Rocklift the Mage is using a potentially disastrous tool to make money, not caring what she ruins or hurts along the way. If money is her only measure for good, then nothing Aser can say will convince her that her business plan is a mistake.
I paused by the front of my house and stuck my staff in the dirt between the burgeoning herbs in the oaken half-barrel. The ghost of Garfer Miller appeared above his remains and the rosemary. He had a spectral finger stuck up a spectral nostril, and intoned in a halting, irritating chant: "You -- have -- threeee -- new -- messages! First -- new -- message --"
"Do you want your hooch today or not, Garf?" I asked him. "Then cut the crap and tell me who's been here."
"My sweetheart of trolls, Thiefheart, was by and left a jug of liquor over behind the big root by the door. How about pouring a little for your favorite old Garfer," he wheedled.
"What else, you said 'three'."
"That hot babe who showed up the other night said she was going to check on her horse," Garf creaked. "I told her if she wanted to go for a ride --"
"She's apprenticed to a powerful wizard, Garf. You keep teasing Danner and she's going to put an end to your ghost before you figure out your spirit-maze ... "
"Last was those damned talking raccoons who keep coming back to sniff at my bones. Good thing you planted those smelly weeds in here or I'd be scattered all over the desmesne. Somebody should make that pair into a hat and slippers, the dirty scufflin' little freaks."
Rue herb has a scent that even cats will avoid brushing against, and it had proved the only deterrent to the raccoons who kept coming back to my door for company and the hope of table scraps. They longed to check out Garfer's bones for a little gnawing pleasure. I was surprised he wasn't interested.
"Payday, Garf," I said, and parted the herbs to reveal a white rounded bone -- the skull of the dug-up Miller. I poured a dribble of moonshine over it, and pulled my staff out of the planter before he could start his moaning about the insensitivity of his descendants or singing one of his bawdy songs.
I went inside and saw Dan Ur-Jennan's blanket still clumped by the wall. My friend and relative may have gone to mess with her horse stabled on the edge of town, but she wasn't gone from my house. And she still wasn't talking about what happened with her apprenticeship to Cloudraft the Wizard or what had brought her to my door after sundown the week before. In fact she wasn't saying much at all, which worried me a little. I'd have thought she'd at least give a few tries at out-cussing Garfer's bones.
However, two creatures were talking too much: the raccoons. While at the marketplace, I overheard at least five conversations about the pair of vocal vermin. Begging door to door for scraps. Teaching village children how to hunt for crayfish in the creek in exchange for potatoes. The he-raccoon getting into a foul-mouthed shouting match with Svartheim after the dwarf booted the she-raccoon out of the inn's kitchen. (No doubt the he-raccoon had learned the words from my herb garden ghost.) The mage Rocklift had an apprentice who had a gift for spells that make animals able to talk -- but when the chattering raccoons became inconvenient, she'd turned them out to fend for themselves, unfit to live among people, unhappy just being animals any more.
Two of the carrots I'd bought at the market went into a side pocket, and I set off for the edge of town where the raccoons were living in a wooden box they called home. Danner was just coming down the hill to the glade as I was walking up. "I have to go see a mage about some talking raccoons," I told my young friend. "Want to come along?"
"A mage?" she said thoughtfully. "You know, I never talked with one before. Got to be better than listening to that flippin' ghost." She stuffed her hands into the pockets of her trousers and trudged along, making more noise with her boots than a dozen properly barefooted shamans.
When we got to the stream, I nudged Danner. "There they are," I said, pointing out the two animals as they puttered about the bank.
One of the raccoons wore a jacket with the sleeves rolled up to keep them dry, and his bowler hat was tilted back over his ears so as not to fall in the creek. The other wore a white muslin mobcap, and her apron was tucked up to hold any edibles she might find. She looked up and saw us. "Shaman! Shaman!" she clambered out of the shallows and waddled toward us, waving her dark front paws. The he-raccoon clasped his paws together triumphantly above his head and pulled himself up the bank and followed his mate.
"They're talking," said Danner, her eyes wide.
"That's why I called them 'talking raccoons', you may recall."
"Well, I know we can understand a lot of what animals are saying, that's just part of the shaman thing, but they're talking -- People Talk."
"No shit, my observant colleague. They've been magicked, they say. And though they've been given the ability to talk, they're still as raccoony as they ever were."
The pair of raccoons were pulling on my robe like children, grinning with sharp white teeth and hopping on their hind legs. "We have news, Shaman! Wonderful news!"
"I have a couple carrots for you. Tell me your news." I picked up the he-raccoon's bowler and scratched the back of his head, to which he responded by thumping a hind leg on the ground. I replaced his hat.
"Me next, Shaman!" cried the she-raccoon, and turned so that I could scratch between her shoulder blades. "We have names now, Shaman, just like real people!"
"Who gave you your names?" I asked them, and Danner looked at me with alarm.
"We gave us our names," the he-raccoon said, with a bit of puzzlement. "Other people's words are just what they call us, and that's helpful so that we can be recognized. But we're more than that. The name 'Vermin' is what a lot of people say we are," (I winced, because that's what I called them, too) "but I am Fisher Vermin, now. That's my name. Because I like catching fish and I'm pretty good at it."
"And you?" Danner asked the she-raccoon. "What are you named?"
"Marjorie," she said shyly. "I don't believe I've made your acquaintance." She held out a paw.
Danner shook the paw solemnly. "Marjorie, I'm Dan Ur-Jennan, kin to Aser, here."
The he-raccoon -- that is, Fisher -- bowed, hat in hand. "Pleased to meet you. Any friend of the shaman Aser is a friend of ours. Would you like a crayfish?"
"Not now, Fisher, Marjorie. We need to go talk to the mage Rocklift about your magicking. Will you accompany us?"
"What fun!" Marjorie chirruped. "Do you want to hear our other news?"
Fisher put a paw around Marjorie's shoulders. "We're expecting," he said proudly.
"Congratulations to you," Danner and I said in unison. Danner's face was looking pale. I asked, trying to keep my voice calm, "Do you think your children will talk, also?"
Fisher pulled Marjorie close and hugged her. "We don't know, but we'll love them either way." Marjorie pressed her muzzle against Fisher's neck. "Let's go, my dear Marjorie," he said to her. "Perhaps we can ask the mage ourselves." They pattered on ahead of us, far enough in the lead that they could stop and dig and pry while we caught up.
The mage Rocklift lived in a small half-timbered structure deep in the old forest, where tree-cutting is forbidden. At least what we could see was small; probably she had underground rooms as well as the cottage facade. A sign under the window read, "Appearance spells a specialty. Age, Cosmetic Enhancement, Disguises." Mages tend to be limited to a few seat-of-the-pants spells that they use to make their living. Apparently Rocklift was a glamour artist. I rapped on the door with my staff.
The door opened a crack, and an eye looked us up and down, taking in our staves, clothing, and the raccoons. "Whattya want?" said a surly young voice.
"We are here to speak with Rocklift," I said equably.
"She don't talk to no dirty shamans," the voice replied, and the door shut.
Danner kicked the door and broke it open, slamming the snotty apprentice in the head and knocking him down.
Oh, that's why she wears boots instead of bare feet, I thought. How handy.
"Good afternoon, Rocklift," I said to the woman seated on a pink chaise lounge. "Your apprentice is a bit discourteous, don't you think?"
"He keeps the riffraff and busybodies away," she said, chewing gum visible past her sneer. She held a glossy covered magazine called "Spell" with a headline over a crystal snow-ball that said "Holiday Wraiths You Can Conjure at Home!"
The apprentice was getting to his feet when the raccoons poked their heads in the door. He drew back in disgust. Fisher cried with delight, "Look, it's Mr. Sir! May we come in? We promise not to break anything!"
"Get outta here!" Rocklift screamed. The raccoons disappeared. Danner and I stayed.
"The raccoons are why we're here. They say they were 'magicked' by your apprentice, and then cast out to fend for themselves."
"Whadda you care? Except for being your usual nosy-know-it-all self," she said, tossing the magazine on the floor, and leaning back in her lounge again. "Talking animals is gonna be his specialty. He just picked the wrong kind of animals that time."
That time! "They do more than just talk. They're self-aware. They're not just animals anymore, and I think you need to help your apprentice find some other specialty."
"Fat chance, Shaman. A little more practice and the kid can apply for his license and name and we're gonna make a fortune. Get this." She snapped her fingers and a fluffy white dog pattered to her chair. She held out her hand and the dog licked her fingers.
"You're delicious, Mistress," yipped the dog. "May I have a treat?"
"Every kid in the country is going to want one," Rocklift giggled. "Soon as we get enough capital, we're headed for the big city and fame and fortune and all that good stuff." Her apprentice beamed and scratched at his adolescent attempt at beard. Apparently the young disciple wasn't too bright, or he'd be planning to set up on his own rather than go into partnership with this leech. "And for the fine lords and ladies who need a little help around the castle, we got the answer. Hey, you!" she shouted. "Time to tidy up around here!"
A large baboon trotted into the room, looked around, picked up the magazine and set it in a little rack on the wall. He walked over and examined the broken doorlatch. "I don't believe I have the skills to fix this," he said, and began picking up splinters from the floor.
"A talking baboon?" Danner asked. "For a servant? That's not right, Mage, and you know that."
"I don't know from nothing, whoever the hell you are. Monkeys or some dogs, maybe a cat -- who cares? Nobody's getting hurt, people'll love it." She stood up and stretched. "Now howabout getting out of my house before I witch you both a couple of faces that would make your own mother puke."
Money makes the world go 'round, the saying goes, and some people go for the concept like a fish taking bait hook, line, sinker, and half the fisherman's pole. No ideals, no morals, no warnings, no laws can stand in the way of procuring wealth beyond need or sense. Share the wealth with those less fortunate? Hah! Let them make their own millions! Pay a fair day's work with a fair day's pay? Why should the businessman give a chump a living wage when the chump is willing to work for half that? What does it matter that the chump has to take two jobs to feed his kids? Pay your taxes to support the governing body? Not if you can find some way to hide the income or fudge the figures! Cut into profits in order to clean up after your factory? Bah, who cares about the damn fish in the river, anyway? There are plenty of other rivers, and they're just fish, after all, just fish, and if people get sick they can take their whining complaints and move to a different land.
Rocklift was trying to be a mover and a shaker, using a potentially disastrous tool to make money, not caring what was ruined or hurt along the way. If money was her only measure for good, then nothing I could say would convince her that her business plan was a mistake. Still, I had to speak.
I set my staff upright before me and took a breath to prepare. "Mage Rocklift, I call you to tell your apprentice to stop the talking animal spells, for the sake of Nature."
"Oh, right! You're gonna do that 'cry outrage' thing all over the place and queer my business. Okay, Dumbo, let's see how many people listen to you when you got a face like the ass-end of a chimpanzee!" Rocklift raised her hands and began to frame us with passes of her hands.
Danner stepped forward with hand raised, palm toward the mage. "Alto," she said, and the mage's hands stopped. Rocklift screeched in anger and started making the magical movements again, more determinedly. "No nos tormente y no nos eche maldiciones," Danner said with authority, holding two fingers up and circling them once with her left hand. "Come on, Aser, we're out of here."
We started for the door. I looked back and gave Danner a shove just as a dagger sizzled through the space her spine had occupied a moment before. I grabbed the coat rack beside the door and heaved it across the room to slow up Rocklift, who had found a crossbow and was furiously trying to cock it. As the apprentice lunged for us, Danner hit him with the ends of her staff, arm, knee, head in rapid blows. I pulled the door open and we darted through. Using the half-shut door as a shield, Danner reached back in and grabbed the bridge of the apprentice's nose with thumb and forefinger. She made an arc over his head with her left hand and said "Olvidanos!"
We ran behind one of the huge trees. "Pretty fancy with the wizard moves," I said to Danner. "Got any you can use to shut down this talking dog factory?"
She frowned and blushed. "Yeah, I think so. Let's get around the side of the house where that witch can't shoot from the door." We slid from tree to tree through the underbrush until we were out of the line of sight of the front of the house. Danner mumbled to herself and counted on her fingers, and then began to move her hands in spirals above her head. She chanted,
"Que muchos insectos vienen
Y rodean la casa aqui
Enhambran a los que visitan
Y impeden negocios asi!"
There was a squawk of surprise and both of the talking raccoons came pelting away from the house, shaking their fur frantically. About a hundred bees followed them, trying to land on them, and mosquitoes clouded the air above them. Flies were dive-bombing their heads as they ran.
"Time to cut and run," Danner said, and we vacated the area with haste. "Rocklift's clients are going to have to wade through bugs to get to her door. That should slow down her cash flow a little so she can't buy any more animals."
"Good job, Danner," I told her, clapping her on the back. "I got some of the spells figured out: you stopped Rocklift from finishing her curse, then did a warding spell to make us immune to her magic. You made the apprentice forget, but that poem was more than I could follow."
"Some spells have to rhyme to give them power," Danner said. "I called on insects to surround the house and swarm visitors to ruin her business."
"I thought spells were supposed to be in Latin," I commented.
She shrugged. "Spanish weakens the spells a little, but it's close enough in a pinch. I lived in Barcelona for years, but I've only been learning Latin for a few months."
We were almost to the main eastern road when a voice called from the forest, "Psst!" We stopped in alarm. A baboon's head peered around the side of a tree-trunk. "Honored Madames," he whispered, "can we come with you?"
Great, I thought. Talking raccoons and talking baboons. "You escaping or just out for a lark?" I asked him.
"Fleeing slavery," said the baboon, "but I do not know this land. Will you help us?" He saw some flicker of sympathy in our faces and pressed his case. "I am Narsai," he said, gesturing at his chest, "and I do not wish my little brother Guillaume to spend his life putting a lazy woman's panties in the hamper." The smaller of the baboons hid his eyes with his paws and hunched his shoulders as if expecting a blow.
I held out my hand for them to sniff and touch. "What do you think, Danner? If we head back to your castle, could we get Cloudraft to un-magic them?"
"You don't think I'm going to stick around here for Rocklift's crossbow practice, do you?"
Danner laughed. "He's not going to like this many visitors," she said.
"Nonsense," I lied archly. "Having pairs of baboons and raccoons and Ur-Jennans in his abode will provide him with such mental stimulation that he'll feel a hundred years of rejuvenation."
"More likely he'll feel like he ought to conjure himself a hundred miles away."
'But just think of what we'll do with his library if he does," I suggested smugly.