Fat, dumb and happy? Aser and Danner get it their way, right away, and it ain't over 'til the dwarf in the coconut bra dances the hula...
Hoof beats on the road behind me under the big trees induced me to scurry into the laurel bushes and hide. Multiple horses' hoof beats sounded, as well as a muffled, familiar ringing: the noise of coinage being jostled in sacks. I peered between the leaves to see who the riders were. I'd been lugging hundreds of gold pieces around for months and was heartily sick of them. Maybe a brace of bold travelers would take this junk off my hands. Gold in these remote parts is hard to change for smaller denominations, and hardly anyone would take the coins. Darnit, I only took them myself to be a smartass.
The trotting sound slowed to a walk, and then the air was screamingly split by a big horse neighing a loud, bugling call at close range. A huge black nose poked into my laurel and sniffed familiarly. Melvan, the war horse that I'd given my friend Danner! And there Dan Ur-Jennan was, looking down at me from her perch on the great animal. "Aser," she said, "I've been looking for you for days! Get out of that bush and come see what I have here."
"Danner, I can see that you now have three horses and a considerable amount of baggage. You're not supposed to have either."
"No shit, Aser. That's why I've been looking for you," she said, hopping nimbly off the horse. "Look at this. Jewels in this bag. Gold, and more gold in these. Here, look at these bracelets!"
"What the hell have you been doing?" I asked, aghast.
"Trying the hell to get rid of it! Remember that bet with the lizardman? Every time I bet, the same thing happens: I win. I try to give the winnings back, and the losers refuse, say I'm insulting them. I try to give the money away, to a school, a hospital, a bum -- they won't take it. But the tip off was this, Aser: I tried to put it all in a bank and they wouldn't accept it. Just said, No, thank you for thinking of us, but NO, THANK YOU. Now how weird is that? I thought maybe I looked too scruffy, and got combed up and put on these noble-schmoble clothes (they do feel kinda nice, not as scratchy as the usual stuff), and that didn't help either, and when I tried to take the clothes to the thrift store, they wouldn't take them, 'Oh, no, Madam, far too fine for our establishment.'" Danner grabbed a fistful of my cloak, causing me to rap her knuckles smartly with my staff. She shook her fingers to erase the ouch. "Aser, do you get it? Do you see what's wrong with this picture?"
"You're having a bad run of good luck?" I ventured.
"NO, Aser, take a step back! Take ten steps back and look at the whole scenario! You got that gold stash to begin with. Then no one would take the coin. We meet up and double it. Anything unusual there, such as, no one tried to rob you or us? Think about it, O Elder Shaman, how many times have you been hungry since you got that gold? How many times have you needed anything that didn't appear within minutes?"
My face went cold. "Danner, I can't believe that gold was cursed."
"I'll go you one farther," she sputtered, as we walked on, leading the horses. "It's not the gold, it's us.
"I bought some loaded dice from a street crook, set to roll seven with a three and a four. I got some prosperous-looking creeps to bet with me, and I bet I could roll a double six, like I did before -- 'cause you know you can wear out a number with dice real easy. I figured I'd lose some of the excess.
"I hit the big berries every time, and the creepburghers were beaucoup ticked." Danner shook her head in disbelief. "They said the dice were rigged, and I said, 'Here, try 'em,' and all they could roll was greens-and-blues, a three and a four, over and over again. 'Hey,' I said, 'I'm not trying to cheat you out of money. This time I'll roll a double five.' They insisted on making it a bet for the pot, damn 'em, much as I wanted it to just be a demonstration. Double reds, and I ended up with these other horses as well as a load of loot."
"I just can't believe that old Clap Hiderson's buried gold would carry a curse," I frowned. "He was a goat farmer, not a wizard."
Danner raised her eyebrows and looked down her nose at me. "I never touched that friggin' gold, Aser. Why would your gold curse me?"
"Give an old shaman a leg up onto one of these horses," I said. "Can they move a little faster than a walk?"
A reckless grin flared like a sunspot on Danner's face. "Yeah, watch us! Where are we going?"
"The nearest biggish town, to test your hypothesis. That should be Shaddir, on the west face of the mountains." We urged the horses into a canter for a while, and with rounds of trots (bone-jarring) and some easy walks, we made it to Shaddir before the sun went down.
The first tavern that we came to was a smelly place loaded with drovers just getting towards the end of their working day. Some of them were, predictably, rolling dice at the bar. I butted in and put a silver piece (I had managed to hold onto some change from back in the city of Great Well, after all) on the bar. "I need drinking money, gentlemen. Who will match my bet for dice?" Three of them did, and I rolled first. A dirty six, three and three. Good. One, two, three, they all rolled the dice. The first got five, a one and a four. The second rolled a dehumanizing three. The third, snake eyes. They pushed coins at me, got up and walked out of the tavern. I did, too.
The bartender came rushing out and handed me a napkin with coins inside. "You forgot this."
"It's a tip," I said. "Keep it." He dropped it on the ground and backed away. "No, it isn't." he said. "No one leaves a tip when they didn't buy anything." He bowed and backed into the doorway, the whites of his eyes showing too much.
I stomped over to the horse I'd been riding and just stood beside him. The next five people who came into the tavern stepped deliberately over or around the cloth holding the coins. The sixth picked up the bundle, looked at it, and brought it over to us. He bowed deeply, saying, "You must have dropped this, O Honored Ones."
"Thanks," Danner said, looking a bit like Bruce Willis in one of his crazy-man roles, "O One who Gives Honor," she finished sarcastically.
"Out of here," I commanded, with my clan seniority. "We need to head west as soon as we can, get to the lands of Ur, and a seer who can tell us what the blazes this is about."
We were headed on down the road to Shaddir's central district, where we'd pick up the western trail, when Danner ventured, "An Ur-seer is going to be able to tell for sure if we're cursed, but what we really need is a wizard or witch to tell what the curse is and do a counterspell. Too bad old Cloudy didn't stick with us."
Cloudraft the Great, whom we had liberated from slavery at Eagle Leonard's Bar and Grill, would have been a welcome companion right now. Except perhaps for his pomposity, which was hard to swallow at any time.
Curses, curses, I thought, as our horses plodded along. Tools designed to make people miserable, like a doorway built only just high enough to forget to duck. But if you can learn to duck, then the low doorway can be a good defense against intruders, who will not know to duck. I had a sudden idea that this tool could work for us.
We rode up to the Shaddir Hilton, gave our horses to the deferential valet-parker (now I knew we were cursed -- a deferential valet for parking?), and walked into the lobby, trailing horsehair and travel-smell. More of the curse followed us; the only rooms available were the penthouse suite, which the management would rent to us for a reduced rate. Danner looked at me askance, and I told her, "Sometimes you just need to know how to work these things. If the sky's the limit, then push the sky."
After stowing our gear, we headed for the hotel bar, it being Twosday, after all. "Let's push the sky, Aser," said Danner.
There were a batch of dwarves in there, milling about aggressively, wearing tall, conical hats like lawn-gnome statuary. These hats were all in red, a sign of the dwarf-gang known as the Fudds, accented by fat wallets and guild pins.
Danner, having mussed her hair a little to look realistic, hopped onto a bar stool beside one of the dwarves and spun the chair in a circle, knees drawn up a little. She let the spin land her about an inch off the barmost dwarf's arm, and smiled a most challenging expression into the dwarf's face. "Hey, Dopey, you want to play dice?"
I had to admit that Danner is good at this stuff. We don't teach any courses on "Just Askin' For It" in shaman school. Danner's a natural.
Of course he did, and five gold pieces escalated into twenty, and then to other bets to try to trick one another to even the score, when the dwarves were down by about 358 in gold.
"You want to see a pissed-off wizard?" Danner asked the dwarves. Well, yes, of course, everybody does. "I bet Cloudraft the Great will appear at the bar and order a drink within the next 30 seconds. I bet all the gold and silver and stuff on the counter that he will."
The dwarf next to her puckered his lips, looked at the door, all around the bar, and at his timepiece. "You got this planned, don't you?"
Danner laughed heartily. "Nope, I don't, but when you see how pissed he is, you won't mind losing your money."
The dwarf leaned close to her. "Shaman, I don't mind losing money, but if I win, I get to spend the night with you as the prize."
"No prob, chum, and if I win, you dance the hula on the bar in a grass skirt and coconut bra to 'Lady Willpower.'"
"The band won't play that," he said uneasily.
"Then to whatever! I am no sorceress. I am just too damn fine happy slappy disco frisco lucky-like-a-Mason to pass this one up. And I am dronk like a skonk! Who filled this glass of Bum Collins again?"
No one had. In fact, I'd seen her spill the last one onto the floor when no one was looking at the sawdust piles under the brass rail. The dwarf was convinced that she was nuts or inebriated, however, and bet her with a handclasp.
There was a foof! sound, and there stood Cloudraft the Great, clad in a towel, his hat, and with his wand in one hand. He glared around angrily, and fixed his gaze upon me and Danner. "How will you two like being toads?" he shouted at us.
"Bet you everything that's on the counter you can't," Danner said smugly.
Cloudraft waved his wand a couple times, ground his teeth, turned to the bartender and said, gratingly, " Seven and seven, a double!" He tapped himself on the hat and a very becoming dark blue robe with zodiac signs in gold down the front braiding appeared.
"I heard you were cursed, but couldn't you leave me out of it?" he said. He turned his attention to the drink and gulped down half of it.
"You knew that Danner and I were cursed, and you were just going to let that go by?" I demanded of him, ready to be turned into a toad if it meant I could get one good whack at his skull with my staff.
He removed his hat and set it on the bar beside his drink. When the side of the hat touched the glass, the level of liquid lowered a little bit. My eyes bugged a bit, I know. The hat-and-wizard thing has always made me nervous. "Not just you and your trashmouth companion. All the Jennans." He took the drink away from the hat, drained it, and tapped the glass to indicate another round. "I was having a lovely plein aire lunch in Maripost with my friend Fellmount, and he happened to mention that he'd been commissioned to plant a far-reaching curse on the Jennan Well by some elf-woman whose name I can't recall, you know how they love multisyllabic mishmash for titles."
"Yes! As you are familiar with the name, then you probably know why you were cursed. I didn't ask for particulars. Can't lose a bet, eh?"
"Not just bets. We can't keep from accumulating money and goods. You wouldn't believe the stuff we're carrying, and we can't even get it stolen from us. We always have plenty to eat, and as soon as we need something, there it is by remarkable coincidences." The more I told him about what was happening to us, the more desperate I felt.
You see, although some people spend their entire lives trying to collect money and goodies to surround them, having everything they need given easily to them will take the edge off their intellect and talent in no time at all. Fat, dumb, and happy, I think they call it, with no need to strive or stretch. Being a shaman just doesn't go with easy living. We need to be out on the road, unencumbered, or living with real people who are struggling and striving, too. Otherwise we lose touch with the real problems of the world, and start thinking that the important things in life are fashionable shoes and mingling with snobs who are the only ones who can understand how hard it is to invest properly, dah-ling. This Easy Street we'd found ourselves on was already corrupting us. Danner was becoming even more reckless than before; I was getting real comfortable with the lack of conflict, the pleasant weather, and the fine dining.
And this whole betting thing. To never be able to lose a bet? To never have to take a chance, because all you have to do is say "I bet I didn't miss the last train," and oh, well, there's the train, late, but on time for your own purposes? "Bet it rains today. Bet my horse wins. Bet that knothead with the fancy armor trips over his own feet. You bet your life ... " You'd have to be watching everything you say for the rest of your days.
Worse still was the effect of the curse on the people we were meeting. Always backing away from our intrusions. Doing what we wanted, when we wanted, with never a quarrel. Refusing payment for things. What if I decided I wanted to build a castle for myself, would workers slave away for free, neglecting their own livelihood?
Having everything my own way forever? I didn't think I wanted to see that happen.
"Cloudraft, did you say that the curse was put on the Jennan Well? Then all the Jennan Clan is under this curse?"
"I suspect so," the wizard said. "Fellmount said it was a pretty elaborate and expensive curse."
"Listen, if all the Jennans start getting rich and comfy at the expense of others, they are eventually going to be so hated that some hero will come along and find a way to break the spell and wipe them all out!" That stinking Chiernavan, is it any wonder the Ur-Jennans can't stand elves? "You've got to help us!"
"No. I mean, of course I will. No, I mean NO! I mean, it would be my pleasure," he chattered, his eyes growing larger with horror. He didn't want to, but help was what we needed, so ... he had to.
Danner patted him on the arm. "Don't worry, Wiz, we'll pay you big time," she consoled, not thinking her way through what she was saying.
Cloudraft wailed and gritted his teeth, trying to keep the words from coming through his lips. He waved his hands in counterspells, but to no avail. "No -- thank -- you -- I -- wouldn't -- think -- of -- accepting -- any -- payment!!!" Danner put her hand over her mouth, realizing what the curse was doing to him. He sighed explosively, drained his second drink, and sputtered, "Just shut up and keep shutting up! We'll go to the Well and find the source of the curse. I just hope that my knowledge is sufficient to break its power!! Idiots!" He stomped out of the hotel.
I looked at Danner, who still had her hand over her mouth. "You know, Danner, that pose really becomes you."
She took her hand away and tested the heft of the bags of loot the dwarves had lined up for her. She got a sly look to her eyes, and before turning to watch the hula show on the bar top, said, "Bet Cloudraft can fix this."
I waved to the bartender for another beer. I bet he can, too.
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