/ Language: English / Genre:antique

Spellsinger 02 - The Hour of the Gate

Foster, Dean


antiqueFoster,AlanDeanSpellsinger 02 - The Hour of the GateengFoster,AlanDeancalibre 0.8.1820.12.20111d7209fd-c8d5-4291-8e84-08b6bdc47e901.0

The Hour of the Gate

Spellsinger #2

Alan Dean Foster

Jon-Tom reeled dizzily at the top of the steps. All wrong,

he knew. Out of place, out of time. He was not standing

before the entrance to this strange Council Building in a city

named Polastrindu. A five-foot tall otter in peaked green cap

and bright clothing was not eying him anxiously, wondering if

he was about to witness a fainting spell. A bespectacled

bipedal turtle was not staring sourly at him, waiting for him

to regain his senses so they could be about the business of

saving the world. An enormous, exceedingly ugly black bat

was not hovering nearby, muttering darkly to himself about

dirty pots and pans and the lack of workman's comp a

famulus enjoyed while in a wizard's employ.

Sadly, saying these things were not did not transform the

reality.

" 'Ere now, mate," the otter Mudge inquired, "don't you

be sick all over us, wot?"

9

Alan Dean Foster

"Sorry," Jonathan Thomas Meriweather said apologetical-

ly. "Oral exams always make me queasy."

"Be of good cheer, my young friend," said the wizard

Clothahump. He tapped his plastron. "I shall do the neces-

sary talking. You are here to add credence to what I will say,

not to add words. Come now. Time dies and the world draws

nearer disaster." He ambled through the portal. As he had

now for many weeks, the transposed Jon-Tom could only

long for his own vanished world, hope desperately that once

this crisis had passed Clothahump could return him to it, and

follow the turtle's lead.

Inside they marched past scribes and clerks and other

functionaries, all of whom turned to look at them in passing.

The hall itself was wood and stone, but the bark-stripped logs

mat supported this structure had been polished to a high

luster. Rich reds faded into bright, almost canary-yellow

grains. The logs had the sheen of marble pillars.

They turned past two clusters of arguing workers. The

arguing stopped as they passed. Apparently everyone in

Polastrindu now knew who they were, or at least that they

controlled the dragon who'd almost bumed down the city the

previous night.

Up a pair of staircases they climbed. Clothahump puffed

hard to keep up with the rest. Then they passed through a set

of beautiful black and yellow buckeye-buri doors and entered

a small room.

There was a single straight, long table on a raised dais. It

curved at either end, forming horns of wood. To the right a

small bespectacled margay sat behind a drafting table. He

wore brown shirt, shorts, boots, and an odd narrow cap. The

quill pen he was writing with was connected by wooden arms

to six similar pens hovering over a much larger table and six

separate scrolls. It was a clever mechanism enabling the

scribe to make an original and six copies simultaneously. An

10

THE HOUR OF TJZB GATE

assistant, a young wolf cub, stood nearby. He was poised to

change the scrolls or unroll them as the occasion demanded.

Seated behind the raised table was the Grand Council of

the City, County, and Province of Greater Polastrindu, the

largest and most influential of its kind in the warmlands.

Jon-Tom surveyed the councillors. From left to right, he

saw first a rather foppishly clad prairie dog draped in thin

silks, lace, neck chains, and a large gold earring in his right

ear. Next came a corpulent gopher in pink, wearing the

expected dark wraparound glasses. This redoubtable female

likely represented the city's nocturnal citizens. His eyes

passed impatiently over most of the others.

There were only two truly striking personalities seated

behind the table. At its far right end sat a tall, severely attired

marten. If not actually a military uniform, his dress was very

warlike. It was black and blue and there were silver epaulets

crusting his shoulders and chevronlike ripples on his sleeves.

Double bandoliers of small stilettoes formed a lethal "X"

across his chest. His clothing was so spotless Mudge whispered

that it must have a dirt-repellent spell cast on it.

His posture matched his attire. He sat rigidly erect in his

low chair, his high torso not bending even slightly across the

table. His attitude was also much more attentive than that of

any of the other council members.

Jon-Tom tried to analyze their states of mind as they took

stock of the tiny group waiting before the long table. Their

expressions conveyed everything from fear to amusement.

Only the marten seemed genuinely interested.

The other imposing figure on the dais sat in the middle of

the table. He was flanked by two formal perches on which

rested the representatives of Polastrindu's arboreal population.

One was a large raven. At the moment he was picking his

beak with a silver pick held easily in his left foot. He wore a

red, green, and ocher kilt and matching vest. On the other

11

Alan Dean Foster

perch was the smallest intelligent inhabitant of the warmlands

Jon-Tom had yet encountered. The hummingbird was no

larger man a man's head. It had a long beak, exquisite

plumage, and heavily jeweled kilt and vest. It might have

flown free from the treasure vaults of Dresden.

Gold trim lined the kilt, and a necklace of the finest gold

filigree hung around the ruby-throated neck. He also wore a

tiny cap similar to an Australian bush hat. It was secured on

the iridescent head with a gold strap.

Jon-Tom marveled at the hat. Slipping it on over that

curving beak would be a considerable project, unless the strap

joined at a tiny buckle he couldn't see.

All inhabitants and stretches of the province were thus

represented. They were dominated by the motionless figure of

the marten on the far right, and by the stocky individual in

their center.

It was that citizen who commanded everyone's attention as

he pushed back his chair and stood. The badger wore specta-

cles similar to Clothahump's. His fur was silvered on his

back, indicating age.

He had very neatly trimmed claws. Despite his civilized

appearance Jon-Tom was grateful for the manicure, knowing

the reputation badgers had for ferocity and tenacity in a fight.

Deep-set black eyes stared out at them. He wore a stiff,

high-collared suit marked only by a discreet gold flower on

his lapel. One paw slammed down hard on the table. Jon-Tom

hadn't known what to expect, but the instant angry outburst

was not the greeting he'd hoped for.

"Now what do you mean by bringing this great narsty

fire-breathing beastie into the city limits and burning down

the harbor barracks^, not to mention disrupting the city's

commerce, panicking its citizenry, and causing disruption and

general dismay among the populace?!?" The voice rose

12

THE HOUR OF TBE GATE

immediately to an angry pitch as he shook a thick warning

finger down at them.

' 'Give me one reason why I should not have the lot of you

run into the lowest jails!"

Jon-Tom looked at Mudge in dismay. It was Clothahump

who spoke patiently. "We have come to Polastrindu, friend,

in order to—"

"I am Mayor and Council President Wuckle Three-Stripe!"

snorted the badger, "and you will address me as befits my

titles and position!"

"We are here," continued the wizard, unperturbed an<

unimpressed, "on a mission of great consequence to every

inhabitant of the civilized world. It would behoove you t(

listen closely to what I am about to tell you."

"Yeah," said Pog, who had settled on one of the numerous

empty perches ringing the room, "and ifya don't, our gooc

buddy da dragon will bum your manure pile of a rat-warrer

down around your waxy ears!"

"Shut up, Pog." Clothahump glared irritably at the bat.

While he was doing so the unctuous gopher leaned ovei

and spoke to the badger in a delicate yet matronly voice.

"The creature is undiplomatic, Mayor-President, but he has a

point."

"I will not be blackmailed, Pevmora." He looked down

the other way and asked in a less belligerent tone, "What do

you say, Aveticus? Do we disembowel these intruders now, 01

what?"

The marten's reply was so quiet Jon-Tom had to strain to

make it out. Nevertheless, the creature conveyed an impres-

sion of cold power. As would any student interested in the

law, Jon-Tom noticed that all the other council members

immediately ceased picking their mouths, chattering to each

other, or whatever they'd been doing, in order now to pay

attention.

13

Alan Dean Poster

"I think we should listen to what they have to say to us.

Not only because of the threat posed by the dragon, against

whose breath I will not expend my soldiers and whom you

must admit we can do nothing about, but also because they

speak as visitors who mean us nothing but good will. I cannot

yet pass on the importance of what they may say, but I think

we can safely accept their professed motivations. Also, they

do not strike me as fools."

"Sensibly put, youngster," said Clothahump.

The marten nodded once, barely, and ignored the fact that

he was anything but a cub. He smiled as imperceptibly as

he'd nodded, showing sharp white teeth.

"Of course, good turtle, if you are wasting our time or do

indeed mean us harm, then we will be forced to take other

measures."

Clothahump waved the comment away. "You give us credit

for being other than fools. I return the compliment. Now

then, let us have no more talk of motivations and time, for I

have none of the last to spare." He launched into a long and

by now familiar explanation of the danger from the Plated

Folk and their preparations, from their massed armies to their

still unknown new magic.

When he'd finished the badger looked as bellicose as

before. "The Plated Folk, the Plated Folk! Every time some

idiot seer panics, it's 'the Plated Folk are coming, the Plated

Folk are coming!'" He resumed his seat and spoke sarcastically.

"Do you think we can be panicked by tales and rumors

that mothers use to scare their cubs into bed? Do you think

we believe every claim laid before us by every disturbed

would-be leader? What do you think we are, stranger?"

"Stubborn," replied Clothahump patiently. "I assure you

on my honor as a wizard and member in good standing of the

Guild for nearly two hundred years that everything I have just

14

THE HOUR Of THE GATE

told you is true." He indicated Jon-Tom, who until now had

been silently watching and listening.

"Last night, this young spellsinger actually encountered an

envoy of the Plated Folk. He was here to foment trouble

among local human citizens, and according to my young

associate he was well disguised."

That brought some of the more insipid members of the

council wide awake. "One of them... here, in the city ...!"

"He was attempting to begin war between the species,"

reiterated the wizard. More mutters of disbelief from those

behind the long table.

"He wanted me to join with his puppets," Jon-Tom explained.

"The humans he'd recruited say the Plated Folk have prom-

ised to make them the overlords and administrators of all the

warmlands the insects conquer. I didn't believe it for a

minute, of course, but I think I've studied more about such

matters than those poor deluded people. I don't think they

have many followers. Nevertheless, the word should be

spread. Just letting it be known that you know what the Plated

Folk are trying to do should discourage potential recruits to

their cause."

The muttering among the councillors changed from ner-

vous to angry. "Where is he?" shouted the hummingbird,

suddenly buzzing over the table to halt and hover only inches

from Jon-Tom's face. "Where is the insect ofifal, and his

furless dupes?" Tiny, furious eyes stared into larger human

ones. "I will put out their eyes myself. I shall..."

"P&rch down, Millevoddevareen," said Wuckle Three-Stripe,

the badger. "And control yourself. I will not tolerate anarchy

in the chambers."

The bird glared back at the Mayor, muttered something

under his breath, and shot back to his seat. His wings

continued to whirr with nervous energy. He forced himself to

calm down by preening them with his long bill.

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Alan Dean Foster

"Such fringe fanatics have always existed among the

species," the Mayor said thoughtfully. "Humans have no

comer on racial prejudice. These you speak of will be warned,

but they are of little consequence. When the time for final

choices arrives, common sense takes precedence over emo-

tion. Most people are sensible enough to realize they would

never survive a Plated Polk conquest." He smiled and his

mask fur wrinkled.

"But no such invasion has ever succeeded. Not in tens of

thousands of years."

"There is still only one way through Zaryt's Teeth,"

proclaimed a squirrel, "and that is by way of the Jo-Troom

Pass. Two thousand years ago Usdrett of Osprinspri raised the

Great Wall on the site of his own victory over the Plated

Folk. A wall which has been strengthened and fortified by

successive generations of fighters. The Gate has never been

forced open, and no Plated Folk force has ever even reached

the wall itself. We've never let them get that far down the

Pass."

"They're too stratified," added the raven, waving a wing

for emphasis. "Too inflexible in then" methods of battle to

cope with improvisation and change. They prepare to fight

one way and cannot shift quickly enough to handle another.

Why, their last attempt at an invasion was among the most

disastrous of all. Their defeats grow worse with each attack.

Such occasional assaults are good for the warmlands: they

keep the people from complacency and sharpen the skills of

our soldiers. Nor can we be surprised. The permanent Gate

contingent can hold off any sudden attack until sufficient

reinforcements can be gathered."

"This is no usual invasion," said Clothahump intently.

"Not only have the Plated Folk prepared more thoroughly

and in greater numbers than ever before, but I have reason to

believe they have produced some terrible new magic to assist

16

THE HOUR OF THE GATE

them, an evil we may be unable to counter and whose nature I

have as yet been unable to ascertain."

"Magic again!" Wuckle Three-Stripe spat at the floor.

"We still have no proof you're even the sorcerer you claim to

be, stranger. So far I've only your word as proof."

"Are you calling me a liar, sir?"

Concerned that he might have overstepped a trifle, the

Mayor retreated a bit. "I did not say that, stranger. But surely

you understand my position. I can hardly be expected to

alarm the entire civilized warmlands merely at the word of a

single visitor. That is scarcely sufficient proof of what you

have said."

"Proof? I'll give you proof." The wizard's fighting blood

was up. He considered thoughtfully, then produced a couple

of powders from his plastron. After tossing them on the floor

he raised both hands and turned a slow circle, reciting angrily.

"Cold front, warm front, counteract my affront.

Isobars and isotherms violently descend.

Nimbus, cumulus, poles opposizing,

Ions in a mighty surge my doubters upend!"

A thunderous roar deafened everyone in the room and there

was a blinding flare. Jen-Tom dazedly struggled back to a

standing position to see Clothahump slowly picking himself

up off the floor and readjusting his glasses.

Wuckle Three-Stripe lay on the floor in front of him,

having been blown completely across the council table. His

ceremonial chair was a pile of smoking ash. Behind it a neat

hole had been melted through the thick leaded glass where the

tiny lightning bolt had penetrated. The fact that it was a

cloudless day made the feat all the more impressive.

The Mayor disdained the help of one of the other council-

lors. Brushing himself off and rearranging his clothing, he

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Alan Dean Poster

waddled back behind the table. A new chair was brought and

set onto the pile of ash. He cleared his throat and leaned

forward.

"We will accept the fact that you are a sorcerer."

"I'm glad that's sufficient proof," said Clothahump with

dignity. "I'm sorry if I overdid it a mite. Some of these old

spells are pretty much just for show and I'm a little rusty with

them." The scribe had returned to his sextupal duplicator and

was scribbling furiously.

"Plated envoys moving through our city in human dis-

guise," murmured one of the councillors. "Talk of interspecies

dissension and war, great and strange magic in the council

chambers. Surely this portends unusual events, perhaps even

a radically different kind of invasion."

The prairie dog leaned across the table, steepling his

fingers and speaking in high-pitched, chirping tones.

"There are many forms of magic, colleagues. While the

ability to conjure thunder and lightning on demand is most

impressive, it differs considerably from divination. Do we

then determine that on the basis of a flash of power we cease

all normal activities and place Polastrindu on war alert?

"Should the call go out on that basis to distant Snarken, to

L'bor and Yul-pat-pomme and all the other towns and cities of

the warmlands? Must we now order farmers to leave their

fields, young men their sweethearts, and bats their nightly

hunts? Commerce will come to a halt and fortunes will be

lost, lives disrupted.

"This is a massive question, colleagues. It must be answered

by more than the words and deeds of one person." He

gestured deferentially with both hands at Clothahump. "Even

one so clearly versed in the arts of wizardry as you, sir."

"So you want more proof?" asked Jon-Tom.

"More specific proof, yes, tall man," said the prairie dog.

"War is no casual matter. I need hardly remind the other

18

THE HOUR OF THE GATS

participants of this council," and he looked the length of the

long table, "that if there is no invasion, no unusual war, then

it is our bodies that will provide fertilizer for next season's

crops, and not those of our nomadic visitors." He looked

back out of tiny black eyes at Jon-Tom. "Therefore I would

expect some sympathy for our official positions."

A mild smattering of applause came from the rest of the

council, except for Millevoddevareen the hummer. He con-

tinued to mutter, "I want those traitorous humans. Put their

damn perverted eyes out!" His colleagues paid him no

attention. Hummingbirds are notoriously more bellicose than

reflective.

"Then you shall have more conclusive proof," said the

weary wizard.

"Master?" Pog looked down solicitously at the turtle. "Do

ya really tink anodder spell now, so close ta da odder, is a

good idea?"

"Do I seem so tired then, Pog?"

The bat flapped idly, said without hesitation, "Yeah, ya do,

boss."

Clothahump nodded slowly. "Your concern is noted, Pog.

I'll make a good famulus out of you yet." The bat smiled,

which in a bat is no prettier than a frown, but it was unusual

to see the pleased expression on the fuzzy face of the

normally hostile assistant.

"I expect to become more tired still." He looked at

Jon-Tom, then around him at Mudge. "I'd say you represent

the lower orders accurately enough."

"Thanks," said the otter drily, "Your Sorceremess."

"What would it take to convince you of the reality of this

threat?"

"Well, ifn I were ignorant o' the real situation and I

19

Alan Dean Foster

needed a good convincin'," Mudge said speculatively, "I'd

say it were up t' you t' prove it by showin' me."

Clothahump nodded. "I thought so."

"Master... ?" began Pog wamingly.

"It's all right. I have the capacity, Pog." His face suddenly

went blank, and he fell into a deep trance. It was not as deep

as the one he had used to summon M'nemaxa, but it impressed

the hell out of the council.

The room darkened, and curtains magically drew them-

selves across the back windows of the chambers. There was

nervous whispering among those seated behind the long table,

but no one moved. The marten Aveticus, Jon-Tom noted, did

not seem in the least concerned.

A cloud formed at the far end of the chamber, an odd cloud

that was flat and rectangular in shape. Images formed inside

the cloud. As they solidified, there were gasps of horror and

dismay from the council members.

Vast ranks of insect warriors marched across the cloud.

They bore aloft an ocean of pikes and spears, swords and

shields. Huge Plated generals directed the common troops,

which stretched across misty plains as far as the eye could

see. Tens of thousands paraded across that cloud.

As the view shifted and rolled, there was anxious chatter

from the council. "They seem better armed than before... look

how purposefully they drill.... You can feel the confidence

in them . . . never saw that before. .. . The numbers, the

numbers!"

The scene changed. Stone warrens and vast structures slid

past in review. A massive, bulbous edifice began to come into

view: the towering castle of Cugluch.

Abruptly the view changed to one of dark clouds, fluttered,

and vanished. There was a thump, the cloud dissipated,

together with the view, and light returned to the room.

Clothahump was sitting down on the floor, shaking his

20

THE HOUR OF THE GATE

head. Pog was hovering above him, fumbling with a vial. The

wizard took a long sip of the liquid within, shook his head

once more, and wiped the back of his mouth with an arm.

With the bat's help he stood and smiled shakily at Jon-Tom.

"Not a bad envisioning. Couldn't get to the castle, though.

Too far, and the inhibitory spells are too strong. Lost the

damn vertical hold." He started to go down, and Jon-Tom

barely got hold of an arm in time to keep the turtle from

slumping back to the floor.

"You shouldn't have done it, sir. You're too weak."

"Had to, boy." He jerked his head toward the long table.

"Some hardheads up there."

The councillors were babbling among themselves, but they

fell silent when Clothahump spoke. "I tried to show you the

interior of the castle keep, but its secrets are too well

protected by powerful spells I cannot pierce."

"Then how do you know this great new magic exists?"

asked the ever skeptical prairie dog.

"I summoned M'nemaxa."

Mutters of amazement mixed with disbelief and awe.

"Yes, I did even that," Clothahump said proudly, "though

the consequences of such a conjuration could have been fatal

for me and all those in my care."

"If you did so once, could you not summon the spirit once

more and leam the true nature of this strange evil you feel

exists in Cugluch?" wondered one of the councillors.

Clothahump laughed gently. "I see there are none here

versed in wizardly lore. A pity no local sorcerer or ess could

have joined us in this council.

"It was remarkable that I was able to conduct the first

conjuration. Were I to try it again I could not bind the

M'nemaxa spirit within restrictive boundaries. It would burst

free. In less than a second I and all around me would be

reduced to a crisp of meat and bone."

"I withdraw the suggestion," said the councillor hastily.

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Alan Dean Foster

"We must rely on ourselves now," said Clothahump.

"Outside forces will not save us."

"I think we should..." began one of the other members.

He fell silent and looked to his left. So did the others.

The marten Aveticus was standing. "I will announce the

mobilization," he said softly. "The armies can be ready in a

few months' time. I will contact my counterparts in Snarken

and L'bor, in all the other towns and cities." He stared evenly

at Clothahump.

"We will meet this threat, sir, with all the force the

warmlands can bring to bear. I leave it to you to counter this

evil magic you speak of. I dislike fighting something I can't

see. But I promise you that nothing which bleeds will pass

the Jo-Troom Gate."

"But General Aveticus, we haven't reached a decision

yet," protested the gopher.

The marten turned and looked down his narrow snout at his

colleagues. "These visitors," and he indicated the four strang-

ers standing and watching nearby, "have made their decision.

Based upon what they have said and shown to us, I have

made mine. The armies will mobilize. Whether they do so

with your blessing is your decision. But they will be ready.''

He bowed stiffly toward Clothahump.

"Learned sir, if you will excuse me. I have much work to

do." He turned and strode out of the room on short but

powerful legs. Ion-Tom watched his departure admiringly.

The marten was someone he would like to know better.

After an uncomfortable pause, the councillors resumed

their conversation. "Well, if General Aveticus has already

decided so easily..."

"That's right," said the hummingbird, buzzing above the

table. "Our decision has been made for us. Not by these

people," and he gestured with a wing, though it was so fast

Jon-Tom couldn't swear he'd actually noticed the gesture so

22

Tas HOUR OF THE GATE

much as imagined it, "but by the General. You all know how

conservative he is.

"Now that we are committed, there must be no dissension.

We must act as one mind, one body, to counter the threat."

He soared higher above the floor.

"I shall notify the air corps of the decision so that we may

begin to coordinate operations with the army. I will also send

out the peregrines with messages to the other cities and towns

that the Plated Folk are again on the march, stronger and

more voracious than ever. This time, brothers and sisters, we

will deal them a defeat, give them a beating so bad they will

not recover for a thousand years!"

Words of assent and a few cheers echoed around the

council chamber. One came from the cub manipulating the

scrolls. His scribe looked at him reprovingly, and the young-

ster settled back down to his paper shuffling as Millevoddevareen

left via an opened window.

"It seems that your appeal has accomplished what you

intended," said the gopher quietly, preening an eyelash.

Gems sparkled around her thick neck and from the rings on

every finger. "At least among the military-minded among us.

All the world will react to your cry of alarm." She shook her

head and smiled grimly.

"Heaven help you if your prediction turns out to be less

than accurate."

"I can only say to that, madam, that I would much rather

be proved inaccurate than otherwise in this matter." Clothahump

bowed toward her.

There were handshakes and hugs all around as the council-

lors descended from their dais. In doing so, they left behind a

good deal of their pomposity and officiousness.

"We'll finish the slimy bastards this time!"

"Nothing to worry about... be a good fight!"

There was even grudging agreement from the Mayor, who

23

Alan Dean Foster

was still irked that General Aveticus hadn't waited for the

decision of the council before ordering mobilization. But

there was nothing he could do about it now. Given the

evidence Clothahump had so graphically presented, he wasn't

sure he wanted to try.

"You'll advise us immediately, sir," he said to Clothahump,

"if you leam of any changes in plan among the Plated Folk."

"Of course."

"Then there remains only the matter of a new and perhaps

more elegant habitation for you until it's time to march. We

have access to a number of inns for the housing of diplomatic

guests. I suppose you qualify as that. But I don't know what

we can do with your great flaming friend back in the court-

yard, since he so impolitely burned down his quarters."

"We'll take care of him," Jon-Tbm assured the Mayor.

"Please see that you do," Wuckle Three-Stripe was recovering

some of his mayoral bearing. "Especially since he's the only

real danger we've been certain of since you've appeared

among us."

With that, he turned to join the animated conversation

taking place among several members of the council.

Once outside the chambers and back in the city hall's main

corridor Jon-Tom and Mudge took the time to congratulate

Clothahump,

"Aye, that were a right fine performance, guv'nor," said

the otter admiringly. "Cor, you should o' seen some o' those

fat faces when you threw that army o' bugs up at 'em!"

"You've done what you wanted to, sir," agreed Jon-Tom.

"The armies of the warmlands will be ready for the Plated

Folk when they start through the Jo-Troom Pass."

But the wizard, hands clasped around his back, did not

appear pleased. Jon-Tom frowned at him as they descended

the steps to the city hall courtyard.

24

THE HOUR OF THE GATE

"Isn't that what you wanted, sir? Isn't that what we've

come all this way for?"

"Hmnun? Oh, yes, my boy, that's what I wanted." He still

looked discouraged. "I'm only afraid that all the armies of all

the counties and cities and towns of all the warmlands might

not be enough to counter the threat."

Jon-Tom and Mudge exchanged glances.

"What more can we do?" asked Mudge. "We can't fighl

with wot we ain't got. Your Magicalness."

"No, we cannot, good Mudge. But there may be more than

what we have."

"Beggin' your pardon, sor?"

"I won't rest if there is."

"Well then, you give 'er a bit of some thought, guv, and

let us know, won't you?" Mudge had the distressing feeling

he wasn't going to be able to return to the familiar, comfort-

able environs of Lynchbany and the Bellwoods quite as soor

as he'd hoped.

"I will do that, Mudge, and I will let you know when ]

inform the others...."

25

II

The quarters they were taken to were luxurious compared

to the barracks they'd spent their first night in. Fresh flowers,

scarce in winter, were scattered profusely around the high-

beamed room. They were ensconced in Polastrindu's finest inn,

and the decor reflected it. Even the ceiling was high enough

so Jon-Tom could stand straight without having to worry

about a lamp decapitating him.

Sleeping quarters were placed around a central meeting

room which had been set aside exclusively for their use.

Jon-Tom still had to duck as he entered the circular chamber.

Caz was leaning back in a chair, ears cocked slightly

forward, a glass held lightly in one paw. The other held a

silver, ornately worked pitcher from which he was pouring a

dark wine into a glass.

ROT sat on one side of him, Talea on the other. All were

chuckling at some private joke. They broke off to greet the

newcomers.

27

Alan Dean Foster

"Don't have to ask how it went," said Talea brightly,

resting her boots on an immaculate couch. "A little while ago

this party of subservient flunkies shows up at the barracks and

tells us rooms have been reserved for us in this gilded hole."

She sipped wine, carelessly spilled some on a finely woven

carpet. "This style of crusading's more to my taste, I can tell

you."

"What did you tell them, Jon-Tom?" wondered Flor.

He walked to an open window, rested his palms on the sill,

and stared out across the city.

"It wasn't easy at first. There was a big, blustery badger

named Wuckle Three-Stripe who was ready to chuck us in jail

right away. It was easy to see how he got to be mayor of as

big and tough a place as Polastrindu. But Clothahump scorched

the seat of his pants, and after that it was easy. They paid

serious attention.

"There was a general named Aveticus who's got more

common sense than the rest of the local council put together.

As soon as he'd heard enough he took over. The others just

slid along with his opinion. I think he likes us personally, too,

but he's so cold-faced it's hard to tell for sure what he's

thinking. But when he talks everybody listens."

Down below lay a vast black and purple form coiled in the

shade of a high stone wall. Falameezar was apparently sleep-

ing peacefully in front of the inn stables. The other stable

buildings appeared to be deserted. No doubt the riding lizards

of the hotel staff and its guests had been temporarily boarded

elsewhere.

"The armies are already mobilizing, and local aerial repre-

sentatives have been dispatched to carry the word to the other

cities and towns."

"Well, that's all right, then," said Talea cheerfully. "Our

job's finished. I'm going to enjoy the afterglow." She fin-

ished her considerable glass of wine.

28

THE HOUR OF Tm GATE

"Not quite finished." Clothahump had snuggled into a

low-seated chair across from her couch.

"Not quite, 'e says," rumbled Mudge worriedly.

Pog selected a comfortable beam and hung himself above

them. "The master says we got ta seek out every ally we

can."

"But from what has been said, good sir, we are already

notifying all possible allies in the warmlands." Caz sat up in

his chair and gestured with his glass. Wine pitched and rolled

like a tiny red pond and he didn't spill a drop.

"So long as the city fathers and mothers have seen fit to

grant us these delightful accommodations, I see no reason

why we should not avail ourselves of the local hospitality.

Polastrindu is not so very far from Zaryt's Teeth and the Gate

itself. Why not bivouac here until the coming battle? We can

offer our advice to the locals."

But Clothahump disagreed. "General Aveticus strikes me

as competent enough to handle military preparations. Our

task must be to seek out any additional assistance we can.

You just stated that all possible warmland allies are being

notified. That is so. My thoughts concerned possible allies

elsewhere."

"Elsewhere?" Talea sat up and looked puzzled. "There is

no elsewhere."

"Try tellin' 'is nib's 'ere that," said Mudge.

Talea looked curiously at the otter, then back at the wizard.

"I still don't understand."

"There is another nation whose aid would be invaluable,"

Clothahump explained energetically. "They are legendary

fighters, and history tells us they despise the Plated Folk as

much as we do."

Mudge circled a finger near one ear, whispered quietly to

Jon-Tom. "Told you 'e was vergin' on the senile. The

29

Alan Dean Foster

lightnin' an' the view conjurin' 'as sent him oS t' balmy

land."

The most unexpected reaction came from Pog, however.

The bat left his beam and hovered nervously overhead, his

eyes wide, his tone fearful.

"No, Master! Don't tink of it. Don't!"

Clothahump shrugged. "Our presence here is no longer

required. We would find ourselves lost among the general

staffs of the assembling armies. Why then should we not seek

out aid which could turn the tide of battle?"

Jon-Tom, who had returned from his position by me open

window, listened curiously and wondered at Pog's sudden

fright.

"What kind of allies were you thinking about, sir? I'm

certainly willing to help recruit." Pog gave him an ugly look.

"I'm talking about the Weavers, of course."

The violence of the response to this announcement startled

Jon-Tom and Flor.

"Who are these 'Weavers'?" she asked me wizard.

"They are thought to be the most ferocious, relentless, and

accomplished mountain fighters in all me world, my dear."

"Notice he does not say 'civilized' world," said Caz

pointedly. Even his usually unruffled demeanor had been

mussed by me wizard's shocking pronouncement. "I would

not disagree with that appraisal of Weaver fighting ability,

good sir," continued the rabbit, his nose twitching uncontrollably.

"And what you say about them hating the Plated Folk is also

most likely true. Unfortunately, you neglect the likely possi-

bility that they also despise us."

"That is more rumor and bedtime story than fact, Caz.

Considering the circumstances, they might be quite willing to

join with us. We do not know for certain that they hate us."

"That's for sure," said Talea sardonically, "because few

who've gone toward their lands have ever come back."

30

THE HOUR OF THE GATE

"That's because no one can get across the Teeth," Mudge

said assuredly. " 'Ate us or not don't matter. Probably none

of them that's tried reachin' Weaver lands 'as ever reached

'em. There ain't no way across the Teeth except through the

Gate and then the Pass, and the Weavers, if I recall my own

bedtimey stories aright, live a bloody good ways north o' the

Greendowns."

"There is another way," said Clothahump quietly. Mudge

gaped at him. "It is also far from here, far from the Gate, far

to the north. Far across the Swordsward."

"Cross the Swordsward!" Talea laughed in disbelief. "He

is crazy!"

"Across the great Swordsward," the sorcerer continued

patiently, "lies the unique cataract known as the Sloomaz-

ayor-la-WeentIi, in the language of the Icelands in which it

arises. It is The-River-That-Eats-Itself, also called the River

of Twos, also the Double-River. In the language and knowl-

edge of magic and wizardry, it is known as the SchizoStream.''

"A schizoid river?" Jon-Tom's thoughts twisted until the

knot hurt. "That doesn't make any sense."

"If you know the magical term, then you know what you

say is quite true, Jon-Tom. The Sloomaz-ayor-la-WeentIi is

indeed the river that makes no sense."

"Neither does traveling down it, if I'm following your

meaning correctly," said Caz. Clothahump nodded. "Does

not The-River-That-Eats-Itself flow through the Teeth into

something no living creature has seen called The Earth's

Throat?" Again the wizard indicated assent.

"I see." Caz ticked the relevant points off on furry fingers

as he spoke. "Then all we have to do is cross the Swordsward,

find some way of navigating an impossible river, enter what-

ever The Earth's Throat might be, counter whatever dangers

may lie within the mountains themselves, reach the Scuttleteau,

on which dwell the Weavers, and convince them not only that

31

Alan Dean Foster

we come as friends but that they should help us instead of

eating us."

"Yes, that's right," said Clothahump approvingly.

Caz shrugged broadly. "A simple task for any superman."

He adjusted his monocle. "Which I for one am not. I am

reasonably good at cards, less so at dice, and fast of mouth,

but I am no reckless gambler. What you propose, sir, strikes

me as the height of folly."

"Give me credit for not being a fool with my own life,"

countered Clothahump. "This must be tried. I believe it can

be done. With my guidance you will all survive the journey,

and we will succeed." There was a deep noise, halfway

between a chuckle and a belch. Clothahump threw the hang-

ing famulus a quick glare, and Pog hurriedly looked innocent.

"I'll go, of course," said Jon-Tom readily.

The others gazed at him in astonishment. "Be you daft

too, mate?" said Mudge.

"Daft my ass." He looked down at the otter. "I have no

choice."

"I'll go," announced Flor, smiling magnificently. "I love

a challenge."

"Oh, very well." Caz fitted his monocle carefully, his pink

nose still vibrating, "but it's a fool's game to draw and roll a

brace of twelves after a munde-star pays out."

"I suppose I'll come too," said Talea with a sigh, "be-

cause I've no more good sense than the rest of you."

All eyes turned toward Mudge.

"Right then, quit staring at me, you bloody great twits!"

His voice dropped to a discouraged mutter. "I 'ope when we

find ourselves served up t' the damned Weavers for supper

that I'm the last one on the rottin' menu, so I can at least 'ave

me pleasure o' watchin' 'em eat you arse'oles first!"

"To such base uses we all eventually come, Mudge,"

Jon-Tom told him.

32

THE HOUR Or THE GATE

"Don't get philosophical with me, mate. Oh, you've no

choice for sure, not if you've a 'ope o' seeing your proper

'ome again. Old Clothahump's got you by the balls, 'e as.

But as for me, I can be threatened so far and then it don't

matter no more."

"No one is threatening you, otter," said the wizard.

"The 'ell you ain't! I saw the look in your eye, knew I

might as well say yes voluntary-like and 'ave done with it.

You can work thunder and lightnin' but you can't make the

journey yourself, you old fart! You don't fool me. You need

us."

"I have never tried to deny that, Mudge. But I will not

hold you. I have not threatened you. So behind all your noise

and fury, why are you coming?"

The otter stood there and fumed, breathing hard and

glaring first at the turtle, then Jon-Tom, then the others.

Finally he booted an exquisite spittoon halfway across the

room. It bounced ringingly off the far wall as he sat down in a

huff.

"Be billy bedamned if I know!"

"I do," said Talea. "You'd rather travel along with a

bunch of fools like the rest of us than stay here and be

conscripted into the army. With Clothahump and Jon-Tom

gone, the local authorities will treat you like any other bum."

"That's bloody likely," snorted Mudge. "Leave me alone,

then, won't you? I said I'd go, though I'd bet heavy against

us ever comin' back."

"Optimism is better than pessimism, my friend," said Caz

pleasantly.

"You. I don't understand you at all, mate." The otter

shoved back his cap and walked across the carpet to confront

Caz. "A minute ago you said you weren't no reckless gam-

bler. Now you're all for agoin' off on this charmin' little

33

Alan Dean Foster

suicide trot. And of all o' us, you'd be the one I'd wager on

t* stay clear o' the army's clutches."

The rabbit looked unimpressed. "Perhaps I can see the

larger picture, Mudge."

"Meanin' wot?"

"Meaning that if what our wise friend Clothahump knows

to be true indeed comes to pass, the entire world may be

embarking on that 'trot' with us." He smiled softly. "There

are few opportunities for gambling in a wasteland. I do not

think the Plated Folk will permit recreation as usual if they

are victorious. And I have other reasons."

"Yeah? Wot reasons?"

"They are personal."

"The wisdom of pragmatism," said Clothahump approvingly.

"It was a beneficial day indeed when the river brought you

among us, friend Caz."

"Maybe. But I think I would be still happier if I had not

misjudged the placement of those dice and been forced to

depart so precipitately from my ship. The happiness of the

ignorant is no less so than any other. Ah well." He shrugged

disarmingly. "We are all of us caught up in momentous

events beyond our ability to change."

They agreed with him, and none realized he was referring

as much to his previously mentioned personal reasons as to

the coming cataclysm....

The city council provided a three-axle wagon and a dray

team of four matched yellow-and-black-striped lizards, plus

ample supplies. Some among the council were sorry to see

the wizard and spellsinger depart, but there were others who

were just as happy to watch two powerful magicians leave

their city.

Talea handled the reins of the wagon while Flor, Jon-Tom,

Mudge, Clothahump, and Caz sorted living quarters out of

the back of the heavily loaded vehicle. Thick canvas could be

34

THE HOUR OF THE GATE

drawn across the top to keep out the rain. Ports cut in the

slanting wooden walls provided ventilation and a means for

firing arrows at any attacker.

Aveticus, resplendent in a fresh uniform and as coldly

correct as ever, offered to provide a military escort at least

part of the way. Clothahump declined gracefully, insisting that

the less attention they attracted the better their chance for an

uneventful traverse of the Swordsward.

Anyway, they had the best protection possible in the form

of Falameezar. The dragon would surely frighten away any

possible assailants, intelligent or otherwise.

It took the dray lizards a day or two to overcome their

nervousness at the dragon's presence, but soon they were

cantering along on their strong, graceful legs. Bounding on

six solid rubber wheels the wagon fairly flew out of the city.

They passed small villages and farms for another several

days, until at last no sign of habitation lay before them.

The fields of golden grain had given way to very tall light

green grasses that stretched to the ends of the northern and

eastern horizons. Dark wintry rain clouds hovered above the

greenery, and there were rumblings of distant thunder.

Off to their right the immense western mountain range

known as Zaryt's Teeth rose like a wall from the plains. Its

lowermost peaks rose well above ten thousand feet while

me highest towered to twenty-five thousand. Dominating all

and visible for weeks to come was the gigantic prong of

Brokenbone Peak, looking like the ossified spine of some

long-fossilized titan.

It was firmly believed by many that in a cave atop that

storm-swept peak dwelt the Oracle of All Knowledge. Even

great wizards had been unable to penetrate the winds that

howled eternally around that inaccessible crag. For by the

time any grew wise enough to possibly make the journey,

they had also grown too old, which might explain why

35

Alan Dean Foster

isolated travelers sometimes heard monstrous laughter ava-

lanching down Brokenbone's flanks, though most insisted it

was only the wind.

The Swordsward resembled a well-manicured field. Patches

of other vegetation struggled to rise above the dense grass,

were only occasionally successful. Here and there small

thickets that were either very thin flowering trees or enormous

dandelions poked insolently above the waving green ocean

Despite Clothahump's protests General Aveticus had given

them a mounted escort to the boundary of the wild plains.

The soldiers raised a departing cheer as the wagon left them

behind and started out through the grass.

There were no roads, no paths through the Swordsward.

The grass that formed it grew faster than any bamboo. So

fast, according to Caz, that you could cut the same patch bare

to the earth four times in a single day, and by nightfall it

would be as thick as ever. Fortunately the blades were as

flexible as they were prolific. The wagon slid over them

easily.

Each blade knew its assigned place. None grew higher than

the next and attempted to steal the light from its neighbor.

Despite the flexibility of the grass, however, the name

Swordsward had not been bestowed out of mischief or indif-

ference. While Falameezar's thick scales were invulnerable,

as were those of the dray lizards, the others had to be careful

when descending from the wagon least the sharp edges of the

tall blades cut through clothing and skin.

Jon-Tom learned quickly enough. Once he'd leaned over

the back of the wagon to pluck a high, isolated blue flower. A

quick, sharp pain made him pull back his hand. There was a

thin line of red two inches long across his palm. It felt as if

someone had taken a piece of new paper and drawn it fast

across his skin. The wound was narrow and bled only for a

minute, but it remained painful for days.

36

THE HOUR Or THE GATE

Several times they had glimpses of lanky predators like a

cross between a crocodile and a greyhound. They would pace

the wagon for hours before slinking off into the green.

"Noulps," Caz told him, peering out the arrowport behind

him. "They would kill and eat us if they could, but I don't

think that's likely. Falameezar scares them off."

"How can you tell?"

"Because they leave us. A noulp pack will follow its

quarry for weeks, I'm told, until they run it down."

Days became weeks that passed without trouble. Each day

the black clouds massing in the west would come nearer, their

thunder more intimate. They promised more severe weather

than the steady, nightly rain.

"It is winter, after all," Clothahump observed one day. "I

worry about being caught out here in a really bad storm. This

wagon is not the cover I would wish."

But when the full storm finally crested atop them, even the

wizard was unprepared for its ferocity. The wind rose until it

shook the wagon. Its huddled inhabitants felt like bugs in a

box. Rain and sleet battered insistently at the wooden sides,

seeking entry, while the lizards lay down in a circle in the

grass and closed their eyes against the driving gale.

The wagon was wide and low. It did not leak, did not tip

over. Jon-Tom was even growing used to the storm until, on

the fourth day, a terrible scream sounded from outside. It

faded rapidly, swallowed up by the wind.

He fumbled for a candle, gave up, and used his sparker.

Flame flashed off emerald eyes.

"What's the matter?" Talea asked him sleepily. The others

were moving about beneath their blankets.

"Someone screamed."

"I didn't hear anything."

"It was outside. It's gone now."

Heads were counted. Flor was there, blinking sleep from

37

Alan Dean Foster

her eyes. Nearby Caz leaned up against the inner wall

Mudge was the last to awaken, having displayed the unique

ability to sleep soundly through thunder, screaming, and

wind.

Only Clothahump looked attentive, sensing the night smells

"We're all here," said Ror tiredly. "Then who screamed?"

Clothahump was still listening intently, spoke without mov-

ing head or body. "The lowliest are always missed the last.

Where is Pog?"

Jon-Tom looked toward the back of the wagon. The hang-

ing perch in the upper left comer was empty. Rain stained the

wood, showing where the canvas backing had been unsnapped.

He moved to inspect it. Several of the sealing snaps had been

broken by the force of the gale.

"He's been carried off in his sleep," said Clothahump.

"We have'to find him. He cannot fly in this."

Jon-Tom stuck his head outside, immediately drew it back

in. The ferocity of rain and wind drowned both skin and

spirits. He forced himself to try again, called the bat's name

several times.

A massive, damp skull suddenly appeared close by the

opening. Jon-Tom was startled, but only for a moment.

"What's the matter, Comrade?" Falameezar inquired. "Is

there some trouble?"

"We've... we've lost one of the group," he said, trying to

shield his face against the battering rain. "Pog, the bat. We

think he got caught by a freak gust of wind and it's carried

him off. He doesn't answer, and we're all worried. He can't

walk well in the best of weather and he sure as hell can't fly

in this gale. Also, there don't seem to be any trees around he

could catch hold of."

"Never fear. Comrade. I will find him." The massive

armored body turned southward and bellowed above the

wind, "Comrade Pog, Comrade Pog!"

38

THE HOUR Of THE GATE

That steady, confident voice echoed back to them until

even it was overwhelmed by distance and wind. Jon-Tom

watched until the black shadow shape faded into the night,

men drew back inside, wiping water from his face and hair.

"Falameezar's gone after him," he told the anxious watchers.

"The storm doesn't seem to be bothering him too much, but I

doubt he's got much of a chance of finding Pog unless the

storm forced him down somewhere close by."

"He may be leagues from here by now," said Caz dolefully.

"Damn this infernal wind!" He struek in frustration at the

wooden wall.

"He was impertinent and disrespectful, but he performed

his duties well for all his complaining," said Clothahump.

"A good famulus. I shall miss him."

"It's too early to talk in the past tense, wizard." Flor tried

to cheer him up. "Palameezar may still find him. Quien sabe;

he may be closer than we think."

"Your words are kind, my dear. Thank you for your

thoughtmlness."

The wagon rattled as another blast of near hurricane force

whistled about them. Everyone fought for balance.

"But as our young spellsinger says, the weather is not

encouraging. Pog is not very resourceful. I don't know...."

There was no sign of the bat the next day, nor of Falameezar,

and the storm continued without abating. Clothahump wor-

ried now not only that Pog might never be found but that the

dragon might become disoriented and not be able to relocate

the wagon. Or that he might find a river, decide he was bored

with the entire business, and simply sink out of sight.

"I don't think the last likely, sir," argued Jon-Tom.

"Falameezar's made a political commitment. We're his com-

rades. He'll be back. It would take some kind of personal

crisis to make him abandon us, and there isn't much that can

affect him."

39

Alan Dean Foster

"Nevertheless, though I would like to have both of them

back with us, time is becoming too important." The turtle let

out a resigned sigh. "If the weather breaks tomorrow, as 1

believe it may, we will wait one additional day. Then we musl

be on our way or else we might as well forget this entire

mission."

"Praise the weather," murmured Mudge hopefully, ano

turned over in his blankets....

40

Ill

When Jon-Tom woke the following morning, his first sight

was of the rear canvas panel. It had been neatly pinned up,

and sunlight was streaming brilliantly inside. Flor knelt and

stared outward, her black hair waterfalling down her back.

She seemed to sparkle.

He sat up, threw off his covers. It was eerie after so many

days of violence not to hear the wind. Also absent was the

persistent drumming of raindrops overhead. He leaned for-

ward and peered out. Only a few scattered storm clouds hung

stubbornly in an otherwise clear sky.

He crawled up alongside her. A gentle breeze ruffled the

Swordsward, the emerald endlessness appearing as soft and

delicate as the down on a young girl's legs. The distant

yellow puffballs of dandelion trees looked lonely against the

otherwise unbroken horizon.

"Good morning, Jon-Tom."

"Buenos dias. Que pasa, beautiful?"

41

Alan Dean Foster

much. Just enjoying the view. And the sunshine. A

week in that damn wagon." She fluffed her hair out. "It was

getting a little squirrelly."

"Also smelly." He breathed deeply of the fresh air, inhaled

the rich sweet smell of the rain-swept grasses. Then he

stepped out onto the rear wagon seat.

Slowly he turned a circle. There was nothing but greep

sward and blue sky in all directions. Against that background

even a distant Falameezar would have stood out like a

truckload of coal in a snowbank. But there was no sign of the

dragon or of his quarry.

"Nobody. Neither of 'em," he said disappointedly, turning

back to look down into the wagon. Talea had just raised her

head from beneath a pile of blankets and blinked at him

sleepily, her red curls framing her face like the scribbles of a

playful artist.

"I am most concerned," said Clothahump. He was seated

at the front end of the wagon, stirring a pot of hot tea. The

little copper kettle squatted on the portable stove and steamed

merrily. "It is possible that—" He broke off, pointed toward

Jon-Tom, and opened his mouth. Jon-Tom heard only the first

of his comment.

"I do believe there is someone be—"

Something yanked hard at Jon-Tom's ankles. Arms

windmilling the air, he went over backward off me platform.

He landed hard, the grass cushioning him only slightly.

Blackness and colorful stars filled his vision, but he did not

pass out. The darkness was a momentary veil over his eyes.

By the time his head cleared his hands had been drawn above

his hair, his ankles placed together, and tough cords wrapped

around them. Looking down at his feet, he saw not only the

bindings but a remarkably ugly face.

Its owner was perhaps two and a half feet tall, very stocky,

and a perversion of humanity. Jon-Tom decided it looked like

42

THE HOUR OF THE GATE

a cross between an elf and a wino. The squat creature boasted

an enormous, thick black beard.

Out of this jungle peered two large brown eyes. They

flanked a monstrous bulbous nose and were in turn framed by

a pair of huge, floppy ears that somehow managed to fight

their way out of the wiry hair. There were hints of clothing

beneath the effervescent mass.

Thick, stubby fingers made sure of Jon-Tom's bonds. A set

of sandals large enough for the recumbent youth floored

enormous feet.

Tying the other knots was a slightly smaller version of the

first ugly, except he was blond instead of dark-haired and had

watery blue eyes.

Something landed on Jon-Tom's chest and knocked the

wind out of him. The newcomer was solid as iron and

, extremely muscular. It was not the build of a body builder but

instead the seamlessly smooth and deceptively porcine mus-

culature of the power lifter.

The one on his chest now was female. Only a few red

whiskers protruded from her chin. She was no less gruesome

in appearance than her male counterparts. She was shaking a

fist in his face and jabbering at high speed. For the first time

since arriving in Mudge's meadow words had no meaning to

him.

He turned his head away from that indifferently controlled

fist. Angry noises and thumping sounds came from the

wagon. He looked to his right, but the grass hid whatever was

happening there.

Of only one thing was he certain: the sward was alive with

dozens of the fast-moving, excited creatures.

The dray lizards wheezed and hissed nervously as the little

monsters swarmed onto harness and reins. Mixed in with the

beelike babbling of their assailants Jon-Tom could make out

other voices. Most notable was that of Caz, who was speak-

43

Alan Dean Foster

ing in an unfamiliar language similar to that of their captors.

Mudge could be heard alternately cursing and bemoaning his

fate, while Talea was railing at an attacker, warning that if he

didn't get his oversized feet off her chest she was going to

make a candlewick out of his beard.

A pole was brought and neatly slipped between the bind-

ings on Jon-Tom's ankles and the others at his wrists. He was

lifted into the air. Clearing the ground by only a few inches,

he was borne off at considerable speed through the grass. He

could see at least half a dozen of his captors shouldering the

pole, three at his feet and three above his head. Although his

sense of speed was artificially accelerated by his proximity to

the ground, he fervently prayed that his bearers' sense of

direction was as efficient as their deltoids. The sharp grass did

not seem to bother them.

With a creak he saw the wagon turn and follow.

He had resigned himself to a long period of jouncing and

bumping, but it hardly seemed he'd been picked up when he

was unceremoniously dumped on the ground. Flor was dropped

next to him. One by one he watched as the rest of his

companions were deposited alongside. They mashed down

the grass so he could see them clearly, lined up like so many

kabobs. The similarity was not encouraging.

Clothahump had evidentally retreated into his shell in an

attempt to avoid being moved. They had simply hefted him

shell and all to carry him. When he finally stuck arms and

legs out again, they were waiting with lassos and ropes. They

managed to snare only a leg before he retreated in on himself.

Mutterings issued from inside the shell. This produced

excited conversation among the creatures. They kicked and

punched at the impervious body frantically.

The activity was directed by one of their number, who

displayed a variety of metal ornaments and decorative bits of

bone in hair and beard. Under his direction a couple of the

44

THE HOUR Or THE GATS

creatures poked around inside the shell. They were soon able

to drag the protesting, indignant turtle's head out. With the

aid of others they shoved several bunches of dried, balled-up

grass into his mouth and secured the gag tightly. Clothahump

reached up to pull the stuffing out, and they tied his arms

also. At that point he slumped back and looked exhausted.

The creature resplendent in bone and metal jumped up and

down happily, jabbing a long feather-encrusted pole at the

now safely bound and gagged turtle. Evidently the fashion

plate was the local witch doctor or wizard, Jon-Tom decided.

He'd recognized that Clothahump had been starting a spell

inside bis shell and had succeeded in rendering his opponent

magically impotent.

Jon-Tom lay quietly and wondered if they would recognize

the sorceral potential of his singing, but the duar was inside

the, wagon and he was firmly tied on the ground.

Moans came from nearby. Straining, he saw another of

their captors idly kicking Talea with considerable force. Each

time she'd curse her tormentor he'd kick her. She would jerk

in pain and it would be several minutes before she regained

enough strength to curse him again.

"Knock it off!" he yelled at her assailant. "Pick on

somebody your own size!"

The creature responded by leaving Talea and walking over

to stare curiously down into Jon-Tom's face. He jabbered at

him experimentally.

Jon-Tom smiled broadly. "Same to you, you sawed-off

shithead."

It's doubtful the creature followed Jon-Tom's meaning, but

he accepted the incomprehensible comment with equanimity

and commenced booting the lanky youth in the side instead.

Jon-Tom gritted his teeth and refused to give the creature the

satisfaction of hearing him groan.

After several kicks produced nothing but a steady glare, his

45

Alan Dean Foster

attacker became bored and wandered off to argue with some 01

his companions.

In fact, there appeared to be as much fighting taking place

between members of the tribe as there'd been between them

and their captives. Jon-Tom looked around and was astonished

to see tiny structures, camp fires, and ugly, hairless smallei

versions of the adults, which could only be children. Small

green and blue lizards wore backpacks and suggested scaly

mules. There was consistent and unrelenting activity taking

place around the six bound bodies.

Camp fires and buildings gave every appearance of having

been in place for some time. Jon-Tom tried to estimate the

distance they'd traveled.

"Christ," he muttered, "we couldn't have been camped

more than a couple of hundred yards from this town, and we

never even saw them."

"The grass conceals the Mimpa," Caz told him. Jon-Torr

looked to his right, saw rabbit ears pointed in his direction

"They move freely among it, completely hidden from most

of their enemies."

"Call 'em what you like. They look like trolls to me." Hi?

brow twisted in thought. "Except I always thought troll?

lived underground. Singularly unlovely bunch, too."

"Well, I know naught of trolls, my friend, but the Mimpa

live in the sward."

"Like fleas," Mudge snorted from somewhere nearby

"An' if I could get loose I'd start on a little deinfestation,

wot!"

Now Jon-Tom could just see the otter's head. His cap was

missing, no doubt knocked off during the struggle for the

wagon. The otter was jerking around as if he were wired,

trying to break free.

Of them all he was the only one who could match their

captors for sheer energy, but he could not break the ropes.

46

THE HOUR OF THE GATE

Jon-Tom turned his attention back to the rabbit. "Can you

talk to them, Caz?"

"I believe I can understand their language somewhat,"

was the reply. "A well-traveled animal picks up all sorts of

odd knowledge. As to whether I can 'talk' to them, I don't

think so. Talking takes two, and they strike me as particularly

nonconversant with strangers."

"How is it they speak a language we can't follow?"

"I expect that has something to do with their being

violently antagonistic to what we think of as civilized life.

They're welcome to their isolation, so far as I am concerned.

They are incorrigibly hostile, incorrigibly filthy, and bellicose

to the point of paranoia. I sincerely wish they would all rot

where they stand."

"Amen to that," said Flor.

"What are they going to do with us, Caz?"

"They're talking about that right now." He gestured with

an unbound ear. "That one over there with the spangles, the

chap who fancies himself something of a local dandy? The

one who unfortunately forestalled Clothahump's spell cast-

ing? He's arguing with a couple of his equals. Apparently

they function as some sort of rudimentary council."

Jon-Tom craned his neck, could just see the witch doctor

animatedly arguing with two equally pretentious and noisy

fellows.

One of them displayed the mother of all Fu Manchu

mustaches. It drooped almost to his huge splayed feet. Other

than that he was entirely bald. The third member of the

unkempt triumvirate had a long pointed beard and waxed

mustachio, but wore his hair in a crew cut. Both were as

outlandishly clad as the witch doctor.

"From what I can make out," said Caz, "Baldy thinks

they ought to let us go. The other two, Battop and Bigmouth,

47

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say that since hunting has been poor lately they should

sacrifice us to the gods of the Sward."

"Who's winning?" Flor wanted to know. Jon-Tom thought

that for the first time she was beginning to look a little

frightened. She had plenty of company.

"Can't we talk to them at all?" he asked hopefully. "What

about the one who had Clothahump gagged? Do you know hb

real name?"

"I already told you," said Caz. "His name is Bigmouth.

Flattop, Baldy, and Bigmouth: that's how their names translate.

And no, I don't think we can talk to them. Even if I knew the

right words I don't think they'd let me get a word in

edgewise. It seems that he who talks loudest without letting

his companions make their points is the one who wins the

debate."

"Then if it's just a matter of shouting, why don't you give

it a try?"

"Because I think they'd cut out my tongue if I interrupted

them. I am a better gambler than that, my friend."

It didn't matter, because as he watched the debate-came tc

an end. Baldy shook a threatening finger less than an inch

from Bigmouth's proboscis, whereupon Bigmouth frowned

and kicked the overly demonstrative Baldy in the nuts. As he

doubled over, Rattop brought a small but efficient-looking

club down on Baldy's head. This effectively concluded the

discussion.

Considerable cheering rose from the excited listeners, who

never seemed to be standing still, a condition duplicated by

their mouths.

Jon-Tom wondered at the humanoid metabolism that could

generate such nonstop energy.

"I am afraid our single champion has been vanquished,"

said Caz.

48

THE HOUR Or THE GATE

"I don't want to die," muttered Flor. "Not here, not in

this place." She started reciting Hail Marys in Spanish.

"I don't want to die either," Jon-Tom yelled at her in

frustration.

"This isn't happening," she was saying dully. "It's all a

dream."

"Sorry, Flor," he told her unsympathetically. "I've already

been that route. It's no dream. You were enjoying yourself

until now, remember?"

"It was all so wonderful," she whispered. She wasn't

crying, but restraining herself required considerable effort.

"Our friends, the quest we're on, when we rescued you that

night in Polastrindu... it's been just as I'd always imagined

mis sort of thing would be. Being murdered by ignorant

aborigines doesn't fit the rest. Can they actually kill us?"

"I think they can." Jon-Tom was too tired and afraid even

to be sarcastic. "And I think we'll actually die, and actually

be buried, and actually be food for worms. If we don't get out

from here." He looked across at Clothahump, but the wizard

could only close his eyes apologetically.

If we could just lower the gag in Clothahump's mouth

when they're busy elsewhere, he thought anxiously. Some

kind of spell, even one that would just distract them, would

be enough.

But while the Mimpa were uncivilized they were clearly

not fools, nor quite so ignorant as Caz believed. That night

they confidently ignored all their captives except the carefully

watched Clothahump.

At or near midnight they were all made the centerpiece of a

robust celebration. Grass was cut down with tiny axes to form

a cleared circle, and the captives were deposited near the

center, amid a ground cover of foul-smelling granular brown

stuff.

Plor wrinkled her nose, tried breathing through her mouth

49

Alan Dean Foster

instead. "Mierda... what have they covered the ground here

with?"

"I believe it is dried, powdered lizard dung," said Caz

worriedly. "I fear it will ruin my stockings."

"Part of the ceremony?" Jon-Tom had grown accustomed

to strange smells.

"I think it may be more than that, my friend. It appears to

retard the growth of the Sward grasses. An efficient if

malodorous method of control."

Small fires were lit in a circle, uncomfortably near the

bound prisoners. Jon-Tom would have enjoyed the resultant

celebration for its barbaric splendor and enthusiasm, were it

not for the fact that he was one of the proverbial pigs at the

center of the banquet table.

"You said they'd sacrifice us to the gods of the Sward."

As he spoke to Caz he fought to retain both confidence and

sanity. "What gods do they have in mind?" His thoughts

were of the lithe, long-limbed predators they'd seen sliding

ribbonlike through the grass their first week out of Polastrindu.

"I have no idea as yet, my friend." He sniffed disdainfully.

"Whatever, I'm sure it will be a depressing way for a

gentleman to die."

"Is there another way?" Even Mudge's usually irrepress-

ible good humor was gone.

"I had hoped," replied the rabbit, "to die in bed."

Mudge let out a high whistle, some of his good spirits

returning. "0' course, mate. Now why didn't I think o' that

right off? This 'ole miserable situation's got me normal

thinkin' paths crossed whixwize. And not alone, I'd wager."

"Not alone your whixwized thoughts, or dying in bed?"

asked Caz with a smile.

"Sort o' a joint occasion is wot I'd 'ave in mind." Again

the otter whistle, and they both laughed.

50

THE HOUR Or THE GATE

"I'm glad somebody thinks this is fanny." Talea glared at

them both.

"No," said Caz more quietly, "I don't think it's very

funny at all, glowtop. But our hands and feet are bound, I can

reach no familiar salve or balm from our supplies though I am

bruised all over. I can't do anything about the damage to my

body, but I try to medicate the spirit. Laughter is soothing to

that."

Jon-Tom could see her turn away from the rabbit, her badly

tousled hair even redder in the glow from the multiple fires.

Her shoulders seemed to droop and he felt an instinctive

desire to reach out and comfort her.

Odd the occasions when you have insights into the person-

alities of others, he thought. Talea struck him as unable to

find much laughter at all in life, or, indeed, pleasure of any

kind. He wondered at it. High spirits and energy were not

necessarily reflective of happiness. He found himself feeling

sorry for her.

Might as well feel sorry for yourself, an inner voice

reminded him. If you don't slip loose of these pygmy para-

noids you soon won't be able to feel sorry for anyone.

Unable to pull free of his bonds, he started working his

way across the circle, trying to come up against a rock sharp

enough to cut diem. But the soil was thick and loamy, and he

encountered nothing larger than a small pebble.

Failing to locate anything else he tried sawing patiently at

his ropes with fingernails. The tough fiber didn't seem to be

parting in the least. Eventually the effort exhausted him and

he slid into a deep, troubled sleep....

Sl

IV

It was morning when next he opened his eyes. Smoke

drifted into the cloudy sky from smoldering camp fires,

fleeing the still, swardless circle like bored wraiths.

Once more the carrying poles were brought into use and he

felt himself lifted off the ground. Flor went up next to him,

and the others were strung out behind. As before, the journey

was brief. No more than three or four hundred yards from the

site of the transitory village, he estimated.

Quite a crowd had come along to watch. The poles were

removed. Mimpa gathered around the six limp bodies. Chattering

among themselves, they arranged their captives in a circle,

back to back, their legs stuck out like the spokes of a wheel.

Arms were bound together so that no one could lie down or

move without his five companions being affected. A large

post was placed in the center of the circle, hammered exuberantly

into the earth, and the prisoners shoulders bound to it.

They sat in the center of a second clearing, as smelly as the

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Alan Dean Foster

first. The Mimpa satisfied themselves that the center pole was

securely in the ground and then moved away, jabbering

excitedly and gesturing in a way Jon-Tom did not like at the

captives ringing the pole.

Despite the coolness of the winter morning and the consid-

erable cloud cover, he was sweating even without his cape.

He'd worked his nails and wrists until all the nails were

broken and blood stained the restraining fibers. They had

been neither cut nor loosened.

Along with other useless facts he noted that the grass

around them was still moist from the previous night's rain

and that his feet were facing almost due north. Clothahump

was struggling to speak. He couldn't make himself under-

stood around the gag and in any case didn't have the strength

in his aged frame to continue the effort much longer.

"We can move our legs, anyway," Jon-Tom pointed out,

raising his bound feet and slamming them into the ground.

"Actually, they have secured us in an excellent defensive

posture," agreed Caz. "Our backs are protected. We are not

completely helpless."

"If any of those noulps show up, they'll find out what kind

of legs I have," said Flor grimly, kicking out experimentally

with her own feet.

"Lucky noulps," commented Mudge.

"What a mind you have, otter. La cabeza bizzaro." She

drew her knees up to her chest and thrust out violently. "First

predator that comes near me is going to lose some teeth. Or

choke on my feet."

Jon-Tom kicked outward again, finding the expenditure of

energy gratifying. "Maybe they'll be like sharks and have

sensitive noses. Maybe they'll even turn toward the Mimpa,

finding them easier prey than us."

"Mayhap," said Caz, "but I think you are all lost in

wishful thinking, my friends." He nodded toward the muttering,

54

THE HOUR OF THE GATS

watchful nomads. "Evidently they are not afraid of whatever

they are waiting for. That suggests to me a most persistent

and myopic adversary."

In truth, if they were anticipating the appearance of some

ferocious carnivore, Jon-Tom couldn't understand why the

Mimpa continued to remain close by. They appeared relaxed

and expectant, roughly as fearful as children on a Sunday

School picnic.

What kind of devouring "god" were they expecting?

"Don't you hear something?" At Talea's uncertain query

everyone went quiet. The attitude of expectancy simultaneously

rose among the assembled Mimpa.

This was it, then. Jon-Tom tensed and cocked his legs. He

would kick until he couldn't kick any more, and if one of

those predators got its jaws on him he'd follow Flor's sugges-

tion and shove his legs down its throat until it choked to

death. They wouldn't go out without a fight, and with six of

them functioning in tandem they might stand an outside

chance of driving off whatever creature or creatures were

coming close.

Unfortunately, it was not simply a matter of throats.

By straining against the supportive pole Jon-Tom could just

see over the weaving crest of the Sward. All he saw beyond

riffling tufts of greenery was a stand of exquisite blue- and

rose-hued flowers. It was several minutes before he realized

that the flowers were moving.

"Which way is it?" asked Talea.

"Where you hear the noise." He nodded northward. "Over

there someplace."

"Can you see it yet?"

"I don't think so." The blossoms continued to grow larger.

"All I can see so far are flowers that appear to be coming

toward us. Camouflage, or protective coloration maybe."

"I'm afraid it's likely to be rather more substantial than

56

Alan Dean Foster

that." Caz's nose was twitching rapidly now. Clothahump

produced a muffled, urgent noise.

"I fear the kicking will do us no good," the rabbit

continued dispiritedly. "They apparently have set us in the

path of a Marching Porprut."

"A what?" Flor gaped at him. "Sounds like broken

plumbing."

"An analogy closer to the mark than I think you suspect,

night-maned." He grinned ruefully beneath his whiskers. "As

you shall see all too soon, I fear."

They resumed fighting their restraints while the Mimpa

jabbering rose to an anticipatory crescendo. The assembled

aborigines were jumping up and down, pounding the ground

with their spears and clubs, and pointing gleefully from

captives to flowers.

Flor slumped, worn out from trying to free herself. "Why

are they doing this to us? We never did anything to them."

"The minds of primitives do not function on the same

cause-and-effect principles that rule our lives." Caz sniffed,

his ears drooping, nose in constant motion. "Yes, it must be a

Porprut. We should soon be able to see it."

Another sound was growing audible above the yells and

howls of the hysterical Mimpa. It was a low pattering noise,

like small twigs breaking underfoot or rain falling hard on a

wooden roof or a hundred mice consuming plaster. Most of

all it reminded Jon-Tom of people in a theater, watching

quietly and eating popcorn. Eating noises, they were.

The row of solid Sward grass to the north began to rustle.

Fascinated and horrified, the captives fought to see beyond

the greenery.

Suddenly darker vegetation appeared, emerging above the

thin, familiar blades of me Sward. At first sight it seemed

only another type of weed, but each writhing, snakelike

olive-colored stalk held a tiny circular mouth lined with fine

56

THE HOUR OF Tm GATE

fuzzy teeth. These teeth gnawed at the Sward grass. They ate

slowly, but there were dozens of them. Blades went down as

methodically as if before a green combine.

These tangled, horribly animate stems vanished into a

brownish-green labyrinth of intertwined stems and stalks and

nodules. Above them rose beautiful pseudo-orchids of rose

and blue petals.

At the base of the mass of slowly moving vegetation was

an army of feathery white worm shapes. These dug deeply

into the soil. New ones were appearing continuously out of

the bulk, pressing down to the earth like the legs of a

millipede. Presumably others were pulled free behind as the

creature advanced across the plain.

"'Tis like no animal I have ever heard of or seen," said

Talea in disgust.

"It's not an animal. At least, I don't think it is," Jon-Tom

murmured. "I think it's a plant. A communal plant, a

mobile, self-contained vegetative ecosystem."

"More magic words." Talea fought at her bonds, with no

more success than before. "They will not free us now."

"See," he urged them, intrigued as he was horrified,

"how it constantly puts down new roots in front. That's how

it moves."

"It does more than move," Caz observed. "It will scour

me earth clean, cutting as neat and even a path across the

Swordsward as any reaper."

"But we're not plants. We're not part of the Sward," Hor

pointed out, keeping a dull stare on the advancing plant.

"I do not think the Porprut is much concerned with

citizenship," said Caz tiredly. "It appears to be a most

indiscriminate consumer. I believe it will devour anything

unable or too stupid to get out of its path."

Much of the Porprut had emerged into the clearing. The

Mimpa had moved back but continued to watch its advance

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and the effect it produced in its eventual prey. It was much

larger than Jon-Tom had first assumed. The front was a good

twenty feet across. If the earth behind it was as bare as Caz

suggested, then when the creature had finished with them

they would not even leave behind their bones.

It was particularly horrible to watch because its advance

was so slow. The Porprut traveled no more than an inch 01

two every few minutes at a steady, unvarying pace. At that

rate it would take quite a while before they were all con-

sumed. Those on the south side of the pole would be forced

to watch, and listen, as their companions closer to the

advancing plant were slowly devoured.

It promised a particularly gruesome death. That prospect

induced quite a lot of pleasure among the watchful Mimpa.

Jon-Tom dug his feet into the soft, cleared earth and kicked

violently outward. A spray of earth and gravel showered

down on the forefront of the approaching creature. The

writhing tendrils and the mechanically chewing mouths the^

supported took no notice of it. Even if-the prisoners had their

weapons and freedom, it still would have been more sensible

to run than to stand and fight.

It was loathesome to think you were about to be killed by

something neither hostile nor sentient, he mused. There was

nothing to react to them. There was no head, no indication of

a central nervous system, no sign of external organs of

perception. No ears, no eyes. It ate and moved; it was

supremely and unspectaculariy efficient. A basic mass-energy

converter that differed only in the gift of locomotion from a

blade of grass, a tree, a blueberry bush.

In a certain perverse way he was able to admire the manner

in which those dozens of insatiable mouths sucked and

snapped up even the least hint of growth or the tiniest

crawling bug from the ground.

"Fire, maybe," he muttered. "If I could get at my sparker,

58

THE HOUR OF THE GATE

or make a spell with the duar. Or if Clothahump could

speak." But the wizard's struggles had been as ineffective as

his magic was powerful. Unable to loosen his bonds or his

gag, he could only stare, helpless as the rest, as the thousand-

rooted flora edged toward them.

"I don't want to die," Flor whispered, "not like this."

"Now, we been through all that, luv," Mudge reminded

her. " 'Tis no use worryin' about it each time it seems about

t' 'appen, or you'll worry yourself t' death. Bloody disgustin'

way t' go, wot?"

"What's the difference?" said Jon-Tom tiredly. "Death's

death, one way or the other. Besides," he grinned humoriessly,

"as much salad and vegetables as I've eaten, it only seems

fair."

"How can you still joke about it?" Flor eyed him in

disbelief.

"Because there's nothing funny about it, that's how."

"You're not making any sense."

"You don't make any sense, either!" he fairly screamed at

her. "This whole world doesn't make any sense! Life doesn't

make any sense! Existence doesn't make any sense!"

She recoiled from his violence. As abruptly as he'd lost

control, he calmed himself. "And now that we've disposed of

all the Great Questions pertaining to life, I suggest that if we

all rock in unison we might be able to loosen this damn pole

and make some progress southwestward. Ready? One, two,

three..."

They used their legs as best they could, but it was hard to

coordinate the actions of six people of very different size and

strength and would have been even if they hadn't been tied in

a circle around the central pole.

It swayed but did not come free of the ground. All this

desperate activity was immensely amusing to the swart spec-

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Alan Dean Foster

tators behind them. As with everything else it was ignored b)

the patiently advancing Porprut.

It was only a foot or so from Jon-Tom's boots when the

proverbial sparker he'd wished for suddenly appeared. Amid

shouts of terror and outrage the Mimpa suddenly melted into

the surrounding Sward. Something blistered the right side of

Jon-Tom's face. The gout of flame roared a second time in his

ears, then a third.

By then the Porprut had halted, its multiple mouths twisting

and contorting in a horrible, silent parody of pain while the

falsely beautiful red and blue blooms shriveled into black ash.

It made not a sound while it was being incinerated.

A winged black shape was fluttering down among the

captives. It wielded a small, curved knife in one wing. With

this it sliced rapidly through their bonds.

"Damn my ears but I never fought we'd find ya!" said the

excited Pog. His great eyes darted anxiously as he moved

from one bound figure to the next. "Never would have,

either, if we hadn't spotted da wagon. Dat was da only ting

dat stuck up above da stinking grass." He finished freeing

Clothahump and moved next to Jon-Tom.

Missing his spectacles, which remained in the wagon,

Clothahump squinted at the bat while rubbing circulation

back into wrists and ankles. The woven gag he threw into the

Sward.

"Better a delayed appearance than none at all, good famu-

lus. You have by rescuing us done the world a great service.

Civilization owes you a debt, Pog."

"Yeah, tell me about it, boss. Dat's da solemn truth, an' I

ain't about ta let civilization forget it."

Free again, Jon-Tom climbed to his feet and started off

toward the wagon.

"Where are you going, boy?" asked the wizard.

"To get my duar." His fear had rapidly given way to

60

THE HOUR OF THE GATE

anger. "There are one or two songs I want to sing for our

little friends. I didn't think I'd have the chance and I don't

want to forget any of the words, not while they're .still fresh

in my mind. Wait till you hear some of 'em, Clothahump.

They'll bum your ears, but they'll do worse to—"

"I do not have any ears in the sense you mean them, my

boy. I suggest you restrain yourself."

"Restrain myself!" He whirled on the wizard, waved

toward the rapidly carbonizing lump of the Porprut. "Not

only were the little bastards going to feed us slowly to that

monstrosity, but they were all sitting there laughing and

having a hell of a fine time watching! Maybe revenge isn't in

the lexicon of wizards, but it sure as hell is in mine."

"There's no need, my boy." Clothahump waddled over

and put a comforting hand on Jon-Tom's wrist. "I assure you

I bear no misplaced love for our hastily departed aboriginal

associates. But^as you can see, they have departed."

In truth, as he looked around, Jon-Tom couldn't see a

single ugly arm, leg, or set of whiskers.

"It is difficult to put a spell on what you cannot see," said

the wizard. "You also forget the unpredictability of your

redoubtable talents. Impelled by uncontrolled anger, they

might generate more trouble than satisfaction. I should dislike

being caught in the midst of an army of, say, vengeful

daemons who, not finding smaller quarry around, might turn

their deviltry on us."

Jon-Tom slumped. "All right, sir. You know best. But if I

ever see one of the little fuckers again I'm going to split it on

my spearpoint like a squab!"

"A most uncivilized attitude, my friend," Caz joined

them, rubbing his fur and brushing daintily at his soiled silk

stockings. "One in which I heartily concur." He patted

Jon-Tom on the back.

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Alan Dean Poster

"That's what this expedition needs: less thinking and more

bloodthirstiness. Cut and slash, hack and rend!"

"Yeah, well..." Jon-Tom was becoming a bit embarrassed

at his own mindless fury. It was hardly the image he held of

himself. "I don't think revenge is all that unnatural ac

impulse."

"Of course it's not," agreed Caz readily. "Perfectly natural."

"What's perfectly natural?" Flor limped up next to them.

Her right leg was still asleep. Despite the ordeal they'd just

undergone, Jon-Tom thought she looked as magnificent as

ever.

"Why, our tall companion's desire to barbeque any of our

disagreeable captors that he can catch."

"Si, I'm for that." She started for the wagon. "Let's get

our weapons and get after them."

This time it was Jon-Tom who extended the restraining

hand. Now he was truly upset at the manner in which he'd

been acting, especially in front of the dignified, sensible Caz.

"I'm not talking about forgiving and forgetting," he told

her, shivering a little as he always did at the physical contact

of hand and arm, "but it's not practical. They could ambush

us in the Sward, even if they hung around."

"Well we can damn well sure have a look!" she protested.

"What kind of a man are you?"

"Want to look and see?" he shot back challengingly.

She stared at him a moment longer, then broke into an

uncontrollable giggle. He laughed along with her, as much

from nervousness and the relief of release as from the poor

joking.

"Hokay, hokay," she finally admitted, "so we have more

important things to do, si?"

"Precisely, young lady." Clothahump gestured toward the

wagon. "Let us put ourselves back in shape and be once

more on our path."

62

THE HOUR OF THE GATE

But Jon-Tom waited behind while the others reentered the

wagon and set to the task of organizing the chaos the Mimpa

had made of its contents.

Walking back to the cleared circle which had so nearly

been their burial place, he found a large black and purple

form bending over a burned-out pile of vegetation. Falameezar

had squatted down on his haunches and was picking with one

massive claw at the heap of ash and woody material.

"We're all grateful as hell, Falameezar. No one more so

than myself."

The dragon glanced numbly back at him, barely taking

notice of his presence. His tone was ponderously, unexpectedly,

somber.

"I have made a grave mistake. Comrade. A grave mis-

take." The dragon sighed. His attention was concentrated on

the crisped, smoking remains of the Porprut as he picked and

prodded at the blackened tendrils with his claws.

"What's troubling you?" asked Jon-Tom. He walked close

and affectionately patted the dragon's flank.

The head swung around to gaze at him mournfully. "I have

destroyed," he moaned, "an ideal communal society. A

perfect communistic organism."

"You don't know that's what it was, Falameezar," Jon-

Tom argued. "It might have been a normal creature with a

single brain."

"I do not think so." Falameezar slowly shook his head,

looking and sounding as depressed as it was possible for a

dragon to be. Little puffs of smoke occasionally floated up

from his nostrils.

"I have looked inside the corpse. There are many individu-

al sections of creature inside, all twisted and intertwined

together, intergrown and interdependent. All functioning in

perfect, bossless harmony."

Jon-Tom stepped away from the scaly side. "I'm sorry."

63

Alan Dean Foster

He thought carefully, not daring to offend the dragon but

worried about its state of mind. "Would you have rather

you'd left it alone to nibble us to death?"

"No, Comrade, of course not. But I did not realize fully

what it consisted of. If I had, I might have succeeded in

making it shift its path around you. So I have been forced to

murder a perfect natural example of what civilized society

should aspire to." He sighed. "I fear now I must do penance,

my comrade friend."

A little nervous, Jon-Tom gestured at the broad, endless

field of the Swordsward. "There are many dangers out there,

Comrade. Including the still monstrous danger we have talked

so much about."

It was turning to evening. Solemn clouds promised another

night of rain, and there was a chill in the air that even hinted

at some snow. It was beginning to feel like real winter out on

the grass-clad plain.

A cold wind sprang from the direction of the dying sun.

went through Jon-Tom's filthy leathers. "We need your help,

Falameezar."

"I am sorry, Comrade. I have my own troubles now. You

will have to face future dangers without me. For I am truly

sorrowful over what I have done here, the more so because

with a little thought it might have been avoided." He tamed

and lumbered off into the rising night, his feet crushing dowr

the Sward, which sprang up resiliently behind him.

"Are you Sure?" Jon-Tom followed to the edge of the

cleared circle, put out imploring hands. "We really need you,

Comrade. We have to help each other or the great danger will

overwhelm all of us. Remember the coming of the bosses of

bosses!"

"You have your other friends, your other comrades to

assist you, Jon-Tom," the dragon called back to him across

(he waves of the green sea. "I have no one but myself."

"But you're one of us!"

64

THE HOUR Or THE GATE

The dragon shook his head. "No, not yet. For a time I had

willed to myself that it was so. But I have failed, or I would

have seen a solution to your rescue that did not involve this

murder."

"How could you? There wasn't time!" He could barely see

me dark outline now.

"I'm sorry, Comrade Jon-Tom." Falameezar's voice was

faint with distance and guilt. "Good-bye."

"Good-bye, Falameezar." Jon-Tom watched until the dragon

had completely vanished, then looked disappointedly at the

ground. "Dammit," he muttered.

He returned to the wagon. Lamps were lit now. Under their

familiar, friendly glow Caz and Mudge were checking the

condition of the dray team. Flor, Clothahump, and Talea were

restocking their scattered supplies. The wizard's glasses were

pinched neatly on his beak. He looked out and down as

Jon-Tom, hands shoved into his pockets and gaze on the

ground, sauntered up to him.

"Problems, my boy?"

Jon-Tom raised his eyes, nodded southward. "Falameezar's

left us. He was upset at having to kill the damn Porprut. I

tried my best to argue him out of it, but he'd made up his

mind."

"You did well even to try," said Clothahump comfortingly.

"Not many would have the courage to debate a dragon's

decision. They are terribly stubborn. Well, no matter. We

shall make our way without him."

"He was the strongest of us," Jon-Tom murmured

disappointedly. "He did more in thirty seconds to the Porprut

and the Mimpa than all the rest of us were able to do at all.

No telling how much trouble just his presence prevented."

"It is true we shall miss his brute strength," said the

wizard, "but intelligence and wisdom are worth far more

than any amount of muscle."

65

Alan Dean Foster

"Maybe so." Jon-Tom vaulted into the back of the wagon.

"But I'd still feel better with a little more bmte strength on

our side."

"We must not bemoan our losses," Clothahump said

chidingly, "but must push ahead. At least we will no longer

be troubled by the Mimpa." He let out an unwizardly chuck-

le. "It will be days before they cease running."

"Do we continue on tonight, then?"

"For a short while, just enough to leave this immediate

area behind. Then we shall mount a guard, just in case, and

continue on tomorrow in daylight. The weather looks un-

pleasant and we will have difficulty enough in holding to our

course.

"Then too, while I don't know how you young folk are

feeling, I'm not ashamed to confess that the body inside this

old shell is very much in need of sleep."

Jon-Tom had no argument with that. Falameezar or no

Falameezar, Mimpa or no Mimpa, he was dead tired. Which

was a good deal better than what he'd earlier thought he'd be

this night: plain dead.

The storm did not materialize the next day, nor the one

following, though the Swordsward received its nightly dose of

steady rain. Plor was taking a turn at driving the wagon. It

was early evening and they would be stopping soon to make

camp.

A full moon was rising behind layers of gray eastern

clouds, a low orange globe crowning the horizon. It turned

the rain clouds to gauze as it lifted behind them, shedding

ruddy light over the darkening sward. Snowflakelike reflec-

tions danced elf steps on the residue of earlier rain.

From the four patient yoked lizards came a regular, heavy

swish-swish as they pushed through the wet grasses. Easy con-

versation and occasional laughter punctuated by Mudge's

lilting whistle drifted out from the enclosed wagon. Small

66

THE HOUR OF THE GATE

things rose cautiously to study the onward trundling wooden

beast before dropping down into grass or groundholes.

Jon-Tom parted the canvas rain shield and moved to sit

down on the driver's seat next to Flor. She held the reins

easily in one hand, as though bom to the task, and glanced

over at him. Her free hand rested across her thighs. Her long

black hair was a darker bit of shadow, like a piece of broken

black plate glass, against the night. Her eyes were luminous

and huge.

He looked away from their curious stare and down at his

hands. They twisted and moved uncomfortably in his lap, as

though trying to find a place to hide; little five-footed crea-

tures he could not cage.

"I think we have a problem."

"Only one?" She grinned at him, barely paying attention

to the reins now. Without being told, the lizards would

continue to plod onward on their present course.

"But that's what life's all about, isn't it? Solving a series

of problems? When they're as varied and challenging as

these," and she flicked long nails in the air, a brief gesture

mat casually encompassed two worlds and a shift in dimen-

sion, "why, that adds to the spice of it."

"That's not the kind of problem I'm talking about, Flor.

This one is personal."

She looked concerned. "Anything I can do to help?"

"Possibly." He looked up at her. "I think I'm in love with

you. I think I've always been in love with you. I..."

"That's enough," she told him, raising a restraining hand

and speaking gently but firmly. "In the first place, you can't

have always been in love with me because you haven't known

me for always. Metaphysics aside, Jon-Tom, I don't think

you've known me long enough.

"In the second place, I don't think you're really in love

with me. I think you're in love with the image of me you've

67

Alan Dean Foster

seen and added to in your imagination, es verdad, amigo^ To

be erode about it, you're in love with my looks, my body

Don't think I hold it against you. It's not your fault. Your

desires and wants arc a product of your environment."

This was not going the way he'd hoped, he mused confusedly.

"Don't be so sure that you know all about me either, Flor."

"I'm not." She was not offended by his tone. "I mean,

how have you 'seen' me, Jon-Tom? How have you 'known'

me? Short skirt, tight sweater, always the perfect smile,

perfectly groomed, long hair flouncing and pom-poms jounc-

ing, isn't that about it?"

"Don't patronize me."

"I'm not patronizing you, dammit! Use your head, hom-

bre. I may look like a pinup, but I don't think like one. You

can't be in love with me because you don't know me."

"'Ere now, wot the 'ell are you two fightin' about?"

Mudge stuck his furry face out from behind the canvas. " 'T!S

too bloomin' nice a night for such witterin'."

"Back out, Mudge," said Jon-Tom curdy at the interrup-

tion. "This is none of your business."

"Oh, now let's not get our bowels in an uproar, mate. Suit

yourself." With a last glance at them both, he obligingly

retreated inside.

"I won't deny that I find you physically attractive, Flor."

"Of course you do. You wouldn't be normal if you

didn't." She stared out across the endless dark plain, kissed

with orange by the rising moon. "Every man has, ever since

I was twelve years old. I've been through this before." She

looked back at him.

"The point is you don't know me, the real Hores Quintera.

So you can't be in love with her. I'm flattered, but if we're

going to have any kind of chance at a real relationship, we'd

best start fresh, here and now. Without any preconceived

68

THE HOUK Of THE QATK

notions about what I'm like, what you'd like me to be like, or

what I represent to you. ComprendeV

"Bor, don't you think I've had a look at the real you these

past weeks?" Try as he might, he couldn't help sounding

defensive.

"Sure you have, but that's hardly long enough. And you

can't be certain that's the real me, either. Maybe it's only

another facet of my real personality, whose aspects are still

changing."

"Wait a minute," he said hopefully. "You said, 'chance at

a real relationship.' Does that mean you think we have a

chance for one?"

"I've no idea." She eyed him appraisingly. "You're an

interesting man, Jon-Tom. The fact that you can work magic

here with your music is fascinating to me. I couldn't do it.

But I don't know you any better than you know me. So why

don't we start clean, huh? Pretend I'm just another girl

you've just met. Let's call this our first date." She nodded

skyward. "The moon's right for it."

"Kind of tough to do," he replied, "after you've just

poured out a deeply felt confession of love. You took that

apart like a professor dissecting a tadpole."

"I'm sorry, Jon-Tom." She shrugged. "That's part of the

way I am. Part of the real me, as much as the pom-poms or

my love of the adventure of this world. You have to leam to

accept them all, not just the ones you like." She tried to

sound encouraging. "If it's any consolation, while I may not

love you, I do like you."

"That's not much."

"Why don't you get rid of that hurt puppy-dog look, too,"

she suggested. "It won't do you any good. Come on, now.

Cheer up! You've let out what you had to let out, and I

haven't rebuffed you completely." She extended an open

69

Alan Dean Foster

hand. "Buenos noches, Jon-Tom. I'm Plores Maria Quintera.

Como 'stasT'

He looked silently at her, then down at the proferred palm.

He took it with a resigned sigh. "Jon-Tom.. .Jon Meriweather.

Pleased to meet you."

After that, they got along a little more easily. The punctur-

ing of Jon-Tom's romantic balloon released tension along

with hopes....

70

v

It was a very ordinary-looking river, Jon-Tom thought.

Willow and cypress and live oak clustered thirstily along its

sloping banks. Small scaly amphibians played in thick under-

brush. Reeds claimed the quiet places of the slow-moving

eddies.

The bank on the far side was equally well fringed with

vegetation. From time to time they encountered groups of

animals and humans occupied in various everyday tasks on

the banks. They would be fishing, or washing clothes, or

simply watching the sun do the work of carrying forth the

daytime.

The wagon turned eastward along the southern shore of the

Sloomaz-ayor-le-WeentIi, heading toward the growing massif

of the mountains and passing word of the coming invasion to

any wannlander who would listen. But the River of Twos was

a long way from Polastrindu, and the Jo-Troom Gate and the

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Alan Dean Foster

depredations of the Plated Folk only components of legend to

the river dwellers.

All agreed with the travelers on one matter, however: the

problem of trying to pass downstream and through the Teeth.

"Eh?" said one wizened old otter in response to their

query, "ye want to go where?" In contrast to Mudge the

oldster's fur was streaky-white. So were his facial whiskers.

Arthritis bent him in the middle and gnarled his hands and

feet.

"Ye'll never make it. Ye won't make it past the entrance

and if ye do, ye'll not find yer way through the rock. Too

many have tried and none have ever come back."

"We have resources others did not have," said Clothahump

confidentally. "I am something of a formidable conjurer, and

my associate here is a most powerful spellsinger." He ges-

tured at me lanky form of Ion-Tom. They had stepped down

from the wagon to talk with the elder. The dray lizards

munched contentedly on rich riverbank growth.

The old otter put aside his fishing pole and studied them.

His short whistle indicated he didn't think much of either man

or turtle, unseen mental talents notwithstanding.

"Sorcerers ye may be, but the passage through the Teeth

by way of the river is little but a legend. Ye can travel b\

legend only in dreams. Which is all that's likely to be left of

ye if ye persist in this folly. Sixty years I've lived on the

banks of the Sloomaz-ayor-le-Weentli." He gestured fondly

at the flowing water behind him. "Never have I heard tell of

anyone fool enough to try and go into the mountains by way

of it."

"Sounds convincin' enough for me, 'e does." Mudge

leaned out of the wagon and spoke brightly. "That settles

that: time to turn about for 'ome."

Ion-Tom looked over his shoulder at the green-capped face

"That does not settle it."

72

THE HOUR Or THE GATE

Mudge shrugged cheerfully. "Can't biff a bloke for tryin',

mate. I ought t' know better, I knows it, but somethin' in me

insists on tryin' t' fight insanity in the ranks."

"Ya ought ta have more faith in da master." Pog fluttered

above the wagon and chided the otter. "Ya oughta believe in

him and his abilities and great talents." He drifted lower

above Mudge and whispered. "Frankly, we all been candi-

dates for da fertilizer pile since we started on dis half-assed

trek, but if da boss tinks we gots to go on, we don't got much

choice. Don't make him mad, chum."

But Jon-Tom had overheard. He walked back to stand next

to the wagon. "Clothahump knows what he's doing. I'm sure

if things turned suicidal he'd listen to reason."

"Ya tink dat, does ya?" Pog's small sharp teeth flashed as

he hovered in front of Jon-Tom. One wing pointed toward the

turtle, who was still conversing with the old otter.

"Da boss has kept Mudge from runnin' off and abandonin'

dis trip wid t'reats. What makes ya tink he'd be more polite

where you're concerned?"

"He owes me a debt," said Jon-Tom. "If I insisted on

remaining behind, I don't think he'd try to coerce me."

Pog laughed, whirled around in black circles. "Dat's what

you tink! Ya may be a spellsinger, Jon-Tom-mans, but you're

as naive as a baby's belly!' He rose and skimmed off over

the river, hunting for insects and small flying lizards.

"Is that your opinion too, Mudge? Do you think Clothahump

would keep me from leaving if that's what I wanted?"

"I wouldn't 'ave 'alf a notion, mate. But since you say you

want to keep on with this madness, there ain't no point in

arguin' it, is there?" He retreated back inside the wagon,

leaving Jon-Tom to turn and walk slowly back down to the

riverbank. Try as he would to shove the thought aside, it

continued to nag him. He looked a little differently at

Clothahump.

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Alan Dean Foster

"There be only one way ye might get even partway s

through," continued the old otter, "and if yer lucky, out

again alive. That's to have a damn good boatman. Qne who

knows how to maneuver on the Second river. That's the only

way ye'll even get inside the mountain."

"Can you recommend such an individual?" asked

Clothahump.

"Oh, I know of several good boatfolk," the oldster boasted.

He turned, spat something brown and viscous into the water,

then looked from the turtle to Jon-Tom. "Trouble for ye is

that ain't none of 'em idiots. And that's going to be as

important a qualification as any kind of river skill, because

only an idiot's going to try and take ye where ye wants to

go!"

"We have no need of your sarcasm, young fellow," said

Clothahump impatiently, "only of your advice. If you would

rather not give us the benefit of your knowledge, then we will

do our best to find it elsewhere."

"All right, all right. Hang onto ye shell, ye great stuffed

diviner of catastrophes!

"There's one, just one, who might be willing to help ye

out. He's just fool enough to try it and just damnblast good

enough to bring it off. Whether ye can talk him into doin' so

is something else again." He gestured to his left.

"Half a league farther on you'll find that the riverbank

rises steeplike. Still farther you'll eventual come across sev-

eral large oaks overlooking a notch or drop in the cliffs. He's

got his place down there. Goes by the name of Bribbens

Oxiey."

"Thank you for your help," said Clothahump.

"Would it help if we mentioned your name to him?"

Jon-Tom wondered.

The otter laughed, his whistles skipping across the water.

"Hai, man, the only place me name would help you is in the

74

THE HOUR OF THE GATS

better whorehouses in Wottletowne, and that's not where ye

are going!"

Clothahump reached into one of his plastron compart-

ments, withdrew a small silver coin, and offered it to the

otter. The oldster stepped away, waving his hands.

"No, no, not for me, friend! I take no payment for

assisting the doomed." He gathered up his pole and gear and

ambled crookedly off upstream.

"Nice of him to give us that name," said Jon-Tom,

watching the other depart. "Since he wouldn't take the

money, why didn't we try to help his arthritis?"

"Arth.. .his joint-freezes, you mean, boy?" Clothahump

adjusted his spectacles. "It is a long spell and requires time

we do not have." He turned resolutely toward the wagon.

Jon-Tom continued to stand there, watching the crippled

otter make his loping way eastward. "But he was so helpful."

"We do not know that yet," the turtle insisted. "I was

willing to chance a little silver on it, but not a major medical

spell. He could simply have told us his stories to impress us,

and the name to get rid of us."

"Awfully cynical, aren't you?"

Clothahump gazed up at him as they both scrambled into

the wagon. "My boy, the first hundred years Of life teaches

you that no one is inherently good. The next fifty tells you

that no one is inherently bad, but is shaped by his surround-

ings. And after two hundred years... give me a hand there,

that's a good boy." Jon-Tom helped lug the bulky body over

the wooden rail and into the wagon.

"After two hundred years, you leam that nothing is pre-

dictable save that the universe is full of illusions. If the

cosmos withholds and distorts its truths, why should we

expect less of such pitifully minute components of it as that

otter... or you, or me?"

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Alan Dean Foster

Jon-Tom was left to ponder that as the wagon once more

rolled noisily westward.

Everyone hoped the oldster's recommendation was sounder

than his estimate of distance, for it took them two full days of

traveling before they encountered three massive oaks domi-

nating a low dip in the riverbank. While still a respectable

width, the river had narrowed between the higher banks and

ran with more power, more confidence, and occasional flecks

of foam.

Still, it didn't appear particularly dangerous or hard to

navigate to Jon-Tom. He wondered at the need for a guide.

The river was far more gentle than the rapids they had passed

(admittedly with Falameezar's muscle) on the journey to

Polastrindu.

The path that wound its careful way down to the shore was

narrow and steep. The lizards balked at it. They had to be

whipped and cajoled downward, their claws shoving at the

dirt as they tried to move backward instead of down the

slope. Gravel and rocks slid over the side of the path. Once

they nearly had a wheel slip over the edge, threatening to

plunge wagon and lizards and all ass-over-heels into the tiny

chasm. Verbally and physically, however, they succeeded in

eventually getting the lizards to the bottom.

Reeds and ferns dominated the little cove in which they

found themselves. To the left, hunkered up tight against the

cliffs, they found a single low building. It was not much

bigger than a shack. A few small circular windows winked

like eyes as they approached it, peering out beneath brows of

adobe and thatching. Smoke curled lazily from the brown and

gray rock chimney made of rounded river stones.

What attracted their attention the most was the boat. It was

moored in the shallows. Water lapped gently at its flanks. A

well-tumed railing ran around the deck, and there was no

central cabin.

76

THE HOUR OF THE GATE

A heavy steering oar bobbed at the stem. There was also a

single mast from which a fore-rigged sail hung limp and

tired, loosely draped across the boom.

"I hope our guide is as tough as his boat looks to be,"

said Talea as they mounted the covered porch fronting the

house.

"Only one way to find out." Jon-Tom ducked beneath the

porch roof. The door set in the front of the building was cut

from aged cypress. There was no window or peephole set into

it.

Pog found a comfortable cross-beam, hung head down

from it, and let out a relieved sigh. "Not fancy, maybe, but a

peaceful place ta live. I've always liked rivers."

"How can you like anything?" Talea chided him as they

inspected the house. "You see everything upside down."

"Lizard crap," said the bat with a grunt. "You're da ones

dat sees everyting upside down."

Clothahump knocked on the door. There was no response.

He rapped again, harder. Still nothing, so he tried the handle.

"Locked," he said curtly. "I could spell it open easily

enough, but that would mean naught if the owner is not

present." He sounded concerned. "Could he perhaps be off

on business with a second boat?"

"If so," Jon-Tom started to say, "it wouldn't hurt us to

have a short rest. We could wait until—"

The door opened inward abruptly. The frog that confronted

them stood just over five feet tall, slightly less than Talea, a

touch more than Mudge. Tight snakeskin shorts stopped just

above his knees. The long fringework that lined its hem fell

almost to his ankles. It swayed slightly as he stood inspecting

them.

The shorts were matched by a fringed vest of similar

material. Beneath it he wore a leathern shut that ended above

his elbows. Fringe reached from there to his wrists. He wore

77

Alan Dean Foster

no hat, but a single necklace made from the vertebrae of

some large fish formed a white collar around his green-and-

yellow-spotted neck.

His ventral side was a pale blue that shaded to pink at the

pulsing throat. The rest of his body was dark green marked

with yellow and black spots. Compared to, say, Mudge or

Clothahump, the coloration was somewhat overwhelming. He

would be difficult to lose sight of, even on a dark day.

Examining them one at a time, the frog surveyed his

visitors. He thoroughly sized up every member of the group,

not missing Pog where he hung from the rafter. The bat's

head had swiveled around to stare curiously at the boatman.

The frog blinked, spoke in a low monotone distinguished

by its lack of inflection, friendly or otherwise.

"Cash or credit?"

"Cash," replied Clothahump. "Assuming that we can

work out an agreement to our mutual satisfaction."

"Mutual my ass," said the frog evenly. "I'm the one who

has to be satisfied." When Clothahump offered no rebuttal,

the boatman expressionlessly stepped back inside. "Come on

in, then. No point in standing out in the damp. Sick custom-

ers make lousy passengers."

They filed in, Jon-Tom and Hor electing to take seats on

the floor rather than risk collision with the low, thick-beamed

ceiling, hi addition, the few chairs looked too rickety to

support much weight.

The frog moved to a large iron stove set against a back

wall. A large kettle simmered musically on the hot metal. He

removed the cover, stirred the contents a few times, then

sampled it with a large wooden ladle. The odor was foul.

Taking a couple of large wooden shakers from a nearby wall

shelf, he dumped some of their powdered contents into the

kettle, stirred the liquid a little more, and replaced the iron

cover, apparently satisfied.

78

THE HOUR OF THE GATES

Then he sauntered back to the thick wooden table in the

center of the room. Boating equipment, hooks, ropes,

woodworker's tools, braces and pegs and hammers lined the

other two walls.

At the back was a staircase leading downward. Possibly it

went to the hold, or to clammier and more suitable sleeping

quarters.

Leaning forward across the table, the frog clasped wet

palms together and stared across at Clothahump and Jon-Tom.

His long legs were bent sideways beneath the wood so as not

to kick his guests. Caz was standing near one wall inspecting

some of the aquatic paraphernalia. Talea hunted for a suitable

chair. She finally found one and dragged it up to the table,

where she joined the other three.

"My name's Bribbens Oxiey, of the sandmarsh Oxieys,"

the frog told them. "I'm the best boatman on this or any

other river." This was stated quietly, without any particular

emphasis or boastfulness.

"I know every loggerhead, every tree stump, every knot,

boulder, and rapids for the six hundred leagues between the

Teeth and Kreshfarm-in-the-Geegs. I know the hiding places

of the mudfishers and the waterdrotes' secret holes. I can

smell a storm two days before it hits and ride a wave gentle

enough not to upset a full teacup. I even know the exact place

where ten thousand years ago the witch Wutz tripped over the

cauldron full of magic which doubled the river, and I know

therefore whence comes the name Sloomaz-ayor-le-Weentli."

Jon-Tom gazed back out the still open door, past the

dangling Pog, to what still appeared to be a quite ordinary

stream. Somewhere, he imagined, the river had to fork,

hence the nicknames River of Twos, Double River, and the

others. Since the fork was not here and was unlikely to be

between this spot and the mountains, it had to lie upstream.

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Alan Dean Foster

He would soon have the chance to find out, he thought, as he

returned his attention to the conversation.

"I can turn my craft circles 'round any other craft and

reach my destination in half their time. I can ride out weather

that puts other merchantmen and fisherfolk under their beds.

I'm not afraid of anything in the river or out of it.

"I personally guarantee to deliver cargo and/or passengers

to their chosen destination for the agreed-upon fee, on the

date determined in advance, if not earlier, or to forfeit all of

my recompense.

"I can outfight anyone, even someone twice my size," he

said, glancing challengingly at Jon-Tom, who tactfully did

not respond, "outeat any other intelligent amphibian or mam-

mal, and I have twenty-two matured tadpoles who can attest

to my other abilities.

"My fee is one goldpiece per league. I'm no cook, and

you can provide your own fodder, or fish if you like. As to

drink, river water's good enough for me, for I'm as home in

it as in this house, but if you get drunk on my craft you'll

soon find yourself swimming for shore. Any questions so

far?"

No one said anything. "Anyone care to dispute anything

I've said?" Still no comment from the visitors. Full of

impatient energy, Talea left her seat and stalked to the door,

stood there leaning against the jamb and staring out at the

river. Bribbens watched her and nodded approvingly.

"Right." He leaned back in his chair, picked idly at the

tangled fringe of his right sleeve. "Now then. How many of

you are going, is there cargo, and where is it you wish to

go?"

Clothahump tapped the table with short fingers. "There is

no cargo save our nominal supplies and personal effects, and

all of us are going." He added uncertainly, "Does our

number affect the fee?"

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THE HOUR OF THE GATE

The frog shoved out his considerable lower lip. "Makes no

difference to me. Fee's the same whether one of you goes or

all of you. The boat has to travel the same distance upstream

and the same distance down again when I return. One

goldpiece per league."

"That's part of the reason for my inquiry," said the

wizard.

"The goldpiece per league?" Bribbens eyed him archly.

"No. The direction. You see, it's downstream we wish to

go, not up."

The frog belched once. "Downstream. It's only three days

from here to the base of the Teeth. Not much between. A

couple of villages and that's all, and them only a day from

here. No one lives at the base of the mountains. They're all

afraid of the occasional predator who slinks down out of the

Teeth, like the flying lizards, the Ginnentes who nest in the

crags and crevices. I hardly ever find anyone who wants to go

that way. Most everything lies upstream."

"Nevertheless, we wish to travel down," said the wizard.

"Far farther, I dare say, than you are accustomed to going. Of

course, if you chose not to go, we will understand. It would

only be normal for you to be afraid."

Bribbens leaned forward sharply, was eye to eye with

Clothahump across the table, his body stretched over the

wood, webbed hands flat on the surface.

"Bribbens Oxiey is afraid of nothing in or out of the river.

Visitor or not, I don't like your drift, turtle."

Clothahump did not pull away from the batrachian face

inches from his own. "I am a wizard and fear only that which

I cannot understand, boatman. We wish to travel not to the

base of the mountains but through them. Down the river as

far as it will carry us and then out the other side of Zaryt's

Teeth."

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The frog sat back down slowly. "You realize that's just a

rumor. There iftay not be any other side."

"That makes it interesting, doesn't it?" said Clotbahump

Fingers drummed on the table, marking time and thoughts.

"One hundred goldpieces," Bribbens said at last.

"You said the fee didn't vary," Talea reminded him fror

the doorway. "One gold piece a league."

"That is for travel on earth, female. Hell is more expensive

country."

"I thought you said you weren't afraid." Jon-Tom was

careful to make it sound like a normal question, devoid of

taunting.

"I'm not," countered Bribbens, "but neither am I stupid

If we survive this journey I want more in return than personal

satisfaction.

"Once we enter the mountains I shall be dealing with

unknown waters... and probably other unknowns as well.

Nevertheless," he added with becoming indifference, "it

should be interesting, as you say, wizard. Water is water,

wherever it may be."

But Clothahump pushed away from the table, spoke grimly.

"I'm sorry, Bribbens, but we can't pay you."

"A wizard who can't transmute gold?"

"I can," insisted Clothahump, looking embarrassed. "It's

just that I've misplaced the damn spell, and it's too compli-

cated to try and fake." He checked his plastron again. "I can

give you a few pieces now and the rest, uh, later."

Bribbens rose, slapped the table loudly with both hands.

"It's been an interesting conversation and I wish you all luck,

which you are going to need even more than you do a good

and willing boatman. Now if you don't mind excusing me, I

think my supper's about ready." He started back toward the

stove.

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THE HOUR OF THE GATE

"Wait a minute." Clothahump frowned at Jon-Tom. Bribbens

halted. "We can pay you, though I'm not sure how much."

"My boy, there is no point in lying. I don't do business

that way. We will just have to—"

"No, we can, Clothahump." He grinned at Mudge. "I'm

something of a beggar in wolfs clothing."

"Wot?" Then the otter's face brightened with remem-

brance. "I'd bloody well forgotten that night, mate."

Jon-Tom unsnapped his cape. It landed heavily on the

table and Bribbens eyed it with interest. As he and the others

watched, Jon-Tom and Mudge slit the cape's lining. Coins

poured from the rolled lower edge.

When the counting was concluded, the remnant of Jon-

Tom's hastily salvaged gambling winnings totaled sixty-eight

gold pieces and fifty-two silver.

"Not quite enough."

"Please," said Ror, "isn't it sufficient? We'll pay you me

rest...."

"Later. I know." The boatman would not bend. "Later is a

synonym for never, female. Would you wish me to convey

you 'almost' to the end of me river and then make you swim

the rest of the way? By the same light, I will not accept

'almost' my determined fee."

"If you're as able as you are stubborn, you're for sure the

best boatman on die river," grumbled Jon-Tom.

"There's something more." Talea was still leaning in the

doorway, but now she was staring outside. "What about our

wagon and team?"

"Sure!" Jon-Tom rose, almost bumped his head, and

looked down at Bribbens. "We've got a wagon which any

farmer or fisherman would be proud to own. It's big enough

to carry all of us and more, and sturdy enough to have done it

all the way across the Swordsward from Polastrindu. There

are harnesses, yokes, four solid dray lizards, and spare

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Alan Dean Foster

wheels and supplies, all made from the finest materials. It

was given to us by the city council of Polastrindu itself."

Bribbens looked uncertain. "I'm not a tradesman."

"At least have a look at it," Plor implored him.

The frog hesitated, then padded out onto the porch, ignor-

ing Pog. The others filed out after him. .

Tradesman or not, Bribbens inspected the wagon and its

team intimately, from the state of the harness buckles to the

lizard's teeth.

When he was finished underneath the wagon, he crawled

out, stared at Clothahump. "I accept. It will make up the

difference."

"How munificent of you!" Caz had taken no part in the

bargaining, but his expression revealed he was something less

than pleased by the outcome. "The wagon alone is worth

twenty goldpieces. You would leave us broke and destitute."

"Perhaps," admitted Bribbens, "but I'm the only one who

stands a chance of leaving you broke and destitute at your

desired destination. I won't argue with you." He paused,

added as an afterthought, "Dinner's about ready to boil over.

Make up your minds."

"We have little choice," said Clothahump, "and no further

use for the wagon anyway." He glared at Caz, who turned

away and studied the river, unrepentant. "We agree. When

can we start?"

"Tomorrow morning. I have my own preparations to make

and supplies to lay in. Meanwhile, I suggest you all get a

good night's sleep." Bribbens looked at the cliffs which rose

to the east.

"Into the Teeth." He fixed a bulbous eye on Jen-Tom.

"You'll have no need for money in there, nor on the other

side, if there is one. My offspring will find it here if I don't

come back, and it will do them more good than the dead."

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THE HOUR OF Tm GATE

Humming to himself, he turned and padded back toward his

house.

They slept in the wagon again that night. As Bribbens

formally explained, their fee included only his services and

transport and did not extend to the use of his home.

But the following morning he was up before the sun and

was ready to depart before they'd hardly awakened. "I like to

get an early start," he explained as they gathered themselves

for the journey. "I give value for money. You pay for a day's

travel, you get a day's travel."

Caz adjusted his monocle. "Reasonable enough, consider-

ing that we've given a month's pay for every day we're likely

to travel."

Bribbens looked unperturbed. "I once saw a rabbit who'd

had all his fur shaved off. He was a mighty funny-looking

critter."

"And I," countered Caz with equal aplomb, "once saw a

ftog whose mouth was too big for his head. He experienced a

terrible accident."

"What kind of accident?" inquired Bribbens, unimpressed.

"Foot-in-mouth. Worst case I ever saw. It turned out to be

fatal."

"Progs aren't subject to hoof-in-mouth."

The rabbit smiled tolerantly. "My foot in his mouth."

The two held their stares another moment. Then Bribbens

smiled, an expression particularly suited to frogs.

"I've seen it happen to creatures other than my own kind,

three-eyes."

Caz grinned back. "It's common enough, I suppose. And I

see better out of one eye than most people do out of two."

"See your way to moving a little faster, then. We can't

sleep here all day." The boatman ambled off.

Talea was leaning out of the wagon, brushing sleepily at

reluctant curls tight as steel springs.

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Alan Dean Foster

"Since you layabouts aren't ready yet, I'm going to take

the time to secure my team and wagon and lay out fodder for

them," said the frog.

"Possessive little bugger, ain't 'e?" Mudge commented.

"It's his wagon and team now, Mudge." Jon-Tom carefully

slipped his staff into the loops crossing his back beneath the

flashing emerald cape. "They're in his care. Just like we

are."

When they were all assembled on the boat and had tied

down their packs and supplies, Bribbens loosed the ropes,

neatly coiled them in place, and leaned on the long steering

oar. The boat slid out into the river. Pog shifted his grip on

the spreaders high up on the mast and watched as silver sky

raced past blue ground.

Before very long the current caught them. The cove with

its mud-and-thatch house vanished behind. Ahead lay a gray-

brown wall of granite and ice; home to arboreal carnivores,

undisciplined winds, and racing cloud-crowns.

Jon-Tom lay down on the edge of the craft and let a hand

trail lazily in the water. It was difficult to think of the journey

they'd embarked upon as threatening. The water was warmed

from its long journey down from distant Kreshfarm-in-the-

Geegs. The sun often snuck clear of obstructing clouds to lie

pleasantly on one's face. And there seemed no chance of rain

until the night.

"Three days to get to the base of the mountains, you

said?"

"That's right, man," Bribbens replied. The boatman did

not look at Jon-Tom when he spoke. His right arm was curled

around the shaft of the steering oar, and his eyes were on the

river ahead. He sat in a chair built onto the railing at the

craft's stem. A long, thin curved pipe dangled from thick

lips. River breeze carried the thin smoke from its small white

bowl up into the sky.

86

THE HOUR Of THE GATE

"How far into the mountains does the river go?" Flor was

on her knees, staring over the front of the boat. Her voice was

full of expectation and excitement.

"Nobody knows," said Bribbens. "Leagues, maybe weeks

worth. Maybe only a few hours."

"Where does it end, do you suppose? In an underground

lake?"

"Helldrink," said the boatman.

"And what's Helldrink, Senor Ranar'

"A rumor. A story. An amalgam of all the fears of every

creature that's ever navigated on the waters in times of

trouble, during bad storms or on leaking ships, in foul

harbors or under the lash of a drunken captain. I've spent my

life on me water and in it. It would be worth the trip to me if

we should find it, even should it mean my death. It's where

all true sailors should end up."

"Does that mean we're likely to get a refund?" inquired

Caz.

The boatman laughed. "You're a sharp fellow, aren't you,

rabbit? I hope if we find it you'll still be able to joke."

"There should be no difficulty," said Clothahump. "I, too,

have heard legends of Helldrink. They say that you know it is

there before you encounter it. All you need do is deposit us

safely clear of it and, we will continue our journey on foot.

You may proceed to your sailor's discovery however you

wish."

"Sounds like a fine scenario, sir," the boatman agreed.

"Assuming I can make a landing somewhere safe, if there is a

safe landing. Otherwise you may have to accompany me on

my discovery."

"So you're risking your. life to leam the truth about this

legend?" asked Flor.

"No, woman. I'm risking my life for a hundred pieces of

gold. And a wagon and team. I'm risking my life for

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Alan Dean Foster

twenty-two offspring. I'm risking my life because I never

turned down a job in my life. Without my reputation, I'm

nothing. I had to take your offer, you see."

He adjusted the steering oar a little to port. The boat

changed its heading slightly and moved still further into the

center of the stream.

"Money and pride," she said. "That's hardly worth risking

your life for."

"Can you think of any better reason, then?"

"You bet I can, Rana. One a hell of a lot less brazen than

yours." She proceeded to explain the impetus for their jour-

ney. Bribbens was not to be recruited.

"I prefer money, thank you."

It was a good thing Falameezar was no longer with them,

Jen-Tom thought. He and their boatman were at opposite ends

of the political spectrum. Of course, with Falameezar, they

would not have required Bribbens' services. He was surprised

to discover that despite the archaic, inflexible political philos-

ophy, he still missed the dragon.

"Young female," Bribbens said finally, "you have your

romantic ideas and I've got mine. I'm helping you to satisfy

your needs and that's all you'll get from me. Now shut up. I

dislike noisy chatter, especially from romantic females."

"Oh you do, do you?" Ror started to get to her feet.

"How would you like—"

The frog jerked a webbed hand toward the southern shore.

"It's not too far to the bank, and you look like a pretty good

swimmer, for a human. I think you can make it without any

trouble."

Flor started to finish her comment, got the point, and

resumed her seat near the craft's bow. She was fuming, but

sensible. It was Bribbens' game and they had to play with his

equipment, according to his rules. But that didn't mean she

had to like it.

88

THE HOUR OF THE GATE

The boatman puffed contentedly on his pipe. "Interesting

group of passengers, more so than my usual." He tapped out

the dottle on the deck, locked the steering oar in position, and

commenced repacking his pipe. "Wonder to me you haven't

killed one another before now."

It was odd, Jon-Tom mused as they drifted onward, to be

moving downstream and yet toward mountains. Rivers ran out

of hills. Perhaps the Sloomaz-ayor-le-WeentU dropped into an

as yet unseen canyon. If so, they would have a spectacular

journey through the mountains.

Occasionally they had to set up the canvas roofing that

attached to the railings to keep off the nightly rain. At such

times Bribbens would fix the oar and curve them to a safe

landing onshore. They would wait out the night there, rain-

drops pelting the low ceiling, until the sun rose and pushed

aside the clouds. Then it was on once more, borne swiftly but

smoothly in the gentle grip of the river.

Jon-Tom did not fully appreciate the height of Zaryt's

Teeth until the third day. They entered me first foothills that

morning. The river cut its way insistently through the green-

cloaked, rolling mounds. Compared to the nearing moun-

tains, the massive hillocks were merely bruises on the earth.

Here and there great lumps of granite protruded through the

brush and topsoil. They reminded Jon-Tom of the fingertips

of long-buried giants and brought back to him the legends of

these mountains. While not degenerating into rapids, the river

nonetheless increased its pace, as if anxious to carry those

traveling upon it to some unexpected destination.

Several days passed during which they encountered nothing

suggestive of habitation. The hills swelled around them,

becoming rockier and more barren. Even wildlife hereabouts

was scarce.

Once they did drift past a populated beach. A herd of

unicorns was backed up there against the water. Stallions and

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marcs formed a semicircle with the water at their backs