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In Which Mendanbar Has Some Interesting Visitors

Both Cimorene and Telemain stared at Mendanbar for a moment. Then Telemain shrugged. "Very well," he said, dusting ashes from his fingers. "I was nearly finished, in any case, though I can't say that I like all this flitting around."

"Mendanbar, what happened?" Cimorene demanded as Telemain walked out of the burned area and crossed to the tree to get the wizard's staff.

"I'm not sure I can explain," Mendanbar replied. "It has to do with the way I work magic. The spell-Telemain, what is it?"

Telemain had picked up the staff and was gazing down at the ground where it had lain. "I think you'd better come and see for yourself," he said without looking up.

Feeling mildly irritated, Mendanbar went over to join Telemain. His irritation vanished when he saw what the magician was looking at. At the foot of the tree, a strip of moss had turned as brown and dead and brittle as the crumbling remnants within the burned-out area a few feet away. And the strip was the exact size and shape of the wizard's staff.

"Wizards again," Cimorene said in tones of disgust. "It figures."

"It looks the same as that part," Mendanbar said cautiously, waving at the dead spot. "But is it?"

"So far as I can determine from a limited visual examination, it is,"

Telemain said. "If you want absolute certainty, you'll have to give me another couple of hours for tests."

"We don't have a couple of hours," Mendanbar said. "How sure are you, right now, that this wizard's staff has done the same thing to this bit of moss as something did to that whole section over there?"

"And have you any idea how it did it?" Cimorene put in.

"The how is very simple," Telemain answered. "The staff is designed to appropriate any unattached magic with which it comes in contact. Magic appears to be a fundamental property of the Enchanted Forest. So when the staff rested for a few minutes in one location, it swallowed up all the magic from that location, leaving it as you see."

"What about that?" Cimorene asked, waving at the burned area.

"What did they do, roll a wizard's staff around on the ground for an hour?"

"Of course not," Telemain said. "It's simply a matter of extending and intensifying the absorption spell. One couldn't maintain such an expansion for very long, but then, one wouldn't have to."

"That's it!" Mendanbar said suddenly.

The other two looked at him blankly. "what's what?" said Cimorene.

"That must be what happened to that locating spell I sent out," Mendanbar explained. "Some wizard's staff sucked it up. That's why it didn't come back."

"Come back?" Telemain said. "You mean your locating spells work on a sort of echo principle? Would you mind demonstrating just how you-" "Not now, Telemain," Cimorene said. She looked at Mendanbar.

"Does that mean you know where the wizards are?"

"No, but I think I know how to find out," Mendanbar said. "Ready or not, here we go."

Without waiting for a response, Mendanbar took hold of a thread of magic and pulled. Mist rose and fell, and they were standing in front of the main door to the palace.

"Willin!" Mendanbar shouted, throwing open the door. "Willin, come here. I need-" He stopped short. Standing in the middle of the entrance hall was a boy of about ten in a blue silk doublet heavily embroidered with gold, a middle-aged man in black velvet with a pinched expression, two cats (one cream-and-silver, the other a long-haired tabby), Morwen, and an extremely harried-looking Willin. The footman who tended the front door was watching them all with the carefully blank face he kept for odd visitors and unusual events. He had had a lot of practice.

"Your Majesty! Oh, thank goodness," said Willin in tones of heartfelt relief. "This woman-these people-"

The elf stopped abruptly and made a visible effort to pull himself together. While he was still working at it, Morwen stepped forward.

"Hello, Cimorene, Mendanbar," she said briskly. "You're back just in time. These people have some very interesting infor-" "Morwen?"

Telemain's incredulous voice interrupted from behind Mendanbar. A moment later, the magician pushed his head between Cimorene and Mendanbar to get a better look. "It's you. What on earth are you doing in the Enchanted Forest ?"

"Living in it," Morwen answered calmly. "As you would know if you bothered to keep up with the doings of your old friends, Telemain."

"I've been busy," Telemain said defensively.

One of the cats made a small growling noise. "Nonsense," Morwen told it. "It's perfectly normal for him to be busy. The question is, has he got anything to show for it?"

Both cats turned Their heads and gazed expectantly at Telemain.

Mendanbar decided it was time to take a hand in the conversation, before things got so far off track that he'd never get them back on again.

"Telemain has been very helpful," he said. "Morwen, who are these other people?"

"His Royal Highness, Crown Prince Jorillam of Meriambee," Willin said in a loud, formal tone before Morwen could reply. The elf nodded at the boy, who bowed uncertainly.

"And His Royal Highness's uncle and guardian, Prince Rupert," Willin continued. This time, the older man stepped forward to acknowledge the introduction.

"They have come with the witch Morwen"-Willin paused, obviously waiting for Morwen to curtsy. Morwen only looked at him, and after a moment the elf went on-"with the witch Morwen to beg a boon of His Majesty Mendanbar, the King of the Enchanted Forest."

"It's not a big thing, Your Majesty," Prince Rupert said hastily.

"Really. If I could just have a minute or two of your time"

His voice trailed off in an indistinct murmur.

Mendanbar looked from Prince Rupert to Morwen and back, completely baffled. "I'm in something of a hurry just now," he said at last.

"What is it?"

"If we could, ah, discuss the matter in private ," Prince Rupert said with a sidelong look at his nephew.

"Oh, Uncle," said Crown Prince Jorillam in an exasperated tone. He turned to Mendanbar. "He just doesn't want to say straight out that we're lost. And he especially doesn't want to say that the whole reason we came was so he could leave me in the forest and go home and take over my kingdom."

"Jorillam!" Prince Rupert said, plainly horrified.

"Well, it's true, Uncle," the Crown Prince insisted. "And if they're in a hurry, it's better to tell them and not waste time."

"Mrow!" one of the cats agreed emphatically.

"Morwen" Mendanbar said, hoping he did not look or sound as confused as he felt.

The ginger-haired witch shook her head and peered sternly over the top of her glasses at Prince Rupert . "You, sir, are here to tell these people your story with as little shilly-shallying as you can manage.

You'd better get started, or I shall be tempted to do something drastic."

"Like what?" asked the Crown Prince, greatly interested. "Could you turn him into a toad?"

"I could," Morwen said repressively, "but I won't. Not yet, anyway.

Provided he starts talking."

"Isn't that a bit severe?" Telemain asked, frowning.

"You wouldn't think so if you'd been dealing with him for the last two hours," Morwen said.

Cimorene stepped forward and gave Prince Rupert a perfectly charming smile. "Perhaps it would be best if you told us your story," she said.

"Ah, yes, of course," Prince Rupert said, rubbing his hands against each other. "I, um, we, en" "It's because of that stupid club Uncle joined," said Crown Prince Jorillam helpfully. "Tell them, Uncle."

"What club is that?" Cimorene asked.

Prince Rupert gave her a hunted look. "The Right Honorable Wicked Stepmothers' Traveling, Drinking, and Debating Society," he said, and sighed. "I've been a member of the Men's Auxiliary for the past fifteen years."

"That would be for Wicked Stepfathers?" Mendanbar guessed, wishing the man would get on with it.

"Yes, though we don't get many of those," Prince Rupert said.

"Mostly, it's wicked Uncles. You can even join on expectation, if you're not an uncle yet." He sighed again. "That's what I did. I never really expected to be an uncle at all. Rosannon-she's my sister-was under a curse for a hundred years, and I thought I'd be dead when someone finally broke it and married her."

"So you joined this club," Cimorene prompted.

"And it was wonderful!" Prince Rupert's face lit up, remembering.

"The places we went to, and the wines, and the discussions! It was everything I dreamed. Only then a smart-alec prince figured out a shortcut and broke the curse, and he and Rosannon got married and had Jorillam here.

And then the two of them left on some silly quest or other and put me in charge of him."

"It isn't a silly quest!" Jorillam objected. "It's a matter of vital importance to the future of Meriambee."

"You can see my problem," Prince Rupert said earnestly. "If I don't do something really wicked soon, I'll get kicked out of the club. I only have until sunset tomorrow."

"So you brought Crown Prince Jorillam to the Enchanted Forest , intending to abandon him here," Mendanbar said.

"Actually, it was my idea," the Crown Prince put in. "After the other thing didn't work out, we needed to think of something fast."

"Other thing?" said Telemain, fascinated.

Prince Rupert looked embarrassed. "I hired a giant to ravage a village by the eastern border. He was supposed to show up yesterday, and I was all ready to send the documentation in to the club when I got a letter of resignation saying he'd quit that line of work and wouldn't be coming."

Mendanbar and Cimorene exchanged looks.

"Did he say why?" Cimorene asked.

"No, just that he'd done enough pillaging for one giant, thank you all the same, and now he was going to try something new."

"So I said Uncle Rupert should abandon me in the woods," Jorillam said.

"That's much more wicked than hiring a giant, isn't it? And I'd get to have some adventures, too, instead of sitting home while Mother and Father are off on their quest. Only first we couldn't find the forest, and then we got chased by some wizards, and then we found the forest just in time and lost the wizards, except we got lost, too, and Uncle Rupert wouldn't leave. And then we were captured by a witch and she brought us here. Are you going to throw us in a dungeon?"

"What was that part about wizards?" Mendanbar demanded.

"I thought you'd be interested," Morwen said with considerable satisfaction.

"But that was before we got to the Enchanted Forest," Prince Rupert said in a bewildered tone. "Why would the King of the Enchanted Forest be interested in that?"

"Never mind," said Mendanbar. 'Just tell me what happened."

"Well, we were just coming out of the old Pass of the Dragons," Prince Rupert said. "It cuts straight through the Mountains of Morning to the Enchanted Forest, and hardly anyone uses it these days, so I thought it would be a good choice. Only things must have changed, because when we came out of the pass we were in a wasteland, and not in the Enchanted Forest at all."

Mendanbar, Telemain, and Cimorene looked at each other. "Describe this wasteland," Mendanbar said.

"It was-it was bare," Rupert told him. "Um, well, bare. No grass or trees or anything. Just just"

'Just bare," Cimorene finished for him. "Did it look burned?"

"Yes, now that you mention it. I didn't examine it closely, you understand, because that was when the wizards came out of the cave and chased US off."

"We had to run for miles," Crown Prince Jorillam said with relish.

"They almost caught us."

"It was a long way, but it wasn't miles, "his uncle corrected. "And they lost us as soon as we got to the trees."

The forest must have shifted, thought Mendanbar. Good for it. "Thank you very much," he said aloud. "You've been very helpful."

"We have" Prince Rupert said.

"Does that mean you're not going to throw us in a dungeon?" asked Crown Prince Jorillam, sounding disappointed.

"Not at all," Mendanbar said. "Willin, after we're gone, see that His Royal Highness, here, is made comfortable in one of the dungeons. The one under the North-Northwest Tower, I think." Mendanbar smiled to himself, thinking that it might do the overeager young prince good to climb up and down six flights of stairs to get what he wanted, and it certainly wouldn't do him any harm.

"Of course, Your Majesty," said Willin in tones of perfect understanding.

He paused. "May I inquire where you are going and when?"

"To rescue the King of the Dragons," Mendanbar said, "and as soon as possible."

Willin swallowed hard, Prince Rupert choked, and even Morwen looked slightly startled.

"The only question is, what's the best way of doing it," Mendanbar continued. "Any suggestions?"

"We can't just charge in and attack the cave," Cimorene said, frowning.

"The wizards could kill Kazul before we got to her. And if the area around the cave looks like that bit you showed us a few minutes ago, it simply won't be possible to sneak up on them."

"What we need is a back way in," Telemain said. "I don't suppose there is one?"

"Every cave in the Enchanted Forest has a back way in," Mendanbar said.

"The problem is finding it. Do you know anything about that part of the forest, Morwen?"

"I'm afraid not," Morwen said. She turned to the cats. "Chaos? Jasper? How about you?"

The cats looked at each other, blinked, and looked back at Morwen.

"They aren't familiar with the area, either," Morwen said with regret.

Willin coughed. "If I may venture a suggestion, Your Majesty"

"Go ahead," Mendanbar said.

"I believe there is a list of caves, passages, vestibules, and entrances in the Royal Archives," said the elf. "Would you care to examine it?"

"Immediately," Mendanbar replied. "I might have known you'd have a list somewhere with the right information, Willin. I should have asked you at once."

The elf bowed deeply, looking very pleased. "I shall bring it without delay, Your Majesty," he said, and whisked off down the corridor.

"Hey!" cried Crown Prince Jorillam. "Are you going to fight the wizards? Can I come?"

"Yes, we are, and no, you can't," Mendanbar told him. "You're going to be locked in the dungeon, remember?"

"But a fight with wizards is much more interesting than being locked in a dungeon," Jorillam complained. "I want to watch."

"Maybe so," Cimorene said. "But that's how it is with dungeons. You aren't supposed to get a choice about whether you're going to be locked up in one, you know."

This was evidently a new idea for the young prince, and he did not look happy about it. "But-" "But, nothing," Mendanbar said. "I'm the King, and I say you go to the dungeon instead of fighting wizards, and no argument."

"Yes," said Morwen. "We have much more important things to argue about. Such as how to get rid of the wizards once we find them."

"Buckets," said Cimorene. "Lots of buckets, and soap, and lemon juice.

Where do you keep your buckets, Mendanbar?"

"Around somewhere," Mendanbar said vaguely. "I'll have someone bring us a few. Can the three of us carry enough buckets to get rid of all the wizards?"

"Four of us," said Morwen. The cats yowled. "Yes, I know, and of course you're coming, but you can't carry a bucket of soapy water, so for purposes of this discussion it doesn't matter," she told them.

The cats gave her an affronted look, turned their backs, and began making indignant little noises at each other.

"It seems probable that the wizards will be present in force," Telemain said. "They were certainly aware of Prince Rupert's appearance among them this morning, and they may well have detected your unsuccessful locating spell, Mendanbar. Consequently, I would wager that there will be far too many to dispose of by means of your, er, interesting methods, Princess Cimorene."

"We'll bring some buckets along anyway," Mendanbar said. "It can't hurt."

He nodded a summons to the blank-faced footman by the front door.

The footman came over at once, and Mendanbar told him to bring half a dozen buckets of soapy water mixed with lemon juice out to the entrance hall immediately. The footman, who had worked at the palace for a long time and was used to peculiar requests, bowed impassively and departed.

"Any other ideas?" Mendanbar asked.

"Can't the witch turn them into toads?" said the Crown Prince.

"I certainly don't object to trying," Morwen said.

Cimorene shook her head. "I don't think it would work. The Society of Wizards has some new spell that soaks up magic. That's what makes the bare spots in the Enchanted Forest."

"I still wish I understood why the Society of Wizards is doing all this," Mendanbar said, half to himself. "I suppose it makes sense to try and blame the dragons for burning bits of the Enchanted Forest, but they've been deliberately trying to start a war. That would make almost as much trouble for them as for everyone else."

"Ah, well, but would it?" put in Prince Rupert timidly. "I mean, if these wizards are soaking up magic, they must want it for something."

Cimorene, Morwen, Mendanbar, and Telemain stared at one another in dismay. "Yes, what are they using it for?" Cimorene said after a long, thoughtful silence.

"In all probability, to intensify their general enchantments," Telemain said. "Alternatively, to enable themselves to achieve something more substantial than would otherwise be possible."

Prince Rupert looked at the magician blankly. "Oh," he said in a doubtful tone.

"Don't mind him," Morwen said. "He always gets technical when he's talking about spells."

"But what did he mean?" the prince asked.

"He meant that the Society of Wizards wants more magic to power their spells," Mendanbar replied. "Or maybe to use in a spell that would be too big for them to work without it."

"Yes, and that is an idea I don't care for at all," said Morwen, frowning.

"The Society of Wizards is too powerful already, if you ask me."

"You know, if the dragons start fighting with the Enchanted Forest, any new wasted areas would be blamed on the war," Telemain commented.

"The Society of Wizards could absorb considerable quantities of magic before anyone realizes what they are up to."

"That would explain why they're doing this, all right," Mendanbar said. "We have got to stop them." Without thinking, he put his hand on the hilt of his sword.

"Mendanbar!" said Cimorene suddenly. "Didn't that wizard say something about you reversing his spell? Not Antorell, the wizard at Jack's house.

And you were using the sword. Maybe it can reverse this spell, too."

"It's worth trying," Mendanbar said.

"Not until we have a better idea of exactly what we're up against," Morwen said firmly. "If the King of the Enchanted Forest gets killed trying to rescue the King of the Dragons from the Society of Wizards, goodness only knows what will happen."

"We'll sneak in and take a look around," Telemain agreed. "Then we can formulate a plan of action."

"As long as it doesn't take too long," Cimorene muttered. "This isn't some kind of experiment, where we can take our time and try again. If those wizards figure out that someone is trying to rescue Kazul . .."

Mendanbar tried to smile reassuringly at her. "I don't see how they-ah, Willin! Did you find that list? Good! Then let's all go into the parlor and look at it. The sooner we're done, the sooner we can be on our way."

13 In Which They Return to the Enchanted Forest at Last | Searching for Dragons | 15 In Which Everyone Argues