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The Woad to Wuin

Peter David

  * * *

  Table of Contents

  Book One

  Fate Accompli

  Chapter 1 The One Thing

  Chapter 2 Fear and Loathing at Bugger Hall

  Chapter 3 The Vision Thing

  Chapter 4 Destiny’s Bastard Stepchild

  Chapter 5 In the Shadow of Ba’da’boom

  Chapter 6 Fate’s Finger

  Chapter 7 The Tragic Waste

  Book Two The Conqueror Worm Turns

  Chapter 1 Strange Awakening

  Chapter 2 The Woad Home

  Chapter 3 Bathing the Family Jewels

  Chapter 4 Hate Cuisine

  Chapter 5 Bye Low, Cell High

  Chapter 6 Gallows Humor

  Book Three Pas De Dieu

  Chapter 1 The War of Art

  Chapter 2 The Ice Man Cometh Again

  Chapter 3 Hallow Pursuits

  Chapter 4 Ifs, Ands, and Buttes

  Chapter 5 The Fissure King

  Chapter 6 The Woad Not Taken

  Chapter 7 Fools and Kings

  Chapter 8 Monsters and Gods

  Chapter 9 Small Sacrifices

  Chapter 10 Shadow Dance

  Chapter 11 Fearsome Things

  Book One

  Fate Accompli

  Chapter 1

  The One Thing

  It is important you understand that I do not like taking people’s lives. I have done it several times but derived no pleasure from it. Furthermore it has always been in self-defense, and, as suspect as it may sound, it has usually come about as a result of someone inadvertently throwing themselves on some sort of sharp implement I happened to be pointing in his, her, or its direction. I have never, however, been the sort to start a fight when it could be avoided … or, for that matter, failed to run from it if remotely possible. Anyone who has read my previous chronicles of my “adventures,” of which this is a continuation, is already rather painfully aware of that.

  So you will understand the distress I felt when I was standing there in the middle of an otherwise lovely glade, on a fairly crisp and yet invigorating day, staring in dismay at the hairy-footed dwarf that I had unintentionally killed. A death which would unexpectedly thrust me—in every sense of the word—into an escapade that was alternately the most exhilarating, and most terrifying, that I had ever experienced. And considering what I had experienced previous to that point, that is saying some.

  For those who are new to what can only in the broadest and most ironic terms be referred to as my hero’s journey, I shall tell you as simply as possible what you need to know in order to understand me. (Indeed, I should observe that if you are interested in my life, you may very well lack sufficient brain power to comprehend all but the most minimal of explanations.)

  My name is Apropos, occasionally referred to as “Apropos of Nothing” due to my lowly birth and lack of … well … anything, really, that could be considered valuable. Of late I was dubbed Sir Apropos, still of Nothing, an honor which—for reasons I won’t go into here—did not quite work out. Suffice to say that one whose patrimony consists of a group of knights raping my tavern wench mother, providing me an existence of endless betrayal and deprivation which served to give me a somewhat cynical, shall we say, view of the world … well, one such as that does not end up living happily ever after. I was foolish enough to briefly entertain the notion, and paid severely for that unbecoming naïveté by winding up tossed in a dungeon barely twenty-four hours after being knighted, which was something of a record at the court of King Runcible in the state of Isteria.

  Once I managed to escape the dungeon through means literally too ludicrous to go into here, I hit the road in the company of a rather vexing young sorceress (or “weaver,” as her type is also known, short for “magic weaver”) who called herself “Sharee,” which may or may not have been her true name.

  I never found out whether Runcible sent his knights after me to bring me back. On the one hand, his pride was no doubt hurt; on the other hand, he and his queen—and certainly his daughter—might have been well-pleased to be rid of me. If they had been determined to hunt me down, it likely would not have been all that difficult. My ears tended to stick out a bit too much, and my flaming red hair was long and unruly. My nose was crooked from having been broken several times, and although my eyes were a remarkably pleasing shade of gray, the rest of my hodgepodge of features invariably overwhelmed them. Furthermore I was lame of right leg, and got about with the aid of a sizable walking staff that also served as a formidable weapon. In short, I was easy to spot and difficult to disguise.

  Sharee was less distinctive. She dressed customarily in black, with ebony hair cut short and curled around her ears, and her rather prominent chin perpetually out thrust as if she were challenging the world to take its best shot at her. There were times when it seemed to me that her prime reason for existence was harassing me and taking great pleasure in the bizarre vagaries of my life. Still, in some ways she was the truest friend I had ever encountered, if one defined friend as “perpetual irritant.”

  Just in case Runcible’s knights did happen to be following us, we retreated west and later north, to take refuge in the Tucker Forest. This was not done without a certain degree of trepidation on my part. The Tucker Forest was a nesting area for a particularly vicious group of cutthroat monstrosities called the Harpers Bizarre, with whom I had considerable bad blood. I would far have preferred to take refuge in the Elderwoods of my youth, but the only way to get there was either along roads too heavily traveled for my comfort, or across the Screaming Gorge of Eternal Madness, about which the less said the better. Besides, Sharee seemed rather confident that if difficulties arose, her weather-related magiks could dispose of the Harpers with alacrity, and so the Tucker Forest became our temporary haven while we waited for the name Apropos to fade into the furthest recesses of royal memory.

  Fortunately I had considerable proficiency in forestry, one of the few true talents I possessed other than evasion, self-preservation, and rank cowardice. I had developed the forestry skills in my youth, and they had not faded in time as I grew to young manhood. I was reaching the end of my teens when we took up temporary refuge in the Tucker Forest. We found a cave in which to reside, well hidden from casual observation either from ground level (i.e., thieves) or from overhead (i.e., the Harpers Bizarre). We figured we would spend a couple of days there and then work our way farther west in order to distance ourselves more from Runcible’s men. I spent time hunting, catching small game, while Sharee preferred to alternate between meditating and acting as if she had something far better to do with her time than remain with me.

  Occasionally, though, we had mild fun together. For instance, I commented to her that I would be interested in learning some magic. In response, she started teaching me card tricks. Not real magic at all, and I was quite irritated with her at first. But in short order, I actually derived some genuine amusement from it. I was a fairly quick learner, and also picked up some easy sleight-of-hand, including misdirection and the ability to apparently pluck a card out of the air. Not much of a trick to the latter, really. Simply keep your hand straight, hold the upper corners of the card securely on the back of your hand, between your fingers, and then snap it quickly forward. The card seems to have come out of nowhere. As noted, not genuine magic, but sometimes we measure the quality of life’s passage by just how much of an assortment of mindless pastimes we develop to entertain ourselves through it.

  In terms of hunting, at first I stuck to small animals. But I tired quickly of a steady diet of rabbit and squirrel. So I redesigned and reconfigured the traps for bigger bait, hoping to snag a small deer or perhaps even a straying unicorn. Immortal or not, such creatures could still die from a quickly snapped ne
ck, and such were my traps intended for. Naturally I set them nowhere near the roads that occasional travelers might use, lest an unfortunate accident occur.

  Yet it happened anyway.

  I was moving through the forest one day with my customary stealth. It may sound boastful or vain glorious, but when I elect not to be detected in the woods, it is nigh unto impossible to find me. It is one of the few instances, outside of swimming, where my lame leg does not deter me. Stealth does not arise from speed, but from economy of motion. A high-speed marathon would leave me hopelessly abandoned, but if you were seeking someone to move at a snail’s pace for days on end, I was your man.

  Approaching one of my more crafty noose traps, I suddenly heard a startled and truncated yelp from ahead. It was definitely of a human variety of noise. It took me a moment to realize whence the sound had come—namely from my trap—and but a moment more to grasp, with horror, the likely significance of it.

  Disdaining silence, I practically crashed through the underbrush, hoping there was time to salvage the situation. ‘Twas not to be. Instead I came upon a scene utterly dismaying … and yet also utterly fascinating in a perverse way, and I do mean perverse.

  The small pile of food which had served as bait within the snare now lay scattered about. The noose was drawn taut, dangling about three and a half feet in the air. And suspended from the noose itself, its feet clear of the ground by a good six inches, was the aforementioned dwarf.

  It was a damned odd-looking thing. Its head was slumped to one side. It was round, with features that looked fairly squashed, as if someone had sat on its face. Its arms were the disproportionate length so common to its kind, but its legs were longer and less bow-shaped than one customarily saw in such creatures. Its feet were odder still. At first I thought it was wearing hairy slippers of some sort, but then realized that it was barefoot and simply had the most hirsute pedal extremities of any creature I’d ever seen that didn’t also possess a tail.

  It also sported an extremely sizable bulge in its loins which even its loose-fitting breeches couldn’t obscure. I’d never been present at a hanging, but had heard that the victims of such incidents usually had themselves a fairly healthy protuberance at the moment of death, which had always struck me as somewhat puzzling. If anything could be deemed a sure killer of arousal, it was having your neck snapped. But here was I, first-hand witness to the phenomenon, and so knew it to be true. Who would have thought?

  I still felt some measure of guilt for the passing creature’s untimely demise, but there wasn’t much I could do about it after the fact. So instead I proceeded to do the most reasonable thing one could under the circumstances: I checked him over for valuables. I didn’t bother to cut him down; gruesome as his situation was, it was easier to inspect him while he was upright. While his most noticeable bulge began to diminish, I happily relieved him of another—a fairly decent purse hanging on his belt which I quickly discovered was filled with gold coins the like of which I’d never seen. Still, as opposed to coins unique to specific realms with different faces of monarchs etched in the surfaces, gold was definitely gold no matter whose countenance adorned it.

  Then I spotted something twinkling on the brush just beneath the dwarf’s dangling feet, shining and winking at me in the rays of the setting sun. I reached down and picked it up. It appeared to be some sort of golden ring, but it was much too large for ordinary wear. I could easily fit three of my fingers into the thing. An earring perhaps, but there was no clasp for it to fasten on. It felt rather warm, and I turned it over and over in my hands, inspecting it carefully. It was then I noticed some sort of writing on the inside. It was not easy to make out and, confusingly, the letters seemed to be fading along with the dissipating warmth. But what it read was:

  I didn’t know to whom “them all” referred, or what the one thing might be, so really I was somewhat ignorant of the purpose of the ring. Would that I had remained that way.

  It was at that point that I heard something coming toward me through the woods. From the sound of it, it appeared to be a group of men, at least half a dozen. They were making no attempt to move quietly; a deaf man could have heard them coming. Unfortunately they were between me and the cave.

  Without thinking, I shoved the ring in my pocket and quickly sought, and found, refuge amongst the underbrush. As I mentioned earlier, when I am endeavoring to hide in a forest, I am almost impossible to detect. I drew my cape around me and huddled low, unmoving in the lengthening shadows of the forest.

  The men arrived in short order, and a more motley assortment one could not have imagined. The one who seemed to be the leader was a strong, fox-faced, handsome-looking man. With him was an astounding array of … hell, I’m not sure what they were. A couple more hairy-footed dwarfs, a few trolls, some other freakish-looking individuals. I had absolutely no idea where they could have come from; none of their ilk had ever passed through any of the regions in which I’d resided.

  They saw at once the dangling dwarf, and oh, the moaning and caterwauling that they sent up then, I cannot begin to tell you. In catching the names they were tossing around, it appeared that the deceased one was called Bubo, and the tall man was Walker. The others had an assortment of staggeringly annoying monikers that were impossible to keep straight: Hodge and Podge, Hoi and Paloi, Hither and Thither, Tutti and Fruitti, So On and So Forth, etc. It was rather cloying, and I could only be thankful I wasn’t traveling with the group as I would likely have beaten myself to death after two days rather than die slowly of excessive cleverness.

  The tall one called Walker was standing directly in front of Bubo, obscuring him from my sight, and then he turned and looked grimly at the others. “The ring is not here,” he said.

  There were gasps and lamentations and growls of “Death to the thief!” which naturally didn’t sit all that well with me.

  “The body is still warm,” said Walker. “The thief cannot have gotten far.” Now, I have to admit, I bridled a bit at the word thief. Not that I wasn’t one, you understand, but in this particular circumstance, it wasn’t as if the deceased had any use for his possessions anymore. I figured I was as entitled to what he was carrying upon him as anyone else. “Spread out. Find him,” Walker continued.

  Moving in smooth coordination, they headed out in all directions. I didn’t breathe. One of the dwarfs came within two feet of me but passed me by without noticing me hunkered down in the brush.

  I waited what seemed an interminable time there, my legs getting numb, my arms feeling like lead weights. Night had almost fallen when I finally chanced to rise, my sharp hearing convincing me that I was alone.

  Except …

  In a sense, I wasn’t.

  I felt an extremely odd tingling in my loins. My little soldier was standing at attention, and he wasn’t little. Furthermore, I felt some sort of foreign object down there. Even though I knew I was alone, I still glanced right and left to ensure privacy, then reached down into my breeches to see what was up. Well … what else was up, beside the obvious.

  To my utter astonishment, I discovered the ring, nestled securely at the base of my member. Apparently I’d had a hole in my pocket, and as if it had a life of its own, the ring had worked its way through and nestled into my loins, wrapping itself around my privates as if it were destined to be there. I pulled on the ring in an endeavor to remove it. It wouldn’t come off. I tried again and again, as forceful as I could be while still retaining some delicacy, as I’m sure you can well imagine.

  It didn’t budge. Here I had been wondering how one could possibly sport such a sizable ring, and now I had inadvertently discovered the answer. Furthermore I was so swollen that it didn’t appear capable of being removed until the tumescence went away. Which it did not seem inclined to do. And out there, exposed in the woods, I felt rather too self-conscious to “relieve myself” of the pressure.

  I was utterly mortified, but I had nowhere else to go as I headed back to the cave. Fortunately I had my great cape with
me, so I would be able to draw it around myself and hide the noticeable bulge, for I certainly did not need Sharee laughing at my predicament. My hope was that if I simply ignored the thing, it would go away. And certainly spending time with Sharee would increase that likelihood, for if I’d had any remaining interest in the opposite sex after my rather disastrous history of liaisons, the weaver was more than capable of putting it to rest.

  I hoped that she might not be in the cave when I arrived, just so I had a few minutes to get myself settled with the cape still around me. Such was not to be, however, for there she was, tending a small fire and looking up at me expectantly. “Did you bring food?” she inquired.

  “Bad luck trapping,” I said, which was true enough. Hungry we might have been, but I didn’t think we were hungry enough to eat a dwarf. I settled down some feet away from her, adjusting the cape. My loins did not seem to be calming. Instead, in Sharee’s presence, there appeared to be even more excitement than before. And I thought, Oh, my friend, are you barking up the wrong tree. If there is anyone who is not at all interested, it is—

  She was upon me in a flash.

  I could not believe it. One minute she was sitting there, looking at me oddly, and the next she was on top of me with such force that I slammed my head against the cave wall. Her hand went straight to the place I’d been trying to keep hidden, as if she knew what was going to be there. Her eyes were wild with a fiery light, and she was smothering me with kisses even as she started pulling both of our clothes off in her eagerness.

  Now …

  I’m not stupid.

  I figured out what was going on in pretty short order. I didn’t for a moment think that suddenly I had acquired so sensual, so commanding a personality that Sharee felt compelled to savage me in every carnal way imaginable. Obviously it was the ring. The damned thing was enchanted somehow, and it was an enchantment that no one—even a skilled weatherweaver such as Sharee—was able to resist. She was not in her right mind. Under the circumstances, I would have been a cad, a bounder, and an utter rotter to take advantage of the situation. And if you think that I failed to do so, then clearly you have not been paying attention.