They threaded their way back to the path and resumed travel. Bink almost slid off his perch twice, falling asleep, each time awakening with a shock. He would never have made it out of here alone. He was glad to see the pine forest thin, shifting into hardwoods. He felt more alert, more violent, and that was good. Harder wood, harder feelings.
"I wonder who that was back there," Bink mused.
"Oh, I know," Cherie answered. "He was one of the Last Wave, who got lost, wandered in here, and decided to rest. Forever!"
"But the Lastwavers were savage!" Bink said. "They slaughtered indiscriminately."
"All Waves were savage, when they came, with one exception," she said. "We centaurs know; we were here before the First Wave. We had to fight all of you until the Covenant. You didn't have magic, but you had weapons and numbers and vicious cunning. Many of us died."
"My ancestors were First Wave," Bink said with a certain pride. "We always had magic, and we never fought the centaurs."
"Now don't get aggressive, human, just because I took you out of the peace pines," she cautioned. "You do not have our knowledge of history."
Bink realized that he'd better moderate his tone if he wanted to continue the ride. And he did want to continue; Cherie was pleasant company, and she obviously knew all the local magic, so that she was able to avoid all threats. Last and most, she was giving his tired legs a good rest while bearing him forward rapidly. Already she had taken him a good ten miles. "I'm sorry. It was a matter of family pride."
"Well, that's no bad thing," she said, mollified. She made her way delicately across a wooden trestle over a bubbling brook.
Suddenly Bink was thirsty. "May we stop for a drink?" he asked.
She snorted again, a very horselike sound. "Not here! Anyone who drinks from that water becomes a fish."
"A fish?" Suddenly Bink was twice as glad to have this guide. He surely would have drunk otherwise. Unless she was merely telling him that to tease him, or trying to scare him away from this area. "Why?"
"The river is trying to restock itself. It was cleaned out by the Evil Magician Trent twenty-one years ago."
Bink remained a bit skeptical about inanimate magic, especially of that potency. How could a river desire anything? Still, he remembered how Lookout Rock had saved itself from being broken up. Better to play it safe and assume that some features of the landscape could cast spells.
Meanwhile, the reference to Trent preempted his attention. "The Evil Magician was here? I thought he was a phenomenon of our own village."
"Trent was everywhere," she said. "He wanted us centaurs to support him, and when we balked-because of the Covenant, you know, not to interfere in human business-he showed us his power by changing every fish in this river into a lightning bug. Then he departed. I think he figured that those shocking buggers would force us to change our minds."
"Why didn't he change the fish into a human army, and try to conquer you that way?"
"No good, Bink. They might have had the bodies of men, but their minds would have remained fish. They would have made very wishy-washy soldiers, and even if they had been good soldiers, they would hardly have served the man who had put them under that enchantment. They would have attacked Trent."
"Urn, yes. I wasn't thinking. So he transformed them into lightning bugs and got well away from there so they couldn't shock him. So they went for the next best thing."
"Yes. It was a bad time for us. Oh, those bugs were a pain! They pestered us in clouds, scorching us with their little lightning bolts. I've still got scars on my-" She paused, grimacing. "On my tail." It was obviously a euphemism.
"What did you do?" Bink inquired, fascinated, glancing back to see whether he could locate the scars. What he could see seemed flawless.
"Trent was exiled soon after that, and we got Humfrey to abate the spell."
"But the Good Magician isn't a transformer."
''No, but he told us where to find repellent magic to drive off the flies. Denied our electrocooked flesh, the scourge soon died out. Good information is as good as good action, and the Good Magician certainly had the information."
"That's why I'm going to him?" Bink agreed. "But he charges a year's service for a spell."
"You're telling us? Three hundred head of centaur-one year each. What a job!"
"All of you had to pay? What did you have to do?"
"We are not permitted to tell," she said diffidently.
Now Bink was doubly curious, but he knew better than to ask again. A centaur's given word was inviolate. But what could Humfrey have needed done that he could not do himself via one of his hundred spells? Or at least by means of his good information? Humfrey was basically a divinator; anything he didn't know, he could find out, and that gave him enormous power. Probably the reason the village Elders had not asked the Good Magician what to do about their senile King was that they knew what he would answer: depose the King and install a new, young, fresh Magician instead. That they obviously weren't ready to do. Even if they could find such a young Magician to serve.
Well, there were many mysteries and many problems in Xanth, and it was hardly given to Bink to know of them all or to solve any. He had learned long ago to bow, however ungraciously, to the inevitable.
They were past the river now, and climbing. The trees were closing in more thickly, their great round roots ridging across the path. No hostile magic threatened; either the centaurs had cleaned out the area, the way the villagers had cleaned out Bink's home region, or Cherie knew this path so well that she avoided spells automatically, without seeming to. Probably some of both.
Life itself, he thought, involved many alternate explanations for perplexing questions, and was generally "some of both." Few things were hard and fast in Xanth.
"What was that history you know that I don't?" Bink inquired, becoming bored by the trail.
"About the Waves of human colonization? We have records of them all. Since the Shield and the Covenant, things have quieted down; the Waves were terrors."
"Not the Firstwavers!" Bink said loyally. "We were peaceful."
"That's what I mean. You are peaceful now, except for a few of your young hoodlums, so you assume your ancestors were peaceful then. But my ancestors found it otherwise. They would have been happier had man never discovered Xanth."
"My teacher was a centaur," Bink said. "He never said anything about-"
"He'd have been fired if he had told you the truth."
Bink felt uneasy. "You're not teasing me, are you? I'm not looking for any trouble. I have a very curious mind, but I've already had more trouble than I care for."
She turned her head around to fix him with a gentle stare. Her torso twisted from the human waist to facilitate the motion. The torque was impressive; her midsection was more limber than that of a human girl, perhaps because it was harder for a centaur to turn her whole body around. But if she had a human lower section to match the upper section, what a creature she would be!
"Your teacher didn't lie to you. A centaur never lies. He merely edited his information, on orders from the King, so as not to force on the impressionable minds of children things their parents did not want them to hear. Education has ever been thus."