The woman returned, not after a few moments, as she had said, but near dusk. She was breathless and redolent of leaf mold and cut vegetation. She threw off her gray cloak and knelt beside the bear. Little Lump was asleep in a crook of a furry forelimb. The woman touched his cheek lightly and said, "I see all seems to be well. It only remains to construct the nursery."
Then she rose and lifted to her lips a silver whistle that hung from a chain around her neck and blew upon it three uncanny notes. Immediately there sounded a great groan from behind the house, followed by a curious sliding noise, as if a gang of workmen were dragging a heavy crate up a ramp. Then the door opened, and there entered such a creature as, if glanced at but once, would make for a lifetime of nightmares. It was not merely that it had tusks and horns and an indeterminate number of glowing, sparking, spinning eyes. No, what made it so awful was that it kept changing the number, shape, and position of its various features, so that its face was like the roiling surface of a cannibal's stewpot. Just as one had gotten used to one face and concluded that nothing could be more hideous, it slithered into another, and it always was. The only constant in this phantasmagoria was a bright-blue bushy beard. Its body was in general the size and shape of a very large man's, although the number and position of the limbs was subject to some variation. Its skin was iridescent, the color of the scum on an abandoned canal.
He was an afreet, a kind of demon that inhabits desert places, and his name was Bagordax. He had been sent to the woman many years ago by an evil wizard far to the south, who desired a certain charm that she possessed. But the woman had tricked the afreet (which is another story) and pinned his tail in a cleft boulder, where it now remained. The woman used the afreet occasionally as a servant, to do heavy work. He was not a good servant, but since he was impossible to release without causing great harm, the woman put up with his ways.
Bagordax entered the room, dragging his boulder, and made an elaborate bow.
"Sister of the moon, all-knowing, queen of sorcery: Bagordax, prince of djinns, greets thee and waits upon thy whim!"
"Oh, stop doing that!" the woman snapped. "I can't think when you're writhing in that disgusting manner."
The afreet settled his form into mere monstrosity.
"That's better," said the woman. "My whim, as you put it, is to have an addition built onto the cottage. I have a child to raise now, and he must have his own little nursery."
The monster's gaze darted around the room until it fell upon Ysul and the baby. An expression of hideous delight crossed his face. Ysul pulled the baby closer to her, growled softly, and showed a fang. Bagordax turned to the woman.
"Oh, majesty, before the night has passed, a jewel-encrusted palace shall stand here with gardens and fountains, suitable for this handsomest of all princes and a wonder to the world. Yet it cannot be a tenth of what it should be for such a thrice-blessed infant while the full scope of my art is stunted by this slight embarrassment of stone that clings to thy servant's tail. Release me now, and I swear by all the Powers that"
"Oh, do shut up, Bagordax!" said the woman impatiently. "Now, take heed! No palace, no jewels. Just a room. Large and airy, with windows on three walls. A door leading to this room and one leading outside to the garden. Painted walls. Carpeted floors. Furniture suitable to a child and a bear. And, Bagordax"
"Yes, serene one?"
"No tricks. If anything nasty turns up in that room, you'll find your head in that stone along with your tail. Do I make myself clear?"
From The Witch's Boy by Michael Gruber, Copyright © 2005 by Michael Gruber. All Rights Reserved. HarperCollins Publishers.
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