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June 17, 2024

The Aser Stories 11: Rabbit From a Hat

By Sand Pilarski

Aser and Danner manage to unload some cash, score some authentic minestrone, and meet a wizard and a griffin.

On the northern road out of the walled city of Great Well, after you stagger over the pass with short wind and a headache from the altitude, lies a tiny burg called Gryphon. The populace is scattered about the cliffs in small log houses with thick thatched roofs, and beside each are raised garden beds and coops. What industry they possess is whatever they make in their own homes, except for a dark stone tavern that does nearly as much business in salves and ointments against windburn and frostbite as it does in drink and sustenance.

My friend and relative Dan Ur-Jennan tied the war-horse Melvan with his load of ill-gotten wealth in front of the tavern and we cautiously stepped inside. A few tables were there, a bar made from boards set on barrels, a dark doorway, and a window looking in on the kitchen. A chalkboard menu was posted above the window, featuring the available foods of the day. Minestrone, noodles in broth, boiled oats, pork rinds, and sausage. I cleared my throat and called to the bartender, who was dispiritedly drying cups with a long cloth.

"Can I help you?" he asked, as though the effort would move him to tears of despair.

"What kind of broth are the noodles in today?" I asked, studying his somehow familiar face. He was a tall, clean-shaven older man, lines of sadness drawing isobars on his face.

"Whatever's left over from the sausage and the day before," he said wearily, not focusing on our faces. "Do you want something to drink?"

"Water," Danner and I chorused. I continued, "And how is the minestrone?" Still trying to place his face.

"It's actually authentic," the man said, perking up a bit. "Some fellow blew through a dimensional warp a couple generations ago, from Verona, Italy. He liked it here and stayed, but all that's left of his recipes is the minestrone. Aren't you a shaman?"

"Yes, and I'd like the minestrone, please." I put the hood back from my face. "Do I ask you for it, or should I go to the window and order for myself?"

"Oh, no, I'll take care of it. HOWARD! Minestrone!" At Danner's eager gestures, he called again, "MAKE IT TWO!" He turned puzzledly to us and studied our faces and tatoos. "You aren't a couple of those smart-ass Ur-Jennans, are you?"

"Ase Ur-Jennan and Dan Ur-Jennan, at your service. We shall endeavor not to smart-ass the premises. And are you not a wizard?"

"I was," he said, rubbing his fingers deeply into his eyes. "I was once Cloudraft the Great. Then I was waylaid by robbers on the road, who stole everything, even my clothing. I begged hire to buy back my wand, which the robbers had sold to Leonard Griffin, the owner of this place, but can't seem to get enough cash ahead. Thus have I ended up here, shaven and in servitude. Do not revile the once-mighty."

"Not at all. I was going to ask if you could get me a newspaper," I told him with heartfelt sincerity.

His left eye was freed from the thumbing massage he was giving his orbs. "What city?"

"New York Times?"

He gritted his teeth and pulled his lips back in a grimace. "How about The San Francisco Chronicle?"

Danner took a breath to reply and I elbowed her viciously, causing her to choke on her water. "What about The Kansas City Star?" I asked.

"Okay. Let me think. That would be a gold piece in advance, by the way," he said, his hands trembling.

I put the gold on the counter, making him bug out his eyes at the shiny before he snatched it up and put it in his pants.

The incantation was masterful, and as he passed his hands in ritual motion in the air, I recognized him finally -- I'd gone to a seminar on Anachronisms and Their Value in Midgardian Society, and he'd done a really great job of promoting conjure spells acting on objects from other dimensions, even though the Believe In Bucolism activists had shredded him in the Q and A segment.

The newspaper appeared on the bar with a faint 'poof' sound and a hint of smoke, reeking of new printing, thick and inviting as a rich cheese sandwich. Soup and a newspaper. "Can I have the funnies?" asked Danner.

Cloudraft the Great was one of those poor souls caught in the Company Town Syndrome. You know, the polite version of slavery. You work as hard as you can for the Duke of Whateverburg, for a small wage, but you have to buy the food he gets from his farms, rent the cottage on his lands, purchase the hard goods from his artisans, and by the time you do all that paying, there's less left over than you made, so you owe him money, and he says you can work it off, and there you are, stuck, unless you light out on your own and his men come after you and cut off your nose for reneging on your debt.

The bad habit has spread to many lands and peoples, not just a couple of unscrupulous castle dwellers. And apparently even to this quiet little village. And this little tavern. A rough, loud voice from the dark rooms at the back rattled the glasses hanging from the ceiling. With a clicking of toenails and a foul scent, into the bar walked a griffin with a cigar clenched in his yellow beak. "Raff! Goddamit, I told you to empty that litter box every two hours on the dot! You lazy craphead!"

Cloudraft's concentration rudely broken by the shout, the newspaper disappeared from under our hands. The 'poof' sound got the griffin's attention. "Is this old fart bothering you with his damn tricks?" he roared. "I told you not to solicit the customers, dammit! Give 'em their money back and get the hell to work!"

The old wizard sighed, put the gold coin on the counter, and shuffled away into the back. I pocketed the money, patting Danner's leg to signal her to stay calm.

"The food's on the house, ladies. That old fool just bought it for you. Hope he didn't bug you too much." Leonard the griffin sat back on his lion haunches, curled his tail around his feet, and used one of his taloned claws to tap the ash off the end of his cigar.

I laughed and tipped my bowl up, finishing my soup. "He sure used to be a windbag, ol' Cloudybrain there, didn't he, Danner?" I gave her a wink.

"Oh, hell, yes, people used to imitate him at parties from London to Asgard." Danner agreed. "Stuff a rabbit down their breeches, pull it out by the ears and shout, "Lo! I am Cloudraft the Invincible! What a riot!"

"He used to tick me off," I confessed to the griffin, "always helping out those damned elves. Darnit!" I paused, as though just realizing something. "When he earns that wand back from you, he is going to go on a rampage and get us all fried."

"No problem, kid. He ain't never gonna earn enough to pay for a roll of toilet paper let alone his stick. I make sure of that." Laughing, he dragged a big puff of his vile cigar. I had to conclude this or I'd puke.

"How much you want for it?" I asked with a leer.

"Two hundred in gold, all in one payment," Leonard sneered, leering back.

"Show me the wand and I'll show you the gold."

When he left the room I heard him roaring at Cloudraft to shake out the bedding. The griffin clacked through the door again, and then pulled a worn ebony rod from beneath one huge wing. "I changed my mind. Now it's three hundred. Ha, ha, ha!"

"Ha, ha, ha." I jerked my head at Danner and she trotted outside to the horse.

"You got to be kidding," gaped Leonard, not believing us.

"You've got to be kidding," said Cloudraft's voice in betrayal and pain, as he came through with some smelly blankets.

"No kidding," Danner said and dumped the sack of gold on the counter so that it spilled across the boards, glittering, illuminating the dingy room. As the griffin stared at the treasure open-beaked, Danner nimbly picked the wand from his limp claw and presented it to me. I handed it to the astonished Cloudraft. "My compliments," I said and bowed.

He dropped the bedding with its hair and feathers onto the floor. "Leonard, you are an utter pig." And with a wave of the wand he tapped the griffin on the back. Foof! went the air, and a fine porker spun around madly, and squealing with rage, rushed right at me. Danner forcefully thwacked the pig on the nose with her staff, causing him to back up and sneeze.

Cloudraft chuckled merrily, "What's that?" he asked the shrieking pig. "You want me to call you a taxi? Okay, you're a taxi!" With a blare of a horn a yellow vehicle appeared, black and white checker patterns on its sides. It rocked on its black wheels a little. "Shall we take back your gold?" the wizard asked.

"Fie upon you, Cloudraft, do you take us for a couple of bad bargainers? He sold us the wand fair and square. Should the villagers of Gryphon stop by to rob him and sell him for parts, why, that's something he should have thought of before. Will you join my friend and I on our travels?"

"For a while," he replied, waving the wand to conjure himself a warm cloak and a fur hat. Good deal, I'd say. A grateful wizard could come in mighty handy one of these days.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-05-07
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