Witch Doctor - Wiz in Rhyme-3 (37 page)

Nay, we have lost our way."

I frowned. "Of course, it couldn't just be that you think it's fun to help travelers get lost."

"Not when I am one of them! I swear, Wizard, 'tis no doing of mine! " I winced and glanced around me. "Please! You swearing anything strikes me as extremely hazardous!"

"We must forge ahead," Gilbert said grimly. "We shall come to naught if we do naught. "There's a certain sort of sense in that," I agreed. "Onward, mes amis! "

"If the way 'onward' doth reveal itself," the Gremlin grumped; but he started forward again.

An hour later, I called a halt again. "Okay-we've been watching the light on the trees, and it has always stayed on their fronts-but I'm sure I recognized that birch tree at least three times!"

"Why," the Gremlin growled, "how can you be sure it is the same tree?

"Because this is a deciduous forest, mostly oak and ash, and that's the only birch tree I've seen. Also because the markings on its bark have twisted themselves into a gloating leer." Everybody turned and looked at the birch tree. " 'Tis true," Gilbert said. "In the center of the trunk, the blackbird marks have shrunk into eyes, and the one beneath has widened into a grinning mouth."

The Gremlin stamped up to the tree. "At what do you laugh, white-face? Do you dare?"

It must have been the wind in the branches. The tree couldn't really have been laughing.

"I submit," I said, "that the queen knows where we are and has placed a spell on this forest to keep us going around in circles."

"But she thinks that we are dead!" Angelique protested.

"She must have developed suspicions and looked in her crystal ball. " "Not likely," the Gremlin said, coming back, "for no crystal can see into the palace of the Spider King, unless he wills it, I would as lief believe the forest was enchanted in antiquity, and all who dwell nearby do know to avoid it."

"Could be." But I glanced aside, distracted. "Frisson, what are you doing?

"Only toying with a stick." Frisson snapped up straight, hands going behind his back. My scalp prickled. "Why do I get the willies when you start playing around? What's the game, Frisson?"

"oh ... naught but this." Frisson took the stick out from behind his back-three sticks, actually. One was a section of a tree trunk, like a flat table; the other was a peg, going through a hole in the center of the long one.

"What does it do?" I asked suspiciously.

"I recited a verse in praise of the Pole Star," Frisson explained.

"It will always point to the north, now. just an idle amusement, of no

worth-" "No worth, he says! He just invented the compass, that's all!" I went around behind the poet. "Lead on, Frisson! As long as that stick is pointing toward us, we're going south!" Frisson looked up, pleased, then started off into the forest again.

The Gremlin followed at the end of the line, grumbling. Another hour later, I called a halt again. "Okay. No luck. We've ight line according to Frisson's compass, but here's that gone in astra blasted birch tree again. I've got half a mind to blast it for real."

A long moan sounded.

I glared at the tree. "That got you, didn't it? Gonna let us go,

now? " The moan came again, drawn out and quavering.

"Saul," Angelique said, "it came from our left, and the tree is to our right. " I looked up, frowning, peering off into the underbrush. Sure enough, the moan came again-but it was coming closer. "Everybody step back!"

The moan came loud and clear, and a gnarled, bent old woman tottered into the clearing, hurrying as fast as she could, glancing over her shoulder in terror.

That bothered me-badly. "What's chasing you?"

"My death!" she cried. "Away, fool! or would you catch the pox that does infest me? Then Death will dog your footsteps, too!" Everybody edged back, including me-but the rational part of me took over. "You can't run away from Death, lady-you have to stop and fight him."

"Do you think my master would give me power to fight Death?" she screeched. "Fool, thrice a fool! When Death has taken me, the Devil shall have me! Begone!" And she tottered straight toward me.

Reflex took over. I stepped aside, saying, "If you repent, maybe I c an heal you."

She stopped dead-as it were-in front of me, and those old green eyes pierced me to the marrow. "If you can heal me, do so now!"

"You've sold your soul," I pointed out. "I'm not a priest or an exorcist, just a magician." One of us was, anyway. "My magic can't work on you as long as you're in Satan's grasp."

"Then I repent!" The panic suddenly broke through, and the woman sank to her knees, hands uplifted in prayer. "Lord of Heav ... of Hea ... Lord above, save me! I know I am unworthy, for all the evil I have done-but let this foolish magician save my raddled hide, and I shall never work evil again!"

Something rattled in the shadows. I glanced at them apprehensively and held out a hand toward Frisson. "Pox."

"I have searched it." Frisson pushed a piece of parchment into my hand.

I held it up and read it.

"Smallpox, cowpox, all are healed!

French pox, East pox, marks annealed!"

That inspired me; I added a couplet Frisson couldn't have known about:

"Spirochetes be rent asunder!

Germs of raddles, be plowed under!

Whatever was rattling in the shadows stopped.

The ex-witch looked up, amazement lighting her face-and even as we watched, the hideous marks of the disease were fading. " 'Tis true! I can feel the sickness leave me, feel the fever abate, my strength reviving!

"It might not last," I said, "if you don't get to confession. You're out of Satan's power, but not very far out. "Aye! I must seek out a priest without delay!" She scrambled to her feet and headed off into the forest, her thank-you floating behind her. "I cannot bless, for I am too sodden with evil-but I thank you, kind strangers!" A sudden inspiration hit, and I leapt after her. "Which way to the nearest priest?"

"South! He lives in a village in the plain beyond these woods!"

"Follow that witch!" I shouted to my friends, and we all pelted off through the forest.

The sun was nearing the horizon as we came out of the forest and saw the plain, rolling away under a huge expanse of sky. Even from the edge of the forest, we could see the roofs of three little villages. Between, the flatland was a jigsaw puzzle of small fields, divided by

hedges.

The nearest town was maybe half a mile away. Sunlight glistened off whitewashed adobe houses. "The priest lives yon!" The old witch pointed toward the smallest hovel in town. "oh, how deeply I rejoice that I put off and put off the bearding of him, and the slaying of him for the queen!"

So she had been an official. A nasty thought occurred to me.

"You didn't maybe put a spell on that forest so that anybody trying to get through it would get lost, did you?"

"Aye. It protected me from those who sought to hurt me-they could not find my cottage. Farewell, kind strangers! When I am shriven, I shall bless you! I shall sing your praises throughout the land! " I felt the old familiar chill again. "I'd really rather you didn't. I'm working on a low profile here, you see, and-" "Ever shall I trumpet your virtues!" she cried. "So wise and merciful a wizard is deserving of glory! And when I'm shriven, I shall bless you with my every breath!" She went tottering off to find a priest, and absolution. I turned to the Gremlin. "Narrow thing, that. You wouldn't have had anything to do with her catching the pox, would you?" The monster grinned, showing a lot of snaggled teeth. "I did not happen by here so many years ago as that, Wizard."

"Just wondering. By the way, which way to the nymph's house now?

"Yon." The Gremlin pointed due south.

"Yon it is." I sighed. "But only until sunset. We're still in hostile territory, and we'll need some time to pitch camp."

"Shall we never leave Suettay's country?" Angelique sighed. "It was so great a blessing to be free of her, in the palace of the Spider King!

"I'm afraid she knows we're still alive," I said with chagrin. "I shouldn't have cured that last witch."

"Nay, you should have," she said quickly, but her eyes were huge with trepidation in the shadows.

"Mayhap you need not come, milady," Gilbert told her. "Per chance the Spider King would let you remain in his palace. The poet will stay with you-will you not?"

"Aye, if you bid me." Frisson sighed. "Yet I had hoped to witness the end of this sage that unwinds before me."

"You shall," Angelique said quickly. "I shall not be left behind."

I wondered if it was courage, or reluctance to be left alone with Frisson's unharnessed verses. "Okay, then, we're all agreed," I said.

"Southward he!"

"All right, sprite, want to explain this plight?" We stood between the forest and the seashore, watching the breakers foam up onto the gravel.

"We seek the nymph, Thyme," the Gremlin said stubbornly. "The path to her lies yon." He stood with the setting sun at his right and pointed toward the south-and several hundred miles of waves, sea stretching away to the rim of the world.

"Yeah, I thought it was an island." I sighed. My stomach sank, rehearsing its probable behavior as we crossed the sea. But there was no help for it. We couldn't exactly drive, and though I was tempted to think about flying, I didn't-what would happen if Suettay managed to cancel my spell when we were a thousand feet up over the miles and miles of waves that were all there was between the island of Thyme and this southern border of Suettay's kingdom. I guessed the little port town I saw in the distance would have grown up to be Trieste, in my own world. "At least we get to leave the queen's jurisdiction. " "Then we shall go, and gladly," Gilbert said. "I confess that I, too, rejoice that the nymph does dwell outside Allustria's borders." The Gremlin shrugged. "For all we know, she may not. Who holds sway over these little islands?"

It was a moot point, and one that hadn't been entirely resolved even in my own universe. "If she lives on an island," I said, "why didn't the Spider King just send us there?"

"Mayhap he has work for us to do on the way," Frisson suggested,

"though I could wish he had told us what it was," "You and me both, brother," I muttered.

"Peace, gentlemen," Gilbert soothed. "He could have sent us into the middle of Allustria, to fight our way free again."

"Praise Heaven he has not!" the Rat Raiser said.

"Yeah," I said, "but after we find this monk Ignatius, we have to come back."

ingly philo"What must be, must be." The Rat Raiser was surpris sophical. "Yet be assured, companions-if we must return to Suettay's domain, we are better to do it by sea, where there is less chance of meeting with her wardens."

"Yes, now that she has definitely decided to get rid of us," I agreed.

"And it will be a lot quicker, in any event. We got through from the mountains last time, but it took a great deal of luck."

"Come, then!" The Gremlin turned away. "We must seek out a ship and a captain. Yet I think it best that you be the one to haggle with him, Wizard-he might be shy of my dealings."

"Understandable," I muttered, as I followed the monster. I called back to my friends, "Come on, folks! Gotta hurry!" I forced my tired legs into long strides.

Even so, Gilbert caught up with me. "Wherefore must we hasten, Wizard? " "Because," I said, "Thyme and tide wait for no man. Let's go."

"I carry only cargo," the captain said stubbornly. It could have been worse-it could have been night instead of sunset, with Angelique totally visible, instead of being washed out by the sun's orange rays. if he could have seen her, he would no doubt have been pointing out that a woman on a ship is bad luck. Come to think of it, he might have extended that notion to ghosts, too, so it was just as well my beloved could stay hidden.

"We're not asking you to take us any great distance," I argued,

"just to some obscure little island out in the middle of nowhere."

"But you have no passports." The captain eyed the gold in my hand. No question about it, he was tempted-but he was balancing the danger of breaking Suettay's emigration laws, against the cash in my hand. So I slipped another gold piece from my pocket and added it to the stack. The captain's eyes fairly bulged, and he drew in a sharp breath.

"Guaranteed," I said. "Just an offshore island. We'll even supply our own local transportation-all you have to do is carry us there and lower us over the side in the longboat." The captain stared at the stack of gold, teetering on the brink. Then he cried, "Done!" His hand scooped up the coins and made them disappear.

I gaped, wondering if I could make money vanish that quickly. In fact, I hoped his wouldn't. My money never lasted very long, anyway.

"But you must board right now," the captain said, "while my crew is ashore on their last roister. As to the longboat, you shall have mine, for two gold pieces more. I shall buy another in Mycenaea." He sure would, I reflected as I climbed the gangplank-and for a lot less than even a single gold piece. But I wasn't about to haggle. Besides, I could make more of the stuff whenever I wanted to. I just had.

We clambered down a ladder and stowed ourselves in the hold, under the captain's cabin.

"How may we be sure of his troth?" Frisson asked, wide-eyed.

"By his own peril," the Rat Raiser answered. "We have but to denounce him to the harbormaster, and he is food for the gulls."

"But he need not take us to Thyme's isle! He need but have us thrown into the sea, as soon as we are too far from land to swim!"

"And what sailor-man would raise his hand against us?" Gilbert retorted. "We are not the most mild-seeming of bands, look you."

"We could make short work of his whole crew," I assured the poet.

"So you might scribble down a verse for giving sailors heart attacksand either you or I will be awake at all times." Frisson nodded slowly, frowning.

"Then, of course, there are the members of the party they haven't seen." I glanced at a row of hogsheads against the wall of our timber dungeon. "Are you in there, Gremlin?"

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