A courtroom drama! Which cousin really inherited the mill? Sometimes it's better not to know ...
Why do early-morning callers think that it is polite or even acceptable to pound on a front door to see if anyone is awake? And why do they do so over and over again while one tries to find and cover oneself with one's robe and also locate one's staff for the beating of the gnat-brain thumping on the door?
"What?" I ask as I open the door a couple inches, staff gripped and ready to deliver the aforementioned beating. "How about keeping your fists off my door?"
"Here you go, Shaman -- whups, that is you, Shaman, can I see the tattoo? Official business, you know."
I open the door a little wider so that he can see the Ur-Jennan sign on my jaw. He nods and stretches out his hand with a paper in it . "Here's your summons, Shaman. Show up on time or there will be penalties, don't forget."
"Where do you live?" I ask with groggy bitterness, hoping to be able to booby-trap his vegetable garden in return for this discourtesy.
"No hard feelings, Shaman, just my job." He smiles his chubby cheeks cheerily, waves, and bustles off, leaving me to read my summons.
Lord Stonewall's Court will be in session, and I am called to interpret Exhibit A in the case of Miller vs. Miller, a matter which is perplexing, as I know neither Miller nor Miller. Perhaps one of the Millers tried to poison or drug another Miller, and I just have to identify some herbs or fungi and testify to their effect on the system.
So I drag my texts out of their chest-full of cedar shavings and start reviewing some conventional and arcane herblore by way of preparation. Why do I comply? Because Lord Stonewall's personal army keeps this area safe -- more or less -- and this is what I can do to repay ... his generosity.
Two days later, I present myself at the foyer of the courtroom, and am greeted by Lady Stonewall, in all her finery and puckeriness. "Didn't they tell you to prepare yourself to appear at Court?" she wasped.
"Lady, I did prepare, and I am ready."
"Ugh! I'll call an attendant to comb your hair at least, and one of the servants will have a better robe they can loan you. Unless you carry verminous insects."
"Lady," I say with my eyes nearly closed so that I won't offend her overmuch, "I do not own a comb. And the only vermin who trouble me are those individuals who perceive their own lives to be the center of the known universe to the detriment of all." I patted my hair. "The tangles repel rain, and I decline your robing and combing. I am a shaman, not a display."
Her eyes narrow and the little lines around her lips deepen as she squeezes her lips together in annoyance. "If I must put it bluntly, your appearance is unsatisfactory," she says.
"Like your sex life?" I sneer as the guards throw open the courtroom door and call me in.
I suppose that I deserve whatever is dished out after that injudicious comment, but the Exhibit A that I am called to interpret simply stumps me: a sawed-off whisky barrel with dirt in it.
"Are you the shaman Ase Ur-Jennan?" says the Court Recorder.
"Yes, I am," I reply.
"Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth in your testimony?" the Court Guard asks.
"The Truth?" I ask in return. "Do you mean the Truth as I perceive reality or the Truth that Lawyers promulgate in defense of persons they know to be guilty?"
"Shut up and answer the question," says the Court Guard, like the lackwit he is.
I shrug, and keep my mouth closed for long enough to make the spectators shift and rumble. "Which one?"
Lord Stonewall speaks, with a bored and irritated tone of voice. "Shaman, tell the truth as your order demands, and stop screwing around with your personal agendas."
A direct order. "Yes sir. I will. I do."
"The Court asks you to interpret the responses of witness Garfer Miller, inhabitant of Exhibit A," says Attorney Number One.
"I object!" shouts Attorney Number Two. "This shaman cannot be trusted to make an impartial interpretation of witness Garfer Miller's testimony."
"Good," I say, and stand up to leave.
"Overruled," says Lord Stonewall. "Aser, don't torment the Court, if you don't mind."
"Then tell your lawyers not to impugn my character or try to influence my 'interpretations' whatever they may be. If your Court will accept my testimony, I give my word that I will speak truly. If it can't, then I will remain silent and you can call someone's trained talking parrot to say things."
Lord Stonewall stared at the ceiling for inspiration, and pulled at his nose a few times. "First Witness, Croftholder Amos Miller." After a repetitive request for truth in testimony, the croftholder was asked to state his case.
"My granddad, Garfer Miller, who I used to help go for walks, left the mill and the acres around the streambed to me," the drawn gray man averred, chin in the air.
"Second Witness, Croftholder Dallyn Miller. State your case."
"Me granddad left the mill to me dad, and me dad left it to me." He nodded his limp double chins and sat down.
"Your Honor," said the stern Court Arbitrator to Lord Stonewall, "both parties claim inheritance of the mill at Deepstream and the acreage around it."
Attorney Number One quacks, "We call the witness to the actual event, Garfer Miller."
Attorney Number Two immediately counters with, "What proof do you offer that the witness is actually Garfer Miller?"
Both Dallyn Miller and Amos Miller look at each other, puzzled by this last. "We dug 'im up," said Amos, and Dallyn nodded.
"You're not supposed to answer that, Amos, dammit, I am. You're supposed to keep quiet until attorneys tell you to speak," said Number One.
"That's right, you gutless whiners, let someone else speak for you," I add, with a helpful air.
"Objection!" roar both attorneys.
"Sustained," says Lord Stonewall, pinching the bridge of his nose again.
I hate what passes for courts of justice these days. You could have a berserker chop up half a marketplace in plain view, be subdued in clear sight, be incarcerated until the 'serk rage is over, and when a time for trial comes, some fleabite lawyer will encourage the maniac to cry innocence until proven guilty or until the pissant lawyer can find some loophole ("This trial should be thrown out because the member of the jury Bub Hackchopper is a third cousin and lives in the neighboring desmesne of the Accused." Both Bub and the Accused peer at each other to see if they've ever met.)
Or you have a miserable orc in chains, being brought to trial because he farted while walking past the farmers' market, and someone is suing him because she fainted at the smell, fell in the mud, and when some passers-by tried to help her to her feet, she pitched into the herbalist's depilatory display, spilling hair-remover on herself and now missing all the hair on the left side of her head. He owes her millions, say her attorneys.
I don't want to be in court, Lord Stonewall doesn't want to be in court, the court officials don't want to be in court, Garfer Miller doesn't want to be in court.
"Can you believe this circus?" Asks Garfer Miller when I put my staff into the soil in the barrel. "My bone-bits are all scrambled! Those cretins just dumped me in here!"
"We're not supposed to talk until they ask us to speak," I tell the shade.
"What are they going to do to me, dig up my grave and scatter me to the four winds? Tell them, 'Please do.' The four winds would be preferable to this sideshow."
"The Court calls the witness Garfer Miller!" intones the Court Arbitrator.
"Shit," hisses the ghost, "You'd think they'd marry their daughters and sons and share the damned land."
"Ewww," I replied, sotto voce. "Marrying cousins is not ..."
Lord Stonewall booms across the rocky-walled chamber: "Garfer Miller, did you promise the inheritance of your lands to Amos Miller, present in this court?"
I listened to the ghost's reply, ready to repeat. "Wait a minute. Garf, I can't say that. Clean it up."
"You will interpret Exhibit A's testimony as it is given," says the Court Arbitrator.
"No, I won't," I say. "That was some of the dirtiest ghost-talk I've ever heard in my life. It had no bearing on the case."
"You are not called to pre-judge testimony," says Lord Stonewall, "just interpret, for heaven's sake, Aser."
"Fine," I reply.
Stonewall repeats his question loudly, so that the chamber echoes a bit. And then demands, "Ase Ur-Jennan, interpret!"
"Garfer Miller says that Amos is a lying shifty weasel who puts dirt in the flour to add weight to his sales," I translate, wishing I was back at the spas near Promontory Hot Springs. "And he avows, saying that had he left as an inheritance the Mill lands to Amos Miller, he would have most certainly regretted it."
"Did he or did he not leave the lands to Amos Miller?" roars Stonewall.
"Garfer says 'No,'" I drone as Garfer did, "'you liver-faced vacillator.'" I put my hands in the air. "You wanted to hear the whole interpretation."
Purple with high blood pressure, Lord Stonewall bellows, "Garfer Miller, did you promise to leave your property to Zake Miller, father of Dallyn Miller?"
"'Hell, no,'" I repeat after the spectre in the planter-barrel. "Garfer says, 'Zake and his brother both knew they didn't inherit the mill, those shifty little ghoul sons-a-bitches.'"
Both Amos and Dallyn jump to their feet in outrage. "That's a lie!" shouts Dallyn. "They worked that mill all their lives!"
The Court Arbitrator clangs his bell loudly to quiet the noisy courtroom. Both Attorney One and Two nod at each other, and say, "Your honor, we and our clients have decided not to pursue this matter any further." Amos and Dallyn are fidgeting and looking uncomfortable.
"Real justice too itchy for you?" I ask.
Lord Stonewall drums his fingers on the arm of his throne-like chair. "The purpose of this court was to determine the rightful inheritance and ownership of the mill and properties associated with the mill, was it not?"
All nod, with many mumblings.
"And the determination was to be made based upon Garfer Miller's testimony, was it not?"
More nods, more mumbles.
"Garfer Miller," he addresses the barrel full of dirt, "please tell the court how it is that neither brother could inherit the mill, and to whom the inheritance belongs. Aser, don't leave anything out."
Garf and I began to speak. "In the winter of '09, there was organized the biggest damn ice-fishing party in the county. Must have been twenty of us, and we went up to Blue Lake with a mind to catch that monster bastard walleye they tell about. That and drink and play poker without the wives nagging us. We had a hell of a good time right up till the ice gave way under our weight and we drowned, hee hee.
"My boys was with them as pulled us out. They checked my poor old cold body for my credit parchment and didn't find it, so they searched until they found it on Shoemaker and took it off him, those crooked grabbers.
"I lost the whole kickin' mill to him I was so drunk. I'd signed it over on the parchment just before the ice cracked. Good thing I died! That old woman of mine would have chopped me up for kindling!"
Lord Stonewall considers this for a few moments, and then summons a guard. "Go get Nick the Shoemaker." Turning to the astonished Millers, he says, "you and your attorneys can figure out the rest with Shoemaker's grandson. The Court Arbitrator will make sure the proper deeds are drawn up."
"Garf says you're not as stupid as your uncle was in his day," I mention to Stonewall as we exit the courtroom. "Or as ugly."
"How nice to know. I hope his grandsons piss on his grave regularly."