Piker Press Banner
July 15, 2024

The Aser Stories 55: Small Comfort

By Sand Pilarski

The battlements of the Castle of Caedmon are pretty mangy-looking these days, with parts missing here and there. In the front of it, the tower looks intact, but once you pass the open gate you can see that the whole back of it is gone. Most of the interior walls of the buildings along its shield wall are gone now, settlers in the area having scavenged the best cut stones for their own houses.

"I don't suppose this place has a pub we can stop in," said my friend and relative Dan Ur-Jennan as we approached the old fortress.

"No, and no hidden wine cellar, either," I told her. "The battle for Caedmon went on from the end of winter to the second snowfall of the beginning of the next winter, and the enemy broke through the gates to find nothing left to plunder, not even enough furniture to burn for campfires."

"Aser, don't try to bullshit me that you were here when it happened."

"Your mother wasn't even married yet when I came to Caedmon the first time. In fact, I don't think she had even ventured out of her parents' domicile when I learned about Caedmon." I was still young when I explored Caedmon the first time; the castle had only been deserted for about a hundred years. People hereabouts said it was haunted and feared the place because of its ghosts, saying that Lord Caedmon never knew who it was that attacked the castle and destroyed it, and so he and his army kept trying to defend the place long after they were dead.

There was no cemetery between Sweetwater, where we had last slept, and the lands of Kaladang the Axe, where we both fully expected to die. The Castle of Caedmon would hold enough ghosts to give us some magical camouflage until we could make our run into Kaladang's clutches, flying from danger into more danger.

Danner stuck her shaman's staff into the ground in front of where the gate of the castle used to be. "Hail, Gatekeeper," she said. "Why do you still guard the gates?"

The contact of the sacred wood and the earth to which the dead were tied gave the gatekeeper's spirit voice and shape. He sported a thick-shafted arrow through his helmet. "We pledged to defend this castle against all comers," said the gate-ghost. "That's why I'm here. We didn't succeed, now did we? So that's why I'm still here. I can't go off somewhere else knowing that I just failed to live up to what I pledged to do, now can I?"

"That's what he said when I was here the last time," I observed to Danner. "He's pretty straightforward about his obsession. He just can't get over it."

"But he's got a point, doesn't he?" said Danner. "At least he keeps faith with his house and his kin and keeps trying until the end and beyond. Our people do that, too."

"True. But our ghosts don't stick around because they're obsessed, they do it because they're having too much fun to leave for the next world. Gatekeeper," I said to the spirit, "we are shamans from the land of Ur. Will you let us pass?"

"Are you trying to devastate our keep?" The gatekeeper intoned.

"No, just visiting," I said.

"You may pass. Watch your step, the last thing we needs is one of them lawsuits."

We passed through the gates and entered the ruin. I ignored the broken foundations of the houses under the shield walls and walked on to the back of the castle. There was still an edifice standing there: what had once been the chambers and audience room of Lord Caedmon. The furnishings (what was left by the time the siege was over) had been looted long before, but the building would provide us shelter if the rain began again, which seemed likely from the number of thunderheads mounting in the sky, looking like scoops of vanilla ice cream with hints of caramel on the sunward sides. "I'm hungry, Danner, aren't you? What did the villagers give you? I got some zucchinis, a bag of grapes, and some jerky beef."

"They filled the water skin with sweet water from Sweetwater Well," she said, holding it up, "and gave me two loaves of bread just baked this morning. And look at this." She reached into the suspiciously heavy pack and produced a tiny jar stopped with a cork. "Butter to go with the bread."

My jaw dropped. "You're kidding! No, you're not. Who gave you that prize?"

She raised her eyebrows. "The same worthy soul who gave me this." She lifted out a small roast from a leg of beef. As I stared at the riches, she grinned, and pulled a wine skin from the pack. "And this."

"Danner, did you pinch this stuff?"

"No, my suspicious friend, I did no such thing. I merely looked at a woman's hand and told her fortune."

"You can't tell fortunes, you nit! What the hell were you doing?"

"Hey, she held out her hand and asked me what I could tell of her future," Danner said with no repentance at all. "She had a happy household with about five kids, all of them well-spoken and polite, and a husband who obviously adored her. I told her that I could foresee times of trial in the years when the children were turning into adults, and that she would weather the trials gracefully because she would always remember that the future is full of promise even when things seem awkward and tiresome."

"You're shameless," I told her. "What else?"

"I told her that I could see her appreciating her husband's work, trying to make his rest at home the most rewarding experience of his life, and finding joy in his comfort. I wouldn't have said that if he was a pig, you know," she said, by way of excusing herself. "And I told her that by the time her children began to grow up, she would discover some craft or wisdom that would allow her to become ten times the woman she is today."

"Thereby setting her up for hope and probably satisfaction in her life," I nodded.

"Cloudraft had all kinds of books on psychology in his library," she confessed. "None of it was a lie."

"Except that she thought it was a foretelling, not the power of suggestion."

"She didn't know shamans don't tell the future, Aser. If I had refused to tell her anything she would have thought there was something I didn't want to tell her. So I had to tell her something, didn't I?"

"Pass the wine."

I guess we all do that kind of thing now and then: say things to give people some hope when they're down and out. We try to encourage people to look ahead with some shred of optimism, because there just isn't any worse condition for a person than despair.

The farmer's crops wither in a drought that lasts for a month and in his worry he confides that his harvest is going to be very, very poor this year. You don't say "Whew, you're going to have one hungry family come wintertime!" You say, "Don't worry, you'll make it through just fine, and next year will be a good one."

Or like when you encounter someone you know has been sick for a long time, you don't say, "You look like you're going to keel over any minute." You smile at them and say, "You're looking so much more chipper. You'll be your old self in no time now!" You don't know that the farm will survive or that the weather will improve or that the convalescent is on the mend, but just hearing heartening words makes a person feel a little better, and helps them continue on.

Danner probably made that woman's day.

We'd gathered twigs and small pieces of wood along the way, and once we had the wet wood burning, we shaved slivers of the beef and toasted them over the open flames.

A voice said from nearby, "Are you here to save us?"

We looked up to see the ghost of Lord Caedmon standing, watching us eat. "No, Lord Caedmon, we aren't. Nor are we here to plunder. We're here because your castle is once again a haven for those in need of safety,"

"Safety?" he sputtered back to me. "The enemy set upon us and killed me in the first volley! Who were they, and why did they want my little castle? Have you looked at this place lately? It's destroyed!"

"No one knows who the army was that set upon your castle," I told the ghost. "At the end of the battle, your men destroyed everything so there was nothing left for the conquerors to eat nor fuel to keep them warm. A deep snowfall immobilized what was left of them, and the majority froze to death. The few enemy who survived deserted."

"Deserters!" shouted the ghost of Caedmon. "I know deserters! My people left the defense of the castle to the guards and ran away!"

"To live," I said to him. "The civilians took your wealth and your son and your wife to safety through the tunnels under these very rooms."

"I know that! But they didn't come back! They left the rest to die!"

In fact only the most staunch and stalwart of his army had stayed to keep the invaders out. After the death of their lord, his captains, sensing defeat, had sent the Lady and the Heir and attendants and vassals out the secret tunnels down to the valleys beyond. As the autumn drew on, even the greatest part of Lord Caedmon's military was sent through the secret way and disappeared.

"Most of your people didn't die," I reminded him. "They left so that they could live."

"Cowards!" Caedmon moaned. "They forgot their fealty."

"No, they didn't. They owed fealty to you, and you were dead. They didn't owe any faithfulness to rocks." I buttered my next piece of bread.

The revenant tapped his spectral foot on the floor in annoyance, unable to think of a rebuttal. "Well," he huffed, "at least some of my people stayed. I think I'll take a tour around and talk to them instead of you gluttons."

"Look, don't be such a sorehead. We'll be heading east ourselves. If we meet any of your people's descendants, I'll tell them about Castle Caedmon. Maybe they'll return."

"That would be nice," said Caedmon. "And then I could tell them in person what gutless poltroons their fathers were." He walked through a wall and disappeared.

"You know, I sort of understand how he feels," Danner said. "A couple weeks ago we had a bunch of good pals around us and the comfort of knowing we had a Clan that would always welcome us with open arms, and now look at us. All alone. The Clan exiled us so we wouldn't bring threat to the Jennan lands, and then your friend Margot the Troll took off on her own because she didn't want to share our risk, and then Cloudraft disappears into some other dimension because he's just plain old sick of the rain and hates camping out. And he even took his baboons with him. He's probably at some luxury hotel right now, with the baboons bringing him martinis and lighting his cigars."

"You were his apprentice," I said. "You could have gone with him."

"We both could have gone with him," she said sarcastically. "We could just tag along after a wizard for the rest of our days, hiding behind his skirts from Fellmount's wrath and let that evil, money-grubbing rat bastard take his vengefulness out on our clan when he couldn't find us. Sure, I can just see us doing that."

"Didn't we?" I asked her. "Think about it. When we found out that Fellmount was taking over Cloudraft's tower and the lands and army of Lord Seaguard, we didn't stay and fight. We took off up the coast as fast as we could pack and get on the road."

"That's because Fellmount is a more powerful wizard than Cloudraft and was going to kill him. Hell, he was ready to kill us all." Danner frowned. "What good would it have done if we were all dead?"

"But what about all the people of Lord Seaguard's desmesne? All the soldiers, the farmers, the craftspeople -- we knew that Fellmount wouldn't play nice after we left, didn't we desert them?"

"That's why we tried to blow him up, I believe," she argued. "But we had to get beyond his reach in order to help ... oh! We had to leave them so we could help them!" Her face lit with understanding. "You think that Cloudy and Margot cut out because they were still trying to help us?"

"Did you really think they wouldn't try?" I stood up to look out the stone doorway. Even shamans need to hear some kind words at times, be they true or merely hopeful. The words I gave Caedmon would do for Danner, too. "Maybe they'll return."

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-06-23
0 Reader Comments
Your Comments

The Piker Press moderates all comments.
Click here for the commenting policy.