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July 15, 2024

The Aser Stories 43: Adding Insult to Injury

By Sand Pilarski

Cloudraft the Wizard gets on Aser's last nerve and everyone runs right out of sympathy for his plight.

After being asked by Lady Seaguard to leave his residence in the turret wing of Oceanwind Castle, Cloudraft the Great was so depressed he caught a cold, and so embittered he refused to do anything about it.

"Listen, Cloudraft," I told him, keeping well out of reach of contagion, "getting evicted isn't such a bad thing. Perhaps the Fates were trying to tell you something."

"Yes, these Fates were telling you that you are screwed, coming and going, New York style," said Guillaume the baboon as he stirred the pot of stewed chicken over the fire. He yelped as his older brother backhanded the back of his head.

"Your language is not acceptable in this esteemed company!" reprimanded the larger baboon. "You are beginning to sound like the dog -- or the shamans! That is to say, the honorable shamans, whose language is their sword." He grasped Guillaume by the ear and hustled him out into the night.

"Have some of the chicken broth," I told the miserable wizard. "The soup will help your congestion and you'll find that something in your stomach will make your situation seem less grievous. After all, you weren't to blame for the eviction -- that was just a by-product of somebody else's nefarious deeds."

"'Defarious deeds?'"

I ignored his clogged nose and reminded myself again that he wasn't supposed to find out the particulars of those deeds until we were far, far away from trouble. "Yeah, 'nefarious'. I always wanted a chance to use that word. Sounds good, doesn't it? See how Life works? Anyway, I've been evicted before, on numerous occasions. Getting evicted by creeps is a good thing, shows your character."

"Leabe be alode," he said, holding a disgusting cloth to his nose. "I dode wad do be codsiddered addythig like you."

"Good. Because I sure wouldn't want to be ranked with a jackass who takes on an adventure without accepting his mates." His pomposity was getting on my nerves. I began to wonder if Margot the Troll wasn't right about taking off and traveling on our own; she had a low opinion of Cloudraft and felt that the baboons talked too much.

An unsubtle shuffling in the leaves and undergrowth announced the return of the aforementioned troll, her dog, and my clan-relative Danner. "We got a deer," rumbled Margot, "and hung it up in a tree for the night. Good breakfast tomorrow. He still playing dead?" she asked, hooking a huge scaly thumb at Cloudraft.

Dan Ur-Jennan frowned when I nodded and studied the wizard for a few moments. "I found a big patch of nettles upstream, so I picked a batch of 'em. Mind if I add them to the chicken?"

Using a big catalpa tree leaf, she pulled nettle leaves out of a pouch, and sprinkled them in the simmering chicken remains. Nettles are great for allergic reactions and helpful for colds, but they're hell to handle until they've boiled. We had to get Cloudraft to take something to help him, but he couldn't be too strongly coerced -- I don't think any one of us wanted to be transformed into turkeys or salamanders.

Tumultuous events can lay anyone low, don't think I blamed Cloudraft for that. Lots of old folk tales end with "and in grief, So-and-so turned his (her) face to the wall and died." People can just be so upset that they can't eat, have a hard time breathing or staying awake, and simply forget how to be well. You see this a lot when there's an untimely death. The survivors can't believe that they are still alive while the loved one is gone. Funerals can set off an epidemic of colds and pneumonia. Part of the reason for wakes, with their drinking and feasting, is to fortify the bodies of the still-living, and to re-connect the grieving family with the rest of the living world.

Death isn't the only thing that sets people off into illness and decline, though. The loss of a job, the failure of a business, major marital discord -- all of those can do it. Even making a perceived 'mistake' can bring on decreased immunity, and the onset of sickness. Not psychosomatic illness, either, mind you. Real and potentially dangerous disease.

The key word is "loss." Some people, going through job changes or family realignments or death of someone who was significant to them, lose something so intrinsically necessary to them that they can no longer function normally. Maybe they identified themselves by the relationship with the suddenly deceased; maybe their self-image was based upon the work that they once did. Once they were like wheels who rolled along evenly and with good balance; now whatever "loss" has occurred makes that wheel run as though half of it has gone missing. Roll, thud. Wrench, roll, thud. Until the thuds win, and the wheel stops until it can be repaired.

There was a village about a mile from the border of the lands of Kaladang the Axe, and the village's pride was their granaries, whose contents assured the village their income each year. When Kaladang decided to annex the lands to the south of him along the Salmon River, he needed extra food for his troops, and crossing the border, laid waste the village and emptied the granaries after the harvest. That winter, the mortality rate among the old people increased by seventy-five percent; the general populace fell victim to a virus that killed one in nine. They didn't go hungry, for the villages about them had enough to share. No, it was the shock of seeing their village and their granaries burnt and bashed to the ground.

Danner knelt beside Cloudraft, and offered him a cup of the infused broth. "Come on, Cloudy," she said to him. "In thirty minutes you'll feel like a new wizard." She slipped her arm behind his head, and after he leaned against her shoulder for a few minutes, he deigned to sip the brew.

Margot looked at me significantly, her orange eyes glowing in the light of the small fire. I shrugged. Nightfall is not the time to break up an alliance. You do it in the morning with the parting of ways, or in the afternoon after a disagreement, but not at night. Moreover, she'd bet me that Cloudraft and the baboons wouldn't be able to travel in the rough, and I was not willing to pay up anything yet.

The baboons returned to the fire, Guillaume carrying a bunch of washed tubers by their leaves. Narsai began to break off the roots and drop them into the simmering broth. "Have I not heard the adage, 'Feed a cold, starve a fever'?" he asked. "We shall feed this affliction and perhaps defeat it."

Margot turned to me and rumbled, "It's supposed to be 'Feed a troll, starve a wizard,'" and then chuckled like the sound of cement cracking. The dog panted laughter beside her admiringly.

"I heard dat," said Cloudraft. "By dose is stuffed, dot by ears."

"Good, Cloudraft. Listen to this: we need to move on up the coast to Ur. That means that you need to heal up as quickly as possible. After we breakfast, you're going to ride the horse with the packs." I had made the decision.

"I ab dot! Da las' tibe I rode wit you I tought by privades would fall off." He honked his nose again on his nasty kerchief. "Whad's da hurry, addyway?"

Danner glared at me, warning me with her expression that I was not to tell Cloudraft anything that might worry or upset him, like the fact that his eviction from Oceanwind Castle was due to a murder cover-up. Then she glared at the baboons, the dog, and even Margot.

"Waidabinnit," said the wizard. "I rebeber you saying 'Defarious deeds' and 'Evicted by creebs.' Seaguard was by fredd. Is der subtig goig od dat I don'd doe aboud?" He sneezed rackingly.

Margot pretended to see something in the tree above her, the dog got up and turned his back to the company, and Danner continued to glare at me. I raised my eyebrows at her, and she dropped her eyes.

"Maybe there is, and maybe there isn't," I replied to him. "I know one thing: I wouldn't tell anyone anything if they were as sick and thickheaded as you. You've got about as much good judgment as the dog's left hind leg."

The dog raised his leg, sniffed his toes and what the leg had protected, and settled back into a sleeping position.

Cloudraft sputtered and rummaged in the inside pockets of his robes for his magic wand. As soon as he found it and raised it, Danner plucked it out of his hand, and snatched his hat off in the same movement. She tossed the wand end over end to Margot, who caught it and put one end between her molars. "EEeee - aghhh!" said the wizard. "Don'd crunch id!"

"Don't threaten your comrades," Danner warned. "When we get to Ur, we may be able to tell you what you want to know. But not until then, and not until you're in better health."

With red nose glowing above his bristling white moustache, Cloudraft held out his hand for the wand. "Gibb it back."

Danner had his tall hat choked in her left hand. "One wrong move and the hat gets it," she warned him. She stuffed the hostage down the front of her shirt for safekeeping, and a second later yanked it out, gasping with astonishment and annoyance. She whacked it against a rock three times and then put it under her belt.

Margot rubbed the wand on the sleeve of her cloak, and then handed it to Cloudraft. "You're in better company than you think, Wizard," she said. "You'd do a lot worse without us."

Cloudraft in turn wiped the wand on his robe and furiously examined it for teeth marks. He whipped the stick in complicated gestures, muttering in whispers. A paper packet appeared in a puff of foul purple smoke, and he picked at the packet until he could remove and swallow two red pills. He drank the rest of his cup of soup.

"Pseudophedrine?" Asked Danner, her head almost upside-down trying to read the wrapper. "That's not Latin."

"No, it isn't. It's inter-dimensional thievery," I observed.

"Bind your owd busidesses! And you," he said angrily, turning to Danner, "are doe logger by apprendice. You cad fide someone else to put up wid you, or blow yourself into the eighth ring of hell, I dode care addybore!"

"Have another blanket so you don't get too cold all by yourself," Danner snapped, throwing her blanket at him. She stomped around the fire to sit between Margot and me, pulling the hat from her belt and gripping it in a tight fist. "Either of you got an empty sack? I don't trust this hat worth a damn." She flattened the hat and then rolled it up before thrusting it into the leather pouch I handed her. The top of the pouch she tied with about six knots before securing it to her boot.

"So what's to keep him from turning us all into stone when we fall asleep?" Margot asked.

"Honor," Danner said loudly. Then she whispered very softly, "and valerian. I slipped a big dose into the cup when I handed him the soup. He can't smell anything, so he couldn't smell the stuff. It should make him sleep peacefully."

"I thought I caught a whiff of it," I said with pride in my friend. "But with the horse right nearby ... "

"Besides," Danner continued, "he's got no sense of direction at all. If he gets rid of us, he'll never find his way out of this forest. Once he gets to feeling a little better and thinking about this, he'll realize we wouldn't keep him in the dark without a good reason."

Narsai the baboon brought the stew over to us, wearing blue oven mitts with gold dragons which he had refused to leave behind when we left Oceanwind Castle.

"Respected Companions," said his younger brother Guillaume, "would you care to dine?" He spread a small tablecloth in front of us, and some blue cotton napkins that Narsai had also liberated from the castle's stores.

"Very nicely done, Guillaume, and well-spoken," I told him.

Narsai answered for him. "Getting a very big beating can do wonders for the soul."

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-03-17
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