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July 04, 2022

The Aser Stories 57: Animal Tracks

By Sand Pilarski

Still on the run from the treacherous wizard Fellmount, Aser and Danner make a risky side trip to try to find the magical baboons Narsai and Guillaume. How do people get so attached to animals, anyway?

"Danner," I said, "they're not here. If they were hanging around town, everyone would know about magical talking baboons by now."

"But where could they be?" Dan Ur-Jennan asked. "They wouldn't have just left us!"

"Everybody's left us, remember? First Margot and her dog left us to go spa-hopping on the coast. Then Cloudraft left us, because he couldn't handle camping in the rain. The baboons probably backtracked to our clan lands where they've applied for jobs as archivists and eat termites three times a day."

My name is Aser, and I'm a hedge shaman. Some say I'm a crazed hedge shaman, but if I am, it's because of hanging around with annoying wizards or encountering snooty bulimic elves or going drinking with Danner, who is both my friend and my relative, and attracts trouble worse than I do. I've been known to get on the bad side of just about every elf I encounter, but Danner has gone right to the top and made pissing off wizards a career.

As a result, we were on the run from two power-mad enchanters, one of whom Danner exposed as an extorting impersonator of legitimate Lordships; the other one Danner impetuously punched out for being in her lover Cloudraft's apartment and maybe being in collusion with the extorting phony.

Oh, her lover was another wizard, did I mention that? Bad move, getting that close with a wizard, I warned her, but Danner has about as much restraint as a fish. And much less than the baboons she was hunting for that day.

"Guillaume wouldn't have left me," she said, and because I knew she was on the verge of tears, I didn't look at her.

"Maybe they followed our trail to Caedmon Castle," I suggested. "We need to take that trail again before dark -- maybe we'll find them on the way."

"Okay."

We retraced our footsteps. The road was firm enough to walk on after a couple days' sun, and we were able to see how we'd squooshed through the mud after the heavy rain on our previous trip. "No other tracks but ours," I pointed out, "so Guillaume and Narsai must have gone back to our land."

"Don't you think Narsai would have been smart enough to know how to follow our tracks?" she demanded. "What if those damned wizards kidnapped them?"

"What if they grew wings and flew all the way back to their native land? Come on, Danner, even if Narsai was kidnapped, he would know how to ingratiate himself to his abductors and stay alive." Narsai the baboon was as pragmatic as he was clever, and I didn't fear for his safety. He had a better chance at survival than we did.

Danner strode faster and longer than I and drew ahead of me. I suspected she wanted to have a cry, and do it alone, so I let her widen the distance between us.

A funny thing happens when we deal with animals -- we get gut-wrenchingly involved with them. All it took was for the younger baboon, Guillaume, to snuggle against Danner for warmth when they first met, and she was a baboon aficionado from the core out. Cold and afraid after being magicked into a talking, self-aware creature, he had sought out the closest thing to his mother, and attached himself to Danner. Of course his attachment to her was only reinforced by the fact that she did not beat him with branches or scream at him to behave as a proper baboon, the way his mother would have, and the way his elder brother Narsai did.

Well, maybe they did have a lot in common there. Both of them were always in trouble, and both of them were always getting yelled at by their elders.

I guess that's at least part of the reason people keep pets. The little "alone" part of our souls recognizes the "alone" part of the last puppy in the litter, the stray kitten which steps forward to lick extended fingers in hope of comfort. A bridge is formed, and two lonely islands are joined. Two solitary beings take sides with each other, and the result is a team; the reward is companionship and warmth.

Or sometimes the unjudgmental nature of an animal draws us into reaching out to the creature. Suddenly we realize that here is a fellow being who will not demand to see our report card, our college transcript, our resume, but who will be interested in dining with us, without regard for what payment will come afterwards, or what profit there will be thereby. Our hearts go out to the breathing, living thing.

"Out" is an interesting word applied to the heart. When we let our hearts go "out" to something, we become less tangled up in our misgivings and pessimism and our own machinations; the person we let out is a purer being, uncluttered by emotional and commercial baggage. The pet has no understanding or worry about those things; so in dealing with the pet, we can leave all that behind.

Long ago, a shaman was brought back to the clan lands with two injured legs. Her wounds healed, but she was only able to hobble a few steps at a time, and so was no longer able to go out into The World. Despairing, she took to her bed, ready to sleep until she died. The clan elder had her carried out under the great trees of Ur, and placed on a blanket to watch the leaves flicker in the light and the sun move across the heavens. In the late afternoon, a hawk attacked a nest in the tree above her, and a nearly naked baby crow plummeted out of the heavens to land on her blankets, screaming with fright. Automatically, she picked the chick up and held it against her chest to protect it. Hearing her heartbeat, the birdlet quieted, and the shaman fed it from the parcel of food left for her. As the chick gulped food, the shaman also felt hunger, and dined with the little bird.

At the close of day, the clan elder went out and found the shaman awake and fed and holding the sleeping baby crow close to her heart.

The crow-child survived, and grew to adulthood in the companionship of the shaman. In the course of time, the crow met another crow, and then there were four more young crows; the shaman's crow-child introduced them to the shaman, and they accompanied her until they were old enough to set out and form relationships of their own. The shaman learned the Crow language, and acted as a surrogate parent to crow children for the rest of her life. By the end of her days, if all the great-great-great-great grandchildren of her crow-child came visiting at once, the branches of the trees were filled to cracking, and the roofs of the houses were splashed to white, and no one could hear anything but the news and insults and humor of the Crows, for the shaman passed on her knowledge of the Crow speech to the Jennan Clan, which knowledge we preserve even to the present day, in gratitude to the Crow-child who gave a shaman a reason to live.

In the still heat of midday as Danner and I trudged along, a solitary crow came flying over the fields. I cupped my hands around my mouth and shouted, in the Crow language, "Strange animals pass?"

The crow landed on the road before us. "You ain't kiddin', toots! You wouldn't believe how many weirdos we saw the last couple days! Got any food on ya?"

I pulled some of the trail food from my pack -- dried fish, the sight of which made the crow hop in anticipation. "Which way?"

"The old castle," said the crow. "Pay up!"

I tossed a handful of tiny fish onto the road. "Thanks, Crow."

"Get a job," said the crow, as it greedily gobbled fish.

When we got to the gates of the old castle of Caedmon, the ghost of the gatekeeper once again appeared to us. "Don't I know you from somewhere?" the ghost asked.

"Have you seen any baboons pass by here in the last day or so?" Danner asked, more politely than I would have expected.

"Bubboons?" asked the ghost in return. "What's bubboons?"

"Uhh, really ugly and talkative dogs," I offered, hoping the description would not get back to them.

"Oh, yeah, there was three ugly dogs came through here yesterday, with a big hot broad. They just walked right past me," the gatekeeper said, a bit miffed.

Danner and I looked at each other in surprise, and then sprinted through the gates down the stone-clad central road of the castle.

"Hey, wait, who goes there?" the plaintive voice of the gatekeeper's ghost echoed after us. "Dangit," the echo continued, "I can't keep nobody out no matter what."

The gatekeeper's complaint slowed us not at all. We kept our eyes on the stones of the road, looking for any clue, but found none -- until we came to the ruined stairs to Lord Caedmon's hall. On a fair flat space we found what we'd been looking for: the handlike imprint of a baboon's paw in the dried mud.

"They're here!" cried Danner. She put her fingers to her mouth to whistle for them.

I grabbed her arm. "Don't do that. Look!" And I pointed at a footprint in the mud about two yards from the baboon-print. I put my foot in the footprint, matching heels. The rest of the print extended again as long as my foot. "The ghost was right -- that's Margot the Troll's footprint. She's been tracking us, and the baboons are with her!"

"They're safe, then," Danner sighed.

"Right up until they find us, and then they're as likely to be killed as we are! Come on, we can probably get to the border of Kaladang's lands by nightfall." We started off towards the northern ruined shield wall of the castle. "I wonder what changed Margot's mind and made her follow us?"

"She couldn't leave you behind any more than I could desert the baboons."

"Thanks, Danner," I said. "Now I'll spend what's left of the rest of my life wondering if I was a troll's friend or a troll's pet."

But the way my heart felt when I saw that footprint, I already knew the answer.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-07-07
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