Witch Doctor - Wiz in Rhyme-3 (11 page)

"You are," he said, with a steely glare that allowed no argument.

"Call at the slightest need. Till then, farewell! Men of mine!

All flit!"

Sunlight got in my eyes; I blinked, and they were gone. There was no one there but Gilbert, his horse, me-and the troll.

I braced myself, ready to run-I didn't think fighting would do much good.

But a very dejected troll came mincing up to me, hanging his head-or the whole top half of his body, at least-and fell to his knees. I backed away, horrified. "All right, all right! I'll have to put up with you-but no kneeling! I hate that!"

The troll scrabbled to his feet, staring down at me expectantly.

"Do you remember my saying anything about agreeing to take this lunk along?" I asked Squire Gilbert.

"Why-you have no choice in the matter, Wizard," he said in surprise. "Neither has the troll."

"Oh, yeah?" I started out across the bridge. "Just watch me." There was a loud groan from below.

I froze. I hadn't stopped to think that Huge-and-Gruesome might have had company. I backed away in a hurry; whatever was under there just might have brains enough to realize that the easy way to get rid of Gruesome's geas was to get rid of me.

On the other hand, if it tried, Gruesome would have to fight itand it might not be smart enough to realize that. I decided I didn't want to find out. I retreated back to Gilbert's side with alacrity and turned away east. "On the other hand, maybe a one-mile detour wouldn't be so bad after all. Let's go, Gilbert-fast!"

"If you say so, Wizard." He mounted and paced alongside me on his horse, trying not to let his smile show.

I tried to ignore it-and tried harder to ignore the slap of huge flat feet behind me. I'd had experience with that, too, but it wasn't working any better this time than it had before.

Gilbert didn't seem to mind it, but every now and then, I caught him glancing back out of the corner of his eye. All in all, it was a very nervous-making mile, though he and I tried to cover up with light conversation.

"So you were born a peasant, but within the order you can become a knight?"

"Aye. Even so, 'tis not likely, mind you-but I may attain glory enough to cover me with honor."

Interesting metaphor. I was tempted to try to figure out if it was mixed, but resisted in favor of gaining information. "Any chance you can change your mind then, leave the order, and get married?"

"Oh, nay!" He turned to me, shocked. "I would never wish to leave the order!"

"Eighteen is young," I said, from the airy height of twenty-five.

"Twelve years from now, you might be tempted to reconsider."

"Heaven forfend! May the angels protect me from such!"

"I hope so," I agreed. "But could you, if you wanted to?' He started to object again, then closed his mouth, frowning, and thought it over.

"Purely hypothetically, mind you," I said.

"Nay, I could not," he said. "In the Order of Saint Moncaire, we do not take our final vows until we are accorded the accolade of knighthood.

"So." I nodded. "Once you become a knight, you can't quit."

"Aye," he agreed. "Before that time, whilst I am still a squire, I could leave the order, if I wished-but I do not wish." I hoped he wouldn't get the quick exit that would no doubt be the most honorable. I'm sure he would have wanted it, though. These medieval Christians were crazy for martyrdom.

Well, there went my notion of social mobility. In my own feudal Europe, the only two ways for a young man to rise in socioeconomic status were through the army, and through the Church. in the army, there was an extremely long shot that a peasant might be knighted on the battlefield for services above and beyond the call of sanity. In the Church, native ability alone might push him up to the rank of bishop, or pope if he were Italian-but he wouldn't have any heirs to leave it to. So, okay, the Order of Saint Moncaire was giving Gilbert a chance to improve himself-but only just himself. Well, that was all he asked, anyway.

So far.

The slapping of big flat feet was coming closer. I glanced back over my shoulder and saw that the troll was gaining, and he had a big wide grin. Okay, it was an eager, puppy-dog, ingratiating grin-but it didn't exactly fill me with enthusiasm. "Uh, Squire Gilbert-should we do anything about our hungry friend back there?"

"Feed him, do you mean?" Gilbert looked back, then thought better of the idea. "With meat of beasts, that is."

"Assuming we're not beasts." I gave the troll a jaundiced eyeglance, I mean. "I'm not sure he knows the distinction-and he's definitely getting closer."

"But of course! How can he protect us if he is not with us?"

"By being far away." I turned back to the front and hurried.

"Come on. Let's find that rock slide."

Chapter

Six

it was just a little farther along. A chunk of the hillside was raw and ragged, and the gully was filled with weed-tufted dirt, heavily interspersed with boulders. I eyed it with trepidation. "We're supposed to cross on that?"

"it does look infirm," Gilbert agreed, "but the weeds show that it has been here long enough for the rains to settle it somewhat."

"Yeah, too much-it's at least two feet lower in the center." I decided I must have heard another landslide happening.

"I shall essay it first." Gilbert swung down from his horse's back.

"Yet let Thorn carry only his own weight, that his hooves may not sink lower than they must."

I glanced over my shoulder at what was coming up behind and said,

"No, I'm the leader of this expedition-or at least, you're here because of me. I'll go first." I stepped out onto the dirt bridge before he could stop me.

"Nay, Wizard Saul! 'Tis my place!" he cried, but I waded on with determination.

And I do mean "waded"-the dirt gave beneath my feet with every step. My stomach started fluttering, and I began to envision a minilandslide with me in the middle. It was almost enough to make me believe in the magic the people here kept talking about. I tried to remember some stabilizing verses.

"We come," Gilbert called behind me. I took his word for it; my eyes were on the path ahead, if you could call it that. I tried stepping

on the larger stones, and that was better; they sank in a little farther, but at least my feet didn't. I was glad I wore boots. Finally I reached the other side. I grabbed hold of the nearest tree and let myself sag against it. Then I turned around so I could watch Gilbert finishing the trek.

He was doing better than I had, possibly because he was walking in my footsteps-had to shorten his stride to do it, but it gave him a firmer surface. His horse followed on the reins, with a lot of snorting, head tossing, and rolling of the eyes-but whenever they rolled back far enough, he saw the troll wallowing along behind him and decided the dirt was the lesser of two evils.

Gilbert guided him up onto firm land, then looked back at the laboring troll with a frown. "Mayhap we ought to help him."

"Are you crazy?" I protested. "The monster that would have gleefully had us for lunch-even without ketchup? Besides, we're trying to get away from him, remember?"

"'Tis so," Gilbert conceded, but his open, honest face looked unhappy about it. "I hate to leave even an adversary so beset."

"You'll get the hang of it," I assured him. "Look, any chance your horse could carry double for a little while? I hate to ask it of him, but I'd feel a lot better if we could put a few miles between Gruesome, there, and us."

"As you wish," Gilbert sighed, "though 'twill do no good. Once under a geas, a living creature will ever press after his duty." He held the horse steady while I mounted. Fortunately, I'd learned a little bit about riding in my one trip to summer camp, so I knew how to get aboard, at least. I hiked myself back behind the saddle, though.

"Nay, Master Wizard! Do you take the saddle!"

"You don't think I'm dumb enough to try to steer this thing, do you? No, you can have the front seat!"

Gilbert gave me a funny look, but he climbed aboard, bending his knee so his foot missed my face-but not by much-then turning the horse's head inland and shaking the reins. The beast started trotting, and I held on for dear life. "Aren't there ... any ... shock absorbers

... on this bus?"

"I do not follow your meaning, Master Wizard, but I'll essay a faster gait." He knocked his heels into the horse's sides. I was about to protest when the ride smoothed out amazingly. I remembered that a canter is less jouncy than a trot-but only by comparison; it was still pretty rough. On top of that, I was discovering why the army adopted the McClellan saddle. I held tight to Gilbert's midriff and glanced back. Sure enough, Gruesome was still wallowing through the dirt and was growing smaller behind us. I relaxed a little, set my teeth, and turned to the front, determined to last it out. After about fifteen minutes of this-just a guess; my watch seemed to have stopped-I said, "That ought to do it. Must have been a couple of miles, at least."

"Aye." Gilbert reined in. "Will that suffice, Master Wizard?"

"Just fine," I said through clenched teeth. I made it through the deceleration trot, then gratefully slid off the rump. "Maybe he'll lose us now. "

"I fear not." Gilbert started to dismount.

"Hey, what're you doing? No reason you should walk!"

"But you are my leader "Not your superior, though, only your senior! You just keep riding.

After all, you're the one with the armor."

"'Tis only a mail coat." But he seemed relieved. "Even so, Wizard Saul, 'tis my duty to advise you that distance will not stop a troll, nay, even if he did not labor under a geas," That was doubly less than reassuring. It didn't exactly guarantee that Gruesome was under a geas. Compulsions I could understand, but greed was even more comprehensible.

We strolled along, exchanging biographical notes, and I switched the topic to future aspirations. Gilbert practically glowed as he recounted the glories of knighthood and the potential glories of martyrdom. You can't help liking a guy with that much zeal, but I couldn't help feeling that somebody was playing him for a real sucker. On the other hand, I think Jonah felt that way, too.

The sun was almost overhead, and I was just beginning to think of calling a halt for lunch, when Gilbert looked back and said, "Yonder he comes."

I spun about, staring. Sure enough, there he came, snowshoe feet and turnip shape, grinning from ear to ear with pathetic eagerness. I had to remind myself that I was the one who was likely to be pathetic, not him.

"No help for it," I decided. "Time for lunch, anyway. Let's relax and rest awhile-and if he attacks, he attacks, and we'll deal with it then." I was nowhere nearly as nonchalant as I pretended. The presence of an actual, me-eating troll was incentive enough to get me to working up some good verses, not that I really thought they'd help any.

On the other hand, if my hallucination included trolls and elves,

why not magic? Though a troll was hardly the kind of opponent you would expect to start slinging rhymes.

"He will not attack," Gilbert said with blithe unconcern as he dismounted. "He goes under a geas."

Obsessive-compulsive disorders, I could understand-it was just the object of the obsession that worried me. Nonetheless, I let Gilbert lay the fire while I waited, arms akimbo, looking a lot more certain than I felt-but as Huge-and-Ugly came closer, I felt the old, familiar chill within me that seems to come whenever danger looms. I didn't feel fear, because I didn't feel anything. After the crisis was over, I'd turn to jelly-but there'd be time, then.

"Running behind schedule, I see," I commented, as he came up. The troll looked surprised. "Ske-dool2l'

That's right-I

remembered he'd demonstrated a limited vocabu

lary.

"Took you awhile to catch up with us." I braced myself and said,

"I'd really rather you didn't."

It stared down at me with blank incomprehension.

"Don't catch up with us," I explained. "I don't want you near me. Go. Away. Shoo!"

He stared, grin fading, mouth loosening. "Go?" And, so help me, a huge, fat tear welled up in one eye.

My inner chill almost warmed into remorse for a second, but I focused on the shark teeth inside that woebegone lip and said, "You tried to eat me. I can't trust you. I don't want you along."

"Me come!" he protested, in a voice like a basso chain saw.

"Fairies see! Fairies say! Want only ward you!"

"He speaks truth, Master Wizard," Gilbert said, his voice low and completely calm. "He cannot turn his heart against you now, not under the elf prince's geas."

He sounded very confident, and it occurred to me to wonder how the troll would react if I really did drive him away. if this was anything like a love-hate relationship, I could find myself with a real nemesis on my trail. "Well ... if you're sure The troll's grin came back, and he nodded eagerly. At least, I think it was nodding; it might have been bowing. But Gilbert assured me, "He is your guard and servant now, till the Wee Folk remove the

geas. " That was the other thing that bothered me. If some enemy magician came along and counteracted this artificial compulsion, I could find myself on the inside real fast, in small pieces. But I didn't really

see that I had much choice. I sighed and said, "Okay, Gruesome, you can join us."

The troll looked hugely delighted, then frowned, puzzled.

"Goosum?"

"Gruesome," I amplified. "That's my name for you." Then one of my few moral principles kicked in-I hated infringing on anybody's identity; I knew what it felt like to have people try. "But I'll drop it if you have a name of your own."

"Name?"

So much for that idea. "What do other trolls call you?"

"Odder trolls?"

"They are solitary beings, Master Wizard," Gilbert explained.

"They are never seen together."

I frowned. "They have to now and then, or there would never be any little trolls."

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