[Good morning, my heroes, how are y - what's wrong with the screen?]
"God bless healing potions," Ringo intoned solemnly.
With a glorious summer morning surrounding them, the four sat around a table on the tree-shaded patio of a small restaurant called "Delicious Food," waiting for breakfast. Thirty minutes ago they'd arisen, groaning, hung over, and nauseous; twenty gold coins later, food was a good idea. Indeed, they all felt terrific: clear-brained and well rested for the first time on C'hou. Also clean and shaven; the Soft Bed Inn had had full bathroom facilities, including toothbrush and toothpaste. The only blot on their collective good mood was having to say No, we're not selling anything, about a dozen times in twenty minutes.
George, who especially was feeling worlds better after the previous day's adventures, rolled an empty vial between his fingers, then held it up to his eyes. "This stuff is amazing, just miraculous. I wonder what's in it?
"Let's try to get the recipe," said John as he shifted position on his backwards chair, cloak brushing the floor. (He hadn't been hung over; hed drunk the potion to soothe away the aches and pains in his overworked new muscles, though he hadnt seen the need to mention this tidbit. He also hadn't had to shaveyet another little quirk of his restructured body.) "We'd make a few billion on it."
"You could get addicted to it." Ringo tilted a leftover drop onto his tongue. He had John and Paul's vials in front of him as well. "Come on, let's get pissed again so we can cure it."
He grinned as he said it, but he sounded serious enough for Paul to shake his head and say, "Once is enough. We do want to start thinking about rescuing Lyndess and getting home."
"What is it we're supposed to do to rescue her, then?" asked George, putting down his vial. Ringo promptly reached over and scooped it up to complete his collection.
"Well, the original plan got all buggered up.... Paul said with a sidelong look at John. Anyway, she said we should find her friends and tell them she needs help."
"Who are they? Do we have their addresses?" George glanced left and right, taking in the non-street that the restaurant was on. Do they even have addresses here?
Paul opened his mouth to reply, then paused in astonishment and dismay. "She didn't tell us their names!"
"Yeah, she did," said John, "she told us just before she zapped us over here, but I don't remember any of 'em. One might be Ralph, and I think another's Janice."
"Is that what she was sayin'?" asked Ringo, balancing all the vials on their ends. "I was so scared I hardly heard her."
"Right, what are we supposed to do," George said in annoyance, "go up to everyone and ask, Excuse me, is your name sort of like Ralph and do you happen to know Lyndess?"
Everyone's good mood began to deflate, but the arrival of breakfast perked them up: very civilized it was, freshly baked small loaves of sweet bread with crunchy sugar tops; bowls of cut-up fruit; and water. John had a triple portion, plus a large hunk of roast beef. "Do you happen to know a woman named Lyndess?" Paul asked the long-haired man who served them. He didn't, so the four ate slowly, trying to figure out what their next move should be.
"Maybe the government here keeps track of people who are exiled," Paul suggested, spearing pieces of pear and melon with his fork. We could ask at City Hall or whatever they've got here.
John chewed mightily, swallowed, and said, "Sure, we'll just look in the file marked Friends of Lyndess."
"Look, they might be mentioned with her. Have you got a better idea?
"If there's a newspaper we could put an advert in it," offered George. "Full-page spread or something."
"That's too small," said Ringo. "Let's make a commercial with dancin' bears and a thousand people all chantin' Lyndess! Lyndess!" He waved his fork like a conductor's baton.
"Or cut a record called `Do You Know Lyndess'," John said. He broke into a bastardized "Strawberry Fields Forever": "Let me ask your help, 'cause I'm tryin' to, find my friend's friends; Lyndess is her name; she's cursed to stay in Ke-ta-faaa... do you know her she is desp'rate."
Paul rapped on the table to restore order. "Right, I think George had a brainstorm. When we're done, let's go out and see if they've got a paper."
Then a man wearing a leather backpack walked onto the patio and up to them and said cheerfully, "Nama, olyrr-sars!"
"We're not selling anything!" the four chorused.
"So my ears told me yesterday," the man said. He shrugged out of his backpack and dropped it on the floor, then pulled up a chair and sat at the corner of the table between John and Ringo. "I have other questions for you."
Well, that was different, and unexpectedly chatty for a Taakanian; they gave him their attention.
An older fellow, perhaps in his early fifties, he was Ringo's size, though stockier of limb and broader of chest. He was rounder-faced than the average Taakanian, with sleepy brown eyes, and he had a stubby nose rather than the proud native beak. Indeed, he rather resembled a grown-up, deeply tanned Charlie Brown, and his ready grin and the laugh-lines around his eyes and mouth suggested he wouldnt mind the comparison. His short, unruly hair was a bright silver-grey, and his shirt and trousers, though of the usual silky stuff that Taakanians favored, were brown as well. For decoration he affected only two intricate gold rings on his right hand, and he had no visible weapon.
Something about him nagged at John; where had he seen the man before? Not on Earth, surely. "Do I know you?" he asked.
"Only if your memory extends as far as yesterday," the man said, casually helping himself to one of Johns sweet loaves and taking a big bite. He had perfect teeth. I'm Grunnel the Thinker.
The light dawned. "Right! I saved your life last night."
"Huh?" said the others.
John sketched a picture of his evening, careful not to mention how sober he'd been.
Grunnel popped a fallen chunk of sugar into his mouth and crunched it between his back teeth. "I wouldve approached you sooner, but my skif teb with Tarsele burned more time than I expected. When I returned, youd left." Another bite of loaf, munch, munch, swallow. Then the man grabbed Ringos mug of water, took a deep draught, and wiped his mouth on the back of his wrist. Er-ho, my thanks, sar. Dying yesterday wouldve been inconvenient.
I expect it would've, John said wryly, marveling at how... subdued the man's gratitude was. Youre welcomeuh, you didn't kill that woman, did you?"
"Tarsele? No, I had no intention of starting a feud. Besides, sars leaving Taakan today, so to me sarll be dead. Bite, munch, munch, munch. Swallow. Answer me this, sar," Grunnel said. Why did you stop that knife?"
Nonplussed, John searched the man's face for irony, sarcasm, or anything similar, but Grunnel seemed genuinely perplexed. Somewhat warily, John replied, "It seemed like the thing to do at the time. Shouldn't I have?"
Grunnel put down his last fragment of loaf. "You didnt expect anything in return for shielding my life?"
Something in the man's gentle, probing tone made John bite back the snarky comment he was about to make, and he simply said "Yeah. I mean, no, I didnt expect anythin'. I just wanted to save your life."
"Do you follow the god Ardav the Silver?"
Never heard of him.
Sharp. Grunnel grinned broadly. Sar, Ardav is our god of selfless works. Im a sansar of Ardav, and one of my duties is to reward sars who act altruisticallythough until now Ive not had reason to reward an olyrr-sar!
As John rapidly revised his estimation of Grunnels gratitude upward, George said, half to himself, Must be a thin trade in rewards round here.
The man nodded. With the Rusting upon us, few sars see beyond themselves or their friends. Before anyone could ask him to expand on this cryptic comment, he reached down and picked up his backpack, opened it (it was closed by a small, brilliant diamond with a hole drilled through it), rummaged around, and came up with a fist-sized, sparkling red stone that he handed to John. Is this enough of a reward for you?
It was a ruby beautifully faceted, deeply red, impossibly huge. There wasn't anything even remotely comparable on Earth. Even broken into more manageable gems it would have been worth many millions of dollars, and its value as Earth's largest ruby would be literally incalculable.
Misinterpreting the stunned silence around the table for disappointment, Grunnel hastily said, Would you prefer fuel stones? He went back into his pack and this time pulled out a large drawstring bag, which he opened and poured onto the table: several pounds of uncut and cut diamonds of varying hue, many as large as walnuts.
Obviously, Baravada did not lack for gems!
Finally John found his voice. He handed the ruby back to Grunnel and said, This is, uh, very generous of you, thank you very much, but I cant take this, this is much too much. Just a couple of thesethatll do. He picked out several cut diamonds that would make nice rings for Yoko and nudged the bag back to the man. I really didnt do it for a reward, yknow, he said, somewhat defensively.
Grunnel looked pleased. Thats true altruism, he murmured, gathering up the valuables and stashing them away. Then he chuckled. I could reward you for that.
Youd better not, said Ringo, seeing the joke. Hell turn that down, and youll want to reward him for that, and hell turn that down, and so on and so on .
An avalanche, sar! the man said with an appreciative grin. Suddenly he touched Johns cloak (John flinched, though the mans hand was nowhere near his wings). Sar, a different reward? Ill feed the spell on this cloak. Itll die in a few days if I dont.
John started so violently that he almost overturned his backwards chair. Oh, God, yes! Please! I had no idea!
I will. Grunnel pulled yet another diamond out of his backpack, got up, and knelt behind John. He shuddered, then touched the gem to the bottommost of the silver decorations on the cloak, and the diamond blazed with light, pulsing. Grunnel waited a moment until the pulse became a steady glow, then began to trace it along the decorations.
The others watched in fascination, but John shrank awayhed expected the man to just make some passes at the cloak.
Dont move, Grunnel said, catching hold of the cloak with his other hand and tugging. I'm not concerned with what youre hiding.
That wasnt much reassurance, but John forced himself not to squirm any more as the mans diamond continued its tracing. Still, he sat very still and squished his wings as close to his body as possible.
Patiently Grunnel ran the gem over every line and curlicue. Very rusty work, he murmured. Comes of using silver instead of diamond. Barely holds magic. Tch. And the caster used the weak amikvar doet rather than the strong. Worthless. Belongs at the bottom of the sea or in the corpse. Ahh.... done. He bobbed up from behind John and brushed off his knees, then put the diamond away. Itll burn for a hundred days now. If youre still here when it begins to die, Ill renew it for you.
Thanks. Thanks a lot! John said fervently. Horrible scenarios about the cloak failing in the midst of a crowd flicked through his mind. In a way you just saved my life. He proffered his hand, but the custom of shaking it evidently didnt exist here; Grunnel just ignored it and sat down again, leaving John to awkwardly withdraw it.
Although he hadn't appeared to do much, Grunnel was rather winded. He wiped sweat off his brow, then grabbed the water cup he'd appropriated and poured the last few drops on his head. Ah, that's better. He settled back in his chair. Er-h'o, olyrr-sars, I have more questions, if you will indulge me.
Before anyone of the others could say Sure, Paul jumped in with, " 'Scuse me, I don't mean to be pushy or speak out of turn, and we'd be happy to answer your questions, but before we do that, we really need to know if you know a woman named Lyndess."
The man made a grunt of surprise. Lyndess the Example? The sar who was exiled to Ketafa two years dead?
His ready answer caught the four by surprise; what were the odds, after all? Uh, yeah, yeah! Paul said in delight. You know her? Are you one of her friends?
No, I only know of sar by reputation. I thought sar's name would never enter my ears again. How do you olyrr-sars know of Lyndess? Were you in Ketafa?
Yeah, we met her there, said John. I dont remember her callin herself the Example, though. He sorted through several days of hazy memories. GroundGround somethin'.
Groundburner. Certainly sar wouldn't, Grunnel chuckled. Thats what we started calling sar after sar was exiled. He fixed Paul with an unexpectedly piercing gaze. By all the gods, olyrr-sars, why were you in Ketafa?
But Paul didn't even hear that last bit. Thank God youve heard of her! he said excitedly. Were trying to rescue herweve got to find her friends and tell them shes there.
A snort of derision escaped the man. They know where sar is.
They do? Are they planning to rescue her, then?
I don't know, but if they haven't done so by now, they certainly have chosen not to.
Stricken, pale faces around the table. Why? John demanded.
Grunnel studied the four carefully, and it was then that they realized how sharp a mind lay behind the friendly face, why he was called the Thinker. Sars, what of yours depends on Lyndess being rescued?
Everything! John's voice had just a touch of hysteria in it. Why the fuck won't her friends rescue her?
Now Grunnel fixed his piercing gaze on John. Did Lyndess explain why sar was exiled?
She said she was cursed, Ringo murmured. She couldn't take a ship back here. Dunno why, though.
I'll tell you. Grunnel sat up in his chair and rested his elbows on the table. Lyndess borrowed money from Banares temple and couldn't repay the debt at the appointed time. This is common; many sars are unable to repay loans now because of the Rusting. Most perform chores for the temples until their debts are paid off. But Lyndess, for a reason only sar could tell you, refused to serve Banare. Godsar was not pleased. Lyndess is now in Ketafa, where even the dead won't go. Lyndess the Example.
Right, so she's an idiot. John fingered his cloak, remembering the derision Grunnel had heaped upon it. Apparently she wasn't much of a wizard, either. Is that why her friends won't rescue her? Because she's an idiot?
Probably. I know her friends disagreed with her choice and disavowed her because they didn't want to be sent to Ketafa themselves. They would hardly make the effort to retrieve her after that.
Butbutdidn't she know that? Ringo said in despair. She must've known that before she sent us here. What'd she think we could do about it? Did she think we could talk them into rescuin' her after all?
She was desperate, John said bitterly. What other hope did she have? I think she was also a little crazy.
She was a lot crazy, Paul snapped. That scheme she had to ride you back here? That was crazy all by itself.
The whole bloody place was crazy, George muttered.
Everything is crazy, moaned Ringo, head in hands. What are we gonna do now?
Well, it's a dead cert she'll be of no help to us, said Paul. Even if we somehow fetch her back. He touched John's cloak. She couldn't even do this right. If she tried to send us home she'd probably drop us in Hell instead.
Fuck her! said John. We'll find someone else who can help us.
Grunnel had been listening to this exchange with interest. At an opportune moment he said gently, Olyrr-sars, I don't understand all of your words, so tell me if I am correct in guessing that you're not here under your own power?
They eagerly told him everything, including all their experiences with Lyndess, their ignoble escape, and their bargain with the woman. John was reluctant to explain exactly what use Lyndess originally had for him, but Paul had no such qualms and, in fact, insisted John reveal himself to GrunnelHe's got to know it all, and if it's a problem here, we need to know it.
Except for an occasional terminology clarification, Grunnel listened silently and attentively, though, like Lyndess, he was astonished that a god wouldnt tell his worshipers precisely what he wanted of them. And when John opened his cloak a bit to show the man what was underneath, Grunnel was far more interested in the process that had created the wings than in the wings themselves. To John's nervous worries he replied dismissively, This is Baravada, not Ketafa. You're a sarno one would attack you for having those. Immensely relieved, John nevertheless couldn't bring himself to take his cloak off permanently. (And it must be said that the others preferred it on him as well.)
The sun was high in the sky when they finally finished their sad story. By this time John was getting hungry again, so he got up and went inside the restaurant to order more food.
Grunnel sat slouched in his chair with his arms loosely crossed over his stomach. An interesting problem, olyrr-sars.
D'ye have any idea who might be able to help us? Paul asked.
No, the man replied flatly. Universe-breaking magic is not known by any Baravadan, though we would eagerly cast it if we could. The gods have explained to us many times that such magic cannot burn for us, though I know that any sar who learned it would leave C'hou immediately rather than linger to teach other sars. He sat up as John returned with a platter of food. Certainly any skahs who asked to buy from you would have hoped that you could send them elsewhere. I would have.
You want to leave here? Why? John said as he sat down.
Is it because it's so dangerous here? George asked.
Grunnel stared at George with utter incredulity. Then he began to laugh: a painful, entirely humorless sound. In that moment, the man's friendly Charlie Brown mien vanished, revealing an adult with unexpected depths of pain.
George, taken aback, glanced helplessly around at the others as if to say, What? What did I say that deserved such a reaction? But they didn't know either.
They weren't kept in suspense long. Grunnel's laughter trailed off; he heaved a great sigh and resumed slouching in his chair. No, olyrr-sar, he said morosely and with utter sincerity, it's not nearly dangerous enough.
Giant question marks were almost visible over everyone's heads.
Olyrr-sars, we don't have.... But whatever Grunnel was about to say, he stopped, shook his head, and started over. Olyrr-sars, what do you know of Baravada? What did you learn of it in Ketafa?
Nothin', really, except Lyndess wanted to be back here, said John. And that magic is okay here.
And the gods are here, said George.
Ringo added, There was a lot of religious stuff about the Favorites of the Gods living here, but that was all bullshit.
Grunnel shook his head. Unimportant. He chuckled grimly again. Olyrr-sars, it seems that in some ways we have the same problems. We don't understand each other completely, and we're all trapped where we don't want to be. He held up his hand to stop Paul from saying something. Let me explain. I hope to solve that problem for you.
He sat up again, took a moment to orient his thoughts, and began. For longer than any sar has been alive, Baravadans have been divided into skahs, sars who fight monsters, and tirin, sars who are protected from monsters. Im skahs, he said proudly. He touched his hair. You will recognize us by our hair. Skahs cut their hair short. Then he let his hand fall. But I may as well let it grow to tirin length now. Olyrr-sars, the reason I approached you originally was to ask if your world had faced and solved the problem that we have.
And that would be? said John around a mouthful of meat.
There are no more monsters to fight! We have exterminated them!
Butisn't that a good thing?said Paul. It sounds like you solved your monster problem and made things safe for the, uh, tirin.
No, we created a problem! Grunnel said violently. Then he caught himself, shook his head again, and said, My fault, olyrr-sars. I'm explaining badly. I've not lectured at the University in some years. Hmmm.... you must hear our history to begin to understand.
Fifty or more hands of years ago, Baravada was invaded by beings called the Tayhil and their monsters, swarming down from the Corpse at the Top of the World, the large snow-covered land that sits atop Baravada. They enslaved most sars and drove the rest behind fortifications on a small part of what we now call the Rust Coast. There were so few free sars left that they couldn't form what used to be called an 'army,' if you understand that word. The four indicated that they did. Sharp. The sars burned with vengeance and a desire to free the other sars. They created small raiding parties to attack the Tayhil when possible. The gods helped by training some sars in new and potent forms of magic that the Tayhil couldn't counter. It was during this period that Baravadans divided into skahs and tirin, because not all sars were competent to fight, and sars were needed to grow crops, make clothing, and do other tirin things so the skahs could concentrate on fighting.
The skahs parties were very effective. As each year died and a new one was born, more of Baravada was freed from Tayhil control. The new sars became skahs or tirin as they preferred. Increasingly, sars chose to be skahs, especially where the Tayhil had been brutal to them or had destroyed cities. The Tayhil killed many sars and burned their cities rather than let them fall to the skahs intact. Er-h'o, with more skahs, the liberation proceeded even more quickly.
Eleven hands of years ago, just after I was born, Ta'akan was the last city to be freed. By then, the power of the Tayhil had been broken almost everywhere, but many were still alive in settlements in the wilderness, as were their monsters. The skahs hunted them down across Baravada. What sharp days those were! Grunnel's face got all misty with blessed memory. Brox and Orris, Drory and I, Tarsele and Fanar... our spells burned like the sun, and our blades were green with Tayhil blood. We found a village, hidden by spells, at the edge of the Corpse... twenty hands of adult Tayhil and I don't know how many eggs and young.... their wizards had spells to age the young and animate the dead, and they came after us like waves on the beach.... we had to hack the corpses into pieces to prevent their rising again... the smell was like steam off bloody dung, so thick you could almost see it....
I think we get the picture, Paul interjected.
Grunnel was contrite immediately. My fault, olyrr-sars. I miss those days greatly. Er-h'o, two hands of years ago, the skahs had found all the hidden lairs and dens of the Tayhil on Baravada, and killed all the monsters. We sought and sought across the land, following rumors and hopes. If any Tayhil had escaped us, they had finally hidden themselves too well to be found. Many skahs hope that some Tayhil escaped across the Sun's Womb Sea into the Garden Islands or perhaps to the continent we call Sudran, which may not even exist.
As Grunnel spoke, his voice grew softer, as if he was just talking to himself. I think half the skahs have left Baravada and disappeared among the waves. If any sar has found anything, sar has not returned to tell us. Drory sailed away a year ago, alone, claiming to have heard the Tayhil calling to sar in sar's dreams. The rest of us... many still scour the land. Parties still rove the Corpse and the Ah'di Desert. Tarsele, once our friend, now not, has gone cold to the Corpse with sar's new friends. Others wait here or in one of the two remaining cities, Coss and Zagesevregar, doing the gods' petty works or waiting around the markets and taverns, hoping for useful news. Many have killed themselves to await better times. Both Fanar and Orris did that.
Seems a bit of a drastic solution, said Paul.
Grunnel nodded. I prefer the path Brox and I chosewe are trying to bring the monsters back. We asked the gods to bring them back, but they refused. Now Brox is at the Wizards' University in Zagesevregar, researching old spells, hoping to find one that will bring monsters or restore the Tayhil. I think Brox is just bleeding time; I expect no revelations from that scroll. Still, Brox is the only skahs I know who thinks beyond the next fight and who sees beyond the small space that sar occupies. The others at the University teach and collect spells only because theyve been charged to do so by the gods. Released from their debts, theyd all be gone, chasing the faintest scent of Tayhil. Only Brox understands that helping all skahs helps sar as well.
In one swift motion Grunnel banged his fist on the table. Olyrr-sars, this is the Rusting. We are rusting, sitting immobile with our weapons sticking in their sheaths and our spells going unburnt. If we do not fight, if we do not scheme or cast or sneak, we shall crumble away like earth along a riverbank.
The four digested this amazing history, not without a good deal of trepidation. Once again they had been reminded of how alien this planet was at its core, how differently its inhabitants shaped their thoughts.
Finally George said cautiously, D'ye have to fight? Can't you just say 'We're done' and settle down and do more... peaceful things, like the tirin? Channel your energy into something productive? Write music, or paint pictures, or....
The look of contempt Grunnel gave George made the latter wish he'd kept his mouth shut. I am skahs, he repeated fiercely, as if that should have been enough to close the issue right there. But then his face and tone softened. My fault, sar. I must remember that you don't think as we do. You don't understand what we are, what we need. That last word resonated with pain and yearning.
The man gripped the edge of the table. Most of us could no more become tirin than tirin could become skahs. We are all sars, but that's where the similarities die. I... I do know a few skahs who have surrendered and become tirin, tilling the land or fishing the sea, or burning away their lives reading books at the University or in the temples. I've done some of that. I could not drudge so all my life. I would sooner die.
At this point Grunnel flagged down the server and ordered vax for everyone, which they gladly accepted. The four were fascinated and repelled, sympathetic to the man's misery yet unable to empathize with someone whose fondest memories involved piles of body parts.
While the four sipped the fiery purple liquor, Grunnel tossed his down like it was water, then smiled sadly. Olyrr-sars, I haven't formally asked you this, so I will ask now: Does this problem sound familiar to you? Has anyone in your world faced it and conquered it? From your reactions while I spoke, I expect not, but I must ask.
The four exchanged glances again. Chou should have been subtitled the Planet of Peculiar Problems. Exiled wizards, cursed continents, terminally bored warriors.... At least Grunnel didnt think they could actually solve this onewhich was fortunate, since it wasnt something they would have helped with even if they had the solution in their back pockets. This wasnt like reintroducing wolves to Yosemite National Park or breeding whooping cranes. This wasnt even Ducks Unlimited. Why restore the monsters of Baravada just so they could be massacred again?
But none of them were imprudent enough to say that. Instead, they made commiserating noises and apologized for not having any ready solutions to Grunnel's dilemma.
Everyone had now finished their vax, so John ordered some aga beer for everyone. But in paying for it he exhausted his share of Lyndess's coins, and though Paul was able to make up the difference (he had a pocketful of the coins that the Idris had given them for playing, though being mostly copper and silver, they were pretty worthless in Baravada, as was Paul's silver chain), the four shared the unpleasant realization that they had a finite amount of money, it was dwindling rapidly, and they had no immediate way of making more.
In some embarrassment, Paul said to Grunnel, Looks like well need to work for a living were bards, yknow, is there a concert hall around here or something?
You need money? the man said in surprise. When you refused the ruby I assumed you had money. Youre still welcome to take it.
George, who had been quietly calculating their expenses, now spoke up: If we double up at the inn we stayed at last night, and every meal costs about what breakfast did, we can get by on about fifteen gold coins a day. IF we dont have any extra expenses, like healing potions. He threw Ringo a mildly accusing look, who returned an injured one of equal strength.
Youre going to pay for an inn when you can live in any empty building in Taakan? Grunnel exclaimed. If you lack money, why throw what you have into that ocean?
George looked chagrined at having missed the obvious. OhyeahI didnt think of that. In our world we have a lot of money, so we're used to staying in the best places.
John added, Its usually illegal to camp in abandoned places anyway.
Il-EE-gahl? asked Grunnel.
Against the law.
To forestall a long and probably complicated explanation, Paul said, That's all very well, lads, but even if we do take the ruby and live in one of the abandoned houses and budget like mad, we're gonna run out of cash at some point. We don't know how long we're gonna be here, remember?
Yet again, gloom settled over the table.
Money is easy to obtain in Ta'akan, Grunnel said reassuringly. The gods always have work that they'll pay for.
Like what? said John.
There are many jobs. I cast some of the spells that keep the streets lit and the abandoned inns functioning. Some sars paint and repair the houses. There are jobs on the farms, on the fishing boats, in the forests, in the temples.... He stopped talking as he saw just how unhappy the four were becoming at the prospect of doing any of these things.
We didn't do that shit on Earth, said Ringo bitterly, I can't believe we'd have to do it here.
Are there jobs for musicians? Paul asked. That's pretty much all we can do, really.
Grunnel's voice had a funny note to it as he said, I don't know.... He gazed at the four with an equally strange, rather distant look in his eye. Then he snapped back to himself. With a big grin he said, Olyrr-sars, what youve saidwhat lies beneath your wordsfascinates me, as little has done in past time. I want to learn about your world. Dont stay in an abandoned building. Dont look for jobs! I have one for you. Your job will be to help me kill my boredom! Live in our house so we can talk frequently! We have more money than we can useyou can have as much of it as youll need for your stay.
The offer took the four by surprise, and after thanking the man for his generosity, they left him with his drink in hand and retired to an empty table across the patio to talk it over privately. Ringo was all for it; he liked Grunnel a lot, despite the man's weird point of view, and didnt want to lose track of the one person on the planet who had been genuinely nice to them. John was open to the idea as well, being immensely grateful for his rejuvenated cloak and convinced that they could trust the man; he also wanted a guaranteed source of income to accommodate his appetite, and of the four he was the least willing to swink for his supper. George was less sure of Grunnels motives and wondered if the man would somehow press-gang the Earthmen into the monster-restoration quest; but he also didnt want to spend his time doing scut work, and he was eager to ask Grunnel about the gods and Baravadan religion in general. Only Paul was cool to the idea, cautioning that they knew nothing about Baravadan/Taakanian society, and what might they find themselves beholden to Grunnel for? The mans taste for genocidal hunting was immensely unattractive, and he wasnt sure he could stand by doing nothing if this Brox person happened to unearth a monster-restoring spell.
Maybe we can think of something else for them to do, Ringo said, almost offhand, and that did it for Paul: he quietly resolved to nip this monster restoration thing in the bud by weaning Grunnel and Brox off hunting and onto something equally exciting but cruelty-free.
Maybe theyd enjoy football, Paul said hopefully as they got up from the table to go tell Grunnel the good news.
John snorted. American football, maybe.
Of course, Grunnel was delighted by their decision and celebrated by chugging the rest of his beer. Very sharp, olyrr-sars! Well learn so much from each other!
Sure! Paul said, trying to be hearty about it. But y'know, we really want to get home, so we're gonna focus on doing that as quickly as possible. I mean, we'll be happy to talk with you, but if we can figure out how to leave tomorrow....
I understand completely. I would do the same. Hmmm.... Grunnel put his cup down and assumed a wise look. Olyrr-sars, though the gods have told Baravadans many times that they will not break universes for us, they might feel differently about breaking them for you. Tomorrow I have to go to the Temple of Ardav; do you want to come with me and make a request?
Hope, and a little fear, blossomed among the four. D'ye really think he could? Ringo said.
I don't know, but no pain will come from asking.
Would he want anything from us? said Paul. Would we go into debt to get home?
Grunnel smiled. Of course godsar would want payment. What form that payment would take is impossible to guess, though I doubt it would be money.
What if we couldn't pay, then?
Then you would stay here.
George looked troubled. Is it... safe... for us to talk to Ardav? What if we offend him somehow?
A bark of laughter escaped Grunnel. How could you do that? Are you planning to cheat godsar?
No! Absolutely not!
Then it's a headless concern, olyrr-sar. Er-h'o, I will take you to the house soon, but I have a small task first. Grunnel removed one of the gold rings that he wore and tapped it three times on the table. Ive summoned Astaris. Sar needs to know youll be living with us. Well sit and drink and talk until sar comes, and then well go to the house.
Astaris? said Paul.
Broxs realchild. Grunnel flagged down the server yet again and ordered more beer, then settled himself comfortably in his chair. Er-ho, olyrr-sars, explain to me that word you used earlier, illegal.
They did their best, but the very concept of law was alien to Grunnel; he simply couldn't understand why someone would create an arbitrary set of rules and then expect everyone else to follow them; nor why anyone would accept being punished by strangers for breaking these arbitrary rules. He vaguely understood government as an archaic historical term but couldn't imagine how it could apply to Baravada today. It didn't help that the four were getting slightly tipsy (John wasn't, but he pretended to) and their explanations became both louder and less coherent.
Luckily for (most) everyone's sobriety, they had only one more round of beer before a sullen elf-youth strode up to the table and stared down accusingly at Grunnel. Everyone fell silent, and Grunnel gazed patiently up at the youth.
Probably no older than eighteen, Astaris looked like the poster child for the skahs life. His hair was cut so short that it was mere wheat-colored fuzz over his skull; his pointed ears really stood out next to his nearly bald skull. His eyes, narrow and slightly slanted, were of a deep golden hue and looked wholly appropriate in his dark, delicate face, with its sharp chin and high cheekbones and thin lips. He was wiry rather than muscular but looked strong regardless. For all his exotic looks, he wasnt terribly handsome, though he might have been better looking if he hadnt had such a deep scowl. However, his ornamentation betrayed a large measure of vanity. Over his fine blue shirt he wore a silver brooch and a silver necklace with a round diamond pendant; gem-studded gold and silver rings flashed on his fingers; a silver chain with large links served as a belt over his black pants. Like Grunnel, he bore no weapon. Altogether, he looked fit and graceful and ever so prepared for life in Taakan. Or, at least, life in Taakan as it must have been with monsters lurking round every bush.
"What do you want?" As'taris demanded of Grunnel in a surprisingly deep baritone. Whyd you drag me from the skif tebs? Mebben Twoknife was about to fight Mastais Skytoucher!
Grunnels eyes twinkled. "Introduce yourself to the tirin olyrr-sars."
The elf threw them the briefest, most condescending of glances. "Im As'taris Farbound. Grun, why are you coloring our lives with this rust? Everyone knows they arent selling anything!"
These olyrr-sars will be at the house when you return, the man said. Theyll be living with us for a while.
Astaris stiffened. This is the reward you spoke of for your life-preserver?
No, said Grunnel, taking a swig of his beer, They need money and beds, and I want to learn about their world.
Suddenly the elf thrust forward and slapped his hands on the table, stared round at the four hungrily. Are there monsters and Tayhil on your world?
Uh, no, said George.
Rust! On the instant Astaris was back to where hed been standing. Then what use is learning about their world? he snapped at Grunnel. Without monsters, its no different from Chou!
Perhaps, the wizard said tolerantly. Useful or not, theyre staying at the house.
I do not befriend tirin, even olyrr-tirin!
You dont have to befriend them. You can ignore them.
Astaris stuck his chin out stubbornly. I will.
"Sharp." Lazily, Grunnel waved his empty mug in salute to the four and the elf. "You'll never be friends, but you'll never be enemies either." Then he put it on the table with a clunk and stood up. As, Im taking the olyrr-sars to the house in the boat.
I dont care, the elf said, scowling at the four. Ill never travel with them.
Sharp. Were embarking. Grunnel gestured for the four to get up (Ringo gulping the last of his beer as they did so). As, dont skif teb. Just watch.
Grunnn! Astaris whined. I knoow! Why do you repeat this every day?
Creating truth, the man murmured.
Mortally insulted, the elf stomped off. Grunnel watched his departing back with a surprising amount of paternal fondness. Ignore sar's words, he said to the four. As was born too recently. Sar was weaned on tales of adventure and combat but has seen only pictures of Tayhil and monsters. Now . He gestured helplessly. Sometimes I think Brox seeks the monster restoration spell as much to please As as to help the skahs. Er-ho, come. He stood up and shrugged into his backpack.
Off they went, stopping only to retrieve their meager possessions from the Soft Bed Inn. While John ran up to get everything, Grunnel took the opportunity to learn their names (Another thing I forgot to ask you, he laughed) and to start them discussing more comprehensible aspects of Earth. They quickly discovered that there weren't many, but the man seemed fascinated by it all, so they kept up a lively stream of chatter as he led them into the city.
They went in more or less a straight line past buildings that were increasingly made of stone, taller, of more sophisticated architecture, closer together, and occupied, and down chaotic dirt streets that became actual cobblestone streets, old but in good repair. Grunnel explained that this was Old, the ancient core of Taakan, around which the now-decaying districts Almost and Anywhere had been built. The passers-by became somewhat more numerous, though still far fewer than in a comparable city on Earth, and there were more tirin than skahs, who tended to come in clumps, little adventuring parties stocking up on supplies before their journeys, or heading off to the docks. Grunnel greeted friends as he encountered them and asked them questions about their plans, but the conversations were always short and concise. And one delightful side effect of his presence was that people finally stopped asking the four if they were selling anything.
Their trek took them through what was unquestionably the busiest place in the city, what Grunnel called the Stomach: a huge open market full of stalls and interesting smells that merged with the odors of the nearby Taakanian harbor, with its many tall ships docked there. With John hugging his cloak tightly around himself, and Paul turning his guitar inward so people wouldn't rub against the strings, they threaded through a colorful crowd of shoppers, farmers, sailors, fishers, merchants, laborers, skahs, and even a street performer here and there. It superficially resembled the Free Market of Focan, but was vastly cleaner. Goods for sale included all kinds of food, prepared and unprepared; great heaps of produce, meats, grains, and seafood; live animals, mostly horses and cows and a variety of fowl; used items; a couple of what could only be called skahs rummage sales, with weapons and travel gear and occasional objets dart or pieces of jewelry spread out on a blanket for sale; herbs and spices; and much more besides. The tirin looked prosperous and well fed; most of the skahs looked depressed, or at best grimly determined. The market pace was surprisingly slow and quiet for this kind of atmosphere; few voices were raised in praise of their own merchandise, and little haggling could be heard.
Even here, there were almost no children. I wonder why? George murmured to Ringo as they passed their first small child of the day, a girl of no more than seven ludicrously made up as a skahs, hair close-cropped, tiny sword at her belt, staring up at her elders as they packed their horses saddlebags with preserved food.
Maybe they keep 'em inside until theyre old enough to take care of themselves, Ringo offered. Grunnel didnt say it was a problem .
They resolved to ask the man later.
Soon they were through the Stomach (Now we get shit out of the city, said John) and in the port, making their way down a dock where many small boats were berthed, often without benefit of ropeheld in place magically, no doubt. They stopped at one such craft, a long blue boat with two wide seats, a smaller seat forward, and a fairly large cargo section. It had neither sails nor oars; it appeared to have been looted from an amusement park ride. At Grunnels gesture the four boarded, and when they were settled he sat in the forward seat, looked towards the horizon, and murmured "Ho."
The boat backed soundlessly away from the dock, swung around, and accelerated as it headed for open water, leveling off at about 25 knots. The four made impressed noises; after the healing potions, this was the coolest magic they'd seen in Ta'akan. Grunnel smiled, a little condescendingly perhaps, and the conversation turned to boats on Earth.
For ten minutes or so they sped through the water with the coast on their left, which grew steadily higher, then pulled into a cove at the bottom of a cliffit must have been a hundred feet highwith steps carved into it. "Er," said Grunnel, and the boat ground onto the short strip of pebbly beach at the base of the cliff. Grunnel jumped out and nonchalantly started trotting up the steps.
Oh, shit, said Ringo. They might as well have gone mountain climbing.
But what choice did they have? With trepidation and much mental cursing of their host, the four mounted the stairs and began the long, arduous climb; they didnt even have the benefit of a rail to help pull them up. Paul went first, afraid to whack anyone ahead of him with his guitar. At least the steps were set deeper and deeper into the rock wall as they climbed, so that the fear of falling to one side or the other quickly diminished, but still . Even John was a little tired as they finally struggled their way to the top, and the other three collapsed on the grass, angry and spent.
Smiling with undeniable mischief, and not at all tired, Grunnel was sitting on the grass waiting for them. As they glared at him, panting, he tossed them each a healing potion. My small joke, he explained. It is sharp exercise.
No one else thought the joke was funny, but the healing potions did much to restore their bodiesindeed, they were reminded anew how delicious the sensation of sudden removal of pain was, and it was hard to be annoyed at Grunnel after that. Still, for a few moments they didnt say anything as they gazed upon the house that they had finally reached, as much to avoid speaking to the old man as to gather the strength that the healing potions didnt restore.
Whatever they had expected the two skahs to live in, it wasn't this pleasant, normal-looking, large white house with shuttered windows. It faced a long, wide lawn rather than the ocean, which was a shame, for the view was magnificent: the great sprawl of Ta'akan curving off to the right, sparkling blue water, ships with their sails puffed out whitely, and a sky that went on forever. Surrounding the entire house and grounds was forest (a path was clearly visible through the trees), and a weathered shed sat some feet from the house.
When the four were feeling better, Grunnel took them inside. The ground floor consisted of three rooms: an enormous living/dining room dominated by a table and eight chairs, a storage room, and a large but homey-feeling kitchen with hams and strings of onions hanging from the ceiling, and a magical sink with constantly flowing water. Upstairs were eight small bedrooms, five neat and unused, two rumpled, one claimed but neat and tidy. (Brox's room, said Grunnel.) There was one bathroom upstairs and one downstairs, which the four gladly took advantage of.
After everyone had relieved himself, Grunnel took his guests back to the kitchen and pulled on the ring of a trapdoor in the back corner of the floor. It opened onto a lit flight of stairs. The sharp smell of metal drifted up. They descended
and emerged into a combination of Aladdin's Cave and Scrooge McDucks money bin. Copper, silver, and gold coins covered the floor to a depth of several inches, judging by the short step from the lowest stair to the coins. Chests overflowing with jewelry and unset colored gems lined the walls, gleaming under a layer of dust. In their first incredulous glance around the room, the four saw at least six gems that made Grunnels reward ruby look like a pebble. Small, exquisite statuettes, boxes, bric-a-brac in every medium from amber to zircon dotted the spaces in between the chests like outrageously valuable mushrooms.
The four just stared.
Removing his backpack, Grunnel took out the ruby and the bag of diamonds and casually tossed them into one of the chests, raising a small cloud of dust. "Spend as much of this as you need to, he said. "We have too muchit weighs us down, especially As. Sar would prefer we had nothing, to force us to go adventuring. Im not sure I disagree. Getting it was much more interesting than having it." He went upstairs.
Coins clinked, sliding into the depressions left by the mans feet.
Right, I don't think we're gonna have any money problems for a few days," Paul said at last.