From the side of the mountain, the city of Cliffhaven was visible -- only about four hours' walk distant. The sun was just about to come up, and the three days we'd spent on the road were about to conclude, none too soon for me. "Look there, that gray stone building, the tall one. That's where Cloudraft the Great is living, on the top floor. You can't go flying over there, though, or you'll panic the entire city."
The dragon lifted the sack that disguised his face and squinted at the city. "And I suppose you just expect us to walk into town and not be noticed by the watchman at the gate?"
I dug in my pack for some paper and a pencil. This crow knows our location, I wrote, Dudalos is with me. I signed it with an A, and folded it into a small square that wouldn't trouble a medium-sized bird. "No, this is where I call a crow and let him carry the message. Then we kick back and the wizard comes to us." And then the wizard could take care of the cranky dragon and I could sleep, preferably for about four days straight, interrupted only by beer breaks and possibly some fried chicken, a fine food which Dudalos and I had talked about through most of the night's march.
As the sun tipped over the horizon, a lone crow sailed out of a pine tree down the mountainside. "Cover your head, Dude, there's our messenger." When he scrabbled the hood back over his head, I cupped my hands around my mouth and shouted, "Awww!" with the inflection in crow-language that translates as "Hey, c'mere!" (Crows don't tend to stand on ceremony, except when they're courting.)
The crow immediately swiveled in the air, flapped to gain altitude, and then soared gracefully to land at my feet. "Yeah, what?" he said coarsely.
Before I could speak, Dudalos lifted the sack from his head. The crow shouted "AW! that's UGly!" just before the dragon snapped him up. A scattering of black feathers floated to the ground.
"Hey!" I shouted. "What the hell are you doing??"
"Next best thing to fried chicken," said the dragon. The sack dropped back over his head. I heard him giggle, and another puff of black feathers blew out from under the sack.
With a crackling scuffle of dried leaves, another crow landed by the feathers. "What's UGly?" the bird screeched.
"Me!" said Dudalos gleefully, lifting his hood.
"AW!" called the crow, "UGly!"
Dudalos ate him, too. The scattering of feathers grew.
"That's just not right," I told the dragon. "I was going to get them to help us."
Wheezing with feathers, he said between giggles, "They're sure helping me! I was starving. What a racket! Look, here comes another one!"
I waved my arms and yelled, "Forget it! It's a trap!" But crows tend to take their own counsel, and the next crow to land, puzzling over the call and the feathers adorning the landscape, went the way of the previous two.
Turning my back on the dragon, I headed downhill. "Fine, I'll go tell the wizard myself." Another four hours on foot was nothing compared to having to spend more time with the dragon. No wonder knights errant were always looking to slay them. Halfway down the slope, I heard the dragon roar with laughter. "Ten!" he shouted. "Ten, Aser!" I picked up my pace.
The problem with dragons is that they are -- draconic. Fond of conversation and fine jewelry, their least amiable trait is that they eat people. Or game animals, or livestock, or pets, or family totems, which the crows are for my clan. Dudalos, in an effort to keep up with the times, had stopped eating people and robbing stagecoaches for gold. (At least that was his story as of last year.) When he asked me to be his traveling companion while he sought the wizard Cloudraft for help, I thought that time spent with a being hundreds upon hundreds of years old would provide a veritable wealth of wisdom and knowledge, so I agreed. Also convincing was the hulking body of the dragon with his head stuck in my front door, alternately whining about the unfairness of life and threatening to scorch the hair off my legs.
I was wrong. Instead of wisdom, I heard unending complaints about the inconvenience of foot travel in disguise, and instead of knowledge, Dudalos thought it important to regale me with every variation of every fart joke he had heard through the long years. Let me tell you, they don't change much over time.
Now and then, we just make mistakes in judgment about the company we decide to keep. I remember my Aunt Tilla's youthful escapade, taking up with one of the Ur-Raffen boys, against everyone's warnings about the Ur-Raffens being firestarters. The family legend goes that Tilla ran about shamelessly with Flame Ur-Raffen until Flamer got a bit too silly with matches and a flask of rum and ended up burning down the little rendezvous hut in the woods they'd built, as well as an acre or two of woodland. After Tilla fled home scorched and naked, she swore she'd never again speak with a Raffen clan member. I don't believe she ever has, either. In fact, I don't know that Aunt Tilla speaks to men at all.
Tommy the Adventurer (his choice of names) traveled to the exotic reaches of the Eastern Desert, and looked into the eyes of camels and thought that their long-lashed gaze concealed romantic hearts under the spell of some evil sorcerer. He paid good silver to a mage in a marketplace for an amulet that would allow him to understand the camels' speech, thinking that he would learn the name of the sorcerer, find a way to break the spell, and have hundreds of dark-eyed beauties deep in awe and gratitude to him. What he got was a couple of nasty kicks and spat upon by the irritable beasts.
"How do I know that you are a friend of The Great Wizard Cloudraft?" inquired the snooty doorman, when I arrived at the ground floor door of the grey stone building. "You look like a dirty beggar to me."
Yes, we all make mistakes in judgment. I left him sprawled in the hallway and climbed the stairs to the penthouse apartment. Danner, my friend and relative, answered the door. "Aser! Why didn't you let me know you were coming?"
"Dudalos. He's calling in his favors to Cloudraft. See that mountainside to the north? He's there, waiting."
"You were traveling with Dudalos?" she asked. "How totally cool! Cloudy," she called to the wizard, "the dragon Dudalos needs you!"
Cloudraft the Great appeared at her elbow. "Dudalos? Where is he? Oh, hello, Aser, how are you?"
I pointed toward the mountain where Dudalos was no doubt still snacking on unwitting crows. Cloudraft waved his magic wand, made a telescope appear, peered through it, and muttering incantations, disappeared from sight.
"You lucky hog," said Dan Ur-Jennan. "You got to hang around with Dudalos! Is he the most amazing companion ever or what?"
"Danner," I said, "this was the most important information I got from him ... "
"What?" she said eagerly.
"A giant named Zhymir wanted to date one of Loki's daughters. But he wasn't too bright, so he thought nothing of the repercussions of eating his old mother's bean and sauerkraut casserole for lunch. He showed up at Loki's castle in the evening, and was invited in to sit in the parlor. Fenris Wolf lay on the hearth until Zhymir sat down, then went over to make his acquaintance. Zhymir petted the great beast, but suddenly felt a rumbling and a pressure in his guts. By and by his urge to pass wind became so overwhelming that he began to sweat. Silently he let pass some gas, hoping not to blow up.
"Loki looked up from his newspaper, sniffed, and said sternly, 'Fenris!'
"Zhymir was struck with inspiration. He petted the wolf some more, and leaned to one side and emitted another breeze.
"Once again, Loki looked at the wolf in annoyance and said more loudly, 'Fenris!'
"Zhymir patted the wolf's head, crossed his legs, and let the rest of the stink waft into the air.
"Loki stood up, threw his newspaper on the table, and shouted, 'Fenris Wolf! Get away from that damn giant before he shits on you!'"
"That was it, was it?" Danner said, scratching her head.
"That was the high point."
"You want me to buy you a beer, don't you?"
"Several, I think."
"A Several-Beers Night! Come on, Aser, there's a really fine tavern right up the street!" She grabbed her staff and patted a pants pocket, which jingled promisingly.
"Danner, it's hardly past morning yet."
"So what? A beer with lunch is a great way to start the day." She threw her cloak over her shoulder.
"Wait a minute. We're shamans. What are people going to think if we start guzzling beer in the middle of the afternoon?"
"They'll think we're thirsty shamans and probably buy us our second beers."
Sitting in a tavern all day with Danner is a bad idea. I've known that for more years than I can remember. First she chats, then she starts singing, then she decides she needs more adventure in her life. Taking a nap would be a much wiser choice. I pondered those facts, as one must when deciding upon a course of action. One last bit of information was necessary for me to determine my next path. "Do they serve fried chicken there, by any chance?"
Danner grinned, and started out the door.
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