Authors: Piers Anthony
Tags: #Humor, #Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Young Adult
Xanth 17 - Harpy Thyme
Gloha flapped her feather wings until she was high above the harpy hutch. The Land of Xanth spread obligingly out below her, so that she could see all the way to its medium-far corners. There was Lake Ogre-Chobee, with its ogre tribe on the shore and its toothy reptilian swimmers. There was the great Gap Chasm with its horrendous six-legged Gap Dragon. There was all the monster-infested jungle between them. She loved all of it. But she couldn't pause to appreciate the sights. She had important business. She had to go see the Good Magician so she could ask him a Question. With luck and a year's Service, she might have his Answer. Then maybe she would have her heaving little heart's desire.
She leveled off and flew swiftly toward the Good Magician's castle. She knew exactly where it was, but had never thought she would one day have to go there. That was because she had just somehow assumed that her life would work out well on its own, after the frustrations of childhood worked their way out of her system the moment she turned eighteen and became party to the Adult Conspiracy. Unfortunately, when she actually became party, she realized that she needed a male of her kind-and she knew of none. She was the only person of her new species in Xanth. That had become a problem.
So now she was off to the Good Magician Humfrey, and after doing her year of Service for his Answer, she would be able to settle down with the man of her dreams and live happily forever and ever after and torment their children unmercifully by not letting them know the secret of stork summoning. She was nineteen years old now, and would be twenty then, which would still leave her a faint bit of her youth for her true love to appreciate before they both became adult dullards the following year. She was not so vain as to assume that she would be different from all the other adults who had ever existed. It was too bad that life had to consist of the two problems of childhood and adulthood, with only that brief window of romance wedged in between, but that was the way it was. She knew; she had observed. She was mostly humanoid, and that was the way humanoids were.
She reached the region of the castle, and paused in her flight. There was a mean-looking vapor hovering over it. That looked uncomfortably like Cumulo Fracto Nimbus, the worst of clouds. But what would he be doing here? He wouldn't dare harass the Good Magician.
Reassured by that thought, she resumed flight. But the closer she got, the larger the cloud loomed, and the uglier it looked. Soon she realized that this wasn't merely the magic of perspective, that changed things according to their distance; that cloud was looming uglier on purpose. It was Fracto!
She flew lower, to pass under the mean-spirited blob. But Fracto extended his vapors downward to intercept her. She tried to go around, but he sent boiling fog out to the sides to cut her off. His big amorphous mouth formed a gassy O. HO HO HO! it gusted.
This was a real nuisance. Gloha had never liked Fracto, and this encounter was making her emotion ripen into active detestation. Of all times for the blowhard to be in her way! He must know where she was headed, so was getting his flatulent jollies from interfering with her. Somehow he always seemed to know when something important was happening, like a picnic, and he, always came to spoil it.
How was she going to get through to the Good Magician's castle? She realized now that the evil cloud would stay here as long as she did, just so he could ruin her mission. She hovered in the air, and waved her fine little fist at the big ugly cloud. “Oh, you make me so angry, I could utter a bad word!” she exclaimed.
HO HO HO! A twisty gust reached out to blow her skirt up over her head so that way too much of her lithe little legs was exposed.
“Now stop that!” she cried, quickly pushing the skirt down. She realized belatedly that she should have worn slacks on this trip. But she had wanted to look dainty and feminine, because she would probably meet one of the Good Magician's five and a half wives. After she got through the challenges that would bar entry to the castle, of course. The Good Magician always had three challenges, to discourage those who weren't really serious about their quests for information. He didn't like to be bothered frivolously.
Then something clicked in her pretty little head. The challenges! This must be the first one! The disreputable cloud must owe the Good Magician a debt, and so was doing him a Service. It wasn't coincidence at all. She had to figure out how to get past Fracto.
That put an entirely different complexion on it. Her own comely little complexion relaxed. All she had to do was figure out how to get past this messy old cloud, and she would be a third of the way through. There was always a way; she just had to find it.
Could she insult Fracto, and make him blow himself out? That was the way Grundy Golem would do it. But Grundy had a mouth that was the envy of harpies; he could spew out insults faster than they could. Gloha was half harpy, because her father was Hardy Harpy, so she should be able to spew out a stinking stream of invective. But somehow she had never cared to acquire that ability. Her mother was Glory Goblin, who was beautiful and good, and Gloha just preferred to emulate her. If her brother Harglo were here, he could have let out an oath that burned a hole in the cloud. But this was a challenge she had to handle by herself.
So steaming Fracto was out. Avoiding him seemed to be out too, because he was hovering right over the castle she had to reach, by no accident. What was left? Outsmarting him? She just knew she was smarter than a creature whose brain was swirling vapor, but how could she prove it? This seemed to be a situation in which intellect didn't count for much. All he had to do was sit there and wet on her if she tried to get through.
Well, maybe she would just have to get wet. It wasn't as if she were made of spun sugar, whatever impression she preferred to give others.
Gloha set her firm little face in an earnest little expression and flew directly toward where she hoped the castle was, on a level course.
Fracto puffed up like a mottled wart. He opened his sodden maw and breathed out a sickly gust of wind. It surrounded her, coating her true little tresses with smog and her winsome little wings with dirty ice. Foul air clogged her nice little nose and fuzzed her open little eyes. Suddenly she was flying blind, and losing altitude. She was in danger of crashing!
Gloha sneezed. The force of it shot her spinning back out of the foul air, and she was able to blink her eyes clear. She still had some altitude, and was able to pull out of her tail-spin.
She brought out her handsome little hankie and wiped her face. Fracto's ugly puss was laughing and spitting out broken bits of wind and cloud that drifted in stenchy colors. It seemed that she couldn't just try harder; the awful cloud had too much ill wind.
Well, if she couldn't fly there, she would walk there. She was a goblin girl with harpy wings, and though she had spent most of her time with winged monsters, she was at home on the ground too. Fracto couldn't stop her from using her fast little feet.
She glided down to the ground before the evil cloud could work up another foul gust to blow her away. She had hoped to find an enchanted path going there, but saw none. So her lovely little lady slippers touched down in an isolated glade, and she began to walk. There was an ordinary path that would serve; she had noted its direction as she descended, and was sure it would take her there. She would simply have to watch out for hostile monsters and other ilk, because they would be able to harass her on an unenchanted path.
Fracto was furious. He huffed and he puffed and he blew up such a storm that in two and a half moments snow was pelting down. In the remaining half moment it was piling up so thickly that all trace of the path was gone.
Oops. How was she to find her way now? She knew she would get lost in the trackless snow. She couldn't even make her own tracks, because the snow was covering them up just about as fast as she made them. In addition, it was cold; her tight little tootsies were freezing.
She would have to take shelter until the storm blew over. Maybe she could find a blanket bush and hide under the blankets, and the snow would cover her so that Fracto wouldn't know where she was, and would drift away. At least she would be warm while she waited.
But she saw no blanket bushes, and no pillow bushes. This glade was singularly bereft of useful plants. There was only a big snowball at the edge of the glade. She certainly didn't need that!
But as her teeth began to chatter in an unladylike manner, her mind squeezed out an odd thought. What was a giant snowball doing here? The snow had just started, and it was covering the ground with a level layer. It couldn't form itself into a snowball. Was there an invisible giant doing it? But there was no depression where the snow would have been taken from, and there was no smell of giant. “That snowball-that's no ball,” she muttered, making temporary tracks toward it.
Then she realized that she had made a pun. “That snowball” had become “That's no ball,” spoken the same way. And that gave her the cue.
She marched up to the ball and touched it. Her hands passed through its seeming surface. She stepped forward, and found herself within the entrance to a tunnel. It looked like a snowball from outside, but it was warm and dry inside. This was the way past Fracto's storm. All she had had to do was figure out the secret, and she was on her way. Her mild little mind had prevailed over the cloud's fury, and she had mastered (or maybe mistressed) the first challenge.
But there would be two more, and they wouldn't be any easier than the first. She had gotten through as much by luck as by wit, and might have used up her supply of both. Should she give up her quest?
But then she would never find her Perfect Mate and True Love, and would have to endure unhappily forever and ever alone, which was a fate worse than marriage. She wasn't ready to face that dreary prospect. After all, she had so much to offer the right man, she hoped. She glanced down at her fancy little figure, just to be sure.
So she proceeded resolutely down the passage. She would at least make an efficient little effort, and if she failed, then she would go somewhere and cry.
The passage opened out into a good-sized lighted cave. Along the sides were darkened alcoves, and at the far end was a monster. Uh-oh-she suspected that the next challenge was upon her. Instead of a cantankerous cloud, she would have to get by an aggressive animal.
But there had to be a way to do it without getting eaten. She merely had to figure out that way again. Somehow. Maybe if she proceeded very carefully it would happen.
So she took a tour of the chamber, looking in the alcoves. This turned out to be a slightly baffling tour.
The first alcove held a fat bird with a beautiful fan-shaped tail. Gloha cudgeled her balky little brain and managed to remember news of a bird like this, perhaps confined to Mundania: it was a turkey. She looked at it, and it looked at her, and that was it. The bird wasn't confined, but didn't seem inclined to depart its alcove. It was just there.
“You certainly are a beautiful bird,” Gloha said politely. The turkey gobbled appreciatively.
She moved on to the next alcove. There was a rather unprepossessing young human man. Because he was human, he was about twice as tall as she was; goblins were twice as tall as elves and half as tall as humans. She wasn't sure how either other species could stand being so pitifully small or so dangerously large, but it wouldn't be polite to call attention to such failings, so she didn't. “I say, can you talk?” she asked the youth, who seemed to be no older than she was, though it was hard to tell with humans.
“Sure,” the youth replied.
“What is your name? Mine is Gloha.”
He did not seem to be much for conversation. “What are you doing here, Sam, if I may ask?”
“I'm part of your challenge.”
That was certainly direct! “And what is your role in this challenge?”
“I'm a flunky.”
“A flunky? I don't think I know that position.”
He didn't respond. She realized that he merely answered questions, and as briefly as possible. Naturally the challenge creatures didn't volunteer much information.
“What does a flunky do?” she asked. Then she was afraid he would just say that he flunked. But Sam did give a meaningful response, fortunately.
“He does stupid errands for other folk.”
“What errand will you do for me?”
So much for that. That time she might almost have preferred a less straight answer. She moved on.
The next alcove held a tub of dirty water. That didn't seem to be of much interest, so she went to the following one.
That alcove held a large four-footed animal, like a unicorn without a horn, with long ears. “Hello, creature,” she said.
“Hee-haw!” it brayed back.
That gave her the cue. It was a Mundane donkey.
The next alcove held a sort of springlike metal thing sitting on a step. There were several steps, but it wasn't using them. But when she came to stand before it, it leaned over and its top end toppled to land on the next step below. The rest of it followed smoothly, making a turn from the upper pile of itself to the lower pile, until all of it was down. Immediately it bent again, and started sinuously transferring itself to the next step. When it reached the bottom of the little stairway, it stopped. That was all.
The next alcove held a vaguely humanoid creature with a most versatile tail. It jumped from bar to bar, swinging with its hands, feet, or tail. It moved very cleverly, never missing a bar, never falling. It chittered at her from its furry face. She pondered, and realized that this was another odd creature: a monkey.
So it went: each alcove held a creature or thing. They were all part of her challenge. But how did they relate? She could see nothing similar about them; this was like a little zoo with assorted displays.
At the far end was the monster. It stood taller than she was, on all fours, with a huge powerful foresection and a rather small hind section. It was in no alcove; it was in the exit from the chamber. She realized that she had to get by it, but the moment she approached it, it rose up and snarled with such ferocity that she had to step quickly back. It wasn't confined or chained, but it didn't pursue her.