Backstory: In this fantasy story (part of the Xanth series of books), Jordan the Barbarian has been dispached by the sorcerer Yin to retrieve the missing Princess Threnody so he can marry her and take the throne. (Since Jordan's talent is the ability to heal from any injury--even death--he's a good choice.) However, Yin's twin brother Yang has placed a number of mystic traps along Jordan's path. (A evil sword, a spell to make him less intelligent, a spell to switch his body with the nearest person, etc.) To counter these, Yin gives the barbarian mystic tokens that will cancel out the effects of the evil spells by casting opposing spells (a mystic shield, a spell to increase his intelligence, another body-swap spell, and so on). Unfortunately, Yang scrambles the effects of the various tokens, so Jordan no longer has any idea which item does what.
At this point in the story, Jordan has befriended the intelligent ghost horse Pook, and has managed to locate the errant princess and is bringing her back to the castle against her wishes. This is somewhat complicated by the fact that her mystic talent involves a slow form of shape-shifting, but Jordan's life is about to get a lot more complicated...
We followed the slope as it curved around to the south and, when we had left the slowsand region behind, we returned to the level land. Normal animal life returned; I had to dispatch a griffin and a river monster that menaced us, but that was routine. In another day we should be at Castle Roogna.
"You know I don't want to go there," Threnody reminded me, her eyes very big and dark.
"You know Castle Roogna will fall."
"I don't know. You could be lying."
"I could get very friendly, if you cared to delay the journey a while. It wouldn't seem like a lie to you at all."
"I could even get to like you for real, if�"
"I don't know. You'll say anything to get your way."
"Let me show you how friendly I can be when I try."
"I'd be a fool." Of course I was a fool, for I was sorely tempted. She might be a completely selfish, lying demon-creature, but she was beautiful, and barbarians appreciate physical beauty more than they do mental beauty. So I fended off her advances, not because I feared her body, but because I feared what her body could do to my mind. But my resolve was weakening.
"I can still change form and escape you," she said.
"But without my arm and sword to protect you, you would be vulnerable to the monsters of Xanth," I pointed out. "That's why you are no longer trying to flee. 'There may be no harpies here, but there are other creatures." What little remained of the smart-spell had enabled me to work it out. "When you change form. you may look like some other creature, but you aren't. You can assume the form of a bird, but you can't fly�not unless you become so diffuse as to be as light as the air, and then the wind will blow you away. It takes a lifetime to learn to fly properly."
She shrugged, not denying it. "Actually, I can do some of the things the animals I emulate do, but it is true that flying is a very specialized discipline, and certainly I would not be good at it; I'd probably blunder into the nearest tree and be easy prey for any winged predator."
"And you probably haven't practiced it much, because of the danger. You need skill as well as form. So your talent is limited at foe moment."
"When you threatened me with the harpies, I realized that was true. There is always something in Xanth to prey on the unwary or unprotected. You're a primitive man, you have muscle and a sword and you like to fight. You can handle strange territory and slay monsters incidentally. But once you got me more than a day's journey from my home�" She spread her hands. "I may have a heart of stone, but the monsters don't care about that. They'll eat my flesh in a moment�and I can't recover the way you can."
"So I'm the sword and you're the stone," I said, conscious of the irony, since part of me really was stone now.
"Yes. If I had your body, I could go right home."
"You can assume my likeness," I said
"I suppose I could," she agreed, tilting her head in temporary reflection. "But I wouldn't have your skill with the sword, or the power of your masculine muscles, or your ability to heal so fast when wounded. So that's no good.
"If I had your body, I'd be a lovely creature," I said.
"I'm not beautiful in my soul�if I have one at all."
I had no answer to that. Threnody was the first pretty woman I had known who was demonstrably ugly in her origin and nature�literally demon-strably�and I still had difficulty reconciling that combination. I kept wanting to believe she was as lovely inside as out and that her evident intelligence translated to good personality. Sometimes I almost succeeded. Certainly she was not all evil, even though she was fur from all good. This just isn't the kind of problem a barbarian is fit to cope with. Life is simpler when the alternatives are flat good or flat evil, clearly labeled. And correctly labeled!
At noon we came to a pleasant grove of ances-trees. Each had a sold base that soon split into two major branches, and these split into four, and thence to eight, until at the fringe there were so many little branches that the eye lost track. The bark was corrugated and thus resembled printed words; sometimes I wished I could read, so that I could contemplate my own family tree.
"I can read," Threnody said. "It's a skill required of royal children. But I don't care to be reminded of my demon branches."
We went on and came to a pattern of artis-trees, each a many-splendored thing, with ornate multicolored leaves and sculptured lines. We paused, awed by the sheer magnificence of this display.
One tree was dead�but its skeletal form was impressive, each branch perfectly contoured, the whole a marvel of symmetry. There was a hole in the base of its trunk, and even this was beautifully arched, so that it resembled a doorway to some sublime realm.
We walked toward it�and suddenly at my feet a small black sword flashed. Quickly it expanded to full-sword size, a thing of glistening, dark iron, suspending itself menacingly before me. I had heedlessly blundered into another of Yang's evil spells! When would I learn to watch out more carefully for them?
My own sword was in my hand, for barbarian reflexes are necessarily swift. "Get clear of me!" I cried to Pook and Threnody. "This thing's dangerous!"
Indeed it was! The black sword slashed viciously at me, and it was all I could do to parry the blade in time. As it was, the power of its blow drove me back and shook my arm. Nothing was wielding that sword, but it felt as if there were an invisible giant behind it.
I had fended off its cut, but the black weapon recovered with horrible quickness and struck at me from the other side. I parried again, and again felt the shock of the collision. Sparks flew from the place where the two blades met, and mine was nicked. Of course, it was already battered and slightly bent from its fall into the�well, I didn't remember quite where, but it had fallen somewhere. Yet a blade that could so casually nick this one�
The evil sword whirled about in the air, danced over my head, and slashed at me from behind. I threw myself aside, avoiding it, but the moment it missed, it reoriented and came at me again. I fell to the ground, barely getting my blade around to block the thing. Never before had I been subjected to as savage an attack by a sword as this! I prided myself on my expertise with the sword; it was one of those things barbarians specialized in. My sword was the only reason I had no real fear of tangle trees or griffins�albeit a healthy respect for them; I could strike with it before such monsters could get me. Dragons were more difficult, because of their steam or fire and their scale armor, but of course dragons were the top of the predatory chain. So my sword was my strength. However, this was no beak or tentacle I faced; it was another sword. It struck and struck again, and a thud time in as many seconds. Then, realizing it could not get me with a frontal or rear attack, it spun to the side and lunged.
I scrambled halfway to my feet, but had to dive clear again, rolling on the ground. The black sword sliced at my feet, missing no opportunity. I jerked them clear, and it struck the ground so hard where they had been it seemed the very land would cleave asunder. I fought my way back to my feet in time to parry the next strike.
I normally have plenty of muscle, speed, and coordination. I had died three to five times recently, but the past three days had enabled me to recover almost completely, except for my stone extremities. (Say�I should have let the sword strike my feet! How could it hurt them?) So I fought very well�but already I knew I was overmatched. This magic sword had a ferocity beyond anything I had encountered before and showed no sign of tiring. One thing f had to say for Magician Yang: his spells were not anemic ones! I had to get away from this thing!
I tried, but it pursued me relentlessly. It wanted my blood, all my blood, and nothing but my blood. It whistled at my left side before I could get my own blade around; I lifted my left arm and it took the cut.
There was a clang, and the black sword bounced back, shaken. Of course�my left arm, too, remained stone. For the first time, I had occasion to bless the failure of my talent to tackle this detail; it was evident that the evil blade could not slice stone. One hears stories about swords that can do this, but I think this is merely more hype; stone is awfully tough stuff. This was pure barbarian luck: the lingering trace of the last evil spell was helping me fight this one.
The black sword shook itself as if confused, then charged back to the fray. It swept at my neck with a ferocity that threatened not only to sever my head from my body but send it flying to the moon. That would have been awkward for me; it is no easy thing to grow a whole new head. I blocked the swipe, barely. Then the sword dropped down again to my feet, and this time I didn't move them, so it clanged again against the stone.
My luck was holding�but I really needed the magic shield, because the black sword was not letting up and was getting more imaginative about spots to attack. I was tiring from this frenetic activity, and that sword wasn't. Sooner or later it would find or force an opening and get me in a vital spot.
"The spell!" I cried to Threnody. "Get the spell!"
"What spell?" she asked.
Oops�she didn't know about that complication, and might not care to help me if she did. After all, if I died, she was free to go home, and she could be long on the way before I recovered. On the other hand, she could not safely travel alone, so she might have to help me. What choice did I have? I ducked as the black sword whistled over my head. "Any spell! Pook has them!"
Threnody hesitated. I knew she was considering whether it was better to help me or let the black sword take me out. But Pook snorted warningly at her, and she decided to help. She went to him and opened the bag of spells he carried.
Meanwhile, the enemy blade pressed me harder than ever. It wove a perplexing pattern in the air and dazzled my eyes, so that it was increasingly more difficult to parry its sudden lunges. It looped around me, forcing me to turn constantly to protect my flank and rear. I was getting dizzy�and that, too, could be disastrous. I had to have some kind of cover for my back, or I would shortly be wiped out!
I spied the dead artis-tree, with its architecturally shaped hole in the trunk. That would do! I fended off the sword and retreated toward the tree. Soon I managed to wedge my back against it and nudge into the hole. The space was just my height, so was very convenient. The black sword could no longer attack me from behind.
The thing was furious. It chopped at the trunk of the tree, but the deadwood was hard as well as beautiful, and only small chips clew This protection would last me for a good long time. I was careful not to back all the way into the hole, for that would restrict my motions and work to my disadvantage. I used the tree just enough to maximize my efficiency. Now I was holding my own, resting as the enemy sword wasted its energy on the wood.
All this had taken very little time, the seconds seeming like minutes, while Threnody was fetching the spell. It's hard to describe two separate actions at once, so I'm doing it one at a time, but they were happening together. Now Threnody drew out one of the white objects Magician Yin had given me. "Is this the right one?" she called. "It's a bit of vine with an eyeball tied in. Gruesome thing!"
The eye-queue spell�which had already been expended. So I was sure this one stood for some other spell�maybe the magic shield I needed. "It will do!" I called back. "Throw it here!" And another spark flew as blade met blade. It was a good thing my own sword was a sturdy one, albeit battered; now it had many nicks to go with its dents.
She came toward me, then threw the spell, in the underhanded female way. Her aim was good, however; the spell struck the tree and dropped directly before me. The black sword, sensing danger, sliced at the spell. "Invoke!" I cried.
I saw it glow, just before the black sword struck it. Then the strangest thing happened
My consciousness seemed to leave my body and fly ghostlike through the air. Had I been abruptly slain by an unseen strike of the evil blade? Was my soul now flying to wherever it was fated to go? But this had never happened before when I died!
Then my awareness approached Threnody as she stood between me and Pook, prettily concerned. Suddenly it dived into her body and settled there.
I heard a hoarse scream. I saw myself drop my sword and hunch back into the dead tree. Immediately the enemy sword lunged, running its blade through my unprotected heart. My blood spouted from my chest as I fell forward, dead.
But the black sword was not finished. It lifted itself high, then struck down on my exposed neck, cutting off my head. The head rolled a few paces away and came to rest in a hollow, staring up with a slightly bemused expression.
Still the evil sword did not desist. It hacked at my right arm, cutting it off, then started on my left, up at the shoulder where it remained flesh. The thing meant to dismember me entirely!
I ran toward it, unable to watch this destruction of my body without acting.
Then I paused. How could I run toward it when I was already dead and decapitated?
I realized that, though my body was dead, my consciousness was not. It was now in Threnody's body. And her consciousness�must be in mine. Presently unconscious. For I had activated the spell of exchange. Well, of exchange-back; the one intended to counter Yang's exchange spell. Since we hadn't been exchanged, we couldn't be un-exchanged; the un-exchange constituted an exchange in itself. I had brought upon myself the very mischief I had hoped to avoid!
When we exchanged identities, Threnody had found herself in my male body, fighting the deadly sword�and she hadn't known how to defend herself. As with the notion of assuming the form of a bird and trying to fly without practice, she was unable to fight like a man simply because she had a man's body. Womanlike, she had screamed and cowered. Thus she had been instantly vulnerable, and the enemy weapon had seized its advantage and gotten her. It didn't realize it had killed the wrong person; how could it know?
Theoretically, I had a minute to reverse the spell before it took full hold. But how? Only by finding the black exchange spell could I do that�and then I would merely exchange myself into a dead and dismembered body! Also, that minute had already passed, as if time meant anything now. What a picklement this was!
When would that terrible enemy sword stop? It seemed determined to mince my entire body. I might have the use of another body now, but I still couldn't stand idly by and let it happen! Since my talent had been strained by overuse recently, I wasn't sure how much more it could take.
Or had my healing talent flown with my consciousness to Threnody's body? If that were so, then my body�and Threnody's consciousness�was dead, and I was stuck forever in her body. Would Yin be after me to marry him?
Thinking of it that way, I felt greater sympathy for Threnody's resistance to the idea of being taken to Castle Roogna for marriage.
No, I had to assume that our talents remained with our bodies, so that it was possible for my body to revive and take me back. I had to stop that sword from doing more damage!
Well, maybe I could bluff it. I resumed my run to it, leaned down, and grabbed the hilt. The sword paused in surprise. "Well done, excellent sword!" I cried in Threnody's voice. "You have acted courageously and saved me from a fate worse than death! Now you can rest."
The sword hesitated, then decided to accept this. I smiled winningly at it, knowing the power of a lovely female expression over masculine things. Threnody herself had used it on me, and I had been hard put to it to resist.
But I wasn't sure how long I could fool this dread instrument. If and when it caught on to my real identity, it would attack this body and dismember it, too, and then I would be truly finished. I had to put the evil weapon out of commission before it did catch on. But how?
By using Threnody's talent, of course! When she went diffuse, so did her clothing; otherwise she would have been naked when I caught her, and I was sure I would have remembered a thing like that. She had been clothed in her gray dress, which I now wore, which meant that things closely associated with her shared the effect. So I could go diffuse, and do the same to the sword I held, and�
And when I let it go, it might return to its original state and come after me with a deadly gleam on its surface. Better not to risk that. Going far away from it was not the answer, either; it could fly, and the other spells had shown dismaying longevity. It would catch me in time.
Well, what else could I do with it? Whatever it was, I didn't want to wait long�because until I nullified the sword, I couldn't do anything for my dead body. It bothered me, seeing that severed head staring up. Suppose a predatory animal came to gobble it down?
Ha�my elevated intelligence remained; in fact it seemed a little enhanced, because there was no dirt in Threnody's brain to mess it up. Or was I using her brain? I surely wasn't using my own! Whatever, my thought was this: diffuse the sword, then put it into something that would hold it in place when it solidified.
Of course, first I had to see if Threnody's talent would work for me. I had never had a talent like hers before and I wasn't sure how to invoke it. Should I just will myself thin, or smoky, or what? Was there some key phrase to utter? Well, my own talent of healing didn't need any special attention; it merely operated at need. Maybe this did, too. So I would concentrate on being smoky, and see what happened.
"Let's take a nice little walk," I said to the black sword, still holding it in my delicate hand. It was surely too heavy for this slender arm to support for long, but it was self-sustaining and felt quite light. Maybe that was another masculine trait. I had to admit it was a handsome weapon, and there were no nicks in its blade. It was therefore superior to mine. But it was not mine, and I couldn't trust it. Especially not when my own body revived.
I wondered where this instrument had come from originally; surely Magician Yang had not forged it himself. He must have obtained the sword, then enchanted it. The same would be true of his other spells, and those of Yin. It was remarkable that the twin brothers had such similar talents; I had heard of twins before who had quite dissimilar talents.
I turned�and there was Pook. His ears were flat back, his teeth bared, his nostrils dusted, and his eyes were rimmed by white. His whole body was tense, and his chains rattled warningly. This was one hyper-nervous horse!
I realized what was wrong. He thought I was Threnody and that I had now armed myself with the terrible evil sword! "Pook!" I cried. "Let me explain!"
But then I realized that the sword was listening too. If I told Pook who I was, and convinced him, the sword would also know, and that would be disaster. Threnody's slender arms did not have the strength to hold this thing if it got violent. Maybe my own arms would not have been strong enough. It was one wicked weapon!
How could I let Pook know without giving myself away to the dread sword? Fortunately, the residual eye-queue spell enabled me to think of a way. Or maybe it was Threnody's brain, which was a good one.
"Stand aside, animal," I said to him. "'This fine sword will strike down any creature who seeks to convey me to Castle Roogna. It is quiescent now only because I am free. You saw what it did to that ilk." I glanced back at my horrendously hacked body.
Pook's ears went even flatter back. In a moment he would attack me, overcome by grief and rage. He was an animal, but he was loyal, and I was indeed proud to have him as my friend.
"Whom do you suppose you are facing, animal?" I demanded, looking him directly in a dilated eye. I held the black sword in my right hand, near my body: slowly I winked my left eye, which was out of sight of the sword.
The ghost horse blinked, startled, but his menace did not abate. He knew what a liar Threnody was.
"Remember the nature of the spells you carry," I said. I had described them to him in the course of our journey to Threnody's house, since they might affect his welfare as well as mine. "Remember which have been invoked and which have not." That was as close as I dared hint, for the sword might know about the other spells, too, and I didn't know how smart it was. I dared not tell it too much.
Still Pook did not react; the hint had not been enough. I had mentioned the various types of spells to him, but maybe he had forgotten the exchange spell. Indeed, who would have believed how it had acted on this occasion?
"Remember your past experiences," I continued. "How you were herded into the firewall by this dead ilk behind me, who only wanted a free ride. How he cruelly rode you into the territory of the goblins and the lair of the callicantzari." Again I winked, and again Pook blinked. Threnody had not been with us then, and I had not told her; Pook had been with us and would have known if I had gone into that with her. But now he was mystified, not certain.
"And the elves," I said. "Remember how he dallied three days with Bluebell, deserting you! What do you owe him? And think of the stork, the dragons, and the baby ogre; that barbarian made you wander all over Xanth, and for what?" I fixed his eye again. "What was there ever between you and this man? Whatever it was, let it remain unchanged." I paused, knowing he knew the answer�friendship.
A third time I winked, covertly. "Whom do you suppose you are facing, friend?"
Slowly Pook's ears relaxed, and the white circles around his eyes disappeared. Now at last he had caught on. He would go along with what I planned, as he had done before.
"I have an errand elsewhere," I said briskly. I glanced back at my body. "You know what to do with this corpse, to whom you owe nothing. Now stand aside."
Pook moved aside. I walked on by him, the sword extended before me. I passed on through the grove of artis-trees, admiring each. Barbarians don't have much culture, but maybe Threnody's royal tastes were rubbing off on me, for each tree seemed to be a marvel of individual expression and form. No two were alike in color or structure or size, but each was a masterpiece of its type. Xanth could use more artis-trees!
While I walked, I concentrated on becoming less dense. It didn't seem to be working, but since it was my only hope, I had to keep trying. A shift of form or size or density took an hour, she had said, so I would try for an hour�or whatever it took.
And as I walked, concentrated, and hoped, I was aware of the nature of this body. It differed from mine. The proportions were funny; the legs seemed sort of short and fat in the thigh; the arms were short and so low on muscle as to seem like pipestems. The center of weight was lower, and the balance was strange, seeming bottom-heavy. With my free left hand I felt about, verifying that there was an unseemly volume of posterior, and the chest�it seemed unnatural, having all that flesh on my chest. It bounced when I walked too fast. In fact, I had extra flesh distributed all over; I felt ungainly.
There were other problems. My black hair flopped about my shoulders and tended to fall forward to obscure my vision if I didn't keep my chin up. There was something about the way I walked; my hipbones were set too far out, or something, so that my whole pelvis gyrated awkwardly when I took full-sized steps. The only way I could control it was to confine myself to mincing little steps that slowed forward progress.
Ah, well, doubtless it was worthwhile to have the opportunity to appreciate first-hand the liabilities of the female form. No wonder women tended to be jealous of men!
In the course of half an hour, to my immense relief, I verified that Threnody's talent was working; I was definitely lighter, and the resistance of the air seemed greater. Now I needed to find a suitable place to stash the sword.
In a tree? No, it might cut its way free. In a deep hole? No, someone might dig it out too soon. It had to be permanently bound.
Then I spied a sitting boulder at the edge of the artis-tree community. The rock was about half as tall as a man, and massive; it seemed to be solid marble.
I continued to walk until the transformation was complete, and the sword and I were as diffuse as fog, or more so, I kicked at a tree trunk, and my small foot passed through it with hardly perceptible resistance. I was ready.
I marched up to the rock, lifted the sword in both hands, shifted my grip so that it pointed straight down, and plunged it into the boulder. It sank in to the hilt. I removed my hands, stood back, and contemplated it with satisfaction. "Stay there, dread blade!" I said.
I shouldn't have said that. The sword heard me and evidently realized that something was amiss. It began to lift itself out of the boulder.
Quickly I grabbed the hilt and shoved the sword back. "Relax, relax!" I cried. "You have done so well, honored blade; now you must rest. You can't he a gay blade all the time." I batted my lovely eyelids at it.
The sword relaxed. But I didn't dare risk letting it go again, for if it pulled out of the boulder and flew away, I would never catch it. So I held on, soothing it with my gentle feminine touch�that, too, I had learned about when Threnody kissed me and held me the night before, despite the lie that touch implied�keeping it in place while we slowly solidified.
But it had some suspicion and started to wiggle; I was afraid of its brute force, so I pacified it by singing to it. My voice was lovely and sad; I didn't know the proper tune or words, so I just sang la-la-la with enormous feeling, and as long as I did that, the weapon was quiescent. No wonder women practiced subversive wiles on men; what else was effective?
I stood and sang for the full hour it took to restore body and sword to full solidity. Then at last I let go of the weapon�and it was embedded firmly in the boulder. Good enough! That blade would bother me no more.
I left the sword in the stone behind, retreating cautiously, watching to be quite certain that dread weapon did not abruptly free itself and resume its mischief. It remained in place. I wondered whether someday, in some other land, that blade on the boulder would turn up in some significant spot, and someone would learn how to�no, ridiculous! What use was a sword in a stone? No one in Xanth would fool around with anything like that.
I started back toward the site of my body's demise...and a shadow descended. Oops�that looked very much like a�in fact, it was a�
I reached for my sword, and of course my delicate hand slapped only soft flesh. The sword I had carried was in the stone; my own blade was with my body. I was unarmed.
The creature glided to a landing before me. It was a fair-sized griffin, a female, for her color was shoe-polish brown. In virtually every species of living creature, it is the male who is the creature of splendors with the brightest colors, the biggest muscles, the best proportions. Them is one exception�the human species; there the female seems to have most of the splendors. I have never been certain what went wrong. Maybe some long-ago curse was put on man and on man-related creatures. Also, the females of other species are good hunters and fighters, while those of ours are not. In this more-decorative-than-functional body, I was suddenly aware of my extreme vulnerability. This griffiness was well equipped with beak and claws, while I�
It was too late to hide; the griffiness had landed because she had spied easy prey. I could not fight; I had neither sword nor muscle to wield it. I could not change form; that took too long. More than ever now, I appreciated the position of human women. No wonder Threnody had not wanted to travel home alone; she would have been dead in hours. Predators that never showed their mugs to me, knowing that armed barbarian warriors were not to be trifled with, would freely stalk an unarmed woman. What was I to do?
Well, Threnody had tried to use guile on me, and I had used it on the black sword. Now that I was in her position, it seemed like a natural course. I would have to trick this predator somehow. What were griffins concerned about?
Aha! They were notoriously clean creatures, the opposite of harpies. Griffins spent hours preening their feathers and stroking their fur and cleaning their claws. They never fed on carrion, but always killed fresh. They were like the rocs in that respect. No griffin or roc ever died from food poisoning. They were good enough hunters so that they could afford to be choosy.
I huffed myself up and issued a feeling groan. The advancing griffiness paused, cocking her bird-head. She had been approaching me slowly, knowing I could not escape; griffins were more efficient than dragons and never scrambled when they did not have to. When a dragon made a kill, it was apt to be messy, with blood and gobbets of flesh strewn across the landscape; when a griffin did it, there was hardly even a scream. She was hesitating, not from any nervousness, but to make quite sure there was nothing here that might soil her feathers.
"Oooh, it's so horrible!" I lamented. "If only I'd known those berries were contaminated!"
Griffins don't have visible ears; nevertheless, her head perked up. Contamination?
"Now I've got the Green-Spotted Gut Rot in my gizzard and I'm filling up with purple pus. Please slay me before I rupture!" I staggered directly toward her.
The griffiness backed off�but not too far. She had a keen eye for flesh, and mine did not look spoiled. In fact, I was about as delectable a sample of female anatomy as could be found in Xanth, surely tasty in every portion. Had I had more lime to prepare, I could have smeared green juiceberries on my tender skin, staining it impressively. That was the problem with extemporaneous efforts; the verisimilitude suffers.
But I improvised, discovering the genius of desperation. "Would you believe," I pleaded distraughtly, "that I am actually a man? My innards have been so mixed up that there's no telling what will squeeze out next! Look at this!" I used my hands to cup my well-endowed bosom. "My chest muscles are practically drooping off!"
The griffiness backed off another step, her beak curving uncertainly. I pursued her. "Oh, please�cut me open and let out the gook before it geysers out on its own!" I made as if to squeeze a breast.
The griffiness spun, spread her wings, and took off. She didn't want any gook on her! Maybe she wasn't entirely convinced, but she preferred not to take the chance.
I relaxed. That had been a close call! Surely no genuine woman would have used that particular ruse�and perhaps the griffiness had known that. I wondered how Threnody had managed to survive alone in her cabin so long. A threat to jump into the�the�somewhere to her death would not stop an animal predator. But I knew the answer�by guile and poison. She had dealt with me as she had handled any other threat, and I could no longer blame her. I would do the same in her place, wearing her body.
She had told me she was a liar�and she was; but of course, a weak creature with tasty flesh could not afford the fighting integrity of an armed barbarian warrior. Understanding this, could I fail to understand also her desire to avoid Castle Ramona and marriage to a Magician whose only real interest in her was to shore up his standing as King? If I were in her place�and it seemed I was, for the time being�I'd rather go with a man whose interest was in my�in her body. At least that was honest.
But I had more immediate concerns. I hurried back to my own body. Over two hours had passed; anything could have happened!
Fortunately, it hadn't. Pook had gathered the remains together to another leaf bag and this time had managed not to include too much dirt. If any monsters had threatened, the ghost horse had stood them off.
"I got rid of the sword," I said. "But now we have a problem, friend. I'm in the wrong body."
Pook nodded, having figured that out for himself.
"I really can't do much in this body," I said. "It's weak and misshapen for barbaric purposes, and�" I shrugged. "I just prefer my own."
The ghost horse nodded again. He never had thought much of Threnody's body.
"Of course, it could have been worse," I said. "If you had been standing closer to me than she was, I would have switched identities with you."
Pook snorted, revolted by the notion. I laughed, though I can't say I was totally thrilled by his reaction.
I checked my own body. It was beginning to heal. Pook had rolled the head against the neck and the arms against the shoulders; these had reattached, and most of the spilled blood had soaked back in. My eyes were no longer staring; the lids had closed in halfway normal sleep. My body would be all right in a few more hours; decapitations weren't so bad when the head was not lost. If I had had to grow a new one, I'm not sure how my memories would have fared, as they are packed mainly in the head. Looking at my body this way, seeing it undergoing the process of healing, I really appreciated my talent. Never before had I stood there and watched it from another body.
But the afternoon was passing, and we needed a secure place for the night. "There are griffins in this region�and probably worse when it's dark," I said. "If I had my body, I could handle it; but in this poor thing, I'm in trouble." I glanced down at my present form. Oh, it was an excellent-looking form, but at the moment I didn't want to look at it, I wanted to use it.
Pook nodded again. Evidently he had sniffed monsters in the area.
"Of course, you can survive better alone," I said. "We're a burden to you, especially in this condition. So maybe you should go your own way now."
Pook stamped a forefoot in negation. He would not desert me in this hour of desperation. I was so grateful I almost cried, being caught unaware by the reactions of this body. I stopped myself just in lime and gave him a maidenly hug of gratitude instead. He tolerated this stoically.
"Well, I've got to protect myself until I can change back," I said. "Maybe I can climb a tree and�" But I looked at my unconscious body and at my present thin arms, and I knew I could never get us both into a tree. My barbarian body was simply too massive for my feminine body to lift. That was a confounded inconvenience; why did barbarians have to be so big?
"Maybe I could take this sword and�" But again I knew it was useless; these slender arms could never wield that great blade effectively.
I uttered an unladylike syllable of frustration. My present mouth almost choked on such a gross word. Threnody might have been quite ready to kill a man in defense of her interests, but she was not a foul talker. So I grabbed a hank of my black hair and yanked on it, venting my displeasure. All my avenues seemed blocked!
Then I spied the hole in the dead artis-tree. "I can drag my body into that," I said. "And squeeze in myself. And you can stand guard outside. That should get us through the night. In the morning, my body should be mobile, and you can carry it to some safer place."
Pook nodded agreement. I gripped my body by the shoulders and hauled. It was a real effort, but I managed to heave it a little. I reminded myself that Threnody had managed to drag me to the brink of the�I couldn't remember where, but surely she had dragged me, so I should be able to do it, too, in her body. I braced again, hauled again, and moved it some more. Soon I was panting, my bosom heaving prettily, but I got my body to the tree.
When I peered into the arched hole, I saw something I hadn't noticed before: there was a stairway in there! The steps led down into darkness beneath the ground. This wasn't a hole in a tree, it was an entrance to�
To what? I gazed, pondering. Steps usually meant people or some roughly similar species. They were small steps, but there was clearance for human height. Was it wise to go down there?
Pook looked around nervously, sniffing the air and rotating his ears to catch some sound that was beyond my perception. Whatever designed human beings really messed up on the ears; not only were ours less efficient than those of most animals, they weren't nearly as pretty. Pook's ears, for example, were superior to mine in just about any respect you'd care to consider.
"Something dangerous?" I asked, and he nodded affirmatively.
"Something we can't stand off?" Again the nod.
"Like a dragon?" Yes.
"Then we have no choice," I concluded. "You range free, maybe leading it away�that's your specialty!�and I'll haul the two of us down the stairs." It was obvious that Pook wouldn't fit in the nether passage.
I took another hold on my body, then paused. "Uh, Pook, in case this doesn't work out�"
But I couldn't finish the sentence, so I just gave him another maidenly hug about the neck and a sweet-lipped kiss on the ear and dropped only one or two tears on his hide. Then I hauled my lunky, unconscious body on into the hole and down the stairs, headfirst.
Going down was easier, because gravity helped. Gravity can be very useful magic sometimes. I paused to look back and saw Pook's silhouette above; then we rounded the curve, and the parting was complete.
I felt halfway naked without Pook, and it was much worse to feel naked in this body than in my own. I reminded myself firmly that Pook really was better off free in the forest, where he could outrun any threat. With luck, we would find the subterranean region empty and be able to rest and recover in private safety. Of course, there might be a problem about food, but we could emerge to forage in the morning. Without luck�well, what choice did we have? That evil spell-sword had really cut down our options. I had managed to use the wrong white spell to salvage something, at least.
I reached the foot of the stairway. Now we were in a rough passage that wound among the descending roots of the artis-trees. The roots were aesthetically shaped and arranged, just as were the branches above, and it was in consequence a rather scenic passage, nicely contoured, though it was formed of packed dirt.
Where should we go from here? If anything used this stair these days, I wanted to be clear of it. I had not noticed any cobwebs as I descended with my body, and that suggested that the stairs had been recently used. Maybe there was a room along the passage where my body could be hidden.
I left that body for a moment and explored. Yes, there were occasional chambers opening from the passage. They were just rounded places that perhaps had once been used to store things. I went back and resumed the haul on my body. What an awful job it was!
Then I became aware of another presence. It was gloomy here, and getting more so as the day waned above, reducing the light leaking down the stairway. But now there was yellower light at the far end of the passage. Someone was coming!
I tried to haul my inert body the rest of the way to the chamber, but I was tired and the body seemed heavier than ever, and there wasn't enough time. The light of a lantern rounded a comer and paused.
"What have we here!" a gruff voice growled.
Oh, no! I recognized that quality of speech. This was a gnome! The gnomes lived underground, and their profession was mining; they tunneled endlessly, ferreting out pretty stones, and they weren't partial to intruders. Sometimes they ate visitors; sometimes they did worse things. Especially to attractive young women. For some obscure reason, I was now far more acutely conscious of the problems of young women than I had been before. Gnomes weren't as bad as goblins, being slightly more civilized�yes, even I, a proud but ignorant barbarian, could appreciate some aspects of civilization!�but they were bad enough. Some idiots thought of gnomes as innocent little men, like the elves; I knew better. I didn't like this at all.
"My�my friend and I�he's injured and must have shelter," I said, hoping to rouse some element of sympathy in the gnome. It was a faint hope, but all I could muster at the moment.
It was promptly dashed. "You are intruders!" the gnome growled. I saw that he carried a wicked-looking pick in his other hand, the kind that could pry stone from bedrock. "I, Gnasty Gnomad of the Gnobody Gnomes, shall deal with you forthrightly!" Gnomes were very forthright folk; that was part of their problem. He lifted his deadly pick.
Had I been in my own body, with my trusty sword, I should hardly have been concerned. Gnasty stood only a third my normal height, was short-legged and short-armed, and the pick was relatively clumsy compared with the sword, however devastating it was against unarmed folk. But I was not in my body, and my sword remained above ground. I could not effectively oppose the gnome physically, shamed as I am to admit it.
So I scrambled cunningly once more. "Wait, good gnome, sir!" I cried. "No need to kill us! We can be useful to you! We�" Oh, what could I offer, that I was willing to offer, in this body? Again the genius of desperation struck. "We can sing!"
"I care nothing for human hilarity," Gnasty said, touching his squat, dark cap dourly. But he paused.
"No hilarity!" I said. "Sad, very sad! Listen!" And I used Threnody's voice, as I had done to calm the black sword, ululating fervently. It sounded as if something gross had just expired.
Gnasty Gnomad considered. "Maybe so," he said, grudgingly impressed. "Then follow me." He turned about and tramped back down the passage.
I returned to the dragging of my body. "Oh, leave him!" the gnome snapped. "We'll cut him up for broth."
"No!" I cried. "He can sing too; we're a duet! Much better together!" I hoped that was true. My body's ability at singing was nil, as song is not a barbarian thing, but if Threnody animated it, her skill might compensate.
The gnome shrugged. "It better be true," he grumped.
I hauled, and somehow got my body moved along. Fortunately, it wasn't far; down the passage was a chamber hollowed from stone, with a ventilation shaft penetrating to the surface. It had a barred wooden door. When I struggled in there with my burden, the gnome slammed and locked the door.
"But we'll need food, water!" I cried. "In order to sing well!"
"In due course, chattel," Gnasty said and marched off.
Well, for the moment we were secure. Too secure, perhaps, since we were prisoners. But maybe that was better than nothing.
I checked my body carefully. The healing continued apace; the head and arm were now so firmly attached that only faint scar lines showed where the severings had been. What a marvelous talent I had!
Actually, Threnody had a marvelous talent, too. I felt I should use it to rescue us from this fix. I could change into a snake and crawl out between the bars and up the stairs and out�
But my body could not follow. And I didn't want to leave it unattended. Suppose dimepedes or nickelpedes showed up, or the Gnobody Gnomes, while I was absent? So I just had to sit tight�at least until the healing was far enough along.
I settled down beside my body and slept.
By morning, my body had healed enough to return to consciousness, but still had some healing to do. I noticed that the legs were flesh again; my talent had cleared up that detail while it was at it. Good enough; I really didn't need stone feet, or even feel of clay.
However, I now had the chore of explaining things to Threnody, who had not been in a position to appreciate much of what had happened recently. I had to get things straight with her before the gnomes returned.
"Don't get excited," I murmured in my car. It was a dirty ear; I really should have cleaned my head more often, especially after it had rolled in the dirt. "There has been an exchange of consciousness."
My eyes widened. My left arm jerked up before my face. My mouth opened.
"Don't scream!" I warned. "That's more trouble!"
She was smart enough to desist, but she took a while to get settled. "My arm," she whispered, horrified. "It's all big and hairy!"
"That's not all," I muttered. I explained the rest of it in terse whispers, bringing us up to date. "So now you must try to sing, using my voice," I concluded.
Once she accepted the reality of our exchange of bodies, she adapted readily. She didn't like it any better than I did, and had just as much trouble with the specialized male anatomy as I had with the female anatomy, but she was a clever and realistic woman. I realized that Magician Yang must have expected me to be nearest Pook or some other creature, perhaps a living tree, when the exchange spell was activated. Surely he would not have wanted me in the body of the woman he hoped to marry. Or did he hope to marry her? Maybe he would be satisfied to have her dead, regardless of the attitude of the common folk of Xanth. At any rate, Threnody and I were for the moment unified in objecting to the present situation.
"Gnomes are no good for us," she said. "They don't like to go on the surface by day, so have to hunt at night; they have spells to protect them from night creatures, or maybe it's just their bright torches that scare the beasts away. But they have an appetite for day-game, which they seldom have opportunity to assuage�and we are day-game." She looked down at my body, which was now clothed in only the merest tatters of her brown dress. "If I had known this was going to happen. I'd have let you get new trousers! Can this hunk of flesh survive being cooked and eaten?"
"I'm not sure," I said uncomfortably. "Swallowed whole by a dragon, sure; but spread among several stomachs�the more my body has to regenerate lost parts, the harder it is. Maybe if the bones were piled together�I think it's the bones that are the essence of me. But if they are kept separate�thrown away in different dumps�I don't think I'd be able to recover. I'm not like a worm, where each part becomes a new creature."
"That's what I thought. So if I get eaten by gnomes in this body, I'm done for�and my own body can't recover from simple death. There's no chance there. We've just got to avoid being eaten."
"I never much liked being eaten, anyway," I confessed.
"But how can we escape? Your body's a lot stronger than mine, but yours is pretty weak right now." She smiled with my brute, masculine face. "I'm in a position to know."
"After a recovery, my body needs a lot of food and rest," I explained. "It will be a couple of days before it's up to full snuff."
"And without a weapon or tool to fight with or pry us out of here, even your full strength won't do much good," she said. "We'll have to depend on my talent. My body can escape readily. But�'
"But mine can't," I finished for her. "And we need both bodies, until we can get switched back."
"I'm aware of the irony," she said, grimacing. "We've got to stick together and protect each other from further harm. But how can your body escape? Undoubtedly you, as a barbarian, have had prior experience with this sort of thing. Hairbreadth escapes and whatnot."
She gave me too much credit. Most of my life had been spent peacefully growing up in Fen Village. That was why I had had to go out on my own to fill my quota of adventure. I had drowned once, gotten zonked by the stare of a stray basilisk, and had my neck broken by a falling branch, but these were mere boyhood experiences, the kind any lad had. I had never been imprisoned and threatened with getting cooked, before this journey to central Xanth.
But I did know a way. "I could assume the form of a creature with strong teeth or cutting claws. Then I could cut you into chunks small enough to pass through these bars, and carry the chunks to the surface, one at a time. After that, I could put them together and wait for you to reconstitute."
She grimaced. "There are a squintillion problems with that! First, doesn't it hurt? And if you knocked me out first, wouldn't there be a lot of lost blood when you cut? And wouldn't it take so long�three hours�for you to change in my body and do the job that the gnomes will return and discover what we're up to? And if not, and you carry the chunks to the surface, what's to prevent some predator from consuming them up there, one at a time, while you're dawn here fetching another? And if all that can be overcome, how do you know your body will recover after that bad treatment, so soon after being hacked apart by the black sword? You hadn't recovered all the way from the stone-spell before, and I still feel a little stone in my toe."
I spread my small, pretty hands. "You're thinking better than I am, I guess. You're right; it wouldn't work. We can't escape on our own. But what else can we do?"
"I think you had the right idea before. We'll have to sing our way out."
"But can you sing well in my voice? I was never good at that sort of thing."
"Marvels can be done with harmony," she said. "It's one thing your weakened body can probably do as well as ever. Maybe we'd better practice."
"But the gnomes will hear!"
"And what if they do? They want us to sing, don't they? I can't think why they want song, but we'd better oblige them."
So we sang. Her body's voice was very good, even without the accompaniment of her lute, but I knew neither words nor tune, so could only ululate in the fashion I had done before. My body's voice was deep and rough, but Threnody knew the songs. It seemed impossible at first, but she knew what she was doing; that turned out to be an improvement on my situation and an important part of singing.
"I will teach you a song, so you can sing it properly," she said. "Then I will be the bass accompaniment. The secret is harmony and counterpoint; the two voices will complement each other and become more than they are separately. Let me see." She pondered briefly. "Let's start with a wordless one; you just learn the melody."
She made my voice sing the tune. As she got used to it, she made my voice perform better than it ever had sung before. It stopped barging about the basement and started marching in more disciplined fashion at ground level. I realized that my poor singing had been more a matter of attitude than ability; even the worst voice could sound halfway decent if properly managed. Then, with her voice, I was able to pick up the theme on a higher register and soon I could sing it. It was a sad but pretty thing that seemed appropriate for mourning a close friend's death or the tragedy of the human condition in general.
There was a tramping in the passage, and we broke off. Gnasty arrived, followed by several other gnomes. "See, Gnitwit," Gnasty said. "I told you they could sing."
Gnitwit gnodded. "So you did. But will the cowboys listen?"
"Why not try it and see? What do you think, Gnonesuch?"
"Since the cowpokes infest our richest region," Gnonesuch said, "anything's worth a try. If it doesn't work, we can always put them in the stew."
Gnitwit peered at me. "She looks delectable. Look at that thigh! I get first dibs on that!"
"Gno you don't!" Gnasty snapped, as I hastily tugged the hem of my skirt down to cover the exposed thigh. "I found them; I get first pick from the stew."
"Let's fatten them up so we can all feast," Gnonesuch suggested.
"Good gnotion!" Gnasty agreed.
They departed, and Threnody and I practiced some more harmony. We had extra incentive now! While I sang the tune I had learned, she used my voice to fill a deep underpinning, a sort of strumming that was nothing in itself but really sounded good when it lined up with what I was singing. We were a team!
There was more action in the passage. This time, the entrance was by gnomides, the gnome women, who were rather pretty little things. I have already remarked on how the human-related creatures seem to have better taste in women than in men, at least as far as appearances go. Structurally it's another matter, of course; legs that may look and taste delectable don't run as fast as those with muscles. I suppose there should be a reasonable compromise between appearance and performance; but of course, I was not the one to design the humanoid form.
The gnomides brought a pot of murky water and a bundle of cooked roots. The roots tasted awful and were threaded with undigestible strings, but we were both so hungry that we ate them without protest. At least there was plenty of the stuff, so that my body had the substance it needed for healing completely and strengthening.
The gnomides departed, and we had more time to ourselves. That's one thing prisoners have plenty of�time. We practiced our song some more, perfecting it, then rested. "The more you sleep, the faster my body will recover," I told her.
"I wonder whether you should practice changing form," she said. "We don't want the gnomes to know you can do it, but if the opportunity arises for a change, you do need to know how."
"I phased to smoke so I could bury the black sword in a stone," I said. "I just willed it, and it happened."
"Yes, that's the way. If you concentrate harder, it works faster, but you still can't do it in much under an hour. You were very smart to deal with the sword that way."
"I was desperate!" But I felt a feminine flush of pleasure at the compliment.
"The problem is, you can do only one kind of change at a time, and you have to complete that before you can begin another. You can't change size halfway, then change density halfway; the most you can do is change your mind and resolidify before you're done. So it's really quite limited�which is one reason I did not try to escape captivity till night. My body is vulnerable while it's in the process of change; it has to be undisturbed for things to work right."
"I know how it is," I said. "My body can't heal properly if it keeps getting messed up. But how does your body know when halfway is? I mean, couldn't you be shrinking to elf size, but stop at gnome size and decide that's where you were going anyway?"
My eyes widened in my handsome but smudged male face. "I never thought of that!" she exclaimed. "I always had an object in mind, like a mouse; first I'd change to mouse size and be so dense I'd almost sink through the ground. Then I'd diffuse back to normal density, at which point I'd be the size and mass of an imp. Then I'd change shape and be a complete mouse. I never was able to do it any other way�but I suppose it's possible."
"Just as it turned out to be possible for my voice to sing," I agreed. "What's this about super-density?"
"The mass of the body stays the same, unless that's what's being changed," she explained. "When I reduce my mass without changing size or form, I become ghostlike; then if I reduce my size commensurately, I become normally solid again. The mass of a mouse distributed through the volume of a woman is vaporous, but still there; when the size becomes that of a mouse, all is well."
"That's interesting," I said, not very interested. "But now you'd better sleep."
She agreed. My body settled back and in a moment was snoring. That startled me. Oh, I knew I snored sometimes, but hadn't realized it was that loud and vulgar. People at Fen Village had complained now and then, but I had believed they were joking.
I wasn't sleepy myself; this body was not busy recovering from decapitation and dismemberment, so was more alert. I decided to experiment cautiously with changing states. I had diffused before and returned to normality, so I knew I could handle that. What about shape? No, that would be too obvious, if the gnomes came back unexpectedly. Size? Yes, maybe I could do something with that. I would make myself larger�no, smaller, again to escape notice if observed. And I would stop wherever I chose, then decide what to do next. I wanted to know the limits of threnody's talent. Our lives might depend on it.
I shrank for about a quarter of an hour, then checked the mark I had made on the wall. Yes, I was about three-quarters of my prior height. In an hour I could reduce to�to what, zero size? Microscopic? A microscope was a magic instrument used to see things too small to see; I could appear under that instrument and do a pantomime act, astonishing the Magician watching! Except that any larger creature could eat me; that thought changed my mind quickly.
I was denser; there was a different feel to my body, not comfortable. I was breathing more rapidly, as if my lungs were not taking in enough air. This made sense; they had to support the same mass, but they were smaller, so they had to work harder. How could Threnody have diminished to mouse size without suffocating? She must have diffused first, then shrunk, so she could breathe. I was also having a little trouble with my balance, because I was closer to the ground and had less time to correct my stance, as well as being overmassed for this size. I realized that even if density were kept constant, a person would not want to be the size of a mouse, for it would be hard to balance on two feet. The imps, of course, were used to it, and maybe had magic to keep them steady; but if I were the size of a mouse, I'd better also assume the form of a mouse. It was amazing how complex a simple thing like size-change became; no wonder Threnody hadn't been eager to launch into it. Now I decided to diffuse back to normal density so I wouldn't have to pant. Already I could see the limits of these changes. If I diffused too much, wind could blow me away or even apart; while if I became too solid, I could sink into the ground.
But wait�I wanted to find out whether I could stop here and do something else, or alternate one form of change with another. Threnody thought I couldn't�but again I reminded myself that I had thought I couldn't sing. I had shrunk some; better try diffusing.
I concentrated on diffusion, and in fifteen minutes I was breathing easier. So far so good; I had done a change in half an hour instead of two hours. What next?
Well, could this body change part of itself and not the rest? Threnody had been so sure of its limits�maybe she hadn't even tried new things.
I concentrated on my left hand, willing it to become a crab's pincer. I ignored the rest of the body, working on just that one thing.
And it worked! In just a few minutes that hand was a big green pincer. I tried it on my skin, but it wasn't a strong pincer; it had the form but not the power. No, this was not an easy way to convert the body into a natural weapon. Not without more time and practice. Still, this represented a breakthrough. Threnody's body had more talent than she had known. Because the focus of change was now narrow, it was relatively swift: she had required an hour per change because she insisted on doing the whole body, all the way. She had been limited in her thinking, and therefore in her talent.
But I'd better get back to normal, lest I be discovered. I tried to change size and claw simultaneously, but found I could not; it had to be one or the other. Very well, claw first, then size.
It was easy. I changed the claw halfway to the hand, then switched to size-changing, switched again to density to catch up on my missing mass, and returned to finish the hand. I could only do one type of change at a time, but I could do whatever change I wanted, to whatever extent. I had, in effect, rendered Threnody's talent far more versatile.
Was that true for all people? I wondered. Could every person do much more than he believed, if he changed his belief? To what extent were all of us needlessly limited? The Mundanes refused to believe in magic and therefore could not practice it; there was a horrendous example!
But barbarians aren't much for philosophy. Maybe they could be, if they thought they could be? I got myself back to normal, then settled down and snoozed in and out. Threnody slept more solidly for several hours, waking when the gnomides brought more food. This time Gnasty was with them. "Prepare yourselves, chattel," he said gruffly. "Soon you will sing for the cowboys." He spun about and tramped off,
"Who or what are these cowboys?" I asked.
One of the gnomides glanced around to be sure Gnasty was out of hearing range. "They are bullheaded folk," she said.
"Well, so is Gnasty," I said.
She smiled, becoming more at ease. "No, you misunderstand, human woman. They�" She shrugged, at a loss to provide more detail.
"My name is�" I hesitated, but realized I had to go with my present body, lest there be considerable complications of understanding. "Threnody."
"Threnody," she repeated. "And I am Gnifty Gnomide."
"Gnice to know you, Gnifty," I said in my most feminine manner, while Threnody kept silent. And actually it was nice, for these gnomides were of quite a different personality from the gnomes. It served as a reminder that a person can not be said to know a species unless he knows both sexes of it. "What do I misunderstand about the cowboys? Do they herd cows or something?" Cows were mythical Mundane animals.
A titter rippled through the gnomides. "Of course not!" Gnifty said. "They are�their heads are�" She cast about for a better term, but found none. "Bulls," she finished.
"You mean their bodies are�like ours�but their heads�?"
"Yes!" she exclaimed, pleased at this success of communication. "They graze�"
"On the moss of the rocks, where our men mine. And they get�they have horns�"
It was coming clear at last. "When the gnomes try to work, the cowboys want to graze, so they get ornery and interfere."
"Yes. And they are too big and strong to oppose, so we can't mine. But they're not aggressive, usually, and they like music�only we aren't good at music."
"Well, we'll sing for you," I said generously. "But suppose it doesn't work?"
"Oh, we don't like to think of that!" Gnifty said.
But an older gnomide, hardened to tougher stuff, managed to come up with the thought. "The pot."
"She's Gnaughty," Gnifty confided, embarrassed. "And she's Gnymph." She indicated the youngest gnomide, who was too shy to speak at all. As with human women, their shyness was inversely proportional to their age.
I knew better than to ask these little women to release us. They didn't have the key and they wouldn't dare defy their gruff men. As it was, they shied away from Threnody's side of the cell, afraid of the big, brute, male body despite the gate separating us. They took me for a woman, so were friendly with me. All women, I realized, shared a bond of awe and subservience, because of the roughness of men. How odd that I had never noticed this before assuming female aspect myself.
"Well, thank you so much for the food," I said. "My friend Jordan, there, has a big appetite. He was hurt; that's why we came down here. We couldn't stay up there at night�not with all those monsters."
The gnomides shuddered. They were afraid of monsters too. That was why their kind lived safely underground.
"But why don't small monsters come in that open door in the tree?" I asked. "We came right down the stairs; we didn't know there were people here."
"There's an aversion spell on it," Gnifty explained. "Only our own kind can enter, or someone in such dire need that he overcomes the aversion."
"That was us," I said. "He was unconscious; I dragged him down."
"Our men have aversion spells on their hats," Gnifty continued. She was really quite talkative, now that the ice had been broken. "So that no big monsters come near, just creatures small enough to be hunted at night. When a dragon is near, they cry, 'Hang onto your hat!'"
"That makes sense," I agreed with maidenly agreement.
We finished eating, and the gnomides took away the refuse. Then the gnomes returned. "Move out!" Gnasty said as he unlocked the gate.
We were conducted to a deep region where the tunnels branched out in all directions. Apparently these ones had not been hollowed by the gnomes. They were larger and older, and their walls were covered by furry growths. In some sections, the walls had been chipped away by the miners, where they had delved for precious stones. The moss did not grow in the chipped sections. I could see why those who grazed would be annoyed. To them, perfectly good food was being destroyed. When two cultures interfaced, who was to say which one was right and which wrong? They merely had different viewpoints.
When I thought of it, that term "interface" was interesting. It derived from a spell in which the faces of two creatures were locked together or combined so that they interconnected. There had been a person whose talent was interfacing; she could lock any two faces together, however awkward it was for the participants. Later usage had been less specific, until now it meant the overlapping of any two things, including cultures�as in this case. I was fascinated by the way words came into the language; too bad I wasn't civilized! Words have always been very important to me, because we barbarians have only an oral tradition; without words, we would have no culture at all. Words have real power, and not just the magic ones. One has only to listen to a harpy swear to know that!
The gnomes slowed, becoming nervous. "They're near," Gnasty said. "I smell them. If only our aversion spells worked on them!"
Sure enough, there was a whiff of barnyard odor. Then we heard a kind of crunch, crunch�the sound of grazing and chewing�and every so often the burp of a wad of cud being brought up. Finally we came into a larger cavern, and there were the cowboys: true bullheaded men the size of my body.
They spied us. One snorted and pawed the floor of the cave with a bare foot. He was unclothed, but fairly furry all over so he didn't seem naked. He lowered his horns. Gnasty clapped his hand to his hat and backed off. This was really cowboy country.
"Sing!" Gnasty cried.
"Now look," I said reasonably. "Don't the cowboys have as much right to this cave as you do? After all, they're hungry, and this is where they graze."
"Gnitwit, go smoke up the pot," Gnasty said to his companion.
"We'll sing!" I exclaimed. The gnomes had a truly compelling argument! That was often the way of it, when reason met fanaticism.
So we sang, my pretty melody and Threnody's deep, resonating accompaniment. In this larger space it worked well; the sound sort of spread out and mellowed, and those bass notes reverberated while the high notes cut straight through to the ear. It was a nice effect, if I do say so myself.
And the cowboys responded. The aggressive bull un-aggressed and returned to his grazing. Beyond him was a cowgirl, with a body not unlike the one I was using. That one listened attentively, her ears cocked toward us.
"Move them down to the far side," Gnasty told us, gruffly pleased. "We want to work here."
So Threnody and I slowly walked to the far side of the cavern, and the cowfolk followed us, so as to be close to the song. Behind us, the gnomes unlimbered their picks and had at the wall, gouging out chunks of it, then using their mallets to smash apart the chunks. When they had reduced the rock to gravel, they sifted through it, searching for gems. They didn't find many, but of course such work is slow, as is anything worthwhile. I couldn't fault the industrious gnomes, but I was sorry to see the natural walls being torn down and the rubble accumulating. The gnomes were more civilized than the cowfolk, so naturally they had more destructive ways. Once the gnomes were through with a section, no one would have any use for it.
All we had was one song, but the cowfolk seemed satisfied with it. The cowgirl gradually came closer to me, avoiding Threnody, and I realized that she, like the gnomides, felt more comfortable with her own sex. Once again, the camaraderie of the gentle aspect prevailed.
I held out my hand to her, and she made so bold as to sniff it, then shied away, alarmed by her own boldness. These were basically shy folk, not looking for trouble; the bulls simply stood their ground when they had to. Maybe the aversion spell of the gnomes did work on the cowboys, but they became desperate when defending their diminishing pastures, so resisted it. My sympathy was with them. I seemed to have a lot of female sympathy now; maybe it derived from my present body, yet somehow I doubted it was any carryover from Threnody's personality.
But we were captives of the gnomes, and we didn't know much about the cowfolk, and my body had not yet recovered its full strength. We had to remain with the gnomes until we saw our way clear to escape.
We sang until we began to hoarsen, which was bad for pacifying cows, so we had to quit for the day. But the gnomes had done good mining during this period and were well satisfied. The gnomides carried several small diamonds; evidently they were the guardians of such stones.
The gnomes returned us to our cell and fed us well. I would have appreciated it more if I hadn't known they wanted us fat for the pot, at such time as our usefulness as singers ended. Once our effect on the cowboys diminished, or the gnomes completed their operations in cowfolk caves, we would be in hot water.
There didn't seem to be any gnomes near our cell this evening, but a barbarian never trusts appearances completely. They could have one of their number lurking in a nearby cell, listening to make sure we didn't make any secret escape plans. So I said nothing on this subject to Threnody. But as darkness closed at the ventilation shaft, I settled down next to her, put my face near hers�that is, near mine�and murmured: "They're going to cook us one of these days."
"Yes, we'll really go to pot," she agreed.
"So we must plan our escape. You'll be stronger tomorrow, but it will take one more day for full strength. Do you think we can wait that long?"
"I think so," she said. "That's a big cavern they're mining, and maybe not the only one. But let's plan it carefully now, just in case we have to try it tomorrow. I think the cowfolk will let us pass through their home passages�but we need to be sure there's a way to the surface from there."
I was propped on one elbow, so as to address her ear. My arm was getting uncomfortable, but I didn't want to move away and have to talk louder. "Uh, may I lean against you?" I asked.
"Sure," she said gruffly. "Here, put your head against my shoulder, and I'll hold you in place."
So I rested my head in the crook of her shoulder and neck, and she put her brawny arm around my body. One big hand fell rather familiarly across my bosom. "Uh, your hand�" I said.
"What?" She sounded annoyed. And she put both hands on my shoulders, drew me in to my face, and kissed me on the mouth.
I wrenched away, brought up my own hand, and clapped her on the cheek, smartly. Then I scrambled out of her grasp.
"What did you do that for?" she demanded angrily. Even in the dark, I was aware of her big muscles tensing and I was uncomfortably conscious of the disparity in the powers of our bodies. She was not yet at full strength, but she could pick me up and throw me across the cell if she wanted to.
"You behave yourself, or I'll scream for the gnomes!" I said tersely.
"But all I was doing�" she began in a baffled voice.
"All you were doing was responding to your strong masculine passions! You think any available female is yours to�to� " I could not continue, appalled at the prospect.
"My masculine passions!" she retorted, outraged. Then she laughed ruefully. "You know, it's true; I've never felt stirrings like that before. I'm all�I�is that the way men react to women'?
'To pretty ones," I said guardedly.
"I never realized before how it was with men! How do you ever manage to control yourselves'?"
"It isn't always easy," I admitted, grudgingly mollified. "That night when you lay against me, and breathed�"
She laughed again. "I know! Now I understand exactly how you felt. That dirt you said you have in your mind�I think some of that rubbed off on me, because�well, never mind. Oh, Jordan�you were a saint!"
"Saints are mythological Mundane creatures," I muttered, further mollified. But this experience had unsettled me, too; never before had I properly appreciated the woman's position.
"I apologize," Threnody said. "I got carried away."
"I accept your apology," I said graciously. And so we were reconciled. But we did not resume physical contact and we did not discuss our plans for escape that night.
* * *
Next day was much like the first. We ate, rehearsed another song, and sang it later for the cowfolk. This time three cowgirls approached. One was young, really a calf-child with cute little horns. "Yooo nnize vvoook," she mooed as we paused between songs. We had found we didn't have to sing continuously, they would give us a few minutes for silence if it was obvious there would soon be more music.
I did a double take. Was she talking? It seemed so. the bovine tips and tongue were not well adapted for speech, but when I realized that the Z sound substituted for the S Sound, and the V for the F, it made sense. "Thank you," I murmured. "You nice folk, too."
"Nnize zoongz," she said, pleased.
"Nice songs," I agreed, glancing to make sure the gnomes weren't paying attention. "Can all of you talk our language?"
She shook her head no. "Oonee mmeee. Mmiii zaalenz."
"Your talent," I agreed, understanding. I hadn't realized that nonhuman folk had magic talents, but of course, the cowfolk were mostly human. All except the heads. So it made sense that they should have souls and magic.
This was a very interesting development. Could we turn it to our advantage? We certainly needed an advantage!
We sang another song, to preserve appearances. Then I talked with the calf-child again. "What is your name?" I asked.
"Mmooola," she replied richly. "Hwaaz yoorz?" She had trouble with some consonants, but I could understand her increasingly well as I became attuned.
"Threnody," I said, feeling a twinge of guilt for this necessary deception. There was no way I could make these folk understand my real situation, and if I could, it would only frighten them away. I believe in good old-fashioned barbarian integrity, but there are times when it doesn't seem to apply.
"Zrennozee," she repeated carefully.
"You speak very well," I complimented her, and her nostrils dilated with appreciation. I leaned forward confidentially. "Just between us girls�I have a secret."
Her beautiful bovine orbs brightened. All girls love secrets! Her furry ears twitched. "Zeekrez?"
"Yes. We are captives of the Gnobody Gnomes. Will you help us escape?"
Moola's nose wrinkled in perplexity. "Eezave?"
"Correct. Escape. The gnomes mean to cook us in a big pot when they're through with our singing."
"A big, big pot," I agreed. "We must escape�tomorrow. Will you help?"
The calf-brow creased and the ears twitched uncertainly. "Mmuuz aazg," she lowed, glancing at the largest bullhead, who was evidently in charge.
"Tomorrow," I repeated. Then we had to sing again, for the herd was getting restless.
That night we definitely had to make plans, so I trusted my valuable and delicate feminine body close to the brute hunk Threnody was using and discussed our escape. "I think all we have to do is walk into the midst of the cowfolk," I said. "The gnomes couldn't stop us. If Moola says it's okay."
"But can we trust them?" she asked with typically masculine suspicion. "What do they eat, besides moss?"
"Then mouths aren't suited for meat-eating," I said.
"Or for talking?"
"That's just Moola's talent." But I wasn't entirely easy, since I now inhabited what was surely a delectable carcass. "Anyway, what choice do we have? We don't want to wait for the gnomes to light a fire under the pot."
The notion of that smoking fire and boiling pot seemed to bother her as much as it did me. A pot is best left unsmoked. "We'd better trust them," she agreed. "They do seem like decent bovine folk."
"A better risk, anyway." I made ready to draw away, but she held me close.
"I'm sorry I killed you," she said.
We had been through that before. "Are you getting ready to make another pass at me?" I demanded, trying vainly to free myself from her grip.
"Of course not," she said insincerely. Then she laughed ruefully. "I never suspected what a difference a body makes," she said. "I mean, I have assumed many forms in the past, but always female."
"You could assume the male form, couldn't you?" I asked. "Maybe I should try it."
"It wouldn't work. My talent is form-changing, not�that. Maybe my body could look male, but inside, it would always be female."
That seemed reasonable. Yet now, in our exchanged bodes, she was assuming male attributes, and I female ones. Form did make a difference! Still, I definitely thought of myself as a male, and surely she remained female in outlook. Some questions have no easy answers, and I suspect the question of sexual outlook is about as uneasy as any.
We separated and slept. But perhaps we respected each other more than we had before.
Next day was as before, until we came to the cowfolk's cavern. About half the wall of it had been chipped away, so that there was much less grazing than previously. We sang the first song, and Moola approached. "Verzinanz zayz ogaa," she reported contentedly.
"Ferdinand says okay," I relayed to Threnody.
"Then let's get the hell on our way," she said gruffly. I don't know why males can't be more gracious about accepting favors, and I wish they would watch their rough language.
We got up and walked to the far end of the cave, where the main herd of the cowfolk was.
"Hey!" Gnasty Gnomad shouted, brandishing his pick. But two bullheads stood in the way, their horns lowered, and he could do nothing. "And we had the pot ready to smoke tonight!" he raged.
"Such a pity, creep," Threnody muttered without much sympathy. Males can be quite callous at times.
Moola skipped along ahead of us, showing the way. But neither of us escapees was completely sanguine about where this was leading.
It led to a huge, barnlike cave, where motherly cows nursed small baby calves, and old bullheads chewed cud complacently. Standing in a Kingly stall was Ferdinand, a huge and noble bull of a man. Moola conducted us straight to him.
Moola had to translate, as we did not comprehend bovine language. The King, however, appeared to understand our speech well enough. Royal creatures do seem to place a premium on education, and at times that really helps.
"Greetings, your Majesty," Threnody said, making a formal bow. It was evident that the males dominated this herd, so she, as our apparent male, was expected to be the important person. I stifled my annoyance at this rank sexism for now; I'd give Threnody a piece of my mind later. "We are deeply grateful for your timely assistance in rescuing us from the gnomes."
The King mooed. Moola translated: "Zoze Mnovozzee Mnomz arr aa vaane!"
"Those Gnobody Gnomes are a pain," I repeated quietly for Threnody's benefit, as her masculine ear seemed to be less attuned to nuances. No wonder she couldn't sing as prettily as I could!
"They certainly are!" Threnody agreed. "They were going to smoke us in a pot."
The bullheaded King mooed again, and Moods said: "Nnoow yoo ghann zzingg vorr uz voreverr."
Oops! "Now you can sing�" I began, whispering.
"I heard!" Threnody snapped with insufferable masculine crudity. She raised my voice for the King. "Your Majesty, we deeply appreciate what you have done for us. But we have business elsewhere. Perhaps there is some other service we can do for your good folk to show our gratitude."
"Mooo?" the King asked, disappointed.
"We can not stay here," Threnody said firmly. "This is no aspersion on your region or culture. It is just that we have a prior commitment. I am a King's daugh�a King's offspring, and the duties of my status�"
Regretfully, the King mooed again. He was not one to argue against the honoring of duties of royal status.
"The only other thing we need is more pasture," Moola translated in her fashion. I'm rendering it for the moment in our normal mode, though of course it wasn't. Actually, her accent was not bad, for a heifer, and I don't mean to disparage it, I'm sure we sounded as odd to the bovines. "But our deepest and best pastures are controlled by the Knights, and already we pay a terrible rental for the use of some of those caves."
"Nights?" Threnody asked. "They are very dark?"
"Knights," Moola said precisely, managing to convey a hard K sound at the beginning of the term. "We are bracketed above by the gnomes and below by the Knights. The Gnobody Gnomes and the Knock-Kneed Knights."
The story, as it emerged, was that terrible armored creatures called Knights allowed the cowfolk to graze in some nether pastures, but required the sacrifice of the finest bullocks and heifers each year. If the cowfolk refused to send their tribute, the Knights would cut off the pastures entirely. Now, with their upper pasture depleted by the ravages of the gnomes, the bovines would not have enough left to survive.
The annual ritual had started many years before, when the Knights had moved into the caves and proved to be too strong for the cowfolk. The invaders were from a far place called Kon-Krete, where everything was very hard. The bovines had tried to fight, but their horns were no match for the pikes of the Knights, and they had been driven relentlessly to the very fringe of their range, up against the gnomes. The Knights could have exterminated the cowfolk entirely, but preferred to save them for entertainment. So the tribute was not just for grazing; it was for the very survival of the bovine community. But it was a sporting thing, as the Knights liked sport. The sacrificial cowfolk were given swords and sent into the dread labyrinth to meet the Knight Tourney Champion. If they could run that gauntlet and defeat him in battle, the tribute would be forgiven, and thereafter the bovines would be permitted to graze free. That gave them a genuine incentive to fight well�but so far none of them had prevailed, even though the bull and heifer were permitted to tackle the lone Knight together. The Knights' Champion had been too strong.
"But how do you know they would keep their word, if you ever won?" Threnody asked with male suspicion.
"Oh, the Knock-Kneed Knights always keep their word," Moola assured her. "They are creatures of chivalric honor. They believe that, without honor, they would be nothing at all. They are tough warriors and heartless creatures, but they would never dishonor their word."
I began to perceive a certain barbarian ethic here. Maybe we could come to terms with the Knights.
The only escapes from these caves were through the territories of the gnomes or Knights. So, if we did not wish to remain here, we would have to go one way or the other. If we really wanted to do the cowfolk a favor on our way out...
Threnody was doubtful, but I wasn't. "We ought to help these good folk," I said. "Not just because it's a way out, but because they are in genuine need. Besides, it sounds like a grand adventure."
"Grand adventure!" she exclaimed. "More like a nightmare! We could get killed!"
"I'd rather get killed in a good fight for justice than boiled ignominiously in a pot. Of course, the easy thing would be to stay here and sing for the bovines forever while they slowly starve."
"You retain some of those bold masculine notions," she muttered. "But I suppose we have little choice. You could change into a mouse and sneak out alone, but I can't�and anyway, I want my body back before you ruin it." She straightened my massive shoulders and addressed the King again. "Your Majesty, we have decided to take the place of your two sacrifices and go to battle with the Knights' Champion. Perhaps we shall defeat him and free you of your annual tribute; if not, at least two of your own folk shall be spared this year."
King Ferdinand made a bellow of pleased surprise. "Zhiz is aa heroig zhing you dzoo!" Moola translated. "Yoo arr aa graaze mmaann!"
"Aa graaze mmaann," Threnody agreed with irony. And privately to me: "You and your damned noble instincts!"
The sacrifice wasn't due until next month, but the King was sure the Knights would accept it early. We decided to go the next day.
First we had to prepare for the encounter. The cowfolk cooperated in fitting Threnody with a bullhead, so that she looked very much like the King himself. The bovines were fairly clever with their human hands and had fashioned likenesses of the heads of their heroes of the past, made from cloth, plaster, and paint. This particular mask-head was a representation of the Minotaur, a bygone hero who had gone to Mundania to seek his fortune. He was believed to have acquitted himself very well in labyrinth competition there, slaying many Mundanes. Naturally, things were better with fewer Mundanes. "Iv oonlee wee hadz hiz llighe aagenn," Moola said reverently. "Vudz wee arr zoo veesvull nnow."
"Too peaceful," I agreed. "Yet there is merit in that."
For my part, I used my body's talent. First I expanded my size to that of Threnody's body. My body, technically. Next I increased my density to make myself normal again. Then I changed my head to become that of a horned cow.
The cowfolk, watching this one-hour transformation, were amazed. So was Threnody. "You did it three times as fast as I do!" she exclaimed.
"I started to change to a giant twice as tall as you, I stopped when I was your height, so only ten minutes had passed. Then I started to increase my mass eightfold, but stopped after fifteen minutes, when it was only double. Finally I changed my head, leaving the rest of my body alone, so that only took half an hour."
"But the whole body has to change!" she protested.
"No, it doesn't. If you change from human shape to cowgirl shape, only the head changes. Otherwise you couldn't assume some partly human forms, such as this one or that of a harpy or centaur."
She shook her head. " I wouldn't believe it, but I just saw you do it; you've learned more about my talent in three days than I did in a lifetime!"
"Just lucky," I said smugly.
Her eyes narrowed. "I thought barbarians were sort of stupid. You're smarter than�" She shrugged. "You're really quite a�a person."
I shrugged. "I'm close to nature, that's all. Your talent is a natural thing, your demon heritage."
"Natural!" she muttered with mixed emotions.
We had a supper of fresh moss, as that was all that was available. It wasn't tasty by our standards, but it did feed us. We slept in a chamber lined with old straw, which was a precious substance here; the cowfolk were treating us royally.
Next day we set out for the challenge. Moola had explained how to find the Knights, who would give us swords if they accepted our status as Sacrifice. It was simply a matter of walking to the lower level and mooing for attention. The Knights, like most arrogant conquerors, did not bother to speak the subjects' language.
"Vaarr wweelll!" Moola said as we departed, a big, lovely bovine tear in her brown eyes.
"Fare well, Moola," I replied, giving her a female hug. I was now much bigger than she, but the sentiment was the same. I had increased my size because I felt that would give me a better chance in the action to come. Part of what sets women at a disadvantage is their smaller size, and that was one disadvantage this body did not have to put up with.
We walked down the indicated route. The caves looked strange from my bovine eyes; I could see behind me as well as before me, but detail was not as clear as I liked. Very soon we were in the forbidden territory, so we started mooing to advertise our presence. Otherwise, we had been warned, we could be slaughtered casually as trespassers or as strays from the herd.
It wasn't long before a figure in metal armor appeared. It was large�as large as we were�and so completely covered that no flesh was visible. A forbidding apparition, indeed!
"Moo!" we mooed together.
The specter studied us, one gauntleted hand on the huge sword slung at its metal hip. Then it turned and walked away. Its armor did rattle some, but its knees did not actually knock. Nervously, we followed, presuming we had been accepted as the Sacrifice and would be permitted the privilege of Running the Gauntlet.
Sure enough, we were brought to an arena. It wasn't really a labyrinth, or a gauntlet, but rather an open area surrounded by a warren of low channels. As we stood in the center, more suits of armor filed in, taking seats on these low walls. In fact, I now saw that these were tiered benches, the ones behind set higher than those before, so that the Knights could all see clearly into the arena. Empty, it looked like a labyrinth; filled, it was an audience chamber.
In the center of the arena, beside us, was a ramp. It started level with the floor, fairly wide, and rose at a slight incline as it crossed the arena. Near the edge, the ramp curved and went back, still rising. Across the arena, it bent once more and had another straight run. By this time it was fairly high, so that a person would not want to fall from it.
At the uppermost end of the ramp, far overhead, was a metal gate�and beyond that was the light of day. That was the route to the surface! That was our escape! That distant spot of light looked wonderful. Below, the only illumination was by murky torches.
What was to prevent us from simply marching up that ramp and out that gate? Well, the gate was closed and surely locked; we'd have to break through, which would be very difficult and perhaps impossible, or get the key to the lock. That key could be anywhere and certainly not where we could get it. The gate would open when the Knights chose to open it, not otherwise.
But why, then, make a ramp up to it? Was this a highway the Knights used themselves? Then why have it in the arena? Surely they did not form an audience every time one of their number went topside!
We were not kept waiting long. Once the theater was filled, a Knight walked to the base of the ramp. He faced us and drew out a chain with a large metal key on it. Then he walked up the ramp, swinging the key, tramping around each curve until he was high above the floor, approaching the gate. He used the key on the lock of the gate, and the gate swung open. Then he pulled the gate closed, locked it, and walked back down the ramp. No question about it; this was our escape route. We would have to earn that key.
As the Knight reached the base of the ramp, he looped the chain about his armored neck. Then he walked to the far wall. A door opened, and an armored horse emerged. The Knight went to this steed, mounted, and took up a long, sharp lance.
"But what about our swords?" Threnody asked nervously.
The Knight spurred his steed, who charged forward. The monstrous lance descended to point at us.
"I think the cowfolk got the wrong information about that!" I cried. I had kept a human tongue in my cowhead so I could talk readily.
"Or these honorable Knights have broken the agreement," Threnody said bitterly. "No wonder no cowboy has ever won this challenge!"
"But they're supposed to be nothing at all, without honor," I said. "Does this count as a breach of�"
We dived to either side as the mounted Knight charged through. The hooves of the steed barely missed us as it passed.
We scrambled to our feet as the Knight braked his steed, slowed, and turned. "We're lambs for the slaughter!" Threnody cried.
"You escape up the ramp while I distract him," I said, as the Knight started his next pass.
"No good without the key!" she cried.
The Knight charged again. That sent us both diving over the ramp. We had better sidewise maneuverability than the Knight did, but sooner or later that terrible lance would skewer one of us.
Again we scrambled as the Knight slowed and turned. "We've got to get rid of that lance!" I exclaimed.
"I'll drop on him from above," I said. "You distract him so I can�"
The Knight thundered at us again. Threnody ran away to the side, while I raced up the ramp. With diverging targets, the Knight had to choose one, and he went after Threnody. She ran and dodged with the fleetness of desperation and a powerful body. The Knight swerved to pursue her, and I got the feeling that this was what the knightly audience really wanted�the sport of the hunt. We were not opponents, we were fleeing prey. One victim would have been too easy to dispatch, but two was more of a challenge, so they set it up that way. To help provide the illusion that the prey might escape.
I considered that as I ran upward, rounding the first turn. For sport, the Knight would not slaughter us right away; he would play with us, making us react, and perhaps be applauded by the audience for an artistic performance. That might give us more leeway. He might even withhold his killing stroke if the points were wrong, waiting for the chance for a better score.
"Threnody!" I called. "Take off your dress!" For my body, which she was using now, still was wearing the brown dress I had donned at Threnody's house. It was soiled and torn, but represented a fair quantity of material.
"Huh?" she called out as she cut back, causing the Knight to overshoot her position. No points for him on that pass! My well-coordinated body was proving to be a boon to her as she learned how to use it.
"Take it off!" I repeated, still running. I was now head height; soon I'd be high enough to be above the Knight. "Use it to bait him with!"
"I don't understand!" she cried, ducking out of the way again.
There was no time for a detailed explanation. Maybe the mask-helmet Threnody wore prevented her from hearing exactly what I was saying. I would have to make a demonstration.
I struggled out of my own dress as I ran; it was tight on me anyway, in my larger size, despite the tucks I had let out to accommodate my girth. Theoretically, the dress should have expanded with me, and maybe it had, but somehow my extra mass bulged more in proportion. I saw the helmeted heads of the Knights in the audience turn to follow me. Oops�I hadn't thought of that! I wore nothing under the dress and I was one big girl now. My anatomy bobbled all over as I ran. I had tried to keep the proportions the same, but realized belatedly that I should have slimmed them down; mass does make a difference, so that the giant has to have different proportions from the normal person in order to carry his weight conveniently. Now that the dress was off, I was really hanging out.
Well, that couldn't be helped. I had to show Threnody what I meant. "Like this in front of him!" I cried, holding the dress so it formed a swatch of gray to the side. "Make him charge it instead of you!"
Now she understood. She ripped off her brown dress, and I saw the visors of the audience swivel to follow her. It seemed the Knights got a voyeuristic thrill from seeing people disrobe; evidently they never got out of their armor. Not in public, anyway. Strange folk!
Threnody stood naked and held the dress to the side, forming a cape of it. The Knight, who perhaps did not see too well from the saddle with his visor closed, aimed his lance at the dress. Of course the point slid through it, brushing it aside, and Threnody did not have to dive out of the way. Well, she still had to step clear of the horse, but this was an improvement.
"Get him to pass under me!" I cried, stopping at a suitable elevation on the ramp.
Threnody tried. She ran under�but the Knight passed to the side, so I couldn't drop on him. However, we seemed to have a viable program.
The Knight turned and came back�and this time he was on target. As he passed under me, I dropped on him, landing just in front of him on the horse. I could have sworn his visor slits widened as my bare anatomy came up against his faceplate. But my ample posterior was crushing down his arms and lance, interfering with his action. He could hardly have been pleased.
I grabbed the chain around his neck and ripped it off. I had the key! Then I realized that I had a pretty good position here and I tried to haul him off his horse with me. I squirmed around, attempting to pin his arms to his sides, but he turned out to be very strong, and I had only woman's muscles. His hands came up, letting go of the lance, and grasped me with horrible force. In a moment he heaved me from the horse.
I landed partly on my feet, but without balance, and sat down hard. I had a lot of padding in that region, but that landing smarted! It was as if I had been spanked by a giant.
However, I had a victory of sorts, for not only did I have the chain with the key, I had caused the Knight to drop his lance. Threnody was hurrying to pick it up.
"Go up and unlock the gate!" she cried. "I'll fend him off here!"
"You don't know how to use that thing," I pointed out. "He'll wipe you out with his sword!" Indeed, the Knight was already drawing his great blade. It was dusky black, and reminded me ominously of the evil sword Magician Yang had sent against me.
"But you don't have the muscle for this!" she responded. And she had a point; that lance was one heavy pole. I could see why the Knight was strong; he had to be, to carry his weapons.
Now the Knight charged us both, the terrible sword gleaming wickedly. We both wrestled with the lance, heaving it up�but we were at the end, and the point was at the other end, far distant, and by the time we managed to lift that point, the Knight was upon us. His sword slashed down and lopped off the point of the lance. Again we had to dive out of the way, ignominiously.
"We've got to stop splitting up this way!" Threnody gasped as we got up on either side of the fallen lance.
"We can still use this," I said, picking up the severed point, which was about half my body length. It was a sword of a sort. "You get the other part."
She picked it up, finding it more manageable now that it was shorter. The Knight had unwittingly done us a favor. He had helped arm us.
As the Knight charged this time, we attacked him from either side, swinging our sticks at him. He merely lifted his shield to fend me off on the left and slashed down at Threnody's arms on the right. She jerked back, but the sword cut off her left hand. It plopped to the floor, fingers curling spastically.
"Damn you!" she cried as the Knight turned for the next charge, a smear of blood on his blade. She jammed the slump of her wrist into her own side to stop the blood from spurting out, but already that flow was abating as my healing talent manifested. She stooped to pick up the fallen hand. Then, as the Knight advanced, she hurled that hand at his head.
The Knight was one tough fighter, but this startled him. The hand clutched at his visor, one finger poking into an eye-slit. It looked like a distorted spider trying to get inside the helmet. It couldn't get inside, of course. The Knight should have known the separated band was harmless, but he reacted with remarkable vigor. He halted his steed and grabbed for the hand with his left gauntlet.
I took advantage of his distraction to leap up and spread my gray dress over the entire helmet. I clung, forming a hood of gray material, so that he was blinded. "Get his sword!" I cried.
But already that arm and sword were thrashing about, and Threnody could not get close. So I grabbed for the sword arm myself. My leverage was bad, and when I let go of the hood, it started to slide off. The Knight got a glove up and shoved me violently away, so that I fell on my sore bare bottom again. The dress slid down. Now the Knight could see again and he retained his weapon.
However, Threnody saved the moment. Unable to get near the Knight, she went for the horse. She got her mouth close to an armored ear and yelled, "Booo!"
The horse spooked, naturally enough. It neighed and reared. The Knight fell off and clanked to the floor. Threnody scrambled to fling herself on the extended sword arm, pinning it to the floor, while I made a flying leap for the head.
My weight knocked the helmet from the armored body. It squirted out from under my feet and rolled across the floor. Simultaneously, the body went dead. Threnody was able to wrench the sword away from the abruptly flaccid gauntlet.
I peered into the neck of the armor�and there was nothing. I looked at the separated helmet. It, too, was empty!
There was nothing in this suit of armor. Nothing at all.
Threnody looked at me. "Empty armor?" she asked, bewildered. "But it fought us!"
"It fought without honor," I said. "We were unarmed. Without honor, the Knights are nothing at all."
"Then what about all the others, who permitted it?"
We looked out at the audience. Now each Knight there reached up a gauntlet to open his visor. Inside each helmet�was nothing.
"They're all empty!" I breathed. "The Knights are all bodiless!"
"No wonder they never removed their armor," Threnody said. "Without their armor�" She paused to look at me, realizing the significance of my statement about honor. "They're nothing!"
"Let's get out of here before they decide to do something dishonorable!" I said.
She looked around. "That horse," she said.
"What about it?"
"It looks familiar."
"It's buried in armor, just like the Knights," I protested. "It's probably empty too."
"No, its hooves show. It's a real horse."
I walked over to it. The armored horse stood still, waiting for its rider to return. I saw there were metal straps holding its armor together. I unbuckled one at the neck, so as to uncover the head.
Underneath was a real horsehead, no phantom. "What's a live horse doing in a place like this?" I asked.
Threnody, one-handed, removed a portion of the body armor. "It's a ghost horse!" she exclaimed.
Sure enough, there were the chains wrapped about the barrel. "A ghost horse, serving armored ghosts!" I said.
"We killed its master," she pointed out. "We're entitled to what the Knight had, anything of it we want. The spoils."
"We'll keep the sword," I said. "As for the horse�we can free it."
"Free her," Threnody said, unbuckling more armor. "She's a mare."
"A knight-mare," I said, realizing the manner in which this made sense. "Let's ride her up the ramp and out�and let her go on the surface."
"Agreed. We owe her that. We won the match when she spooked."
And Threnody had been the one to think of that ploy. I would remember that.
We got the rest of the armor off while the assembled Knights watched emptily, evincing no emotion. It seemed they did honor the rest of their deal. We had won; we were free. And there would be no more cowfolk sacrifices, and the grazing range would be expanded. We had done our part for the creatures who had helped us. That pleased me.
I mounted the ghost mare. "Don't forget my hand," I reminded Threnody.
She picked up the fallen hand and stuck it to her wrist, which had stopped bleeding and started to heal over. At first she placed it backward, but she corrected that immediately. "I'll walk," she decided. "I can't ride while holding this together."
"It won't take long to re-attach, but it will be weak for an hour or so," I advised her.
So I guided the mare up the ramp, carefully, while Threnody walked behind, holding my hand. The walk became slightly nervous business at the height, but the knight-mare was sure-footed, and we reached the gate without misstep. That was just as well. The assembled Knights watched us with their empty faces, still making no move to stop us.
"Those hollow men are eerie," Threnody muttered.
I dismounted and took the key to the lock. It worked, and the gate swung open. We moved through, then I returned to lock the gate behind us. I flung the key through, so that it dropped to the arena below; after all, it belonged to the Knights, and we had no intention of returning.
We stood in a pleasant, open forest of mixed types of trees�beeches, sandalwoods, and other shore types, which indicated there was a lake nearby. There were a number of fruit and nut trees. We could travel through this very comfortably.
"Well, ghost horse," I said. "You're on your own now."
The mare looked at me. She rattled her chains inquiringly.
"You're free," I said. "Go romp through the wilderness."
She just stood there and gazed at me from beneath long equine lashes. She had lovely dark eyes, even for a horse, though her coat was light.
"She doesn't understand," Threnody said, wiggling the fingers of her left hand, which was now firmly attached and improving rapidly. Then she removed her bovine mask.
"Nonsense!" I said. "Pook understands every word I say�I'm sure Peek does, too."
"Look at her eyes!"
Indeed, the mare was peeking soulfully at us. Whoever says animals don't have souls is crazy.
"She's peeking," Threnody agreed. "Maybe she does understand. But she may be tame. She could have been raised in captivity by the Knights; she's a knight-mare."
"You know, Pook could still be waiting for us among the artis-trees," I said, realizing. "Peek's a ghost mare. Do you think�"
"You women are always matchmaking!" she said.
"And you men are always trying to avoid commitment!" I retorted. Then we both laughed, to the mare's confusion.
So we decided to take Peek back to the artis-forest to meet Pook. After that, it would be up to them. If Peek was nervous about going out alone, Pook could guide her.
I reduced myself to normal size, returned my head to human, and dissipated my extra mass. Peek watched all this with equine astonishment. Then we found a toga tree that enabled us to cover our immodesty with togas. I took a blue one, and Threnody a red one. Peek shook her head, knowing we had the colors reversed; even animals knew that blue was for boys and red for girls. I patted her neck. "It's complicated to explain," I said.
I rode Peek north, while Threnody walked; her big barbarian body could keep the pace much better than my feminine one could. Soon we reached the dead tree�and there was Pook, faithfully waiting. He gave a glad neigh as he spied us�then did a double take as he spied Peek.
I introduced them. "Pook, this is Peek. She helped us escape the underworld. Peek, this is Pook, my friend."
The two ghost horses sniffed noses cautiously. They rattled their chains, making a kind of music together. They decided they liked each other.
"If only it were that easy for human folk," Threnody said somewhat wistfully.
"If you two want to trot elsewhere, you're welcome," I told Peek. "Peek's not sure she's ready for the wilderness, but you can show her."
The two nickered at each other and decided to stay. "Does that mean we can both ride?" I asked, pleased. It turned out that it did.
So I took Pook and Threnody rode Peek, and we bore south. In the evening we stopped and foraged and grazed, as the case might be. "Hey, look at this!" Threnody called.
I went over. It was a bush covered with bright disks of glass, each disk slightly curved. They were too small for mirrors. I picked a disk and held it to my right eye to see it better�and it jumped out of my hand and plunked itself against my eyeball. Startled, I stepped back, but the glass hadn't harmed me; it just covered the front of my eyeball so that I had to look through it. The surprising thing was that my vision seemed clearer through that eye than through the other. The focus was sharper and the colors better defined. "It's a vision-improver!" I exclaimed.
"Oh, I've heard of them," she said. "They're called contact lenses, because they make close contact. When your sight gets old and fuzzy, you wear a couple of these and they bring it up to snuff. We'll have to remember where this optical bush is; it's valuable."
I pried the lens oft my eyeball. "I guess it's all right, but I don't need it."
Threnody peered over the bush. "What's that on the other side?" she asked.
I walked around the bush toward it, Threnody close on my heels. "Some sort of doll or figurine�"
The black doll flashed. And suddenly I was drifting out of my body, hovering and homing in on the brute, barbarian body beside me. I dropped into it, dizzy.
"The evil spell!" I cried with big, crude lips. "It was set here to intercept us�but we're already exchanged, so it just switched us back!"
Threnody patted herself, making sure. "So it did," she said, pleased. Then she looked at me. "Now we don't need each other any more."
I felt a sinking sensation. "You mean you're going to start running again?"
She considered. "You know, if I rode Peek, I could probably get home all right."
During our underground odyssey, I had tended to forget that we were enemies. Now I perceived the kind of trap this could be. I acted instantly, my barbarian reflexes serving me well. "Pook! Peek!" I cried, running toward the grazing horses. My big male muscles gave me more speed than Threnody had now. "We've changed back! Don't do anything Threnody says!"
Pook looked at me uncertainly, and it was evident that Peek had no notion what I was talking about. "Remember how we met," I said to Pook. "How you tried to scare me at night, and I circled around you and you thought I was still at my camp, and�"
Pook interrupted me with a neigh. He understood.
"Well, as long as we were in the wrong bodies, Threnody and I couldn't separate," I said. "We had to cooperate, just to survive. But now we're back in our own bodies, and she can flee me. She wants to ride Peek back to her home. Don't take us anywhere but south, toward Castle Roogna. Can you tell Peek that, so she understands?"
Pook nodded. He would take care of it.
I relaxed. I had acted in time. I still did have my mission to complete, after all.
Threnody came up behind me. "Well, you certainly fixed that, barbarian!" she said severely. "You don't trust me at all, do you!"
"Barbarians are ignorant, not stupid," I replied, stung.
It was getting dark now. She accompanied me to the fern bed we had fashioned in the radiating branches of a treehouse tree. "You will want to hold onto me again, to be sure I don't flee in the night."
"You can't afford to trust me, but I trust you." And she curled up next to me, ready for sleep.
Somehow I didn't feel at ease, but I didn't seem to have much choice in the matter, so I comported myself for sleep.
This night was cooler than the others had been. "I've gotten used to your larger mass," Threnody murmured. "I'm cold in this little body."
"You can make it bigger," I reminded her.
"That takes too long."
"You can have my cloak," I offered, removing my red toga and spreading it out. Now its color was wrong, as it was truly being used by a male; I'd fetch another in the morning.
"We'll share," she decided. She removed her own garment, arranged the two togas as blankets, and nestled right up next to me.
I lay stiffly awake for some time, wondering exactly how smart I was. Did I even want to deliver her to Castle Roogna now, so another man could marry her? Naturally I had no interest in her myself...or did I? Why did things have to be so complicated with human beings? Why couldn't we, as Threnody had remarked, just sniff noses, rattle chains, and be satisfied?
Yet if we were not what we were, creatures with at least the awareness of purpose and honor, what would we be? Empty knights in armor, seeming so strong on the outside, yet hollow inside? Who was I to deny the human condition, with all its problems of awareness?
"If I weren't on a mission, you wouldn't be safe a moment!" I muttered at her soft, warm, shapely, breathing, sleeping body.
"I know," she whispered, stretched electrically against me, and returned to sleep.
A pox on women!