In Which They Discover the Perils of Borrowed Equipment
At first, the magic carpet ride was thoroughly enjoyable. The air was crisp and cool, and there was no noise at all except their own voices.
The view was amazing, even better than looking down from a mountain.
The Mountains of Morning stood in crooked, gray-blue rows below, each crack and boulder outlined in sharp black shadow. Tiny figures moved across the rocks and through the strips of greenery at the bottoms of the mountains: sheep and mountain goats and adventurous knights. Every now and then Mendanbar caught a glimpse of the lush trees of the Enchanted Forest between the peaks.
"Stop craning your neck like that," Cimorene said. "You're confusing the carpet."
"Sorry." Mendanbar sneaked a last look and sighed as the patch of green disappeared behind a rocky slope. How was Willin getting along without him?
"Mendanbar, is your sword slipping?" Cimorene said. "I thought I felt something for a minute there. Is it coming out of that sheath?"
"No," Mendanbar replied, checking it. "It's fine. And I haven't touched it. Are you sure it was the sword?"
"No," Cimorene admitted. "Maybe we flew over something magical and that's what I felt. It's gone now."
"Good," said Mendanbar. "Are you-"
The carpet gave a sudden lurch sideways, then dropped three feet.
"Mendanbar!" Cimorene cried. "I told you to stop that!"
"It wasn't me!" Mendanbar protested, trying to find something to hang on to.
"Well, it wasn't me, and there's only the two of us up here," Cimorene shouted.
The carpet rippled alarmingly, then resumed its peaceful progress.
Cautiously, Mendanbar turned his head to look at Cimorene. Wisps of black hair had come loose from her braids to blow wildly across her face. It made her look particularly lovely, even though she was scowling at him.
Mendanbar blinked and pulled his thoughts together.
"I really didn't do anything," he said.
"But-" The carpet wiggled and began to spin slowly. Mendanbar swallowed hard, wishing he had not eaten quite so much breakfast. He closed his eyes, then opened them again very quickly as the carpet bounced twice, paused, and started spinning twice as fast in the opposite direction.
"Carpet? Mendanbar shouted. "Cut it out!"
The lurching and spinning stopped. The carpet hung motionless in midair for a long moment, then dropped like the bottom falling out of a cardboard box. Cimorene gasped, then said something that sounded like "Oof!" as the carpet froze once more, three feet lower than it had been.
Mendanbar started to push himself up, then-without warning-the carpet dropped another three feet.
This time, Mendanbar stayed flat on the teddy bears. Two seconds later, the carpet dropped again. And again. And again. Mendanbar lost track of the bumps and concentrated on keeping track of his stomach. Suddenly, the carpet spun around twice and took off in a steep, fast climb.
"Whoa!" Cimorene cried. "Whoa, you stupid carpet, cut it out"
Again, the carpet froze. Then it dropped again, but this time, instead of bumping, it fell like a stone. Mendanbar got a glimpse of the ground drawing quickly closer, and then he had both hands on the hilt of his sword. He didn't bother to pull it out of the sheath, he just yanked at the power it held and flung it around himself and Cimorene.
Then he shoved with all his might.
Their speed slowed abruptly. The carpet fell away beneath them, rippling angrily, and plopped down on a rocky depression at the foot of a mountain. Mendanbar and Cimorene drifted after it, landing softly in the carpet's center. They lay there for a moment, catching their breath and collecting their wits.
Finally, Mendanbar raised his head and looked warily around. They lay in the middle of a circle of pine trees. "I think we've arrived," he said, sitting up.
"Good," Cimorene said shakily. She sat up, pushing tendrils of hair out of her face, and gave him a crooked smile. "I guess I should have asked Ballimore a few more questions about this carpet before we took it."
"Yes, well, it's too late now." Mendanbar rolled off the carpet and stood up. "How far have we come?"
"A little over halfway, I think. Too far to walk back, not far enough to walk the rest of the way there." She made a face at the teddy bears, which looked innocently back. "We may have to try the carpet again."
"We don't have to try it right away, though," Mendanbar pointed out.
"There's a house over there-you can see the roof through the trees.
Maybe the owner can tell us exactly where we are and the shortest way to get where we're going."
"All right," Cimorene agreed, with a swiftness that made Mendanbar think she was no more eager to get back on the carpet than he was.
"We'll have to bring the carpet with us, though. If you leave magical things lying around, all sorts of dreadful things can happen."
Mendanbar had to admit that she was right, though he wasn't happy about it. They set Ballimore's lunch in the middle of the carpet, then rolled the rug around it, folding the fringe carefully to the inside.
Then Cimorene took the front end and Mendanbar picked up the rear, and they started toward the house.
Weaving through three rows of pine trees, they ducked under the low-hanging branches along the outer edge of the grove and emerged in front of the house. It looked, thought Mendanbar, as if it had been put together by the same person who had built his palace, except that instead of too many towers and staircases, this house had too many windows: square windows, round windows, wide windows, tall windows, skinny windows, diamond windows, tiny windows filled with milky glass, enormous picture windows, windows with stained glass pictures of ladies in sweeping robes and birds with gold feathers, open windows with curtains blowing out of them. The roof was made of red tile and skylights, and the chimney had a square block of clear glass in the front side. Even the door had a window in it, right in the middle at about waist height. With only two floors, there were hardly enough walls to hold all the windows, in spite of the way the building sprawled in all directions.
As they drew near, Mendanbar felt a faint aura of power around the house, hanging in the air like mist. He was about to mention it to Cimorene, when he heard yells and shouts of laughter coming from behind the house.
Suddenly a small blonde girl dashed around the corner and stopped short, staring. A slightly larger boy followed in hot pursuit and barely managed to stop in time to avoid a collision. The blonde child looked at him reproachfully, then turned toward the house and shrieked at the top of her voice, "Herman! Herman, there's people."
"Bah!" A deep, cross voice came carrying through the open window beside the door. "I don't want any people. Tell them to go away."
The little girl obediently turned to Cimorene. "Go away, please," she said, and stuck her thumb in her mouth.
"No, thank you," Cimorene responded. "We want to talk to your parents."
"Haven't got any," said the boy. He tilted his head to one side, as if considering, then took off for the house at a dead run. "Herman, they won't go!" he shouted as he ran. "They want parents. They-" His shouting stopped as he dove headfirst through the open window and vanished inside. One of the upstairs windows scraped open, and two older children poked their heads out. At the same time, three small heads appeared at the corner of the house, gazing timidly at Mendanbar and Cimorene.
Cimorene looked at Mendanbar and set her end of the carpet on the ground. Mendanbar put his end down, too, and stepped forward to stand beside her. The children stared at them without speaking.
"ABSOLUTELY NOT!" the cross voice shouted. The front door of the house flew open and a dwarf stomped out. He was not much taller than the oldest of the children, but his long black beard and muscular arms showed plainly that he was no child. His hair looked like an upside-down black haystack. He glared angrily at Mendanbar.
"I won't do it!" the dwarf declared before either Mendanbar or Cimorene could say anything. "I don't care if it's family tradition, I don't care if you need the money, I don't care if her mother lied and now you have to convince your council, I don't care if your mother is going to turn her into a toad tomorrow if she doesn't perform. I WILL NOT DO IT AND THAT'S FINAL!"
"That's quite all right," Cimorene said. "We don't want you to. We just want-" "I know what you want," the dwarf said, hopping furiously from one foot to the other. "You want a chance to talk me into it.
Well, you won't get one, missy. You should be ashamed to even consider such a thing!"
"She isn't considering it," Mendanbar said. "We're travelers, and we've just stopped to get some directions."
The dwarf paused in midhop. Balancing on one foot, he peered suspiciously at Mendanbar. One of the children giggled. The dwarf glared in the direction of the sound, then turned back to Mendanbar.
"Directions? What sort of directions?" he asked with evident mistrust.
"Who are you, anyway?"
"I'm Princess Cimorene and this is King Mendanbar," Cimorene said, "and we're trying to get to the cave where the dragon Falgorn lives."
"Oh, you're after a dramatic rescue," the dwarf said with relief. "I suppose that's all right. But are you sure you know what you're getting into? Dragons are tough."
"No, no," Cimorene said in the exasperated tone of someone who is very tired of correcting the same mistake over and over. "I'm Chief Cook and Librarian for Kazul, the King of the Dragons, and I'm very happy with my job, and I don't want anyone to rescue me."
The dwarfs eyes narrowed. "Then why are you looking for this other dragon?"
"Because I have an urgent message for Kazul, and she's gone to visit Falgorn," Mendanbar explained.
"Huh." The dwarf hesitated, looking from Cimorene to Mendanbar.
"How do I know this isn't some sort of trick?"
"Why should we want to trick you?" Cimorene asked.
"To get me to spin straw into gold for you, you silly girl," the dwarf said. "That's why everyone comes to see me. And look at the thanks I get: children! Hundreds and hundreds of children! Bah!"
The littlest children giggled and pulled their heads back behind the corner as the dwarf spun around. The blonde girl stared solemnly at him for a moment, then took her thumb out of her mouth, ran forward, and gave the dwarf an enormous hug.
"Thank you, Herman," she told the dumbfounded dwarf. She hugged him again and skipped off, apparently tired of listening.
The dwarf smiled foolishly after her. The expression made him look pleasant and almost handsome. After a moment, the dwarf turned back to Cimorene, and his frown returned.
"I don't see the connection between children and spinning straw into gold," Mendanbar said before the dwarf could start complaining again.
"Would you be good enough to explain it to me?"
"Explain?" the dwarf fumed. "That's what the last girl said, and what happened? Twins, that's what happened! And she claimed she couldn't remember which one was first, so I ended up with both of them."
"I can see why that would be annoying," Cimorene said noncommittally.
The dwarf glared at her. "Yes, you say that now, but-oh what's the use? You'll get it out of me one way or another."
"If you'd rather not tell us-" Mendanbar started, but the dwarf cut him off with a despairing wave.
"It doesn't matter. It's my fate, that's what it is. I should never have agreed to learn to spin straw into gold in the first place."
"Why did you?" Mendanbar asked.
"It's a family tradition," the dwarf answered gloomily. "Of course it doesn't work if you're just spinning for yourself. So, a long time ago, my great-grandfather offered to use his talent to help out a girl who was in a sticky situation. If he hadn't been such a do-gooder, I wouldn't be in this mess."
"What good did he do, exactly?" Mendanbar asked.
"The local prince had gotten a notion that the girl could spin straw into gold," the dwarf said. "Brainless young idiot, but they're all like that. If she could spin straw into gold, why was she living in a hovel? Anyway, Gramps said he'd do her spinning for her in return for part of the gold and her firstborn child. She agreed, but naturally when the baby was born she didn't want to give him up. So Gramps agreed to a guessing game: if she could guess his name, she could keep the baby. Then he let her find out what his name was. She kept the baby and Gramps kept the gold, and everyone went home happy."
"I think I'm beginning to get the idea," Cimorene said. "It's not just spinning straw into gold that's a family tradition, is it? It's the whole scheme."
The dwarf nodded sadly. "Right the first time. Only I can never make it work properly. I can find plenty of girls who're supposed to spin straw into gold, and most of them suggest the guessing game, but I've never had even one who managed to guess my name."
"Oh, dear," said Cimorene.
"I even changed my name legally, so it would be easier," the dwarf said sadly. "Herman isn't a difficult name to remember, is it? But no, the silly chits can't do it. So I end up with the baby as well as the gold, and babies eat and cry and need clothes, and the gold runs out, and I have to find another girl to spin gold for, and it happens all over again, and I end up with another baby. It isn't fair!"
"You, um, seem to be fond of the children, though," Mendanbar said.
The dwarf looked around to see whether any of the children were within hearing distance, then nodded sheepishly. "They're good kids. It's just that there are too many of them. I moved out here so it would be harder for the silly girls to find me and talk me into spinning for them, but they keep finding me anyway."
"It was a rather drastic move, wasn't it?" Cimorene said. "What about the dragons and giants and rock snakes and so on?"
"Oh, they're no problem. The house used to belong to a magician, and he left a lot of guarding spells on it. Nothing nasty can get anywhere near."
"That's why it feels magical," Mendanbar said, relieved.
"It's an odd sort of house for a wizard," Cimorene said, studying it.
"Why so many windows?"
"Not a wizard," the dwarf said. "A magician. He was trying to find out which kinds of windows work best when they're enchanted."
"Did he find out?"
"I suppose so, or he wouldn't have let me buy it. Most of the windows don't work anymore, but there's a round one at the end of the attic that still shows things once in a while."
"What kinds of things?" Mendanbar asked. "Can you ask to see something in particular, or does it just show scenes at random?"
"You have to ask," said the dwarf, "and you don't always get an answer.
Would you like to see it?"
"Yes, please," Cimorene said quickly.
Mendanbar looked doubtfully at the carpet, wondering whether it would be safe to leave it where it was with all the children around, and thinking how much trouble it would be to haul along if they didn't.
"Let it be," the dwarf said, following Mendanbar's gaze. "The kids won't touch it."
With some reluctance, Mendanbar nodded and followed the dwarf and Cimorene into the house. The inside was just as mazelike as Mendanbar had expected from the rambling exterior. The dwarf led them down a passage, around a corner, up a flight of creaky wooden stairs, through a room lined with pictures, up another flight of stairs, and down a long hall to a cramped, stuffy little room under the farthest slope of the roof. The only light came from a circular window about twice the size of Mendanbar's head.
"There it is," said the dwarf. "If you want to see something, ask; but I can't guarantee it'll work."
"Show me Kazul, the King of the Dragons," Cimorene commanded at once.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then Mendanbar felt a tentative swelling of magic around the window. "I think it needs a boost," he said and reached for his sword.
"No, let me," said Cimorene. She thought for a minute, then raised her right hand and pointed at the window.
"Power of water, wind, and earth, Cast the spell to show its birth.
Raise the fire to stop the harm By the power of this charm."
Power surged around the window, and the glass went milk-white.
"What did you do?" Mendanbar said, impressed.
"It's a dragon spell," Cimorene told him, keeping her eyes fixed on the window. "It's easy to remember, and it's not hard to adapt it to do just about anything. I found it in Kazul's-look!"
The window glass had cleared. Through the circular pane, Mendanbar could see the inside of a large cave. A sphere of golden light, like a giant glowing soap-bubble, covered half the cave, and inside the glow was a dragon. She was easily four times as tall as Mendanbar, even without counting her wings. Three short, stubby horns stuck out of her head, one on each side and one in the center of her forehead, and her scales were just starting to turn gray around the edges. An angry-looking trickle of smoke leaked out of her mouth as she breathed.
In front of the bubble stood two tall, bearded men in long robes, carrying staffs of polished wood.
"Wizards," Cimorene said angrily. "I knew it!"