Aser and Danner take one last break among the Ghost-folk and find that fish-breath and spectral lounge-lizards inspire them.
"This is just about the worst road trip I've ever been on," Danner griped. "All we do is sneak around in graveyards and eat dried fish."
"Breathe in the other direction or get farther away from me."
"Oh, we should be so lucky to get a graveyard," said the ghost who was carrying his head under his arm. "A graveyard would be nice, with someone to bring goats in to mow the grass neat, and little headstones with our initials on 'em, and maybe some flowers now and then."
"You at least had a grave, you ingrate," said another specter from the branches of a sturdy old oak. "Kaladang's troops hung me up here and then plumb forgot about me. I don't know where the hell half my bones are."
"Me, I don't know where any bones are any more. I'm not sticking around for bones, I'm waiting to hear that somebody's offed that stinking son of a sack of snakes. How many years have I been waiting, Shaman?" asked an amorphous spirit which seemed to be reclining on a rock.
"Eleven," I said for about the sixth time that evening. "That is, if our calendars match up. Could be thirteen, and no, no one has assassinated Kaladang yet, as far as I know."
"How'd you know I was going to ask?"
"That's why I'm a shaman," I answered him for the fifth time.
Danner smacked herself on the forehead with the palm of her hand in frustration. A ghost who was edging his way closer to Danner offered conversationally, "As long as we're talking about graveyards, if I was in a graveyard, I'd like one of those big polished stone monuments, if I had my druthers, you know. On the shiny side it would say, 'Gerrolt Smithie, He Did What He Could.'"
"An' it wasn't much, was it, you dolt?" interrupted the head of the first ghost. "Gerrolt didn't even know enough about fighting to handle a pike when Kaladang's horsemen came riding through," he said to us.
"And on the back of the big stone it would say in big letters, 'Kaladang Is A Butt-Head,'" Gerrolt went on, ignoring the head and leaning towards Danner's shoulder.
"If you don't let me alone, I'm going to stick this cold iron right between your ghosty eyes and send you to the Realm of Loss for eternity," Danner said, irritably pulling her dagger from its sheath on her belt.
Gerrolt Smithie, who felt that he Did What He Could reluctantly retreated.
"Are we Doing What We Could?" I asked Danner. "We've been on the run for days -- "
"Weeks," she said.
"Wait till you've been on the run for years," said the ghost in the tree.
"Shut up, just for a few minutes, please," I asked him. "Are we utilizing all the information we have to optimize our chances for survival?"
"What the hell were you smoking?" asked Danner. "When did you start talking with words like 'optimize' and 'utilize'? Information about what?"
"I learned how to speak some decades prior to your birth, you irreverent punk. Now cease carping about the lack of taverns and cheap beer and think: what do we know about the wizard who is out to kack us, and what do we know about wizards in general?"
"You have a wizard?" butted in Gerrolt Smithie. "No wonder you're still alive."
Danner leaned towards me, gritting her teeth. "Whatever the outcome, we are NOT going to die here with these ghosts, got it? I refuse to spend any afterlife with these losers, Aser, I don't intend to go mad after I die and I will if I have to put up with Gerrolt and --- " She gestured at the head under the arm of the other ghost.
"Ari Hindhold," said the revenant, bowing with the body and holding the head aloft.
"Pleased to meet you," I said. "If good fortune attends us, I shall return here and ask you the origin of your surname, but for now, please also shut up. Danner, about wizards ... ?"
"Wizards are all assholes, near as I can figure," she said.
"You became a wizard, too, so that must be a truism," I said, shaking my head.
"Wizards are highly learn-ed," Danner continued, pretending not to have heard me. "They study how magic functions in the world. They have a natural gift, that when properly studied, enables them to manipulate objects and entities in the world."
"I love smart chicks," said the ghost Gerrolt, which prompted Danner to slash the air frantically with her dagger.
"However," she snarled, "they can call nothing forth into their presence until they find and obtain a magic wand, which is at its most basic a pointing device which refines the intent of the wizard."
"When we met Cloudraft, he was working in a diner because someone stole his magic wand, so he couldn't do shit except serve drinks and polish bar glasses." I frowned, remembering. "He could conjure images, but nothing permanent, nothing substantial."
"See, there you go with jargon again," Danner said. "The wand serves as a tie between the wizard-gift and this world. Without the wand, the wizard can't make things really happen."
"And the hat?" I asked.
"Hats are creepy, and I don't know how wizards find hats. I never got that far along on my studies with Cloudraft. Wizards have some innate gift for magic, and their hats are just -- found -- with some weird attraction to the particular wizard's gift. But the hats are alive, somehow, once they connect with their wizard, and give the wizard the ability to transport him- or herself in space and time."
"So that's why you snatched Hailcatcher's hat and wand after you knocked her out."
"Yeah," said Danner, "now she's immobilized. She can't move between dimensions, she can't keep track of us, she can't even materialize a good girdle to keep her sloppy ass from sloshing, that stoolie slut."
"Now, now, she was obviously a stoolie, but you don't know that she was a slut." Danner was still obviously outraged at finding the stylish and cosmopolitan Hailcatcher in her lover's apartment. Personally, I didn't doubt Cloudraft the Great's attachment to Danner, but I had no interest in mediating their frequent quarrels and misunderstandings, having warned her of the perils of mixing apprenticeship and cootchy-coo. "She just looked like a slut."
"Thank you, Aser, that's so reassuring. We also know," she continued, having spent almost a year with Cloudraft as an apprentice, "that wizards are not really very social with one another. I never saw Cloudy visit with any other wizards besides Fellmount and Hailcatcher, and I'd bet my last silver that Hailcatcher approached him."
Well, that explained why she knocked out Hailcatcher rather than Cloudraft.
"Makes sense, if Hailcatcher was working with Fellmount," I nodded. "But now you've neutralized her. So we don't have to think about her. Anything else? Like, are wizards allergic to any herbs or minerals?"
"I can't think of anything that Cloudy avoided -- " she gasped suddenly -- "except water! Remember when we asked him to lift the curse on the Jennan Clan Well? He didn't know how to swim!"
"That's right, he didn't, and he said he didn't know any wizard colleagues who could. So his buddy Fellmount can't swim. You know, I was going to head north to Kaladang's capital, but I think we'll strike east and follow the river."
Most animals instinctively know how to swim once they know how to walk or trot. Well, most quadrupedal mammals. I don't really know about lizards (or lizardmen), or kangaroos and chimpanzees, who are almost but not quite bipedal. But dogs and cats and rats and deer and cows and horses all know how to swim as soon as they are in the water. Something clicks in their brains, and off they go in a slow motion trot, heads out of the water, legs propelling them along.
This is in stark contrast to humans, who, if not taught how to swim, tend to sink to the bottom of whatever water they've fallen into, waving their hands for help rather than moving them in patterns of conveyance. I have heard some say that people should learn to swim when they are in a quadrupedal mode -- crawling infants -- but that seems to me only feasible if one has a calm, still pond for learning. A river is too difficult for a tiny child to master.
All the clans of Ur have dug out of the banks of the river little backwater bays. In each land there are highly respected Baytenders who keep the silt on the bottom from getting too deep, and keep the shallow side of each bay from becoming overgrown with water plants. (And they have some trick for keeping leeches away, and one day I hope to learn that.) Gifting the Baytenders with gold and vegetables and cloth, the mothers and fathers of Ur bring their children to the bays to learn to swim, for it is written in our holy texts,
"Let the water carry you,
For the Life that guides the waters
Will know where
You should be taken ashore."
In order for the water to carry one, one has to know at least how to tread water.
They say that Lord Stonewall's grandmother actually drowned in a bathhouse when visiting Trondheim because she didn't know how to use her arms for swimming and the bottom of the bathing pool was slippery. However, I've also heard it said that the old Lady was fond of hot scotch to excess, and perhaps there was more to the fatality of the bath than an unfortunate algae build-up. Still, I would hold up that tale to anyone as a good lesson on why it is important to learn to swim.
"Ol' Kaladang re-named the river, you know," said the head of Ari Hindhold. "Called it the River Kaladang, after hisself, just like he re-named the capital 'Kaladang' after hisself. And the land 'Kaladang.'"
"I wish he would just get over himself or make reparations," droned the amorphous ghost on the rock. "Next thing you know, he'll be naming the constellations 'Kaladang' and require people to refer to the entire world as 'Kaladang.'"
"Perhaps he will, but sooner or later, his day will come, and after that, the name Kaladang will disappear from the water and the land," I said. Turning to Danner, I asked, "Do you have tinder in your packs?"
"Yes. We're not going to light a fire now, are we? It's nearly morning."
"Not here. But we are going to send a few smoke signals."
"Yeah, my dear friend and relative, smoke signals. We're going to lure Kaladang the Axe into some deep water."
"I hate it when you're obscure, Aser," said Danner.
"We're headed for Kaladang's river," I said. "And we're going to see if we can get him blown up by Fellmount along with us, or maybe if we're really lucky, Kaladang will attack us and provide enough distraction that Fellmount won't think about us until after he's blown up Kaladang. Let's move to the bottom of this slope and set a fire."
"I hate it worse when you're crazy, Aser. We've ticked off Fellmount and Hailcatcher, so both of them want to kill us, and thereby endangered the Clan lands, so we're exiled, and all our friends have deserted us. So now we're supposed to attract the attention of the most brutal tyrant of the mountains and get him chasing after us?"
"Dead is dead, whether you have one assassin or a thousand, Danner. Don't you want one last chance to tell Kaladang what an idiot he is?"
"Don't go, Cupcake, you can stay here with me," said Gerrolt Smithie. "Or at least have them dump your corpse here so we can get to know one another better."
Danner stood up and dusted off the seat of her pants. "Come on, let's go. I can't think of another time in my life when I was so anxious to go someplace far away to get murdered."
The hands of Ari Hindhold turned his head to look at Gerrolt. "There, that's what you should have done, Gerrolt: Go someplace else to get kilt. Maybe our village would have survived if you'd done that."
"I want the back of my tombstone to say, 'Kaladang and Ari Hindhold Are Both Butt-Heads,'" called the ghost of Gerrolt as Danner and I left the ridge and stepped onto the lands of the infamous Kaladang the Axe.
Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-07-14