Ches Centaur was disgruntled. In fact, he'd been disgruntled for over a year now, and he had finally decided to do something about it. His parents, Chet and Chandra had been more than supportive about his doing something about the disgruntlement that had attached itself to him, since Chet felt that his son was too old for such a thing and Chandra didn't like the smell. So, Ches, a strapping young bay centaur, was sent off to the Good Magician's Castle to discover the Answer to the Question which had brought the disgruntle in the first place.
How could Ches find True Love And Romance?
Certainly it was not a noble quest, one that would save Xanth, or even help out anyone but himself, but Ches did not really care about that. What he did care about was the fact that he was 24 years old and had never even had a whiff of Romance, let alone the whole smell. And as for True Love, well, that was just plain non-existant in the centaur village he had grown up in. For some reason, most of the foals around his age were colts so Ches had lots of friends, but no Romance.
It was dilemma that had brought the disgruntlement in force. And now it was time to get rid of it.
Ches slung his backpack over his shoulders and tucked his bow under it. His arrows hung in a quiver that was attached to the side of the backpack for easy travelling. Inside his pack were several sundry items that might prove useful, plus a few important items, like a hoofpick - centaurs could never be too careful with their hooves! - and three sandwiches for the journey. His mother made excellent sandwiches - in fact, it was her talent - and Ches knew that he would miss them, but he was bound and determined to get rid of the disgruntle and find True Love. And maybe a little Romance to go with it.
It wasn't that far to the Good Magician's Castle, since the centaur village was only a few hours from Castle Roogna and that was only a two day walk from the Good Magician. Human walk, and Ches, being a centaur, preferred to trot whenever he could. He figured that he could get there with only one night spent outside in the wilds of Xanth. And even that wasn't much of a problem, not with his talent.
Ches started out on his journey with a lightened heart and a somewhat less noticeable disgruntle. Apparently, disgruntlements weren't that successful when a person's heart was lighter. But it was still there, and Ches knew that the only way to make it finally leave him was to get the Answer to his Question.
Ches had travelled more than halfway there, his trot alternating with a canter, which of course, was a gait only male centaurs could use - the females used a can'er whenever they wanted to go faster - when night started to fall. Ches knew that it would not be long before the sun sank down into the sea and the moon would finally show its cheesy face overhead. He needed to find shelter, because of course, there were no enchanted paths leading to the Good Magician's Castle. All such paths led away from it.
Ches started hunting for a safe haven and soon he spied what he was looking for - a pleasant, well kept green path leading directly into the jungle. Smiling happily to himself, Ches trotted up the path, enjoying the pretty smell and the lovely flowers that grew along the edge. He came to edge of the path and was suddenly grabbed in the thick, strong tentacles of a hungry tangle tree.
"I tame you!" Ches cried immediately, and his talent was invoked. The tree lowered him gently to the ground and spread open its tentacles to allow Ches to approach the trunk. The usual ravening and cruel face of the tree contorted itself into the closest thing to a smile as bark could get and its tentacles, once so eager to grab and rend, now gently caressed Ches' back and flanks. For this was his talent, a useful one when travelling. He could cause any tangle tree to instantly become his best friend.
Of course, the magic wore off after a day or two, but it was perfectly serviceable to sleep overnight or have a secluded picnic where no one could bother you. After all, no one except an ogre would ever dare tangle with a tangle tree!
Ches smiled and patted the trunk which gave out whimpers of delight at the attention. Inspecting the bark and the nearest tentacles, Ches realized that this particular tree was hungry and probably hadn't eaten in several days.
"You poor thing," he said to it, patting the bark again. "I'll go and find you some food."
The tangle tree quivered in anticipation and even keened a little when Ches stepped out of its circle.
"I'm coming back," Ches called and in the fading daylight, managed to catch an unsuspecting deerfly. Hauling it back to the tree, Ches politely turned his back while the hungry tree ate its meal. It wasn't long before the trunk belched happily and Ches turned around to dispose of the shining clean bones the tree had fastidiously left to one side. He wasn't all that fond of supplying the tangle trees with meat, but it was a fair exchange for the shelter the trees provided him whenever he needed it. So he steeled himself to the necessity and did what he had to do with centaurish determination.
The tree resumed caressing Ches' back and Ches, after answering a call of nature which made the tree even happier, because it could always use fertilizer, settled himself down on the soft, grassy ground. The tree obligingly piled up its tentacles into a pillow for Ches' human torso and soon, as comfortable as he would have been in his own bed, Ches slept.
The next morning, Ches patted the tangle tree fondly and then trotted on towards his destination. He had to fight his way through the jungle at several points but his talent, although geared towards the tangle trees, was often enough to cause other carnivorous plants to pause at least long enough to let the centaur through. Pretty soon, Ches arrived at the castle of the Good Magician.
The moat was sparkling clean, a change from the last time that Ches had heard about it, and there were no telltale ripples in the water indicative of a moat monster. The drawbridge was up, but that was S.O.P. for the Good Magician. The applicants had to pass three challenges to get in to see Humfrey, and crossing the moat was generally one of them.
Ches trotted up to the bank and reached a finger down to the water. It certainly looked clean and inviting, but Ches, being a centaur, was suspicious. Without touching the water itself, Ches waved his hand to bring the smell of it up to his nose.
Instantly, Ches felt romantic. Looking around, he saw that the world had new sparkles on it. Everything was new and shiny and just ready for love.
Ches shook his head and the wisps of romantic fog clouding it cleared away. The Good Magician had filled his moat with the waters from a Love Spring! Ches wondered briefly how the Magician managed to do that, since it was well known that the water lost its potency after only a short time away from the spring.
"Still," he said to himself. "A challenge is a challenge." And he would have to get across this Love Moat without falling into it or drinking it. That would be a disaster indeed.
Ches trotted around the outside rim of the moat looking for anything that might help him across. The usual trees and shrubs and plants abounded but on the first trot around, Ches didn't see anything that would be useful in getting across a moat filled with Love Potion. On the second trot around, Ches looked a little deeper into the jungle surrounding and saw several unusual plants. There was a jellybean stalk, from which Ches plucked two red ones - his favourite - to chew on, mys-tree, which Ches didn't understand and a large dogwood tree that had several canines attached to the bottom of the trunk. The dogs and puppies barked happily when Ches came into view and began whimpering when he trotted past them.
Ches smiled at the cute puppies, then a sight finally broke through his brain. Stopping, he retreated back to stare at the dogs. Sure enough, in amongst the regular dogs was a medium sized one with splotches of black and white on its fur, long floppy ears and, most importantly of all, no tether to the tree. Which meant that it wasn't from the dogwood tree. Ches stepped closer and, after removing a bite of sandwich from his pack, coaxed the strange dog out of the dogwood pack.
The dog came forward happily and ate the sandwich, then drooled on Ches' hooves. Ches searched his brain and finally identified the dog.
"A springer spaniel!" he grinned and led the dog over to the edge of the moat. Pointing to the water, Ches took a deep breath and yelled at the top of his lungs.
The black and white dog immediately elongated its body over the water to the other side and flattened out into a slightly springy, but very serviceable bridge. For this was a springer span-yell, a dog who would span any spring when yelled at. And since this moat was once a Love Spring, it had worked!
Ches trotted over the span-yell and was soon safely on the inner side of the moat.
"THANKS SPAN-YELL!" he yelled at the dog who wagged its tail and contracted to the jungle side.
One hurdle done! Ches knew that there were two more to go and he looked forward to the next one. It had been lucky that he had been taught about some of the rarer forms of flora and fauna in Xanth otherwise he might never have known how to use the Springer Spaniel!