VII

Back on the eastern side of the Venien River, in territory Adiatunnus controlled, the weather was cool and rainy. No one there seemed willing to believe the tales the returning warriors told of what they had endured trying to penetrate to the heart of the Gradi power.

“Only thing I can think of,” Gerin said, standing close to the fire roaring in the hearth at Adiatunnus’ great hall, “is that Voldar and the rest don’t hold full sway this far east. Not yet, anyhow.”

Adiatunnus’ long face grew even more dolorous than it had been of late when he heard the Fox name the Gradi goddess. Gerin didn’t care. Defiance burned like fever in him. Maybe it was making him delirious, as fever sometimes did. He didn’t care about that, either. He wanted to hit back at the Gradi any way he could, and at their deities, too.

“How will you keep ’em from stretching their sway, though?” Adiatunnus demanded. He too stood close by the fire, as if he couldn’t get warm enough. The Fox understood that, for he felt the same way. “You’re nobbut a man, lord prince, and a man who fights a god-or even a goddess-he loses afore he begins.”

“Of course he does,” Gerin answered, “if he’s stupid enough to make the fight straight on. Gods are stronger than men, and they see farther than men, too. That doesn’t mean they’re smarter than men, though.”

“And how smart d’you need to be to step on a cockroach, now?” Adiatunnus returned. “That’s what you are to the gods, Fox: lord Gerin the Bug, prince of cockroaches.”

“No doubt,” Gerin said, annoying Adiatunnus by refusing to be annoyed himself. “But if I can get other gods angry at the ones the Gradi follow, and if I can steer them in the right direction-” Listening to himself, he could gauge how desperate he was. Playing with vipers-even the ones Van had described-was a safer business than getting involved with the gods. But if he didn’t get divine aid of his own, the Gradi and their grim deities would swallow up the whole of the northlands. He felt it in his bones.

“And which gods will you summon, now?” Adiatunnus sounded both anxious and worried. “Our own, now, they willna face the ones the Gradi follow. So we’ve seen, to our sorrow. Is it any different with your Elabonian powers?”

“I don’t know,” Gerin said. That wasn’t all he didn’t know: he was wondering if he could make Father Dyaus pay any real attention to the affairs of the material world at all. The head of the Elabonian pantheon had swallowed up the savor of any number of fat-wrapped thighbones over the years; could he now give value for value? Gerin had taken his power for granted till he saw how Voldar supported the Gradi. Ever since, and especially since the storm, he’d wondered… and worried.

” `I don’t know’ isn’t much to rest the hopes o’ the land on,” Adiatunnus said.

“If I thought you were wrong, I would say so,” Gerin answered. “As a matter of fact, I don’t intend to summon an Elabonian god to deal with the goddess and the gods the Gradi follow. There’s a foreign god with whom I’ve dealt before…”

He stopped. Adiatunnus noticed him stopping. “Tell me more,” the Trokm- urged. “What foreign spirit is it, now? What powers has he got?”

“Mavrix is the Sithonian god of wine and poetry and fertility and beauty,” the Fox answered. “Along with Biton, he’s also the god who drove the monsters back underground after the earthquake.”

“A mighty god indeed,” Adiatunnus said, looking impressed. “I was talking with one of those monsters, that I was, figuring ways to smash you to powder, Fox, when he softly and silently vanished away, leaving nobbut the rank smell of him behind to show he’d been no dream.”

“So Diviciacus told me,” Gerin said. “That was when you swore vassalage to me the first time.” Adiatunnus nodded, not a bit abashed. He’d been frightened into swearing submission then, just as he had now because of the Gradi. If the danger went away, he was liable to try to reclaim his freedom of action once more, as he had a decade earlier.

What the Fox didn’t tell him was that he faced the prospect of summoning Mavrix to his aid with the same enthusiasm he would have given the notion of having an arrowhead cut out of his shoulder: both were painful necessities, with the emphasis on painful. Mavrix and he had never got on well. He hadn’t persuaded the Sithonian god to get rid of the monsters so much as he’d tricked him into doing it. Mavrix would just as soon have got rid of him instead-maybe sooner.

He’d survived Mavrix once, he’d tricked him once. Could he do it again? He’d said a man could be more clever than a god. Now he was going to have his chance to prove it… if he could.

Adiatunnus found another interesting question to ask: “Is your Sithonian god truly strong enough to beat back… that goddess?” He wouldn’t name Voldar. “She’s no mere monster, monster though she seems.”

“I don’t know that, either,” Gerin told him. “All I can do is try to find out.” He held up a hand. “And I know what your next question is going to be: what will we do if Mavrix turns out not to be strong enough?”

He didn’t answer the question. He made a production out of not answering it. Finally, Adiatunnus prodded him: “Well, what will we do then?”

“Jump off a cliff, I suppose,” the Fox said. “I haven’t got any better ideas right now. Have you?”

To his surprise, the Trokm- chieftain spoke up, asking, “Will you be taking all your southrons back to your own holding the now?”

“I hadn’t thought about doing anything else with them,” Gerin admitted. “I didn’t think you’d want them on your land-they are Elabonians, after all-and I didn’t think you’d want to keep feeding them any longer than you had to. Why? Am I wrong?”

Adiatunnus hesitated, but at last, looking shamefaced, said, “I wouldn’t mind your leaving a couple of hundred behind for the sake of watching the line of the Venien and fighting alongside us should the Gradi be after trying to force it. Indeed, I ask that, Fox, as your vassal I do.”

“You mean it,” Gerin said in slow wonder. His expression unhappier than ever, Adiatunnus nodded. The Fox scratched his head. “Why, after spending so many years trying to kill every Elabonian you could find?”

“Because if it’s us by our lonesome and the Gradi coming over the river and all, we’ll lose,” Adiatunnus answered bleakly. “Summat’ll go wrong, same as it always does when the shindy’s ‘twixt us and the Gradi. You southrons, though, you can stand up to ’em. With my own eyes I saw it. And so-“

Gerin slapped him on the shoulder. “For that, I’ll leave men behind. A lord protects his vassals, or else he doesn’t stay their lord long-or deserve to. Would it suit you if I left Widin Simrin’s son to command my men?”

“We’re all your men now, Fox-however little we like it,” Adiatunnus said with a wry grin. “Aye, Widin pleases to lead the Elabonians. I know his worth-I should, the trouble he’s given me. But will he follow my lead when it’s a matter of southrons and Trokmoi together?”

“Without me here?” Gerin rubbed his chin. “That seems fair. There’ll be more of your men here than mine.” He wondered if Adiatunnus really wanted him to leave a good chunk of his army behind so the woodsrunners could fall on it. He didn’t believe that, though, not after their aborted campaign against the Gradi. Any man who feared him more than Voldar was a fool, and Adiatunnus didn’t qualify there.

The Trokm- said, “I hope your foreign god knows too little of these Gradi to be in fear of ’em.”

Mavrix was, or could be, a great coward. The Fox didn’t tell that to Adiatunnus.

* * *

“There it is.” Gerin breathed a great sigh of relief. Fox Keep still stood; the land around it hadn’t been disturbed since the last Gradi raid. He thought he would have heard of any catastrophe as he traveled through his own holding, but you could never be sure. Sometimes the only way you found news was by stumbling over it.

The lookout in the watchtower was alert. Gerin heard, thin in the distance, the horn call he blew to alert the garrison to the approach of the army. Armed men popped up on the palisade with commendable speed.

“Ride out ahead,” the Fox said, tapping Duren on the shoulder. “We’ll let them know we came through in one piece.” He’d hoped to be coming back in triumph. That hadn’t happened. He’d feared coming back in defeat, perhaps with a force of fierce Gradi in pursuit. That hadn’t happened, either. Had he won, then, or had he lost? If he didn’t know himself, how was he supposed to tell anybody else?

Someone up on the wall shouted, “It’s the Fox!” The warriors cheered. They didn’t know what he’d done, any more than he knew what had gone on here. As he had been after the earthquake that toppled Biton’s shrine, he was on the outermost ripple of spreading news.

“All well, lord prince?” Rihwin the Fox called down to him.

“All well-enough,” Gerin answered. “And you? And the keep? And the holding? How has the weather been?”

“You go off to war and you ask about the weather?” Rihwin demanded. When Gerin only nodded, the southern noble who’d chosen to come to the northlands spread his hands in confusion. At last, pierced by his overlord’s stare, he answered, “Weather’s not been bad. On the cool side, and more rain than I remember most summers, but not bad. Why? How was the weather farther west?”

“Well, let’s see-how do I put it?” Gerin mused. “If it weren’t for the sleet’s getting me prepared, I would have liked the hail even less than I did.” That drew all the incredulous comments he’d thought it would. He waved impatiently. “Let down the drawbridge and we’ll tell you what went on.”

The drawbridge lowered. Duren drove the chariot into the keep. The rest of the force followed. Questions rained down on them: “Did we beat the Gradi?” “Did the Gradi beat us?” “Is Adiatunnus ally or traitor?” “Will we go back out on campaign again this season?”

Gerin answered abstractedly, for Selatre was waiting for him in the courtyard with their children. Seeing her and them reminded Gerin he had indeed come home. Seeing her also reminded him she’d been the intimate of a god, even if Biton was in many ways Mavrix’s opposite. He wanted to talk with her before summoning-or trying to summon; you never could tell with gods-the Sithonian deity.

Before he could talk with his wife, though, he had to keep on answering questions and to deal with what seemed like everything that had happened at Fox Keep while he was away on campaign. Not for the first time, he wondered how anything important ever got done when people had to wade through so many trivia first.

At last, those who’d stayed behind stopped asking questions, at least of him. He’d settled arguments, handed down judgments, put off handing down others till he found out more, confirmed almost everything Rihwin and Selatre had done in his name while he was gone, and, somewhere along the way, acquired a couple of juicy beef ribs and a jack of ale. He ate gratefully: having your mouth full was a good excuse for not saying anything for a while.

When he finally did get the chance to speak of what he intended to do, Selatre nodded gravely. “A risky course, but one I think we have to take if the danger from the Gradi and their gods is as great as you say,” was her verdict.

“Exactly what I thought,” the Fox said, which was pleasing but not surprising; over the past eleven years, he’d come to see that his mind and Selatre’s worked in ways very much alike-and ways that, as time went on, grew more alike as they went on living and planning together.

Rihwin the Fox was all excitement. “A chance to work with gods!” he burbled. “A chance to match wits with the immortals, to manipulate forces far stronger than we even dream of being, to-“

“— Get killed in nasty ways or have other unpleasant things happen to us,” Gerin finished for him. “Or don’t you remember why you can’t work magic any more? You were trying to manipulate Mavrix then, too, as I recall.”

Rihwin had the integrity to look embarrassed. All he’d done-a small thing, really-was ask Mavrix to turn some wine that had soured into vinegar back into something worth drinking once more. But the Sithonian god, already piqued at Gerin for reasons of his own, had not only not fixed the wine but had robbed Rihwin of his sorcerous talent to keep from being bothered by him any more in the future. If you went through rapids in a canoe and came out the other side alive and unhurt, you hadn’t manipulated them, you’d just survived. You forgot the difference at your peril.

“Why should Mavrix concern himself with Voldar and the other Gradi gods?” Selatre asked. “What are they doing that he’ll particularly loathe?”

“For one thing, they’re making the part of the northlands the Gradi have seized as cold and bleak as the Gradi homeland,” Gerin answered, glad to marshal arguments for his wife so he’d have them ready when he had to give them to the god. “For another, they’ll kill or torment those who don’t bow down to them. Sithonians and their gods are fond of freedom; one of the things they don’t like about us Elabonians is that we give our rulers too loose a rein.”

“Voldar doesn’t sound as if she likes the idea of wine,” Rihwin remarked.

“Yes, I think you’re right about that,” Gerin said. “It would be more useful, though, if we could get wine in the northlands these days. The winters are too hard to let the vines live even now. If the Gradi and their gods settle down to stay, even the summers will be too cold.” He shivered, remembering the unnatural freezing storm through which he’d tried to lead his army.

Rihwin’s mobile features assumed a comically exaggerated expression of longing. “How I miss the sweet grape!” he cried, sighing long and deep like a minstrel with a song of unrequited love.

“You miss finding a great deal of trouble because you miss the sweet grape,” Selatre pointed out.

Now Rihwin looked indignant, an expression perhaps not altogether assumed. “My lady,” he said with a low bow, “I regret to have to offer the opinion that your judgments have been clouded by overlong association with that lout there.” He pointed to his fellow Fox.

“Heh,” Gerin said. “She’s right, Rihwin, and you know it bloody well. Oh, you can drink yourself stupid with ale as easily as you can with wine, but you never got Baivers’ dander up at you. Whenever you touch wine, you seem to bump up against Mavrix, and when you bump up against the lord of the sweet grape, horrible things happen.”

“They aren’t always horrible,” Rihwin insisted. “Without Mavrix, we might never have been rid of the monsters.”

“True,” Gerin admitted, “but getting rid of them wasn’t your doing, and the odds were all too good we’d end up getting rid of ourselves instead.” He paused. “And speaking of monsters, how have Geroge and Tharma been?”

“Except for eating as much apiece as any three people I could name, they’ve been fine,” Rihwin answered, and Selatre nodded agreement. “If your vassals and your serfs gave as little trouble, your holding would be easier to run.”

“Back to Mavrix,” Selatre said firmly. Even more than Gerin, she had a knack for holding to the essential.

“Aye, back to Mavrix,” Rihwin said. “How, lord prince, do you purpose summoning him without wine?”

“Books, grain, seed, fruits-a naked peasant girl, if that’s what it takes,” Gerin replied. “I’ll aim at his aspects as patron of the arts and fertility god, not the ones that pertain to wine.” He shrugged. “Wine would probably be a stronger summons, but we do what we can with what we have.” He took that for granted; he’d been making do, improvising, ever since he became baron of Fox Keep. He knew he couldn’t keep juggling forever, but he hadn’t dropped too many important things, not yet, anyhow.

Rihwin pursed his lips and looked thoughtful. Mavrix hadn’t robbed him of his magical knowledge, merely the ability to use it. “You may well encounter success by this means,” he said. “It may even be that the aspect of Mavrix you summon thus will be less flighty by nature than that which has to do with the grape. Or, of course, it may not.” The last sentence and the shrug with which he accompanied it said he’d been associating with Gerin for a long time, too.

“When will you summon the god?” Selatre asked.

“As soon as may be,” Gerin told her. “The Gradi and their gods are pushing hard. If we don’t do something to push them back soon, I worry about what they-and Voldar-will do to us next.”

“Surely your blow against them gained something,” Rihwin said.

“A little, no doubt,” Gerin said. “A fortress and a few villages cleared of them-but we couldn’t keep those. And when we tried to press on, the storms I have to think their deities raised stopped us cold-literally. Much as I wish I could, I can’t claim a victory there.”

“And so you shall bring to bear the power of the god,” Rihwin declared.

“So I shall,” Gerin agreed. “The next intriguing question is whether I’ll bring it to bear against the Gradi… or against me.”

* * *

Had the world wagged exactly as the Fox wanted, he would have undertaken the conjuration that afternoon. But more than the minutiae of running his holding made him wait for a couple of days. Much as he liked to deal with problems by attacking them head-on, he also knew that attacking them without full understanding was liable to be worse than ignoring them altogether. And so he spent most of those next two days closeted in the library above the great hall, reading every scrap about Mavrix he had in his book-hoard.

He had less than he would have wanted. That was true of his store on every subject where he had any scrolls or codices at all. Books were too rare and precious for any man, even with an insatiable itch to know and the resources first of a barony and then of a principality behind him, to have as many as he would have liked.

In her time at Fox Keep, Selatre had made the library as much her domain as it was his. She had once enjoyed a knowledge of a different sort from that contained in books, knowledge that came to her direct from Biton. Since she’d lost that, she’d made up for it in every other way she could. She helped Gerin in his studies, finding even the most obscure mentions of Mavrix and passing them to him.

The more he read, the more he hoped: the Sithonian god’s hatred of ugliness was one of his most salient characteristics. That had been one of the hooks the Fox had used to get Mavrix to drive the monsters back into their dark caverns, but the more he read, the more he worried, too. Mavrix was among the flightiest of gods. He would do whatever he did and then go off and do something else altogether. One thing Voldar seemed to have was implacable purpose.

Gerin rolled up the last scroll. “I don’t know if this is going to work,” he told Selatre, “but then, I don’t know what choice I have, either. A man will pick a bad course when all the others look worse.”

“It will be all right,” Selatre said.

He shrugged by way of reply. She didn’t know that, and had no rational basis for believing it. Neither did he. After a moment, though, he admitted to himself that hearing it from her made him feel better.

As was his way, Gerin carefully assembled everything he thought he would need and everything he thought he might need before he tried to summon Mavrix. He sent Rihwin to the peasant village to bring back a girl who would be enticing enough naked to tempt the fertility god if that proved necessary. Rihwin’s experience with the peasant women was wider than his own. Moreover, by having his friend pick the girl, he made sure he would not have Selatre asking how he knew what she looked like without clothes.

Though the woman, whose name was Fulda, wore a long, woad-dyed linen tunic when Rihwin led her up to the keep, Gerin had to admit she did look likely to shape well in the role if required. By the half-amused, half-tart sniff Selatre let out, she thought the same.

The little shack where Gerin tried magic when he got up the nerve to try magic was set well away from Castle Fox. It was also set well away from the palisade, the stables, and everything else in Fox Keep. If something went wrong-and Gerin’s conjurations, like those of any half-trained mage, had a way of going wrong-he wanted the destruction to be as limited as possible.

When he, Rihwin, Selatre, and Fulda went out to the shack, the rest of the people packing Fox Keep made a point of keeping their distance, and of not looking at the ramshackle building, either. Nothing had gone too hideously wrong over the years, but everyone got the idea that meddling with Gerin while he worked at his magic-or, for that matter, meddling with him when he worked at anything-was less than a good idea.

He began to chant from the Sithonian epic of Lekapenos. He’d had the verses literally beaten into him by his teachers, and so did not need the scroll he held to be sure he had the words right. He held it nonetheless, to remind Mavrix of another reason he was being summoned.

On a rickety table, he set out wheat (not barley; Mavrix had nothing but scorn for Baivers), ripe and candied fruit, and several eggs from the castle henhouse. “Do you want me to strip off now, lord prince?” Fulda asked, reaching up to the neck of her tunic.

“Let’s wait and see if we can bring the god here some other way first,” Gerin answered, to Rihwin’s evident disappointment. One of Selatre’s eyebrows rose for a moment. Gerin didn’t know exactly what that meant. He didn’t much want to find out, either.

He used his rusty Sithonian for as much of the invocation as he could, wanting to make Mavrix feel as much at home as he could in the northlands. Despite repeated beseechings, though, the god declined to appear. Gerin wondered if that wasn’t just as well, but went on anyhow.

“Fulda,” Selatre said, and nodded.

The peasant woman pulled the tunic off over her head. One glance told Gerin she was as lushly made as he’d guessed. Past that one glance, he didn’t look at her. If he made a mistake with his invocation, whether her body was beautiful or not wouldn’t matter. Rihwin’s eyes lit up. Gerin suspected he would try to see Fulda naked under other circumstances as soon as he could. That thought appeared in his mind, but vanished a moment later: Mavrix still showed no sign of coming forth.

Gerin wondered if the Sithonian god now refused to have anything to do with him at all. He also wondered whether he should have brought a pretty boy into the shack instead of Fulda. Mavrix’s tastes sometimes veered in that direction.

Stubbornly, he kept on working as many variants of the spell as he could imagine. A man without his perseverance-or a man in less desperate straits-would have quit a long time before. The Fox realized he wouldn’t be able to go on much longer, either, not without making an error that would at least invalidate everything he’d already done and at most… he didn’t want to think about all the unpleasant things that might happen then.

As he was about to give up, the inside of the shack seemed all at once to grow vastly larger, though its exterior dimensions had not changed in any way. Gerin had felt that happen before. The hair prickled up on the back of his neck. Here was Mavrix, so now he had what he’d thought he wanted. How much would he regret seeing his prayers granted?

“You are the noisiest little man,” the god said, his deep, honeyed voice sounding somewhere in the middle of Gerin’s head rather than in his ears. The Fox was not sure whether Mavrix spoke Sithonian or Elabonian; he took meaning directly, at a level more basic than words.

Gerin spoke Sithonian, in the hope of making Mavrix better inclined toward him. “I thank you, lord of the sweet grape, lord of fertility, lord of wisdom and wit, for deigning to hear me.”

“Deigning to hear you?” Mavrix’s eyebrows rose almost all the way to his hairline. His handsome features, had they been human, would have been impossibly mobile. But he was not human, even if his rosebud mouth would have made any boy-lover quiver with lascivious delight. His eyes were all black, fathomless, deep beyond deep, warning of power and terror far beyond any to which a mere human could aspire. “Deigning to hear you?” he repeated. “You were doing your best to deafen me, not so?”

“I would not have troubled you were I not deep in trouble myself,” Gerin answered, which was no less than truth: even as he spoke, he wondered whether his proposed cure was worse than the Gradi disease.

“And why should I care a fig for your troubles, lord Gerin, prince of the north?” In Mavrix’s mouth, the Fox’s titles were poisonously sweet. “Why should I not rejoice, in fact?”

“Because I did not make them, for one,” Gerin answered. “And, for another, because the gods who did make them now purpose turning the northlands into a cold and dreary country where next to nothing will grow, and where for months at a time all will be covered by ice and snow.” Hearing his own accidental rhyme, he wished he’d thought to include metre as well; Mavrix appreciated such artful touches.

“That sounds-distasteful,” the Sithonian god admitted. “But, I ask you again, why should I care? These barbarous northlands are scarcely part of my normal purview, you know. You Elabonians are quite bad enough” — the fringes on his fawnskin tunic fluttered as he shivered to show what he thought of Elabonians- “and the woodsrunning savages now infesting the land worse. If something dreadful befalls the lot of you-so what?”

“The Gradi are worse, and so are their gods,” Gerin said, stubborn still. “You may not think much of Dyaus, and I have no notion what you think of Taranis, Teutatis, and Esus, but you have your place and they have theirs, and you don’t try to drive them off, nor they you.”

He didn’t mention Baivers, some of whose aspects were close enough to those of Mavrix to make them compete with rather than complementing each other. He especially didn’t mention Biton, whose quarrel with Mavrix had led to banishing the monsters infesting the northlands back to their gloomy caverns. If the god remembered those quarrels, he would remind Gerin of them. If he didn’t, Gerin wasn’t going to remind him.

Mavrix sniffed. “I have never impinged upon these Gradi gods, nor they on me. For all I know, you lie for your own reasons. Humans are like that.” He sniffed again, in fine contempt.

But he wasn’t so smart as he thought he was, because, while suspicious of Gerin’s arguments, he didn’t notice the logical flaws and omissions in them. If you were sly enough and quick enough and lucky enough, you could guide him like a man leading a barely broken horse. You’d never be sure he’d go in the direction you wanted him to take, but if you made all the other choices look worse, you had a chance.

Mavrix, though, was no horse, but a god, with a god’s abilities and strength. Gerin said, “If you doubt me, look into my mind. See for yourself my dealings with the Gradi and with Voldar. With your divine wisdom, you will know whether I lie or not.”

“I do not need your permission, little man; I can do that any time I choose,” Mavrix said. A moment later, he added, “I do think better of you-a bit better-for the invitation.”

And then, all at once, Gerin’s world turned inside out. It did not feel as if Mavrix entered his mind, but more as if his mind suddenly became a small fragment of the god’s. He’d expected Mavrix to grub for facts like a man opening drawers in a cabinet. Instead, the power of the god’s intellect simply poured through him, as if he were air and Mavrix rain. The search was far quicker, far more thorough, and far more awesome than he’d expected.

When Mavrix spoke to him again, it was almost as if he listened to, almost as if he were a part of, the god’s thoughts, which echoed all through his own mind: “What you say is true. These Gradi are indeed nasty and vicious men, and their gods nasty and vicious deities. That they should infest their own homeland is quite bad enough, that they should seek to spread to this relatively temperate and tolerant district intolerable. And, being intolerable, it shall not be tolerated. I commence.”

Mavrix set out on a journey across the plane the gods customarily inhabited, a plane that impinged on the mundane world of men and crops and weather but was not really a part of it. He had not released the Fox’s mind from its place, if that was the right word, as part of his own, and so Gerin, willy-nilly, accompanied him on his travels.

Afterwards, Gerin was never quite sure how far to trust his sensory impressions. Eyes and ears and skin were not made to take in the essence of the divine plane, nor was he really along in the flesh, but only as a sort of fleabite, or at most a wart, on Mavrix’s psyche. Did the god truly drink his way through an ocean of wine? Did he really fornicate his way through…? If he did, why on earth-or not on earth-would Fulda have drawn the least part of his notice? Even the dim part-understanding of what might have just happened left the Fox’s sensorium spinning.

Then the going got more difficult (not harder, Gerin thought, being unable at the moment to imagine anything harder than…). Gerin felt Mavrix’s surprise, discomfort, and displeasure as if they were his own. They were, in fact, his own, and more than his own.

Pettishly, Mavrix snapped, “I should never have let you entice me into this predicament.” The Sithonian god did not take well to discomfort of any sort, that being a negation of everything he stood for. In the little mental cyst inside Mavrix’ mind that remained his own, Gerin had all he could do to keep from bursting into laughter that would surely anger the god. Enticing Mavrix was just what he’d hoped to do. And Mavrix would have to endure more unpleasantness if he reversed his metaphysical route… wouldn’t he?

Gerin wondered about that. For all he knew, Mavrix could break free of where he was and be somewhere else without bothering to traverse the space in between. And even if he couldn’t do that, the combination of overwhelming wine and even more overwhelming satiety might be plenty to counteract whatever lack of pleasure the god knew now.

And then, without warning, Mavrix found himself in a place, or a sort of a place, Gerin recognized from his dreams: the chilly forest to which Voldar had summoned him during his dream. “How bleak,” Mavrix murmured, moving along a track in it.

This is the domain of the Gradi gods, Gerin thought, not knowing whether Mavrix was paying any attention to his small separate fragment of consciousness.

“Really?” the god replied as he came to a snow-filled clearing. “And here all the while I thought I was back in my native Sithonia. The grapes and olives are looking particularly fine this time of year, aren’t they?”

Had Gerin been there corporeally, he would have turned red. Having Mavrix flay him with sarcasm wasn’t what he’d had in mind when he summoned the god. Of course, when you did summon a god, what you got wasn’t always what you had in mind, for gods had minds of their own.

He tried to pitch his thoughts so they would carry to Mavrix, forming them as much like speech as he could: “Voldar summoned me to this place in a dream.”

“A nightmare, it must have been,” the Sithonian god replied. Maybe he shuddered, maybe he didn’t: Gerin’s view of this plane shook back and forth. Mavrix went on, “Why any self-respecting deity would choose to inhabit-or I might better say, infest-such a place when so many better are there for the taking must remain eternally beyond me.”

“We like it here.”

Had that actually been a voice, it would have been deep and rumbling, like an outsized version of Van’s. Gerin didn’t truly hear it; it was more as if an earthquake with meanings attached had shaken the center of his mind. A great form reared up out of the snow. Gerin sensed it as being half man, half great white bear, now the one predominating, now the other.

“This ugly thing cannot possibly be Voldar,” Mavrix said with a distinct sniff in his voice. Sniff or not, Gerin thought he was right: the Gradi god, whether in human or ursine form, was emphatically male. Mavrix directed his attention toward the god rather than the Fox. “Who or what are you, ugly thing?”

Given a choice, Gerin would not have antagonized anything as ferocious looking as that white, looming apparition. He was not given a choice; that was one of the risks you took in dealing with gods. The half-bear, half-man shape roared and bellowed out its reply: “I am Lavtrig, mighty hunter. Who are you, little mincing, puling wretch, to come spreading the stink of perfume over this, the home of the grand gods?”

“Grand compared to what?” Mavrix said. He waved his left hand, the one in which he carried his thyrsus, an ivy-tipped wand more powerful than any spear would have been in the hands of a mere man. “Stand aside, before I rid the plane of the gods of an odious presence. I have no quarrel with underlings, not unless they seek to trouble their betters. Since, in your case, anything this side of a horse turd would be an improvement, I suggest you leave off the business of troubling altogether.”

Lavtrig roared with rage and rushed forward. He had more claws and teeth and thews than Gerin cared to contemplate. The Fox had hoped Mavrix would fight the Gradi gods. He hadn’t intended to get stuck, absolutely helpless, in the middle of such a fight. Mavrix didn’t care what he intended.

Wand notwithstanding, the Sithonian god’s semblance was as nothing when measured against Lavtrig’s fearsome aspect. But, as Gerin should have realized, appearances among gods were apt to be even more deceiving than among mankind. When Lavtrig’s hideous jaws closed, they closed on nothingness. But when Mavrix tapped the Gradi god with his thyrsus, the howl of pain he evoked might have been heard in distant Mabalal, by the deities there if not by the men.

“Run along now, noisy thing,” Mavrix said. “If you force me to become truly vexed, the barbarians who worship you will have to invent something else more hideous than themselves, for you will be gone for good.”

Lavtrig bellowed again, this time more with rage than with pain, and tried to keep fighting. He scratched, he clawed, he snapped-all to no effect. Sighing, Mavrix lashed out with a sandal-shod foot. Lavtrig spun through the air-if the gods’ plane had air-and crashed against a pine. Its burden of snow fell on him. He writhed once or twice, feebly, but did not get up to resume the struggle.

Mavrix let him lie and strode on. “Could you really have destroyed him?” Gerin asked.

“Oh, are you still here?” the Sithonian god said, as if he’d forgotten all about the Fox. “A god can do anything he imagines he can do.” The answer did not strike Gerin as altogether responsive, but he could hardly have been in a worse position to demand more detail from Mavrix.

The god he had summoned to his aid strode down a path through more snow-covered trees. If Mavrix was cold, he did not show it. Once, as if to amuse himself, he pointed his thyrsus at one of the pines. Clumps of bright flowers sprang into being at the base of its trunk. Gerin wondered if they continued to exist after Mavrix stopped paying attention to them.

Golden-eyed wolves stared out of the woods at Mavrix: wolves as big as bears, as big as horses, divine wolves, the primeval savage essence of wolf concentrated in their bodies as a cook might concentrate a sauce by boiling away all excess. When Gerin felt their terrible eyes on him, he wanted to quail and run, even though he knew he was not there in body. Wolves like that could-would-gulp down his very soul.

Mavrix pulled out a set of reed pipes and blew music such as had never been heard in the grim realm of the Gradi gods, not in all the ages since they shaped the place to their own satisfaction. It was the music of summer and joy and love, the music of wine and hot nights and desire. Had he been able to, Gerin would have wept with the sorrow of knowing that, try as he might, he would never be fully able to remember or reproduce what he heard.

And the wolves! All at once, utterly without warning, they lost their ferocity and came rushing through the snow at Mavrix, not to rend him but to frisk at his heels like so many friendly puppies. They yipped. They leaped. They played foolish games with one another. They paired off and mated. They did everything but guard the road, as the Gradi gods had plainly intended them to do.

Amusement seeped from Mavrix’s mind to Gerin’s. “Perhaps we should throw cold water on some of them,” the Sithonian god said. “Plenty of cold water here.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Gerin replied. “Why not let them enjoy themselves? I have the feeling this is the first time they’ve ever been able to.”

“That is nothing less than the truth,” Mavrix said, and then, “I own that I responded to your summons with resentment, but now I am glad I did. These Gradi gods need to be dealt with. They have no notion of fun.” He spoke as the Fox did when passing sentence on some particularly vicious robber.

Gerin wondered if the Sithonian god could instill levity into whatever Voldar used for a heart. If he could, that would be a bigger miracle than any he had yet worked.

But Mavrix had not yet won through to confront the chief goddess of the Gradi. When he stepped out into a clearing, Gerin wondered if Voldar would await him there. But it was not Voldar. It was not anything anthropomorphic at all, but a whirling column of rain and mist and ice and snow, stretching up as far as the eye could see.

From the middle of the column, a voice spoke: “Get you gone. This is not your place. Get you gone.”

At Mavrix’s feet, the wolves whined and whimpered, as if realizing they’d betrayed themselves with a stranger and were going to be made to regret it by the powers that were their proper masters. Mavrix, however, spoke lightly, mockingly, as was his way. “What have we here? The divine washtub for this miserable place? Or is it but the chamber pot?”

“I am Stribog,” the voice declared. “I say you shall not pass. Take your jests and japes somewhere we do not yet touch, then await us there, for one day, rest assured, we shall overwhelm it and quench them.”

“Ah-right the second time,” Mavrix said cheerfully, perhaps to Gerin, perhaps to Stribog. “It is the chamber pot.”

He moved out into the clearing. Stribog did not attack as Lavtrig had. Instead, the Gradi god hurled all the vile weather he had inside him straight at Mavrix. Gerin’s soul felt frozen. Here, he saw, was the god who had raised the summer storms against him and his army. Those, though, had been storms of the world, even if divinely raised. This was the very stuff of the gods, used by one to fight another.

And Mavrix noticed this onslaught, where he had been impervious to Lavtrig’s. The chill and wet Stribog raised struck at his spirit. He grunted and said, “Now see-someone’s gone and spilled it. We’ll just have to set it to rights once more.”

The wolves fled back to their gloomy haunts. With Mavrix’s attention not on them, they forgot the dimmest notion of happiness. Too, they were soaked to their metaphysical skins. Stribog had indeed poured a bucket of cold water on them, a bucket big as the world.

Mavrix lashed out with his wand, as he had against Lavtrig. It must have hurt, too, for Stribog bellowed in pain and rage. But the Gradi god was a more diffuse entity than Lavtrig; he had no central place to strike that would do him lasting damage. And his rain and ice, his winds and lightnings, hurt Mavrix, too. The Sithonian god’s anguish washed through Gerin, who knew that, had his spirit been there alone, he would swiftly have been destroyed.

When Mavrix tried to go forward against the storm that was Stribog, he found himself unable. The Gradi god’s laughter boomed like thunder. “Here you will perish, you who try to trouble Gradihome!” he cried. “Here you will drown; here you will rest forevermore.”

“Oh, be still, arrogant windbag,” Mavrix said irritably, and for a moment Stribog was still, the storm silent. Even as it resumed, Mavrix went on, “Not just an arrogant windbag, but a stupid one, too. If you water a fertility god, you promote-“

“Growth!” Gerin’s mind exclaimed.

“There, you see?” Mavrix told him. “You have more wit to you than this blowhard. Not much of a compliment, I fear, but you may have it if you want it.”

And with that, he began to grow, to soak up all the stormstuff Stribog flung at him and make it his own instead of letting it remain a weapon belonging to the Gradi god. The pain he felt at Stribog’s attacks vanished, or rather was transmuted into a satisfaction somewhere between that of a good meal and that which follows the act of love.

Stribog realized too late that he was no longer doing Mavrix any harm. He boomed like thunder again, but this time in alarm. Where before he had reached as high as the eye-or whatever sense passed for vision here-could see and Mavrix seemed small beside him, their relative sizes reversed with startling speed. Now, from his place in the Sithonian god’s consciousness, Gerin peered down on a small, furious, futile whirlwind that churned up the snow around Mavrix’s ankles.

Mavrix stooped and seized the whirlwind. He flung it away: whither, the Fox had no idea. Maybe Mavrix didn’t, either, for he said, “I hope the alepot tempest lands among the Kizzuwatnan gods or some others who properly appreciate heat.”

He was, without warning, the apparent size he had been before his fight with Stribog began. He reached up and adjusted the wreath of grape leaves around his forehead to the proper jaunty angle. The landscape of Gradihome seemed undisturbed by the divine tempest that had lashed it; Gerin wished the land of the material world recovered from rain so readily.

“Onward,” Mavrix said, and onward they went. But the Sithonian god, despite his triumph, seemed wearier and less sure of himself than he had been. If defeating Lavtrig was like climbing a flight of stairs, besting Stribog had been more like climbing a mountain. If the next challenge proved correspondingly harder still… Gerin did his best not to think about that, for fear Mavrix would sense it and be moved either to anger or to despair.

The god came to a clearing in the snowy woods. Gerin waited to see what sort of Gradi god would confront Mavrix there, but the clearing seemed empty. More snow-covered pines stood at the far edge of the open space, perhaps a bowshot away, perhaps a bit more.

“Well,” Mavrix said brightly, “variety in the landscape after all. Who would have thought it?” He brought his pipes to his lips and began to play a cheerful tune as he strolled across the rolling ground.

Had Gerin had his normal, physical eyes, he would have blinked. Something strange had happened, but he wasn’t sure what. The god came to a clearing in the snowy woods. Gerin waited to see what sort of Gradi god would confront Mavrix there, but the clearing seemed empty. More snow-covered pines stood at the far edge of the open space, perhaps a bowshot away, perhaps a bit more.

“Well,” Mavrix said brightly, “variety in the landscape after all. Who would have thought it?” He brought his pipes to his lips and began to play a cheerful tune as he strolled across the rolling ground.

That sensation of needing to blink repeated itself in the Fox’s mind. There was the clearing… the same clearing. When Gerin realized that, he recovered at least a part of what he and Mavrix had just been through.

“Well,” Mavrix said brightly, “variety in the landscape after all. Who would have thought it?” He brought his pipes to his lips.

Before he could begin to play, Gerin said, “Wait!”

“What do you mean, wait?” the Sithonian god demanded irritably. “I aim to celebrate coming across something different for a change.” And then Mavrix, as Gerin had before him, hesitated and went back over what had gone on. “Have I-done this before?” he asked, now sounding hesitant rather than irritable.

“I-think so,” Gerin answered, still far from sure himself.

“I am in your debt, little man,” Mavrix said. “I wonder how many times I would have done that before I twigged to it myself. I wonder if I would ever have twigged to it myself if I didn’t have you riding along like a flea on my bum. It would have been a beastly boring way to spend eternity, I can tell you that.”

Gerin wondered if the only reason he hadn’t been completely caught in the trap was its being set for gods, not mere men. He had spoken before of mankind’s occasional advantages in dealing with vastly more powerful beings, but hadn’t expected his littleness to become one: he’d slipped through the spaces in a net intended to catch bigger fish.

In tones more cautious than Mavrix usually used, he asked, “Who is out there in the clearing?”

Nothing answered: “I am Nothing,” it said, voice utterly without color or emotion.

“Trust these stupid Gradi to worship Nothing,” Mavrix muttered.

“Why not?” Nothing returned. “Soon or late, all fails. In the end, everything fails. I am what is left. I deserve worship, for I am most powerful of all.”

“You’re not even the most powerful god in your pantheon,” Gerin jeered, trying to ruffle that uncanny calm. “Voldar rules the Gradi, not you.”

“For now,” Nothing said imperturbably.

“Stand aside, Nothing, or know nothingness,” Mavrix said. From caution, he had swung back to anger.

“Wait,” Gerin said again. If finding a way to hurt Stribog had been hard, how could the Sithonian god harm Nothing? Hoping he was pitching his thoughts in such a way as to let Mavrix but not Nothing hear them, he suggested, “Don’t fight-distract. You’re a fertility god-you can make all sorts of interesting… somethings, can’t you?”

Mavrix’s mirth filled him, as strong sweet wine might have had he been there in the flesh. “Somethings,” the god said, and then, changing the timbre of his thoughts so he addressed not the Fox but the thing-or the no-thing-in the clearing: “Nothing!”

“Aye?” the Gradi god said, polite but perfectly indifferent.

Mavrix held out his hands. He breathed on them, and a flock of bright-colored singing birds appeared, one after another. “Do you see these?” he asked as he waved his hands and the birds began to fly around the clearing.

“I see them,” Nothing replied. “In a little while, in a littlest while, they will cease to be. Then they will be mine.”

“That’s so,” Mavrix agreed, “but they’re mine now. And so is this.” He sent a deer bounding across the open space. Gerin hoped the wolves of Gradihome wouldn’t notice it. “And so are these.” Flowers sprang up in the clearing, made with a purpose now instead of merely for a game. “And so is this.” An amphora of wine appeared. “And so are these.” Four preternaturally beautiful women and a like number of handsome and well-endowed men sprang into being. They enjoyed the wine and then began to enjoy one another. They had no more inhibitions than they did clothes.

Gerin wondered if they were figments of the Sithonian god’s imagination or if Mavrix had plucked them from some warmer, more hospitable clime. He didn’t ask, not wanting to bump the god’s metaphysical elbow.

“They’re all mine!” Mavrix shouted. “They’re all doing things, right there before you.”

“For now,” Nothing said.

“Yes, for now,” Mavrix said. “And the things they do now will cause other things to be done and to be born, and those will cause still others, and the ripples that spread from those will-“

“Eventually come to Nothing,” Nothing said, but with-perhaps? — the slightest hesitation as Mavrix’s creations cavorted in the clearing.

Speaking in a sort of mental whisper, Mavrix said to Gerin, “If it’s not distracted now, it never will be. I am going into the clearing. If I end up here again and that space before us is empty-we are apt to be here… indefinitely.”

Gerin’s small sensorium, carried pickaback on the god’s vastly larger one, crossed the clearing in a hurry. He could even look back as Mavrix regained the path that led ever deeper into Gradihome. All at once, the Sithonian god’s creations vanished as if they had never been.

“That was petty of old Nothing,” Mavrix said, a chuckle in his voice. “As it told us, they would have been its sooner or later. Ah, well-some deities simply have no patience.” Then Mavrix suddenly seemed less sure of himself. “Or do you think Nothing will pursue me through this frigid wilderness?”

“If I had to guess, I’d say no,” Gerin answered. “The Gradi gods seem to be testing you, each in his own place. Lavtrig and Stribog stayed behind once you’d bested them. I think Nothing will, too.”

“You had better be right,” Mavrix said. “And if I have to test and best every single puerile godlet the Gradi own-or the other way round-I shall grow quite testy myself, Fox. Bear that in mind.”

“Oh, I shall,” Gerin assured him. “I shall.” Mavrix was more powerful than he; he knew that full well. But he had seen the progression in the actions of the Gradi gods where Mavrix was uncertain about it. Did that prove him divinely clever? If it did, he was clever enough to know he shouldn’t let himself get carried away by the idea.

He did not think Mavrix had stepped up the pace, but the next clearing appeared very quickly. Mavrix went out into it with almost defiant stride, as if expecting Nothing to sow confusion in his mind once more.

But the god-or rather, goddess-standing in the open space had a definite physical aspect. “Gerin the Fox, the Elabonian,” Voldar said. “You have proved more troublesome than I reckoned on, and your ally stronger.” Her smile struck the Fox as imperfectly inviting. “Whether he is strong enough remains to be seen.”

Her aspect was not quite as Gerin had seen her in the dream she’d induced him to have. She seemed partway toward the hag image with which she’d so horrified Adiatunnus-now and again, by starts and flickers, her hair would gray, her skin wrinkle, her teeth grow broken and crooked, her breasts lose their eternally youthful firmness and sag downward against her chest and the top of her belly. Sometimes her whole body seemed squat, slightly misshapen-and sometimes not. Gerin had no idea what her true seeming was, or if indeed she had but one true seeming.

Mavrix spoke with some indignation: “Well! I like that: a goddess greeting a mortal before a god. But I’m not surprised, not with what I’ve seen of manners here in Gradihome. Go ahead-ignore me.”

“Nothing tried that,” Voldar said. “It failed. That means I must deal with you-and when I have, you’ll wish you’d been ignored. But I spoke to the mortal first because, without him, you would not be here-and would not have caused so much damage to the lesser gods around me.”

“I greeted them in the spirit with which they greeted me,” Mavrix replied. “Is it my fault if their spirits could not bear up under the force of my greeting?”

“Yes,” Voldar said in the deadly cold voice Gerin remembered from his dream. “You should have been driven from Gradihome wailing, or been swallowed by Nothing for all eternity.”

“I’d be delighted to leave this cold, ugly place,” the Sithonian god said, “and I will, in an instant, once you vow you’ll make no more of the material world into as close a copy of it as you can engender. God may not lie to god in such vows: so it has been, so it is, so shall it be.”

“I could lie to you,” Voldar said, “but I shall not. Gradihome in the world grows. So it is, so shall it be.”

“No,” Mavrix said. “It shall not be. There is too much cold and ugliness and sterility in the material world as it is now. I shall not permit you to increase their grip on it.”

“You cannot stop it,” Voldar said. “You have not the power for that, nor have you the roots in the land of which you speak that would let you draw upon its strength, as we even now are beginning to do.”

“It is not your land, either,” Mavrix said. “And if I have not the strength, how do I come to stand before you now?”

“You come before me, as I said before, on account of the guile of the mortal whose consciousness you carry with you,” Voldar answered, “and I should not be surprised if his cunning helped you pass and overcome my fellows.”

“Well! I like that!” Mavrix drew himself up straight, the picture of affronted dignity. “First speak to the mortal ahead of me, then count him as more clever. I shall take vengeance for the slight.”

Gerin felt rather like a mouse that had the misfortune to find itself in the middle of a clearing where a bear and a longtooth clashed. Whichever won might not even matter to him, because they were liable to crush him without so much as knowing he was there.

And yet the fight did not begin at once. Voldar was plainly given pause because Mavrix had managed to reach her, and Mavrix in turn seemed thoughtful at facing the goddess who lorded it over the formidable foes he had already beaten.

Suddenly, his voice grew sweet, persuasive, tempting: “Why do we have to quarrel at all, Gradi goddess? You can be pleasing to the eye when it suits you; I sense as much. Why not lie with me in love? Once you know what proper pleasure is, you’ll feel less attracted toward death and doom and ice.” He began to play on his pipes, a tune a shepherd might have used to lure a goose girl to a secluded meadow on a warm summer evening.

But Voldar was no goose girl, and Gradihome knew nothing of warmth. “You cannot seduce me from my purpose, foreign god. May your lust curdle and freeze; may your ardor wither.”

“I am ardor,” Mavrix said, “nothing else but, and I kindle it in others. I would try even in you, to teach you somewhat of the ways of existence about which, it would seem, you now know nothing.”

“I told you, I am not your receptacle.” Voldar’s voice grew sharp. “Leave Gradihome now and you will suffer nothing further. If you stay, you will learn the consequences of your folly.”

“I am folly,” Mavrix said, in the same tone of voice he had used to declare himself ardor. Gerin thought he meant the one as much as the other. Ardor, to his way of thinking, certainly engendered folly. Maybe that was what the god had had in mind.

“You are a fool, that certainly.” Voldar spoke as Gerin might have while chiding a vassal for something stupid he’d done. “Very well. If you will be a fool, you will pay for it.” Raising her great axe, she advanced on Mavrix.

All the Sithonian tales of the fertility god named him an arrant coward. The Fox had seen some of that himself. He more than half expected Mavrix to run away from that determined, menacing advance. Instead, though, Mavrix jeered, “Are you truly a battleaxe, Voldar, or just after my spear?” That part of him leaped, leaving Voldar in no possible doubt of his meaning.

She snarled something Gerin didn’t understand, which was probably just as well. Then she swung the axe with a stroke any of the warriors who worshiped her would have been proud to claim as his own. Gerin wondered what would have happened had that blow landed as she intended. His best guess was that the Sithonian pantheon would have wanted a new deity.

But the blow did not land. Mavrix’s phallus was not all that had leaped. He used his wand to bat the axehead aside. The thyrsus looked as if it would break at such usage, but looks, when it came to gods and their implements, were apt to be deceiving.

Voldar evidently had been deceived. She shouted in fury at finding herself thwarted. “There, there,” Mavrix said in syrupy, soothing tones, and reach out to pat her-not at all consolingly-on her bare backside. Gerin couldn’t tell whether his arm had got long to let him do that, or whether he’d shifted his position in some way allowed to gods but not men and then returned in an instant to where he had been.

However he’d done it, it made Voldar even angrier than she had been already. Her next cut with that axe would have left Mavrix metaphorically spearless. Again, he used the wand to turn aside the stroke, though Gerin, perched there on the edge of his consciousness, felt the effort that had required. Mavrix was not a god of war, where Voldar seemed to exist for no other purpose than conquest and subjugation.

“Are you going to be able to hold out against her?” he asked the Sithonian god. The question had immediate practical import for him. If Voldar beat Mavrix, would his own spirit be trapped here in Gradihome? He was hard-pressed to imagine a gloomier fate.

“We’ll find out, won’t we?” Mavrix answered, not the most reassuring reply the Fox could have got.

He quickly became convinced Mavrix was overmatched. The Sithonian god was indeed no killer; he sought to provoke Voldar, to infuriate her, to drive her to distraction. She, by contrast, was grimly intent on harming him-on destroying him, if she could.

The longer they struggled, the more Gerin grew concerned she could do exactly as she intended. This was not a struggle of the same sort as Mavrix had had with the other Gradi gods. It put the Fox more in mind of some of the desperate fights he’d had on the battlefield, ferocious brawls with anything past the notion of bare survival forgotten. Voldar and Mavrix hammered and pounded and cursed each other, the curses landing as heavily and painfully as kicks and buffets.

When Mavrix squeezed her, Voldar would for a moment weaken and lean toward him as if intending an embrace: the struggle was, in some ways, a spectacularly violent attempt at a seduction. But Voldar never really came close to yielding, however much Gerin wished and hoped she would. She had her own purposes, which were not those of Mavrix.

And when she gained the upper hand for the time being, the Fox felt Mavrix’s nature changing into something harder and colder than seemed fitting for the Sithonian god. Voldar, he realized, was trying to bend Mavrix to her will no less than he her to his. Those stretches came more and more often as the battle progressed. Gerin wondered if Mavrix realized as much himself, and if he should warn the god.

Suddenly Mavrix gave a great cry-not of pain but of rejection-and broke away from Voldar. The disengagement was not like that between two struggling humans. One instant, he was locked in the fight with the Gradi goddess, the next he stood at the edge of the clearing in which she had awaited him.

“No,” he said hoarsely. “You shall not make me into something you can rule.” He understood the stakes, then. “I will not allow it. I do not allow it.”

“If you stay here, I shall,” Voldar said. “This is Gradihome, and Gradihome is mine.” She strode toward the Sithonian fertility god, implacable purpose on her face and in every line of her body.

Mavrix broke and fled. Voldar’s harsh, mocking laughter rang in his ears as he dashed away, snow flying up under his sandal-clad feet. “Be careful,” Gerin shouted in his metaphysical ear. “Don’t fall into Nothing’s lair again.”

Mavrix swerved aside, off the path. The fierce wolves of the home of the Gradi gods came coursing after him, but fawned like friendly pups once more when they drew near: so much of his power, at least, he still retained. And then he was on the path again, and running faster than ever. “I thank you for reminding me of the trap,” he said, “though I do not thank you for involving me in this misadventure in the first place.”

“I was trying to save what was mine,” Gerin answered. And I’ve failed, he thought, wondering if he could keep that from Mavrix. That means I have to try something else, and I don’t know what.

“I am not rooted in your northern land well enough to be as effective as I might have been fighting for Sithonia if the Gradi gods were coming there, which the power above all deities prevent,” Mavrix said. “You would do better seeking out the powers in and under your own soil, those who have most to lose if enslaved or expelled by Voldar and her vicious crew.”

He had been vicious himself; neither Stribog nor Lavtrig cared to try conclusions with him a second time. Soon he was out of the realm of the Gradi gods. Gerin, meanwhile, wondered which Elabonian deities Mavrix meant. Biton, perhaps, but anyone else? He put the question to the god who carried his spirit.

“No, not that wretched farseeing twit,” Mavrix said scornfully. “He’ll be useless to you here, I guarantee it. Voldar would chew him up and spit him out while he was still looking every which way. He and Nothing might get on well, though; with luck, they’d bore each other out of existence.”

He sounded very sure of himself, which alarmed Gerin. If Biton was not the answer against the Gradi gods, who was? “Who in the northlands can hope to stand against them?” the Fox persisted.

“I’ve told you everything I know, and more than you deserve,” Mavrix answered, petulant now. “This is not my country. I keep saying as much: this is not my land. I don’t keep track of every fribbling, stodgy godlet infesting it, nor would I want to. Since you were foolish enough to choose to be born here, I leave all that up to you.”

“But-” Gerin began.

“Oh, be still till you have flesh to make noise with,” Mavrix said, and Gerin perforce was still. The god went on, “Here we are, returned to this dank, chilly, unpleasant hovel you inhabit. If only you knew the sunshine of Sithonia, the wine, the sea (not all gray and frigid like the nasty ocean splashing your soil, but blue and bright and beautiful), the gleam of polished marble and sandstone yellow as butter, as gold- But you do not, poor deprived thing, and maybe for the best, for you might slay yourself in despair at your lack. Since you are trapped here, I return you now to the really quite ordinary body from which I abstracted you.”

All at once, Gerin was seeing with his own eyes, hearing with his own ears, moving his head, his hands, his legs. There before him stood Mavrix. There too stood Selatre and Rihwin and Fulda, who remained lushly nude. “How long were we gone?” the Fox asked. As Mavrix had said, in his own flesh he could speak again.

“Gone?” Selatre and Rihwin spoke the word together. “You’ve been here all along,” Gerin’s wife went on. “Where did you go? What did you do?” She turned to Mavrix. “Lord of the sweet grape, are the Gradi gods vanquished?”

“No,” Mavrix said. The simple denial brought a gasp of dismay from Rihwin. Mavrix continued, “I did what I could. It was not enough. I can do no more, and so I depart this unpleasant clime.” Like mist under the sun, he began to fade.

Gerin had been with him, and knew he had been beaten. Selatre and Rihwin recognized he meant what he said. But Fulda, like so many people Gerin knew, had unquestioned and unquestioning faith in those above her. Hearing a god admit failure was more than she could bear. She cried, “Do you leave us with nothing, then?”

Mavrix resolidified. You could not tell which way his uniformly dark eyes were turned, but, by the direction in which his head pointed, he was probably looking at her. “So you want me to leave you with something, do you?” he said, and laughed. “Very well. I shall.”

Fulda gasped. At first Gerin thought it was surprise, but after a moment he realized it was something else entirely. Fulda’s eyes closed. Her back arched. Her nipples went stiff and erect. She gasped again, and shuddered all over.

“There,” Mavrix said, sounding smug and self-satisfied, or possibly just satisfied: despite what he’d done on the plane of the gods, he hadn’t disdained Fulda after all. On the contrary, for he continued, “I’ve left you something. In three fourths of a year, you’ll find out exactly what, and that, I have no doubt, will prove interesting for all concerned. But now…” He faded again, this time till he disappeared. The shack in which Gerin attempted to perpetrate magic abruptly seemed to resume its normal cramped dimensions, which convinced the Fox Mavrix was truly gone.

Fulda opened her eyes, but she wasn’t looking at the inside of the shack. “Oh,” she said, shivering once more. Then she too realized Mavrix had vanished. “Oh,” she repeated, this time in disappointment. She reached for her tunic and put it back on. Selatre being there, Gerin made a point of not watching her.

He looked instead to his wife and to Rihwin. They plainly shared his thought. “The god didn’t-” Rihwin said.

“The god wouldn’t-” Selatre echoed.

“Didn’t what?” Fulda asked. “Wouldn’t what?”

“Unless we’re all daft, you’re going to have a baby,” Gerin told her. “Quite a baby.” She yelped. No, she hadn’t understood. The Fox sighed. “One more thing to worry about,” he said.

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