the witch flew out the window and into the sky, and found herself in another universe, with a different moon and different stars, as promised by the inquisitor.
she alighted on a dark road, and resumed human form. as there were no reflecting pools nearby, and no mirrors lying in the road, she could not see what she looked like, but she trusted the inquisitor enough at least in so small a matter, that she assumed she must look good. she could see and feel that she was in the form of a young, rather than an old, woman.
the clothing she was wearing seemed warm enough. there was a definite threat of a storm in the dark sky.
there were no signs of human habitation, humble or otherwise, in sight. she commenced walking.
so far. so good.
the only thing that disturbed her peace of mind at all was the inquisitor’s statement that she might encounter arboc, or kobra, in this universe.
the bandit had been alternately her ally and nemesis through many revolutions, and she had had enough of him.
on the one hand, this universe, however small and backward, was still a universe, and what were the chances of encountering him in any universe?
but on the other hand, why would the inquisitor mention it if he did not think it likely?
she walked along, encountering no one. the storm threatened but did not break.
she saw a few lights. they seemed to belong to a single small building at a bend in the road,
and as she approached it took the form of a small old fashioned inn.
there were lights on in two rooms on the top floor, and one on the ground floor. none of the lights were bright, as if each one was only the illumination of a single lamp or candle.
suddenly the storm broke, and the erstwhile witch and hopeful princess quickened her pace, and then broke into a run as the skies poured rain down upon her.
she reached the back of the inn. the illumination she had seen in the ground floor was hardly visible through the one small window beside the back door. the eaves of the building provided almost no shelter from the rain.
the inn reminded her of many others she had known in her travels.
she moved around to the front of the building. here was the lit room she had seen from the road.
she peered through the window. two men were seated at a table. she could barely make out their forms as shadows.
one had the unmistakable slouch of an obsequious innkeeper. he was listening and nodding as the other spoke.
and the other - could it be? could it be kobra? he had the menacing form of the bandit, and gestured to his hearer in the same manner…
no - she only thought so because off the suggestion of the inquisitor. there were a million blathering bullies like kobra in every universe, most of them born to be hanged.
i have to pull myself together, she told herself. i am getting off to a bad start here.
but she moved back to the back of the inn.
peering through the little window she could see no movement. she rapped on the door.
no response. she started pounding harder.
if that did not work, she would change into a bird or a fox and seek shelter in a tree or in the ground. it seemed a poor way to begin a new existence in a new universe.
she gave one more bang on the back door.
it began to slowly open. she saw the frightened face of a little man, probably a servant, looking out at her.
she gave him no time to think about closing the door on her, but pushed him aside and entered quickly, but not so quickly that the little man did not get a face full of rain.
“close the door,” she whispered to the fellow who seemed turned to stone by her appearance, and he obeyed.
there was a flight of stairs just inside the door, and she dragged the little man into the shadows beneath them.
“you must help me,” she hissed.
“are you a servant here?”
“no, miss, i am a weary traveler.” he managed a timid smile. “like yourself.”
“i see.” she looked him up and down. “tell me, sir traveler - this inn, does it have a good reputation? are poor travelers like ourselves likely to wake up in the morning and find ourselves in the oven?”
“why as to that, miss, i can not say. i have never stopped here before, but i am taking my chance. as all we poor mortals do, every day of our brief existences.”
“i see you are a philosopher, as well as a traveler. if you do not mind my asking , are you some sort of peddler?”
“indeed i am, miss, i am a poor seller of flowers.” the little man glanced back at the pale light streaming from the front room. “but why are we standing here, perhaps we could go back to the parlor, where we could be more comfortable?”
the witch ignored this, grasped the little man’s shirt, and spoke in an even lower voice. “tell me, sir flowerseller, the landlord here - what sort of company does he keep?”
“why as to that, i can not say what sort of company he usually keeps, but i can tell you what sort of company he is keeping right now.”
“ah. and that is - ?”
“the flowerseller lowered his voice to the barest whisper. “that of a notorious bandit and rebel!”
“and this fellow - does he have a name?” the witch whispered back.
the maiden changed to a small blue and white bird that flew out the door of the hut and into the gray sky …
she flew directly to the mountain where was situated the castle of the holy inquisition.
night had fallen by the time she reached it.
the chief inquisitor was awake, and working alone in his study on the highest floor of the castle, poring over some ancient texts, after a long day of reading voluminous reports of heresy and pagan practice in the seven kingdoms under his jurisdiction.
the bird alighted on the sill of the window of the study. the inquisitor looked up at it and nodded, and the bird resumed the form of the maiden who had astounded the two friars.
the maiden shivered . “ a cold night, sir.”
“we are in the mountains,” the inquisitor responded. “close the shutters of the window, if you like. but you did not come here to talk of the cold.”
the maiden turned and closed the shutters of the window. the lamp on the inquisitor’s desk threw sharper shadows on the walls.
“no,” replied the maid when she turned to the inquisitor. “i came to tell you that i have achieved the final task you set me - i have captured a god from another universe.”
she proceeded to give the inquisitor the bare details of the capture, which she knew was all he had interest in.
“and so this importunate friar, who was so conveniently at hand, will deliver the god to you in its childish form. unless, of course, you wish me to retrieve it from him, and deliver it to you myself. if you consider our bargain not complete unless i do.”
the inquisitor considered. “no, you did well. and there has been enough magic on display for the friars and other groundlings. i will have this friar’s journey shadowed. and besides, if this creature is really a god, it should be able to at least protect itself from bandits, eh?”
“as you wish, sir. and so our bargain is complete, is it not?”
the inquisitor looked at the maid sharply. “unless you would like another assignment. one last assignment.”
“another assignment!” the maid exclaimed. “we had a bargain.”
“i thought you might like a better bargain, ” the inquisitor smiled.
“i think not. i have had enough.”
“yes, yes,” the inquisitor sighed. he looked around the shadowed room. “as have i, as have i. would that i too could make a bargain - and be rid of all these universes, these gods and creeds and empires and multitudes and heresies and magics and eternities. they grow so tiresome. so tiresome.”
“i am sorry to see you suffering from melancholy, sir. but i am only a poor witch, and have no cure for it.”
“of course, of course.” the inquisitor sighed again, and stared at the walls.
“as to the terms of our agreement,” the maiden broke his reverie.
“yes, yes, you shall have what you want. safe passage to a backwater of a universe. in human form.”
“i am to be a princess.”
“you will be in a world where you can easily proclaim yourself so.”
“i will be beautiful.”
“of course, that is the merest of trifles,” the inquisitor laughed. “beauty, always beauty.”
“in that case, as we are agreed, i will no longer intrude on you.” the maid turned toward the window.
“one more thing,” the inquisitor said.
“ah. there is always one more thing.”
“your associate, arboc, or cobra, or whatever he chooses to call himself - “
“he was involved, by your own account, in the capture of this god, and may wish to claim a release from his humble contract.”
“so?” the maid looked pensive.
“expect to encounter him in your new world.”
“but - that was no part of our bargain,” the maid cried.
“it was not not part of the bargain.”
“that is true,” the maid agreed.
the inquisitor smiled. “unless you wish to make a new bargain.”
the maid did not hesitate. “no, thank you, i will take my chances with arboc.” she smiled. “i bid you goodbye, sir inquisitor.”
“and i bid you goodbye. leave the window open behind you, please.”
"but , sir poet, you have not answered my question. are you in fact a god, and not a man?”
the fire crackled behind me…
the fellow - bandit, rebel, or whatever he was - was beginning to try my patience. but i was determined to avoid any kind of bother, which admitting to being a god would have provoked, even in such humble surroundings, and to just get through the night, and to proceed on our travels in the morning.
so, i answered, him, “no, of course i am not a god.”
he seemed a bit surprised by my answer, and glanced back at his still hooded companion, who gave him a nod.
“are you quite sure?” he asked me again.
“yes, i am sure,” i replied with what i hoped was a convincingly weary laugh.
at this point the bandit’s companion pulled back the hood covering its face and head.
and i , and my companions, and the landlord beheld - a woman.
not a young or beautiful woman, but a hideous withered hag, who bore the unmistakable stamp of a witch, but a woman for all that.
the landlord gasped, as well he might. i have no doubt it was the first woman he had ever seen, so long as he had lived. she was, in fact, the first one i had ever seen, outside the province of the celestial court. and the same was probably true of gex, and thomas, and william.
what, if anything, the two blind boys sensed, or thought, i was never to know.
but if i was nonplussed by the witch’s presence, she seemed to have no fear of me, and addressed me boldly.
“one more time, sir, are you a god or a man?”
why should i not have answered that i was in fact a god, and then pointed a finger at her, witch or no witch, and blasted her out of existence, or at least out of the universe in which i was a god?
and yet i heard myself say, for the third time in as many minutes, that i was not a god.
and suddenly i found myself no longer a god, no longer in my own universe - or at least the universe familiar to me - and no longer in the form i was accustomed to, or in the clothing i was accustomed to.
i found myself reduced to the form of a small child - of the size of a child of two or three years old, but with the proportions of a newborn. i was lying on a pile of dirty straw in what appeared to be a shack - and the witch to whom i had just denied i was a god was leaning over me.
i realized that i was screaming like a dragon or a lion -
for a second the witch’s face and form changed to that of a beautiful fair haired maiden, who whispered to me - “quiet - let me handle this - this has happened many times before.”
and in another instant she resumed the outward person of the witch.
i immediately fell silent, and looking around, realized that i was not alone with the witch/fair maiden.
there was a door to the shack, and a hulking fellow in what looked like the dusty robe of a wandering friar was standing in it with his back to the witch and myself.
the witch stood up and looked beyond him and cried -
“ah, here is your confederate returned!”
“my confederate?” the friar - a great redfaced fellow asked her, but before he could continue , he was
pushed aside, and two more personages appeared In the shack.
a grinning yokel in an ill-fitting military uniform who was unslinging a pike from his back.
and another friar - of a very different sort from the first. a long faced fellow with the sad and blazing eye of the tribe of eternal fanatics, who , i am told, wander the roads of every universe, without finding peace in any of them.
“yes, i have returned, you cursed witch,” this second friar cried. “i have indeed returned - with fire and sword!”
“you do not say so,” murmured the witch in a soft voice, as she again assumed the form of the fair haired maid.
the two friars and the soldier stepped back with varying degrees of astonishment . the soldier laughed, the first friar mumbled something about the maiden’s beauty, and the second friar, after his first shock, appeared to be rousing himself to some new pitch of fury -
when the maiden changed again, to a small blue and white bird that flew past the three men out the door of the hut and into the gray sky -
leaving me alone, on my pile of straw, with the two friars and the soldier.
the soldier waved his pike at me. “should i send it to hell, brother?” he asked the second friar.
the second friar hesitated. “no, my son,” he finally answered. “it must contain a demon - if not a whole host of them. we will take it to the castle of the holy inquisition. they will decide what to do with it.”
at my words, a tremendous roll of thunder sounded outside…
when it subsided, the blind boy began to recite his love poem (to a hypothetical maiden or goddess)…
lovely lady, with lashes of lapis lazuli
and eyes as dark as pools of martian mercury
pay no heed to my pathetic foolery
unless my desperate words affect you truly
dare i, a humble bard of no renown
bitten by every dog in road and town
a flea on the wind-whipped hide of fate
e’en cast an eye on one of your estate?
your airy form, your gracious mien
astound the eyes of those who’ve seen
the goddesses’ procession in the skies
and yet the bolts that dart forth from your eyes
slay not, but only serve to stoke the fire
of gods and mortals maddened by desire…
at this point the lad’s effusion was interrupted by a loud banging on the door of the inn.
"go on," i encouraged the budding bard, "it is only the wind."
"i think not, master," exclaimed the innkeeper, "i know that knock."
and indeed, even as the innkeeper spoke, the pounding doubled in force, and there was no mistaking it for the wind or anything but a deliberate summons to open the door.
"well," i said to the innkeeper, as good humoredly as i could, for i was quite annoyed by the interruption but determined to play the role of a genial mortal, "you may as well let the person in."
the innkeeper quickly proceeded to the door and opened it.
a furious blast of wind and rain entered the open door, along with two heavily bundled figures, one large and one small, and the innkeeper shut the door behind them.
the larger figure shook the water from himself like a bear and pulled back the hood of his garment , revealing a villainous face with a heavy black mustache. the smaller figure remained motionless behind him.
the innkeeper murmured some sort of obsequious greeting to the visitor, who shoved him aside and entered the parlor and approached the table at which our little party was seated.
“greetings, sir,” i addressed him as civilly as i could, though he was staring at me as a wolf might at a somewhat unappetizing looking sheep.
“do you know who i am?” the newcomer asked me in a commading voice. his companion had entered the parlor behind him, still covered from head to foot and revealing nothing of its particulars.
“no, sir,” i answered , “i am a traveler from a distant land, and i do not know who you are.” i could see that thomas was more than a bit irritated by the visitor’s peremptory manner and inclined to rebuke him, but i signaled to him to hold his tongue.
“i am arboc!” the man announced.
“arboc…” i heard the poet murmur behind me, and his companion the musician mutter something in return.
“i am sorry, “ i told the fellow, “but i have, as i said, travelled from a distant land, and your no doubt well deserved fame has not reached my ears.”
“come, arboc, “ the innkeeper whispered to him, “let me find a place for you by the fire, while i bring you … whatever you like. i am sure these worthy gentlemen travelers will happily make room for you.” and he cast a glance both pleading and terrified at us.
at this point the second, smaller visitor plucked at arboc’s sleeve and whispered in his ear.
arboc listened, and then straightened up and addressed me, with a smile still wolfish but a little uncertain.
“my companion suggests something, which, if true, is most interesting,” he said.
“and what might that be?” i replied.
“that you and this other person here,” nodding at gex, “are not mortal men, but gods.”
i smiled. “your companion has the imagination of a poet. i too, am a poet, as is this little fellow here. we were just settling in to a companionable night of bardolatry. perhaps you are a poet also, and would care to join is.”
“a poet! i do not write poems, i have poems written about me! i am arboc, the bandit and rebel who will soon rule this empire!”
“a worthy ambition,” i told him. “and i wish you all success. but as i am not a citizen of this empire, it is no concern of mine.”
“but , sir poet, you have not answered my question. are you in fact a god, and not a man?”
the fire was warm enough, and the food only a little worse than we might have expected in such an establishment, and there was enough of it that we had no complaint.
the parlor having only table, gex and i and our two servants all sat at it, without ceremony, as the hard working landlord, who seemed to have no one to assist him, served us.
the storm which had caused us to stop in the tumbledown inn broke with full force as we were dining, making me, at least, thankful that we had stopped, and i was feeling content enough, and generous enough, to offer the landlord a glass of our wine, which of course, we had brought ourselves, and which he speedily and obsequiously accepted.
the two blind beggar boys had, at my invitation, made themselves as comfortable as they could beside the fire, and the one with the harp had strummed it, amiably enough, as we dined, and i tossed him a couple of scraps of food as a reward.
the musician caught the scraps with a practiced hand, and made as if to offer one of them to his companion, the self-proclaimed poet, but i stopped him with a laugh.
“oh ho,“ i said, “he has not yet earned his dinner. come, young bard, let us hear some of your immortal verses.”
thomas scowled silently at my familiar banter with the two ragamuffins, and gex and william continued feeding their faces, indifferent to it.
nothing abashed, the little fellow turned his sightless eyes to me, and announced. “i have only been waiting your command, sir. what would you like, an epic -?"
“perhaps you can work up to that. “ i interrupted him.
“very well, then, a ballad of ancient times, when heroes walked the earth -“
“how about a ballad of love, “ i interrupted him again, “ a song to win the heart of a maiden?”
“i can not recite one from my own experience,” he replied. “ as i do not believe i have ever encountered one of those creatures, in this unfortunate cosmos we inhabit in which they are in such short supply, but i have many variations on the theme, derived from the ancient masters of the bardic art.”
“than please - proceed,” i told him.
he then began to recite, as his companion plucked a few notes on his harp:
i love a lusty wench
with a backside thick as mutton
and a nose as red as a robin’s breast
and shiny as a hussar’s button
we will love all night and day
and scatter her father’s hay
till the rafters shake, and the earth quake
and the chickens and cows run away
william and i laughed at this, and even gex managed a wintry smile, but thomas expressed himself as scandalized.
“insolent puppy! do you mock the master’s request?”
“stay, thomas, “ i counseled him. “it is all in good jest,” and i threw the boy a large morsel from my plate.
“but come, my lad,” i said. “do attempt something a little more genteel. as if you were truly attempting to win the favor of a fair maiden, or even a goddess.”
“if you wish, sir. i pride myself on the extensiveness of my repertoire. but, look ye, you have proclaimed yourself a poet, perhaps when i am finished, you can favor us with one of your own attempts.”
at this escalation of effrontery, thomas started to rise from his chair, but i put a hand on his arm.
“that sounds an excellent plan,” i told the boy, “as i think none of us are going anywhere this night. perhaps we can battle all night. so - you first.”
at my words, a tremendous roll of thunder sounded outside.