Kids never believe their elders about anything. Is it any wonder we can't stand them?
Danner sneezed four times in a row, her eyes streaming tears. "Oh, dammit, the wind's shifted again." She trudged to the rear with Guillaume, the younger of the two dog-headed baboons.
My nose was non-functional for most of the time, my sinuses swelled shut and the pressure pounding in my cheeks and forehead. What a journey this was. Five of us on the run and having to share our camp and now this.
Narsai sneezed, too, showing his fangs in disgust. He shook his head and continued along the trail in front of me.
Cloudraft the Great had pulled his shirt up over his nose to his eyeballs and anchored it there with a leather thong. He looked like an idiot but at least it kept him from breathing in unfiltered air.
Early that morning, a fine fat deer had sprung through the woods to our left and crossed the trail we were following through the mountains. Had we had a bow and arrows, we might have had something nice for dinner, but we hadn't, so the deer passed unbothered, gracefully bounding with tail fluffed and held high. We all stopped and looked to see what had spooked the deer, but the woods were thick and there was no indication of trouble.
"A deer, Narsai!" exclaimed Guillaume to his older brother. "I have never seen one alive before, only as a roast readied for the spit! It looks like the antelope which bounded on the veldt in the land from which we were taken!"
The two baboons in the party had been captured and brought across the sea as pets? as sideshow exhibits? but had ended up being magically transformed into talking creatures who were self-aware by an unscrupulous mage. They'd taken up with us in order to escape servitude. They could read and write, and were charmingly well-spoken; their wonder at this foreign land kept us smiling even when we were worried about our enemy catching us and blowing us all up.
Not much later, a family of crows had come flying through the forest canopy, cawing in annoyance. My friend and relative Dan Ur-Jennan and I stopped and looked at each other, for the crow-language had been full of epithets like "Ugly bastard!" and "Can't even eat breakfast in peace!" But once again, we saw nothing and heard nothing at which to take alarm.
The morning was beautiful, temperate and green-and-gold, though as we climbed higher on the trail, the leafy trees were giving way to piney ones. The underbrush was changing, too, becoming thicker with laurel rather than weeds. We'd spent the night safely, and felt optimistic about eluding our enemy in the balmy morning. The baboons, who had read many books in Cloudraft's library but had little experience in the field, so to speak, were telling each other the names of the vegetation they recognized from descriptions. "Look, Brother. Here is the plant called 'teaberry.' See the minute serrations of the glossy leaves, and the low, trailing habit?"
I picked a leaf of the plant and broke it into quarters. "You can absolutely identify this plant by its distinctive smell," I said, and gave them the leaf to sniff. "We could eat it, though it is rather tough."
"Look, O Honored Shaman! Rabbits!"
Surely enough, two rabbits appeared on the path, running from the left, and after pausing on the trail, darted into the laurel on the right.
"Stop," said Danner. "Something's got the game in an uproar over there." She pointed towards the north. We stopped and listened, but once again, could discern no particular reason for the movement of the deer, crows, and rabbits.
"What do you think, Aser," she asked me, "a lion?"
"Could be, or maybe a hunting party of some sort. The animals are on the move, but they're not panicky -- that means if it is a hunting party or a predator, it's far enough away we don't have to worry too much. There's no smell of smoke, so they're not running ahead of a forest fire."
We never did find out what they were running from that morning. But none of us was in the mood for lunch today, with all our coughing and sneezing. I trudged on, wiping my leaking nose on the sleeve of my robe from time to time. I heard Danner say something quietly to Cloudraft behind me.
"No!" he said, his voice muffled from the shirt around his face. "There's only one thing that can alleviate this condition and it does not exist in this dimension, at least not in sufficient quantity! If I use magic to bring it in from an alternate universe, the power will allow Fellmount to target us as though we had appeared in his parlor, wherever that might be at this time."
I hadn't been on this trail for about ten years, but I was certain that we wouldn't hit any major streams for another day at least. Maybe risking the evil magician Fellmount's revenge was worth it. At this point we were all close to wishing we were dead, anyway.
Well, that's an exaggeration. Maybe. Personally, I was ready to risk a couple dozen magical gallons of tomato juice.
One of the problems with adolescents is that they have to go from being children to being adults. Children are utterly dependent upon the adults around them for information and guidance. Adults have to figure things out for themselves. The transition is often a very big pain in the ass, as adolescents tend to focus upon "experience" rather than "reasoning."
The storekeeper warns his son that liquor is a dangerous thing, that the son should avoid it and keep to small beers, for liquor could be his downfall. The son takes his first sip of a vodka and cider at a bonfire party and decides that Dad must have just stopped living entirely to give advice like that. The next morning, minus his wallet and pants, the son tries to drape his shirt around his nether portions and slink home without drawing too much notice, and begins -- begins, mind you -- to think that perhaps his father has some important knowledge to pass on.
"Esteemed and Best Beloved of Apprentices," I heard Guillaume's voice entreat Danner (who was indeed Cloudraft's apprentice) "I did not mean to hug you when I was so unexpectedly accosted. Please forgive my timidity and my chagrin!"
She coughed rackingly.
Guillame was disconsolate. "I am the worst of baboons! I deserve only to be put in a pit and buried!"
"Tempt me not, Brother," muttered Narsai ahead of me.
"I did not know that the words 'fetid odor' in the dictionary carried this much significance!" wailed the younger baboon.
The last animal to cross our trail that morning had been a busily trundling creature, elegant in black and white. "Mephitus mephitus," said Narsai, giving the latin name, "a creature which emits a 'fetid odor.'"
"It is beautiful, Brother," said Guillaume, "and look how it stands to greet us!"
"No! Guillame! Don't go any closer!"
My cry was in vain. Total, utter, absolute, complete, and irreversible vain.
There is only one word to convey the condition of our company at this time: SKUNK.