” He came to the workshop and halted.
Suddenly it was right there.
Snarling and thundering, the funnel-shaped storm confronted him. Sticks and chunks of gravel spun wildly within the spiral structure. Instinctively he started to retreat, reaching for his sword.
It was at home, with his dress clothes. Weapons weren’t allowed in school.
The stout storm slid behind him and shoved him forward, into the room. He could feel the intensity of the collared winds, the power within. It could as easily have wrenched his head off his shoulders.
At which point Clothahump appeared, peering curiously over his glasses.
“What have we here? Buncan Meriweather, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Sir.” Buncan turned to stare at the storm, watching in awe as it scooted across the floor, over benches, tiptoeing daintily among delicate equipment. “I was worried about you, sir. I thought maybe this was some theurgic weapon called up by an enemy of yours. I see now that you control it. What hapless unfortunate is to be visited by this irresistible horror?”
“No one. I’m in the midst of my spring cleaning.”
Buncan pointed uncertainly at the coiled riot of a storm. “That has to do with spring cleaning?”
“Yes. It’s a tornado, albeit a small one. That’s your father’s name for it. Mine’s much longer, and I prefer his. They’re very useful meteorologic phenomenons . . . if you can keep them under control. Otherwise they make a total hash of everything.” Turning, he uttered a string of phrases which meant nothing to Buncan.
Compliant, the tornado took one last passing swipe at Buncan as it whizzed around the room, sucking the dust from window shelves, poking under carpets, scouring behind furniture, and generally going about the tasks Clothahump had assigned it earlier.
“Quite efficient, actually.” Ignoring the tornado, the wizard put a thick-fingered hand on Buncan’s back and eased him out of the workshop, leading him back toward the front study. “Have to renew the spell periodically, though, or it gets irritable. What brings you to the tree, lad?”
Buncan was glancing back over his shoulder. “I think it wanted to eat me.”
“Instinct. Don’t blame it for that. It’s a very effective, not to mention ecologically sound, method of cleaning, especially for those hard-to-reach spots.”
“A term I acquired from your father. Something that sorcery needs to be more concerned with, I’m afraid. Have to stop dumping toxic waste in the third cosmic interstice, things like that. Bright fellow, your father, if a bit impulsive. Of course, he’s a human. Shouldn’t you be in school?”
Somehow it seemed counterproductive to try to hide anything from the greatest wizard in the world. “I know. I’ve got problems.”
In tine study, Clothahump directed his visitor to the couch beneath the wide picture window while taking the stiff-backed chair directly across. “You’re eighteen. Of course you’ve got problems. All the troubles of the world have fallen exclusively on your shoulders, and you haven’t the vaguest notion how to cope with them.” The wizard glanced to his right. “Mulwit!”
The owl appeared in seconds, a heavily patterned headband restraining the feathers above its eyes. The broom and dustpan were gone, having been replaced by a rag and a bottle of amber liquid.
“Purebark tea for my visitor and me,” the wizard commanded. “Cold or hot?” he inquired of Buncan.
Why is it, he wondered, that whenever I want to talk about my troubles everyone keeps offering me tea? “Uh, hot, I suppose.”
“Be off!” Clothahump ordered.
The owl shot Buncan an impressively venomous look but soared away to comply. He returned in short order.
“Now then, lad.” The wizard adopted a benign tone as he poured himself a cup of the pungent liquid and stirred in a teaspoon of Noworry honey. “Tell me your problem.”
“Well, for one thing, the other kids know that my old man’s a spellsinger and they’re always teasing me about it It’s been that way ever since I started school. I’m sick of academics anyway.”
“Your father has mentioned the situation. He seems to believe you might be better off apprenticed to some worthy craftsperson. Or, if you choose to pursue your music, as a member of some larger group. These seem to me worthwhile goals for someone of your age to consider.”
“But I want to be a full-fledged spellsinger like Jon-Tom.”
“Yes, well,” the wizard demurred. He sipped at his tea as he crossed his short, thick-skinned legs. “Not just anyone can be a spellsinger, you know. It’s rather more difficult than, say, greengrocering. Your father is an exception. There has to be innate talent present, a special spark.”
Buncan tapped the duar strapped to his back. “I’ve inherited his ability. I know I have!”
“I don’t know that such ability is inheritable.”
“I can make magic already. I just can’t, well, make to do exactly what I want it to every time.”
“According to your father, you can’t make it do what yoa want it to any of the time.”
“Dad had similar troubles when he was starting out.”
“It wasn’t as extreme as it seems to be in your case. His voice was merely bad, and he utilized already composed lyrics from his own world. Not liking his music much, you improvise, and from everything I hear it would appear that while your playing may possibly be his equal, your singing is truly excruciating.”
Buncan winced. That criticism was becoming a part of him. An unpleasant part. “I’ll get better.”
“Perhaps. If you don’t kill somebody in the meantime.”
“So I mussed up the kitchen a little. So what?”
“From what I was told, your would-be spellsinging put your mother at some physical risk.”
“My mother, at physical risk?” Buncan tried not to laugh. “My mother could disembowel any three of the best swordsmen in Polastrindu before they could land a blade on her. With her balancing arm fastened behind her back.”
Clothahump wagged a stubby finger at his visitor. “The fact remains that you are dabbling in harmonic forces you imperfectly comprehend and cannot control.”
Buncan slumped back in the overpadded couch. “Why does that sound like a cliché to me?”
“Clichés are merely truths repeated to the point of boredom, lad.”
“Then why don’t you teach me? Help me to learn?” Clothahump sighed. “Some things cannot be taught. Nor can I cast a spell to improve your voice. At best you might become an accompanist to your father. His fingers are not as fast as they once were.”
“Thanks for your help.” Barely containing his sarcasm, Buncan rose and headed for the doorway. It was terribly impolite: He should have waited to be dismissed. Clothahump could have restrained him easily with a few choice words. Instead, the wizard simply watched the youth depart, peering down over his beak through his thick glasses.
“You must make your own decisions, lad. You’re nearly old enough to do that.”
Buncan whirled. “What do you mean ‘nearly’? I’m going to be a spellsinger and do great deeds. Whether you approve or not, or whether my father approves or not! Now, if you’ll excuse me . . .” He shoved the sputtering, flapping owl out of his way.
“Let him go, Mulwit,” said Clothahump tiredly. “After the first hundred years he’ll begin to understand. If he lives that long.”
“What was that all about, Master?” The owl began to gather up the tea service. Clothahump raised a hand.
“Leave it. This spring cleaning exhausts me. As does the impatience of youth.”
“The huuuman vexed youuu, Master?” Mulwit could not conceal his pleasure.
“We disagreed on the path he has chosen. As do his parents. That’s normal, of course. But in the lad’s case it could prove truly dangerous.”
“I never disagree with youuu, Master.”
“No. You’re as slavishly obsequious a servant as anyone could ask for.”
“Does that mean,” said Mulwit eagerly, “that youuu show me the fourth-level aerial spell which enables one tooo fly without breathing?”
“Not just yet. You have other tasks to master first. Like how to get a sink whiter than white.”
“But, Master, youuur sink is not white.”
“Therein lies the magic. Now behave yourself, or I’ll turn you into a kiwi. How’d you like to spend the rest of your apprenticeship flightless, with a long beak and hairy feathers?”
“No, Master! I meant no disrespect. I’ll hurry back tooo helping the windstorm with the cleaning.” He bounced anxiously off the far wall, like a bug seeking a way through a window.
“See that you do. And keep out of its way while it’s at work. There are enough loose feathers around the house as it is.”
The owl disappeared. Clothahump finished his tea, then rose with the slowness of great age and stared out the window toward the distant woods. There was no sign of young Meriweather. Clothahump hoped he was on his way home, though that was unlikely.
Well, it wasn’t his responsibility. He had other matters to attend to. There were alcoves and storage chambers inside the tree that hadn’t been scoured in a hundred years. That’s what happened when you put off cleaning for a few decades. Jon-Tom and Talea would have to straighten the lad out by themselves.
Checking the drawers set in his plastron, he trundled off in the direction of his workshop. The tornado ought to be about finished there by now. Have to make sure and empty it outside, he reminded himself.
As the wizard suspected, Buncan did not head back toward school or home. Instead he found himself wandering in the direction of the Shortstub, which was itself a tributary of the river Tailaroam, without any particular destination in mind. He was angry at Clothahump both for his summation of Buncan’s prospects and for his honesty. Just as he was angry at his schoolmates, his teachers, his parents, and most of the rest of the world, all of which seemed to him engaged in a vast conspiracy to prevent him from doing what he wanted.
In short, he was feeling quite normal for an active eighteen-year-old male.
“So I’m a little off-key,” he muttered to himself as he walked. “I can still sing. Dad couldn’t sing either when he was first dumped in this world, but he worked on it, and now he manages.” Although, Buncan had to admit, Jon-Tom still didn’t possess the kind of voice that would sell tickets. “I can get better,” he insisted to himself. “I can—”
A sudden sharp sound interrupted his self-pitying reverie and he halted in his tracks, looking around anxiously. The tornado coming after him? Could wind hold a grudge? It was getting late, and it occurred to him that no one knew where he was.
As he gazed nervously into the forest, something hit him from behind and sent him tumbling. He found himself caught up in a flurry of blows and dirt and confusion. But it wasn’t the tornado. It was something far more active and a good deal less stratified.
Rolling free of the turmoil, he stood and tried to brush himself off. “Very funny,” he murmured.
The nearest of his two assailants was holding his sides, laughing in short, barking yips as he rolled back and forth on the ground. “Well, I thought it was pretty funny, mate!”
His sister sat up and regarded her sibling. “Cor, but it weren’t that funny, Squill.”
“Wot? Why, it were downright hysterical, squinch-face!” Before Buncan could venture his own commentary the two had fallen to fighting again, locked in each other’s arms as they tussled in the grass and dirt. Somehow they managed to keep their clothing intact despite the ferocious level of activity.
Having observed this typical otterish sibling behavior innumerable times before, Buncan simply waited patiently. Another minute or so and it would end. Which was precisely what happened. The two adolescent otters separated, stood, and straightened their attire as they joined him on the horizontal tree root where he was sitting.
Both were full-grown, nearly five feet tall on their short hind legs. Squill was imperceptibly heavier than his sister. He wore a pale-green peaked cap decorated with three feathers, each purchased from a different bird. His vest was a darker shade of green and his short pants brown. A shoulder pouch hung off his neck and across his chest. Both he and his sister carried bows and arrow-filled quivers across their backs and short swords at their sides.
Instead of a hat his sister Neena sported a multihued headband with a thin cabachon of maroon jasper set in the center of her forehead. Bright blue and yellow streaks flowed in waves from the corners of her eyes, running toward the back of her head and up toward her ears. The body paint had been applied with skill and diligence, fur being harder to make up than bare skin. Gold glitter glistened within the paint. Similar designs decorated her short, protruding tail. Her shorts were cut to a more feminine pattern man were her brother’s, and were pale yellow to match her fuller vest. As for the wrestling match, it might as well never have happened.
Her tail twitched as she eyed her tall human friend. “Wot are you doin’ out ‘ere all by your lonesome, Buns?”
“Oi, we can see that in yer face, mate.” With his short, clipped claws Squill dug idly at the root’s exposed bark.
How can they see anything in my face? “You can’t see anything, fish-breath.”
Neena let out an appreciative hysterical bark which resulted in her brother jumping her immediately. Buncan sighed as he watched them brawl, not really interested. A moment later it was all over and they rejoined him as though nothing had happened. Which to their way of thinking was exactly the case. One simply had to tolerate such goings-on when one was in the company of otters. Especially adolescent otters. They had more energy than a shrew on uppers.
For their part, they had to slow down not only their movements but their speech when they chose to share the company of anything as plodding as a human.
Squill carefully straightened the feathers in his cap while his sister adjusted her headband.
“I never see you two in school,” Buncan commented. “How do you ever expect to learn anything?”
“Wot,” said Squill, “you mean like ‘ow to wander about in the woods spittin’ into the breeze, like you were doin’ just now? Cor, I think I can manage that without stayin’ up nights porin’ over some manual.”
Neena sidled closer to him. “Wot ‘appened, Bunky?”
He shrugged. “Got into it with Fasvunk again. Had to take another lecture from Master Washwurn.”
She wrinkled her black nose, whiskers arcing. “Sucks, that does.”
“It was brief enough. Then I went to see Clothahump.”
“No shit?” Squill perked up. “By yourself? That’s somethin’. You pick up any spells?”
Buncan shook his head. “Nothing. Just advice. Most of which I didn’t want to hear.” He aimed a kick at a shelf fungus, knocking the punky growth free of the root.
“Don’t surprise me, mate. Me, I don’t need advice.” Sharp teeth flashed. “I already know everythin’.”
His sister made a face. “You don’t know anythin’, bro’. In fact, I’d opine that you know less than nothin’.”
“Yeah? ‘Ow about me knowledge o’ physics an’ engineerin’? Like ‘ow I can fit your square ‘ead into a round snake ‘ole?” He moved toward her.
Buncan held out his hands between them. “Give it a rest, can’t you? I’m in agony and all you can do is goof around.”
Squill frowned at his friend. “ ‘Ere now, you’re really down, ain’t you?” He put a short arm around as much of the human’s back as he could manage, careful not to disturb the duar.
“It’s just that I’m so bored there,” Buncan explained. “I want to do great things, to challenge the primary forces of existence. I want to spellsing.”
“Uh-oh,” muttered Neena, “that again.”
“Nothin’ personal, mate,” said Squill, “but you can’t sing well enough to inveigle a deaf dugong, much less a primary force.”
“Yeah, well, you can’t play a single-stringed bow,” Buncan shot back.
Squill raised both paws. “Hey, I know that, mate.”
Buncan gazed morosely at the ground. “I keep fooling myself, telling myself I can get better. But deep down I know I’ll never be able to sing well enough to make magic.”
“At least you can play an instrument,” said Neena. “I wish I could play anythin’.”
“Same ‘ere,” her brother confessed.
Buncan slid off the root and turned to face them. “How can I execute spellsongs if I can’t sing? How can I save the world and rescue fair maidens if I can’t work proper gramarye?”
“Ah!” barked Neena. “Now the truth comes out, it does. You’re just like any other male.”
He glared at her. “Why do you always have to bring everything down to such a base and common level, Neena?” She batted her eyes at him enticingly. “Because I’m a base and common sort of lass, Buns.”
He turned away from them. “Dammit, I want to do something . . . something noble and elevating!”
Squill tapped the growth on which he was sitting. “We could climb this ‘ere tree.”
Exasperated, Buncan whirled on his friend. “Can’t you be serious for just a minute?”
The otter considered carefully. “Well now, that’s a pretty heavy request, mate.” He glanced at his sister. “But since you’re about our best friend, we’ll make an effort.”
“Thank you,” said Buncan with exaggerated solemnity. “You know, I can sing well enough to make magic. I just can’t sing well enough to control it.”
“Don’t sound like a very promisin’ weapon with which to take on the primal forces.” This time Squill didn’t smile. “An’ I wouldn’t rely on your swordwork to get you out o’ any scrapes. I’ve seen you work with a sword.”
“You’re no match for your father yourself.”
“ ‘S’truth, Mudge still wields a quick blade,”
Neena agreed. “Even if ol’ Daddy-whiskers is gettin’ a bit wide in the gut.”
“You’d better not let him hear you say that,” Buncan warned her. “He’ll blister your butt.” He walked over and rested both hands on the root. “I can do this. I can spellsing. If I could only find a way to improve my vocalizations.”
Neena tickled him, and he jumped. “Well, you’d best be careful with it, Bunkle. Like me brother says, you’re about the best non-otter friend we ‘ave. You kill yourself and we won’t ‘ave no one better to tease.” She exchanged a glance with Squill. “Want to see somethin’ really interestin’?”
“What?” He tried not to sound too indifferent, knowing she was doing her best to try to cheer him up.
From a pocket in the lower part of her vest she extracted a flat, squarish black box. A small transparent window was set in the slightly domed top. Intrigued, Buncan took a closer look. His eyes widened as soon as he recognized it.
“Hey, that looks like . . .!”
Neena nodded vigorously. “The CD player your father brought back from his world on his last visit there and gave to Mudge.”
Buncan was appalled. “If your parents knew you’d taken that from the den they’d shave you front and back.”
Her whiskers twitched. “Bloody right. But they don’t know.” She winked at her brother. “Mudge didn’t teach us all ‘is of techniques for nothin’.”
“They ‘ardly ever let us use it,” added Squill, “so we just sort of appropriated it for the afternoon.”
“The only problem is that we can’t get it to work.” Neena fingered the black rectangle. “Somethin’ about it needin’ some magic installed before it’ll play. Mudge says it needs ‘better days.’ ”
“ ‘Batteries,’ ” Buncan corrected her. “I’ve watched Jon-Tom use them at our tree. They’re four little magically charged cylinders that fit in here. See?” He turned the rectangle over and showed them the compartment and the four cylinders nestled like larvae within. “The spell runs down and Dad has to revitalize it before it’ll work again. I don’t remember the exact words to the spell. Something about a rabbit that keeps going.” He shrugged as he reseated the cylinder compartment.
Neena considered. “ ‘Ere now, Bunco, if you’re any kind o’ spellsinger at all, you ought to be able to recharge a simple little spell like this.”
“Jolly right!” Squill took the player and set it down on the ground. “Get on it, mate.”
“Now wait a minute.” Buncan looked uneasy. “This involves some serious magic. Electrons and rabbits and all kinds of stuff. I don’t know if I should be messing with Mudge’s property.”
Neena sniffed disdainfully. “An’ you want to rescue damsels and battle evil. Right.”
“But this is a device from the Otherworld.”
“Blimey, give it a try, Buncan,” Squill implored his friend. “ ‘Ow bad can you bung it up?”
“Well . . .” He slid the duar off his back and plucked hesitantly at the double set of strings. A soft golden glow began to coalesce at the place where the strings intersected. “This is risky.”
“You think you won’t meet any risks on a quest?” Neena challenged him. “Come on, you can do it.”
Taking a deep breath, he began to sing. The instrumental accompaniment was exalting, exquisitely rendered, but the words . . . It was a struggle for the otters to keep their paws off their ears.
The CD player twitched a couple of times, but did not otherwise react.
After his best effort drew forth only a brief whine from the device’s tiny internal speaker, Buncan let his fingers fall from the duar. “There, you see?” he said angrily. “I told you it wouldn’t work.”
“You play beautifully, Bunky,” Neena told bun.
The trio regarded the quiescent player regretfully, until Squill unexpectedly let out a yip of inspiration.
“Oi! I’ve an idea, I ‘ave!”
“Now there’s an odd notion,” said Neena.
Squill ignored her. “Me sister and me, we ‘ave wonderful voices, we do. An’ we’re bloomin’ quick with wordplay.”
He twirled a whisker. “Otters are quick with everythin’. ”
“I ‘ave to admit that this one time me squish-brained brother ‘appens to be right,” Neena agreed. “Though I don’t see ‘is point.”
“Don’t you get it?” Squill eyed Buncan eagerly. “Wot if you played an’ we took care o’ the singin’?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Spellsinging’s not a cooperative enterprise.”
“Says who? Don’t wizards ofttimes work together to homogenize a big spell?”
“Sure, but that’s different.” Isn’t it? “We’ve known each other all our lives.” Neena enthusiastically took up her brother’s suggestion. “We’ve grown up together. We’re personally and emotionally compatible. Lots o’ times.”
“Being friends is different from making magic together,” Buncan argued.
“Bein’ friends is a kind of magic,” she countered.
“Much as it pains me deep to admit it, me brother might ‘ave somethin’ worth pursuin’ “ere.” Her eyes shone brightly.
“It’s worth a try, mate,” Squill added. “Wot’s to lose?”
“We can try that new kind of music.” A delighted Neena clapped both paws together. “The kind that Jon-Tom brought back from his last visit to the Otherworld, that our parents don’t like. That’s a good reason to use it.”
Buncan pondered. “You mean that rap stuff? I don’t know if I can play to accompany that.”
“Oh, sure you can, mate.” Squill exuded confidence. “It’s all beat. Just follow us. You can do that, can’t you?” “I suppose.” Who is the spellsinger here? he found himself wondering.
This wasn’t going to work, he told himself. But what else was he going to do? Slink homeward? Time enough for that. Time enough to deal with his parents, and Master Washwurn. “Okay. I’ll suggest some words-of-power I picked up from listening to Dad. You work them into whatever lyrics you improvise, and I’ll back you the best I can.” He hefted the duar, his fingers hovering over the strings.
The otters looked at each other. “Wot’ll we sing about?” Squill asked his sister. “We can’t just imitate one o’ those Other World songs we’ve ‘eard. It ‘as to be specific to the situation.”
“To the player.” Neena nodded at the black rectangle, which lay motionless on the ground in front of them.
While Buncan waited impatiently they discussed various approaches among themselves. Finally Squill indicated their readiness. Facing each other, the otters commenced . . . to rap. Music flowed from the duar as Buncan matched them chord for word.
“Got no music and we got no sound
Got to hear it clear if we wanna go ‘round
Play it loud and play it neat
Play it in the forest ‘cause we ain’t got no Street
‘Cause we wanna hear the beat
Dig it, wig it, feets for the beat!”
Certainly it was the first rap ever heard in the Bellwoods. The otters were nothing if not enthusiastic and facile improvisers. Buncan was hard-pressed to match their energy with music.
The radiance at the nexus of the duar intensified, darkening from pale pink to a deep rose hue. It expanded to envelop his fingers, then his hands.
The CD player began to quiver.
THE OTTERS CONTINUED TO SING AS THE BLACK RECtangle bounced on its edges. Bounced in tune to the music, Buncan noted. As he looked on, a miniature golden vortex issued from the transparent, domed cover. Music began to emanate from the tiny built-in speaker. He didn’t recognize the song: He was too busy playing.
Abruptly the otters ceased then- rapping so they could stare. Buncan’s fingers stilled.
The player was now floating four feet off the ground, still jiving and bouncing to the music which issued from within. The words meant nothing to any of them, but that didn’t matter. Not now.
“Let’s make it louder.” Squill was enthralled by his own accomplishment. His sister nodded slowly, her eyes focused on the perambulating player. They resumed their rapping, while Buncan hastened to back them. Or were they backing him? He had no time to wonder.
In response to their efforts the music pouring from the player grew louder. Much louder. The black rectangle was now rotating rapidly on its axis, pierced through from top to bottom by the golden vortex. Around the trio the forest began to vibrate, the Belltrees ringing in time to the rap. Insects and small flying reptiles scattered in panic.
Duncan’s initial hesitation had vanished completely, his earlier depression displaced by the ecstasy of pure performance.
“This is great!” He had to shout to make himself heard above the music erupting from the energized CD, the harmonic vibrato of the duar, and the pounding pulse of hitherto never heard otter-rap. Sparks flew from the duar’s nexus. They were matched in intensity by bursts of celestial light that were flung off from the golden vortex. He’d been wondering what that was ever since it had first appeared. Now he felt that he knew.
It was music made visible.
And then, as the otters finished off a particularly zesty phrase, the vortex containing the CD player shot straight upward, climbing toward the clouds. Neena squealed in surprise.
At that the player paused, seemed to shudder slightly, and stopped. The vortex hummed energetically as it hovered motionless at treetop level.
The incipient spellsingers gathered beneath it, staring upward and occasionally dodging drizzling shards of effervescent music. As soon as these struck the ground they melted away like ice in a frying pan, notes sinking in descending scale into the music-moistened earth.
“Great.” Buncan brushed an errant b-flat from his forehead. “Now what do we do?”
Squill balanced his cap on his head as he craned his neck to study the player. It showed no inclination to descend from its lofty position.
“Don’t ask me, mate. You’re the one wot wants to be a spellsinger.”
Buncan felt his blood pressure rising. “You two got me into this.” He blinked. “Hey, what am I upset for? It’s not my dad’s player.”
The otters looked at him. “You can’t just leave it like this,” said Squill. “You’ve got to ‘elp us.”
Buncan shrugged. “That’s the way the magic falls.”
Neena clutched at his arm. “We’ve got to get it down, Bunky. If we don’t, Mudge will kill us.”
“Not to mention wot Mom’ll do.” Squill tried not to envision Weegee in a rage.
“We sang it up there,” Buncan pointed out. “If we try that again, it’s liable to vanish completely. But I don’t know what else to do.”
Squill looked unhappy. “Me neither.”
“Of course, we could get some help,” Buncan said thoughtfully. “Corander the raven could just fly up and pluck it out of the air.”
Squill shook his head doubtfully, the feathers in his cap fluttering. “The bloody thing might take off with ‘im, too. That’d be ‘ell to try an’ explain. No, spellsingin’ put it up there, it’d best be spellsingin’ we use to try an’ get it down.”
“You could climb that nearest tree,” his sister suggested,
“and take a jump at it.”
He glared at her. “Wot, am I a flyin’ squirrel?” He made an obscene suggestion.
“This isn’t getting us anywhere.” Buncan plucked at the duar’s strings. “Let’s get it over with. But you’d better be prepared for it not to work.”
“It ‘as to work.” Neena and her brother backed up slightly and conferenced.
“Get on with it,” snapped Buncan after a while. He wasn’t impatient so much as he was nervous.
Neena glared at him. “We ‘ave to be careful, Bickles. Fok up the first time an’ we might not get a second chance, wot?” She brushed glistening notes from her shoulders.
They began to sing, a slow, relaxed rap this time, almost languorous. Caught off guard by the unexpected shift in tempo, it took Buncan a moment to figure out the correct fingering.
“Sounds too high, my oh my
Don’ wanna send it up in the sky
Put it down on the ground
Where it can be found
Sound, sound, pound it in the ground
Beats for the feet, feets for the beat!
We’ve ‘ad our treat, now takes a seat”
The duar’s nexus pulsed softly, an ethereal pale blue mis time. It did not look or feel promising. Indeed, the CD player actually rose another few feet instead of descending. Then it stopped and hovered, seemingly confused.
Still pounding out tracks from the disc spinning within, it commenced a steady regression, descending in time to the otter’s slow-paced rap. The golden vortex attenuated, contracting in upon itself, until it was no thicker than a rotating golden pencil. A few random, ersatz notes flaked off, but they were few now and chords between.
As the rap concluded, the player settled to the ground. The supportive vortex vanished utterly. When it had winked out completely, Squill made a dive for the device. It tried to squirt clear of his grasping fingers, but sometimes even magic isn’t as quick as an otter. He got one paw on the box, then the other, rolled over and sat up, waving it triumphantly. Exhausted, it didn’t so much as quiver in his hands. The music from within ceased.
Neena hurried over for a look. “Is it all right? Is the bloody thing damaged?”
Squill was turning it over in his fingers, careful to keep a firm grip on the plastic in case it was playing dead, waiting for an opportunity to jump free.
“Seems okay to me.”
Clutching the duar by its neck, Buncan came over for a look. “Pop the cover.”
Squill complied. The motionless silver disc inside was warm to the touch but otherwise unchanged. Buncan picked out a loose f-sharp and dumped it aside. It landed discordantly near his boots.
The otter snapped the cover shut and shoved the player into his pouch. “That were too bleedin’ close. Thought we’d lost it for sure.”
Neena’s eyes were flashing. “We spellsang! Bugger me if we didn’t, Buncan!”
“We did, didn’t we?” He eyed the duar thoughtfully. “I wonder why your father never tried singing along with mine.”
“Cor’, mate,” said Squill, “ ‘ave you ever ‘eard Mudge sing? ‘Is voice is worse than yours an’ Jon-Tom’s put together, it is.”
“That might explain it,” agreed Buncan dryly.
Neena put an arm around her brother. “We got our voices from our mum, we did.”
“You realize what this means?” Buncan said slowly.
“Yeah,” piped Squill. “We can ‘ave music anytime we want.”
“It means,” continued Buncan solemnly, “that while I can spellsing by myself, with your help I can do serious magics. I can realize my dreams.”
“Wot dreams?” Neena was suddenly wary.
“Save the world. Defeat evil in ail its manifestations. Rescue fair damsels in distress.”
Squill sauntered back to the arching tree root. “Far be it from me to divert your current, Buncan, but I’m real ‘appy swimmin’ and eatin’ and sleepin’. I ain’t got no crawfish on me tail spurrin’ me to save the blinkin’ world. Let the world take care o’ itself, says I.” He wore a reflective expression as he lay down on the root. “Though I ‘ave to admit the fair damsel part sounds intriguin’.”
“Where’s your sense of adventure?” Buncan walked over to peer down at his recumbent friend. “Where’s your desire to surmount the impossible?”
“Rather surmount a fair damsel.” Squill grinned.
“We’ve ‘eard all about that sort o’ thing from Mudge,” Neena pointed out. “Once you throw out the eighty percent o’ ‘is stories that’s out-an’-out lyin’, the rest o’ it still sounds unpleasant.”
“Let’s try just one more experiment.” Duncan walked away from them, toward the riverbank. Exchanging a resigned whistle and a reluctant glance, the two otters followed. “If it doesn’t come off, I promise I’ll drop the whole business. If it does,” he looked back over his shoulder, “you’ll agree that not to make use of our combined abilities is a real waste of talent, and that you’ll consider coming with me.”
“Going with you?” Neena was pacing alongside him. “Going with you where?”
“Why, to . . .” Buncan hesitated. “I haven’t figured that part of it out yet.”
“Bleedin’ precise,” muttered Squill. “You’ve inherited Jon-Tom’s sense o’ direction as well as his musicianship.” Buncan marched around a bubblebush, ignoring the peach-scented globules that floated out of the mature, oval-mouthed flowers. “Admit it: What we just accomplished was tantalizing.”
“CM, I’ll admit to that,” agreed Squill. “Been a bloody sight more excitin’ if we’d lost Mudge’s player. Could’ve been fatal.”
“We don’t have to try anything that extreme this time.” Buncan worked to soothe his wary friend. “Something simple, to prove we can do this.” “I thought we just did that,” Neena wondered aloud. Buncan reached out and ruffled the fur on the back of her neck. “That player had previously been activated by one of my dad’s spellsongs. We need to do something from scratch, something that’s all our own.” There was eagerness in his voice. “I’ll think of something.” “That’s wot worries me,” Squill murmured. Without stopping, Buncan turned, continued walking backward. “Just one spell that’s all our own. If it doesn’t work I promise I won’t bring this subject up again.”
“You’re a liar, Bunkies.” Neena batted her lashes at him. “But I loves you anyway.” She glanced at her brother. “Wot ‘ave we got to lose, mussel-breath?” “If a spellsing goes awry?” Squill thrust out his lower lip. “Not much, I wager. Our fingers, maybe. Our voice boxes. Our ‘eads.”
“I’ll be careful,” Buncan assured him. “If it looks dangerous, I can kill the spell by putting the duar down. Or you can alter your lyrics, or just stop singing. You’ll be as much in control as I will.”
“Oi, that’s right.” Squill was still reluctant—he remembered too many of bis father’s stories—but with both Buncan and his sister egging him on, he finally gave in.
They reached the river and halted. Downstream lay the little aqueous suburb of Twinkle’s Bend, home to Squill and Neena, their parents Mudge and Weegee, and a diverse but generally copacetic assortment of riparian citizens: more otters, muskrats, beavers, kingfishers, and other water avi-ans, as well as those locals who simply preferred to live close by running water and the delights it afforded. Presently the river below them was deserted. The Shortstub did not carry anywhere near the volume of commerce of its much larger relative, the Tailaroam, which ran deep and wide all the way down to the Glittergeist Sea.
Buncan had spent many a contented afternoon splashing and diving with his friends in those invigorating waters. They were good about not teasing him, for while he was an excellent swimmer for his kind, no human alive could match the aquatic acrobatics of even the youngest, most inept otter.
It was something other than swimming that was currently on his mind, however.
The bank on which they stood rose some nine feet above the river, falling in a gentle slope to a gravelly beach. At the high-water mark mature trees gave way to weeds and bushes. Sunbeams splashed dappling on the languid water with the ease and skill of a knife spreading butter. Nothing moved in the forest on the far side, though the Belltrees there chorused in counterpoint to those on the other side every time they were agitated by a passing breeze.
Buncan chose a convenient boulder for a seat, plunked himself down, and readied the duar. His legs dangled over a drop of several fleet. The otters eyed him expectantly.
“This is your show, mate,” said Squill. “Wot’ll we sing about?” Neena adjusted her headband, primping.
“You did pretty well before. I thought you two might come up with something.”
“Not me. You’re the one who wants to save the world. As if it asked you.”
It should be profound, Buncan mused. But for the life of him he couldn’t think of anything. It was a lovely day, the river was calm, he could not espy any evil sorcerers lurking in the Bellwoods, and no one in the immediate vicinity was screaming for help. Spellsinging in such circumstances seemed suddenly superfluous.
He had to try something. If he waited, given the otters’ demonstrated reluctance to participate, they might never again prove so amenable. Especially if either Mudge or Weegee found out what they’d been up to.
“I’m hungry,” said Neena unexpectedly.
“We’ll be ‘avin’ supper soon enough,” her brother reminded her.
“Cor, but I’m ‘ungry now.” She stared at Buncan. “ ‘Ow about we try to conjure up some food? We’re right on the Shortstub. ‘Ow about we spellsing out some nice fish?”
Fish aren’t very profound, Buncan reflected. “That’s not much of a challenge,” he responded dubiously.
Her tail twitched animatedly as she jabbed a short finger in his direction. “You listen to me, Bunkles. It’s all very well an’ good to want to go off battlin’ ‘ellish ‘ordes an’ upliftin’ the downtrodden an’ all that rot, but a bloke’s liable to work up one ‘ell of an appetite in the process. So let’s see if we can manage a snack first.”
“I did say we’d start with something simple,” he mumbled.
“Mudge would approve,” Neena added.
“Sure ‘e would.” Squill whistled appreciatively. “Mudge approves o’ anythin’ ‘avin’ to do with food.”
“Food it is, then.” Buncan sighed. “I’m waiting.”
Once more the siblings conferenced. When they separated, Neena nodded at Buncan. Three feet tapped out a unified beat.
“Got no gear, got no line.
Still wanna eat, wanna eat what’s fine.
Bring it from the bottom, bring it from the depth
Bring up somethin’ swimmin’ to where we can get it
Bet it, better not let it, better not set it
Down too far, down far away, hey, hey
Wanna eat what’s fine but I gots no line.”
The otters rapped a nice, relaxed rhythm, one Buncan could follow easily. A satisfyingly bright green nimbus coalesced at the nexus of the duar’s strings as the harmonious blend of otterish voices and dual sets of strings drifted out across the placid expanse of the Shortstub.
No fish responded by breaking the opalescent surface to land at their feet. No silver-sided morsels manifested mem-selves alongside the boulder. The river flowed on undisturbed and indifferent.
Buncan’s fingers drifted from the strings. “Come on,” he urged them. “You’re not putting your hearts into this. I’ve heard Jon-Tom talk about this a lot. Making magic with music means more than just playing the chords and mouthing the words. You’ve got to put your whole soul, your deepest feelings, into what you’re doing.”
“Wot the ‘ell do you dunk we’re doin’, mate?” snapped Squill.
“Yeah. I mean, I’m really ‘ungry, I am,” his sister added.
“You have to try harder,” Buncan admonished them. “Don’t dunk about spellsinging, don’t think about magic. Just dunk about how hungry you are.”
“She’s the one who’s ‘ungry, not me,” Squill protested.
Buncan glared at him. “Well, get hungry!”
The otter looked thoughtful. “Now that you mention it, all this ‘ere work ‘tis made me a touch ravenous. Cor, I believes I can feel the pangs workin’ in me belly even us I stand ‘ere speakin’.”
Buncan smiled. “Right, that’s the spirit.” His fingers returned to the strings. “Let’s give it another try. And really put your hearts and your minds into it this time, as well as your stomachs.”
The otters put men- whiskers together and started over. Buncan could sense the difference immediately. The lyrics contained the kind of barely constrained energy only a pair of otters could muster a nervous, teeth-tingling, edgy concentration of adrenaline. Despite his skill, Buncan was suddenly hard-pressed to keep up with them.
A waxen dark-green mist appeared on the river, palpitating energy sucked hither from some cabalistic fog bank by the power of the spellsong. It eddied and intensified, a curdled haze, shifting about as unpredictably as a cloud uncertain of where the wind was preparing to blow it next.
A faint trembling began underfoot as the earth itself grew nervous. Pebbles jostled and clicked against one another and blades of grass vibrated, a thousand tiny tuning forks attuned to an unnatural disturbance of vast potency.
Maybe, Buncan thought, starting to sweat a little, maybe this could get out of hand. The otters rapped on, oblivious to his concern.
A portion of the bank beneath him collapsed and he half tumbled, half slid off the boulder, scrambling madly in search of more solid ground. That he never missed a beat on the duar was a credit more to his physical than mental resiliency. On the far side of the Shortstub, cracks appeared in the hitherto stable bank as soil and sand crumbled into the water, leaving damp V-shaped scars behind.
Something stupendous was coalescing within the fog. Something slick of flank and commodious of bulk. A fish, as Squill and Neena had demanded. A fish, but bigger than any Buncan had ever seen. Bigger than any he had ever imagined. He played on mechanically, mesmerized by the vision, unable to stop.
As it jutted out of the mist, loomed above it, seriously disturbed the waters beneath, one thing became quickly apparent. It was not a fish.
He raised his voice. “Hey! You guys can stop rapping now.” He pointed.
They’d been singin He pointed.
They’d been singin Now they turned, following his gesture. “Sister,” Squill murmured through a long, eloquent whistle, “while I’ve been on occasion amazed by your appetite, I didn’t realize you were quite this ‘ungry.”
The conjuration nearly filled the river from bank to bank. It was twenty times as long as Buncan was tall and must have weighed as much or more than the combined population of Lynchbany, with that of a few outlying farms and maybe a small suburb or two thrown in for good measure. In color it was a light blue on top, a whitish slate-gray underneath. White spots splotched the striated lower jaw. A lurch of its massive tail sent a miniature tidal wave crashing against the far bank. Water plants and fish flew in all directions.
An eye that was small only comparatively located them. The immense skull struggled to turn in their direction, but was constrained by a combination of the green fog and the narrowness of the river channel.
“LET ME GUESS.” The voice rumbled and reverberated like a great bell. “YOU THREE WOULDN’T BE RESPONSIBLE FOR MY BEING HERE, WOULD YOU?”
“Ummmm . . .” Squill jerked a finger in his sister’s direction. “It were all ‘er idea.”
“Wot?” she squeaked, outraged.
“Well, you were the one who were so bleedin’ ‘ungry!”
Instantly they were clamped in furious internecine combat, rolling about on the now soggy riverbank, flailing and kicking and scratching and biting at one another.
“Otters.” Buncan smiled wanly, as though this explained everything.
“I CAN SEE THAT.” The grievously displaced blue whale spoke with immense gravity. “THE POINT IS, I SEEM TO BE MISSING AN OCEAN. THERE’S NOT REALLY ENOUGH WATER HERE TO SUPPORT ME, AND I’M ALREADY HAVING A BIT OF DIFFICULTY BREATHING. SO IF YOU DON’T MIND . . . ?”
Buncan swallowed. “Uh, what happens if we can’t put you back?”
“WHY, THEN YOU HAVE A VERY LARGE CORPSE TO DISPOSE OF AND A BLOOD FEUD WITH ALL MY BRETHREN.”
Since Buncan had from time to time entertained thoughts of traveling upon the sea, and since this desire might be rendered difficult to fulfill if every great whale upon the waters was made of a mind to kill him, he thought it wise to do his best to prevent that condition from coming about. Preferably as soon as possible.
“It was an accident.” He tried to explain, gesturing in Neena’s direction. “My friend was hungry and wanted a fish.”
“DO I LOOK LIKE A FISH?” inquired the sulphurbottom.
“WOULD IT NOT BE INCORRECT OF ME TO ASSUME THAT MY INVOLUNTARY PLACEMENT IN THIS INSIGNIFICANT ESTUARY IS THE RESULT OF SORCERY GONE AWRY?”
“Like I said, it was an accident.” Despite the whale’s intimidating size and manner, Buncan held his ground. After all, it wasn’t likely to burst from the river and come running after them (he hoped).
Certainly, they had to save it by sending it back where it had come from. He couldn’t stand the thought of having its death on his hands. His conscience wouldn’t stand for it.
Besides, his father might find out.
“Don’t worry. We’ll send you back. I’m not entirely sure how we brought you here, but we’ll send you back. As soon as I can get my friends to stop trying to kill each other.”
“I SHOULD APPRECIATE THAT,” boomed the whale.
Though it was not unlike trying to unwind a hurricane, Buncan managed to separate the otters. Squill glared at his sister, recovered his precious hat, and taunted her as she struggled to make sense of her makeup.
“Go on,” he urged her, “tell our guest ‘ow you really wanted to eat him.”
“Go sit on your face.” She looked to Buncan as she brushed dirt and grass from her clothes. “ ‘Ow do we send this back to the deep ocean, spellsinger?”
Buncan mumbled a reply. “You two came up with the lyrics that brought it here.”
“I was ‘ungry. I’m inspired when I’m ‘ungry. I thought our singin” would get us a little bitty somethin’ out o’ the river. Not this bloody great mass o’ blubber.”
“IT IS ASSISTANCE I REQUIRE, NOT FLATTERY.” The otters conferred, finally nodding at Buncan, who began to play with more hope than assurance. Perhaps because they were becoming more confident, or perhaps out of fear of what Mudge would do to them if they failed, they rapped with greater facility than ever before. Buncan’s accompaniment was equally accomplished.
The green mist coalesced afresh around the immense bulk, from which eventually issued a relieved sigh of satisfaction. “BE MORE CAREFUL NEXT TIME. AMATEURS,” it concluded. Buncan gritted his teeth and offered no comment, not wishing or daring to do anything that might interrupt the flow of the spellsinging.
“Send it back, back
Back to the sea, back to the water, back ‘ome
“Ome, ‘ome, not the Shortstub to roam
Down in the depths, in the depths, away from ‘ere
Steer it clear, steer it free
Don’t y’see, free, away from me and away from Thee.”
There was a sharp bang, and a brief but intense gust of green wind knocked the three of them off their feet. Previously dammed up by the whale’s bulk, the abruptly released accumulated flow of the Shortstub surged in a towering wave downstream, racing toward its distant juncture with the mighty Tailaroam.
Squill watched the wave recede around the far bend as he levered himself up on his elbows. “I don’t know if it ‘as occurred to any of you lot yet, but it strikes me that this ‘ere sudden spurt o’ water ‘as the potential to be somewot upsettin’ to them wot lives downriver.”
“There’ve been floods on the Shortstub before,” his sister pointed out.
“Not this time o’ year, fungus-lips.” Her brother jabbed a thumb skyward. “Not in this kind o’ weather.”
“Boats, docks, front porches.” Buncan envisioned wholesale downstream destruction as he contemplated the turbulent tributary. “Maybe it would be a good idea if we didn’t mention this little episode to anyone for a while?”
“Capital idea.” Squill was quick to second the suggestion. “Like maybe, never.”
“I think we could leave now.” Neena was eyeing her friend and her brother intently. “And get ‘ome fast.”
There was no need to wait for concurrence.
As they hurried back through the Bellwoods, Bur.can couldn’t resist nudging the otter nearest him. “It worked, Squill. Maybe not exactly the way we intended, but it worked. We spellsang. We performed great magic.”
The otter squinted up at him. “Blimey but you’re a ‘ard one to convince, Duncan. Next time we’re ‘aif likely to bring a mountain down on top of us.”
“Come on,” Buncan prodded his friends. “Aren’t you proud of what we just accomplished? Didn’t you get a little charge out of it?”
“Well. .just a flicker, maybe.”
“Yeah, right.” Buncan was grinning hugely. “We put a little too much into the spell, that’s all. With practice we can do better. Modulate, refine. Neena, you want to try for your fish again?”
“I’m not ‘ungry anymore, Bunkies. We’ve got to do some serious thinkin’ about this.”
“An otter, serious?” he chided her. When she didn’t reply, he lowered his tone. “All right. We can talk about it tomorrow. And if anybody asks us about what happened on the river, we don’t know anything, right?”
“Bloody right,” Squill muttered.
“But we’re a team. Don’t forget that. Sure I’d like to be able to spellsing like that all by myself, but being part of a team has its advantages, too. I can concentrate all my efforts on the duar.”
Neena glared at bun. “CM, and the next time we do somethin’ equally stupid we can run away in three different directions and maybe one o’ us will survive.”
“Don’t be so negative. You’d think you’d never seen a whale before.”
“Never ‘ad,” said Squill solemnly, “and neither ‘ad you, except in pictures. Seemed like a right enough bloke, though. Just a bit put out.”
“Think about this, though.” Buncan was hard put to rein in his enthusiasm. “If we can spellsing up something like that when we’re just trying for a fish dinner, imagine what we might do if we take our time and really make an effort to do something serious. We could do better than Jon-Tom, or maybe even Clothahump. We could change the world.”
“Ain’t sure I want to change the world, mate.” Squill spat to one side as he jogged through the woods. “ “Us a nice day. Maybe if it were blowin’ cold I’d try somethin’.”
“Just think about what we’ve done. That’s all I ask.”
All three fell into a contemplative silence as they hurried on through the forest, the Belltrees chiming uneasily around them.
After the episode in the woods Buncan made a show of tending seriously to his studies, but each day he waited for the opportunity to meet with Squill and Neena. They chose a small glade well away from the river in which to practice. Not out of fear of encountering any more polite but irritated cetaceans, but to avoid those angry citizens whose waterfront homes and business establishments had been damaged by the mysterious tidal bore of some days previous.
They sang only small spells, conjuring up nothing they couldn’t deal with on a nontheurgic level, practicing and refining their ability to match Buncan’s music to the otters’ improvised lyrics. Repetition gave rise to confidence as they invented raps for recovering spent arrows or blunting sword points.
Sharpened skills enabled them to turn grass blue, or open sizable holes in the ground without the use of spade or shovel. They spellsang into existence not raw fish but cooked food, and sleeping platforms complete with fresh linen.
Soon they were feeling very good about themselves and their talent. They just couldn’t figure out what to do with it. Duncan devoted a good deal of time to the problem, certain that if they just kept their secret and had patience an appropriate situation would present itself.
It was peaceful in the house where the west side of the tree wrapped itself around the dimensionally expanded den. Outside, past the neatly maintained lawn and flowers, the Shortstub flowed tranquil and undisturbed to the south.
Father and son were alone, reading. Duncan had heard Jon-Tom speak of something from his own world called “television,” but from his description of it Buncan didn’t see how it could better a book for good company and entertainment. It was an evaluation Jon-Tom chose never to dispute.
His mother was finishing up in the kitchen as the door pealed for attention. Buncan barely looked up from his reading as she entered the hall. As he watched he envisioned her wielding the sword she kept in the back of the broom closet instead of the dishcloth she was presently carrying. It was a difficult image to sustain, no matter how many tales he recalled of her early life.
She leaned back to peer into the den. “Dear, there’s an owl to see you.”
Jon-Tom put down the large book he’d been browsing and rubbed his eyes. He needed glasses, Buncan knew, but insisted on using imperfect vision spells instead. They needed constant adjustment.
Buncan headed for the kitchen on the pretext of getting something to eat. Actually, he rose and moved because it offered a much better view of the front door.
Clothahump’s famulus Mulwit stood there, rustling his great wings as he spoke to Jon-Tom, who knelt on one knee to respond to the owl. Talea lingered nearby. Buncan could overhear them without straining.
“ . . . but the Master declares that youuu have to come now,” the famulus was saying insistently.
“It’s awfully late,” Buncan heard his father reply. “And it’s chilly out. Why can’t it wait until tomorrow?”
“Master Clothahump did not offer explanations,” Mulwit hooted. “He says for youuu to come now. Dooo youuu want me tooo go back and tell him you’re not coming? If youuu dooo it will go hard on me.”
“If it’s that urgent . . .” Jon-Tom rose and turned to face Talea. “You heard. I’ve got to go. I know it’s late, but it seems to be important.”
Talea stared up at him. “You’re not going off on some sort of silly quest or something again, are you?”
He put his hands on her shoulders. “Now look: I told you when you got pregnant that I’ve done with all that. I’ve a family and a home to look after, a profitable and respected profession, and they come first. The time when Mudge and I traipsed all over the world getting into all sorts of trouble is history.”
“Just so long as you understand that,” she responded. “Because by all the imbalances in the Aether, if that hardshell ropes you into some crazy expedition I’ll cut off your feet and hide them in the closet before I’ll let you go.”
“Now, love.” Buncan heard the moist echo of a kiss. “Clothahump just wants to network with me.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Right, Mulwit?”
“So far as I am permitted to know, Master Jon-Tom. With youuu, and one other.”
Jon-Tom’s brow furrowed. “There’s someone else involved?”
“Not here, not here!” The agitated famulus was flapping his wings as he hopped back and forth from one foot to the other. “Already we have lingered tooo long.”
“Just let me get my cloak.” Jon-Tom hesitated at the open hall closet. “Do you think I’ll need my duar?”
“Wizardry was not spoken of,” the famulus responded. “Only talk.”
“Good.” Jon-Tom swept the iridescent lizard-skin cloak around his shoulders, bestowed another kiss upon Talea, and disappeared into the night in the company of the anxious owl.
As his mother reentered the kitchen, Buncan feigned interest in a piece of cake. “What was that all about?”
Talea stood at the sink, gazing out the oval window in the direction of the dark river. Her demeanor was stiff. “I’ll tell you something, boy. If your father gets himself sucked into something dangerous . . .”
“Didn’t you used to do dangerous things, Mom?”
She turned to him. “That was different. When I was young I had to do certain things to survive.” She attacked the remnants of the innocent dinner dishes, refusing as always to use the cleaning spells stocked in the cupboard under the towels.
“Is there some kind of problem?” The indifference of his query was crafted with admirable skill.
“How the hell should I know? You think they tell me anything? Anyone would think I had no acquaintance with the mysteries of the Universe. I never did trust that turtle completely.”
“You can’t ever trust wizards, Mom. It’s in their nature. They can’t help it.”
“Every time your father answered one of that aged reptile’s calls, it got him into trouble.”
Buncan set the cake aside, rose, and stood behind his much shorter mother, resting his hands on her shoulders. “Now, Mom. If Dad said he wasn’t going to get involved in anything, then I’m sure he isn’t. I just wonder what the rush is all about.”
“Oh, who knows,” she muttered irritably. “Some mother wants to change the sex of her unborn two days before it’s due, or that fat Mrs. Twogg on the other side of Lynchbany is having digestive troubles again. Emergency!” She assaulted the stewpot with a vigor no mere spell could match.
“Yeah, well, I’ve pretty much had it, Mom. I’m going on up to bed.”
She glanced sideways at him. “Kind of early, isn’t it?” He shrugged. “I’ve been reading all evening, and I had kind of a rough day at school.”
She turned to him and put soapy fingers on his cheek. “You have a good mind, Buncan. Better than mine. You also have talent, but not everyone can be a spellsinger like your father.”
“I know, Mom.”
The outside glowbulbs stayed dark as he slipped out his bedroom window and shinnied down the trunk of the tree, heading northwest across the back lawn. There was hardly enough moon to count as an afterthought, and it was difficult to see the way as he hurried along the secondary path through the woods. The Belltrees were silent, their tinkling blooms closed for the night.
Breathing hard, he still managed to arrive at the edge of the clearing surrounding the wizard’s tree just as Mulwit and his father appeared. He waited a suitable interval after they entered. Tethered in the corral out back were a pan: of husky dray lizards and the silhouette of a large wagon he didn’t recognize.
Normally the wizard kept the clearing alarmed, but those spells would likely remain deactivated until his father departed. With care Buncan thought he could slip inside the tree undetected. He edged forward, advancing noiselessly.
The door was unsealed, and he eased it aside. There was no need to lock it, since anyone not familiar with the way would immediately find themselves confronting an impassable dead end exactly like the burned-out core of an old oak. Remembering from many previous visits the curious twists and turns of the tree’s ulterior, he successfully advanced past the entrance and soon found himself standing in the hallway outside Clothahump’s front study. Not too long ago he had sat in that same sanctuary discussing his personal problems with the wizard.
He crept as close as he dared, until he could hear Jon-Tom and Clothahump’s conversation clearly. A third voice kept interposing commentary. Not Mulwit, which meant that part of his attention would have to remain on the lookout for the nosy owl. Cautiously Buncan allowed himself a quick peek into the room.
The venerable turtle was seated in his special chair, while Jon-Tom sprawled on the long couch beneath the window. Seated at the other end was a hirsute stranger, a sloth by tribe. Their kind was uncommon in the Bellwoods, preferring as they did warmer, more southerly climes.
This one wore a thin vest of what looked like metal foil. Even a hasty glance was enough to show that it was too flimsy to be any kind of armor. The long-legged pants of gray cotton were something of a surprise, but the open-toed sandals seemed appropriate. Though severely trimmed, the claws on the visitor’s hands and feet were still formidable. Clearly alert and attentive, the visitor nonetheless gave the appearance of one half asleep, an unfortunate and unavoidable characteristic of his kind. His words were carefully chosen, and no one would mistake his natural slowness of speech for stupidity.
He wore an extravagant amount of delicate gold jewelry.
Jon-Tom sipped from a goblet while Clothahump leaned on the sturdy cane he favored lately and scrutinized the visitor through his thick glasses.
“I have done as you requested, traveler Gragelouth,” the wizard was saying. “I have roused myself from deep slumber and, since you insisted you would relate your tale to no fewer man two witnesses of sorceral competence, caused to be brought hence my junior partner.” (Clothahump always stuck in that “junior,” Buncan reflected sourly.) The wizard leaned slightly but threateningly forward.
“All I have to add is that what you have to say had better be worth all this inconvenience. After a few hundred years, one begins to value one’s time.”
The sloth seemed anxious though unintimidated. “I assure you I would not waste your time, Master.” He looked at Jon-Tom. “As I have informed your colleague, I am a traveling merchant, dealing mostly in domestic utensils and household goods.”
“Saw your wagon and team out back,” Jon-Tom commented.
Gragelouth nodded. “I buy and sell anything, but that is my area of specialization.”
“Enough personal history,” grumbled Clothahump. “Your story.”
“Certainly.” The sloth looked thoughtful as he began to reminisce. “I was far to the north of here, traveling a back road in the vicinity of L’bor, when a singular sight happened to catch my eye. It appeared to be an injured individual lying forsaken by the side of the road.” He sniffed.
“You can imagine that I was reluctant to stop. It is a common and well-known ploy of bandits to set out one of their own as bait, decorated to appear damaged, to attract the attention of the naturally solicitous, whereupon when the would-be Samaritan halts to render assistance, the others fall upon and rob him, or worse.
“My outfit, however, is not built for speed, and I would have had little hope of outrunning a band of determined dacoits anyway. As this solitary individual’s injuries struck me as quite real, I halted and went to render what assistance I could.”
“That was noble of you.” Jon-Tom mused privately that the merchant might just as easily have had in mind the same thought as a band of passing robbers.
“His name was Juh Phit, a fox by typus, and his desperate condition was due not to harm suffered in battle but to age, starvation, and exposure. He was still alive when I found him. Weak and exhausted as he was, he still attempted to draw the sword slung at his side when I approached.
“Now, I am no fighter, Masters, and I started to pull back. When he saw that he beckoned me close, and related to me the gist of the tale I now pass on to you.
“He had been long afoot and had come stumbling all that way down out of the high mountains to the northwest of L’bor. Where precisely he had been he could not say, being no geographer or navigator himself. But he had found something up there, and his description of the exact location was marked by the kind of detail one masters when memorizing a field of battle, for I soon found out that he was a mercenary by trade.
“This lifelong professional soldier had encountered something which had frightened him badly. So anxious was he to flee its environs that he lost both his mount and his kit in his rush to escape, and it was only by some miracle that he had half run, half wandered as far southeast as L’bor, shunning all who crossed his path.
“One more day, Masters, and he would have made it to the outskirts of that northern town, which, he confided to me, was his intended destination. But his strength had at last deserted him, his body had played him false, and he had fallen helpless where I encountered him, at which point he was nearer death than L’bor.
“I comforted him and gave him water, but he was too weak to take food.”
“So what did he find in the northwestern mountains?” In Jon-Tom’s eyes was the hint of an old gleam. “Treasure? Some fabulous forgotten city?”
“Nothing like that,” said the merchant. “I do not pretend to understand all that he said. Only that what he found had been compelling and terrifying enough to drive him to that desperate condition. I have discussed mis with others whom I knew or encountered on my journey here, and if anything their ignorance on the subject exceeds my own.
“Only one, who had had some minor dealings with matters sorceral, suggested that I seek you out. This I have done because this dead soldier’s tale has become something of an obsession with me, and I desire deeply to understand it. Also, it was in a sense all that this unfortunate fox had to bequeath, the only other thing of value left in his possession being his oft-used sword.”
“Which you have with you?” Jon-Tom inquired.
The sloth looked away. “Uh, no. I hocked it. I am after all a merchant, and I have to live.”
“This thing he encountered?” said Qothahump impatiently.
Gragelouth turned gratefully to the wizard. “He called it ‘The Grand Veritable.’“
Over the years Duncan had seen the wizard Clothahump deal with much that was marvelous and inexplicable, from conjuring up entire buildings to transmuting gold into lead (the latter not being a spell that was overmuch in demand, but one which the wizard often performed for practice). In all that time he had never seen the turtle react as he did at that moment.
Clothahump jerked backward so sharply that it snapped the minor retention spell that held his heavy glasses on his beak. With a grunt he picked them off the floor and carefully set them back in place. As for Jon-Tom, he could only look on in bewilderment.
When he had fully recovered, the wizard spoke slowly and with great certitude. “There is no such thing as the Grand Veritable. It’s nothing more than a widespread rumor among those of us in the Profession. An old rumor, but a rumor nonetheless. It does not exist. Some wish that it did, but wishing and reality are infrequent companions.”
“I know I never heard of it,” Jon-Tom added.
Clothahump squinted at him. “You would not, nor is it something you’d be likely to encounter in your spellsinging. It is not a subject to spark casual conversation.”
Gragelouth seemed hesitant to comment, perhaps a bit taken aback by the vehemence of the great wizard’s reaction. “I do not know whether it exists or not. I only repeat to you the tale of the dying mercenary. Real or not, it cost him his life.”
“It’s not unknown for individuals weakened by exposure and its consequences to suffer from delusions,” Jon-Tom pointed out.
The sloth favored the spellsinger with his inherently mournful expression and perpetually sad eyes. “I may be ignorant in matters thaumaturgical, sir, but I flatter myself that I am a good judge of people. It is a consequence of being a successful trader. Nor have I suffered the companionship, however brief, of many on the verge of death. That confessed, I am convinced those who are about to depart this plane of existence have no reason to lie to a stranger.”
Jon-Tom waved off the rationalization. “Okay, so this Juh Phit believed he’d encountered something he called the Grand Veritable. That doesn’t mean he actually did so.”
“I am of course in no position to dispute that.” The merchant’s voice was as soft as his pelt.
“Even people of good intentions sometimes repeat falsehoods so often they come to think of mem as truths,” Jon-Tom added. “Real estate brokers, for example.”
“I can only say that I received the dying testament of this soldier Juh Phit, and that I believe in what he said.”
“Something so dangerous, so insidious, could not exist,” Clothahump was mumbling. “When I think of the damage it could cause if it did, the havoc it could wreak, I shudder inside my shell.” He leaned back in the chair, the willow springs creaking beneath his weight.
“Just what exactly is this rumor, anyway?” Jon-Tom wanted to know. Out in the hallway Buncan listened motionless, hardly daring to breathe.
“Like all truly great dangers it is at once simple and complex,” Clothahump was moved to explain. “To adequately analyze it would require its use, a proposition fiendishly designed to ensnare any who would attempt it. Its attractions would by definition be simultaneously irresistible and invariably fatal.” He took a deep breath. “The Grand Veritable, lad, is a notion best avoided by all sensible-thinking folk. Forget about it. Pretend you never heard of it In the hands of even the most clever, careful, and well-meaning of individuals, it could destroy entire communities, up to and including civilization as we know it.
“Which is why it cannot exist. The mere concept is too terrifying to contemplate.” As he delivered this warning the lights inside the tree dimmed until it was black in the hallway and downright murky in the study.
The reduced illumination did not trouble Mulwit, who came flapping into the room through the portal on the side opposite Buncan.
“I didn’t call for you,” Clothahump admonished the famulus.
Mulwit perched on the back of an empty chair. “Youuu sounded exercised, Master. I thought perhaps youuu might need some assistance.”
“Your concern is praiseworthy but misplaced.” The turtle harmmphed. “As long as you’re here you might as well hang around.” He smiled as much as his inflexible beak allowed. “That was an old joke between your predecessor and me.” He squinted at the glowbulbs. “Here, this won’t do.” A quick, arcane sentence restored the study to its previous brightness.
Buncan knew he was pushing his luck by staying. If not Clothahump or his father, the quick-eyed, sharp-eared Mulwit was sure to spot him soon. That would lead to accusatory questions he would be unable to satisfactorily answer. But fascination held him in the hallway.
The Grand Veritable, the merchant Gragelouth had called it. Reality or delusion, it had certainly provoked Clothahump. What could be formidable enough to cause the great wizard to adamantly refuse to acknowledge so much as its possible existence? What could frighten the all-powerful Clothahump that badly?
“The soldier Juh Phit spoke of it in more efficacious terms.” Gragelouth dug at a furry ear.
“How like a mercenary,” Clothahump murmured.
“He said that possession could make one wealthy beyond imagination. That any desire could be fulfilled if one but learned how to use the Veritabletproperly.”
“The true horrors always bewitch,” said Clothahump. “The Grand Veritable does not exist, and if it does, it is best left alone.” He stared evenly at his nocturnal visitor. “The fate of your Juh Phit should be proof enough of that. Continue to pursue this rumor and you will surely meet a similar end.” He turned abruptly on Jon-Tom, jabbing a finger in his direction.
“As for you, associate, I know how your mind works. Put aside all such thoughts. Besides, your mate would cut you off at the knees if you proposed anything.”
“Wasn’t going to,” Jon-Tom mumbled.
“We have ample work to keep us busy, and I need you here. Even if I did not, I would do everything in my power to stop you from pursuing this dangerous rumor.”
“I’m not afraid of rumors.” Out in the hall, Buncan felt an unexpected surge of pride. “Talea, however, is another matter.” Buncan slumped.
“Deal solely with those nightmares which have been domesticated by sleep,” Clothahump advised his human colleagues, “and leave the real ones to the reckless.” He turned back to face the sloth. “You have come far to see us, merchant. To what purpose?”
“I think what Juh Phit spoke of as he lay dying in my arms is worthy of further investigation, but I have no experience in matters mystical. I thought to seek assistance.” The sloth’s persistence in the face of Clothahump’s daunting skepticism was admirable, Duncan mused.
“You intend to pursue this matter purely in the spirit of intellectual inquiry, of course.” The wizard stared knowingly at his guest.
“I am a merchant, a trader in goods and stores.” Gragelouth showed the upturned palms of heavy, clawed hands. “I do not deny that I seek profit alongside elucidation. Tell me: With proper supervision could not this Veritable be a force for good?”
“No, never!” Clothahump insisted vehemently. “It can only cause divisiveness and disruption, destruction and death. On this the old tales are explicit. I would not trust its possession even to myself.”
“You can at least allow as how someone else might hold a differing opinion.” The merchant wasn’t afraid to defend his ground, Jon-Tom thought approvingly.
“Anyone is entitled to an opinion about hearsay,” Clothahump grunted. Searching a drawer in his plastron, he removed a small cube of something green and odious, plopped it in his mouth, and chewed reflectively as he slammed the drawer shut. “You’ll get no help from me. I’m too old to go chasing after dangerous rumors.”
“You’ve been ‘getting old’ for a hundred and fifty years,” Jon-Tom commented.
The turtle nodded. “And believe me, nothing gets old faster than getting old.” He sighed heavily. “If you want my advice, traveler, you’ll go back to your trading and forget this nonsense. If it’s nothing but rumor you’ll perish in the seeking of it, and if it’s at all for real, you’ll perish in the finding of it. I won’t charge you for this little conference,” he said, displaying uncharacteristic generosity. “Disillusionment is costly enough.”
Having tried every ploy he could think of, Gragelouth had nothing more to say. Clothahump shifted in his chair. “Do you have lodging for the night?”
The sloth shrugged wide shoulders, looking even sadder than usual. “Many times have I had to bed down with my wagon and team.” “It’s late, and a ways to Lynehbany,” the turtle murmured.
“I can make a suitable room for you here. Dimensional expansion. One of my better spells.”
The sloth looked up, nodding gratefully. “You are as hospitable as you are discouraging. I accept.” He reached for the purse attached to his wide belt. “I will pay—”
“Not now.” Clothahump waved magnanimously. “Even absurd tales have their uses. One must balance enlightenment with entertainment. This is fortunate for you, elsewise I might have turned you into a cockroach as penance for interrupting my sleep.” The sloth started, sleepy eyes suddenly wide. Jon-Tom was quick to reassure him.
“Clothahump has a unique sense of humor.”
The wizard chose not to comment as he rose and lumbered on short, stumpy legs toward the far portal. “Come, traveler, and we’ll see to your sleeping arrangements. Your body type would, I think, prefer a particularly soft bed. Or perhaps a low-slung hammock?”
Jon-Tom rose, shaking out his cape behind him. “It’s late. I’d better be getting back.”
No need to linger to overhear final farewells, Buncan knew. Turning in the darkness, he felt carefully along the wall as he retraced his steps. Soon he was back at the front door, which yielded silently to his touch. Out in the glade then, and moments later safely back among the friendly shadows of the silent Bellwoods. Heading home with the hope that Talea hadn’t checked his room in his absence. Even if she had, he’d prepared an elaborate and, he hoped, convincing excuse. In the event of total disbelief, the last thing she would suspect was that he’d been off spying on his father and Clothahump.
His head was awhirl with what he’d just overheard. Too much to contain, it spilled over into ancillary hopes and dreams, washing reality aside. Not to mention common sense.
It was news he had to share with others, and soon.
“So this Garglemouth—”
“Gragelouth,” Buncan corrected him.
“So ‘e were a merchant from far away, an’ a sloth.” Squill dug his feet into the squishy sand of the riverbank. “Wot was ‘e, besides slothful?”
They were on the beach which struck out into the current on an upper bend of the Shortstub. Vest and pants bundled nearby, Neena cavorted in the water, a sliver of brown sleekness arcing through the silver. Like any other non-otter, Buncan could only look on enviously.
“Experienced and well-traveled,” he told Squill.
“Hard to say. Sloths as a general rule aren’t very forthcoming.”
“Don’t see many in the Bellwoods.”
“This one had a wagon and pair.”
“Came a long way, ‘e did, to harangue mister hardshell.” Squill evicted a small freshwater crab with a toe, watched it scurry for the water. “This ‘ere Grand Veritable ‘e were prattlin’ about. Sounds special.”
“Clothahump doesn’t think it exists.”
Locating a nice palm-sized rock, Squill aimed and attempted to hit his sister the next tune she broke the surface. She dodged the missile with ease. “Accordin’ to wot you’re tellin’ me, mate, of beak-face spent a lot ‘o time listenin’. Wot do that tell you?”
“That Clothahump is kind to strangers.”
“Tell me another! The old bugger’s a grump.”
Buncan skipped a smooth stone of his own across the placid surface. He was stronger than Squill, but not as quick. “Then we’re left to consider the alternative, which is that mere was some substance to what the trader was saying.”
“Never been to the northwest,” Squill murmured thoughtfully. “Never been anywheres, really.”
Neena had emerged from the water and was shaking herself dry, her dark-brown fur glistening with droplets. “So Clothahump’s not gonna check this story out?”
“Doesn’t look like it,” Buncan told her. “He let this Gragelouth spend the night. I’m sure he’s already left.”
“Wot about Jon-Tom?” She dug moss from behind one ear.
Buncan regarded the river. “Dad’s become . . . settled. You know what Talea would think about him going off on some crazy quest. Or how Weegee would give it to Mudge if he tried the same.”
“Old people,” groused Squill.
“Better not let Mudge ‘ear you say that,” Neena warned him as she methodically dried her whiskers.
“Squill’s more than half right.” Buncan chucked another rock into the water. “They’ve all gotten tired and lazy, forgotten what adventure’s all about. They’ve become too much a part of the community.”
“Well, I ain’t part o’ no community.” Squill rose and adjusted the angle of his cap’s feathers. “Me, I says we go after this ‘ere Gragelouth and check out ‘is story for ourselves. An’ if ‘e’s lyin’, we’ll be able to bring back proof o’ it.”
“Right,” agreed his sister. “Maybe ‘e were just tryin’ to extort some money from ol’ drawer-guts. Or free “elp.”
“Clothahump doesn’t hand out free samples,” Buncan murmured.
“Sure, ‘e ain’t dumb,” Squill agreed, nodding. “Just lazy.”
“I wonder how far to the northwest this Grand Veritable thing is supposed to lie,” Buncan said.
“Don’t matter. We got lots o’ time.” Squill moved nearer. “You said ‘e were near L’bor when he found that dyin’ mercenary. Did ‘e mention if ‘e were ‘eaded back up that way?”
Buncan tried to remember. “He may have said something along those lines.”
“We know where L’bor is.” Neena was slipping into her shorts. “We could find our way. This slant-eyed bloke came to Clodiahump lookin’ for ‘elp, did ‘e?”
“That’s right.” Buncan also stood, brushing at the seat of his pants.
“Well, then?” she murmured. The otters exchanged a glance. “Wot are we ‘angin’ around ‘ere for?”
“D’you mink he’d take us with him?”
“Cor,” she replied, batting her eyelashes at her tall human friend, “ ‘e’s a bleedin’ merchant! ‘E don’t know nothin’ about sorceral matters. If its spellsingin’ ‘elp ‘e wants, it’s spellsingin’ ‘elp we’ll ofifer ‘im.”
“Let’s get after ‘im.” Squill was already heading for the trees. “The farther off ‘e gets, the ‘aider it’ll be for us to catch up with ‘im. We’ll try the main north-south roads first.”
“What, leave right now?” Buncan hurried to catch up to the excited otter. “Without telling our parents?”
“Wot, you want their bloomin’ approval?” Neena came op behind him and pinched him on the butt. “We got our clothes, our weapons, your duar. We’re bloody well ready for anythin’. We can spellsing a privacy cocoon around us, keep Jon-Tom from spellsingin’ us out. That’s all we need to worry about. Besides, they’re used to us skippin’ off for a few days at a tune, campin’ in the woods. They won’t even look for us for a while.”
“The more distance we can make before they do,” Squill pointed out, “the ‘aider it’ll be for them to interfere.”
“If this Grugletooth—” Neena began.
“Gragelouth,” Buncan patiently corrected her.
“If ‘e turns out to be nothin’ more than some country extortionist, we’ll be right back anyways. Clothahump’ll be grateful for the confirmation.”
“Always wanted to see L’bor,” Squill murmured.
“What’ll we do for money?” Buncan wanted to know.
“We’ll live by our wits, mate. That’s wot Mudge always said ‘e did.”
“Your dad’s an inveterate liar.”
“I know. It’s one o’ ‘is most endearin’ traits. Come on.”
“You said this sloth ‘ad a team o’ two an’ a wagon. If it’s much o’ a team ‘e might be movin’ fast.” Neena was bursting with confidence and energy. “No matter. We’ll catch up with ‘im some’ow.”
Discreet queries revealed that the merchant had indeed passed through Lynchbany that very morning and had been observed heading north out of the town. That meant he was already a day ahead of mem.
“We ain’t gonna catch a wagon on foot,” Squill pointed out. “Bloody ‘ell! I was ‘oping ‘e’d ‘ole up ‘ere in town for a while.”
“We’ll ‘ave to find transportation.” His sister was nodding in agreement.
“How? We have hardly any money,” Buncan pointed out.
A twinkle showed in Neena’s gaze. “I’m the daughter o’ the inimitable Kludge, an’ Squill ‘ere, sad to say, is me brother. We’ve spent all our lives listenin’ to Mudge’s stories. You don’t do that an’ not pick up a smidgee o’ practical information ‘ere an’ there.”
Buncan glanced nervously up and down the busy street on which they stood conversing. “This is awfully close to home. Just being here makes it hard to stay inconspicuous.”
“Cor, mate, we ‘aven’t even started to push things.” Squill indicated a comfortable empty half-barrel in a nearby alleyway. “You just ‘ave a seat an’ wait ‘ere. Neena an’ I will be back shortly.”
“Just don’t do anything obvious!” Buncan shouted after them. He doubted that they heard, or if they did, would pay his words any heed.
The pair of four-legged riding lizards the otters found were strong and willing. They left Lynchbany quickly behind and soon found themselves once more among the dense groves of the Bellwoods, heading north at a laudable pace.
Buncan couldn’t keep from repeatedly glancing back over his shoulder, but no pursuit appeared on the smooth dirt road behind them. Squill and Neena rode back-to-back on the other animal’s saddle.
“If the stable owner catches us first, he’ll make hides out of us before we can explain.”
“Don’t be such an old granny-cakes.” Neena smoothed down the fur around her muzzle. “As soon as we catch up with Gragelouth an’ ‘ire ‘ourselves on with ‘im we’ll let these two skinks go. They’ll find their way back, an’ their owner’ll just think they slipped their bloody tethers.”
Clinging to the narrow reins, Buncan considered his horse-sized, yellow-and-blue-striped mount. “I didn’t know that skinks had a homing instinct.”
Neena waved absently. “Well, they’ll find their way back somewhere.” Her own mount lurched slightly and she grabbed hold of one of the long saddle’s multiple pommels. The saddle was designed to accommodate as wide a variation of backsides as possible. It was not particularly constructed with otters in mind. Or humans.
“Anyway,” Squill was saying, “they ‘ave to catch us first. If an’ when they do, if we ain’t got the goods in question in our possession, they can’t prove a bleedin’ thing. Relax, mate. Nobody saw us.”
Buncan did his best to comply.
They rode most of the night, catching a few hours’ sleep beneath the branches of a huge old Belltree whose leaves chimed only at the low end of the scale. Like their daytime counterparts the transparent butterflies, glass moths flitted among nocturnal blossoms, the light of the waxing moon shining through their transparent tinted wings and filtering starlight through living stained glass. A pair of owls soared past overhead, making for L’bor. Not searching for him, Buncan mused. Messengers, most likely, or just a young couple looking for a nice empty tree in which to make out.
The otters were up before the sun. Their energy was incredible, though if the mood took them they could also sleep for a day and a half.
By midmoming there was still no sign of pursuit, and Squill had paused to point out fresh ruts in the road.
“See that?” He clutched at his mount’s reins, steadying the big lizard. “The merchant’s wagon.”
“How do you know that?” Buncan asked him. “This is the main road from Lynchbany to L’bor. Plenty of wagons pass this way.”
“Ain’t seen any,” Neena countered. “ Tis the slow season.”
“We’ll know right soon.” Squill spurred his mount on, and Buncan hurried to follow.
Were their parents missing them yet? he wondered. Following breakfast they’d taken then- best shot at a privacy spell. In theory Jon-Tom shouldn’t be able to track them now with magic. In theory. He shrugged. There was little more they could do to cover their tracks.
Legend said that his father and Mudge had helped stop the Plated Folk at the Jo-Troom Pass. Hard to believe it was the same person who spent much of his time puttering around the family tree, fixing leaky plumbing and barbecuing fish on the lawn out back. Could that person break through the straightforward solidity of a privacy spell?
He chucked the reins and the big skink hissed slightly, turning its narrow blindered head to look back at him.
“Come on, pick it up,” he told the uncomprehending animal. “We want to overtake this merchant before another night falls.” With poor grace the lizard increased its pace.
Evening was threatening to make its appearance when Squill suddenly brought his own mount to an abrupt halt. Buncan drew alongside, stopped. “What is it? Something the matter?”
“Don’t you ‘ear it?”
“I ‘ear it.” Neena was leaning forward and to one side, trying to see past her brother.
“Well, I don’t,” snapped Buncan.
“Why not? Your ears are bigger than ours.”
“But not as sharp. Above or below the water.”
“You’re always underwater, mate,” Squill told him. But affectionately.
Buncan followed the otters’ lead as they dismounted and secured their skinks to a nearby tree. Just as they had for years, they used the undergrowth to conceal their movements as they advanced. Only, Buncan knew that this time Squill and Neena weren’t playing. Maybe his hearing wasn’t as good as theirs, but he was equally adept at avoiding twigs and dry leaves.
It didn’t take long before he, too, could hear what had attracted Squill’s attention: many voices shouting and yelling. Only a couple were deep enough to suggest size. The rest were fairly high-pitched.
They came to a place where the forest thinned and they could see the road again. Stopped to one side was the merchant’s wagon. Thanks to his well-honed powers of memory and observation, Buncan was able to recognize it instantly from the single brief glimpse he’d had of it parked behind Clothahump’s tree.
Also, there was a large spellcharged sign on the side which periodically flashed in bright canary-yellow letters:GRAGELOUTH—MERCHANT & TRADER
The wagon rested on four thick-spoked, brightly painted wooden wheels. A single door interrupted the smooth lines of the stem. There was a built-in ladder which allowed access to the roof, and a pair of stairs bolted beneath the doorway. Pots, pans, and other household goods dangled from hempen and wire leaders like misshapen fruit. Two muscular, squat-bodied dray lizards yoked side by side stood placidly in front of the wagon, scratching at their blinders and sampling the ground with their flattened pink tongues.
Though the wagon faced away from them, they could see the merchant seated on the forebench. Hatless, his thick gray coat showed evidence of recent trimming. The long fur beneath his arms swayed as he argued with those who had surrounded him.
Standing near the front of the team and holding the harness of the lead lizard was a massive masked figure. The mask was natural, for the individual was a spectacled bear. He wore long pants, a dull hazel shirt, and a heavy leather cap. His size made him prominent among the sword- and ax-armed ringtail cats and raccoons who comprised the majority of the gang.
A tall, lithe, rather rakishly clad coatimundi stood nearest the wagon, gesturing animatedly in the merchant’s direction with a thin rapier. They could see Gragelouth flinch whenever the blade flicked too close. Brass studs glistened among the coati’s attire. Even at a distance Buncan could make out the diamond that sparkled in one of his prominent canines.
“Wot a bleedin’ marvelous opportunity!” Neena whispered. “We can rescue the silly sod an’ ingratiate ourselves to ‘im forever. ‘E’ll ‘ave to take us on.” She drew her short sword and took a step forward.
Buncan hastened to restrain her. “Wait a minute!” He raised his eyes above the brush line. “There’s. .half a dozen raccoons and ringtails, the coati, and the bear. There’s only three of us, and the bear’s a lot bigger than I am.”
“Righty-ho, mate,” agreed Squill cheerfully. “Them’s fair odds, they are.”
“Are you crazy? You’ve inherited Mudge’s bravado along with his lack of judgment. If we go charging out there we’re gonna get ourselves stomped. Don’t lose sight of why we’re here.” One of the ringtails was now peering curiously in their direction, and Buncan hurriedly ducked back down into the vegetation.
“You’re right, Bunkies.” Neena sheathed her sword. “We’re ‘ere to show this merchant ‘ow our spellsingin’ can ‘elp ‘im.” She rubbed her forepaws together. “So let’s get to it.”
Squill was less enthusiastic. He fingered his bow. “We might could take two or three of ‘em out with arrows before they pinned us. If we try singin’ first, we’ll give away both our position and the element o’ surprise.”
Buncan was unlimbering his duar. “Singing might surprise them. Or they might even ignore it. We can always resort to our weapons if it doesn’t work. If we don’t do something fast, they’ll kill the merchant and we might as well turn around and slink back home.”
The otter considered, then nodded. “Right-o, but ‘tis likely we’ll only get one chance. Keep your blades “andy.”
Buncan plucked lightly at the duar. A faint globule of pale-blue smoke arose from the nexus. He eyed his companions expectantly.
“Wot’ll we sing about?” Squill eyed his sister uncertainly. “Buncan?”
“Don’t ask me. You two are the lyricists.” He strained to see past them. The discussion at the wagon appeared to be taking a conclusive turn. If they didn’t hurry, a sword thrust would render moot whatever effort they expended. “Better get on with it. I have a feeling the hoods are getting tired of Gragelouth’s banter.”
“ ‘E must ‘ave somethin’ worth protecting or ‘e’d ‘ave given ‘em wot they want by now.” Neena leaned over to exchange hurried whispers with her brother.
Buncan waited nervously. If it came to a fight, he was bigger and probably stronger than any of the bandits save the bear, and nothing was quicker in combat than an otter. But there were eight of them, all much more experienced at real fighting than he or his Mends. The scarred dandy of a coati in particular looked like a tough customer.
None of which would matter if they could spellsing them aside. Hopefully the otters’ wits would prove as quick as then-feet.
“How shall I start off?” he muttered.
“Somethin’ slow and heavy,” Squill advised him. “Like when we called up the whale.”
“Okay, but let’s try and make this a little more low-key.” His fingers hovered above the strings, anxious to begin. “We don’t want to kill anyone if we can help it.”
“Why not?” Neena regarded him out of bright eyes.
“Because it’s messy. We don’t want to frighten off the merchant, either.”
Squill was staring in the wagon’s direction. “That rapier pokes ‘im any deeper an’ ‘e won’t be in any condition to do much o’ anything.” He turned back to his sister. “Ready, mush-mouth? On three. A one, a two, an’ a three . . .”
Buncan began to play.
“Rumble in the woods got no place to go
Bangin’ in the hood where it ain’t no show
Gonna break it up, gonna bring it low, throw
It out, kick it out, stop it now
Stop it before it gets serious. Gets serious?
Better believe it or you’re gonna buy it
Wanna fight our power, better not try it!”
Every one of the bandits surrounding the wagon, from the bear to the slightest raccoon, turned to stare in the direction of the music. Buncan’s fingers flew over the duar. He could feel the energy surging from the instrument, felt confidence in the counterpoint he was generating to the otters’ rap. The more the three of them performed, the easier it became. He began to feel that with practice and time they might actually become proficient.
Except . . . while the music was invigorating, and sounded fresh, nothing else was happening.
The coati was conversing rapidly with three of the four raccoons. A moment later this heavily armed trio started toward the source of the singing. Two of them wielded axes, and the third a wicked, barb-tipped pike.
“Nothing’s happening.” Buncan raised his voice over the music. “Something’s wrong with your singing, or your choice of lyrics.”
“I can’t mink o’ anythin’ else,” Squill mumbled frantically.
His sister glared at him. “Well, you’re the one who’s supposed to be so clever!”
““ ‘Ell, don’t pick on me! You’re always on about ‘ow clever you think you are.”
“For the Tree’s sake,” Buncan growled, “don’t start fighting now!”
The lead raccoon wore a checkered and striped bandanna, while his companion sported an incongruous stovepipe hat decorated with tufts of bud down. The pike wielder shifted a leather beret between his ears. All three readied their weapons as they drew nearer.
“Do something!” Buncan hissed desperately.
“I’m tryin’,” said Neena, “but ‘e ain’t ‘elping none.”
“I just can’t think o’ notiiin’ appropriate.” Squill glanced anxiously in the direction of the approaching brigands.
“Anything!” A groaning Buncan found himself wondering if he should put down the duar and take up his sword.
“Wait a minim.” The otter blinked suddenly. “Remember that one ditty that was on that collection?” He whispered rapidly to his sister. Her expression widened, she nodded, and they began to sing once more, their voices rising in unison above the vegetation.
“Time for the beat, time for the feet
Time to get real out on the street
Time to Hammer the bad dudes down
Time to Hammer ‘em right down in the ground
Hammer; Hammer, show ‘em who’s boss
Show ‘em who’s the tool that’ll waste ‘em for a Loss!”
A glistening argent nimbus materialized above the bushes between the singers and the advancing robbers. It was clearly visible to those back by the wagon. The ugly conversation between the desperate Gragelouth and his increasingly impatient tormentor ceased as both turned to stare.
The silvery vapor seemed composed of metal fragments. It was gravid and intimidating, and Duncan instinctively stumbled away from it until he bumped up against a tree. He had the’ presence of mind to keep playing. What they were conjuring up he didn’t know, but so far it was enormously impressive even in its indistinctness. The otters ducked slightly but continued to rap. The raccoons clutched their weapons in front of them and gaped, their advance stalled by the otherworldly conjuration.
The cloud began to congeal into a crystal the size of a wine barrel. This was crossed with a much longer cylinder composed of identical material. Together they formed a slender T shape that was as long as Gragelouth’s wagon.
It was, in point of fact, an enormous tool: a hammer fashioned of some unidentifiable solid metal. A giant’s hammer. It hung in the air above the bushes and young trees, vibrating slightly in tune to the beat of Duncan’s duar.
The raccoons began to edge around it, keeping a wary eye on the gleaming, highly polished apparition as they did so.
This wouldn’t do, Buncan knew, and he so informed the otters. Without missing a beat they altered their lyrics appropriately.
The hammer shuddered. It arced backward, paused briefly in a vertical position, and then swooshed down with tremendous force. It struck the foremost bandit before he could dodge and squashed him as fiat as if the singers had dumped a blue whale on nun. The denouement was both messy and noisy. The sight, when the hammer retracted to a position parallel with the ground, was unpleasant to look upon. It was sufficiently disagreeable to send the two surviving brigands racing back toward their compatriots, screeching as they threw their useless weapons aside.
Buncan forced himself to look out at the mess the hammerish apparition had created on the otherwise pristine forest floor and felt his stomach engage gears independent of the rest of his system. He was, however, too busy playing to throw up. The otters, delighted, proceeded to ghoulify their lyrics to the utmost extent of their imagination, which was considerable.
The hammer pivoted in midair and began to chase the retreating bandits, repeatedly slamming into the ground behind them and leaving deep, perfectly round impressions in the solid earth. Each time it struck, the ground jumped slightly. Booming thuds echoed through the forest.
Seeing the outrageous device pursuing their panicky companions, the rest of the gang hesitated. At this critical moment the coati bravely scampered forward and made a gallant if misguided effort to rally his dispirited troops. He jabbed at the hammer with his rapier, only to see the blade turned by the smooth astral metal.
The hammer came down on his tail, breaking it in several places.
Letting out a barking scream, the bandit leader keeled over, unconscious. A ringtail and the bear grabbed him under the arms and hustled him away toward the densest cluster of trees while the rest of the gang scattered in every direction. Momentarily confused, the hammer went after all of them at once, missing with predictable but nonetheless intimidating regularity.
Buncan kept playing until the last robber had disappeared around the far bend in the road. He didn’t laugh at the sight, because he couldn’t. The nearby pulverized bone and expansive bloodstain which had been the unfortunate raccoon was too bright in his eyes, too thick in his nostrils. Instead he settled for a silent cry of thankfulness as he let his fingers relax. The glow at the duar’s nexus faded.
“Not bad,” he told the otters, who had ceased their singing. “Let’s see how our merchant’s doing.” The trio broke from the underbrush and jogged toward the wagon, carefully avoiding the bloody pulp to their right.
“Wot’ll we say to ‘im?” Squill wondered as they approached the road.
“I dunno.” His sister reflexively tried to smooth her makeup. “ ‘E looks a bit rattled.”
Indeed, Gragelouth was clearly shaken. That was understandable, considering that he’d thus far seen only the homicidal hammer and not its manipulators. When all was explained to him he would doubtless be properly grateful, Buncan mused. After all, they’d just saved his fortune and most probably his life as well.
A loud crash sounded from the tree line, causing Buncan to turn and look behind him. Still flailing about madly, splintering bushes and trees and the occasional small boulder, the hammer reappeared. Having been spellsung into existence, it was not about to simply fade away.
It hesitated as if searching for something new and different to flatten. After a brief pause it aligned itself with the wagon and came thumping directly toward them. From the front seat they could hear Gragelouth moan.
“It’s still active!” Squill yelped.
“I can see that.” Clutching his duar tightly in both hands, Buncan found himself backing toward the road. “Sing it away.”
“Play!” yelled Neena. “You have to play, Buncan!”
Galvanized by her order, he let his fingers drift down to the quiescent strings. The first chords were atonal and ineffective. Meanwhile, the metallic wraith continued its menacing advance.
All three of them retreated in a body, Buncan strumming madly, the otters rapping at maximum speed. They were in the middle of the road now, in front of the wagon, with no cover in sight.
The hammer reached them and hesitated. Paws in the air, Gragelouth cowered back on his bench. The apparition seemed to consider him, then accelerated purposefully in the direction of the somewhat quavering musicians.
“Scatter!” howled Squill at the last possible instant as the head of the hammer plunged toward them. Human and otters broke in three directions as the massive chunk of metal slammed into the earth where they’d been standing, sending gravel and dirt flying.
Buncan yelled as he dodged and played. “Make it go away! Sing something else! Send it back where it came from!”
“Back where it came from?” Squill tried to keep one eye on his friend and the other on the prodigious apparition. “I don’t bloody well know where it came from! The bleedin’ toolbox o’ the gods?” The hammer zigged as he zagged to his left. “You’re the damned spellsinger!” He jumped, and the device just missed him.
“You’re the singers!” Buncan yelled.
The otters continued to improvise, to no avail. While they were getting tired of trying to dodge and sing at the same time, the remorseless specter gave no indication it was slowing down.
Suddenly the wind increased. Tree limbs and trunks bent toward the road as the breeze rapidly grew into a full-fledged gale. From his seat Gragelouth looked on in fascination.
Leaves and branches thrashed around Buncan. He was tiring fast, having neither the energy nor the agility of the otters. If that thing landed on them . . . The remains of the unlucky bandit were as fresh in his mind as they were on the ground back in the trees.
A flailing branch knocked him down, and he felt the duar slip from his stunned grasp. The pulsing radiance at the nexus of the two sets of strings instantly vanished. Seeing mis, the otters ceased their rapping, useless without Buncan’s skilled accompaniment.
Lying on his chest, panting, Buncan looked up in time to see the hammer hovering above him, measuring itself for the terminal strike. He closed his eyes.
Instantly the wind died. Two doubled-over trees straightened, their thick trunks catching the hammer on either side of the gleaming head and lifting it upward. They bounced back and forth a couple of times before quivering to a stop, the hammer pinned between them as neatly as on any holder in a carpenter’s shop. There the apparition hung motionless, seemingly pacific at last.
Gasping, Buncan rolled over onto his back and regarded the sky. Then he scrambled to his feet and walked over to recover the duar. Some leaves had landed in the active nexus. A couple had simply been fried, while the third had been turned to topaz. He brushed all of them away and examined the instrument anxiously. It appeared intact. He carried spare strings, but if the body had been damaged . . .
A few experimental strums reassured him of its integrity. As he moved to sling it across his back and shoulders, he felt a paw on his arm. It was Squill, gazing up at him with concern.
“You all right, mate?”
Buncan nodded, narrowing his gaze as he looked up at the neatly pinned hammer. “Interesting resolution.”
Squill’s whiskers twitched. “Couldn’t think o’ anythin’ else except the tools in old man Herton’s shop. Worked.”
“Wonder how long it’ll stay there.”
“No tellin’.” Neena calmly considered the otherworldly instrument of mass destruction. “Don’t like to think of it as puttin’ in an appearance some night outside me bedroom window.”
“Your bedroom ain’t got no window,” Squill pointed out.
She sniffed, whiskers rising. “That’s right, brother. Just go ahead an’ stomp on me reputation.”
“Anytime.” Squill straightened. “Wot say we go accept the grateful genuflections o’ our pitiful fellow traveler?” He started toward the wagon.
“I’ll go get the riding lizards,” Buncan offered.
Gragelouth sat stiffly on his bench seat, watching them approach. Buncan rejoined his friends momentarily, his expression grim. “Who tethered the skinks?”
“I did,” replied Neena.
“Well, they’re gone.”
“Wot do you mean, they’re gone?” Squill turned angrily on his sister. “You snub-tailed twit, you never did learn ‘ow to tie a proper knot!”
“Is that so? Want to see me tie one in your whiskers?” She grabbed for his face and the two of them went down, rolling over and over until their scuffling eventually carried mem beneath the wagon.
Buncan bent slightly to check on them, (hen straightened and extended a hand. “Those are my friends, Squill and Neena.”
“So I presumed.” The sloth shook his head slowly, the dark stripes that began around his eyes and ran down his face giving him a look of perpetual sorrow. “Otters.” Holding carefully to the reins of his team with one hand, he took Buncan’s with the other. It was warm to the touch. All that heavy fur, Buncan reflected.
“Pleased to meet you. I’m Buncan Meriweather.”
The merchant withdrew his hand and placed it over his heart. “I am Gragelouth, trader by profession and inclination. I find that I owe my everything to your timely arrival, young traveler. What I do not understand is why you youngsters,” Buncan winced but said nothing, “should intervene on my behalf. You are not, I hope, deranged altruists?”
“Not at all. I’m pleased to tell you that we have a perfectly valid ulterior motive.”
“Ah.” Gragelouth smiled, showing surprisingly bright teeth in his broad, flat face. “I am delighted to learn that you are merely foolhardy and not insane.” Reaching behind his seat, he rummaged through a large satchel. “You must allow me to reward you for your help. Though I am not wealthy, I am most certainly wealthier thanks to your efforts. I regret only that you did not slay more of those brigands.”
Buncan smiled thinly. “Actually, we were trying hard not to hurt anybody. At least, I was.”
“Spoken like a true student of the thaumaturgical arts.”
“We’re still learning.”
The merchant straightened and nodded. “That is what life is for. To stop learning is to begin to die.” He opened the purse he’d extracted from the satchel and made a show of searching the contents. “I will give you all that I can spare, impossible as it is to put a price on a life. I retain only enough to support me awhile in L’bor, until I can resume my sales.”
“We don’t want your money.” Buncan could hear the tussling otters as they bumped up against the rear wheels.
A grateful Gragelouth sealed his purse with a soft snap. “Something from my stock, perhaps? I maintain quite a diverse inventory. Some fine new weapons to balance your magical skills? Or raiment most excellent, to insinuate you with the female of your choice? Though I carry garments for humans, I am not sure I can fit one of your stature.”
“We don’t want anything like that.”
“What, then, can I do for you?” The sloth spread his hands wide. “An unpaid debt weighs heavy on the soul.” His engaging, deceptively lazy smile returned. “No doubt something that involves your aforementioned ulterior motive.”
“In point of fact, sir, it involves us doing something more for you.”
The sloth sniffed delicately. “Explain yourself, Buncan Meriweather. Your words warm my heart but confuse my brain.”
Buncan considered how best to proceed. “It’s like mis, trader Gragelouth. We’re bored.”
The sloth grinned. “Ah. The endemic affliction of the incipient adult. I fear it requires a more skilled physician than myself to treat that condition.”
“Several nights ago you discussed your travels with my father.”
Gragelouth’s heavy brows rose. “Your sire is a turtle?”
It was Duncan’s turn to smile. “Hardly. But he is a master spellsinger.”
“How do you know of this?”
“I was there, in the front hall. I heard pretty much everything.”
“I see. And you were not discovered. You are a very adroit young human.”
“And you’re a very intriguing old sloth. I suppose Clothahump could be right and your whole story could be an elaborate ploy to draw attention to yourself, or get some free sorceral help, or whatever, but I happened to think that there was a lot of conviction in your voice.”
“The conviction of truth,” Gragelouth replied solemnly.
“My friends think so too. Just because Clothahump and Jon-Tom don’t feel it’s worthwhile to assist you doesn’t mean no one does.”
Sleepy eyelids rose as realization dawned on the sloth. “You?”
“Why not us?” Squill emerged from beneath the wagon, slapping his hat against his side to knock the dust off. “At least we believe in you. ‘Alfway, anyway. We’re younger and more resilient than that oP ‘ardback. More important, we’re willin’ to give you the benefit o’ the doubt, we are.”
“We’re ready and willing,” Buncan added.
Gragelouth was silent as he studied his youthful saviors and would-be companions. At last he shook his head slowly, the gray fur rippling.
“I am sorry, but you cannot come with me.”
“Why not, guv?” Neena struggled out from beneath the wagon. “Somethin’ about our looks you don’t like?”
“There is nothing wrong with your appearance, or your enthusiasm. It is your parentage that concerns me. Most especially his.” He pointed at Buncan. “You tell me that your sire is the great spellsinger Jon-Tom. I cannot help but feel that since he declined to aid me himself, he would prefer that you did not substitute in his stead. I cannot chance incurring his wrath, much less that of his colleague the wizard Clothahump.”
Buncan repositioned the duar against his back. “Yeah, but since he doesn’t believe there’s any truth to your story, that means he doesn’t think mere’s any danger, either. How can something that doesn’t exist pose any threat?”
“The wizard seemed to think that it does. Besides which the journey itself presents many obstacles that will have to be overcome. But you argue like a solicitor. Clearly you have mastered certain skills.”
“Like spellsinging,” boasted Buncan proudly.
“Oi, that’s right enough!” Squill gestured in the direction of the tree-hooked hammer. “Wot did you just think you saw, guv? Unprovoked prestidigitation?” He slipped an arm around Buncan’s waist. “Me sister and I does the singin’ an’ Buncan ‘ere the playin’. We’re a bloody magic-masterin’ trio, we are.”
“We saved your bleedin’ life,” Neena added pugnaciously.
“And nearly lost your own in the bargain. Upon extended observation it struck me that you have less than complete control over your conjuring.”
“Now see ‘ere, mate . . .,” Squill began, but Buncan put out a hand to cut him off.
“No, Squill. Let’s be honest from the start.”
“ ‘Onest from the start? Me dad would ‘ave a fit.”
“Nevertheless.” Buncan looked back to the merchant. “We don’t claim to be masters. There’s still a lot we need to learn. But I’ve spent my whole life watching and studying my father. All I’ve wanted to do is be like him. I can do some spellsinging on my own, but the otters are in better voice, and the three of us have spent so much time growing up together that we’ve been a unit of sorts practically since birth. That’s why we were able to scatter those bandits the way we did.
“Sure our control isn’t perfect, but neither was my father’s when he started. Maybe we’re not as proficient as him, but we’re a damn sight more powerful than anyone else you’re likely to encounter. Do you still want the kind of special help we can offer, and if so, how badly do you need it?” He stopped, watching the merchant intently.
Gragelouth sighed. “Your style and sound of spellsinging is entirely new to me. I admit that it frightens me some.”
“ ‘Ell,” said Squill, “it bloody well frightens us some. Anythin’ new is a little bit frightenin’, wot? But it works.”
“It nearly worked on you.”
“That’s a risk we’re willing to take,” said Buncan. “What about you?”
“You espy clearly my desperate situation.” The merchant sighed deeply. “Have any of you ever taken a long journey away from your homes?”
“O’ course.” Squill responded without hesitation. “Wot does we look like to you, mewlin’ babes? Why, our sire is Mudge the Stupendous!”
“Mudge the otter, anyway.” Gragelouth turned contemplative. “I have heard that name elsewhere, though usually in connection with extensive debts long owed or assorted ingenious moral outrages.”
Neena nodded. “That sounds like Dad right enough.”
“Yes, I know of his reputation. Mudge the great thief, Mudge the great drunk, Mudge the great wencher, Mudge the great . . .”
‘Well, at least the operative adjective is still ‘great,’“ Squill muttered.
“You have daring and guts,” Gragelouth admitted. “I wonder how extensive is your quotient of courage.”
“As big as any bloody merchant’s,” Squill shot back testily.
“Your inexperience in matters sorceral and otherwise still concerns me,” he readily admitted, “but as is clearly evident I have no army of wizards clamoring to accompany me. There are occasions when youth can work to an advantage. So . . . I will allow you to accompany me until such time as your presence becomes more of a burden than an asset.”
Buncan couldn’t repress a pleased smile. “I hope we never give you reason to regret your decision, merchant.”
“Right, then!” chirped Neena. “ Tis on to L’bor.”
“L’bor?” Gragelouth made room for Buncan on the bench seat and for the others behind. “We do not go to L’bor.”
Buncan eyed him. “But this is the road to L’bor. That’s where you were heading.”
“To seek wizardry aid and advice. I now have, the Great Counter watch over me, you three to supply that. So there is no reason to waste time journeying to L’bor. We will procure final supplies at Timswitty, which is nearer, before striking out northwestward.”
“Northwest.” Squill’s brows scrunched together. “That means crossin’ the Muddletup Moors.”
“That is correct.” Gragelouth was watching him closely. Watching all of them.
Squill spat over the side of the wagon. “Piece o’ carp. A little lousy weather, the projected mental murmurin’s o’ some discontented fungi, maybe an ‘umble but interestin’ ogre or two. We’ve ‘eard all about the place from Mudge an’ Jon-Tom. They made it through. So will we.”
“Bravado is useful when it translates into assurance and not foolhardy overconfidence.” He glanced at Buncan. “Do you have money of your own?”
The merchant nodded resignedly. “My resources are limited. Now it seems they are to be stretched still further. We will manage somehow. When pressed we have my wagon for shelter, though it will be crowded with four of us.” He shuffled the reins in his hands. “We should move on. Great mysteries await resolution.” He chucked the reins and the wagon trundled forward. Squill and Neena settled themselves on some cushions behind the bench seat.
“You hope to capture, or acquire, this Grand Veritable?” Buncan asked their host.
“Nothing so estimable,” replied the merchant modestly. “I wish merely to ascertain the truth of gallant Juh Phil’s story. Yes, when that moment arrives it will be good to have three young, strong companions by my side.”
Buncan repressed a grin. “You forget that I overheard the whole conversation.”
Gragelouth looked slightly abashed. “Well, there would be nothing immoral in making a profit as well.”
Tack strained and creaked as the two dray lizards increased their pace, hissing in protest at Gragelouth’s insistent reins.
Buncan settled himself as comfortably as he could on the padded wooden seat. They were on their way! This must be how his father used to feel when starting off on one of his inimitable adventures. Though if he and Clothahump were right there wouldn’t be any adventure. Just a lot of hard, difficult traveling.
At least it was a. journey. At his age that was adventure enough in itself. Everything they saw from now on would be new and different from everything which had been seen before, and therefore exciting. Different if not startling, stimulating if not overawing.
From their excited chatter behind him he could tell that Squill and Neena felt the same way. With the three of them working together he was confident there was nothing they couldn’t handle, no obstacle they could fail to overcome.
This was a common enough feeling among young men his age, so he could hardly be faulted for thinking like an idiot.
“Drive on, Gragelouth! We’ll find this Grand Veritable, if it exists, and toss it in your wagon like any other piece of goods. Maybe it’ll be worth a few gold pieces.”
“All things are possible to those whom life has not yet disenchanted,” the merchant murmured condescendingly without looking up from his team. “You are not afraid, then?”
“Afraid? Of what?”
“Of meeting Juh Phit’s fate; Of horrors and obstacles unknown yet to be overcome. Of what the Grand Veritable itself may be or be capable of.”
“It’s only a thing,” Buncan replied manfully. “I’ve never yet encountered a thing worth fearing. Besides,” he finished aiMfy as he crossed his legs and leaned back, “if it gives us any trouble we’ll just spellsing it away.”
“Bloody right, mate!” Squill barked belligerently behind nun. “We’ll conjure the bleedin’ wotever it is back into thin air! We can do oversize ‘ammers. Why not a Grand Veritable?”
“Whatever it is indeed,” murmured Gragelouth. “We may hope to survive long enough to find out.”
From the undergrowth several pairs of eyes watched the wagon disappear over the next rise in the road. Their owners were exhausted and battered, scratched and torn from their wild flight through the brush, worn out from avoiding the crush of the thaumaturgical hammer. Some studied that apparition warily where it rested high up in the trees. It had not moved for some tune, but where the necromantic arts were concerned nothing, absolutely nothing, could be taken for granted.
“Pulp their eyes!” chattered a ringtail. “Who knew the interfering ones were spellsingers?”
“None could have foreseen it,” insisted the coati who led them. His eyes flashed almost as brightly as the diamond in his left canine. “Children! Are you all to be put to flight by children?”
“Not me,” said another ringtail. “Not by cubs of any species.”
One of the assembled raccoons spoke up. “Sorcery invoked by children is still sorcery, and any sensible person fears that.”
“They were lucky, that’s all.” The coati gestured toward the hanging hammer. “Did you not see how after putting us to flight it turned on its conjurers and tried to kill them? They are inexperienced and callow.”
“I’m not interested in what it did after it tried to kill us,” growled another raccoon. “I saw what it did to poor Jachay. He was my friend. Now he’s a smear on the ground.”
“Aye,” said a ringtail. “That’s sorcery of a kind I’ve no desire to encounter again. Certainly not for what poor swag a humble merchant’s wagon might contain.”
The coati raged among his followers. “They caught us by surprise, that’s all! A little stealth, a little planning next time, arid we’ll take them before they can sing up so much as a blue wasp!” His voice dropped ominously. “Hard to spellsing with your throat cut.”
“And if we fail?” the ringtail wanted to know. “What then? Will assurances and excuses deliver us?”
“Me, I’m not going to chance finding out.” Hefting his war ax, one of the reluctant raccoons turned and stalked off toward the road, not in pursuit of the vanished wagon but south, toward Lynchbany.
“Go then, Wrochek!” the coati yelled after him. “Flee to the safety of a Thieves’ Hall and a protected bed.”
“Sounds good to me,” confessed one of the ringtails. He promptly broke into a trot to catch up with the raccoon.
Their impudent departure started a minor rush. Even the spectacled bear lumbered off to join his defecting friends.
“Even you, Sinwahh, put to flight by infants!” The coati’s sneers trailed them remorselessly. “All of you ‘brave’ robbers, terrified by three cubs and some strange music. Cowards, weaklings! Offspring of discount whores! You’ll not share in our bounty!”
“Is there any bounty, o revered leader Charming?” The one raccoon who’d stayed behind was uncertain.
“Aye,” wondered the ringtail who’d remained. “The sloth looked like nothing but a simple merchant.”
The coati turned violently on his small constituency, all that remained of his once powerful band. “You believe that? Then you’re no better than those spineless fools who’ve fled. What ‘simple merchant’ merits rescue by three spellsingers, even young ones? Do you imagine that the newcomers risked their lives out of the goodness of their hearts, or from some imagined debt to the trader?” He spun ‘round to glare at the northern stretch of now empty road.
“There’s mote at stake here than pots and pans. There’s something in that wagon worth dying for. A lifetime’s savings in gold, perhaps, or precious stones garnered in Glittergeist trade. Or something even more valuable we cannot imagine. Something worm the concern of young wizards.” He turned back to his two anxious companions.
“You are right, Sisarfi. That wagon is not worth the attention of common thieves. But I am not common, and by cleaving to me and my leadership you bask in the glory of my uncommonness.”
“Uh, thanks.” Though obviously confused, the ringtail instinctively sensed it would be impolitic to seek further clarification. He rubbed at the place on his head where his left ear used to be. It had been sacrificed many years before in a badly bollixed attempt at robbing a riverboat.
“Those fools.” Chamung turned his gaze to the road leading south. “They’ll find no profit in Lynchbany. They’ll starve. It’s a town overrun with thieves, and half of them don’t even have Guild cards. All profit entails some risk, and we’re not afraid of a little risk, are we? Come!” He stalked determinedly toward the road, aiming north. “We’ll have our profit, and revenge for our poor brother Jachay as well! Already my mind ferments with provocative scenarios for entertaining disembowelments.”
The ringtail and raccoon exchanged a distinctly hesitant look before following.
The wagon wound its way through the bellwoods until a barely visible leftward branching in the road that Buncan would not even have guessed was there drew Gragelouth to the west. As their new route was not merely less traveled but practically nonexistent, their progress was slow. The terrain remained relatively level and firm.
The Bellwoods did not so much meld into the Moors as give way abruptly. One moment they were traveling among healthy oaks and sycamores, belltrees and glissando bushes, accompanied by the singing of crywail lizards and the hum of insects, and the next found them passing between cinder-gray groves and the inert hulks of long-dead trees.
These quickly surrendered the soil to an astonishingly fecund and fevered forest of giant mushrooms, toadstools, and shelf fungi, an overgrown morass of macabre mycelium that throbbed with an unwholesome internal phosphorescence. The cloud-flecked blue sky of the Bellwoods had been obliterated by a pervasive gray-green gloom that disheartened the soul as well as the eye.
Somewhere above the pestilent fog Buncan knew that the sun still shone brightly, the clouds still collided and coalesced amiably in a blue sea. It was vital to cling to that image as they plodded through the baleful olive-green twilight.
Water seeped lugubriously from the crowns of gigantic mushrooms and other fungi. Ghostly white growths loomed before them, diseased of appearance, loathsome of smell. Buncan drew his cape a little tighter around his neck. Even the otters were subdued. The dampness didn’t bother them, but the gloom did. The dour surroundings muted their irrepressibly cheerful sibling banter as effectively as the soggy earth hushed the creaky wheels of Gragelouth’s wagon.
“So these are the Muddletup Moors,” Buncan commented uneasily, not because it was necessary but because the continued silence was unbearable. Peculiar hisses and squeakings emanated from the undermorass, while phosphorescent shapes darted within, hinting at unpleasant horrors just beyond the range of ready vision. Displaying a subdued but unshakable sense of assurance (or hope), Gragelouth picked their way through the intimidating vegetation.
“I’ve ‘eard all about the Moors, I ‘ave.” Squill knelt on the cushions behind the driver’s bench, peering between Buncan and Gragelouth. Like his enthusiasm, his smile was forced. Moisture beaded up on the tips of his whiskers. “Mudge talked about ‘em a lot. ‘E’s been through ‘ere an’ back an’ come out tail intact every time.”
“E just never said wot a really depressin’ place it is,” Neena added unhelpfully.
“Therein lies the true danger of the Moors.” Gragelouth shifted the reins in his thick fingers, his gaze darting nervously to left and then right. “It infiltrates the mind and weakens the will to resist, to go on. Eventually you give up and just stop. Then the spores come, and the white tendrils, and enter your body. They grow in you and on you and use you up, until nothing is left but a collapsed skeleton. That, too, is eventually returned to the muck.”
“Glad to see you don’t let it bother you,” commented Neena dryly.
Squill’s expression was sullen. “I ‘ave to admit this ain’t the ‘appiest place I’ve ever been.”
The atmosphere of the Moors was already beginning to get to them, Buncan realized with a start. The all-pervasive aura of depression and hopelessness pressed down relentlessly.
“How about a song?”
“Cor, that’s a good idea, Bunkles.” Neena levered herself up from the cushions. “Somethin’ merry an’ ‘olesome.”
“No spellsinging,” Gragelouth admonished them. He eyed Buncan’s duar warily. “I thought it was agreed that was only for emergencies. I admit I am depressed, but not mortally so. Not yet.”
“No spellsinging,” Buncan agreed. “Just something to buoy us up and beat back this gloom.”
“That could be useful,” the merchant reluctantly conceded.
“Right.” Buncan struck the strings, flinging frisky chords into the brooding ah- like a noble casting gold pieces at an impecunious crowd. Behind him the otters began to harmonize playfully.
“Got no time to be sad today
There’s a time to be sad and a time to play
Place to be cryin’, place to be dyin’
We’re gonna get outta here ‘cause we be tryin’
To motivate this wagon on its way.”
The music drifted out across the Moors, penetrating and pushing aside the gloom as if it were a dirty, rotting curtain. The weight of the oleaginous air they were breathing lightened perceptibly, while the nearest sphacelated fungi seemed to recoil from the unrelenting cheerfulness, a perception that turned out to be anything but imaginary.
“Will you stop playing that music?” pleaded the growth on their immediate right.
“Blimey, Mudge were right.” Neena examined the giant toadstool. “They can communicate when they want to.”
“How can you sing?” declaimed a chorus of shelf fungi from nearby, “when there’s no hope left? When all is doomed?”
A cluster of mushrooms no higher man a dray lizard’s belly chimed in. “When existence defines itself through unending misery.”
“If you put it like that,” Buncan found himself muttering. A paw came down hard on his shoulder.
“Watch it, mate!” Squill’s bright eyes stared into his own. “Remember that’s ‘ow they work, the Moors. If the atmosphere doesn’t get you, then they try fatalistic philosophy. That’s wot Mudge always told us.”
Neena glared challengingly at the rutilant fungi. “There can’t be depression where mere’s music. Keep playin’, Bunkole.”
Buncan looked down at his duar. The polished surface of the unique instrument seemed dulled, the strings uneven and fraying. “I don’t know if this is doing any good.”
This time Squill grabbed him by the shoulders and half spun him around on the bench. The duar bonged against Gragelouth’s knee. The sloth winced but said nothing, resolutely tending to his driving.
“Fok your ‘don’t knows,’ mate! This ‘ere swamp is the mother of all indecision. Wake up, and play!”
Buncan nodded, blinking. The effect of the Moors, he realized, was so insidious you weren’t aware of what the place was doing to you even as it happened. Fortunately, otters had a very strong natural resistance to depression. He directed his attention to the duar with a vengeance.
Immediately the air seemed brighter, clearer. The grim fog rolled back and fungi in the wagon’s path crawled or oozed aside. Seeing that the music kept the creeping enervation at bay, even Gragelouth made an attempt to join in the singing.
They were feeling much better when the Moors responded, not with additional intimations of infectious ennui, but with music of its own: a distant, wild baying. It stopped their own singing cold. A prickly clamminess crept down Duncan’s back like a rain-soaked centipede.
“Wot were that?” Squill murmured, wide-eyed. “Sounds like somethin’ that crawled out o’ river-bottom mud.” He looked to the merchant.
Gragelouth was sniffing the air. “I do not recognize the sound. Nor do I look forward to encountering its source.” As he finished, the noise came again: flagrant, whetted, and definitely closer.
Buncan shook the sloth’s arm. “Don’t stop now. Not here. Can’t we go any faster?”
“My team was bred for endurance and not sprints,” the sloth told bun. “You can see that for yourself. They are making the best speed they can.” He glanced nervously sideways. “There is something about that sound which is more evil than mere depression.”
“Penetratin’, wotever it is,” Neena observed as the wild baying echoed through the morass. It definitely was not the wind: Wind was unknown in the Moors, where even a stray zephyr grew quickly depressed and died. The howling was dark and deep and rich with carnivorous import.
“I see somethin’ movin’!” Squill rose and pointed to their left.
A flash of movement among the undergrowth, a glimpse of bright red fireflies; then nothing. Gragelouth sat rigid on the bench. There was nothing he could do to speed his plodding, slow-witted team along the slick, potholed path. His nose twitched.
“I sense many presences.”
Buncan eyed him curiously. “You can sense presences?”
“A metaphor, young human. Can’t you feel them out there, around us?”
“I don’t feel anything except damp depression.” He fingered the duar nervously.
“No aura of menace? No overweening sense of incipient doom?”
“No more so than what we’ve been feeling since we left the Bell woods.” The baying and howling was constant around them now, drowning out the other background sounds of the Moors.
“Then you may be a spellsinger, or half a one, anyway,” the sloth murmured, “but your perception leaves much to be desired.”
So does your breath, Duncan wanted to say, but he was interrupted by Squill’s sudden shout.
“Crikey!” The otter was pointing again.
This time Buncan had no trouble picking out the pair of burning red eyes directly in front of them. They bobbed slightly as they advanced on the wagon. Unable to turn either to right or left, Gragelouth tugged on the reins and brought the cumbersome vehicle to a grinding halt. As he did so, the owner of the fiery gaze appeared out of the mist.
Standing just under five and a half feet tall, the hound had teeth that gleamed in the baleful light. Prominent fangs hung from the upper jaw. The canine specter wore a muckledidun shirt and pants tucked into high boots. Protruding from the trousers, the short tail switched back and forth like a metronome. Or a scythe.
A short sword with an unusually heavy, sharply curved blade hung with studied indifference from one paw. It would take a powerful individual to wield such a weapon with one hand, Buncan knew. His own fingers rested on the duar’s strings as he exchanged a meaningful glance with the otters. They nodded understanding, though there was no reason to spellsing yet. While the Moor dweller’s aspect was intimidating, he’d made nothing in the way of an overt threat. Yet.
A second pair of eyes materialized out of the mist. Another, and another, and more. All were hounds, though of varying shape, coloration, and size. All were heavily armed.
The one who confronted them had a spiked collar encircling his neck. The spikes had been filed to fine points. None of the others wore anything like formal armor, though Buncan noted an abundance of spiked leg-pieces and wristbands.
Taken in toto they were an altogether disagreeable-looking lot. It was clear they were not out haunting the Moors in search of a casual day’s stroll. By the same token, it was difficult to countenance the possibility that they actually lived there, though their appearance suggested a condition and lifestyle even the Moors would be hard-pressed to worsen.
Advancing around the team, the lead hound finally halted to confront the wagon’s occupants. As he looked them slowly up and down, Buncan could see the play of muscles across the broad chest and thickly bunched upper arms. As it stared it methodically slapped the heavy blade of its curved sword against an open palm.
“We don’t get many travelers out here in the Moors.” The voice was a rough, curdled growl, the words crumbling against the heavy palate like gravel in a crusher.
“Not enough,” quipped one of the others. Low, ominous laughter came from the rest of the band, which by now had completely surrounded the wagon.
“Where are you headed?” inquired the leader.
“To the northwest.” Gragelouth kept his eyes down, avoiding the hound’s burning gaze, the reins of his team clutched tightly in his thick, furry fingers.
“That’s not very informative. Where to the northwest?”
“Does it matter?”
“No, I suppose not.”
Buncan leaned forward. “We’ve come a long way and have a lot farther to go. If you’re bandits, say so now and we’ll give you our money.” Gragelouth turned sharply to his youthful companion, his pupils widening.
“Can’t step anywhere these days without ‘avin’ to scrape scum off your feet,” Squill muttered.
The hound glared up at him. “What was that?”
Squill smiled pleasantly. “I said that it were ‘and to get around these days.”
The hound’s intensity diminished, but only slightly. “It certainly is if your destination brings you through the Moors. None come this way who can go otherwise.”
“To go completely around the Moors would have taken too much time,” Gragelouth mumbled deferentially.
“And yet there are many dangers here.” Apparently the leader was in a conversational mood.
A hound with a mottled black-and-brown visage edged nearer. A grisly scar ran from the top of his skull down across his face and clear around to the back of his neck. Its pattern and angle suggested a botched attempt at decapitation.
“More dangers than you can imagine,” he grunted.
“Time is important to us,” Gragelouth replied lamely.
“We won’t delay you long.” The leader grinned hideously. “Just hand over everything you own.”
Gragelouth swallowed, looking resigned. “I have some money . . .”
“Oti, we don’t just want your money,” the hound explained. “We’ll take your personal effects, too, and your weapons, and your clothes. And I’ll personally have that interesting-looking musical device there.” A clawed finger singled out Duncan’s duar. “Also your wagon and team.”
“Don’t tell me you need to get somewhere in a hurry, too,” muttered Neena.
“Not at all.” The hound stroked the flank of the nearest dray lizard. It bore the caress complacently. “But these look quite savory. You know, there’s not a lot for a carnivore to dine on out here in the Moors, and we prefer to avoid the cities. For some mysterious reason town dwellers are shocked by our attitudes and appearance.” Several of the hounds within hearing range chuckled unpleasantly.
“In fact,” the creature continued remorselessly, his eyes burning into Buncan’s own, “you look quite edible yourselves.”
“Oi,” Neena husked under her breath, “we’ve fallen in among a lot of bloody cannibals!”
“And just what is a cannibal, my fuzzy little bars d’oeuvre?” the hound challenged her. “A term charged with all manner of absurdly sensationalist undertones. There was a time in the far distant past when it was the natural order of things for those with warm blood to devour omen of land. Meat is meat. We who are forced to dwell in the dank depths of the Moors cannot afford to discriminate. Where consumption is concerned we are wholly democratic: We’ll eat anyone.” He was still smiling.
“So we’ll have everything you own, and we’ll have you as well.” He glanced toward the strings of utensils dangling from the rear and sides of the wagon. “It was thoughtful of you to provide the means for your own preparation. At least you will expire in familiar surroundings.”
“We won’t go without a fight!” Squill rose sharply behind the driver’s bench, an arrow notched in his bow. Neena rose beside him, similarly prepared.
“Oh my, oh dear.” The hound tut-tutted as he took a step backward. His companions chortled darkly. “The terror! The fear! Can it be we are surprised?” He caressed the heavy curved blade of his sword. “All of us against three cubs and an old sloth? How ever will we survive? One trifle before we begin, though. I ask the names of those who would provide entertainment before dinner.”
“I’m Squill, son o’ Mudge. This ‘ere’s me sister Neena. That’s Mudge the Traveler, Mudge the Conqueror, Mudge the AU-Revengin’ to you.”
“Never heard of bun,” the hound responded briskly.
It was Buncan’s turn. “I’m Buncan Ottermusk Meriweather. Son of the greatest spellsinger in all of time and space, Jonathan Thomas Meriweather.”
“All those names.” The hound snorted. “Never heard of him either. We’re not much for celebrity here in the Moors.” He glanced to Buncan’s right. “And you? Speak up, sloth.”
The merchant flinched. “I am called Gragelouth. A simple barterer in household goods and services.”
“Well, tonight you’ll be called supper.” Within the hound’s jaws, filed teeth gleamed menacingly.
Buncan was whispering to his friends. “Lyrics? Don’t you have any lyrics yet? What’s keeping you?”
“I can’t think o’ any songs about ‘ounds,” Neena hissed. “These ‘ere blokes are about the first o’ their kind I’ve ever encountered.”
“ ‘Ow do you get rid o’ ‘ounds?” Squill wondered aloud.
“I don’t know either, but you’d better think of something quick. There’s too many of them for arrows, and they make the ones who tried to rob Gragelouth back in the Bellwoods look like country bumpkins.” He turned back to the leader, trying to stall for time.
“Now it’s my turn. Who threatens us, with no regard for our ancestry or the revenge that will surely follow if any harm befalls us?”
“Nothing follows into the Moors,” the hound growled belligerently. “Not kings seeking reluctant subjects nor sorcerers searching for strayed apprentices. Certainly not revenge. This place is the womb of bleakness, and we are its offspring. We who survive here do so only by giving in to woe. It suffuses our very beings. So do not think to appeal to our better nature, because we have none. Though I admit that your presence makes us feel better. It’s rare we come across food that has not already begun to rot.”
“That doesn’t tell me who you are.” Behind him, the otters composed frantically.
“We are all hounds here, as you can see.” The leader gestured expansively. “We are the hounds that haunt your dreams and chase you through your nightmares. We supply the howling you hear in your sleep, the growls that make you toss and turn uneasily, the shrill unexpected barks that you take for those of your neighbor.” He pointed with his sword.
“There stands the hound of the Mitrevilles, and next to him the hound of the Toonervilles. Off to the left waits the hound of the Cantervilles.” He went on to identify each member of the band by name.
It granted the travelers a few precious additional minutes. “Anything?” Buncan whispered to the otters.
“Wot is there to think of?” Despair had overcome Gragelouth, and the merchant held his woolly head in his paws. “All is lost. These are no ordinary brigands. It will take more than music to overcome them. They have remorse and anguish on their side.” He sighed heavily. “So much work, a lifetime of struggle, only to end up as a dog’s dinner. An inglorious finale. I regret that I have brought you to such a state.”
“We’re not there yet,” Buncan told him. “My friends will think of something.”
“Not me, mate,” said Squill helplessly.
“Me neither,” added Neena. “Wot about you, Buncan? Can’t you think of anything?”
“I’m not the singer.”
“But you could give us the words!” she pleaded. “A suggestion, a direction we could take. Anythin’ !”
“I don’t know anything about hounds,” he whispered desperately. “I spent all my time learning how to play the duar, not make up—” He broke off, remembering unexpectedly. “There is this old song. I remember Jon-Tom used to sing it to me when I was young. Real young. A baby song. It never made any sense to me, but it might fit this situation. A little. It’s all I can think of.”
“No time for debate,” Squill pointed out. “Try it.”
Buncan’s fingers rested tensely on the duar. “It’s no rap,” he warned them.
Neena smiled wolfishly. “We’ll take care o’ that. Just give us some bleedin’ words we can work with.”
“It goes like this.” He proceeded to whisper what he could remember of the saccharine little tune.
Squill looked doubtful. “If you don’t mind me sayin’ so, the tone ain’t exactly sorceral.”
“Rap it,” he urged them, “and let me play. We’ve got to try something.” He indicated the leader, who was winding up his litany.
“ . . . And I,” the thick-set creature concluded, “am the hound of the Baskervilles.”
Buncan frowned. “I may have heard of you.” The hound looked pleased. “So our reputation reaches even beyond the Moors. That is gratifying, but not unexpected. The peculiar mists and winds of the Muddletup transport much that is within without.” He raised his sword. “Now that you know who will be dining upon you, we can begin. It is time to substitute butchery for conversation. But tremble not. We are not brutal. We will make this as quick as possible. When you have determined that resistance is not only foolish but painful, simply put down your arms and lay your heads out parallel to the earth. I will do the honors myself. My colleagues tend to sloppiness.”
Buncan put up a hand to forestall the hound’s approach. “Wait! A last song before dying. If you would be thought generous, grant us this one final amusement.”
The hound frowned. “Music does not do well here. The air weighs it down. But if you prefer that to battle, have at it.”
“Oi, thanks,” said Squill. “Me, I’d rather go out with a song.” He set his bow and arrow aside.
“Be quick about it,” the hound grumbled. “My stomach complains.”
Buncan began to play. Recalling the lyrics he had supplied, the otters joined in, transposing and transforming, engendering a rap unlike anything they’d tried before.
“ ‘Ow much, ‘ow much, ‘ow much? ‘Ow much is that doggie, that one there Can’t compare, to the one over there In the window, dude, in the window, where You can’t compare any one you knowed Before the war, to the one in the window. Don’t you see; ‘ow much is she?”
The hounds looked at once bored and baffled as Buncan piled chord upon chord, uplifting the strange lyrics, providing them with an irresistible forward thrust that would no doubt have astonished the composers of the original ditty.
No giant otherdimensional carnivorous canine materialized to terrify the hounds into submission, no befanged beasts oozed up out of the muck to attack them individually. Nor did the words result in the conjuration of some ensorceled offensive-minded device like a giant hammer.
“Put your hearts into it!” Buncan hissed angrily at his companions. Neena responded with an obscene gesture born of desperation as much as frustration.
This is it, he thought tiredly to himself. Not only are we destined to go no farther, we hardly got started. Put a few common forest bandits to flight and you think you can take on the world. Then- demise would be as abrupt as it would be degrading.
A purplish-red mist began to form between the wagon and the leader of the hounds.
The dray lizards started in harness, hissing and spitting wildly, forcing the startled Gragelouth to work his reins to maintain control. The hound hopped backward, thrusting his sword out defensively in front of him. Nervous mutterings sounded from the members of his band.
“Keep singing, no matter what it is, keep singing!” Buncan urged his friends. The otters needed no encouragement, plying variation upon variation on the now fully possessed melody. In their own way they were as entranced as the hounds.
What was it they were spellsinging forth?
The mist swirled aimlessly, as if searching for a seed, a core, to fix upon. At last it began to coalesce. Silhouettes appeared, gradually congealing into shapes that boasted both density and weight.
They flashed no armor, wielded no weapons. In fact, they were hardly clad at all, and what they did wear was designed more to flaunt than to conceal. Buncan counted a good dozen of the ghostly figures, precisely one for each member of the voracious circle.
While not all were hounds, each was flatteringly representative of the canine persuasion. Even his inexperienced eyes found their attire of silks and satins provocative.
In addition to which, each and every one of them was fully in heat.
The effect the dozen seductive bitches had on the assembled hounds was nothing short of apocalyptic. Buncan watched as the first let his sword drop from his benumbed fingers. Wearing an utterly stupefied expression, he stumbled forward into the waiting arms of the bitch nearest him. She embraced bun with the ease and skill of an experienced professional.
The leader made an effort to save his distracted band, raging among them with words and blows. Then a tall, immaculately coiffed Afghan slunk forward to give him a gentle chuck under his chin. His sword rose but his gaze descended. His nose twitched convulsively, at which point he had no choice but to switch weapons.
“Get moving!” Buncan whispered tersely to the mesmerized merchant without slowing his playing.
Gragelouth looked blank for a moment, then chucked the reins with becoming fervor. Tack creaked and groaned as the lizards picked up their feet. The wagon trundled forward.
No one jumped in their path or made any effort to interfere with them.
Leaning out of the bench seat and looking backward, Buncan thought he saw the hound of the Baskervilles trying to break free of the orgy. The wild-eyed leader went down under the weight of not one but two of the expensive bitches-of-the-evening Buncan and the otters had called forth. He did not reemerge.
As they fled unhindered into the vastness of the Moors the travelers heard one last time the collective baying of the hounds, but that hitherto mournful echo sounded now rather more enthusiastic than threatening.
Only when they were well away did Buncan put his duar aside, wondering as he did so what would happen when the seductive spirits he and the otters had called forth ceased their frenetic ministrations and finally demanded payment for their services. He was certain they would, for the lyrics of the spellsong had been forthright in their mention of price.
Squill clapped him on the back. “That were bloody brilliant, mate! Did you see their faces? Be buggered if I don’t envy ‘em.”
Neena simply shook her head in disgust. “I’m surprised you didn’t join in, bro’.”
Squill’s nose wrinkled. “The timin’s ‘ardly right. When they finish, that lot’s gonna be even ‘ungrier than before.”
“I didn’t have any idea it would work.” Buncan protested modestly. “That wasn’t exactly the kind of cost-related result I would have expected, either. But it was the only ‘hound’-related song I could mink of at the time.” He shrugged. “That’s spellsinging for you. By the way, you two were amazing.”
“Well, o’ course,” Neena agreed without hesitation.
“It was just a baby song,” Buncan added.
“Childhood imagery contains much power,” Gragelouth commented. “I must apologize.”
“For what?” Buncan wanted to know.
“For ever doubting your spellsinging abilities. It is evident now that your youth is not overmuch of a meliorating factor.”
“Beg pardon?” said Squill. His sister cuffed him.
“We got lucky,” Buncan confessed. “We might just as easily be someone’s dinner.”
“Do not make light of what you have done. Your talents are undeniable.” For the first time since Buncan had set eyes on him, Gragelouth looked almost happy.
“ ‘E’s right, Buncoos.” Neena leaned forward and put her short arms around him. Her whiskers tickled the back of his neck. “OF Clothabump may be more experienced, and Jon-Tom slicker, but we three are the greatest spellsingin’ team that ever was.”
“Let’s not get carried away by a couple of lucky successes,” Buncan chided her. But he had to admit he felt good about their prospects.
“So we’ve proved ourselves to you, droopy-lips?” Neena prodded the merchant.
“We have barely begun.” Gragelouth tried to avoid her teasing finger. He didn’t like to be touched, Buncan had noticed. “There will doubtless be other dangers to deal with, other confrontations.”
“Maybe not,” said Squill cheerily. “Maybe it’ll be smooth swimmin’ all the way to the northwest. ‘Ell, we’re about through the Moors and we’ve ‘andled not one but two lot o’ bandits on the way.”
“Perhaps you are right.” The merchant sat a little straighter on his bench. “Though it is not in my nature, perhaps I should be more assured.”
“Do wonders for your social life, mate.” Squill put a paw on the sloth’s shoulder. “You just tend to the drivin’ and we’ll take care o’ any nasties that ‘ave the nerve to cross us.”
Gragelouth nodded slowly. “I only hope that your skills ripen as rapidly as your presumption, river-runner.”
For a time it seemed as if squill was right to be so confident. The rest of their journey through the Muddletup Moors proceeded without incident, marred only by a damaged wheel that the merchant quickly and efficiently repaired. As they pushed on, Duncan played frequently and the otters sang to keep the enervating atmosphere of the Moors at bay. Of the hounds there was no sign, nor did anything more inimical than a bellicose toadstool attempt to hinder their progress.
Eventually they emerged from the dour surroundings of the Moors onto a wide, lightly vegetated plain that was different from any country Buncan or the otters had ever seen. Having grown up in the lush confines of the Bellwoods, they were immediately intrigued by the stunted trees and dense, dry-leaved bushes and grasses that covered the land.
“Oi, is this the desert?” Neena asked wonderingly as the wagon rattled down the barely visible track. “I’ve ‘eard about the desert, I ‘ave.” Behind them a low bank of permanent, purulent fog obscured the western reaches of the Moors. Bright sunshine had banished the last psychic echoes of manic-depressive fungi from (heir minds. It was a pleasure to let down their mental guard.
Pirouetting breezes swept blue-stained dirt into occasional dust devils. Broad-winged flying lizards sculpted predatory patterns in the air, searching for smaller, gravity-bound prey below. Slim, hasty creatures with multiple legs scurried out of the wagon’s path to vanish down camouflaged holes and burrows.
“No, this isn’t the desert,” Gragelouth patiently explained. “There’s far too much water present, and the abundance of plants reflects that. I would call this upland scrubland.”
He nodded in the direction of high, chapparal-covered mesas. Where flowing water had eroded the hillsides multicolored sandstone sparkled in the sun like the layers of a coronation cake. “Pretty, that.”
Buncan agreed, and would have enjoyed spending a day or two exploring such country, but they had no time to linger. In any event, the otters did not share his enthusiasm for casual sight-seeing. The absence of running water made them nervous.
The landscape changed little over the next few days. Desert it might not be, but it was more than hot enough for everyone. Fortunately, water in greater quantities soon showed itself in the small streams that ran down from the mesa tops, and in shaded pools deep enough to offer the otters an occasional reinvigorating plunge.
“Doesn’t anyone live out here?” Buncan asked the question of their guide on the fourth day out from the Moors. The wagon squeaked in counterpoint to his query.
“There are tales of communities,” Gragelouth replied, “but this is little-known country. Civilized folk keep to the Bellwoods, or travel south to the Tailaroam and thence down to the Glittergeist or up the river to Polastrindu.”
“Don’t see why anyone would choose to live ‘ere.” Neena sniffed distastefully as she studied the uninviting terrain. “Too dry, too isolated, wot?”
“Some people prefer isolation,” the merchant told her. “I have traded with such.”
“Each to their own tastes, I suppose.”
“This track we’re following must run somewhere,” her brother observed sagely, “little used though it is.”
Sure enough, not another day had passed before they topped a low rise between boulders that gave way to a view of a verdant valley. Two broad streams meandered through well-tended fields, which surrounded a town of surprising dimensions.
Behind a smooth-faced white wall with a curved crest towered buildings of three and four stories, all plastered and painted the same stark, reflective white. Under the midday sun the city shone so brightly that the approaching travelers had to shield their eyes against it. Gragelouth in particular suffered considerably.
Like everything else, the sight only served to inspire the otters. “Where’s this, or maybe I should say, wot’s this?” Squill’s short tail twitched excitedly.
“I do not know,” the merchant admitted. “As I have already said, I have never been this way before.”
“Sure is well kept-up,” Buncan commented as they followed the faint wagon track toward the nearest city gate. He was well aware that the otters were avidly eyeing the nearest of the two main streams. “I don’t know about anyone else, but I could do with a swim.”
Tentative as always, Gragelouth pursed thick lips as he considered the prospect. “The local farmers may not like people bathing in their irrigation water.”
“Chill out,” Squill admonished him. “We’ll turn off before we reach the city wall and slip in somewhere upstream. No one’ll see us.”
“They may not mind. The community looks quite prosperous,” Gragelouth had to admit.
As Squill surmised, their brief swim passed unnoticed. All were in high good spirits as they dried themselves in the sun while the merchant drove the wagon back toward the city. There were numerous tracks to follow now. Farmers’ wagons, Buncan thought.
As they approached a city gate other vehicles could be seen entering and leaving: wagons piled high with produce or supplies, two-wheeled carts, riders on individual mounts, preoccupied pedestrians. As was typical, Buncan was taller than any of them. His unusual height, he knew, was a gift of his father’s otherworldly origins.
It was Squill who first noticed the anomaly.
“Crikey,” he exclaimed in surprise as they drew near enough to distinguish individuals. “They’re all bloody rodents!”
It was true. The city was populated entirely by rats, mice, squirrels, and their relations. There were no canines, felines, primates, or ungulates; no representatives of any of the other great tribes of the warm-blooded. Such species isolation was unprecedented in their experience. It was almost as if the inhabitants had chosen to segregate themselves. Despite the city’s evident prosperity, Buncan knew that such a sequestered population would inevitably make for cultural famine.
Back in the civilized world the representatives of the rodentia had often been looked down upon, until they had helped to turn the tide against the Plated Folk at the battle of the Jo-Troom Pass. So it was most unexpected to find so many of them living like this, isolated from the great and wondrous diversity of the wider world.
Neena was standing on the cushions back of the bench. “Look at them. No expressions o’ individuality at all.”
Indeed, regardless of tribe everyone mey saw was clad entirely in white sheets or robes. These extended in unbroken fashion from head to foot save for slits for ears and tail, and an oval opening for the face. White sandals shod feet regardless of size or shape. Within this all-pervasive whiteness there was room for some variation, with buttons, belts, lace, and other trim of exquisite detail and design providing the only distincti veness in the absence of color. In addition to then: voluminous robes, some additionally wore masks or scarves of embroidered white, perhaps to keep out the dust while working in the fields, Buncan surmised.
More notable even than the unvarying whiteness was the immaculate condition of the city and its citizens. Buncan could not find a spot of mud, a chunk of decaying plaster, or a blighted structure anywhere as they passed through the unbarred gate into the city proper. A pan- of squat capybara guards followed the wagon with their eyes but made no move to confront it. Then- ceremonial pikes were fashioned of bircli wood tipped with blades of sharpened milk quartz.
A warren of structures began immediately inside the gate. Modest or excessive, all were plastered or painted white. Awnings of white cloth shaded small street-side stalls or upper-story windows framed with intricately carved white shutters. The street down which they plodded was cleaner than the tables of most taverns in Lynchbany.
“This whiteness must have religious or social significance,” Gragelouth was commenting. “Such uniformity could not persist in the absence of some pressure to conform.”
“Poking dull, I calls it,” said Squill.
“White reflects the sun and keeps everything cooler,” Oragelouth pointed out, unintentionally defending the city’s inhabitants.
“Wonder what they must be making of us,” Duncan mused aloud. “Judging from the stares we’ve been drawing since we arrived, they don’t see many outsiders here.”
“Who’d come “ere,” Neena pointed out, “if you ‘ad to punch through the Moors first?”
“All this uniformity makes me uncomfortable,” said Gragelouth. “It implies a rigidity of thinking inimical to trade. We will linger only long enough to replenish our supplies.”
“Be good to sleep in a real bed,” Squill commented, “not to mention ‘avin’ sometbin’ decent to eat for a change.”
Gragelouth brought the wagon to a halt before a two-story structure with no windows in the upper floor. Several other vehicles and then- reptiles were tethered nearby. A large, powerful monitor lizard hissed but made room for the newcomers.
“I am a merchant by trade,” he responded with some dignity. “Not a cook.” He climbed down from the bench seat.
Locals hurrying up and down the street on business stared unabashedly, their snouts and whiskers protruding from their hooded attire. Duncan dismounted to stand next to Gragelouth. He could overhear but not decipher the whispered comments of the passersby.
“Crikey, maybe they’re afraid of us.” Squill rested one paw on the hilt of his short sword.
“No, I do not get that feeling. It is something else.” Gragelouth spoke as he considered the building before them. “I wonder if we are welcome here, or if it might not be better to move on.”
“Should be able to find out quickly enough.” Duncan placed himself directly in the path of a three-foot-tall mouse with a peculiar bushy tail. It halted uncertainly, gazing up at the towering human.
“What place is this? We’re strangers to mis city,” Duncan hoped he sounded firm but friendly.
The mouse gestured with a tiny hand on which reposed half a dozen exquisitely fashioned rings of white gold.
“Why, this is Hygria of the Plains, primate. Now please, let me pass.” He looked anxiously, not at Duncan, but at those of his fellow citizens who had gathered in front of the windowless building to watch.
Duncan didn’t move. “A moment of your time, sir. We need to avail ourselves of your city’s hospitality. Can you tell us where we might find suitable food and lodging?”
The mouse swallowed, turned. “From this point inward the streets grow narrow. You will have to leave your animals and vehicle here. As to your personal needs, you might try the Inn of the All-Scouring Deatitudes. It sometimes will accommodate travelers. Second avenue on your left.” The rodent hesitated. “Though were I you I would not linger here, but would take your wagon and depart soonest.”
“Why? We just got here.” Duncan’s gaze narrowed.
The mouse seemed more anxious than ever to be on his way. “You have broken the law.”
Duncan looked to Gragelouth, who shook his head uncomprehendingly. “What law? We haven’t been here long enough to break any laws.” Those citizens assembled in front of the building were suddenly acting furtive, as if simply hovering in the vicinity of the outlandish visitors constituted in itself a kind of daring complicity in outrages anonymous.
“I have done my courtesy.” The mouse abruptly folded both hands beneath its white robe, bowed, and scurried off to his left, dodging before Duncan could again block bis path.
“Cor, come ‘ave a look!” Turning, Duncan saw the otters standing beneath a canopy across the street. Sauntering over, he saw that they were inspecting the wares of a very nervous jerboa vegetable seller. There were white onions, and white grapes, and a kind of oblong white melon, but there were also peppers and tomatoes and other more familiar produce.
“At least everythin’ ‘ere ain’t white,” Squill commented.
Neena held up something like a pale-white peppermint-striped cucumber. “ ‘Ow much for this, madame?”
The jerboa fluttered her paws at them, the tall turban atop her head threatening to collapse at any moment. “Go ‘way, go ‘way!” She was peering fretfully down the street.
“ ‘Ere now, don’t be like that,” said Neena. “I’m just ‘ungry, is all.” She presented a fistful of coins. “Ain’t none o’ this good ‘ere?”
“Yes, yes, it’s all good.” With an air of desperation the jerboa reached out and plucked a couple of minor corns from Neena’s hand, practically shoving the vegetable at her. “Now go, go away.”
The three nonplussed shoppers rejoined Gragelouth. “Well, they ain’t “ostile.” Neena gnawed on the blunt end of the peculiar vegetable. “This ain’t ‘alf bad. Kind o’ a nutty flavor.”
“fits you, then.” Squill never missed an opportunity. “No, they’re not ‘ostile. Just bloomin’ antisocial.”
Buncan was gazing down the street. “Let’s see if we can find that inn.” He called back to the vegetable seller. “If we leave our property here, will it be safe?”
The merchant’s previous concern became outrage. “Of course! This is Hygria. No one would approach, much less try to plunder, anything so unclean as your belongings.”
“Certainly are proud of their cleanliness,” Buncan commented as they started down the street.
“Yes,” agreed Gragelouth. “One might almost say they make a fetish of it.”
“Makes it inviting for visitors.”
“Does it?” the merchant murmured. “I wonder.”
As they made their way down the narrow avenue, Buncan looked for but was unable to find a spot of garbage, junk, or misplaced dirt. Hygria was without a doubt the cleanest community he had ever seen. By comparison Lynchbany, a comparatively well-kept forest town, was a fetid cesspool.
Gragelouth turned to glance back up the street at where they’d left their wagon. “I think that female was telling the truth. I believe our goods will be safe. Not that you three have anything to worry about. All you brought along you carry with you.”
“Wot’s this?” Squill’s tone was mocking. “Trust? That’s not like you, merchant.”
The sloth indicated the narrow avenue. “As we were told, this byway is too narrow for my wagon. There are only pedestrians here. And I found that stall owner’s expression of distaste convincing.”
Neena let her gaze wander from structure to structure, each as pristine white as its neighbor. “This place could use a little livenin’ up. It’s so bleedin’ stiff and clean it makes me teeth “urt.”
They found the inn, its entrance clearly marked by a sign of carved white wood which overhung the street. But before they had a chance to enter, their attention was drawn to a singular entourage approaching from the far end of the street.
A line of half a dozen white-shrouded mice and cavis marching abreast was coming toward them. With fanatical single-mindedness each attacked his or her portion of the avenue with a short-handled, wide-bristled broom. They were followed by a number of mice, pacas, and muskrats armed with wheeled containers and double-handed scoops.
Advancing with the precision of a military drill unit, mis furry assemblage was doing everything but polishing the smooth stones that paved the street. Buncan strained but could not see beyond the wispy cloud of dust they raised. Perhaps the polishers, he reflected only half sarcastically, would come later.
“Blimey, would you take a look at that,” Squill muttered. “That’s carryin’ cleanliness too far.”
“No wonder that little jerboa thought us unclean,” Buncan added.
Neena couldn’t repress a whiskery smirk. “Maybe that’s why they call this kind o’ country scrubland.” She ducked a blow from her brother.
Buncan confronted a well-dressed, slightly corpulent cap-ybara as he emerged from the cool darkness of the inn. His fur was cut in bangs over his forehead.
He eyed Buncan and his companions askance. “Where have you people come from?”
“Out o’ the Moors,” said Squill proudly.
The capy squinted at him, his blunt muzzle twitching. “I doubt that, but it’s obvious you’re not from around here.”
Buncan indicated the approaching street sweepers. “How often do they do that?”
“Several times each day, of course.” The capy sniffed disdainfully, careful to keep his distance from the tall human. “That’s the hygiene patrol.”
Squill started to snigger. “Patrol? What do they do when they find dirt? Arrest it?” Gragelouth made anxious silencing motions at the otter, which Squill naturally ignored.
“As strangers here, you self-evidently do not understand. We are proud of our ways.” The capy sniffed. “If I were you, I’d get out of sight as soon as possible.”
“Why?” Buncan recalled the mouse’s warning.
“Because you do not measure up to local standards. Now, if you will excuse me.”
Buncan stepped aside and watched the capy waddle away up the street. “Wonder what he meant by that.”
“I do not know,” said Gragelouth, “but we had better move or we are liable to find ourselves swept up together with the dust and dirt.”
They entered into the inn just as the patrol reached them, watched as it literally swept past. Their precision was impressive, Buncan had to admit. As soon as they’d passed he stepped back out Into the street, following them with his gaze.
“I mink that’s it.”
A ringer tapped him on the shoulder. “Not quite, mate.”
Squill nodded down the street. Advancing in the sweepers’ wake was a squad of eight pike-armed pacas, squirrels, degus, capys, and assorted others. They marched in two lines, one behind the other, blocking the street from side to side, their white uniforms Immaculate. Each wore an inscribed headband beneath his flowing headgear. The insignia of a large rat marching in front gleamed golden.
Buncan met his gaze evenly as the entire squad halted outside the inn. The rat’s disgust as he inspected the travelers was almost palpable.
“Strangers,” he muttered. “Just arrived?”
“That’s right,” admitted Buncan. He suddenly sensed Gragelouth trying to fade into the shadows behind him.
A pair of degus stepped inside, squeezing past the otters. “You’ll have to come with us,” the rat told him.
Buncan frowned. “What for? We were just going to see about a couple of rooms.”
“Accommodation will be provided for you.” The rat barked an order, and the business ends of seven pikes inclined in their direction.
Buncan put his hand on his sword, felt Gragelouth close beside him. “We are deep within the city. Fighting will do us no good here.” As usual, the merchant made sense. Buncan forced himself to relax. “They may only wish to question us,” the sloth went on. “Perhaps we will have to pay a fine. Whatever they want, it would be premature to start a ruckus.”
“Speak for yourself,” said Squill, but he did not reach for his own weapons.
“We haven’t done anything.” Buncan took a step forward.
The three-and-a-half-foot-tall rat retreated instantly from the towering primate, pulling a silver whistle from a pocket and blowing hard. The shrill blast echoed down the street.
Additional soldiers materialized from nowhere, until the travelers were no longer merely surrounded but hemmed in.
“Hey, take it easy!” Like his companions, Buncan was taken aback by the unexpected and overwhelming display of force. Notions of reaching not for his sword but his duar were hindered by the proximity of so many weapons and the edgy attitude of those wielding them. “We’ll come with you.”
“A wise decision.” The rat looked satisfied.
The white-clad troops formed an impenetrable mass both in front of and behind the sullen travelers as they were convoyed down the street. “You still haven’t told us what we’re supposed to have done,” Buncan pressed the rat in command.
“Done?” The commander looked back at him. “You offend by your very presence. Your existence degrades, indeed mocks, all decent community standards.”
“Ere now, guv,” said Squill, “are you implyin’ that me and me mates are duty?”
“No,” replied the rat. “I’m saying that your condition is filthy, execrable, squalid, and unclean. Your odor is rank and your feet defile the ground wherever they make contact. As for your breath, it is of a loathsomeness so lavish that I do not possess terms of sufficient severity with which to describe it.”
Neena leaned close to her brother. ‘ I think ‘e’s sayin’ that we don’t quite measure up to the local median, cleanliness-wise.”
“You will have an opportunity to purify yourselves as much as possible prior to your appearance before the Magistrate,” the rat was telling them as they turned a corner. The street opened onto a landscaped square paved in white limestone. Citizens gathered around the milky marble fountain in the center stared openmouthed as the parade passed.
On the far side of the square they were marched into a large building and made to wait in a spacious chamber while the commandant rat conversed with a colleague behind a desk. Asked to hand over their weapons and personal effects, there was little they could do but comply. To Buncan’s chagrin, he was also compelled to turn in his duar. That done, most of their escort departed. The remainder escorted and shoved them, none too gently, down a short corridor and into a large barred vestibule. Even the odd diagonal bars had been painted white.
Jail it might be, but the cell was as spotless as the antechamber outside.
Squill grabbed the bars and yelled after the departing rat and his companion, the chief jailer (a shrew of unpleasant disposition and appearance).
“You’d better not try to keep us ‘ere any longer than we’re willin’ to go along with this! We’re powerful sorcerers, we are.”
The rats looked back and grinned thinly. “Of course you are. But tell me: If you’re such masters of the arcane arts, why not use your magic to properly cleanse yourselves?”
“We are clean, dammit!” Gripping the bars, Squill hopped up and down in frustration.
“Not by civilized standards.” The officers turned a corner and vacated the corridor outside the cells.
Neena took a seat on one of the two benches that hung suspended from a wall . . . no doubt to make it easier to clean under, Buncan mused.
“Well, we didn’t ‘ave no trouble findin’ a place to spend the night.”
Buncan tried to put the best possible light on their situation. “This isn’t so bad. Inconvenient, but hardly dangerous. We’ll answer their questions and pay their fine, as Gragelouth surmises, and then we’ll get the hell out of Hygria as fast as we can replenish our supplies.”
“My wagon and team,” the merchant mumbled. Buncan eyed him unsympathetically.
“You’re the one who said to cooperate.”
The sloth regarded him with atypical sharpness. “You saw how many there were. We would have not stood a chance in a close-quarter battle. The intelligent fighter picks the time that best suits him.”
“Righty-ho.” Squill spread his arms wide. “Why, we’re in a much better position to get out o’ this compost ‘cap now than we were afore.”
“At least we’re not dead,” Gragelouth shot back, showing uncharacteristic pugnacity. “I have watched. You need time to compose your spellsongs. We possessed no such margin for chronological error when we were surrounded.”
“We could magic ourselves out o’ ‘ere,” Neena murmured, “except . . .”
“No duar,” Buncan finished for her. “We may have to try and clean ourselves up to meet their standards.”
“You weren’t payin’ attention, mate.” Squill ran a paw down the diagonal bars. “That’ll just get us an audience with the local judge, not out o’ ‘ere. An’ wot ‘appens if no matter wot we do we can’t never get up to their bleedin’ high ‘standards’?” He showed bright teeth. “I don’t like bein’ pushed around.”
“They may only want our money,” Gragelouth observed.
“Maybe, maybe,” Squill murmured softly. “Or they might want everythin’ of ours, which they’ll confiscate while we rot away in this bleedin’ cell.”
“They won’t let us rot,” said his sister. “Wouldn’t be a clean thing to do.”
“Maybe, but I don’t think I want to ‘ang around to find out.” Gragelouth rose from where he’d been sitting and gazed up the corridor. “Someone is coming.”
It was the rat, flanked by a pair of strangely garbed woodchucks. Their attire was richly embroidered with a plethora of appliqu6d arcane symbols.
They halted outside the cell. The nearest woodchuck adjusted bifocal glasses. “What have we here?”
“They claim to be sorcerers.” The rat’s lips curled in an elegant sneer.
“Look more like vagrants to me,” commented the second, slightly taller woodchuck.
His associate nodded. “I am Multhumot, Senior Master of the Hidden Arts for Hygria. I do not believe, but I am willing to be convinced. If you are sorcerers, show me a sample of your skills.”
“You mean you’re gonna let us?” said Squill. “Right!”
“An effective demonstration will require more than enthusiasm.” The woodchuck’s tone was dry.
“We are sorry if we have unwillingly given any offense.” Gragelouth advanced from the back of the cell to the bars. “If you will but return to us our possessions, we will depart immediately.”
“It is too late for that.” The commandant was smiling. “You have committed grave offenses and must pay the penalty.” Gragelouth nodded his shaggy head, muttering. “It is as I suspected.”
“Oi, you were right, merchant.” Neena was staring at the rat. “That’s wot they were after all along. Tell me, bald-tail, is your conscience as clean as your butt?”
“I don’t know what you mean.” By his tone the commandant indicated that he knew exactly what she meant.
“Right.” Squill looked eager. “They want proof, let’s give ‘em some proof.”
“Maybe it would be better simply to pay the fine,” Gragelouth ventured uneasily.
“Stuff it, sloth,” said Squill. “This ‘ere’s personal now.”
“I need my instrument back.” Duncan did his best to affect an air of indifference.
“The Master wants to see magic, not music.” The rat snorted disdainfully.
Multhumot waved a hand. “Bring what he requests, but first check the interior for weapons and devices.” He eyed Duncan appraisingly. “This had best not be a joke, human. Do not think to toy with me.”
Buncan kept his expression carefully neutral.
A squirrel appeared with the duar. The cell door was opened and it was passed inside. Buncan cradled it lovingly, checking it thoroughly for damage. It appeared unharmed. Only when he was satisfied did he turn to the otters, who waited expectantly.
“Something simple,” he told them. “Just enough for a demonstration.”
4 ‘Ell, I wanted to flatten the ‘ole bleedin’ city.” Squill was unashamedly disappointed.
“ ‘Ow about we dissolve these bars?” Neena smiled sweetly at the rat. “Would that be adequate proof?” The commandant stiffened slightly. For the first time he looked less than completely confident. By contrast, the two wood-chucks evinced hardly any reaction.
“That would be interesting,” Multhumot’s associate admitted.
Buncan bowed slightly and commenced to follow the otters’ vocal lead.
“Got no freedom in this place
Time to get out an’ get on with the race
This place ‘ere stinks, this space ‘ere winks
Let’s waste this fokker and get back to our Stinks.
Us an’ our friends, that’s wot we thinks.”
The mist that materialized this time was dark and threatening. It coalesced into a compact cumulonimbus cloud which began first to rumble, then to flash ominously. Intrigued, the woodchucks held their ground while the commandant took a couple of steps toward the corridor exit.
Miniature lightning began to run up and down the restraining bars, curling around the metal while seeking the places where the bars were fixed to wall and floor. The strobing light cast the faces of spellsingers and player into barbaric relief. Beyond the corridor, guards and administrators garnered fearfully to listen.
Unperturbed, Multhumot raised both short arms and mumbled laconically. His colleague removed a flask from within his copious robes and began to sprinkle its contents on the bars. The fluid smelled powerfully of lemon and ammonia.
Buncan’s nose twitched as the odor struck him, and he knew that the otters, with their more sensitive nostrils, could hardly be missing it.
A second cloud appeared in the corridor. It was an intense, brilliant white, sanctified and fluffy and shot through with silver. Under Multhumot’s direction it drifted purposefully toward the cell. Trying to ignore it, Buncan kept playing while the suddenly wary otters rapped on.
The ivory cloud made contact with the one which had spread itself along the bars. Ragged lightning erupted at the confluence, and the air was acrid with the smell of ozone. The dark nimbus Buncan and his friends had conjured began to break apart into tiny, harmless puffs.
There was a bright, actinic flash which caused everyone to blink. The smell of lemon-fresh and otherworldly room deodorizer was strong in the air. Though they sang and played on as determinedly as ever, Buncan and his companions were unable to regenerate the dark cloud.
“So much for your squalid sorcery.” Multhumot’s associate looked pleased. “We of Hygria can scrub it out of existence, wash it from this dimension, render it impotent through disinfective invocation. From now on this chamber will remain whiter than white and squeaky clean in spite of all your efforts to foul it through your outlander spellsinging.” Behind him the commandant, his confidence restored, beamed triumphantly.
“ ‘Ere, don’t let ‘em get away with that!” blurted Squill furiously. “Let’s ‘ave another go, mate.”
“I don’t know, Squill.” Buncan let his tired fingers fall from the strings, “I don’t feel too good right now. Maybe we’d better give it some thought.”
“Don’t back down on us now, Bunkile,” Neena implored him.
He forced himself to straighten. “All right. One more time.”
“Let’s really give it to the dirty buggers.” Squill bent to exchange ideas with his sister. When they had agreed on lyrics, they began to sing.
The vapor that boiled out of the duar this time was a throbbing, angry red that screeched and gibbered. The knife-edged lyrics of the otters were matched by the crimson blades that emerged from the coalescing fog. Seeking eagerly, they hissed up and down, looking for something to slice, as the cloud drifted inexorably toward the cell bars.
The commandant’s expression fell and he retreated to the far end of the corridor, cowering near the portal. Though initially taken aback, the two woodchucks held their ground. As the threatening cloud drifted toward them, they lifted their arms and began to chant in tandem. Grasping arms emerged from the nimbus, reaching outward.
In response to the chant a second white cloud materialized. It was far more active than its predecessor had been, spinning and whirling until it had twisted itself into optimal dust-devil proportions. Buncan gaped as it spun toward the bars.
This time when the two clouds made contact there was no lurid flash of light, no crooked lightning. Only a deep, liquid gurgle. Buncan continued to play, the otters kept singing, and the pair of white-shrouded woodchucks waved their hands and chanted like crazy.
Gragelouth sat at the back of the cell, his gray-furred head resting in his hands, a sour expression on his face.
The cell bars began to vibrate. Soon the walls of the jail joined in sympathetic vibration. Wondering if maybe they hadn’t overdone it, Buncan played on. Mortar powdered and flaked off the walls, filling the air with limestone dust.
Angry as the otters’ rap was, then combined spellsinging was no match for the cyclonic cleanser the woodchucks had invoked. It tore the red cloud to bits, shredding malformed blades and arms, sweeping them into its central vortex. When the last vestige of crimson had been sucked invisible, the whirlwind shrank in upon itself, growing smaller and smaller until, with a fault puff of compressing air, it popped itself out of existence.
Their throats protesting mightily, the otters were forced to give it up. Buncan finished with a final desultory strum on the duar. The glow at its nexus faded. It was quiet in the cell once more.
And clean. Exceedingly clean.
“You see,” said Multhumot, “all the anger and fury in the Netherworld cannot stand against good hygiene, even in sorcery.” Perspiration stains were visible beneath his arms.
“We haven’t done anything,” Buncan argued. “It’s wrong to keep us locked up like this.”
Multhumot straightened his attire. “Either Kimmilpat or I will be on guard in the antechamber at all times. I warn you not to try anything.” He adopted a threatening mien . . . as threatening as a three-foot-high woodchuck could manage, anyway. “Thus far my colleague and I have only countered your necromancy. We have not assaulted you with our own. Rest assured you would not find our serious attentions pleasing. Therefore, I recommend that from now on you behave yourselves.”
“You don’t scare us, guv.” Squill had his face pressed between the bars. He looked back over bis shoulder. “C’mon, Buncan; let’s give ‘em another—”
“No.” Buncan put a comforting hand on the otter’s shoulder. “No more. Not now. It didn’t work, and I’m not ready to try again. Not just yet. If Clothahump were here . . . I saw bun use that kind of enchanted wind myself, only it wasn’t white.” He looked down the row of cells.
“Maybe there’s a better way out of here.” Another body was standing next to him: Gragelouth.
“What will happen to us?” the merchant asked mournfully of their captors.
“That is the concern of the city magistrate,” Multhumot replied. “I suspect you will be fined. To what degree I cannot say. Certainly you will be ordered to dispose of your filthy raiment prior to your court appearance.”
“I’m getting real tired of being called filthy,” Buncan muttered.
“I ain’t goin’ nowhere without me shorts,” Squill added.
“Wouldn’t ‘ave bothered Mudge,” his sister commented. “E spent plenty o’ time gaddin’ about without ‘is pants.”
The two plump white-shrouded wizards took their leave of the prisoners. The commandant smirked briefly at his charges before following in the woodchucks’ wake.
The evening meal did nothing to lighten the spirits of the incarcerated. It was as sterile and bland as their surroundings.
Squill took a couple of mouthfuls before shoving his bowl aside. “I can’t swallow any more o’ this swill.”
Neena had already reached the same conclusion. “Who could?” Her nose and whiskers twitched.
“It is quite nutritious. I have had worse.” Gragelouth seemed to be ingesting the contents of his bowl with no difficulty. The otters watched him in disbelief.
“I guess my stomach’s not as strong as yours, merchant.” Buncan set his own portion aside as he considered the empty corridor. “Another day of this and we’ll be too weak to think of escaping.”
“You notice no one said ‘ow long we might be stuck in ‘ere before we get to see this ‘ere bloody magistrate?” Neena pointed out. “It could take weeks.”
Squill sat on the floor, leaning against the back wall. “I don’t give a shit ‘ow bad they torture me: I ain’t givin’ up me pants.”
“There’s only one wizard on duty,” Buncan murmured. “Maybe if we came up with a different song fast enough . . .”
“I have a feeling his colleague is not far away.”
Buncan turned to regard Gragelouth. The sloth spoke patiently. “You have shown your spellsinging ability convincingly if not overpoweringly. Our overweight opponents may be prepared to call in additional sorceral assistance if they think it necessary. I think we must seek another way to abet our departure.”
Duncan tried to avoid the odor rising from his food bowl. “Jon-Tom would know what to sing to get out of this place.”
“E would that,” agreed Squill readily, “or else ‘e’d level the ‘ole place tryin’.”
“They’re bleedin’ fanatics,” Neena added. “To them, anythin’ that’s different is dirty, so they can’t abide us.”
“What kind of spell song can you use to combat rabid cleanliness?” Buncan was thoroughly discouraged.
Squill scratched behind an ear, then a knee, concluding with his butt. He paused in midscratch to sit up straight.
“Maybe there’s another way, like Gragelouth said.”
“Besides spellsingin’?” His sister eyed him sideways. “You always was a balmy bro’; now you’ve gone over the edge.”
“Not by ‘alf, me darlin’ sib’. Not by ‘alf.” Squill was on his feet now, excitement evident in his expression and gestures. “Look ‘ere: These blokes ‘ate anythin’ that ‘hits o’ dirt or filth or a general mess, right?”
A quick survey told Buncan that he found this no more enlightening than did any of his companions. Gragelouth in particular looked especially uncomprehending.
“Your line of reasoning escapes me,” the merchant confessed.
“Don’t you see? Me sister an’ I are experts at makin’ a mess!”
Realization dawned on Neena’s face. Her whiskers rose with her smile. “Oi, that’s right! Otters come by that natural.”
“An’ we learned from the best,” Squill added, referring to his much maligned but conveniently absent father.
“I see now where you are leading with this.” Gragelouth scratched himself under his chin with a heavy claw. “There are risks involved. Such a response may only infuriate our captors.”
“Bugger ‘em!” snapped Squill. “They’re already mad at us. Not to mention bein’ mad up ‘ere.” He tapped the side of his head, just below one ear. “Wot can they do that they ‘aven’t already done?”
“Kill us,” Gragelouth pointed out quietly.
“Oi, there is that,” the otter admitted. “But only if they’re able, which I don’t ‘appen to think they are.”
“You presume much.” The sloth returned to the rear of the cell and folded his arms. “Perhaps you will be good enough to leave me out of this equation.”
“Don’t worry, guv,” said Neena, completely missing his implication. “Why, you’re ‘airway clean. Anyone could see right off that you don’t ‘ave wot it takes to act like a bona fide slob.”
“Thank you,” said Gragelouth dryly.
“An’ you, Bunkly, you’ll just be in the way,” she went on. “Go on, off with you. Stand over in the corner with our guide an’ let me bro’ an’ me get on with our work. If we need your ‘elp, we’ll ask for it.”
“Surely there’s something I can do.” Though Gragelouth was still reluctant to participate, Buncan found himself caught up in the spirit of the enterprise.
Squill was rubbing his hands together as he surveyed the cell. “This ain’t goin’ to be ‘alf work.” His eyes fell on the food bowls. “I think I’m about ready for a stomach-chumin’ little snack, I am.”
Hearing the racket, one of the guards stationed out in the antechamber arrived to check on the disturbance. The sight and sounds that greeted him caused his eyes to widen.
“Stop that! Stop it immediately!” He gestured with his spear as he ran toward the cell.
Weaving unsteadily, Squill staggered over to the bars and proceeded to pee on the paca’s immaculate white boots. From the look that came over the guard’s face one would have thought he’d been run through, Buncan thought. The paca let out a shriek, dropped his weapon, and ran wildly for the exit. Despite the condition of his stomach, Squill still managed a smile for his companions.
The otters gleefully pursued their methodical degradation of the cell, while Gragelouth and Buncan kept to one marginally unblemished comer. It was at once fascinating and unsettling to watch.
Flanked by a pair of sword-carrying squirrels and the sleepy-eyed commandant, it was Kimmilpat who came waddling down the corridor to confront mem. “What is this? What’s going on here?” he sputtered as he neared the cell. “All this commotion! It will not go easy on you for having roused me from my sleep when I have only just—”
He halted, openmouthed, as he took in the scene. So did his escort.
Squill and Neena had removed their clothes and scattered mem all over the cell. Likewise Buncan and the reluctant Gragelouth, both of whom leaned buck naked against the back wall. It looked as if a laundry cart had blown up.
The cell’s single chamber pot had been overturned and its odious contents tossed out into the corridor, save for what had stuck to the now-stained white bars. Fragments of broken dinner bowls lay everywhere, mixed in with the demolished stuffing of the several sleeping pads. Perhaps half the evening’s meal lay strewn about. Some of it dripped down the wall opposite the cell, bits of meat and vegetables sliding glaucously down the pristine white surface.
The woodchuck’s insides trembled but held steady. “I know what you’re trying to do, and it won’t work.” As he spoke the two guards, their hands clasped to then- mouths, turned and fled. To his credit the commandant remained behind, though he was looking exceedingly queasy.
“What won’t work, guv?” Tongue lolling, Squill pressed up against the bars and let the drool from his mouth drip down the bars onto the floor outside. The commandant recoiled.
“Some poor citizens are going to have to clean this up,” the wizard protested, “after they have been suitably fortified for the task, of course. I warn you to cease this outrage immediately!”
“Wot outrage?” Moving to stand next to her brother, Neena conspicuously picked her nose and flicked the contents out between the bars.
“Agghhhh! You were warned!” Kimmilpat raised both arms and began to chant Squill turned to his sister. “Not a bad voice, though a bit ‘igh-pitched for me taste.” Sticking his head as far between the bars as he could manage, he shoved a furry finger down his throat and commenced to upchuck with astonishing force all over the wizard’s impeccable, intricately embroidered gown.
Stunned, Kimmilpat stopped in mid-incantation to look down at himself. At the same time his nostrils conveyed to him the full aroma of the blessing Squill had bestowed upon his august person. Innocent, as it were, of any natural resistance to such effluvia, the dazed wizard promptly whirled and barfed all over the nether regions of the commandant, making an admirably thorough job of it and missing nary a square inch of the glossy white cloth.
By this time utter confusion reigned in the anteroom beyond the cell block as baffled and frightened guards struggled to make sense of what was happening beyond their immediate range of vision. But not, distressingly for them, beyond their range of hearing.
“This . . . mis is revolting beyond imagination!” The puce-faced commandant gasped weakly as he struggled to help me overcome wizard back to his feet.
“Why thanks, guv.” Spittle dribbled profusely from Squill’s lower jaw. “We ‘ave a good example to inspire us, we do. ‘Ere, let me ‘elp clean that up.” Taking a huge mouthful of water from the still-intact cell jug, he sprayed every drop of it smack into the face of the unsuspecting Kimmilpat as the stunned wizard stumbled around to face him.
As the overwhelmed woodchuck collapsed for the second time in as many minutes, Squill considered the nearly empty jug. “ ‘Ard to make great art when you don’t ‘ave sufficient materials to work with. Oi,” he shouted to the commandant, “we need another meal in ‘ere! We nearly went an’ digested that last one, we did.”
A cluster of guards tentatively examined the corridor, intent on aiding their commanding officer. The sight and smell turned the ones in front and set them to struggling frantically with those following immediately behind.
Pinching his nostrils with two fingers, Buncan spoke nasally to Gragelouth. “See? Squill was right. Where cleanliness is concerned these people are so used to perfection that they can’t handle real filth when confronted with it. They can’t cope.”
“They can still kill us.” The sloth was doing his best to shroud his own much more sensitive proboscis.
“Only at the risk of making another mess.”
“Maybe they haveanother mess.”
“Maybe they have we cannot imagine.”
“When things are tough your optimism’s a real comfort, Gragelouth.”
“I am a realist,” the merchant protested. “And I have reason to be.” He pointed.
Forcing his way through the knot of panicked guards was the senior Hygrian wizard, Multhumot, resplendent in a gold-embroidered white gown of office. Indignation colored his broad, furry face and his whiskers were convulsing as he pushed the commandant aside to assist his colleague.
“What is this . . . this corruption?”
“They think to provoke us into letting them go.” The badly unsettled Kimmilpat was wheezing weakly.
Multhumot glared at the prisoners as he steadied his associate. “That is not going to happen. Not while I have convicted power left in my body.” Covering his broad nose as best he was able, he advanced purposefully on the reeking cell, his other hand upraised. Miniature lightning crackled between his spread fingers as he commenced a deep-throated invocation of profound import.
He was barely halfway through the first sentence when Squill, taking unabashed aim and demonstrating extraordinary accuracy even for one so obviously skilled in such matters, proceeded to anoint the wizard with the remaining contents of the water jug via the conduit of his own body. Initially struck square in the face (hard as he strained, Squill couldn’t maintain the flow for very long), the wizard stopped dead in his tracks, blinked, realized fully the extent of the ultimate unhygienic act which had been performed upon him, and fainted clean away.
Not the similarly debased Kimmilpat, nor the commandant, nor any of the ordinary guards had the courage to advance to the woodchuck wizard’s rescue. Meanwhile the otters, employing the relentless energy and enthusiasm of their kind, did their best to exacerbate the despoiled condition of bom their cell and the adjoining corridor. Throwing himself into the spirit of the moment, Buncan participated as best he could. Gragelouth simply could not bring himself to do more than occasionally expectorate on the cell floor. Most of the time he simply kept his face averted from the fray and let out an occasional moan.
Eventually a trio of guards crept down the corridor. Improvised masks covered their mouths and nostrils. They hustled the still-heaving Kimmilpat out of the hallway before returning to drag the comatose mass of his colleague to safety. Pandemonium reigned in the antechamber, clearly audible to those within the cell.
Exhausted but exhilarated, the otters finally took a break from their noxious exertions.
“That ought to give the buggers somethin’ to think about,” Squill declared with satisfaction. “Wonder ‘ow they’re goin’ to react to our little party.”
Buncan was pinching his nose tightly, trying not to inhale any more than was absolutely necessary as he peered up the corridor.
“Whatever they do, I hope they do it soon. It’s hot in here and I’m having a tough time maintaining my own equilibrium.”
“ ‘Ere now, Bunkins,” said Neena worriedly, “don’t you up an’ pass out on us.”
“I have to confess,” came the voice of the distressed merchant from the back of their cell, “that I cannot imagine you spellsinging up anything worse than this.” He waved feebly to take in the ravaged cell and hallway.
“Crikey, guv, go easy on the compliments.” Squill grinned modestly. “We just improvised as best we could.”
“They’re coming back.” Buncan nodded toward the far end of the corridor.
The commandant was alone, stumbling and hesitating as if he was being urged on (not to say pushed) from behind. The rat’s demeanor was as thoroughly disheveled as his previously spotless uniform. Behind the handkerchief he kept tightly pressed to his muzzle, his narrow, pointy face was decidedly green. This was unsurprising given the fact that the city’s moist heat had invaded the cell block, the atmosphere of which had already graduated from ripe to rank.
Swaying slightly, he stumbled halfway down the corridor, at which point he could advance no farther. “I am,” he emitted a curdled gurgle, fought not to swallow, finally gathered himself, and began afresh, “I am pleased to inform you that a decision has been rendered in your case.”
Neena winked at Buncan.
“Is that right?” Squill responded innocently.
“Yes. Through the infinite magnanimity of the Justice Court of Hygria and by special dispensation from the Council of Cleanliness, it has been decided that you will be allowed to recover your worldly possessions and depart unhindered without having to face the formal prosecution you so richly deserve.”
Neena leaned against the diagonal bars. “Cor, wot a generous lot o’ folks. I almost ‘ate to leave. Wot do you think, Bunklewit? Maybe we ought to ‘ang around a while longer?”
“No, no.” The commandant spoke hastily, before Buncan could comment. “The streets have been cleared for you. This entire borough of the city has been sealed against your presence. Just take your belongings and leave.”
Buncan’s gaze narrowed as he regarded the trembling rat “I dunno. I think we’re owed something for our trouble, for being accused of something we weren’t aware of and for being shut up here while—” He broke off. Gragelouth was shaking him persistently.
“If you do not mind, I would rather not strain our current luck,” the merchant hissed. “We should get out while we can.”
Buncan smiled and whispered. “I know. I just like to push the envelope.”
“A peculiar expression.”
“One of my dad’s.”
Gragelouth stepped past him, waving at the bilious commandant. “Very well. We accept your offer. Now open up! We’re ready to leave.” He turned to the otters. “While I personally would have opted for a less unconventional means of resistance, I have to admit that the outcome has been congenial. Please try not to puke on anyone as we make our way to freedom.”
“Relax, guv. I don’t think I ‘ave it in me anymore anyways,” Squill informed him. “So to speak.”
Advancing with the pointed toes of a ballet dancer—or a lone scout traversing a mine field—the commandant worked his way down to their cell and fumbled at the lock with a large, ornate key. With more of a metallic clank than a click, the door swung aside. Weaving unsteadily, the rat watched them exit. Buncan almost felt sorry for him.
Squill paused, breathing directly into the rat’s face. “Wot about the guards outside?”
“The antech—” the commandant staggered under the impact of the otter’s breath, “the antechamber has been cleared. All doors are open and unbarred to you. Also all windows and every other ventable opening in the building. Now please, go!” He clung to the cell door for support.
Proving that the rat’s declaration was as genuine as his nausea, they found the outer chambers deserted. So was the main boulevard outside, and the square with its intricate fountain. As they hurried along the white paving stones, Buncan sensed eyes following them furtively from cracks in shutters and barely opened windows.
“Would you look at this,” Squill ventured as they jogged along. “They’re bloody terrified of us. I think we could ‘ave the run o’ the city if we wanted it.”
“Our actions must seem not merely outlandish but incomprehensible to them.” Gragelouth puffed along in the lead. “We are not free yet. Keep a watch for cocked bows or poised spears.”
“Naw, they wouldn’t try anythin’ now, guv,” Squill replied confidently. “Be afraid we might spit on “em.”
They passed the inn whose hospitality they wouldn’t have the opportunity to sample, taking note as they ran past of the barred doors and shuttered windows, and turned up the street leading to the tethering spot where they’d left Gragelouth’s wagon. The vegetable seller had deserted her stall, as had all her fellow vendors. After the clamor and noise which had greeted the travelers upon arrival, they now found the avenues eerily silent.
Squill and Neena’s exertions had made quite an impression on the local authorities.
They took their leave of sterile, whttewashed Hygria without regret. No pursuit was mounted once they were beyond the city walls, not by vengeful guards nor nauseous sorcerers. It was clear that none of them had, so .to speak, the stomach for it.
Well south of the metropolis, they stopped in a shady glade of nut trees to bathe in a clear, cool stream. Duncan relaxed in the shallows while brother and sister otter frolicked in deeper waters. Gragelouth used a cloth to daintily scrub and wash his fur, then set to combing himself out with a square brush as big as his hand.
When the otters had finally had enough of the water, they dried themselves and dressed, then helped themselves to a bushel or so of the ripe nuts; this in lieu of the supplies the town itself had been so unwilling to furnish. When they had enough, Gragelouth once again set a course northwestward.
A week passed before the grassy, scrub-flecked plains gave way to the foothills of a rugged range of unknown mountains. There were no trails leading within, and they had to pick their way carefully around boulders and over rough spots. The dray lizards hissed and jerked violently, but the merchant kept them under admirable control with well-chosen tugs on the reins and sharply barked phrases of command.
“Easier for a mercenary fox on foot than for a vehicle to get through this way,” Buncan commented as they bounced and rattled through the notch Gragelouth had chosen to explore.
“I do not know for certain that he came this way,” the merchant replied unencouragingly. “Only that this seems to me the only possible avenue through these mountains.”
Buncan pursed his lips thoughtfully. “It’s your wagon, Gragelouth. So we go your way. What’s this range called, anyway?”
“I have no idea.” The sloth wrestled with the reins.
“Interestin’ name,” Neena quipped, but her heart wasn’t in it. The path was too rough to inspire ready humor.
As the travelers progressed, the crags overhead clawed more determinedly at the underbellies of the scudding clouds. Their flanks steepened. Unless they chanced upon a formal road or track of some kind, Buncan couldn’t see how they were going to wrestle the clumsy wagon through the increasingly rough terrain.
In all mis time they encountered no other travelers. If any commerce passed through these mountains, it was by a route different from the one they were traversing. Gragelouth surmised that any such travel probably passed to the east and north. In their case they sought not commerce anyway, but revelation, and the path to that is always more difficult.
Days later the hitherto peaceful atmosphere was interrupted by a steady sussuration. Initially a loud whisper, it intensified with their advance until it had become a roaring in the ears, like a steady gale. It carried with it a becoming freshness to the air which invigorated tired spirits. Even the dray lizards picked up their pace.
The otters recognized it from the first. “Nothin’ mysterious or sorceral about that noise, friends.” Neena stood behind Buncan, her paws on his shoulders, trying to see into the distance. “ ‘Tis a river, and a big, fast-flowin’ one.”
“Not as big as the Tailaroam,” Squill ventured, “nor maybe even the Shortstub, but steeper o’ drop than either. White water!” Clearly the otter relished the prospect.
The narrowing pass they had been following ended at the river, which funneled swiftly but not impassably to the west through a steep gorge. Gragelouth inspected the terrain with a practiced eye.
“It cuts through these mountains more or less in the direction we must take.” He pointed downstream. “See, there is a contiguous beach. If it is sufficiently compacted, we can parallel.” He chucked the reins, urging his team onward.
As they swung out onto the sand, Buncan uneasily eyed the torrent on their right. “What happens if it rains upstream and the river rises? We’ll be trapped in this canyon.”
“Better work on your stroke, mate,” Squill said cheerily. Buncan was not amused.
The wagon rattled and rocked but did not sink into the firm mixture of sand and gravel. Gragelouth kept a steady eye on the surface ahead, watching for any soft spots. As the canyon closed in around them, Buncan found himself glancing worriedly back the way they’d come. If the river came up the wagon would float . . . until it struck the first submerged boulder.
They hadn’t traveled far before the beach spread out to form a shallow plain complete with trees and grass. Just ahead a tributary, slow-moving but too deep and wide to cross, entered the main current from their side. There was no way around it. The beach down which they were traveling, which had looked so promising at first, was a dead end.
Someone, or something, had found the little valley at the junction of the rivers conducive to permanent habitation. Neena pointed out the house and bam, both of which had been fashioned out of river rock and driftwood. The home had a single sharply raked roof facing the main stream.
Behind the bam a corral had been staked out. Its reptilian occupants looked healthy and well-fed. Buncan identified them as a species bred for consumption rather than work. There was also an extensive garden and small orchard, irrigated with water from the tributary by means of two small canals.
Gragelouth indicated the network of stakes in the shallows. “Shellfish farming. Whoever has taken residence here has done well. This is not the abode of traders or transients.”
“Not just shellfish.” Neena pointed to the double rack of skinned and filleted fish drying in the sun behind the house.
As they drew nearer, several cubs came tumbling out to greet them. They were followed by two adults. No one exhibited any fear or apprehension at the wagon’s approach, which suggested that visitors to this place, while probably infrequent, were not unknown.
Buncan had never seen their like before, but Gragelouth recognized them readily enough.
“They are of a tribe called platypi,” he informed his companions, “who are noted for their love of privacy.”
“Bloody weird-looking, they are.” Squill stared at the youngsters, with their grinning, duck-billed faces and slick fur peeping out from beneath their clothing.
“You should have much in common with them. They are as at home in the water as yourselves, though not, I mink, quite as quick.”
The otter hopped down off the wagon. “If they’ll sell or trade us some fresh fish and maybe a cray or two, I’ll concede ‘em any race.”
“They look friendly enough.” Buncan climbed down to join his friends. “Think it’s a ploy?”
“No,” replied the normally suspicious sloth. “There would not be enough traffic through here to make banditry a paying proposition.”
Cubs and adults alike jabbered incessantly at the travelers as they escorted mem toward the house. As Gragelouth surmised, they didn’t get many visitors and were delighted at the prospect of company. Their remarkable bills made mem difficult but not impossible to understand.
“Tho you go to the northwetht?” The male of the household addressed them as they all sat on the beach, resting on boulders which had been carved into chairs. His spouse kept the chattering cubs away from the meeting.
The platy put his thumbs through suspenders, nodding downstream. “Your vehicle will never make it through theth mountains. Even if we could raft it across, the beach endth not far downstream.”
“We are open to suggestions,” Gragelouth told him.
Their host considered. “I have plenty of wood and am experienthed with my handth. Perhapth we can come to an agreement. I could uth a good wagon and team.”
“Oh, no,” said the sloth. “That wagon is my livelihood. It contains all my goods, all my worldly possessions.”
“I wouldn’t take your goodth. You could take them onward with you. I jutht want the wagon and team. Those for a good, thound boat. A fair trade.”
“Seems fair to me, it does,” said Squill without hesitation. “Let’s do it,” his sister added eagerly. “Be grand to travel in a boat for a change. I’m sick of dust and dirt.”
Buncan eyed the platy evenly. “Have you actually been downstream? Is it navigable?”
The sloth regarded him approvingly. “Ah. You are learning. I see that being in my company has done you good.” “I’ve traveled a ways,” their host told him. “I have no need to go far.” He gestured at the homestead, with its shellfish farm and orchard and garden and animals. “My world ith here. The dethithion ith up to you. I can only tell you with athuranth that you cannot continue to follow the Sprilashoone by land. A boat ith your only real opthion. Unleth you want to go back the way you came and try another route.”
“I worry about chancing a heavy load of trade goods on an unknown watercourse,” Gragelouth muttered.
“I will thtore them for you,” said the platy. “No extra charge. I am a farmer, not a trader. You can return for them whenever you with.” “Rapids?” asked Buncan.
“Not for at leatht two dayth. Farther than that I have not been. And at that point it turnth more to the northwetht, ath you would want. Bethideth, two among you are otterth. Even in the wortht waters they can manage.” “BloomuV right,” Squill agreed expansively. “If you have trouble with the boat, you have among you two who can go over the thide to fix or recover thingth.” “You’ve ‘andled the land portion of our little sojourn,” Neena reassured Gragelouth. “Leave it to me bro’ and me to look after things while we’re waterborne.”
“We might follow the river on foot,” the merchant murmured, reluctant to the last, “but the terrain is difficult and becoming more so, and I confess that the prospect of an extended hike does not thrill me with anticipation.” “Then ith mettled.” The platy extended a hand. Buncan had to admit the thought of traveling by water instead of land was an inviting one. His battered backside and jostled spine certainly approved.
The platy family proved to be excellent hosts, and the travelers spent the most relaxing evening and night in days luxuriating in their hospitality. In exchange for some selections from Gragelouth’s stock, the fanner additionally provided them with substantial supplies of dried fish, fruits, crayfish, and freshwater oysters, as well as vegetables from the garden. Even Gragelouth had to admit that the riparian hermits had been more than fair in then’ dealings. As a result, they did not miss the supplies they bad been unable to obtain in Hygria.
The boat was sturdy and larger than expected. There were four sets of oars, which since they were traveling with the current no one expected to have to use save perhaps to fend the craft off the canyon walls should they grow unexpectedly narrow.
The single lateen-rigged mast was stepped solidly into the keep fore of the cabin. Its sail remained furled as they pushed away from the rustic rough-hewn dock and rode the tranquil waters of the tributary into the fast-moving current of the Sprilashoone.
They watched the farm recede behind them until a bend in the river blocked it from their view. The six youngsters ran along the beach, clicking then- bills by way of farewell, until they too disappeared from sight.
Buncan found himself wondering if he would ever see the little valley again. Certainly Gragelouth might, in search of what trade goods remained behind.
“This is more like it.” He made the comment to no one in particular as he leaned against the bow and watched the canyon slide by. The layered sandstone and granite glistened in the morning sun. Wild lizards and other native inhabitants scrambled in and out of clefts in the rock, pausing occasionally to peer from uncomprehending eyes at the boat drifting past below. Others sped out of the craft’s path, then- subaqueous activities temporarily disrupted.
“A definite improvement.” Having jumped over the side to cool himself, Squill had climbed back aboard over the low stem and now lay on his back on the front deck, soaking up the sun. Gragelouth handled the tiller while Neena hung over the side, trailing a paw in the water.
“To be back on a river.” She let out a low, whistling sigh. “ ‘Tis more than I could’ve ‘oped for.”
“I am glad you are pleased.”
She turned to look at the merchant. “Don’t you ever lighten up, guv? You should try an’ be more like me bro’ an’ I.”
“No one can be ‘like’ an otter except another otter,” Gragelouth declaimed firmly. “Your kind possesses the most extraordinary facility for delighting even in unpleasant circumstances.”
“Maybe so, pinch-face, but even you ‘ave to admit that our present circumstances are ‘ardly anythin’ but unpleasant.”
“I must confess that I am increasingly sanguine about our current situation.”
“Crikes, don’t overdo your glee. You might strain somethin’.”
“I miss the old wagon,” Gragelouth continued, “but one must be prepared to make sacrifices in pursuit of great goals.” He nudged the tiller slightly to port. “I admit that this method of transportation is both cooler and easier on certain select portions of one’s anatomy.”
“Bloody well right.” She swiped at a surface-swimming fish and missed. “So chill, and try to enjoy yourself.”
It required a conscious effort on his part, but by their fourth day on the river the ease of travel and promise of more of the same had even the perpetually dour merchant smiling. The current had increased and the walls of the canyon grown sheer, but they passed through with impunity.
It was midafternoon when a distant hum in the air pricked Squill’s ears. He was lounging near Buncan, who was taking his turn at the tiller. Gragelouth and Neena were down in the main cabin, cobbling together a lunch.
“Now there’s a sound,” the otter murmured, sitting up straight.
“Wot’s a sound?” Neena emerged from below, carrying a plate of assorted cold cuts. “Rapids?”
“Probably.” Squill helped himself to the food but ate with unaccustomed gravity.
Not much time had passed before the noise had grown noticeably louder. “Big rapids,” he muttered as he cleaned his whiskers with his tongue. He walked around the central cabin to stand in the bow, craning forward while sampling the air with nose and ears.
Moments later he shouted back to Buncan. “Oi, mate! We may be comin” up on a bit o’ a problem.”
“What sort of problem?” Buncan yelled up to him.
“ ‘Tis the canyon. It seems to disappear just ahead.”
Buncan strained to see ahead. “What do you mean, ‘it seems to disappear’?”
“ ‘Ard to tell.” Abandoning the bow, the otter scampered monkeylike up the mast and clung to the top, shading his eyes with one paw as he stared forward. Buncan squinted up at him.
“Not bloomin’ much. That’s the problem.”
Gragelouth’s smile had vanished. “I do not like this.”
“Didn’t the duckbill tell us this river were safe?” Neena murmured.
“He’s never been down this far,” Buncan reminded her. “He told us that, too. He said there might be rapids.” The roar had intensified, progressing from loud to deafening. “Sounds like more than rapids to me.” He called to their lookout. “Anything yet, Squill?”
The otter was silent, looking like a large brown comma astride the punctuation of the mast. A moment later he let out a sharp bark and slid down to rejoin them. His eyes were alert as he confronted his tall human friend.
“Ain’t no rapids to worry about.”
“That is a relief.” Gragelouth sighed.
“ ‘Tis a waterfall. A bloody big one, near as I can tell.”
The merchant blinked doe eyes and then turned away to commence a desperate study of the passing banks. By this time the rock walls they were traveling between verged on the perpendicular.
“There is no place to land here. No place at all!” His thick claws dug into the wood of the gunwale. “We are going to go over.”
“Just keep calm, everybody,” said Neena. “Me bro’, ‘e’s been known to exaggerate. Now Bunkoo, do you recall the tale o’ when Mudge an’ Jon-Tom ‘ad to ‘andle a situation like this?”
Buncan thought back to the stories his father had told him. He nodded eagerly as the one she was alluding to leaped to mind. “The Sloomaz-ayor-le-Weentli! The double river.”
“Righty-ho. An’ remember ‘ow they escaped it?”
He nodded vigorously. “Gragelouth, take the tiller. My friends and I have magic to make.” Passing control of the boat to the merchant, who was becoming progressively more unglued with each passing moment, Buncan dashed below and returned seconds later with his duar.
“The Sloomaz interdicted four waterfalls at the Earth’s Throat,” he reminded his companions confidently. “Surely we can spellsing our way down one.” Ahead of the boat the now thunderous roaring had given birth to a dense, rising mist.
“We’d better,” agreed Squill, “or in a few minutes we’re all gonna be mush an’ kindlin’.”
“Words.” Buncan strove to inspire them as he strummed the duar. “Lyrics. Get on it.”
Neena stared at her brother. “I don’t know anythin’ about flyin’ over waterfalls.”
“Think of something.” Gragelouth clung to the tiller as though it were some graven wooden talisman, fighting to keep them on a straight course in the grip of the now relentless torrent.
“Floating,” Squill mused. “Gently descendin’. That’s wot we want.”
“I’m going to play.” Buncan felt the mist beginning to moisten his skin. They must be very close now. “You two improvise. Fast.”
They could see the edge through the fog, a boiling white froth marking the spot where the water plunged to depths unknown. The cascade might be a dozen feet high, or a thousand. Surely not that much, he thought as he played.
They were almost to the rim and he was beginning to panic a little himself, when the otters finally began to sing.
“Water rises and water falls
Can’t turn away when it beckons and calls
Got to go over, got to see wot’s below
But we gots to land gently or we’ll sink, don’t you know?
Wanna set it down light as feather off a crow
Don’t blow It now Land us gently by the bow.”
The otters rapped smooth and easy, and Buncan followed them without effort. The glow at the duar’s nexus was concise and clear. None could have hoped for tighter harmony or crisper playing.
None of which was very reassuring when the boat nosed over the thundering edge of the falls and shot straight down, picking up speed rapidly as it fell.
Though they had to cling to the gunwale to keep from sliding down the deck and over the bow, the otters managed to keep singing. Buncan fell back against the rear wall of the central cabin and braced himself with his legs against the fortuitously narrow doorway. He needed to keep both hands on the duar. Thick arms wrapped around the swaying, useless tiller, Gragelouth dangled in midair above the now vertical deck.
They never did learn how tall the waterfall was, but it was high enough to allow the otters to slip in two more verses before they hit bottom. Whether Gragelouth’s screaming added to or hindered the spellsong was something else that would remain forever in the province of the unknowable.
Rocks leaped up at them, sparkling strangely silver. Water-saturated wind tore at their skin and clothes and fur.
An instant before they were smashed to bits on the rocks, a pale-green mist enveloped the entire boat. Gragelouth let out a terminal moan and shut his eyes. There was no pain as they struck, though Buncan experienced a sensation as if his entire body had gone to sleep and a million minute splinters briefly pierced his torso.
Boat and bodies shattered on the silver boulders. Through the mist he thought he could see his friends fly apart, still singing bravely.
He sensed the disparate parts of himself tumbling along underwater, sucked downstream by the inexorable current. Not far away he observed his disjointed hands still playing the miraculously intact duar. One of his eyes turned to look straight at its mate, and he blinked at himself. His mouth floated a few feet away, spinning lazily in the flow. His detached ears picked up the unmistakable and now slightly mystical rap of the otters. He felt no especial desire to try to locate his brain.
Bits of Gragelouth drifted by, the sloth’s uncommitted mouth bemoaning its fate in a gurgling litany.
Imperceptibly at first but with increasing speed, the fragmented parts of Buncan and sloth, of otters and boat, began to come together, to realign themselves within the river. He watched the boat re-form from two sides at once, since his separated eyes were momentarily located both to port and starboard. Shattered planks and crushed supplies slowly reconstituted themselves. The process, like the water in which they now drifted, was unnaturally silent.
It was also less than perfect. The cabin was set too far forward, and the tiller reattached itself to the stern upside down. The mast restepped itself at a slight angle. But the result was definitely their boat.
At the same time, he experienced an irresistible tugging sensation as the roaming parts of his body were ineluctably drawn toward each other. Eyes sought out sockets, organs the torso, feet their missing ankles.
It was that final verse, he mused with detachment of a different kind. Not an instant too late, they had finally hit on an effective combination of words and music.
He watched with considerable interest as his various body parts swam toward him, wherever “him” was centered. Fingers, toes, other extremities rejoined the rest of his self near the boat’s stern. Gragelouth was becoming a recognizable furry blob proximate to the tiller, complete to his clothing. Squill and Neena re-formed on the bow instead of the stern, where they’d commenced the spellsong. More than once Buncan had heard Jon-Tom employ the expression “gone to pieces.” Hitherto he had considered it only a metaphor. As the echo of the spellsong brought them together again, it struck him that he was breathing underwater. Or was he?
He took a deep breath and hesitantly felt of himself. He was whole once more, seemingly only a little sore for the experience. Forward, the otters struggled to their feet and hurried to rejoin him. Gragelouth lay slumped on the deck, as wrung out as a used towel in a public bath.
They were sailing along down the Sprilashoone, boat and bodies intact, the river flowing mellow and unthreatening beneath them. Also on either side of them. And overhead. They were in a watery tube, or tunnel. It was noisy as well as impossible.
“More like the Sloomaz than we thought, wot?” Neena examined the watery conduit quietly.
But it was not at all like that fabled river which ran through the northern ranges of Zaryt’s Teeth, as they discovered when the boat gave a sudden lurch and sailed up the side of the tunnel, continuing its progress until they were cruising along upside down, the original surface of the river directly below mem.
Buncan grabbed instinctively for the cabin doorway, then released it when he saw that he wasn’t going to plunge headfirst to the water below.
“Nothing in Dad’s story said anything about sailing upside down.”
Squill came sauntering toward him, hanging on to nothing. “ ‘Ere now; you don’t look quite yourself, mate.”
Buncan had to strain to hear clearly. Water in his ears, no doubt. He frowned as he considered his friend. “Neither do you.” Actually, neither did anyone.
For one thing, Squill’s head was protruding not from his neck but from his left side, just beneath his arm. His other arm was waving from where his head ought to have been. Then there was the more subtle problem of his left arm having been swapped for Neena’s. The slight difference in length was a clue, the disparity in fur color a dead giveaway. Not that they could compare fur, because Neena, to her utter mortification, was beneath her clothing as bald as a newborn human.
Nor did Gragelouth escape the confusion. Sizable, hairless, naked ears stuck out of the top of his head, whereas Buncan had acquired the sloth’s ears: comparatively small, gray-furred flaps of skin. That doubtless explained his current hearing difficulties.
They gathered upside down at the stern to contemplate their physiological disarray. Just as the boat had not reformed perfectly, neither had they. It was evident that in the process widely scattered body parts had sometimes taken the path of least resistance. In several instances this was not merely comical, it was downright embarrassing.
“Definitely a few kinks in that spellsong,” Buncan muttered.
“As kinked as this river,” Gragelouth added.
“This simply ain’t gonna do.” The hand atop Squill’s head gestured angrily.
“It certainly ain’t.” Neena was all but in tears over her condition. “Look at me. Just look at me!” She indicated her furless limbs.
“At least they’re in the bloody right places,” said her brother from beneath his arm.
Gragelouth’s absurd human ears twitched involuntarily. “The solution is clear. You must fix your spellsong and then sing it once again.”
“I knew we should have finished stronger,” Neena grumbled disconsolately.
“Thank goodness we got our own voices back.” Buncan shook the duar lightly. Water droplets fell past his head. A few experimental strums revealed that the instrument had survived the fall and subsequent awkward reintegration unharmed.
“This ‘ad better work.” Squill leaned against the cabin, bumping his head.
“Don’t make it sound like it was my fault.” Buncan tilted his head slightly to glare at his friend. “You two were the ones who came up with the lyrics.”
“Well, you were responsible for the bleedin’ accompaniment.”
“Arguing will help none of us.” Gragelouth held on to the tiller, more for support than out of any realistic hope of steering the inverted craft. “Please concentrate. I very much want my own ears back.”
“Hey, I didn’t ask for yours.” Buncan strummed his instrument lightly.
The otters conferenced briefly before Neena looked up, her face full of concern. “Wot if we try this again an’ it just makes things worse?”
“Wot could be worse than this?” Her brother regarded her from somewhere in the vicinity of his thud rib.
“Do you guys remember the words?” Buncan asked them.
Neena smiled wanly. Even her whiskers were missing. “I thought I were goin’ to die. When you think you’re goin’ to die, you remember everythin’ right clearly.”
He nodded, readied himself. “Let’s pick it up near where we left off.”
As they rehearsed, the boat slid down one side of the tubular stream, across the bottom, and began to crawl slowly up the other side.
“And let’s hurry. I’ve never sailed on anything like this before, and I think I’m starting to get what Dad calls seasick.”
“Oh.” Gragelouth examined him with interest. “I thought your present coloration was another consequence of our unfortunate condition.”
As the boat described acrobatic loops within the tunnel of the river, they sang and played. A now familiar silvery flame gradually enveloped the entire boat, sweeping over and through each of them with a cold, prickly sensation. It faded with the song.
When his vision cleared, Buncan noted that Squill’s head and arm had exchanged places. So had his own ears and Gragelouth’s, along with other portions of their anatomy no one had had the courage to discuss in detail. Neena had reacquired her coat of dense, carefully groomed fur, though she didn’t relax until she had counted each and every one of her restored whiskers.
Everyone was very much relieved.
“That were ‘orrible.” Neena preened herself as best she could without a comb. “Imagine goin’ through life with no more fur on your body than a “uman!”
“See,” said Gragelouth, pointing. “Your hymn of restorations has rejuvenated our craft as well.” Sure enough, the crooked mast had been straightened.
It didn’t keep them from twisting and swirling upside down, sideways, and every other which way within the tube that was the river Sprilashoone.
“How do we get clear of mis?” Buncan gazed at fee hissing, reverberating tunnel of water until he found himself growing dizzy. “How do we find a place to land?”
“How did your fathers free themselves from this other enchanted stream?” Gragelouth prompted him.
Neena scratched her head. “Spellsang ‘emselves out, I reckon. Or maybe the river just flattened out. Deuced if I remember.”
“At least we are traveling in the right direction.” The merchant managed to sound optimistic.
Squill eyed him curiously. “Now ‘ow do you know that? I’ve a brilliant sense o’ direction, but upside down and all enclosed like this I’m buggered if I can tell a thing.”
Gragelouth. did not miss a beat. “Traders who travel as much as I do learn how to judge such matters. Many of my customers live in difficult-to-locate places. It would be bad for business if I were unable to find my way to them.” A sudden thought cast a pall of concern over his always melancholy face. “I certainly hope we do not reach a point where this tunnel collapses. Drowning may be a less novel means of perishing than going to pieces, but it is just as decisive.”
“We wouldn’t let you drown, baggy-eyes.” Neena smiled at him. “I’d get lonely for your constant complainin’.”
“No signs of any change,” Buncan assured the sloth, though he had to admit that the thought worried him. Neither he nor fee merchant could hold their breath half as long as fee otters.
“Your color has improved,” Grageloufe informed him.
“I feel better. I guess I’m getting used to this. As much as it’s possible to get used to something like this.”
He spoke too soon.
Ten minutes downstream the tunnel began to warp and curl in upon itself. It felt as if they were sailing at high speed down fee intestines of a gigantic snake in fee grip of some wild, dyspeptic dance. Which, for all they actually knew, might in fact be fee case.
The tubular river bounced and dove, rose and plunged vertically: rapids inside a corkscrew. All fee while fee boat clung tenaciously to fee surface of fee water, while its occupants clung to cabin, tiller, gunwale, mast, or one another. The only thing that helped at all, Buncan discovered, was to close one’s eyes tight and concentrate on breathing evenly. Grageloufe had long since give up any attempt at steering, because he wished to devote his full attention to not throwing up. Abandoned, fee tiller banged plaintively against fee stern.
While human and sloth fought desperately to hang on to various portions of fee boat as well as fee contents of their stomachs, fee inimitable otters amused themselves by leaping overboard and cavorting in fee crashing waters that rushed and sang on all sides. They positively reveled in fee fervid disruption of natural law, ignoring Buncan’s warnings to beware of unexpected whirlpools, or intersecting tributaries that might tunnel away to nowhere.
After all, where else could you swim up fee side of a river until you were looking down on a boat and your companions, then kick free and dive through fee air past them to splash into fee water directly alongside?
When fee otters came back aboard, Buncan weakly suggested they try spellsinging themselves free of fee Sprilashoone’s grip. Though the otters improvised and rapped enthusiastically, it did not affect their situation in fee slightest.
The fact that Buncan regularly interrupted each attempt with a desperate rush for the boat’s railing certainly did nothing to enhance the consistency of their spellsinging.
“Why don’t you get out o’ those clothes an’ join us for a swim, Bunc?” Squill suggested. “Might do you good.”
“I can’t swim like you.” There seemed to be six otters in his field of vision. “You know that.”
“We’d keep an eye on you, Bunklo,” Neena assured him. “Wouldn’t let you drown. Anyways, it’s got to be better for you than ‘angin’ on up ‘ere, watchin’ this bloomin’ water go around an’ around as this boat goes up and down, up and down, twistin’ an’ turnin’ and bobbin’ an’ . . .”
Buncan made a peculiar noise and shuffled hurriedly toward the bow.
“Now see wot you’ve gone an’ done,” her brother told her.
“Me?” Neena spread both arms wide, whiskers bristling. “I didn’t do nothin’, I didn’t. ‘E were already tryin’ for the Bellwoods’ all-time upchuck record for ‘umans.”
“Oi, an’ ‘e didn’t need your ‘elp goin’ for it. All that chatter about the boat goin’ up an’ down an’ back an’ forth an’ down through this bleedin’ corkscrew . . .”
Unable to ignore this cogent analysis of their present condition, Gragelouth stumbled forward to join his young human companion in misery.
The Sprilashoone had more surprises in store. A corkscrew of water thrust mem out into blue sky and open air, only to plunge them down afresh into the watery tunnel which had become their home. When it happened a second time they were prepared for the phenomenon, and by the end of an awful night the river was presenting them to the outside world with increasing frequency.
By the dawn of their third day upon the psychotic watercourse, the tunnel had collapsed completely. No more corkscrews pierced its depths, no integral curls tormented its surface. They found themselves drifting downstream at a modest rate atop a broad stream that seemed determined to act, perhaps by way of compensation for the ordeal they had endured within its upper reaches, in as placid a fashion as possible.
Trees and electric-blue bushes lined both banks, while reeds sprang like unruly green hair from the shallows. As they continued, signs of habitation and farming became visible.
Buncan received this information from his companions with admirable equanimity. He was still too weak to rise from his pallet and look for himself. As for Gragelouth, the merchant seemed to have made a more rapid recovery, which did nothing to improve Buncan’s waterlogged self-esteem.
While their friends regained their strength, the otters steered the boat away from the banks and carried out necessary minor repairs and cleanup. When not thus occupied, Squill could be found perched atop the mast, studying the shore while keeping alert for any rocks or snags that might be positioning themselves for ambush.
Though he found the whole notion of food abhorrent, Buncan made an effort to eat. When the first few tentative bites stayed down, he found that both his outlook and condition improved. Subsequent offerings by Neena were consumed gratefully, if not enthusiastically. Sooner than he believed possible, he was once more participating fully in the operation of the boat.
“I don’t understand.” She stood close to him one afternoon as he took his turn at the tiller. “ ‘Ow can you get so sick just from watchin’ the water go past an’ around an’—”
Buncan put a finger to her muzzle. “Not only can that make a human sick, sometimes words alone are enough to set it off.”
“Oi, I gets it. Sorry.”
“That’s all right.” He smiled. “Just don’t do it anymore, okay?”
She nodded apologetically.
“This is fine country,” the sloth observed. “I think soon we will come upon a place to refresh ourselves.” He glanced skyward. “In any event, the river seems to have changed course. We have been traveling due east for nearly an entire day now, and if we do not soon find ourselves once more sailing more to the north, we will have to abandon this craft and strike out overland again.”
Several large birds soared past overhead, their conversation drifting down to the waterborne travelers. They glanced at the river but chose not to drop down for a chat.
The Sprilashoone continued to flow resolutely eastward. Modest riverbank dwellings began to appear, and people in small boats. Not long thereafter larger vessels manifested themselves, their mixed-species crews seining the deep waters for all manner of seafood.
Gragelouth called out to one such vessel as they passed close inboard its port side. “Hanging aboard! We have been some days upon the river and need to reprovision. Is there a town close downstream where this can be effected?”
Two fisherfolk, a raccoon and a brightly clad muskrat, exchanged a bemused glance before the muskrat leaned out to reply. “Friends, I can’t imagine where you’ve come from not to know of Camrioca, but you’ll find all you need there.”
“How far?” Buncan shouted as the boats slid past each other.
With one hand the raccoon held on to the net he was splicing and with the other pointed downriver. “At your speed, another half day.”
There was no mistaking it when they swung ‘round a bend in the Sprilashoone. Camrioca was a city, not a town, a true riverine metropolis that hugged a fine deep-water bay. Hundreds of homes and two-story buildings clustered side by side along the quays, jetties, and beaches, while the central portion of the sprawling connurbation featured a walled inner city filled with structures six and even seven floors high.
After Hygria, it was most reassuring to note that Camrioca’s architecture featured incomplete walls and ceilings and a riot of color. Repeated sniffs as they searched for a vacant dock at which to tie up indicated that the town was both earthy and inviting. In other words, comfortingly and typically fetid.
Buncan found himself wondering what his parents must be thinking by now. With the privacy spellsong shielding them, Jon-Tom wouldn’t be able to track him through magic. If he and the otters had done their job well, even Clothahump would be unable to penetrate their tightly woven mask of protection.
He forced himself to concentrate on the bustling, odoriferous quays. Being seasick had been debilitating enough. Now was not the time to surrender to homesickness. He straightened. Let his classmates laugh at him when he returned from this adventure.
Assuming he did return, he reminded himself.
Gragelouth was gesturing energetically in the direction of a small, unoccupied wharf. “Put in there.”
No sailor, Buncan steered as best he could, and they bumped up against the wooden pilings rather hard. No one in the surging, preoccupied crowd paid mem the slightest attention, their indifference serving as further confirmation of Camrioca’s cosmopolitanism.
Squill queried Gragelouth as the sloth set about securing their craft to its new mooring. “Say, guv, shouldn’t we leave someone ‘ere to guard the boat?”
The merchant considered the rabble as he tightened a final knot. “I think it will be all right. There is sufficient foot traffic here to discourage the casual thief.” He indicated then- worn, battered craft. “Besides, with so many better boats moored here, who would be eager to steal this?”
Squill nodded understandingly and turned to contemplate the town. After their many days of isolation on the river, it felt odd to be around so much activity.
“Doesn’t look like another Hygria,” Buncan opined.
“Nope,” Squill agreed. “Looks like a regular town, she does.”
“If we have to head northwestward from here, what are we going to do about overland transportation?” Buncan wondered.
“We have the boat to trade,” Gragelouth pointed out, “and I still have my purse.” He tapped the bag full of coins which rested against his ribs beneath his shirt. “We will find something.”
“Not another bloody wagon.” Neena let out a groan.
“Unfortunately, I do not have the resources to hire a corps of eagles to tow us through the sky,” the merchant replied rather stiffly. “Did you think this would get easier?”
“No, I suppose not.” She sighed resignedly as they headed into town.
Their initial impression of Camrioca as a sophisticated, wealthy community was reinforced by the appearance and attitude of the individual from whom they sought directions. The marmot was fat, graying, and dressed in a wealth of richly embroidered silks trimmed in soft leather. Buncan admired the outfit, while Neena was positively envious.
Clearly delighted to be back among his own kind, an obeisant Gragelouth put their questions to his fellow merchant. Disinclined to speak with the ragged strangers but desirous of avoiding an argument with two armed otters and a tall human, the marmot politely supplied them with directions to the central marketplace.
Full of hawkers and stalls, street vendors and confusion, rife with argument and pungent with exotic smells, the marketplace lay down the main bay street and immediately inland from the waterfront. Many of the shops were a reflection of their proprietors’ prosperity, having been constructed of stone or wood. Here goods from downriver and inland collided in a frenzy of commercial activity.
As if the smell wasn’t enough, a query directed them to the livestock pens, where traders haggled over the price of riding snakes and dray lizards, fattened food crawlers and select breeding stock. Bemoaning the loss of his old reliable wagon and team, Gragelouth set about attempting to secure adequate transportation for the journey ahead. A good judge of reptilian flesh, he was unlikely to be cheated, but proper bargaining, he warned his companions, would take some time.
That was all right, Buncan assured him. The marketplace of Camrioca was by far the largest of its type he’d ever visited, and mere was much to see. He and Squill and Neena would have no problems entertaining themselves while the sloth set to his . . .
Speaking of Neena, where had she gone and got herself to?
Lizards and snakes hissed and jostled within their pens as their owners alternately coaxed and cajoled them. A trio of armed city police consisting of two coyotes and a helmeted badger struggled to maintain some semblance of rough order. They ignored the noisy, screeching fight taking place between an insulted margay and a panda certain he had been cheated. The margay had teeth and claws on his side, but the panda had strength. The cops had business elsewhere.
As for Gragelouth, the merchant ignored it all. He was already bargaining intently with a strangely clad, wizened-face little macaque for the use of four bipedal riding lizards. They would not have the endurance or hauling capacity of his old team, but would travel much more swiftly. Squill stood impatiently nearby, looking bored.
Buncan scanned the crowd. Where was Neena?
“Squill, you see your sister?”
“Sure, mate. She’s right over . . .” He blinked, then shrugged disinterestedly. “So she’s wandered off, gone bloody shopping. You know ‘ow females are.”
“Not really. How can she do any shopping? She hasn’t got any money with her.”
Squill winked. “Old Mudge, ‘e can’t ‘elp teachin’ us things Weegee wishes ‘e wouldn’t.”
“If she’s off on some crazy stealing spree and she gets caught, we may not be able to get her out. This is a big, well-developed city. I’m sure they have big, well-developed jails. Also, if she gets herself in trouble after everything we’ve been through and survived, I’ll personally pluck her bald all over again myself.”
“Good luck at that, mate.” Squill was grinning. “She’s been plucked before, by better than you.”
“It’s not funny.” He stopped searching over the heads of the crowd and motioned to Gragelouth. Irritated at being interrupted, the merchant excused himself from his haggling.
“What is it, boy? Be quick about it or I’ll lose what leverage I’ve gained.”
“Neena seems to have disappeared.”
“Otters are always coming and going. It is their manner to be unpredictable and impulsive. I would not worry. She will return soon.”
“Probably, but Squill and I are gonna go have a look for her anyway.”
“Please yourselves. Try not to be long. I hope not to be long here. Negotiations are proceeding satisfactorily. Oh, and try to stay out of trouble, human.”
“I just want to make sure that’s what Neena’s doing.”
The sloth seemed mollified as he returned to his bargaining.
Buncan and Squill made their way through the livestock pens until they were back among the stalls and street vendors. Hours of searching failed to locate the absent otter.
Squill was somewhat less than distressed. “Crikey, I’ve been tryin’ to lose the-mouth-that-swims for years.”
“This is serious. Can’t you be serious for once?”
“ ‘Ell of a thing to ask of an oner, mate.”
Buncan surveyed the surging crowd. “We have to keep looking.”
They finally obtained something more than a curt shake of the head from a mongoose selling copper pots, pans, and other utensils.
“Female you say, about your size?” Squill nodded tersely. “Elaborately streaked and made-up fur? Don’t-give-a-damn attitude?”
“That’s me sister, all right.”
The mongoose looked back down at the saucepan he was hammering out. “Haven’t seen her.”
Buncan pushed his way past Squill. He towered above the otter, as he did over most of the denizens of the marketplace. The coppersmith eyed him warily.
“Look, I do not want any trouble.”
“That was a pretty precise description you just gave of someone you claim not to have seen.”
“Well, you see, it is like this.” The mongoose’s gaze darted in several directions. “It would be worth my life if it were to become known in certain quarters that I voluntarily gave you such information.”
Buncan considered. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but what you’re saying is that you have some information, but that we’re going to have to threaten you to get it?”
“Did I say that? I did not say anything like that.”
“Let me beat it out of ‘im.” Flexing his fingers, Squill took an eager step forward. The merchant shrank from his approach.
Buncan put a restraining hand on the otter’s arm. “I think that’s enough of a threat to suffice.”
“Oh, yes.” The mongoose smiled relievedly. “I am thoroughly intimidated, and therefore no one can blame me for telling you what happened.”
“Something happened to Neena?” Buncan’s anxiety level doubled.
The vendor fingered the saucepan. “She was asked to spend some time as the guest of a powerful citizen.”
Buncan and Squill exchanged a glance. “What citizen?” Buncan finally asked.
“The Baron Koliac Krasvin.”
“Never ‘eard o’ ‘im.” Squill let out a derisive snort. “But then, up until recently I never ‘eard o’ this dung’eap either.”
“Who is this Baron Krasvin?” Buncan inquired intently.
“A local nobleperson of ignoble repute but substantial fortune,” the mongoose informed them. “Please do not torture me anymore.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Buncan impatiently. “Get on with it.”
“Surrounded by numerous retainers and household guards, he resides in a fortified mansion west of the city and well outside its boundaries. Also its jurisdiction. I cannot stand much more of this pain,” he added, rather sedately for one ostensibly in the throes of final torment.
“Why would Neena go with this bloke?” Squill wanted to know.
The trader coughed delicately. “The Baron is not especially well-liked in Camrioca. An expert with both saber and rapier, he has killed several in duels, and there are those who find his presence in the Crescent of Nobles displeasing. But he is the scion of a noble family, and he has money. A difficult combination to abjure.”
“Sounds like a real prince,” Buncan muttered. “What’s this got to do with my friend’s sister?”
The mongoose glanced sharply at Squill. “Ah, she is your sister. That is most unfortunate.”
For the first time Squill exhibited a semblance of real concern. “Wot are you on about, guv?”
“Besides being a deadly fighter, and powerful and rich, the Baron Krasvin happens to be a mink.”
“A mink?” Squill blinked. “Wot’s that got to do with . . .Oh. A mink, it is?”
Buncan frowned at his friend. “I guess I’m missing something.”
“Did you cut all your tribal-classification classes, mate?” Squill peered up at him. “We otters ‘ave pretty intense appetites in certain areas.”
“Like for fish?”
“I ain’t talkin’ about food ‘ere, Buncan. Otters ‘ave extreme lohgin’s for swimmin’ and for fun. ‘Umans like to argue. Wolves are partial to singin’. Cattle like to stand around an’ gossip an’ ‘orses like to pull things. None o’ them can ‘elp it. It’s all part o’ the natural order o’ things. Minks like to . . . Let me put it like this. Your average mink would make Mudge look celibate.”
“Oh. Oh, shit.”
Squill was nodding vigorously. “I mean, I never thought o’ me own sister as attractive. Kind o’ a frump, if you ‘appened to ask me. But bein’ ‘er brother an’ all, I suppose from the viewpoint o’ another she might possess characteristics that—”
“It would not matter, sir,” the mongoose interrupted him. “With the Baron it would become a challenge, a question of honor, were one who happened to catch his eye decide to decline his advances. Would your sister be likely to do that?”
“With a knife, if necessary,” Squill readily admitted.
“You’re saying you saw this Krasvin ask Neena for a date, or an assignation, or something?” Buncan said.
“Nothing like that. Please stop the pain.”
“Come on,” Buncan urged the coppersmith. “We’re wasting time. What did you see?”
“Please,” the vendor hissed at him, “I have to maintain the fiction, or word could get back to the Baron’s agents that I helped you willingly.”
“All right, all right. I’m beating you to a pulp, see? But try and hurry it up.”
“That is precisely what occurred. The Baron was accompanied by a number of his armed retainers. I was sitting right here and saw it all happen. From what I could tell, the young female not only categorically refused his invitation, she laughed at him.”
“Uh-oh,” Squill muttered.
“Though I did not know her, at that moment I myself feared for her,” the mongoose confessed. “I could of course not become involved.”
“Of course not,” Buncan said dryly.
“The Baron Krasvin is not a mink for a compatible female to laugh at. Especially in a public place. He takes his reputation very seriously. I sensed it was not the sort of insult he could allow to pass. So I continued to watch.”
“Your sister,” he told Squill, “came down this line of stalls. Down there,” he pointed, “is a public lavatory. As she was about to enter, I saw three of the Baron’s retainers jump upon her and assault her with clubs. She fought ferociously but, taken by surprise, was quickly overpowered. They placed her in a canvas sack and spirited her away. To the Baron’s mansion, I am sure.”
“And you didn’t try to intervene, or call for help?” Buncan said darkly.
The mongoose was unrepentant. “They would have killed me without a thought, and by the time city police might have arrived they would have been long gone. Besides which, nobles are but infrequently taken to task for their infractions.”
“Don’t get on ‘im, mate,” said Squill unexpectedly. “ ‘E were only protectin’ ‘imself.”
“You think she’s been taken to this Krasvin’s house,” Buncan growled. “Tell us how to get there.”
“If you will stop beating me, I will give you directions. Ah, that’s better. Perhaps you can make some kind of deal with the Baron, buy her back. He likes money as well as . . .”
“We get the picture,” Buncan told him.
The mongoose nodded. “You must of course put any foolish thoughts of forcibly liberating her out of your minds.”
“Why?” Buncan wanted to know.
“Because the Baron’s abode, within which he lives a life of barbaric ease, is impregnable. While not actually a castle, it would still take a small army to surmount its walls. I myself have seen this residence, and I promise, you would not get past the outer gate.”
“Cor, we are a small army.” Squill jabbed a thumb against his chest. “An’ we ‘ave unique weapons at our disposal.”
Do we? Buncan wondered. Can Squill and I spellsing without the harmonizing of his sister? He was less than sanguine about the possibilities.
“Don’t worry.” Buncan placed a comforting arm around bis friend’s shoulders as they made their way back to the livestock pens to fill Gragelouth in on what had transpired. “We’ll get her out.”
“I weren’t worryin’ about ‘er, mate. I was feelin’ sorry for this ‘ere Krasvin chap. ‘E ‘asn’t a clue wot ‘e’s got •imself into.”
“You’re not taking this lightly,” Buncan admonished him. “Neena’s in serious trouble.”
“Maybe. On the other ‘and, if we left ‘er ‘ere she’d probably be all right until we got back, we’d travel faster, and I bet she’d eat better than us.”
Buncan promptly smacked the otter on the side of his head, dislodging his cap. Startled, Squill gazed at his friend in surprise.
“Ow! Wot did you ‘it me for?”
“You know damn well what I hit you for! Neena’s your sister, your only sibling.”
“You’re tellin’ me.”
Duncan’s voice dropped dangerously. “Did it ever occur to you that after having his way with her, this Baron could have her killed instead of setting her free? Just for having laughed at him? From what that mongoose told us, this Krasvin sounds capable of that. Maybe if your positions, so to speak, were reversed, you’d be thinking differently.”
“Oh, all right!” Squill threw up his hands by way of surrender. “So we’ll save ‘er or die tryin’, just like all brave fools are supposed to. But our jolly merchant will decry the delay.”
Sure enough, once he’d heard all the details Gragelouth didn’t want any part of their unlikely rescue attempt. If anything, he was less encouraging than the mongoose.
“You are great spellsingers, but you are young and inexperienced, in matters of siege and war no less than in sorcery.” He brushed fur away from his mouth. “And I am sure it has occurred to you that with the female component of your spellsinging triumvirate indisposed, you may not be able to work any necromancy at all. Should that be the case, you will be two against a well-defended target. That is not bravery; it is suicide.”
“Then we’ll have to take the mongoose’s suggestion and try and negotiate her release,” Buncan said.
“We do not have anywhere near the necessary funds,” the merchant reminded him. “We would not even if I canceled the purchase of the riding lizards.”
“ ‘Ow about we sneak inside and kill ‘em one at a time?” Squill suggested.
“Oh, that’s very good.” Buncan smiled sarcastically. “We don’t even know what kind of house soldiers Krasvin employs.”
Gragelouth let out a long, resigned sigh, half of which emerged via his nostrils. “Perhaps you should leave more of this to me.”
Squill eyed him in surprise. “You don’t mean you’re comin’ with us?”
“I need your help if I am ever to ascertain the existence of the Grand Veritable. I cannot imagine encountering again any others as blindly willing and credulous as yourselves.”
“Cor, thanks, guv,” Squill murmured sardonically.
“We don’t go on without Neena. That’s understood,” Buncan said flatly. Gragelouth nodded tiredly.
“Yes, yes. But we must somehow convince, pay, or trick at least a few soldiers-at-arms into coming with us, or we will surely have less than no chance.”
“Righty-ho!” Squill straightened. “Stiff upper whiskers an’ all that. If we’re lucky, maybe we can ‘ire on a few more otters.”
“May the god of all honest merchants preserve me from that,” Gragelouth muttered, sufficiently tow so that Squill did not overhear.
She finally began her gradual ascent from the bottom of the pool. It was one of the most beautiful pools she’d ever visited, deep and cool and perfectly circular. There were no fish, only dark olive-green fronds with scalloped edges that swayed back and forth in the current.
Sunlight and air beckoned overhead as she spiraled lazily upward, not swimming at all, carried skyward by a reverse whirlpool. When she broke the surface, she blinked and inhaled softly.
Instead of the sun, she found herself staring at a glowbulb suspended from the nave of a vaulted ceiling decorated with richly carved dark wood. Turning her head to her left, she saw a high, narrow window of stained glass. The unknown artist had used the chromatically colored, intricately shaped pieces to illustrate a bedroom scene, a scene that . . .
Waking up fast, she rolled over in the expansive, canopied bed.
There was no refreshing pool, unless one counted the swirl of fine linen on which she reposed. She was not even slightly damp. Every strand of her fur had been brushed out, and her coat radiated a fine, cushy silkiness. Instead of her familiar shorts and top, she found herself clad in a full-length dress of pink satin sewn with pearls and semiprecious stones. The sleeves were short and puffed at the shoulders. Matching slippers shod her feet. Tiny silver bells had been braided into her tail, and even her whiskers had been sprayed with pink glitter. They itched.
Her initial reaction was to strip the stones and pearls from the dress and cram them into the first container she could find, but as there was no booty bag handy she spent the time instead yanking off the too-tight slippers while inspecting more of her surroundings.
It was quite the largest bed she had ever seen, with its sweeping crewelwork canopy and line of pillows marching from one side to the other at the top. It could accommodate the most energetic couple, together with their immediate family as well as assorted aunts, uncles, and distant cousins. No doubt it was a source of continuing delight to its owner.
It suddenly struck her that she might well have been brought to this place to participate in just such entertainment.
Whoever had caused the bed to be fabricated was no giant. It was built low to the floor, and she slipped off easily, heading for the single window. The stained glass lay just out of reach. If she stacked a few things underneath she was sure she could reach the small sill at its base.
As she began her search for suitable objects, she happened to catch sight of herself in a large, oval, freestanding mirror. Her cheerful, brightly hued makeup had been redone exclusively in pink and rose, the stylish streaking running from the corners of her eyes and mouth in waves to the back of her head. Powdered ruby and garnet applied over a base of black specular hematite had been used to create the stunning effect. A glance over her shoulder as she pirouetted revealed that the back of the dress was cut in a sharp V all the way down to the base of her tail.
Blimey, she thought as she stared at her reflection, I’m bloomiri gorgeous. Too bad it was a wasted effort on someone’s part. She preferred to be asked.
The glowbulb illuminated the entire ceiling, its light supplemented by the pair of tall oil lamps which flanked the bed. She suspected the moderation of its glow was due to intent, not a weakening of the spell which powered it. Someone was striving hard for a particular atmosphere of which she, like the subdued light and the bawdy stained glass and the bed, was merely one more component.
She found a chair and placed it beneath the window. Resuming her search, she passed once more in front of the mirror and, in spite of herself, stopped to stick out a short leg. Someone had outdone themselves in fashioning the dress. Otters were difficult to tailor for, with their short waists and limbs and long, sinuous bodies. The folds of fine satin were highly flattering.
“It is better for someone else to admire such a work of art.”
She spun away from the mirror as the speaker shut the single door behind him. The mink was no taller than she, and slightly slimmer. His fur was finer and darker. He wore jeweled sandals with pantaloons and a vest of metallic red accented with black leather. The vest had a high, stiff collar which framed his finely formed head. More decoration than threat, a bejeweled dagger was secured at his waist. A double earring dangled from his left ear.
Unlike his complimentary tone, the expression on his face was positively predatory. Not that her situation required additional explication. Neena was young but hardly naive. Her elegant attire had been provided for her captor’s enjoyment, not hers.
Her pupils dilated sharply. “I know you. You’re the arrogant bastard from the marketplace. You kidnapped me.”
“Correct on both counts.” The mink had a brusque, clipped manner of speaking. “I am the Baron Koliac Krasvin, at your servicing, which I intend to carry out shortly.”
“I’ll wager ‘tis ‘shortly,’ all right.”
His laconic smile vanished. “Your attempt at humor is ill-timed. I suggest you lighten your attitude instead and it will be the better for you. You may call me Koliac.”
“ ‘Ow about ‘Colon’ instead? Or, if you’d prefer a little more familiarity, Shithead.”
One thing for the Baron: He was not easily nonplussed. “Please, no simple bucolic obscenities. If you are going to call me names, at least strive for inventiveness.”
That sparked an idea. Not a great one, but her options were pretty limited. “You want to see inventive? I’ll show you inventive.” She straightened. “You’d better open that door right now, or I won’t be responsible for the ‘orrible things that’ll ensue.”
Krasvin took a dainty, measured step forward, grinning unpleasantly. “That’s all right. I will.”
She retreated from the vicinity of the mirror. “I’m warnin’ you; I’m a spellsinger, I am.”
His grin widened. “Oh, surely. And you are about to turn me into a newt.”
“I mean it. I’ll do it.”
“You certainly will,” Krasvin assured her, “willingly or otherwise. You know, I’ve never met a spellsinger, but I’ve heard of them. Do not their mystic conjurations require instrumental accompaniment? I know for a fact that you do not have an instrument on you. At least, not a musical one.”
She found herself being backed toward the bed, which was not a preferred line of retreat. “ ‘Ere now, don’t you realize that you’re a very offensive person?”
“Oh, surely. It’s an integral part of my personality. But I’ve learned to live with it. I noticed that you like your gown. It was originally sewn for a lady mink, but I had it modified especially for you.”
“You needn’t ‘ave bothered.”
“Doesn’t it trouble you that I’m an otter an’ not a mink?”
“On the contrary, I find the differences intriguing rather than disconcerting. Besides which, my tastes are quite broad. As soon as I set eyes on you I knew that an inevitable succession of events was about to commence. These will conclude presently. And I grow tired of talking.”
She looked around desperately, but there was only the single high window and the one door. She considered taking a running jump at the stained glass, but it was a foolish notion. Otters were adept at many kinds of physical exertion, but with their short legs running jumps could not be counted among them. If they’d been in the water, now . . .
The door would surely be guarded. There was no other potential exit, not even a fireplace. Only the bed, several chests full of clothing, the canopy over the bed which was too fragile to support anyone, a couple of chairs, the oval mirror, the cold cut-slate floor, the single glowbulb high above, and the two freestanding oil lamps.
Those were her only potential weapons. But minks were quick. If she threw a lamp and missed, she doubted it would improve his disposition any. And he could always call for help.
She decided to try another tack. “Please, good sir; me friends and I are just passing through this part o’ the world. They’ll come lookin’ for me, don’t you know. One o’ them is a rich an’ powerful merchant.”
“Who has to haggle for a bargain in the marketplace.” As he advanced she saw that Krasvin’s teeth were very white, and very sharp.
She bumped up against the bed frame and started edging sideways. While undeniably beautiful, the dress was a definite hindrance. Perhaps that was the idea.
“Stay away from me.”
“On the contrary, I intend to get quite close to you. Bear in mind that I have gone to some trouble and expense to position you in your present circumstances. I have no intention of letting you leave until we have come to know each other much better. So to speak. A number of times.”
“I think I know you as well as I want to already.” She made it around the foot of the bed, and he followed relentlessly, making no move to rush her, clearly enjoying the athletic foreplay. Eventually she would tire, and there was nowhere else for her to go. They all came to that realization eventually.
“Come now,” he chided her. “I’m not such a bad fellow. I assure you from experience that our minor tribal differences will not hinder mutual revelation. Haven’t you ever wondered if what they say about minks is true?”
“Not even from an academic standpoint,” she shot back.
“You’re lying, but that’s okay. You’re going to get answers to questions you never thought to ask. How old are you, by the way?” His persistent stare was base and clinical. “Not very, I’d wager. Just beginning to bloom. Delightful.” Despite his veneer of sophistication, he was all but drooling on the floor.
He was closer now, one paw extended.
“Keep away from me!” She whirled and raced to the other side of the bed.
As Krasvin advanced purposefully, she removed the oil lamp from its metal holder and set the flaming crystal container aside, wielding the metal pole which had formerly supported it like a lance. Krasvin was not intimidated.
“That dress flatters every line of your body, you know.”
“No closer!” She gestured wamingly with the tip of the lamp pole.
He halted. “Oh, my. You have armed yourself. I fear I must rethink my intentions.” He turned his back on her.
She didn’t relax even slightly. “Get out. Through the door, go on. I’ll just wait in ‘ere for me friends.”
He peered back over his shoulder, the earring bobbing above his fur. “Anything else you’d like me to do for you? Any other demands? No?” He turned and dropped his eyes momentarily. An instant later he was upon her.
Normally there wasn’t a creature alive an agile mink couldn’t run down. But despite being slightly stouter of build, otters were nearly as quick. She threw the lamp pole as soon as he made his move. He twisted lithely, knocking it to the floor with both hands. It landed between them, clanging against the stone floor.
As soon as the pole left her fingers, she grabbed up the lamp and heaved it. Again the Baron dodged. The lamp just missed his head, landing a good distance behind him and shattering against the slate. Flaming oil spread along the grout between the stones.
Krasvin glanced at the fire, which would burn itself out harmlessly, before turning back to her. “Don’t you find it warm enough in here already? You should save your strength. You’re going to need it.” He resumed his measured advance. “Has it not occurred to you by now that I have followed this exact scenario through to its inevitable conclusion many times before this, and that I am familiar with anything you might do or try? Much as I enjoy these little games, I don’t see any sense in prolonging them. You will not leave this chamber until I say so. Meanwhile, why not give in to reality and make it as easy as possible on yourself?”
Neena seemed to slump. “I guess . . .! guess you’re right.” She dropped her head, adopting what she imagined to be a conciliatory, complaisant posture.
“That’s better,” he said curtly. He nodded to his right. “On the bed with you. Or would you like me to throw you there?” He came nearer, stepping over the fallen lamp pole as he reached for her.
As he did so, she advanced submissively toward him. One slippered foot came down on the base of the fallen pole. Hard.
The other end of the pole snapped upward directly between his short legs. His eyes widened sufficiently for her to see the dying oil fire reflected fully in them, while his grin was replaced by another expression entirely as he crumpled to the floor.
She rushed to him and ripped the decorative dagger from his waistband. For some reason he made no move to stop her, perhaps because his hands were presently elsewhere occupied. Nor did he venture any clever ban mots.
Skirt swirling around her, she raced for the door and began pounding madly on the heavy wooden barrier. “The Baron,” she screamed, “the Baron’s ‘avin’ a heart attack! Someone help, please help us!”
As the door swung wide to reveal a pair of muscular, heavily armed weasels, she stepped aside, holding her hands behind her. While one kept a wary eye on her, the other rushed into the room as soon as he spotted the Baron writhing on the floor. Krasvin was holding himself with one hand and gesturing weakly with the other, his ability to sculpt coherent words still somewhat inhibited. “No . . . don’t . . .,” he was gasping. His feeble protestations drew the attention of the second guard, at which point Neena brought her arm around fast and hard to thrust the dagger into his side, just beneath his armor. The weasel squealed but managed only a desultory gesture of interference as she sprinted past him.
Only to find an orang-utan clad in black chain mail and spiked helmet blocking the hallway. His long arms extended from one wall to the other, preventing her from dashing past.
“Now where did you think you were going, m’lady?” he growled at her.
“Nowhere,” she gasped. “ Tis just that the Baron “as been taken suddenly ill an’ . . .” She looked back toward the chamber. Through the gaping door she could see the first guard helping Krasvin to his feet. The other had staggered into the room, clutching his side.
Frowning, the orang looked past her. “Looks like he’s being helped.”
“ ‘E needs it,” she replied, “an’ so will you.” A lightning strike with the dagger thrust up under the chest armor and into the orang’s belly. One long arm groped for her and missed as she withdrew the bloody blade and hurried onward.
Dress flying, she sped down the now empty hallway, searching wildly for any exit. The building she was in seemed endless. As she turned a corner she nearly ran into a pair of spear-carrying rats and a single langur.
There was an open door on her left, and she took it, finding herself in some kind of pantry or kitchen annex. Bundles of dried meat, packages sealed with wax, sacks of flour barred her path as she struggled through. Behind her, voices were rising in counterpoint to the echo of booted and sandaled feet. The household was being alerted to her flight.
She forced open the door on the far side of the vestibule and found herself in a large, open room lit by oil lamps and the single obligatory overhead glowbulb. Fully three walls of the two-story-high chamber were lined with shelves on which reposed more books than she’d ever seen in her life, more books than she imagined even Clothahump must possess. Bindings of wood and metal, of leather and exotic materials, gleamed in the indirect light.
A large double-sided reading table and two matching chairs occupied the center of the room, while a narrow railed walkway ran completely around the library at mezzanine level. A single ladder leaned against an opening in the railing, providing access to the upper shelves. The fourth wall was mostly glass, dark now since it was night outside.
To her right a brace of double doors stood open, revealing a spacious atrium beyond. It also exposed the interior of the library to the outside, which was full of bustling, armed retainers.
One spotted her and pointed. “There she is!”
She looked around frantically. The heavy, beveled windows would open but slowly, if at all. A desperate rush might carry her through . . . at the risk of being cut to bloody shreds.
As the noise outside increased, she grabbed one of the cut-crystal oil lamps, making sure it was at least half full, I and scampered up the ladder to the second-level walkway. A pair of armed pacas entered, espied her, and came a-rushing. Setting the lamp down on the landing, she put both hands on the top of the ladder and shoved. It made a satisfying crash as it struck both of them, knocking one to the floor.
A couple of pottos showed up but made no move to resurrect the ladder. They were followed by a hyrax and a trio of stout armadillos. The Baron arrived a moment later, escorted by a single weasel.
“Cheers.” She smiled bravely as she clutched the dagger tight. “ ‘Ow’s your ardor? Cooled a bit?”
He grinned back up at her, but it was clearly a strain. “Under different circumstances I might have found the encounter stimulating.”
“Cor, you don’t say?” She waved the blade. “Come on up ‘ere an’ I’ll be glad to stimulate you some more.”
“You’re being very tiresome. Come down from there. Now.”
“Sorry. I kind o’ like it up ‘ere. Meanwhile, you can kiss your arse.”
He took a deep breath. “I see that ropes and restraints are in order. I had hoped you would come to enjoy my attentions, or at least tolerate them. Now I see that I will have to take a different approach. It will in nowise mitigate my pleasure, but I assure you that you will find it exceedingly uncomfortable.” He gestured. There were now a dozen armed retainers in the room.
Two of the armadillos picked up the ladder, while a dexterous gibbon placed his saber between his teeth and prepared to ascend as soon as it had been properly positioned. Seeing that the armadillos intended to set the ladder against the railing on the other side of the room, Neena rushed around the walkway and prepared to confront them.
As the ladder struck home, the climbing gibbon drew his saber and cut at her legs. She hopped lithely over the blow, avoiding a second slash just to show it was no fluke, and sliced the combative primate across his lightly clad chest. Clutching at the wound, the ape lost his balance and fell, rather dramatically, to the floor below. His colleagues thoughtfully scattered, none gallant enough to break their companion’s fall.
“Get her down from there, you idiots!” Krasvin raged at his servants. “Get another ladder! Get several.” As a number of the retainers rushed to do his bidding, he whirled to glare up at her.
While everyone waited on those who had left, the armadillos raised the single ladder a second time. This time it was a somewhat reluctant rat who cautiously ascended the rungs. As he climbed, he jabbed his long spear in Neena’s direction. Retreating, she parried the unwieldy thrusts until the rat was within reach. Then she darted forward beneath the spearpoint and slashed at his hand. The rodent yelped, dropped his spear, and shinnied quickly back down the ladder.
She’d grabbed at the spear but missed, hoping to gain something to hurl at the gaping faces below. It was then she realized that in that regard she was not unequipped.
The first tome she pulled from the shelves was weighty and thickly bound. This satisfying missile struck one of the armadillos square on the forehead. It squealed in pain and let go of the ladder as its companion tried to balance the heavy object.
Additional volumes followed in joyful and rapid succession. They caused plenty of confusion, if no real damage.
A stricken Krasvin stepped hastily to the fore. “Stop that!” He bent to recover a damaged tome, cradling it lovingly. “Don’t you realize how valuable this collection is? Do you have any idea what goes into the manufacture of a single book?” He was genuinely distressed.
Neena smiled inwardly. She’d found Krasvin’s weak spot.
It seemed he was a collector not only of unwilling young females, but of books. She would not have guessed it.
“No, I don’t.” She selected an especially beautifully bound volume from the nearest shelf. “You mean it would be really hard to replace this if you did this to it?” Opening the book, she began to rip out pages at random, tossing them over the railing. They fluttered to the floor like stricken moths.
“Don’t do that!” His fist clenched in a paroxysm of frustration, Krasvin glared at his people. “Where are those other ladders?”
Neena promptly began ripping and flinging fistfuls of pages from volumes chosen at random, until a blizzard of paper and vellum filled the room. Helpless to stop her, Krasvin was suffering more than he had from the lamp pole. Witnessing his agony made Neena feel better than she had in some time.
Wheezing and panting, several retainers finally returned with two more ladders. Gathering along different walls, they prepared to assault her from three directions at once. Quick as she was, she knew she could probably hold them off for a little while. But eventually they would wear her down. Once more in his paws, she knew Krasvin would take steps to see that her escape attempt could not be repeated.
“It’s all over.” Mink eyes stared ferociously up at her. “Come down right now and maybe, maybe, if you beg me hard enough and long enough, I won’t have you killed when I’m finished with you.”
“I reckon you’re right, mister Baron. It is over. Except for this.” Taking the last volume she’d extracted from the shelves, she held it upside down so that the pages dangled loose directly above the open flame of the crystal oil lamp. As soon as it caught, she heaved the flaming folio over the railing. It landed amidst a pile of torn pages, which immediately flared brightly.
“Put that out!” Ripping the cloak from one of his retainers, Krasvin flung it onto the fire and began hopping madly to snuff the flames. Only the quick thinking of the langur, who raced for the kitchen and returned moments later with a pail of water, enabled them to extinguish the blaze before the entire room was engulfed.
When Krasvin was finally able to turn his attention back to his former captive, she already had another pile of irreplaceable kindling ready. Half a dozen other books lay open nearby, soaked with oil from the lamp.
“Righty-ho. Now, do I get out o’ ‘ere, or does this ‘ole blinkin’ repository go up in smoke?”
“You’ll burn with it.”
“I’ll take me chances. ‘Ow about you?” She was not smiling now.
“You don’t get out of here,” he spat out. “You never get out of here. Even if you burn down the whole library.”
She shrugged. “Suit yourself, guv.” She lowered the book she was holding toward the open flame, sure they could smell the oil she’d spread about even on the floor below.
“Wait!” The mink raised both paws. She hesitated. “Let’s . . . talk.”
She nodded slowly, pursing her lower lip. “That’s more like it. I’m always willin’ to chat. But I’m pretty tired. Tired o’ tryin’ to watch everybody.”
The Baron gestured. The three ladders were lowered and the retainers backed off, several of them retreating to the atrium outside. Selecting one of the reading chairs, Krasvin sat down facing her. “Better?”
“Bloody right it is. Now I’d like some water.”
“How about some fine wine instead?”
She smiled thinly. “I may be young, but I ain’t stupid. Just water. Cold. An’ somethin’ to eat. Fresh fish would be nice.”
“Anything else?” he asked tensely.
She didn’t flinch from his even, murderous gaze. “If there is, I’ll let you know.”
He nodded once and relayed the instructions to a servant. The paca vanished through the double doorway. Setting themselves to wait, the remaining retainers put their weapons aside and leaned against the shelves, or sat down on the tiled floor.
Krasvin crossed his arms and continued to watch her.
“You must know that there is no way I’m going to let you leave here without having you first. Especially after what you’ve done.”
“I think you’re the one who’s been ‘ad, Baron.” She sat down on the walkway, her back against the shelves.
“What do you think you’re going to do after you’ve eaten and drunk?” he asked her.
“First things first.” There, she thought. That’s better than confessing that I haven’t the slightest idea what I am going to do next.
“You don’t mind if I eat with you?” Something of Krasvin’s smile had returned. “All this activity has made me quite hungry.” He whispered to another servant.
“ ‘As it, now? I’d ‘oped I’d managed to kill your appetite completely.”
“No. Only momentarily stun it.” “Too bad I couldn’t ‘ave used this.” She made a gesture with the appropriated dagger. “Instead of just a lamp pole. If my father were ‘ere “e’d slice you up into family souvenirs. An’ ‘is friend is the greatest spellsinger in all the Warmlands.”
Krasvin did not appear impressed. Servants arrived bearing food and drink. She made certain the paca who handed up hers from the top of one ladder was unarmed. When he’d completed the delivery, she kicked the ladder off the walkway. The ever-ready armadillos caught it as it fell.
Krasvin picked daintily at his own victuals. “Unfortunately, none of the individuals of whom you speak are here.”
“Me travelin’ companions are.”
“No, you are wrong. They are in Camrioca. If they haven’t already abandoned you. While you . . . are here. With me.”
She chewed on the fish and sipped at the water only after carefully smelling of both. If they were drugged, it was with substances beyond her ability to distinguish. She had to chance it.
Besides, from the Baron’s point of view there was no need for such subtleties. He could sleep whenever he felt like it, rotating guards as long as was necessary, knowing that exhaustion would eventually overcome her. As they ate she saw other servants coming and going, stocking the library with pails of water to douse any fire as Krasvin sought to prepare for the final -assault.
As soon as she’d had enough to drink she poured the rest of the water over her head, soaking the elegant gown and running her makeup. It freshened her, but only, she knew, for a while.
Where in the name of the Ultimate Whirlpool were her friends and that lazy useless ragball of a brother? Not that they were likely to successfully crash this pocket fortress, but surely they were bound to try? She settled herself as best she could, shifting her position on the unyielding wooden walkway.
She was determined to put off the inevitable for as long as possible. If naught else, by the time she finally gave out she might be too exhausted to feel anything.
Krasvin sat watching her, his gaze rarely wavering. His principal adviser, an elderly mandrill, approached and dared to whisper in his ear.
“Why don’t we rush her, your lordship? See, she tires already? How many books could she burn before we took her?”
“Fool.” The cowled mandrill shrank back. “One more would be too many. Don’t you know how precious this library is? How valuable a single volume is in the scheme of existence? How irreplaceable the knowledge it holds, the information it contains within its multitudinous pages? Books are by far the most valuable resource of the Learned. They are the foundation of civilization, the bedrock of society, the source of all that is profound and wise and benign. The loss of a single folio denigrates me, denigrates, you, diminishes all thinking individuals. That is a catastrophe to be avoided at all costs.”
“Actually, your lordship, I thought that fornication was more important to you than books.”
“I am surprised at you, Byelroeth. You know that this library is my most valued possession. That it is the supreme example of its kind not only in Camrioca, but in all the lands to the south and east. It is the envy of all who visit here. Having seen it, they cannot do else but admire my dedication to erudition and learning, to great literature and to research.”
“Your pardon, your lordship, but may I remind you that this library consists entirely of pornography?”
The mink’s gaze narrowed as he regarded his Adviser. “Are you making fun of me, Byelroeth?”
The mandrill’s eyes widened. “Me? Never, your lordship.”
Krasvin turned away, easing back in his chair and focusing once more on the seated figure of the lady otter on the walkway above.
“Incompetents. I am surrounded by incompetents. No wonder a single female of a tribe not noted for their depth of dunking has been able to outsmart and outfight all of you.”
“Aye. All of us, Master,” came a voice from somewhere behind him.
He whirled furiously. “Who said that?” A few startled faces looked back at him. Several shuffled uneasily where they stood. But no one owned up to the comment.
He forced himself to set the matter aside. Now was not the time to go lopping off heads arbitrarily. That could come later. Right now he needed every paw and claw.
“Whoever spoke was right in one sense. She is making fools of us all.”
“We are just not all as frustrated as you, Master,” said another voice. Krasvin joined in the nervous laughter which followed this sally. Keep them relaxed and they will put more enthusiasm into their work, he told himself. Much later, when this episode was concluded, he would administer truth serum to each and every one of them. When the severed heads of the guilty were mounted atop the front gate, he would see to it that they were positioned with smiles on their faces in memory of the untimely quips which had ultimately convicted them.
Fulfillment of his desires had merely been delayed, not thwarted.
The female who was making a fool of him tapped the book she had opened on her lap. It was bound in green snakeskin fore-edged with gold.
“Oi, Baron!” He said nothing. “This ‘ere could be an educational experience if you weren’t so bloody insistent on forcin’ yourself on me.” She turned a leaf, shook her head at what the next page revealed. “I do believe you’re a right nasty-minded little sod, Kraven.”
“Krasvin. Will you come down from there?”
“Only if you can figure a way o’ assurin’ me o’ safe passage out o’ ‘ere, an’ promisin’ that you won’t come huntin’ for me and me companions.” She looked past him, toward the double doorway. “They should be arrivin’ any time now.”
He smiled disarmingly. “Your so-called friends seem shy. There has been no sign of any visitors at the gates or on the grounds, save for a single itinerant peddler whom my staff drenched with dirty dishwater and sent packing. Can it be that your erstwhile companions have conceded the reality of your capture and are relaxing in the city, drinking and taking their ease and generally enjoying themselves? That would be the sensible thing for them to do should they have learned what has happened to you. Are they sensible, these friends of yours?”
She nudged the lamp a little nearer to the pile of opened, oil-soaked books just to see him tense up. “I really ought to get this goin’. ‘Tis a mite chilly in “ere.”
Below, Krasvin raised a restraining paw. “Don’t. These volumes are all unique, all one of a kind.”
She tapped the one she was perusing. “I’ll bet. I’d ‘ate to think there were more than one o’ these.”
“Judge me if you will, but don’t judge my books. All-knowledge is valuable.”
“Spoken like a scholar. ‘Course, that means nothin” to me. I’m just a fun-lovin’ sort. So are me friends, as you’ll find out when they arrive.” At which point, in spite of making a great effort to suppress the reaction, she yawned.
Krasvin’s smile returned. “I will put my mind to a method of ensuring your unhindered departure.”
“So you’ve decided to let me go?” She yawned again.
“My library is more important to me than any mere conquest. I will think how to reassure you.”
“Now you’re bein’ smart.” As she eyed him uncertainly the book started to slide from her relaxed fingers. Startled, she regripped the covers.
He rose from the chair. “My advisers and I will devise a method to satisfy you. A pity. I admire your spirit as much as your tail. But if it is not to be,” he executed an elaborate, theatrical shrug of disappointment, “it is not to be.” Turning, he accompanied Byelroeth out to the atrium.
“She tires, your lordship,” said the mandrill. “As much pressure as she has been under, surely she cannot remain awake much longer.”
“It’s nothing compared to the pressure she’s going to be under when I get her out of there.” Krasvin turned to his Adviser. “I’m going to my chambers for a nap. Make certain the watch on her is rotated regularly and kept fresh. I don’t know where she learned to fight like that, but I’m taking no chances. Not with the imbeciles I’m forced to depend on.”
“She will doubtless fall asleep before you awaken, your lordship.”
“Yes. Then we’ll write some pages of our own in a different sort of book. One that’s appropriately bound.” He stalked off in the direction of his private rooms, his hands clasped behind his back, the fingers kneading one another in anticipation of work to come. The mandrill did not share his Master’s peculiar tastes, and he shuddered for the lady in the library.
The tavern was situated close to both the central marketplace and the harbor. It was elegant without and spacious within, the sort of establishment where the city’s honorable citizens could mix comfortably with less reputable inhabitants and travelers. A good place in which to find both information and aid.
“This mad venture had best not cost overmuch.” Gragelouth cautiously considered their intended destination from the outside. “Not that I wouldn’t do everything within my power to rescue your sister,” he added quickly to Squill, who hovered nearby, “but I cannot forbear from pointing out that our resources are already sorely strained.”
Buncan was trying to see through one of the windows into the tavern. It was packed with patrons. There was a wooden piano in back at which a flea-bitten wolf plied his trade. The barmaids came from many tribes, but none looked any less tough or competent than the customers they served. He and Squill followed the merchant inside.
Representatives of dozens of species caroused at booths and tables or harangued the several bartenders. The music was loud, the conversation louder still. Everyone looked . . . used.
“Maybe we’d do better elsewhere,” he suggested, having to raise his voice to make himself heard.
“I did some checking.” The sloth was ambling toward the entrance. “In a more refined establishment we will not find the land of help we seek. Indeed, we would run the risk of encountering friends of this Baron.” He smiled gently, and not for the first time Buncan found himself wondering what truly lay behind that smile. The smile behind the snout, as it were.
“Anywhere more disreputable and any help we might engage would probably prove unreliable, likely to bolt at the first hint of difficulty or danger. Not that I am hopeful of finding anyone anywhere willing to risk their lives for so little recompense as we can offer.”
Buncan nodded his understanding, affecting what he hoped was an air of cosmopolitan insouciance as they sauntered into the main room. They were quickly swept up in the heady, boisterous atmosphere.
While Gragelouth made straight for the bar, Buncan strolled among the tables until his gaze fell on a full-grown, black-maned lion. Standing, the powerful feline would have towered over him. Broad, muscle-slabbed shoulders peered out from beneath iridescent snake-leather armor which was thickly fringed at the edges. It covered shoulders and upper chest only, leaving the flat belly revealed. Matching fringed shorts and high-laced sandals completed the attire. A double-handed sword longer than Squill was tall rested in its scabbard against the side of the round table at which its owner relaxed. Presently, the lion was holding a brass-bound wooden tankard the size of a man’s head.
“Now that’s just who we need on our side.” He headed for the table.
Squill trailed along uncertainly, plucking at his friend’s tunic. “ ‘Ere now, mate, maybe we ought to let the merchant ‘ave a go first, wot? ‘E’s the one with the negotiatin’ experience.”
Buncan didn’t alter his vector. “I’m just going to talk to him. Don’t worry, I can handle it.”
The nearer they drew, the bigger the lion looked. Squill muttered something under his breath.
The feline was holding court with the oversize, sloshing tankard. His road-toughened companions, a fox and caracal, didn’t look like pushovers themselves. The caracal’s sharply raked ears turned in Duncan’s direction an instant before he spoke.
The back of the lion’s mane had been combed and tied in a thick ponytail. It rustled as its owner glanced questioningly out of large yellow eyes at the presumptuous young human. “No,” he said without hesitation. His voice was deep and vibrant, as if it rose from the bottom of an old stone well.
Buncan was taken aback. “Sorry?” A deep nimble issued from the back of the lion’s throat. “I mean that I won’t excuse you.” The tankard rose and beer vanished. A heavy tongue licked subsidiary suds from a tan muzzle. Across the table the fox and caracal shared a meaningful chuckle.
Ignoring Squill’s insistent tugs, Buncan regarded the smug trio. “Suit yourself. I guess this means that you’re all independently wealthy.”
The fox’s ears pricked up. “Say again?” The caracal, too, showed sudden interest.
Buncan shifted from one foot to the other, affecting nonchalance. “I said that you must all be independently wealthy. It’s clear you don’t need any work.”
“Who said we didn’t need work?” The fox ignored the lion’s disapproving glare.
Buncan shrugged. “You’re not interested in my offer of employment.”
The lion placed a paw on the table, extending all five claws. They dug into the thick wood, which was scarred from similar attention from time and customers immemorial. It was hard not to stare at them.
“Explain yourself, cub.”
Buncan bristled but contained himself. “My friend’s sister has been abducted.”
“What friend?” asked the feline with a low growl.
Buncan turned. Squill was nowhere to be seen. Searching farther afield located him seated at the bar. The otter held a mug in one hand and waved cheerily with the other. With a sigh, Buncan turned back to the table.
“He’s over there.”
“So his sister’s been abducted. It’s a tough world. What’s that to us?” the caracal muttered.
“Money, and adventure. If you assist us in her rescue.”
The smaller feline toyed with his own tankard, which was half the size of the lion’s. “Adventure’s usually a fool’s word for describing discomfort and hardship. If I long for some I can usually find it without having to fight off desperate kidnappers.”
“How do you know it’ll be like that?” Buncan asked him.
“Because it is a friend who is involved, your interest in this matter is obviously personal,” observed the fox. “Ours would not be.” He glanced speculatively across the table. “If the fee were right . . .”
“Fust things first,” the lion murmured. “Who’s done the kidnapping? Transient thieves? Registered Guild Abductors? Some fool freelancers?” He uttered the last hopefully.
“He’s local. A real asshole. Taking off his head would probably gain you the gratitude of everyone in the city.”
“We’re not after anybody’s gratitude,” the lion grunted. “As for assholes, you’ll have to be more specific. Camrioca boasts a plentiful supply.” He gestured with the tankard. “To which local asshole do you happen to be referring?”
“He calls himself a Baron. Koliac Krasvin.”
“Krasvin.” The lion thrust out his lower lip thoughtfully. “I see. Am I correct in assuming that your friend’s sister is being held in the Baron’s fortified home?”
“That’s what we believe,” Buncan told him.
“And you want the three of us,” he indicated his silent companions, “to help you extricate this unlucky female from Krasvin’s possession?” Buncan indicated the affirmative.
The lion nodded slowly. “Let me tell you something, my furless young friend.” He extended a massive paw and tapped Buncan in the sternum with one outthrust finger. Buncan held his ground, refusing to be intimidated.
“First of all, you don’t look like you have access to more than a few silver pieces at most. Our services run considerably more than that. Second, Koliac Krasvin is known to keep no fewer than fifty armed retainers by his side at all times, all of whom will fight to the death at his command. Not out of love for their master, who is, as you rightly surmise, widely disliked, but because they know if they don’t he’ll have their throats slit while they sleep. Krasvin doesn’t tolerate disloyalty.
“Thirdly, Krasvin’s ‘home’ is more like a small castle than a large house. The main building is enclosed within a high stone wall that would make any military engineer proud. The windows are barred, the doors and gates reinforced with iron and brass. There’s no moat, because one isn’t needed. You’ll suck no marrow from that bone with the three of us, not even if you somehow managed to cajole ten more into accompanying you. My professional estimate is that you’d need a small army to storm the front entrance, and I don’t think you have the money to hire a small army. “Lastly, despite his well-known wildings and distasteful proclivities, the Baron has friends in Camrioca, some in high places. If word got out that a force of any size was marching on his estate, he’d have time to prepare and rally not only his personal staff but those of his allies. So you’d end up with your small army facing his small army.” The thumb stopped prodding and its burly owner leaned back in his chair.
“We’re not interested.”
“But . . .,” Buncan started to argue.
“I said no. I don’t like your proposition, and just incidentally,” he added in a low growl that revealed sharp canines, “I don’t much care for primates, either.”
At that point an older, wiser traveler would have simply taken his leave. Buncan was too young and too frustrated to react sensibly.
“You’re not very hospitable to strangers.”
Muscles in the fox’s neck and arms tensed while the caracal emitted a low, throaty snarl. The lion stiffened slightly but made no move to rise.
“Young human, you’re either very brave or very stupid. Since I am big enough to admire the one and forgive the other, I’ll simply tell you that I’ve treated you no differently than anyone else who’d come seeking our assistance. This matter has nothing to do with hospitality. It’s business, and I’ve treated it in a businesslike manner.”
“Forget money for a moment,” Buncan implored him. The caracal laughed sharply, a sound like sandpaper on velvet. “What about my friend’s sister’s virtue?”
“I don’t know where you’re from, cub, but this is Camrioca.” The lion gestured expansively. “Virtue is not a particularly valued commodity in these parts. I’m not willing to risk death for my own, much less another’s.”
“She’s being forced.”
“If it’s gallantry you seek,” said the fox sagely, “look to books and cub-tales. If it’s muscle and armor, look to your purse. And if it’s justice, hope for better in the afterlife.” He threw back the remainder of his drink.
Buncan leaned forward. “Please. We’ve nowhere else to turn.”
Looking him hard in the eye, the lion put a massive paw on Buncan’s shoulder and gently but irresistibly shoved him away. “Have you tried the door? You humans: Even the young ones will argue you to death. You made your offer; we gave our reply. Leave now, before you upset me.”
Buncan wasn’t finished, then realized that he was. It would do the unfortunate Neena no good if he got himself slaughtered here in this tavern, much less facing the ramparts of the Baron’s home. Disconsolately, he moved to rejoin Squill and Gragelouth.
The merchant made room for him at the bar. He eyed Duncan knowingly as his long tongue lapped liquor from a wide-mouthed, short-stemmed glass. “I could have told you.”
“No luck, mate?” Squill asked him. Duncan replied gruffly. “What do you think?” He rubbed the place on his chest where the lion’s thick finger had prodded repeatedly.
The sloth glanced back over a shoulder. “Those were professionals you accosted. A look is enough to brand them as such. Even had they acceded to your request, we would not have had enough money to pay them.”
“We could have ‘deferred’ payment until after Neena’s rescue.”
Gragelouth scratched at the fur between his eyes. “Now you sound like your otterish friends. An attitude like that will get you killed before you reach your second decade.” “Well, I didn’t know what else to do,” Buncan replied irritably. “Squill, I don’t suppose you’ve had any better luck?”
The otter gestured to his right. “Actually, mate, I’ve been chattin’ up that squirrelish barmaid over there. The one with the tufts tippin’ ‘er ears? It’s times like these that I wish I’d paid more attention to some o’ me dad’s stories. The ones ‘e’s more apt to tell when me mum ain’t about.”
Buncan looked disgusted. “And with your sister in mortal danger.”
“Aw, she ain’t in no mortal danger, Buncan.” Despite his disclaimer, Squill looked uncomfortable. “I mean, wot’s the worst thing that could ‘appen to ‘er?” “Put yourself in her position,” Buncan told him. The otter shrugged, but it was halfhearted at best. “See?”
A heavy claw tapped him on the shoulder. “Unlike you and your friend, I may have succeeded in securing us some assistance.”
Buncan’s surprise must have showed. Squill eyed the sloth admiringly.
“Wondered where you’d got off to,” he mumbled.
“I was searching for some solution to our difficult situation. Our fiscal dilemma, you see, is twofold. If we pay for adequate assistance at arms, we will be unable to afford ground transportation with which to continue our journey, and if we choose instead to make arrangements for the latter, we must then go against this Baron without help.”
“Why not then try to find one who might, bearing in mind our severely limited resources, serve equally well both needs?”
“Oi, you’ve gone an’ ‘ired on a giant!” Squill barked excitedly.
“Though I have heard stories of such creatures, I have never met an actual giant of any tribe.”
Buncan gestured in the direction of the lion and his drinking companions. “Black-mane there could pull quite a load, but not the three of us together with supplies, and he’s the biggest in the place.”
Gragelouth shifted on his chair and leaned closer. “Bipeds fight; quadrupeds carry. That is the natural order of things. Among the intelligent tribes who still walk on all fours, most are inclined to pacific pursuits, with but few inclined to battle. Yet there are always exceptions. I believe I may have found one such.”
“A ‘eavy ‘orse who’s willin’ to fight,” Squill exclaimed. “An’ afterward, carry the lot of us swift an’ sure away from this place.”
“No. Our potential ally is not a member of the equine tribe.”
“Where is he?” Buncan asked.
“This is a large establishment. There are numerous stalls and drinking troughs provided out back for customers of four legs.”
“Well, if it ain’t no ‘orse,” Squill mumbled bemusedly, “then wot the bloody ‘ell is it?”
“Come and see.” Gragelouth slid off his chair. “I am convinced the individual in question will work cheap.”
“Almost reason enough to hire him right there.” Buncan followed the merchant down the length of the bar, toward the rear of the tavern.
“ ‘E’s a fighter, this one?” Squill was already suspicious of this low-priced avatar.
“The bartender I spoke with knows him, says that he has been in many battles and is a veteran fighter. He is also large enough to transport all of us and a modicum of carefully packed supplies to the northwest. Not quickly or comfortably, perhaps, but efficiently. It will be far better than trying to continue on foot.”
“If he’ll hire on.” Buncan restrained his enthusiasm. “Talea always says that anything which appears to be too good to be true usually is.”
“His name,” Gragelouth continued, “is Snaugenhutt.”
“Don’t sound like no poffy lute player,” Squill commented approvingly as they exited the rear of the tavern and found themselves in a large circular corral.
A high wooden fence enclosed the grounds, which consisted of packed earth paved with fresh straw. A dozen stalls were arranged in a crescent facing the back of the main structure. Two sets of drinking troughs formed a pair of star patterns on the open ground. Smaller facilities were available within each high-roofed stall, each of which boasted a bed of thicker straw mixed with moss. Lavatory facilities were visible off to the left.
A quartet of horses, two males and two females, stood by one of the star troughs, drinking and chatting amiably. They wore custom-cut blankets and tack, the mares additionally displaying elaborately coiffed manes and tails. One had her hooves painted with blue glitter. The nearest stallion glanced only briefly in the direction of the three bipeds before rejoining the conversation.
The farthest stall to the right was occupied by a pair of merinos, already bedding down for the night. One was naked from the forelegs down, having obviously made a recent sale of wool.
Gragelouth led them toward the center stall. A husky barmaid of the civet tribe was coming toward them, lugging an empty pail. Buncan could smell the tart residue at the bottom of the container as she passed them without a glance. That odor was quickly overwhelmed by the stink of the stall itself, which reeked of cheap liquor and musky urine. That he was able to ignore the stench was due to the dominating presence near the back of the shelter of a gigantic, deeply scarred gray mass. It seemed to be facing away from mem, though Buncan couldn’t be sure.
“That’s him, I think,” said Gragelouth. “He fits the bartender’s description.”
“Sure wouldn’t mistake ‘im for one o’ those sleepin’ sheep,” Squill ventured.
“A rhinoceros. I’ve never met one of his tribe before. They’re bigger than I imagined.” A fascinated Buncan slowed as they neared the stall’s entrance. “That back’s sure big enough to carry all four of us.” He took in the scars and wrinkles in the slabs of gray skin. “He looks kind of . . . old.”
“Not old, mate, so much as used,” Squill corrected his companion. “I mean, this old chap ‘as been bad beat up, don’t you know?” The otter sniffed pointedly. “ ‘E’s been through the wars, an’ I don’t mean the fightin’ kind.”
“He does seem a little the worse for wear.” Gragelouth studied the back of their hoped-for savior speculatively.
“Worse for wear me bollocks.” Squill took a wary step back from that prodigious and clearly unstable rear end. “ ‘E’s bloomin’ swozzled, ‘e is. Plastered, smashed, looped, juiced. Drunk on ‘is feet.” The otter pinched his nose. “Wot’s more, ‘is taste in spirits stinks worse than ‘e does.”
At that the great head swung around into view and a single eye regarded them from beneath a drooping, supercilious brow. A horn the length of Buncan’s arm tipped the weaving snout, backed by a second half its size. This formidable brace of keratin weapons was darkly stained.
Gragelouth approached tentatively. “Are you the warrior they call Snaugenhutt?”
The reply seemed to come not from the creature’s throat but his belly. The accompanying bouquet was overpowering.
Though staggered by the stench, Gragelouth risked another step. “Snaugenhutt. Are you the warrior . . . ?”
“Oh, yeah.” The rhino’s voice reminded Buncan of the noises made by the sewer pipes that ran beneath central Lynchbany. “That’s me, isn’t it?”
The great horned skull bobbed up and down and the eye blinked slowly. “Do I know you?”
As the merchant prepared to reply, there emerged from the open mouth a belch of such gargantuan proportions as to register as a seismic disturbance in towns and villages some distance away. This was accompanied by a misty cloud of effluvia noxious enough to burn Buncan’s eyes. He stumbled backward several steps, beating frantically at the air in front of his face. How Gragelouth held his ground he couldn’t imagine.
As the vapor dissipated, Buncan saw that the rhino had turned to face them. Long, dirty hairs emerged from the inconceivably filthy depths of his shell-like ears.
Buncan took it upon himself to aid Gragelouth. “No, you don’t know us, but we’ve heard of you. We’re in real trouble, and we need your help. We want to hire you.”
The heavy head swung toward him. “Trouble, eh? What kind of trouble?”
Buncan tried to shield his mouth and nostrils as decorously as possible. It might have been worse. Snaugenhutt might have been a dragon breathing fire.
Come to think of it, that might not be worse.
He indicated Squill, who stood quietly nearby turning a polite shade of pea green. “My friend’s sister has been kidnapped by the Baron Koliac Krasvin.”
“Krappin, Kraken. Krasvin.” Snaugenhutt looked pleased with himself at having gotten it right. Each word was a grunt unto itself. “Heard of him. Ermine, isn’t he?”
“Weasel,” Buncan supplied helpfully.
“Right, weasel. Bad reputation. Bad.” The head motivated from side to side.
“Krasvin’s holding her at his estate. We’re bound to try and rescue her. To do that we need professional help.” He glanced at Gragelouth. “You came highly recommended.”
“Naturally.” The rhino seemed to straighten a little. “I am after all the most experienced fighter in these parts.”
“You’re certainly the biggest.” Buncan intended it as a compliment.
“Yeah, that too, that too.” Spittle clung to the heavy lower lip. “But this Baron, I’ve heard about his place. Hard to break into. What do you think, Viz?”
A small bird emerged unexpectedly from the fold of the rhino’s neck. It plonked itself down between the twitching ears and yawned, its wings stretching wide. A miniature blue beret crowned the feathered head and a matching scarf was wound once around the delicate neck. The bird made tiny smacking sounds with its beak and leaned forward to blink at the visitors.
“I think . . . I think I’m tired.” With that it promptly fell over backward, legs in the air, and commenced snoring heavily, sounding rather like a large mosquito.
“E’s swozzled too,” Squill commented in disgust.
“Don’t mind Viz.” The rhino snorted softly. “He’s my tickbird. Been on board for years. But he can’t hold his liquor. I’ve told him that booze and parasites don’t mix. All that chiton and green goo and . . .”
Squill made a dash for the lavatory facilities, not caring that they were designed for creatures much larger than he.
Buncan fought to maintain his own stability. The tickbird snored on. “We don’t expect charity. I’ve learned better than to ask for that. We’ll pay.”
“What we can,” Gragelouth put in hastily.
“And after we’ve saved Neena we’ll need your help in getting away from here.”
“A rescue, eh?” Snaugenhutt hiccoughed volcanically. “A noble cause. Been a long time since I did anything noble. What do you think, Viz?” The tickbird snored on, oblivious.
“Yeah, I’ll help you. When do we start?”
Buncan blinked. “Just like that? Don’t you want to know the details?”
“What details? Do I look like the subtle type, human?”
“They won’t be expecting a frontal assault.” Snaugenhutt was murmuring to himself. “I’ve heard some of the stories about this Krasvin. Thinks he’s the greatest thing in fur. We’ll surprise him. Bust his tail.”
“Sure we will,” muttered Buncan. “We’ll sneak you inside in a suitcase, dump you out, and let you exhale in the faces of the Baron’s soldiers.” Louder he said, “You don’t drink like this all the time, do you?”
“Certainly not.” As the rhino swayed on pillarlike legs, a smile creased that slouching jaw. “Sometimes I drink seriously.”
Buncan turned to Gragelouth. “Maybe we ought to look elsewhere.”
“What elsewhere?” The sloth sniffed resignedly. “I took the best recommendation of the locals I encountered.”
“Another tavern.” Buncan persisted. “Maybe down by the waterfront.”
Blinking unsteadily, Snaugenhutt took a ponderous step toward them. “Something wrong? You don’t want my help? You don’t want the assistance of the greatest four-legged warrior on the High Plateau?” His head twisted over and back, gesturing at his flank as best he could with the tall horn.
“Take a look at these scars. See that one on the outside of my rear leg? Got that at the Battle of Muuloden. Scattered twenty big cats all by myself while carrying ten fully armed bipeds into combat. And that one all the way in back, just to the left of my tail? Caught a leg-sized catapult spear right in the butt at the height of the Gabber’s Glen Incident. Didn’t even slow me down. Had my side hang their battle flag from it.” He looked momentarily wistful. “Trampled plenty underhoof in that one, and gored half a dozen more.”
“We have no doubt of your fighting history.” Gragelouth made placating gestures. “If you do not mind my inquiring, how long ago did these exploits take place?”
“How long?” The heavy brow drooped lower still. “Don’t remember. Never was real good with dates.” He chuckled, and it ended in a rattling cough. As spittle drooled from his mouth, even the dead straw seemed to curl away from it.
Gragelouth gestured with a heavily clawed hand. “Though our current resources are . . . limited . . . we must have professional help. If you are willing to enter our service for what recompense we can presently offer, we may be able to arrange for some additional payment at a future date.”
Still swaying, Snaugenhutt straightened as much as he was able, staring at the sloth past the tall horn. “Count me in. Not because of the money, but because a lady’s virtue is at stake.”
“She’s no quadruped,” Buncan reminded him.
One eye considered him haughtily. “Where virtue is concerned, the tribe doesn’t matter. There’s honor to uphold and gallantry to preserve.”
With that he hiccoughed again, at least a 7.5 on the hiccough scale, and keeled over sideways. It was akin to watching a great ship slide slowly beneath the waves.
As the vast mass struck the ground with a dull whomp, the three travelers hastily backed clear. After satisfying their curiosity, the horses and sheep returned to their respective socializing. Snaugenhutt began to emit Promethean snores.
Having been unceremoniously dumped into the straw, the dazed tickbird picked itself up and fluttered unsteadily to the top of the comatose bulk. Landing atop the half-exposed belly, it curled up in its wings and lapsed back into its momentarily disturbed stupor.
Buncan was not pleased with the picture. “There they are. Our army. Neena’s saviors. Cheap at half the price.” He turned to the merchant. “Surely we can do better than this, even with as little as we have to offer?”
Gragelouth stared up at the tall human. “I am open to suggestions, my young friend.”
“Maybe if we could get the bloated sod sobered up.” Squill studied the insensible mass of gray flesh. “If ‘e got up to speed, ‘e’s big enough to do some damage. If ‘e “as any speed left in ‘im, that is.” He glanced at his friend. “At this point any ‘elp’s better than no ‘elp. We could load the unconscious bugger onto a wagon an’ roll it downhill. Might smash in this Krasvin’s front door, might not.”
“We don’t know if there’s a hill in front of the Baron’s mansion,” Buncan pointed out patiently. “I’m not pushing that load one stride uphill, and where would we get a wagon, anyway?”
“Steal it.” Squill smiled serenely.
“We can do nothing until he sobers up.” Gragelouth licked his forehead. “Or, at the very least, awakens.”
“What about his companion?” Buncan indicated the softly snoring tickbird.
“I could eat it,” Squill suggested.
Duncan eyed him sharply. “Eat another intelligent being?”
The otter sniffed. “Don’t look very intelligent to me, mate.”
“We’re here to get help, not dinner.”
“Most every member of Snaugenhutt’s tribe lives with a companion tickbird,” Gragelouth pointed out. “I do not think our potential ally would look kindly upon your eating his.
“Meanwhile, let me talk to the owner of this establishment. Perhaps he can suggest a potion to both awaken and sober these two.”
“You couldn’t sober that mass up if you dropped it off a high cliff,” Squill riposted.
The remedy Gragelouth arranged for arrived in the form of a brim-full bucket prepared by not one but two mixologists. A good dousing with one of the high-pressure hoses used to keep the corral area clean roused the rhino long enough for Duncan and Squill to sluice half the bucket’s contents down his benumbed throat. The operation was repeated with the tickbird, on a much smaller scale. Though there was no evidence of overt sorcery involved, the liquid’s contents proved nothing short of magical. The hulking old warrior was on his feet, albeit unsteadily, far sooner than Duncan would have imagined pos