/ Language: English / Genre:antique,

Spellsinger

Neetha Napew


antiqueneethaNapewSpellsingerengneethaNapewcalibre 0.8.1820.12.2011c42e7439-a0b8-40b9-8d5b-d09f1d2b5e971.0

Spellsinger 1 - Version 2.1 - revision notes at end

PROLOGUE

Discontent ruled the stars, and there were portents in the heavens.

On the fourth day of Eluria, which follows the Feast of Consanguinity, a great

comet was seen in the night sky. It crossed east to west over the Tree and

lasted for half a fortnight. It left a black scar on the flesh of existence, a

scar that glowed and lingered.

Faces formed within the timescar. Only a very few were capable of discerning

their existence. None understood their implication. The faces danced and leered

and mocked their ignorant observers. Frustrated or simply terrified, the few who

could see turned away or deliberately placed a calming interpretation on what

had troubled their minds.

One did not. He could not, for those visions haunted his sleep and tormented his

days. He dropped words from formulae, bollixed simple conjurations, stuttered in

his reading and rhyming studies.

A great evil was afoot in the world, an evil encountered twice before in the

wizard's own long lifetime. But never before had it seemed so potent in its

anticipation of coming death and destruction. Its core remained just beyond

perception; but he knew it was something he did not understand, something fresh

and threatening which shattered all the rules known to commonsense magic. It was

rank, alien, shudderingly devoid of emotion and meaning. It horrified him.

Of one thing only was he certain. He would need assistance this time-only

another attuned to the same unknown could understand it. Only another could save

the world from the horror that threatened to engulf it.

For those who know the secret ways, the tunnels between realities, the crossings

between universes are no more difficult to pass than the barriers that separate

one individual from another. But such passages are of rare occasion, and once

the proper formula is invoked, it can rarely be repeated.

Yet it was time to take the risk.

So the wizard heaved and strained, threw out the request carefully roped to his

consciousness. It sailed out into the void of space-time, propelled by a mind of

great if aging power. It sought another who could help him understand this fresh

darkness that threatened his world. Dimensions slid aside, cleaving around the

searching thought and giving it passage.

The wizard trembled with the massive effort. Sentient winds howled about his

Tree, plucking dangerously at the thin lifeline within. It had to happen

quickly, he knew, or the link would fade without attaching to an ally. And this

was a link he might not hope to generate again.

Yet still the void yielded nothing and no one. The... the writhing tentacle of

wizardness caught a mind, a few thoughts, an identity. Uncertain but unable to

hunt further, he plunged inward. Surprisingly, the mind was pliable and open,

receptive to invasion and manifestation. It almost seemed to welcome being

grasped, accepting the tug with a contented indifference that appalled the

wizard, but which he was grateful for nonetheless. This mind was detached,

drifting. It would be easy to draw it back.

Easy save for the aged enchanter's waning strength. He locked and pulled, heaved

with every ounce of power in him. But despite the subject's lack of resistance

the materialization was not clean. At the last instant, the link snapped.

No, no...! But the energy faded, was lost. An infrequent but damaging senility

crept in and imposed sleep on that great but exhausted mind....

And while he slumbered, the contented evil festered and planned and schemed, and

a shadow began to spread over the souls of the innocent....

The citizens of Pelligrew laughed at the invaders. Though they lived nearest of

all the civilized folk to the Greendowns, they feared not the terrible

inhabitants of those lands. Their town was walled and hugged the jagged face of

a mountain. The only approach was up a single narrow path which could be

defended against attack, it was said, by five old women and a brace of infants.

So when the leader of the absurdly small raiding party asked for their

surrender, they laughed and threw garbage and night soil down on him.

"Go home!" they urged him. "Go back to your stinking homes and your shit-eating

mothers before we decorate the face of our mountain with your blood!"

Curiously, this did not enrage the leader of the raiders. A few within the town

remarked on this and worried, but everyone else continued to laugh.

The leader made his way back through the tents of his troops, his dignity

unimpaired. He knew what was promised to him.

Eventually he reached a tent larger and darker than any of the others. Here his

courage faltered, for he did not enjoy speaking to the one who dwelt within.

Nevertheless, it was his place to do so. He entered.

It was black inside, though it was mid-morning without, black and heavy with the

stench of unwholesome things and the nearness of death. In the back of the tent

was the wizard, awash in attendants. In back of him stood the Font of Evil.

"Your pardon, Master," the leader of the soldiers began, and proceeded to tell

of his disdainful reception at the hands of the Pelligrewers.

When he had finished, the hunched form in the dark of the tent said, "Return to

your soldiers, good Captain, and wait."

The leader left hurriedly, glad to be out of that unclean place and back among

his troops. But it was hard to just wait there, helpless before the unscalable

wall and restrained by command, while the inhabitants of the town mocked and

laughed and exposed their backsides to his angry soldiers.

Suddenly, a darkening turned the sky the color of lead. There was a thunder, yet

there were no clouds. Then the great wall of Pelligrew vanished, turned to dust

along with many of its shocked defenders. For an instant his own warriors were

paralyzed. Then the blood lust renewed them and they swarmed into the naked

town, shrieking in gleeful anticipation.

The slaughter was thorough. Not a soul was left alive. Those who disdained meat

relaxed and sipped the pooled blood of the still living.

There was some question as to whether or not to keep the children of the town

alive for breeding. Upon consideration, the captain declined. He did not wish to

convoy a noisy, bawling lot of infants back to Cugluch. Besides, his soldiers

deserved a reward for the patience they had displayed beneath the barrage of

verbal and physical refuse the annihilated townsfolk had heaped on them. So he

gave his assent for a general butchering of the young.

That night the fire was put to Pelligrew while her children made the soldiers a

fine supper. The wood of the houses and the thatch of the roofs burned all night

and into the following morning.

The captain watched the last of the flames die out, nodding approvingly as

recently dressed meat was loaded for the journey back home. He sucked the marrow

from a small arm as he addressed the flier.

"Take the swiftest currents of the air, Herald," he instructed the winged

soldier. "Go quickly to the capital. Inform everyone that taunting Pelligrew,

thorn in our side for a thousand years, is no more. Tell the people and the

court that this first small success is complete and that all the softness of the

Warmlands westward shall soon be ours, and soon all the worlds beyond that!"

The flier saluted and rose into the mountain air. The captain turned, saw the

occupants of the dark tent packing their own noisome supplies. He watched as the

wizard supervised the careful loading of the awful apparition which had

destroyed Pelligrew, and shuddered as he turned away from it.

On the strength of that vileness and the wizard's knowledge they might truly

march to mastery over the entire Universe, if the wizard was to be believed. But

as for himself, he was personally inclined to stay as far away from it as

possible.

He loved anything which could find new ways to kill, but this had a reach that

spanned worlds....

I

Size and attire alone would have made the giant otter worthy of notice, even if

he hadn't tripped over Meriweather's feet. Sprawled whiskers down in the grass,

the creature was barely a foot shorter than the lanky youth's own six feet two.

It was by far the largest otter Jon Meriweather had ever seen. Although he was a

student of history and not zoology, he was still willing to bet that five and a

half feet was somewhat more than otters normally reached. Despite the haze still

fogging his brain, he was also fairly certain that they didn't run around in

green felt peaked hats, snakeskin vests, or maroon velveteen pants puffed at the

ankles. Very deliberately, Jon rose, regarded the stub of the joint he held

tightly in his right hand, and flicked it distastefully away. The problem of the

moment was not the existence of the utterly impossible otter, but of what his

friend Shelly had cut the weed with.

Nevertheless, Jon couldn't take his eyes off the creature as it rolled over onto

its rump. The velveteen pantaloons impressed on him a fact he'd never had much

reason to consider before: otters have very low waistlines.

This one tugged its feathered cap down firmly over cookie-shaped ears and

commenced gathering up the arrows that had spilled from the quiver slung across

his back. The task was complicated by the short sword and scabbard strapped

across his chest, which kept getting in the way whenever he bent over. An

occasional murderous stare directed toward Jon gave him the feeling that the

animal would enjoy putting one of the foot-long shafts into him.

That was no reason for concern. He swayed and relished the hallucination.

Cannabis had never generated hallucinations in him before, but there was always

a first time. What had Shelly been cutting their stash with?

Proof that it was cut with something powerful was stumbling about the grass

before him, muttering under its breath and gathering arrows.

Doubtless his overtaxed brain was suffering from the long hours of study he'd

been putting in lately, coupled with his working from nine at night until three

in the morning. The work was necessary. Finals were due in seven weeks, and then

presentation of his master's thesis. He savored the title once more:

Manifestations and prefiguring of democratic government in the Americas, as

exemplified by the noble-sun king relationships of the Inca, 1248-1350. It was a

great title, he felt, and in presenting a thesis a good title was half the

fight. No matter how brilliant the research or the writing, you were doomed

without a title.

Having placed the last arrow in its quiver, the otter was carefully sliding it

around to his back. This done, he gazed across the meadow. His sharp black eyes

took in every tree and bush. Eventually the alert gaze came around to rest on

the dreamy figure of Jon Meriweather.

Since the vision appeared to be waiting for some sort of comment, the

good-natured graduate student said, "What can I do for you, offspring of my

nighttime daydreaming?"

By way of reply the animal again directed its attention across the meadow,

searched briefly, then pointed to a far copse. Jon lazily followed the otter's

gesture.

Disappearing beneath a mossy boulder the size and shape of a demolished

Volkswagen was a bright yellow lizard slightly larger than a chicken. It darted

along on its hind legs, the long whiplike tail extended out behind for balance.

Once it stared back over its shoulder, revealing a double row of pink dots

running down its throat and chest. Then it was gone into the safety of its

burrow.

Reality began to rear its ugly head. Jon was slowly taking note of his

surroundings. His bed and room, the rows of books on concrete-block-supported

shelves, the pinups, the battered TV, had been replaced by an encircling forest

of oaks, sycamores, birch, and pine. Tuliplike flowers gleamed nearby, rising

above thick grass and clover, some of which was blue. A faint tinkling, as of

temple bells, sounded from the distant trees.

Jon held both hands to his head. Lucidity continued to flee laughingly just

ahead of his thoughts. He remembered a pain, a pulling that threatened to tear

his brain out of his skull. Then he'd been drifting, a different drift from the

usual relaxing stupor that enveloped him during an evening of hard study and

heavy smoking. His head throbbed.

"Well?" asked the otter unexpectedly, in a high-pitched but not really squeaky

voice.

"Well what?" Soon, he told himself frantically, soon I'll wake up and find

myself asleep on the bed, with the rest of the Mexia History of All the Roman

Emperors still to be finished. Not hash, he thought. Something stronger. God, my

head.

"You asked what you could do for me." The otter gestured again, a quick, rapid

movement in the general direction of the boulder at the edge of the woods. "As

your damned great foot caused me t' fall and lose the granbit, you can bloody

well go and dig it out for me."

"What for? Were you going to eat it?"

"Nay." The otter's tone was bitterly sarcastic. "I were goin' t' tie the bloody

two-legs 'round me neck and wear it as a bloody pendant, I was." His whiskers

quivered with his rage. "Try t' play the smarty-arse with me, will you? I

suppose you be thinkin' your size will protect you?"

Casually adjusting his bow across his back and chest, the animal drew his short

sword and approached Jon, who did not back away. How could he, being deep

asleep?

"I know what happens now." He shifted his feet, almost fell. "You'll kill me,

and I'll wake up. It's about time. I've got a whole damn book to finish."

"Be you daft!" The otter's head cocked nervously to one side and a furry paw

scratched a cheek. " 'Cor, I believe you are." He looked around warily. "I know

not what influences are bein' brought t' bear in this place, but it's cost me a

granbit. I'm for leavin'. Will you not at least apologize?"

"You mean for tripping you?" Jon considered. "I didn't do a damn thing. I'm

asleep, remember?"

"You're a damn sight worse than asleep, man. The granbit choke you and make you

throw up your bowels, if you be lucky enough t' catch it. I'm finished with it,

if it means encounterin' the likes o' you. And if you follow me, I'll slit you

from mouth to arse and hasten the process. Keep your damned apology then, and

take this parting gift in return. "

So saying, he jabbed the dream sword at Jon. It sliced his shirt and knicked his

left side just above the belt holding up his jeans. A blinding pain exploded in

his side, dampened only slightly by the lingering effects of the evening's

smoking. His mouth opened to form a small "O" of surprise. Both hands went to

his ribs.

The otter withdrew his sword, the tip now stained red, and slipped it back in

its scabbard after cleaning it with tall grass. He turned and started away,

muttering obscenities. Jon watched it waddle off across the grass, heading

toward the trees.

The pain in his side intensified. Red stained his blue T-shirt. A warm wetness

trickled cloyingly down inside his underwear and started down the left leg of

his jeans. Superficial wounds bleed way out of proportion to their seriousness,

he told himself. But it hurts, he thought despairingly.

I hope to God I wake up soon.

But if he was asleep... the pain was too real, far more so than trees or otter.

Blood staining the grass, he limped after his assailant.

"Wait a minute... please, wait!" The words were thick in his dry throat, and he

was ravenously hungry. Holding his wounded side with his left hand and waving

his right, he stumbled after the otter. Clover broke fragrantly under his

sandals and small flying things erupted in panic from the grass under his feet,

to conceal themselves quickly in other pockets of protective green.

Bright sunlight filled the meadow. Birds sang strange songs. Butterflies with

stained-glass wings crowned the tulips.

Having reached the outer rank of trees the otter hesitated under an umber

sycamore and half drew his sword. "I'm not afeard o' you, daemon-man. Come

closer and I'll stick you again." But even while he uttered this brave challenge

the animal was backing slowly into the woods, looking to left and right for an

avenue of escape.

"I don't want to hurt you," Jon whispered, as much from the agony in his side as

from a desire not to panic the creature. "I just want to wake up, that's all."

Tears started from his eyes. "Please let me wake up. I want to leave this dream

and get back to work. I'll never take another toke, honest to God. It hurts. "

He looked back over his shoulder, praying for the sight of his dumpy, cramped

room with its cracked ceiling and dirty windows. Instead, he saw only more

trees, tulip things, glass butterflies. A narrow brook ran where his bed should

have been.

Turning back to the otter he took a step forward, tripped over a rock, and fell,

weakened by loss of blood. Peppermint and heather smells filled his nostrils.

Please God, don't let me die in a dream....

Details drifted back to him when he reopened his eyes. It was light out. He'd

fallen asleep on his bed and slept the whole night, leaving the Mexia unread.

And with an eight o'clock class in Brazilian government to attend.

Judging from the intensity of the light, he'd barely have enough time to pull

himself together, gather up his books and notes, and make it to campus. And he'd

have words with Shelly for not warning him about the unexpected potency of the

pot he'd sold him.

And it was odd how his side hurt him.

"Got to get up," he mumbled dizzily.

" 'Ere now, guv'nor," said a voice that was not his own, not Shelly's, but was

nonetheless familiar. "You take 'er easy for a spell. That was a bad knock you

took when you fell."

Jon's eyelids rolled up like cracked plastic blinds. A bristled, furry face

framing dancing black eyes stared down at him from beneath the rim of a bright

green, peaked cap. Jon's own eyes widened. Details of dream slammed into his

thoughts. The animal face moved away.

"Now don't you go tryin' any of your daemonic tricks on me... if you 'ave any."

"I"--Jon couldn't decide whether to pay attention to the bump on his head or the

pain in his side--"I'm not a daemon."

The otter made a satisfied cluttering sound. "Ah! Never did think you were. Knew

it all along, I did. First off, a daemon wouldn't let hisself be cut as easy as

you did and second, they don't fall flat on their puss when they be in pursuit

of daemonic prey. Worst attempt at levitation ever I saw.

"Thinkin' I might 'ave misjudged you, for bein' upset over losin' me supper, I

bandaged up that little nick I gifted you with. Guess you're naught but a man,

what? No hard feelin's, mate?"

Jon looked down at himself. His shirt had been pulled up. A crude dressing of

some fibrous material was tied around his waist with a snakeskin thong. A dull

ache came from the bandaged region. He felt as though he'd been used as a

tackling dummy.

Sitting up very slowly, he again noted his surroundings. He was not in his

apartment, a tiny hovel which now seemed as desirable and unattainable as

heaven.

Dream trees continued to shade dream flowers. Grass and blue clover formed a

springy mattress beneath him. Dream birds sang in the branches overhead, only

they were not birds. They had teeth, and scales, and claws on their wings. As he

watched, a glass butterfly lit on his knee. It fanned him with sapphire wings,

fluttered away when he reached tentatively toward it.

Sinewy muscles tensed beneath his armpits as the otter got behind him and

lifted. "You're a big one... give us a 'and now, will you, mate?"

With the otter's aid, Jon soon found himself standing. He tottered a little, but

the fog was lifting from his brain.

"Where's my room? Where's the school?" He turned a circle, was met by trees on

all sides and not a hint of a building projecting above them. The tears started

again, surprising because Jon had always prided himself on his emotional

self-control. But he was badly, almost dangerously disoriented. "Where am I?

What... who are you?"

"All good questions, man." This is a funny bloke, the otter thought. Watch

yourself, now. "As to your room and school, I can't guess. As to where we are,

that be simple enough to say. These be the Bellwoods, as any fool knows. We're a

couple days' walk out o' Lynchbany Towne, and my name be Mudge. What might yours

be, sor, if you 'ave a name?"

Jon answered numbly, "Meriweather. Jonathan Thomas Meriweather."

"Well then, Jnthin Tos Miwath... Joneth Omaz Morwoth... see 'ere, man, this

simply won't do! That's not a proper name. The sayin' of it ud give one time

enough to dance twice widdershins 'round the slick thighs o' the smooth-furred

Felice, who's said t've teased more males than there be bureaucrats in

Polastrindu. I'll call you Jon-Tom, if you don't mind, and if you will insist on

havin' more than one name. But I'll not give you three. That clatters indecently

on the ears."

"Bellwoods," the lanky, disoriented youth was babbling. "Lynchbany...

Lynchbany... is that near Culver City? It's got to be in the South Bay

somewhere."

The otter put both hands on Jon-Tom's wrists, and squeezed. Hard. "Look 'ere,

lad," he said solemnly, "I know not whether you be balmy or bewitched, but you'd

best get hold of yourself. I've not the time t' solve your problems or wipe away

those baby-bottom tears you're spillin'. You're as real as you feel, as real as

I, and if you don't start lookin' up for yourself you'll be a real corpse, with

real maggots feedin' on you who won't give a snake fart for where you hailed

from. You hearin' me, lad?"

Jon-Tom stopped snuffling, suddenly seemed his proper age. Easy, he told

himself. Take this at face value and puzzle it through, whatever it is. Adhere

to the internal logic and pray to wake up even if it's in a hospital bed.

Whether this animal before you is real or dream, it's all you've got now. No

need to make even an imaginary asshole of yourself.

"That's better." The otter let loose of the man's tingling wrists. "You mumble

names I ain't never heard o'." Suddenly he slapped small paws together, gave a

delighted spring into the air. "O' course! Bugger me for a rat-headed fool for

not thinkin' of it afore! This 'as t' be Clothahump's work. The old sot's been

meddlin' with the forces of nature again." His attitude was instantly

sympathetic, whiskers quivering as he nodded knowingly at the gaping Jon-Tom.

" 'Tis all clear enough now, you poor blighter. It's no wonder you're as puzzled

and dazed as you appear, and that I couldn't fathom you a'tall." He kicked at

the dirt, boot sending flowers flying. "You've been magicked here."

"Magicked?"

"Aye! Oh, don't look like that, guv'nor. I don't expect it's fatal. Old

Clothahump's a decent docent and wily enough wizard when he's sober and sane,

but the troublemaker o' the ages when he lapses into senility, as 'e's wont t'

do these days. Sometimes it's 'ard to tell when 'e's rightside in. Not that it

be 'is fault for turnin' old and dotty, 'appens t' us all eventually, I expect.

"I stay away from 'is place, I do. As do any folk with brains enough. Never know

what kind o' crazed incantation you might get sucked up in."

"He's a wizard, then," Jon-Tom mumbled. Trees, grass, the otter before him

assumed the clarity of a fire alarm. "It's all real, then."

"I told you so. There be nothin' wrong with your ears, lad. No need t' repeat

what I've already said. You sound dumb enough as it is."

"Dumb? Now look," Jon-Tom said with some heat, "I am confused. I am worried.

I'll confess to being terrified out of my wits." One hand dropped reflexively to

his injured side. "But I'm not dumb."

The otter sniffed disdainfully.

"Do you know who was president of Paraguay from 1936 to 1941?"

"No." Mudge's nose wiggled. "Do you know 'ow many pins can dance on the 'ead of

an angel?"

"No, and"--Jon-Tom hesitated; his gaze narrowed--"it's 'how many angels can

dance on the head of a pin.' "

Mudge let out a disgusted whistle. "Think we're smart, do we. I can't do fire,

but I'm not even an apprentice and I can pindance."

His paw drew five small, silvery pins from a vest pocket. Each was about a

quarter of an inch long. The otter mumbled something indistinct and made a pass

or two over the metal splinters. The pins rose and commenced a very respectable

cakewalk in his open palm.

"Allemande left," the otter commanded. The pins complied, the odd one out having

some trouble working itself into the pattern of the dance.

"Never can get that fifth pin right. If only we 'ad the 'ead o' an angel."

"That's very interesting," Jon-Tom observed quietly. Then he fainted....

"You keep that up, guv, and the back o' your nog's goin' to be as rough as the

hills of Kilkapny Claw. Not t'mention what it's doin' t' your fur."

"My fur?" Jon-Tom rolled to his knees, took several deep breaths before rising.

"Oh." Self-consciously he smoothed back his shoulder-length locks, leaned

against the helpful otter.

"Little enough as you 'umans got, I'd think you'd take better care o' it." Mudge

let loose of the man's arm. "Furless, naked skin... I'd rather 'ave a pox."

"I have to get back," Jon-Tom murmured tiredly. "I can't stay here any longer.

I've got a job, and classes, and a date Friday night, and I've got to..."

"Your otherworldly concerns are of no matter to me." Mudge gestured at the

sticky bandage below the man's ribs. "I didn't spear you bad. You ought t' be

able to run if you 'ave t'. If it's 'ome you want, we'd best go call on

Clothahump. I'll leave you t' 'im. I've work of me own t' do. Can you walk?"

"I can walk to meet this... wizard. You called him Clothahump?"

"Aye, that's it, lad. The fornicating troublemakin' blighter, muckin' about with

forces 'e can't no longer control. No doubt in my mind t' it, mate. Your bein'

'ere is 'is doin'. 'E be bound to send you back to where you belong before you

get 'urt."

"I can take care of myself." Jon-Tom had traveled extensively for his age. He

prided himself on his ability to adapt to exotic locales. Objectively

considered, this land he now found himself in was no more alien-appearing than

Amazonian Peru, and considerably less so than Manhattan. "Let's go and find this

wizard."

"That's the spirit, guv'nor!" Privately Mudge still thought the tall youth a

whining, runny-nosed baby. "We'll 'ave this 'ere situation put right in no time,

wot?"

Oak and pine dominated the forest, rising above the sycamore and birch. In

addition, Jon-Tom thought he recognized an occasional spruce. All coexisted in a

botanistic nightmare, though Jon-Tom wasn't knowledgeable enough to realize the

incongruity of the landscape.

Epiphytic bushes abounded, as did gigantic mushrooms and other fungi. Scattered

clumps of brown and green vines dripped black berries, or scarlet, or peridot

green. There were saplings that looked like elms, save for their iridescent blue

bark.

The glass butterflies were everywhere. Their wings sent isolated shafts of

rainbow light through the branches. Yet everything seemed to belong, seemed

natural, even to the bells formed by the leaves of some unknown tree, which rang

in the wind and gave substance to the name of this forest.

The cool woods, with its invigorating tang of mint ever present, had become

almost familiar when he finally had his first close view of a "bird." It lit on

a low-hanging vine nearby and eyed the marchers curiously.

Bird resemblance ended with the feathers. A short snout revealed tiny sharp

teeth and a long, forked tongue. The wings sprouted from a scaly yellow body.

Having loosened its clawed feet from the vine, the feathered reptile (or scaly

bird?) circled once or twice above their heads. It uttered a charming trill that

reminded the astonished Jon-Tom of a mockingbird. Yet it bore closer resemblance

to the creature he'd seen scamper beneath the boulder in the meadow than to any

bird, and was sooner cousin to a viper than a finch.

A small rock whizzed through the air. With an outraged squawk the feathered

apparition wheeled and vanished into the sheltering trees.

"Why'd you do that, Mudge?"

"It were circlin' above us, sor." The otter shook his head sadly. "Not entirely

bright you are. Or don't the flyers o' your own world ever vent their excrement

upon unwary travelers? Or is it that you 'ave magicked reasons o' your own for

wishin' t' be shat upon?"

"No." He tried to regain some of the otter's respect. "I've had to dodge birds

several times."

The confession produced a reaction different from what he'd hoped for.

"BIRDS?" The otter's expression was full of disbelief, the thin whiskers

twitching nervously. "No self-respectin' bird would dare do an insult like that.

Why, 'ed be up afore council in less time than it takes t' gut a snake. D'you

think we're uncivilized monsters 'ere, like the Plated Folk?"

"Sorry." Jon-Tom sounded contrite, though still puzzled.

"Mind you watch your language 'ere, lad, or you'll find someone who'll prick you

a mite more seriously than did I."

They continued through the trees. Though low and bandy-legged like all his kind,

the otter made up for his slight stride with inexhaustible energy. Jon-Tom had

to break into an occasional jog to keep pace with him.

Seeds within belltree leaves generated fresh music with every varying breeze,

now sounding like Christmas chimes, now like a dozen angry tambourines. A pair

of honeybees buzzed by them. They seemed so achingly normal, so homey in this

mad world that Jon-Tom felt a powerful desire to follow them all the way to

their hive, if only to assure himself it was not equipped with miniature windows

and doors.

Mudge assured him it was not. "But there be them who are related to such who be

anything but normal, lad." He pointed warningly eastward. "Many leagues that

way, past grand Polastrindu and the source o' the River Tailaroam, far beyond

the Swordsward, on the other side o' great Zaryt's Teeth, lies a land no

warmblood has visited and returned to tell o' it. A land not to look after, a

country in'abited by stinks and suppurations and malodorous creatures who are o'

a vileness that shames the good earth. A land where those who are not animal as

us rule. A place called Cugluch."

"I don't think of myself as animal," Jon-Tom commented, momentarily forgetting

the bees and wondering at what would inspire such loathing and obvious fear in

so confident a creature as Mudge.

"You're not much of a human, either." Mudge let out a high-pitched whistle of

amusement. "But I forget myself. You're a stranger 'ere, plucked unwillingly

from some poor benighted land o' magic. Unwillingly snookered you've been, an' I

ought by right not t' make sport o' you." Suddenly his face contorted and he

missed a step. He eyed his taller companion uncertainly.

"You 'ave the right look 'bout you, and you feel right, but with magic one can

never be sure. You do 'ave warm blood, don't you, mate?"

Jon-Tom winced, listed to his left. A powerful arm steadied him. "Thanks," he

told the otter. "You should know. You spilled enough of it."

"Aye, it did seem warm enough, though my thoughts were on other matters at the

time." He shrugged. "You've proved yourself harmless enough, anyway. Clothahump

will know what he's called you for."

What could this wizard want with me, Jon-Tom wondered? Why is this being done to

me? Why not Shelly, or Professor Stanhope, or anyone else? Why me? He noticed

that they'd stopped.

"We're there?" He looked around, expecting maybe a quaint thatched cottage.

There was no cottage in sight, no house of any kind. Then his eyes touched on

the dull-paned windows in the flanks of the massive old oak, the wisp of smoke

rising lazily from the chimney that split the thick subtrunks high up, and the

modest door scrunched in between a pair of huge, gnarly roots.

They started for the doorway, and Jon-Tom's attention was drawn upward.

"Now what?" wondered Mudge, aware that his entranced companion was no longer

listening attentively to his description of Clothahump's growing catalog of

peculiarities.

"It's a bird. A real one, this time."

Mudge glanced indifferently skyward. "O' course it's a bird. What, now, did you

expect?"

"One of those hybrid lizard things like those we passed in the forest. This

looks like a true bird."

"You're bloody right it is, and better be glad this one can't 'ear you talkin'

like that."

It was a robin, for all that it had a wingspan of nearly a yard. It wore a vest

of kelly green satin, a cap not unlike Mudge's, and a red and puce kilt. A sack

was slung and strapped across its chest. It also sported a translucent eyeshade

lettered in unknown script.

Three stories above ground a doweled landing post projected from the massive

tree. Braking neatly, the robin touched down on this. With surprisingly agile

wing tips it reached into the chest sack, fumbled around, and withdrew several

small cylinders. They might have been scrolls.

These the bird shoved into a dark recess, a notch or small window showing in the

side of the tree. It warbled twice, piercingly, sounding very much like the

robins who frequented the acacia tree outside Kinsey Hall back on campus.

Leaning toward the notch, it cupped a wing tip to its beak and was heard to

shout distinctly, "Hey, stupid! Get off your fat ass and pick up your mail!

You've got three days' worth moldering up here, and if I come by tomorrow and

it's still piled up I'll use it for nest lining!" There followed a string of

obscenities much out of keeping with the bird's coloring and otherwise gentle

demeanor. It turned from the notch with a gruff chirp, grumbling under its

breath.

"Horace!" shouted the otter. The bird looked downward and dropped off the perch

to circle above them.

"Mudge? Whatcha doin'?" The voice reminded Jon of one he'd heard frequently

during a journey to another exotic section of the real world, a realm known as

Brooklyn. "Ain't seen ya around town much lately."

"Been out 'untin', I 'ave."

"Where'd ya pick up the funny-looking bozo?"

"Long story, mate. Did I 'ear you right when you said the old geezer hain't been

'ome in three days?"

"Oh, he's inside, all right," replied the bird. "Mixing and sorcering as usual.

I can tell because there's a different stink blowing out that mail drop every

time I fly in. You wouldn't happen to have a worm on ya, would ya?"

"Sorry, mate. Crayfish and oysters run more t' my taste."

"Yeah, I know. No harm in asking." He cocked a hopeful eye at Jon-Tom. "How

'bout you, buddy?"

"Afraid not." Anxious to please, he fumbled in his jeans' pockets. "How about a

Juicyfruit?"

"Thanks, but I've had all the berries I can stand for now. I'm up to my ass

feathers in berries." He stared at Jon a moment longer, then bid them a civil

good-bye.

"Always did envy them birds." Mudge looked envious. "Wings are so much faster

than feet."

"I think I'd rather have real feet and hands."

Mudge grunted. "That's a point t' reckon with, guv'nor." They moved to the

doorway. " 'Ere goes now. Mind," he whispered, "you be on your best behavior,

Jon-Tom. Old Clothahump's got the reputation o' bein' fair-tempered for a

wizard, but they're a cranky group. Just as soon turn you into a dung beetle as

look at you. It ain't good policy t' provoke one, 'specially one as powerful and

senile as Clothy-nose 'ere."

The otter knocked on the door, nervously repeated it when no reply was

forthcoming. Jon-Tom noted the animal's tenseness, decided that for all his

joking and name-calling he was deeply fearful of wizards or anything having to

do with them. He twitched and shifted his feet constantly while they waited. It

occurred to Jon-Tom that at no time had he actually seen the otter standing

motionless. Trying to ignore the pain pounding in his side he struggled to stand

straight and presentable.

In a moment the door would creak inward and he would be standing face to face

with what was, at least to Mudge's mind, a genuine magic-making wizard. It was

easy enough to visualize him: six and a half feet tall, he would be garbed in

flowing purple robes enscribed with mystic symbols. A bestarred pointy. hat

would crown the majestic head. His face would be wrinkled and stern-what wasn't

hidden beneath a flowing white beard-and he would very likely be wearing thick

glasses.

The door opened inward. It creaked portentously. "Good morning," he began,

"we..."

The rest of the carefully rehearsed greeting shattered in his throat as he

stumbled backward in panic, tripped, and fell. Something tore in his side and he

sensed dampness there. He wondered how much longer he could tolerate the wound

without having it properly treated, and if he might die in this falsely cheerful

place, as far from home as anyone could be. The monstrosity that had filled the

open doorway drifted toward him as he tried to crawl, to scramble away....

II

Mudge stared disgustedly down at his charge, sounded both angry and embarrassed.

"Now wot the bloody 'ell's the matter with you? It's only Pog."

"P-p-pog?" Jon-Tom was unable to move his eyes from the hovering horror.

"Clothahump's famulus, you colossal twit! He..."

"Never mind," rumbled the gigantic black bat. "I don't mind." His wing tips

scraped the jambs as he fluttered back into the portal. Oversized pink ears and

four sharp fangs caught the light. His voice was incredibly rough, echoing from

a deep gravel mine. "I know I'm not pretty. But I never knocked anyone down

because of it." He flew out now to hover nearer Jon.

"You're not very handsome yourself, man."

"Go easy on 'im, Pog." Mudge tried to sound conciliatory. " 'E's been magicked

from 'is world into ours, and 'e's wounded besides." The otter diplomatically

avoided mentioning that he'd been the cause of the injury.

Jon-Tom struggled unsteadily to his feet. Claret ran from the left leg of his

pants, thick and warm.

"Clothahump been workin' up any otherworldly invokings?"

"He is soberer dan usual, if dat's what you mean." The bat let loose a derisive

snort.

A rich, throaty voice called from the depths of the tree, an impressive if

slightly wavering voice that Jon-Tom instinctively knew belonged to the master

sorcerer. "Who's there, Pog?"

"Mudge, da otter hunter, Master. And some damaged, dopey-looking human. ""Human,

you say?" There was an excited edge to the question. "In then, bring them in."

"Come on," ordered Pog curtly. "His nibs'll see you." The bat vanished into the

tree, wings larger than the robin's barely clearing the entrance.

"You all right, mate?" Mudge watched the swaying form of his unwanted companion.

"Why'd you 'ave a fit like that? Pog be no uglier than any other bat."

"It wasn't... wasn't his countenance that upset me. It was his size. Most of the

bats where I'm from don't grow that big."

"Pog be about average, I'd say." Mudge let the thought slide. "Come on, now, and

try not to bleed too much on the floor."

Refusing the otter's support, Jon-Tom staggered after him. The hallway was a

shock. It was far too long to fit inside the oak, despite its considerable

diameter. Then they entered a single chamber at least twenty-five feet high.

Bookshelves lined the walls, filled with tomes of evident age and all sizes and

bindings. Incense rose from half a dozen burners, though they could not entirely

obliterate the nose-nipping miasma which filled the room.

Scattered among books lay oddly stained pans and bowls, glass vials, jars filled

with noisome objects, and other unwholesome paraphernalia. Skulls variously

treated and decorated were secured on the walls. To Jon-Tom's horror, they

included a brace that were obviously human.

Windows offered ingress to topaz light. This colored the high chamber amber and

gold and made live things of the dust motes pirouetting in the noxious air. The

floor was of wood chips. A few pieces of well-used furniture made of heavy wood

and reptile skin dominated the center of the room.

Two doors ajar led to dimly glimpsed other rooms.

"This is impossible," he said to Mudge in a dull whisper. "The whole tree isn't

wide enough to permit this one room, let alone others and the hallway we just

came through."

"Aye, guv'nor, 'tis a neat trick it is." The otter sounded impressed but not

awed. "Sure solves the space problem, don't it? I've seen it in towns in a few

wealthy places. Believe me, the initial spell costs plenty, not t'mention the

frequent renewals. Permanently locked hyperdimensional vortical expansions don't

come cheap, wot?"

"Why don't they?" Jon-Tom asked blankly, unable to think of a more sensible

comment in the face of spatial absurdity.

Mudge looked up at him conspiratorially. "Inflation."

They looked around to see Pog returning from another room. "He says he'll be

along in a minute or two."

"What kind of mood is he in?" Jon-Tom looked hopefully at the bat.

"Comprehensible." Keeping his balance in midair, the bat reached with a tiny

clawed hand set halfway along his left wing into a pouch strapped to his chest.

It was much smaller than the robin's. He withdrew a small cigar. "Gotta light?"

"I'm out o' flints, mate."

"Just a second." Jon-Tom fumbled excitedly in his jeans. "I do." He showed them

his cheap disposable lighter.

Mudge studied it. "Interestin'."

"Yeah." Pog fluttered close. Jon-Tom forced himself to ignore the proximity of

those gleaming, razor-sharp fangs. "Never saw a firemaker like it." He swung the

tiny cigar around in his mouth.

Jon-Tom flipped the wheel. Pog lit the cigar, puffed contentedly.

"Let's 'ave a look, lad." Jon-Tom handed the lighter over. The otter turned it

around in his paws. " 'Ow's it work?"

"Like this." Jon-Tom took it back, spun the wheel. Sparks, but no flame. He

studied the transparent base. "Out of fluid."

"Got stuck wid a bum spell?" Pog sounded sympathetic. "Never mind. And thanks

for da light." He opened his mouth, blew smoke squares.

"It has nothing to do with spells," Jon-Tom protested. "It works on lighter

fluid."

"Get my money back if I were you," advised the otter.

"I'd rather get me back." Jon-Tom studied his wrist, "My watch has stopped, too.

Battery needs replacing." He held up a hand. "And I don't want to hear anything

more about spells." Mudge shrugged, favoring Jon-Tom with the look one would

bestow on an idiot relation. "Now where's this lazy old so-called wizard of

yours?" Jon-Tom asked Pog.

"OVER HERE!" a powerful voice thundered.

Shaking lest his discourteous remark had been overheard, Jon turned slowly to

confront the renowned Clothahump.

There were no flowing robes or white beard, no peaked hat or cryptically marked

robe. But the horn-rimmed glasses were present. Somehow they remained fixed

above a broad, rounded beak, just above tiny nostrils. The glasses did not have

arms extended back and behind ears, since a turtle's ears are almost invisible.

A thick book clutched in one stubby-fingered hand, Clothahump waddled over to

join them. He stood a good foot shorter than Mudge.

"I mean no disrespect, sir," Jon had the presence of mind to say. "I didn't know

you were in the room and I'm a stranger here and I..."

"Tosh, boy." Clothahump smiled and waved away the coming apology. His voice had

dropped to normal, the wizardly thunder vanished. "I'm not easily offended. If I

were I wouldn't be able to put up with him." He jerked a thumb in Pog's

direction. "Just a moment, please."

He looked down at himself. Jon followed the gaze, noticing a number of small

knobs protruding from the wizard's plastron. Clothahump tugged several,

revealing tiny drawers built into his front. He hunted around for something,

mumbling apologies.

"Only way I can keep from losing the really important powders and liquids," he

explained.

"But how can you... I mean, doesn't that hurt?"

"Oh heavens no, boy." He let loose an infectious chuckle. "I employ the same

technique that enables me to enlarge the inside of my tree without enlarging the

outside."

"Bragging," grumped Pog, "when da poor lad's obviously in pain."

"Hold your tongue!" The bat whirled around in tight circles, but went silent. "I

have to watch his impertinence." Clothahump winked. "Last time I fixed him so he

could only sleep right side up. You should have seen him, trying to hang from

his ears." He chuckled again.

"But I don't like to lose my temper in front of guests. I cultivate a reputation

for mildness. Now then," he said with a professional air, "let's have a look at

your side."

Jon-Tom watched as the turtle gently eased aside the crude bandage concocted by

Mudge. Stubby fingers probed the glistening, stained flesh, and the youth

winced.

"Sorry. You'd best sit down."

"Thank you, sir." They moved to a nearby couch, whose legs were formerly

attached to some live creature of unimaginable shape. He lowered himself

carefully, since the cushions were barely half a foot off the floor, at a level

designed to accommodate the turtle's low backside.

"Stab wound." Clothahump regarded the ugly puncture thoughtfully. "Shallow,

though. We'll soon have you fixed."

" 'Ere now, your wizardship," Mudge broke in. "Beggin' your pardon, but I've

always 'eard tell 'twas sorceral procedure to seek payment for magicking

services in advance."

"That's not a problem here... what did you say your name was?"

"I didn't, but it's Mudge."

"Um. As I said, payment will be no problem for this lad. We'll simply consider

this little repair as an advance against his services."

"Services?" Jon-Tom looked wary. "What services?"

"He ain't much good for anything, from what I've seen," Mudge piped up.

"I would not expect a mere scavenger such as yourself, Mr. Mudge, to

understand." The wizard adjusted his glasses haughtily. "There have been forces

at work in the world only I could fully comprehend, and only I am properly

equipped to deal with them. The presence of this lad is but a small piece of a

dangerously complex puzzle."

There, Mudge thought triumphantly. Knew he'd been muckin' about.

"It is obvious he is the one I was casting for last night. You see, he is a

wizard himself."

"Who... 'im?" Mudge laughed in the manner of otters, high and squeaky, like the

laughter of wise children. "You're jokin', mate."

"I do not joke in matters of such grave import." Clothahump spoke somberly.

"Yeah, but 'im... a wizard? He couldn't even put a new spell on 'is firemaker."

The turtle sighed, spoke slowly. "Coming as he does from a world, from a

universe, other than our own, it is to be expected that some of his magic would

differ from ours. I doubt I would be able to make use of my own formidable

talents in his world. But there is an awesome interdimensional magic abroad in

the world, Mudge. To cope successfully with it we require the aid and knowledge

of one accustomed to its workings." He looked troubled, as though burdened by

some hidden weight he chose to keep hidden from his listeners.

"He is the magician I sought. I used many new and unproven words, many

intergrams and formulae rare and difficult to blend. I cast for hours, under

great strain. I had given up hope of locating anyone, and then chanced upon this

drifting spirit, so accessible and free."

Jon-Tom thought back to what he'd been smoking; he'd been drifting, no doubt of

that. But what was all this about him being a wizard-magician?

Sharp eyes were staring into his own from behind thick lenses. "Tell me, boy.

Are not the wizards and magicians of your world known by the word En'geeniar?"

"En'gee... engineer?"

"Yes, that is the proper sounding of it, I think."

"I guess that's as good an analogy as any."

"You see?" He turned knowingly back to Mudge. "And it is through his service he

will pay us back."

"Uh, sir...?" But Clothahump had disappeared behind a towering stack of books.

Clinking noises sounded.

Mudge was now convinced he'd have been much better off had he never tracked that

granbit or set eyes on this particular gangling young human. He studied the

slumping form of the injured youth. Jon-Tom was spritely enough of word... but a

wizard? Still, one could never be certain of anything, least of all appearances,

when dealing with wizardly doings. Common folk did well to avoid such.

How could anyone explain a wizard who could not spell a simple firemaker, much

less fix an injury to himself? The lad's disorientation and fear were real

enough, and neither spoke of the nature of wizards. Best to wait, perhaps, and

see what concealed abilities this Jon-Tom might yet reveal. Should such

abilities suddenly surface, it might also be best to insure that he forgot who

put the hole in his ribs.

"Now lad, don't pay no mind t' what Clothahump says about payments and such. No

matter what the final cost, we'll see it's taken care of. I feel sort o'

responsible t' make certain o' that."

"That's good of you, Mudge."

"Aye, I know. Best not even t' mention money to 'is nibs."

Laden with bottles and odd containers fashioned of ceramic, the turtle waddled

back toward them. He arranged the collection neatly on the wood chips in front

of the couch. Choosing from several, he mixed their contents in a small brass

bowl set between Jon-Tom's legs. A yellow powder was added to a murky pool in

the bowl and was followed by a barely audible mumbling. Mudge and Jon-Tom

clutched suddenly at their nostrils. The paste was now emitting an odor awful in

the extreme.

Clothahump added a last pinch of blue powder, stirred the mixture, and then

began plastering it directly on the open wound. Thoughts of infection faded when

it became clear to Jon that the paste was having a soothing effect on the pain.

"Pog!" Clothahump snapped short fingers. "Bring a small crucible. The one with

the sun symbols engraved on the sides."

Jon-Tom thought he might have heard the bat mumble, "Why don't ya get it

yourself, ya lazy fat cousin to a clam." But he couldn't be sure.

In any case, Pog did not speak when he returned with the requested crucible. He

deposited it between Jon-Tom and the wizard, then flapped back out of the way.

Clothahump measured the paste into the crucible, added a vile-smelling liquid

from a tall, waspish black bottle, then a pinch of something puce from a drawer

near his right arm. Jon-Tom wondered if the wizard's built-in compartments ever

itched.

"What the devil did I do with that wand... ah!" Using a small ebony staff inlaid

with silver and amethyst, he stirred the mixture, muttering continuously.

Within the crucible the paste had gained the consistency of a thick soup. It

began to glow a rich emerald green. Tiny explosions broke its surface, were

reflected in Jon-Tom's wide eyes. The mixture now smelled of cinnamon instead of

swamp gas.

Using the wand, the wizard dipped out some of the liquid and tasted it. Finding

it satisfactory, he gripped the wand at either end with two fingers of each hand

and began passing it in low swoops over the boiling crucible. The sparks on the

liquid's surface increased in intensity and frequency.

"Terra bacteria,

Red for muscle, blue for blood,

Ruination, agglutination, confrontation,

Knit Superior.

Pyroxine for nerves, Penicillin for curds.

Surgical wisps, solvent site, I bid you complete

your unquent fight!"

Jon-Tom listened in utter bewilderment. There was no deep-throated invocation of

tail of newt, eye of bat. No spider's blood or ox eyes, though he remained

ignorant of the powders and fluids the wizard had employed. Clothahump's mystic

singsong chatter of pyroxine and agglutinating and such sounded suspiciously

like the sort of thing a practicing physician might write to amuse himself in a

moment of irrepressible nonsense.

As soon as the recital had been completed, Jon-Tom asked about the words.

"Those are the magic words and symbols, boy."

"But they actually mean something. I mean, they refer to real things."

"Of course they do." Clothahump stared at him as if concerned more about his

sanity than his wound. "What is more real than the components of magic?" He

nodded at the watch. "I do not recognize your timepiece, yet I accept that it

keeps true time."

"That's not magical, though."

"No? Explain to me exactly how it works."

"It's a quartz-crystal. The electrons flow through... I mean..." He gave up.

"It's not my specialty. But it runs on electricity, not magic formulae."

"Really? I know many electric formulae."

"But dammit, it runs on a battery!"

"And what is inside this thing you call a battery?"

"Stored electric power."

"And is there no formula to explain that?"

"Of course there is. But it's a mathematical formula, not a magic one."

"You say mathematics is not magic? What kind of wizard are you?"

"I keep trying to tell you, I'm..." But Clothahump raised a hand for silence,

leaving a frustrated Jon-Tom to fume silently at the turtle's obstinacy.

Jon-Tom began to consider what the wizard had just said and grew steadily more

confused.

In addition to the firefly explosions dancing on its surface, the paste-brew had

changed from green to yellow and was pulsing steadily. Clothahump laid his wand

aside ceremoniously. Lifting the crucible, he offered it to the four corners of

the compass. Then he tilted it and drained the contents.

"Pog." He wiped paste from his beak.

"Yes, Master." The bat's voice was subservient now.

Clothahump passed him the crucible, then the brass bowl. "Scullery work." The

bat hefted both containers, flapped off toward a distant kitchen.

"How's that now, my boy?" Clothahump eyed him sympathetically. "Feel better?"

"You mean... that's it? You're finished?" Jon-Tom thought to look down at

himself. The ugly wound had vanished completely. The flesh was smooth and

unbroken, the sole difference between it and the surrounding skin being that it

wasn't suntanned like the rest of his torso. It occurred to him that the pain

had also left him.

Tentatively he pressed the formerly bleeding region. Nothing. He turned an

open-mouthed stare of amazement on the turtle.

"Please." Clothahump turned away. "Naked adulation embarrasses me."

"But how...?"

"Oh, the incantations healed you, boy."

"Then what was the purpose of the stuff" in the bowl?"

"That? Oh, that was my breakfast." He grinned as much as his beak would allow.

"It also served nicely to distract you while you healed. Some patients get upset

if they see their own bodies healing... sometimes it can be messy to look upon.

So I had the choice of putting you to sleep or distracting you. The latter was

safer and simpler. Besides, I was hungry.

"And now I think it time we touch on the matter of why I drew you into this

world from your own. You know, I went to the considerable trouble, not to

mention danger, of opening the portals between dimensions and bending

space-time. But first it is necessary to seal this room. Move over there,

please."

Still wordless at his astonishing recovery, Jon-Tom obediently stepped back

against a bookcase. Mudge joined him. So did the returning Pog.

"Scrubbing crucibles," the bat muttered under his breath. Clothahump had picked

up his wand and was waving it through the air, mumbling cryptically. "Dat's all

I ever do around here; wash da dishes, fetch da books, clean da dirt."

"If you're so disgusted, why stick around?" Jon-Tom regarded the bat

sympathetically. He'd almost grown used to its hideousness. "Do you want to be a

wizard so badly?"

"Shit, no!" Pog's gruffness gave way to agitation. "Wizarding's mighty dangerous

stuff." He fluttered nearer. "I've indentured myself to da old wreck in return

for a major, permanent transmogrification. I only got ta stick it out another

few years... I tink... before I can demand payment."

"What kind o' change you got in mind, mate?"

Pog turned to face the otter. "Y'know da section o' town at da end of da Avenue

o' da Pacers? Da big old building dere dat's built above da stables?"

"Cor, wot be you doin' thereabouts? You don't rate that kind o' trade. That's a

high-rent district, that is." The otter was grinning hugely under his whiskers.

"I know, I know," confessed the disconsolate Pog. "I've a friend who made a

killing on da races who took me dere one night ta celebrate. He knows Madam

Scorianza, who runs da house for arboreals. Dere's a girl who works up dere, not

much more dan a fledgling, a full flagon o' falcon if ever dere one was. Her

name's Uleimee and she is," he fairly danced in the air as he reminisced, "da

most exquisite creature on wings. Such grace, such color and power, Mudge! I

thought I'd die of ecstasy." The excitement of the memory trembled in the air.

"But she won't have a thing ta do wid me unless I pay like everyone else. She

dotes on a wealthy old osprey who runs a law practice over in Knotsmidge Hollow.

Me she won't do much more dan loop da loop wid, but whenever dis guy flicks a

feather at her she's ready ta fly round da world wid him."

"Forget 'er then, mate," Mudge advised him. "There be other birds and some of

'em are pretty good-lookin' bats. One flyin' fox I've seen around town can wrap

'er wings 'round me any time."

"Mudge, you've never been in love, have ya?"

"Sure I 'ave... lots o' times."

"I thought dat much. Den I can't expeet ya ta understand."

"I do." Jon-Tom nodded knowingly. "You want Clothahump to transform you into the

biggest, fastest falcon around, right?"

"Wid da biggest beak," Pog added. "Dat's da only reason why I hang around dis

hole waitin' wing and foot on da doddering old curmudgeon. I could never afford

ta pay for a permanent transmogrification. I got ta slave it out."

Jon-Tom's gaze returned to the center of the room. Having miraculously cured the

stab wound, the doddering old curmudgeon was beckoning for them to rejoin him.

The windows were dimming rapidly.

"Come close, my friends." Mudge and Jon-Tom did so. Pog hung himself from the

upper rim of a nearby bookcase.

"A great crisis threatens to burst upon us," the wizard said solemnly. It

continued to darken inside the tree. "I can feel it in the movement of worms in

the earth, in the way the breezes whisper among themselves when they think no

one else is listening. I sense it in the pattern formed by raindrops, in the

early flight of leaves this past autumn, in the call of reluctant winter

seedlings and in the nervous belly crawl of the snake. The clouds collide

overhead, so intent are they on the events shaping themselves below, and the

earth itself sometimes skips a heartbeat.

"It is a crisis of our world, but its crux, its center, comes from another...

from yours," and he stabbed a stubby finger at a shocked Jon-Tom.

"Be calm, boy. You yourself have naught to do with it." It was dark as night

inside the tree now. Jon-Tom thought he could feel the darkness as a perceptible

weight on his neck. Or were the other things crowding invisibly near, fighting

to hear through the protective cloak the sorcerer had drawn tight about the

tree?

"A vast malevolence has succeeded in turning the laws of magic and reason inside

out, to bring spells of terrible power from your world into ours, to threaten

our peaceful land.

"It lies beyond my meager skills to determine what this power is, or to cope

with it. Only a great en'geeneer-magician from your own world might supply the

key to this menace. Woeful difficult it be to open the portal between

dimensions, yet I had to cast out for such a person. It can be done only once or

twice in a year's tune, so great is the strain on parts of the mind. That is why

you are come among us now, my young friend."

"But I've been trying to tell you. I'm not an engineer."

Clothahump looked shaken. "That is not possible. The portals would open only to

permit the entrance of an en'geeneer."

"I'm truly sorry," Jon-Tom spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness. "I'm

only a prelaw student and would-be musician."

"It can't be... at least, I don't think it can." Clothahump abruptly looked very

old indeed.

"Wot's the nature o' this 'ere bloomin' crisis?" the irrepressible Mudge

demanded to know.

"I don't precisely know. I know for certain only that it is centered around some

powerful magic drawn from this lad's world-time." A horny hand slammed a

counter, rocking jars and cannisters. Thunder flooded the room.

"The conjuration could not have worked save for an en'geeneer. I was casting

blind and was tired, but I cannot be wrong in this." He took a deep breath.

"Lad, you say you are a student?"

"That's right."

"A student en'geeneer, perhaps?"

"Sorry. Prelaw. And I don't think amateur electric guitar qualifies me, either.

I also work part time as a janitor at... wait a minute, now." He looked worried.

"My official title is sanitation engineer."

Clothahump let out a groan of despair, sank back on the couch. "So ends

civilization."

Pog let loose of the bookcase shelf and flew high above them, growling

delightedly. "Wonderful, wonderful! A wizard of garbage!" He dove sharply,

braked to hover in front of Jon. "Welcome oh welcome, wizard most high! Stay and

help me make all da dirt in dis dump disappear!"

"BEGONE!" Clothahump thundered in a tone more suited to the throat of a mountain

than a turtle. Jon-Tom and Mudge shook as that unnatural roar filled the room,

while Pog was slammed up against the far side of the tree. He tumbled halfway to

the floor before he could right himself and get shaky wings working again. He

whipped out through a side passage.

"Blasphemer of truth." The turtle's normal voice had returned. "I don't know why

I retain him...." He sighed, adjusted his spectacles, and looked sadly at

Jon-Tom.

"Tis clear enough now what happened, lad. I was not precise enough in defining

the parameters of the spell. I am an old turtle, and very tired. Sloppy work has

earned its just reward.

"Months it took me to prepare the conjuration. Four months' careful rune

reading, compiling the requisite materials and injunctives, a full cauldron of

boiled subatomic particles and such--and I end up with you."

Jon-Tom felt guilty despite his innocence.

"Not to trouble yourself with it, lad. There's nothing you can do now. I'll

simply have to begin again."

"What happens if you don't succeed in time, sir? If you don't get the help you

think you'll need?"

"We'll probably all die. But it's a small matter in the universal scheme of

things.

"That's all?" asked Jon-Tom sarcastically. "Well, I do have work to get back to.

I'm really sorry I'm not what you expected, and I do thank you for fixing my

side, but I'd really appreciate it if you could send me back home."

"I don't think that's possible, lad."

Jon-Tom tried not to sound panicked. "If you open this portal orwhatever for me,

maybe I could find you the engineer you want. Any kind of engineer. My

university's full of them."

"I am sure of that," said Clothahump benignly. "Otherwise the portal would not

have impinged on the fabric of your world at the place and time it did. I was in

the proper fishing ground. I simply hooked the wrong subject.

"Sending you back is not a question of choice, but of tune and preparation.

Remember that I told you it takes months to prepare such a conjuration, and I

must rest as near to a year as possible before I risk the effort once more. And

when I do so, I fear it must be for more important things than sending you back.

I hope you understand, but it will not matter if you do not."

"What about another wizard?" Jon-Tom asked hopefully.

Clothahump sounded proud. "I venture to say no other in all the world could

manipulate the necessary incantations and physical distortings. Rest assured I

will send you back as soon as I am able." He patted Jon-Tom paternally with one

hand and wagged a cautionary finger at him with the other.

"Never fear. We will send you back. I only hope," he added regretfully, "I am

able to do so before the crisis breaks and we are all slaughtered." He whispered

some words, absently waved his wand.

"Dissemination vanish, Solar execration banish. Wormwood high, cone-form low,

Molecules resume thy flow."

Light returned, rich and welcome, to the dimensionally distorted interior of the

tree. With the darkness went the feeling of unclean things crawling about

Jon-Tom's back. Lizard songs sounded again from the branches outside.

"If you don't mind my saying so, your magic isn't at all what I expected,"

Jon-Tom ventured.

"What did you expect, lad?"

"Where I come from, magic formulae are always done up with potions made from

things like spiders' legs and rabbits' feet and... oh, I don't know. Mystic

verbs from Latin and other old languages."

Mudge snorted derisively while Pog, peering out from a doorway, allowed himself

a squeaky chuckle. Clothahump merely eyed the pair disapprovingly.

"As for spiders' legs, lad, the little ones underfoot are no good for much of

anything. The greater ones, on the other hand... but I've never been to

Gossameringue, and never expect to." Clothahump gestured, indicating spiders as

long as his arm, and Jon-Tom held off inquiring about Gossameringue, not to

mention the whereabouts of spiders of such magnitude.

"As for the rabbits' feet, I'd expect any self-respecting rabbit to cut me up

and use me for a washbasin if I so much as broached the idea. Words are

time-proven by experimentation, and agreed upon during meetings of the

sorcerers' grand council."

"But what do you use then to open a passage from another dimension?"

Clothahump edged conspiratorially close. "I'm not supposed to give away any

Society secrets, you understand, but I don't think you'd even remember. You need

some germanium crystals, a pinch of molybdenum, a teaspoon of californium... and

working with those short-lived superheavies is a royal pain, I'll tell you. Some

regular radioactives and one or two transuranics, the acquisition of which is a

task in itself."

"How can you locate...?"

"That's other formulae. There are other ingredients, which I definitely can't

mention to a noninitiate. You put the whole concatenation into the largest

cauldron you've got, stir well, dance three times moonwise around the nearest

deposit of nickel-zinc and... but enough secrets, lad."

"Funny sort of magic. Almost sounds like real science."

Clothahump looked disappointed in him. "Didn't I already explain that to you?

Magic's pretty much the same no matter what world or dimension you exist in.

Only the incantations and the formulae are different."

"You said that a rabbit would resist giving up a foot. Are rabbits intelligent

also?"

"Lad, lad." Clothahump settled tiredly into the couch, which creaked beneath

him. "All the warm-blooded are intelligent. That is as it should be. Has been as

far back as history goes. All except the four-foot herbivores: cattle, horses,

antelopes, and the like." He shook his head sadly. "Poor creatures never

developed useful hands from those hooves, and the development of intelligenee is

concurrent with digital dexterity.

"The rest have it, though. Along with the birds. None of the reptiles save us

turtles, for some reason. And the inhabitants of Gossameringue and the

Greendowns, of course. The less spoken about them, the better." He studied

Jon-Tom.

"Now since we can't send you home, lad, what are we going to do with you...?"

III

Clothahump considered several moments longer. "We can't just abandon you in a

strange world, I suppose. I do feel somewhat responsible. You'll need some money

and a guide to explain things to you. You, otter, Mudge!"

The otter was intent on a huge tome Pog was avidly displaying. "Both of you get

away from the sex incantations. You wouldn't have the patience to invoke the

proper spirits anyhow. Serve you both right if I let you make off with a formula

or two and you messed it up right clever and turned yourselves neuter."

Mudge shut the book while Pog busied himself dusting second-story windows.

"What d'you want o' me, your wizardness?" an unhappy Mudge asked worriedly,

cursing himself for becoming involved.

"That deferential tone doesn't fool me, Mudge." Clothahump eyed him warningly.

"I know your opinion of me. No matter, though." Turning back to Jon-Tom he

examined the young man's attire: the poorly engraved leather belt, the scuffed

sandals, the T-shirt with the picture of a hirsute human wielding a smoking

instrument, the faded blue jeans.

"Obviously you can't go tramping around Lynchbany Towne or anywhere else looking

like that. Someone is likely to challenge you. It could be dangerous."

"Aye. They might die alaughin'," suggested Mudge.

"We can do without your miserable witticisms, offspring of a spastic muskrat.

What is amusing to you is a serious matter to this boy."

"Begging your pardon, sir," Jon-Tom put in firmly, "but I'm twenty-four. Hardly

a boy."

"I'm two hundred and thirty-six, lad. It's all relative. Now, we must do

something about those clothes. And a guide." He stared meaningfully at Mudge.

"Now wait a minim, guv'nor. It were your bloomin' portal 'e stumbled through. I

can't 'elp it if you pinched the wrong chap."

"Nevertheless, you are familiar with him. You will therefore assume charge of

him and see that he comes to no harm until such time as I can make other

arrangements for him."

Mudge jerked a furry thumb at the watching youth. "Not that I don't feel sorry

for 'im, your wizardship. I'd feel the same way toward any 'alf mad creature...

let alone a poor, furless human. But t' make me responsible for seein' after

'im, sor? I'm a 'unter by trade, not a bloody fairy godmother."

"You're a roustabout by trade, and a drunkard and lecher by avocation,"

countered Clothahump with considerable certitude. "You're far from the ideal

guardian for the lad, but I know of no scholars to substitute, feeble

intellectual community that Lynchbany is. So... you're elected."

"And if I refuse?"

Clothahump rolled up nonexistent sleeves. "I'll turn you into a human. I'll

shrink your whiskers and whiten your nose, I'll thin your legs and squash your

face. Your fur will fall out and you'll run around the rest of your life with

bare flesh showing."

Poor Mudge appeared genuinely frightened, his bravado completely gone. "No, no,

your sorcererness! If it's destined I take the lad in care, I ain't the one t'

challenge destiny."

"A wise and prosaic decision." Clothahump settled down. "I do not like to

threaten. Now that the matter of a guide is settled, the need of money remains."

"That's so." Mudge brightened. "Can't send an innocent stranger out into a cruel

world penniless as well as ignorant."

"Mind you, Mudge, what I give the lad is not to be squandered in wining and

wenching."

"Oh, no, no, no, sor. I'll see the lad properly dressed and put up at a

comfortable inn in Lynchbany that accepts humans."

Jon-Tom sounded excited and pleased. "There are people like me in this town,

then?"

Mudge eyed him narrowly. "Of course there are people in Lynchbany Towne, mate.

There are also a few humans. None your size, though."

Clothahump was rummaging through a stack of scrolls. "Now then, where is that

incantation for gold?"

" 'Ere, guv'nor," said Mudge brightly. "Let me 'elp you look."

The wizard nudged him aside. "I can manage by myself." He squinted at the mound

of paper.

"Geese... gibbering... gifts... gneechees... gold, there we are."

Potions and powders were once more brought into use, placed in a shallow pan

instead of a bowl. They were heaped atop a single gold coin that Clothahump had

removed from a drawer in his plastron. He noticed Mudge avidly following the

procedure.

"Forget it, otter. You'd never get the inflection right. And this coin is old

and special. If I could make gold all the time, I wouldn't need to charge for my

services. This is a special occasion, though. Think what would happen if just

any animal could wander about making gold."

"It would ruin your monetary system," said Jon-Tom.

"Bless my shell, lad, that's so. You have some learning after all."

"Economics are more in my line."

The wizard waved the wand over the pan.

"Postulate, postulate, postulate.

Heavy metal integrate.

Emulate a goldecule,

Pile it high, shape it round,

I call you from the ground.

Metal weary, metal sound, formulate thy wondrous round!"

There was a flash, a brief smell of ozone. The powders vanished from the pan. In

their place was a pile of shining coins.

"Now, that's a right proper trick," Mudge whispered to Jon-Tom, "that I'd give a

lot to know."

"Come help yourself, lad." Clothahump wiped a hand across his forehead. "That's

a short spell, but a rough one."

Jon-Tom scooped up a handful of coins. He was about to slip them into a pocket

when their unusual lightness struck him. He juggled them experimentally.

"They seem awfully light to be gold, sir. Meaning no disrespect, but..."

Mudge reached out, grabbed a coin. "Light's not the word, mate. It looks like

gold, but 'tis not."

A frowning Clothahump chose a golden disk. "Um. Seems to be a fine edge running

the circumference of the coin."

"On these also, sir." Jon-Tom picked at the edge. A thick gold foil peeled away,

to reveal a darker material underneath. High above, Pog was swimming air circles

and cackling hysterically.

"I don't understand." Clothahump finished peeling the foil from his own

specimen. He recognized it at the same time as Jon-Tom took an experimental

bite.

"Chocolate. Not bad chocolate, either."

Clothahump looked downcast. "Damn. I must have mixed my breakfast formula with

the transmuter."

"Well," said the starving youth as he peeled another, "you may make poor gold,

sir, but you make very good chocolate."

"Some wizard!" Pog shouted from a sheltered window recess. "Gets chocolate

instead of gold! Did I mention da time he tried ta conjure a water nymph? Had

his room all laid out like a beaver's lair, he did. Incense and perfume and

mirrors. Got his water nymph all right. Only it was a Cugluch dragonfly nymph

dat nearly tore his arm off before..."

Clothahump jabbed a finger in Pog's direction. A tiny bolt of lightning shot

from it, searing the wood where the bat had been only seconds before.

"His aim's always been lousy," taunted the bat.

Another bolt missed the famulus by a greater margin than the first, shattered a

row of glass containers on a high shelf. They fell crashing, tinkling to the

wood-chip floor as the bat dodged and skittered clear of the fragments.

Clothahump turned away, fiddling with his glasses. "Got to conjure some new

lenses," he grumbled. Reaching into his lower plastron, he drew out a handful of

small silvery coins, and handed them to Jon-Tom. "Here you are, lad."

"Sir... wouldn't it have been simpler to give me these in the first place?"

"I like to keep in practice. One of these days I'll get that gold spell down

pat."

"Why not make the lad a new set of clothes?" asked Mudge.

Clothahump turned from trying to refocus a finger on the jeering famulus and

glanced angrily at the otter. "I'm a wizard, not a tailor. Mundane details such

as that I leave to your care. And remember: no care, no fur."

"Relax, guv'nor. Let's go, Jon-Tom. Tis a long walk if we're to make much

distance before dark."

They left Clothahump blasting jars and vials, pictures and shelving in vain

attempts to incinerate his insulting assistant.

"Interesting character, your sorcerer," said Jon-Tom conversationally as they

turned down a well-trod path into the woods.

"Not my sorcerer, mate." A brightly feathered lizard pecked at some bananalike

fruit dangling from a nearby tree. " 'Ave another chocolate coin?"

"No thanks."

"Speakin* o' coins, that little sack o' silver he gave you might as well be

turned over to me for safe keepin', since you're under me protection."

"That's all right." Jon-Tom patted the pocket in which the coins reposed. "It's

safe enough with me, I think. Besides, my pockets are a lot higher than yours.

Harder to pick."

Instead of being insulted, the otter laughed uproariously. He clapped a furry

paw on Jon-Tom's lower back. "Maybe you're less the fool than you seem, mate.

Frost me if I don't think we'll make a decent animal out o' you yet!"

They waded a brook hauntingly like the one that ran through the botanical

gardens back on campus. Jon-Tom fought to keep his mind from melancholy

reminiscence. "Aren't you the least bit curious about this great crisis

Clothahump was referring to?" he asked.

"Bosh, that's probably just a figment o' 'is sorceral imagination. I've heard

tell plenty about what such chaps drink and smoke when they feels the mood. They

calls it wizardly speculatin'. Me, I calls it gettin' well stoked. Besides, why

dwell on crises real or imagined when one can 'ave so much fun from day t' day?"

"You should learn to study the thread of history."

Mudge shook his head. "You talk like that in Lynchbany and you will 'ave

trouble, mate. Thread o' 'Istory now, is it? Sure you won't trust me with that

silver?" Jon-Tom simply smiled. "Ah well, then."

Any last lingering thoughts that it might all still be a nightmare from which

he'd soon awake were forever dispelled when they'd come within a mile of

Lynchbany, following several days' march. Jon-Tom couldn't see it yet. It lay

over another rise and beyond a dense grove of pines. But he could clearly smell

it. The aroma of hundreds of animal bodies basking in the warmth of mid-morning

could not be mistaken.

"Something wrong, mate?" Mudge stretched away the last of his previous night's

rest. "You look a touch bilious."

"That odor..."

"We're near Lynchbany, like I promised."

"You mean that stench is normal?"

Mudge's black nose frisked the air. "No... I'd call 'er a mite weak today. Wait

until noontime, when the sun's at its 'ighest. Then it'll be normal."

"You have great wizards like Clothahump. Haven't any of them discovered the

formula for deodorant?"

Mudge looked confused. "What's that, mate? Another o' your incomprehensible

otherworldly devices?"

"It keeps you from smelling offensive," said Jon-Tom with becoming dignity.

"Now you do 'ave some queer notions in the other worlds. How are you t' know

your enemies if you can't smell 'em? And no friend can smell offensive. That be

a contradiction, do it not? If 'e was offensive, 'e wouldn't be a friend. O'

course you 'umans," and he sniffed scornfully. " 'ave always been pretty

scent-poor. I suppose you'd think it good if people 'ad no scent a'tall?"

"It wouldn't be such a bad idea."

"Well, don't go propoundin' your bizarre religious beliefs in Lynchbany,

guv'nor, or even with me t' defend you you won't last out the day."

They continued along the path. This near to town it showed the prints of many

feet.

"No scent," Mudge was muttering to himself. "No more sweet perfumes o' friends

and ladies t' enjoy. Cor, I'd rather be blind than unable t' smell, mate. What

senses do they use in your world, anyway?"

"The usual ones. Sight, hearing, touch, taste... and smell."

"And you'd wish away a fifth o' all your perception o' the universe for some

crazed theological theory?"

"It has nothing to do with theology," Jon-Tom countered, beginning to wonder if

his views on the matter weren't sounding silly even to himself. "It's a question

of etiquette."

"Piss on your etiquette. No greetin' smells." The otter sounded thoroughly

disgusted. "I don't think I'd care t' visit long in your world, Jon-Tom. But

we're almost there. Mind you keep control o' your expressions." He still

couldn't grasp the notion that anyone could find the odor of another friendly

creature offensive.

"You 'old your nose to someone and they'll likely spill your guts for you."

Jon-Tom nodded reluctantly. Take a few deep breaths, he told himself. He'd heard

that somewhere. Just take a few deep breaths and you'll soon be used to it.

They topped the little hill and were suddenly gazing across tree-tops at the

town. At the same time the full ripeness of it struck him. The thick musk was

like a barnyard sweltering in a swamp. He was hard pressed not to heave the

contents of his stomach out the wrong orifice.

" 'Ere now, don't you go be sick all over me!" Mudge took a few hasty steps

backward. "Brace up, lad. You'll soon be enjoyin' it!"

They started down the hill, the otter trotting easily, Jon-Tom staggering and

trying to keep his face blank. Shortly they encountered a sight which

simultaneously shoved all thought of vomiting aside while reminding him this was

a dangerous, barely civilized world he'd been dragged into.

It was a body similar to but different from Mudge's. It had its paws tied behind

its back and its legs strapped together. The head hung at an angle signifying a

neatly snapped neck. It was quite naked. Odd how quickly the idea of clothing on

an animal grew in one's mind, Jon-Tom thought.

Some kind of liquid resin or plastic completely encased the body. The eyes were

mercifully closed and the expression not pleasant to look upon. A sign lettered

in strange script was mounted on a post driven into the ground beneath the

dangling, preserved corpse. He turned questioningly to Mudge.

"That's the founder o' the town," came the reply.

Jon-Tom's eyes clung to the grotesque monument as they strolled around it. "Do

they always hang the founders of towns around here?"

"Not usually. Only under special circumstances. That's the corpse o' old Tilo

Bany. Ought t' be gettin' on a couple 'undred years old now."

"That body's been hanging there like that for hundreds of years?"

"Oh, 'e's well preserved, 'e is. Local wizard embalmed 'im nice and proper."

"That's barbaric."

"Want to hear the details?" asked Mudge. Jon-Tom nodded.

"As it goes, old Tilo there, 'e's a ferret you see--and they come o' no good

line t' start with--'e was a confidence man. Fleeced farmers 'ereabouts for

years and years, takin' their money most o' the time and their daughters on

occasion.

"Well, a bunch of 'em finally gets onto 'im. 'E'd been buyin' grain from one

farmer, sellin' it t' another, borrowin' the money, and buyin' more. It finally

came t' a 'ead when a couple o' 'is former customers found out that a lot o' the

grain they'd been buyin' afore'and existed only in Tilo's 'ead.

"They gets together, cornerin' 'im in this 'ere grove, and strings 'im up neat.

At that point a couple o' travelin' craftsmen... woodworker and a silversmith, I

think, or maybe one was a cobbler... decided that this 'ere valley with its easy

water would be a nice place t' start a craft's guild, and the town sort o' grew

up around it.

"When folks from elsewhere wanted t' locate the craftsmen, everyone around told

'em t' go t' the place where they'd lynched Tilo Bany, the confidence ferret.

And if you 'aven't noticed yet, guv, you're breathin' right easy now."

Much to his surprise, the queasiness had receded. The smell no longer seemed so

overpowering. "You're right. It's not so bad anymore."

"That's good. You stick near t' me, mate, and watch yourself. Some o' the local

bully-boys like t' toy with strangers, and you're stranger than most. Not that

I'd be afraid t' remonstrate with any of 'em, mind now."

They were leaving the shade of the forest. Mudge gestured ahead. His voice was

full of provincial pride.

"There she be, Jon-Tom. Lynchbany Towne."

IV

No fairy spires or slick and shiny pennant-studded towers here, Jon-Tom mused as

he gazed at the village. No rainbow battlements, no thin cloud-piercing turrets

inlaid with gold, silver, and precious gems. Lynchbany was a community built to

be lived in, not looked at. Clearly, its inhabitants knew no more of moorish

palaces and peacock-patrolled gardens than did Jon-Tom.

Hemmed in by forest on both sides, the buildings and streets meandered down a

narrow valley. A stream barely a yard wide trickled through the town center. It

divided the main street, which, like most of the side streets he could see, was

paved with cobblestones shifted here from some distant riverbed. Only the narrow

creek channel itself was unpaved.

They continued down the path, which turned to cobblestone as it came abreast of

the rushing water. Despite his determination to keep his true feelings inside,

the fresh nausea that greeted him as they reached the first buildings generated

unwholesome wrinkles on his face. It was evident that the little stream served

as community sewer as well as the likely source of potable water. He reminded

himself firmly not to drink anything in Lynchbany unless it was bottled or

boiled.

Around them rose houses three, sometimes four stories tall. Sharp-peaked roofs

were plated with huge foot-square shingles of wood or gray slate. Windows turned

translucent eyes on the street from see-ond and third floors. An occasional

balcony projected out over the street.

Fourth floors and still higher attics displayed rounded entrances open to the

air. Thick logs were set below each circular doorway. Round windows framed many

of these aerial portals. They were obviously home to the arboreal inhabitants of

the town, cousins of the red-breasted, foul-mouthed public servant they had met

delivering mail to Clothahump's tree several days ago.

The little canyon was neither very deep nor particularly narrow, but the houses

still crowded together like children in a dark room. The reason was economic;

it's simpler and cheaper to build a common wall for two separate structures.

A few flew pennants from poles set in their street-facing sides, or from the

crests of sharply gabled rooftops. They could have been family crests, or

signals, or advertisements; Jon-Tom had no idea. More readily identifiable

banners in the form of some extraordinary washing hung from lines strung over

narrow alleyways. He tried to identify the shape of the owners from the position

and length of the arms and legs, but was defeated by the variety.

At the moment furry arms and hands were working from upper-floor windows,

hastily pulling laundry off the lines amid much muttering and grumbling. Thunder

rumbled through the town, echoing off the cobblestone streets and the damp walls

of cut rock and thick wooden beams. Each building was constructed for solidity,

a small home put together as strongly as a castle.

Shutters clapped hollowly against bracings as dwellers sealed their residences

against the approaching storm. Smoke, ashy and pungent, borne by an occasional

confused gust of wet wind, drifted down to the man and otter. Another rumble

bounced through the streets. A glance overhead showed dark clouds clotting like

black cream. First raindrops slapped at his skin.

Mudge increased his pace and Jon-Tom hurried to keep up. He was too fascinated

by the town to ask where they were rushing to, sufficiently absorbed in his

surroundings not to notice the isolated stares of other hurrying pedestrians.

After another couple of blocks, he finally grew aware of the attention they were

drawing.

"It's your size, mate," Mudge told him.

As they hurried on, Jon-Tom took time to look back at the citizens staring at

him. None stood taller than Mudge. Most were between four and five feet tall. It

did not make him feel superior. Instead, he felt incredibly awkward and out of

place.

He drew equally curious stares from the occasional human he passed. All the

locals were similarly clad, allowing for personal differences in taste and

station. Silk, wool, cotton, and leather appeared to be the principal materials.

Shirts, blouses, vests, and pants were often decorated with beads and feathers.

An astonishing variety of hats were worn, from wide-brimmed

seventeenth-century-style feathered to tiny, simple berets, to feathered peaked

caps like Mudge's. Boots alternated with sandals on feet of varying size. He

later learned one had a choice between warm, filthy boots or chilly but easily

cleanable sandals.

Keeping clean could be a full-time trial. They crossed the main street just in

time to avoid a prestorm deluge when an irritable and whitened old possum dumped

out a bucket of slops from a second-floor porch into the central stream, barely

missing the pair below.

"Hey... watch it!" Jon-Tom shouted upward at the closing shutters.

"Now wot?"

"That wasn't very considerate," Jon-Tom mumbled, his nose twisting at the odor.

Mudge frowned at him. "Stranger and stranger sound your customs, guv. Now wot

else is she supposed t' do with the 'ouse'old night soil?" With a hand he traced

the winding course of the steady stream that flowed through the center of the

street.

"This time o' year it rains 'ere nigh every day. The rain washes the soil into

the central flue 'ere and the stream packs it off right proper."

Jon-Tom let out fervent thanks he hadn't appeared in this land in summertime.

"It wasn't her action I was yelling about. It was her aim. Damned if I don't

think she was trying to hit us."

Mudge smiled. "Now that be a thought, mate. But when you're as dried up and

'ousebound as that faded old sow, I expect you grab at every chance for

amusement you can."

"What about common courtesy?" Jon-Tom muttered, shaking slop from his shoes.

"Rely on it if you wants t' die young, says I."

Shouts sounded from ahead. They moved to one side of the street and leaned up

against a shuttered storefront. A huge double wagon was coming toward them, one

trailing behind another. The vehicle required nearly the entire width of the

street for passage.

Jon-Tom regarded it with interest. The haggard, dripping driver was a margay.

The little tiger cat's bright eyes flashed beneath the wide-brimmed floppy felt

hat he wore. Behind him, riding the second half of the wagon, was a cursing

squirrel no more than three feet tall His tail was curled over his head,

providing extra protection from the now steadily falling rain. He was struggling

to tug heavy canvas or leather sheets over the cargo of fruits and vegetables.

Four broad-shouldered lizards pulled the double wagon. They were colored

iridescent blue and green, and in the gloom their startlingly pink eyes shone

like motorcycle taillights. They swayed constantly from side to side, demanding

unvarying attention from their yowling, hissing driver, who manipulated them as

much with insults as with cracks from his long thin whip.

Momentarily generating a louder rumble than the isolated bursts of thunder, the

enormous wagon slid on past and turned a difficult far corner.

"I've no sympathy for the chap who doesn't know 'is business," snorted Mudge as

they continued on their way, hugging the sides of buildings in search of some

protection from the downpour. "That lot ought long since to 'ave been under

cover."

It was raining quite heavily now. Most of the windows had been closed or

shuttered. The darkness made the buildings appear to be leaning over the street.

From above and behind came a distant, sharp chirping. Jon-Tom glanced over a

shoulder, thought he saw a stellar jay clad in yellow-purple kilt and vest

alight on one of the fourth-floor landing posts and squeeze through an opening.

There was a faint thump as the circular door was slammed behind him.

They hurried on, sprinting from one rickety wooden porch covering to the next.

Once they paused in the sheltering lee of what might have been a bookstore.

Scrollstore, rather, since it was filled with ceiling-high wooden shelves

punched out like a massive wine rack. Each hole held its thick roll of paper.

As Mudge had indicated, the rain was washing the filth from the cobblestones and

the now swollen central creek carried it efficiently away.

The front moved through and the thunder faded. Instead of the heavy, driving

rain the clouds settled down to shedding a steady drizzle. The temperature had

dropped, and Jon-Tom shivered in his drenched T-shirt and jeans.

"Begging your pardon, sir."

Jon-Tom uncrossed his arms. "What?" He looked to his right. The source of the

voice was in a narrow alley barely large enough to allow two people to pass

without turning sideways.

A gibbon lay huddled beneath a slight overhang, curled protectively against

several large wooden barrels filled with trash. His fuzzy face was shielded by

several large scraps of wrapping paper that had been wound together and tied

with a knot beneath his chin. This crude hat hung limp in the rain. Badly ripped

trousers of some thin cotton material covered the hairy legs. He had no shirt.

Long arms enfolded the shivering chest, and large circular sores showed where

the hair had fallen out. One eye socket was a dark little hollow.

A delicately fingered hand extended hopefully in Jon-Tom's direction. "A

silverpiece, sir. For one unlucky in war and unluckier still in peacetime? It

was a bad upbringing and a misinformed judiciary that cost me this eye, sir. Now

I exist only on the sufferance of others." Jon-Tom stood and gaped at the

pitiful creature.

"A few coppers then, sir, if you've no silver to give?" The gibbon's voice was

harsh with infection.

Suddenly he shrank back, falling against the protective trashcans. One fell

over, spilling shreds of paper, bones, and other recognizable detritus into the

alley. Dimensional dislocation does not eliminate the universality of garbage.

"Nay, sir, nay!" An arm shook as the simian held it across his face. "I meant no

harm."

Mudge stood alongside Jon-Tom. The otter's sword was halfway clear of its chest

scabbard. "I'll not 'ave you botherin' this gentleman while 'e's in my care!" He

took another step toward the ruined anthropoid. "Maybe you mean no 'arm and

maybe you do, but you'll do none while I'm about."

"Take it easy," murmured Jon-Tom, eyeing the cowering gibbon sympathetically.

"Can't you see he's sick?"

"Sick be the word, aright. D'you not know 'ow to treat beggars, mate?" He pulled

on his sword. The gibbon let out a low moan.

"I do." Jon-Tom reached into his pocket, felt for the small linen purse

Clothahump had given him. He withdrew a small coin, tossed it to the gibbon. The

simian scrambled among the stones and trash for it.

"Blessings on you, sir! Heaven kiss you!"

Mudge turned away, disgustedly sliding his sword back in place. "Waste o'

money." He put a hand on Jon-Tom's arm. "Come on, then. Let's get you t' the

shop I 'ave in mind before you spend yourself broke. It's a hard world, mate,

and you'd better learn that soonest. You never saw the blighter's knife, I take

it?"

"Knife?" Jon-Tom looked back toward the alley entrance. "What knife?" He felt

queasy.

48

"Aye, wot knife indeed." He let out a sharp squeek. "If I 'adn't of been with

you you'd 'ave found out wot knife. But I guess you can't 'elp yourself. Your

brains bein' up that 'igh, I expect they thin along with the air, wot? 'Wot

knife'... pfagh!" He stopped, glared up at the dazed Jon-Tom.

"Now if 'twere just up t' me, mate, I'd let you make as much the idiot of

yourself as you seem to 'ave a mind t'. But I can't risk offendin' 'is

wizardship, see? So until I've seen you safely set up in the world and on your

own way t' where I think you might be able t' take some care for yourself,

you'll do me the courtesy from now on o' takin' me advice. And if you'll not

think o' yourself, then 'ave some pity for me. Mind the threats that Clothahump

put on me." He shook his head, turned, and started on down the street again.

"Me! Who was unlucky enough to trip over you when you tripped into my day."

"Yeah? What about me, then? You think I like it here? You think I like you, you

fuzz-faced little fart?"

To Jon-Tom's dismay, Mudge smiled instead of going for his sword. "Now that's

more like it, mate! That's a better attitude than givin' away your money." He

spat back in the direction of the alley. "God-rotted stinkin' layabout trash as

soon split your gut as piss on you. D'you wonder I like it better in the forest,

mate?"

They turned off the main street into a side avenue that was not as small as an

alley, not impressive enough to be a genuine street. It boasted half a dozen

shopfronts huddled together in the throat of a long cul-de-sac. A single tall

oil lamp illuminated the street. Cloth awnings almost met over the street,

shutting out much of the lamplight as well as the rain. A miniature version of

the central stream sprang from a stone fountain at the end of the cul-de-sac.

Jon-Tom shook water from his hands, and squeezed it from his long hair as he

ducked under the cover of one awning. It was not designed to shield someone of

his height. He stared at the sign over the large front window of the shop. It

was almost comprehensible. Perhaps the longer he spent here the more acclimated

his brain became. In any case, he did not have to understand the lettering to

know what kind of shop this was. The window was filled with vests and shirts,

elaborately stitched pantaloons, and a pair of trousers with bells running the

length of the seams. Some lay on the window counter, others fitted dressmaker

dummies that sometimes boasted ears and usually had tails.

A bell chimed brightly as Mudge pushed open the door. "Mind your 'ead now,

Jon-Tom." His tall companion took note of the warning, and bowed under the eave.

The interior of the shop had the smell of leather and lavender. There was no one

in sight. Several chairs with curved seats and backs were arranged neatly near

the center of the floor. Long poles supported cross-racks from which clothing

had been draped.

"Hoy, Proprietor!" Mudged whooped. "Show yourself and your work!"

"And work you shall have, my dear whoever-you-ares." The reply issued from the

back of the shop. "Work only of the finest quality and best stitchery, of the

toughest materials and prettiest..." The voice trailed off quickly.

The fox had come to a halt and was staring past Mudge at the dripping, lanky

shape of Jon-Tom. Silk slippers clad the owner's feet. He wore a silk dressing

gown with four matching ribbons of bright I aquamarine. They ran around his tail

in intersecting loops to meet in a bow at the white tip. He also wore a more

practical-looking belt from which protruded rulers, marking sticks, several

pieces of dark green stone, and various other instruments of the tailor's craft.

He spoke very deliberately.

"What... is that?" He gestured hesitantly at Jon-Tom.

"That's the work we're chattin' about, and a job it's goin' t' be, I'd wager."

Mudge flopped down in one of the low-slung chairs with complete disregard for

the upholstery and the fact that he was dripping wet. He put both short legs

over one arm of the chair and pushed his feathered cap back on his forehead.

"Off to it now, that's a good fellow."

The fox put both paws on hips and stared intently at the otter. "I do not clothe

monsters! I have created attire for some of the best-dressed citizens of

Lynchbany, and beyond. I have made clothing for Madam Scorianza and her best

girls, for the banker Flaustyn Wolfe, for members of the town council, and for

our most prominent merchants and craftsmen, but I do not clothe monsters."

Mudge leaned over in the chair and helped himself to a long thin stick from a

nearby tall glass filled with them. "Look on it as a challenge, mate." He used a

tiny flinted sparker to light the stick.

"Listen," said Jon-Tom, "I don't want to cause any trouble." The fox took a wary

step backward as that towering form moved nearer. "Mudge here thinks that...

that..." He was indicating the otter, who was puffing contentedly on the thin

stick. Smoke filled the room with a delightfully familiar aroma.

"Say," said Jon-Tom, "do you suppose I could have one of those, uh, sticks?"

"For the convenience o' the customers, lad." Mudge magnanimously passed over a

stick along with his sparker. Jon-Tom couldn't see how it worked, but at this

point was more than willing to believe it had been treated with a good fire

spell.

Several long puffs on the glowing stick more than relaxed him. Not everything in

this world was as horrible as it seemed, he decided. It was smoking that had

made him accessible to the questing thoughts of Clothahump. Perhaps smoking

would let something send him home.

Ten minutes later, he no longer cared. Reassured by both Mudge and the giant's

dreamy responses, the grumbling fox was measuring Jon-Tom as the latter lay

quite contentedly on the carpeted floor. Mudge lay next to him, the two of them

considerably higher mentally than physically. The tailor, whose name was

Carlemot, did not objeet to their puffing, which indicated either an ample

supply of the powerful smokesticks or a fine sense of public relations, or both.

He left them eventually, returning several hours later to find otter and man

totally bombed. They still lay on the floor, and were currently speculating with

great interest on the intricacies of the worm-holes in the wooden ceiling.

It was only later that Jon-Tom had recovered sufficiently for a dressing. When

he finally saw himself in the mirror, the shock shoved aside quite a bit of the

haze.

The indigo silk shirt felt like cool mist against his skin. It was tucked neatly

into straight-legged pants which were a cross between denim and flannel. Both

pants and shirt were secured with matching buttons of black leather. The jet

leather vest was fringed around the bottom and decorated with glass beadwork.

The cuffs of the pants were likewise fringed, though he couldn't tell this at

first because they were stuffed into calf-high black leather boots with rolled

tops. At first it seemed surprising that the tailor had managed to find any

footgear at all to fit him, considering how much larger he was than the average

local human. Then it occurred to him that many of the inhabitants were likely to

have feet larger in proportion to their bodies than did men.

A belt of metal links, silver or pewter, held up the pants, shone in sharp

contrast to the beautifully iridescent hip-length cape of some green lizard

leather. A pair of delicate but functional silver clips held the cape together

at the collar.

Despite Mudge's insistence, however, he categorically refused to don the orange

tricornered cap. "I just don't like hats."

"Such a pity." Carlemot's attitude had shifted from one of distress to one of

considerable pride. "It really is necessary to complete the overall effect,

which, if I may be permitted to say so, is striking as well as unique."

Jon-Tom turned, watched the scales of the cape flare even in the dim light.

"Sure as hell would turn heads in L.A."

"Not bad," Mudge conceded. "Almost worth the price."

" 'Almost' indeed!" The fox was pacing round Jon-Tom, inspecting the costume for

any defects or tears. Once he paused to snip a loose thread from a sleeve of the

shirt. "It is subdued yet flashy, attention-gathering without being obtrusive."

He smiled, displaying sharp teeth in a long narrow snout.

"The man looks like a noble, or better still, a banker. When one is confronted

with so much territory to cover, the task is at first daunting. However, the

more one has to work with, the more gratifying the end results. Never mind this

plebian, my tall friend," the fox continued, gazing up possessively at Jon-Tom,

"what is your opinion?"

"I like it. Especially the cape." He spun a small circle, nearly fell down but

recovered poise and balance nicely. "I always wanted to wear a cape."

"I am pleased." The tailor appeared to be waiting for something, coughed

delicately.

"Crikey, mate," snapped Mudge, "pay the fellow."

Some good-natured haggling followed, with Mudge's task made the more difficult

by the fact that Jon-Tom kept siding with the tailor. A reasonable balance was

still struck, since Carlemot's natural tendency to drive a hard bargain was

somewhat muted by the pleasure he'd received from accomplishing so difficult a

job.

That did not keep Mudge from chastising Jon-Tom as they left the shop behind.

The drizzle had become a heavy mist around them.

"Mate, I can't save you much if you're goin' t' take the side of the

shopkeeper."

"Don't worry about it." For the first time in a long while, he was feeling

almost happy. Between the lingering effects of the smoke session and the gallant

appearance he was positive his new attire gave him, his mood was downright

expansive. "It was a tough task for him and he did a helluva job. I don't

begrudge him the money. Besides," he jingled the purse in his pocket, "we still

have some left."

"That's good, because we've one more stop t' make."

"Another?" Jon-Tom frowned. "I don't need any more clothing."

"That so? Far as I'm concerned, mate, you're walkin' around bloody naked." He

turned right. They passed four or five storefronts on the wide street, crossed

the cobblestones and a little bridge arcing over the central stream, and entered

another shop.

It possessed an entirely different ambiance from the warm tailor shop they'd

just left. While the fox's establishment had been spotless, soft-looking, and

comfortable as an old den, this one was chill with an air of distasteful

business.

One entire wall was speckled with devices designed for throwing. There were

dozens of knives; ellipsoidal, stiletto, triangular, with or without blood

gutters grooved nastily in their flanks, gem-encrusted little pig-stickers for

argumentative ladies, trick knives concealed in eyeglass cases or boot soles...

all the deadly variety of which the honer was capable.

Throwing stars shone in the lamplight like decorations plucked from the devil's

Christmas tree. A spiked bolo hung from an intricate halberd. Maces and nunchaku

alternated wall space with spears and shields, pikes and war axes. Near the back

of the shop were the finer weapons, long bows and swords with more variety of

handle (to fit many different size and shape of hand) than of blade. One

particularly ugly half-sword looked more like a double scythe. It was easy to

envision the damage it could do when wielded by a knowledgeable arm. That of a

gibbon with a deceptive reach, for example.

Some of the swords and throwing knives had grooved or hollow handles. Jon-Tom

was at a loss to imagine what sort of creature they'd been designed for until he

remembered the birds. A hand would not make much use of such grips, but they

were perfect for, say, a flexible wing tip.

For a few high moments he'd managed to forget that this was a world of

established violence and quick death. He leaned over the counter barring the

back of the shop from the front and studied something that resembled a

razor-edged frisbee. He shuddered, and looked around for Mudge.

The otter had moved around the counter and had vanished behind a bamboolike

screen. When Jon-Tom thought to call to him, he was already returning, chatting

with the owner. The squat, muscular raccoon wore only an apron, sandals, and a

red headband with two feathers sticking downward past his left ear. He smelled,

as did the back of the shop, of coalsmoke and steel.

"So this is the one who wants the mayhem?" The raccoon pursed his lips, looked

over a black nose at Jon-Tom.

"Mudge, I don't know about this. I've always been a talker, not a fighter."

"I understand, mate," said the otter amiably. "But there are weighty arguments

and there are weighty arguments." He hefted a large mace to further illustrate

his point. "Leastways, you don't have to employ none of these tickle-me-tights,

but you bloody well better show something or you'll mark yourself an easy

target.

"Now, can you use any of these toys?"

Jon-Tom examined the bewildering array of dismembering machinery. "I don't..."

he shook his head, looking confused.

The armorer stepped in. "Tis plain to see he's no experience." His tone was

reproving but patient. "Let me see, now. With his size and reach..." He moved

thoughtfully to a wall where pikes and spears grew like iron wheat from the

floor, each set in its individual socket in the wooden planks. His right paw

rubbed at his nose.

With both hands he removed an ax with a blade the size of his head. "Where skill

and subtlety are absent, mayhap it would be best to make use of the other

extremes. No combat or weapons training at all, young lad?"

Jon-Tom shook his head, looked unencouraging.

"What about sports?"

"I'm not bad at basketball. Pretty good jump shot, and I can--"

"Shit!" Mudge kicked at the floor. "What the devil's arse is that? Does it

perhaps involve some hittin'?" he asked hopefully.

"Not much," Jon-Tom admitted. "Mostly running and jumping, quick movements...."

"Well, that be something," Mudge faced the armorer. "Something less bull-bright

than that meat cleaver you're holdin', then. What would you recommend?"

"A fast retreat." The armorer turned dourly to another rack, preening his

whiskers. "Though if the man can lay honest claim to some nimbleness, there

ought to be something." He put up the massive ax. "Mayhap we can give him some

help."

He removed what looked like a simple spear, made from the polished limb of a

tree. But instead of a spearpoint, the upper end widened into a thick wooden

knob with bumps and dull points. It was taller than Mudge and reached Jon-Tom's

ears, the shaft some two inches in diameter.

"Just a club?" Mudge studied the weapon uncertainly.

"Tis the longest thing I've got in the shop." The armorer dragged a clipped nail

down the shaft. "This is ramwood. It won't snap in a fight. With your friend's

long reach, he can use it to fend an opponent off if he's not much interested in

properly disposing of him. And if things get tight and he's still blood-shy,

why, a good clop on the head with the business end of this will make someone

just as dead as if you'd split his skull. Not as messy as the ax, but just as

effective." He handed it to the reluctant Jon-Tom.

"It'll make you a fine walking stick, too, man. And there's something else. I

mentioned giving you some help." He pointed at the middle of the staff. Halfway

up the shaft were two bands of inlaid silver three inches apart. The space

between was decorated with four silver studs.

"Press any one of those, man."

Jon-Tom did so. There was a click, and the staff instantly grew another foot.

Twelve inches of steel spike now projected from the base of the staff. Jon-Tom

was so surprised he almost dropped the weapon, but Mudge danced about like a kid

in a candy shop.

"Bugger me mother if that ain't a proper surprise for any discourteous dumb-butt

you might meet in the street. A little rub from that'll cure 'em right quick, I

venture!"

"Aye," agreed the armorer with pride. "Just tap 'em on the toe and press your

release and I guarantee you'll see one fine wide-eyed expression." Both raccoon

and otter shook with amusement.

Jon-Tom pushed down on the shaft and the spear-spike retracted like a cats-claw

up inside the staff. Another experimental grip on the studs, and it shot out

once more. It was clever, but certainly not amusing.

"Listen, I'd rather not fool with this thing at all, but if you insist..."

"I do." Mudge stopped laughing, wiped tears from his eyes. "I do insist. Like

the master armorer 'ere says, you don't 'ave t' use that toe-chopper if you've

no mind t', but there'll likely be times when you'll want t' keep some

sword-swingin' sot a fair few feet from your guts. So take claim to it and be

glad."

Jon-Tom hefted the shaft, but he wasn't glad. Merely having possession of the

deceptive weapon was depressing him.

Outside they examined the contents of the little purse. It was nearly empty. A

few small silver coins gleamed forlornly like fish in a dark tank from the

bottom of the sack. Jon-Tom wondered if he hadn't been slightly profligate with

Clothahump's generosity.

Mudge appraised the remnants of their fortune. Mist continued to dampen them,

softening the lamplight that buttered the street and shopfronts. With the easing

of the rain, other pedestrians had reappeared. Animal shadow-shapes moved dimly

through the fog.

"Hungry, mate?" asked the otter finally, black eyes shining in the light.

"Starving!" He was abruptly aware he hadn't had a thing to eat all day. Mudge's

store of jerked meat had given out the previous evening.

"I also." He clapped Jon-Tom on his cape. "Now you looks almost like a real

person." He leaned conspiratorially close. "Now I know a place where the silver

we 'ave left will bring us as fat a feast as a pregnant hare could wish. Maybe

even enough t' fill your attenuated belly-hollow!" He winked. "Maybe some

entertainment besides. You and I 'ave done our duty for the day, we 'ave."

As they strolled further into town, they encountered more pedestrians. An

occasional wagon jounced down the street, and individuals on saddled riding

lizards hopped or ran past. Long pushbrooms came into play as shopkeepers swept

water from porches and storefronts. Shutters snapped open. For the first time

Jon-Tom heard the wails of children. Cubs would be the better term, he corrected

himself.

Two young squirrels scampered by. One finally tackled the other. They tumbled to

the cobblestones, rolling over and over, punching and kicking while a small mob

of other youngsters gathered around and urged them on. To Jon-Tom's dismay their

initial cuteness was muted by the manner in which they gouged and scratched at

each other. Not that his own hometown was devoid of violence, but it seemed to

be a way of life here. One cub finally got the other down and was assiduously

making pulp of his face. His peers applauded enthusiastically, offering

suggestions for further disfigurement.

"A way of life, mate?" Mudge said thoughtfully when Jon-Tom broached his

thoughts. "I wouldn't know. I'm no philosopher, now. But I know this. You can be

polite and dead or respected and breathin'." He shrugged. "Now you can make your

own choice. Just don't be too ready to put aside that nice new toy you've

bought."

Jon-Tom made sure he had a good grip on the staff. The increasing crowd and

lifting of the fog brought fresh stares. Mudge assured him it was only on

account of his unusual size. If anything, he was now clad far better than the

average citizen of Lynchbany Towne.

Five minutes later he was no longer simply hungry, he was ravenous.

"Not much longer, mate." They turned down a winding side street. There was an

almost hidden entrance on their left, into which Mudge urged him. Once again he

had to bend nearly double to clear the overhang.

Then he was able to stand. The ceiling inside was a good two feet above his

head, for which he was more than slightly grateful.

"The Pearl Possum," said Mudge, with considerably more enthusiasm than he'd

displayed toward anything else so far. "Me, I'm for somethin' liquid now. This

way, mate. 'Ware the lamps."

Jon-Tom followed the otter into the bowels of the restaurant, elbowing his way

through the shoving, tightly packed crowd and keeping a lookout for the

occasional hanging lamps Mudge had warned him about. From outside there was no

hint of the considerable, sweaty mob milling inside.

Eight feet inside the entrance, the ceiling curved upward like a circus tent. It

peaked a good two and a half stories above the floor. Beneath this central

height was a circular counter dispensing food and brew. It was manned by a small

battalion of cooks and mixolo-gists. A couple were weasels. There was also a

single, nattily dressed rabbit and one scroungy-looking bat, smaller and even

uglier than Pog. Not surprisingly, the bat spent most of his time delivering

food and drink to various tables. Jon-Tom knew of other restaurants which would

have been glad of an arboreal waiter.

What tables there were spotted the floor like fat toadstools in no particular

order. On the far side of the Pearl Possum were partially enclosed booths

designed for discussion or dalliance, depending on the inclination of the

inhabitants.

They continued to make their way through the noisy, malodorous crowd. Isolated

ponds of liquor littered the floor, along with several splinters from smashed

wooden mugs. The owners had sensibly disdained the use of glass. Numerous drains

pockmarked the wooden planking underfoot. Occasionally someone would appear with

a bucket of water to wash down a section of floor too slippery with booze,

sometimes of the partially digested variety.

He was easily the tallest man--the tallest animal--in the room, though there

were a couple of large wolves and cats who were built more massively. It made

him feel only a little more confident.

" 'Ere lad, over 'ere!" Following the triumphant shout Jon-Tom felt himself

yanked down to a small but abandoned table. His knees pressed up toward his

chest-the chairs were much too low for comfortable seating.

Furry bodies pressed close on all sides, filling his nostrils with the stink of

liquor and musk. Supporting the table was the sculpted plaster figure of a

coquettishly posed female opposum. It had been scratched and engraved with so

many lewd comments that the sheen was almost gone.

Somehow a waiter noticed that their hands and table were empty, shoved his way

through to them. Like the armorer he was wearing an apron, only this one was

filthy beyond recognition, the pattern beneath obliterated by grease and other

stains. Like the armorer he was a black-masked raccoon. One ear was badly

mangled, and a white scar ran boldly from the ear down the side of his head,

just past the eye, and on through the muzzle, but particularly noticeable where

it crossed the black mask.

Jon-Tom was too busy observing the life and action swirling around them to

notice that Mudge had already ordered.

"Not t' worry, mate. I ordered for you."

"I hope you ordered food, as well as liquor. I'm hungrier than ever."

"That I 'ave, mate. Any fool knows 'tis not good t' drink on an empty belly.

'Ere you, watch yourself." He jabbed an elbow into the ribs of the drunken

ocelot who'd stumbled into him.

The animal spun, waving his mug and sending liquor spilling toward the otter.

Mudge dodged the drink with exceptional speed. The feline made a few yowling

comments about the rib jab, but was too sloshed to pick a serious fight. It

lurched helplessly off into the crowd. Jon-Tom followed the pointy, weaving ears

until their owner was out of sight.

Two large wooden mugs of something highly carbonated and smelling of alcohol

arrived. The hardwood mug looked oversized in Mudge's tiny hand, but it was just

the right size for Jon-Tom. He tried a sip of the black liquid within, found it

to be a powerful fermented brew something like a highly alcoholic malt liquor.

He determined to treat it respectfully.

The waiter's other hand deposited a large platter covered by a badly dented and

scratched metal dome. When the dome was removed, Jon-Tom's nose was assailed by

a wonderfully rich aroma. On the platter were all kinds of vegetables. Among

strange shapes were comfortingly familiar carrots, radishes, celery, and tiny

onions. A raft of potatoes supported a huge cylindrical roast. A single center

bone showed at either end. It was burnt black outside and shaded to pink near

the bone.

He hunted in vain for silverware. Mudge pointed out that the restaurant would

hardly provide instruments for its patrons to use on one another. The otter had

a hunting knife out. It was short and triangular like the tooth of a white shark

and went easily through the meat.

"Rare, medium, or well burnt?" was the question.

"Anything." Jon-Tom fought to keep the saliva inside his mouth. Mudge sliced off

two respectable discs of meat, passed one to his companion.

They ate as quietly as smacking fingers and gravy-slick lips would permit.

Jon-Tom struggled to keep the juice off his freshly cut clothes. Mudge was not

nearly so fastidious. Gravy ran down his furry chin onto his vest, was sopped up

by vest and chest fur.

They were halfway full when a partially sated Jon-Tom relaxed long enough to

notice that in addition to the center bone running through the roast, there were

thin, curving ribs running from the bone to meet like the points of calipers

near the bottom.

"Mudge, what kind of meat is this?"

"Not tasty enough, mate?" wondered the otter around a mouthful of vegetables.

"It's delicious, but I don't recognize the cut or the flavor. It's not any kind

of steak, is it? I mean, beef?"

"Beef? You mean, cattle?" Mudge shook his head. "They may not be smart, but

we're not cannibals 'ere, we're not." He chewed ap-praisingly. "O' course, it

ain't king snake. Python. Reticulated, I'd say."

"Wonderful." Why be squeamish in the face of good taste, Jon-Tom mused. There

was no reason to be. He never had understood the phobia some folk had about

eating reptile, though he'd never had the opportunity to try it before. After

all, meat was meat. It was all muscle fiber to the tooth.

He did not think he'd care to meet a snake of that size away from the dinner

plate, however.

They were dismembering the last of the roast when the waiter, unbidden, appeared

with a small tray of some fat puff pastries seared black across their crowns.

Though he was no longer hungry, Jon-Tom sampled one, soon found himself

shoveling them in as fast as possible. Despite their heavy appearance they were

light and airy inside, full of honey and chopped nuts and encrusted with burnt

cinnamon.

Later he leaned back in the short chair and picked at his teeth with a splinter

of the table, as he'd seen some of the other patrons doing.

"Well, that may take the last of our money, but that's the best meal I've had in

years."

"Aye, not bad." Mudge had his short legs up on the table, the boot heels resting

indifferently in the pastry tray.

A band had begun playing somewhere. The music was at once light and brassy.

Jon-Tom took a brief professional interest in it. Since he couldn't see the

players, he had to be satisfied with deciding that they employed one or two

string instruments, drums, chimes, and a couple of oddly deep flutes.

Mudge was leaning across the table, feeling warm and serious. He put a

cautionary paw on Jon-Tom's wrist. "Sorry t' shatter your contentment, mate, but

we've somethin' else t' talk on. Clothahump charged me with seein' t' your

well-bein' and I've a mind t' see the job through t' the end.

"If you want t' continue eatin' like that, we're goin' to 'ave t' find you some

way t' make a living, wot...?"

V

Reality churned in Jon-Tom's stomach, mixed unpleasantly with the pastry. "Uh,

can't we just go back to Clothahump?" He'd decided he was beginning to like this

world.

Mudge shook his head slowly. "Not if 'e don't get that gold spell aright. Keep

in mind that as nice and kindly as the old bugger seemed a few days ago, wizards

can be god-rotted temperamental. If we go back already and pester 'im for money,

'e's not going t' feel much proud o' you. Not to mention wot 'is opinion o' me

would be. You want to keep the old twit feelin' responsible for wot 'e's done t'

you, mate.

"Oh, 'e might 'ave a fair supply of silver tucked away neat and pretty

somewhere. But 'is supply of silver's bound to be limited. So long as 'e's got

'is feeble old mind set on this dotty crisis of 'is, 'e's not goin' to be doin'

much business. No business, no silver. No silver, no 'andouts, right? I'm afraid

you're goin't' 'ave t' go t' work."

"I see." Jon-Tom stared morosely into his empty mug. "What about working with

you, Mudge?"

"Now don't get me wrong, mate. I'm just gettin' t' where I can tol'rate your

company."

"Thanks," said Jon-Tom tartly.

"That's all right, it is. But huntin's a solitary profession. I don't think I

could do much for you there. You don't strike me as the type o' chap who knows

'is way 'round a woods. You'd as soon trip over a trap as set one, I think."

"I won't deny that I feel more at home around books, or a basketball court."

"Otherworldly sports won't do you ant's piss good 'round 'ere, lad. As far as

the learnin' part of it... wot was it then you were acquiring?"

"I'm into prelaw, Mudge."

"Ah, a barrister-t'-be, is it? Never 'ad much use for the species meself," he

added, not caring what Jon-Tom might think of his detrimental opinions of the

legal profession. "Wot did you study besides the law itself, for the laws 'ere

as you might imagine are likely a mite different from those o' your own."

"History, government... I don't guess they'd be much use here either."

"I suppose we might get you apprenticed to some local barrister," Mudge

considered. He scratched the inside of one ear, moved around to work on the

back. "I don't know, mate. You certain there's nothin' else? You ever work a

forge, build furniture? Do metalwork, build a house, cure meat... anythin'

useful?"

"Not really." Jon-Tom felt uncomfortable.

"Huh!" The otter let loose a contemptuous whistle. "Fine life you've led for a

so-called wizard."

"That's Clothahump's mistake," Jon-Tom protested. "I never claimed to be that.

I've never claimed to be anything other than what I am."

"Which don't appear to be much, as far as placin' you's concerned. Nothin' more

in the way of skills, is it?"

"Well..." Another ambition flooded through him. With it came the laughs of his

friends and the condemnations and horrified protests of his family. Then they

were drowned by a vision of himself with a guitar and by the memories of all the

groups, all the performances he'd collected and mimicked in his less

intellectual, more emotional moments of introspection. Memories and sounds of

Zepplin and Harum, of Deep Purple and Tangerine Dream and Moody Blues and a

thousand others. Electric melodies tingled in his fingertips. Logic and reason

vanished. Once more good sense and truth clashed within him.

Only here good sense did not serve. Heart's desire again took control of him.

"I play a g... an electric bass. It's a kind of a stringed instrument. It's only

a hobby. I thought once I might try to make a career out of it, only..."

"So you're a musician then!" Consternation vanished as understanding filled the

otter. He pushed back his chair, let his feet down on the floor, and stared with

new interest at his companion. "A minstrel. I'll be bloody be-damned. Aye, there

might be a way there for you t' make some coppers, maybe even some silver. You'd

be a novelty, anyways. Let me 'ear you sing something."

"Right here?" Jon-Tom looked around nervously.

"Aye. No one's goin' to 'ear you anyway. Not between the babble and band."

"I don't know." Jon-Tom considered. "I need to warm up. And I don't have my

guitar with me."

"A pox on your bleedin' instrument," growled the otter. " 'Ow do you expect t'

act a proper minstrel if you can't sing on demand, when someone requires it o'

you? Now don't mind me, mate. Get on with it." He sat expectantly, looked

genuinely intrigued.

Jon-Tom cleared his throat self-consciously and looked around. No one was paying

him the least attention. He took a fortifying swallow from Mudge's mug and

considered. Damn silly, he thought. Oh well, best try an old favorite, and he

began "Eleanor Rigby." Am I one of all the lonely people now? he thought as he

voiced the song.

When he'd finished, he looked anxiously at the otter. Mudge's expression was

fixed.

"Well? How was I?"

Mudge leaned back in his seat, smiled faintly. "Maybe you were right, Jon-Tom.

Maybe it 'twould be better with some instrumental accompaniment. Interestin'

words, I'll grant you that. I once knew a chap who kept several faces in jars,

though 'e didn't 'ave 'em up by 'is door."

Jon-Tom tried not to show his disappointment, though why he should have expected

a different reaction from the otter than from previous audiences he couldn't

imagine.

"I'm really much more of an instrumentalist. As far as voice goes," he added

defensively, "maybe I'm not smooth, but I'm enthusiastic."

"That's so, mate, but I'm not so sure your listeners would be. I'll try t' think

on what else you might do. But for now, I think maybe it would be a kindness t'

forget about any minstrelin'."

"Well, I'm not helpless." Jon-Tom gestured around them. "I don't want to keep

imposing on you, Mudge. Take this place. I'm not afraid of hard work. There must

be hundreds of mugs and platters to wash and floors to be mopped down, tables to

be cleaned, drains to be scoured. There's a helluva lot of work here. I

could..."

Mudge reached across the table and had both paws digging into Jon-Tom's indigo

shirt. He stared up into the other's surprise and whispered intently.

"You can't do that! That's work for mice and rats. Don't let anyone 'ear you

talk like that, Jon-Tom." He let go of the silk and sat back in his chair.

"Come on now," Jon-Tom protested softly. "Work is work."

"Think you that now?" Mudge pointed to his right.

Two tables away from theirs was a rat about three feet tall. He was dressed in

overalls sewn from some heavy, thick material that was badly stained and

darkened. Thick gloves covered tiny paws, and knee-high boots rested on the

floor as the rodent scrubbed at the planking.

The others nearby completely ignored his presence, dropping bones or other

garbage nearby or sometimes onto his back. As Jon-Tom watched, the rodent

accidentally stumbled across the leg of a drunken gull hunting a table with

perches to accommodate ornithological clients. The big bird cocked a glazed eye

at him and snapped once with its beak, more taunting than threatening.

Stumbling clear, the rat fell backward, tripped over his own feet, and brought

his bucket of trash and goo down on himself. It ran down his boots and over the

protective overalls. For a moment he lay stunned in the heap of garbage. Then he

slowly struggled to his knees and began silently gathering it up again, ignoring

but not necessarily oblivious to the catcalls and insults the patrons heaped on

him. A thick bone bounced off his neck, and he gathered it up along with the

rest of the debris. Soon the watchers grew bored with the momentary diversion

and returned to their drinking, eating, and arguing.

"Only rats and mice do that kind of work?" Jon-Tom inquired. "I used to do

something like it all the time. Remember, that's what confused Clothahump into

bringing me here in the first place."

"What you do elsewhere you'd best not try 'ere, mate. Any self-respectin' animal

would sooner starve before doin' that, or go t' beggin' like our sticker-hiding

friend, the gibbon."

"I don't understand any of this, Mudge."

"Don't try t', mate. Just roll with the waves, wot? Besides, those types are

naturally lazy and dumb. They'd rather lie about and guzzle cheese all day than

do any honest work, they would. Spend all their time when not eatin' in

indiscriminate screwing, though you wouldn't think they'd 'ave enough brains t'

know which end to work with."

Jon-Tom was fighting to control his temper. "There's nothing wrong with doing

menial work. It doesn't make those who do it menial-minded. I..." He sighed,

wondered at the hopelessness of it all. "I guess I just thought things would be

different here, as far as that kind of thing goes. It's my fault. I was

imagining a world that doesn't exist."

Mudge laughed. "Little while back I recall you insistin' that this one didn't

exist."

"Oh, it exists all right." His fists rubbed angrily on the table as he watched

the subservient rat suddenly go down on his chest. A turtle with a disposition

considerably less refined than Clothahump's had stuck out a stubby leg and

tripped the unfortunate rodent. Once more the laboriously gathered garbage went

flying while a new burst of merriment flared from the onlookers.

"Why discrimination like that here?" Jon-Tom muttered. "Why here too?"

"Discrimination?" Mudge seemed confused. "Nobody discriminates against 'em.

That's all they're good for. Can't argue with natural law, mate."

Jon-Tom had expected more from Mudge, though he'd no real reason to. From what

he'd already seen, the otter was no worse than the average inhabitant of this

stinking, backward nonparadise.

There were a number of humans scattered throughout the restaurant. None came

near approaching Jon-Tom in height. Nearby a single older gentleman was drinking

and playing cards with a spider monkey dressed in black shot through with silver

thread. They paired off against a larger simian Jon-Tom couldn't identify and a

three-foot-tall pocket gopher wearing a crimson jumpsuit and the darkest

sunglasses Jon-Tom had ever seen.

No doubt they were as prejudiced and bigoted as the others. And where did he

come off setting himself up as arbiter of another world's morals?

"There ain't nothin' you can do about it, mate. Why would anyone want t' change

things? Cor now, moppin' and sweepin' and such are out, unless you want t' lose

all respeet due a regular citizen. Politickin' you're also qualified for, but

that o' course ranks even lower than janitorial-type drudgeryin'. I'd hope you

won't 'ave t' fall back on your abilities for minstrelin'." His tone changed to

one of hope mixed with curiosity.

"Now ol' Clothahump, 'e was bloody well sure you were some sort of sorcerer, 'e

was. You sure you can't work no magic? I 'eard you questioning 'is wizard-wart's

own special words."

"That was just curiosity, Mudge. Some of the words were familiar. But not in the

way he used them. Even you did the business with the dancing pins. Does everyone

practice magic around here?"

"Oh, everyone practices, all right." Mudge swilled down a snootful of black

brew. "But few get good enough at it to do much more than a trick or two. Pins

are my limit, I'm afraid. Wish to 'ell I knew 'is gold spell." His gaze suddenly

moved left and he grinned broadly.

"Course now, when the situation arises I ain't too bad at certain forms o'

levitation." His right hand moved with the speed of which only otters are

capable.

How the saucily dressed and heavily made up chipmunk managed to keep from

dumping the contents of the six tankards she was maneuvering through the crowd

was a bit of magic in itself, Jon-Tom thought as he ducked to avoid the few

flying suds.

She turned an outraged look on the innocent-seeming Mudge. "You keep your hands

to yourself, you shit-eating son of a mud worm! Next time you'll get one of

these up your furry backside!" She threatened him with a tankard.

"Now Lily," Mudge protested, " 'aven't you always told me you're always 'untin'

for a way t' move up in the world?"

She started to swing an armful of liquor at him and he cowered away in mock

fear, covering his face with his paws and still smiling. Then she thought better

of wasting the brew. Turning from their table she marched away, elbowing a path

through the crowd. Her tail switched prettily from side to side, the short dress

barely reaching from waist to knee. It was gold with a gray lining that neatly

set off her own attractive russet and black and white striping.

"What did I tell you, mate?" Mudge grinned over his mug at Jon-Tom.

He tried to smile back, aware that the otter was trying to break the glum mood

into which Jon-Tom had fallen. So he forced himself to continue the joke.

"Mighty short levitation, Mudge. I don't see how it does her any good."

"Who said anything about her?" The otter jabbed himself in the chest with a

thumb. "It's me the levitatin' benefits!" He clasped both furry arms around his

chest and roared at his own humor, threatening to upset table and self.

Wooden shades were rolled down to cover the two windows, and someone dimmed the

oil lamps. Jon-Tom started to rise, felt a restraining paw on his wrist.

"Nay, guv, 'tis nothing t' be concerned about." His eyes were sparkling. "Quite

the contrary. Did I not promise you some entertainment?" He pointed to the

circular serving counter and up.

What looked like an upside-down tree was slowly descending from a gap in the

center of the peaked ceiling. It was green with fresh growth, only the foliage

had been tacked on and doubtless was periodically renewed. The still unseen band

segued into an entirely new tune. The percussionist was doing most of the work

now, Jon-Tom noted. The beat was heavy, slow, and sensuous.

The yelling and shouting that filled the establishment changed also. Barely

organized chaos faded to a murmur of anticipation spotted with occasional roars

of comment, usually lewd in nature.

Mudge had shifted his seat, now sat close to Jon-Tom. His eyes were on the fake

tree as he elbowed his companion repeatedly in the ribs.

"Eyes at the alert now, mate. There's not a fairer nor more supple sight in all

Lynchbany."

An animal appeared at the dark opening in the ceiling, prompting a bellow from

the crowd. It vanished, then teasingly reappeared. It was slight, slim, and made

its way very slowly from the hidden chamber above down into the branches of the

ersatz conifer. About three and a half feet in length, it displayed another half

foot of active tail and was completely, almost blindingly covered in snow-white

fur save for a few inches of black at the tip of the tail.

Its costume, if such so lithe a wrapping could be called, consisted of many

layers of black veils of some chiffonlike material through which the brilliant

white fur showed faintly. Its face was streaked with red painted on in intricate

curlicues and patterns that ran from face and snout down onto shoulders, chest,

and back before vanishing beneath the airy folds. A turban of matching black was

studded with jewels. The final touch, Jon-Tom noted with fascination, were long

false eyelashes.

So absorbing was this glittering mammalian vision that for several moments

identification escaped him. That slim form and muscular torso could only belong

to some member of the weasel family. When the apparition smiled and displayed

tiny sharp teeth he was certain of it. This was an ermine, still in full

winter-white coat. That confirmed the time of year he'd arrived, though he

hadn't thought to ask anyone. About the creature's femininity he had no doubt

whatsoever.

A hush of interspecies expectancy had settled over the crowd. All attention was

focused overhead as the ermine ecdysiast began to toy with the clasps securing

one veil. She unsnapped one, then its companion. Cries of appreciation started

to rise from the patrons, an amazing assortment of hoots, whistles, squeaks,

yowls, and barks. She began to uncoil the first veil with snakelike motions.

Jon-Tom had never had occasion to imagine an animal executing anything as erotic

as a striptease. After all, beneath any clothing lay another layer of solid fur

and not the bare flesh of a human.

But eroticism has little to do with nudity, as he soon discovered. It was the

movement of the creature, a supple twisting and turning that no human female

could possibly match, that was stimulating. He found himself thoroughly

engrossed by the mechanics of the dance alone.

To rising cries of appreciation from the crowd one veil followed another. The

cool indifference Jon-Tom had intended to affect had long since given way to a

distinct tingling. He was no more immune to beauty than any other animal. The

ermine executed a series of movements beyond the grasp of the most talented

double-jointed human, and did so with the grace and demeanor of a countess.

There was also the manner in which she oozed around the branches and leaves of

the tree, caressing them with hands and body in a way only a chunk of cold

granite could have ignored. The room was heavy with musk now, the suggestiveness

of motion and gesture affecting every male within sight.

The last veil dropped free, floated featherlike to the floor. The music was

moving almost as fast as the performer. That white-furred derriere had become a

gravity-defying metronome, a passionate pendulum sometimes concealed, sometimes

revealed by the position of the twitching tail, all vibrating in time to the

music.

The music rose to a climax as the ermine, hanging by her arms from the lowermost

branches, executed an absolutely impossible series of movements which

incidentally revealed to Jon-Tom the reason for the circular, central nature of

the main serving counter. It served now as fortress wall behind which the

heavily armed cooks and bartenders were able to fend off the hysterical advances

of the overheated patrons.

One long-eared rabbit which Jon-Tom supposed to be a jack actually managed to

grab a handful of black-tipped tail which was coyly but firmly pulled out of

reach. A burly bobcat dumped the rabbit back among the surging patrons as the

ermine blew a last kiss to her audience. Then she slithered back through

branches and leaves to disappear inside the ceiling with a last fluid bump and

grind.

Shades and tree were promptly rolled up. Conversation resumed and normality

returned to the restaurant. Waitresses and waiters continued to wend their way

through the crowd like oxygen in the bloodstream.

"D'you see now wot I mean, mate?" Mudge said with the contentment of one who'd

just cashed a very large check, "when I say that there's no one who--" He

stopped, stared strangely across the table.

"What's wrong?" asked Jon-Tom uncomfortably.

" 'Ave me for breakfast," was the startled reply, "if you ain't blushin'! You

'umans..."

"Bull," muttered Jon-Tom, turning angrily away.

"Nope." The otter leaned over the table, peering closely at Jon-Tom despite his

attempts to keep his face concealed. "Blimey but it's true... you're as red as a

baboon's behind, lad." He nodded upward, toward the peak of the roof." 'Ave you

ne'er seen such a performance before, then?"

"Of course I have." He turned forcefully back to face his guardian, rocked a

little unsteadily. It seeped into his brain that he might have become a little

bit tipsy. How much of that black booze had he downed?

"That is, I have... on film."

"What be that?"

"A magic apparition," Jon-Tom explained facilely.

"Well if you've gazed upon such, though not, I dare to say," and he gazed

admiringly ceilingward, "of such elegance and skill, then why the red face?"

"It's just that," he searched for the right words to explain his confusion, "I

shouldn't find the actions of..." How could he say, "another animal" without

offending his companion? Desperately he hunted for an alternate explanation.

"I've never seen anything done with quite that... well, with quite that degree

of perverse dexterity."

"Ah, I understand now. Though perverse I wouldn't call it. Crikey, but that was

a thing of great beauty."

"If you say so, I guess it was." Jon-Tom was grateful for the out.

"Aye." Mudge growled softly and smiled. "And if I could once get my paws on that

supple little mother-dear, I'd show 'er a thing of beauty."

The thick, warm atmosphere of the restaurant had combined with the rich food and

drink to make Jon-Tom decidedly woozy. He was determined not to pass out. Mudge

already did not think much of him, and Clothahump's warnings or no, he wasn't

ready to bet that the otter would stay with him if he made a total ass of

himself.

Determinedly he shoved the mug away, rose, and glanced around.

"What be you searchin' for now, mate?"

"Some of my own kind." His eyes scanned the crowd for the sight of bare flesh.

"What, 'umans?" The otter shrugged. "Aw well, never 'ave I understood your

peculiar affinity for each other's company, but you're free enough to choose

your own. Espy some, do you?"

Jon-Tom's gaze settled on a pair of familiar bald faces in a booth near the rear

of the room. "There's a couple over that way. Two men, I think."

"As you will, then."

He turned his attention down to the otter. "It's not that I'm not enjoying your

companionship, Mudge. It's just that I'd like one of my own kind to talk to for

a while."

His worries were groundless. Mudge was in entirely too good a mood to be

offended by anything.

"Wotever you like, mate. We'll go and 'ave a chat then, if that's wot you want.

But don't forget we've still the little matter o' settlin' you on some proper

course o' employment." He shook his head more to clear it than to indicate

displeasure.

"Minstrel... I don't know. There might still be the novelty factor." He

scratched the fur just under his chin. "Tell you what. Give us another song and

then we'll go over and see if we can't make the acquaintance o' those chaps."

"I thought you'd heard enough the first time."

"Never go on first appearances, mate. Besides, 'twas a damn blue and gloomy tune

you let out with. Try somethin' different. Many's the minstrel who well mangles

one type o' tune yet can warble clearly another."

Jon-Tom sat down again, linked his fingers, and considered. "I don't know. What

would you like to hear? Classical, pop, blues, jazz?" He tried to sound

enthusiastic. "I know some classical, but what I really always wanted to do was

sing rock. It's a form of popular music back where I come from."

"I don't know either, mate. 'Ow 'bout ballads? Everyone likes ballads."

"Sure." He was warming again to his true love. "I know a number of 'em. What

subject do you like best?"

"Let me think on it a minute." Actually, it was only a matter of seconds before

a gleam returned to the black eyes, along with a smile.

"Never mine," Jon-Tom said hastily. "I'll think of something."

He thought, but it was hard to settle on any one song. Maybe it was the noise

and smell swirling around them, maybe the aftereffects of the meal, but words

and notes flitted in and out of his brain like gnats, never pausing long enough

for him to get a grip on any single memory. Besides, he felt unnatural singing

without his trusty, worn Grundig slung over his shoulder and across his stomach.

If he only had something, even a harmonica. But he couldn't play that and sing

simultaneously.

"Come on now, mate," Mudge urged him. "Surely you can think o' something?"

"I'll try," and he did, launching into a cracked rendition of "Strawberry Fair,"

but the delicate harmonies were drowned in the bellowing and hooting and

whistling that filled the air of the restaurant.

Nonetheless, he was unprepared for the sharp blow that struck him between the

shoulderblades and sent him sprawling chest-down across the table.

Angry and confused, he turned to find himself staring into a ferocious dark

brown face set on a stocky, muscular body as tall as Mudge's but more than twice

as broad....

VI

The snakeskin beret and red bandana did nothing to lessen the wolverine's

intimidating appearance.

"Sorry," Jon-Tom mumbled, uncertain of what else to say.

The face glared down at him, powerful jaws parting to reveal sharp teeth as the

lips curled back. "You ban not sorry enough, I think!" the creature rumbled

hollowly. "I ban pretty sorry for your mother, she having much to listen to a

voice like that. You upset my friends and my meal."

"I was just practicing." He was beginning to feel a mite indignant at the

insults. The warmth of the roast was still with him. He failed to notice the

queasy expression that had come over Mudge's faee. "It's difficult to sing

without any music to accompany me."

"Yah, well, you ban practice no more, you hear? It ban hurt my ears."

Mudge was trying and failing to gain Jen-Tom's attention. Jon-Tom rose from his

seat to tower over the shorter but more massive animal. It made him feel better,

giving proof once again to the old adage about the higher, the mightier. Or as

the old philosopher said, witness the pigeon's tactical advantage over man.

However the wolverine was not impressed. He gazed appraisingly up and down

Jon-Tom's length. "All that voice tube and no voice. Maybe you ban better at

singing in harmony, yah? So maybe I put one half neek here and the other half

across the table," and powerful clawed hands reached for Jon-Tom's face.

Dodging nimbly, Jon-Tom slipped around the table, brought up his staff, and

swung the straight end down in a whistling arc. Having had plenty to consume

himself, the wolverine reacted more slowly than usual. He did not quite get both

hands up in time to defend himself, and the staff smacked sharply over one set

of knuckles. The creature roared in pain.

"Look, I don't want any trouble."

"You stick up for your rights, mate!" Mudge urged him, beginning a precipitous

retreat from the vicinity of the table. "I'll watch and make sure it be a fair

fight."

"Like hell you will!" He held the staff tightly, trying to divide his attention

between the wolverine and the otter. "You remember what Clothahump said."

"Screw that!" But Mudge hesitated, his hand fumbling in the vicinity of his

chest sword. Clearly he was sizing up the tense triangle that had formed around

the table and debating whether or not he stood a better chance of surviving

Clothahump's vengeful spell-making than the wolverine and his friends. The

latter consisted of a tall marten and a chunky armadillo who displayed a sword

hanging from each hip belt. Of course, earrying weapons and knowing how to use

them were two different matters.

They were rising and moving to flank the wolverine and gazing at Jon-Tom in a

decidedly unfriendly manner. The wolverine himself had regained his composure

and was sliding an ugly-looking mace from the loop on his own belt.

"Steady on, mate," the otter urged his companion, sword out and committed now.

The wolverine was bouncing the spiked iron head of the mace up and down in one

palm, gripping the handle with the other. "Maybe I ban wrong about that

harmony." He eyed the man's throat. "Maybe I ban eliminate that voice

altogether, yah?" He started forward, encountered a waiter who started to curse

him, then saw the mace and fled into the crowd.

"Is too crowded in here though. I tink I meet you outside, hokay?"

"Hokay," said Jon-Tom readily. He moved as if to leave, got his right hand under

the edge of the table, and heaved. Table, drinks, remnants of their greasy meal

and platterware showered down on the wolverine, his companions, and several

unsuspecting occupants of other tables. The innocent bystanders took exception

to the barrage. One of the wolverine's associates side-stepped the flying table

and jabbed his sword at the otter's face. Mudge ducked under the marten's thrust

and kept his sword ready to challenge the emerging armadillo while neatly

kicking the bellicose marten in the nuts. The stricken animal grabbed himself

and went to his knees.

Among those who had received the dubious decorations preferred by Jon-Tom's

action were a pair of female coatis whose delicacy of shape and flash of eye

were matched by the outrage in their voices. They had drawn slim rapiers and

were struggling to join the fray.

Jon-Tom had moved backward and to his left, this being the only space still not

filled with potential combatants, and was quickly joined by Mudge. They

continued backing until they upset another table and its patrons. This

instituted a chain reaction which led with astonishing rapidity to a general

mayhem that threatened to involve every one in the establishment.

Only the chefs and bartenders kept their calm. They remained invulnerable behind

their protective circular counter, defending liquor and food as assiduously as

they had the honor and person of their gleaming white star performer. Only when

some stumbling battler intruded on their territorial circle did their heavy

clubs come into play. Waiters and waitresses huddled behind this front line of

defense, casually making book on the outcome of the fight or downing drinks

intended for otherwise occupied patrons.

The fight whirlpooled around this central bastion of calm as the room was filled

with yelps and meows, squeaks and squeals and chirps of pain and outrage.

It was an arboreal that almost got Jon-Tom. He was effectively if unartistically

using his long staff to fend off the short sword thrusts of an outraged pika

when Mudge yelled, "Jon-Tom... duck!"

As it was, the bola-wielding mallard missed his neck but got his weapon

entangled in the club end of Jon-Tom's staff. He shoved down hard on it. In

order to remain airborne the fowl had to surrender his weapon, but not without

dropping instead a stream of insults on the tall human. Jon-Tom had time to note

the duck's kilt of orange and green. He wondered if the different kilt colors

signified species or some sort of genus-spanning clan equivalent.

There was little time for sociological contemplation. The marten had recovered

from Mudge's low blow and was moving to put the sharp edge of his blade through

Jon-Tom's midsection. Instinctively he tilted the staff crosswise. The club end

came over and around. It missed the agile marten, but the entangled bird's bola

caught around the weasel's neck.

Dropping his sword, he pulled the device free of the staff and stumbled away,

fighting to free his neck from the strangling cord. Jon-Tom, momentarily clear

of attackers, hunted through the crowd for his companion.

Mudge was close by, kicking furniture in the way of potential assailants,

throwing mugs and other eating utensils at them whenever possible, avoiding

hand-to-hand combat wherever he could.

Jon-Tom took no pride, felt no pleasure in his newfound capacity for violent

self-defense. If he could only get out of this dangerous madhouse and back home

to the peace and quiet of his little apartment! But that distant, familiar haven

had receded ever farther into memory, had reached the point where it existed

only as misty history compared to the all too real blood and fury surrounding

him.

Thank God, he thought frantically, fending off another attacker, for

Clothahump's ministrations. Even a well-bandaged wound would have broken open

again by now, but he felt nothing in his formerly injured side. He was well and

truly healed.

That would not save him if one of many sword or pike thrusts punctured him anew.

The indiscriminate nature of the fighting was more frightening than anything

else now. It was impossible to tell potential friend from foe.

In vain he looked across the milling crest of the fight for the entrance. It was

seemingly at least a mile away across an ocean of battling fur and steel. A

desperate examination of the room seemed to show no other exit save via the

central bastion of the bar and food counter, whose defenders were not admitting

refugees. That left only the windows, an idea the panting Mudge quickly quashed.

"Blimey, mate, you must be daft! That glass be 'alf an inch thick in places and

thicker where 'tis beveled. I'd sooner take a sword thrust than slice meself t'

bloody ribbons on that.

"There be an alley out back. Let's make our way in that direction."

"I don't see any doors there," said Jon-Tom, straining to see past the rear

booths.

"Surely there's a service entryway. I'll settle now meself for a garbage chute."

Sure enough, they eventually discovered a single low doorway hidden by stacks of

crates and piles of garbage. The close-packed mob made progress difficult, but

they forced their way slowly toward the promise of freedom and safety. Only

Jon-Tom's overbearing height enabled them to keep their goal in view. To the

other brawlers he must have looked like an ambling lighthouse.

Already his shining snakeskin cape was torn and bloodstained. Better it than me,

he thought gratefully. It was not a pretty riot. The only rules were those of

survival.

He passed one squirrel prone on the floor, tail sodden and matted with blood.

His left leg was missing below the knee. So much blood and spilled drink and

food had accumulated on the floor, in fact, that one of the greatest dangers was

losing one's footing on the increasingly treacherous planking.

Jon-Tom watched as a cape-clad coyote picked over the unconscious form of a

badly bleeding fox. While his attention was thus temporarily diverted, someone

grabbed his left arm. He turned to swing the staff one-handed or jab as was

required. So far he hadn't been forced to utilize the concealed spearpoint and

hoped he'd never have to.

The figure that had grabbed him was completely swathed in maroon and blue

material. He could discern little of the figure save that the mostly hidden face

seemed to be human. The short figure tugged hard and urged him back behind a

temporary wall formed by a trio of fat porcupines, who, for self-evident

reasons, were having little trouble fending off any combatant foolish enough to

come close.

He decided there was time later for questions, since the figure was pulling him

toward the haven promised by the back door, and that was his intended

destination anyway.

"Hurry it up!" Though muffled by fabric the voice was definitely human. "The

cops have been called and should be here any second." There was a decided

undertone of real fear in that warning, the reason for which Jon-Tom was to

discover soon enough.

Visions of hundreds of furry poliee swarming through the crowd filled his

thoughts. From the size and breadth of the conflict he guessed it would take at

least that number several more hours to quell the fighting. He was reckoning

without the ingenuity of Lynchbany law enforcement.

Mudge, upon hearing of the incipient arrival of the gendarmes, acted genuinely

terrified.

"That's fair warnin', mate," he yelled above the din, "and we'd best get out or

die trying." He redoubled his efforts to clear a path to the door.

"Why? What will they do?" He swung his staff in a short arc, brought it up

beneath the chin of a small but gamely threatening muskrat who was swinging at

Jon-Tom's ankles with a weapon like a scythe. Fortunately, he'd only nicked one

trouser leg before Jon-Tom knocked him out. "Do they kill people here for

fighting in public?"

"Worse than that." Mudge was nearly at the back door, fighting to keep potential

antagonists out of sword range and the invulnerable porcupines between himself

and the rest of the mob. Then he shouted frantically.

"Quickly--quick now, for your lives!" Jon-Tom thought it peculiar the otter had

not sought the identity of their concealed compatriot. "They're here!"

From his position head-and-shoulders high above the crowd Jon-Tom could see

across to the now distant main entrance. He also noted with concern that the

chefs and bartenders and waiters had vanished, abandoning their stock to the

crowd.

Four or five figures of indeterminate furry cast stood inside the entryway now.

They wore leathern bonnets decorated with flashing ovals of metal. Emblems on

shoulder vests glinted in the light from the remaining intact lamps and the

windows. There was a crash, and he saw that unmindful of the danger Mudge had

outlined, the appearance of the police had actually frightened one of the

fighters into following a chair out through a thick window pane. Jon-Tom

wondered what horrible fate was in store for the rest of the still battling mob.

Then he was following the strange figure and Mudge out through the door. As they

turned to slam and bar it with barrels behind them he had a last glimpse across

the room as the police took action against the combatants within. This was

accompanied by a whiff of something awful beyond imagining and concentrated

beyond the power of man or beast to endure.

It weakened him so badly that he barely had strength enough to heave his

not-yet-digested dinner all over the far wall. It helped his pride if not his

stomach to see that the momentary smell had produced the same effect on Mudge

and the maroon-clad stranger. As he knelt in the alley and emptied his

nausea-squeezed guts, the pattern he'd glimpsed on the arriving police came back

to him.

Then they were all up and stumbling, running down the cobble-stoned alley, the

mist still dense around them and the siriell of garbage like perfume compared to

that which was fading with merciful speed behind them.

"Very... efficient, though I'm not so sure I'd call it humane, even if no one is

killed." He clung tightly to his staff, using it for support as they slowed a

little.

"Aye, mate." Mudge jogged steadily alongside him, behind the long-legged

stranger. Occasionally he gave a worried, disgusted glance back over a shoulder

to check for possible pursuit. None materialized.

"Indecent it is. You only wish you were dead. It be that way in every town,

though. Tis clean and there's no after caterwaulerin' about accidental death or

police brutalness and such. There's worse things than takin' an occasional sword

in the side, though. Like puking to death.

"Makes it a good thing for the skunks, though. I've never seen a one of those

black and white offal that lacked a good job in any township. 'Tis a brother and

sisterhood sort of comradeship they 'ave, which is well for 'em, since none o'

the common folk care for their companionship. They keep the peace, I suppose,

and keep t' themselves." He shuddered. "And keep in mind, mate, that we were

clean across the room from 'em. Those by the front will likely not touch food

for days." Several small lizards left their claimed bit of rotting meat,

skittered into a hole in the wall while the refugees hurried past, then returned

to their scavenging.

"Never could stand 'em myself, either. I don't like cops and I cannot abide

anyone who fights with 'is rear end."

Noises reached them from the far end of the alley and vestiges of that ghastly

odor materialized to stab at Jon-Tom's nostrils and stomach.

"They're followin'," said a worried Mudge. "Save us from that. I'd far rather be

cut."

"This way!" urged the cloaked figure. They turned up a branch of the alleyway.

Mist covered everything, slickened walls and cobblestones and trash underfoot.

They plunged onward, heedless of falling.

Gradually the smell began to recede once more. Jon-Tom was grateful for the time

he'd spent on the basketball court, and for the unusual stride that enabled him

to keep up with the hyperactive Mudge and their racing and still identityless

savior.

"They took the main passage," said that voice. "This should be safe enough."

They had emerged on a small side street. Dim will-o'-the-wisp glows came from

the warm globes of the street lamps overhead. It was quite dark otherwise, and

though the mist curtained the sky Jon-Tom was certain that sunset had come and

gone while they'd been dining in the restaurant.

The stranger unwrapped the muffler covering face and neck and let it hang across

shoulders and back. Cloak, shirt, and pants were made of the same maroon

material touched with silver thread. The material was neither leather nor cotton

but some mysterious organic hybrid. Pants, boots, and blouse had further

delicate designs of copper thread worked through them, as did the high, almost

Napoleonic collar.

A slim blade, half foil, half saber, was slung neatly from the waist. She stood

nearly as tall as Mudge's five foot six, which Jon-Tom had been given to

understand was tall for a human woman hereabouts. She turned, still panting from

the run, to study them. He was glad of the opportunity to reciprocate.

The maroon clothing fit snugly without binding and the face above it, though

expectedly petite, was hard and sharp-featured. The green eyes were more like

Mudge's than his own. They moved with almost equal rapidity over street and

alleyway, never ceasing. Her shoulder-length curls were flame-red. Not the

red-orange of most redheads but a fiery, flashing crimson that looked in the

lamplight like kinky blood.

Save for her coloring and the absence of fur and whiskers she displayed all the

qualities of an active otter. Only the pale green eyes softened the savage image

she presented, standing there nervously by the side of a building that seemed to

swoop winglike above them in the mist.

As for the rest of her, he had the damndest feeling he was seeing a cylindrical

candy bar well packed with peanuts. Her voice was full of hints of clove and

pepper, as active as her eyes and her body.

"Thought I'd never get you out of there." She was talking to Mudge. "I tried to

get you separated but," she glanced curiously up at Jon-Tom, "this great

gangling boy was always between us."

"I'd appreciate it," said Jon-Tom politely, "if you wouldn't refer to me as a

'boy'." He stared unblinkingly at her. "You don't look any older than me."

"I'll change my tune," she shot back, "when you've demonstrated the difference

to my satisfaction, though I hope more time isn't required. Still, I have to

admit that you handled yourself well enough inside the Possum. Clumsy, but

efficient. Size can make up for a helluva lot."

Clove and pepper, he thought. Each word was snapped off sharply in the air like

a string of firecrackers.

She turned distastefully away from his indelicate stare and asked Mudge wth

disarming candor, "How soon can we be rid of it?" She jerked a thumb in

Jon-Tom's bemused direction.

"I'm afraid we can't, m'love. Clothahump 'imself 'as entrusted 'im t' me tender

care."

"Clothahump, the wizard of the Tree?" Again she looked curiously at Jon-Tom.

"Aye. It seems 'e was castin' about for an otherworldly wizard type and 'e came

up with this chap Jon-Tom instead. As I said, because I 'appened t' be unlucky

enough to stumble into this manifestation, I've been ordered t' take care of

'im. At least until 'e can take better care of 'imself." Mudge raised a paw.

"On penalty o' curses too 'orrible t' explain, luv. But it 'ain't been too bad.

'E's a good enough lad, if a trifle naive."

Jon-Tom was beginning to feel a resurgence of the volatility that had set off

the riot in the Pearl Possum. "Hey now, people, I'm getting a little tired of

everyone continually running off my list of disabilities."

"Shut up and do as you're told," said the woman.

"Fuck you, sister," he spat back angrily. "How'd you like your backside the same

color as your hair?"

Her right hand suddenly sported a sixth finger. The knife gleamed in the dim

light. It was no longer than her middle finger but twice as broad and displayed

an unusual double blade.

"And how'd you like to sing about three octaves higher?"

"Please now, Talea." Mudge hurriedly interposed himself between them. "Think of

me, if naught else. 'E's me responsibility. If any 'arm comes to 'im while 'e's

in my care, Clothahump'll 'ave me 'ide. As to 'is singin' I've 'ad more than

enough for one night. That's wot started the trouble in the Possum in the first

place."

"More's the pity for you then, Mudge." But the blade disappeared with a twist of

the wrist, vanishing back inside her right sleeve. "I'll truce on it for you...

for now."

"I'm not taking any orders from her," Jon-Tom said belligerently.

"Now, now, mate." Mudge made placating gestures. "No one's said that you must.

But you're willin' to accept advice, ain't you? That's what I'm 'ere for, after

all."

"That's true," Jon-Tom admitted. But he couldn't keep his eyes off the lethal

little lady Mudge had called Talea. Her temper had considerably mitigated his

first feelings toward her. She was no less beautiful for their argument, but it

had become the beauty of a rose sealed in glass. Delicacy and attractiveness

were still there, but there was no fragrance, and both were untouchable.

"That's the second time tonight you've shown concern for me, luv." Mudge looked

at her uncertainly. "First by 'elpin' us flee that unfortunate altercation back

in the Pearl Possum and now again by respectin' me wishes and makin' peace with

the lad. I've never known you t' be so solicitous o' my 'ealth or anyone else's

exceptin' your precious own. So wot's behind the sudden nursemaidin'?"

"You're right about the first, Mudge. Most of the time you can find your own way

to hell for all I care." Her voice finally mellowed, and for the first time she

sounded vulnerable and human.

"Truth is that I needed some help, fast. The Pearl Possum was the nearest and

most likely place in which to find it. You were the first one I saw that I knew,

and considering what was going on in there I didn't have a whole hell of a lot

of time to be picky. I do need your help." She looked hesitantly past him at

Jon-Tom. "And so I guess I have to put up with him, too." She walked over to

Jon-Tom, looked him over sharply.

"In truth, he's an impressive physical speciman." Jon-Tom stood a little taller.

"What I need now are strong backs, not brains." He lost an inch.

"I knew you were needin' something, dear," said Mudge knowl-edgeably. "I

couldn't see you givin' yourself over t' philanthropy. Jon-Tom, meet Talea. And

widdershins likewise."

"Charmed," said Jon-Tom curtly.

"Yeah, me too." She paused thoughtfully. "So the old magic bugger-in-the-shell

was looking around for an other-world wizard and got you instead. I can imagine

what his reaction must have been."

"I don't need this." Jon-Tom turned away, spoke almost cheerfully. "I don't need

this at all. I'll make my own damn way!"

" 'Old on now, mate," said Mudge desperately. "You think o' me, too. Everyone

think o' poor old Mudge for a change."

"When did you ever think of anything else?" snorted Talea.

"Please, luv. Go easy on the poor lad. 'Tis right that you owe 'im nothing and

likewise meself. But consider, 'e's a whole new world t' try and cope with, and

you're not makin' it any easier."

"What have his problems to do with me?" she replied indifferently, but for a

change left off adding any additional insults.

"You said that you needed our help," Jon-Tom reminded her. "And I suppose we owe

you a favor for helping us out of that mess back there." He jerked a hand back

toward the now distant restaurant. "Or at least for warning us about the police.

You can have the use of my back without my affection. At least I can use that

without running my mouth."

She almost smiled, flipping away hair from her eyes. The oil lamps set her curls

on fire. "That's fair enough. We've wasted enough time here, and I suppose I've

wasted most of it. Follow me...."

They trailed her down the street. No strollers were out this time on so

miserable a night. Rain dripped off tile and wood roofs, trickled metallically

down drainpipes and into gutters. Sometimes they passed a sharper, richer echo

where dripwater plunged into a collection barrel.

They'd walked several blocks before she turned into another alleyway. Several

yards into the narrow passage he began to hear a strange yet somehow familiar

snuffling noise. It sounded like a drunk hog.

Almost stumbling over something firm and heavy, he looked down and saw to his

considerable dismay that it was an arm, badly decomposed and with the fur

falling from forearm and paw. Nude bone projected like soap from one end.

Mudge and Talea were just ahead. The otter was bending over and examining

something on the stones. Jon-Tom hurried to join them.

Two bodies lay sprawled awkwardly across the damp paving, necklaced by puddles

of rainwater. One was that of a squirrel he assumed by attire to be female. She

was richly dressed in a pleated gown puffed up like a cloud by a series of lace

petticoats. Long ruffled sleeves covered each gray-furred arm. Nearby lay a

feathered, broad-rimmed hat, torn and broken. She was half a foot shorter than

Talea and her carefully applied face powder and paint were smeared like mud

across her cheeks.

Nearby was a fat furry form that he at first thought might be a small beaver but

that turned out to be another muskrat. An oddly creased tricornered hat still

rested on the motionless head, though it was tilted over the hidden eyes. A pair

of cracked pince-nez speeta-cles, much like those worn by Clothahump, reflected

the still, small pools between the cobblestones. The iridescent blue silk suit

he wore was rich enough to shine even in the dim light of the alley.

One boot had come off and lay limply near a naked foot. Its rhine-stone-inlaid

mate lay up against the far wall. Talea ignored it as she rechecked the body

with professional speed.

"Blimey, luv, what's all this now?" Mudge's attention was directed nervously

back toward the narrow plank of light from the street. "I ain't so sure we want

to be compromisin' ourselves with business of this disreputable nature."

"Shit, you're compromised just by standing there." Talea heaved at the thick

silk jacket. "Not that your reputation would suffer. Who are you lying to,

Mudge; yourself, me, or him?" and she nodded briefly toward the self-conscious

Jon-Tom. "You know what the cops will do if they find you standing here flapping

your whiskers."

"Now Talea, luv--" he began.

"I think we've exchanged enough pleasantries, otter. I need you for muscle, not

platitudes.

"Now I don't object to an occasional mugging, especially when the apple stands

around begging to be plucked." She was pulling gold buttons off the comatose

muskrat's trousers. "But murder's not my style. This fat little twerp decided to

show off and resist, and I'll be damned if that fuzzy harridan he was with

didn't try to help him. Between the two of them I didn't have much time to get

selective with the hilt of my sword. So I bashed him proper and then she just

sort of fainted."

Mudge moved over to study the fallen lady. While Jon-Tom I i watched, the otter

knelt and moved her head. There was a dark stain I on the stones and a matching

one at the back of the furry skull.

"This one's still bleedin', you know."

"I didn't mean to hurt anyone." Talea did not sound particularly contrite. "I

was just trying to keep them off. I told you, she fainted. What the hell was I

supposed to do, dive underneath and break her fall?"

Mudge moved away and performed a similar examination of the muskrat. "Now why

would you 'ave t' do that, luv, when these gentle rocks 'ave done such a neat

job of it for you?" he said sardonically. His paws moved over the muskrat's

face. "Still breathin', the two of 'em. Bloody lucky you are." He looked up at

her.

"Right then. What is it you want of us?"

She finally finished her scavenging, gestured back toward the street. "I've got

a wagon tied around the corner on Sorbarlio Close. If I'd left it alley-opposite

it would've blocked traffic and worse, drawn attention to this little drama.

Besides, it's too wide to fit in the alley entrance.

"Now, I can't carry that fat little bugger by myself. By the time I could drag

the two of them to the Close some nosy-body's sure to notice me and ask

questions I couldn't answer. Even if I got lucky I'm not sure I could heave

these two bloated pumpkins up into the wagon."

Mudge nodded sagely. "That's for us, then. Jon-Tom?"

Jon-Tom's head had finally cleared of smoke and drink, but plenty of confusion

still remained. Things had happened awfully fast and his thoughts were running

into one another.

"I don't know." He was also worriedly watching the street. Foul-fighting police

might appear at any minute, and what Talea had told Mudge about them being

guilty by their mere presence at the scene of the crime had a transworldly ring

of truth to it.

"I'm not sure this is what Clothahump had in mind when he asked you to educate

me."

" 'Tis a fine innocent you are, mate. As you of all people ought t' know, life's

incidents are dictated by fate and not neat plannin'. We can't stay 'ere

jabberin' all night, lest some idle patrol stumble on us. If you think the

copfolk were hard on those poor innocent brawlers, consider wot they're likely

t' do t' those they think 'ave assaulted respectable citizens. Or be it then so

much different where you come from?"

"No," he replied, "I think they'd react about the same as here."

Mudge had moved to slip an arm around the waist of the unconscious

squirrelquette, then flipped her with a whistle over his shoulders. "I'll take

charge o' this one," he said, stumbling.

"Thought you might," snorted Talea. "Here, let me help." She caught the lady's

legs just as the overburdened Mudge was about to lose his balance completely,

the looked back at Jon-Tom.

"Don't just stand there gawking like a kid at a treepeep nook. Put that great

gangling self of yours to work."

Jon-Tom nodded, knelt, and managed to get his arms underneath the snoring,

bubbling muskrat shape. The creature was as heavy as he appeared, and the weight

made Jon-Tom stagger. Working the mass around he finally got the rotund burden

in a fireman's carry.

"Truth, 'tis muscles the lad 'as, if not yet overmuch common sense," Mudge

observed. "Does 'e not, lass?"

"Let's get on with it," she said curtly.

On reaching the end of the alley they hesitated. Talea studied the street to the

right while Mudge cautiously checked out the other end. Nothing was visible in

the nebulous lamplight save cobblestones and lonely clumps of garbage. The night

mist had thickened somewhat from earlier in the evening and bestowed on the

fugitives a blessing beyond price.

Jon-Tom hurried out after them, the globular body of the muskrat bouncing

slightly on his shoulders. He felt something warm on his cheek. At first he

thought it was blood, but it turned out to be only saliva dripping from the

victim's gaping mouth. He pushed the drooling head farther aside and

concentrated on keeping close enough to the others to insure he wouldn't lose

track of them in the fog.

His feet were carrying him along a course of events he seemed powerless to

alter. As he jogged up the street, he considered his present condition.

In the short time he'd been in Lynchbany he'd nearly been assaulted by a beggar,

had taken part in a distressingly violent riot, and was presently serving as an

accessory to assault, robbery, and possibly murder. He decided firmly that as

soon as circumstances permitted he would have to make his way back to

Clothahump's Tree, with or without Mudge's assistance. There he would plead with

the wizard to try sending him home, no matter the cost. He could not stand

another day of this.

But though he did not know it, he was destined to spend rather more time than

that. Forces far greater than anything he could imagine continued to gather, the

little sounds his boots made in the street puddles faint echoes of the thunder

to come....

VII

Eventually they turned a corner onto another street. Mudge and Talea heaved the

motionless form of the squirrelquette onto the back of a low-slung buckboard.

Clicking sounds like thick wire brushing against glass came to them. They froze,

waited in damp silence. But the wagon they heard did not turn down their street.

"Hurry up!" Talea urged Jon-Tom. She turned and snapped at Mudge, "Quit that and

let's get out of here."

Mudge removed his hand from beneath the squirrelquette's dress as Jon-Tom bent

his head and shoulders to dump the muskrat. That unfortunate landed with a dull

thump in the wagon. Despite Mudge's insistence that both victims were still

alive and breathing, the musk-rat felt very dead to the worried Jon-Tom.

That was now a major concern. He thought he might be able to talk his way out of

being in the same wagon with a couple of robbery victims, but if either one of

them died and they were stopped by the police he doubted even Clothahump would

be able to help him.

Talea was rapidly pulling a thick blanket of some woven gray material over the

bodies. Then the three of them were running around to the front seat of the

wagon.

There wasn't enough room there for all of them on the down-sized platform. Talea

had grabbed the reins and Mudge had already mounted alongside her, so Jon-Tom

had no choice but to vault the wagon rail and sit in the bed behind them.

" 'Tis best anyway, mate." Mudge smiled sympathetically. "I know the wood's

'ard, but as big as you are we don't want to draw any more attention than we can

get away with. Snuggle yourself down low and we won't."

Talea gave a flip of the reins and shouted a soft "Hup!" and they were on their

way. Just in time, too. As they rumbled down the street another rider passed

them close.

Despite his exhaustion and confusion Jon-Tom's interest was aroused. He barely

had time for a glance at the mist-shrouded rider.

A white-faced, leather-clad rabbit was mounted on a slim lizard traveling on all

fours. The reptile had a long snout with two short tusks protruding upward from

just back of the nostrils. Its eyes were searchlight bright and yellow with

black slit pupils.

The rider sat in a saddle that was securely attached by multiple straps to the

lizard's neck and belly, the extra ties necessary because of the animal's

peculiar twisting, side-to-side method of travel. It gave a snakelike appearance

to the motion. The long tail was curled up in a spiral and fastened to the

reptilian rear with a decorative silver scroll. Blunt claws appeared to have

been trimmed close to the quick.

As he watched them vanish down the street, he thought that the rider must be

getting a smoother ride than any horse could provide, since all the movement was

from side to side instead of up and down.

That inspired him to inspect their own team. Shifting around on the wood and

trying to avoid kicking the terribly still forms beneath the gray blanket, he

peered ahead beneath the raised wagon seat.

The pair of creatures pulling the wagon were also reptilian, but as different

from the rabbit's mount as he was from Mudge. Harnessed in tandem to the wagon,

they were shorter and bulkier than the single mount he'd just seen. They had

blunt muzzles and less intelligent appearances, though that evaluation was

probably due more to his unfamiliarity with the local reptilian life than to any

actual physiologic difference.

They trudged more slowly over the cobblestones. Their stride was deliberate and

straightforward instead of the unusual twisting, side-to-side movement of the

other. Stumpy legs also covered less ground, and leathery stomach folds almost

scraped the pavement. Obviously they were intended for pulling heavy loads

rather than for comfort or speed.

Despite their bovine expressions they were intelligent enough to respond to

Talea's occasional tugs on the reins. He studied the process of steering with

interest, for there was no telling when such knowledge might prove useful. He

was a good observer, one of the hallmarks of both lawyer and musician, and

despite his discouragement about his surroundings he instinctively continued to

soak up local information.

The reins, for example, were not attached to bits set in the lizard's mouths.

Those thick jaws could have bitten through steel. Instead, they were joined to

rings punched through each nostril. Gentle tugs at these sensitive areas were

sufficient to guide the course of the lumbering dray.

His attention shifted to a much closer and more intriguing figure. From his

slouched position he could see only flaming curls and the silver-threaded shape

of her blouse and pants, the latter curving deli-ciously over the back edge of

the wooden seat.

Whether she felt his eyes or not he couldn't tell, but once she glanced sharply

back down at him. Instead of turning embarrassedly away he met her stare. For a

moment they were eye to eye. That was all. No insults this time. When he stepped

further with a slight smile, more from instinct than intent, she simply turned

away. She had not smiled back, but neither had that acid tongue heaped further

abuse on him.

He settled back against the wooden side of the wagon, trying to rest. She was

under a lot of pressure, he told himself. Enough to make anyone edgy and

impolite. No doubt in less dangerous surroundings she was considerably less

antagonistic.

He wondered whether that was likely or if he was simply rationalizing away

behavior that upset him. It was admittedly difficult to attribute such

bellicosity to such a beautiful lady. Not to mention the fact that it was bad

for a delicate male ego.

Shut up, he told himself. You've got more important things to worry about. Think

with your head instead of your gonads. What are you going to tell Clothahump

when you see him again? It might be best to...

He wondered how old she actually was. Her diminutive size was the norm among

local humans and hinted at nothing. He already knew her age to be close to his

own because she hadn't contradicted his earlier comment about it. She seemed

quite mature, but that could be a normal consequence of a life clearly somewhat

tougher than his own. He also wondered what she would look like naked, and had

reason to question his own maturity.

Think of your surroundings, Meriweather. You're trapped, tired, alone, and in

real danger.

Alone... well, he would try his best to be friends with her, if she'd permit it.

It was absurd to deny he found her attractive, though every time she opened her

mouth she succeeded in stifling any serious thoughts he might be developing

about extending that hoped-for friendship.

They had to become friends. She was human, and that in itself was enough to make

him homesick and desperate. Maybe when they'd deposited the bodies at whatever

location they were rolling toward she would relax a little.

That prompted him to wonder and worry about just where they were taking their

injured cargo, and what was going to be done with it when they got there.

A moan came from beneath the blanket behind him, light and hesitant. He thought

it came from the squirrelquette, though he couldn't be certain.

"There's a doctor out on the edge of town," Talea said in response to his

expression of concern.

"Glad to hear it." So there was at least a shred of soul to complement the

beauty. Good. He watched in silence as a delicately wrought two-wheeled buggy

clop-clopped past their wagon. The two moon-eyed wallabies in the cab were far

too engrossed in each other to so much as glance at the occupants of the wagon,

much less at the lumpy cargo it carried.

Half conscious now, the little squirrel was beginning to kick and roll in

counterpoint to her low moans. If she reawakened fully, things would become

awkward. He resolved that in spite of his desire to make friends with Talea, he

would bolt from the wagon rather than help her inflict any more harm. But after

several minutes the movement subsided, and the unfortunate victim relapsed into

silence.

They'd been traveling for half an hour and were still among buildings. Despite

their plodding pace, it hinted that Lynchbany was a good-sized community. In

fact, it might be even larger than he supposed, since he didn't know if they'd

started from the city center or its outskirts.

A two-story thatched-roof structure of stone and crisscrossed wooden support

beams loomed off to their left. It leaned as if for support up against a much

larger brooding stone building. Several smaller structures that had to be

individual homes stretched off into the distance. A few showed lamps over their

doorways, but most slept peacefully in the clinging mist.

No light showed in the two thick windows of the thatched building as Talea edged

their wagon over close to it and brought it to a halt. The street was quite

empty. The only movement was from the mouths and nostrils of lizards and

passengers, where the increasing chill turned their exhalations to momentarily

thicker, tired fog. He wondered again at the reptiles. Maybe they were hybrids

with warm blood; if not, they were being extremely active for cold-blooded

creatures on such a cold night.

He climbed out of the back of the wagon and looked at the doorway close by. An

engraved sign hung from two hooks over the portal. Letters painted in white

declaimed:

NILANTHOS-PHYSICIAN AND APOTHECARY

A smaller sign in the near window listed the ailments that could be treated by

the doctor. Some of them were unfamiliar to Jon-Tom, who knew a little of common

disease but nothing whatsoever of veterinary medicine.

Mudge and Talea were both whispering urgently at him. He moved out of the street

and joined them by the door.

It was recessed into the building, roofed over and concealed from the street.

They were hidden from casual view as Talea knocked onee, twice, and then harder

a third time on the milky bubble-glass set into the upper part of the door. She

ignored the louder bellpull.

They waited nervously but no one answered. At least no one passed them in the

street, but an occasional distinct groan was now issuing from the back of the

wagon.

" 'E's not in, 'e ain't." Mudge looked worried. "I know a Doctor Paleetha. 'E's

clear across town, though, and I can't say 'ow trustworthy 'e be, but if we've

no one else t' turn t'..."

There were sounds of movement inside and a low complaining voice coming closer.

It was at that point that Jon-Tom became really scared for the first time since

he'd materialized in this world. His first reactions had been more disbelief and

confusion than fear, and later ones were tied to homesickness and terror of the

unknown.

But now, standing in an alien darkened street, accomplice to assault and battery

and so utterly, totally alone, he started to shake. It was the kind of real,

gut-chilling fear that doesn't frighten as much as it numbs all reality. The

whole soul and body just turn stone cold--cold as the water at the bottom of a

country well--and thoughts are fixated on a single, simple, all-consuming

thought.

I'm never going to get out of this alive.

I'm going to die here.

I want to go HOME!

Oddly enough, it was a more distant fear that finally began to return him to

normal. The assault of paranoia began to fade as he considered his surroundings.

A dark street not unlike many others, pavement, mist chill inside his nose; no

fear in any of those. And what of his companions? A scintillating if irascible

redhead and an oversized but intelligent otter, both of whom were allies and not

enemies. Better to worry about Clothahump's tale of coming evil than his own

miserable but hardly deadly situation.

"What's the matter, mate?" Mudge stared at him with genuine coneern. "You're not

goin' t' faint on me again, are you?"

"Just queasy," said Talea sharply, though not nearly as sharply as before. "It's

a nasty business, this."

"No." Jon-Tom shook away the last clinging rags of fear. They vanished into the

night. "It's not that. I'm fine, thanks." His true thoughts he kept to himself.

She looked at him uncertainly a moment longer, then turned back to the door as

Mudge said, "I 'ear somethin'."

Footsteps sounded faintly from just inside. There was a rattling at the

doorknob. Inside, someone cursed a faulty lock.

Their attention directed away from him, Jon-Tom dissected the fragment of