Piker Press Banner
May 20, 2024

The Aser Stories 36: Harsh Words

By Sand Pilarski

Hours passed, with the baboons and the raccoons taking turns keeping watch at the front of the cave, muttering variations of a dirty animal joke in lieu of a password as they changed shifts. How long could it take for a dragon to fly to Oceanwind Castle on the coast? Three days' walk would have been plenty of time for us, had Danner been able to walk. Had the creature simply taken off for the great unknown, leaving the puny humans to fend for themselves? We were sheltering in what had been the dragon's hideout while he flew to Dan Ur-Jennan's master, the wizard Cloudraft to ask for help. Danner had been wounded in the free-for-all with the mage Rocklift and her apprentice before sundown; I had no way of removing the crossbow bolt from her thigh and she couldn't walk. Why she'd thought a flying tackle at someone with a crossbow was better than talking her way out of trouble was beyond me. Ah, the stupidity of youth.

"You're stupid, have I told you that?" I asked her.

"Ten minutes ago," she replied. "I think you must have forgotten to tell me how stupid I am for a while. Ten minutes is a long time for you to keep your mouth shut. Do you think the dragon will get to ol' Cloudy, or did he just light out to find some new digs?"

"Hard to say. We did kind of rat him out of this place with that flippin' mage following us. She's probably already down the mountain organizing a village torch-and-arrow party, the witch. Wonder where the hell she learned how to fight and ride like she does ... The dragon could use our whereabouts to barter some favor from Cloudraft, like an enchantment on a mountain peak so no one can find his new lair, or maybe the location of a lady dragon." Hearing Danner chuckle, I dipped a cup of water with an infusion of herbs for her to sip, trying to keep her wound from infecting. "Drink this."

"Like chicken shit and paint thinner, Aser," she said with a gag. "Your cooking is as tasty as ever. And if the dragon never gets to Cloudraft?"

"Then we wait a day. Send the baboons out to scout the easiest trail at night, and then I make a travois and we drag you to the nearest surgeon." Not the happiest of prospects, to be sure.

At the mouth of the cave, Fisher the raccoon thumped Narsai's hairy chest with the back of his black paw, whispering, "And then the squirrel jumps up out of his chair and says, 'I didn't say she was crazy, I said she was --'" The hissed whisper became unintelligible, but I could guess the punch line. Narsai bared his baboon fangs in a big laugh and grabbed Fisher by the scruff of the neck, shaking him back and forth affectionately. "My watch, Narse, you arse," the raccoon cackled, grabbing Narsai's muzzle.

"Keep your eyes and ears focused, little termite brain," said the baboon, as he walked on feet and palm into the cave, bringing with him an armful of wood for the fire. He dropped the wood and came to Danner's side. He began to groom her hair, untangling knots and checking the roots for insect life while I put the wood on the flames. The animals won't fiddle with the fire at all. "Oh, no, Shaman," the big baboon had said when I suggested he add wood to the fire. "Do I look like a walking pot roast to you? Nor to me. I need no fire, I feed no fire."

"Danner," I said, "as your elder in our clan, I tell you that it's time to talk. No evasions. Why did you leave your apprenticeship with Cloudraft, and why are your moods so dark since you have?"

"You're only asking me this now because I can't get up and walk away."

"Speak." High adventure and sympathy aside, I was obligated to deal with clan business.

"Did you ever sleep in a castle?" Danner began. "The rooms are tight and dark and the air doesn't move. They have beds in them, but those things stink of other people's long-gone bodies and dust. And they're squooshy.

"There's a long portico that stretches over the ocean view in our wing of the castle, so I started sleeping out there." She looked into the herbal potion cup; I got up and refilled it from the still-pouring rain outside the cave. "But Lady Hoity-Toi Seaguard heard about me sleeping on the porch and forbade me to spend my nights there, as it would cause talk if I were to be seen.

"By whom, Aser, was my question, by whom? The seagulls? But I moved back inside and opened a window and slept on the floor underneath it. Next thing I know, Lady Seaguard is complaining to Cloudraft about what the servants are saying about me sleeping on the floor and what a scandal it's causing.

"Cloudy called me to task on it, and I told him that Ms. Seaguard needed a hobby other than spying on her guests, and then it turned out she was listening outside the door and heard me, and Cloudy said that I had no restraint, and I said he had no guts, and he said I needed a course in etiquette more than I needed tutelage in magic, and I said that if I could get a decent night's sleep I might learn more, and he said that with my attitude I'd never be more than a cheap mage anyway so why should he waste his time." An errant tear spilled down Danner's cheek. "I didn't know what an insult it was till I met Rocklift," she said. "I just took off on my horse because I don't want to be a waste of anyone's time.

"I don't want his help, Aser. I didn't want to be cursed with budding wizard powers in the first place, I just accepted it to help our clan and because it sounded interesting. I thought the capability would wear off in a couple weeks."

"'Would' and 'could' and 'did' aren't more than distant relations," I told her. "And as we all say, 'You get what you get.'"

"Like this frockin' rain," Danner said. "Do you wonder why I was in Barcelona? I hate this. I feel like I'm turning into a mushroom."

"We're not talking about rain. Why couldn't you bring any of your wizard tricks to bear in that brawl with Rocklift today? Aside from the bit with her apprentice not remembering who we were, that is, but that was a little spell you pulled on him days ago. Were you too scared?"

"No," she said miserably. "In the rain, there were no bugs around to make use of."


"I only got as far as doing minor spells and stuff with insects -- I wasn't getting the hang of the latin lingo you need to progress. Not even close to working with the permanent magic things with the wand and the hat and all." She moved her shoulders restlessly, obviously in pain, trying to find a new position that didn't hurt as much.

The smaller of the two baboons padded near and snuggled up against Danner for warmth and comfort. Whose? I wondered, as Narsai left off grooming Danner and began to tug and fuss at my tangles. "You and Cloudraft were at odds all the time?" I nosied.

"No!" snarled Danner. "Only when my fine-ass even-the-servants-dress-better Lady Seaguard decided to poke her nose into our business. She even had the nerve to bring a dress she thought I should be wearing instead of a robe or riding clothes! Had those" -- and here she cupped her hands under her bosom and pushed up toward her chin -- "in the front. I refused, and told her that if a woman needed to display her boobs to company she might as well not wear a shirt."

I couldn't help chuckling at that vision. And I couldn't help agreeing with Danner. Why the hell would anyone care about someone else's clothes, so long as they don't smell and they cover the conventionally agreed-upon privates? I remember walking down an alley in Great Well, and seeing an orc-captain clad in a leather weskit and chaps, but no pants -- a sight I don't care to witness again. Of course Lady Seaguard herself would not have grabbed that fiend by the front buttons and said, "Look here, cover your parts up!" because she would have then lost contact forthwith between head and shoulders.

Lady Seaguard worrying about what the servants would think or say about her resident wizards? I understand and concur with the shopkeeper who wants his employees to dress in a manner that encourages business. The waiters in the restaurant wear clean and formal clothing: thus the customers think "hygienic" and "upscale" and purchase food and tip adequately. In the gymnasium, the trainers and spotters wear tight athletic clothing to display their fine physiques, which are in themselves advertisements for their business. In the jewelry store, the employees wear evening garb and examples of the jewelry. In the butcher's shop, the employees wear aprons that signify cleanliness.

But in a wizard's tower where no one visits but other wizards? Something was funny about Miz Seaguard's attention to servant gossip and appearances. I suspected that she was a bit jealous of her position as lady of the castle, and wanted no competition from a newly-arrived apprentice who was young, fearless, and good-looking.

"You should have let Rocklift do one of her appearance spells on you so you resembled a crab. Lady Seaguard would have let you sleep on her very own private beach."

"Or a toad," Danner nodded. "That way she would have thought me and her son were twins and she'd have given me anything I wanted."

"Anything," I agreed. "You could have had a complete set of silverware for eight. Or your very own personal body-servant."

"Or a bicycle," Danner said, leaning back carefully against her pack.

She seemed about to doze. I nudged Narsai the baboon gently. "I need to go out in the rain," I said. "Will you be my guard?"

"Certainly, Madam. I shall collect some more wood while you make yourself less uncomfortable." He stood and paced on all fours into the accursed pouring rain.

Taking oneself out into the rain is at any time one of the major drawbacks of primitive living on the road, but this rain was unbelievable. For what must have been five days now, the skies had been emptying washtubs, not droplets. I was soaked through by the time I got to the bush-shrouded privy. Belatedly I thought that I should have left my dry clothes in the cave and gone out into the night naked. Or at least with just my staff, which I used to keep me from falling as I climbed back up the stony incline.

Narsai was ahead of me, with no firewood, heading into the cave, vaguely illuminated by the light of the fire. Fisher, who was standing watch, chittered at him to stop. The little baboon brother, Guillaume, called out, "Narsai, why do you have the crossbow?" I started crawling up the slope on all threes and my staff, as fast as I could.

"That's not Narsai," shouted the raccoon, "Stop! Stop!"

Before the baboon-like being could bring the crossbow to bear, Danner raised both hands and pointed index fingers at the Narsai-impostor. "Veritas," she said, and Rocklift was revealed, raising the crossbow to finish Danner off.

My staff connected with the top of Rocklift's skull and the crossbow discharged a bolt into the ground beside Danner's shoulder. "You could have drawn her attention to you before you socked her," Danner suggested with heat. "Might have missed me by a few more inches!"

"Ahh, that's what your mother said about your father," I observed irritably, ripping strips off the hem of my robe to tie the mage up. "So you remembered some latin after all."

"Maybe I just need some psychotic witch after me all the time to get the teaching to take."

Making sure that Rocklift was breathing, I blindfolded her and gagged her as well, and dragged her farther away from the fire. I shed my dripping garments and wrapped myself in my blanket, which was reasonably dry.

Narsai the baboon came hurriedly into the cave and dropped his collection of firewood. "Madam, I lost you in the rain. How did this Lazy Woman come to be here?"

I was saved from having to answer by the 'foof!' of air displacement caused by the appearance of Cloudraft the Great by Danner's side. He was such an idiot he didn't even look around for danger, just knelt beside his apprentice and began to examine her wound.

"Now see how much trouble you've come into, taking off on your own like that," he clucked.

"The dragon found you," I said.

"Yes, he found me. Climbed the seawall and broke my window with a brick to get my attention." The wizard began to make passes beside Danner's leg, muttering under his breath, his hands making a frame over her thigh, and then describing a space on the cobbled floor a few inches away. "Hold on, Dannie," he said, causing my eyebrows to try to take up nearly permanent residence in my hairline, "this may sting a little ..." He tapped her leg with his wand, and the crossbow bolt disappeared from her leg and reappeared on the ground beside her.

"Owww!" Danner shouted, taking a swing at the wizard, who dodged cleverly.

"Get up and walk, let bleeding cleanse the wound, come on, I'll assist you," Cloudraft said, pulling her to her feet.

"Where's the dragon?" she asked.

"Off for the Wilderness of Gothwold Lake, he said before he left. Remarkable personality, that dragon. One of the best. He told me to extend once more his thanks for your willingness to protect him, though he did say that he needed no protection."

"Right," said Danner, "I could tell he had the battle under control when he hid his eyes."

"Say 'You're welcome,' Danner," I said.

"You're welcome, Danner," she groused. "What about WitchHead there? What do we do about her? This is the third time she tried to kill us."

"Third? Tell me of this misadventure, and leave nothing out," said Cloudraft sententiously. And so we did. By the time we were done, and Cloudraft had questioned and criticized us about our run-in with the mage Rocklift's talking animal industry, Rocklift herself was awake and staring angrily at us.

Cloudraft undid her gag. She seemed little impressed with his robes and star-studded hat. "You do magic," she said through gritted teeth, trying to wiggle voluptuously. "How about we hook up together and get rid of these busybodies?"

The gray-haired wizard shuddered. "Miz Rocklift, did you attempt to shoot this shaman Dan Ur-Jennan and/or Ase Ur-Jennan with a crossbow?"

"They started it, with their nosy little visit. Nobody derails Rocklift's money train. I didn't shoot the cutie, there, but not because I wasn't hoping to."

Cloudraft was so serious that he looked like a stranger. "Rocklift, let me offer you a deal. I can place a spell on you that will make you sleep for a hundred years. You will awaken, no older, no wiser, but with all that you have experienced to help you find your way."

"You're nuts," she sneered, shaking her head.

"The alternative is that we can take you back to Lord Stonewall to be tried in his desmesne court for attempted murder of a shaman. I believe that the sentence for such an act is Death by Hanging. Do you really want to be taken before Stonewall or do you wish to have a nice nap and see what the future holds?"

Even the baboons and Fisher the raccoon elbowed each other in reluctant admiration of Rocklift's obscene description of Cloudraft. But in the end, she agreed to sleep rather than die, and Cloudraft the Great wove a painstaking spell about her to preserve her youth and beauty and powers while she would doze for a hundred years, to wake beyond her business ventures, and vengeance, and mischief.

We stowed her in the dark cavern in the very back of the cave. Personally, I hoped she'd awaken with a stiff back. In the last of the darkness before the sky began to turn gray, I heard Cloudraft speaking to Danner. "Swallow these little pills, they'll keep your injury from infecting." At my approach and pointed stare, he puffed up with pomposity. "Penicillin," he explained. "From an alternate universe."

"Good move," I said, referring to the wizard's conjured medicines. "With your arrival here, and Rocklift's masking spell, and the translocation of the crossbow bolt, and Rocklift being enchanted, just how much of a magical static charge are we talking about in this cave? Enough to blow us into your alternate universe?"

"Allow me to suggest that moving on as soon as there is enough light to travel might not be a bad idea. Danner, walking is going to be painful, but we must get you someplace a little more hospitable, a bit warmer and dryer." Cloudraft patted her shoulder tentatively as she bound strips of cloth around her leg. She didn't look at him.

"Warmer and dryer? Most excellent," said Narsai, clapping his hands. "Will this hospitable place have some vegetables, do you think, Esteemed Beard? I cannot even hope for some tender termites in this forbidding land."

Cloudraft's eyes goggled at the baboon. "Boundless heavens in a snuffbox! You do talk! Do leave off glaring at me, Aser," he said, "I expected only rudimentary language skills, not extensive grammar and vocabulary."

At the mouth of the cave, the raccoons sat and listened. Fisher turned to Marjorie and grabbed the furry sides of her face. "Me Tarzan. You Jane. Hubba hubba!" and they trilled laughter until they had to lie down from weakness.

"Or humor," the wizard observed.

Danner leaned on her staff as she climbed to her feet. She tried a few steps, limping painfully, but mobile. I kicked at the fire to cover it with dirt; she nodded. "With this out, we'll be able to see. It's dawn, and let's go."

We picked up our packs and went back out into the rain. The smoke from the smothered fire still lingered over Rocklift's saddlebags in the cave. I dragged them out and tucked them under a rock outcropping; someone might walk by and have a use for the money and cosmetics in them. About ten feet from the entrance to the big cave, Cloudraft turned and with rain pelting him in the face, drew a wizardly display in the air. "There, that should do it. I have made an illusion of stone to cover the mouth of the little cavern so that no one disturbs Rocklift's beauty sleep. I sincerely hope that no unfortunate tries to enter the outer cave before the magical static charge has dissipated, as that spell just about put the whole structure over the edge. Even I have no idea where one would end up."

Between Cloudraft, the two baboons, and I, we were able to muscle Danner up the slope of the ridge as the light grew and blessedly, the rain eased from a downpour to a drizzle. At the top of the ridge, a dirt track of puddled road led east-west. We turned west, toward a travel shelter that stood by the road, a shack-like structure with a bark roof and a side open on the leeward. Rocklift's apprentice was just coming out into the gray morning. He didn't recognize any of the people in our party, but he started at the sight of the baboons. "Hey!" he shouted, "have you seen Rocklift?"

I was about to turn to Cloudraft to tell him this apprentice was one of the problems we needed him to help solve, when Narsai waved to the young man and called, "Yes, indeed, Sir, she's behind the rocks below!"

"Stop!" I shouted. "Don't go there!"

In response the boy went bounding down the slick, stony hillside. I ran after him as quickly as I could, with Narsai springing nimbly along beside me, fangs bared in a huge laughing mouth. I shouted at the kid again and again to wait, but he plunged on.

Narsai and I reached the cave, staying well back from the disguised entrance. There was no one there, but the smell of something stinging and musty remained, along with a puff of purple smoke. I looked at the primate, whose eyes were hooded with pale lids. "He's gone. You did that on purpose."

He swiveled his head to look at me directly. "What did the Madam Shaman expect? I am a baboon, after all." And he turned and began to lope back up the rocky hill.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-11-19
0 Reader Comments
Your Comments

The Piker Press moderates all comments.
Click here for the commenting policy.