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December 04, 2023

The Aser Stories 69: Fire in the Hole

By Sand Pilarski

When family members visit, there's bound to be griping, gossip, and conversations about "what-is-your-hand-painted-on-so-you-can't-write-more-often?" But when the family member is also your boss, you know something's up, just like when you smell smoke, you know there's a fire somewhere ...

There's a good-sized underground hollow that has a doorway built into the front of a tree at the edge of the forest. That would be my house. Yesterday there was a knock, and I opened the door to look up into the tall, gaunt face of Rain Ur-Jennan, who was my teacher when I was a kid, and who now was the Chief Elder of our Clan.

"Come in, Rainer!" I said, gesturing her in out of the damp and foggy weather. "May the Life that Guides the World grant you fair comfort here!" What else can you say when the person who is technically your boss shows up at your door? I was surprised to see her. Rainer was older than dragon dirt, and I didn't know she ever traveled farther than an afternoon's ramble to someone's house to mooch supper. And besides, she'd been the one to pronounce my exile from the Clan Lands some time ago.

Now it is true that the reason for my exile had evaporated, (well, not evaporated but was knocked out and tied up and left for barbarians to pillage and what-all barbarians do to tied up, arrogant, troublemaking losers) but I hadn't bothered to mention that to family, as the end of exile would have meant I was expected to visit them again. I really like my cave, not least because it is a good two weeks travel from my Clan. Well, a week if you're earnestly traveling. All right, four days if you're in a hurry, but who hurries to see relatives?

"You missed the Clan gathering after harvest, Aser," said Rainer without so much as a How are you Aser, are you getting enough to eat? "You didn't show up for the solstice meeting, either."

I turned the pockets of my robe inside out, and bent to examine the top of the trunk that serves as my library, desk, and table. "Pardon me, Elder. I don't seem to see any notice of my exile being ended."

Rainer removed her outer cloak and draped it across my head. "We caught Danner trying to steal her horse back at the end of last summer and got the full story from her. She didn't tell you that your exile was ended?"

My friend and relative, Dan Ur-Jennan, fellow shaman, fellow exile, had been very generous in not informing me. That's why I liked her so much. She was always ready to look the other way if some snotty socialite needed relieving of a fat purse or if someone was hankering after a third beer. "Danner did not. I don't even know where she's living these days. Did she show up for the Clan Gathering?" There's a root that conveniently sticks out of the ceiling near the fireplace, so I draped Rainer's cloak over it.

Rainer rubbed her face with one hand. "Yes, and was fined fifty gold pieces for knotting the drawstring of Gad Ur-Raffen's pants so that he couldn't undo them to relieve himself."

I bent to tend the little fire that heats my cave, hiding my face from Rainer while grinning at Gadder's misfortune. He was a mean, ill-behaved bugger, and he deserved a future being known as Gadder Shitpants. In our youth he loudly called me Broomhair and Bignoser, and set fire to my first clumsy carvings of family totems. As far as I was concerned, Danner had earned her beer and pretzels for the next year. When I had my teeth decently covered again, I asked my elder, "Gadder is a quarter century older than Danner. Why was he tormenting her again? He's made fun of her ever since she was a teenager, laughing at her when she had pimples and deriding her father for being an old man when she was born."

Rainer answered me, "The Life that Guides the World knows, Aser. Maybe Gadder has a secret envy of the shamans of Ur. This time he was proclaiming to the congregation that Danner was apprenticed to a wizard so dumb that he needed a map to find his way home, and she took exception to it." She sat on the earthen floor of my cave in front of the fire, making herself at home.

"Well, that's true enough, but it's something we don't generally advertise," I replied. "She's stuck with the apprenticeship, and he's a good-hearted enough wizard, as wizards go. In fact, if you get a hankering to read a newspaper, Cloudraft is phenomenal. When we were traveling, he conjured us The Houston Chronicle every -- "

"Oh, everyone agreed that Gadder had it coming to him, but still, we're not supposed to rise to vengeful occasions amongst the clans."

"That's true, too," I told her. "But the Jennan Clan isn't the only one that's supposed to behave. Shouldn't self-control apply especially to the Ur-Raffen, since they're supposed to be able to call storms and generate fires? It seems to me that the one clan that lays claim to destructive powers ought to be the one that also exercises the most restraint." The Ur-Raffen are reputed to have the ability to summon fires, or at least set them in their legendary wrath. They say that in anger or distress, the fires spring into being without match or tinder, though I have never seen such happen with my own eyes. Nevertheless, dealings with the Raffen Clan are always colored by the threat of fire.

It bothers me when there's a bully on the streets and mothers have to tell their children to walk softly around him, and I've never been comfortable with the concept of people avoiding areas in town where violence has come to be an accepted element of the environment. Like when the Black Knight from the Coast gallops into town, flings himself down at a table in the inn and demands food and drink, expecting the innkeepers to scurry about pleasing him to the neglect of the other patrons. Of course they do hustle to make him comfortable -- The last person to blow a kiss in the direction of the Knight's girlfriend ended up scattered in kibbles and bits on the road from here to the mountaintop.

The children in the marketplace tell me about their school, where a bully can steal another student's lunch and get away with it, or beat a fellow student for the right answers to a homework assignment, or for running across the wrong half of the school yard, or for having big ears. No one seems to be able to stop those childhood oppressions -- the bad child's parents don't care, the other children are being taught that it's wrong to fight, and the teacher is getting old enough that he doesn't want to find a snake in his mailbox or a dead rat in his desk.

Lord Stonewall has a standing army, the soldiers of which in these times of peace slouch around his castle or strut about the towns looking important -- why the hell can't they be posted in the rough streets to maintain order and discourage miscreants? The standard answer is that the Sheriff's Office must take care of the cities, and under-funded as the Sheriff is, there are few deputies to stand and protect the citizenry. Okay, the citizenry pay the taxes to the Lord of the Desmesne, Stonewall, and Stonewall's troops have little to do, but Stonewall's City Sheriffs haven't enough money to keep order. There's something basically wrong here.

There's something wrong with the school situation, as well. Learning is everyone's right, but attending school is a privilege. Why should the students and the teacher waste time on a bully who cares nothing for learning and only for power and perverse entertainment? If the cobbler's son can be studious and polite, what would be wrong with expecting the baker's son to stop punching him everyday when arithmetic class starts?

Most people want to live in peace; why must impulsive, annoying behavior be tolerated just because no one wants to stand up to a bully? Just like at this Clan Gathering Rainer was telling me about. Gad Ur-Raffen didn't need to tease and antagonize Danner. If he was so desperate for a way to expend mental and physical energy, he could take up tennis. Instead, when my friend stood up to him, she was the one who was fined, mostly because no one wanted to see the forest set on fire or the Elders' Hall burnt to the ground.

I turned to Rainer in the low light of the twig fire. "In Gadder's fury, did he burn down the privy?"

"No. He could call no fire because Danner had soaked his pants with rum after she knotted his belt." Rainer peered at the herbs hanging from the ceiling of my cave. "Danner's learned a lot from you."

"And I suppose you're here to fine me fifty gold pieces for that."

"No," she said, pulling a leather sack from her belt. "I'm here for you to hide fifty gold pieces someone stole from the Raffen Clan because they didn't think the Raffen should be rewarded for being pests."

I took the bag from her and dropped it behind the trunk. "I still have a lot to learn from you, too, Rainer."

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-11-17
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