The Hour of the Gate
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
" 'Ere now, mate," the otter Mudge inquired, "don't you
be sick all over us, wot?"
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"Then you shall have more conclusive proof," said the
"Master?" Pog looked down solicitously at the turtle. "Do
ya really tink anodder spell now, so close ta da odder, is a
"Do I seem so tired then, Pog?"
The bat flapped idly, said without hesitation, "Yeah, ya do,
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
"Well, ifn I were ignorant o' the real situation and I
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
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
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.
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
"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
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
"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
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."
"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
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
"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.
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...."
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
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
"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
"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
"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.
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
"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?" Talea sat up and looked puzzled. "There is
"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
Alan Dean Foster
lightnin' an' the view conjurin' 'as sent him oS t' balmy
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
"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."
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
"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
"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
Alan Dean Foster
we come as friends but that they should help us instead of
"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
"I'll go," announced Flor, smiling magnificently. "I love
"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.
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
"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
"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
"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
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."
"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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
"I didn't hear anything."
"It was outside. It's gone now."
Heads were counted. Flor was there, blinking sleep from
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
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
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!"
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
"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
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
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
"Praise the weather," murmured Mudge hopefully, ano
turned over in his blankets....
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?"
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
"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
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
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
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
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-
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
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
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
Jon-Tom smiled broadly. "Same to you, you sawed-off
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
Alan Dean Foster
attacker became bored and wandered off to argue with some 01
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,
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.
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
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,
Alan Dean Foster
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
"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
"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
Considerable cheering rose from the excited listeners, who
never seemed to be standing still, a condition duplicated by
Jon-Tom wondered at the humanoid metabolism that could
generate such nonstop energy.
"I am afraid our single champion has been vanquished,"
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
"This isn't happening," she was saying dully. "It's all a
"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
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
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
Plor wrinkled her nose, tried breathing through her mouth
Alan Dean Foster
instead. "Mierda... what have they covered the ground here
"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.
THE HOUR Or THE GATE
"I'm glad somebody thinks this is fanny." Talea glared at
"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
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....
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
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
"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,
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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 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
Alan Dean Foster
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,
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
"How can you still joke about it?" Flor eyed him in
"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,
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-
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
"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
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.
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
"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
"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
"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."
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
The dragon glanced numbly back at him, barely taking
notice of his presence. His tone was ponderously, unexpectedly,
"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
"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."
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,
"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
"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!"
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
"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
"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."
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
Alan Dean Foster
hand. "Buenos noches, Jon-Tom. I'm Plores Maria Quintera.
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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."
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
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
"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
"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
"Thank you for your help," said Clothahump.
"Would it help if we mentioned your name to him?"
The otter laughed, his whistles skipping across the water.
"Hai, man, the only place me name would help you is in the
THE HOUR OF THE GATS
better whorehouses in Wottletowne, and that's not where ye
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?"
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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-
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.
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
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.
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
"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
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
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?"
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
"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
Alan Dean Foster
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
"I thought you said you weren't afraid." Jon-Tom was
careful to make it sound like a normal question, devoid of
"I'm not," countered Bribbens, "but neither am I stupid
If we survive this journey I want more in return than personal
"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
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
"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
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
When he was finished underneath the wagon, he crawled
out, stared at Clothahump. "I accept. It will make up the
"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."
THE HOUR OF Tm GATE
Humming to himself, he turned and padded back toward his
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
Bribbens looked unperturbed. "I once saw a rabbit who'd
had all his fur shaved off. He was a mighty funny-looking
"And I," countered Caz with equal aplomb, "once saw a
ftog whose mouth was too big for his head. He experienced a
"What kind of accident?" inquired Bribbens, unimpressed.
"Foot-in-mouth. Worst case I ever saw. It turned out to be
"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,
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.
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
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
"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.
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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.
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
Once they did drift past a populated beach. A herd of
unicorns was backed up there against the water. Stallions and
Alan Dean Foster
marcs formed a semicircle with the water at their backs