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July 15, 2024

The Aser Stories: Sidelong

By Sand Pilarski

Margot kept looking at me from the sides of her eyes, like I had grown a second head with horns and backup lights. Melody would not look at me at all, as though I were some kind of criminal.

"Look, you two, I really did try to meet the caravan on the Southern Road. But there was a flood, and a fire, and a maniac murderer on the loose ... " I could tell neither of them were buying it, as they had surprised me while I was having a nice cup of a dark and flavorful wine in front of a cozy fire in a hotel in Skuleflight Harbor when they found me a day or two ago. "And hey, it could happen to anybody," I concluded, and left it at that.

Only two days had passed and I was completely unappreciative of the silence of Melody and the limited words of Margot the Troll. Where I had been and what I had done had no bearing on the travels of our company; I carried the same gear (a pack, my blanket, my staff, a waterskin, and my knife), had the same bare feet, and was still a shaman of Ur, bound to help people in distress, heal their ills if I could, and cry outrage at those who thought they were above common sense.

"A company should either talk, or disband," I said as Margot stirred the fire from embers to flame in the dark of the morning.

"Do we have common ground any more?" the troll said, in a rumbly low voice that was pitched not to wake Melody.

"Well, let's see. Beer?" I looked at Margot.

She nodded.

"Fine dining? Bathhouses? Okay, that's three. Travel afoot? Four. Getting into trouble and knocking the shit out of miscreants? Five. Oh, and let's see, involvements that happen to exclude the other members of the company, would that be six? Or do I have to mention that empath you ruffled when we passed through my clan lands the last time, or the bartender in Anchovy Bay?"

She held up her hands and shook her head. "I'm good with you, Aser. I'm just still surprised you went to the coast instead of trying to find us."

"What she means is, you were sitting on your skinny ass partying instead of worrying about your comrades," Melody said, sitting up with her blanket wrapped around her.

"You wanted me to drown, wading a flooded river to meet you?"

"That's not what I said," Melody countered, her voice betraying a building head of steam.

"And not what you mean," I replied. "Let's talk plain, or take different paths."

"Yer looking for money," said Melody bluntly. "And ready to leave out yer company so ye can get it."

Her drift into dialect left no mistake that she was truly pissed.

"I'm not looking for money, Melody. If I was, I'd have the elders of the Ur-Jennan hunting me down for a beating."

"And ye'd deserve one."

And the sad thing was that she was right on one account: my teacher Rainer would have beaten me with her staff or whatever else was handy for my most recent actions; and yet I didn't get into misadventure out of defiance or greed for materials. There wasn't a price on my head, or a posse out to bring me in for justice, at least not any who knew my name or where to find me. The only person who was condemning me was Melody, at least today, with Margot uneasily watching me on the side.

"Kid, if I was looking for money, I'd be sitting back in the old desmesne, in Lord Stonewall's castle, rattling chicken bones to pretend I was important, raking in a huge salary for being the in-house shaman, and bathing in his castle's hot spring baths every night. But I'm not. I need to see some northerners about growing goldenseal, and I wanted to meet Margot's folks. So shut up or get over it."

She gasped, "And who are you to tell me so?"

"I've had it with your sulks, Sis. I tell you so because I am your elder, and let you come away from Shaddir with us last autumn. And if I may remind you, you left a sure income and household behind to set out on the road -- did we ever accuse you of having delusions of security for having agreed to marry Orthy Whatever-His-Name was? No, we did not, because we could tell from your character that you weren't the grasping sort. Nor have I ever given you the least excuse to suppose I'm a gold-digger."

Margot turned to face me, her eyes glowing orange. "Stonewall has hot springs? You never told me that!"

"I didn't know until about a month ago, when Danner and I were confined in Castle Stonewall! Honest!"

"What did you do to get confined in his castle?" Margot asked.

"We knew too much about the noble's business, by accident," I said with all due honesty. "Overheard stuff in an inn and sneaked in to see if it was true."

"That's you and Danner, all right," Margot said in a low gravelly voice. "I'm waiting to hear the story."

"Good thing your people have long lives, then."

"Well, I want to hear this story, too," Melody interrupted.

"The difference between you and Margot is that she wants to know where I was, and you want to hear something you can use as ammunition and throw it at me the way you can throw rocks to take game. Not going to tell it, Melody, not in your hearing. You're too angry to listen -- all you want to do is gather spiteful leverage, which is unworthy, and hurts your spirit." And the difference between Melody and me was that I could shoulder my pack and take off due north through the woods and skip the bath-house circuit, but Melody, for all her gruff ferocity, probably knew about as much of the lay of the land as a deer-tick wanted to. She was at Margot's mercy, if not mine.

When I'd met Melody, she'd just been sent to wed a man, in order to secure a roof over her adult head. To some of us that sounds harsh, as though she was selling herself for comfort. But it was the way of the land. Her brothers would inherit her father's farm, and it would be a hard enough living for them to provide for their own families without having a spinster sister to feed and to quarrel with their wives about how things should be done.

Melody, upon meeting us, recognized that there was a greater world out there, that there was a chance that she could see sky over her head instead of the beams of her husband-to-be's inn, that she could grasp and mold her fate with her own mind and her own two hands -- and she did it. She walked away from convention and servitude, succeeding in breaking free from being identified as Somebody's Wife, or Somebody's Daughter. She was invincible!

Unfortunately, even such a great step is a tiny distance in the world. Fundamental change in one's life is, sad to say, almost always unnoticed by the rest of the world, and the rest of the world still has its own rules and foibles by which one, most annoyingly, has to play.

That's a hard lesson to learn, when you're young and have just come into your strengths and your prime, when you think you can take on any comer and prevail, be the hero -- heroine -- of the day.

Sir Berlon's squire wades into the melee, finds the master and deftly twists his helmet back on forwards so that Berlon can see; he digs in his heels and helps the armored warrior to his feet and hands him the sword that had fallen to the torn-up turf. Berlon would have been lost without him! The squire isn't just a beardless boy who fetches and carries! In an instant, the young fellow has a vision of his master putting him forward for deeper training in battle, petitioning the Lord to knight him even in his stripling form ... and then Sir Berlon snaps, "What are you thinking of, you dolt? Get my damn horse and get him out of this mess!" Fetch the steed, and carry him away. Doing a valorous deed doesn't automatically change your position in life.

When I was fourteen, and ordered to sit with old Trema while she slept, I watched over her carefully, remembering tales of her prowess as a swordswoman and an archer. They said she could shoot two arrows at once with accuracy; her still-shining sword hung on the wall of her room. Then, while I watched her wrinkled, sagging face, she began to cough and choke. I raised her to a sitting position to help her breathe, and saw her spirit furl out of her chest. At that time, even before I had found my staff, I could see people's spirits if I was touching them and the earth, and hear them. "What in the nine levels of Hell is happening?" her spirit said.

"You're choking," I told her. "You have to stay, the coughing fit will pass!"

"Oh, okay," the ghost said, and subsided into Trema's body.

I whopped her on the back to clear her lungs. She hoicked a glob of stuff onto the floor, snuffled a little, and then went back to sleep. I was triumphant -- I had saved Trema's life, and told my teacher Rainer about it the next morning.

My cleverness earned me a day and a night of sitting in one spot against a tree, forbidden to move; not to eat, not to drink, not to visit a latrine. "You fool," Rainer had shouted in my face. "Yours is not to order spirits -- we are their servants! You show them the way to solace, not trap them in their failing bodies! What were you thinking? To learn what it is to be commanded to stay in misery, sit you there, until I see fit to release you!"

She released me when Trema died, a day or so later, deepening my shame by telling me that the Ur-Jennan who was with her showed her spirit the way to the next world, which Trema saw with delight. I remember that I cried a lot for days, and wondered if I would ever be worthy to be called a shaman.

Melody had to learn that however great her changes in her life had been, they didn't give her the right to quarrel with her company. And the Life That Guides the World knows that there are times in one's life when no amount of explanation is ever going to be enough. You could be the greatest orator on the crust of the world, but if you've somehow managed to fall afoul of your colleagues, you might as well just write the whole thing off and take your show on the road; either that or grow an alligator's hide and settle in to outlive them, hoping they don't have a penchant for reptile handbags.

Melody walked away from us into the woods a little way, to hide herself behind a tree.

"I can hear her weeping," Margot's dog said, worrying. "May I go to her?"

"Sure, Racer," Margot said, stroking his smooth fur. "Tell her that we're true."

The tall hound trotted away, his head and tail low in humility. He found Melody's tree; we could see him sit and duck his head to kiss and comfort her.

"I knew she was getting pretty strong-headed, but I didn't know how humans deal with it," Margot said to me. "That's how, huh?"

"It's one way," I answered. "I don't know if it's the best way, but when you're on the road, you don't have a lot of time for psychoanalysis and lifestyle coaching." I belted on my knife. "She's a giant of a girl from what she's experienced, but she has to understand she can't step on others just because she's in a snit."

"You'll explain to her once we're on the move, and she's less touchy," Margo assumed.

"I will not. Nothing I can say to her is going to make a damned bit of difference. She'll either come to understanding on her own, or she'll go back to Castle Stonewall and ask Danner to give her the dirt. And if Melody does, and continues to malign me, Danner will beat the living shit out of her, as is proper behavior among young women in their age group and lifestyle."

"You humans -- you're about as screwy as they come." She dusted off the back of her robe as she shouldered her pack. "Some of you are in petticoats and pearls, and some of you are like wild dogs."

"High-fangled or hyenas, we all have to have some manners and restraint."

"Melody!" Margot called. "We're heading out! Promontory Hot Springs by tonight! Come on!"

In the faint light of dawn, Melody retrieved her pack and slung it on her shoulders, not looking at either of us.

"I'm still waiting to hear the story, myself," said the troll.

As we set out on the wide path, I smiled up at her out of the corners of my eyes. "Who ever said there was a story?"

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2010-02-08
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