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April 08, 2024

The Aser Stories 13: The Price of Freedom

By Sand Pilarski

I've got to get rid of this gold. There are still well over four hundred pieces of the stuff, in spite of spending it hand over fist for weeks. I gave a batch of it to my friend Danner, after buying a saddle, pack, pants and boots for her, and waved goodbye as she set out for more fast-paced adventure than she'd find with me on the road. I tried giving it away, coin by coin, to the needy, but they waved it away like it was a rattlesnake -- "Gold company makes for armed robbery," as the saying goes.

So I've ensconced myself in the Clear Lake Savoy, the poshest hotel in the city of Clear Lake, in a suite of rooms devoid of insect life, with its own fireplace and hot springs tub and room service. I've had a robe made by a tailor out of soft, supple cloth instead of the coarse woven stuff I usually wear, so that I can dine out without offending the proprietors when I have the desire to look at people.

Tonight I am succumbing to a wasteful and decadent desire for lamb chops and live entertainment, so the hotel restaurant is my location. I can't help but chuckle at the crystal goblet with a fruity red wine turning its highlights to ruby as I await my platter of chops, fresh vegetables, and seasoned wild rice. The harpist is a down-on-his-luck elf who's pretty good with the music in spite of his expression of extreme boredom and disdain.

The screeching sounds of the opening line to "Wipe Out" sear the air of the dining room, and every head turns, quieted with shock, to stare at an orc in the corner who's answering his cell phone, whose ring has disrupted the digestion of many. "Yah?" he says loudly, "how many times do I gotta tell you not to call me at work? I'm busy, okay? Shaddup and get off my back!" He tucks the phone back into the inside pocket of his tuxedo and turns to the woman at his side. "Stupid cow wanted to know when I'd be home! She don't know I might never be home again, eh, cutie?" And he chucks the woman under her chin. Looking around at the disapproving stares of the other patrons, the orc raises his gnarly left hand and demands acknowledgement of his raised middle finger. The big blued-steel scimitar on his belt (which oddly, doesn't clash with the tux) keeps anyone from reacting further.

The orc pulls a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and taps one out. He grabs a nearby dwarf by the shirt and pulls him close. The dwarf immediately whips out a lighter and lights the cigarette. He's wearing a cap with an inverted top like a shallow bowl. When the orc taps the ash off his butt, I realize the dwarf, in his dress pants and bow tie, is both lighter and ashtray for the orc.

When the woman gets up and heads to the restroom, I follow. While she's adjusting her hair and dress, I ask her bluntly, "Do you need to escape that creep?"

"Escape? Oh, no, Gradnesh is my boyfriend. He's so strong! He's in the process of separating from his wife, and then he's going to marry me." She beams fatuously.

"He's an orc. Why the hell would you want to marry an orc? They're vulgar, abusive, crude, and faithless. I mean, that's just their cultural values, nothing personal."

"Better than being married to the pig farmer my father picked out for me," she said with a glint in her eye. "I guess if I have to marry a creep, I'd rather find my own creep. At least Gradnesh is a good dancer." She ruffles her skirts and leaves.

This is food for thought. What are you willing to give up in order to get what you desire? Pig smell isn't all that bad, as employment goes. But this girl was willing to give up family and security to go off with an orc -- to avoid being the wife of a pig farmer and the mother of more pig farmers. Well, she found her own creep, as she said. I can't argue with that. Will she get what she desires? Does she have a clear idea of what she really desires?

Part of our training as Ur-shamans has us ponder and list what we find important in life, and re-ponder and re-list until we are clear on our mission: to combat illness where we find it, to assist those in need, and to cry outrage when we see wrongdoing. (Heal, Help, and Holler, some call it.) As I travel and live, I see people trying to attain ideals while still grabbing everything they can with both hands, and forgetting what things are truly important.

The girl with the pig farmer in her past wanted freedom from a fate, and was willing to give up a secured future to get it, to give up the support of family, to give up the reputation of being a good, obedient daughter. She wasn't willing to go off and join some order of mendicant ascetics, who wear one robe and live off the charity of others. Or any other organization that renounces the world and its pitfalls. As the mistress of the orc, she was, however, willing to give up the common laws of the land, and her reputation.

What about the dwarf? Is he an indentured servant, a spoil of war? Why was he willing to give up his freedom and dignity to be a human end table?

When I return to my table, I toy with the thought of openly asking the dwarf those questions, but there is that orc's scimitar. Subterfuge, then. When the waiter brings me my chops and goodies, I whisper that I would like an introduction to the dwarf. The waiter raises his eyebrows at me but complies, and whispers in turn to the dwarf. The dwarf nudges Gradnesh the orc gently with his elbow and says something. The orc laughs and stubs out the last of his cigarette on the dwarf's head.

The dwarf comes over and slides into the seat across from me. He courteously takes off his ashtray-hat. "Madam," he says, by way of introducing himself, "I am Ashe."

"I'm Ase Ur-Jennan. Do you need to escape from the orc's service?"

"Gradnesh?" he sputters. "He's my pal! Oh, you're worried about the ashtray thing. We just do that to impress chicks." He cackles with amusement, and turns to the orc, who has strolled to my table with his girlfriend clinging to his arm. "She was just worried that you were treating me bad, Graddo. No problems." He slides off the chair onto the floor, smiling.

Gradnesh gives me this long stare like he's memorizing my tattoo. "Thanks for worrying about my buddies, here," he says. "Next time I kill a shaman, I'll check to make sure it isn't you." And off they go, as cheerful a trio as I would never have expected.

I can't fathom it. I cannot think of anything that I would want for which I could give up such self-respect as this girl and the dwarf have done. No protection, no reward, no promise would be enough for me to become someone's on-the-side boink, or someone's trick slave.

But this is a reminder to me about what I am doing: I want to be back on the road as a simple shaman, not as a rich tourist. What am I willing to do in order to get back to that?

I took a ghost's gold just for spitefulness, and have held on to it because others are wiser than I and don't want the burden that gold incurs. I suppose I need to go visit some relatives, a solution I've been avoiding. Time for humility, and time to give up the pride and independence I'm accustomed to having out on the road on my own. Yuck. As the saying goes, "Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to remind you of every flippin' mistake you ever made."

Gahhh. Do I have to?

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-05-21
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