"Chester!" a female voice cried.
The centaur stiffened. This did Bink no good.
"Chester, you put that man down this instant!" the voice said peremptorily. "Do you want an interspecies incident?"
"But, Cherie," Chester protested, his color abating several shades. "He's an intruder, and he asked for it."
"He's on the King's path," Cherie said. "Travelers are immune to molestation; you know that. Now let him go!"
The lady centaur hardly seemed to be in a position to enforce her demand, but Chester slowly bowed to her authority. "Can't I just squeeze him a little?" he begged, squeezing a little. Bink's eyeballs almost popped out of their sockets.
"If you do, I'll never run with you again. Down!"
"Aaaww " Reluctantly Chester eased off. Bink slid to the ground, reeling. What a fool he had been to tangle with this brute!
The female centaur caught him as he swayed. "Poor thing!" she exclaimed, cushioning his head against a plush pillow. "Are you all right?"
Bink opened his mouth, gagged, and tried again. It seemed that his crushed throat would never unkink. "Yes," he croaked.
"Who are you? What happened to your hand? Did Chester-"
"No," Bink said hastily. "He didn't bite off my finger. That's a childhood injury. See, it's long since healed over."
She inspected it carefully, running her surprisingly delicate fingers over it. "Yes, I see. Still "
"I-I am Bink of the North Village," he said. He turned his head to face her-and discovered the nature of the pillow he rested against. Oh no, not again! he thought. Will I always be babied by women? Centaur females were smaller than the males, but still stood somewhat taller than human beings. Their humanoid portions were somewhat better endowed. He jerked his head away from her bare front. It was bad enough being babied by his mother, let alone a lady centaur. "I am traveling south to see the Magician Humfrey."
Cherie nodded. She was a beautiful creature, both as horse and as human, with glossy flanks and a remarkable human forefigure. Her face was attractive, only very slightly long of nose in the equine manner. Her brown human hair trailed all the way down to her saddle region, balancing her similarly flowing tail. "And this ass waylaid you?"
"Well-" Bink looked at Chester, again noting the rippling muscle beneath the deadly glower. What would happen when the filly departed? "It was-it was a misunderstanding."
"I'll bet," Cherie said. But Chester relaxed a trifle. Evidently he did not want to tangle with his girlfriend. Bink could readily appreciate why. If Cherie was not the loveliest and spunkiest centaur of the herd, she was surely close to it.
"I'll just be moving on now," Bink said. He could have done this at the outset, allowing Chester to run him off in a southerly direction. He had been as much to blame for the altercation as the centaur. "Sorry about the problem." He held out his hand to Chester.
Chester showed his teeth, which were more like horse's teeth than human ones. He made a big fist.
"Chester!" Cherie snapped. Then, as the centaur guiltily relaxed his fist: "What happened to your flank?"
The male's complexion darkened again, but not precisely with rage this time. He trotted his damaged posterior around to avoid the inquiring gaze of the female. Bink had almost forgotten about the needles. They must still be hurting-and it would hurt more to yank them all out. What a pain in the tail! A most awkward locale to discuss in mixed company. He almost felt sympathy for the surly creature.
Chester suppressed his assorted reactions and with fine discipline took Bink's hand. "I hope everything comes out all right in the end," Bink said, with a smile that became a bit broader than intended. In fact, he feared it resembled a smirk. And abruptly he knew he shouldn't have chosen those particular words or that particular expression on this particular occasion.
Something homicidal reddened the whites of the centaur's eyes. "Quite all right," he gritted through the grinding of clenched teeth. His hand began to squeeze-but his eyes were not yet so bloodshot as to miss the filly's glare. The fingers relaxed unwillingly. Another close call. Bink could have had his fingerbones pulped in that grip.
"I'll give you a lift," Cherie decided. "Chester, put him on my back."
Chester put his hands under Bink's elbows and hoisted him like a feather. For a moment Bink feared he would be thrown fifty feet but Cherie's fair eye was still on them, and so he landed safely and gently on the lady's back.
"Is that your staff?" she inquired, glancing at the tangled staff and bow. And Chester, without even being directed, lifted the staff and returned it to Bink; who tucked it slantwise between his back and his pack for easy transport.
"Put your arms around my waist, so you won't fall off when I move," Cherie said.
Good advice. Bink was inexperienced at riding, and there was no saddle. Very few honest horses remained in Xanth. Unicorns were very touchy about being mounted, and the winged horses were almost impossible to catch or tame. Once, when Bink was a child, a horsefly had been singed by a dragon, losing its flight feathers, and had had to prostitute itself so far as to give the villagers short rides in exchange for food and protection. The moment it had recovered, it had flown away. That had been Bink's only prior riding experience.
He leaned forward. The staff interfered, preventing him from bending his back sufficiently. He reached back to draw it out-and it fell out of his hands to the ground. There was a snort from Chester that sounded suspiciously like humor. But the centaur picked it up and returned it to him. Bink tucked it under his arm this time, leaned forward again, and hugged Cherie's slender waist, heedless of Chester's renewed glower. Some things were worth the risk-such as getting out of here in a hurry.
"You go to the vet and get those needles out of your-" Cherie began, speaking over her shoulder to the male.
"Right away!" Chester interrupted. He waited for her to start, then turned and cantered off in the direction he had come from, a little awkwardly. Probably each motion inflamed his hindquarters more.
Cherie trotted down the path. "Chester is really a good creature at heart," she said apologetically. "But he does tend to be a bit arrogant, and he gets his tail all knotted up when balked. We've had some trouble with outlaws recently, and-"
"Human outlaws?" Bink asked.
"Yes. Kids from the north, doing mischief magic, gassing our livestock, shooting swords into trees, making dangerous pits seem to appear under our feet, that sort of thing. So naturally Chester assumed-"
"I know the culprits," Bink said. "I had a scrape with them myself. They've been grounded now. If I had known they were coming down here-"
"There just doesn't seem to be much discipline on the range these days," she said. "According to the Covenant, your King is supposed to keep order. But recently-"
"Our King is getting old," Bink explained. "He's losing his power, and there's a lot of trouble cropping up. He used to be a major Magician, a storm brewer."
"We know," she agreed. "When the fireflies infested our oatfields, he generated a storm that rained five days and drowned them all. Of course, it also ruined our crops-but the flies were doing that already. Every day new fires! At least we were able to replant without further molestation. We are not forgetting the help he rendered. So we don't want to make an issue of it-but I don't know how much longer stallions like Chester are going to put up with these annoyances. That's why I wanted to talk with you-maybe when you go home, if you could call things to the attention of the King-"