By Piers Anthony
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2010 Piers Anthony Jacob
All rights reserved.
Wenda Woodwife Charming was horribly distressed. She knew that a good part of the reason Prince Charming had gone on a royal business trip far, far away was to get away from her. Oh, he still loved her; she knew that. She still loved him, too, and longed to be with him. But lately her moods had become violently changeable, making her unfit to live with. She knew it, but somehow couldn't stop it.
Distressed, she went to the private courtyard and sat on the swing there. It had become her place to think about things, because none of the servants ever went to this particular alcove; she could be alone. The swing was next to a round court called the Social Circle, where people became highly social. Unfortunately this too was isolated; no one visited it.
She pushed her legs forward and leaned back, getting it started. Then she leaned forward, tucking her feet below her, reversing the motion. Soon she was swinging back and forth across the court, so high that she could almost peek over the top of the wall into the next yard. It was exhilarating.
But it didn't solve her problem. What was she to do to save her marriage from her own difficult nature? She had thought that once she found true love, and married, and became a real woman instead of the half woman she had been, everything would be perfect. And for a while it had seemed so. She and the prince had shared so much delight that sometimes she had feared the stones would melt around them. They had surely given the storks a headache from overlapping signals.
Then she had started suffering the moods. One day she would be utterly sweet. Then unutterably sad. Then so cheerful she couldn't stop smiling and laughing, even when there were serious matters afoot. Then unreasonably angry. Or impossibly analytical. She was constantly changing, seemingly at random. Why? She couldn't say. That was frustrating.
In fact it made her angry. So angry she could hardly see straight. "Bleep!" she screamed at the top of the swing and her voice. The dread word bounced off the wall and fragmented, leaving acrid smoke and dropping cinders.
That appalled her. She had never been a person to swear. She liked to think of herself as a nice person, in all the ways feasible.
That was it. She definitely had to do something about it. But what?
What else? She would go ask the Good Magician Humfrey. He would know how to fix it. True, it would cost her a year's service or the equivalent. But if it fixed the problem, it would be worth it. After all, she had been to the Good Magician's Castle before, and knew the way.
She stopped the swing, got off, and hurried to the bedroom, where she quickly penned a note for the prince and left it on the pillow where he would be sure to find it when he sought to kiss her.
Dearest beloved bold handsome prince husband — I have gone to see the Good Magician about my moods. I'll bee back when I can. Dinner is in the kitchen; dew knot go hungry. I wood knot dew that to yew. Hugs, kisses, & unmentionable passion. I love yew, Wenda.
She hesitated, concerned that she was making it too cold and distant. She wanted him to be sure that her feeling for him had not changed. Well, it would have to do. Still, she felt almost unbearable nostalgia and pity for the prince when he returned. He did so like his passion! Sometimes she feared his enthusiasm would break the bed. How would he ever cope with her absence? Tears of regret coursed down her face. But of course this was yet another mood, in her ever-shifting kaleidoscope of emotions. She simply had to deal with it.
She left the castle, crossed the moat, and hesitated again. Something had bothered her about the moat ever since she came here, and suddenly she realized what it was: there was no moat monster. A castle just wasn't authentic without a decently horrendous moat monster. She would have to look for one. But now was not the time; she had moods to nullify.
She followed the winding path into the forest. Trees were her second love, after the prince. After all, she had until reasonably recently been crafted of wood herself. As a woodwife she had been in effect an animated carving resembling a shapely nymph — that was a pleonasm, because shapely and nymph pretty well defined each other — from the front, while she had no back. In fact she had been hollow from behind, showing the outlines of her shapeliness in reverse, inverted. So that when a man clasped her, he felt everything against his front, but his questing hands found nothing behind. That was said to be disconcerting.
Prince Charming had especially delighted in taking handfuls of her rear aspect, when she turned real. Just to be sure it was truly there, he said. She might have thought that after a year he would have developed some confidence about it, but he still insisted on those handfuls. It surely showed how much he valued her, needing constantly to be certain that none of her was missing. Maybe he thought that it could not be lost as long as he kept a firm hold on it. He was certainly conscientious in that respect. He was just so devoted!
She came to the key tree. The forest all around her was perfectly manicured, every tree being large, tall, and without blemish. That was because Prince Charming's castle was the setting for more than one fairy tale, and artists could come at any time to paint scenes from it. It would be humiliating to have it be weedy or otherwise imperfect, ruining the pictures.
The tree marked the boundary between fairyland and Xanth, though the perfect forest extended well beyond it. The path passed by it without pausing, so that strangers would not know. But Wenda knew.
She looked around, just to be sure that no painter was in the area at the moment. Because she was about to climb, and if a painter happened to glance up under her skirt and see her panties he would freak out. That would be embarrassing, because the prince was the only one allowed to freak out on her panties. If a painter painted a painting in that condition, the picture might freak out all male viewers — and a few females too. That would never do for a children's story.
She put her small hands on the bark and drew herself up. She could climb very well, because of her wooden legacy. She related perfectly to trees, and they knew it. She shinnied up the trunk until she reached the first major branch. Then she circled the tree to the opposite branch, and shinnied back down the trunk until she touched the ground.
She turned away from the trunk and looked around. The forest had become a jungle that entirely surrounded the tree. There was a palmetto hand, which was a giant palm of a hand with splayed fingers. There were milkweed plants with bottles of milk. She was now in the Land of Xanth, where things tended to be literal, and puns abounded. Her native country.
She saw something and paused. There was a stray goblin frozen in place like a statue, his eyeballs crystallized. Oops! She had forgotten to look around before she descended, and he had seen her panties and freaked out. Fortunately goblins hardly counted; the males were normally ugly and crude to the point of disgust, while the females were pretty, sweet, and nice. There was no risk of him painting a picture.
She walked behind the goblin, snapped her fingers, and faded instantly into the anonymous brush. The goblin came back to life, bits of crystal flaking off his eyes. He didn't even know what had happened. Had he caught on that there was a nymph in the vicinity, he would be chasing after her with lascivious intent.
Meanwhile Wenda was making her way to the nearest enchanted path. It wasn't that she needed it for safety, because she was a natural creature of the forest who had no fear of its aspects. It was that the path was the quickest and surest route to the Good Magician's Castle, and she was in a hurry. If she was lucky, she might even find a bicycle.
Yes! There was a Playing Card stand with several bicycles for travelers to use. A bicycle magically tripled a person's traveling efficiency. She selected a nice wooden one with balloon tires, flowery petals, and a banana seat. The balloons were bulky, but they made the bike lighter. The banana could be peeled and eaten if it got too battered. Bicycles were supremely practical.
There was another woman there Wenda hadn't noticed in her focus on the bicycle. She was dressed conservatively, but there was something odd about her. Wenda couldn't quite place it.
"Oh, hello," the woman said, startled. "I was just trying to make sense of these devices. Do you happen to know what they are for?" "Yes. They are bicycles. They triple yewr walking efficiency."
"Oh, good! I need to go see the Good Magician, and this will help." She paused. "I should introduce myself. I am Freja, often nicknamed Freka."
"I am Wenda Woodwife. I am going to see the Good Magician too, because I have such violent moods." She hesitated. "If I may ask —"
"My talent — my curse — is to freak out men when I dress normally. That's why the nickname. I have to show my underwear to snap them out of it. I hate that. I am a modest person."
"I wonder whether a chip of reverse wood wood fix that," Wenda said.
"No it wouldn't. I tried a chip to change my hair color, but it didn't work."
Wenda got an idea. "What did yew dew with the chip?"
"I left it in my hair. It's been there for years. I am still hoping it will work."
"That may bee yewr problem," Wenda said. "Yew never can tell how reverse wood will reverse. It may bee affecting yewr clothes instead of yewr hair."
"Oh!" Freja put her hand to her hair and removed the chip, dropping it to the ground. "That never occurred to me."
"We can test it," Wenda said. "A man is approaching." Actually it wasn't a man so much as a male gnome, but the principle would apply. "Hello, gnome!" Wenda called.
The squat little man paused. "What do you want, woodwife?"
"Please take a good look at Freja here. Is there anything about her?"
"I am Gene Gnome," the gnome said. "My talent is to change living things as they are. But this woman looks perfectly ordinary. She doesn't need any change."
"Pick up the chip," Wenda whispered.
Freja stooped to pick up the chip.
Gene glanced at her, and froze, his eyes fixed on her flexed skirt where it was tightest. He had freaked out.
"Oh, bleep!" Freja swore. She quickly lifted her skirt to show her panties. The gnome returned to animation.
"Drop the chip," Wenda whispered.
Freja did, along with her skirt.
"If that is all, I will be moving on," Gene said, evidently bored. He did so without delay.
"You have solved my problem," Freja said. "How can I ever thank you enough?"
"No need," Wenda said. "I like helping people."
"Now I can go home. It's such a relief!"
"I am glad." And she was.
Freja departed, and Wenda focused on the bicycle. She mounted, put her feet on the petals, and pushed down. There was a burst of flowery scent and the bike moved forward. She was on her way.
After that it was routine. She rode rapidly, and by nightfall was near the castle. She pulled into a weigh station, weighed in, and foraged for a dietary pie. The prince might love her flesh, but she knew better than to get too much of it.
In the morning she weighed out and resumed her journey. Soon she saw the highest turrets of the Good Magician's Castle. She hoped she would be able to navigate the challenges soon so as to get her Answer. Of course then there would be the nuisance of the year's service. She hoped there would be an alternative service that would take less time, because she wasn't sure how the prince would react to a year's separation. He might even run out of food.
She parked the bike beside the path and walked the last bit of distance to the castle. The Good Magician would be expecting her, of course. Somehow he always saw querents coming, and prepared three relevant Challenges to discourage those who weren't really serious.
Sure enough, there was a robot barring her way. On his chest was printed the word DENT.
She sought to pass by him, but he grabbed her and enfolded her in a metal embrace, seeking to kiss her with his faceplate. What was this? A robot getting fresh with a live girl? That did not compute. Then she caught on. "Robot Dent," she said. "R Dent for short. Yew're ardent."
"Oh, clang!" he swore. "You calculated the pun."
"Well, one learns to dew that, in Xanth," she said. "It's a matter of survival."
He let her go, but still barred her way. Behind him was a pattern of pictures. Now his chest panel said CADE.
"That wood bee Robot Cade," she said. "Arcade. Does that relate to my challenge?"
But already it was changing. Now it said TILLERY, and there was the sound of big guns firing in the background.
"Artillery," she said. "But I'm knot sure what relevance this has."
It changed again. Now it said SENIC, and the robot was looking sickly.
"Arsenic," she said. "Look, we can dew this indefinitely. R ME, R RAY, R REST, R SON, R TERY, R TICKLE, R TIST — what's the point?"
The robot did not reply, except to put another word on: DOR. He advanced on her with ardor.
"I think yew have a screw loose," Wenda said, retreating. "But I dew knot see a gremlin to fix it." In fact all she saw was a bale of old hay. What good would that do her?
Then a bulb flashed over her head. She stepped to the bale, pulled out a wisp of hay, whirled, and jammed it into the robot's front grille. "How hot does that make yew, lover?"
It worked. The robot heated. A wisp of smoke issued from his grille. Then he started running crazily in a circle.
Wenda moved on by. She had used the hay to convert the machine's hay fever and make it go haywire. That was the solution to the Challenge, rather than guessing endless pun identities. Sometimes it was necessary to get out of a particular rut of puns, and find now ones that worked better.
She walked on down the path toward the castle. One down; two to go.
The path led to a playground filled with children. There were swings and slides and seesaws, but the children weren't using them. Instead they were taunting one another. That made Wenda wince. She loved children, but she preferred them to be well behaved.
"I think, I think, you stink, you stink!" a girl cried at a boy.
"You stink worse!" the boy retorted.
Wenda tried to pass through the playground, but the crowded children blocked her. She realized that this was not accidental; it was a Challenge. She had to get past without making a child cry — which was surely not possible without finding a way to get them to stand aside. She had no experience with children, and was sure she would not be good with them. Not until she had some of her own, and learned the ropes. Which made this a nasty Challenge for her.
Not that these were normal children. Wenda saw that the boys were actually composites, formed of masses of slugs, snails, and puppy dogs' tails, while the girls were all sugar and spice and all things nice. No wonder they weren't getting along!
She gazed around the playground. Could she get them interested in the normal diversions? If only to make the children jealous of them?
She went to the nearest swing and sat on it. It was standard hemp for the ropes and beechwood for the seat, sandy like a beach. She pumped her legs and started swinging.
No child noticed.
She worked her way higher. This swing was subtly different from the one at the castle. It did not involve her emotionally in the same way. It was just a swing, with no magic. No wonder the children weren't interested.
Totally ignored, she gave up on that. She let the swing subside, got off, and tried a slide. It was nice and tall. "Wheee!" she exclaimed with a full three E's as she slid down. But she wasn't persuading even herself, let alone the busy children.
She gave it one more try. There was a sidewalk with a hopscotch diagram chalked on it. She sniffed a scotch, verifying that it was fake; they would not really let children use such an adult drink. But the diagram was authentic.
She hopped on it, following the pattern. No girl seemed to notice. They were all still too busy exchanging insults with the boys. Of course that was because boys and girls interested one another, but didn't know how to relate, so they argued instead. That way they could safely interact.
There had to be some other way. Wenda looked around, but saw nothing but the children, the vacant equipment, and a few spaced trees. They lacked leaves; this was evidently winter, here, if not in the rest of Xanth. One tree had a mass of green in its branches.
Green. That would be mistletoe. That was a forest plant, and she understood it well. And it just might be the key to resolving this Challenge — if the dreaded Adult Conspiracy to Keep Interesting Things from Children didn't intervene. She wasn't sure whether it applied; she would just have to proceed and hope for the best.
She walked to the mistletoe tree and shinnied up its trunk. She wasn't concerned about any children looking up her skirt; they wouldn't think to do it, even if they were paying attention, which they weren't.
She climbed to the mistletoe, which consisted of clusters of toes on green stalks. She grabbed a handful, then shinnied back down the tree. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Knot Gneiss by Piers Anthony. Copyright © 2010 Piers Anthony Jacob. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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