Authors: Christopher Stasheff
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Science Fiction, #Fiction - Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Fantasy - General, #Fantastic Fiction, #Wizards, #Fantasy - Series
The dust cloud died down, and there sat an ancient crone in a gown of charcoal gray.
That, I could live with, given the milieu-I had seen her before, in my extreme youth, in dozens of illustrations in books of fairy tales.
What threw me, though, was that she was sitting at a desk, with papers strewn all over it, and a quill pen in an inkwell.
"You have cast two unauthorized spells in the space of half an hour."
The crone wheezed on. " 'Sobaka,' said I to meself, 'there's nothing for it but to come hither and gaze-and aye, there he be!
Yonder he stands, flaming with zeal to oust the palsied old witch-woman from her bailiwick and take her peasants for his own! If there's aught I cannot abide, 'tis a bursting new magus!"
"Hey now, wait a minute!" I was beginning to get angry again. "I don't want anybody's 'bailiwick'-and you can't own people!"
"Blasphemy!" she cried. "Not only a magus, but also a liar! As if 'tweren't a plentitude of folk in the art one must struggle with as
Aye, a body's no sooner believing she's secure in her place, to lord it over her own trembling churls in easy breath, when, whoosh!
Another young'un crops up, with cheek and with challenge, to be put in his place. It's no wonder the land's going to the pigs, with half the peasants turning to bandits, and a good number of them trying to out-evil their own township witch! And all from letting delinquents get out of hand! Abe, for the auld days! When younglings knew their places, or we had leave to fry them!"
"Leave?" I glanced at the desk again. "Who gives you leave to blast people or not?"
"Why, my master, fool, Queen Suettay!"
"Sweaty?" I stared; it struck me as an odd name for royalty.
"Nay, fool-Suettay! And be sure you do not take her name in vain, or she will surely appear to blast you!"
That gave me back some composure. I smiled, not too nicely; I'd heard that before, though usually about a personality a bit higher than an earthly monarch-that you have to talk nicely about Him, or He'll
strike you with a lightning bolt. But I've seen and heard an awful lot of people saying nasty things about God, and I've never no ticed any of them running afoul of large doses of
electricity-except for the one who was working on a live wire at the time, and he didn't start cursing until after he got zapped. "Okay, so she's Queen Suet-ty." I had a mental image of a very, very fat lady looking like an awning pavilion with a crown on top.
"Suettay!" the old witch snapped. "Speak her name properly, crack-pate, or she will wish you ill indeed!"
Now I had it-the French word for wishes, intentions, as in, "I wish you a good day." The pronunciation had thrown me off, that was all. "Whatever. And this Queen Suettay will zap you, if you zap me?
" "Without showing you the error of your ways, aye. I am the bailiff of this bailiwick, given authority to see to its taxes and enforce the queen's laws o'erit! 'Tis for me to see you are noted in its book, and deal you work to do that will give the queen crops-or, if I have no need of you, to another."
I bridled instantly. I mean, had I left my own civilized universe, with running water and modern medicine, just to come to a godforsaken medieval backwater that still made me cope with a bureaucracy? "Okay," I snapped, "so you've got the authority to issue me a travel pass, or whatever, because you're the witch in charge of the local parish ...
"Bailiwick!" she screamed. "Speak not in the words of the Flock!"
I frowned. Flock? Then I remembered the parable of the Good Shepherd, and that "ecclesia" literally means "flock," and I understood. So anything having to do with Christianity was anathema to her, huh? Maybe I could use that-but I kept it in reserve. After all, calling on the saints, or making the Sign of the Cross, or anything like that, kind of rankled; I hadn't been about to cop out to religion back home, and I didn't intend to here. Besides which, it might require conviction, which I definitely did not have.
She must have seen that in my eyes, because she gave me a gaptoothed grin. "Ah, then! You shy from those words yourself, eh?
Well, then, come! Prick your finger, write your name in my book, and swear to serve the queen and her master, or I'll call upon his power, and you'll writhe in flames!"
Outrage kindled. "No way!" I snapped. "I've heard about that book-and I'd end up writhing in flames either way, until this hallucination wears off! I won't be a slave, and I won't accept any master! " She answered with an evil grin. "Excellent," she crooned,
excellent! For if you'll serve no master, then you cannot be protected by any-and the Other Side will not ward you!" I felt the hair rise on the back of my neck.
"I felt your first use of a spell and said to myself, 'Sobaka, what bother is this?' and began to tidy up my work to spare time for a visit-but ere I departed, I felt the nerve-grating shimmer that could only have come from an agent of the Other Side, and withheld my visit till that grinding had ceased . . ."
Translation: she'd sensed the visit from my guardian angel and had been so scared that she'd burrowed under the bedclothes. I felt a little more confident.
"Yet cease it did," she crowed, "and totally-there was no shred of it left! Therefore did I come here, and sure enough, I see no particle of the aura of the Other Side about you! You have not aligned yourself with them, and have not their protection!"
The temperature of my precious bodily fluids began to fall again.
" "Tis an idiot, surely,' I said to myself, 'an idiot who doth think to gather magic as if he were a windmill, gathering power from the gale and wielding it to grind what he will! Ay, such a fool I can twist right easily!' So come, addle-pate, and sign in my master's book, or die in agony!"
Somehow, for a second, I didn't doubt that she could do as she'd said, and my heart sank down to join the caterpillars that were trying to turn into butterflies in my belly-but mostly, I felt the hot anger of indignation. How dare this old witch try to push me around! "No way will I get on your hook!" I snapped. "Keep the fire for your blasted book!"
She let out an outraged squawk, just about three-quarters of a second before her book burst into flames. She screamed, jumping back. All I could do was stand there and stare.
That was too bad; it gave her a chance to recover from her surprise.
"Vile recreant!" she screamed. "The records of all who owe my master are destroyed!" Then she hooked her fingers into claws, chanting, "By the most vile of obscene names, Follow that book into the flames!"
And she threw a whammy at me.
Only this whammy took form very fast, some unseen energy gathering itself together until it materialized about halfway between us as a roaring globe of fire. I shouted and leapt out of the way, but it swerved to follow me. I jumped again, in a forward somersault, but came up to see it still following.
Behind me, the hag's cackling almost drowned out the roar of the fireball-and it was gaining. In a rush of adrenaline, I suddenly realized I should be trying verbal acrobatics, not physical-she had brought this phenomenon into being by versifying; I sure hadn't seen her pulling the pin on a grenade. I ducked behind a boulder; it followed me, and it was roaring, but so was I, tapping myself on the chest and chanting,
"Put out the light, and then put out the light. If I quench thee, thou flaming minister, I can again thy former light restore, Should I repent me; but once put out t y ig t, Should I, considering, find it sinister I can leave it dark and quenched forevermore."
I had to do a little rewriting there, since rhyme seemed to be important here-but under the circumstances, I didn't think Shakespeare would mind.
The fireball dimmed, darkened, and took a nosedive for the ground. By the time it hit, it was only a smoking cinder.
Sobaka stared at it.
Then she snapped her glare up to me, and I have never seen so much malice in a pair of human eyes. "Villain! Aroint thee! If you wilt not bend to my will, you shall break!" She began to move her hands in some sort of jagged pattern, chanting in a language I didn't know, though it sounded like Latin.
I gave her a grim smile. She must have thought that if I didn't know the words, I wouldn't realize she was versifying-but I could recognize rhymes when I heard them, and the meter was strong enough to slice up for seasoning. Well, if she wanted to have a contest slinging verses, that was okay with me.
Or maybe it wasn't. There was a huge rumble, and the ground heaved beneath my feet. I fell, instinctively turning to land on my side and roll as Sensei had taught me-and saw a jagged crack opening the earth where I'd been standing. The hair on the back of my neck prickled. How had she known an earth tremor was coming?
But it was my turn, and the minor chasm made me remember an old hard-times song. I made a few modifications:
"Well, if I had it, why, you could have it, But I ain't got it-I'm down and out.
And now I've had it-with you, I've had it, So now I'll send it, and end this bout.
She gave me trouble On a scale that's Richter, So from the rubble Now I have picked her.
And I will drop her Into a deep hole That will stop her From hurting people.
And this old clown Will be unfound As she sinks down, down, down. The earth rumbled again, and a hole opened right under the old woman's feet. She dropped like a stone.
I was so flabbergasted, I couldn't think of anything to do until she had disappeared. Then I came to and leapt over to the hole to tell her not to panic, I'd dig her out-never mind that she'd been threatening to kill me-but she was wailing, "Air! Nay, give me air!" I looked down the hole and saw two very wide and frightened eyes peering up out of the darkness about ten feet below me. "The earth, the earth presses in all about me! Spare me, Wizard! I shall trouble you no more! Only release me! Do not let the earth fall in on me, I pray! " "Holy cow!" I gulped. I had just put a claustrophobic in a hole.
"Enough, right now!"
I heard a moo.
I froze. I didn't want to look up.
But the wailing down below roused my guilt; I had to do something. I looked up slowly, straight into the big brown eyes of a leanlooking bovine female. It had a hump on its back-a Brahma cow. Coincidence. Pure coincidence. Obviously, I was closer to India than I had thought.
I turned back to the hole, assured that the cow wouldn't bother me. "Just keep calm! We'll get you out of there!"
"Be quick," she wailed, "before my master seizes the chance to take my soul!"
I froze again.
Then I said "No taking of souls allowed. Not while the person's still living."
"Aye, but death might happen thus! The master needs but a slight chance, a crumbling of the earthen wall, to bring about a natural death! Then he can take me, and I am doomed forevermore!"
"He?" I frowned. "You're talking about the Devil?"
"Do not say his name!" she wailed. "Or you will hear the rustle of leathery wings!
I was about to object, saying that was only a superstition. Then I remembered the cow, and decided I didn't want any more coincidences.
"Look, as long as you've lived a good life by your own beliefs, you've got nothing to be afraid of."
"But I have not!" she wailed. "I have been as evil as I might!
I have sold my soul for power over my fellows!"
"Sold your soul?" I stared. "Why the hell-uh, heck?-would you do a dumb thing like that?"
"I was ugly, and small, and shrewish, and all shunned me.
'Sobaka,' they said, 'you are so ugly, even the swine will spurn you!
You are stupid, Sobaka-step aside.' ' 'Tis done badly, Sobaka-you can never do anything right!' 'Not even I could love you, Sobaka, and I am your mother!' 'Do not sing, Sobaka, you have the voice of a crow!'
Until, at last, hate waked like a burning coal in my breast, and I swore I would someday have power to make them all suffer, to rue the day they had mocked me! But I could see no way to it, till the master appeared to me in a dream!"
I couldn't believe it. Not only a paranoid with a five-star inferiority complex-it had blossomed into raving delusions. She had actually convinced herself that she had sold her soul! All of a sudden, I could understand how come she had dug herself under when she'd heard my verse-it had fitted into her delusional system and had convinced her subconscious that she'd been overwhelmed by a spell. And since I wouldn't sign up with the Devil, presumably I had the force of good behind me, which is always stronger than evil in the end-at least, in the sort of medieval culture this seemed to be-so she'd been convinced my spell had taken over anything she could dream up. Selling her soul was a metaphor for having dedicated herself to
evil, of course. She had probably managed to become a minor bureaucrat just by toadying to the people in power-but she had convinced herself she was damned.
I couldn't let her die in that kind of agony, no matter what she'd been trying to do to me. "Look," I said, "even if you sold your soul, you can still get it back. All you have to do is repent, tell God you're sorry and won't do it again!"
"But what if I should live?" she cried, in an agony of indecision. "If I should repent and live, I would be the lowest of the low! All whom I have wronged would rise to smite me down! The master would send agents to deprive me of what life I'd have left-though
'twould be precious little; I am more than an hundred years old already! " Delusion again-she couldn't have been a day over sixty, judging by looks. This being a medieval culture, she was probably only forty-life aged them fast, back then.
"Look," I said, "just because you were small and plain didn't mean everybody hated you."
"Yet they did! All need to know there is one lower than they!
How could they fail to despise me?"
"By your being good, way down deep," I reasoned. "Sure, they're cruel-but if they saw you were really good inside, trying hard to make up for everything mean you did, they'd start liking you." There was silence down at the bottom of that hole. Then, almost shyly, "Do you truly think so?"