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2

In Which Mendanbar Discovers a Problem

Mendanbar was still congratulating himself on his escape when the trees ended abruptly. He stopped, staring, and quit worrying about the princess entirely.

A piece of the Enchanted Forest as large as the castle lawn was missing.

No, not missing; here and there, a few dead stumps poked up out of the dry, bare ground. Something had destroyed a circular swath of trees and moss, destroyed it so completely that only stumps and a few flakes of ash remained.

The taste of dust on the wind brought Mendanbar out of his daze. He hesitated, then took a step forward into the area of devastation. As he passed from woods to waste, he felt a sudden absence and stumbled in shock. Where the unseen lines of power should have been, humming with the magical energy that was the life of the Enchanted Forest , he sensed nothing. The magic was gone.

"No wonder that princess didn't have any trouble getting into the forest," Mendanbar said numbly. Without magic, this section of forest couldn't dodge away from her; all the princess had to do to get into the woods was cross it.

Seriously annoyed, Mendanbar kicked at the ground, dislodging more ashes. He bent to touch one of the stumps. The wood crumbled to dust where his hand met it. Coughing, he sat back and saw something glittering on the ground beside the next stump. He went over and picked it up.

It was a thin, hard disk a little larger than his hand, and it was a bright, iridescent green.

"A dragon's scale? What is a dragon's scale doing here?"

There was no one near to answer his question. He inspected the scale with care, but it told him nothing more. Scowling at it, he shrugged and put it in his pocket. Then he began a methodical search of the dead area, hoping to find something that would reveal a little more.

Half an hour later, he had collected four more dragon scales in various shades of green and was feeling decidedly grim. He had thought he was on good terms with the dragons who lived to the east in the Mountains of Morning: he left them alone and they left him alone. Glancing around the burned space, he grimaced.

"This doesn't look much like 'leaving me alone," "he muttered angrily.

"What do those dragons think they are doing?" He began to wish he had not left them quite so much alone for the past three years. Right now it would be useful to know something more about dragons than that they were all large and breathed fire.

Absently, Mendanbar pocketed the dragon scales and walked back to the edge of the burned-out circle. It was a relief to be under the trees where he could feel the magic of the forest again. Frowning, he paused to look back at the ashy clearing.

"I can't just leave it like this," he said to himself. "If that princess came this way, anyone might get into the Enchanted Forest just by walking across the barren space. But how do I put magic back into an area that's been sucked dry?"

Still frowning, he circled the edge of the clearing, nudging at the threads of magic that wound through the air. None of them would move any closer to the burned section, but on the far side he found the place where the normal country outside the forest touched the clearing.

He paused. It wasn't a very wide gap.

"I wonder," he said softly. "If I could move it a little, just around the edge…"

Carefully, he reached out and gathered a handful of magic. It felt a lot like taking hold of a handful of thin cords, except that the cords were invisible, floating in the air, and made his palms tingle when he touched them. And, of course, each cord was actually a piece of solid magic that he could use to cast a spell if he wanted. In fact, he had to concentrate hard to keep from casting a spell or two with all that magic crammed together in his hands.

Pulling gently on the invisible threads, Mendanbar stepped slowly backward out of the Enchanted Forest. The brilliant green moss followed him, rippling under his feet. The trees of the forest wavered as if he were looking at them through a shimmer of hot air rising off sunbaked stone.

He took another step, and another. The threads of magic felt warm and thin and slippery. He tightened his grip and took another step. The trees flickered madly, as if he were blinking very rapidly, and the moss swelled and twitched like the back of a horse trying to get rid of an unwanted rider. A drop of sweat ran down his forehead and hung on the tip of his nose. The magic in his hands felt hot and tightly stretched. He stepped back again.

With a sudden wrench, everything snapped into place. The trees stopped flickering and the moss smoothed and lay still. The forest closed up around the burned-out clearing, circling it completely and cutting it off from the outside world. Mendanbar gave a sigh of relief.

"It worked?" he cried triumphantly. A breeze brushed past him, carrying the sharp smell of ashes, and he sobered. He hadn't repaired the damage; he had only isolated it. "Well, at least it should keep people from wandering into the Enchanted Forest by accident," he reminded himself.

"That's something."

One by one, Mendanbar let go of the threads of magic he had pulled across the gap. He felt them join the other unseen strands, merging back into the normal network of magic that crisscrossed the forest.

When he had released the last thread, he wiped his hands on his shirt, then wiped the sweat off his face with his sleeve.

"Are you quite finished?" said a voice from a tree above his head.

Mendanbar looked up and saw a fat gray squirrel sitting on a branch, staring down at him with disapproval.

"I think so," Mendanbar said. "For the time being, anyway."

"For the time being?" the squirrel said indignantly. "What kind of an answer is that? Not useful, that's what I call it, not useful at all.

Finding my way across this forest is hard enough when people don't make bits of it jump around, not to mention burning pieces of it and I don't know what else. I don't know what this place is coming to, really I don't."

"Were you here when the trees were burned?" Mendanbar asked. "Did you see what happened? Or who did it?"

"Well, of course not," said the squirrel. "If I had, I'd have given him, her, or it a piece of my mind, I can tell you. Really, it's too bad. I'm going to have to work out a whole new route to get home. And as for giving directions to lost princes, well, it's hopeless, that's what it is, just hopeless. I'll get blamed for it when they come out wrong, too, see if I don't. Word always gets around. 'Don't trust the squirrel," they'll say, 'you always go wrong if you follow the squirrel's directions." They never stop to think of the difficulties involved in a job like mine, oh, no. They don't stop to say thank-you, either, not them. Ask the squirrel and go running off, that's what they do, and never so much as look back. No consideration, no gratitude.

You'd think they'd been raised in a palace for all the manners they have."

"If they're princes, they probably have been raised in palaces," Mendanbar said. "Princes usually are."

"Well, no wonder none of them have any manners, then." The squirrel sniffed. "They ought to be sent to school in a forest, where people are polite.

You don't see any of my children behaving like that, no, sir. Please and thank you and yes, sir and no, ma'am-that's how I brought them up, all twenty-three of them, and what's good enough for squirrels is good enough for princes, I say."

"I'm sure you're right," Mendanbar said. "Now, about the burned spot-" "Wicked, that's what I call it," the squirrel interrupted. "But hooligans like that don't stop to think, do they? Well, if they did, they wouldn't go around setting things on fire and making a lot of trouble and inconvenience for people. Inconsiderate, every last one of them, and they'll be sorry for it one day, you just wait and see if they aren't."

"Hooligans?" Mendanbar blinked and began to feel more cheerful.

Maybe he wasn't in trouble with the dragons after all. Maybe it had been a rogue who had burned out part of his forest. That would be bad, but at least he wouldn't have to figure out a way of dragon-proofing the whole kingdom. He frowned. "How am I going to find out for sure?" he wondered aloud.

"Ask Morwen," said the squirrel, flicking her tail.

"What?"

"I said, ask Morwen. Honestly, don't you big people know how to listen? You'd think none of you had ever talked to a squirrel before, the way most of you behave."

"I'm very sorry," Mendanbar said. "Who's Morwen?"

"That's better," the squirrel said, mollified. "Morwen's a witch. She lives over by the mountains-just head that way until you get to the stream, then follow it to the big oak tree with the purple leaves.

Turn left and walk for ten minutes and you should come out in her backyard. That is," she added darkly, "you should if all this burning things up and moving things around hasn't tangled everything too badly."

"You think this witch had something to do with what happened?"

Mendanbar waved at the ashy clearing a few feet away.

"I said no such thing! Morwen is a very respectable person, even if she does keep cats."

"Then I don't understand why you think I should talk to her."

"You asked for my advice, and I've given it," said the squirrel.

"That's my job. I'm not supposed to explain it, too, for heaven's sake. If you want explanations, talk to a griffin."

"If I see one, I will," said Mendanbar. "Thank you for your advice."

"You're welcome," said the squirrel, sounding pleased. She flicked her tail twice and leaped to a higher branch. "Good-bye." In another moment she had disappeared behind the trunk of the tree.

"Good-bye," Mendanbar called after her. He waited, but there was no further response. The squirrel had gone.

Slowly, Mendanbar started walking in the direction the squirrel had pointed. When someone in the Enchanted Forest gave you advice, you were usually best off following it, even if you were the King.

'specially if you're the King," Mendanbar reminded himself. He wished he knew a little more about this Morwen person, though. He wasn't really surprised that he hadn't heard of her. So many witches lived in and around the Enchanted Forest that it was impossible for anyone to keep track of them all. Still, this one must be something special, or the squirrel wouldn't have sent the King of the Enchanted Forest to her.

What sort of witch was Morwen? "Respectable" didn't tell him a lot, especially coming from a squirrel. Morwen could be a white witch, but she could also be the sort of witch who lived in a house made of cookies in order to enchant passing children.

"She could even be a fire witch," he said to himself. "There are probably one or two of them who could be termed respectable." He thought about that for a moment. He'd never heard of any himself.

If Morwen had lived in the Enchanted Forest for a long time, she was probably a decent sort of witch, he decided at last. The nasty ones generally made trouble before they'd been around very long, and then someone would complain to the King.

"And nobody has complained about Morwen," he finished.

Mendanbar reached the stream and turned left. Maybe it had been a mistake to cancel all those boring formal festivals and dinners Willin liked so much, he mused. They would have given him a chance to meet some of the ordinary people who lived in the Enchanted Forest. Or rather, he amended, the people who didn't make trouble. "Ordinary" was not the right word for anyone who lived in the Enchanted Forest, not if they managed to stay alive and in more or less their proper shape.

His reflections were cut short by a loud roar. Glancing up, he saw a lion bounding toward him along the bank of the stream. It looked huge and fierce and not at all friendly. As it leaped for his throat, Mendanbar batted hastily at a nearby strand of magic. The lion sailed over Mendanbar's head and landed well behind him, looking surprised and embarrassed. It whirled and tried again, but this time Mendanbar was ready for it. With a quick twist and pull, he froze the lion in the middle of rearing on its hind legs and stepped back to study it.

The lion roared again, plainly frustrated as well as embarrassed and confused. Mendanbar frowned and twitched another invisible thread.

Suddenly the roaring had words in it.

"Let me down." the lion shouted. "This is entirely undignified. How dare you treat me like this?"

"I'm the King," said Mendanbar. "It's my job to keep this forest as safe as I reasonably can. And I don't much like being jumped at when I'm just walking along minding my own business."

"What?" The lion stopped roaring and peered at him nearsightedly.

"Oh, bother. I'm exceedingly sorry, Your Majesty. I didn't recognize you.

You're not wearing your crown."

"That's not the point," said the King. "It shouldn't make any difference."

"On the contrary," the lion said earnestly. "I'm the guardian of the Pool of Gold, and I'm supposed to keep unauthorized people from dipping branches in it, or diving in and turning into statues-that sort of thing. But if you're the King of the Enchanted Forest, you're not an unauthorized person at all, and I've made a dreadful mistake. I do apologize."

"You should," said Mendanbar. He looked around and frowned.

"Where is this Pool of Gold you're supposed to be guarding?"

'Just around the bend," the lion answered. He sounded uncomfortable and a little worried.

"Then what are you doing attacking people over here?" Mendanbar demanded. "I might have gone right by."

"You wouldn't have if you were a prince," the lion muttered. "They never go on by. I was only attempting to get ahead of things a little, that's all. I didn't mean anything by it."

"Yes, well, you should have thought it through," Mendanbar said in a stern tone. "Princes don't always travel alone, you know. Someone could distract you with a fight along here while a friend of his stole water or dipped branches or whatever he wanted. This far away from the pool, you wouldn't even notice."

"That never occurred to me," said the lion, much abashed. "I'm sorry."

"Stick to the pool from now on," Mendanbar told it. "And make sure that the people you jump at are really trying to get at the water, and not just wandering by."

"Yes, Your Majesty," said the lion. "Uh, would you mind letting me down now?"

Mendanbar nodded and untwisted the threads of magic that held the lion motionless. The lion dropped to all fours and shook itself, then bowed very low. "Thank you, Your Majesty," it said. "Is there anything I can do for you?"

"Does a witch named Morwen live somewhere around here?"

Mendanbar asked.

"Sure," said the lion. "Her house is up over the hill where the blue catnip grows. It isn't far. I haven't ever been there myself, of course," it added hastily, "since I have to guard the Pool of Gold, you know. But sometimes one of her cats pays a call, and that's what they tell me."

"Thank you," Mendanbar said. "That's very helpful."

"You're welcome, Your Majesty," said the lion. "Any time. Is there anything else? Because if there isn't, I should really be getting back to the pool."

"That's all," Mendanbar said, and bid the lion a polite good-bye. He waited where he stood until the lion was well out of sight, then continued on. He was very thoughtful, and a little annoyed. His quiet walk was turning out to be more of a project than he had expected.

A short while later, he passed the oak the squirrel had described, and a little farther on he found a hill covered with bright blue catnip.

He paused, debating the wisdom of walking around the hill rather than through the thick growth.

"You never know what things like oddly colored catnip will do if you touch them," Mendanbar reminded himself. He looked at the knee-high carpet of blue leaves, then glanced at the deep shadows below the trees at the foot of the hill.

"On the other hand, one of the easiest ways of getting lost in the Enchanted Forest is to not follow directions exactly." He looked at the catnip again. He did not want to spend hours hunting for Morwen's house just to avoid some oddly colored plants. Cautiously, he poked at the invisible network of magic that hung over the hill. It seemed normal enough.

With a shrug, he waded in.

Halfway to the top, he saw some of the stalks near the edge of the patch wobble, as if something small had run through it. The wobble kept pace with him until he reached the top of the hill, but though he tried to see what was causing it, he was unable to catch a glimpse of whatever was brushing by the plants.

The patch of catnip ended at the top of the hill. Mendanbar stopped to catch his breath and look around. The hill sloped gently down to a white picket fence that surrounded three sides of a garden. A large lilac bush was blooming on one side of the gate in the middle of the fence, and an even larger apple tree loaded with fist-sized green apples stood on the other side.

Mendanbar frowned. "Aren't lilacs and apple trees supposed to bloom at the same time? What is one doing with blossoms while the other is covered with fruit?" Then he laughed at himself. "Well, it's a witch's garden, after all." He supposed he shouldn't be surprised if things behaved strangely.

On the other side of the garden stood a solid little gray house with a red roof. Smoke was drifting out of the chimney, and lace curtains were blowing in and out the open windows on either side of the back door. Below the right-hand window was a window box overflowing with red and blue flowers. The stone step outside the door was cleaner than the floor inside Mendanbar's study, and he resolved to do something about that as soon as e got home. Sleeping on one corner of the step was a white cat, her fur gleaming in the sun.

Mendanbar walked down the hill to the gate. A small brass sign hung on the latch. It read: "Please keep the gate CLOSED. Salesmen enter at their own risk." Smiling, Mendanbar lifted the latch and pushed the gate open.

A loud yowl from just over his head made him jump back. He looked up and discovered a fat tabby cat perched in the branches of the apple tree, staring down at him with green eyes. An instant later, a long gray streak shot out from behind a nearby tree and through the open gate. It slowed as it neared the house, and Mendanbar saw that it was actually a lean gray cat with a ragged tail. The gray cat leaped to the doorstep and from there to the sill of the open window. The white cat on the step raised her head and made a complaining noise as the gray one vanished inside the house.

"So much for a surprise visit," Mendanbar said to the cat in the tree.

The cat gave him a smug look and began washing its paws. Mendanbar stepped through the gate, closed it carefully, and started across the garden toward the house.


1 In Which the King of the Enchanted Forest Takes a Day Off | Searching for Dragons | 3 In Which Mendanbar Receives Some Advice from a Witch