There are lots of tales worth telling, but few worth losing a beer over.
"I could hear him down there on the porch, rattling away. 'Yes, Daive Elspeth, I know. She climbed up on the roof after the breakfast hour this morning and hasn't come down for her good lunch. I didn't know that shamans were so whimsical, did you? Do you think she's communing with the spirit world about this great snowfall? I do hear that the shamans are in contact with the ghosts that make the weather change, but that was from my grandmother Ola Elspeth, do you remember her? She said she met a shaman in Crosspasses Market who was buying chicken bones for divining and told her about weather spirits. Shaman Aser up there hasn't brought out any chicken bones yet, but I was thinking of asking my good wife to stew up a chicken so that the shaman could read the bones. Maybe the shaman could tell us how soon Spring will actually be here, for 'tis obvious the Equinox Stone is lying like a dog, or else that troublemaking Lem Elspeth has been at moving the Stone again, trying to make Spring come by sooner.'
"That man could not shut up, neither for a fortune in gold nor to assure his ghost passage to the next world! After that freak storm packed snow drift nearly five feet deep against the front door, I was subjected to listening to the entire family history of the residents of Elspeth Village, and how their loyalty to their family and town led them to carry that name, every single one. The whole accursed day I spent watching the sky throw down snow upon snow and hearing George Elspeth chatter Elspeth this and Elspeth that while the children (whose names all included "Elspeth") ran up and down the stairs and his wife, Debbie Elspeth, cooked a vat of soup, baked bread, and smiling, sang to herself some endless elf-song about lounging under a hemlock tree, all alone and eating eclairs. I knew what she was smiling about -- probably the first time in ten years she had to herself!
"When the sun rose the next morning, I used a flat piece of kindling to dig my way out the back door and pack a path on the deep snow. I climbed the sweetgum tree by the house, and using a most-thoughtfully placed branch, thanks be to the Life That Guides the World, got up to the roof and sat against the chimney. The heat from the great fireplace below heated the bricks somewhat. It was cold, but I could put my feet against the chimney, and it was quiet. By then, that was all that mattered.
"Suddenly Daive Elspeth shrieked and began running away from the house in slow motion on his snowshoes. 'Gaahh!' said the voluble George Elspeth and I heard the front door of his house slam, just as a rider in helmet and black leather jacket on a flying carpet circled the house and then rose to park before me on the roof."
"A flying carpet?" asked Svarthelm, leaning one arm on the bar to eye my face more closely in the dim light of the inn.
"A flying carpet! I picked up my staff and stood on the roof-peak, ready to defend myself, when the rider whips off his helmet and there in front of me was a young baboon named Guillaume."
Svarthelm shoved my silver coin towards me. "That's it, you're cut off. A baboon on a flying carpet. You must have put the wrong kind of weeds on your fire, Aser." He turned away to wash some mugs and put them on the sideboard to dry.
"No, really, it was. He got into a fight with his older brother -- whose name is Narsai, by the way -- and stole his employer's magic carpet for spite, to joy ride around in. But after a couple hours, he knew he was going to be in deep trouble and was afraid to go home, so he came to find me."
"Not listening," said Svarthelm loudly, continuing to wash dishes.
"Guillaume knew that I would understand his behavior and could mediate for him when we got to his home. And I was more than glad to do so for a chance of a ride out of Elspeth." I finished my beer and pushed the mug forward, along with the silver coin. "Come on, 'Helm. I've been three days on the road and the beer over by the coast is the most insipid slop you ever tasted."
"And just how would a baboon know you were up in Elspeth? No one around here saw any baboons. The bars on the coast water down their beer, the crooks."
"He just said to the carpet, 'Take me to Ase Ur-Jennan.' That's kind of the point of having a magic carpet: it's magical. If the thing didn't have a global positioning system, you could end up anywhere and not know where the hell you were." I upended my mug over my mouth to see if there was even one drop left, then put it down closer to the edge of the bar so that the dark-haired dwarf would get the stronger hint.
"So now he's a talking baboon," Svarthelm said sarcastically, his hands on his hips.
"Well, of course he talks. How could he hold down a job if he didn't talk?"
"What's he do for a living, pick bananas?"
"He's an archivist and librarian."
"I'm not pouring any more beer for you, Shaman. You're crazier than a moth in a candle shop. You get drunk and the next thing you know you'll be seeing cockroaches the size of donkeys and cows in rhumba pants and go swinging that staff and wreck the place." He wrung out a bar cloth, put a dry dish towel over his shoulder, and hopped down from behind the bar to tend the tables.
That's the one problem with adventuring: after traveling to strange places and performing great feats of daring and wit, you come home and the neighbors observe your tan and your scars and your booty with upraised eyebrows, assuming that you've been to a gambling resort where you got into barfights but at least held a couple good hands of cards. You tell them about a land so hot that you can raise blisters on your toes by going barefoot, or an ocean so fierce that the waves pound holes in the rocks, and they look at their fingernails and say, "That's nice. Did you hear that the smith has a new anvil? I hear it came all the way from Great Well." Explain that you spent your summer vacation on the run from evil wizards or that you met a fire-breathing dragon face-to-face, and they look up at the sky hoping for a sudden rain-storm to give them an excuse to go home and shut their doors, and lock them firmly.
Maybe it's because they don't want to get so interested in wild and far off things that they feel compelled to leave their comfortable, safe lives. I'm lucky -- I live in a dirt-floored cave under a tree, and no one covets my place. But if you've got a sweet little farmstead with a family playing in front of the hearth, you really wouldn't want to leave that behind. Or if you have a pretty rose-covered cottage in town -- you take off for a couple months and by the time you get back the roses will have taken over the yard or squatters will have moved in to sit in your rocking chair and eat up your canned goods. Maybe it's better sometimes to not listen to fantastic stories and find you want to go running off to the Northlands or the Eastern Desert with their exotic animals and mysterious people.
"Are you still here, Aser? I told you, you're cut off. You may as well go crawl back under your hedge. I don't serve drunk shamans." Svarthelm shook the crumbs from his cleaning cloth into a trashcan.
"I'm not drunk, and my story was not the result of drugs or fever. How else can you explain how I got out of Elspeth with five feet of snow and ended up walking to our village here from the West, not the East?"
He took my mug from the bar and put it in the dishwater. "I'd say you were staggering around in a drunken stupor and missed our village on your way back from Elspeth and had to wait until you sobered up enough to figure out where you were."
"You insulting little turd, how would you like the Midgard Humane Society to find out how your Midweek stew has played a role in the reduction of stray cats in the area?"
"Go ahead and tattle, Shaman. They'll believe you just as much as they would if you told them your tale of flying monkeys." He grinned, showing a glint of a gold tooth under his heavy black moustache.
"You want to say that what happened to me is just a drunken tale because you're afraid you'd have to expand your vocabulary to repeat it to your brothers." I crossed my arms over my chest.
He narrowed his eyes. "No way was I going to repeat that raft of bullshit to my brothers."
"The only bullshit in this scenario is between your ears."
"The only bullshit in this scenario is what is sitting at my bar, trying to get another beer."
"Hey, I was just relating my recent experiences, and you, mired in your money-grubbing job, couldn't fathom that there's a wider world out there." I pocketed my silver coin, while Svarthelm watched the silver disappear. "Your loss is my weekly contribution to my next adventure. I've got a win-win situation here, 'Helm."
"You wouldn't if you had to put your money where your smartass mouth is," Svarthelm gritted in annoyance.
"Sure I would."
"Not at all, you unimaginative pixie."
"Pixie?!?" he shouted. "Who are you calling a damn dirty pixie?"
"Make a bet, Butthead. I can bet everything I got." I stood up and picked up my staff.
"You're a shaman. You got nothing but your staff and your robes, which no beggar would touch because they're so disgusting."
"Well, that's the point about the robes, but I do have a bank account in Great Well."
His greed won out over -- never mind, he didn't have "better sense" to win out over -- his greed just won out. "If you can't prove to me that story was real, I get your bank account," Svarthelm said with a triumphant smile.
"And if I prove that it was true, I get free beer for a year," I replied, extending a hand.
He took it and shook it.
"Get ready to ride in the morning, Sweetheart." I shrugged my cloak around my shoulders.
"What?" he said.
"We're hiring a horse in the morning and riding out to the coast, where I will introduce you to talking baboons and get you a ride on that carpet. A year of beer, Svarthelm. Think about that and weep into your pillow tonight."
"I can't leave this place in my brothers' hands! They got no business sense at all -- they'd let the fire go out in the fireplace and knock the barrels around until all you could tap would be foam! Forget it!" he shouted.
"Then how can I prove my story? What do you want me to do, invent the telephone and give him a call? See how you are? You listen to my story and call me a liar, you shake over a bet and then renege on it! I've got a mind to shout outrage about this in the marketplace, you weasel." I climbed down from the bar stool and turned my back.
"Don't do that!" chattered the dwarf. "Come on, Aser, we all have to make a living in this town!"
"Fine," I said to him. "I'll make you another deal. You bring me another beer, and I will put a piece of silver on the bar and say no more about magical baboons."
The beer was on the bar before I even sat down again. I was true to my word and said no more about Guillaume's misbehavior, but wondered if I should tell him that the Dragon of Gothwold Lake had recently sent me a letter saying he was going to drop by for a visit. Probably not.
Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2009-03-23