Staying mad at each other is easy until you realize how silly you look doing so. Cloudraft the Wizard and his hot former apprentice let two angry empaths trade insults for them.
Cloudraft the Great and my relative and friend Dan Ur-Jennan were still fighting. He was furious that she, a mere former-apprentice, would have the temerity to hold his hat hostage (thereby rendering him less than complete in his power), and she was adamant that he not do anything stupid in opposition to her decisions, she being a shaman, after all. In addition, they were both completely besotted with each other, but not being particularly pleased with that condition, fought all the more.
The wizard was recovering from a really nasty cold that hit him while we were in the backwoods, so he was sitting atop the horse and the packs. He hated riding, and chose to sit upon the panniers as though he were riding an elephant's howdah, which caused him to nearly fall off six times over the course of the day. Each time, our companion Margot the troll caught him before he hit the ground and shoved him back to the top of the packs.
"You're welcome," she snarled at him each time, white fangs showing as she said it.
"Thank you," Cloudraft gritted past pressed lips, thus reminded of politeness. But he would not look at her, or speak with Danner, or me. All his conversation was transmitted through the dog-headed baboons, Narsai and Guillaume, who were in his hire to administer his library.
For example, earlier in the day, Guillaume announced, "The Master would like to call a stop so that he can take a piss." Whereupon his elder brother Narsai whacked him with the morning's San Francisco Chronicle across the back of his head, and Guillaume amended, "The Master would like to call a stop so as to do whatever he wishes to do without his humble and appreciative servants getting whacked with whatever is handy." And while the baboons bickered, Cloudraft set off alone to find some privacy, forgot to keep track of his surroundings, got turned around, and got lost. We had to send Margot's dog to find him, and even at that it delayed our march for an hour.
"Tell your master he's a jackass," Margot said to Narsai, who blinked at her with pale eyelids.
"Esteemed Beard," Narsai began, "the tall and scaly gentlewoman with the very sharp spear and ugly dog has suggested that your judgment is awry."
The wizard raised his wand from its leather case in his belt, but lowered it when he caught sight of Danner's hand moving to her dagger, which was now semi-sheathed right up against the wizard's hat.
"Tell her she's going to give that hat a nervous breakdown if she doesn't stop threatening it!" he groused.
"Honored Shaman," Narsai said with a deep bow, "My venerable employer expresses concern for the well-being of his mysterious and sensitive head-garment."
"Oh, bullshit. Tell him to keep his wand in his pants."
Cloudraft and Narsai both gasped from atop the packs on the horse, but the younger of the baboons grinned insultingly. "Please, Brother. I await with great interest the translation you put on this intercourse."
Narsai reached into the left side saddle-bag and pulled out the folded Chronicle and brought it down on Guillaume's head with a resounding whap! "This is not the company in which to use suggestive language!"
All day long.
The sun was westering rather heavily when we passed the standing stone on the trail that marked the Ur-lands of the empathic Ur-Hannans, with its distinctive carving of two equal bars standing upright, like twins standing shoulder to shoulder. We had hardly been on the lands 15 minutes before Ur-Hannans came out from their residences under the trees and greeted us.
One made directly for Cloudraft. "Oh, you poor man, traveling with two Ur-Jennans, you must be so aggravated, let me help you down, would you like a nice, hot bath?"
Another looked sympathetically at Danner, put a hand on her shoulder, and said, "A wizard? That's the pits. Come on, tell me why you're sticking by him and have some soup."
A tall red-haired man reached out his hand to Margot. "I'm Prest Ur-Hannan. After marching with this crowd, would you rather have a massage or a beer?"
"I'd rather have both," Margot said suggestively.
Prester's eyebrows rose. "Please step this way, O Wayfarer. I can assist you." Maybe it was the red leather that she wore beneath her travel cloak, I don't know, but Margot sure could find entertainment at a moment's notice.
That left me, the baboons, Margot's talking dog, and the horse, Melvan.
Dol Ur-Hannan smiled at me and said, "I know of a barn with empty stalls where you can stay."
"Don't I get any sympathy?" I asked her.
She laughed. "Aser, you're a riot."
"Dollar, remind me to pick up a customer comment card before I leave. Or at least point us in the direction of anyone who has an infestation of large ants, termites, or crickets."
"Crickets?" cried Guillaume. "I would tapdance on a bar table for crickets!"
"You like crickets?" yelped the dog. "I eat crickets, too! I can smell them out for us! They're almost as good as chicken! Not that I ever had chicken that wasn't cooked and served, just so I don't get beaten for the aforementioned chickens, but crickets are really tasty. I thought you baboons just ate ants and roots."
Narsai blinked at him with disdain. "We are true omnivores."
The dog snapped at a fly that buzzed past his face.
"Yeah, you and the police." He shook himself vigorously. "Come on, I'll sniff us out some appetizers."
"Racer," I called to the hound as he started toward a nearby woodstack, "no digging or defecating in people's gardens, got that?"
The dog didn't answer, but Narsai turned and saluted me. Dollar stood with an open mouth, staring at the animals. "They talk," she said in amazement.
"They talk, they read -- the dog is especially fond of detective stories -- the baboons write very neatly, and all three of them earn a salary. See, there was this mage who was going to sell talking animals to make a million, but the problem was, not only did they talk, they became self-aware. And they decided to throw their lot in with us."
"And the horse, does he talk, too?" Dollar asked as she walked along with us.
"Only to mares," I told her. "He's just a real horse."
The usual camp maintenance took up the rest of my day. I cleaned the horse's tack, rubbed down said horse, washed a few things, including myself, in a nearby stream, and then chose a site not far from the barn and began to assemble dead wood for a fire in the evening. I knew the horse and the baboons would prefer the barn, but I myself was looking forward to sleeping under the trees of Ur again. Margot and Prester showed up at twilight, with a string of fine big bass already scaled and cleaned, ready for roasting. I noticed that Prester's clothes were ripped here and there, but didn't comment, as his grinning attention to Margot said it all. "Nice fish," I said to her out of the side of my mouth as she peeled a stick to use as a skewer.
The light from the fire caught the side of her orange eyes, making them glow. "Not such a bad vacation so far after all, Aser," she rumbled. "I think this is what is called a 'return destination' in the travel business."
Danner and her Ur-Hannan escort came to the camp next, bearing an enormous pot of cabbage and crisped bacon, which they set on one edge of the fire to keep warm. Danner's hair had been combed, and though it was hard to tell for sure, her eyes looked swollen and red-rimmed even in the dimming light. Gift Ur-Hannan seemed upset as he hovered by Danner's elbow, helping her to sit down as though she were an old woman.
Then the dog and the baboons arrived, with Guillaume galloping alongside the dog. Narsai followed, a bit behind them. When Racer was done rubbing on Margot and joyously nibbling her toes, he sat by the fire to savor the smell of cooking fish and blissfully allowed Guillaume to sift through his fur for fleas. Narsai walked over to me and sat down. "Tell me that this association with the dog is not going to corrupt my brother."
"He's your brother, not your tail," I observed. "You can't make him do what you wish, not now that he's growing up. What would have happened to him back before you were changed?"
"In the land from which we were taken, he would have been beaten soundly by all the members of the troop until he understood what things he was permitted, or until he set out on his own."
"As he grows older, is he not more a co-worker than a child? And is not his acceptance of friendship with the dog a way of setting out on his own?" I asked the dignified baboon.
"At least he is getting extra protein," Narsai said, eyeing the cabbage pot, himself.
Floating through the air, an iron baking pot of potatoes drifted near the fire, with a smaller pot of butter and one of sour cream orbiting it like a crude depiction of an atom. Following it was Cloudraft the wizard, orchestrating the movement with his wand, regal and resplendent in dark blue robes with gold trim, his hair and beard cut neatly short. Behind him came Maze Ur-Hannan, clooking like a hen after a newly-hatched chick.
Fish don't take long to cook, and in minutes we were breaking them into serving portions and scooping cabbage and bacon onto our camp plates, burning our fingers on the baked potatoes and very grateful for a meal that was neither sparse nor boiled. Cloudraft did not use his tin camp plate. Instead, he conjured a place setting of china, complete with cup, saucer, and bread plate even though we had no tea and no bread. The knife, fork, and spoon were real silver, and as he accepted his serving, he spoke to no one.
Danner wolfed her fish and cabbage, and because her potato was still too hot, glared at Cloudraft's table setting with annoyance. Gifter, who had begun to pile a second serving on Danner's plate, followed her gaze. "You know," Gifter said, "only a pompous ass would eat from china when his mates are eating off tin."
Cloudraft didn't even look up, just forked another flaky bite of bass into his mouth with the silver flashing in the firelight. Mazer, who sat with her back to the group, said into the air, "Only an ill-mannered vandal would take offense at someone else's dishes."
"The display of china and silver is intended for one reason only," said Gifter hotly, "and that is to humiliate everyone else at the table."
Mazer sat up straighter. "Why should everyone else be humiliated? All they ever had to do was ask, but no, they're all such stuck-up, resentful, envious slackers, they'd rather eat off the ground than politely ask for a favor."
Each of the clans of Ur has a gift. We Ur-Jennans have a gift for knowing how the unseen world is, and for herblore. The Ur-Hannans can share people's emotions, help them carry the burden of them, as it were. However, the gifts have a counterpoint: Ur-Jennans rarely know when to shut up, and the Ur-Hannan often forget that the emotion they shared is not their own, especially if the emotions are intense.
I'm not certain that all gifts aren't balanced that way. I remember a master carpenter who had about fifteen carpenters who worked for his establishment. The master was able to keep in his mind not only what orders had been placed and which of his employees were working on what, but also all the wood orders that would be used for the various projects and in what condition the tools of each of his carpenters were. He knew the birthdays of all his workers, and what vacation times they favored, and what their children were doing and what flowers their ladies preferred.
But when it came to his own household, he couldn't seem to remember that his home wasn't a business to be run, and constantly ran into acrimonies with his wife and children by trying to orchestrate how they lived and loved and what things they liked. He was distraught once over his eldest daughter's unforgiving sorrow when he threw out her toy horse because the fur had gone bald and he had replaced it with a new one. He thought she should appreciate that he noticed the wear and tear on the old one, and did not understand that in this case, old comforts are better than new toys.
And when he tried to schedule his wife's activities to make her more efficient, she put down all her implements and moved his bedding to a spare room in the barn. Masterful control can be a blessing in business, but a curse if it laps over into the household.
Perhaps it was a mistake to allow Ur-Hannan empaths try to assist two opposing personalities.
Gifter stood up and dusted off his pants. "Ask for a favor? ASK for a FAVOR? Danner and Aser saved this old windbag's ass, if I have the story correct, or else he'd still be working in a diner as a busboy!"
Mazer jumped to her feet. "He was a bartender, not a busboy, you dolt! And he didn't ask for their help!"
"Because he was too STUPID to ask for help, that's why!"
"You're defending two of the most busybodiest Ur-Jennans to walk the face of the earth, who can't keep their noses out of anything they encounter!"
"Well, that wizard must have had the best instructors in the world, because if it wasn't for the gift for sorcery, he wouldn't be able to find his way around the block with a guide dog and a white cane!" Gifter shouted.
"Now wait," Danner said, tugging on Gifter's pants leg. "That's a little harsh."
Mazer gasped in outrage at Gifter's accusation. "That's outrageous," she said, raising her voice. "We're talking about an apprentice who was so unintelligent she couldn't even learn basic Latin phrases let alone how to keep her foul mouth shut for half a day!"
Danner looked at Cloudraft angrily, but he shook his head at her and mouthed, I never said that!
"Oh, sure, she should keep her mouth shut when her master can't even tell that he's living in the castle of a murderous harridan who's willing to see him wasted to cover up her crimes. That's really the smart thing to do isn't it? Play stupid because your master thinks you're stupid because he's the one who is really stupid..."
"Only an apprentice with half a brain would hold a wizard's hat hostage, because she hadn't the wit to understand in the least how the dynamic of hat and wand enhance the power of the wizard's gift!" Mazer frothed.
"No," muttered Cloudraft, "that's not true. I'm sure she understands, but you see, that is exactly why she took the hat --"
"OH, cut me a break," roared Gifter, "if it wasn't for the hat and the wand, this character would be pushing a broom and scooper on the boardwalk of Oceanwind Beach. He hasn't the capacity for understanding just how lucky he is."
Danner climbed to her feet and grabbed Gifter's sleeve. "Stop," she said. "Quit running him down."
A purple mist appeared at her back, and Cloudraft appeared out of it.
"Why did you take my hat hostage?" he asked.
"Because I didn't want you to transport yourself back to Oceanwind Castle," Danner said. "Fellmount insinuated that he'd kill you if you didn't leave."
"But Fellmount has been a friend for so many years," the wizard puzzled. "I can't believe he'd want to kill me."
Danner put her hand on his shoulder. "Cloudy, someone killed your friend Lord Seaguard, and Fellmount was covering it up. Also, he wanted your house. All we could do was get you out of there before you found out and tried to take him on, one to one."
"Because you knew I would lose."
She hooked a thumb over her shoulder at Mazer, who was now standing stiffly, arms crossed. "I'm not as stupid as you seem to think."
Cloudraft held out his arm for her to take. "Then you'll understand exactly what I'm suggesting as I invite you to go for a walk with me."
With a big grin, Danner pulled his hat from her belt and handed it to him, then took the offered arm. Cloudraft donned the hat, tapped himself on the head with his wand, and they both disappeared.
Mazer and Gifter met on the far side of the fire and shook hands. "Works every time," Mazer said. "Goodnight, folks."
Margot dumped her fish bones into the fire. "Aser, if we start running now, we could be long gone before those two show up again."
Observing how Prester was running his hand over the scales of her neck, I said, "You don't really feel like taking off right now, do you?"
Prester sighed happily. "No, she sure doesn't."
Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-04-21