Back | Next

In Which We Follow the
Further Progress of the Terrorist Trio in Their Unlawful Escape From Goimr,
Revealing Therein Fell Visions and Portents. Taken, As Before, From the Autobiography of the Renegade Benvenuti Sfondrati-Piccolomini, the Veracity of Whose Account, We Must Emphatically Repeat, Is In No Wise Guaranteed by the Noble Alfredae.


The Autobiography of Benvenuti Sfondrati-Piccolomini,
Episode 2: Statues, Soldiers, Snarls, and Soothsayers

So it was on such a wretched cart that I left the city of Goimr.

Strangely enough, the real difficulty we encountered in making our escape was none of the things I had foreseen. It was not the police, not the soldiers, not even the absurd spectacle of Wolfgang posing as a gigantic statue being hauled in the back of the cart.

It was the damned draymasters. When we entered the boulevard leading to the Dreary Gate on the northwest edge of the city, there was a great mob of them lounging about in front of the stables. No sooner did they catch sight of Gwendolyn in her yoke, hauling the cart, than they rushed up and began a fierce bidding for her.

I was appalled, really. Often enough had I heard my uncles describe Grotum as backward and medieval, but the reality of it had never truly penetrated until then.

"And will you look at the size of that mare!" cried one.

"I'll give you three quid!" exclaimed another.

"I'll make it four!" came from a third.



The indignity was bad enough. Worse yet was that our escape ploy stood in imminent danger of being ruined. I did not require Wolfgang's sotto voce hissing in my ear to realize that Gwendolyn would not tolerate the situation much longer. The ensuing mayhem would, of course, be gratifying—fierce joy filled my heart at the image of draymasters hacked and chopped into pieces. But it would, as the saying goes, "blow our cover."

The situation came to a crisis when one of the swine actually made so bold as to advance upon Gwendolyn, open her mouth with his hands, and begin inspecting her teeth, while a second began poking her thighs and buttocks with his thumb.

Wolfgang's coaching now came into its own.

"Get your filthy paws off my property!" I roared, cracking the bullwhip. The tooth inspector backed up a step, but the buttock prodder merely sneered and continued his examination.

A moment later he was rolling on the ground, howling in pain. And well he should! I dare say I removed a good piece of his own buttock with the whip, whose tip was reinforced with steel wire. Two pieces, actually, one from each haunch—for the sight of his great ass in the air as he flopped on his belly was irresistible.

Perhaps I should have resisted, for the second lash seemed to arouse the mob of draymasters as the first had not. No doubt I had transgressed some quaint local custom.

A moment later they had surrounded the cart, bellowing their fury, shaking their fists, and cursing my person.

"Ozarine whelp!" cried one. (I fear my accent was pronounced.)

"We'll teach you better!"

"Proper Groutch manners you're about to learn!"

Wolfgang was whispering some advice into my ear, but I was not paying the slightest attention. I should listen to a lunatic, when I had been trained by my uncle Larue?

"It's a fearsome arm, the bullwhip," he'd said to me, "but remember—of all weapons, it's the one that relies the most on panache and the psychologic flair. The perfect weapon for you, you sassy, disrespectful little wretch."

"Would you, base curs?" I roared. The first I had lashed from my seat, but now I arose and began laying about with a fine touch—fine, not only in the hand, but in the jocularity of the remarks which I sent along with the strokes. The key, however, was the scalps.

Pain will dissuade a mob, of course, as humor will depress their spirits. But there's nothing like the sight of a few scalps lifted from bully heads by smart cracks of the lash to drain their passions. The more so when the cunning of the stroke causes the scalps to fly directly into the whipmaster's free hand. After I had collected four scalps, stuffing the bloody things into my belt, the draymasters fled in all directions, howling with terror. All but two, who made the mistake of trying to hide behind (I should say, in front of) Gwendolyn. Without breaking stride, she shouldered them down, trampled them under, and hauled the iron-rimmed wheels of the cart directly over their bodies. A cart, mind you, bearing not only my weight but that of the giant Wolfgang as well!

I was adapting to Grotum, I could tell. The sound of crunching bones was a pure musical delight.

"Oh, well done! Well done!" hissed Wolfgang.

"Thank you," muttered Gwendolyn.

"I wasn't talking to you, dear," chuckled Wolfgang. "I was referring to the masterful whipwork. Are you by any chance related to Larue Sfrondrati-Piccolomini?"

"My uncle," I whispered. "And will you please shut up? You'll give it away, people see your lips moving—you're supposed to be a damned statue!"

"Not to fear, my boy. I'm a ventriloquist, you know."

Casually I turned my head, looking into the back of the cart. There was Wolfgang, posed cross-legged like a saint—a statue of a saint, more properly. Quite a good likeness, if I say so myself. I had discovered that painting a man up to look like a huge wooden icon was not all that difficult—not, at least, for an artist like myself who had carved and painted more wooden icons by the time I was nine than I could remember.

Wolfgang's stance was perfect. He was absolutely rigid and unmoving, for all the world like—well, actually, like a wooden statue.

"It'll be the easiest thing in the world for me to manage," he'd said after he'd explained the scheme. "The head psychiatrist at the asylum says I've got the finest catatonic trance he's ever examined! Such a compliment!"

And I'll admit his ventriloquism was as good as his catatonia. I couldn't see a trace of his lips moving, even as he continued to babble on.

"I knew it! I knew it! The wonderful touch with the scalps! The unmistakable style! And the bon mots!" He bubbled with mad laughter—a strange sound and sight, let me tell you, coming from unmoving lips! Grotesque, really.

"I was there, you know," he continued, "at the Criticism of the Critics. I was actually there in person!"

I was stunned. "You were there? You saw it?"

The smug voice: "Every moment. From the preface, to the disclaimer, to the rebuttal, to the conclusion. One of my fondest memories."

It was before my time, of course, but it was a legend in the clan. Over the years, I'll admit to growing a bit skeptical. But as we made our slow way down the boulevard, Gwendolyn stolidly hauling the cart through the fetid crowd, Wolfgang hissed a full description of the great event.

"Amazing arrogance, when I look back on it," he whispered. "But then, what can you expect from a lot of critics? A vile, contumacious breed. And quite unstable mentally. An incredible percentage of megalomaniacs were critics in early life, you know? Still, it's astonishing. Had I been a critic invited to express my criticism of a young Sfondrati-Piccolomini before his assembled condottiere brothers and cousins, I believe I should have declined. And I'm a madman! But damned if they didn't show up—a hundred of the parasites, at the least. Gabbling away as soon as they took their seats. The condottiere listened politely for an hour or so, while the critics dissected every error of the young artist—Alessandro, wasn't it?—"

"Domenico," I corrected.

"Ah, yes! Anyway, on and on they went, explaining how the lad had done everything wrong—the colors, the strokes, the perspective—even the quality of the canvas and the grain of the wood on the frame. But they reserved their fiercest criticism for the actual content of the painting. On this the critics were united—unusual circumstance!—that the depiction of five soldiers of fortune sitting about a table quaffing their wine was a most unsuitable subject for a portrait entitled Gods At Their Pleasure."

"The critics never grew up in the Sfondrati-Piccolomini clan," I remarked, "where respect for one's elders is not to be taken lightly. As it happens, my uncles were the models for the portrait."

"You don't say! Odd, really. I myself didn't see any resemblance at all between the divine, serene, and radiant features in the portrait and the—you will take no offense?—scarred, raffish and altogether wicked-looked visages of your uncles. The more so once they began their own criticism of the critics! Such a scene! It was marvelous! I don't imagine half of the critics managed to escape the auditorium alive."

"Not many critics left in Ozar to this day, that's a fact," I commented.

"Just think of it! Such a civilized place, the Ozarine! Rapacious, grasping lot of imperialists, of course. But civilized. Here in Grotum, your critics are a positive plague, a scandal, a threat to public health! Ask any sullen, malcontented little boy or girl who can't tie their shoelaces what they want to be when they grow up and they'll not hesitate for an instant—want to be a critic! Even find a few in the mental asylums. Not many—criticism is in the main a disease of sane people. And they don't last long, of course. It's not conducive to long life, being a critic locked up with a bunch of psychopaths."

Wolfgang continued on in this vein for a minute or so longer, but then he discontinued his discourse. We were now almost at the Dreary Gate. We were about to discover if Wolfgang's plan would work.

But just as we drew up before the gate, an interruption occurred. A pack of cavalry horses were drawn up before a saloon located right next to the gate—if the noble term "cavalry horses" can be applied to as sorry and broken-down a lot of nags as I ever laid eyes on. Just as our dray pulled even with the saloon, a disordered mob of soldiery poured out of its swinging doors, most still clutching their jugs. In their middle, hoisted on their shoulders, was a portly captain.

"Make way! Make way!" bellowed this wight. "Clear the gate for the Royal Goimr Commandos!"

The soldiers manning the Dreary Gate shooed all civilians to one side and opened the portal. In the event, their bustling energy was wasted, for it took the Commandos a full ten minutes to saddle up and ride off. A good bit of this time was consumed by the actual difficulty of attaining their seats on the high perches of the saddles, being, as they were, utterly drunken. But most of the delay was caused by the captain's command to "blacken their faces." This act, the blacking of commandos' faces to ensure stealth in the night, seemed somewhat inappropriate for horsemen in broad daylight. But the commandos clearly prized this cherished privilege of their status, and they set about blacking their faces with a vigor. The martial effect, however, was ruined by their childish levity in smearing each other with the greasepaint.

"Goimr is not, I am beginning to deduce, one of the military behemoths of Grotum," was my whispered comment to Wolfgang.

He even managed a ventriloquist snort.

Eventually, the Commandos assembled into a ragged file, their horses looking gloomier by the minute. The captain whipped his plumed hat off his head (the bright ostrich feather clashed, I thought, with the logic of the blackened face) and waved it about.

"Citizens of Goimr!" he cried, addressing the small crowd which was gazing upon the Commandos. "Your noble Commandos are off to capture the renegade Zulkeh—the sorcerer satanic!—the—" Here he fell off his horse. When he clambered back on, he made to resume his speech, but his now-surly horse would have none of it, and charged through the gate. The rest of the Commandos lunged off in pursuit.

The guards at the gate drew their swords in a ragged salute.

"Hail the noble Royal Commandos!" cried the sergeant.

"Hail the nobleroilcomdos," muttered the guards in response.

"Death to the satanic sorcerer Zulkeh!" cried the sergeant.

"Death to the s'tancsorcerZully," muttered the guards apathetically.

These duties performed, the sergeant and the guards resumed their inspection of the papers of those seeking passage through the gate. My hopes of success in deceiving these vigilant men of war, let me say, were now quite high.

Soon enough, it was our turn. My papers were examined cursorily. The sergeant essayed a squaring of the shoulders in respect of Gerard's signature, failed miserably, resumed his slouch, and waved us through.

Since he seemed harmless enough, I decided to satisfy my curiosity.

"Who is this sorcerer the Commandos are pursuing?" I asked.

I got back in reply a garbled and not very coherent account of the misdeeds of the wizard Zulkeh, in which the kernel of driving the King mad was intermingling with a bouillabaisse of other crimes. I particularly enjoyed the charge of "public urination."

Then, we were delayed by the soldiers gawking at Wolfgang.

"Ay, an' is he the great icon, or what, lads?" demanded one of the guards. His fellows indicated, with none-too-convincing expressions of piety, their agreement with his awed opinion.

"St. Athelbert, idn't he?" asked the devout guard.

I frowned fiercely. "Ignorant dolt! 'Tis the spitting image of St. Abblerede—patron saint of lunatics and criminals!"

The fellow looked properly abashed, and with no further ado I cracked the whip and ordered Gwendolyn to move smartly, d'ye hear? I suspected, from the hunch of her shoulders and the tightening of her jaws, that I would pay for it later.

Once we were beyond earshot of the gate, now on a dirt road leading into the countryside, Wolfgang spoke in a more normal tone of voice.

"There is no patron saint of lunatics," he cackled. "Plenty for criminals, of course, but we raving types have been read out of the state of Holy Grace. Quite absurd, really, when you consider that almost all saints were obviously demented. How they get sanctified, you know? Going off and irritating all sorts of aborigines who boil them in oil or shoot them full of arrows or whatnot. I ask you, who but a madman would do such things?"

I interrupted what, with my growing experience, I could detect as a new round of witless babble.

"I should think the Commandos will capture the wizard soon enough," I remarked.

That set off a new round of cackling from the icon. Gwendolyn's shoulders were quivering—with humor, I realized, considerably relieved.

"And why not? Sure, they're as sorry a lot of soldiery as I've ever seen, but they're still soldiers on horseback pursuing a coach. I grant you, the coach left two days ago, but they should still be able to catch up easily, even allowing for drunken binges along the way."

"No doubt, if they could simply follow the coach. But the coach took the direct route, through the Grimwald, whereas the soldiers will have to take the roundabout road, through the marsh and the mountains."

"Why don't they just follow the coach?"

More cackling.

"My boy, you are such an innocent! Clear enough, you're a stranger to Grotum. The Grimwald, lad, is Grotum's oldest and greatest forest."


"So! Are you that ignorant? Snarls, boy, snarls! They abound in the Grimwald—and forest snarls, to boot! Goes without saying, of course—what other kind of snarls would you find in a forest but forest snarls?"

I pondered his words, trying to decide if I was the butt of a joke. It's a crude but common form of humor—to mock a newcomer by telling him tall tales of the local surroundings. I had heard of snarls, of course. What Ozarine was not enthralled, as a child, by the endless tales of those monsters of the Groutch wilds? But as I grew older, I wrote the tales off as fiction for children—in a class with Good Saint Nick and the Tooth Fairy.

I decided Wolfgang was too weird for crude mockery.

"So the snarls actually exist?"

"Of course they exist! You can find them in all the wild parts of Grotum! Forest snarls, mountain snarls, swamp snarls, rock snarls, prairie snarls—the list is well nigh endless. Rather rare creatures, mostly, except in some places. Joe's Favorite Woods swarms with them, of course. And they're very abundant in the Grimwald."

"I still don't understand why the soldiers can't traverse the forest. I mean, if a coach can get through, then I should think a body of armed men would have no difficulty whatsoever."

"My boy, my boy, it's not like that at all. The coach will get through because the snarls will probably leave it alone. Snarls generally don't pester simple travelers. But soldiers! Oh, no, it simply won't do. Take great offense at soldiery, snarls do. Gobble them up with a ferocity. Police too."

"You mean neither soldiers nor police can enter the Grimwald?"

"Not sane ones. Insane ones could, it goes without saying. Snarls are rather fond of lunatics. But what madman would be so crazy as to enlist in the army? Not to mention the police!"

"The Grimwald must be a haven for poachers, then."

This last remark of mine not only set off a new round of cackling but caused Gwendolyn's shoulders to positively heave with humor.

"Such an innocent!" giggled Wolfgang. "Such an ignoramus! Lad, one does not poach in a snarl forest. Believe me, one doesn't. Not, at least, unless one is seeking a quick and messy form of suicide."

I fell silent, disgruntled, if the truth be told, by this unseemly mirth at my expense. The day wore on, our cart making slow but steady progress. Gwendolyn showed no signs of tiring, even hauling our great heavy load. I now realized that she was not only extraordinarily large, but incredibly strong. At first, I would have said, incredibly strong for a woman. By the end of the day, when we finally decided to stop for the night by the roadside, and I observed her lowering the cart without so much as a drop of sweat on her brow, it finally dawned on me that she was easily the strongest human I had ever known. In the years to come, I was only forced to qualify that assessment once, when I met her brother.

That realization only made the ensuing situation the more uncomfortable!

For, after the few minutes required to make our camp for the night—some few yards from the roadside, in a small grove—I realized that Gwendolyn and Wolfgang were gazing at me with a strange intensity. Wolfgang's expression positively radiated amusement. Gwendolyn's was much harder to read. Repressed anger, an odd, cold kind of humor. I was not certain.

"What's this about?" I queried.

Gwendolyn said nothing, her face now like a mask. Wolfgang giggled.

"Well," he said, "it's actually the immemorial and time-honored custom in Grotum, at the end of a day's haul, for the draywoman to provide sexual service for the draymaster."

My face must have flushed red. Partly from embarrassment, partly—I cannot deny it—because the image his words brought to my mind caused a sudden rush of passion to fall over me.

"Barbarous!" I cried. "Barbarous!" I broke into a fit of coughing. Once recovered, I looked at Gwendolyn and said: "I assure you, Gwendolyn, I have no intention of respecting such an infamous custom."

Contrary woman!

Far from bringing praise for my couth gentility, my words brought down on my unoffending head a veritable torrent of abuse! The gist of which was:

And who was I, the slimy Ozarine, to give myself great airs and sneer at the barbarous backwardness of Grotum, when that barbarous state was maintained with Ozarine influence and money?

This was but the prelude to an impassioned speech on the nefarious imperial plots of Ozarae, its vampiric grasp on Grotum, its suborning of all official Groutch institutions (not, to hear her speak, that she was filled with any great admiration for these institutions to begin with!), and so on, and so on, and so on. I was lost after a few minutes—not so much because I disagreed with her logic but because I simply couldn't follow it. Politics, statesmanship, all that, were of no interest to me whatsoever. I was an artist, not a diplomat! Ironic, actually, in light of subsequent events.

Finally, she wound down. Wolfgang cackled.

"I do believe you've left the poor confused lad out at sea without a compass," he giggled.

"But surely," I protested to Gwendolyn, "you have no liking for this hallowed Groutch draymaster's custom?"

"Of course not!" she snarled. "Of course it's barbarous! Women are treated like beasts of burden in Grotum, for the most part. And most of the sexual customs belong in a cesspool. I've met few enough draymasters I wouldn't cheerfully butcher. Will butcher some of them, come the revolution. Reactionary dogs! Not much better than slavers!"

She growled, then burst into a sudden grin.

"I will admit you handle that whip well. The hardest part of the whole day, that was, trying to keep from laughing at the sight of the draymasters howling and scurrying for cover. And I thoroughly enjoyed trampling the two of them."

She eyed me speculatively. "You might want to get rid of those scalps, by the way. They're drawing flies."

I had forgotten them. I yanked them out of my belt and flung them into the woods. When I turned back, alas, the fierce scowl was back on her face.

"I just don't want to hear it from an Ozarine. I think it's what angers me the most. If the Ozarines were honest about their imperialism, it'd be bad enough. But to have to listen to the vultures chide we crude and uncouth Groutch for our uncivilized ways—while they plunder us like pirates!" She took a deep breath. "Damn all hypocrites!"

I made an unwise attempt to mollify her.

"Actually, Gwendolyn, there's quite a great admiration and fascination for Grotum among many Ozarines. Myself included! Why, as a—"

"Oh, spare me!" She snorted. "Think I don't know every Ozarine bratling isn't brought up on tales of mysterious and romantic Grotum? Hah! I've even read a few of those romantic adventure novels which are so popular in Ozar. One of them even had the hero magically incarnated as a Groutch himself. A knight, naturally, gallivanting about the countryside with noble Groutch companions, rescuing fair maidens. Typical Ozarine horseshit! Why doesn't somebody write a true novel? You know, where the hero's magically incarnated as a Groutch peasant—better yet, the wife of a Groutch peasant! It'd be such a jolly romantic book! Half her children—and she'll drop 'em once a year till she dries up or dies—dead of disease or hunger before they're five years of age. Plowing the fields day after day, toil from the time she's old enough to walk to the time she can't move from her deathbed. A despairing, beaten down husband, drunk half the time—and why not?—except all his rage will fall on her and the children."

She fell silent for a moment, breathing heavily. Wolfgang interjected, saying mildly: "Actually, the boy's not really responsible for all that, Gwendolyn. At least, in the short time we've made his acquaintance, I haven't noticed him charging about spreading mass disease and misery."

Gwendolyn glared at him, then sighed.

"I know, I know. It's unfair of me to throw it on to Benvenuti's head. I shouldn't personalize these things. But still, it infuriates me, the way the Ozarines create a world that perpetuates—makes worse!—every injustice in it, and then cluck their tongues at the barbarity of it all."

It was the first time in my life that I didn't just walk away from a political argument. I think it was the fierce flame in her, that drew me like a moth—and didn't I know, even then, that it usually turns out badly for the moth! Then, too, there was this—which, I admit, cut a little close to Gwendolyn's point, so I always kept it to myself—that she made every Ozarine lass I'd known seem like a pale shadow. Fact is, the damned woman was a romanticist's dream! And what artist isn't a romantic? Not any Sfondrati-Piccomolinis. At least, not from my—admittedly somewhat disreputable—branch of the clan. My branch of the clan, truth to tell, has always produced a lot more adventurers than scholars.

I did not, of course, attempt to argue the politics of her persuasion. For one thing, I would have been completely over my head. Even at that young age, I had enough sense not to dispute doctrine with a hardened Groutch revolutionist! For another, I wasn't at all sure I didn't agree with her, insofar as I'd ever given any thought to political questions. My uncles had certainly never instilled in me any great feeling of pride in "the grandeur of Ozar."

But I did make the attempt to present myself in a different perspective. And so, as our campfire burned a spot of light in the darkness, I spoke quietly of my lifelong fascination with Grotum. Begun, to be sure, from a child's fairy tales. But, as I grew older, I came to understand the centrality of Grotum to all the world's art and literature. This reality was known to all students of the arts, and often commented on by the scholars—some with admiration, most with rueful asperity, some even with despair. But directly or indirectly, Grotum acted like a great dark planet, which drew into its orbit all the brighter but smaller orbs.

She said nothing, but she listened to me. Rather intently, I think. When I was done, she did not break her silence. But I thought—or so I hoped—that there was less tension in the set of her shoulders.

"We'd best get some sleep," she said. Then, as she was rolling up in her blanket, a little chuckle, and she added: "You'll need to be well rested tomorrow, Benvenuti, so your whip hand doesn't waver. But I owe you for the draymasters, so I'll give you one scratch if you cut it too fine. One only, mind! Or it's the gutting blade."

* * *

It took us two days to get through the Goimric countryside to the edge of the forest. The trip was uneventful, save for one occasion late in the afternoon of the second day, when we were overtaken by a platoon of cavalry. They came galloping up the road behind us, waving their sabers and hallooing war cries. But it became obvious that they were not interested in us. The platoon charged right by without so much as a glance in our direction. One of the cavalrymen, however, fell off his horse as he tried to ride around the cart. He landed in the road with a great thump.

I hopped off and went over to him. He was sitting up, shaking his head. I leaned over and helped him to his feet.

"Are you all right?" I asked.

"Guess so," he muttered. He looked around for his horse. The nag was off in a field some thirty yards distant. The soldier pursed his lips and whistled. The nag looked at him, defecated, and trotted away.

"Damn the beast!" snarled the soldier. "Now I'll have to finish the charge on foot."

"Is there a battle ahead?" I asked.

The soldier looked at me like I was retarded.

"Would I be charging into a battle?" he demanded. "Haven't you heard? The palace burned down! The heirs to the throne are all dead. The word is we'll have a new government." He swelled his scrawny chest. "A military government!"

He dusted off his clothes. "So, anyway, the captain ordered us to charge the tavern up the road. Free drinks, there'll be." He puffed out his chest again. "After that, we'll maybe burn one or two villages."

He retrieved his sword from the road and waved it above his head.

"For junta and country!" he cried, and began a shambling run up the road.

After I resumed my seat, Gwendolyn started the cart in motion.

"That sounds bad," I commented.

"What do you care about the Royal Palace?" demanded Gwendolyn.

"Not that. Favor to the world, burning down that pile of refuse. No, I meant the part about the military government. You heard him. It's obvious the soldiery'll take it as an excuse to commit atrocities on the population."

Gwendolyn laughed. Behind me, Wolfgang giggled.

"What's so funny?" I asked, in a resigned voice. I was getting tired of being the butt of their humor.

"This is Goimr, my boy," cackled Wolfgang. "Now, if this was Sfinctria, or even Pryggia, your fears would have substance. Quite the proper committers of atrocities, your Sfinctrian army. And the Pryggs are no slouches, either. But Goimric soldiers? Commit atrocities? I fear you overestimate their capabilities."

"The last time the Goimric army tried to plunder a village," commented Gwendolyn, "the inhabitants sent them packing." She looked back at me, grinning like a wolf. "And they were lucky the men were still in the fields. They suffered thirty percent casualties at the hands of the women and children."

"They're really that bad?"

"As you have earlier surmised yourself," remarked Wolfgang, "Grotum does not tremble at the rattling of Goimric sabers."

I shook my head. "They'll get better, I'm afraid. I don't know much about politics, but I spent enough time around my uncles to know that Ozar will be sending in military advisers, soon enough."

"With your uncles along, no doubt," came Gwendolyn's sneering voice, "like proper soldiers of fortune."

I controlled my temper. "Actually," I replied in a calm voice, "they'll not be involved. They refuse to participate in such affairs. It's one of the reasons they always turn down the offers of the Ozarine government to give them regular commissions. They say occupation work corrodes the soul."

Wolfgang cackled. "Such a crazy world! Mercenaries with honor! Of course, they are Sfondrati-Piccolominis."

I remembered the last emissary of the Senate, sent packing from our house with a boot mark on his behind. Ludovigo's boot, that'd been—he was always the most ill-tempered of my condottiere uncles.

"Have you got a war somewhere?" he'd demanded of the emissary. "A real war, I'm talking about?"

The emissary had hemmed and hawed, rambling on about the geostrategic significance of the pacification of some far distant land I'd never heard of. But he didn't get very far along. Ludovigo is not a patient man. The boot had followed, with my other uncles contributing verbal mayhem.

When the emissary was gone, scuttling down the street, Ludovigo had turned to me, scowling and chewing his mustachios.

"Remember this, boy," he'd growled. "Seventeen, you are now. You'll be a grown man soon, responsible for your actions." His glare was joined by that of my other uncles. "The family will forgive a wolf, but we've no mercy for jackals."

"Certainly not!" I'd exclaimed, not really understanding the ins and outs of the matter. But I understood my uncle's boot.

"What a world we've produced," sighed Ludovigo. He'd resumed his seat, planted his boot on the table, drained his mug. "There was a time when it was a proud thing, to be an Ozarine. Go back in the family line, you'll find that plenty of Sfondrati-Piccolominis served in the army of Ozarae. With pride and distinction. Pride and distinction." He sneered. "Now, I'd as soon join a pack of hyenas."

"I'd rather join a pack of hyenas," my uncle Rodrigo had contributed. "Never claim to be more than scavengers, your honest hyenas."

"Won't hear a hyena prate on and on about the grandeur of the pack and the glory of the carrion," added Larue.

"Unless it's a scholar hyena," chuckled Filoberto. "I hear our distant cousin, Rhodes Sfondrati-Piccolomini, has just come out with a new book—The Ozarine Century, it's called."

"I've read it," said Larue. "Drones on and on about the Burden of Ozar, as he calls it. That's scholar-speak for 'let's loot everything, for the lootee's best interest.' Would you believe, the fool even calls for a new attempt at conquering the Sssuj?"

Great gales of laughter had greeted that last statement. When their glee subsided, however, my uncles' gloom had returned. The long silence had finally been broken by my uncle Ludovigo, his voice hard as stone.

"That fool belongs to another branch of the clan. In our branch, in our family—we've had eagles and falcons, and owls, and more than a few peacocks and dodos. But there's never been a vulture." He'd fixed me with his glare. "You hear me, boy?"

I was recalled back to the present by Wolfgang's voice.

"There it is. The Grimwald."

I looked up. On the horizon, ahead and to my right, I could see a ragged, dark green line. Even from the distance, it looked somehow foreboding.

I said as much, and Wolfgang giggled. "Nonsense! It's a marvelous place, the Grimwald. Full of wonder and enchantment! Unicorns, even! The world's greatest mystery, you know?"

"What's that?" I asked.

"Why, it's obvious! How do unicorns propagate, when they've got this fetish about virginity?" He cackled. "I've spent years trying to figure it out. Even asked the head psychiatrist at the asylum. The man's a genius, you know? But he was no help, at all. Said that unicorns were just a figment of my imagination."

"They are," said Gwendolyn forcefully.

"Well, of course, I know that!" Wolfgang's voice was full of aggrievement. "I'm not stupid, you know, just insane. But that's the whole point! How do unicorns propagate in my imagination, when they've got this fetish about virginity? My imagination certainly doesn't. Have a fetish about virginity, I mean." He howled like a lunatic. "Quite the contrary! A cornucopia of sexual perversion, it is, my imagination. I've scolded it many times, but it keeps coming up with the wildest ideas! For instance—"

"Wolfgang, shut up!" roared Gwendolyn.

"Such a prude! Oh, very well. But, anyway, for some reason my imagination comes up short whenever it tries to picture unicorns propagating. Years, I've spent, trying to figure out why. It's very important, you know, for a lunatic to understand his imagination. Sane people never have to worry about it, of course. You can just pass things off by saying 'it's just my imagination.' But a dement can't do that, because we live in the world of our imagination. So—"

"Wolfgang, shut up!" roared Gwendolyn.

"But, my dear Gwendolyn, you're missing the whole point! Sane people are such cripples! Hamstrung, you are, by the real world. Whereas a madman can just dismiss the problem by saying 'it's just the real world,' and go on about the important business, which is imagining—"

Gwendolyn heaved herself out of the yoke and stalked back to the cart. She glared up at the towering figure of the madman, still sitting in the pose of an icon.

"If you don't shut up," she hissed between her teeth, "the real world will intrude upon your imagination this very minute."

I was afraid a row might break out, with me caught between a giant and an Amazon. But Wolfgang only smirked and said: "I shall become quite the proper icon, then. Full of grace."

And, indeed, he fell silent for the rest of the journey into the Grimwald, except for a whisper meant only for my ears.

"Such a solemn woman, she is. You really must try and brighten up her spirits, young man."

Such was, in fact, my very hope. But I wasn't about to acknowledge the same to a lunatic. Still, my stiff back must have transmitted some of my feelings, for I could hear Wolfgang chuckling behind me.

A short distance further, Gwendolyn turned the cart down a narrow, rutted dirt path. We were now headed directly for the forest, and she began to pick up the pace. A half hour later, the path entered beneath the loom of the Grimwald. Gwendolyn shrugged out of the yoke.

"We can leave the cart here," she said. "No one will find it for days. By then we'll be long gone, deep into the forest."

I hopped off the cart. Wolfgang arose, as limber as if he hadn't spent the last three days posing as a statue. For him, stepping off the cart was not much more than for a boy to step off a stool. It took but a moment for the three of us to push the cart into some bushes, out of sight of any casual passer-by.

Gwendolyn led the way into the forest. The dirt path quickly became a faint trail winding through the immense trees of the forest. Those trees! Never had I seen anything like them, so huge they were, and so densely packed. Every variety of tree, to boot, evergreen and hardwoods mixed together with no rhyme or reason that I could see.

Crazy he might have been, but Wolfgang had an uncanny ability to discern a person's thoughts.

"Don't try to figure out the ecology of the Grimwald, Benvenuti. Can't be done, you know? The scholars gave it up long ago, after my great-grandfather Kirkpatrick went mad in the attempt. Locked him up, poor man, after he started babbling at the annual meeting of the Philosophical Society that the Grimwald was the last surviving remnant of the primeval Eozoon. Such a brilliant naturalist! I'm quite partial to his theory of the nummulosphere, myself. You're familiar with it, of course?"

I shook my head.

"What? Never heard of Kirkpatrick's theory?" He grimaced. "Such a horrible state modern education's fallen to! Not surprising, of course, in Ozar. You Ozarines are such incorrigible rationalists. But even here in Grotum the children are not instructed in the theory of the nummulosphere. And such a marvelous theory! Kirkpatrick claims the whole world was built up, bit by bit, by the action of single-celled forams—amoebas, sort of. Claims you can see their fossils everywhere, if you just look closely enough. Unfortunately, he's been the only one able to look closely enough, so they say he's a crackpot. Too bad, really. His theory's so much more imaginative than all this dry stuff about tectonic plates. Can there be anything more boring than igneous rock? Forams, now—there's a lively basis for world-building!" And on he droned, making absolutely no sense at all. But I had gotten accustomed to shutting out his prattle.

By nightfall, we had penetrated a fair distance into the forest. Gwendolyn apparently knew where we were going—I myself was hopelessly lost—for when we entered a small clearing, she said: "This is it. We'll camp here for the night."

The next morning, Wolfgang announced that we would have to part company.

"I'll be going that way," he said, gesturing vaguely to the northeast. "Got to catch up with the wizard, you know, and you two are off to quite different parts."

Gwendolyn looked at him, hesitated, then spoke.

"I will ask you again. Why are you—and everyone else in the world, it seems—so interested in this wizard?"

A look of pure innocence came upon Wolfgang's face. "Me? Interested in Zulkeh?"

Gwendolyn exploded. "Don't lie to me, Wolfgang! It must have taken you years to build those secret rooms and tunnels under the death house. And all so you could spy on this Zulkeh! Why? And why is everyone else so concerned with him? Why did Hildegard send me off on this wild goose chase? Why?"

"I've been interested in Zulkeh and his doings for years," responded Wolfgang, a rare tone of seriousness in his voice. "Impossible to explain why, in any terms that would make sense to you. But it's my main project in life, actually. It's because of Joe, of course."

Seeing the fierce frown on Gwendolyn's face, Wolfgang sighed.

"You are so unreasonable about this, Gwendolyn! Don't you think you should take the Joe question a bit more seriously, seeing as how everyone else does—friends and foes alike? Or do you really think the Fangs of Piety—not to mention Hildegard—are all as crazy as me?"

"They're crazier," snapped Gwendolyn. "At least you admit you're a lunatic. Hildegard lives in the clouds. Oh, I love her dearly. And she's a friend to the underground, I'd be the last to deny it. That's why I agreed to carry out this mission for her. I owe her plenty of favors—the whole movement does, for that matter. But she's still nuts! She claims to correspond with God!"

"Oh, but she does!" exclaimed Wolfgang. "Has a whole room in the Abbey just to store the Old Geister's stone tablets. Absolutely compulsive, that woman. Won't throw away anything. I'd certainly throw away God's stone tablets, if He sent me the kind of nasty notes He sends her!" He shook his head. "But she keeps right on with her correspondence. Says it's her bounden duty as a pious Abbess to tell God the plain and simple truth about Himself, even if He doesn't want to hear it. Which He certainly doesn't! The Deity doesn't take well to criticism, you know, and my aunt has quite the sharp tongue."

Gwendolyn threw up her hands. "I give up! The Fangs I can understand. Those reactionary maniacs are just as crazy as you are, but at least they deal with the real world."

"Well, of course they do!" exclaimed Wolfgang. "What's the point of being a vicious reactionary, if you're not going to deal with the real world? Might as well be a liberal!" He shuddered. "Such sane people, liberals. Really ought to be locked up, the bunch of them. For their own sake, if nothing else. Not that I'd wish a pack of whining liberals on a lunatic asylum! The rest of the inmates would all commit suicide, just to escape the platitudes."

He paused, beaming down on Gwendolyn.

"I can see you're about to get angry with me, again. Can't be helped, I suppose. Not too many sweet-tempered revolutionaries around. Executions, torture, imprisonment—doesn't make for placid, jolly types. Still, I think you should—"

Gwendolyn silenced him with a sharp gesture. "Never mind what you think I should do." Suddenly she laughed. "After all these years, you'd think I'd know better than to try to get any sense out of you."

She stared off into the forest for a moment, then turned back to the giant.

"All right," she said, "I suppose I can trust you. And it means nothing to me, anyway. The message which I was to deliver to Zulkeh from Hildegard was this. I was to tell him that Hildegard had a vision—"

"I knew it! She's had another vision!" cried Wolfgang, clapping his huge hands like a child filled with glee.

"—and in this vision she saw Zulkeh, with a long beard—long, all the way down to his feet. And then, out from under his wizard's hat, crawled a monster. The monster made its way down to the ground, using the wizard's beard like a rope. It took the monster a long time to get down, she said, but once—"

"Of course it took the monster a long time!" cried Wolfgang. "That's such a long and perilous journey, climbing down a sorcerer's beard!"

Gwendolyn scowled at the interruption, then continued.

"But once the monster reached the ground, it began to swell, and grow, like a storm cloud. And it was very angry. And then the world ended."

She took a breath. "And that's it. That's the message. Makes no sense to me, at all."

She stopped, gaping with astonishment. For the giant lunatic started capering around the meadow, leaping and doing cartwheels, and howling like a banshee.

"He's finally flipped," I said.

Gwendolyn shook her head. "No—at least, no more than usual. He's just very happy and excited."

Sure enough, after a couple of minutes of these bizarre acrobatics, Wolfgang calmed down and shambled back over to where we were standing. Tears of joy were streaming down his cheeks.

"Best news I've heard in years!" he boomed. "Marvelous! Absolutely marvelous! I'd be ecstatic even if I'd had the vision in one of my hallucinations—but coming from Hildegard!" He grinned, drooling. "Her visions are infallible, you know."

"I don't suppose you'd explain what it means?" asked Gwendolyn.

Wolfgang looked about, like a little boy trying to keep a secret.

"Well, I suppose I could give you a hint. It means the world's going to end. Way ahead of my schedule, it looks like."

Gwendolyn visibly restrained her temper. "This is good news?"

Wolfgang was shocked. "Well, of course it's good news!" Then he clapped his head with his hand. "Oh, of course! You think—no! no! Dear Gwendolyn! You have such a grim, apocalyptic view of things! Twilight of the gods, all that rot. No, dear, the world's going to end like—like, how shall I put it?—yes! Like all the low things in life end! That's it! Like all the things that crawl, and lie in the mud, and stink, and wriggle."

He stooped, bringing his face down. "Now do you see?"

"No, I don't!" exclaimed Gwendolyn.

Wolfgang straightened, sighed. "We look at things so differently, dear. From different angles, you might say."

He reached out and stroked her cheek.

"But I don't care, Gwendolyn. On the last day of the world—if you don't get yourself killed!—we'll see everything just the same. And in the meantime, go your way with all my love and hope. For I cherish you."

Gwendolyn took his hand and held it to her cheek.

Suddenly, she stepped back. "Be off with you! You damned lunatic. Off to chase after the wizard, I suppose."

Wolfgang beamed. "Yes! Off to Prygg!" And with no further ado he charged into the forest. The trees shook with his passage, the underbrush hissed their protest. But, not more than a minute later, while Gwendolyn and I remained unmoving in the clearing, the sights and sounds of his return became evident. Wolfgang reappeared, moving toward us in that awkward-looking shamble that covered ground amazingly quickly.

Two seconds later he was standing in front of me, waving his arms about.

"I'm so forgetful!" he cried. "I forgot to say good-bye to Benvenuti! Can you forgive me, dear boy?"

I nodded. "Think nothing of it."

"Such a polite lad! Such a credit to his family!"

He extended his hand and shook mine. My—by normal standards—large hand was completely lost in his huge fist.

"Perhaps we will meet again," I said, not really taking the formula seriously.

"Of course we will!" cried the giant. "It's inevitable! You're up to your knees in Joe business, boy, and sinking fast! Of course we'll meet again! But until then, take care."

And again he was off. Within a minute, all sign of him was gone. I turned to Gwendolyn.

"What now?"

For a few seconds longer, she continued to stare into the forest where Wolfgang had disappeared. Then she motioned to the left with her head.

"That way."

Back | Next