"I don't think that would work. I'm sure the King wants to keep order; he just doesn't have the power any more."
"Then perhaps it is time for a new King."
"He's getting senile. That means he hasn't got the sense to step down, and won't admit there's any problem.''
"Yes, but problems don't go away by being ignored!" She made a delicate feminine snort. "Something has to be done."
"Maybe I can get some advice from Magician Humfrey," Bink said. "It's a serious business, deposing a King; I don't think the Elders would go for it. He did do good work in his prime. And there's really nobody to replace him. You know that only a great Magician can be King."
"Yes, of course. We centaurs are all scholars, you know."
"Sorry, I forgot. Our village school is run by a centaur. I just wasn't thinking of that, in the wilderness."
"Understandable-though I'd call this range, not wilderness. I specialize in humanoid history, and Chester studies horsepower applications. Others are legal scholars, experts in natural sciences, philosophers-" She broke off. "Now hang on. There's a trench up ahead I've got to hurdle."
Bink had been relaxing, but now he leaned forward again and clasped his hands tightly around her waist. She had a sleek, comfortable back, but it was too easy to slide off. However, if she weren't a centaur, he would never have had the nerve to assume such a position!
Cherie picked up speed, galloping down the hill, and the motion made him bounce alarmingly. Peering ahead under her arm, he saw the trench. Trench? It was a gorge, some ten feet across, rushing up at them. Now he was more than alarmed; he was frightened. His hands became sweaty, and he began to slide off the side. Then she leaped with a single mighty spasm of her haunches and sailed up and across.
Bink slipped further. He had a glimpse of the stony bottom of the trench; then they landed. The jolt caused him to slide around even more. His arms scrambled desperately for a more secure hold-and wandered into distinctly awkward territory. Yet if he let go-
Cherie caught him around the waist and set him on the ground. "Easy," she said. "We made it."
Bink blushed. "I-I'm sorry. I started to fall, and just grabbed-"
"I know. I felt your weight shift as I leaped. If you had done it on purpose, I'd have dropped you into the trench." And in that instant she looked uncomfortably like Chester. He believed her: she could drop a man into a trench if she had reason to. Centaurs were tough creatures!
"Maybe I'd better walk now."
"No-there's another trench. They've been opening up recently."
"Well, I could climb down one side and up the other, carefully. It would take longer, but-"
"No-there are nickelpedes at the bottom."
Bink quailed. Nickelpedes were like centipedes, but about five times as large and considerably more deadly. Their myriad legs could cling to vertical rock faces, and their pincers could gouge out disks of flesh an inch across. They inhabited shadowed crevices, not liking direct sunlight. Even dragons hesitated to walk through ditches known to be infested by nickelpedes, and for good reason.
"The cracks have been opening up recently," Cherie continued as she kneeled to permit Bink to mount her again. He picked up his dropped staff and used it to help him climb. "I'm afraid there's big magic brewing somewhere, spreading throughout Xanth, causing discord in animal, vegetable, and mineral. I'll get you across that next trench; then it's beyond centaur territory.''
It hadn't occurred to him that there would be such barriers. They didn't show on his map. The trail was supposed to be clear and reasonably safe throughout. But the map had been made years ago, and these cracks in the ground were new, Cherie said. Nothing in Xanth was permanent, and travel was always somewhat risky. He was lucky he had obtained the lady centaur's help.
The landscape changed, as if the trench separated one type of place from another. Before it had been rolling hills and fields; now it was forest. The path became narrower, crowded by huge mock-pine trees, and the forest floor was a red-brown carpet of mock needles. Here and there were patches of light green ferns, which seemed to thrive where weeds could not, and regions of dark green moss. A cold wind gusted through, tousling Cherie's hair and mane, carrying strands back against Bink. It was quiet here, and there was a pleasant piney smell. He felt like dismounting and lying down in a bed of moss, just appreciating this peaceful spot.
"Don't do it," Cherie warned.
Bink jumped. "I didn't know centaurs practiced magic!"
"Magic?" she inquired, and he knew she was frowning.
"You read my mind."
She laughed. "Hardly. We do no magic. But we do know the effect these woods have on humans. It's the peace spell the trees make to protect themselves from getting chopped."
"Nothing wrong in that," Bink said. "I wasn't going to chop them anyway."
"They don't trust in your good intentions. I'll show you." She stepped carefully off the beaten trail, her hooves sinking into the soft pine-needle floor. She threaded her way between several dagger-spoked buck-spruce trees, passed a thin snake palm, which didn't even bother to hiss at her, and stopped near a tangle willow. Not too near; everyone knew better than that. "There," she murmured.
Bink looked where her hand pointed. A human skeleton lay on the ground. "Murder?" he asked, shivering.
"No, just sleep. He came to rest here, as you wished to do just now, and never got up the gumption to depart. Complete peace is an insidious thing."
"Yes " he breathed. No violence, no distress-just loss of initiative. Why bother to work and eat when it was so much easier merely to relax? If a person wanted to commit suicide, this would be the ideal manner. But he had reason to live-so far.
"That's part of why I like Chester," Cherie said. "He'll never succumb to anything like this."
That was a certainty. There was no peace in Chester. Cherie herself would never succumb, Bink thought, though she was considerably more gentle. Bink felt the lassitude, despite the sight of the skeleton, but she was evidently able to resist the spell. Maybe the biology of the centaurs differed enough-or maybe she had savagery in her soul that her angelic form and pleasant words masked. Most likely a bit of both. "Let's get out of here."
She laughed. "Don't worry. I'll see you safely through it. But don't come back this way alone. Travel with an enemy, if you can find one; that's best."
"Better than a friend?"
"Friends are peaceful," she explained.
Oh. That did make sense. He'd never relax under a pine tree if he were with someone like Jama; he'd be too afraid of getting a sword in his gut. But what an ironic necessity: to locate an enemy to accompany one to walk through a peaceful forest! "Magic makes strange companions," he murmured.
This peace spell also explained why there was so little other magic here. The plants did not need individual defensive spells; no one was going to attack. Even the tangle tree had seemed quiescent, though he was sure it would make a grab when it had the chance, since that was the way it fed. Interesting how quickly magic faded when the immediate imperative of survival abated. No-there was magic, strong magic; it was the communal magic of the entire forest, with each plant contributing its modicum. If a person could figure out a way to nullify the effect in himself, perhaps with a countercharm, he could live here in absolute safety. That was worth remembering.