Witch Doctor - Wiz in Rhyme-3 (15 page)

"So, then." She smiled, and her eyes almost disappeared in folds of fat. "You have the audacity to trespass in my Allustria."

"It is not yours, gross mockery of a woman," Gilbert cried, and I had to stifle an impulse to shush him. "The land belongs unto the people! " "Then it cannot, of a certainty, belong to you, who come from Merovence." Suettay laughed, a sound like frying bacon. "You are not yet a man-only a beardless youth."

Gilbert flushed; blond beards don't show much.

The queen turned to the row of men behind her. "Counselors, behold a marvel! A boy that speaks like a man! Yet an he were, he would feel desire!"

The hooded forms dutifully laughed, but there was little humor in the sound.

Suettay turned back to me. "The more fool you, to be so cozened into taking a mere boy for to ward you! " "Oh, he's man enough," I assured her. Bitches always make me mad, and she wasn't the first one I'd run into who'd thought she was a queen. Gilbert looked up at me with surprised gratitude, but it was as much for myself I'd said it as for him-I felt anger growing, just enough to begin countering the fear.

"You twisted the facts," I told Suettay. "But then, you twist everything that's true within your domain, don't you? Or try to leach the life from it, if it won't twist! " "Indeed, as my dunce of a country sorcerer will yet bleed your troll." Suettay's lip curled.

"What a vile thing is he, that's neither gnome nor rock! What a catastrophe of nature, nay, a perversion of life! Yet you should thank me, corrupted monster, for you owe your life to me."

"Wozzat?" Gruesome's grunt had a dangerous edge.

"Your father was a gnome who strayed out of his hole!" the queen chortled. "I saw, and cast a glamour over a boulder, to make it seem a woman of his own kind, wondrously beautiful in his eyes! For my own amusement, I inflamed him with lust for it! Then, in my crystal, I watched what did ensue, and oh! what delightful-" Gruesome's roar drowned out the rest of her words, as he lunged.

"No, Gruesome!" I cried in panic. "If she can get you mad enough to break the circle-"

The monster stopped with a jolt, his head poking out above the white line. I wondered what could have stopped him, then saw Gilbert down below, ramrod straight, shoulder against Gruesome's chest, straining against Gruesome's bulk-but his feet were plowing up the ground as Gruesome pushed steadily toward the witch, and Gruesome's top had made a hole in my defense screen.

The troll roared, almost managing to make words-but anything he was saying was drowned in a mass shriek, as all the ghosts dove at the hole he'd made in the magical wall.

I leapt up to shout at the monster. "It couldn't be true, Gruesome!

Rocks can't have children! only a mommy troll and a daddy troll can make little trolls!"

The troll's eyes suddenly lost focus, and his brow creased with effort as he tried to figure out the facts of life. He wasn't long on brain power-but the distraction was enough for the squire.

"Back, brave being!" Gilbert shoved harder, and the troll rocked back just enough for its head to clear the white line.

The ghosts' noise rose to a howl as they all tried to jam into the hole, but I shouted out,

"If these shadows have offended, Be but brave, and all is mended!" The ghosts groaned in disappointment, then roared in rage and began to dash themselves against the invisible circle again. I called out to Gruesome,

"Let your hide of flint Deflect all hint Of insults dire!

Come to the fire!"

He looked up, blinking his huge, glowing, saucer eyes, totally dumfounded, then turned slowly and came hulking back to the campfire. Gilbert breathed a long and shaky sigh of relief.

But Suettay and her boys were laughing themselves silly. "Oh, skillfully done! Skillfully done!" the queen wheezed, between giggles.

"Why not march upon my kingdom, mortal! Do! For you should be mired in your own muddle ere the day is out!"

"Oh, yeah, sure!" I strode up to the circle, anger getting the better of common sense. "We're such total klutzes that you bring yourself and your top twelve henchmen out to try to scare us?

Meanwhile, of course, you can't even breach this simple little guarding circle I've set up!"

The queen's laughter chopped off on the instant, and her eyes narrowed to slits with glowing coals behind them. "Enough! Show this foolish impostor what awaits im!"

A scream rent the air-but one that was very much alive, not like the ghosts' mourning wails. This one was filled with terror and was definitely feminine.

The hooded ones threw her sprawling onto the grass between Suettay and the guarding circle. She was young, with long blonde hair and an enchanting figure; I could see it through the rips in her tunic. She scrabbled in the dirt, turning toward Gilbert and Frisson and Gruesome and me, her face filled with horror-a face bruised and battered, with a swollen nose, marks of burns on her breasts and belly, blood still dripping from triple gouges in her skin. "Help me!

Please, I beg of you, before I-" Then she broke off into a scream as four hooded forms surrounded her, two of them falling on their hands and knees side by side, the other two catching her thrashing limbs to lift her and swing her up onto the backs of the first two. I almost went right through the guarding circle. All that restrained me was Gilbert's arm-but it had about as much give as granite.

"You cannot help her now, Wizard Saul-you can but break your warding circle!

"Besides, 'tis like enough that she did put herself into Suettay's power, in hope of preferment," Frisson quavered, staring at the scene in loathing. "The most you can give her now is a quick death and the queen will do that herself."

The woman cried, "I did not-" but her sentence ended in a one of the hooded forms twisted something.

scream, as My mind raced as I stared. The poor victim had been trying to say she hadn't done anything wrong. How could I save her?

Without breaking the guarding circle, of course-that was what Suettay wanted. She was lumbering forward, hitching at her robes and pulling out a long, twisted knife. She held it up in both hands, gloating gaze fixed on the woman's body as she droned out a long chant, overriding the screams.

"It is an invocation," Gilbert told me, "an invocation in the Old Tongue! " It must have been very old indeed-it didn't sound a bit like Latin, or even Greek. I felt a chill prickling outward from my spine-how could I fight spells in a language I couldn't understand?

"She calls on the Devil." Apparently, Gilbert didn't labor under that handicap. "If the woman, in her terror, despairs of salvation and is damned, the queen dedicates the woman's soul to Satan, but asks that her ghost be the queen's slave as long as Suettay endures." I felt my scalp prickle; the woman's screams filled my ears, maddening me. I fought to control myself, to keep from charging out to try to save her, knowing that I couldn't win, that Suettay had chosen the time and the conditions. The knife soared high in Suettay's fists, beginning to glow with the chant as the hooded acolytes joined in. I fought back with the only thing I could think of-a chant of my own. I sang it, of course-that's how I'd learned it.

"Tell her to make me a cambric shirt, Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme!

Without a seam, or belt to be girl, Then she'll be a true love of mine!"

The girl stared up at me, and Suettay flushed with anger and jerked a nod at one of her acolytes. He reached down and twisted, and the girl screamed.

I fought down the urge to leap out of the circle and start kicking.

I couldn't win alone.

Alone?

"All right, angel!" I yelled. "Now's your chance! You want to make me believe? Then give me a hand-or an idea! Nothing physical, mind you, just inspire me! Fill my mind with a way to rescue this poor victim!"

And, confound me, it was there-the knowledge that the woman didn't deserve this fate and, moreover, was human and worth any help that I could give, and my mouth was moving, a voice booming out of it that didn't seem to have anything to do with my thoughts, but had a very familiar ring. "Woman, pray! Even now, call upon the Lord your God, and He will save your soul from Hell's power! Only repent and pray to be forgiven, and He will snatch you from the jaws of evil, even in the instant of your death!"

But the knife was slashing down, and the woman was screamingScreaming, "My God, forgive me my sins and save-" Then there was only a gurgle, for her throat had been cut, and the knife slashed downward through her heart. Her whole body convulsed once and was still.

"Rise and obey!" Suettay thundered.

She didn't.

Well, she rose, all right-at least a shred of her, a wraith. It was her ghost, and it floated over toward the white chalk line of my guarding circle as if a breeze were blowing it.

Suettay screamed like a spoiled brat seeing a box of candy being snatched away. "Vile interloper! Ball of slime, thatch of dung! She should have despaired in that last instant and been bound for Hell, whereupon my master would have given her soul into my power! But you have interfered, curse you, and her soul is lost to me! She was innocent of all but the smallest sins, and her spirit will flee to Heaven! " Then, suddenly, she fell silent, eyes bulging, a depraved grin spreading over her face. "Not yet! Not if I act quickly!" She whirled to the corpse, hands spread wide and going through gestures whose meanings I shuddered to consider while she chanted some racheting verse in a language I didn't understand. A glow sprang up around the body, like the phosphoresence around decaying vegetable matter in a swamp, then died away, and Suettay spun about to me with a crow of triumph. "I have bound her to Earth! As long as her body lives, her soul is bound here, for I have cast a spell that has preserved her mortal coil."

"Why, you filthy bitch!" I swore.

"How dare you!" she shrieked, and her hands clutched something unseen and threw it at me while she snapped out a quick, incomprehensible rhyme. Energy lanced from her fingertips in purple streamers-and dashed itself to sparks on my shield.

This time, though, the queen didn't scream. She only glared at me, her eyes gleaming malevolently in the midst of her slab of pitted face.

"See to the purifying of your own soul, Wizard, for if you do not, you shall fall into my power-and you shall meet the same fate as the girl. Maiden, come!" she snapped at the wavering spirit. But the girl's ghost had drifted across the line into my circle, and now she cowered away from the wicked queen, eyes wide and frightened, shaking her head.

"You have stolen her!" Suettay screamed. "You have taken from me my rightful-" But her voice was drowned out by a long, shuddering moan that

filled the air, rebounding from ghost to ghost, the specters' eyes widening and filling with hope.

"I did repent!" one cried.

"I, too, with my last breath!" another answered.

"God forgive my sins!" a third cried.

One by one, they remembered their final moment of repentance, wailed their appeals for salvation-and, one by one, they winked out, like candles snuffed.

I stared. "You mean all that was holding them here was their own belief in the queen's magic?"

"It would seem so," Frisson said, huge-eyed. "They lost faith-but you have restored it."

That hadn't exactly been one of my prime goals in life. On the other hand, it hadn't exactly been me speaking, either. But a new moan filled the air, a moan of dread, as the hooded acolytes shrank back from the bleeding corpse, huddling together, terror-filled faces turned up to watch the ghosts depart. And Suettay was turning to me with a gaze filled with more malice and hatred than I had ever seen before, a glare of berserk fury. She strode forward, arms uplifted, striding straight at my guarding circle, intoning a chant in the Old Tongue.

"She summons a devil!" Gilbert cried.

"Angel!" I yelped. "She's breaking the rules! You can protect us! " Blue sparks leapt at the queen's fingers with crackles like gunshots. She shrank back with one of the foulest curses I had ever heard, then turned to me and my companions, eyes just slits in fat, hands weaving a symbol I didn't know, bellowing, "Rot their flesh and boil their blood!

Meat slough off and turn to mud!"

Her hands snapped out, all fingers pointing at us. A coruscation of sparks filled the air over the white line. A wave of nausea swept me, and my knees gave way, but Gilbert held me up, and my legs strengthened again as my stomach settled.

"Cowards!" Suettay screamed. "Pusillanimous pests! Come out to battle!

"We ... we battled," I managed.

"You shall, you must, soon or late! Then shall I be revenged upon you! Then shall I see your flesh fry from your bones, your eyes drop from their sockets!"

I was feeling a little bolder and said the only counterspell I could think of.

"I'm rubber, and you're glue.

Whatever you say Bounces off me And sticks to-" With a shriek of frustration, Suettay disappeared. Green fire thundered inward on itself, seeming to consume the huddled, hooded forms. It died away, and the night was quiet and dark again. And clean. Even the corpse was gone.

For some reason, that bothered me.

But I didn't have long to think about it-my head suddenly swam, and my knees gave way again.

"Now, now, buck up! You did marvelously!" Frisson assured me.

"Heroes are made of sterner stuff, Wizard Saul!" Gilbert chided.

"You must not collapse as soon as the battle's over!"

"It's better than ... melting while ... it's still going on," I gasped.

"That is true, and there is no shame in it, so long as he does wait until the battle's over," Frisson allowed. He propped me up against Gruesome's side and began chafing my hands. "Really, you were masterful-you came only moments from death, and a horrible one at that."

"Huh?" I blinked, the thrill of dread pulling my mind back into focus. "You mean I almost blew it when I started to charge out?"

"You did indeed. That whole affair with the poor peasant lass served one purpose, and one only-to induce you to leave your magic circle in an attempt to save her."

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