Chopped Roots (A Prosatio Silban Tale)

(Eight printed pages. If you’re new to these tales, here are the preface and introduction.)

WHETHER IT WAS THROUGH A dream or a vision, Prosatio Silban knew one thing with absolute certitude – his beloved mentor was dead. He arose from his galleywagon bunk, bowed his head and let out a gentle, almost imperceptible moan.

It was unexpected news. The Cook For Any Price had not heard any word from or about Master Trentum Urdoin for quite some time. The last he knew, from some ten years ago, was that the man was still in good health and good spirits.

But he was convinced of the communication’s inherent truth. He hadn’t had many such experiences in his life, but they all followed a pattern: they occurred while he was deeply asleep, and were marked by a haunting immediacy and compelling certainty which brooked no contradiction or doubt.

So upon awaking, he did his best to wing an appropriate supplication to Angrim the All-Limiter for the comfort and protection of his mentor’s soul on its way via funeral-pyre to the Pure City of the hereafter.

“O Harvester of Time, Ender of Life, and Bridge between the Here and the There,” he prayed. “Please see Your way to provide for the needs of Trentum Urdoin in Your world, now that he has no more need for this world.”

I should have seen him more often, he thought, somewhat bitterly. I should have made the effort. But I suppose everybody says that.

True, Prosatio Silban’s life as a mercenary cook kept him needfully close to whichever of the Uulian Commonwell’s Three Cities and Thousand Villages (or elsewhere in the surrounding Exilic Lands) offered the best and most available clientele. And Rutley, Master Trentum’s home village, was somewhat off the well-beaten roadways. But, he reflected, even mercenary cooks could make time now and again to stay in touch with those who set them on their professional path. So saying, he counted his silver and decided that he could at least afford to make a belated visit to Master Trentum’s cremains.

Thus, early the next morning, he hitched up his galleywagon to his faithful dray-beast, Onward, and shook the reins to begin his voyage to Rutley. It was a journey of some days and he largely passed the time deep in memory and thought …

* * *

“I need a drink,” said Prosatio Silban with more than a slight slur to his voice. He stood up from the barstool, wavering on rubber-kneed legs.

“You want another drink?” asked the bartender. “Dance for us, and we’ll give you some brandy. Dance!”

His command was echoed by the other inn patrons: “Dance! Dance! Dance!”

Prosatio Silban looked down at the floor. He was lost and lonely, and badly wanted to dull the gnawing ache in his spirit. Fresh from the Sacreanthood – that elite class of Uulian religious functionaries held in esteem by much of the population and resentment by some – he had no trade, no friends and no money; alone in a crowd of strangers, all he wanted was a drink of brandy. Maybe if he entertained these men, they would let him have one.

“I’ll give him a drink,” said the acne-faced man. “Hand me that bottle.”

He dipped and swayed to a rhythm of his own imagination, almost falling over but steadying himself with a shaking hand on the bar. He leapt in the air, made a valiant effort to click his heels, and fell against one of the other customers. The pain of the man’s fist in his gut made him cry out and grab his belly.

“Don’t hurt him,” said the bartender with a sneer. “Man can’t dance if you hurt him. And if he doesn’t dance, he doesn’t drink.”

Raucous laughter filled the tavern. Prosatio Silban let go his throbbing torso and tried to put one foot next to the other. It didn’t work, and he fell to his knees. The acne-faced man he had fallen against punched him in the jaw, and he fell back onto the floor, mouth open in agony of body and soul.

“I’ll give him a drink,” said the acne-faced man. “Hand me that bottle.”

The next thing Prosatio Silban knew, brandy was dribbling into his mouth, onto his wounded jaw, and soaking his tunic. He swallowed the fiery fluid, ran his hands down his soggy tunic and put his wet fingers in his mouth, licking them. He heard the derisive laughter, but he didn’t care.

“C’mon, boys,” said his tormentor. “Let’s drag him to my wagon and dump him outside the village.”

One man grabbed Prosatio Silban’s legs, another his arms, and, laughing, they carried him outside. Through heavy lids he glimpsed the wagon – a sturdy covered affair harnessed to some creature he couldn’t identify. For a moment, he thought he was hallucinating. He closed his eyes.

Then another voice, low and commanding. “That’s enough. I’ll take charge of him now.”

The men dropped him to the dusty roadway. An arm laced itself under Prosatio Silban’s, lifting him to his unsteady feet. He opened one eye to take the measure of his benefactor, but all he could see was a beard and an ear. He closed his eyes again.

Horizontality. Comfort. The smell of yava brewing. And a tremendous ache in his head, with lesser pain in his jaw and stomach.

Prosatio Silban opened his eyes, and sat up. The room revolved and he groaned, clutching his head.

“You shouldn’t try to be vertical just yet,” came a low, commanding voice – and was it also sympathetic? “Lay back and wait for the yava to brew. I have tended your wounds, for the moment. Time will do the rest.”

Prosatio Silban obeyed, and the room slowed somewhat. “Thank you,” he mumbled.

“You looked like you could use the help,” said the voice. “I have been where you were, and I know.”

“How did you get there?”

“To tell you the truth, I don’t remember her name. Strong drink will do that to a person. It erases memory of everything but the taste and the hunger for more. She was only an excuse, though. Fortunately, I was helped out of that trap. And here you are, in similar circumstances.”

His benefactor disappeared for a moment, then returned with a steaming cup fragrant with mint. “Drink this,” he said. “It will help with the pain, and somewhat aid your sobriety.”

Prosatio Silban took a deep sip, tasting the familiar, bittersweet tang of something he could never quite identify. Yava was a very old drink, one which stimulated without intoxicating, and only the mystic M’zei dwelling to the far north of the Commonwell knew the secrets of its making. Fortunately, they were also lavish in its production.

“You are a Sacreant, yes?” Partly due to his greying beard, his rescuer appeared to be at least twice as old as Prosatio Silban’s twenty-odd years, but his eyes were young and kind. He was dressed in the earth-toned kneebreeches, tunic and thigh-length vest common to a member of the Uulian middle class: one who worked for himself rather than another, and who could do so with relative autonomy.

“I was a Sacreant. Now I am a drunkard.”

“How did you come to leave the service of the Flickering Gods?”

“A long story, but ultimately, I could not reconcile my faith with my observations. It’s not unknown among those who wear the Rainbow Robe. Not common, but not completely unknown.”

“Were you dismissed?”

“No. I defrocked myself before I could play the hypocrite. But I have no other skills than catering to people in their time of spiritual need; and I felt terribly alone, and incompetent, and sorry for myself. So, as the saying goes, ‘I took a drink – then the drink took me.’

“That was some time ago. I still don’t know what to do with my life, and I am tired of wasting it. But I don’t know any other course … so I dance for tavern-drinks and pray for death.”

“What if you had a reason to live?”

* * *

This is harder than I thought, the would-be cook reflected. But I’m not giving up.

Prosatio Silban reined to a halt his galleywagon’s dray-beast. He was thinking how little Rutley had changed since he last walked its streets; the same stone bridge over Trickle Creek, the same goat-browsed village common, the same inn – “Marton’s Leap.” He climbed down from the driver’s seat, half-expecting to see Master Trentum emerge from the humble house at the village’s edge.

As he thought this, he was surprised by the sight of his late mentor’s housekeeper bustling down the dusty street, a large basket of multicolored vegetables balanced on her head.


“Yes? Oh – MASTER PROSATIO! Is it really you?”

Miela beamed at the cook, set down the basket, and grabbed him in a ferocious and sincere embrace. “I always knew you would be successful,” she said, releasing him and taking in the galleywagon with “COOK FOR ANY PRICE” brightly emblazoned on its sides. “Look at you now!”

“I’ve missed you too, Miela. I’ve also missed Master Trentum. Was he … did he …”

“The master died peacefully in his sleep some days ago, surrounded by family, acquaintances and friends. He had become somewhat frail, but was well-loved by the local folk, and his pyre was one of the grandest Rutley has ever seen.”

“It is good to know that.”

“Would you like to visit his ashes?”

“That’s actually why I am here – to pay my respects, and express my gratitude.”

“Come along with me, then. He’s in the rear yard; and also, our hearts.”

So saying, she retrieved her basket and led Prosatio Silban to the house he remembered so well: a one-story, thatched-roof, half-timbered cottage, with ivy trained along the walls and a large grill in the front yard. Two tabby cats, grey and ginger, drowsed by the street-facing door. The cook sighed happily, and was once again lost in remembrance …

* * *

“They need to be smaller,” said Trentum Urdoin in a weary but patient tone. “Otherwise, they won’t cook.”

“They” were tiny ground-duckmeat balls that Prosatio Silban was learning how to shape, with painstaking exactitude, for soup. Too large, and they would be raw in the middle when everything else had finished; too small, and they would become lost in the mélange of fresh vegetables and rich broth.

This is harder than I thought, the would-be cook reflected. But I’m not giving up.

He grabbed a small lump of ground meat-and-fat, weighed it in his fingers, and began rolling it in his palms. “Like this?” he asked, holding up a near-perfect sphere about the size of a child’s marble.

“Like that,” replied his mentor. “After six months, you’ve finally got it right.”

“Thank you,” said Prosatio Silban, selecting and weighing another lump.

Standing at the waist-high butcher’s block, surrounded by saucepans, skillets, stockpots and various types of provender all in different stages of rendering, he assessed his situation. The headaches and soul-aches were fading memories; he had lost his taste for brandy, and anyway Master Trentum was keeping him too busy to think about such concerns. When he wasn’t practicing his promising knife skills in order to cut, chop, slice and dice everything in sight, Prosatio Silban was also learning the cryptic ways of transforming raw constituents via heat (and other agencies) into nourishment, or applying seasonings to make them more palatable.

He discovered a natural talent for making a sustenance-filled plate, platter or bowl look artistic and welcoming to the diner; a gift for saucemaking, both hot and cold; and an aptitude for preserving food with smoke, salt, spirits or vinegar, and fat. In fact, he was progressing so quickly and so well that his mentor half-jokingly told him that he was worried by the competition.

“There will come a day when you will go out into the world to seek your fortune – and find it lying at your feet,” Master Trentum had said. “Soon.”

The two had discussed that possibility with greater frequency over the past weeks. Trentum Urdoin had been slowly getting Prosatio Silban used to the idea of becoming a house-cook for one of the Uulian upper classes – the Gentry, perhaps, or even an Heir Second – but his student insisted on a position that would let him travel and meet new people.

“What I need is a portable kitchen,” he told his mentor. “Maybe a wagon of some sort, that would let me bring good food to hungry people and learn about their local cuisines. I would charge whatever my patrons could afford, and keep my costs low through creative recipes that rely on only a few ingredients. I’d need a pantry also…”

“Don’t get lost in dreams,” Master Trentum admonished him. “They are a wonderful exercise, and provide needed hope, but they won’t fill your belly.”

* * *

The bed where he had lain healing a quarter-century ago looked as though prepared for his mentor’s return rather than his departure. Prosatio Silban noted the yava pot, ceramic mugs, and small table-and-chairs in the kitchen adjoining the cottage’s main room.

All here, just as I remembered, he thought. How much I owe this man cannot be calculated. Aloud, he said, “So, Miela, how have the last ten years treated you?”

Miela put the vegetable basket on the kitchen table. “Well enough,” she said. “The joints are creakier and the hair more grey – but no one wants to hear about that.”

“Such things are common to us all,” said the cook. “Was the master ill for very long?”

“Near about a month. It started with his heart, and ended with him confined to his bed. But I’m sure he didn’t suffer; just seemed to get younger and younger as the days rolled by, and then …”

“He always was a young soul. And the best teacher anyone could ask for.”

“He was very glad to see you on your last visit. I don’t know whether you knew that, but he was. Always considered you his most gifted apprentice.” Miela wiped her eye. “Where are my manners? Would you like something to eat or drink?”

“How about a mug of yava, for the sake of his memory? I think I remember how he brewed it.”

“Nonsense. You’re a guest. Pray have a seat.”

The cook sat. Miela busied herself at the stove, pausing in her labors now and then for conversation. Soon the scent of mint filled the kitchen, and the housekeeper set two steaming mugs on the table.

Raising one, Prosatio Silban said, “’To absent friends.’”

“I will always drink to that,” replied Miela, and did. “As long as you’re here, Master Prosatio, I have something he wanted you to have.”

Miela left the room and returned. “He said it meant something to you,” she said, holding out her hand. Resting on her palm was a small black-iron pendant, shaped like a wineglass and attached to a worn leather thong.

Prosatio Silban smiled with recognition. He picked it up, remembering…

* * *

As village inns go, Marton’s Leap was what the Uulian traveling public would call adequate without being fancy. It offered simple fare (a soup or stew of the day, with ale and a hunk of coarse brown seed-bread) but the beds were comfortable and the drink-offerings varied. It was named after a local celebrity who, being chased by Exilic Land indigenes, goaded his horse to jump the swift-if-spare Trickle Creek and escape. In gratitude to the gods who had aided him – Ulbis of the Next Footstep; Atluuk of the Fortuitous Escape, and Valmasorn, Defender of the Way Home – Marton built a shrine to their names; when the shrine attracted pilgrims, he built the adjacent inn to serve them.

However, not all of the pilgrims-cum-guests were of a savory disposition. Such was the man who had beaten Prosatio Silban and soaked him with brandy. That had been almost exactly a year ago, but the cook noticed him one day while procuring ingredients in Rutley’s modest marketplace: a tall, wiry man with a bad case of acne. He was a consistent Marton’s Leap customer, and was occasionally seen stumbling his late-evening way past Master Trentum’s house.

“Didn’t you learn your lesson last year? Don’t trifle with your betters, son.”

“You don’t need to go in there,” Trentum Urdoin was saying. “That is your past.”

“It’s because it’s my past that I have to go in there,” replied his protégé. “But it’s alright – I have well ballasted my stomach with bread and potatoes. I should be fine.”

Prosatio Silban looked at the inn’s double doors for several loud heartbeats, and took a decisive step toward them.

“Wait,” Trentum Urdoin said. He held out a black-iron amulet attached to a leather thong. “I know that you have all but forsaken the Flickering Gods, but I also know they have not forsaken you. They smile on you still, perhaps more than ever since you have made yourself more worthy of the life they have bestowed on you. Put this on. It will help you in your endeavor.”

Prosatio Silban accepted the gift with a nod to his mentor. “Thank you,” he said, tying the thong around his neck and tucking the charm into his tunic. “I hope I won’t need it.”

“Do you want me to come in with you?” asked Trentum Urdoin. “After all, it is my money.”

“No, I don’t expect this to take very long. I simply need what another man has – a man with whom I have a history.” And with that, the newly minted cook walked through the doors.

So the circle turns, Prosatio Silban thought as he entered the inn’s smoky great-room. His acne-faced quarry was at the bar, holding forth to a bemused crowd of pilgrims and villagers.

“…so I said to him, ‘Who do you think you are?’” he was saying. “’I live here, and’ – well, if it isn’t the Dancing Sacreant. Haven’t seen you around these parts recently, boy. You been drinking somewhere else?”

“Don’t let me interrupt,” Prosatio Silban said. “I have business with you, but it can wait until you finish your story.”

The man drew himself up. “What’s the business?”

“You have something I want.”

“Didn’t you learn your lesson last year? Don’t trifle with your betters, son.”

“I don’t intend to. But I can’t afford to buy the item from you, so I will let you lose it to me through a drinking contest.”

“What’s in it for me?

Prosatio Silban hoisted a grey leather pouch, jingled it. “Twenty in silver. It’s not enough for the purchase, but it should keep you in brandy for some time if I lose. And I’ll buy the drinks.”

The acne-faced man looked at the pouch, licked his lips, then looked at the student cook. “Bottoms up,” he said.

* * *

“Do you know where he got this?” asked Prosatio Silban, holding up the black-iron charm.

Miela frowned. “I don’t,” she said. “I don’t even know what it is.”

“It’s an amulet. A holy amulet. Sacred to Qarrien, Goddess of Steadfast Sobriety. You might say that, without it, I wouldn’t have been absent for so long…”

* * *

The bartender’s voice was loud with awe and importance. “Fourteen brandies down. One to go, gentlemen.”

Prosatio Silban sat straight in his chair with a look of purposeful equanimity. On the stained oak table before him were twenty-eight small overturned cups and two upright, the latter brimful with brandy. Across from him, the acne-faced man leaned dangerously atilt, one arm anchoring him to the tabletop.

“Are you ready?” asked the bartender.

“Yes,” said the student cook.

“Uh,” said the acne-faced man.

“Then drink,” said the bartender, and the surrounding crowd took up the chant. “Drink! Drink! Drink!”

Prosatio Silban raised the cup to his lips, opened his mouth and threw back his head, then set the drained vessel next to its upside-down fellows. His opponent’s unsteady hand tried to execute the same maneuver, but instead spilled his cup’s contents down the front of his tunic; he grunted, smiled an insensible conqueror’s smile, then sprawled face-down on the table and began to snore.

“I believe you are the new owner of a roofed wagon and its dray-beast,” the bartender told Prosatio Silban, then beckoned to the crowd. “Boys – drag Pimple out of here.”

* * *

“Here he is,” said Miela, indicating the small rock pile behind Trentum Urdoin’s abode. “In his later years, he told me more than once that his soul was in this cottage, and he wanted his cremains to stay here. Almost up to the end, he still cooked in the front yard for wayfaring pilgrims, some of whom were quite moneyed and appreciative. He lacked for nothing – including friends.” She sniffed. “I’ll leave you be with him.”

“Thank you,” Prosatio Silban said, and knelt before the pile. He touched its capstone with a trembling finger, and brought the finger to his lips.

“Old man,” he whispered. “Old man, I cannot thank you enough for your kindness. I’m sorry I didn’t get to see you again recently, but I was doing what you taught me – and in the way you taught me to do it. If it weren’t for you…”

He smiled, bowed his head, then produced from his belt-pouch a small grey stone, round and rippled and lately removed from between here and there on the road to Rutley. He added the stone to the base of the rock pile.

“If it weren’t for you, I’d never have made it there, or back here again, or to any of the wonderful, challenging places in between,” Prosatio Silban whispered. “It’s a good life, now. I wonder where it will take me next?”

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