The way south to the Gershom Caravan Trail was easy, my route along fence rows newly plowed, weeds not tripping me up or tearing at my bare feet. I kept as my goal only the edge of the next field, knowing that small objectives are easier to deal with than long distances.
Huge objectives are difficult things to deal with. Lord Icecliff, having got wind of a possible invasion of giants into his northern fief, spent half his treasury trying to appease the ruler of the province of giants with gifts of gold, trying to win his friendship (didn't work) and with recruiting soldiery to fortify the borders. (Sort of worked.) Securing his desmesne was such an enormous task that Icecliff worried about it day and night, giving himself high blood pressure and gall stones. He was turning into an old man before his family's very eyes. His wife, on the other hand, knew that you just have to solve a puzzle a piece at a time, so when her husband invited the giant prince to a feast, she was ready. She offered giant's personal bodyguards mead laced with a slow-acting poison, and then at the dinner, she made sure that the giant prince had a chicken loaded with a fast-acting poison. The giants were deader than doornails by dessert, all of them.
Icecliff nearly crapped in his woolen britches at the affront to giantdom, but his wife had taken care of the little amenities. She had the bodies of the giant prince and his retinue carried to the border with great pomp and honor, and a messenger who explained that the water of Icecliff's desmesne was unexpectedly poisonous to giants. It was a ruse that kept them safe for years, giants not being the brightest inhabitants of the planet.
In addition, Lady Icecliff's careful plan bore fruits for her personally: her husband never forgot her birthday or their anniversary for the rest of his life, and all who knew them remarked on his incredible politeness to her.
Walking past one field at a time, I reached the far ridge by sundown. There was no clear trail over this ridge that I knew of, so my day's journey was at an end. On the edge of the last field, I sat down and ate the bread and ham that remained from breakfast, and emptied my water skin into my body. I wrapped my blanket around me, and knew that I would hit the Gershom Caravan Trail the next day. I put my hand on my staff, and propped my right elbow on it. Full and pleasantly tired, I dozed off before all the stars had brightened the sky.
"Wow, who are you? I can see you clear as day!" a voice piped.
I opened my eyes again and saw a boy standing before me. "I was just going to sleep," I said. "Why are you disturbing my sleep?"
"Why are you disturbing my sleep?" he asked in return. "I've been stuck here napping for so long I don't know how long it's been. Then there you are, and right away you're mean to me like you was my Aunt Luna." The boy seemed to scratch at his head, his back, and his ankles.
I sat up, still keeping my hand on my staff. "How came you here, Child of Life?"
"Dad. It was Dad brought me here."
Groggily, I knew I was being too direct for a ghost. I needed to draw out the story rather than ask pointed questions. I rubbed my weary eyes and said, "Tell me about your life, please."
"Oh," the ghost said, bouncing on his feet. "I was born, I grew up some, enough to get as tall as Dad's shoulder, but then I died."
"Dying is something that happens to everyone, boy. Do you remember how you came to die?"
"Yes, it hurt a lot, so I remember. I was digging in the garden for radishes and got a big scratch on my hand from a rock. Mamma scrubbed it with soap the next week when it started getting redder, but then I got so I couldn't swallow or open my jaws right. There was a lot of hurting, and then they said I was dead. Why does a scratch kill a boy?"
"If you stand at the top of a high mountain, and look down on a town, you can't even see the people, they're so far away and tiny to your eyes. Just that way, there are little evil spirits who think you're a mountain to them, and they dig into a wound sometimes and bring evil into your body." He'd died of lockjaw. There is, all too often, no cure for it, unless you know a wizard or sorcerer who can access the medicinal cures of alternate worlds. Poor kid.
"I didn't do anything wrong to get dead like this," the ghost said.
"No, of course you didn't. Those little evil spirits don't care if you're a king or a kern. They just show up, and no one knows why they spite one life and not another." The stars were bright now, and soon the moon would rise and make the night glaringly bright. I wanted to be asleep by then, with my blanket over my head. "Was this place your family cemetery?"
"No. Mamma and Dad didn't have a lot of money, so they built me a house for burning, and when it was done burning, they put me in a jar. It's over here," he said, pointing at a spot about a yard from my staff.
"Your ashes," I commented.
"Yep, all that was left. And then Dad brought me here, because he knew I liked to play on the ridge when I wasn't weeding the garden or keeping an eye on the cows." The spirit rubbed his hands over his neck again, fidgeting his spectral form.
"What is your name, kid?" I asked him.
"Targold the Invincible!" cried the ghost, flexing his not-quite-adolescent arms over his head.
"You are not," I replied. "Targold the Invincible was eighty years old when he died, and he wasn't from around here, he was up in the mountains past Great Well."
"I know! I used to pretend I was him, sit on the back of the oldest cow we had -- her name was Tona, so I called her Bony Tona -- and fight whole battles on her back!"
I had to smile at that. "What did your parents name you?"
"They didn't. My grandmamma named me." Ghosts are so literal at times.
"What did she name you, then?"
The ghost faded for a moment, and began to lose form. He was distressed, greatly, and only moaned in reply.
"Come on, you can tell me. Telling me your name will help me to see you more clearly. What did she name you?"
"You'll laugh and call me mean names." Now I could barely see the boy, only a dusting shimmer over the verge of the field.
"No, I won't, I promise." I'd thought that maybe if I knew his name, he would be attentive to me suggesting he move on to the next world. But he clearly did not want to say his name, and that puzzled me.
"She named me Ignatz Clovis Gorf. My brothers and my uncle called me Iggy-Piggy, and my older brother called me Iggy Piggy Cloven Hoof. See why I didn't want to tell?"
I don't know why people don't think for a bit before naming their children. Sure, it's a grand thing to want to remember their grandfathers or their many times removed cousin the hero, or even a name that they themselves fancied in their youth. But come on, you have to think of what it does to a child to carry a name that inspires mirth in other children who will undoubtedly explore the limits of cruelty because they know no better. A name should be carefully chosen, so as not to rhyme with anything unseemly, or be turned into a taunt. For example, a family whose surname is "Little" should never name a son "Richard."
Having the Ur-gift of being a shaman, I was allowed to choose my own name from the roster of shaman names in our clan. I chose it both for its sound and for honoring the tales about the shamans named Ase long ago. This poor boy carried his upset and humiliation about his name over with him into death. Poured into a jar and buried at the edge of a field, he had no headstone to remember him, or give his name any dignity. "Sounds to me like your family had a fondness for rhymes. Didn't you call the old cow 'Bony Tona?'"
"She was bony, and anyway, she was a COW. She licked our hands and our faces. She didn't care what she was called." The boy's ghost turned away from me.
"Are you happy here by the ridge?" I asked the spirit.
"You're the first person I've seen since I was deaded," he said, becoming more visible, but still losing shape. "I'm all alone. All alone."
The ghost seemed on the verge of becoming a haunt, he was so sad. "The first?" I asked him, finding a glimmer of inspiration.
"They put me here the day after I died, and never came back," he said. "Never oncet."
"That could be good news for you. Since I am the first to see you from your grave, I get to rename you, just as though you were newly born." Some people say you can't lie to the dead, but they're wrong. You can tell them the most blatant fabrications and they'll believe them, as long as they want to hear the words.
"You can do that?" The boy's ghost became bright and clear.
"What are you going to name me?" he asked, his appearance still bright, but now jagged at the edges.
"I, Ase Ur-Jennan, do hereby name you a new name, a single name, a strong name. With pleasure I greet you ... Targold."
The boy shot up into the air like fireworks. "I'm Targold!" he shouted. "Just like I always wanted! I'm Targold! Targold! TAR-GOLD!!!!!"
"Okay, Targold. Now pipe down and let me sleep until first light, will you do that? And not moon light, I'm talking dawn time. If you do that, I'll call out your name again as soon as I wake."
"Sure thing, Ase Ur-Jennan! Thanks!" He disappeared from my sight.
I pulled my blanket back around me and over my head. "It's just Aser, unless we're in snooty company, by the way," I mumbled, and then fell soundly asleep.
To be continued...
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