Read an Excerpt
Ben Holiday sighed wearily and wished he were somewhere else besides where he was. He wished he were anywhere else.
He was in the garden room at Sterling Silver. The garden room was probably Ben Holiday’s favorite of all the many rooms at the castle. It was bright and airy. Flower boxes crisscrossed the tiled floor in dazzling swatches of color. Sunshine streamed through floor-length windows that ran the length of its southern wall, tiny motes of pollen dancing on the broad bands of light. The windows stood open and fragrant smells wafted in. The room looked out on the gardens proper, a maze of flower beds and bushes that spread their way downward to the lake on which the island castle rested, mixing and mingling their colors like paints run together on a rain-soaked canvas. The flowers bloomed year-round, reseeding themselves with commendable regularity. A horticulturist from Ben’s old world would have killed to study such treasures—species that grew only in the Kingdom of Landover and nowhere else.
Just at the moment, Ben would have killed to escape them.
“ … Great High Lord … ”
“ … Mighty High Lord … ”
The familiar calls of supplication grated on him like rough stones and reminded him anew of the cause of his disgruntlement. His eyes rolled skyward momentarily. Please! His gaze shifted furiously from flower box to flower bed and back again, as if somewhere among all those tiny petals the escape he so desperately sought might be found. It wasn’t, of course, and he sagged back further in his cushioned chair and contemplated the unfairness of it all. It wasn’t that he was trying to shirk his duty. It wasn’t as if he didn’t care about these things. But this was his refuge, for Pete’s sake! This was supposed to be his place for time away!
“ … and took all of our hard-earned berry stores.”
“And all of our ale kegs as well.”
“When all we did was to borrow a few laying hens, High Lord.”
“We would have replaced those that were lost, High Lord.”
“We intended to be fair.”
“You must see that our possessions are returned … ”
“Yes, you must … ”
They went on, barely pausing for breath.
Ben studied Fillip and Sot the way his gardener studied weeds in the flower beds. The G’home Gnomes rambled on unself-consciously and endlessly, and he thought about the vagaries of life that permitted misfortunes such as this to be visited on him. The G’home Gnomes were a pitiful bunch—small, ferretlike burrow people who begged, borrowed, and mostly stole everything with which they came in contact. They migrated periodically and, once settled, could not be dislodged. They were regarded in general as a blight upon the earth. On the other hand, they had proven unswervingly loyal to Ben. When he had purchased the Kingdom of Landover from Rosen’s Department Store Christmas Wishbook and come into the valley—almost two years ago now—Fillip and Sot, on behalf of all of the G’home Gnomes, had been the first to pledge their loyalty. They had aided him in his efforts to establish his kingship. They had helped him again when Meeks, the former Court Wizard, had slipped back into Landover and stolen his identity and his throne. They had been his friends when there were precious few friends to be had.
He sighed deeply. Well, he owed them something, certainly—but not this much. They were taking advantage of his friendship in a way that was totally unconscionable. They had traded on it to bring this latest complaint before him, deliberately circumventing the regular channels of a court administration he had worked hard to implement. They had brandished it like a fiery torch until he was hounded to this, his last sanctuary. It wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t do this every single time there was a complaint of any sort—which was every five minutes, it sometimes seemed—but, of course, they did. They didn’t trust anyone else to be fair and impartial. They wanted their “Great High Lord” and their “Mighty High Lord” to hear them out.
And hear them out, and hear them out.…
“ … a fair disposition would be a return of all things stolen and a replacement of all things damaged,” said Fillip.
“A fair disposition would be for you to order to our service several dozen trolls for a reasonable period of time,” said Sot.
“Perhaps a week or two,” said Fillip.
“Perhaps a month,” said Sot.
It would also help matters if they didn’t bring most of their problems on themselves, Ben thought darkly. It was difficult to be either objective or sympathetic when he knew before the first word was out of their mouths that they were at least as guilty of causing the dilemma as whomever their latest complaint was to be lodged against.
Fillip and Sot rambled on. Their grimy faces twitched as they talked, their eyes squinting against the light, their fur wrinkled and worn. Their fingers curled and straightened as they gestured, and bits of dirt crumbled and broke away from beneath the nails where it was caked from digging. Their shabby clothes hung on them, leather and sackcloth, colorless save for a single incongruous red feather stuck in the headband of their caps. They were bits of wreckage that had somehow washed up on the shores of his life.
“Perhaps a tribute would help serve as recompense,” Fillip was saying.
“Perhaps a token gift of silver or gold,” Sot echoed.
Ben shook his head hopelessly. This was quite enough. He was about to cut them off when he was saved from the need to do so by the sudden, unexpected appearance of Questor Thews. His Court Wizard burst through the garden room doors as if catapulted by some giant sling, arms waving, white beard and long hair whipping about, gray robes with their colorful patches trailing after in what appeared to be a desperate effort to keep up with their wearer.
“I have done it, I have done it!” he proclaimed without any preliminaries. He was flushed with excitement, his owlish face made positively glowing by whatever it was that he had done. He seemed oblivious to the presence of the G’home Gnomes, who mercifully stopped their presentation in midsentence and simply stared at him open-mouthed.
“What is it that you have done?” Ben inquired mildly. He had learned to temper his enthusiasm where Questor was concerned, because it was often sadly misplaced. Questor accomplished on the average about one half of what he thought he had accomplished.
“The magic, High Lord! I have found the magic! Finally, I have found the means to … ” He stopped, hands gesturing emphatically. “No, wait a moment! The others must hear this, too. All of our friends must be present. I have taken the liberty of sending for them. It should only be a few, brief … This is such a glorious … Ah, ah, here they are now!”
Willow appeared in the open door, stunning as always, more beautiful than all the flowers about her, her slender form a whisper of white silk and trailing lace as she slipped into the sunlit room. Her pale green face glanced toward Ben, and she smiled that special, secret smile that she reserved only for him. A fairy creature, she seemed as ephemeral as the warmth of the midday air. The kobolds, Bunion and Parsnip, trailed after, gnarled bodies skittering along, wizened monkey faces grinning doubtfully, all teeth and sharp angles. Fairy creatures, too, they had the look of something conjured from a nightmare. Abernathy came last, resplendent in his scarlet and gold Court Scribe uniform, no fairy creature, but a soft-coated Wheaten Terrier who seemed to think he was human. He held his dog’s body erect and dignified, his soulful eyes darting at once to the hateful, carnivorous G’home Gnomes.
“I see no reason to be present in the same room as these loathsome creatures … ” he began indignantly and was cut short by the sight of Questor Thews advancing on him with arms stretched wide.
“Old friend!” the wizard gushed. “Abernathy, the best of news for you! Come, come!”
He seized hold of Abernathy and propelled him into the center of the room. Abernathy stared at the wizard in disbelief, finally shaking himself free of the other entirely.
“Have you lost your mind?” he demanded, brushing at his garments to straighten them. His muzzle twitched. “And what is this old friend business? What are you up to now, Questor Thews?”
“Something you cannot begin to imagine!” The wizard was beaming with excitement as he rubbed his hands together and beckoned them all closer. They crowded in, and Questor’s voice lowered conspiratorially. “Abernathy, if you were to wish for that which you most desire in all the world, what would it be?”
The dog stared at him. Then he glanced momentarily at the G’home Gnomes, then back again. “How many wishes do I get?”
The wizard lifted his bony hands and brought them to rest gently on the other’s shoulders. “Abernathy.” He breathed the scribe’s name. “I have found the magic that will change you from a dog back into a man!”
There was stunned silence. Everyone knew the story of how Questor had used the magic to change Abernathy from a man into a dog to protect him from the old King’s spiteful son some years earlier, when that reprobate was in one of his more hateful moods, and then had been unable to change him back again. Abernathy had lived since then as an imperfect dog who retained human hands and speech, always with the hope that one day a way would be found to restore his human self. A chagrined Questor had searched in vain for that way, frequently claiming he would find it when he found certain books of magic hidden by Meeks on his departure from Landover. But the books had been destroyed while being recovered, and not much had been heard on the subject since.
Abernathy cleared his throat. “Is this simply an over-generous dose of your usual nonsense, wizard?” he asked cautiously. “Or can you really change me back?”
“I can!” Questor declared, nodding vehemently. He paused. “I think.”
Abernathy drew back. “You think?”