Heroes are like jars. They come in all sizes.
Photo credit: Ricky Artigas
A thousand years ago, the great city of Sassam was sacked by an army of invaders from the eastern coast. They were led by a power-hungry asron named Wost. Asron Wost’s forces plowed through the Taen’s castle, killing all the nobles and soldiers they found, and enslaving all the servants.
Later that day, when most of the screaming part was over, the soldiers found an old man in a storage room, trying to protect a large number of jars. He did not look fearsome enough to bother killing, or useful enough to enslave, so they paused long enough to let him talk. They found his story so amusing, they let him tell it to Asron Wost.
The asron sat on his stolen throne, looming over those beneath him. Despite his grimacing face, his voice betrayed how pleased he was with his success. “What is your name, old man, and what did you do here for the taen?”
The little man shuffled and bowed and cleared his throat many times. “Oh, I am too old and poor to have my own name. People call me Old Man Sassamot. As to what I do, I have been kept in this castle against my will my whole life, forced to help the royal family. Now that you are here to liberate us, I will gladly help you instead.”
“You? Help me? But you’re so small and weak. How could you possibly help me?”
“Oh I agree, my lord. I am generally quite worthless as a person. And the only belongings I have to my name are the contents of my many jars, which are themselves generally quite worthless. And yet, you may be surprised at how many problems I can solve, using only my wits and the contents of those jars.”
“What kind of problems?”
“Why, any kind at all.”
Asron Wost was intrigued. He decided to see the jars for himself. He and his guards and Sassamot marched through the halls, watched by wary, whispering servants, until they reached the storage room. There were many jars—one hundred, the old man said, although nobody bothered to count. Sassamot cautioned that if anyone tampered with the jars or destroyed their contents, he might not be able to help. Wost carefully raised the lid on the closest jar and glanced inside. Then he tried another, and another, and all the ones within reach. He didn’t see anything of value. No gold, no jewels, no weapons. How could any of these items solve his problems? Now he really was curious.
“These are the jars you say can help me?”
The little man cleared his throat. “No, my lord. I said that I can help you, using the jars.”
“Hm.” Wost looked at the jars again. Perhaps this old man was a healer. He could use a good healer. “Fine, let’s see if you can help me. I have a pain in my knee. If you fix it by tomorrow, I may let you live.”
The old man nodded. He asked Wost a few questions about his knee, and nodded again. “Tomorrow, then.”
The next morning, Sassamot presented Wost with a salve that he claimed would reduce the pain.
Wost looked at the bowl dubiously. “If anything bad happens to me because of this salve, you will be immediately executed.”
Sassamot laughed and shook his head. “I do not claim to be a wise man, my lord. But I am not such an idiot that I would try to kill the mighty Asron in front of all his generals. That would not solve your problems or mine!”
After some deliberation, Wost tried the salve. To his relief, it soothed the pain. It occurred to him that it would be worth keeping the old man alive just to maintain a supply of this salve. But the asron was a greedy man.
Wost had Sassamot brought before the throne once more. “Very well. You were useful once. I will give you chance. If you can solve every problem I give you for the next month, I will let you go free. If you refuse me, or fail, I will execute you.”
Sassamot nodded, somberly. “I will do my best. But if you please, my lord, I may not be able to solve every problem as quickly as this first one.”
“You will solve them quickly enough to please me, or you will regret it.”
“Yes, of course.” He cleared his throat politely. “I will need a room to work in, with plenty of light and fresh air, and some equipment—a brazier, pen and ink, water, some oils…”
Wost waved at the guards. “Get the little man whatever equipment he needs. Put him and his jars in one of those tower rooms. Keep him locked in, but feed him well.” The asron flashed Sassamot a carnivorous smile. “He is our honored guest, after all. For now.”
The first few problems Wost gave Sassamot to solve were minor—a blood stain that wouldn’t come out, a stuck mechanism, a weird smell. He didn’t yet trust this strange old man with anything more important. Each time, Sassamot pulled something small and seemingly insignificant from his set of jars, and solved the problem.
On the third day, the asron asked Sassamot for something to make his soup taste better. He expected his new helper to produce a spice from one of his jars, but the old man surprised him.
“As you may be aware, my lord, your soldiers confiscated all the good wine barrels from the kitchens. I would advise you to personally take a barrel to the head cook, with your compliments.”
Wost considered it. “Then he will use the good wine in the cooking, and the food will taste better?”
“No, sir. Then he will drink the wine and be happier, and the food will taste better.”
The asron nodded. Very clever. He was impressed.
Later that day, Wost arranged for a secret, private audience with Sassamot, to challenge him with a more complex problem. He suspected that someone was spying on him, but he wasn’t sure who. Sassamot delicately probed for more information, and then proposed a plan. They would set a trap for the spy, luring him or her to hide behind a panel to listen to a supposedly important conversation. The trap worked. The asron did not have to wait long before he heard a crash behind the panel. The spy had slipped on the beads Sassamot had sprinkled there, which were nearly invisible in the shadows.
When the spy was pulled out into the open, kicking and protesting, he was revealed to be one of the asron’s trusted generals. Wost was furious. He screamed at the man, demanding an explanation. But before the spy could sputter out a response, Wost stabbed him in the stomach, then pulled back and stabbed him a few more times.
After this incident, the problems Wost gave Sassamot grew more involved. Wost became increasingly concerned about the loyalty of those around him. As well he should be, it turned out. Every time he suggested that Sassamot test one of his advisers or generals or concubines, his suspicions were proved valid! Such clever procedures, too, with such simple means. A stain on a chair that affected who sat beside whom. A hair of the wrong shade on a pillow. A bit of fabric in someone’s house colors, snagged on a nail in the wrong place. An itchy powder in someone’s clothing that distracted him, making him look foolish during an important conference. A bitter powder slipped into a drink at a private meeting, convincing one traitor that the other was trying to kill him. Yes, the asron’s enemies were being exposed, one by one.
Meanwhile the occupation was going fairly well, or so the asron thought. He left the everyday details to other people while he focused on more important problems. The asron knew a counterattack would come. Despite the asron’s efforts in that first attack, the Taen had escaped. He would be rounding up fresh forces to try to take back his castle. When they came, Wost needed to be certain he could trust all the men by his side.
Although Wost would never admit it, this old man was much better than him at noticing potential problems and tricking his enemies into revealing themselves. Sassamot required increasingly more information in order to devise his plans, but even in this short time, he had repeatedly earned Wost’s trust. Not completely, of course. Wost waited for Sassamot to start prying into important defense plans and other secrets, to reveal himself as a spy. But it never happened. Some of Sassamot’s questions surprised or confused the asron, who wondered how such odd little mundane details could be important, but they never ventured into suspect territory. Sassamot asked for permission to walk around the castle to explore the layout of certain rooms. Wost allowed it, but had him secretly followed. The guards confirmed that Sassamot never did anything suspicious, which only made Wost trust him more.
Asron Wost was very pleased with how helpful Sassamot was being. His problems really were being solved. In only a few weeks, his enemies in the upper ranks had been rooted out and either executed or imprisoned. The only ones left were loyal subjects who kissed his ring and would be lost without him. Wost felt more secure than he had for months.
However, Wost was torn. He had promised to let Sassamot go free if the old man solved all the problems he was given for one month. The end of that month was coming up soon. Wost didn’t want to lose Sassamot’s help. He didn’t want to execute him, and he especially did not want to set him free, possibly to be used by one of Wost’s enemies. Wost thought and thought and thought. Finally, he grinned. Yes, he had it.
Asron Wost had Sassamot brought before him in the throne room. He spoke as sternly as he could, trying to keep from snickering about his plan. “Old man, as you know, your month of service will soon come to an end. I have one last problem for you to solve. My enemies are massing at the gates, and want nothing more than to kill me. My problem is that I am yet mortal.” Several people in the audience gasped. It took Wost great effort to keep from smiling. “So my challenge to you is this—make me immortal.”
Sassamot shook his head incredulously. “My lord, no mortal has that power. How could I find such incredible magic in my humble jars? No, I beg of you, ask me for a boon I can grant you, in honor of the help I have offered already.”
Wost pretended to be taken aback. “Do you dare refuse to help me?” The other members of the court stepped back, having seen Wost angry before. “No, I will not change my mind. Either you solve my problem, or you fail.”
Sassamot tipped his head to one side. “But lord asron, why ask for something you know I cannot give you?”
Wost glared down on him, repressing a smile.
Sassamot seemed the think for a moment, then suddenly fell to his knees. “My lord, have mercy! As penance, please allow me to stay, and solve any other problems you put before me. It would be my pleasure to serve you.”
Wost smiled then, reflecting on how easy this had been. He had not even had to demand that Sassamot continue his service. The old man suggested it on his own! “I can show mercy when I wish. I will allow you to prove you are penitent by serving me.”
When he was dismissed, Sassamot bowed deeply and repeatedly as he backed out of the throne room. Wost beamed, willing the rest of his court to pay attention to the deference this foreigner paid him.
In the following weeks, Sassamot solved more problems with Wost’s staff, although there were fewer of those now. More pressing was the siege. Unfortunately for the asron, the old man’s jars were not as useful at solving military problems as they had been with personnel problems.
Under the House of Shamiri banners, the taen led an army of his own soldiers and those of nearby allies. They surrounded the castle gates. The besiegers were doing well, controlling the city and somehow stealing and destroying precious supplies inside the castle. Every day the besiegers grew more entrenched and Wost’s position became more fragile.
Before long, the taen demanded the asron’s surrender. The asron met with his cabinet and they talked and yelled and pounded their fists on the table for hours. Then Wost brought Sassamot into his private chambers, and spoke to him alone.
“Sassamot, I have a problem for you to solve, and I think you know what it is. I need to end this siege, quickly.” Wost saw the grin blossoming on Sassamot’s face, but he was in no mood for the man’s odd sense of humor. “Before you say it, I want to end the siege without me surrendering. Understood?”
The old man nodded gravely. “Yes, indeed. But my lord, I cannot advise you on such matters without knowing more about your military position, and I hesitate to pry into such secrets.”
The asron sighed. He would have to trust Sassamot now. “Ask what you need to know. I must end this siege swiftly, or else we will all starve slowly and meet defeat on our knees.”
Sassamot asked his questions, and the asron answered. After some time, the old man got that look in his eye that meant he was thinking hard. Wost dismissed him, to wander back to his tower room and construct his plans.
The next morning, Sassamot presented his idea. “This is a complicated problem, but I have come up with an appropriately complicated solution. When the Shamiri troops come forward, we will frighten enough of them to cause a rout, and channel them into traps we have secretly placed on their retreat paths.”
Wost looked at the old man dubiously. “How exactly do we frighten them?”
“Ah, that’s the clever part. First off, your initial attack was so thorough, as you say, that nobody who saw you lived to tell of it. We will claim that you and your elite guard are giants, and will eat the besiegers for supper unless they retreat. I can make a potion that will make you temporarily huge. For your men, we can make costumes with giant heads and wide shoulders and arms, and have them stand on ladders behind the battlements.”
Wost was nodding, although his eyebrows remained clenched in doubt.
“There’s more. You will also claim that you can raise the dead to fight for you. We’ll string up the corpses of nobles and soldiers you killed earlier, like puppets, moving them around just enough to be convincing. And here’s the best part. The taen’s young daughter was killed in the initial attack.”
Wost looked at Sassamot quizzically. He had not known this.
“I saw her body on the pile. We can dress up a servant girl to look like the taenass and pretend she is risen from the dead, and happy to be fighting on our side. It will horrify her parents and the other nobles into paralysis. Even the soldiers will be too demoralized to fight! Meanwhile, some of our people have snuck out into the city to confiscate the stolen food and supplies, and during the chaos, then bring it back inside.”
All those words danced around inside Wost’s head. It did seem awfully complex. But then, Wost had always believed that complicated plans meant more parts that might actually work. And Sassamot’s plans had worked well in the past.
He approved it.
For the next day and a half, Wost and Sassamot and everyone else inside the castle rushed to get all the elements of the plan into place. Wost ordered the traps to be made, and organized which troops would set them, and which troops would sneak out to steal back their food. Sassamot found a little girl to play the undead taenass. He used something from one of his jars to dye her hair the right color, and something else to make her skin look pale and gray. He directed the servants sewing the giant costumes for the main guard, with pads that made their shoulders much wider, supporting huge sleeves. Sassamot produced a sticky paste from one of his jars, and used it to make hollow giant heads from paper and water, painting them with gruesome faces. Sassamot found a powder from his jars that reduced the smell of the corpses, which was greatly appreciated by the people tying puppet strings onto them. Most importantly, Sassamot made the magic potion that would transform Asron Wost into a giant, if only for a short while.
As Sassamot had advised, the asron started before the sun was quite risen, to use the dim light to his advantage. Sassamot stood with Wost behind the high battlement. The besieging forces were arrayed below, in great numbers, banging their weapons against their shields. Somewhere far below, the asron’s troops were ready to stream out of the secret tunnel. Others had the corpse puppets strung up, awaiting the cue. The asron’s elite guards stood beside them, dressed in their large hollow heads and voluminous robes. With help from the servants, they climbed onto the ladders and loomed over the amassed enemy, hoping they looked like a row of giants. Shouts and murmurs filtered up from the enemy below. They had been seen.
Sassamot handed Wost a vial. “My lord, the final element.”
“This is the potion?”
Wost stared at it, concern wrinkling his eyes. He had been so busy with all those other factors that he hadn’t thought that much about this part. He pushed the vial back toward Sassamot. “You drink some first, to prove that it’s safe.”
Sassamot looked hurt. “I would, my lord, of course. But I’m afraid it took all the time and materials I had to make one full dose. Unless you drink all of this, it won’t work.”
“Of course, I realize that many people are scared of taking magic potions. It’s very common. I’d be happy to take it in your place. But I’m such a small man, even being three times as tall, I wouldn’t frighten anyone. And it might look odd, you being so much smaller than your guards.”
Wost growled. “I’m not scared.” He took the stopper from the vial and poured its contents into his mouth.
Sassamot looked at Wost. The guards looked at Wost. Wost looked back and forth between Sassamot and the empty vial.
“How long does it take to work?”
Sassamot smiled reassuringly. “Not much longer. Here, let’s go over your speech one more time. No sense looking terrifying if you forget what to say.”
Wost’s eyes went wide. He grabbed his throat, and fell over, convulsing.
Sassamot smirked. “Or it could be poison. That would end the siege too.”
When the elite guards saw what had happened, they tried to jump down to attack the little man. But they were wrapped up in their huge ill-fitting robes and pulled off-balance by their huge masks. Most fell off their ladders, landing in tangled piles. The others made it only one or two slow steps before tripping. The few non-costumed guards lunged for Sassamot. He ran around the corner and disappeared into a secret door. The guards giving chase ran right past him.
When the Shamiri saw the asron fall, they charged forward, finding several gates inexplicably unbarred. The asron’s soldiers tried to retreat to a more defensible position, but hesitated to move through the field of corpse puppets, and were defeated. The Shamiri forces easily found and overwhelmed the small groups of the asron’s troops sent out to capture the food stores, and entered the castle through the secret passage.
Sassamot was not entirely correct about Asron Wost’s death ending the siege. The asron’s remaining troops were able to retreat to the keep itself and hold their ground. However, the attacking forces knew the defenses better than the defenders, and could readily anticipate their strategy. The defending forces themselves were in a shamble without the asron, as he had executed all the leaders who had any battle experience. To make it worse for them, the old man kept appearing as if by magic, popping out of a room that was empty just a moment ago, stealing or sabotaging something, and disappearing like air.
Within two days, what was left of the asron’s army surrendered.
The Taen re-entered the castle in a grand parade, to great applause from the servants who were free once more. Behind him marched his wife and their daughter—who had not, contrary to the old man’s lie, been killed—and a long line of nobles and soldiers.
In the throne room, the Taen paused before ascending the dais, searching the crowd. His eyes lit on Sassamot, lounging against the wall sipping from a wine flask, wearing a dirty gray robe. The taen walked toward Sassamot, who rose as he approached. Standing up straight, with his hair smoothed back, he appeared substantially less old and frail than he had for the past two months.
The taen laughed, holding out his arms. “I see all those years of causing trouble finally paid off for you, and for Sassam as well, it seems!”
Sassamot stood, smiling, and embraced the taen. “Aye, and knowing every place in the castle to hide from our mother helped as well.”
The taenar nudged her husband aside to kiss Sassamot’s cheeks. She thanked him for staying behind to help the rest of the family escape. “I was so worried for you, my dear wed-brother. The birds you sent said nothing of how you fared.”
“You should know better, my dear. I can solve any problem there is, as long as I have my jars of many things.” The taenar smiled to see Sassamot’s familiar grin. She took his hand, and they all moved to the dais together.
That night there were many announcements to be made and questions to be asked and answered and issues to be discussed and decided. As the others left to eat a late meal, the taen held his brother back. For a moment they simply stood halfway to the door. They held each other’s hands at arms’ length, rejoicing at being able to look upon each other again. Sassamot waited for the taen to speak.
“I must thank you again for saving all of us, and helping me regain my castle and my throne. I know I’ve been selfish, keeping you here to help me against your wishes, knowing you dream of studying at the great Guild Tower in Jonnamim. Well, my brother, you have helped me more than I could ever have asked.” His eyes filled with tears, but he would not stop holding his brother’s hands to wipe them. “So I give you leave to go, if that is still your wish, although I will miss you beyond telling.”
Sassamot stepped back, dropping his hands, and bowed deeply. The taen’s heart caught in his throat, thinking of how dull life would be, with his only brother so far away. When Sassamot arose, he sported an impish grin. “You are welcome, brother. But if you don’t mind, I think I’ll stay a while longer. It turns out that statecraft is much more interesting than I’d ever realized. Perhaps there is something left in my jars that can help you yet.”
And there was much rejoicing.
This story was initially created when a character in my nascent novel casually threw out the title — The 100 Jars of Sassamot — as a story he recognized being depicted in a wall mural. Obviously he was just showing off about his knowledge of ancient legends. Still, I figured I had to actually write something with that title, so I’d know what my character was talking about. I sat down and immediately wrote out this story, albeit a much shorter version with no dialogue yet. It flowed so easily and seemed so obvious that I suspected it must be derivative of some other story I’d half-forgotten. Or that the idea was so basic and obvious that everyone would think of it, given that title. So I challenged some of my writer friends to come up with their own story ideas on the theme of “The 100 Jars of Sassamot.” I was hugely relieved that their ideas were all vastly different from mine. To my delight, several of them gave me permission to use and expand on their story ideas and set them in Eneana. The titles will be different, but if you see another story about a large number of jars or pots, now you know why.
I also owe thanks to LRose at The Blog Propellant for making “One Hundred” the prompt for a recent writing challenge (see it here). Without that push, I might not have gotten around to finishing this story for who knows how many more months. As a place holder for the One Hundred challenge until I could get this story posted, I wrote a 100-word flash fiction piece that mentions the story of Sassamot and his jars, so check it out if you haven’t yet: One Hundred Fabrications.