A golfer gives up his clubs. Lady Seaguard no longer gossips or complains. The doors of the castle no longer welcome visitors, and the guards are afraid. What the heck is up with all that?
A row of seagulls perched on the wall above the great doors of Oceanwind Castle. The stones of the causeway before the portal were white, and we paused a good fifteen feet away. "You know what's going to happen when we ring that bell," rumbled Margot the Troll.
"Yes, the gulls will all take off and we'll get whitewashed. Hell of a welcome, isn't it? Fortunately, I know a spell to ward off seagull crap. Watch this incantation." I rummaged in my pack for leftovers from last night's camp, and found a fist-sized lump of bread, which I tore into small pieces and tossed on the road behind us. The seagulls screeched and flapped off the battlement and swarmed on the bread.
"Smartass," said the troll as I extended my staff and rang the visitors' bell, stretching a bit to avoid stepping in birdshit. A sleepy face appeared in the opening guard-window, saw Margot, and the little window slammed shut. I banged the bell again with the end of my staff. The guard window opened partway this time.
"Wh ? wh ? who goes there?" quavered the guard.
"The shaman Ase Ur-Jennan!" I shouted, banging the doorbell roughly with my staff. "Quit looking at the troll's bosom and open the damn gate!" Margot's dog, Racer, began to bark.
"Wait! Stop hitting the bell! Let me check the list!"
"List?" I asided, frowning, to Margot. "I've been here before, there wasn't a 'list'."
The door opened about eight inches. "Shaman, you're cleared to come in. We have to report and check in about the troll-lady, okay?"
"Okay," I told him, and slid sideways through the gap in the door. Once squeezed partway through, I stuffed the head of my staff into his solar plexus and gave him a shove to back him up. "How would you like every ghost that ever haunted this place to show up and tell you to open that damn door and welcome peaceful wayfarers the way you ought to?"
His reply was to cover his head with his list and scamper off up a flight of stone stairs. I swung the door wide to admit Margot and her dog. "Woof," said the dog, with an intense little sneeze. "He was sure scared."
"Get used to that smell. Almost everyone's afraid of trolls anymore," Margot said, running her scaly purply-green hand along his spotted back.
The dog wiggled with delight and hopped on his hind legs to rub against her. "Oh, no, Boss, he was scared even before he opened the door. That's all the smell there is here, scared-smell. We just made him leave some extra scent."
"There's no sign of fighting here," said the troll. "Why the hell would the guards be afraid? Maybe someone got wind of an attack?"
"Nahhh, they've got Cloudraft the Great here, in residence. He's kind of boring in person, but he is a pretty powerful wizard, as wizards go. I'm sure he's got some kind of defense contract, make attackers think they're flying fish or something. I wonder what's up?" I heard a door slam off and up to the right.
"Aser!" shouted my relative and friend, Dan Ur-Jennan. She was pelting along an upper balcony, until she saw the troll. Then she sunk down below the balustrade.
"Danner," I called out. "This is my friend Margot, whom you can trust better than you can me. And the dog's name is Racer."
She appeared out of a mist at our left. "I got her letter telling me about you two. Aser's description of you made you out to be some kind of cream puff," Danner said, extending her hand to Margot. "But you look like you can handle yourself all right. I'll bet she didn't have to save you as many times as she claims."
"She's making that all up, Margot, don't look at me like that. Ask the dog, he'll back me up." I gave Danner a hug. "Pretty fancy entrance, for an apprentice, that is. I gather you're making progress at this wizardy stuff?"
"I've got to or I'll never get out of this #!**! dungeon. Where's my horse?"
"At the inn back in town. I wasn't sure about showing up here. Just an uneasy feeling, don't know why."
"Next thing you know you'll be claiming to be a seer. Margot, all the ceilings are high enough, but you may have to duck through a couple doors. Mi casa es su casa," she added by way of a welcome.
As we followed Danner up the stairs, I noticed that Margot unobtrusively checked her dagger and the set of brass knuckles on her belt. I'd already made sure my knife wasn't lost in the folds of my robe, myself. The fear of the guard and the deserted welcome hall -- odd things to find in a peaceful and pleasant setting. Almost as if they didn't want to encourage visitors.
I think the wizard Cloudraft gained the appellation "the Great" due to some battle at Oceanwind Castle in which a fleet of corsairs had rigged some catapults on their ships and were battering the seaward side of the residence with rocks the size of cement mixers. Cloudraft saved the day by conjuring a giant squid who took out the leader's ship in a spectacular display of tentacles and glaring eyeballs. The rest of the pirates fled, and as a reward, Lord Seaguard (great-great-grandfather of the current Lord Seaguard) gave him the northern wing of the castle as a residence, which Cloudraft accepted gladly, being indigent and unpropertied as he was just out of apprenticeship.
Having a fine place to live, a library collection that would make any manipulator of magic grit their teeth with envy, and considerable talent made him a bit pompous, but he greeted us affably, and materialized a wing-back chair of dimensions to perfectly fit Margot, as well as bringing us iced teas and seafood paste on crackers, a gesture which made Danner roll her eyes up towards her eyebrows. He sat down beside Danner on a Chesterfield sofa as he politely asked, "So what brings you two -- ah, pardon me, Dog, -- three to the coast? Holiday?"
"Summer layoff time," Margot told him. "Too hot for the caravans to run until after the harvests. Gonna check out some spas, do a little fishing, cross the mountains to Great Well to see what it's like. I never been there, myself."
Danner sighed. "The Gardens of Shaddir are on the way there. You have got to see them."
Just then a large baboon entered the room, and placing one hand-like paw over his chest, said, "Please excuse the intrusion, Most Benificent Sir, but the eminent Fellmount of Verdansward is here to see you."
"Show him in, Narsai, that's a good fellow." Aside to us, Cloudraft explained, "Fellmount is an exceptional colleague, very talented. We've been friends for longer than I can easily recall."
The wizard who entered the room was dressed in a black satiny robe with small gold figures on the robe edges and down the sleeves. His black velvet hat wasn't the traditional conical shape, but was floppy, like an oversized beret, and held in place with a gold band around his forehead. (I was reminded of a wilted octopus without the arms.) He shook hands with Cloudraft, nodded uninterestedly at the rest of us, and disappeared into the laboratory, chuckling over some recent news he was telling to our host.
When the door to the laboratory clicked shut, a silence fell about us in the parlor. After about fifteen seconds of quiet, Danner announced to the ceiling, "If I drink one more swallow of iced tea, I am going to be awake until Midsummer Night."
Another couple seconds passed by with no words. I offered, to bridge the lack of conversation, "Don't you think you ought to check on your horse?"
Danner leapt to her feet. "Yes, I think that would be the most responsible thing for me to do. And since he can't talk, I should probably order his beer for him."
Margot nodded sagely. "And it will take almost as much beer for the horse as it will for me, so we'd better get started as soon as possible."
"As an elder shaman, I am in tune with the sun and the shadows," I intoned. "I believe that the hour is auspicious for beer and pretzels, so we must move quickly."
Waiting only long enough for Danner to change from her apprentice robes to the rough travel wear she favored, we took off for the town at the bottom of the hill.
The glass-and-horn windows had two lines painted across them horizontally, and between the two lines, white letters had been painted that spelled out "Happy Hour." The sun was glaring in the windows between the lines, so we were in luck -- the beers would be half price. Not that we really cared, but we congratulated ourselves on our timing.
"Here's to new acquaintances," said Margot, holding up her pitcher of beer. We clinked our tankards against it. "So why did you two get so quiet after Fellmount arrived?"
"Because he's a money-grubbing tick," I offered conscientiously. "I trust him about as far as he could jam a corncob up his left nostril." I turned to Danner, who had pushed her chair back to put her heels on the table. "Is he on your door-warden's little list of acceptable visitors?"
"I don't know what you're talking about, but the creep is at the castle often enough, and much as I loathe him, since he started visiting more often, that hag Lady Seaguard hasn't been on my back at all, and even stopped thinking up her stupid little excuses to pester Cloudy." Danner finished her beer and waved for another round.
Margot sputtered in her pitcher. "You call your Master 'Cloudy'?"
Danner turned red as rhubarb.
"What about the Toad Son of Seaguard you told me about who was following his mum around when she was slobbering over Cloudraft? Weren't you grumping about him trying to corner you in the linen cupboard? Did he just give up?" Seemed to me there were an awful lot of changes in just a few months.
Danner took another long pull at her beer, and then glopped it down on the table, forcefully enough that foam flipped out of the mug and onto the table. "Yes, now that you mention it, Toad (his name is really 'Todd,')" she explained to Margot, "quit pimpling around me within a week of his mother's getting off my case. That's kind of odd, or at least oddly coincidental, isn't it?"
"You're making your Jennan teachers proud," I said. "Now what do these trends tell you?"
"That Fellmount is finding something more important for the Lady and the Toad to focus on. Something more important than sex, or romance, even." She pushed the remainder of her beer away. "What the hell are they up to?"
"What's Seaguard himself been doing? Anything odd?"
"You mean besides playing golf?" Danner sputtered. "No damn wonder he and the Hag fight so much! He's always galloping off to golf first thing in the morning and her screeching at him could wake the dead themselves, let alone everyone else in the castle." She stopped talking and seemed to be listening to an inner voice. "Wait a minute. I don't recall having heard them fighting in the mornings lately. In fact the last time they woke me up was about three weeks ago."
Margot frowned and leaned forward. "Do you know his caddy?"
We looked at each other in silence until the dog whined, puzzled and worried. Margot flipped a coin for the brews and a goodly tip onto the table, and we scrambled for the entryway.
Approaching the castle, Danner looked at the seagulls still loitering on the top of the gate, and muttered, "And these guys only started hanging around in the last month or so, too. I thought they might be migrating through or something. Sure put an end to door-to-door salesmen."
"My turn to do the magic trick," said Margot, pulling out a small sack and emptying it on the paving. The popcorn from our bowl at the inn scattered and blew and the gulls swooped on it. We were admitted through the gate with no questions this time; as soon as the gate was shut, however, Danner put her hand on the collarbone of the door-warden and stepped close to him. "Have you seen Erdmire, Lord Seaguard's golf caddy anywhere around?" she murmured. "The little beast owes me two silver pieces."
The door-warden began to sweat at Danner's proximity, and stammered, "No, Ma'am, he disappeared some weeks ago. They say he took off because he hated the game, and got tired of hunting missing balls. The captain said it done upset the Lord that much, he gave up the game, and hasn't golfed since."
"Okay," Danner winked at him, and sidled towards the stairs, looking back over her shoulder and batting her black lashes at him. We followed her upstairs and to the hall on the right. When the door to the wizard's wing was closed, she leaned against it. "Shit," she said, "a golfer doesn't give up the game just because he has to get a new caddy. That can't be true."
"I smelled him," said the dog. "He was being honest, but what he really wanted to do was... "
"We don't want to know," Margot said, wrapping her fist gently around Racer's muzzle.
Cloudraft rounded the corner from a side hallway. "Ah, here you are! I just left a note for you, Danner. We've been invited to dine with Seaguard, but if you wish to carouse with your friends, that's all right, I know how much you've missed Aser."
"But I think I should accept such a kind invitation," she told him, and then turned to us. "You wouldn't mind, would you?" She bugged her eyes out at us, waggled her eyebrows, and grimaced toothily.
Margot covered up her guffaw by pretending to cough. "Not at all. May I have a look around your library, Cloudraft?" I asked. "Danner says you have a fabulous book on Potable Springs of the West Face of the Barrier Mountain Range."
"Yes, let me show you," he said, and proudly headed back to the library.
Danner took the opportunity to hiss, "If I have dinner with them, I can check out Seaguard first hand, see?"
"Yeah, like you're the subtle investigator type," I whispered back. "Be careful!"
While Danner and Cloudraft dined, the troll dozed on her huge chair and her dog mumbled with wrinkling lips at the baboons, who ignored him as they sat on either side of me, reading over my shoulders. I tried to memorize the locations of springs along the trail Margot and I intended to take. Dowsing when you're thirsty is a pain in the ass.
Danner returned from dinner a bit early, having used her guests as an excuse to leave the table. "He was there," she said, flinging her gown into a corner and pulling on her stained travel breeches. "Talked about how he'd given up golf and come to find more fulfillment in being with his lady and his son, Todd the Toad, who just sat there and smiled like a lantern Jack. Have you ever heard such a crock?"
"And Cloudraft didn't notice anything?" I asked.
"I didn't tell him any of our suspicions," she sighed. "He has a face like a billboard. The only thing that caught his attention was that Fellmount wasn't there, too, him having become such a close pal of the Seaguards."
"You haven't heard anything of Seaguard for days, but you do see Fellmount. Then the Seaguards appear for dinner, and they invite one wizard but not another?" Margot stood up from her chair. "Did you touch him?"
"Seaguard? Yes, I shook his hand twice."
Margot nodded her chin in Danner's direction. "Dog, check it out. Where is the man?"
Racer sniffed Danner's right hand, and then raised his head. He led the way to the door of Cloudraft's study. "He was here this afternoon. You didn't like him or want to talk to him. Do you want to know where he is now?"
"Yes," the three of us chorused.
"Okay!" the dog barked, leaping end for end with enthusiasm. "Let's go!" He backtracked from the study to the door of the wizard's wing, to the Great Hall, where banquets were held, to the main residences of the castle. There we all paused.
"You sure, Racer?" Margot asked.
The dog shook himself. "Sure as fleas," he said.
"We're donkey dung from this point on," said Danner.
"Hee-haw," I said, and lifted the door handle quietly. The dog scooted through, nose to flagstones.
"Hee-haw," whispered Margot, loosening her brass knuckles. "I haven't had this much fun in a long time."
We moved silently along the stone hallways, Margot having trimmed her dog's toenails only a couple days ago, due to his clicking on paved walkways driving her nuts. We came to a corridor where a doorway streamed light, and the dog stopped, and pointed with his muzzle, one front paw raised and tucked high and his tail straight like a rudder.
The three of us edged forward and peeked around the door. At the desk in Lord Seaguard's office sat the visiting wizard Fellmount, with the Lady Seaguard in his lap, nibbling on his ear, giggling like a girl. We backed away from the doorway and tiptoed, retracing our footsteps to the Great Hall. "I take it back," said Margot. "I've had lots more fun playing toe mumblety-peg."
Lord Seaguard stepped out from behind a pillar. "I don't recall giving guests an invitation to wander about in my dwelling. "
"Your dwelling!" exploded Danner, "You son of a bitch, what have you done with Seaguard?"
"Oh, so you've been playing detective, have you?" He laughed. "I don't think this is any of your business, little apprentice. You haven't the power to unmask a wizard, and if you so much as try, your nosy friends here will die right along with you."
"You wouldn't dare," Danner gritted.
"I'd dare a great deal more than that," the wizard said, raising his hand.
"I sent a letter to my clan," I told him. "They know that I was coming here to see Danner and then headed to the Ur-lands. If I don't show up, they'll have the Ur-Trabben seers seeking me in their visions. If you kill us, all the clans will be after you for justice."
"Threats from a hedge shaman," he sneered, but drew back a little. "Just for the record, I didn't kill Seaguard or his caddy. I'm merely stepping in to stabilize the situation and keep the economy of the area functioning. You know how tumultuous abrupt changes can be." The disguised Fellmount looked at Danner long and arrogantly, chuckling as her face turned purple with fury and hatred. "And the sudden demise of a loved one the most unsettling change of all." He smiled, and disappeared before our eyes into a purple mist. Then the mist was gone, too.
To this day, I can't figure out why Fellmount stepped into the shoes of Seaguard. He was among the greatest of the wizard-magicians, and had plenty of prestige stocked up by the feats of his life -- he had no real need to meddle in castle life and fool around with Lady Seaguard. Sure, he picked up an army (albeit a small one) and a fleet of ships; and collected a prime piece of real estate and the revenues of a prosperous countryside. But what drove him to desire so much more than he really needed?
It's a question that I find myself asking not just about Fellmount the wizard, but about all those individuals who keep acquiring wealth and power without boundaries. If you have enough to eat and a place to sleep, why can't that be enough? And sure, anyone would want to be able to provide for their family's future, and watch their generations thrive and live. But what if they took someone else's livelihood -- just for something extra? Is that acceptable? What if one person earned the livelihood of twenty people, and nineteen others starved?
What if Margot's caravan owner decided to accumulate hundreds of millions of gold pieces, just because she could, and to hell with the day-to-day, hand-to-mouth tribesmen with whom she traded? Would that be fine, just because she was clever enough to do so?
"I have a right to prosper if I can," I've heard people say. But not so very long ago, we went through a series of winters that were so bitterly cold that the deer froze while they were sleeping. A merchant bought up all the wood stores in July when people were hot and hungry, waiting for the fall harvests. He sold none of the wood until the depths of the freeze in January, and when he sold it, he charged ten times what it cost him. And when the next winter came, he sold the wood for twice more than what he had sold it the previous year. And with the profits, he bought wood for cheap in the summer, and burned it in great bonfires in August, so that there was little wood to be had in the bitterest December anyone could recall. What wood he sold, he made a fortune by. And then he moved on, far richer, and utterly unconcerned about those who were cold, or those who were hungry for having spent their money on warmth.
I strongly suspected that the future of the economy of this desmesne would be stimulated by Fellmount's guidance -- stimulated to flow with gold coins in the direction of the castle, beyond need or reason. Too bad we couldn't simply hope for a just end to this, like in the fairy tales of our childhood: The evil wizard accumulated so much gold and riches that one day, he just blew up.
After our confrontation with Fellmount, we returned to the wizard's wing of Oceanview Castle, to find Cloudraft the Great waiting pensively in a chair of the sitting room.
"You're back early," Cloudraft said as we entered the parlor. He looked subdued, his shoulders sagging. "But it's just as well. Danner, could I speak to you privately for a moment?"
"Sure, I'll be there in just a minute." As he entered his study, Danner whispered to us, "Not a word! Not one! He doesn't need to know."
"Why not?" asked Margot, glowering. "You protecting Fellmount because he's your master's buddy?"
"No, stone-head," Danner growled. "If he finds out, he'll try to expose him. And frankly, good as he is, he's no match for Fellmount, and I don't want him killed over this." She stomped off to the study and slammed the door shut.
"Aren't you going to do the shaman 'cry outrage' thing over this either?" Margot asked me.
"No, I'm not, at least not yet. I don't want Cloudraft killed, either, but besides that, a battle between wizards can be destructive as hell, and there are a lot of happy people who live here who had nothing to do with Seaguard's death. I'm not comfortable with the concept of 'collateral damage' of civilians."
The door to the study opened, and Danner came hurrying out, eyes wide. "After I left the 'dinner' tonight, Seaguard and his Lady informed Cloudraft that they had decided that they wanted Fellmount in residence here instead of him. We're being evicted. They want us out, as of NOW. Isn't that a funny coincidence?"
"Now I get it. Seaguard disappears, and Fellmount, who's been fooling around with Lady Seaguard, masquerades as him to throw off suspicions that he might have been murdered. My guess is that the son is in on it, and Fellmount is going to fake a natural death for Seaguard, leaving the Toad the Lordship, while Fellmount plies the strings of his puppet Lord, gets the woman, and the choicest real estate on the coast. And no longer has to pretend to be Seaguard, which is pretty risky even for a wizard."
"And he has all the time in the world to clean up any evidence left behind," agreed Margot.
"All in favor of hitting the road, say 'Aye'," I said, holding my hand up.
"Aye," said the troll. "This was supposed to be a vacation. Are we having fun yet?"
"Aye," said Danner. "I'm ready to leave, and Cloudraft will come with us. Poor guy, he's really upset about this, and all I can think of is getting out of here and back on the road before Fellmount turns us into tuna."
"Aye," said the dog. "I've been indoors for about six hours now and you know what they say -- 'it's better to be pissed off than pissed on.'"
He had a point there.