In fact, a cloud of gnats formed around his head, casting a mass sweat spell that made him even more uncomfortable. Insects had an uncanny ability to discern those with no magic for defense. Maybe they merely used trial and error, getting away with whatever they could. Bink looked about for bug-repellent weeds, but found none. Weeds were never where one wanted them. His temper was getting short as the sweat streamed down his nose and into his eyes and mouth. Then two little sucker-saps swooped in, sucking up the gnats, and he had relief. Yes, he liked little birds!
He made about ten miles in three hours, and was tiring. He was in good condition generally, but was not used to sustained marching with a heavy pack. Every so often he got a twinge from the ankle he had turned at Lookout Rock. Not a bad twinge, for it turned out to be a minor hurt; just enough to keep him cautions.
He sat on a hillock, first making sure it contained no itch ants, though it did have a needle cactus. He approached this very cautiously, uncertain as to whether it had been tamed by the spell. "Friend," he said, and just to make sure he spilled a few drops of water from his canteen onto the soil for its roots to taste. Apparently it was all right; it did not let fly at him. Even wild things often responded to common courtesy and respect.
He broke out the lunch lovingly packed by his mother. He had food for two days-enough to get him to the Magician's castle under ordinary circumstances. Not that things in Xanth were usually ordinary! He hoped to extend that by staying overnight with some friendly farmer. He would need food for the return trip, too, and in any event did not relish the notion of sleeping outdoors. Night brought out special magic, and it could be ugly. He did not want to find himself arguing cases with a ghoul or ogre, since the case would most likely be the proper disposition of his human bones: whether they should be consumed live, while the marrow was fresh and sweet, or crunched after being allowed to age for a week after death. Different predators had different tastes.
He bit into the cressmato sandwich. Something crunched, startling him, but it was not a bone, just a flavorstem. Bianca certainly knew how to make a sandwich. Roland always teased her about that, claiming she had mastered the art under the tutelage of an old sandwitch. Yet it was unfunny to Bink, for it meant he was still dependent on her-until he finished what she had prepared and foraged for himself.
A crumb dropped and vanished. Bink looked around and spied a chipmouse chewing busily. It had conjured the crumb ten feet, avoiding the risk of close approach. Bink smiled. "I wouldn't hurt you, chip."
Then he heard something: the pounding of hooves. Some big animal was charging, or a mounted man approached. Either could mean trouble. Bink stuffed a chunk of wingcow cheese into his mouth, suffering a brief vision of the cow flying up to graze on the treetops after being relieved of her load of milk. He closed up his pack and shrugged his arms into the straps. He took his long staff in both hands. He might have to fight or run.
The creature came into sight. It was a centaur, the body of a horse with the upper torso of a man. He was naked, in the manner of his kind, with muscular flanks, broad shoulders, and an ornery visage.
Bink held his staff before him, ready for defense but not aggressively so. He had little confidence in his ability to outfight the massive creature, and no hope of outrunning him. But maybe the centaur was not unfriendly, despite appearances-or did not know that Bink had no magic.
The centaur pulled up close. He held his bow ready, an arrow nocked. He looked formidable indeed. Bink had developed a lot of respect for centaurs in school. This was obviously no elder sage, however, but a youthful brute. "You are trespassing," the centaur said. "Move off this range."
"Now wait," Bink said reasonably. "I'm a traveler, following the established path. It's a public right-of-way."
"Move off," the centaur repeated, his bow swinging around menacingly.
Bink was normally a good-natured fellow, but he had a certain ornery streak that manifested in times of stress. This journey was vitally important to him. This was a public path, and he had had his fill of deferring to magical menaces. The centaur was a magical creature, having no existence in the Mundane world beyond Xanth, by all accounts. Thus Bink's aggravation against magic was stirred up again, and he did something foolish.
"Go soak your tail!" he snapped.
The centaur blinked. Now he looked even huskier, his shoulders broader, his chest deeper, and his equine body even more dynamic than before. Obviously he was not accustomed to such language, at least not directed at him, and the experience startled him. In due course, however, he made the requisite mental and emotional adjustments, signaled by an awe-inspiring knotting of oversized muscles. A deep red, almost purple wash of color ascended from the hairy horse base up through the bare stomach and scarred chest, accelerating and brightening as it funneled into the narrower neck and finally dying the head and ugly face explosively. As that inexorable tide of red rage ignited his ears and penetrated to his brain, the centaur acted.
His bow swung about, the nocked arrow drawing back. As it bore on Bink, the arrow let fly.
Naturally, Bink wasn't there. He had had ample opportunity to read the storm signals. As the bow moved, he ducked under. Then he straightened up right under the centaur's nose and brought his staff around in a hard swing. It fetched the creature a smart rap on the shoulder, doing no actual harm. But it had to sting severely.
The centaur emitted a bellow of sheer impassioned rage. He whipped his bow around with his left hand while his right hand dived for the quiver of arrows hanging on his equine shoulder. But now Bink's staff was tangled in his bow.
The creature threw down the bow. The action ripped the staff out of Bink's hands. The centaur made a huge fist. Bink scurried around to the rear as that fist swung at him. But the rear of the centaur was no safer than the front; one leg licked back violently. Through a freak of timing, it missed Bink and clubbed into the trunk of the needle cactus.
The cactus responded with a barrage of flying needles. Even as the hoof struck, Bink threw himself flat on the ground. The needles overshot him and plunked into the handsome posterior of the centaur. Once more Bink had lucked out: he was miraculously untouched by either hoof or needles.
The centaur neighed with truly amazing volume. Those needles hurt; each one was two inches long, and barbed, and a hundred of them decorated the glistening surface, tacking the tail to the donkey, as it were. Had the creature been facing the cactus, he could have been blinded or killed as the barbs punctured his face and neck; he was lucky, too, though he hardly seemed to appreciate his fortune at the moment.
Now there were no bounds to the centaur's anger. An unholy contortion of utter rage ravaged his homely face. He did a massive prance, his hindquarters rising and descending in an arc, bringing his front part abruptly adjacent to Bink. Two crushingly powerful arms shot out, and two horny hands closed about Bink's relatively puny neck. Slowly they tightened, with viselike deliberation. Bink, lifted off the ground so that his feet dangled, was helpless. He knew he was about to be strangled; he could not even plead for mercy, for his air and much of his blood were cut off.