Vale of the vole, p.19
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       Vale of the Vole, p.19

           Piers Anthony
 

  “But you could hold on, with support for your feet.”

  “Yes. But even if I had a line, I could not attach it, because I can’t even see the other end of the trail.”

  “I shall look.” Marrow dismounted and walked along the trail. As the ledge narrowed, he had to turn sidewise and step carefully, but it was evident that he had no fear of heights or of falling. That seemed to be another advantage of being nonalive. He moved on around the curve and disappeared from sight.

  After a while he returned. “There is a rock that I could cling to,” he announced.

  “How nice for you,” Chex said, trying not to be cutting.

  “So if you will just kick me apart, then swing me around so that I can grasp on with one hand, it will be all right.”

  Chex’s dismay received a jolt. Was Marrow proposing suicide in his fashion? “What?”

  “Just let me take hold here, so I don’t fall off the ledge,” he said. “Now kick me hard.”

  “But that would destroy you!” she exclaimed, appalled.

  “Oh, no, we can re-form readily, when prepared. Kick me apart; then I will explain the next step.”

  Chex had considerable difficulty accepting this, but finally did what he asked. She retreated along the trail until it widened, turned around, and backed up to the place where he was holding on to a solid rock. Then she gave him a tremendous kick on the hipbone with a hind foot.

  The skeleton flew apart. The bones sailed into the air, disconnecting. But then something strange happened. The bones did not disconnect all the way; instead they formed into a line that flopped down the mountainside.

  “Now haul me up,” Marrow’s voice came.

  She walked back to the turnaround point, then came forward again. She braced herself and peered down over the ledge.

  The line of bones extended well down the slope. About halfway along it was the skull. “Haul me,” it repeated.

  This was strange magic! She took hold of a bone and drew it up. Marrow’s finger bone was no longer connected to his hand bone, or his hand bone to his wrist bone; one finger bone was connected to another and another, forming the line. She hauled the line up hand over hand, noting that the finger and arm bones connected to rib bones and neck bones and finally the head bone.

  “Now swing the rest out around the mountain,” the skull told her. “Up to the level of the trail; the rock is not far beyond your vision.”

  Chex obeyed. She started the line of bones swinging back and forth, pendulum fashion, until she was able to bring the end of the line high enough. Then, just at its height, she let go, and it flung out, slapping against the mountain.

  “Got it!” the skull exclaimed. “Now pull me tight.”

  Chex gazed at the arc of bones. “But if I pull too hard, won’t you come apart?”

  “I don’t think so. I will warn you when my limit approaches.”

  So she hauled on the line again, and the line tightened, until when she held an arm bone the skull called out “enough.”

  “What now?” she called back.

  “Touch the arm bone to the hand bone.”

  She held a loop of the bone line. She brought the arm bone to the hand bone—and immediately the two snapped together as if magnetized.

  “Now use me to keep your balance,” the skull called. “Try not to put too much strain on me.”

  Chex looked at the narrow path, with the bone line now stretched above it. It seemed perilously precarious. But Marrow had known what he was doing before, so she had to trust him now.

  She held on to the line and walked out along the precipice. The wall shoved her solid equine body out, and she could not brace with her feet. Her wings made it worse, because they added to the breadth of her body when folded, and there was no room to open them here. She clung to the line, her body increasingly off-balance, leaning out over the gulf below. She had never been afraid of heights, just of depths, but it would be easy enough to cultivate such a phobia now!

  Her hands were becoming somewhat sweaty, but she could not clean them. She hoped the bones weren’t ticklish.

  “That’s very good,” Marrow’s skull said, right under her hand.

  Startled, Chex almost let go of the line. She had for the moment forgotten the nature of it! “Thank you,” she muttered tersely.

  She handed herself on along the rib bones and the backbones and the hipbones, closing her mind to the precise nature of them, not from any humanlike skittishness, but because she did not want to raise any question in her mind about how they were able to hold together in this format. Marrow was a more surprising creature than she had first thought!

  Finally she reached the end, where the trail widened and the endmost finger bone clung. It had found a niche in the stone and hooked into it. Had she realized that this was all that supported the line, and therefore her tilting body, she would have been even more concerned than she had been!

  She got her footing and let go of the line. “I’m across!” she called to the skull. “What now?”

  “Haul me in,” the skull called, as the line swung down from the other side. The far finger had let go.

  She hauled in the bones, hand over hand. “That’s good,” the skull said as it arrived, giving her a momentary stare with an eye socket.

  “But how do you get back together?” she asked.

  “For that I will require some assistance,” the skull admitted. “You will have to set the bones together in the proper order.”

  “But I don’t know the proper order, except in a very general way!”

  “I will direct you.”

  And so it was. She touched each bone to the one the skull called out, and it anchored in place. Before too long Marrow was back in proper skeletal shape.

  “The more I learn about you, the more I respect you,” she told him as the job was completed. “I never realized that bones could be so versatile.”

  “Thank you. I must confess that your flesh is not nearly as clumsy or repulsive as I had anticipated.”

  “Thank you,” she said with the trace of a smile.

  They moved on up the mountain. The way was easier now, as the slope gradually leveled; they were nearing the crest. Just as well, for the day was drawing toward its close, and she did not want to be on the trail at night. If any of the winged monsters mistook her for nocturnal prey, her situation could become difficult.

  Then they came to a cleft in the mountain. It cut right across the path, as though it had started as a crack and widened with time, until now it was a formidable gap. How was she to get across it?

  She looked around. There were a few scrubby trees, and some dead wood, and some weeds, and assorted loose rocks. That was it. She looked again at the cleft. It was plainly beyond her jump range. There seemed to be no narrowing of it to the sides; in fact, this was its narrowest part. The entire top of the mountain was split, and the meeting plateau was on the other side.

  “I can perhaps throw you across,” she told Marrow. “But it is too far for me.”

  “I see no handholds,” the skeleton said. “And if there were, I fear I could not sustain your full weight. Cohesion only goes so far.”

  “To be sure,” she agreed. “You have done more than enough; I would not ask you to attempt that, even if I had sufficient arm strength to manage such a crossing. There has to be another way.”

  But was there? None of the items of deadwood were large enough to form a bridge, and certainly the stones would not do it. Unless—

  She got to work, not letting herself think about how risky it was. She picked up wood, and rolled rocks, forming a pile at the brink of the cleft. She packed them in as solidly as she could, fashioning a ramp whose height rose significantly above the ground.

  Marrow appraised this activity with a tilted eyeball socket. “Isn’t this a diversion of the strength you need to cross the cleft?” he inquired.

  “I’m building a ramp,” she explained. “My hope is that it will enable me to achieve a broader leap
.”

  He considered. “Judging by your demonstrated power of foot and present mass, I believe you will fall short of the far landing by this amount,” he said, holding his hand bones about a body width apart.

  Chex remembered how accurate his estimate of her progress in the water cave had been. That dismayed her. She had hoped that the added elevation would do the trick. She had used up all the available materials; she could build the ramp no higher.

  But she had one other chance. “I cannot fly, but my wings do provide some lift,” she said. “Will that extend my distance enough?”

  “I have no knowledge of the parameters of flying,” he said.

  “It will have to do,” she said. “Let me toss you across now, and I will join you in a moment.”

  “As you wish.”

  She picked him up by neck bone and hipbone, swung him back, then heaved him across. He landed in a pile, but in a moment straightened out; he was not subject to bruises. Then she tossed her bow and quiver of arrows across, and her supply pack; she wanted to carry no weight she could avoid on the jump.

  Then, reflecting, she caught up again on natural functions. That was one more way to reduce weight. She had not eaten during this climb and was hungry, but at the moment that was for the best.

  It was time. She trotted to the other side of the crest, then started her takeoff run. She accelerated steadily and smoothly, saving her peak effort for the conclusion. She hit the ramp, put forth her full strength, and galloped up it. At the very brink she leaped into the air.

  The moment she was over the cleft, she spread her wings and flapped them mightily. She felt their downdraft, but knew it was not enough; her effort at flight was mere pretense.

  Then her front hooves came down on the rock, and she knew she had made it. She brought her rear hooves up to overlap the prints of the front ones, securing her landing, and made a small secondary leap to reorient. For the first time in her life, her wings had made a significant and positive difference! How glad she was that she had built up her pectorals!

  She came to a halt, then turned to face Marrow, panting. “I hope that’s the last hazard of the trail!”

  “Interesting,” he remarked. “Your wings did extend your distance significantly.”

  “Most interesting,” she agreed wryly. It seemed that skeletons were not much for emotion, other than the generation of terror in bad dreams.

  She ate some fruit from her pack, then donned her knapsack and bow and quiver. “It can’t be far now,” she said.

  “It is not,” Marrow agreed. “They are just beyond the next crest.”

  “How do you know that?”

  “I can feel the quiver of the ground as they land.” Skeletons were evidently very sensitive to quivers of the ground! “Good enough! I’ll go make my pitch.”

  “Pitch? You plan to fashion another ramp?”

  “Ramp? Not unless there’s another jump!”

  “Pitch is the inclination of a declivity.”

  “It is also the inclination of a presentation.”

  “Amazing.”

  They crested this portion of the mountain. The lofty plateau opened out, and there were the winged monsters.

  They were of all types: griffins, dragons, rocs, sphinxes and assorted less common creatures, such as the hippogryph.

  Xap stepped forward. He squawked.

  “I understand,” Chex said. “I had to make it on my own, or they would not listen to me. Will they listen now?”

  He squawked affirmatively.

  “O winged monsters,” Chex said. “I come on behalf of the voles of the Vale. The demons have straightened the Kiss-Mee River and turned it ugly and mean, and prevent the voles from restoring it to its natural meandering. Will you help hold off the demons so that the river can be restored?”

  There was a babble of squawks and hisses and growls. Then Xap squawked.

  “They will decide tomorrow,” Chex repeated.

  Xap squawked again.

  “I must meet Cheiron?” she asked. “You mentioned him before. Sire, you know I have trouble with centaurs! My granddam refuses even to talk to me, and the centaurs of the Isle would not let me address them.”

  The hippogryph shrugged and dropped the subject. He helped her forage for her supper and showed her to a suitable place to spend the night. Marrow, who needed no sleep, spent the night walking around and making the acquaintance of the various monsters. “A number of these would do well in bad dreams,” he remarked, impressed.

  In the morning Xap explained the mechanism of the decision. Because language was a problem with many of the monsters, and so was logic, they would abide by a presentation made by champions. She would represent the cause of the voles, and Cheiron would represent the cause of the winged monsters. The cause that was most persuasive would win.

  Chex realized that she, in her fatigue of the prior day, had blundered. She had rejected an introduction to the centaur, and now Cheiron was angry, and she had to oppose him formally. She was confident that she could have made her case successfully against one of the birdbrained monsters, but a centaur was a different matter. Now she had to go up against an intellect comparable to her own.

  Well, what was done was done. Perhaps Cheiron would appreciate the plight of the voles despite his private affront. She would just have to do the best presentation she could.

  But when she stepped out to meet Cheiron, there was only a great wash of darkness hovering over the plain. It was as though a storm cloud had moved in. “What is this?” she asked, perplexed.

  Xap squawked.

  “Light and darkness?” she repeated. “I am the light, he the dark? How can I make my presentation?”

  Xap squawked again.

  “With my mind?” Yes, that was it. She had assumed that the presentation would be verbal and logical; now she realized that it was not merely a matter of having champions to make the presentations; the presentations themselves had to be in a form intelligible to the less sophisticated monsters. Thus light and darkness; flying creatures were good at determining shades.

  The winged monsters were positioned in a circle covering the plateau. All of them faced in toward the center. They were as still as statues, waiting.

  She thought of the Vale of the Vole as Volney had described it, in its original state: verdant, peaceful, pleasant, the Kiss-Mee River caressing it with its meanders. Of how any creatures that drank from it became suffused with good will and affection, though not compelled into embarrassing or awkward romantic relationships as happened with love springs. Light flared around her, diminishing the darkness above, and at the interface between the two the contrasts formed a picture that showed her vision.

  Then she thought of the way the demons had come, channelizing the river, replacing its soft curves with hard, straight lines. The picture shifted to show the meanness of the present Vale, where vegetation was dying and creatures shunned each other, and the motto was Kick Mee or even Kill Mee.

  Finally she made her plea. The images of flying monsters manifested in the picture, swooping down on the shapes of the demons, harrying them, driving them out of the Vale. Vole shapes appeared, tunneling through the dikes and walls, letting the captive water out, so that the Kiss-Mee could return to its natural state and nourish the Vale of the Vole again.

  Now Cheiron’s countercase developed. The flying monsters descended on the demons, but the demons fought back, dematerializing and re-forming behind the monsters, throwing rocks at them, stabbing them, pulling the feathers from their wings. Soon the poor monsters were in a big pile on the ground, wounded and dying, while the voles remained unable to do their work on the dikes. Then the demons piled brush on the pile of injured creatures and set fire to it.

  When Chex had made her presentation, the light about her had expanded, until the whole plateau was illuminated, and the darkness above had diminished. When Cheiron made his response, the darkness grew, reaching down, squeezing out the light. Even the fire in the picture blazed dar
kly, with the smoke roiling up like a bad dream of the gourd and merging with the darkness. The light remained strong only around Chex herself; she had lost ground.

  She tried again. She thought of the way Esk was going to see the ogres, who were his ancestors just as the winged monsters were hers, to ask for the help that his human kind refused to extend. She thought of Volney Vole, tunneling down to visit the most dreaded of his kin, the wiggles, on a similar mission. If either of these agreed to help, then the winged monsters would not be alone, and might after all be able to prevail against the formidable demons.

  As she thought, her light brightened and pushed back the darkness, farther than before, and the images in the picture glowed. The marching ogres seemed almost noble, and the demons looked affrighted as the forces of both ground and air advanced. Victory was possible!

  Cheiron’s return sally came. The darkness swelled against the bright picture, and the picture grew smaller, as if retreating, until it was tiny and far away. What did the winged monsters care what the land-bound monsters did? The demons were no threat to the creatures of the air!

  Chex did not wait for that case to be complete. She surged back with an impromptu thesis of emotion. The winged monsters did care, they had to care, for what harmed one part of Xanth harmed all parts, and what harmed the monsters of the land also harmed those of the air. Human beings might be callous about the problems of a nonhuman region, and centaurs might be indifferent to noncentaur matters, but surely the winged monsters wanted to have a better rapport with other creatures than this!

  As she projected those thoughts, the light rallied and pushed back the darkness. But the darkness forged back. There was no point in having the winged monsters be as foolish as the ground-home monsters; all of them could perish on this foolish quest.

  But Chex would not abide that. Even if the quest were hopeless, still it was a worthy one. The deed should be done because it was worth doing, without regard to possible failure. Other creatures might mask their cowardice with expressions of indifference, but this should not be the way of the boldest of all creatures, the winged monsters! Better to die in such an honorable quest, than to live in the dishonor of noninvolvement, the way the humans and centaurs were. Human folk did not seem to care about the plight of volish folk, but other animals should.

 
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