They were at the top of an ornate marble grandstand whose cushioned seats would hold about fifty people. It stood halfway down the side of a gentle grassy hollow, a natural arena. On the skyline opposite, stark white against the ultramarine sky, stood a pair of stone columns supporting a triangular lintel, what architecture books called a pediment. It had no doors, so it might be just what it seemed, not a magical portal like the one beside the swimming hole.
"That's where it will come from." Gacrux pointed at the arch with Taygeta, then put the sword away, as if suddenly self-conscious. "You should be up there when it does, so that you can lure it down close, where all of us can see the fight."
"Can I go and look over the terrain?" The slopes of this killing ground were tufted with thorny-looking shrubs that might hide all sorts of rough footing. What lay beyond the skyline?
"If it worries you. It's obvious enough, I would have thought. Muphrid sees that it's kept in good shape. There shouldn't be any sharp stones or burrows to trip you."
"Have you ever hunted minotaurs?" Rigel asked suspiciously.
The big elf shrugged. "Smell of blood churns my gut. I've watched it a time or two. There's nothing to it. The more you wave the red cloak, the madder it gets. Just remember what Muphrid told you last night. It isn't a bull. It has hands. It'll try to grab you and pull you onto its horns."
"Right." Rigel trotted down the aisle and vaulted over the rail at the bottom of the grandstand, dropping nimbly to the grass. A staged slaughter was not his idea of hunting and certainly not sport, but refusing to cooperate might endanger his chances of gaining status. He suspected the childlike starfolk just wanted to see him kill something with Saiph. And there was no doubt in his mind that this was also a test--of his abilities certainly, and perhaps of his obedience too. He set off to explore.
He loped across the hollow and started up the slope, checking the footing and the height of the shrubs. There were places where a man or animal could hide from view and he was curious to know why Gacrux had drawn his sword before opening the portal. He glanced back and saw that the elf had gone. The portal doors were closed.
Studying the grandstand from this angle, he decided that it wasn't a secure vantage point. A real bull wouldn't have been able to reach the spectators, but an agile man, whether he had a bull's head or a human one, could easily jump up and catch hold of the railing. Then he could haul himself aboard and turn the tables on those who had come to watch him being slaughtered. Either there were defenses that Rigel couldn't see, or Muphrid had immense confidence in his own magical powers.
He turned to resume his exploration and saw a minotaur sitting cross-legged in a slight hollow no more than ten meters off to his right, watching him. Rigel opened his mouth to summon Saiph, but then realized that the amulet was not tingling and the sword would come on its own if it were needed.
The apparition yawned and stretched its arms. After all the straw-thin elves, its sheer bulk was daunting. From the neck down it would have made an impressive NFL linebacker--probably hairier than most--and its huge horned head must add an extra thirty kilos. It was naked, without so much as a gold ring in its black nose. Rigel gingerly took a backward step.
The Minotaur said, "Buenos dias."
"Um, good morning." Rigel went closer to convince himself that he was brave enough. "I didn't expect you to talk."
"Why not? We won't have much time to chat later."
"Probably not. I'm Rigel."
"I'm the Minotaur. All us minotaurs are called the Minotaur."
"What did your mother call you?"
The Minotaur snorted explosively. "Darling." His bull's head was Hereford red, but his human body hair was black--Aberdeen Angus, maybe. "Didn't expect a halfling. You're here to prove that you can kill to order, I suppose?"
"I'm sure that's the idea, but it wasn't my idea." At close range Rigel could tell that the monster's name was Elnath. Why had it lied to him?
Saiph was still giving no warning, so Rigel sat down cross-legged and almost knee-to-knee with his soon-to-be adversary. He noticed that the bushes hid them from the grandstand, and wondered if Elnath had been setting up an ambush.
The Minotaur regarded him with a huge and gentle bovine eye. "Well, I'm glad. A halfling should do a nice clean kill. Some of those milksop starfolk can't finish the job properly. They chop and hack and mutilate, and then can't bring themselves to finish us off. My brother was just left there to bleed to death. I call that escandaloso!"
"Me too," Rigel said. "But now that I'm getting to know you, I don't want to kill you at all."
"Oh, but you must!" Elnath's face displayed no emotion, but he sounded shocked. "That's what I'm for. For thousands of years we minotaurs have been bred to be killed by heroes. If you don't do it someone else will, and I'd rather be slain by a bloodthirsty savage halfling than a daffodil elf. No offense intended."
"None taken." Rigel pulled his knees up and leaned his chin on them to think. "You insist on this?"
The bull head turned to fix its other eye on him. "Certainly. I don't want to kill you either, but when you wave the cloak at me, the only way I can stop the pain is to try and get it away from you."
The Minotaur laughed, a monstrous rumble deep in his throat. "They didn't tell you? The cloak is an amulet. When you shake it, it hurts me. Red-hot needles! I go loco. You think any sane minotaur would charge a swordsman without a weapon? No, it's just the only way to stop the agony."
"We could just shake hands and part as friends."
"That merely gives me an hour or so longer in the death paddock while they line up another hero. Muphrid Starborn has to entertain his guests. Besides, that wouldn't help you prove you'll be a good assassin. And I have to think of my sons."
"You lost me," Rigel said.
The Minotaur made a harrumphing noise and studied the enormous dirty, tattered fingernails on his right hand. "The Minotaur must die bravely. He must put on a good show. That's what he's for. You want my sons to grow up with the shame of a father who made a deal?"
"I see. How do I help you put on a good show?"
Elnath scratched a furry shin. "Make sure I bleed a lot. You have to disable my arms first, of course--that way I can only try to gore you--and you must be careful not to spoil my legs. Then you spin it out, making it last a good, long time. I keep charging and charging like an idiot. But finally, if you don't mind, put that moment of truth right through my heart?"
Rigel was feeling more like a daffodil elf every minute. "This is all strange to me. I only just arrived in this world. I didn't believe in minotaurs until I saw you sitting here."
The monster snorted. "You wouldn't, of course. On Earth, we're imaginary; here we're real. Like the elves. Reality on Earth is fantasy here and vice versa. And one thing you must understand about the Starlands is that they aren't a world. They're a translated state of being. The domains have all been manifested from the starfolk's imagination, and each place is a personal creation. Time is conserved, so life and death stay the same. If you can imagine your own death you can die here--believe it! And even the best mage can't do nada about death."
"Magic?" Rigel looked at his bracelet. "Amulets. You said the cloak they give me will be an amulet. The elf, er, starborn, who brought us here carried a long staff."
"That would be his reversion amulet. In order to effect the dimensional transformation, it has to be longer than the user's height, see?"
He didn't. "I'll take your word for it. So all the magic in the Starlands is done with amulets? Rings, bracelets . . ."
The Minotaur sighed hugely. "Not quite. Some elves are better at magic than others, but spells take time to cast, and they can go wrong. You want to remember something, you write it down, right? An elf puts his spell in an amulet, so it's always available."
Aha! "If a friend of mine wants to travel back to Earth, how can she?"
"You don't travel to and from Earth. You extrovert there. That's unless you just want to seance, of course." Elnath twisted a tuft of long weeds with a big hand, ripped them out of the ground, and tucked them in his cavernous mouth, roots and all.
"Please would you explain the difference?" Rigel Estell really had gone crazy; he was asking a bull for instructions.
"If you want to really be there," the Minotaur said, patiently chewing, "and do things, then you extrovert to Earth. You introvert back here again. Think of a dimensional matrix transformation of the space-time continuum with conservation of supersymmetry."
"I'm sure I can't. I'm not educated. All I know is what I read in books people had thrown away."
"Lucky you. Our culture is entirely verbal. We're too hypermetropic to read."
"I've read about imaginary numbers," Rigel said. "They lie along an axis at right angles to real numbers."
"You've got it, then. But even a high-rank mage--red or even Naos grade--won't attempt introversion or extroversion without a staff, and Queen Electra made all reversion illegal a few centuries ago. She's been confiscating every staff she can get her royal hoofs on."
"And seancing is . . . what? Just looking?"
Elnath nodded his monstrous head, then stroked it with a thorny branch he tore off a shrub. "Elves like to think they're ever so frightfully artistic and creative," he said, crunching noisily, "but you'll notice that the stuff they imagine is mostly plagiarism, copied from Earth. Seancing is legal because the starfolk who do it can't be seen, heard, or touched. All they can do is mooch around, spying and stealing ideas."
"You are being amazingly helpful. Now tell me why extroversion is illegal."
The massive bull-man sniggered like a child. "Starfolk like to think they're above all that messy animal sex stuff, but they aren't, and the males like to play around with the livestock, usually the girls. They're not very fertile at the best of times, even with their own kind, but once in a while they make a mestizo, er, halfling. They don't admit it, but halflings scare them. Some of you have low-grade magic, even up to blue, and you're not bound by the guilt curse. You make useful servants, because they've bred all the smart out of their mudlings, but you're also scary. So making a halfling is a serious offense
. If the father can somehow get hold of a reversion staff, he'll take the baby to Earth and switch it for an earthling one, bringing the human baby back to keep the woman happy. Gets new blood into the servant herds, too."
Changelings! "I'd heard the old myths, just didn't think it was still going on. You're being more helpful than anyone I've spoken to yet, Minotaur. Are we halflings always made in the slave barns, or do the male starborn ever extrovert so that they can seduce human--I mean earthling--women?"
The Minotaur changed eyes again. "It's not common nowadays, since Electra made it illegal, but yes, horny elves used to extrovert to play with the wild stock all the time."
"So they can disguise themselves as human?"
"Dissemble, you mean. The higher grades can dissemble as earthlings, but dissembling's about the only magic that can't be done with an amulet. They have to consciously think about it all the time. The moment they let themselves get distracted, every earthling in sight starts screaming. That didn't matter much when the earthlings would decide they were devils and burn them at the stake, but nowadays they'd run forensic analysis and autopsies. Electra didn't want that to happen. It's one of the reasons she banned extroversion."
Rigel rose onto his knees to peer over the bushes at the grandstand, but nobody was there yet. Saiph tingled. He looked around hastily, but Elnath was apparently just reaching for a juicy clump of weeds near Rigel's ankle. He pulled them up and tucked them into his mouth.
"Must be about time for me to get back to the pen," Elnath grunted. "Don't want them to see us talking, right?"
"Right." Why not?
The monster thumped a fist on his enormous hairy chest. "My heart's about here."
Rigel drew a deep breath. "You truly want me to do this?"
"Haven't I been saying so?"
"Does the Minotaur always lose?"
"Of course. The hero must win."
"Then how did you acquire all those scars?" Rigel pointed at thin white lines visible under the black pelt.
The Minotaur shrugged and chewed. "Almost always, then. Don't worry about highly improbable exceptions."
Truth in the Starlands was malleable.
"Saiph never loses."
The Minotaur cocked his great head to look down at Rigel's bracelet. "Truly? The real Saiph?"
"Truly. And it's not just your scars. I'm also a little doubtful about your sons story. How many did you say you have?"
The Minotaur sighed. "None. I was simplifying. I've taken out a couple of the weedy elves in my time, so Muphrid promised me that if I won a third time, he'd put me out to stud with the minoheifers. Not that I believe him, really. I just didn't want to worry you. You'll fight better if you have a good positive attitude."
Rigel grinned. Elnath flicked his ears, which might be the bull equivalent.
"Do draws count?" Rigel asked. "Look, I'll leave it up to you. I won't even use the cloak. I swear I won't seriously injure you as long as you just play with me, faking charges and so on. When you want to die, try to kill me for real. Saiph will see you out."
The Minotaur's bovine mouth opened in an enormous yawn, and his massive human arms stretched up into the air. "That's great news, though. Saiph! They must be really scared of me to send in Saiph! Come to think of it, it's been quite a while since they sent up their last hero. I'll get my name on Saiph? Stars! Thanks, Rigel Halfling. May the best being win." He held out a hand twice the size of Rigel's.
Rigel clasped it, forewarned by a slight quiver from his bracelet. He watched as the great muscle bulged in that furry forearm. Fortunately Rigel's sword hand was now clad in a steel gauntlet, so his knuckles didn't crumble under the pressure. The monster released him with a grunt, then chuckled. "Even if it isn't the genuine Saiph, it's a good one."
Rigel grinned. "So are you, Elnath Minotaur. Nice try." And no hard feelings, thanks to the amulet.
"Good luck, Halfling Rigel. If you do get that assassin job, kill lots of stinky elves for me." With that, the Minotaur flowed away into the brush, vanishing with amazing agility for such a massive being.