Three. The Watcher at the Well

The land was different here. The valleys were narrower, the ridges morenumerous and the slopes steeper. But the trees were as tall and their leavesshut out the sun as fully as they had in the flatter country behind them.m.

The forest was making Wiz claustrophobic, but since the water meadow openspaces didn’t appeal to him either..

They were following the valleys now, but Wiz wasn’t sure it was animprovement. Moira seemed to become more nervous. When they walked they went asfast, but Moira stopped more often to listen intently. She spoke seldom andonly in whispers and she glared fiercely at Wiz every time a branch crackedunder his feet.eet.

Finally they came up a gentle rise and looked down into a valley evensteeper and narrower than the ones around them. From the disturbance of thetreetops Wiz could make out the line of a road or a stream running through itscenter.er.

Moira placed her enchanting head next to Wiz’s, so close he could count thefreckles on her cheek and inhale the fragrance of her hair..

“The Forest Road,” Moira whispered nodding at the line. “Wemust follow its track.””

“I thought we needed to stay under cover,” Wiz whispered backdubiously..

“I said we would follow the road, not walk it. If we keep to the woodwe should be all right.” She grasped his wrist and squeezed hard.”But make no sound. This place is a natural funnel and if the Leaguerealizes we are bound into the Wild Wood, this is where they will set their traps.”s.”

Cautiously then they went downhill until they struck a game trail that ranalong the slope. As they moved with it, the land gradually grew steeper.Although he couldn’t see, Wiz had the impression that the valley was narrowingas well.ll.

“Hsst.” Moira tugged at Wiz’s sleeve. “Voices. Off thepath.” She looked left and right and then surprised Wiz by scrambling upthe steep bank. They climbed like frightened squirrels until they were nearlythirty feet above the trail. They flattened themselves against the slope with athin screen of bushes between them and the path below.low.

Two men came up the path. They were dressed in rough homespun. The tallerone was lean and balding with a narrow rodent face and greasy stringy blondhair. The shorter one was also blond, but he was beefier, younger and his hairfuller. The tall one carried a machete-like sword that he swung idly with apracticed motion of the wrist. The other had a big knife or short sword thrustscabbardless through his belt. Wiz held his breath as they came close.lose.

“What is it we’re looking for anyway?” the younger man asked.

“Gold, me lad. Two bags of gold walking around in human skins.”He swished the frond off a fern with a casual swing of his chopping sword.”There’s a man and a woman as might be making for the Wild Wood andthere’s those who would pay steep for them.”m.”

Don’t look up, Wiz prayed, please don’t look up!

“What do they look like?” the young man asked as the pair passedthe spot where Wiz and Moira lay..

“Like strangers, and strangers at the Gap are easy enough tofind.””

The man asked another question but they turned a corner in the path and thewoods and distance made their speech unintelligible..

Wiz and Moira looked at each other.

“We don’t have to ask who they’re looking for, do we?” Wizwhispered..

Moira gestured him to silence and motioned for him to wait. He realized thepair who had just passed might be the vanguard of a larger party and clampedhis mouth shut.t.

Minutes ticked by before Moira gestured him up and on. They climbed down fromtheir perch and plunged downslope into the forest, breasting through thicketsand thrusting past tangles of underbrush. The going was slower and noisier butsomehow that seemed like a reasonable tradeoff.ff.

At last Moira stopped them under a large clump of something multi-stemmedand leafy..

“Were those guys from the League?” Wiz asked in a whisper.

Moira shook her head. “Not they. They owe allegiance to naught butgold. There are robbers who haunt the Forest Road. Apparently the League offersrich reward for us and that has served to concentrate them.”.”

“So what do we do now?”

“We must go on. The problem comes when we reach the Forest Gate ahead.That is a pass barely wider than the Forest Road itself. It marks the end ofFringe and the beginning of the Wild Wood and it will doubtless beguarded.”d.”

“Can we go around?”

Moira shook her head firmly. “We must go through the Gateitself.””

“How do we get through?”

She smiled grimly. “Cautiously, Sparrow. Very cautiously indeed. Nowmove as quietly as you can, and no talking! That pair were not woodsmen, but afew of these rogues are skilled rangers indeed.”.”

They went ahead even more slowly now. Wiz joined Moira in scanning thewoods. After their encounter with the robbers the forest seemed even moreoppressive. Every tree or bush became a potential hiding place until the woodsseemed alive with bandits waiting to pounce. A burst of birdsong would make Wizstart and the scampering of a squirrel in a tree would reduce him to terror.ror.

Finally Moira halted and pointed. Wiz followed her finger and saw theForest Gate..

Ahead the canyon narrowed into a gorge. At the bottom it was only wideenough for the road and a rocky stream. The gray stone walls rose sheer for ahundred feet or more before the canyon widened out and the trees grew on theslope, which rose for hundreds of feet.et.

And the gate was guarded. Wiz saw four men on the road and one more sittingon the cliff edge. Their manner left no doubt there were more men on down thegorge or hidden by the trees.s.

“I don’t suppose we could use magic to get through?” Wizwhispered..

Moira surveyed the scene and bit her lips. “It is a trap. Those menare out in the open in hope that we will try something like that. Make no doubtthere are magicians waiting to pounce.”.”

“What then?”

“We thread our way between them. I hope they are not too thick alongthe slopes. Now be quiet.””

They were higher on the mountainside than the walls of the gorge, a good200 feet above the place where the trees began. If most of the robbers weredown on the road and there weren’t too many sentinels on the heights and therobbers weren’t too alert, they should be able to work their way along theslope without being seen.een.

And if frogs had wings they wouldn’t bump their asses every time they tooka step, Wiz thought sourly..

With agonizing caution they worked their way forward. In spite of theirsteepness the slopes were thickly wooded and well-grown with brush. Most of thetime they could see only a few yards in any direction. Wiz kept his eyes on theground, putting his feet down as carefully as he could. Every time he scuffedthe leaves the sound rang in his ears. He was certain the noise they madeechoed off the walls of the canyon. Every few yards they halted for a longminute to listen.isten.

Luck seemed to be with them. It was a hard climb up to the slope from theroad and few of the robbers were inclined to make it. Those that did were moreinterested in looking down the road than they were in checking themountainside. Moving with exquisite care, Wiz and Moira passed the watchers,sometimes so close they could see them through the trees.ees.

The mountainside grew steeper and the ground became more rocky. Trees werescarcer and the brush thicker. The terrain forced them closer and closer to thecliff edge. Below them they could see the gorge curve sharply in a hairpin bendand beyond that the land widened out again.in.

Finally, at the very point of the hairpin, the wood narrowed to a thinband. And at its narrowest point there was a man sitting on a rock..

He was at his ease, hands clasped around one knee and the other legdangling. Like his fellows he was looking over the canyon. Obviously the lastthing he expected was to find his quarry on the slopes. There was a leatherpatch over his right eye, the eye closest to Wiz and Moira.ra.

But to get by him they would have to pass scant feet from him. In themovies this is always where they jump the sentry,, Wiz thought. This wasn’ta movie and Wiz wasn’t a trained commando. The man was at least a head tallerthan he was and heavily muscled. He was wearing a broadsword, while their onlyweapon was Moira’s eating knife. The last thing Wiz wanted to do was make likeBruce Lee.Lee.

Moira obviously agreed. Crouching low, she began to work her way forward,keeping as much brush as she could between her and the man on the rock.Crouching even lower, Wiz followed.d.

Moira was almost behind the man when Wiz stepped on a loose rock.

With a crunch and a clatter the stone went rolling down the slope, takingseveral others with it. The sentry’s head whipped around and he saw Moirabehind a bush not six feet from him.m.

“Hey!” he shouted and sprang to his feet, grabbing for his sword.Moira cringed and made ready to run..

Wiz stood up too. As the man took his first step toward Moira he literallyblindsided him and shoved him with all his strength, away from his beloved andtoward the cliff edge.e.

The man whooped, tottered on the brink and then went over the cliffbackwards, screaming all the way down..

The scream was cut off by an enormous splash and a second later thegorge resounded with curses. When Wiz peeked over the edge he saw that thestream made a pool in the bend of the canyon and the man was in the middle ofit, treading water and swearing at the top of his lungs.gs.

A laughing voice called out to him.

“By the nine netherhells I was pushed! They’re up there I tell you.Get after them!””

Again the laughing voice.

“Damn your mangy hide I am not drunk! There’s someone up thereand they’re getting away.””

“Better search along that cliff, lads,” came a harsher, loudervoice. “Who knows? There may actually be someone up there.””

Wiz and Moira ducked in among the trees and ran for all they were worth,never slowing until they were past the Gate and out on the forest floor again..

There were no sounds of pursuit, but just to be safe Moira led them backand forth through the stream several times and doubled back on their trailtwice. All the while she said nothing to Wiz and shushed him when he tried tospeak.ak.

By the time Moira was satisfied the sun was dipping toward the horizon. Shepaused as if considering, and abruptly she changed direction and startedangling back almost the way they had come. Finally she struck a track like asunken road and led Wiz up it.it.

The road was canopied over with trees and thickly covered with fallenleaves, but there was not so much as a blade of grass growing on it. Here andthere were bare spots where he could see paving blocks of blue-gray marbledressed square and neatly fitted together. Occasionally there would be anotherstone sticking up to one side with a runic inscription on it. it.

Whatever this was, it wasn’t the Forest Road. It was too wide and toowell-built. More, there was a different—feel—about it, and Wiz wasn’t sure heliked the feel at all.l.

They came over a crest and Wiz looked down on a ruin. Delicate flutedcolumns and graceful arches protruded here and there from the trees and bushes.Wiz could make out the remains of a wall of the same blue-gray marble runningaround the place.ce.

It was big, Wiz saw as they trudged down the road toward the ruin. The wallhad to enclose several hundred acres. It was hard to imagine what the groundplan could have been, but Wiz formed an impression of a palatial, spaciousbuilding that had stood in the midst of extensive gardens.ns.

Moira turned off from the road before they got to what should have been themain gate and searched until she found a breach in the wall. Without a word toWiz she scrambled over the broken stones and onto the grounds.s.

She led deeper into the ruin, passing dry fountains surmounted by statuesweathered almost to shapelessness, elaborate porticos and paved courtyardswhich had apparently never been roofed. At last she found a spot that seemed tosuit her.er.

“We will camp here.”

“What was this place anyway?” Wiz asked, staring up at the ruinedarches. The pillars were too tall and too thin and the arches themselves weretoo pointed. Like everything else about the ruin they were at once beautifuland unsettling.ng.

“A castle,” Moira said as she dropped her pack beside him.”They say it belonged to a wizard.””

“I thought we were supposed to avoid magic.”

“It was not my plan to come this way,” the red-haired witch saidtartly. “I hoped to be well beyond this part of the Wild Wood bynightfall, but we lost too much time playing hide and seek. This place stillhas the remnants of the owner’s guard spells and they offer some protection. Ifit does not meet with your approval I am truly sorry.”ry.”

“Hey, I didn’t mean…”

“Oh, be quiet,” Moira snapped and Wiz lapsed into abashedsilence..

As the afternoon turned to twilight Moira sent Wiz to gather firewood. Hecame back with a good armload which she accepted wordlessly and with littlegrace. Then she set about kindling the fire. Wiz stood watching her.r.

“All right,” he said grimly. “Let’s have it.”

“Have what?” She looked up as the fire sprang to life.

“Whatever’s eating you. You’ve been mad ever since we got past thegate and I want to know why.””

“Mad? Me? What have I to be angry about? Just because your clumsinessnearly got us both killed, that is no reason for me to be angry.””

“Okay, my foot slipped. I’m sorry, all right? And in case you hadn’tnoticed, I saved your bacon back there.””

“And that makes it right?”

“It sure as hell makes it better.”

“Sparrow, curing a disease is no excuse for causing it. If you had notbeen so lead-footed there would have been no need for rescue..

“Bal-Simba has given me the job of saving your worthless carcass. Thatwould be dangerous enough if you were an adult. But you have the mind andmanners of a child and that makes it ten times worse. If you do not feel Itruly appreciate you, then, again, I am indeed sorry!”y!”

“All right, that’s it!” Wiz shouted and reached over to pick uphis pack..

“Just what do you think you’re doing?” Moira demanded.

“Leaving. You don’t want me around? Fine! I’ll make my own way.”

“Don’t be a bigger fool than you already are. You wouldn’t last oneday out there by yourself.””

“Maybe not,” Wiz said bitterly, “but it would be better thanputting up with you. Lady, I’m sick of you and I’m sick of listening to you runme down. I’m outta here.”.”

“And just where do you plan to go tonight?”

“I don’t care. I’ll find a place.” He turned and stalked off.

“Sparrow! Wiz…” Moira dropped her arm. “All right, makea fool of yourself!” she yelled after him. “See if I care,” shemuttered as she settled on a log by the fire. . He’ll be back as soon as hegets over this temper tantrum,, she thought. Meanwhile he should be safeenough inside the walls. Oh Bal-Simba, such a task you have given me!!

By the light of the rising moon Wiz pushed his way through the brush andweeds that choked the ruined courts and overgrown gardens..

Bitch! He thought. Arrogant, insufferable goddamn bitch! I didn’t ask forall this and I sure as hell didn’t ask for her. She’s done nothing but insultme since I met her. Well, to hell with that, Lady. And the hell with youtoo!oo!

He went on, stumbling occasionally over loose bits of marble, heedless ofthe branches that whipped at him. He’d find someplace to camp and then figureout what to do in the morning. It would probably be better to stay inside thewalls tonight, he decided. That damn red-headed bitch was probably right aboutthe protective spells and he had had a bellyful of magic already.ady.

At the bottom of a ruined garden someone was playing a flute. The thin,plaintive music caught all the longing and unfulfilled dreams that ever were..

Guided by the bright moonlight, Wiz made his way among the overgrown bushesover the cracked flag path to the sound..

There was a pool there, rank with cattails and dark with lilypads. A brokenmarble bench lay beside it. On a dark rock overhanging the water sat the fluteplayer, clad only in a pair of rough trousers with long hair down to hisshoulders. Wiz listened until he reached the end of his song.ng.

“That was beautiful,” Wiz said involuntarily into the silence.

“Did you enjoy it, mortal?” the player asked. As he turned, Wizrealized his mistake..

It was man-sized and man-like, but it was not a man. The face was utterlyinhuman with a broad flat nose and huge eyes with no trace of pupil. The hairwas a mane, starting low on the forehead and sweeping back to the shoulders.Large pointed ears peeked out of the mane on either side. The trousers werefur, fur that clad the body from the waist to the tiny hoofed feet.eet.

“Uh, yes. I enjoyed it,” said Wiz, startled by the creature’sappearance..

“Oh, do not be afraid, mortal. I cannot harm you. I am bound to thiswell.””

“You play beautifully.”

“It is the song of heart’s desire.” said the creature.

Around the pool, frogs croaked and trilled in crescendo. There must bethousands of them, Wiz thought distractedly, but he could see none of them inthe moonlight.t.

“When Ali Suliman held here… did you know Ali Suliman?” thecreature asked. “No? Before your time I fear. A most refined gentleman anda truly great sorcerer. Such a delightful sense of humor. Well, when AliSuliman had this place things were much different. The palace was ablaze withlight and filled with guests. Often Ali Suliman would bring his—special—gueststo this pond to hear me play and discourse with me.” me.”

The thing sighed gustily and shook its shaggy head. “All is changed,alas. Few mortals come here now and fewer still hear my music.””

“I’m sorry,” said Wiz, abstractedly.

The being waved its flute in a dismissing gesture.

“The music is not important. It is the desire it represents thatmatters. The longing, the yearning in the mortal breast.” He gazed at Wizwith opalescent eyes. “I can fulfill that desire,” it said with utterconviction. “I can give you the one thing you want most. That is whatmatters.”rs.”

The hair prickled on the back of Wiz’s neck. The creature was so compellingthat Wiz did not doubt for an instant that it could do what it said. In theback of his mind he knew he shouldn’t be here listening to this, but thepromise held him.im.

“Your heart’s desire, mortal,” the creature crooned. “Yourheart’s desire.” The frogs croaked louder..

Wiz licked his lips. “How do I know you can deliver?” he asked.

“Oh, by magic,” cackled the being, its pupilless eyes like opalsin the moonlight. “By magic.””

“What is my heart’s desire?”

“Why a woman, mortal. A woman not far from this very place.”

“What do you want in return?”

“Merely a game, mortal. It grows lonely here and time must bepassed.””

“What kind of game?”

“Why any kind you chose. Would you have a race? Will you wrestleme?””

Neither one sounded like a good idea to Wiz. The furry haunches werepowerfully muscled and the thing’s chest was broad and deep..

“No, nothing physical.”

“Then something magical?” The creature made a swipe with his handand left a glittering trail through the night air..

“I—I don’t practice magic,” Wiz stammered.

The creature grinned disquietingly. “A pity. A true pity. Well then,what about a game of the mind? The riddle game? Yes, the riddle game.””

Like a lot of programmers Wiz took inordinate pride in his problem-solvingability. He firmly believed that any riddle could be solved by a combination oflogic and careful examination. Besides, by using truth tables it is possible toconstruct some mind-boggling riddles, and Wiz had a lot of experience withtruth tables.les.

Wiz licked his lips and found they tasted metallic. The invisible frogsredoubled their croaking..

“All right. I’ll play your riddle game. Who goes first?”

The thing on the rock chuckled, an eerie, burbling sound. “Oh, thereis only one riddle in the riddle game, mortal. And I am the one who asksit.”.”

“Oh.” That wasn’t the way the game was played as Wiz rememberedit, but now he was committed. “Ask then.””

The thing on the rock blew a thin airy phrase on its flute and began tosing::

“Black as night, white as snow

Red as blood from the death-wound flow

Precious as gold

Worthless as dross

Cold beyond cold

Gained without loss

Higher and deeper and wider than all

At fingertips always, gone beyond call

What am I?”



The frogs fell silent in chorus. Wiz racked his brains trying to come upwith something that fit. Precious as gold, worthless as dross… Somethingthat was valuable only to one person? Gained without loss? Wiz’s mindran itself in tight little circles as he tried to imagine what cold possiblyfit.t.

“The answer, mortal,” the creature leaned forward, his yelloweyes glowing with unholy light. “I will have the answer or I will have thysoul.”.”

“Give me a minute,” Wiz muttered. “Just give me a minute,okay?””

“You do not have a minute, mortal, not even a second.” The thingstretched its arms toward Wiz, its fingers spreading like talons. “Answeror you are mine, mortal. Now and forever!”!”

Panic crushed Wiz’s chest. His mouth tasted like metal and his lips weredry. The thing’s hypnotic eyes rooted him to the spot as firmly as one of therushes. He could not run, he could not cry out. He could only tremble as thecreature moved closer and closer in its mincing gait, hooves tapping on therock.ock.

“Leave him!” Moira’s voice rang out. “You cannot havehim.””

The pressure released and with a great gasping sob Wiz fell to the ground.He twisted his head and saw the hedge witch standing behind him..

“But he agreed,” the creature howled, dancing up and down on therock. “Of his own free will he agreed to the bargain!””

“The bargain is invalid. He is under an infatuation spell and has nofree will on this.””

Wiz simply gaped.

“He made a bargain. A bargain!”

“Trickster and cheat! There could be no bargain and well you know it.Now be off with you! Seek other prey.””

Moira threw her arms wide and her cloak billowed behind her like wings inthe moonlight. With an awful shriek the creature whirled and dove into thepond. The frogs cut off in mid-croak and waters parted soundlessly to receivehim.im.

“Mortals, mortals, cursed mortals,” the thing’s words camefaintly and wetly from the pool. “Doomed and dying mortals. One day soonthe World will see no more of you. You will vanish like the dew on the grass.Doomed and dying mortals.”s.”

Wiz heard the words but he didn’t look. He huddled in his cloak and dug hisfingers into the sod as if he expected to be dragged into the pool at anysecond.d.

“Oh, get up,” Moira said angrily. It’s gone and you’re safe enoughfor now..

“What in the World ever made you agree to play the riddle game withthe likes of that?” she asked as Wiz picked himself up. “Don’t youknow you could never win?”?”

“He promised me my heart’s desire,” Wiz said numbly. “Hesaid he could give it to me by magic.””

“By magic!” Moira mocked. “You blithering, blundering fool,don’t you know by now to stay away from magic? It’s bad enough I have to leavepeople who need me to come on this idiot’s errand, but I have to babysit youevery second.”d.”

“I’m sorry,” Wiz said.

“Sorry wouldn’t have saved you if I had been a moment later. You blindfool!””

“Well, you said this place was safe,” Wiz said sullenly.

“No, you ninny! I said the wards would keep out most of what wasoutside. They do nothing against things which already are within thegrounds.” She stopped, drew a deep breath and let it out in a sigh.h.

“Listen to me. There is no place in the Wild Wood that is safe. Do youunderstand me? No place! You cannot let down your guard for even an instant andif you see or hear anything that even vaguely y hints of magic, run fromit! Don’t investigate, don’t stay around it, just get away and let meknow.”.”

“I’ll try,” Wiz said.

“You’ll do more than try if you want to live to reach our destination.Now come with me.” She turned on her heel and stalked away with Wizfollowing.g.

Moira fumed all the way back to camp. She was furious with Wiz, and, shereluctantly admitted, furious with herself for letting him storm off. Herorders from Simba were to get him to a place of refuge and she had nearlyfailed because she let her dislike for him overmaster her judgment.nt.

He has spirit, she admitted grudgingly, even with that whipped-puppy air ofhis. Spell or no, he really would have gone off on his own. Moira couldn’tallow that. I must be more civil to him. The thought did absolutely nothing forher mood.od.

They ate dinner in uncomfortable silence. The food did little to lightenthe atmosphere. The cakes were overbaked and the meat was almost raw on oneside for lack of turning. The meal was over and they were settling down for thenight before Wiz could summon up the courage to ask the question which had beengnawing at him ever since he recovered his wits.its.

“Moira, what did you mean when you said I was under a spell?” Wizfinally asked..

The hedge witch looked annoyed and uncomfortable. “Patrius placed youunder an infatuation spell.””

“Infatuation spell?” Wiz asked blankly.

“The spell that makes you love me,” she said sharply.

“But I don’t need a spell to love you,” Wiz protested. “Ijust do.””

“How do you think an infatuation spell works?” Moira snapped.

“But…”

“Oh, leave me alone and go to sleep!” She drew her cloak abouther and rolled away from him..

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