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In Which We
Resume Our Account of the Adventures of the Artist and his Insurrectionary Companion as They Continue Their
Journey Through the Baronies.


The Autobiography of Benvenuti Sfondrati-Piccolomini,
Episode 4: Fields, Forts, Form and Function

So it was on such a note of trepidation that we emerged from the Grimwald and set foot in the Baronies.

At first glance, the terrain seemed unremarkable. Very hilly, was my first thought. Innumerable hills stretched toward the horizon, each of them surmounted by a weathered rocky tor. Here and there a small wooded copse or a pasture with a stone croft. Beyond that, I had no impression other than the rather barren and rocky nature of the region. Each little peasants' field seemed to be surrounded by stone walls. And I was puzzled by the apparent absence of any dwellings.

When I remarked on the latter, Gwendolyn pointed a finger at what appeared to be, in the distance, some sort of huge gopher hole. "The peasants in the Baronies can't afford huts. They live in holes in the ground."

I made a face. The rapacity of the Groutch Barons was a byword even in Ozar. "Then where do the Barons live?"

Gwendolyn looked at me as if I were a dimwit. "In their castles, where else?"

"What cas—" I broke off, staring at the top of one of the hills. Realizing, for the first time, that what I had first taken to be a crumbling mass of rock was actually . . . had been at one time, at least, an edifice.

"That's a 'castle'?" I croaked.

"What passes for one, in the southern Baronies. In some parts of the northern Baronies, the nobility's more sophisticated." She smiled thinly. "This is not, as you may imagine, an area which attracts the world's finest architects."

I stared at the "castle," my eyes probably widening by the second. "Actually," I heard Gwendolyn murmur, "I've been told Gropius Laebmauntsforscynneweëld once passed through here. Rumor has it he was inspired to design something based on one of the Barony castles. Can't imagine what."

"I've seen it," I croaked. "It's in the Imperial Zoo at Ozar. The baboon exhibit." I tore my eyes away from the grotesque pile of rubble masquerading as a castle. "Supposed to have been, anyway. The baboons refuse to use it. When I left, they were talking about turning it into a scorpion exhibit, if they could figure out any way to let people close enough to see the venomous creatures."

"'Venomous creatures' is right." Gwendolyn pursed her lips and nodded toward the nearest castle. "We'll have to be careful here, Benvenuti. Very careful. Each one of those Barons—the best of them—makes a scorpion seem like a house pet."

We were standing in plain sight, on open ground—and easily visible because the sun had risen above the horizon. My feet twitched a little, as if they sought the relative security of the forest.

"Relax. We're safe enough. In the Baronies, you always travel during the period just before dawn and through the morning. Then, although it's a bit risky, you can travel again after the sun's down. During most of the day, you find a place to get out of sight." Again, she nodded at the not-too-distant "castle." "The Barons don't do a lick of work, you know. Exploit the peasants in the afternoon and carouse all through the evening and night. No respectable Groutch Baron rises before noon. Nor do their armed retainers."

My eyes went to the "gopher hole" she had pointed out earlier. "Won't the peasants report us?"

"You must be joking," she said, shaking her head. Then, set off at her usual brisk pace.

* * *

The biggest hurdle to our progress—and it was a big one, indeed—was clambering over the rock walls which separated each of the fields. The walls were neither high nor difficult to climb, but there were so many of them that the sheer number eventually became quite fatiguing.

"Too dangerous for us to take the road, I assume," I commented at one point, after negotiating yet another wall.

Gwendolyn was straddling the same wall. I spent a moment envying her leather trousers, which were withstanding the rigors of the wall-climbing far better than my own. I spent rather more time admiring the contents of the trousers.

"What 'road'?" snorted Gwendolyn. "It's just a leg, Benvenuti." The second sentence was spoken half crossly, half . . . not.

I grinned. "I'm an artist. Can't separate my appreciation of form from function."

She finished clambering over the wall. "Oh, what a lot of crap. If that's an aesthetic ogle you're giving me, I'll eat these trousers." She set off slogging across another field; over her shoulder: "And if you follow up that train of thought, you're a dead man."

I responded with an innocent smile. I also, I confess, squelched the riposte which had been on my lips—since it did, indeed, "follow up that train of thought."

I saw no reason, however, to refrain from continuing my admiration of the form and function swaying across the field ahead of me. I was by no means a fetishist, but by then I admit to have become quite an enthusiast for leather trousers. Those, at least, which had Gwendolyn in them. Although I will also readily admit that I would probably have felt the same way about any apparel which had Gwendolyn in them. Now that I had spent enough time with the woman to have gotten past the initial impression of her—ah, call it "fearsomeness"—I was finding it quite impossible to ignore the rest. Part of that fascination was simply due to her truly incredible body. Most of it was simply due to Gwendolyn.

This is stupid, I told myself firmly. A ridiculous—hopeless—infatuation. Myself cheerfully ignored me.

In an attempt to bring my thoughts onto more practical ground, I spoke again.

"Are you saying there are no roads in the Baronies?"

"Nothing more than rutted trails. The Barons cherish their independence, don't you know? Since a real road might imply the eventual possibility of a central authority to build and maintain them . . . they keep them as primitive as possible."

"I'd think they'd at least want to be able to charge tolls," I protested.

Gwendolyn snorted. "They do charge tolls. If you're lucky."

The logic of all this escaped me. When I said as much, Gwendolyn's reply was a vigorous shake of the head followed by: "The logic escapes everybody except the Barons. See if they care."

I spent a bit of time admiring the results produced by that vigorous shake of the head. Her hair was every bit as flamboyantly exuberant as her figure. Then: "I'd think some kingdom of Grotum would long since have put paid to this nonsense."

Seeing the frown beginning to form, I added hastily: "Not that I'm advocating imperialism, you understand."

Gwendolyn's frown turned into a somewhat rueful expression. "The Kings of Prygg tried, twice. Those of New Sfinctr, twice also. None of the attempts came to much. There are a lot of barons, and the one thing they are willing to do is fight. And there isn't much here worth conquering anyway. A bunch of surly peasants digging potatoes. About it."

The rueful look stayed on her face. I was a bit puzzled by it. Although I didn't understand that much of Gwendolyn's ideology, I couldn't imagine her feeling much chagrin at Grouch royalty being thwarted.

Something of my curiosity must have been apparent. Gwendolyn paused for a moment, planted her hands on her hips, and swiveled her head to stare off somewhere into the distance to the north. A heavy sigh followed.

"We're not that far away, actually," she said softly. She pointed to the north. "Just two hills over. You'd find the castle where the Comte de l'Abbatoir and his Knights Companion met their end."

My eyes widened. Gwendolyn sighed again. "You're familiar with the incident, I take it?"

I hesitated, finally understanding her odd mix of sentiments. "Um. Yes, of course. It's—ah, please don't take offense—considered the masterwork of the profession. When the report came to Ozar, my uncles spent an entire evening enthusing over the accounts."

Gwendolyn's lips were tight. "Accounts?" she said, emphasizing the plural.

"Oh, yes. A multitude of them, there were. The Ozarean Times even ran an article on the front page. Although my uncles spent most of their time engrossed in a much more scholarly version which had been rushed into print by the Annals of Asphyxiation."

Her lips were now very tight. I hesitated for a moment; then, shrugging:

"Gwendolyn, you can hardly object to your brother strangling the Comte de l'Abbatoir and his entire pack of thugs. Even if he did do it for money."

She burst into sudden laughter. "Object? When the news came, my comrades and I spent an entire night in wild celebration. The Comte was easily the most vicious baron in the whole of the Baronies—and they're all vicious to begin with." The laugh ended soon enough. "Still . . ."

She gave her head another sharp shake and stalked off. A moment later, we were clambering over another wall and my thoughts were drawn back to more artistic concerns.

I decided to title the painting Form and Function, a study in leather.

* * *

We stopped at midday when we came upon a dense hedge. I didn't recognize the shrubs, but they were thick enough to make an excellent place to stay out of sight.

"We'll sleep here," Gwendolyn announced, after studying the thicket. "It'll be tight, but there's room for both of us." She gave me an eye which was half cold, half . . . not.

Sometime later, in the half darkness under the thick shrubs, we were more or less falling asleep in each other's arms. There really wasn't much room in that dense shrubbery for two people.

I say "more or less" because I was finding sleep difficult. I trust the reason is obvious.

Gwendolyn started chuckling. The various motions which that process brought in its train made me despair of ever finding sleep. Insofar as the term "despair," in context, isn't completely absurd.

"Think artistic thoughts," Gwendolyn murmured in my ear. "Plan a painting or a sculpture."

"I'm trying," I grumbled.

She chuckled again. "But I warn you. If the words 'leather' or 'form and function' appear anywhere in the title, I'll hunt you down. I swear I will."

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