Foreign customs, forebearance, and fabrications...just the thing for conversation when you're on the road...
"Actually," I said in reply to Margot's question, "I don't believe anyone was trying to kill us here. This inn was very peaceful when we came through."
"You must have had a short stay, then," the troll groused, dumping her pack on the porch of the hostel.
The innkeeper came bounding out the door, wiping his hands on his floursack apron. "Good day, Ma'am, I regret that I must tell you we have no troll-sized accommodations! Please don't spear anyone, Ma'am!"
Margot turned to me. "I've got to find some less intimidating clothes. All I do is show up and suddenly I'm on a par with the Black Knight from the Coast."
"Red leather and brass and Damascan spears on an eight foot troll will tend to do that," I agreed. "What if we just spend the night in the barn with our animals?"
"Oh, it's you, Shaman, that's all right then," said the innkeeper. "That'll be fine with me, just put the horse in any empty stall and I'll send the stable boy to tend him. The main dish tonight is chicken, will you and your friend care to dine?"
"Thank you, we would. Can you roast us up about three --"
"Four," suggested Margot.
"-- four chickens? And about two quarts of vegetable stew?" The dog glared at me from behind Margot's legs, making a whining sound that was almost a mumble, his ears bent out to the sides. "And a couple raw eggs, and do you have any scraps for our dog? A beef bone? Wonderful. Once we get settled we'll be back for food."
As we continued up the track behind the inn to the barn, the dog said, "Damn, I hate making those puppy noises! I thought you were going to forget food for me, and cooked chicken bones are just no good. I like the idea of the eggs, though, eggs are really good." He licked his lips, salivating, then paused, one foot in the air. "Or were you ordering the eggs for you?"
"We like eggs, too," I told him. "People put them in beer." As Margot grimaced, I felt the need to continue. "And that's not all people put in beer. Sometimes they salt it. Or dump a couple olives into it. In fact I once knew a druid who put ground up tomatoes and olives and a celery stick in his beer. You could pack an entire meal into a big brew, just by -- "
"STOP!" demanded Margot. "We're going to have dinner in a little bit, do you mind, Aser?"
"Not at all," I replied. "Don't worry, the eggs are for you, Racer. Fatten you up a bit." Leading our horse into the barn, I said, "Hope you don't mind the lodgings. There aren't many places that cater to trolls at all."
"That's because trolls don't generally travel much. So hotels don't think it's profitable to keep that much space for guests who rarely show up." We unloaded baggage from the horse's back and wiped his hide with handfuls of straw, while the dog sniffed around the barn, and barked suddenly.
"Monkeys!" the dog exclaimed, the hair on his spine standing up. "Those damned talking monkeys have been here!" He cast about showing his teeth and rumbling in his throat.
"Yes, they were here," I mentioned, leading the big black horse into a box stall. "I was here with them, as you may sniff. What have you got against a couple of baboons, anyway?"
"I hate 'em," said the dog. He began to sniff the side of a bale of hay.
"Don't piss on the hay, Racer, if you know what's good for you. Never piss on hay, or near a stream, or on someone's trade cargo," Margot lectured him. "Or on people."
"Why do you hate the talking baboons?" I asked the spotted dog. "They were the result of magic, the same as you."
Racer was still casting about the barn, mumbling to himself. As he returned to us, he said, "Snobs, both of them -- wouldn't talk to us other animals, only among themselves. Always yapping about the books and magazines they'd read, but never offering to read to them of us as couldn't turn pages on our own."
I finished with the horse, and left him nosing the straw. "Maybe they've learned differently since then."
"Don't tell me they're still around somewhere!" the dog said, with a sneeze of disbelief. "Good! It will give me another chance to bite them!"
"What about the magicked horses?" I asked. "Did you talk to them?"
"Well, yeah," the dog replied. "But all we had to tell them was not to kick because we meant them no harm. The monkeys were different. Kind of like they were supposed to be like people but weren't."
Margot looked down at the dog. "I'm not like your 'people'. What about me?"
The dog looked up at her, wagging not only his tail, but his entire back side. "You're People. You know what a dog is for."
I spoke to Margot. "The horses would have known what a dog was for, too. Both of them are domesticated."
Racer said, "Yeah, I think that's it. We knew what our place was, but the monkeys didn't. They didn't know what their own place was."
"They're from a foreign land, Racer. In their land the only dog-like creatures they knew were jackals who scavenge and hyenas who kill them; that's why they don't know about real dogs."
The dog pawed at his muzzle with his right paw. "No excuse."
Margot's scaled brow furrowed. "Listen, Dog, if you're coming with me on my next caravan run, you're going to have to learn to deal with foreigners. And move among them with humility and keep your trap shut."
"That's the worst thing about being a talking dog, have I told you that?" retorted the dog. "Shut up, Dog; don't speak, Dog; Racer, remember not to talk."
Margot began shifting bales of hay to make us a private enclosure. "Well, get this: My train runs east of the mountains down south for a while, and there is a big territory there where people have customs a whole lot different from what you see around here.
"The people live in tents because of the heat for 10 months of the year, and for the other two months, they gather herbs and roots and warm themselves with fires built from dried dung from their beasts of burden. They keep dogs."
"Smart people," replied the dog, his ears pricked in interest.
"They keep dogs because the dogs eat up all their camp garbage," Margot said, and Racer winced. "And because dogs have warm furry pelts that tan up real nice for winter coats and hats."
"No!" barked Racer, leaping to his feet.
"Yes!" the troll nodded. "If you asked those people 'What are dogs for?' their answer would be: 'Lunch.' They're people. They just have different ways of staying alive." She dusted the straw chaff off her hands. "So would you rather visit the dog-eating Lanabi, or talk civil with a couple of baboons?"
"Well, I'm a dog, so I don't guess I'm going to get a choice anyway," said the hound. "But I'd rather not be the Lastday roast."
"Good dog," pronounced Margot, and Racer wiggled with delight. "So no baboon-biting."
"Stay here and guard our stuff. We'll bring your food back with us."
"Yes, ma'am," said the dog, and lay down with his head on a bedroll.
As we walked back to the inn for our feast, I noted to Margot, "Wasn't the cautionary fable-telling supposed to be my job?"
"Beat you to it, that time, didn't I?" she chuckled. "The Lanabi are pretty interesting, if you can get past the dog stew, dog sausages, and dog jerky. Their winter grounds are near the caravan route, and they keep a sentry on top of a high bluff to watch for the trains to come by, and trade for hard storing vegetables like green apples, and potatoes, and a lot of onions."
"You should be teaching a geography class," I said. "And what do these Lanabi trade with? Dog moccasins?"
"Opals," Margot answered. "Somewhere in their summer grounds, they have a source of high-quality opals they bring for trade. It's so secret a location, that they tattoo their people -- like yours do -- only the tattoo is in the middle of their foreheads where it's always visible. That way, if anyone betrays the opal mines whereabouts, the Lanabi can hunt them down and kill them."
We sat on the edge of the porch and watched the busboys set down a tablecloth and plates for us, and then bring us a complimentary beer: a mug for me and a pitcher for Margot. She smiled at one of them and he fell down trying to get back in the inn door. She held out her pitcher. "Cheers, Aser."
"Cheers, Margot." I clinked my glass against her drink. "And the beasts of burden they keep? Oxen? Camels?"
"Goats," she said, swallowing about a third of the pitcher. "Their summer grounds are too sparse in vegetation for big animals, so they use goats. That way they can get milk from the nannies and occasionally have a roast kid instead of dog. They make these straw pannier baskets that hang on either side of the goat's shoulders to carry their stuff, and the weight of the baskets keeps the goats from hopping around." She used her hands to describe the circumference of the baskets.
"And to keep warm, they burn the goat dung in what --? A pellet stove?" I pointed a drumstick at her. "You're making this all up."
"Why do you think that?" the troll asked, her brow furrowed. Her dog needn't have worried about being given chicken bones; she ate them right along with the rest, with loud crunches.
"I can't imagine why the Lanabi would keep dogs instead of chickens. They'd still have the hides of the spare goats, and chickens take less upkeep." I washed down another bite with the bubbly beer. "Unless they were using the dogs as sentries as well as eating them... but you have to change the story to a different beast of burden, as nobody in their right mind goes around picking up little goat turds to burn."
Margot beamed a big flashy fanged grin. "I had you going for a bit, though, didn't I?"
"You're learning," I said, and bought the next round.