Saturday, February 3, 2024

Saturday Snippet: The Warlock In Spite Of Himself


That's the title of the late Christopher Stasheff's first book, published in 1968.  It catapulted him to fandom among a legion of readers who loved his quirky sense of humor and somewhat twisted take on life, the universe and everything.  I've read all his books, and enjoyed most of them very much.  They offer an almost unique blend of fantasy and science fiction.

"The Warlock In Spite Of Himself" was an unexpected success for Stasheff and his publishers, and he rapidly set to work writing sequels and spinoffs.

The blurb reads:


Skeptical, cynical Rod Gallowglass is a spacefaring man of science who does not believe in magic. He's also an operative of the agency SCENT, tasked with finding lost colony planets, then guiding them toward democracy and eventual membership in the galactic community.

But when he stumbles across the strange new planet Gramarye, he's shocked to discover a medieval society full of witches and warlocks, elves and monsters. How is it even possible? Worse, Rod's advanced technology quickly gets him labeled a warlock, despite his constant denials.

Moreover, the Kingdom is in political turmoil, with a young girl-queen on the brink of civil war with her rebellious lords. Rod slowly discovers off-world organizations are behind the unrest, trying to subtly corrupt Gramarye away from democratic rule. His mission is threatened at every turn by fascists, anarchists, and double-dealing royalists playing vicious political power games for the future of the most unique--and perhaps most important--planet in the galaxy.

Aided only by a coven of teenage witches, a ragtag army of beggars, and his epileptic robot horse Fess, Rod decides the only way to thwart these destructive influences—-both native and off-planet—-is for him to become a part of the local fabric and lead Gramarye as one of their own. But to do so, Rod Gallowglass must put aside his own convictions and beliefs, and become a warlock, in spite of himself.

Following his first novel's success, Stasheff would go on to produce 15 more in the "Warlock of Gramarye" series, plus nine in the "Chronicles of the Rogue Wizard" spinoff series (featuring the Warlock's son), and a further seven in the unrelated, but still very entertaining "A Wizard in Rhyme" series.  He also wrote a few stand-alone volumes along the way.

I've owned print copies of many of his books for many years - so much so that they've been getting worn out.  To my delight, I recently discovered that Stasheff's books have recently been republished in Amazon's Kindle format, and reasonably priced at that.  I've retired my well-worn print editions to give to friends who haven't yet encountered his work.

Here's the opening chapter of "The Warlock In Spite Of Himself".  It's a longer snippet than I normally include, but it introduces most of the elements of the book, and I thought it would be a worthwhile scene-setter.

The asteroid hurtled in from Capricorn, nosed around a G-type sun, swerved off toward the fifth planet. Such a trajectory is somewhat atypical for asteroids.

It slapped into the planet’s gravity net, swooped around the globe three times in three separate orbits, then stabbed into atmosphere, a glorious shooting star.

At a hundred feet altitude it paused, then snapped to the surface—but only to the surface. No fireworks, no crater—nothing more drastic than crushed grass. Its surface was scarred and pitted, blackened by the friction-heat of its fall; but it was intact.

Deep within its bowels echoed the words that would change the planet’s destiny.

“Damn your bolt-brained bearings!”

The voice broke off; its owner frowned, listening. The cabin was totally silent, without its usual threshold hum.

The young man swore, tearing the shock-webbing from his body. He lurched out of the acceleration chair, balanced dizzily on the balls of his feet, groping until his hand touched the plastic wall.

Steadying himself with one hand, he stumbled to a panel on the other side of the circular cabin. He fumbled the catches loose, cursing in the fine old style of galactic deckhands, opened the panel, pressed a button. Turning, he all but fell back to the chair.

The soft hum awoke in the cabin again. A slurred voice asked, with varying speed and pitch, “Izzz awwl (Hic!) sadizfagtoreee M’lorrrr’ Rodney?”

“All the smooth, glossy robots in the galaxy,” muttered Milord, “and I get stuck with an epileptic!”

“Ivv ut bleeezz m’lorr’, thuh c’passsider c’n be—” “Replaced,” finished Rodney, “and your circuits torn out and redesigned. No, thank you, I like your personality the way it is—except when you pull off a landing that jars my clavicles loose!”

“Ivv m’lorrd will vorgive, ad thuh cruzhial momend ovvv blanetfall, I rezeived zome very zingular radio waves thad—”

“You got distracted, is that what you’re trying to say?”

“M’lorrrd, id was imerative to analyze—”

“So part of you was studying the radio waves, and part of you was landing the ship, which was just a wee bit too much of a strain, and the weak capacitor gave…. Fess! How many times do I have to tell you to keep your mind on the job!”

“M’lorrd egzbressed a wizh to be like thuh—”

“Like the heroes of the Exploration Sagas, yes. But that doesn’t mean I want their discomforts.”

Fess’s electronic system had almost recovered from the post-seizure exhaustion. “But, m’lorrd, the choncebt of heeroizm imblies—”

“Oh, forget it,” Rodney groaned. Fess dutifully blanked a portion of his memory banks.

Fess was very dutiful. He was also an antique, one of the few remaining FCC (Faithful Cybernetic Companion) robots, early models now centuries out of date. The FCC robots had been programmed for extreme loyalty and, as a consequence, had perished in droves while defending their masters during the bloody Interregnum between the collapse of the ancient Galactic Union and the rise of the Proletarian Eclectic State of Terra.

Fess (a name derived from trying to pronounce “FCC” as a single word) had survived, thanks to his epilepsy. He had a weak capacitor that, when overstrained, released all its stored energy in a massive surge lasting several milliseconds. When the preliminary symptoms of this electronic seizure—mainly a fuzziness in Fess’s calculations—appeared, a master circuit breaker popped, and the faulty capacitor discharged in isolation from the rest of Fess’s circuits; but the robot was out of commission until the circuit breaker was reset.

Since the seizures occurred during moments of great stress—such as trying to land a spaceship-cum-asteroid while analyzing an aberrant radio wave, or trying to protect a master from three simultaneous murderers—Fess had survived the Interregnum; for, when the Proletarians had attacked his masters, he had fought manfully for about twenty-five seconds, then collapsed. He had thus become a rarity—the courageous servant who had survived. He was one of five FCC robots still functioning.

He was, consequently, a prized treasure of the d’Armand family—prized as an antique, but even more for his loyalty; true loyalty to aristocratic families has always been in short supply.

So, when Rodney d’Armand had left home for a life of adventure and glory—being the second son of a second son, there hadn’t been much else he could do—his father had insisted on his taking Fess along.

Rod had often been very glad of Fess’s company; but there were times when the robot was just a little short on tact. For instance, after a very rough planetfall, a human stomach tends to be a mite queasy; but Fess had the bad sense to ask, “Would you care to dine, m’lord? Say, scallops with asparagus?”

Rod turned chartreuse and clamped his jaws, fighting back nausea. “No,” he grated, “and can the ‘m’lord’ bit. We’re on a mission, remember?”

“I never forget, Rod. Except on command.”

“I know,” growled his master’s voice. “It was a figure of speech.”

Rod swung his legs to the floor and painfully stood up. “I could use a breath of fresh air to settle my stomach, Fess. Is there any available?”

The robot clicked for a moment, then reported, “Atmosphere breathable. Better wear a sweater, though.”

Rod shrugged into his pilot’s jacket with a growl. “Why do old family retainers always develop a mother-hen complex?”

“Rod, if you had lived as long as I have—”

“—I’d want to be deactivated. I know, ‘Robot is always right.’ Open the lock, Fess.”

The double doors of the small air lock swung open, showing a circle of black set with stars. A chill breeze poured into the cabin.

Rod tilted his face back, breathing in. His eyes closed in luxury. “Ah, the blessed breath of land! What lives here, Fess?”

Machinery whirred as the robot played back the electron-telescope recordings they had taken in orbit, integrating the pictorial data into a comprehensive description of the planet.

“Land masses consist of five continents, one island of noteworthy dimensions, and a host of lesser islands. The continent and the minor islands exhibit similar flora—equatorial rain forest.”

“Even at the poles?”

“Within a hundred miles of each pole; the ice caps are remarkably small. Visible animal life confined to amphibians and a host of insects; we may assume that the seas abound with fish.”

Rod rubbed his chin. “Sounds like we came in pretty early in the geologic spectrum.”

“Carboniferous Era,” replied the robot.

“How about that one large island? That’s where we’ve landed, I suppose?”

“Correct. Native flora and fauna nonexistent. All lifeforms typical of Late Terran Pleistocene.”

“How late, Fess?”

“Human historical.”

Rod nodded. “In other words, a bunch of colonists came in, picked themselves an island, wiped out the native life, and seeded the land with Terran stock. Any idea why they chose this island?”

“Large enough to support a good-sized population, small enough to minimize problems of ecological revision. Then too, the island is situated in a polar ocean current, which lowers the local temperature to slightly below Terran normal.”

“Very handy; saves them the bother of climate control. Any remains of what might have been Galactic Union cities?”

“None, Rod.”

“None!” Rod’s eyes widened in surprise. “That doesn’t fit the pattern. You sure, Fess?”

The developmental pattern of a lost, or retrograde, colony—one that had been out of touch with Galactic civilization for a millennium or more—fell into three well-defined stages: first, the establishment of the colony, centered around a modern city with an advanced technology; second, the failure of communication and trade with Galactic culture, followed by an overpopulation of the city, which led to mass migrations to the countryside and a consequent shift to an agrarian, self-sufficient economy; and, third, the loss of technological knowledge, accompanied by a rising level of superstition, symbolized by the abandonment and eventual tabooing of a coal-and-steam technology; social relationships calcified, and a caste system appeared. Styles of dress and architecture were usually burlesques of Galactic Union forms: for example, a small hemispherical wooden hut, built in imitation of the vaulting Galactic geodesic domes.

But always there were the ruins of the city, acting as a constant symbol and a basis for mythology. Always.

“You’re sure, Fess? You’re really, really sure there isn’t a city?”

“I am always certain, Rod.”

“That’s true.” Rod pulled at his lower lip. “Sometimes mistaken, but never in doubt. Well, shelve the matter of the city for the time being; maybe it sank in a tidal wave. Let’s just make a final check on the life-forms being Terran.”

Rod dove head-first through the three foot circle of the air lock, landed in a forward roll, rose to his knees. He unclipped the guerilla knife from his belt—a knife carefully designed so that it could not be attributed to any one known culture—and drew the dagger from its sheath.

The sheath was a slender cone of white metal, with a small knob at the apex. Rod plucked several blades of grass, dropped them into the sheath, and turned the knob. The miniature transceiver built into the sides of the sheath probed the grass with sonics to analyze its molecular structure, then broadcast the data to Fess, who determined if any of the molecules were incompatible with human metabolism. If the grass had been poisonous to Rod, Fess would have beamed a signal back to the sheath, whereupon the white metal would have turned purple.

But in this particular case, the sheath stayed silver.

“That ties it,” said Rod. “This is Terran grass, presumably planted by Terrans, and this is a Terran colony. But where’s the city?”

“There is a large town—perhaps thirty thousand souls—in the foothills of a mountain range to the north, Rod.”

“Well…” Rod rubbed his chin. “That’s not exactly what I had in mind, but it’s better than nothing. What’s it look like?”

“Situated on the lower slopes of a large hill, at the summit of which is a large stone structure, strongly reminiscent of a Medieval Terran castle.”

“Medieval!” Rod scowled.

“The town itself consists of half-timbered and stuccoed buildings, with second stories overhanging the narrow streets—alleys would be a better term—along which they are situated.”

“Half-timbered!” Rod rose to his feet. “Wait a minute, wait a minute! Fess, does that architecture remind you of anything?”

The robot was silent a moment, then replied, “Northern European Renaissance.”

“That,” said Rod, “is not the typical style of a retrograde colony. How closely do those buildings resemble Terran Renaissance, Fess?”

“The resemblance is complete to the last detail, Rod.”

“It’s deliberate then. How about that castle? Is that Renaissance too?”

The robot paused, then said, “No, Rod. It would appear to be a direct copy from the German style of the 13th Century A.D.”

Rod nodded eagerly. “How about styles of dress?”

“We are currently on the night side of the planet, and were upon landing. There is a good deal of illumination from the planet’s three satellites, but relatively few people abroad…. There is, however, a small party of soldiers, riding Terran horses. Their uniforms are—uh—copies of English Beefeaters’.”

“Very good! Anyone else in the streets?”

“Um… a couple of cloaked men—uh—doublet and hose, I believe and… yes, a small party of peasants, wearing smocks and cross-gartered buskins….”

“That’s enough.” Rod cut him off. “It’s a hodgepodge, a conglomeration of styles. Somebody has tried to set up his idea of the ideal world, Fess. Ever hear of the Emigrés?”

The robot was silent a moment, mulling through his memory banks. Then he began to recite:

“Malcontents abounded toward the end of the 22nd Century A.D. Bored with their ‘lives of quiet desperation,’ people turned primarily to mysticism, secondarily to escapist literature and entertainment. Gradually the pseudo-Medieval became the dominant entertainment form.

“Finally, a group of wealthy men pooled their funds to buy an outmoded FTL liner and announced to the world that they were the Romantic Emigrés, that they intended to reestablish the glory of the Medieval way of life on a previously-uncolonized planet, and that they would accept a limited number of emigrants in the capacities of serfs and tradesmen.

“There were, of course, many more applicants than could be accommodated. Emigrants were selected ‘for the poeticness of their souls’—whatever that may mean.”

“It means they loved to listen to ghost stories,” said Rod. “What happened?”

“The passenger list was swiftly completed. The thirteen tycoons who had organized the expedition announced that they thereby rejected their surnames and adopted instead the family names of great Medieval aristocrats—Bourbon, di Medici, and so forth.

“Then the ship departed, with its destination carefully unspecified, so that there would be ‘no contamination from the materialist world.’ Nothing more was ever heard of them.”

Rod smiled grimly. “Well, I think we’ve just found them. How’s that set with your diodes?”

“Quite well, Rod. In fact, a statistical analysis of the probability of this being the Emigrés’ colony reveals the following—”

“Skip it,” Rod said quickly. Statistics was Fess’s hobby; given half a chance, he could bore you for hours.

Rod pursed his lips and eyed the section of the hull that housed Fess’s brain. “Come to think of it, you might send the statistics back to SCENT with our educated guess that we’ve found the Emigrés’ colony. Might as well get at that right now; I’d like them to know where we are in case anything happens.”

SCENT, the Society for the Conversion of Extraterrestrial Nascent Totalitarianisms, was the organization responsible for seeking out the lost colonies. The Proletarian Eclectic State of Terra had shown remarkably little interest in any colony that didn’t turn a profit; consequently, the lost colonies had stayed lost until the totalitarian rule of PEST had been overthrown by DDT, the Decentralized Democratic Tribunal. DDT had quickly consolidated its rule of Terra, governing in accordance with the almost-unattainable goals of Athenian democracy.

It had long been known that the inefficiency of democratic governments was basically a problem of communication and prejudice. But, over a period of two centuries, DDT cells had functioned as speakeasy schoolrooms, resulting in total literacy and masters’ degrees for seventy-two percent of the population; prejudice had thus joined polio and cancer on the list of curable diseases. The problems of communication had been solved by the development of sub-molecular electronics, which had lowered the bulk and price of electronic communication gear to the point where its truly extensive use became practical for the first time. Every individual was thus able to squawk at his Tribune at a moment’s notice; and, being educated, they tended to do a lot of squawking just on general principles—all very healthy for a democracy.

Squawking had proved singularly effective, due largely to an automatic record of the squawk. The problems of records and other bureaucratic red tape had been solved by the development of data-retrieval systems so efficient that the memorization of facts became obsolete. Education thus became exclusively a training in concepts, and the success of democracy was assured.

After two centuries of preparing such groundwork, the DDT revolution had been a mere formality.

But revolutionaries are always out of place when the revolution is over, and are likely to prove an embarrassing factor to the police forces of the new government.

Therefore, DDT had decided not to be selfish; rather, they would share the blessings of democracy with the other remnants of the old Galactic Union.

But democrats are seldom welcome on planets run by totalitarian governments, and scarcely more welcome on planets where anarchy prevails—this due to the very nature of democracy, the only practical compromise between totalitarianism and anarchy.

What was needed was a permanent organization of revolutionaries, subversive republican democrats. Since there was a large supply of out-of-work revolutionaries on hand, the organization was quickly formed, and christened the Society for the Conversion of Extraterrestrial Totalitarianisms. The “Nascent” was added a century later, when all the known inhabited planets had been subverted and had joined DDT. The old revolutionaries were still a problem, the more so since there were more of them; so they were sent out singly to find the Lost Colonies.

Thus was formed SCENT, the organization whose mission it was to sniff out the backward planets and put them on the road to democracy.

Since Rod had found a medieval planet, he would probably have to foster the development of a constitutional monarchy.

Rod, born Rodney d’Armand (he had five middle names, but they make dull reading) on a planet inhabited exclusively by aristocrats and robots, had joined SCENT at the tender age of eighteen. In his ten years of service, he had grown from a gangling, ugly youth to a lean, well-muscled, ugly man.

His face was aristocratic; you could say that for it—that, and no more. His receding hairline gave onto a flat, sloping forehead that ran up against a brace of bony brow-ridges, somewhat camouflaged by bushy eyebrows. The eyebrows overhung deep sockets, at the back of which were two, somewhat hardened gray eyes—at least Rod hoped they looked hardened.

The eye sockets were thresholded by high, flat cheekbones, divided by a blade of nose that would have done credit to an eagle. Under the cheekbones and nose was a wide, thin-lipped mouth which, even in sleep, was twisted in a sardonic smile. Under the mouth was a square jawbone and a jutting chin.

Rod would have liked to say that it was a strong face, but it tended to soften remarkably when/if a girl smiled at it. Dogs and children had the same effect, with a great deal more frequency.

He was a man with a Dream (There had been a Dream Girl once, but she was now one with his callow youth.)—Dream of one unified Galactic government (democratic, of course). Interstellar communications were still too slow for a true democratic federation; the DDT was actually a loose confederation of worlds, more of a debating society and service organization than anything else.

But adequate communication methods would come along some day, Rod was sure of that, and when they did, the stars would be ready. He would see to that.

“Well, let’s be about our business, Fess. No telling when someone might wander by and spot us.” Rod swung up and into the air lock, through and into the cabin again. He went to the plate in the wall, released the catches. Inside was a control panel; above this was a white metal sphere with a dull finish, about the size of a basketball. A massive cable grew out of the top of the sphere and connected to the wall of the ship.

Rod unscrewed the connection, released the friction clamp that held the sphere in place, and carefully lifted it out.

“Easy,” Fess’s voice said from the earphone implanted in the bone behind Rod’s right ear. “I’m fragile, you know.”

“A little confidence, please,” Rod muttered. The microphone in his jawbone carried his words to Fess. “I haven’t dropped you yet, have I?”

“Yet,” echoed the robot.

Rod cradled the robot “brain” in the crook of one arm, leaving one arm free to negotiate the air lock. Outside again, he pressed a stud in the side of the ship. A large door lifted from the side of the pseudo-asteroid. Inside, a great black horse hung from shock webbing, head between its forelegs, eyes closed.

Rod pressed a button; a crane extended from the cargo space. The horse swung out on the crane, was lowered until its hooves touched the ground. Rod twisted the saddlehorn, and a panel in the horse’s side slid open.

Rod placed the brain inside the panel, tightened the clamp and the connections, then twisted the saddlehorn back; the panel slid shut. Slowly the horse raised its head, wiggled its ears, blinked twice, gave a tentative whinny.

“All as it should be,” said the voice behind Rod’s ear. The horse chomped at the bit. “If you’ll let me out of this cat’s cradle, I’ll check the motor circuits.”

Rod grinned and freed the webbing. The horse reared up, pawing the air, then sprang into a gallop. Rod watched the robot run, taking a good look at his surroundings in the process.

The asteroid-ship had landed in the center of a meadow, shaggy with summer grass, ringed by oak, hickory, maple, and ash. It was night, but the meadow was flooded with the light of three moons.

The robot cantered back toward Rod, reared to a halt before him. Forehooves thudded on the ground; the great indigo eyes turned to look at Rod, the ears pricked forward.

“I’m fit,” Fess reported.

Rod grinned again. “No sight like a running horse.”

“What, none?”

“Well, almost none. C’mon, let’s get the ship buried.”

Rod pressed studs on the side of the ship; the cargo hatch closed, the air lock sealed itself. The ship began to revolve, slowly at first, then faster and faster as it sank into the ground. Soon there was only a crater surrounded by a ring-wall of loam, and the roof of the asteroid curving three feet below.

Rod pulled a camp shovel from Fess’s saddlebags, unfolded it, and bent to his task. The horse joined in, flashing out with its heels at the ring-wall. In ten minutes the wall had been reduced to six inch height; there was a large mound of earth in the center, twenty feet across and two feet high.

“Stand back.” Rod drew his dagger, twisted the hilt 180 degrees, pointed the haft at the earth-mound. A red light lanced out; the loam glowed cherry red, melted, and flowed.

Rod fanned the beam in a slow arc over the whole of the filled-in crater until the soil had melted down a foot below ground level. He shoveled the rest of the ring-wall into the hole, making a slight mound, but the next rain would take care of that.

“Well, that’s it.” Rod wiped his brow.

“Not quite.”

Rod hunched his shoulders; there was a sinking feeling in his belly.

“You have still to assume clothing appropriate to this society and period, Rod.”

Rod squeezed his eyes shut.

“I took the precaution of packing a doublet in my left-hand saddlebag while you were testing the grass, Rod.”

“Look,” Rod argued, “my uniform will do well enough, won’t it?”

“Skintight trousers and military boots will pass, yes. But a pilot’s jacket could not possibly be mistaken for a doublet. Need I say more?”

“No, I suppose not.” Rod sighed. He went to the saddlebag. “The success of the mission comes first, above and before any considerations of personal comfort, dignity, or—hey!” He stared at something long and slender, hanging from the saddle.

“Hey what, Rod?”

Rod took the strange object from the saddle—it had a handle on one end, he noticed, and it rattled—and held it up where Fess could see it.

“What is this?”

“An Elizabethan rapier, Rod. An antique sidearm, a sort of long knife, designed for both cutting and thrusting.”

“Sidearm.” Rod eyed the robot as if doubting his sanity. “I’m supposed to wear it?”

“Certainly, Rod. At least, if you’re planning to adopt one of your usual covers.”

Rod gave a sigh appropriate to a Christian martyr and pulled the doublet from the saddlebag. He wriggled into it and belted the rapier to his right side.

“No, no, Rod! Belt it to your left side. You have to cross-draw it.”

“The things I go through for the sake of democracy….” Rod belted the rapier to his left hip. “Fess, has it ever occurred to you that I might be a fanatic?”

“Certainly, Rod. A classic case of sublimation.”

“I asked for an opinion, not an analysis,” the man growled. He looked down at his costume. “Hey! Not bad, not bad at all!” He threw his shoulders back, lifted his chin, and strutted. The gold and scarlet doublet fairly glowed in the moonlight. “How do you like it, Fess?”

“You cut quite a figure, Rod.” There was, somehow, a tone of quiet amusement in the robot’s voice.

Rod frowned. “Needs a cape to top it off, though.”

“In the saddlebag, Rod.”

“Think of everything, don’t you?” Rod rummaged in the saddlebag, shook out a voluminous cloak of the same electric blue as his uniform tights.

“The chain passes under the left armpit and around the right-hand side of the neck, Rod.”

Rod fastened the cloak in place and faced into the wind, the cloak streaming back from his broad shoulders.

“There, now! Ain’t I a picture, though?”

“Like a plate from a Shakespeare text, Rod.”

“Flattery will get you a double ration of oil.” Rod swung into the saddle. “Head for the nearest town, Fess. I want to show off my new finery.”

“You forgot to seed the crater, Rod.”

“What? Oh! Yeah.” Rod pulled a small bag from the right-hand saddlebag and sprinkled its contents over the circle of raw earth. “There! Give it a light rainstorm and two days to grow, and you won’t be able to tell it from the rest of the meadow. Let’s hope nobody comes this way for two days, though….”

The horse’s head jerked up, ears pricked forward. “What’s the matter, Fess?”

“Listen,” the robot replied.

Rod scowled and closed his eyes.

Distant, blown on the wind, came youthful shouts and gay laughter.

“Sounds like a bunch of kids having a party.”

“It’s coming closer,” Fess said softly.

Rod shut his eyes and listened again. The sound was growing louder…

He turned to the northeast, the direction the sound seemed to be coming from, and scanned the horizon. There were only the three moons in the sky.

A shadow drifted across one of the moons. Three more followed it.

The laughter was much louder now.

“About seventy-five miles per hour,” Fess murmured.


“Seventy-five miles per hour. That’s the speed at which they seem to be approaching.”

“Hmm.” Rod chewed at his lower lip. “Fess, how long since we landed?”

“Almost two hours, Rod.”

Something streaked by overhead.

Rod looked up. “Ah, Fess?”

“Yes, Rod.”

“They’re flying, Fess.”

There was a pause. “Rod, I must ask you to be logical. A culture like this couldn’t possibly have evolved air travel yet.”

“They haven’t. They’re flying.”

Another pause. “The people themselves, Rod?”

“That’s right.” Rod’s voice held a note of resignation. “Though I’ll admit that one who just flew over us seemed to be riding a broomstick. Not too bad-looking, either. Matter of fact, she was stacked like a Las Vegas poker deck… Fess?”

The horse’s legs were locked rigid, its head swinging gently between its legs.

“Oh, hell!” Rod growled. “Not again!”

He reached down under the saddlehorn and reset the circuit breaker. Slowly, the horse raised its head and shook it several times. Rod caught the reins and led the horse away.

“Whaddappend, RRRawwwd?”

“You had a seizure, Fess. Now, whatever you do, don’t whinny. That airborne bacchanalia is coming our way, and there’s an off chance they might be out to investigate the shooting star. Therefore, we are heading for the tall timber—and quietly, if you please.”

Once under the trees at the edge of the meadow, Rod looked back to check on the flying flotilla.

The youngsters were milling about in the sky half a mile away, emitting joyful shrieks and shouts of welcome. The wind tossed Rod an intelligible phrase or two.

“Rejoice, my children! ’Tis Lady Gwen!”

“Hast thou, then, come at last to be mother to our coven, Gwendylon?”

“Thy beauty hath but waxed, sweet Gwendylon! How dost thou?”

“Not yet robbing cradles, Randal….”

“Sounds like the housemother dropping in on a party at the Witches’ College,” Rod grunted. “Sober, Fess?”

“Clearheaded, at least,” the robot acknowledged, “and a new concept accepted in my basic programming.”

“Oh.” Rod pursed his lips. “My observation is confirmed?”

“Thoroughly. They are flying.”

The aerial sock-hop seemed to have rediscovered its original purpose. They swooped toward the meadows with shouts and gales of laughter, hovered over the ring of newly-turned earth, and dropped one by one to form a circle about it.

“Well, not too many doubts about what they’re here for, is there?” Rod sat on the ground, tailor-fashion, and leaned back against Fess’s forelegs. “Nothing to do but wait, I guess.” He twisted the signet on his ring ninety degrees, pointed it at the gathering. “Relay, Fess.”

The signet ring now functioned as a very powerful, very directional microphone; its signal was relayed through Fess to the earphone behind Rod’s ear.

“Ought we to tell the Queen of this?”

“Nay, ’twould fash her unduly.”

Rod frowned. “Can you make anything out of it, Fess?”

“Only that it’s Elizabethan English, Rod.”

“That,” said Rod, “is why SCENT always sends a man with a robot. All right, let’s start with the obvious: the language confirms that this is the Emigré’s colony.”

“Well, of course,” Fess muttered, somewhat piqued.

“Now, now, old symbiote, no griping. I know you don’t consider the obvious worth reporting; but overlooking obvious facts does sometimes lead to overlooking secrets hidden right out in plain sight, doesn’t it?”


“Right. So. They mentioned a Queen. Therefore, the government is a monarchy, as we suspected. This teenage in-group referred to themselves as a coven; therefore they consider themselves witches…. Considering their form of locomotion, I’m inclined to agree. But…”

He left the but hanging for a few minutes. Fess picked up his ears.

“They also spoke of telling the Queen. Therefore, they must have access to the royal ear. What’s this, Fess? Royal approval of witchcraft?”

“Not necessarily,” said Fess judiciously. “An applicable precedent would be the case of King Saul and the Witch of Endor….”

“But chances are they’ve got an in at court.”

“Rod, you are jumping to conclusions.”

“No, just coming up with a brilliant flash of insight.”

“That,” said Fess, “is why SCENT always sends a robot with a human.”

“Touché. But they also said that telling the Queen would ‘fash her unduly.’ What’s fash mean, Fess?”

“To cause anxiety, Rod.”

“Um. This Queen just might be the excitable type, then.”

Might be, yes.”

Music struck up in the field—Scottish bagpipes playing the accompaniment to an old Gypsy tune. The young folk were dancing on the cleared earth, and several feet above it.

“Bavarian peasant dance,” Fess murmured.

“ ‘Where the ends of the earth all meet,’ ” Rod quoted, stretching his legs out straight. “An agglomerate culture, carefully combining all the worst Old Earth had to offer.”

“An unfair judgment, Rod.”

Rod raised an eyebrow. “You like bagpipes?”

He folded his arms and let his chin rest on his sternum, leaving Fess the sleepless to watch for anything significant.

The robot watched for a couple of hours, patiently chewing his data. When the music faded and died, Fess planted a hoof on Rod’s hip.

Gnorf!” said Rod, and was instantly wide awake, as is the wont of secret agents.

“The party’s over, Rod.”

The young folk were leaping into the air, banking away to the northeast. One broomstick shot off at right angles to the main body; a boyish figure shot out after it.

“Do thou not be so long estranged from us again, Gwendylon.”

“Randal, if thou wert a mouse, thou wouldst woo oliphants! Farewell, and see to it from now thou payest court to wenches only six years thy elder!”

The broomstick streaked straight toward Rod, climbed over the trees and was gone.

“Mmm, yes!” Rod licked his lips. “Definitely a great build on that girl. And the way she talks, she’s a wee bit older than these birdbrains….”

“I had thought you were above petty conquest by now, Rod.”

“Which is a nice way of saying she wouldn’t have anything to do with me. Well, even if I haven’t got the buying power, I can still window-shop.”

The junior coven sailed over the horizon; their laughter faded away.

“Well, that’s that.” Rod gathered his feet under him. “The party’s over, and we’re none the wiser.” He rose to his feet. “Well, at least we’re still a secret; nobody knows there’s a spaceship under that circle of earth.”

“Nay, not so,” chuckled a pixie voice.

Rod froze, turned his head, stared.

There, among the roots of an old oak, stood a man, broad-shouldered, grinning, and all of twelve inches tall. He was clad in doublet and hose in varying shades of brown, and had very white teeth and a general air of mischief.

“The King of the Elves shall be apprised of your presence, Lord Warlock,” said the apparition, chuckling.

Rod lunged.

But the little man was gone, leaving only a chortle behind him.

Rod stood staring, listening to the wind commenting to the oak leaves and the last faint snicker dying away among the oak roots.

“Fess,” he said. “Fess, did you see that?”

There was no answer.

Rod frowned, turning. “Fess? Fess!”

The robot’s head swung gently between its fetlocks.

“Oh, hell!”

That was Chapter 1.  The fun continues in the rest of the book, and in its 15 sequels.  Enjoy!



Quentin said...

If you're interested in a similar milieu, check out Iron Crown's Shadow Earth / Kulthea RPG setting. Basically a solar system that sits in an overlap between our reality and another in which magic is real.

heresolong said...

"the Kingdom is in political turmoil, with a young girl-queen on the brink of civil war with her rebellious lords. Rod slowly discovers off-world organizations are behind the unrest, trying to subtly corrupt Gramarye away from democratic rule."

Odd definition of "democratic rule"

Sport Pilot said...

I remember reading this book when it was first released in paperback form a long time ago. Great stuff, I should probably look into purchasing a digital version. Thanks for the remembrance.

Anonymous said...

The original version of the second book is available for free at the author's website. He didn't like the original, and re-wrote it as _King Kobold Revived_. That's the only version now available from Amazon.

Jim M

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed the early books in the series. The later ones, to me, seem to have lost the spark of originality. Actually worked with someone who had earlier worked at Cliff's Notes by the university where Stasheff taught.

Beans said...

What is nice, to me that is, about his works is that they are all Christianity-based. Subtle, sometimes, but Faith, the Lord and His Works are highly involved in all the books.

Very nice in comparison to a lot of sci-fi that is adamantly anti-Christian.

boron said...

I agree with Anonymous: Stasheff's earliest novels employed a sense of humor: weird, funny, but definite humor; his later ones were more in the pot-boiler mode; rushed, if you will: IMHO.

Rob said...

I was there "among a legion of readers"!

Anonymous said...

I hadn't thought about that series in years but I remember enjoying it. Thanks for the reminder, I think it's time for a reread.

Jay said...

It's not that they are a democracy but that PEST wants to insure that they don't go down that path while SCENT does.