20

The man was waiting for them when they reached the top of the ridge that rose above the cuplike amphitheater, where they had found the aftermath of battle. It was quite apparent that he had been waiting for them. He was sitting comfortably at the foot of a great oak tree, leaning back against the trunk, and watching them with interest as they came clopping up the wagon road. Just beyond the tree stood a curious contraption. It was colored red and white, and it stood on two wheels, as if balancing itself without any particular difficulty. The wheels were very strange, for the rims of them were made of neither wood nor iron, but of some black substance, and they were not flat, as any proper rim should be, but somehow rounded. There were far too many spokes in the wheels and the spokes were not made of wood, but of many rounded, tiny strips of what seemed to be gleaming metal, and anyone in his right mind would have known that spokes so slender and so fragile would have no strength at all.

As they neared him, the man stood up and dusted off his seat, brushing away the leaves and dirt his breeches had picked up from sitting on the ground. The breeches were white and tight-fitting, and he wore a shirt of some red material and over that a vest that was also white. His boots were neatly made.

“So you made it,” he said. “I wasn’t sure you would.”

Cornwall made a motion backward with his head. “You mean down there?”

“Exactly,” said the man. “The country’s all stirred up. It was just two days ago. You must enjoy running your head into a noose.”

“We knew nothing of it,” said Cornwall. “We came up from the tower. The men down there took a different route.”

“Well,” said the man, “you got through safely, and this is the thing that counts. I had been pulling for you.”

“You knew that we were coming?”

“I had word of you yesterday. A motley band they told me. And I see that they were right.”

“They?”

“Oh, assorted little friends I have. Skippers-through-the-thickets. Runners-in-the-grass. All eyes and ears. There is not much they miss. I know about the horn and about the head that came rolling to the campfire, and I have been waiting most impatiently to greet you.”

“You know, then, who we are?”

“Only your names. And I beg your pardon. I am Alexander Jones. I have a place prepared for you.”

Mary said, “Master Jones, I do not like the sound of that. We are entirely capable—”

“I am sorry, Mistress Mary, if I have offended you. All I meant to offer was hospitality. Shelter from the coming night, a good fire, hot food, a place to sleep.”

“All of which,” said Oliver, “so far as I am concerned, would be most welcome. Perhaps a measure of wine or a mug of beer as well. The stench back there is still clogging up my throat. Something is needed to wash it all away.”

“Beer, or course,” said Jones. “A full barrel of it is laid in against your coming. Do you agree, Sir Mark?”

“Yes,” said Cornwall, “I do agree. I see no harm in it and perhaps some good. But do not call me sir; I am no more than a scholar.”

“Then,” said Jones, “pray, hold your horses well. For this mount of mine is a noisy beast.”

He strode toward the contraption standing on two wheels. He threw one leg over it and settled on what became apparent was the contraption’s seat. He reached out and grasped the two handlelike projections extending above and backward of the forward wheel.

“Hold a moment, there,” said Gib. “There is one thing you have not told us. With all the dead men lying down there, how come you are still alive? You are human, are you not?”

“I like to think I am,” said Jones, “and the answer to your question is an extremely simple one. Folk hereabouts believe I am a wizard, which, of course, I’m not.”

He balanced on one foot and kicked with the other. The two-wheeled contraption came alive with an angry roar, breathing out a cloud of smoke. The horses reared in fright. Oliver, who was riding behind Sniveley, fell off and scrambled rapidly on all fours to get out of the way of the lashing hooves.

The two-wheeled monster quit its roaring, settled into a rumbling, throaty purr.

“I am sorry,” Jones shouted to Oliver. “I warned you to watch yourselves.”

“It’s a dragon,” said Sniveley. “A two-wheeled dragon, although I did not know that dragons came with wheels. What else but a dragon would make that sort of roar and breathe out fire and brimstone?” He reached down a hand to Oliver and helped him scramble up.

Jones urged the dragon into motion, heading down the road.

“I guess,” said Hal, “all we can do is follow him. Hot food, he said. I could do with some.”

“I do not like it,” Sniveley complained. “I like it not one bit. I am not one to mess around with dragons, even if they be domesticated ones, broken to the saddle.”

The dragon speeded up, and they had to force their horses into a rapid trot to keep up with it. The road was not as deeply rutted as it had been coming up the gorge. Now it followed a plateau, running straight between stands of pine and birch, with only an occasional oak tree rearing up above the lesser forest. Then the road dipped down, not sharply, but rather gradually, into a pleasant valley, and there on the valley floor they saw the collection of three tents, all of them gaily striped and with pennons flying from their tops.

The dragon pulled up before the largest tent, and Jones dismounted. To one side was a table made of rough boards and beyond it cooking fires, with spits set above the fires and a huge beer barrel mounted on a pair of sawhorses, with a spigot already driven in the bung. Tending the fires and spits was a ragamuffin crew of brownies, trolls, and goblins, who were going about their work with a tremendous clanging of pans. Some of them dropped their work and ran to take charge of the horses.

“Come,” said Jones, “let us sit and talk. I know there must be a deal to talk about.”

A half-dozen of the trolls were busy at the beer barrel, filling great mugs from the spigot and bearing them to the table.

“Now, this is fine,” said Jones. “We can have a drink or two before the food is ready. For, of course, it is never ready when it is supposed to be. These little friends of mine are willing workers, but most disorganized. Take whatever seat you wish and let’s begin our talk.”

Oliver scurried to the table and grabbed a mug of beer, dipping his muzzle into it and drinking heartily. Desisting, he wiped the foam from his whiskers. “This is proper brew,” he said. “Not like the swill they serve in Wyalusing inns.”

“Sniveley calls your mount a dragon,” Hal said to Jones, “and while it breathes fire and smoke and bellows most convincingly, I know it is no dragon. I have never seen a dragon, but I’ve heard stories of them, and the descriptions in the stories are nothing like this creature that you ride. It has no head or wings and a dragon has both head and wings and, I believe, a tail as well.”

“You are quite right,” said Jones, delighted. “It is not a dragon, although many others than Sniveley have guessed it to be one. It is not a creature at all, but a machine, and it is called a trail bike.”

“A trail bike,” said Gib. “I’ve never heard of one.”

“Of course you’ve not heard of one,” said Jones. “This is the only one in this entire world.”

“You say it is a machine,” said Cornwall, “and we have machines, of course, but nothing like this. There are machines of war, the siege machines that are used to hurl great stones or flights of arrows or flaming material against a beleaguered city.”

“Or a mill wheel,” said Gib. “A mill wheel would be a machine.”

“I suppose it is,” said Hal.

“But a mill wheel runs by the force of flowing water,” Mary said, “and the engines of war by the winding up of ropes. Can you tell us how this machine of yours runs?”

“Not too well,” said Jones. “I could not explain it all to you. I could tell you some things, but they would make no sense.”

“You don’t know, then, how it runs,” said Cornwall.

“No, I really don’t.”

“It must be magic, then.”

“I can assure you that it is not magic. There is no magic in my world. You have to come to this world to find magic.”

“But that is ridiculous,” said Mary. “There has to be magic. Magic is a part of life.”

“In my world,” said Jones, “magic has been swept away. Men talk of magic, certainly, but they talk of something that is gone. At one time there may have been magic, but it has disappeared.”

“And you have to come to this world to find the magic you have lost?”

“That is exactly it,” said Jones. “I’ve come to study it.”

“It is strange,” said Cornwall. “It is passing strange, all these things you say. You must have some magic in you, even if you do deny it. For here you have all these little people working willingly for you, or at least they appear to be quite willing. Tending the fires and food, carrying the beer, taking care of the horses. They have been following us, but they have not come out to help us. They only hide and watch.”

“Give them time,” said Jones. “That was the way it was with me when I first arrived. They simply hid and watched, and I went about my business, paying no attention to them. After a time they began coming out to sit and talk with me. From certain things I did and certain things I had, they thought I was a wizard and, therefore, someone who was worthy of them.”

“You have advantage of us there,” said Cornwall. “There is no wizardry about us.”

“I hear otherwise,” said Jones. “These little ones of mine tell me otherwise. They heard it from your little ones and came scampering to tell me all about it. There is one of you who can pull the horn of a unicorn from the oak, and there is another who carries a very magic sword, and still another who carries a very special kind of stone.”

“How did they know about the stone?” demanded Gib. “The stone is securely wrapped and carried secretly. We’ve not even talked about it.”

“Oh, they know, all right,” said Jones. “Don’t ask me how they know, but it seems they do. Check me if I’m wrong—the stone is one made by the Old Ones very long ago and now will be returned to them.”

Cornwall leaned forward eagerly. “What do you know about the Old Ones? Can you tell me where they might be found?”

“Only what I have been told. You go to the Witch House and then across the Blasted Plain. You skirt the castle of the Chaos Beast and then you come to the Misty Mountains and there, if you are lucky, you may find the Old Ones. I’m told there are not many of them left, for they are a dying people, and they hide most fearfully, although if you come upon them suddenly, you well may be hard put to defend yourself.”

“The Witch House,” said Mary anxiously. “You speak about the Witch House. Is it an old, old house? One that appears as if it may be falling down upon itself? Standing on a little knoll above a stream, with an old stone bridge across the stream? An old two-story house, with many, many chimneys and a gallery running all the way across the front?”

“You describe it exactly. Almost as if you might have seen it.”

“I have,” said Mary. “It is the house where I lived when I was a little girl. There was a troll named Bromeley who lived underneath the bridge. And there was a brownie, Fiddlefingers…”

“Bromeley was the one who popped out to see you last night,” said Hal.

“Yes, he came to see me. While the others all stayed safely hidden, he came out to greet me. He remembered. If it hadn’t been for someone throwing in that horrid head…”

“I worried what might have happened,” said Jones, “when you reached the battlefield. I was a coward and waited. I should have come out to meet you, but I was afraid that my coming might trigger some reaction, that I might do something that I shouldn’t. I started to come down to meet you, then I came back…»

“But there was nothing to harm us,” Cornwall said. “It was horrible, of course, but there was no danger. The only ones nearby was this gang of trolls and goblins and other little people…»

“My friend,” said Jones, “I am glad you thought so. The belief there were only trolls and goblins may have helped you through it. With no wish to frighten you, I must tell you there were others there.”

“What others?” asked Sniveley sharply.

“Hellhounds,” said Jones. “A slavering pack of Hellhounds. As well as the little people, they’ve been with you ever since you crossed the ford.”

“Hellhounds?” asked Cornwall. “There were other than human bodies on the battlefield. The ones with tails and fangs.”

“You are right,” said Jones.

“I knew of them,” said Sniveley quietly. “They are a part of our tradition. But I have never seen one, never knew anyone who had.” He explained to Cornwall. “They are the enforcers. The executioners. The professional killers.”

“But so far,” said Cornwall, “they have let us pass.”

“They will let you pass,” said Jones, “if you continue as you have. They’ve not made up their minds about you. Make one wrong move and they’ll be down on you.”

“And what about yourself?” asked Cornwall. “Are they watching you as well?”

“Perhaps,” said Jones. “They did at first, of course, and they may still be watching. But, you see, I’ve built up a marginal reputation as a wizard and, aside from that, they may consider me insane.”

“And that would be protection?”

“I have some hope it might be. I’ve done nothing to disabuse the thought, if indeed they have it.”

“There’s someone coming up the road,” said Sniveley.

They all turned to look.

“It’s the Gossiper,” said Jones. “He’s a goddamn pest. He can scent food from seven miles away and a drink of beer from twice that distance.”

The Gossiper came stumping up the road. He was a tall, lean figure, wearing a dirty robe that trailed in the dust behind him. On his shoulder perched a raven, and from a strap slung across one shoulder dangled an oblong package that was encased in sheepskin. He carried a long staff in his left hand and thumped it energetically on the road with every step he took. He was followed by a little white dog with a limp. The dog was all white except for black spots encircling each eye, which made it appear he was wearing spectacles.

The Gossiper came up close beside the table and stopped in front of Cornwall, who swung around to face him. Now that the man was close enough, it could be seen that his robe was very worn and ragged, with gaping rents, through which one could see his hide. Some of the more pronounced rents had been patched, somewhat inexpertly, with cloth of many different colors, but sun and dirt had so reduced the colors that they blended in with the mud color of the robe. The raven was molting, and a couple of loosened feathers hung ragged from its tail; overall the bird looked moth-eaten. The little dog sat down and, with his good hindleg, fell to scratching fleas.

If the Gossiper was human, he was barely human. His ears rose to a point, and his eyes were strangely slanted. His nose was squashed across his face, and his teeth had the look of fangs. His grizzled hair, uncombed, was a writhing rat’s nest. The hand that grasped the staff had long, uneven, dirty fingernails.

He said to Cornwall, “You be the scholar, Mark Cornwall? Lately of Wyalusing?”

“That is who I am,” said Cornwall.

“You are the leader of this band of pilgrims?”

“Not the leader. We are all together.”

“However that may be,” said the Gossiper, “I have words of wisdom for you. Perhaps a friendly warning. Go no farther than the Witch House. That is as far as pilgrims are allowed to go.”

“Beckett wasn’t allowed to go even that far.”

“Beckett was no pilgrim.”

“And you are sure we are?”

“It’s not what I think, Sir Scholar. It is what they think. I only speak their words.”

“And who the hell are they?”

“Why, fair sir, must you pretend to so much innocence? If you do not know, there are others of your party who are not so ignorant?”

“You are thinking about Oliver and me,” said Sniveley. “I would advise you to be careful of your words. I, as a gnome, and Oliver, as a goblin, here stand on home ground. We can go anywhere we please.”

“I am not so sure,” said the Gossiper, “you can claim that right. You forsook the Brotherhood.”

“You still have not answered me,” said Cornwall. “Tell me of the ‘they’ you talk about.”

“You have heard of the Hellhounds?”

“I know of them,” said Cornwall.

“The Chaos Beast, perhaps. And He Who Broods Upon the Mountain.”

“I have heard of them. In old travelers’ tales. No more than bare mention of them.”

“Then you should pray,” said the Gossiper, “that your acquaintanceship becomes no closer.”

Cornwall swiveled around to look at Jones. Jones nodded tightly. “He told me the same thing. But, as you know, I am a coward. I did not go beyond the Witch House.”

He said to the Gossiper, “How about a beer?”

“I do believe I will,” said the Gossiper. “And a slice of meat when it should be done. I have traveled far, and I hunger and I thirst most excessively.”

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