Vale of the vole, p.9
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       Vale of the Vole, p.9

           Piers Anthony
 

  A tiny man-shape stood at the drawbridge. “A horse rear with wings!” the figure exclaimed. “Wait till the caretakers see that!”

  “Go tell them, Grundy!” Ivy cried happily. She was not aware of the gravity of the situation.

  The golem ran swiftly into the castle. In a moment a pair of older centaurs appeared, male and female. They spied Chex together.

  “Great!” the male exclaimed.

  “Appalling!” the female breathed.

  “Sire, Dam, this is my issue,” Chem said, gesturing to Chex, who stood as if expecting to be struck.

  “And she can almost fly!” Ivy said.

  Chex’s granddam said no further word. She turned and went back into the castle.

  Her grandsire hesitated. “This may take a little time,” he said, then hurried after his mate.

  The three centaurs turned with similar looks of pain and walked away from the castle.

  Ivy looked at Esk. “Does this make any sense to you?”

  “Not any I like,” he replied.

  “I thought Cherie would be glad to meet her granddaughter!”

  “I gather that centaurs don’t approve of crossbreeding.”

  “Oh, pooh! Everybody crossbreeds in Xanth!”

  Esk shrugged. “I fear Cherie Centaur doesn’t see it that way.”

  “She doesn’t like magic much, for centaurs,” Ivy said thoughtfully. “Chester’s better about that; he’s got a talent, and so does Chet.”

  Chet found a place for Chem and Chex to stay the night, and Esk and Volney joined them. None of the three said anything about what had happened, but the pall of gloom was almost tangible. Esk realized that they had really hoped that Cherie would accept the situation. But centaurs, as Esk was coming to understand, were the most stubborn of creatures.

  The next day King Dor and Queen Irene arrived back, and in the afternoon they had an audience with the three travelers. It was evident that they had no prejudice against crossbreeds; indeed, they openly admired Chex’s wings. Ivy was there, now dressed in robes like the little princess she was, and so was her little six-year-old brother, Prince Dolph.

  They listened gravely to Esk’s report of the Magician’s mysterious absence. Then they listened to Volney’s story of the Vale of the Vole. It was apparent that they had already learned something of both these matters, and had come to a decision before holding the audience.

  “Ordinarily, we would do our best to help the voles,” King Dor said. “But this matter, coming as it does at the time of the crisis with the Good Magician, must wait. Our first priority is to locate Magician Humfrey.”

  “Oh, Daddy!” Ivy exclaimed indignantly. “Aren’t you going to help them just a little?”

  “Not at this time, Ivy. When we recover the Good Magician, then he should be able to help the voles, as Volney has come to ask him to do.”

  “But the bad demons are hurting that friendly river right now!” Ivy protested. “At least let me go with them!”

  “No,” King Dor said.

  “But Daddy!”

  Queen Irene turned to her daughter. “No,” she repeated, and the tone seemed mild, but the girl shrank back as if severely rebuked.

  That was it. There was to be no help of any kind from Castle Roogna. Esk couldn’t help but wonder whether Cherie Centaur had anything to do with this cruel decision.

  They filed out. Now Volney was as dejected as Chex. What could they do? All their missions were balked until the Good Magician was found.

  As they departed the castle, Ivy dashed after them. “But maybe someone else will help!” she cried. “The other centaurs, or maybe the ogres, or someone! Maybe you could ask them! Maybe you three could do something yourselves!”

  Esk brightened. His own mission to the Good Magician seemed relatively minor, now; surely he had been rationalizing when he thought that the demoness would harm his family. All she wanted was to be left alone in his hideout. He had made this trip for himself, really, to try to make himself important, or at least worthwhile, in some way. “I am related to the ogres and the curse fiends and the nymphs and fauns,” he said. “I don’t think my own problem is nearly as important as the voles’ problem. I could ask those other folk, and maybe they would help get rid of the demons in the Vale of the Vole.”

  “I am related to the centaurs and to the flying monsters,” Chex said, brightening similarly. “I want to learn to fly, but until the Good Magician is found, I might as well do something to help others. I think the voles need more help than I do, and I could ask those folk. Certainly I don’t have much to keep me here.”

  “And I am related to the creaturev of the greater family of volev,” Volney said. “The digglev, the vquigglev—I could avk, and maybe they would help. Vertainly it iv pointlevv for me to wait for the Good Magivion while my folk vuffer.”

  “Let’s do it!” Esk said. “Let’s all go and ask our distant relatives, and see what help we can get! Maybe we don’t need the Good Magician or Castle Roogna!”

  “That’s the way,” Ivy said brightly.

  Somehow, in her presence, it all made sense. They would solve the problem of the Kiss-Mee River themselves!

  Chapter 6. Centaur

  Chex trotted south along the trail that her dam’s map had shown. She expected to reach Centaur Isle in two days, and to spend one day there, and return in two. That should be plenty of time to complete the rendezvous with Esk and Volney, who were questing in other directions. They had agreed to meet in seven days, hoping that at least one of them had obtained help for the Vale of the Vole and the distressed Kiss-Mee River. A two-day margin for error seemed sufficient; centaurs were efficient creatures who seldom if ever made errors, in contrast to the bumbling human beings.

  The trail wended parallel to the west coast of Xanth. It was neither well marked nor well maintained, but the protective enchantment was on it, so there should be no trouble with predators. Also, there was Ivy.

  “Gee, this is fun!” Ivy exclaimed. She was on Chex’s back, and everything was fun to her. Ivy’s magic was Enhancement, and it was of Magician caliber. Since she perceived Chex as a wonderful creature who could almost fly, Chex was now moving at a trot that exceeded in velocity her normal full gallop. The child’s magic buoyed her phenomenally; it was indeed like flying, because her strength was so great and her feet so light. Also, the girl was good company; she made no unreasonable demands, and was an excellent rider. Chex’s granddam Cherie had been tutoring her in more than academic subjects, obviously.

  The thought of Cherie Centaur sobered Chex, however. By all accounts Cherie was a fine centaur, but she was conservative. She had tutored King Dor and Queen Irene, and now was tutoring the next generation, but certain matters were beyond her acceptance, such as magic in centaurs. And crossbreeding. Chester Centaur, in contrast, had the reputation of a roughneck, always ready to fight rather than reason; but he was quite tolerant about magic and crossbreeding. Uncle Chet had said this was because of Chester’s uncle, Herman the Hermit, who had had the magic ability to commune with will-o’-the-wisps and had died bravely in the defense of Xanth from the wiggles. Also, Chester was unable to perceive evil in anything his offspring might do. But though Chester had the muscle, Cherie had the will, and that will was manifesting now. Chex was subtly not welcome in the region of Castle Roogna.

  But little Ivy was another matter, and a power in her own right. When they had made their decision to get other help for the voles, Ivy had insisted on participating. She could help persuade the centaurs of the Isle to help, she said. Besides which, she needed more education, and visiting Centaur Isle was part of it. Even Cherie had not been able to deny that logic, so Ivy had her way: she was coming along, just for this one trip.

  “But you seem awful quiet,” Ivy said after a bit. “Is something wrong?”

  “Not with you, dear,” Chex reassured her. “I was just thinking.”

  “About Cherie,” Ivy said wisely.

  “True.”

  “
Chester’s working on her, but you know how centaurs are. Nothing’s more stubborn, when—oops. No offense meant!”

  “None taken,” Chex said. “We prefer to call it steadfastness.”

  “Maybe if you do something great, like saving the Kiss-Mee, then she’ll change her mind. Say, is it true that just drinking from that river is like getting smooched?” The child had broached this matter before, but evidently remained intrigued by it.

  “That vernacular is—”

  “Nonstandard usage,” Ivy finished. “You centaurs are too stuffy!”

  “But it is supposed to be true that the river, historically, has been very affectionate. However, it seems that it has suffered a radical personality change recently. That is why we wish to restore it to its natural state.”

  “Yeah. So now it’s the Kill-Mee. That’s funny!”

  Then, exactly in time with Chex’s correction: “Yes!”

  Then Ivy laughed, and Chex had to laugh with her.

  They were well along, making even better time than Chex had projected, thanks to the enhancement. Would her hooves never tire? Apparently not, while she was carrying the little Sorceress!

  “What’s that stink?” Ivy asked. Then, as Chex opened her mouth: “Smell!” How the child loved to tease!

  Chex sniffed the air. “Decay,” she said. “Some small animal must have died recently. We will pass by this soon.”

  But as they proceeded south, the odor intensified. “Ooo, ugh!” Ivy said, holding her pert nose. “That must be a big animal!”

  “So it seems,” Chex agreed. “All living creatures eventually die.”

  “Not the Good Magician,” Ivy said.

  “Well, he is missing, and we cannot rule out the possibility that—”

  “Oh, pooh! He just went somewhere, so’s not to be bothered.”

  Chex wished they could be sure of that. She did not argue the case.

  The smell intensified into truly awful scope. “A monster!” Ivy gasped.

  It was all Chex could do to keep from gagging herself. She had never before encountered miasma like this! “A monster,” she agreed. “We’ve got to get by it soon!”

  But they did not. The stench became almost palpable. Ivy was coughing now. “What a stink!” she cried. “I can’t even see!”

  Chex drew to a halt, too distracted to protest the naughty word this time. She was having trouble with her own vision. They seemed to be swimming in the putrid vapor. “We’ll have to go around it,” she said.

  “Castle Zombie!” Ivy exclaimed. “It’s near here!”

  “That’s the odor? Zombies?”

  “No, they smell, but not like this. I mean we could go there, and they’ll tell us how to get around, ’cause they know about death and all that rot.”

  Chex decided not to try to correct that usage either. Zombies were creatures of death and rot. She was not enthusiastic about visiting such a castle, but it was obvious that something had to be done. Chem’s map had shown the castle; the girl was correct about its proximity.

  She turned back and trotted toward an intersection she had noted some way back. This alternate path would lead them to Castle Zombie. As they proceeded along it, the awful odor diminished. That was a relief! She felt as if there were foul sludge coating her lungs.

  Ivy was right: there was a smell about Castle Zombie, but it was quite bearable after what they had experienced. Perhaps the zombies conserved their rotting flesh better, not allowing much of it to escape as gas. There were a number of them working on the grounds, evidently tending the putrid vegetation.

  The castle itself looked as if it were decomposing, but Chex knew this was mostly illusion; it was of comparatively recent construction. Its moat was filled with slime, and a zombie water monster stewed in it. “Hi, Sleaze!” Ivy called out cheerfully, and the moat monster actually nodded. Everybody liked Ivy!

  The lady of the castle came out to greet them. She showed no sign at all of zombie-ism. “Hi, Millie!” Ivy called, exactly as before.

  “Hello, Ivy,” the woman replied. “Who is your friend?”

  “This is Chex. Chem’s her moth—her dam. She’s got wings!”

  “I had noticed.” The woman smiled at Chex. “You are welcome here, Chex, if you care to come in.”

  Chex was in doubt about what the interior of the castle might be like, but Ivy was not. “We care!” she cried, clapping her hands.

  Millie smiled again. “You are so like your mother at that age—and so unlike, too.”

  “I know,” Ivy said. “She was more serious. And more—her—” She made a gesture with her hands to indicate voluptuousness.

  “Be young while you can, dear,” Millie said.

  “But when will I get all plushy and be able to fascinate men the way you do?” the girl asked plaintively.

  “By the time you find the one you want to fascinate, you will be able,” Millie assured her.

  “And what about me?” Chex asked with a quirk of a smile. “I am one of a kind.”

  “So is Rapunzel,” Millie replied, “but she’s married now.”

  “To Grundy Golem,” Ivy said. “Which reminds me, when is Snortimer coming back?”

  This jump was too much for Chex. “Who is Snortimer, and what does he have to do with unique creatures finding mates?”

  “He’s my Monster Under the Bed,” Ivy explained. “Grundy borrowed him, and never returned him, and now it’s awful quiet under my bed.” Then, after the briefest of pauses. “Awfully quiet.”

  “Oh.” Chex was more confused than before.

  “There’s a zombie monster under Lacuna’s bed,” Millie said. “I think he’s lonely, now that she’s grown up.”

  “Oh, goody! I’ll go play with him!” Ivy dashed off.

  Millie turned to Chex. “I presume this is not purely a pleasure visit?”

  “It’s a coincidental visit,” Chex confessed. “We were going to Centaur Isle to seek help for the voles, who have a serious problem, but there’s such a horrendous smell on the path that—”

  “Oops! That must be the sphinx! Jonathan said it looked ill.”

  “Jonathan?”

  “My husband, the Zombie Master. Sphinxes live a very long time, but on occasion they do die.”

  “That would account for it,” Chex said. “Can anything be done?”

  “Oh, yes, of course. Jonathan wants to find that sphinx and make a zombie of it before it’s too far gone. Now that we know where to look, he’ll go with a contingent of zombies and convert it. The process will take a few days, because a sphinx is a very large creature, but I know he will be grateful to you for the information.”

  “But I have a limited time to reach Centaur Isle and return,” Chex said. “I can’t wait a few days. Ivy thought you might know a way around.”

  “There is a way, but it is difficult. You would need a guide.”

  “I would be happy to have a guide, if one is available.”

  “A zombie guide.”

  Chex paused. She had not had prior experience with zombies, and was not enthusiastic. “I would have to carry a zombie?”

  “Oh, no, of course not! We can give you a centaur.”

  “A zombie centaur?” This did not appeal either.

  “Ordinary folk do have some difficulty accepting zombies as legitimate creatures in their own right,” Millie said.

  Chex remembered the difficulty some folk had accepting crossbreeds, too. “A zombie guide will be fine,” she said, making an abrupt decision.

  “Very well. I’ll ask Horace.” Then Millie raised her voice. “Ivy! You must be on your way now!”

  “Aww!” Ivy called back. “Zomonster’s fun!”

  Millie winked at Chex. “Unless you would like to stay and have a meal with the zombies, dear.”

  Suddenly Ivy was running downstairs. “I’m ready to go, now, thanks all the same, Millie.”

  “But we have such really rotten food!” Millie protested, smiling. “The very best mold, and even a f
ew dead maggots. Are you sure—?”

  “Quite sure, thank you,” Ivy said with urgent politeness.

  “Perhaps another time, then,” Millie said with seeming regret. She had evidently had prior experience with children. She led the way out.

  Horace turned out to be a not-too-far gone centaur. His body was patched where hair had fallen out, and his face was somewhat worm-eaten, but otherwise he was all right.

  “Please show Chex the alternate route to Centaur Isle,” Millie said to him. “And wait for her return. Do you understand?”

  “Yesh, Millie Ghosht,” Horace said, speaking as well as he could with a rotten lip and tongue.

  Chex helped Ivy mount. “Thank you, Millie; I really appreciate this.”

  “Anything in a good cause,” Millie said. “It was nice to meet you, Chex.”

  Then Horace was moving off, and Chex had to hurry to catch up with him. “Bye, Millie!” Ivy called, waving frantically. “Bye, zombies!” Millie and several zombies waved back.

  “Millie certainly didn’t look like a zombie,” Chex remarked.

  “Oh, no, she’s a ghost!” Ivy said.

  “A ghost!” Chex exclaimed. But then she remembered what Horace had called her: ghosht.

  “Well, she isn’t really a ghost anymore,” Ivy explained.

  “But she was one for eight hundred years, so we still call her Millie the Ghost.”

  “Eight hundred years!”

  “Yes, and then she won a prize or something and was made alive again, and she took care of Daddy when he was little, and then she married the Zombie Master and lived happily ever after. She’s real nice.” Ivy paused.

  Then: “Really nice!” in time with Chex’s correction. And a laugh.

  Horace turned his head. “Watsch niche?”

  “Millie the Ghosht,” Ivy replied promptly, stifling a giggle.

  “Yesh,” the zombie agreed.

  “They aren’t too bright,” Ivy confided. “But they really are nice, when you get to know them. They defend Castle Roogna, you know.”

  Chex had known, because of the zombie graveyard there. Nevertheless, she was picking up a lot of interesting material from this child.

 
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