Witch Doctor - Wiz in Rhyme-3 (13 page)

"Up here," a voice whispered ahead of me. "For Heaven's sake, be still "Still. Yuh." Gruesome turned to hiss at me. "Still!" Then he turned back without waiting for an answer.

I followed along, wondering what had happened to my usual common sense.

But it was my party-these two were here because of me. I rushed the pace a little, passed Gruesome, and came up level with Gilbert as his horse groped its way along a stony path in the gathering darkness. Gilbert started to protest, but just then the moan burst out again, and I saw a glowing shape drifting toward us through the gloom, its mouth an impossibly wide circle of slavering emptiness, eyes staring and covetous, and its fingers hooked like talons, poised to grab.

Then some stranger jumped out of the dimness, dove past me, and cowered behind a boulder, trembling.

That seemed to be okay with the ghost. it shifted its attentions to me, zooming toward me with a gloating howl.

The fugitive leapt to his feet, turned, ran-and slammed right into the only tree on an otherwise barren hillside. He slumped down, beneath a huge spiderweb with a very large spider in it. The ghost, shifting back to its original quarry, fluttered after its victim, then hesitated, apparently repelled by the spider. I could sympathize, but I knew the specter wouldn't be halted long.

"Hold it right there!" I shouted. I jumped in front of a big boulder, yanking my belt out of the loops and swinging the buckle.

"Cold iron, remember?"

The ghost yelled something that sounded suspiciously like "Yum! " and threw itself on the buckle. I dropped the belt and yanked my hand out of the way just in time, and the ghost bored on into the rock, sinking out of sight. Of my belt, there was no trace. There was also a large hole in the boulder.

Then the ghost veered out of the rock face, swooped out in a circle,

and headed back toward me, smacking its lips and drooling. Whatever kind of spook this was, it was a virtual flying appetite. it re

minded me of a shark-but it also reminded me of my Kipling. I shouted,

"We come to fight and triumph in The savage wars of peace, To fill full the mouth of Hunger, And bid the Famine cease!" The ghost jolted to a halt with a look of startled shock as its mouth snapped shut and sealed itself. its checks bulged, and its body ballooned with a huge flapping sound.

"Wizard Saul!" Gilbert pounded up to me, panting. "Beware! 'Tis a hunger ghost!"

"Yuh," Gruesome grunted, scrabbling up behind the squire. "Get

'way! Ghost eat all!"

"It will indeed," Gilbert corroborated. "it will eat anything it encounters-and it is never full!"

"Then I think I've created a first," I said, picking up a stone,

"but get ready with some rocks anyway, will you? If it opens its mouth, pitch for the breadbasket."

Gilbert turned to the ghost, then stared. "Opens? But a hunger ghost's mouth is never shut!"

"This one's is," I said. "It's full." Full, and getting fuller-its belly was still stretching, turning it into a perfect globe with stubby limbs sticking out and a bulge of head on top.

"it doth depart," a wondering voice breathed somewhere around my kneecap. I looked down and saw a patched hat with a gaunt face beneath it, all eyes and pointed nose and jawbone, with hollows for cheeks, and more hollows at the back of which eyes glittered.

Well, at least whatever I'd saved was human.

I looked up again just in time to see the ghost drift high enough to catch an updraft and shoot away to the west, shrinking until it was lost in the twilight.

"It must have sped most quickly indeed," Gilbert said, "for 'twas still swelling with thy spell, Wizard Saul."

"Spell?" the man I had saved cried. He looked up at me with a feverish hunger of his own. "Are you a wizard, then?"

"Well, I wouldn't say that," I demurred-but I saw the scandalized look on Gilbert's face and said quickly, "but everybody else here seems to. Why do you ask?"

"If you are a wizard, you can cure me."

Gruesome looked away, humming. That made me uneasy. I stalled.

"How do you know I'm a good guy? just because I worked, urn, a-" I swallowed heavily and forced it out "-a spell, doesn't say which side I'm on. I could have been an evil sorcerer."

Gilbert stared, appalled, but the famine case shook his head firmly and said, "If you had been a sorcerer, you would have let the ghost have me, and welcome."

"Good thinking," I approved, but I frowned up into the sky. "Do you suppose that thing will burst when it's had too much?"

"Nay, surely," Gilbert said, and the other added, "A hunger ghost can never have had too much."

I was again seized with the unhappy reminder that everybody else in this country seemed to know more about what was going on than I did. To cover it, I said to the man cowering at my feet, "Come on, bucko, up with you!" I caught his arm and helped him stand. "How'd you get that ghost sicced on you, anyway?"

"I think his appearance tells us that," Gilbert said softly. Yes, it was pretty obvious, now that I looked-the tattered coat, the patched leggings, the holes in the shoes, and, above all, the general emaciation. The arm I was clinging to felt like a bone wrapped by a rag, and the man's whole face was pinched with hunger. I remembered a college lecture on the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. "Gilbert, could you get a piece of beef jerky out of your saddlebag? And the water skin."

In a second, Gilbert was holding out the tough, leathery strip, and the water skin.

The vagabond snatched the pemmican from him and bit into itthen forced his molars down onto it, pulled his jaw open, and bit down again, and again.

"That's it," I soothed. "Don't bite, chew. That meat is so dried that you can't gulp it."

The man gave it a valiant try, I had to admit, but beef jerky takes an awful lot of chewing just to get a bite off the stick, let alone soften it enough to swallow.

"Not much else to eat, I'm afraid," I apologized, and was glad I didn't have to lie. "One swallow of water when you get that bite down, okay? just one swallow-then another bite of jerky. By the time you finish that strip, maybe we'll have some stew on." I turned to Gilbert. "Now I'll take the first campsite you can find." Fifty yards farther down, the path broadened out onto a twenty-footwide terrace. Gilbert pronounced it fit, so I arranged a ring of stones and looked around for firewood. "Seen any kindling, Gilbert?"

"Aye." The squire held out an armload of sticks. "I gathered what I found, as we did come down the slope."

"Ah, to have Gilbert's forethought!" I dumped the sticks into my fire ring. "Good thing this path wasn't always above the timberline."

"Aye," our mystery guest said. "This slope bore a few scrub trees, till the Spirit of Famine began to chase me." I swallowed, hard, at the thought of the hunger ghost planing every living thing off the side of the mountain, and put the thought resolutely behind me. "Gilbert, will you do the honors?" The squire stepped up and struck flint against steel. A spark fell, and he breathed it into a small flame. Seconds later, fire bloomed from the kindling.

I looked around for something to skewer the provisions Gilbert had collected along the way.

"Will this serve?" Gilbert held up a three-foot splinter of rock.

"Yeah, just fine." I poked the spear through the three pheasants, rested the ends on the highest two rocks, and sat back to watch. I thought of asking how Gilbert had come by the rock spit, but decided I didn't want to know.

Our guest watched them hungrily, but he didn't leap on the raw flesh. The pemmican had filled him up a bit, especially with the water swelling it in his stomach-and it had taken him so long to chew and swallow it that he'd begun to feel full before he could gobble enough to hurt himself.

"A sword would come in handy for this sort of thing," I said.

"Remind me to make one right after dinner."

Gilbert looked scandalized at the idea, but our hungry guest said obligingly, "Make a sword right after dinner; are they done yet?"

"They've just barely started cooking." I rummaged in Gilbert's saddlebag, pulled out another strip of jerky, and pressed it into the man's hand. "Chew on that while you're waiting, Pavlov. Say, what is your name, anyway? " "Frisson," the man mumbled through his pemmican. I nodded. "How'd you get into this fix, anyway? No, I don't mean attracting the hunger ghost-I mean getting so close to starvation in the first place?"

"Why," Frisson said, "I am a poet." I just sat still for a minute.

Then I nodded. "Yeah, that explains it, all right. But, I mean, you could have gone after a job. Woodcutter, for instance."

"The very thing," Frisson muttered, nodding as he chewed. "I have been a woodcutter, a plowman, a cooper's prentice, and a chandler's prentice.

I frowned. "Then why were you starving?"

"I could not cease chanting poetry."

Gilbert gasped, covering his mouth in alarm, and Gruesome edged frantically away from our guest.

I frowned around at them. "All right, so maybe his verses weren't the best, but they couldn't have been that bad. Does everybody have to be a critic?"

'Tis not that, Wizard Saul," Gilbert said. "For all we know, his verses may have been most excellent. True poetry, mayhap-yet he is not a wizard."

"What difference does that ... ? Oh!

Frisson watched me, nodding as he chewed, and Gilbert said softly, Aye, Wizard Saul. A poet's concern is for the words themselves, for the excellence of the verses and the manner in which they fit together to form a whole-not for their effects."

The poet turned to him in surprised, though masticating, approval. I nodded. "And if he doesn't worry about their effects, the images he creates in his verses may come to life as he chants, and-"

"Do untold damage," Gilbert finished for me. He turned to Frisson.

"What hazards did you unfold, poet? A juggernaut of doom rushing down upon the heads of the men in your master's shop? A corpse come to life in the coffin you were building? Wood nymphs slipping out to seduce the passersby, in the wood you had gleaned?"

Frisson hung his head, but he didn't stop chewing.

"The man's a walking catastrophe," I muttered.

"Oh, poor fellow!" Gilbert burst out, showing an unexpectedly sympathetic side to his nature that got the better of his healthy dread. "You have been cast out to roam the wilds alone!" The poet nodded; a tear trembled in his eye. "I have sought to prevent it, good squire. I have broken the meter into odd phrases with the accents reversed; I have used slant rhymes, broken rhymes, and no rhymes-yet all to no avail!"

"Of course not." I groaned. "You concocted new kinds of verse, and just made the magic stronger!"

The poet looked up at me, frightened. "Aye, my lord. The mayor's house did fly apart on the instant; my words did breach the baron's wall. I foreswore my verses; I bit my tongue; I ground my teeth against the words-yet all to no avail! I could not help myself; anon I shouted words aloud! They chased me from the town, they chased me from the parish, they chased me from the province-and anon they chased me from my native land of Merovence, to live or die in this wilderness of Allustria."

"But," I said. "But-but-" Gilbert looked up at me with a frown.

"We have only two pheasant and a partridge, Wizard Saul."

"But!" I shouted in exasperation. "But you don't have to chant your verses out loud!"

Frisson's jaw gelled, and he stared up, appalled. "I'd as lief stop eating, milord." Then he set to work chewing again.

"Write them!" I exploded. "Why don't you just write them down?

Your verses, I mean! Then read them over, and just don't recite anything that looks dangerous!"

Frisson stared up at me; his jaw dropped.

"He has never thought of it," Gilbert murmured.

"Aye, never!" Frisson burst out. "So that is why men learned to

write! " "Well, there were some other little things," I said uncomfortably, "such as grain inventories, and bills of sale, and laws, and history.

But it works for poetry, too, yes."

"Can ... can you teach me?" Frisson begged. I just stared at him.

Then I said, "You're a poet-and you don't know how to read and write? " "I had never thought of a need for it," Frisson confessed.

"Well! I've heard of the oral tradition-but I've also heard of departures." I wondered, uneasily, if I was witnessing the downfall of poetry, or the beginning of its glory. "Sure, I'll teach you to write."

After all, if I could handle two dozen freshmen, surely I could manage one starving poet.

Well, it helped. He understood it instinctively, took to it like a goose quill to ink. More likely, like graphite to paper; fortunately, I carried a pocket notepad and a stub of pencil. I showed him how to draw the letters, and the sound each one made. His eyes went wide with wonder; he snatched the pencil and pad from me, and in half an hour, he was sitting cross-legged by the fire, scribbling frantically in an impossibly small hand. From then on, as long as I knew him, he would be constantly writing in that book-he filled it in a day, but

fortunately, one of his first poems was a wish for an endless supply of parchment-he didn't know the word for paper-and my little pocket notebook never ran out. On the other hand, after the first fifty poems, it started producing a much higher quality of writing material.

Nonetheless, sometimes some of his magic leaked out. Writing it down seemed to channel it safely, since he didn't speak it aloud-but when he didn't have time to write and suppressed too much poetry, he thought about it so intensely that the magic started working without his having to say it aloud. Sometimes we'd be hiking down the road, and his eyes would start bulging, and a bat would materialize by the roadside in bright daylight, or a gushing fountain would spring up right smack-dab in the middle of the path, or we would suddenly find ourselves walking on gemstones, and let me tell you, when the soles of your boots get thin, that's no picnic.

The first time it happened, I reined in my temper and turned to him with a sigh. "Frisson, you've got to stop and write it down."

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