And they all lived happily ever after ... now how exactly does that work?
A letter arrived from my friend and relative Dan Ur-Jennan, most of it cuss words of a density and variance that would make a dwarf turn toes up with astonishment. "Where the hell are you?" the letter ungraciously asked. "Come visit soon before I chop the #!*#-ing XX#**!s off the *!*!#!-ing courtiers, *!#$X* them all with a giant squid!"
Studying this statement carefully, I wondered what a giant squid had to do with anything, but suspected that whether or not a large squid had appeared was actually irrelevant beyond inspiration for obscenity.
I penned off a quick reply, put it in an envelope, and handed it to the puffing raven who had delivered her letter to me. He took it in his bill, put it down by his feet, and said, "Wait a minute, Sweetheart, can't we have dinner first?"
I missed him with the swing of my staff, having been called an "old crow" enough times that I didn't want to play the joke through again, and he flapped out the window with the envelope in his beak. Damn birds. They'll tell you the same joke over and over again, and if you get tired of it and tell them to knock it off, what do you get? Birdshit all over your laundry hung out to dry.
"Aww!" I could hear the bugger squawking. "Aww, caww, caw!" Which, as anyone knows, means "The dirty cheap hag didn't even give me a tip!"
The rock I threw missed him by inches, causing him to flap off my tree. "Don't play the horses, Birdbrain!" I shouted, and I'd be ashamed to be trading insults with a raven ... except it was good to be home with familiar surroundings and activities ... at least until I got the news that I'd been lingering about for.
You see, there was someone I was supposed to meet here in the village in the spring, and spring it most certainly was now. The someone was also the someone to whom I'd promised a talking dog an introduction by way of finding him employment.
Now this talking dog, who called himself Racer, was a byproduct of a mage's get-rich-quick scheme to sell conversational pieces: animals who could talk and take orders. The mage got busted for unethical behavior -- like, trying to kill shamans like me -- and won't be on the loose in the public sector for about a hundred years. So I inherited a dog I couldn't keep for long, although once he had a bath, I had to admit he was a fine looking beast, tall and lean and black with white speckles on shoulders, haunches and back. He liked to read my books when I had the time to turn the pages for him and keep the tomes propped up so that he could view them from about three feet away. He was so farsighted he couldn't tell a bee from a blueberry close up without sniffing.
"Shaman!" I heard a voice shout in panic. "Shaman!" Down the hill to my glade came the town magistrate at a bumbling run, tripped, scrambled to his feet, leaped down the bank to my little clearing and grabbed my robe and gasped, "Th-th-there's a giant warrior troll come looking for you, Shaman, with the biggest spear I ever seen, asking for you by name!"
That would be the news I was waiting to hear. I batted the magistrate's hands off my robe, and turned back to the way he came and there was my good friend Margot the Troll striding along following him, all eight feet of her, with wrist guards glittering in the sun and red cape swinging behind her. "Fear not," I said to the magistrate, "the spirits of earth and air look upon this meeting with approval." Just then the raven made a swoop back through the glade (still carrying the return post) and splatted a dropping across the magistrate's hat and shoulder as he cowered behind me.
"Missed her again, dammit," the raven croaked.
"And this is the omen of coming good fortune," I continued. "What seems mischance will bring about beneficence and harmony."
"Then I shouldn't clean it off?" the magistrate asked, looking from me to Margot to his soiled hat.
I shook my head solemnly. "Instead, show the sign to those who will listen to your tale, and you will see the hours pass quickly and by the time the moon is high, your new luck will be evident."
"Thanks, Shaman," said the magistrate, and he climbed the bank back to the path, keeping a wary but less frightened eye on Margot.
"Still in the bullshit business, Aser?" Margot asked with a smile. "What are you going to do when your prediction doesn't pan out?"
"Are you kidding? He'll go back to the marketplace and start telling his story, and before you know it, he'll be at the inn with all his buddies buying him drinks. How much better could his luck get?" I clasped her big scaly hand in both of mine. "Good to see you again, Margot! How's the caravan business?"
"You wouldn't believe how good it's been. Last big trade train from Littledwarf Ridge was so successful we all got bonuses, and they already picked up my contract for next year's security." She unslung her pack from her shoulder. "When did you start keeping pets? And how come he didn't bark?"
The dog Racer had edged forward from my doorway, sniffing cautiously at the troll. "I told him not to."
"Huh. Smart dog," Margot said, extending a hand for the dog to smell. "What do you say, Aser, you think this village inn can handle a troll's appetite?"
"I know it can. The Fart sisters trade moonshine for the Lastday brunch buffets all the time."
"The Fart sisters?"
"They're trolls who live on the north road. Knifeheart, Thiefheart, and Wolfheart."
Margot looked down at the dog. "Don't ever ask her questions, Dog. She always tells you more than you really wanted to know."
The dog grinned, wagged his tail, and looked at me. Seeing my warning glance, he shut his mouth and shook his head, making his ears flap. As we ambled up the path towards the marketplace, he followed us.
I bought dinner for us both, making use of the sizable sum of winnings that Margot paid me from a bet I made with her last summer. We both won on that wager: she got the job of her dreams as a security guard for a wealthy trade caravan, and I got to see a good friend happy -- well, and the satisfaction of winning my bet that she could. I like when things work out well, as does anyone with a half a heart.
Lots of people don't believe in happy endings, though, you'd be surprised. Oh, they love hearing the folk tales with the conclusion "... and they lived happily ever after" but they can't seem to make the connection between that line and their own lives. The tanner's daughter listens to the story of the prince who left his palace behind to hunt down and slay the wicked dragon who carried off the beautiful maiden. Of course the prince fell madly in love with the maid at first sight and made her his wife, and got all the dragon's treasure besides. The tanner's daughter sighs and longs for such a sweet release from her dull existence. Then one day the blacksmith retrieves the hat that the wind has blown off her head, their eyes meet, and she thinks, "Why, he's as handsome as any prince!" And she marches down the wedding aisle with him with echoes of "happily ever after" ringing in her head like the church bells.
The farmer's two sons watch the king's army ride by, armor burnished and mounted on fine chargers as they muster out to drive the barbarians from the border villages. The populace cheers as the soldiers pass, and that's enough for the brothers to fantasize the glory they could garner if they, too, put on the uniform and helped drive the invaders from the gates. The boys leave the haywagon and the harrow behind, and off they run to seek their shining fortune, ready to be heroes and save the world.
Victorious on the battlefield after years of fort-building and fleeing and fighting, the brothers look only to a day of peace when they can find their hearts' desire, for army life sure wasn't the delight they thought it would be. And once they retire to a sleepy little village where every day is the same, they'll look back at their years in armor and sigh about how all the excitement and cheering crowds have disappeared, along with their contentment.
The tanner's daughter looks at the mountain of clothes to be washed, the heap of potatoes that need to be peeled and put in the stew, and the three eldest children fighting over a cornhusk doll, and thinks to herself, "If only I was young again, and a handsome prince would come by and sweep me away! But instead I'm stuck in a kitchen with a batch of screaming kids and a husband who smells of smoke and horsehair." Disappointment drags on her heart and her face until the love-struck girl she was vanishes forever.
You know, it doesn't have to be like that. A happy ending to an adventure doesn't mean that everything stops, unchanging at the peak of triumph or romance. Every quest has its rough parts and sad moments, we all know that. And when the treasure is found, or the villain vanquished, it's on to the next escapade, and that'll mean all the ups and downs again. And what if every day was an adventure in itself, an exploit to tackle, a challenge to overcome? You'd see good hours and bad hours, and the happy ending we all wish for might be as simple as putting your head down to dream for the night or as difficult as getting along with the neighbor whom everyone knows is an ass.
Margot took a drink from her second pitcher of beer. "Aser, why does this dog have his head on my leg? You been beating him or something?" The dog didn't move, just kept gazing at her with his soulful dark eyes.
"He wants me to tell you this joke," I said. Margot grimaced, but I went on. "This guy is walking through the marketplace, and he sees a tent with a sign that says, 'Talking dog for sale -- 10 copper pieces.' So he goes up to the merchant sitting in front of the tent, and asks him, 'Talking dog? You've really got a talking dog?'
"'Yeah,' the merchant says, cocking a thumb at the tent, 'go ahead, see for yourself.'
"So the guy goes into the tent, and this dog looks up and says, 'Hey, man, how's it going?'
"The guy is so impressed that he about passes out. 'I can't believe my ears! You're really a talking dog! How can this be?'
"The dog says to him, 'I dunno, but it sure came in handy when I was traveling the roads with the troubadours. We packed in the audiences every performance from Shaddir to the sea, made a bundle on it, too.'
"'Gosh, I'll bet you did!' the guy says. 'How come you're not in show business any more?'
"'I decided it was about time to give something back to society,' the dog tells him. "So I enlisted with the king's army and carried water to the wounded on the battlefield. Took an arrow in the shoulder once, myself, while I was helping the banner-bearer on the front line.'
"'Wow, that took some guts,' says the guy, totally in awe.
"'That's when I figured I'd had enough violence for a while, and went off to the monastery above Crosspasses to just get some perspective. They run a hospice up there, and for a couple years I just kept watch over the sick and joined the monks at prayer. The abbott said it helped his spiritual life no end to see other creatures joined in prayer with the brothers.'
"'Excuse me for a minute,' the guy tells the dog, and he goes back out to the merchant in front of tent and asks, 'That dog is simply amazing! Why on earth are you selling him for only ten copper pieces?'
"The merchant leans close to him and says, 'Because he's nothing but a damn liar!'"
Margot snorted and spilled some of her beer.
"Bet you could have used a talking dog while you were working that caravan," I said to her.
"You know, I could have. The worst damn trick was keeping the front of the line in touch with the stragglers. Try to pass a message along man to man and by the time it gets to the other end it's screwed up so bad you got people mistaking rain clouds for elephants." She scratched the dog gently behind the ears.
"Oh, yeah, right there, you got it," said the dog, stretching his neck into the rub.
Margot stopped scratching and folded her huge scaled hands on the table. "I've been set up," she said.
"Like ninepins, Margot, just like in a smooth alley," I admitted.
The dog tried to slither onto her lap ecstatically. "One thing," the troll told the dog, "you ever lie to me and you're fajitas, got it?"
"Got it, Boss," panted the dog. "Wanna go for a walk?"
"Yeah, Margot, want to go for a walk? I need to take a stroll over to Oceanwind Castle on the coast to check on another Ur-Jennan shaman. I know she wants to meet you, and I'm thinking we could liberate her from her studies for a while, grab some seafood, you know, maybe wreck the place ... "
Margot began to grin, her orange eyes glittering.
Yes, I believe in happy endings, myself. You just find them the oddest places -- often right at the very beginnings.