Vale of the vole, p.1
Vale of the Vole, p.1Piers Anthony
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This novel is dedicated
to the nieces and nephews
I neglected before:
Erin and Caroline
Jenifer and Paul
Leigh and David
Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Metria
Chapter 2. Chex
Chapter 3. Volney
Chapter 4. Mystery
Chapter 5. Ivy
Chapter 6. Centaur
Chapter 7. Gateway
Chapter 8. Diggle
Chapter 9. Gourd
Chapter 10. Cheiron
Chapter 11. Ogre
Chapter 12. Wiggle
Chapter 13. Dreams
Chapter 14. Elements
Chapter 15. Monsters
Chapter 16: Swarm
Other Avon Books by Piers Anthony
Chapter 1. Metria
It wasn’t always easy, being the son of an ogre and a nymph. Sometimes the ogre started smashing things just for the joy of it, or squeezing the juice from stones one-handed, making an awful mess. Sometimes the nymph was rather empty-minded, or threw a tantrum. That was why Esk had made this cosy hideout that no one else knew about. Whenever things became too difficult at home, he came here to relax and unwind. He loved his parents, but there was virtue in solitude too.
He paused to look about and listen carefully. He didn’t want any creature of Xanth, tame or wild, seeing him enter, because then the location would be no secret, and sooner or later his folks would learn of it, and his privacy would be lost.
His hideout was in the hollow trunk of a dead beerbarrel tree. He had been lucky: he had been in the vicinity in the month of AwGhost, when barrel trees gave up the ghost if they were going to, and had seen the spirit departing. “Aw, Ghost!” he had exclaimed in the classic ogre manner, and that had enchanted the tree so that he could take over the husk without creating a local commotion. He had cut a door in the fat trunk that sealed tightly so that it didn’t show from outside, and made vents so that the steamy beer smell could dissipate; his mother, Tandy, would never understand if he came home reeking of beer! Then he had set straw in the bottom, and brought in pillows from a nearby pillow bush, and carved decorative scenes in the walls, and made it perfect. He was rather proud of himself; his only regret was that he could not afford to boast of his accomplishment, because of the necessity for secrecy.
All seemed clear. He hooked his nails into the crevice and pulled the door open. It was a small door, with an irregular outline, so that its contour was not obvious. He ducked down to step through, then drew it carefully closed behind. He stepped across the floor and dropped onto his nest of pillows.
Esk jumped. “Who said that?” he demanded.
“Get your fat mule off me!” The voice came from below.
He looked but saw only pillows. “My fat what?”
“Your fat donkey!” the voice snapped. “Pony, horse, jackass, whatever—off!”
Esk finally got a glimmer of the word that was being sought. He got quickly off the pillows. “Where are you?”
The pillow shifted outline. A mouth formed in its center. “Here, you oaf! What did you think you were doing, putting gross anatomy like that in my face?”
“Never mind. Just don’t do it again, moron.”
“But pillows are supposed to be—”
“Oh? Did you ever ask the pillows’ opinion about that?”
“Well, actually, no, but—”
“So there, imbecile! Now get out and let me sleep.”
Esk got out. Then, as he wended his way home, he pondered. How had he been able to talk to a pillow? He knew of only one person who could talk to an object, and that was the King of Xanth, Dor. Since it was generally understood that talents did not repeat, except in the case of the curse fiends, that meant that it wouldn’t be Esk’s talent. Beside that, he already had a talent: that of protesting. Sometimes his mother said he protested too much, but she did not deny it was magic. Since no one had two magic talents, that, too, eliminated the possibility of talking to inanimate things.
Finally he worked it out. He was not the smartest person, being quarter ogre, but he never let go of a problem, being half human, and usually was able to come to some kind of settlement, however crude. It wasn’t his magic, but the pillow’s magic. He must have picked a special pillow, without realizing: one that was alive. All he needed to do was take it back out to the pillow bush and exchange it for another, and his problem would be solved.
Reassured, he continued on toward home, having forgotten whatever problem had brought him to his hideout. As he neared it he smelled the delicious odor of purple bouillon. That meant that his father, Smash, had gone into his full ogre guise and foraged for the makings. Smash was actually only half ogre, for Esk’s grandparents on that side had been Crunch Ogre and an actress from the curse fiends. But when Smash got ogreish, no one could tell him from a full ogre; he swelled up horrendously and burst out of his trousers. Tandy, however, being of nymphly stock, preferred Smash as a man, so usually that was what he seemed to be.
Esk could not voluntarily turn ogre, but when he got mad enough or desperate enough he did develop some ogre strength. It never lasted long, but of course it didn’t need to; one strike by an ogreishly-powered fist could pulverize the trunk of a rock maple tree. Similarly, he was normally inept at acting, but when he really had to he could become temporarily proficient. That was his heritage from his curse fiend grandmother. Most of the time it was his human heritage that dominated, since he was part human through both of his parents. He was a pretty ordinary person, with gray eyes and nondescript brown hair. He often wished he were otherwise, but really had no choice; he was obviously not destined for any sort of greatness.
But there was no use worrying about that: there was purple bouillon to be eaten!
Two days later, being bored, Esk returned to his hideout. He entered and checked the pillows. They all looked normal. “Which one of you is the live one?” he inquired, but had no answer.
He shrugged. He picked up the whole mass of them and took them out to the pillow bush, unceremoniously dumping them beside it. Then he picked several new ones. He had to do this periodically anyway, so they didn’t get dirty and stale. He carried these to his tree and plopped them down inside.
He hesitated, then eased himself down on them. Contrary to what the living pillow had said, his posterior was not fat; in retrospect he wished he had corrected the pillow about that matter. But he always thought up the smart responses way too late. That, again, was part of his heritage: neither ogres nor nymphs were known for their quickness of wit.
He was hungry, so he brought out a pie he had picked some time ago. It was a humble pie, and they were always best when properly seasoned. This one was decked with sodden raisins, and had a crust that was rocklike, while its main body seemed to be decomposing. It was definitely ready for consumption.
He brought it to his mouth and took an ogreish bite. His teeth came down, dug in—and the pie erupted in his face.
“My ugly what?” Esk asked, startled.
“Your ugly kitten, feline, grimalkin, tabby—”
“Oh, you mean my ugly puss?” he inquired, catching on.
“Your ugly whatever,” the pie agreed, forming a wide mouth. “Just what did you think you were doing, ogreface?”
“Ogreface?” Esk repeated, appreciating the compliment. Then he realized that the pie probably hadn’t meant it that way. “I was trying to—”
“Oh you were, were you! Well, don’t do it again!”
“You never asked the pie whether it wanted to be chewed on, did you?”
“But it’s humble pie! It’s meant to be eaten!”
“A likely story. Now get your dim-witted face out of here so I can rest.”
“Listen, pieface, this is my hideout!” Esk said, developing a smidgeon of heat. “I just tossed out an obnoxious pillow, and I’ll do the same with you! You sure aren’t very humble!”
“You just try to toss this cookie, and you’ll be sorry, bean-brain!”
That did it. Esk carried the pie to the door, pushed the door open, and skated the disk out into the forest. Then he plumped down on his bed of pillows for a snooze.
It was a moderately cool day, and while true ogres loved cold weather, Esk didn’t. He cast about until he found the tattered old blanket he had salvaged for this purpose, and drew it over him.
The blanket writhed and wrapped itself around his feet. Then it squeezed his legs, and inched up his torso, constricting as it did.
“Hey!” Esk exclaimed.
“Hay yourself, moo-brain!” the blanket said, forming a mouth on its surface. But it did not pause in its squeezing; Esk’s legs were getting uncomfortable.
Abruptly concerned, he thrust his legs apart, the ogre strength coming to him. The blanket tore—but then it fogged and rose up as a flying thing, hovering before him. “Listen, dung-head,” its mouth said, “now I’m really going to make you sorry!”
But Esk’s ogre dander was up. He grabbed the blanket with both hands. “We’ll see about that, threadface!” Then he tore it asunder.
The pieces fogged again. The whole thing became vapor. This time it re-formed into the shape of a demoness. “You’re stronger than you look, bug-wit. But how long do you think you can oppose me?”
“What wit?” Esk asked, confused again.
“Flea-wit, ant-wit, chigger-wit—”
“Whatever. Why don’t you answer the question?”
Now at last Esk caught on. “The pillow—the pie—they were all you! You assumed their forms!”
“Of course I did, genius,” she agreed. “I was trying to get rid of you gently. But now it’s no more Miss Nice Gal. I’m going to twist you into a pretzel and feed you to a dragon.” In her natural form she had arms and hands, which were now reaching for him.
“Dragons don’t eat pretzels,” he said, realizing he was in trouble. Demons (or demonesses) were notorious; they had inhuman strength and no conscience, and they could pass right through solid walls. If he had realized what he was dealing with, he would have left her alone. Now it was too late.
“I’ll jam you down its mouth anyway,” she said grimly. “Maybe it will forgive me in a century or two.” The hands closed on his neck and squeezed.
But this stimulated his ogre strength to full potency. Contrary to popular lore, ogres didn’t really like getting twisted into pretzels, whatever they might do to others. Esk grabbed her wrists and wrenched them apart. “Who are you?” he demanded.
“I am the Demoness Metria,” she replied, fogging again. Her arms and hands reappeared at his throat, leaving his own hands empty. “DeMetria for short. Who are you?”
Esk grabbed her wrists again, and wrenched them outward again. “I am Eskil Ogre, and I’m not going to let you choke me.”
“That’s what you think, mortal,” she said. Her substance fogged yet again and re-formed, and this time her arms were linked by a length of thin rope. She hooked this over his head and looped it around his neck. “You can’t get this off before you’re done for.”
“No!” Esk gasped.
Now she seemed startled. “No?” Her grip relaxed.
Esk balled a fist and smashed her in the face. The blow was solid, but her head simply folded back on the neck, as if hinged, then snapped back into place as he withdrew his arm. She looked slightly aggravated.
“No,” he repeated. “I protest it.”
She reconsidered. “Well, maybe not. I suppose it would be pointless to kill you; your body would only stink up the region, and I don’t care to haul it far enough so the smell wouldn’t carry.” The cord dissolved into vapor and coalesced about her arms; it was evidently part of her substance.
“Well, I’m going to throw you out of here!” Esk said, his ogre aspect still in force.
“I’d like to see you try it, mundaneface.”
Mundaneface! Her insults were getting more effective. That kept his ogre aspect in force. “I’ll try it!”
He tried it. He grabbed her about the middle and hauled her off her feet. Then he paused. Her body was humanoid and naked and voluptuous, and was now tightly pressed against him. He had been distracted by her words and actions, but now was noticing her shape. This was a new experience.
“Well, now,” she said, smiling. “I didn’t realize that you wanted to be friendly. Just let me get your clothes off—”
He dropped her. “Just get out!” he exclaimed, disgruntled.
“Forget it, junior. I found this place and it’s mine.”
“I made it and it’s mine!” he retorted.
She arched an eyebrow. “You made a beerbarrel tree?”
“Well, not that, but I adapted it after it gave up its spirit. That’s close enough.”
“Well, I like it, but I don’t like you, so I’m going to get rid of you.”
She paused, studying him. “Ah, that’s your magic, isn’t it! When you say ‘no,’ you stop a creature from doing what she intends. That’s why I’m changing my mind, against my better judgment.”
“Yes.” His talent was not exactly magician class, but it served him in good stead when he needed it.
“So I’d better not make any more threats because you’ll just say no to them,” she continued. “But I’ll bet it isn’t all inclusive. You can’t say ‘no’ to the whole category of what I might try to do to get you out, but you can say it to each individual thing as I try it.”
“Yes.” She was catching on with dismaying rapidity. Obviously there was no ogre blood in her lineage.
“So I’ll just have to find a way to make you want to leave,” she concluded. “I can’t hurt you directly, but you can’t hurt me either, so we’re even, for now.”
“Why are you here?” he asked plaintively.
“Because it’s getting too annoying back where I come from,” she said. “The hummers, you know.”
“Never mind. Mortals can’t hear them, generally. But they drive demons crazy. They’ve gotten really bad recently, there in the Vale of the Vole, despite all we’ve done to eradicate them. So I’ve had enough; I’ve moved to where I can be comfortable, after my fashion.”
“But you’re trying to take the place where I can be comfortable, after my fashion,” he protested.
“So sue me.”
“It’s a mundane term. It means ‘What are you going to do about it, stink-nose?’”
“I don’t understand. Is Sue a girl?”
She laughed, her whole torso jiggling. “I suppose we’re stuck here together, junior. Might as well make the best of it. Maybe we’ll even get to like each other, though that may be stretching a point. Come, let me initiate you into the ways of demon sex.” She advanced on him.
“No!” he exclaimed.
She stopped. “There’s that magic of yours again! I really wasn’t going to hurt you, you know, this time. I can be very affectionate, when I pretend to be. Let me demonstrate.”
“No.” He was afraid of her now, as he had not been before, and ashamed for his fear. It wasn’t because he thought she would use a pretext to get close to him and then try to choke him again; it was because he was afraid she would do exactly what she threatened, and that he would like it. He didn’t trust a demon-stration.
She eyed him speculatively. “How old are you, Esk?”
“And I’m a hundred and sixteen, but who’s counting? You’re old enough, in mortal terms, and I’m young enough, in immortal terms. Why don’t you let me buy this den from you, and pay for it with experience? I can show you exactly what it’s all about, so that you will never have to embarrass yourself by being clumsy with a mortal girl.”
Esk barged by her, dived out the door, and headed for home. Only when he was well away from the hideout did he ask himself why. Was he afraid that she would somehow lead him into some much worse embarrassment than he could guess? Or that he thought that what she offered was simply wrong? But was it wrong? He wasn’t sure.
He thought about asking his parents about the matter. But then he’d have to tell them about his hideout, which he didn’t want to do. Also, he suspected that they just wouldn’t understand. His mother had never said much about it, but he understood that a male demon had once approached her, and that she had been horrified. He could guess how she would react to news of a demoness’s approach to her son. She might even throw one of her tantrums at him, and that would hurt. His father loved those tantrums, because they reminded him of ogre slaps, but an ogre slap could knock a grown tree askew or put a network of cracks in a rock.
So he kept silent. Maybe Metria would tire of his hideout and go away. Demons were known to be inconstant, after all.
Several days later he ventured again to the hideout. He entered cautiously. There was no sign of the demoness. But he knew that she could be concealed as anything; only time would tell whether she really was gone.
Vale of the Vole by Piers Anthony / Fantasy / Humor / Young Adult / Science Fiction / Actions & Adventure / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes