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7

In Which a Wizard Makes a Mess and the Journey Begins

Ignoring Antorell, Mendanbar kept his eyes on the nightshade. He had a moment's useless wish that he were in the Enchanted Forest , where he could have disposed of the monster with relative ease. Here, things were going to be a lot more complicated. He shifted his grip on the sword and pulled at the power within it.

The nightshade swung at him: its fully extended claws carving a whistling arc in the air. It was very, very fast. Mendanbar barely managed to block in time. The force of the blow knocked him to one side, and he almost lost hold of the sword. The nightshade hissed in pain and shook its arm, but Mendanbar knew it was not seriously hurt.

Without active magic behind it, the most damage the sword could have inflicted on a nightshade this big was a bruise.

Again he pulled at the power in the sword, then had to roll to avoid another swing by the nightshade. This time he kept on rolling until he was out of the monster's reach. He came up on one knee and pointed the sword at the nightshade, pushing power through the sword in the pattern he had pictured in his mind.

Antorell's staff struck him across the shoulders. The sword flew out of his hands and he went sprawling. His half-formed spell spun wildly in the air and then was sucked away. He heard an angry shriek from Cimorene, then a shout: "Mendanbar! Dodge left, quick!"

Without hesitation, Mendanbar threw himself to his left. He heard a rush of wind as the nightshade's claws missed him by inches. There was a splash somewhere behind him, and Antorell's voice cried, "No! No! You'll be sorry for this, Cimorene!" Then Mendanbar's hand closed on the hilt of his sword. He twisted and brought the sword up, shoving power through it recklessly.

The blast of barely formed magic caught the nightshade in mid leap.

The creature hung frozen in the air for an instant, then dissolved in a cloud of bright sparks. Mendanbar seized the remnants of magic and pulled them together into a tight knot, ready to throw at another nightshade or at Antorell himself. Only then did he pause to look around.

Cimorene stood a little way away, swinging the empty bucket in one hand and looking at him as if she were impressed in spite of herself.

Antorell had vanished.

"You really do like flashy magic," Cimorene commented as Mendanbar climbed warily to his feet. "I haven't seen anything like that since Kazul's coronation party."

"Where's Antorell?" Mendanbar asked. "Did he get away?"

"No," Cimorene said, waving her free hand at a damp area of floor to Mendanbar's right. "I melted him."

"Melted him?" Mendanbar looked at the damp patch more closely.

Antorell's soggy robes were plastered to the floor in the middle of a gooey puddle. His staff lay along one side of the robes, half-in, half-out of the goo.

There was no other trace of him. Mendanbar was impressed, and said so.

"It's really not hard," Cimorene said. "All it takes is a bucket of soapy water with a little lemon juice in it. A friend of mine discovered by accident how to do it, and I've kept a bucket ready ever since, just in case."

"I thought that only worked on witches."

Cimorene shrugged. "Lots of things don't work the way they're supposed to. Morwen's a witch, but she certainly doesn't melt in a bucket of soapy water."

Mendanbar thought of the shining stone step and the spotless wooden floor in Morwen's house, and nodded. "I can see that. But why does it work for wizards?"

"We don't know." Cimorene gave him a sidelong look. "I'm sorry I let Antorell wallop you with his staff, but I didn't want to throw the water at him while you were in the way."

"Why-oh, you mean you were afraid it would melt me, too?"

Mendanbar blinked. "But I'm not a wizard."

"You work magic," Cimorene pointed out. "And I don't know how strict the soapy-water-and-lemon:juice trick is about defining wizards. It would cause a lot of trouble if I melted the King of the Enchanted Forest in the middle of Kazul's living room, even if it isn't permanent."

"You mean he'll be back?" Mendanbar had started to put his sword back in its sheath, but he stopped at once. "How soon?"

"Not for a couple of days, at least," Cimorene reassured him.

"Antorell may be Zemenar's son, but he's never been a very good wizard."

"Antorell is the son of the Head Wizard?" Mendanbar shot a considering look at the puddle and the pile of soggy robes. "So that's what he meant when he said his father would be pleased."

"Probably." Cimorene frowned pensively at Antorell's staff. "I've got to find Kazul. The Society of Wizards is up to something for sure, and she needs to know right away."

"Couldn't Antorell have come here on his own?" Mendanbar asked, although he didn't really believe it himself.

Cimorene shook her head. "I don't think he'd have dared. As I said, he's not a very good wizard. He wouldn't have been able to keep himself concealed from the dragons, and he certainly must have had help to make anything as nasty and complex as that construct you took care of."

"That wasn't a construct," Mendanbar said. "That was a nightshade.

They're fairly common in parts of the Enchanted Forest . Antorell didn't make it, he just snatched it from somewhere nearby."

"Snatched it?" Cimorene's eyes widened. "Yes, I suppose he could have managed that. I begin to see what you meant about traveling in the Enchanted Forest alone," she added in a thoughtful tone.

"I should hope so," Mendanbar muttered, turning away. "Then you've changed your mind about going?" he added hopefully over his shoulder.

"No, just about whether I accept your offer of escort," Cimorene said.

"It'll probably be a nuisance, but nightshades would be much worse."

Slightly startled by this unflattering comparison, Mendanbar glanced back at Cimorene. There was a decided twinkle in her eyes. Mendanbar smiled and bowed elaborately. "Thank you for your kind words, Princess."

"You're welcome, Your Majesty," Cimorene said, curtsying in response.

"Now, we'd better get to work, or we'll never get this mess cleaned up in time to get to Flat Top Mountain before dark."

Cleaning up the large cave took less time than Mendanbar had expected, despite the unpleasantly gummy look of the goo that Antorell had left behind.

A large part of the mess turned out to be leftover soapy water, which was very convenient. Cimorene mopped most of it up with Antorell's robe, then wrapped the robe around the staff and started toward the rear of the cave.

"What are you going to do with that?" Mendanbar asked curiously.

"Hide it," Cimorene said. "There's not much else you can do to a wizard's staff. They won't break, and even dragon fire won't burn them. I know because we tried everything we could think of the last time we melted some wizards."

"We?"

"Morwen and I. Antorell will get it back eventually, of course, but hiding it will slow him down a little." She left to dispose of the staff while Mendanbar scraped up the last of the goo.

The kitchen was another matter. Cimorene insisted on doing all of the dishes that had been waiting for the sink to get unplugged, which took a while. Mendanbar offered to use his magic on the dishes, but Cimorene politely declined.

"A magic sword that does plumbing is unusual but very useful," she explained as she filled the sink. "A magic sword that does dishes is just plain silly. Besides, there have been two big flares of magic in this cave in the past hour already, and if there's a third one, someone might come to see what I'm up to."

"I didn't notice anything remarkable when Antorell brought the nightshade in," Mendanbar said, frowning. "Though I'll admit I overdid it a little when I got rid of the thing. I was in a hurry."

"Yes, of course," said Cimorene, setting a clean plate on the drain board. "But you weren't in a hurry when you unclogged the sink, were you? That was the other flare I meant, not Antorell's fiddling."

"What was conspicuous about that?" Mendanbar asked defensively.

He picked up a clean towel and began drying plates. "It was a perfectly ordinary spell."

Cimorene looked at him. "Right. Just like that sword is a perfectly ordinary magic sword."

"Well, I wouldn't call it ordinary, exactly, but that's because it's linked with the Enchanted Forest," Mendanbar said. "Outside of that, it's nothing special ."

"Nothing special." Cimorene stopped washing dishes for a moment to stare at him. Suddenly, she frowned. "You mean it. You really haven't noticed."

"Noticed what?"

"The way that sword of yours positively reeks of magic," Cimorene said.

"We're going to have to do something about it, unless you want the Society of Wizards to be able to find us with their eyes closed."

Mendanbar looked at her. She was perfectly serious. He set the dishtowel down and drew his sword. It didn't look or feel any different to him from the way it normally felt, but Cimorene winced.

"Can't you… tone it down a little?"

"I still don't know what you're talking about," Mendanbar said, irritated.

"And even if I did, I wouldn't have the slightest idea how to go about 'toning it down."" "Why not? It's your sword, isn't it?"

"It didn't come with directions?"

"Most of them don't." Cimorene shook her head at him and picked another dirty teacup out of the rapidly diminishing stack. "Maybe there's something in Kazul's treasury that will take care of it. I'll check as soon as we're done here."

When the dishes were finished and the kitchen tidied to suit Cimorene's exacting standards, she left Mendanbar to mull things over while she went off to investigate the treasury. Mendanbar was glad of the chance to think.

"What is the Society of Wizards doing?" he muttered. Between the misleading things Zemenar had said to Mendanbar and the downright lies Antorell had told to Cimorene, it was clear that the wizards didn't want them comparing notes. Cimorene might even be right about their desire to start a war between the Enchanted Forest and the dragons.

Starting a war, however, would take more than a misunderstanding between the King of the Enchanted Forest and Kazul's Chief Cook and Librarian. Were the wizards behind the mysterious burned area Mendanbar had found? They could have gotten hold of Woraug's scales, and they certainly could have enchanted them.

"But why would they do it?" Mendanbar asked the sink. "They're not stupid, at least Zemenar isn't, and a war would cause the Society almost as many problems as it would cause us. What could make them overlook the problems and try to stir up trouble anyway?" The sink did not answer.

But if it wasn't the wizards, Mendanbar wondered, who was it? Where had Kazul disappeared to? And was there really a dragonsbane farm in the Enchanted Forest, or was that just a rumor someone was spreading to add to the confusion?

He was still trying to put his questions into some sort of order when Cimorene returned. She had exchanged the apron and the rust-colored dress for a dark blue tunic with matching leggings, a pair of tall black boots, and a maroon cloak. She had taken off her crown, and her braids were wound neatly around her head. A gold-handled sword hung at her side, next to a small belt pouch. She held out a sword belt and sheath, the leather gray with age.

"I think this will do the job," she said. "Try it and see."

"I've already got a sheath," Mendanbar pointed out.

"Yes, but this one blocks magic," Cimorene explained. "It'll keep your sword from being so-so obvious all the time. At least, I hope it will."

"If you say so," Mendanbar replied, taking the scabbard. He held it a moment, testing. It didn't feel magical, but then, that was the idea.

He shrugged, pulled out his sword, and put it into the sheath Cimorene had given him.

"Oh, that's much better," Cimorene said with evident relief. "I can hardly notice anything now."

"I can," Mendanbar said, touching the hilt with a thumb. The pulse of the Enchanted Forest was still there, ready for him to use.

"Of course you can," Cimorene said. "It's your sword."

"Well, I suppose I don't mind using it, then," Mendanbar said. "As long as it doesn't damage the sword."

"It won't," Cimorene promised.

Mendanbar took off his sword belt and set it aside, then buckled on the belt and scabbard Cimorene had given him.

"All right," he said, "let's go."

As they left the cave, Cimorene muttered something under her breath and waved at the entrance. Mendanbar jumped as a coil of strong, hard magic sprang into place behind them. Looking over his shoulder, he saw a solid wall of rock. He transferred his gaze to Cimorene and raised an eyebrow.

"What kind of magic was that?"

'Just something Kazul and I worked out a while back," Cimorene said.

"It's to keep wizards and knights and so forth from prowling around while I'm gone."

So Cimorene is a sorceress, as well as a cook and librarian and goodness knows what else, Mendanbar thought to himself. Every time he thought he had her figured out, she surprised him again.

"It's a good idea, but please warn me if you're going to do anything like that again," he said. "I'm not in the mood for being startled, if you know what I mean."

Cimorene nodded, frowning slightly, and asked just what it was about the spell that had startled him. This led to a long, technical discussion of the various ways of casting spells, detecting spells, and comparing spells other people had cast. Mendanbar found it both interesting and informative. He had always known that his own methods of working magic were not much like anyone else's, but he had never had time to study other styles.

Cimorene knew something about most kinds of magic, and she was naturally very well informed indeed about dragon magic. She was as interested in Mendanbar's system as he was in everything else, and the conversation lasted all the way to Flat Top Mountain.

The sun had slipped behind the mountains and it was almost dark when they came to the foot of the last slope. Mendanbar could see the giant's castle at the top, large and dark and ominous against the graying sky. A broad road wrapped three times around the mountain as it wound its way to the castle gates.

"Are you sure this is the right place?" he asked.

"Quite sure," Cimorene said. "I've never been here myself, but Kazul has described it often enough. And that's certainly a giant's castle."

"Exactly," Mendanbar said. "But is it the right giant?"

"We won't find out standing here. Come on."

Cimorene marched confidently up the mountain. Shaking his head, Mendanbar followed. By the time they reached the castle gates, the stars were beginning to come out and it was getting hard to see.

"There ought to be a bellpull or a knob," Cimorene said. "You check that side of the gate, and I'll take this one."

"All right, but what-" A loud grinding noise interrupted Mendanbar in mid-sentence, and the gates swung open. Yellow light spilled across the road, making Mendanbar and Cimorene squint.

"Come in, travelers," a woman's voice said, much too pleasantly.

"Come in, and make yourselves comfortable for the night."

Neither Mendanbar nor Cimorene moved. "This was your idea in the first place," Mendanbar said softly to Cimorene. "What do we do now?"

"Ask questions," Cimorene replied just as softly. She raised her voice and said, "Thank you for your kind hospitality, but we're not just traveling.

We're looking for the giantess Ballimore, and we're in a hurry. So if you're not Ballimore, we'll have to go on."

"I am Ballimore," said the voice, still in an artificially pleasant tone that made Mendanbar's skin crawl. "Who are you?"

"I'm Princess Cimorene, Chief Cook and Librarian to Kazul, the King of the Dragons, and this is Mendanbar, the King of the Enchanted Forest," Cimorene answered.

"Cimorene?" said the voice in an entirely different manner. "Oh, good. I've been wanting to meet you for the longest time. Come on in, you and your friend, and I'll have supper ready in a jiffy."

Mendanbar and Cimorene looked at each other. "I think it's all right now," Cimorene said after a moment.

"Well, we won't find out standing here," Mendanbar said. He held out his arm. "Shall we go in, Princess?"

Cimorene gave him a bright, almost impish smile, and laid her fingertips on his arm as if they were walking into a court ball. "I should be pleased to accompany you, Your Majesty."

Together they walked through the gate. The courtyard inside was high, wide, and empty except for two rows of blazing torches in iron holders lined up on either side of the path. Mendanbar and Cimorene paced slowly up to the door, which swung open just as the gates had, only without the grinding.

As they went in, they heard the castle gates crunch shut. A moment later, the doors closed silently behind them.

They stood in a stone hall three times the size of any Mendanbar had ever seen. A wooden table, surrounded by high-backed chairs, stretched the length of the hall, At the far end of the room a large fire burned in an open hearth. High on the walls, more torches lit the room. A brown-haired woman in a pale blue dress was bending over a cauldron that hung from an iron hook above the fire. It all looked very ordinary, until Mendanbar noticed that the seats of the chairs were level with his eyes and everything else was similarly oversized.

The brown-haired woman sniffed at the cauldron, nodded to herself, and straightened. "Welcome," she said, coming forward. "I'm Ballimore.

You must be Princess Cimorene. I'm so pleased to meet you at last, after all that Kazul has told me about you."

The giantess bent over to shake hands gently with Cimorene. She was at least three times as tall as Mendanbar, but she moved with a grace that suited her size. Cimorene returned the handshake gravely, and said, "I hope Kazul hasn't given you the wrong idea about me."

"Not at all, I'm sure," said the giantess. "Is this your young man? You're not running away from the dragons after all this time, are you?"

"Certainly not," Cimorene said with unnecessary vehemence. "I'm very happy with my job."

"Of course," Ballimore said, sounding disappointed. She gave Mendanbar a speculative look, then leaned toward Cimorene. "If I were you, I'd reconsider," she said in a loud whisper. "Your young man doesn't look like the patient type."

"No, no," Cimorene said, reddening. "It's not like that at all. This is the King of the Enchanted Forest, and he came to see Kazul, only Kazul has gone to visit her grandchildren and isn't home. That's why we came to see you-to borrow a magic carpet, so we can find Kazul."

"Oh, I see," said the giantess. "Strictly business. Well, you'll have to wait until after supper. Dobbilan will be home any minute, and he hates it when his meals are late."

"Dobbilan?" Mendanbar said with some misgiving.

"My husband," Ballimore said.

There was a loud crash from the courtyard outside, followed by the thud, thud, thud of heavy footsteps that shook the castle.

Ballimore straightened with a happy smile. "Here he comes now."


6 In Which Mendanbar and Cimorene Have a Long Talk and Mendanbar Reluctantly Decides to Embark on a Journey | Searching for Dragons | 8 In Which They Give Some Good Advice to a Giant