This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is probably almost entirely coincidental.

 

 

David Payne asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

 

Copyright © David Payne 2016.

 

All rights reserved.

 

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publishers.

 

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without similar condition including this condition being imposed upon the subsequent purchaser.

 

Published in Great Britain by Oakleigh & Garden 2016

 

 

Oakleigh & Garden is a trading style of Mortgagecomply.com Limited.

 

Printed and bound through Createspace.com

 

ISBN 978-1495903779


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE COLLECTOR OF TALES

 

DAVID PAYNE

 

The Prologue

 

How did I first come to know of the Fire Dancers? Sadly, it wasn't through the maternal whisperings or the fireside tales that I would like to have laid claim to. Nor, for the avoidance of doubt, was it something so detached or so clinical as to be read from some obscure book.

I met a man on a road as I was heading for home one day and we talked to pass the time. He was traveling south as I recall: a scholar from one of the cities down that way. I was returning home from one of my sorties into the western lands. I had a little more coin than I had started out with some months before: enough to get the family through the next winter before I too headed off to the south.

I was cautious of bandits and so understandably was a little apprehensive when first he called out to me from the shade of an old tree by the side of the road. It hadn't helped that he was hidden as I approached and my heart leapt a little when this other human voice called out in what I had taken for solitude.

I must have looked a little fearful as I turned to the sound because he laughed and repeated his greeting. I don't recall his name as I am hopeless at remembering these things. Up close (for at a distance everyone looks the same blur to me) I could see that he had very blue eyes that sparkled with mischief and I guess he was in his late twenties. I only had my staff for walking and a small knife which I used for eating with. It could hardly be called a weapon unless I wanted to gut a small fish. He was younger, larger and fitter. For all I knew he was hiding all sorts of exotic items about his person. I couldn't run and so I saw no other choice: with all the voices in my head shouting caution, I walked towards him and returned the greeting.

It was hot and the sun was high in the sky. He told me that he was resting for a while as was the custom in his country and that he would not take the road again until later in the afternoon. He wondered at me risking the heat and the sun (and I heard the unspoken words that whispered afterwards, "at your age"). I was a little annoyed, I and my fifty-two years of treading this sweet earth.

"My boy," I replied with as much authority as I could muster. I then proceeded to tell him that in these lands, I thought it better to keep walking until I found somewhere safe to rest. He smiled and cut a piece of cured meat with a knife that he retrieved from a sheath on his back. The knife was long and sharp looking with a slight curve to it. I could understand his argument quite clearly but it was testament to his lack of maturity that he would use a fine weapon for such a purpose. Of course it was for show and he continued with an elaborate gesture in cleaning and re-sheathing the blade. It hardly seemed worth the effort.

I don't actively seek out the company of others but I do not avoid it when it presents itself to me. So it was on this occasion and we shared a light meal and some company under that tree. I had some cheese and a little bread. I offered some wine and produced two battered leather tumblers from my pack. He took the wine in the southern style with seven parts water which he poured from a large skin that lay on the ground beside him. I did the same with my own though it did seem a bit of a crime. The red was particularly good but I guess that it was still early in the day and I had a fair way to walk before nightfall.

As we talked over our impromptu meal, he opened out a tale of his travels and of his journey to a northern town known as Trellsheim. He didn't expand on the reason for his journey but he told me a fair bit about the place and whilst the sun hung above us in an azure sky he seemed happy to talk endlessly.

I listened to the words as they washed over me, nodding now and then and responding at various points. I try not to interrupt a tale when it is in progress but often my own innate desire to talk makes this a bit of a challenge. More or less, I managed to keep relatively quiet.

After some time he stopped and then began to ask me a series of questions. What I was doing here on the road? Where I had been? Where I was going? It being my turn, so to speak, I also unrolled a tale of my travels and mentioned a little of my purpose.

"Ah," he said at one point, "so you are a bard and a story teller?"

"No," I replied, "I am a Collector of Tales."

A pause slipped gently between us and then a moment later, as the flies buzzed and darted around the cured meat beside him, he spoke once more.

"They are not the same?"

"No, they are not the same."

This had more or less killed that part of the conversation and we moved on to other matters. We talked of the weather past and to come; of the nearest towns and villages; of boots and blisters and the nature of burdens: all those many things that travelers might discuss when they have been alone for a long while. In this manner the afternoon passed by and at last he started to prepare himself for moving on. He invited me to walk with him and, having decided that there had been plenty of time to slit my throat had he so wished, I agreed on the basis that two men walking together in an empty landscape are more of a threat and less of a target than one. Particularly if one of them is getting on in years.

He set a cracking pace and so we walked for a while in silence, partly because I struggled to keep up with him and, I guess, because we had said enough for now. Then as we came to the top of a gradual incline, he turned and asked me more about my 'work' as he called it.

Yes, I suppose it might be called work or perhaps even a vocation but to me it is just what I do. I am a hunter of sorts. I seek out tales or stories or legends, call them what you will. In the older days, yes, I might have been called a bard but to those who have met me, I am simply The Collector of Tales.

I told him how I had traveled far to the south where the sun scorches the sky and where the great desert stretches out into the lights of oblivion. I shared with him my crossing of the great sea to the east where I had seen the nations of people who are not people. As I was speaking, I could see him looking at me now and then and I could tell that he didn't believe all that I was saying. To be honest I don't blame him but there was a general truth to it.

I wanted to tell him how, in all these lands, I had captured tales both in the language of their tellers and in my own. That I now had stored these in my mind: all of them ready for the telling; ready for the passing on. It wasn’t always easy and I confessed a level of pride in my work that may more than occasionally have bordered on arrogance.

You see, it isn't just the remembering and recall of the words, in languages that may often be strange to the tongue and to the palate or uncouth to the ear. It isn't the learning of the sounds or seeking out the translation of words and ideas and understanding of cultures that may be unusual or indeed, in some cases, offensive to my own background and beliefs. It is the thrill of the collection and the fact of the collection and I guess that is what does it most for me. The finding, the acquiring, the understanding, the cataloging and the taking away with me: those are the things that do it. Yes of course it would be nice to think that there was some higher purpose in all this but if there is, it is an unconscious one and I will unwittingly deliver it for I am a simple man: a hunter and collector. No more or less.

Yet that is not what I said. Instead I rattled on about nothing as the miles passed beneath our dusty feet. He listened and when I had finished he thought for a while and then with a little hesitation, offered me a tale that he had heard. He apologized in advance for the quality of the telling but in the event he spoke well and clearly.

He told me of a group of people who traveled the lands. They were a secretive and cautious folk, often avoiding the towns and other centres of habitation unless need drove them. He referred to them as the unhoused and they were regarded with suspicion by many; held in contempt by others. The authorities in many lands saw them as vagabonds and thieves. To some they were also called the Illuvaqu’e, the Fire Dancers. They were from a culture older than most, steeped in traditions held close and secret over the countless years. For some considerable while he spoke of them, talking at times in an animated manner and at other times in hushed tones that gave me to believe that he held them in awe or respect, perhaps even in fear. He told me of their rituals. How they walked into fires and how they communed with the dead. I looked at him in much the same way that he had looked at me earlier: I didn't believe him.

Though it was brief, the tale that he told on that day struck a note in me and I decided that the subject would warrant investigation when I had the next opportunity.

That was to come a few months later.


 

 

 

PART ONE

 

THE INFERNAL VILLAGE


 

 

A Tale of Two Choices 

 

On a cold winter’s day beyond the middle years of my life, I find myself in a darkening wood on a road that now divides before me. One way is broad and well-trodden with the wheel marks and grooves of vehicles showing that it is the main roadway. The other is darker and less inviting: narrow and straight and disappearing off into the growing gloom in a line as straight as an arrow. Frozen along the path from this bifurcation, snow-covered dung marks this lesser path like a secret message.

At this time of day there is little choice. I’m too old to be thinking about sleeping outside in this weather. I’ll do it at need but it is not something that I would choose. Besides, it is that time when the world starts to take on a dark and sinister feeling about it. A time when you know deep down that you want to get home, wherever home is. A moment when you know that you need to be safe again, whatever safe is.

That is why I choose now to walk what will probably be three miles or so along a rutted and frozen road covered in snow. It will lead eventually to a settlement that I have never seen before and which could, in all possibility, be a nest of thieves, bandits and assassins. The alternative is to walk a short way along a narrow path until I find a suitable spot to build a makeshift shelter and light a fire for warmth. Here to sleep until morning wakes me or death collects me. So I ask myself one more time: am I seeking safety or is it the comfort of humanity?

The road fulfilled its promise and was every bit as difficult to travel as I anticipated as I struggled for what turned out to be about five miles to the next village. My reward at the end of a slippery trudge to the top of a low ridge was the sight of a small number of grey houses before me. They were fading now into the gloom of the low lying land below and partially smothered lights shone dully. Curling wisps of smoke rose heavily and reluctantly from unseen home fires, up through the murky blanket of mist that was hugging close to the ground, before they twisted away in the clear moon-lit sky that sat above it all.

At the edge of the village was a small inn and stable yard. A weary and faded sign swung from the main building and a few painfully drawn letters were scrawled on the wall below it. I think it said ‘hostel’ but it could have read ‘brothel’ from the poor spelling and from what I knew of the dialect of the area, it could equally have sounded as ‘stable’.

I kicked what snow and frozen mud and any other filth that I could from my boots on the lowest of the steps leading up to the main entrance. The door was low and solid looking, studded with brass and with a small view port which was now firmly shut. Though made of wood, the door felt as solid and cold as iron and when I turned the large boss of a door handle, I could feel the ice mashing inside the latch.

Three things came out as the door opened. First there was the noise of many voices within. Then came the warmth (although perhaps it was the relative warmth compared to the cold night air outside). Then came the smell which was nothing if not pungent. It was a heady mixture of wood smoke and tobacco, vinegar and over roasted meat, farmyard and the overwhelming smell of dog – if you know what I mean. It all but took my breath away and pretty near removed the contents of my stomach as well. Still, nothing else to be done about it. I wasn’t enthusiastic, I admit, but at least I wasn’t as committed as the pig that was roasting in the large hearth opposite.

I stepped into the reek.

Although I understood the language quite well, the dialect was a bit of a challenge and I have to say that a lot of the noise that I heard was pretty unintelligible at first. Fighting off the desire to walk back out into the snow and find that remote camp fire up in the woods regardless of wolves, bears or bandits I made my way as carefully as I could through the crowd.

I headed towards the bar where a fierce looking creature in possession of a face that would curdle blood was engaged in a brutal dialogue with what looked to be a couple of badly stained, if animated, blankets. I presumed that this creature was female. Even to my feeble vision she appeared to be wearing a shawl and some kind of strange bonnet. She had to be the proprietor or, at the very least, the proprietor’s wife but she looked like Grendel’s mother. 

Squeezing my way through the steaming and noisome crowd I could not help but notice that I was being studied. In particular, one individual was watching me with serious intent from his seat at one of the tables to my right.

Whether it was a random act or whether it was at a signal or maybe because I had crossed some unseen line, something in a large trench coat lurched to its feet knocking a filthy looking tankard of slops that was before it on the table. A good quantity of the dirty tan coloured brew splashed onto the tabletop and slipped sinuously over the side.

“Ere, can’tcha watch’at wot’ya doin' ya gert tusspot,” shouted a toothless old guy sitting on the other side of the sticky and shiny table.

The speech that spilled from his collapsed mouth degenerated further as he looked down to brush away the greenish brown liquid that pooled briefly in his lap before soaking in.

“Nar lookat wot’ya dun te'ma kegs ya leetl basdad!"

I had no time to hear more of the exchange as I was brought to a halt by a large hand that was placed on my shoulder. It belonged to the individual in the huge trench coat which was badly stained with something brown that I didn’t want to guess at.

He was a big man and in the few seconds afforded me for assessment I determined number of things. I didn’t like him. He was filthy. There was movement amongst the thick black beard that covered much of his face. He also had absolutely no sense of personal space as he leaned right into my field of vision.

You's a leetl su’thun basdad in’tcha!”

The words proceeded from his mouth with the same incontinence as the beer and spit also issuing from that orifice. His eyes, which were brown and cow like, had an obvious vacancy that wasn’t necessarily associated with his intellect. Of course, I had to respond. Failure to do so would invariably result in the repeating stubby finger jab to the shoulder followed by a series of accusations dotted with expletives. The fact that he was a lot bigger than me may also have influenced my desire to co-operate.

“Aye mayt, ye’ve been down tha'ways a waheel.”

I hoped that he understood my slightly purer form of the language and to reinforce it I added.

"Yes'm! ye’ma jevellin' abaht a’bit.”

I have to say that I was quite pleased with myself and thought for a few seconds that this response would do the job. The hand came back off from my shoulder and, as I took a step back to remove myself from the serious halitosis that was making me feel nauseous, its owner did not move with me.

Then I looked into his eyes. There was absolutely no sign that he had understood or indeed even heard me. The same brown-eyed vacancy looked out from them towards me (I do not say that he was actually looking at me). I noticed how big his pupils were: far too large to accommodate the dim-lit smokiness of this place. I noticed also that his teeth were stained red and that the saliva in his beard was also reddish or at least might have passed off for red in better light. I thought perhaps it might be betel although I didn’t think that it was grown this far to the north.

“Ah say'd,” he slurred as he drew himself up to his full height.

He was alarmingly bigger even than I first thought and in my head I could hear a strange little voice making frightened, strangled noises.

“You's a leetl su’thun basdad in’tcha, ya horsun!”

Even with the additional distance now between us, I felt his spit hitting my face. It stung like a mild acid. I wondered what it was he was drinking, or perhaps chewing, that would do that. Then I considered whether it might have been something about his metabolism. It also didn’t escape a thought that I hoped he hadn’t got any infectious diseases.

I decided to go for the obvious.

“Yer raht, ye’ma.”

A look of smug satisfaction split out across his hairy features.

“Faw shor mayt, ah nowse it,” the giant said grinning at me, “ish’ta smell, yu’see."

He paused for an effect that was lost on me and then continued beaming with an obvious sense of pride. That was also lost on me.

"Yu is smell good!"

He tapped the ugly protuberance that seemed to have been squashed hurriedly into his features as an afterthought at some time between his conception and his birth. Once again, there was that sense of pride radiating from him. Once again I remained oblivious to the cause.

" Ish’ta nose, yu’see.”

He paused just long enough to thump his barrel of a chest with his huge right hand.

"Ye'ma tracka!” he said.

More radiated pride glowed from him, seeming to add further to the oppressive partial warmth of the room.

He offered me what I took in context to be a smile, although had I been female I might have been more concerned.  I noticed also that far from being merely a figure of speech, the left hand was in fact quite a bit smaller than the right. Nature or nurture, I wondered. Perhaps it was a standard configuration around these parts.

“Yu lookin' tracka?”

My heart sank. Here was another question and it also had a hint of menace in it. I went for the obvious again.

“No mon.”

I refrained from adding ‘sorry’ as I knew that it would antagonize him and that the usual forms of politeness were culturally unacceptable in these parts. He looked at me and I would have said that it was an appraising look had I not doubted the level of processing going on inside his head. After a pause and without another word, he simply sighed and turned back to the group of people that he had risen from. The last thing that I heard from him was a plaintive exhalation.

“He don't want no tracka!"

Although his tone sounded quite sad, I suspect that he didn't give me another thought.  Once he was seated amongst the other worthies, he took a huge gulp from the huge and filthy leather tankard on the table in front of him. I noticed then that there was only one drink on the table and, as I watched for a few morbidly curious moments, it became apparent that this was being shared by all those sitting around it with him. That would explain the size, I guess, for it looked more like a quart than a pint.

I watched for just enough time to see the tracker launch into what I could only take to be an obscure variation on animated conversation with his fellow tankard sharers. After a while, the sight of a number of dirty looking men sharing an even dirtier looking tankard began to take its toll on my sense of propriety, not to mention my stomach. I moved away leaving them to it and trying, unsuccessfully as it happens, not to think too much about the nature or quality of the various liquids that had been sprayed over me a matter of moments ago.

I made it the last few steps to the bar and to the creature that I took to be in authority. It is a simple observation that whilst I was watched with hawk-like intensity by this woman from the time that I opened the door to the moment when I stepped within a few feet of the bar, I became invisible as soon as I actually got there. I was a part of the scenery as it were.

I looked meaningfully in her direction but she had started to swill a tankard in some brownish liquid from a basin behind the bar. She appeared totally engrossed in that task as well as in an animated conversation taking place on the far side of the room.  With all the noise around, I was pretty sure that she couldn’t possibly hear anything of what was being said.

I tried coughing and clearing my throat but even I knew that was pointless in the din and besides it prompted a series of hackings and spitting from a couple of men at the bar that made me sound like a girl. I waved:  not a thing. I called out moderately loudly but in that room it was lost. I decided again on the obvious.

“Drank, ja’bas!” I yelled at the top of my voice.

A ripple of silence spread out through the room from where I was standing, passed out through the walls and was gone. It had worked though, for Grendel’s Mother stirred from her labours and looked over at me. Actually, it was more like she looked through me. It was quite disturbing.

Again there were those bovine eyes and again, the vacant look and the red saliva and, even more disconcerting, again the thick black beard.

“D'ya want?” she growled.

“D'ya got?” I barked.

“Horshp’s!” she hissed.

“Ya'll 'ave it then,” I grunted.

So far so good, I thought. 

Then it was that I made the mistake. All those fifty-two years of good upbringing could not be held back. Much as I had tried, I simply could not help it and out it came uninvited from my hapless mouth.

Thank’ee,” I whinnied.

It had not been said loud. In fact, I had almost swallowed the words as they came out and yet the silence in the room was immediate and utter. I could hear my heart thumping.  God’s ear, I could hear a dozen hearts thumping! All eyes were on me. I could feel the hostility. Something quick was needed.

“Ye’ll thank’ee t' gi’me sum o' that peg rosten ‘er!” I said as loud as I dared, pointing with apparent enthusiasm (I hoped) to the pig roasting, for want of a better word, in the acrid smoke and sweaty warmth of the fire.

"Gi’me sum peg! Y’ah!”

I thumped my chest for emphasis with my clenched right hand.

“Ye'ma hangregish!”

I scarcely dared to look around in the unnerving silence that had enveloped the room so I kept my eyes on Grendel’s Mother.

Her mouth twisted slightly and worked its way into what I think was a grin although it could have been pity. It could also possibly have been lust. Hopefully I would never know.

Ye'll cut ye sum peg, lurv," she replied, softening ever so slightly.

I was relieved. It looked like I had pulled it off: one serious cultural faux pas into what was frankly an acceptably rude demand for food. I ignored the all too obvious mutterings of, “fawkin' far'ners,” and a range of other similar obscenities and expletives from the others in the room as the volume went back up to full.

I then watched with detached interest as Grendel’s Mother poured a rich, slightly greenish looking liquid from a large tin jug under the counter into the battered tankard that she had hitherto been immolating in the basin.  The liquid had a thin, oily look about it as it was poured out and small, lumpy white things floated and bobbed about on the surface in the tankard once it was placed on the bar before her. She gave it a vigorous stir with a stick that seemed to be lying about for the purpose and then passed the tankard to me.

The detached interest gave way to mild concern as I watched the oily liquid whirl around in the tankard that was now sitting on the bar in front of me. There were far too many bubbles forming on the surface to be accounted for by the mild agitation of the stick. Something was clearly metabolizing in my drink. I noticed also that the lumpy white things had ceased to bob about. In fact, they seemed to have disappeared or should I perhaps have said 'dived' beneath the oily surface.

“Horshp’s,” she hissed once more at me.

There was neither pride nor threat in her voice.  It was a take it or leave it kind of statement and from the look of the drink that was described, I was pretty sure now that I was going to leave it.

“Ye'll 'af a tab ye’ll pay fer it now," she continued.

Then with a hard glint in her eye she threw the challenge at me.

“Fee trupps!”

To be honest, I had no idea what horshp’s was but I presumed that it was now before me in all its greenness, floating a slightly thin and oily froth on a surface that looked vaguely off white. However, fee trupps demanded a response. This was a land of hagglers and I was expected to do the business.

As it was I couldn’t tell from the dialect whether she had said fee (five) or thee (three) and I was not going to pay five trupps for a drink I was basically afraid off.

“F-Fee trupps," I stammered, “nay, nay! Ye’m nev’a fawkin' far'ner here!”

That at least drew some interest from those nearby. For a start, it obviously wasn't true.

"Tu trupps and ne mur fur dese greyn puss!"

“Ya horsun far'ner is'ta shyte,” she countered and followed it up with an emphatic hawk and spit, the like of which landed in all its redness at the base of my tankard just where it met the bar.

“Fur trupps – less halp fur coyn."

She added the latter part of this proposal in a slightly menacing tone, making what seemed to be involuntary stabbing gestures at the bar with a nasty looking knife that seemed to have materialized from somewhere within her voluminous skirts.

Three and a half trupps for cash was more than any reasonable man would pay but I threw down the coins in feigned disgust. At least that way I would keep all my remaining teeth, for now. I added for realism an obligatory, “Ja’bas,” which, it seemed, she took more or less as a compliment because she flashed me one of her twitching, grimacing smiles.

“Ye'll get ye summat peg," she offered in a tone that inferred closure on the horshp's whilst at the same time opening up bids on the smoke-roasted pork.

"Oh crap," I thought.

More haggling and we haven’t even got down to the main issue. Somehow I had to get myself a room in this place to sleep tonight. Best to go for it now I resolved.

There is something that I find fundamentally embarrassing about asking for a room for a night. To start with, I never really know what to say. Usually I’ll try something like, ‘Have you got any vacancies?’ or, ‘Do you have any accommodation?’ or perhaps, ‘Have you got a room?’

No matter how I try, though, it is never quite right. There is always that suggestion of embarrassment and invariably I’ll swallow the words or mumble so that I will not be heard properly no matter what language I am speaking. Then I’ll have to go through it all again. I guess we all create our own versions of purgatory one way or another.

That was more of less what happened when I tried to get a room sorted here. The only difference was that once we had got down to the issue, we haggled over the price. Well, that and the fact that I claimed that I was the mother of a smoking dog. Don’t ask me how. All I know is that I swallowed a couple of syllables in my translation of the word 'overnight accommodation’ and out it popped uninvited as it were. I have to say that this linguistic error was to my advantage though. It kind of caught her unawares and I think threw her out of focus on the price. Anyway five trupps was, I thought, a bargain even though there was the obligatory non-refundable deposit for fumigation, which the hairy witch told me was set at another five trupps in these parts.

"Fur dese calymeens," she had explained.

Then she had disappeared behind the bar for a few seconds before emerging with a look of triumph and a rather unhappy and pale looking creature about the size of her rather meaty hand and vaguely resembling a trilobite. She dropped the creature onto the bar before her and then crushed it with a cudgel that she had expertly whipped out from under the bar before the poor beast could flee.

“Dese calymeens, hah,” she said and then grinned a gap-toothed grin.

Personally I think that she had kept that one there for the purpose. As the viscous juices of the hapless creature spread over sticky surface of the bar, I paid my ten trupps (and the shreeve tax – another trupp) and the key deposit (another two trupps but refundable if the key is presented on departure). Then with my bag, a huge key and my plate of smoke roasted and slightly warm pork on a dirty birch-bark platter I made my way through the crowded room to the dark narrow opening with the words, ‘Slepish!’ scrawled on the crumbling plaster above it in the hand of a large but moderately literate spider.

The tankard of horshp’s remained on the bar untouched. The dead trilobite watched me through its lifeless calcite eyes.


 

The Lodger’s Tale

 

As I left the main room and made my way carefully down the dimly lit passageway I was reminded of just how cold it really was. Away from the animal warmth of the main part of the tavern the temperature dropped quickly. Soon my breath came in short sticky puffs of mist that I walked through as they hung in the gloom around me.  I passed a couple of doors but the characters scratched on them did not resemble those on the dirty piece of fabric attached to the key that I held. I carried on and around a corner then up a narrow and unreasonably steep flight of stairs that my knees rebelled against as I struggled up against gravity.

A number or dirty tallow candles had been left burning in the passageway. I use the term burning here because they gave off very little light and substituted this inadequacy with copious amounts of black smoke. Lines of dark stain seemed to run up the walls beside them and it all added to make the darkness feel more pronounced. I passed two more doors but again there were no matching symbols. The third door on this upper passage was however mine and after a slight struggle with the lock, I managed to fumble my way into the room.

I expected it to be dark within but in fact some kindly person had left a small candle stump burning on the mantelpiece above the boarded up fireplace. This looked to be the real thing: beeswax. It is a sad testament to the nature of the world in which I live that I am a bit of a connoisseur when it comes to candles and I appreciated the gesture more than most persons might have thought normal.

In the room there was a bed, a table, some old carpet on the floor and a small window. In the candlelight, everything looked yellowish and dirty. The bed was unmade and the covers were thrown back with what seemed to have been the grim resolution of someone who had slept all night in all their clothes and who knew that it was still going to be colder when they got up. I abandoned the platter of pork to the table and placed my day sack on the floor.

From a pocket in my coat I took two small candles of my own. Nothing fancy, paraffin and white for the most part, a little rounded by wear in my pockets but a sensible amount of neatly trimmed wick. I am, I like to think, always prepared. I lit these with the candle that was already in place. That gave off a bit more light as well as offering a contingency in the event of any sudden drafts. It did not make the room look any better though. Still, it has to be said that despite the dragon-breath that issued from my mouth and which was bedewing my beard with oily droplets, it was still a lot warmer than sleeping out in the snow.

I retrieved the key from the other side of the door where I had left it initially and closed and locked it from the inside. The room might not be much but for tonight it was mine!

I didn’t bother to make the bed and resorted to pulling up the covers to hide the bottom sheet. For one thing I wanted to keep the contents of the bed a mystery and for the other, I did not want to find out if the previous occupant had slept in his boots as well. From my bag, I took out my own sheet and a sleeping sack and laid these out. A spare jumper would have to double for a pillow.

On closer inspection, the pork smelled disgusting and was now stone cold so I left it on the table on the basis that hunger on this occasion was better than sickness. Then I tried to look out of the window but it was very small, pretty dirty and all that was visible was the dark wall of another building a few feet away.

So this was the extent of my environment tonight: pretty limited really. There was nothing else to do so it was either back downstairs and the company below or get to bed and wrap up against the cold. For tonight I opted for the latter and removed my boots and threw on a spare pair of socks against the bitter chill that was beginning to numb my extremities.

I passed what was truly an awful night trying to sleep on a mattress that seemed to be stuffed with logs as well as straw. On one occasion I was startled into sleep by a shape that vaguely resembled that of a rat and which seemed to be lying (or possibly sleeping) just below the small of my back. After I had leapt out of bed and beaten the wretched thing to death with my boot, I realised that it was probably nothing more than the shape of compressed straw that has been regularly slept upon by large primates over a frequent number of nights.

Of course there was also the cold. Whenever I fell asleep I was snatched back into wakefulness the minute my casual movement brought another inrush of icy air into to the open side of my sleeping sack. After a while I began to realise that I was leaching warmth into the straw below me, no doubt to the great glee of any invertebrates living therein.

Then there was the noise. I don’t mean the noise from the bar below, nor for that matter the subliminal rumble of heavy snoring: my heavy snoring that is. The noise I refer to was the incessant scuttling back and forth in the darkness from a large number of creatures with a large number of stiffly jointed legs. The candles had burned out well before I fell asleep for the first time and no doubt this had given the little blighters the confidence to get up and move about once more.  In my semi-conscious state I kept picturing Grendel’s Mother shouting, "These calymeens! Hah!" as she crushed an unfortunate trilobite time and time again on the bar before her.

I could picture a myriad malevolent little calcite eyes all looking up at me from the floor: all of them accusing me. I had never actually heard of anyone being bitten by a trilobite but I guess there’s always a first time. From the noise and the obvious number of creatures, it was clear that the room had not been fumigated for some time. Clearly my non-refundable deposit of five trupps was being put to other uses.

I was still mulling this last thought over when I realized that there was light starting to come in through the tiny window. I hadn’t heard any bird song but then it occurred to me that it would be a foolish bird to start singing at daylight this far north.

One of the less savory habits of these people was the eating of songbirds. They were roasted whole (and I mean whole, not gutted) with the feathers still on and were eaten with the unusual habit of covering their heads (the eaters that is not the victims) with a white cloth. I had once attended such a meal and it was amongst one of the most unusual ceremonies that I think I have ever participated in.

All the diners sat at table and the birds were plated and brought in under a cloth. Once all the plates were tabled, there was a brief pause as though someone should have said a grace. Then each diner picked the cloth from the plate and placed it over their head so that it draped down over the face. We then bent down towards the meal and got stuck in with fingers and teeth. The feathers had burned off of course but they gave the meat a slightly singed flavour. It was a very greasy affair. I never really got to find out why the white cloth, though. I always assumed that it was something to do with the look of the meal or the grimness of the attack.

Of course this short recollection was nothing more than an attempt to put off the inevitable. Now that it was light and, given the incredibly uncomfortable circumstances of the bed, there was nothing else to do but get up and face the day. It had seemed like an incredibly short night.

Although I could sense rather than see the trilobites lurking in the remaining areas of darkness in the room, there seemed nothing else for it. Pushing the various covers gingerly aside, I slid my legs out from the last vestiges of warmth (a relative term) and swung them around so that my stockinged feet landed heavily on the floor. Involuntarily I froze for a moment, awaiting the sensation of struggling Arthropods biting and snipping at me as they struggled to break free of their entrapment beneath my feet. It didn't happen however and so I stood up and felt the inevitable rush of pain to my knees and back.

I would just have to put up with the various discomforts however. There was no alternative place available to sleep and after an exchange with Grendel’s Mother on the first morning, it became quite clear that - at least according to her - I had the best room that they could offer. This was one of those points of clarity and possibly of translation that went entirely wrong as I was to find out after I left the place to head for Trellsheim.

It was my intention to spend the next few days searching for and acquiring the tale of the Fire Dancers. Unfortunately, this meant that I would have to enjoy the services of this place for a few more nights. This was to be without a doubt a curate’s egg.

The toilets and washing facilities that were available to me were less than rudimentary and were outside near the stable block. With facilities such as these, I could understand the general lack of hygiene in the population. After a brief attempt to wash and shave on the first morning, I gave up and convinced myself that I would get cleaned up once I left the place and had moved on to a larger and hopefully better hostel towards the end of the week.

Breakfast, on the other hand, was surprisingly good. It was served in the bar about an hour after sunrise. It was a pity that the people seemed to eat few other meats than pork but there were eggs also and some kind of bread that was crunchy on the outside and dry and sour within. The one particular pleasure was a type of blood pudding flavoured with herbs and spices and fried, of course, in pig fat. I had tasted similar fare in other parts of the northern world but I would have to admit, albeit reluctantly, that this was far superior in taste and texture to anything that I had yet met.

I could not establish how many people were actually staying at the inn. There was at least one other man, a short tidy looking creature who looked more out of place than I did. He was treated with a mix of grudging respect and caution by the staff and was avoided by everyone else. I later learned that he was a Shreeve Tax collector. Other than a terse, “morning,” at breakfast each day I don’t think we said a word to each other. After breakfast he would disappear (I mean figuratively and not literally) and would not reappear as far as I was concerned at least until breakfast on the following day. 

The only other person that I saw regularly each morning was a rather large woman who seemed to have been staying in the place for some time. In fact, for all I knew, she may have lived there permanently. She was certainly well known by almost everyone and was greeted respectfully by the serving girl in the morning. Even the hairy tracker that I had the good fortune to meet when I first arrived and who I later named Grendel because I learned that he was indeed the son of the proprietress, showed a kind of respect for her. Well he didn’t leer at her quite as much as he did at other women and he tended to keep out of her personal space more than he did for most other persons.

She had a small dog of indeterminate breed that she kept very close to her and seemed to spend a lot of time talking to. It was not much of a creature but it was even for its diminutive size, rather fat.

How a woman managed to stay in a place like this was a bit of a mystery to me. Having said that, exactly how anyone could stay in a place like this was probably fairly remarkable so we can most likely dispense with the woman part of this as being slightly misogynistic. That being said, on the one occasion I frequented the only wash room I did not see her there. Perhaps she rose slightly earlier to protect her modesty.

Still, she seemed to be personable enough. The obligatory, "morning," was offered and accepted at breakfast with some small talk about the weather, the quality of the breakfast or the dog’s habits.

Personally I thought the animal was a nasty, snappy looking thing with a mean look. I didn’t touch it: usually I take an instant dislike to dogs, especially the small kind and this occasion was no exception.  However, I didn’t want an enemy for the duration of my stay and so I made suitable noises and comments in its general direction. The only pleasure I could take was the look in the dog’s eyes when it saw me. It clearly disliked me with the same enthusiasm that I disliked it.

"If I were bigger, and a bit fitter, I’d have his arm off," it seemed to say.

Other than the occasional wagoner or itinerant trader, I didn’t see many other people staying at the inn. I never exactly established which room either the tax collector or this woman were actually staying in as I never saw them anywhere on the dark little corridor that went up to my room.

I didn’t see the teacher (for that I learned was her former occupation) in the bar, though after the first night I spent each evening there. I came to be accepted there quite quickly. From the second evening I seemed to be taken into the over extended family. When I was greeted, it was with an affable and almost affectionate if, to my ears a little crude, “Evenin' Fawkin!” This was a long walk from the, "fawkin' far'ner," mutterings of the first night.

The use of language here was quite interesting.  A verb gets used as an adjective as a form of abuse towards a foreigner but then passes with familiarity and use into a noun that labels me affectionately as that very foreigner. Thus, after fifty-two years, I have been converted into an offensive word that describes the sexual act. 

The communal area of the tavern was a particularly friendly place. On more than one occasion I was offered a drink and with appropriate reciprocity on more than several occasions I stood a number of large rounds: quite large, actually. However, this was the cost of doing business for this was my hunting ground and my library.

I established early on the second day after a few carefully worded questions to Grendel’s Mother and to a few of the more intelligible inhabitants of the village that my most likely source of material was from an old chap known as Markel the Tal'r.

Dialect and translation caused me some problems here. I managed to make a fool of myself in front of a small groups of villagers on one occasion by asking where I could find the tailor, briefly confusing tal'r with a translation of tailor, rather than storyteller, which of course it was.

“Were yus’ll always find 'im a curse. Nabin' were yus’ar," was one slightly quizzical reply that I got. Not to mention the almost obligatory, “Ja’bas...” thrown in for good measure.

The instrument of my discomfiture on this occasion was a wooden sign advertising the tailor’s trade that was nailed up slightly to my left on a relatively tidy looking building and painted clearly, black on white.

“Clathes a' fix'd here, then."

Fighting off the half century of relative politeness and alleged good manners, I refrained from an apology.

“Yes, yes! I knows it a’curse. Y’em neyt a fawkin' far'ner here,” I retorted using what was becoming my standard text for defense.

This brief tirade failed to restore my shaky credibility and I chose to make my escape before I came in for more abuse. I left behind me the motley crowd as they were muttering and sniggering amongst themselves (yes, more renditions of “fawkin' far'ners”) and headed off across the muddy road in search of somewhere to get some provisions for my next journey in a couple of days.

I had been told that there was, “sum barn a sold stuffa aways durn thar,” which I loosely translated as, “there was a general store on the main street”. I had however forgotten to allow for dialect and that it should have been, “a large storehouse where they sold stuff down there”.

It took several peregrinations up and down the main street before I realized that there was no general store and that I would have to broaden my search or at least lower my expectations. It wasn’t long after that before I spotted the tatty note scribbled on some woodwork that read,

“Sayles a’bit. Goin' off to y’eat. See yu’se in a wheels."

Great! It was barely past breakfast and they were shut for lunch, brunch or whatever they chose to call the excuse for not being here right now where they could have sold me some provisions. This pre-supposes that they even have the things I want or, indeed that they have any provisions to sell at all. Not to mention whether they actually want to sell anything to a fawkin' far'ner.

As I had nothing else to do right now, I decided to hang about ‘a wheels,’ and wait for whoever it was that ‘sold a bit’ to come back.

I pulled a sketch pad and a couple of sticks of charcoal out of my day sack and perched on the tiny edge of one of the staddle stones to the barn. It wasn’t particularly dry but it was drier than the ground and it gave me the chance to rest the pad on my knees.

The sight of me sitting there sketching drew absolutely no interest whatsoever from the few persons who passed me by. I should have found that a blessing because I really hate it when someone comes up behind me to study my work for a while before pronouncing some crushing comment on it. Something like,

“What’s that smudge in the middle there?”

Or, if you are working in colour,

“What’s that red patch? I can’t see any red. I’ll come back later and see what it turns into.”

Yes, I hated those kinds of comments. Everyone is a critic. Obviously not here in this village, though. I might not have existed for all the people who went past me. No one even gave so much as a nod in my direction. I should have been grateful but I was not. It was very disquieting and in fact it put me off completely. Strange don't you think?

I gave up my sketching quite quickly and popped the charcoal back into my pocket, leaned back against the cold woodwork of the barn and closed my eyes.


 

The Merchant’s Tale

 

I wasn’t aware that I had I nodded off and so it came as a bit of a surprise when I suddenly heard a question being thrown at me out of nowhere. It was however obvious that something was amiss because I only heard the end of the sentence.

“...can ya hear me, ya fawkin' far'ner?”

“I’m sorry,” I said automatically as I struggled to reestablish a link with the world I had temporarily slipped from.

It was fortunate that I had responded in my own language and so no offence was taken at the apology by the person who had put the question to me.

“Thar so,” the voice declared with a triumphant edge to it, “a fawkin' far'ner, sure."

There was a large amount of smugness in the speaker’s voice. I failed to appreciate why this should be the case. I was in a very small village and, at least to me, it was pretty obvious that I didn’t belong here. By the time these thoughts had crystalised in my slow brain I was fully awake and feeling a little put upon. I decided to go on the offensive.

”Yes, yu’ wuld 'a thawt a’‘was a fawkin' far'ner fur sure."

I paused in my stream of sarcasm to make sure that my accuser was keeping up and partly also to give effect to my next string of words which I added with just a hint of malice.,

"What ya sellin?”

This got his attention and demonstrated that I had guessed rightly. This was the owner of the barn back from his hunger break.

I watched his eyes carefully as he moved me quickly in his mind from itinerant and useless vagabond to possible meal ticket. His tone did not change though (nor I would have expected it to) but he did move into a different form of rudeness.

“Yu’ expectin' to buy summat cheap 'ere, ja’bas?”

”Aye, a curse,” I replied, “yu’se ‘avin good stuffa 'ere or is it all shyte?”

That got him and now he went on the defensive. To give him all credit, he actually looked a bit offended.

“Ne, ne. E's all gud stuff 'ere wise. 'D ya want?"

”'D ya got?”

”Loads a'  stuffa: ropes; pyks; vittals; drank. E’s all gud stuffa.”

“Wanna kerosene.”

“Ne got it.”

“’nd dried fesh?”

“Ne’ got it naways!”

Oh great. He’s got loads of things here but no kerosene and no dried fish. It was a one hundred percent failure so far and so I decided to try a few more obvious things to start off the transaction.

“Salt ne?”

“Aye”

“Reece?”

“Ne.”

“Nowdles?”

“Aye, wheat, reece or fanguis?”

“Reece. Fee smorlll bags. Sawce?”

“Aye,” he replied again before listing out the various sauces that he had.

I opted for feshstynkas bru which is a fermented fish sauce of uncertain ingredients something vaguely like garum from the classical world. This sauce however was thick and granular, not clear and aromatic. It stank so badly that one of its uses was as protection against the murderous swarms of northern midges that appeared in the spring and summer months in these parts. It also doubled as an antiseptic and mouthwash, I believe.

We worked our way through my list of requirements until we had either identified the item, found a substitute - he was a good salesman - or dismissed it. During the process he had unlocked the barn and heaved open the great oak doors. When we had finished he disappeared into the gloom, closing the door carefully behind him.

“Yu’as  waitin' there, ja’bas,” he shouted from the invisibility that was the other side of the door, “I’sl just be a shawt wheel. E’s all good stuffa 'ere."

I had no choice but to wait. How he was going to remember that list and the quantities was beyond me and exactly whether a shawt wheel involved another food break was anyone’s guess. I dreaded the re-match that I could see heading my way with the inevitability of an ox cart, once he finally came back put into the daylight with only half the half remembered things on the agreed list.

In the event it was an unnecessary worry because after a lot of rustling and banging about inside, he finally emerged with all those things we had agreed on. He brought out with him a rough homespun cloth which he dropped onto the ground between us before depositing the first batch of goods on it. He made several visits back into the barn before the task was completed and my order was assembled. Once he had brought out everything he stepped back with a look of almost sublime satisfaction, holding out his arms as though to signify that it was all there. He then looked at me with an almost predatory eagerness.

“Furty trupps!”

That was when the haggling began.

We agreed on twenty-nine which to my mind was a success as I would have paid thirty-five. As I paid him in the heavy coins of the region, I opted for some small talk and asked him what he knew about Markel the Tal'r.

“Ol Markel eh! Well ah reckon ah knows 'im summat. 'Es ma bratfer,” he said proudly.

His brother. That was a bit of luck and no mistake. I decided to press on.

“Ye’ma lookin' to pick up a tale or tu,” I said, before continuing, “and ye’ma told 'es a good'un.”

“Why 'es a good'un alright and no mystake. But 'el no tell 'e no ways," he said without a hint of animosity about it.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Why, yu’sa fawkin' far'ner ‘es werfor,” was the merchant's rather petulant response.

Well that wasn’t really a surprise as it was almost the standard response of any story teller. It wasn’t actually that he didn’t want to tell an outsider, he just wanted to be sure of the price. This was a universal form of currency amongst the various story tellers and bards as far as I could tell from my travels (and my journeys were extensive). In this particular case, the bartering was being introduced by proxy.

“Aye, aye," I found myself saying with feigned weariness, "yu’sa alswyse told ‘em a curse. Ye’ma fawkin' far'ner sur!"

I left a brief pause for effect and then continued to press the point.

“'Appen 'e's a dranhk then?”

“Dranhk ne? Dranhk ne? Abben ‘es a fesh."

“Oh ah,” I said, “abben 'es a drinkin' a' Champ’nys often?”

I should have already explained that Champneys was the name of the inn that I was staying at but in all the excitement since I had arrived, I had more or less forgotten to mention it. I should also point out that this was the name by which it seemed to be for there was no name visible on the faded sign that swung pointlessly over the door. 

This valuable bit of information had been gleaned earlier in the day by accident in a short conversation with Grendel. It had been an interesting exchange, punctuated by a number of expletives and some almost lyrical descriptions of what he would like to be doing with the serving girl. I assume that this had been inspired at the time by the sight of her washing tankards behind the bar and leaning forward provocatively, offering us the enticing sight of her large but matted woolen tunic.

Well to be more accurate, when I use the term serving girl I am actually referring to a woman in her early middle age with a fairly ample physique. When I refer to a conversation, what I really mean is that we had exchanged a few words, grunts and gestures at breakfast and this name slipped out unannounced. I don't think it was meant to be a secret though.

“Aye ‘e’s always there, alla’s naht."

“Alla’s naht eh," I repeated, before adding as an afterthought, "Abben e’sa in ’un laste naht?”

"Abben a fesh ‘a skals," replied the merchant with an affable grin. It wasn’t a question.

If the story teller was in the inn every night, he had probably been there when I had first arrived yesterday.  Now I didn't spend very long in the bar so I probably hadn't seen him. I hadn’t really noticed anyone other than the hairy witch behind the bar and Grendel along with the toothless old man whose trousers were mired by the communal drinking brew. He wasn’t likely to be an y of those characters, I was fairly certain and I was also sure that he wouldn't have his name tattooed on his forearm or forehead.

Obviously I needed to know something about him, preferably a bit about what he looked like if I was going to locate him in that crowded place. It seemed that an approach most likely of success was to find him by sight and offer to buy him a drink. Alternatively, I could always walk into the room and yell at the top of my voice, "Markel the Tal'r, ja’bas!”

He would be the one who didn’t look up.

If the merchant was his brother, then there would no doubt be some similarity so I had something to start with but I thought I had better get further clarification. After all he could be a half-brother and these people, I understood from other northern visits, had an unusual interpretation of the term, family.

“Appen Ol’ Markel's your older brother?”

I asked this as carefully as I could, not knowing if I was moving into a sensitive area, but in truth there was no easy way to ask it. At least not for me.

“Aye, a bit," he replied thoughtfully, "abaht an hour in fact. Abben e’s ma tu-bratfer."

He grinned at me as if it was some kind of joke. I didn't get it.

"Ye was!" he whooped at me.

It was unintelligible and it let it pass me by, the words swishing quietly around in an empty corner of my mind before heading off into oblivion. However, as it happened, it was a bit of good fortune. They were twins. I thought I should stop whilst ahead. Being a twin was close enough: I didn't need to know if he was identical.

"Ah so ‘es ‘em to-bratfer eh?" I repeated stupidly, offering a bit of my best faux familiar colloquial, "Ye was. 'Appen yu’sa a Tal'r, mayhap?"

It was important to keep the familiarity going because I hadn't yet acquired all the information that I needed. I carried on a little further.

"Abben es en’a fumly, so to say?"

“Ne, nebut," he replied, "Ye’ma saels abit:’em a Tal'r. Ye’ma lurned aways. E’sa dranhk ne’bas."

He looked quizzically at me and winked.

"Abben ‘es a strange ways, ne bas?"

"You’re telling me," I thought.

The merchant waved his right arm over the goods in front of us – technically my goods now – and assumed that look of sublime contentment on his face once more

“Aye, ‘es gud stuffa 'ere,” he offered a small sigh.

This brought me back to my collection of newly acquired possessions which were still spread out on the ground before us on the merchant's square of homespun.

We had just about come around the full circle. It was a good thing because I now had more or less all the information that I was likely to get about Markel. My feet were also beginning to feel a little numb and I now realized that I had started to shiver with the cold. The only thing left for me now was to gather my acquisitions and get back to my room.

Of course I needed a bigger bag than my day sack and of course I couldn’t borrow one from the merchant and of course we had to haggle over the price and the quality of the sack that he was prepared to sell me. And of course I felt that I was ripped off as another trupp went into his purse.

To be fair, he packed the bag for me and although I watched him in case anything got forgotten or otherwise overlooked, he was careful and thorough so that not even the spare lace-wick for my lamp got damaged on the walk back. This even after the woven nettle handles of the bag had separated from the bag itself almost the minute I picked it up.

“Ye was, ‘en nebbut gud luck ne was,” I complained angrily to Markel's twin as I attempted to stuff items back into the carefully packed sack with stiff, irritated little gestures more appropriate to an automaton than to a human being.

"Nebbut gud luck, eh? New as sure as then,” he added, “aber ‘es as gud stuffa!"

As if the quality of my purchases made any difference to my good fortune or rather the lack of it.

I thought that this was the last parting comment from the merchant as he stepped back into his barn and closed the door behind him chuckling to himself but I was wrong. I had turned and was walking back to Champneys when I heard him yell out behind me.

“O ah! Abben ‘esa skegs dranhk na!!"

Oh crap. He drinks skegs.  That’ll cost a few trupps. Not to mention the unusual and sometimes unpredictable side effects of the stuff. I had only planned on a stay of three nights at the maximum and to be honest I didn’t think that I could handle any more than that in the dreadful room that I failed to sleep in. If we were going to be drinking skegs then it was pretty much certain that at least one of us would be out cold at least each night and the only true variable was the time it took to get to that position.

I spent the walk back to the inn totting up the cost of a few more nights both in trupps, personal hygiene and state of mind.  In the end I decided to play it a bit by ear. After two nights I would pretty much know how long it would take to get the story in full and I was fairly sure that there wouldn’t be a lot of demand for the miserable room that I was staying in. The only real problem as far as I could see would be price that Grendel’s Mother would charge for those extra nights. I could already see the lustful look in her eye at the thought of another thirteen trupps at least heading their way towards her chubby outstretched hand.

When I finally got to my room, I realized an error in my calculations. In fact, the error was asleep in my bed, snoring and farting alternately. My pack had been pushed recklessly to one corner where somehow (for such a small space) it had managed to fall onto its side and spill out half the contents. Two tins of fish had somehow managed to land near the bed where, it appeared, they had burst open and the contents had mostly made their escape: pepper oil as well.

I didn’t really think that this was the work of the trilobites that were peering out at me from the darkness under the groaning bed. To be honest, the biggest clue was the ring pull and attached tin lid that was clearly wedged on the smallest finger of my bed’s occupant. I say ‘my’ bed but of course my lack of understanding was clearly set out before me. About twenty-two stone of it at a guess.

I swore under my breath as I didn’t really want to wake the occupant of the bed: he was a pretty big creature. Then, taking my provisions with me, I made my way downstairs to search out and remonstrate with Grendel’s Mother.

I found her behind the bar immolating a collection of leather tankards with a skill honed by custom in a basin of greasy looking water. She didn’t look up as I walked into the room but my presence was noted with a simple word.

“Fawkin'."

“Abben's a troll a’sleppin ma bed," I said as forcefully as I could without seeming unduly rude. (I thought perhaps that I actually sounded a little petulant.)

She looked up at that point and with more sarcasm than I would have thought possible of her, replied simply.

“Yu’as slepish a naht ne was?”

Then she added, “and yu’sa payin a bed a naht e naht?”

She looked at me as if expecting me to make some acknowledgment or assent. I refused to comply and after a hiatus that was only uncomfortable to my presence of mind, she continued.

“We'll 'Es a pay in' a daylart time. Abben esa wurm beddin’ ne was."

It was disgusting, that's what it was and I wasn't going to have any more of it. Internally, I hit the roof. Externally, I began to shake with anger. This was wholly ridiculous. Who had ever heard of paying for the same bed night time and day time like that? And the whole thought was seriously unhygienic. I was pretty glad that I had packed away my sleeping sack when I left the room that morning.

“Ne, neggit,” I thumped the bar to make my point. I noticed, as an aside, that my assault on the bar was not approved of by the hairy witch who scowled menacingly at me from her basin but frankly I didn't give a damn.

"Newas, neggit. Ne’ ma ne wyse a hear’d en at," I proclaimed in what I intended to be righteous indignation but which probably came across once more as petulance.

  "Humuch d'ya want?" I asked.

I had decided to go straight for the money argument as I could see no point in making a stand on other principles.

“Ne, ne. Es nebbut es trupp," said Grendel's Mother, "Es’a naht wotchmon en as furty dalart a trupps paid."

She looked at me and, presumably failing to see any recognition or understanding, yelled.

“En a mas stecki!”

She offered up her palm, spat on it and smacked it down to indicate that she had made an agreement with the troll. Well who was going to argue with that. Not I, that was for sure. He had paid forty days upfront and I was there for three nights. What is more, I don’t have any other option tonight or for that matter any other night in this place. I tried one last hope.

D'you enas rum?”

“Nebbut.”

Of course I knew the answer before I asked the question but it was worth a try. Trying to rationalize the situation I chose to convince myself that getting into that bed tonight would be no different to getting into it last night. The only difference is that I now know the occupant – at least indirectly. In theory that was a kind of improvement. However, there was absolutely no comfort in this knowledge.

Grendel’s Mother must have seen the struggle going on in my head for she added a few words of her own, in a rather kindly manner, I thought.

“Newas feckit ne mur. Es enas few nahts enas wurm enas yu’as naht tame."

I didn't find this too much comfort but I wasn't going to split hairs about warmth, possession and relativity in this backwater of backwaters. Besides, Grendel's Mother wasn't finished yet.

“Es’a gud crowd ere enas naht. Abben yu’sa spekin a Markel ne was.”

She paused and looked at me in a manner that, had she been prettier or I more desperate, might have been taken as an invitation.

Then she added slyly, “Enas gud skegs er was,” and tapped the bar gently just to the left of her bucket of filthy water.

I hoped that this was simply a convenience and not juxtaposition but chose to leave it there. Then she offered me one of those weird smiles that I had come to recognize, although I still didn't understand.

Those were possibly the most sympathetic words that I had yet heard come from the woman. To be fair, they seemed pretty genuine too. Of course it also occurred to me that I had only a little while ago managed to establish that Markel would be drinking here tonight and that I had, albeit indirectly, determined to meet him here.

News obviously travels fast in this place although it could just as well have been a pretty obvious guess. Either way, I decided to make my excuses and go out. First I left my provisions in the room (I felt that I could no longer call it my room). I hid the new bag behind my pack although I did this with little confidence about ever seeing the items again. Then I wandered out once more into the cold of what was now the afternoon.


 

A Tale of Lust and Onions

 

I spent a long afternoon wandering first around the village (which did not take long) and then off towards the woods up on the surrounding hills. These were the outlying trees of what was once the ancient forest of Sumah which had spread from the River Awata to the south of the village and then north until the ground became permanently frozen and would no longer support trees. Here, the great ice bears reportedly still roamed.

The snow was still lying quite thick on the ground, making the whole scene look bright and glowing. The sky above was a beautiful clear blue and there wasn’t a cloud visible. The trees dangled great frozen beards of rassa moss from their boughs and now and then these would twitch with the movement of the tree mice that would invariably be overwintering in them. 

A couple of times that afternoon I heard the mournful, eerie call of a cormoran as it wheeled in the chill air high above me. I couldn’t see it even though the sky was perfectly clear, then my eyes aren’t what they used to be so it was hardly surprising. I should perhaps make it clear that I am referring to a large predatory bird, the cormoran, a native of the edges of this cold wilderness. I am not talking of the Cor’moran, the great winged creature of legend that, it was believed, could fold time and speak the languages of all men.  Perhaps more of that tale another time.

I took out a dry cloth that I carried in my day sack for such occasions and settled myself on the bough of a gnarled and stumpy holly tree that had gone over in a storm some time past and still managed to cling to life through the remains of its root system. From here I could look out over the village and beyond it towards the river. I could see for miles and followed the tiny strip of the Great North Road as it ran straight, away from the village, up into the icy foothills of the Trellsgut Mountains. That was to be my next road in a few days. For now, it was just geography.

I removed the last remaining tin of fish from my day sack, opened this and ate the contents, pepper oil as well, with a piece of oat bread that had probably seen a few more days than it should. Still it was pleasant, although a tomato and some salt would have made it perfect. As I ate, I watched the little droplets of oil fall to the snow and gather there staining it with small spots of red. I gave some thought to the beauty (and perhaps the profundity) of contrast:  dark on light; vermillion on white.

Once I had finished both meal and contemplation, I took out my sketch pad and charcoals and started drawing in the sure and certain knowledge that there was no one around to ignore me and no one about to ask those facile questions about which bit of the picture was which bit of scene.

I stayed there until it was starting to get dark and my fingers could no longer hold the charcoal. Then I packed up and headed back to Champneys.

It is always traumatic for me when I move from utter solitude, such as I had experienced up on the hillside, back into human company. As I approached the inn in what was now darkness, I saw once again the sign that was hanging loosely from its broken hinges. Now in the faint and flickering yellow light of a burning torch I could just about make out some of the letters of the word “Champneys” but I still couldn’t tell whether the scribbling on the wall below spelled, “inn” or, “brothel” although now I was pretty sure, from the general state of the place and its clientele, that it probably didn’t claim to be the latter.

There was nothing for it. Once more I stamped the snow and frozen mud from my boots, turned the boss handle and felt the ice grind in the lock. Then I went in.

I was expecting much of what hit me as I opened the door: the relative warmth; the noise; and, the smell. What I wasn’t expecting was the nearly full leather tankard that hit me square on the forehead. I went down like a stone.

Somewhere in a mass of unpleasant and angry thoughts I could vaguely hear people shouting. It was muffled as though they were under blankets or in another room. I couldn’t work out what they were shouting though or even if they were shouting at me. After a while I opened my eyes and looked up into the brown cow-like eyes of Grendel’s Mother. I also took in the stench of some kind of ale (or something passing itself off as ale) and, curiously, the smell of onions.

Grendel’s Mother was really close to me, peering down with a look of concern; it could have been hunger; it could have been lust. I hung on to the thought that would hopefully never know.

“Fawkin'! Is yu’sa raht, lurv,” she cooed,”Fawkin', speak t'me ja'bas.”

I was now back on the planet, as it were, and was at last beginning to tune in.

“Wha's 'at shmell?” I asked.

“Wha's 'at, Fawkin'. Wha's 'at ya sayin'?”, she sung back at me.

Then in her more customary voice she yelled to no-one in particular.

"Gi yim summat rume, ya maggots!”

This was followed up with a short bark.

"You!”

This was to Grendel, the unfortunate tracker and in this world of curiosities, her son.

“Gimme skegs 'ere!"

Then when the hapless wretch started looking aimlessly about in the approximate vicinity of the bar she almost screeched at him.

“Ne, nebbut in tha bar!”

Then she snarled to another body standing nearby.

“Stand ‘ere ja’bas! Es’ll be doin it masef!”

She stood up quickly and my head dropped back to the hard floor like a small sack of potatoes. This further injury both to my person and my pride was not noticed by the hairy witch as she stomped off towards the bar and reached under it with her left hand.

“Yes,” I managed to think, “it is right next to the slops bucket.”

The hand emerged with a heavy looking jug and at the same time and almost in the same movement, her right hand lashed out and clipped the top of Grendel’s head.

“'ere wha's 'at fur?” he whined, sounding genuinely offended.

“Wha's 'at schmell?” I persisted and, because I was being ignored, followed it up loudly with “es’a scallions ne was?”

As if in answer, Grendel’s Mother (who had now returned and was leaning down over me, supporting my head between her legs in the rough fabric of her skirt) belched loudly, invading my nose with an answer that managed to offend my olfactory senses. The stench of onions from a distance of about six inches from my face – well inside my personal space – was far too close for my comfort. What was it with these people and proximity?

I had my answer though and I was now out of time. A large hand (it could only have been Grendel’s) thrust itself under the back of my head (and, forgive me for saying so, between his mother's legs) and took hold of my thinning hair, forcing me up to a sitting position. Thus placed, a smaller hand forced the mouth of a small jug between my lips and stared pouring a fiery liquid into my reluctant and then rebellious mouth.

This was getting out of hand. Grendel’s Mother was now rubbing my thigh with a meaty paw and an expression that, even in my dazed and confused state, I was now beginning to think was actually a form of lust. What with the burning liquid and the rubbing and all the proximity, possibly even the onions, I began to feel a relatively unfamiliar stirring in my nether regions. 

Now that would really take the biscuit, if that little monster decided that now was the time to stir its ugly head. Having said that, with the baggy and thick trousers, not to mention the layers of underwear and my less than adequate physique, it seemed pretty likely and, it has to be said fortunate, that the matter would go both unnoticed and un-remarked.

“Ne. Ne, gi' me space wis’un," I spluttered, adding my own spit and the blood from the cut on my forehead that was running down to my mouth, to that of the skegs that had been forced into me. I managed to spray those close enough to receive it with this unpleasant cocktail of liquids.  Although Grendel was not the closer of the beastly pair, he was in direct line of projection and took the main hit.

He appeared to take the blast in his stride. It was perhaps a common occurrence late at night in this place. I'm not sure if it was a credit to him or not but he didn’t even flinch. I watched in a detached manner as the red gold droplets ran down his face and merged with the black matted hair of his huge beard.

“For God's sake gi' me space will you!”

I yelled in my own tongue, this time pushing Grendel and his mother away from me – or rather, back to the relative distance of arm’s length. This being done, I felt for the wound on my forehead and groaned both with pain and misery when I felt a reasonable and irregular patch of wetness just above my left eyebrow.

“Crap,” I shouted, without bothering to translate and then continued.

“Now look what you’ve done to me. I’ll probably get septicemia! Here give me that!”

This last comment was to Grendel whose mental processing seemed to be struggling to keep up with the pace of events. Frankly I didn't care a bit that he was looking bemused and slightly wretched.

I snatched the jug of skegs from him and without warning flung the entire contents at the injury. Some of it missed. I heard a muffled squeal from behind me where, I assumed (but don’t take it from that that I gave a damn) some unfortunate had caught a shot in the eye.

The drink in my cut hurt like nothing I can describe. I stifled without full success, a cry of pain and serious anguish as my head began to throb terribly and a stinging sense of utter injustice erupted on my forehead. The result was that I let out a noise closely resembling that of a squealing pig. I was beyond caring but held my breath as I attempted to gain control of the pain and also to re-establish what was left of any dignity that I could muster. At least the skegs would minimize the risk of infection.

“Who threw that?” I yelled, adding “ja'bas!" for good measure just because I felt like it.

It wasn't good grammar but I didn't care. I don’t know whether it was the sudden assault or the skegs or the rush of testosterone around my system but my native timidity seemed to have deserted me, along with (if it has to be said) my common sense. I was furious and I was livid (I was pretty purple in the face as well I would imagine). I didn’t give a damn who it was but I wanted blood. Someone else’s blood, that is.

The room was silent. Then, as when the master of a class turns around and yells the same question to a pond of faces reflecting back at him, all expressions seemed (without actually looking) to point in one direction. I found my eyes drawn as though by some unseen power towards one individual in the corner of the room. He looked   back at me through unusually bright eyes with a mischievous sparkle in them.

I glared at my alleged assailant for a while. He didn’t even look remorseful. Actually, he looked positively gleeful. The response seemed to be so out of keeping with the moment that I felt the sails of my recent bellicosity unfurling, then collapsing and then eventually they were left flapping about a bit. Then they were still.

I took a breath.

“You'll be Markel, I guess,” I said.

“Ay, that’ll be me, lad,” he said. “Did I catch your attention?”

“You's a...” I began but he interrupted me.

“Speak properly, boy. It’s not often I get to try out another language,” he paused before adding, “by the way, that’s gotta hurt.”

“Actually, it hurts like stink,” I said as I tried unsuccessfully to stand.

It has to be said that the only genuine reason preventing me from getting up was that there were so many people crowding around me still that I could not find enough space to get myself back into an upright position.

Gi' me space, ja'bas!” I shouted one more time, wondering at the same time what the plural was for ja’bas, and to be fair, this time they actually did so.

 

It took two more days in all collect the tale of the Fire Dancers and so I didn’t have to stay any additional nights (although I had actually paid for an extra night just in case). This also meant that I didn’t have to share any longer than was necessary with the night watchman who, I learned on the second night, was called Maucum. To be honest it should have been possible to complete the task sooner but Markel's strange sense of humour and the unpredictable influence of the skegs slowed things down even more than I expected.

Markel told the complete story of the Fire Dancers on that first night of meeting so that I only had to spend the remaining time with him consolidating it and checking out some of the more obscure points. When I stumbled up to my room in the darkness at the end of that first night however, there were two thoughts roiling around in my mind. Firstly, was I going to remember anything the next morning? Then, secondly and at that moment more importantly, would the dizzying effects of the skegs wear off when I lay down or would I just be sick?

By the time I got to the room and had wrestled with the key and the lock for a while, I just had to sit down. This I did, coming to an ungainly and poorly controlled landing on the unmade bed. On the floor somewhere distant by my feet I saw a scrap of paper and a couple of tins that seemed to move in and out of focus. The paper was a note from my cohabitee in this room and, oddly enough, it was written in my own language and not in the native dialect.

“I got you some soma fresh tins o' fesh from th' merchant and they're 'ere.”

He had scrawled an arrow which I presumed had pointed to the tins when the paper was on the floor. The note continued.

“I hadn't meant to nick 'em the other night but I was hungry ...And they were pepper oil too!"

He had added this last observation as though it were both an afterthought and a justification. He had signed the note “Maucum”.

This was the closest anyone in this part of the world was going to get to an apology and to be fair, it was pretty decent of him to replace the goods. It gave me a better feeling about the rest of my property in there and I noticed even in my skegs reduced vision that the pack and provisions bag had not been touched again by human hands. There were however unmistakable signs of attempted forced entry by a number of jointed legs. I knew this to be the case because those same jointed legs were still attached to the webbing on the pack and some of them were still twitching.

However, that was as much as I could take in. Dirty, unmade bed or not, I collapsed sideways onto it and slept soundly for about three hours, waking only when I was so cold that it was painful and in fact when the light had started to creep in again through the small dirty window. I was relieved to discover that I had not been sick in my sleep.

 

I hadn’t got much to do the next day and had I the chance I would simply have spent most of it asleep recovering from the previous night. However, I didn’t have that luxury as I had to give the bed up later in the morning. I guessed that Maucum got back around nine o’clock so I had a couple of hours before I had to vacate the place. I crawled under the covers for warmth and dosed in and out of a sleep punctuated with a weird assortment of dreams.

I couldn’t face breakfast so instead as a form of penance for the overindulgence of the previous night, I went to the wash room and tried to clean myself up. That was no easy task with a bucket of cold water and a piece of rock hard soap that smelled of animal. (But which bit? That's what I didn’t want to know). However, the water was cold and it certainly woke me up. Then I dried myself, using my own towel. I wasn’t going to risk immolating myself with the filthy rag that was hanging on a peg looking and probably smelling like the remains of a corpse on a gibbet. I went back into the inn to sit in a corner of the bar. I had my note book with me and the intention was to make a few notes from last night and when the opportunity arose, to have a quiet sleep away from the rest of the passing world.

There were two barriers to this. Firstly, the fire was dead and the room was bitterly cold so that it was difficult to write for long and almost impossible to get any decent sleep. Secondly, Grendel’s Mother seemed determined to perform what I took to be some form of cleaning operation on the room.

She spent a lot of time in the morning moving furniture and sweeping about in a fairly bizarre manner. Then after she had served the lunch time drinks to a very small number of people – two to be precise - she started on the great fireplace. She finished whatever it was she was doing just before the evening opening and had lit the fire just before she unlocked the door.

The result of all this activity was that much of the room (including myself) acquired a fine deposit of ash over it. It also meant that for the first three hours of the evening it was damned cold in that place. About an hour after the fire had burst into life and was finally throwing out some semblance of warmth, people started arriving. Prior to then, the only people in the place were myself, Grendel and his mother and a couple of wagoners who were stopping for the night. I thought that perhaps there was some kind of telepathy at work here or that it was generally known that the inn was being ‘cleaned’ today. However, if I had stepped outside the front door I would have seen written on the door in an untidy script the following:

“Nebbut com’in yin. Cleanin’. Fawkin' cauld.”

Old Markel’s Tale

 

Just after nine by my old timepiece that evening, Markel arrived with his brother in the company of a small collection of folk. After the bitter cold of cleaning carried out by Grendel’s Mother that afternoon, the place had finally returned to the nature and characteristics of the previous evening and it was, once more, pretty crowded. In spite of this Markel and his party somehow found a table, chairs and space to sit near to me in a corner of the room. It was pretty snug to say the least. The merchant was dispatched to the bar for the drinks and Markel leaned across to me.

“Evening Fawkin',” he said, “you fit for another go tonight?”

I replied that I was and he added.

“How’s about I tell it in your speach and you translate for my friends here.”

He had that mischievous look in his eyes as he said this and he winked at me.

”Then, if I forget any of it, you can fill in for me from what you learned last night.”

He grinned at me. Of course, I knew that what he really meant was that if the skegs got the better of him, I should be able to pick it up myself and continue until he rejoined us, as it were. 

Actually, this was a pretty good opportunity for me to consolidate a great deal of the tale as long as I stayed off the drink. That was going to be a challenge but I decided that the best tactic was to get a tankard of horshp’s in front of me. That was a drink that I was never going to touch and if the tankard was full there was a good chance that I would be overlooked on any drinks round. It shouldn’t cause any aggravation as long as I got in a round or three, myself at appropriate intervals during the night.

I also had to make it quite clear that I wasn’t sharing a drink with any other person. Having noticed the unfortunate custom of the single tankard, I knew that I was going to have a problem explaining my issues. I had to try a number of different approaches including a claim that I had an illness of some sort. That only elicited enthusiastic interest about what I had, its symptoms and whether it was contagious although no one seemed particularly bothered about the fact. My response that it was incurable simply gained further interest and so I abandoned that route and told them that I was losing my teeth.

I thought that would have caused enough concern but my mistake was demonstrated when a number of the crowd grinned affably at ne and I could see that they were sporting barely a full set between them. Herpes didn’t do much for it either and in fact when I looked closer at a few of them I could see why. In the end I capitulated and simple said, “Ok, I’ll have horshp’s.”  I got a number of odd looks at that and after a brief exchange around the table mostly through the language of the eyes, it was agreed that I would have a drink of my own. No one else, apparently, drank horshp’s.

As it was I had only had a tankard of the “Old Ass” ale earlier in the evening and so was pretty fit to go. I just hoped that I could remember most of the tale from yesterday, given that certain parts of the evening seemed to have faded away in an alcoholic fog.

I had made a few notes during the cold day in the inn but there were a few areas where I was a little patchy and I was pretty sure from the lack of continuity, that there were an unknown number of places where the story was, well, unknown. However, whatever state Markel was in, he seemed to be a skilled story teller and I felt certain that he would spot any errors, omissions or deviations from the main line of the tale. All I had to do was to stay off the skegs.

“OK. You’re on,” I replied grinning at him, “let’s go for it!”

We waited until his twin was back from the bar and the drinks had been distributed. Then, with the communal tankard and his own tumbler of skegs placed carefully in front of him, I with my Horshp’s and everyone else watching with eagerly anticipated intent, Markel tapped loudly on the table with his pipe. In the relative quiet that followed, he introduced me to those who had not already had the pleasure. He then explained that he was going to tell the Fire Dancer's tale tonight in my language.

“Ol' Fawkin' ‘ere 'll tell it in bruta speke."

He also warned those who knew the tale to show no mercy if I told it wrong or if I strayed from it in my solo performances if and when they occurred. These, it was tacitly understood by all, would occur when Markel had lost it in his skegs, as the saying goes in these parts.

All this being said, he began the story and, at a signal from him, I commenced my rendition.

“A long time ago in a time before our ancestors, in a time before people first came to settle in these lands, there lived a man, a hunter. He walked the path of solitude: a recluse who had forsaken the company of his kind and had travelled from the deep southern lands far into the north where the world was cold and the snow was thick.

As to why he had come to these lands, no tale is told. Perhaps he had fled some war or pestilence, perhaps some fearsome enemy or a blood feud. Perhaps he had fled the wrath of a wronged father or a vengeful husband. Of this no tale is told.

Yet he had travelled from where the stars are strange and where, it was said, the perfume of flowers on the summer’s nights made the air seem heady and the senses light.”

“A bit like old Fawkin' ‘ere,” chipped in the merchant.

There was some scattered laughter. It was a kind of clandestine, schoolboy laughter. I wasn’t sure whether the reference was to my travelling or to the fact that, of the company present, I was possibly the least fragrant.

“Abben so,” replied Markel with the hint of a scowl at his brother and the interruption.

He continued.

“Then one cold day, his journey ended when he came to a place deep in the forest of Sumah. Here the trees about him seemed to open out, giving space to breathe the cool air and high above his head he could see the dark snow clouds passing across the grey sky.

Here he cleared a place in the snow and built a fire, lighting it with great skill from the tinder and dried fungus that he carried with him in his fire sack. Then he built himself a shelter, cutting only as much live wood as was necessary and using what dead branches were visible on the snow covered ground about him.

He was a skilled woodsman and yet the task took him some while so that by the time he had finished the night had drawn in the snow had begun to fall once more in great soft white flakes.

Deep in the growing darkness of the forest he could hear the wolves howling. He had no fear of them, though he knew that they were close and that they would be aware of him and his smell. He had no fear of them, not through the false comfort in his fire or the vanity of the shelter. He had no fear.”

At these words, Markel paused and, as I spoke out my last line of translation to the room.

“…nebbut fayr.”

The old storyteller looked around at the faces of those who were listening – not just his immediate party but all those within earshot. The place was quieter than I had ever heard it before. It was even quieter than the previous night’s telling. Some of the story was different and the words, and the way that it was told, caught the attention of those now listening.

No fear,” Markel repeated.

You could have heard a calymene cross the room on its spiky, scratchy legs, the quiet was so complete. Even Grendel’s Mother stopped her customary immolation of  tankards behind the bar. I would have sworn that even the fire, which seemed to have picked up at last was had been spitting and hissing in the hearth until a few moments before, stopped crackling for a while.

Clearly there was some significance in this "no fear" phrase but I did not fully grasp it and I wasn’t going to speak up right now on a point of comprehension. For one thing, Markel's face held an expression that didn't countenance interruption. For another, I wasn’t even sure that I was capable of saying anything right now.

Once he had them all, Markel continued, gesturing to me somewhat sharply where I sat with my metaphorical mouth open, reminding me to recommence my translation.

“The darkness of night had fallen quickly under the trees and as the sense of sight lessened with him, the man's hearing seemed to become more acute. He could hear other creatures moving about. He caught the tread of wolf paw on crunching snow: felt, rather than saw, the reflection of light in the eyes of the creatures that had drawn in around him attracted both by his scent and by the fearful fascination of his fire.

He took from his bag the last of his ration of dried meat and cut from it a shard of flesh with his great curved hunting knife. This food he chewed as he warmed himself before the fire and when it was gone, he spread his arms out in a curve over the flames like the embrace of a god. The yellow light painted his face and his skin glowed as if gold. His black beard glistened with the thawing snow and from his mouth his breath came like fire smoke in the chill night air.

There he remained, bent and motionless, neither moving nor responding to the sounds and the noises around him. The fire crackled and sparked as the wood dried and burned and the wetter wood hissed and spat smoke and steam and sparks into the air. The night moved on and the bright stars spun in an arc overhead. Still he remained motionless.

Around him in the dark, the wolves squatted down in the snow, their eyes on him: all of them waiting, all of them at rest and yet alert. Then the largest of them, a grey creature with a two-tone coat and a mane of russet fur over his head rose up from where he was resting at the edge of the clearing.

The pack, his pack, were suddenly alert, watching him. Away, a few paces to one side, one animal sat quietly apart. This was the sentinel.

In the darkness, a creature cried out: a cry of panic and of pain and of death."

I don't really know how he did it but Markel seemed to charge his words with such force that, for one moment, I thought that he had actually cried out. There was no time for analysis, though, because this master of storytelling had already moved on and I had no option but to follow.

"Perhaps it was the sound of death that caused the man to open his eyes at that moment or maybe it was nothing more than coincidence. He lowered his arms slowly, picking up a couple more logs to throw onto the fire as the grey wolf padded slowly and carefully further into the firelight.

Picking up the remains of the dried meat that he carried - his last rations - the man lobbed it towards the wolf. Winter was a lean time for all creatures. The animal bent to sniff the meat before picking it up and turning away.”

Markel stopped to drink some of his ale, passing the tankard to the man sitting next to him and then downing the contents of the small tumbler of skegs. He looked around at those listening to him. In his eyes there was a feral look.

“There were worse things than wolves out there in the darkness deep in the forest of Sumah yet the wolves did not fear them. They did not fear this man either though, by sharing his meat, the man would acquire a tolerance of a sort.

That night, with the wolves lying nearby in the snow, the man slept without fear.

When he opened his eyes it was still dark and the snow was still falling. The wolves had gone and the fire had burned down low. The man stepped out from under the shelter where he had been resting and brushed the snow from some of the deadwood that he had collected earlier. This he then placed carefully on the fire together with some smaller pieces of drier wood that he had kept with him under the shelter. Blowing carefully on the embers he rekindled the flames and within a short while had a moderately lively fire crackling and spitting once more in the darkness.

Then he reached back under the shelter to take something from his pack. It was wrapped in oiled cloth that was stiff with the cold and he placed it inside his coat to warm it slightly so that he could un-wrap it easier once it had thawed a bit.”

At this point Markel stopped, looked at me and winked. He then stood up and muttered something.

Ye’ma goin aht fur to pees so don't ‘e make a mess on et whilst ye’ma ways."

He then stumbled off towards the main door, turning before he went out into the darkness and yelling.

"and yu’sa abbin et a gud tale else wyse these all be avin ‘ee, ja'bas!"

He disappeared out into the darkness leaving me with a captivated but, I feared, uncompromising audience. I could feel a sudden sense of anxiety, not because I was afraid to speak in front of these people. That was my job, if you like. I was just concerned. I didn’t want to get it wrong and more than that I didn’t want to lose the atmosphere that Markel had built up. Having said that, I guess it doesn’t usually add to the tale if the story-teller gets up in the middle of the tale to go empty his bladder.

I looked around at my audience and saw a mass of brown cow like eyes all looking at me with that strange dilated pupil vacancy that they had. There was nothing for it. I just had to begin. Best not upset them, I thought.

I had absently picked up my tankard but it wasn’t until a gulp of the foul brew was going down my throat that I realized that I had actually drunk some of the horshp’s. I was horrified but I will say that it fulfilled all my expectations of it as a drink.

It was truly foul: bitter and sour and yet sweet and sickly at the same time. There were ‘bits’ in it too with the texture of cheese but I didn’t want to dwell on those. Fortunately, I was neither vegetarian in diet nor Bhodlevict in my beliefs otherwise I might have added crisis of conscience to the general discomfiture of mind and rebellion of my guts.

It took a fair bit of willpower to suppress any thoughts about the creatures that I suspected that I had just unintentionally consumed. It took even more to keep the brew in my throat and finally to get it into a place where I could process it, pathogens et al.

Strangely, the drink left a warm sensation in the mouth and throat that was actually quite pleasant but enough of that. I took a couple of calming breaths and began what I truly hoped was a close approximation to Markel's version of the tale.

“After a while, perhaps when it had thawed a little, the man un-wrapped the package and removed a narrow piece of parchment. It was a dirty cream colour and about a foot in length. He sniffed it. It smelled of the earth and woodland with a hint of rotting ash-tree in it. He tore off a small piece and placed the package in his lap to keep it dry. He popped the smaller piece into his mouth and started to chew."

I was beginning to get a dry feeling in my mouth and it wasn't at the thought of chewing dried parchment. This wasn’t flowing well enough. I was conscious of the almost staccato delivery of my words; aware of a sense of growing unrest amongst the audience. Nothing for it though, I carried on.

“The fungus, for that was what it was, seemed to dissolve on his tongue, diffusing a taste that was slightly acrid whilst at the same time being quite sweet. He chewed for a while and then spat out the remains of the pulpy flesh into the fire where it sizzled and burst into bright red, yellow and purple flames.  He tore off another piece with his teeth and repeated this several times more, each time spitting the flesh into the fire where, each time, the fire burned with the tri-coloured flames.

By the time that he had disposed of the strip in this way and had put more wood on, the fire was ablaze with colour and heat and light. It had become so hot that the man had to move back from it to avoid burning his clothes. He piled on more wet logs which hissed and steamed and spat but soon burned and glowed with an intensity that you would not have expected from damp wood.

Around him it was still dark and now almost totally silent. The only sound was the crackling fire and the hiss of melting snow as the circle of heat from the fire spread outwards into the clearing.

Then the man took another item from his pack. It looked like a prayer mat such as the Farseems of the southern lands use. This he placed on the warm wet soil slightly away from the fire.

Next he removed his coat and knelt upon the mat, his knees together and his knuckles pressed to the ground a little in front of him on the cold earth. He remained in this position for a while, his body leaning slightly forward towards the fire feeling the warmth of the flames glowing in his face. Suddenly he bobbed his head and in an obvious gesture of subservience he bent to press his forehead to the cold earth, the heat of the fire now burning into the top of his head. He stayed in this position for a while. Around him it was still and still the fire spat and crackled and hissed. Yet there was a sense of quiet now that no other sounds seemed capable of disrupting.

And then it began...”

I stopped here partly, it has to be said for emphasis, but also if I am honest it was because I wanted to look at the faces of the people around me. As I had unrolled the tale I felt a growing sense of contact with them. Not, it has to be said, at the same level as Markel but at least, I felt, going in the right direction. I wanted to see that the look of naked doubt in all their faces had gone and that they were starting to hear me for real. I wanted recognition as a story teller in my own right. For all the gods’ sake, I was a story teller in my own right!

It was during this pause, that Markel came back in from the cold. He stumbled towards us, slamming the door behind. His hair glistened from the snow that was obviously falling outside and soon started to melt. Soon his face and forehead would be streaked with wet. On the front of his trousers there was a large damp patch that nobody other than me seemed to notice. He slumped back down in his chair and scowled at me.

Was aben a ma tahl, ja’bas,” he growled.

Immediately I was worried that he had somehow been listening in to my performance and that he did not approve. I was, however, a little reassured when he put a further question to the dumb audience.

“Abben es ok?" he continued.

"Well! Aye or ne?" he demanded when no one seemed keen to speak up.

He was not impressed with the lack of response and looked around the room with a scowl fixed firmly on his face. Then at last, someone spoke. It was Grendel’s Mother.

“Well, he's a good 'un, Markel,” she said.

“Wha's 'a,” he hissed, cutting her short.

“Aye, he's a good'un, Markel and no mistake. He's got the good stuffa, he has."

This latter comment was offered by the merchant, and it appeared either to register better with him or to carry more weight as an opinion. Markel relaxed ever so slightly but to my mind he still had a slightly feral look in his eyes. I began to wonder whether the skegs was taking its toll on him.

“For sure," he said, "it's na’mur than ah knows."

He rumbled these comments about me almost under his breath but then erupted enthusiastically about the bitter cold outside.

“Yeesh, it's fawkin’ cauld out a th’ ouse!”

Then he winked at me and continued.

"You go on a bit and I’ll listen in. They seem to like you and no one has stabbed you yet, have they?”

He laughed as a frown of concern swept across my face and up over my head.

"Oh they do take it all pretty seriously around here. If you hadn’t done the job, you would have known about it for sure.”

He patted my hand in a slightly paternal manner (which was odd because I was pretty sure that I was older than him).

“One of those little details I didn’t think you needed to know about. You know how it is.”

Actually I didn't know how it was but then again I was pretty sure that I didn't want to ask either.  Markel settled back in his chair and called for more ale and skegs, gesturing me to continue whilst Grendel’s Mother got up and went to rattle and clatter about behind the bar to get Markel his drink.

I found it a little strange that the woman jumped to do the story-tellers bidding without so much as a murmur. Earlier, when Grendel had tried this himself, she had rounded on him with such a string of profanities that most of the audience had looked away in what I took to be embarrassment. I don’t think I would have had any more success either, had I tried the same approach.

With the sound of tankards being clattered and immolated behind the bar, I picked up where I had left off.

“The first change was the fire. At its heart it seemed to glow brighter, going from red through golden and then to white. At the same time this glowing centre seemed to shrink as the colours changed in richness. Within a few heartbeats it had reached an intensity that hurt the eyes but then it winked out just like a candle gets snuffed out between finger and thumb.

The man had remained fixed in all this, looking into the flames, barely blinking: hardly moving. He had not looked away as the intensity grew and showed no reaction when the heart of darkness appeared before him. He remained still as in the black centre of the fire dark shapes began to form and move about. Then they seemed to solidify and coalesce into arms and hands.

These were the bodies of the lost that were reaching up out of that darkness, clawing their way up out of a hole in the living world that was the fire. Arms reached up into the air like black smoke.

Then there came the noise: the chattering and the hissing sounds of many voices. A symphony of voices, some crying or laughing or shouting: anger; hatred; love; affection; happiness. So many emotions and sounds as all the while the smoky tendrils of arms flowed together to form bodies and heads and legs and feet. All were rising up into the air.

Now the writhing and dancing was in the air above the clearing. Above the fire the blackness of the shapes. Above the man, all the motion and commotion.

Then he looked up from the fire at the shapes above him and he lifted both of his arms up to them. In each hand he held something that was not there before: in the right, small brass cymbals; in the left a silver bell. He clicked the cymbals.”

I looked around the room at the eager, expectant faces and held up my right arm. I clicked my thumb and index finger together. I could have sworn that I heard the sound of those brass cymbals.

“God I’m good,” I thought.

“At that simple sound, from the darkness of the trees all around there erupted the low howling call of the wolves.”

On a whim, I added a bit of my own and repeated the strap that Markel had given them earlier in the tale.

“There were worse things than wolves out there in the darkness deep in the forest of Sumah.”

I paused to look around.

”Much worse, yet the wolves did not fear them."

Several pins could be heard hitting the floor.

"All the while the figures in the air above the fire swooped and dived, never touching the man nor the ground nor the trees overhead and around them. Blackness moved on greater blackness, dancing and weaving; heaving and breathing. It was the animation of a nightmare: claustrophobic and oppressive.

Other noises had started in the woods around. There were strange yelps and screeches, growling could be heard and the barking of foxes. Then a light was started in the east and with its appearance the first bird began to sing: the light of the sun adding first hints of vermillion and gold to the new day.

As the light grew, the returning wolves could be seen prowling around the outer edges of the clearing: cautious, alert and angry. The great black wolf raised up its muzzle to the sky and howled.

On the ground, the man was motionless again. Both arms held aloft. No dark shapes touched them, though many swooped near. The fire’s heat scorched him whilst, from its cold black heart, more and more shapes continued to rise up into the air. Long he stayed there with the light creeping un-noticed into the clearing. The birds were now in full song. The fire still burned with its un-natural radiance.

He was standing when he rang the silver bell once. 

The silence amongst the living was immediate and complete. The wolves as a pack dropped down into the snow. All birdsong stopped. No other sounds were heard but the crackling and spitting of the fire.

Kneeling once more, the hunter spoke for the first time. The language was strange and harsh and what he said has not been passed down through time. He spoke as though reciting a speech: formal and measured. His words had an effect on the shapes moving above him. At first they slowed but then began to move with visible direction as they flowed around and above him. By the time that he had finished, they were in a harmony of motion, watching over him and listening.

Then the hunter spoke a second time. The language was strange and harsh and these were words that have been passed down through the long ages. Thus he called to the multitude above him in a language that was ancient then and now is long since forgotten.

‘I have travelled far from the south where the nights are warm and the stars in the night sky light up in wondrous constellations. Many days and many nights have I walked the lonely path to our ancestral home. Care have I taken in this wild world and care at need have I given. Know you also that I am a hunter and that there is blood on my hands yet I am no destroyer or despoiler. Though I have taken the lives of my brothers in life for food, yet I have graced their parting and have honoured their unwilling gift. The land is no longer strange to me and, though I am not one with it, I am still a part. I feel and I see and I hear when before I was senseless and deaf and blind. Thus I am able to know you. You who now are one with the land and have gone beyond our time and space.’

Then the man was silent and he cast down his eyes when before they had stared boldly up into the maelstrom. And he waited whilst above him the creatures moved and flowed, ever watching the man and never touching him. Long time was the man silent and long time was silence from the throng above him. There was no other sound in the forest: neither beast nor bird nor even the wind or creaking of the trees. The fire itself, no longer spitting or hissing, glowed silently as it pulsed gently with red and gold around the dense black inner heart.

Long it seemed, before they responded and it came to him like a memory; like a recollection of something told long past now and brought to mind by some trivial event. And thus it was that he remembered the words spoken long ago, in an age now passed, between a father and a son. In those words there was anger and betrayal and disbelief and great sorrow. Yet also there was great love and an overreaching sense of loss.

And it was that the voice in his mind spoke thus.

‘Your ways are strange to me and your path is darkness to me: if I would walk that way with you I would be lost and also my kind. We do not go that way: we do not seek that way and I would that you would not. For you to do so, you would be lost to me for all time. Here we will remain, your father and mother, your brothers and sisters: our entire nation.

Would that you would rest here too with us as one and be at peace. Would that you should choose not to break your mother’s heart and mine. Stay with us! Choose a mate and feed the fires of our ancestors as we have ever done. Why would you want more?’

Then the voice was quiet in his mind and the man now spoke out loud. Unwitting were his words and unwilling for they brought with them great sadness to him and in his eyes the tears welled and ran down his cold face.

‘Father! Would that I could do as you wish or desire or command me but it is not to be. I cannot feed the fires of our forefathers whilst I remain here in indolence. And I speak to you thus. That there is a future for our kind out there away from here and it is not of ours. Never more will the fire dancers walk this sweet earth. I tell you with foresight, that the fires will diminish and darken here until there is none but a rumour remaining. And thus you will look to me from beyond the stone, always offering, always hoping for my return. And I for my part and my kind will ever look backwards to the stone:  ever seeking you; ever looking to know where you have gone so that we may learn from your loss before it is too late for us.’

Thus spoke the man whilst above him now in the daylight, he heard the sounds and the sighing of great sorrow and misery and looking up once more he saw indeed the contorted and convulsed faces of the damned in the air above him as they moved ever closer but never touching. In the faces of a hundred generations he saw the wretchedness and the yearning. In the deepest parts of his mind he heard the words and recalled from memory yet more of the great sadness until he felt that his heart would burst.

‘Then my son, alas you are lost to us and though we are brothers in life, you have no father here nor mother now, nor brothers nor sisters more. Our ancestral fires will not burn with the potency of your seed and for a mate you will choose the warm air and the bright stars that none can touch and none can hold close. Your being will be spent when your life ends and, child of oblivion, you will no longer be a fire dancer.’

Over the long years came the remembrance of those bitter words and the wounds that could not be healed. Unwitting and unwilling from the man's lips came a cry of pain and anguish that didn't seem to be his own. His knees gave way and he found himself on the ground sobbing, his hands at his head, tears falling without control. Through those tears and sobs and the gasping for breath he spoke now with new words. These were no longer memories but his own words now, in his time and place.

‘It is you and your kin who have passed into oblivion. It is I and my kind that remain behind. The fires of your ancestors burned out long ago and the world around you is cold stone. All that I have of you is the ancestral memory that speaks to me for though we are no longer kind, yet once we were kin.

I have journeyed long and far to find you and to learn what became of you. When first I began my search I thought to find your tale in stone. Then as the rumour of your kind grew as I was drawn ever northwards I came to understand that though stone you had become, I would not find your tale written there. Thus I have sought the fire, ever our hope and our protector.

It seems to me that if my choices had been different I would be with you now, impotent and ethereal as you are in the air above me. Yet I know now that I am home: that I am neither a wanderer nor stranger any more. I have come back to the lands of my deep ancestors and here I now know that I wish to remain.’

Whilst he was speaking the man had remained on the ground but now he lifted himself up and looked about in the air above him where the damned swooped and soared still.  He stood there a while arms outstretched and then as if prompted by a word he suddenly began removing his boots and the remainder of his clothes. Finally, he stood beneath the maelstrom naked.  For a moment he was still again as he seemed to take a while to compose himself. He was home. He was a fire dancer once more.

Then without a sound he stepped into the dark heart of the fire. Both he and the maelstrom above blinked out of existence.

In the clearing, the light appeared to grow brighter. Of the fire, a few embers and smoldering bits of wood remained; circled by the grey ash and what remained of the snow. In a pile, still warm and giving off a little steam, the hunters discarded clothes remained where they would stay until they finally rotted away. Over the seasons, the makeshift shelter would collapse and his pack, devoid now of all food and smelling only of man and man’s things would remain untouched by the creatures of the forest until through the action of wind and rain the fabric and its contents would finally fade away.

In the wood the wolves stirred and rose up as a pack. They had watched it all: all the incomprehensible actions of the man with the man’s fire and with the creatures of the night-that-lived-in-day. They had seen the man step into the fire so that he was not there and they had seen the creatures of the night-that-lived-in-day wink out.

They had seen it all and yet they had seen more as they and their kind had done a thousand times before: had seen the fangs and had heard the screams. There were worse things than wolves out there in the darkness deep in the forest of Sumah.  Much worse, yet the wolves did not fear them.”


 

A Tale of Two Breakfasts

 

You could have heard a pin drop for a heartbeat or two and the thought crossed my mind that just maybe I was going to get stabbed after all. Then I heard my name, or rather, the name that they had given me. The speaker was Grendel and he was speaking unusually quietly. I would have said thoughtfully but I think that that is pushing it a bit.

“Fawk’in...” he said and then added, “Fawk’in monsters, they’s a nabbin’ ‘im for sure. They’s worse ‘an wolves, ne’bas ne!”

“Yu’sa shutten up yer face, ja’bas,” hissed his mother as she made a curious gesture in front of her with her left hand. “Yu’sa nebbut speak about dese things. Yu’sa knowin ‘at!”

Something had affected them all and not just these two. I looked around the room and saw fearful looks that I hadn’t seen at the telling the night before. Then I caught Markel’s eye. He was watching me with an appraising look and I couldn’t tell if it was good or bad until he spoke.

“You’ve heard the tale before, it seems and not from my telling,” he said.

It was not an accusation it was just a statement.

“No. I heard it for the first time last night,” I replied.

“But I didn’t tell it like that last night,” he said, “I have told it like that before though, when I have a mind to and the skegs doesn’t stop me. That is the real tale. Last night was a tale for the children and for you strangers. The truth is a lot more sinister.”

He paused and was quiet for a while.

“So how did you know?”

I told him that I didn’t know what he was talking about and that apart from a few additions of my own it was what I thought I recalled from his previous telling.

“It’s the wolves. That’s the real difference. Last night, not more than a passing reference or two and no wolf’s eye view. So the true nature of the tale stays hidden. Without them, we end with a bit of a mystery but with them he is prey.”

He was quiet for a while and then he went on.

“And that phrase about worse things than wolves. I used it once earlier without any particular emphasis but you seem to have picked up on its importance because you used it several times. It is a well known saying hereabouts and you must have heard it before.”

“I heard it last night when you were telling...”

“You did not hear it from me, laddie, because I didn’t use it last night. I wasn’t so far in the skegs that I don’t recall what I said or how I told it. How about you? How is your memory standing up?”

I had to admit that my recollection of the night before after a certain point was a little doubtful but then again, as far as I could see I had recalled the tale. Hell, it seemed as though I had remembered more than I had heard.

“Well I don’t know,” I said, “All I can say is that I have never heard the story before so frankly it’s all a bit weird to me.”

“Well whatever, you know your trade that’s for sure and from where I sat it was well told. Thought the young lad was going to wet himself, I did.”

He pointed at Grendel and laughed.

“Come on, your round laddie. Let’s get a few more skegs in.”

I knew it was a mistake and so I did it anyway. I don’t recall much after that. I didn’t get to my room that’s for sure.  I woke up, stiff, aching and frozen in the early hours. The bar was in darkness and I could smell the wood smoke and ash from the fire which was now pretty much dead. Another person was snoring loudly nearby but it hurt too much to turn around to see who it was.  I staggered to my feet but only after doing indescribable damage to my screaming knees and on the unsure legs of an ancient fifty-two year-old I moved painfully towards the doorway and the passage to my room.

As I trod unsteadily in the general direction of the doorway there was an almighty yelp followed by a series of growls and grumblings as I stepped on something furry, large and warm. Hengest, the inn’s mangy old dog leapt up out of sleep and scuttled off in the darkness to somewhere behind the counter where I heard it rumbling and mumbling to itself in a very human manner.

“Ja’ bas, I’m tryin’ a sleep ‘ere. Gertcha....”

Behind me in the dark, the speech trained off into incomprehensible snarls and grumbles that sounded strangely like dog. Well at least the snoring had stopped.

Once more I reached the small dark and dirty little room and once more I gave little consideration to matters of hygiene or to the calymenes or to anything else for that matter. With just enough wit to get to it, I hit the bed hard and went out like a light.

It was pretty light when I was prodded into a sense of wakefulness by a large stubby set of fingers that punched at my shoulder like a hammer.

“Fawk’in, you’s all right, Fawk’in?”

One of the ugliest faces I have seen for a long while loomed right into my vision with a look of serious concern in its brown eyes. The nose would have been mistaken for a wild mushroom if it had been seen on the ground in a wood. The eyes were uncharacteristically small though they still retained the cow-like look, possibly with a hint of pig in it.

It took me a while to gather my frayed senses but once I had done so I realized that this was probably my cohabitee, Maucum. I mumbled something incoherent at him and sat up. That was when I realized that I had a headache: not just any headache either, one of those ones that really get to you and remind you just exactly how much you have abused your body the night before. I had a growing concern that I was going to be sick and the longer I sat there the more worried I became.

It can’t have been more than a few seconds before I decided that I needed some fresh air and so I rose unsteadily to my feet and, with a completely futile and ridiculous gesture, I attempted to straighten the shoddy bed. I then made a lunge past Maucum towards the dark opening that was the door and moved as fast as my aching knees would allow me down the corridor and, eventually and without mishap, out into the yard at the back of the inn. There in total abandon I emptied the contents of my stomach into the new fallen layer of snow.

Breakfast at Champneys that morning was a quiet affair for me, a bit of dried bread that tried to pass itself off as toast and a black coffee. However, it seemed that the rest of the world was determined to make as much noise as possible. Grendel wandered in coughing and hacking much like he did every morning but today he seemed to have adjusted the pitch slightly and it really got to me. He dropped a breakfast platter on to the teacher’s table with uncalculated indifference and grinned at me.

“Morn‘in Fawk’in,” he said through his broken teeth.

Before I could nod even the semblance of an acknowledgement, that damned dog started yapping somewhere from beneath the folds of the teacher’s voluminous skirts. You would have thought that the sound would have been muffled and perhaps it was but there it was again that subtle change in pitch that seemed to go straight in and bounce around inside my head.

Then Grendel’s mother dropped a pan or some other heavy, noisy echoing thing in the kitchen which in turn made Hengest yelp in fear or pain before bounding off through the breakfast room and out eventually into the snow where he stared barking furiously. He had the sound of a dog who really didn’t like what had just been done to him but it didn’t help my fragile state.

Groaning with a combination of aches and pains in knees and back, not to mention a dull ache somewhere in the vicinity of my kidneys, I got up once more and went outside into the snow. There I found Hengest eating the contents of my stomach, deposited earlier. It was a bit of a struggle not to offer him seconds. A couple of deep breaths and I wandered off into the village in search of some quiet.

I spent a wretched time wandering about and looking for somewhere to curl up and sleep. There were however no options that did not involve the likelihood of frostbite or hypothermia and I had no desire to return to the inn for the time being. This meant that I was reduced to wandering aimlessly about for best part of the morning, nodding greetings and pleasantries that I did not feel to those people who were out and about. To add to the sense of misery, it began snowing again towards the end of the morning and the wind picked up a bit and took the temperatures down even further.

Even walking about, my fingers and toes began to go numb, or at least they began to go numb only after they had passed through the nasty, prickly cold phase. My breath, condensing in my scarf froze into beads of ice adding to the misery and I discovered that my right boot had a stone or something in it that began to make me limp slightly. How it got it was anybody’s guess but I wasn’t going to attempt the manoeuvre for its removal as it would mean bending down (in itself a challenge to my vertebrae and the slippery cartilage between them) to remove the boot and then hopping around on one leg whilst I shook out the offending object.

Then of course there would be the additional pain of trying to replace my foot into the boot (already tight) and tying up the lace once more with numb and recalcitrant fingers and thumbs. I didn’t even think about what it would do to my headache. No, even thinking about the task made me wince. I put up with the hurt and the limp, after all what’s one more little hurt in the great scheme of things?

By the time I returned to Champneys my foot hurt like I could not describe and I was limping badly. I was chilled to the core and shivering uncontrollably. My fingers and toes, as far as I could sense, did not exist unless I wriggled them. That then reminded me that they too hurt quite badly. I pushed at the main door to find it locked. That was a bit of a relief because it probably meant that I had been wandering about longer than I realized and that the lunchtime session had finished. Hopefully at least the inn would be relatively empty and with a serious bit of luck would be quiet.

I went round to the back and across the yard, past the remains of Hengest’s breakfast and stepped in through the back door. Inside the usual waft of stale air and smoke and the relative warmth seemed almost comforting. This feeling was helped along by the darkness inside. I had never before noticed how bright snow could be when you were looking out at it through bloodshot eyes with a million cells screaming murder at you for poisoning them so badly.

Inside I made for the warmest, darkest spot I could find. This was on a dirty and tattered rug on the floor by the fire. I had to evict Hengest before I could claim it and this was done without any style by stepping on his tail. He yelped out of sleep and slunk off with his tail between his legs, his eyes fixed on me as he moved with a look full of malice and accusation. I didn’t care. With only the barest of thoughts for vermin and parasites, I lay down, curled up and slept like a dog.

Bang! Something was happening. Bang! There it was again. It started in the unpleasant dreams that I was having but then it moved up a gear and entered waking life. Bang! I opened one eye to see Grendel’s mother lying on her side hitting the huge bolts on the front door with a mallet. After a few seconds I realized of course that it was me on my side and that she was standing upright. Partly common sense told me this and partly the pain in the left half of my body. Why on earth she had to be doing this was a mystery to me other than as a vindictive attempt to prevent me from sleeping.

“Fawk’in,” she said by way of greeting when she saw me getting up off the floor. She seemed to take it completely as normal that I should have been sleeping on the floor where the dog normally rested.

“You’ve woken up in time to drink, eh?” she added and then grinned when she saw the look that must have been on my face.

”Hah! Esa skegs i’nt it. Appen yu‘sabin a cup of tea?”

This offer was unusually kind for Grendel’s Mother and when she brought over to where I was now sitting it took all my presence of mind not to thank her for it.

“Esa good stuffa,” I managed to growl at her.

She winked at me in reply.

It’s pretty obvious to say that I drank nothing but tea that night, my last night at Champneys. I think I pushed the limit of my hospitality by asking for tea time and time again but it was hot and it was wet and it had no alcohol in it and slowly I could feel myself rehydrating. I spent most of the evening talking to Markel about the tale of the Fire Dancers.

He also seemed a little subdued and I noticed that he only drank ale and kept off the skegs, even when offered. I got him to go through the two styles of the tale in outline for the most part but occasionally in detail. He also added a few additional bits that either I had not remembered from his original rendering or that he had forgotten to tell on that night. He expanded also on the more sinister tale and gave me a few pointers on how to give it that added twist.

Having said that, he was pretty complimentary about my own effort of the previous night and pointed out that he had a mind to add some of my own bits to his version of the tale. You see, ever the tales grow and change and reform.

I considered this again as I walked away from the inn and the village on the road towards the Trellsgut Mountains early the next morning, having let myself quietly out of the back door before anyone arose. I had paid in advance for the extra night that I now no longer needed and I was up in time to argue the case with Grendel or his mother and to reclaim my deposit but of course, as was customary, no one else was around to give it back to me.

However, it didn’t really matter in the great scheme of things. I had collected this somewhat enigmatic tale as I had intended to do. Indeed, I had gathered more than I intended for I had two tales rather than just the one and I felt that for once I had added my own contribution to the repository of knowledge that now sat within Markel’s skegs-hammered mind.

Yes, I had spent more than I had intended to but then what was new in that. Yes, I had drunk more than I meant to or should have but again sadly, that was not novel either. It was also true that I was not really any nearer to my understanding of the lost nation known now as the Fire Dancers but to be honest I thought it unlikely to find enough information in one tale to do that task. I had a basic picture though and it gave me a sense of the loss of them and a hint of what might have become of some of them. I was looking now to expand on this on my visit to the Trellsgut where I hoped to find out a bit about why they seemed to have disappeared so utterly.


 

 

 

 

PART TWO

 

ON THE ROAD


 

Welcome’s Tale

 

The journey to Trellsheim could have been a particularly arduous affair but in the event it proved, by good fortune, not to be. Once I had got myself down from the village onto the main road I was fortunate enough to be spotted by the driver of one the fairly infrequent ox wagons that crawled along the road from the towns in the south bringing spices and other goods to the north. Trellsheim was in fact the most northerly town in this part of the known world (and possibly anywhere else for that matter).

Although fairly remote and isolated, still it had a good population of fairly wealthy families as a result of the mining and stone quarrying that was carried out in the mountains nearby. The black marble from the area travelled as far south as Xandria where it was the main building material of the famous libraries there and the precious metals, especially the copper and zinc were almost legendary.

I had just got to the road and had started to walk as best I could along the frozen and rutted way with that determined yet sinking feeling that this was not a good idea. Even the thought of that extra (and already paid for) night in that filthy bed in Champneys began to seem appealing.

I hadn’t walked very far when I heard the unmistakable noise of badly oiled axles squealing away somewhere behind me and hidden by a thicket of trees away south near the river. I carried on walking as there was nothing more guaranteed to be ignored than a walker standing by the roadside with a smug expression on his face that seems to say, “Come on, you’ve got to pick me up. There’s no one else around for miles.”

I added a little extra feeling to my trudging as I went, careful not to add too much for fear of appearing too contrived. After what seemed an interminable time and all the while the noise from the axles (which was in essence comparable to the sound of nails being drawn over a blackboard) getting louder and closer and less bearable, I heard the heavy breath and snorts of the oxen. This was my cue to turn around and when I did so I was greeted with the friendly, smiling face of the wagon driver peeping out from an assortment of scarves and other garments. These didn’t fully mask the turban wrapped expertly round his head which had been white once but now, I suspect with a combination of spice and dirty rain, was heading towards limestone grey.

“Yallusc nashz qu’arta Trellsheem?”  he yelled at me with a wave of his hand.

Ok, so I had no idea what he had said but he was smiling and he had said Trellsheim and the intonation was definitely that of a question. I wasn’t sure of the language and certainly didn’t speak it, whatever it was. I went for the obvious and replied with a weary (but not too weary) nod of my head.

“Yes. I am mate.”

I refrained from adding anything resembling a question (you know the kind of thing, “it is far?” or “nice day for a walk isn’t it?”) because I did not want him to think that I might be asking for a lift and I had no idea whether he spoke my language anyway.

He had drawn up alongside me now but had not reigned in the oxen. These were creatures that it was best not to stop as you could never be sure of getting them started again until hunger drove them or the scent of a female ox in season energized them. He looked down at me still grinning and nodded (disturbingly he appeared to be nodding his head from side to side).

“Trellsheem qu’arte fashook, atcha. Binad’en Yallusc sheeman?”

He reinforced this by whacking the board on which he was sitting with his left hand. It took no language to recognize this as an offer of a lift and of this I was truly grateful.

“Yes indeed,” I replied nodding eagerly.

I was still careful to omit the basic courtesies in normal speech because whatever nationality this trader was, we were still in the north and anyone travelling alone was likely to be armed.

With his help I climbed up onto the moving cart. I threw my travel bag into the back of the wagon and made myself comfortable on the bench next to him. I use the word ‘comfortable’ rather loosely in this context. There were two reasons for this. The first resembled a bundle of black cloths in the back of the wagon which moved when my day sack landed on it. From its now visible mouth and backed up by some large yellow canines and rich red tongue came a whining sort of a growl.

“Atcha, Yallusc sterpa na boursa,” laughed the driver as he saw the growing look of alarm on my face.

Of course I had no idea what he had said. I kind of hoped that he had said something about me waking up his pet (and very tame) black bear. Of course he could equally have said, “don’t move or he will eat your liver.” Either way I decided to turn around and face front. That way if the first guess was true it made no odds and if the second was closer to the truth I would at least be keeping still and I wouldn’t see death approaching.

The second and more obvious reason for discomfort was the simple fact that the bench was hard and badly planed and very cold. I was soon to realize as the miles passed slowly by, that the position just a few feet above head height from the cold ground was considerably exposed to the chill breeze that was blowing.

Once the driver had recovered from his fit of laughter over my discomfiture he held out his hand and rattled off a series of words at me that I took to be a formal greeting with his name somewhere in it, possibly a statement about his family and where he came from.  Of course he could equally have been saying something about how far it was to Trellsheim, that it was too far to walk and that he would be happy to drive me there for twenty trupps. I felt slightly reassured that the latter was not correct as I had not heard the word ‘trupps’ in any of his speech so far. Curiously, he ended the whole matter with the word, ‘Welcome’. This took me by surprise and as I shook his hand I repeated the word. It was more of a question really from my perspective.

“Ah, Welcome, Welcome,” he grinned at me shaking my hand vigorously.

As he pumped my arm with his surprisingly warm hand, I told him my name. Just the one word, as I wanted to keep it simple for now. In reply he repeated it a couple of times followed by a couple of Welcomes. I began to suspect that this was in fact his name rather than a greeting so I said it again, this time more of an affirmation.

Ah, Welcome, Welcome,” his grin seemed to get wider and his dark eyes sparkled.

“Atcha, atcha! Yallusc....” he repeated the name that I had told him. He was still shaking my hand and I was beginning to feel the circulation in my fingers struggling but I didn’t feel that it was appropriate to withdraw. Physical actions are pretty important when you are light on verbal communication. Fortunately, he also decided that was enough and with a couple of “atchas” and some lively nodding of his head from side to side he slapped me firmly on the back and then stuck his hand back under the covers that were over his legs.

My next thought was, “Now what?”

I could see rolling out before me mile upon mile of slow plodding oxen, squeaking axles, the bitter chill air freezing me to the core, aching bones and so on. Don’t get me wrong here. I wasn’t ungrateful. The thought of a walk through the snow and the cold to Trellsheim was not appealing but it was still a good day’s travel by wagon and it was seriously cold and it was only day time. At night the temperature would drop off the scale. I was equipped for it as I had planned for a two day walk but then I had intended to set up a camp well before dark and get a fire going. I had no idea what Welcome had in mind and it was clear that we would not get to Trellsheim until well after dark unless we stopped for the night sooner.

I decided that the first task was to pluck up the courage to reach back past the bear in the back and get some of my spare clothes and my tarp to keep me warm. With a slightly worried look at Welcome (who just grinned and shook his head from side to side) I extended my arm out over the muzzle of the (apparently) sleeping bear and let my fingers hook the loop of the day sack.

Of course I knew that to retrieve the clothes would involve dragging the sack back towards me and over the bear. I had visions of teeth and snapping snarling sounds, lots of blood and pain. Nothing for it though. My fingers gripped tight possibly for the last time under my own nervous control then the muscles in my arm tensed and I gave a pull at the loop.

I had hoped to lift the sack clear of the creature but I should have known that this was doomed to failure given that it was hard enough to lift the thing onto my back even in normal circumstances. In the event, the sack collapsed onto the bear which grunted in its sleep and opened its eyes briefly before closing them again with a petulant sounding growl.

“Ah! Ah sterpa na boursa,” chuckled Welcome on the seat beside me as I hauled the sack over into the front of the wagon. It took a while to extract what I wanted as a result of the cold and my reluctant fingers and whilst attempting not to drop anything off onto the road. I didn’t want to have to jump off to recover it. Soon I had wrapped an extra layer of clothes over my legs and had spread the tarp over the top of it all, wrapping it with difficulty and with some discomfort around my back also.

Welcome seemed to have forgotten about me now as me drove the cart, chewing casually with much the same motion as a ruminating cow. Occasionally this action would be interrupted as he spat the red saliva at the road to the side of him. On one occasion he must have seen me watching him for he stuck one hand under the cloth covering his legs covers and a small packet wrapped in leaves appeared from somewhere. (I didn’t really like to think where.)

“Atcha!” he said as he offered the packet to me shaking it slightly with a motion that reminded me of a man offering a morsel to a dog.

“Atcha. Betel, Yallusc farshoom?”

I took the packet from him. It was hard and disturbingly warm. Unpleasant images crept from the darker corners of my mind snickering at me with the petulant sounds of a sleeping bear. I sniffed the contents of the packet. This was betel. I didn’t really want it but I didn’t want to offend and I was at last at a level of relative warmth and comfort so I cut a piece off with my knife and stuck it in my mouth. I wrapped the packet as best I could and handed it back to Welcome who grinned at me and thrust it back into the warm depths of his covers.

“Atcha.”

“Thank you,” was what I should have said but for safety I settled for a polite nod.

We sat then for a while in relative silence. That is the silence of a cart with dry axles and two flatulent oxen and I began to wonder once more how I was going to pass the next few hours whilst we headed slowly for Trellsheim. The biggest issue was the communication. We could not exchange much information using half a dozen words including our names, the exclamation “Ah”, the word “boursa” which clearly referred to the bear, “betel” and “atcha” which seemed to be used for anything or any time when there was the risk of a pause in a sentence.

None of the words I had heard had given me any indication of the language or the nationality of my host. “Atcha” was used in a number of languages in the Ruardean continent but that was pretty vast. The darker skin coloration and the turban also gave me nothing significant to work with other than a greater than average probability on religion. However, I tended to avoid any discussion on religion as it had the habit usually of over exciting my temper with or without alcohol. His style of clothing was nondescript. Well to be precise, the phrase “style and clothing” should not really be used here, not when the phrase “tattered remnants that he had flung about him to keep out the cold” was sitting there looking at me with bright dark eyes.

A few more miles had passed by before I decided to try a few attempts to communicate with Welcome. I started with a simple question.

“Ruardean?”

Welcome looked at me and stopped mid-chew.

“Ruardean?” he repeated, “Ru-ar-deyn” he chewed around the word. “Ru-ar... atcha,” he said, returning to his more animated form of speech.

”Atcha, atcha!  Na Ruardan na. Welcome Bours-an-vacors,” he punched the air with his right fist and cried out “Bours-an-alibat!”

Now it was my turn to look quizzical. I assumed that he had just told me what his nationality or tribe or family was but it was entirely unknown to me. That was a bit odd as I prided myself on my knowledge of geography and on the fact that I was pretty well travelled.

“Bours-an-alibat?” I asked.

“Na,” he nodded up and down vigorously, “Bours-an-vacors,” he repeated and then followed this by the same gesture and shout as before.

“Bours-an-vacors,” I repeated with a small voice in my head telling me that I was sounding a little dense here.

His grin seemed to get even wider, if that was possible and he shook his head enthusiastically from side to side.

“Atcha! Atcha!”  he repeated.

“Bours-an-alibat?”  I asked again.

He looked at me and, for a second or two, I think he also thought I was being dense but then his face lit up. He put his right palm to the middle of his chest and nodded slightly and slowly in a formal manner. Briefly he looked almost regal.

“Bours-an-vacors,” he said slowly and deliberately. Then with a swift action he reached down beside him on the other side of the cart and swept a viciously curved tulwar (that made my knife seem a bit like a tooth pick) into the air above his head.

“Bours-an-alibat,” he cried in a voice that would have made me wrestle with my bladder had I not already met the man. His face took on a truly frightening expression as he waved the sword about menacingly in a circular motion in the air above his head.

“Atcha! Atcha!” I said. I was forced into the language in part out of surprise but if I’m honest mostly out of fear. Now I understood. Nation, tribe or family: Bours-an-vacors. War cry or challenge: Bours-an-alibat.

He placed the weapon back from where he had taken it. His face returned once more to the relaxed, smiling and ruminating mode that it had hitherto demonstrated. He nodded, smiling and sighing to himself as if in some private joke.

“Ah, atcha! Welcome!”

He sighed once more, his smile back on his face and went back into his own private thoughts.

At this rate I was going to need a much longer journey if I was going to get anything out of him. We both settled back into our own thoughts for what seemed like hours but which was in fact probably only minutes. There was nothing to break the monotony except when the bear in the back woke up and jumped off the wagon, disappearing into a thicket of trees. Apart from a brief moment of concern, I gave little heed to it and the driver gave even less. Some while later the creature came ambling back to us and climbed back on board. He settled down again and started licking around his muzzle and generally cleaning himself. There was blood and other bits in his fur but he looked relatively satisfied.

We travelled more miles and the sun was at last getting up high enough in the sky to suggest midday. I had been lost in my own thoughts: part tales long told; part fire dancers; and, part all the usual rubbish that just sloshes around and seems to pop up unwanted when you can’t think of something else to keep it at bay. That is the bit I hate most about redundant time: all those unwanted thoughts. Past arguments and outstanding debts, bits of grief that really have no place in your life and which you try to keep locked away and under control. I was just running through a particularly unpleasant row that I had had with a publican once when I heard an odd but yet strangely familiar sound.

It was Welcome and he was humming a tune that I recognized from a long time past. What was familiar was that it was an old school tune that I used to be forced to sing in the interminable periods of Latin with the school’s robust and rather fearsome headmaster. I used to mouth the song most of the time as he would pace up and down the rows of boys and bend down now and again to listen in as we stood in varying degrees of attention. Occasionally, his gown would sweep around and strike the head or shoulders of an unsuspecting child to yell, “sing up, boy” or “who’s singing in that deep voice?”.

If you think about it that was particularly cruel in a form full of boys whose voices were breaking and whose pimpled faces and sprouting hairs in all sorts of places were setting them up for some terrible anxieties ahead.

What really caught my attention was the fact that it was a Latin song. Welcome was not singing any of the words and it was a bit of a long shot but I thought it worth a try even though my spoken Latin was at best poor and my only real knowledge was a reading knowledge of the language.

“Cacatne ursus in silvis?[1]

This was a phrase that I had read once although I cannot recall the context.

Welcome looked up and replied almost without thinking.

"Ursus praesumitur bonus donec probetur malus![2]

“Atcha,” I said, grinning and followed this up with the traditional question.

Loquerisne linguam Latinam?”

The question was pretty facile; given he had already spoken to me in the language.

Again, Welcome replied formally without hint of smile or nod of head.

“Etiam ego paululum linguae Latinae dico.[3]

This was probably more to the point. After all I had no idea if he spoke it fluently or just a little (which, of course, he had now confirmed).

This put a whole new complexion on the journey. Welcome’s Latin was spoken formally and deliberately and he almost seemed to change personality when he spoke it, taking on a grander and more classical persona that once again, made him seem regal. My Latin was typical school-boy with the addition of a number of years reading in the classical texts of the libraries of Xandria. However, I just about managed to keep up with him and where I struggled, he kindly re-phrased the sentences for me.

Now that Welcome had a language to talk to me in, he seemed not to want to stop. He told me that he was Ursian which, apparently, was a tribe located in the Ural Plains of Sardek – one of the southern territories on the Ruardean continent. They were nomads who crossed the great sand sea on camels carrying spices and fine fabrics from the far-east and bringing these to the “barbari” in the north. Although traders, the Ursians were fairly warlike, hence the war cry when they declared their tribe and their favoured weapon of choice was the curved tulwar of which I had already become acquainted.

Welcome was in a period of apparent exile from the tribe or his family for some matter or other. He didn’t expand on this and so I didn’t press it and let him continue the flow of his own particular story.

He had left the Ural Plains over about a year ago and had travelled north initially with seven camels loaded with silks and certain rare spices. His first significant stop had been in Xandria where he revisited the libraries and spent several days searching out rare books in the many markets of the city.

I have to say that my interest levels went up a few notches as he spoke and I stored the matters of ‘re-visited’ and the search for rare books for discussion later on. Like I said, I didn’t want to interrupt the flow.

When he left Xandria, he had travelled many days along the straight stone roads of the Thalians until he reached the capital city. He had first traded most of his silks and spices and had then sold the camels in Thalia for (in his words) a small fortune and far more than the beasts were worth especially as one of them was on its last legs. He had bought a horse and cart for a pittance and had transferred what was left of his goods onto this. After a few weeks of rest and luxury in Thalia he moved on reluctantly up into the dark countries.

He sighed and commented that for barbarians they (the Thalians) were remarkably civilized. He didn’t talk much about his experiences in the dark countries other than a few rather angry and fast spoken sentences including words such as vermin, savages & filth that I could not keep up with and , given his irritation at this point, didn’t really want him to repeat. I was also reluctant to let him know that in this particular and apparently (to him) unsavory part of the world was the place that I called home.

It took him several months to traverse the various squabbling countries but at last he crossed the great river Flava. This, he emphasized, only after he had sold the cart on the one bank and had paid to have his goods transferred to barge to cross the river. On the northern shore be bought an ox wagon and two mangy, half- starved oxen. He leaned forward on his seat and smacked one of the fat oxen on the rump with the reigns.

“Hi boves,” he laughed.

I thought that now was a good opportunity to mention the Libraries and to find out a bit about his search for books. So I asked.

It turned out that Welcome had spent a number of years previously studying jurisprudence in Xandria under the tutelage of a lawyer named Cronos. Now, for the avoidance of doubt, this was not just any Cronos, oh no. This was The Cronos. Cronos of Mar. Cronos the Law Giver. The man who wrote two of the greatest legal text books of the age: “Discourses on the ownership of my horse” and, “Catechisms for legal analysis”. He had also been responsible for drafting the “Thirteen Rules of Pollicis” which provided the principle Legal Code for the fifteen Xandrian city states.

I had read the Discourses myself, albeit in translation, and held it out as one of the best works of political theory that I had ever met. Then, who am I to say? Still, I carried a copy of it in my pack everywhere I went together with a less known work of fiction that he wrote in his early days.

This man, this spice trader, had met him and had studied under him. It was incredible.

“Quod accidit?[4] I asked, unable to contain myself.

Welcome started to explain how his father had known the family and had met with them and so on. All the usual networking and contacts and where usable, as much nepotism as could be tolerated. However, that’s not what I meant so I asked again.

“Quae erravit?[5]

“Oh nothing went wrong,” Welcome replied with a smile.

“You see there was this girl with eyes like sapphires and rich dark brown hair that shone like copper when the sun caught it. Her breasts....”

Part of me didn’t want to hear about her breasts. That seemed a bit too much information for the purposes of decency. Yet another part of me wanted to hear just a bit more, you know the kind of thing: skin colour; texture; odour; taste. Fortunately for decencies sake, he came to a sighing halt and disappeared off into his own thoughts for a few seconds.

“There was this girl. We fell in love. Her family was rich. My family was richer. They hated each other: her brothers threatened to emasculate me if I ever went near her again. We eloped and were married and she died in childbirth within the year. My family disowned me and my own brothers threatened to emasculate me if I ever came home again. Her brothers swore eternal blood revenge against me. I lost the sun in the heavens. Atcha!”

He sighed.

”I also gave up an apparently promising career as a legislator. At least that’s what Cronos said to me the night I told him I was leaving. Actually he shouted quite a bit, from what I recall, and it wasn’t all necessarily the kind of language you would want to have recorded in a law book.”

He stopped and smiled at me again. He had just rattled off the most appalling series of tragedies in the space of a few minutes and yet as he looked at me sitting there in his dirty clothes and rags with the less than white turban and his betel stained lips he looked for all the world as though he was at peace.

“Fata leves nostra futuit,[6] he sighed.

This was crude but to the point, I guess and if anyone had a right to say it then if he had been through all that, it would be him. He made it sound almost philosophical.

My mouth must have been open for an unusually long time because firstly, Welcome rustled in his garments for the packet of betel to offer me and secondly, when I shut my mouth it clicked in a most unpleasant and loud manner.

“Cheer up,” he said. “It could have been worse. I still have all my parts.”

“Of course!” I thought grimly as I carved myself another piece of betel from the too warm packet.


 

Ex Libris

 

Some of our time together was spent in what I thought was particularly agreeable discussion. Welcome told me about his interest in old books. Apparently he had a number of fairly rare books hidden about his wagon in various places that were both secure from ingress of water or any other fluids (given the proximity of the bear) and from damage by animals (also relevant, given the proximity of the bear).

I guess that it might not exactly be considered as a prudent thing to say to a relative stranger, given that books, any books, could command serious money in the right quarters. However, Welcome didn’t seem bothered and with a bit of thought, the sleeping black bear and the tulwar at his side were pretty good insurance policies.

He told me that, at his last visit to the markets around Xandria, he had picked up a couple of interesting books. The first of these was a Latin copy of Jonas the Strangler’s Lives (and Deaths) of the Saints. I was not familiar with this work although the writer’s infamy was well documented in literary circles. This psychopath had written several books on the lives and gruesome deaths of a number of holy men and women. He was known to have written with considerable style and passion having successfully stalked most of his subjects (and victims) for years before their eventual demise and elevation to the status of, in his opinion, sanctity. His literary reign of terror lasted some forty years or more before his own slightly random but certainly poetic end when he was gored to death by a rampaging bull in an annual bull-baiting festival in a minor town in Visigon.

When he mentioned the second book, Legenda Terrae Borealis, I felt a sense of real excitement. This was a rare text indeed – I had never seen a copy of “Readings of the Northern Lands” although I had heard of the possibility of its existence from catalogues in the libraries of Xandria. He told me that he had found it on a back street market stall and had paid almost nothing for it.

I hadn’t yet told him of my interest in the subject given the fact that I was researching the tale of the Fire Dancers. This was partly because it was almost impossible to get a word out with by temporary companion and partly because I was not as outward going nor as casual with information as this itinerant spice trader.

Frankly, it wasn’t the kind of text that I would have expected to find in an ox cart on its way to Trellsheim. Indeed, I doubted very much that there would even be a copy in that town’s library, although I had been hopeful. In brief, it was a text that I never expected to come across but seeing my apparent enthusiasm for the book, he asked me if I would like to have a look at it. My Latin rendition of the phrase “Does a fish have scales” was as erroneous as it was enthusiastic.

I am not sure that Welcome understood me for he looked pensive for a while. Then he spat out his betel and took a small bag out of a pocket in his coat. I thought at first that this was the book but it looked a little small. When he handed it to me it was very light. He gestured to me to spit out my fresh piece of betel and then told me to put on the gloves that were inside the bag.

Although this was pretty sensible I found it to be highly incongruous. Here we both were sitting on an ox cart in the cold heading for Trellsheim, neither of us dressed particularly smartly and both seriously in need of a bath and yet he was asking me to put on what turned out to be a clean pair of white linen gloves. I pointed out that my hands were not exactly clean but he waved this away.

I put on the gloves and then looked at him. He seemed to take a minute, perhaps it was a last minute change of heart about showing me the book. I guess I would never know. Then he leaned back and prodded the sleeping bear, saying something harsh in his own language to it. It grumbled but didn’t move so he prodded it again a little harder, repeating the words.

The bear growled petulantly and rolled over onto its other side and went back to sleep. Welcome rummaged around one handed in cloths and blankets that had been beneath the bear and pulled out a large leather sack. It was too heavy for him to lift one handed so he handed me the reigns and turned around to pick it up. I wondered what he expected the oxen to do other than to continue their leisurely pace along the road.

When he had it and was seated back on the bench, he took back the reigns and then grabbed a blanket from the back and threw it across my knees, presumably to cover my somewhat dirty tarpaulin. He then handed me the bag.

I untied the drawstring and took out the book. It was about one and a half hand spans high and a span in width. The cover was black and slightly battered. It appeared to be some form of leather. The spine was plain and had a slice taken out of it about a third of the way down. I don’t know why but the shape cleanness of it reminded me of a sword cut. Carefully I felt the leather and then lifted the book to smell it. It smelt musty, like old libraries with a strong hint of bear.

“May I?” I asked.

“Of course, go ahead. It’s vellum.”

His eyes sparkled with delight as he watched me. I turned back the cover and tried to read the handwritten notes on the inside sheet but unfortunately they were in a language that I did not have. I looked at Welcome but he just shrugged his shoulders. I felt the pages. Even through the linen gloves I could feel the quality of the material. Handmade, not machine, heavy and smooth to the touch. The print was simple and unadorned giving the title, author and the year of publication, 1573. Good sixteenth century books were not rare but they were not that common. This really was a gem of a book.

On the next page there was a dedication of some sort. It read, "Caelum, non animum mutant, qui trans mare currunt.[7]" It was a quote from classical text although I could not recall the source. As I read it out, Welcome tapped his chest.

“Hic,” he said and grinned at me.

Whilst it may have seemed appropriate to Welcome and his peregrinations, I could see no obvious link with the subject matter of the book, given that it was from what I understood to be an account of the tales and legends of the part of the worlds that we were now travelling in, an area singularly devoid of obvious access to the sea.

Carefully, I turned a few pages, not so much reading as looking at the pictures of the words. There was something inherently beautiful in the relative order and structure of the texts and the Latin seemed to add to this in a way that vernacular text did not. Phrases that seemed to come out of childhood washed past my eyes as I continued to turn the pages carefully and slowly. I found a couple of dead moths between some of the leaves but other than that the condition inside was pretty good. The book must be worth a fortune.

“How much did you pay for it?” I asked, forgetting my manners in my enthusiasm. In my culture as in many, it was considered as rudeness to ask the price unless you were buying.

Welcome didn’t seem to mind and told me with obvious pride that he had beaten the seller down to fifteen Marques.

“Fifteen Marques,” I gasped.

I didn’t often have access to that kind of money. That in itself was to all intents and purposes a bit of a fortune.

“Ah, but I’ll get at least sixty for it at the book fair in Menthos in the spring,” replied Welcome with what sounded like calm assurance.

Around this point in time, I have to say that my view of Welcome had begun to change. There was clearly more to this itinerant trader than met the eye. No one I knew would part with fifteen marques for a book, let alone talk of selling it for four times as much. In fact, very few people I knew would part with any money for a book, not to mention a good few who couldn’t even read a book in any language, never mind Latin. He had mentioned wealth but I had assumed that he had left it all behind. Well, perhaps not. Any thoughts I had of trying to buy the book from him stood up and walked away.

As he watched me, I went back to the contents page to see what information was available. There were a fair number of different tales, some of which were interesting and some of which were not so interesting in the current context. Frankly, had I the time, I would have read it cover to cover. However, for now I was fixed on one thought and that was to get as much out of this on the Fire Dancers as possible (if any) whilst I had the chance.

To my disappointment, there was nothing obvious in the chapter titles but a couple of them looked as though they might offer something and another chapter, titled “On Wolves” was so obscure that I felt that if I had time, I would have to look at it.

My concern now was whether or not Welcome would let me read some of it rather than just look at it. I couldn’t just sit there and read it partly because it was rude and partly because I hadn’t technically been given permission. After all, apart from the interest factor to me this was a rare and, if Welcome’s comments were to be believed, a very valuable book. The act of reading, technically, was a threat to its value – which I have to say in passing is a very sorry state of affairs and of course calls into question the meaning of the word, value.

Fortunately, once more Welcome came to my rescue. I had already told him in passing that I was a Collector of Tales and obviously the book was of great interest to me for its contents as much as the fact of it.

“You will want to read some of that,” he said. “Much of it is a bit bland to be honest and rather disappointing for the content but you’ll find that chapter on wolves useful, if you are looking for interesting stories about this part of the world.”

He paused and looked at me.

“Fire Dancers, is it?”

A good guess,” I replied with a smile.

“Oh no it’s not a guess,” he replied.

“I shared a fire and food with a wagoner heading south last night. He told me about a Bard who had told a story of the Illuvaqu’e at an inn where he was staying and how the tale had surprised even the village story-teller. It nearly caused a riot by all accounts.”

“Not exactly,” I responded and then queried, “Illuvaqu’e?”

“The Fire Dancers,” he answered.

“It’s in the book. Go on, read. Read! In return perhaps you would be so kind as to tell me the tale that the wagoner heard. I do like a good tale and you have to admit that spending most of your life looking at the business end of an ox is not the most stimulating of pursuits for an unemployed and slightly under-qualified legislator. Besides, it saves me having to charge you thirty trupps for the loan of the book.”

“Thirty,” I started but then he winked at me.

The book really was an absolute gem. I didn’t read the chapter on wolves first but rather skimmed a few different tales before settling on one  in particular that at first didn’t seem to have much in common with my current search but in the end did in fact  offer a few interesting pointers.

The Latin was clear and well written and I had relatively little trouble reading most of it. Admittedly I had to skip a few passages and probably lost some of the literary value as a result but probably no more than the standard transcription errors that would have taken place across the ages as the tale had been handed down. After all, each story is like a living organism, constantly changing and evolving at micro-level. All it takes is an agent of change: in this case, me.

Sadly, allowing for the cold, the fact of conversation and occasions when I had to get down and help push the recalcitrant wagon up relatively gentle if slippery inclines, I only had time really to read a couple of the tales before we arrived at the outskirts of Trellsheim. Welcome wanted to camp outside the town walls for the night so that he could prepare his goods for sale the next day. Also, I suspect, he wanted to hear my tale. Listen to me already! I make a couple of additions and a story that has been sloshing around in the wilderness for centuries suddenly becomes my tale. It sounds a bit like theft, even to my ears.

We arrived at a camp outside the town walls just as it was getting dark. Already there were about a couple of dozen other wagons at the site and here and there could be seen the smoldering beginnings of their camp fires. We drew up a distance from the other groups and Welcome explained a few points of etiquette among travelers as we secured the wagon and set up his camp for the night.

Apparently it was not considered acceptable to draw up too close to another wagon. In the first instance, the oxen tended to fall out with each other and in the second, it tended to restrict the space for a fire if one was to be made.

Whilst there was a general tolerance exhibited amongst the wagoners in terms of nationality, colour, creed and so on, they did not tend to talk to the lone riders and the stage wagons. Itinerant players and other entertainers were also shunned unless they were either good looking or the wagoners had been a long time in the wilderness, if you get my drift. They avoided the itinerant religious orders as though they were the plague.

They did however engage in some intercourse with some of the smaller scale travelling sellers (which included tinkers and travelling blacksmiths) as they tended to have a possible service value at some time in a journey.

The only group of people that it seemed that no one dealt with, so Welcome informed me, were inhabiting a small collection of wagons and occasionally a brightly painted caravan clustered together at one end of the encampment.

“We don’t speak with them for any reason,” he muttered quietly, sounding strangely intense about it.

I was about to ask why when he added an afterthought, “We don’t even look at them! They are not there.”

Now that didn’t make a lot of sense to me as they were obviously there away from us in plain sight. Of course, you know how it is when someone says, “Don’t look,” You just can’t help yourself can you? 

Well I couldn’t and my eyes caught those of a good looking woman of perhaps forty years with dark hair that was tied up in a tight bun. She had a heavy jumper and plain woolen skirt that should have hidden the size of her breasts and the shape of her hips but did not. The eyes that looked back at me were dark and inviting and wickedly intense.

I mean this in a purely sexual sense. It was a bit raw, for want of a better term and I was disturbed to find that blood was being shifted about my body without my permission.  My cheeks were radiating a heat that I hadn’t previously noticed and I found it necessary to make a quick adjustment in my nether regions to prevent any embarrassment. (Although, as I have remarked before, my clothing and physiology probably mitigated against that.)

“Tch,” clicked Welcome as he stepped between those eyes and me, “we have nothing to do with those people!”

He was surprisingly earnest and he got my attention. I could feel myself deflating on several levels. Still, in the back of my mind there was this growing voice asking too many questions about these strange people and about this utterly fascinating woman. Welcome didn’t explain who these people were and in all the excitement of that evening, I didn’t get around tov asking.

By definition the camp was a polygot affair with people and languages of several variations being available. Generally, the language spoken amongst wagoners was that of the location but for those who could not speak it, or where circumstances were more suitable, they had their own particular language which they spoke only amongst themselves.

I had heard of this but had no knowledge of it and Welcome, although informative on almost all things, was clearly not prepared to share this with me. I have to say that from my brief stay at the camp (strangely enough my first ever in any such camp) all I managed to pick up was that it involved a mixture of various open or clandestine hand and body gestures and some guttural sounds that appeared to have no words in them at all. 

However, it seemed to serve them well for in the time that I was there I saw one potential knife fight and a dispute over one of the camp whores (a pretty but sad looking lad of about sixteen years) diffused by a series of these guttural exchanges and gestures. Sadly enough, I did understand the basic thrust of the argument about the boy.

Welcome also advised me not to use Latin in the camp and also pointed out that he would be using his own native language and gestures to communicate with me whilst there. I was a bit non-plussed about this, particularly if he wanted me to tell him the tale of the Fire Dancers.

“Don’t worry,” he replied, “just use the vernacular. You can tell them all here (he meant the wagoners).”

“But you...” I started.

“Speak it perfectly well,” he continued, adding as if in answer to my raising eyebrow, “Well you have to be cautious about strange old men that you meet on the road.”

He smiled without a hint of embarrassment.

I asked him about the Latin issue and he told me that it was, after all, the language of scholars and was treated almost as a secret language by many. Both issues were the kind of matter to give rise to suspicion in the camps. It also gave the impression of learning and therefore wealth which he suggested was not a good thing to suggest in a camp full of hungry itinerants with barely a hundred trupps to their name. He drew his finger across his throat and grinned.

The last point made good sense to me but I thought it a bit rich for a community with a secret language made up of grunts, weird hand gestures and a few pelvic thrusts to consider Latin a subversive language (and by implication, shifty). However, I kept that thought to myself along with the fact that I actually fell into the category of hungry itinerants with barely a hundred trupps to their name.

I thought that I could help Welcome as best I could at first by trying to do what looked obvious. The problem was that nothing actually looked obvious to me. I had no idea what had to be done with the oxen. Presumably they needed feeding but I could see no sign of anything that they could eat. Also presumably they needed taking out of harness but the thought of trying to do that and getting trampled for my pains, really took any enthusiasm out of me.  As initiative had fallen away dismally, I resorted to asking Welcome if I could do anything to help.

“Atcha,” he replied loudly, ”yallusc sterpa aurachal.”

I looked at him blankly until he followed this up under his breath.

“See to the oxen. There are bales of straw at the north end of the camp. Go and grab a couple of those and bring them back. They are provided by the Town Authorities and are free.”

He spat.

”Well, they are free to those who are about to pay their extortionate Gate Duties to enter the town.”

I nodded and stared to walk away but he yelled after me.

“Yallusc sterpa na rauca!”

Then under his breath, “don’t catch any bugs!” adding, “the bales are heavy.”


 

A Tale About Bugs

 

I made my way to the north end of the camp, picking my way carefully across the mix of rutted frozen ground and the all too frequent troughs of water and other liquids (and substances). I tried to look purposeful but I knew that I was being watched by every pair of eyes that checked ox harness or loosened saddles or was doing anything else in the camp that didn’t involve looking the other way. No one spoke to me, neither word nor gesture on the first part of my journey.

I had no idea why Welcome had shouted out about the bugs. I assumed it was either some kind of joke or one of those meaningless phrases that people often use as a parting. The comment became clearer after I reached the bales.

The bales were heavy, so I could only carry one at a time and of course that meant another long walk through the watching eyes of the camp. I hoisted one onto my shoulder and headed off back to Welcome’s wagon. The straw smelled mouldy although it was surprisingly dry and it made me itch. The sensation began almost as soon as the bale was on my shoulder and it got progressively worse as I walked. I desperately wanted to scratch but I had both hands supporting the weight and a small boy inside my head told me not to put the bale down for fear of looking weak. I carried on, traversing ruts and rivulets, the old man inside my head shouting at me to put the bale down and have a good scratch.

I thought at first that it was either the dust in the straw or perhaps the straw itself – I had a mild allergy to grass and so expected that possibility. The reality however told me the meaning and significance of the phrase “sterpa na rauca”. Something small and prickly crawled into my hair and made its way across that part of my head where the hair was thinning.

When I say small, I mean relatively small. It was not for example the size of a louse as I wouldn’t necessarily have felt it. Nor was it the size of a mouse for example. But it was somewhere in between and I had a horrible feeling that it tended nearer to the mouse than the louse. I twitched and made an involuntary movement to drop the bale and get at the creature but at the same time I noticed five and a half pairs of malevolent eyes watching me and six nasty looking mouths all grinning at me in a way that was not comforting. For a tiny part of a second, man and boy exchanged arguments in my head. The boy won and so the bale remained on my reluctant shoulders.

I determined to carry on despite the unknown creature in my hair. I hoped that it didn’t bite or have any nasty attributes like stinging, poisoning or infecting. That was before the next two clearly separate prickly things started moving in my hair. It took all my self control and a bit that I didn’t know I had, to refrain from a squeal of horror. By now I couldn’t drop the bale if I wanted too. My hands and arms flatly refused to accept any messages from a central processing unit that was only a few millimeters from those prickly and scratchy unknown creatures.

The wagoners who had been grinning at me were laughing openly now and calling and gesturing to others as they watched my discomfiture. I also heard a few familiar terms, “Faw’kin farners” was one of them but I have to say that I wasn’t particularly focused on these. From my own experiences in the past I knew that to lose face in front of some of these brutes was dangerous and so my only option was to carry on.

My resolve was tested one more time when one of the creatures started to move down the hair on my neck. At this point I attempted a slap, quickly talking my hand away from its task of supporting the bale. I missed whatever it was and the bale wobbled precariously. This in turn caused me to lose my footing on a rut and I slipped into the oily mixture of liquids that were spread about the area. The most unpleasant aroma wafted up into my face and in normal circumstances this might have caused me to retch. These were not normal circumstances.

It is difficult to be picky about the things that make you sick when there are large (yes I think, with good reason, that I can claim that they are damned well large as far as I am concerned) creatures crawling about your upper body just out of your vision. I wondered briefly and somewhat objectively whether that was deliberate on their part.

With considerable effort I got back to Welcome’s wagon and threw the bale down in front of one of the oxen. Welcome wasn’t about so I had no option but to go back for the other bale and to run the gauntlet of wagoners and others one more time. First, however, I had to sort out the movement. I reached up with both hands and pulled out of my hair two large brownish beetles. They were pretty tricky to get out as they held on tight with their spiky little feet but after a bit of a struggle I got them out together with several strands of my grey hair. I held them in front of my eyes by their carapaces and they wriggled their twelve spiked feet in the air like clockwork toys.

Apart from being larger than the average infestation they looked pretty harmless. In fact they looked rather comical. Vaguely like the stag beetle from my own country. I flipped them onto their backs, still holding them the same way. They wriggled their legs just the same. Although I had every intention of wreaking havoc on whatever it was that had boarded me, I have always had a soft spot for beetles so I placed them back on the bales of straw.

That was a mistake. As soon as they touched the straw they started to wave about the pair of formidable pincers that they had on the head. They looked quite threatening now and then to make matters worse they gave off the most appalling stink. The ox, whose meal had just been immolated by these creatures, looked at me out of one doleful eye as if to say, “Have you just farted over my food?” That seemed a bit rich from a creature whose only form of intercourse with its human colleagues was the near constant escape of gas from its business end.

I was now contemplating the removal of the beetles from the bale. I didn’t want to go for the bash-em-with-a-stick approach as I didn’t particularly like killing things – even offensive little creatures like these that had even less sense of personal space than some of the indigenes of these parts. I decided on the flick-em-into-the mire-and let-em-take-their-own-chances option as somehow I felt less culpable for their demise (should it transpire). I watched them struggle in the oily surface tension for a second or two before they dipped beneath the surface and were gone without a trace.

“Itchy and scratchy little beast,” said Welcome under his breath in Latin as he brushed past me lifting the third creature from my back and crushing it in under his boot. Then out loud for the benefit of the onlookers.

“Rauca festoor ‘n da!”

He placed his boot in the patch of filth that I had dropped my own two bugs into. This was more symbolic than real gesture as I doubt that he actually managed to crush the two hapless creatures that I had probably already drowned.

He beckoned to me to follow him to the back of the wagon where he produced a small unlabeled bottle. He shook a quantity the greasy mixture from the bottle into his hand and then rubbed them both together vigorously. He motioned me to bend forward and then he rubbed his hands in my hair. There was a stinging sensation on parts of my head (where I suspect the beasts had scratched me) and then the pungent smell of fish. It was feshstynkas bru of course.

“It’ll keep any more away,” Welcome muttered quietly.

I wondered a little petulantly why he hadn’t put the stuff on before I picked up the first bale but then he wasn’t my keeper and it wasn’t really his concern. As I walked back for the next bale I realized that Welcome had seemed a little different. It occurred to me that he had been a bit tense and his eyes had been looking about a lot as if checking or looking for someone or something. Then I considered that I hardly knew the man so maybe it was normal for him around crowds of other people or just maybe he was irritated at having to wet nurse me.

I collected the second bale with no further bug problems and a disinterested partial audience of betel spitting wagoners who watched me absently from their wagons as I passed. Interesting that generally they had same look and facial expression as their oxen. Even their eyes seemed to be closer to the side of their heads than was normal. Their heads (that is man and ox) followed me for a while as I passed them by, returning to what appeared to be a natural ruminating pose (for both parties) after about a couple of minutes.

Welcome told me that he had arranged for me to tell the tale of the Fire Dancers at the camp fire of one his fellow wagoners about three or four wagons way to the east. He said that there would be an audience of about a dozen but in the end it was nearer thirty. They were fairly attentive and there were few interruptions. I told my rendition, including the wolves. There were some open mouths at the end and a few expletives but no one tried to stab me so I rated the tale as a success.

Welcome woke me early next morning whilst it was still dark. The camp fires were out but everywhere people were moving about, checking harnesses and securing goods in the wagons. I could hear some children playing and laughing somewhere out in the darkness. There was a sense of excitement all about: like a holiday perhaps.

Welcome explained that the town gates opened at dawn, which was about an hour away and that it was important to get into the town early. The first reason was that the Gate Duties were discounted for the first hour after dawn and then got progressively more expensive as the day passed. He explained that the theory was that the less you could afford, the earlier you would get up. Those who could afford to lie in and wait or who stayed at the nearest village inn and travelled on could afford to pay more. I reminded him that the nearest village inn was Champneys, almost a day away and suggested that didn’t really think that anyone with any serious money would pay to stay there. He looked at me as though I had missed the point.

“Did you see all the rooms at Champneys?” he asked.

“Well no, I guess not,” I replied.

“Did you see the annex?”

“What annex?”

“Exactly. There you have it. There is more to that place than meets the eye.”

Well that had me stumped. I had been there three days, seen nothing special or exceptional. I had seen nothing even hygienic let alone luxurious. Then it occurred to me that the teacher always looked clean and tidy and that I had never seen her in the wash house. Then come to think of it, did the tax collector stay in a room as filthy as the one that I shared with Maucum? Somehow I doubted it.

As I was mulling this over, I noticed that Welcome looked different. For a start he was wearing a clean white turban and beneath a cleanish looking thick woolen cloak I could see another white garment. His feet were no longer booted and he wore lightweight open sandals that seemed totally out of place in the snow. He was also clean shaven and looked well washed and groomed. He looked classical.

How he had achieved this transformation in the filth and grubbiness of the camp amazed me and I felt a twinge of guilt at my own shabby demeanor. The word ‘barbarian’ crept into my mind as I scratched the now five-day old stubble on my face and surreptitiously sniffed in the direction of my armpit to determine the extent of the offence. By the state of my hygiene alone, Welcome would have known that I came from the dark countries.

A noise behind me made me turn around and there was the black bear sitting on his haunches with a red sash tied around his neck. His hair looked sleek and groomed and to make the point further, the beast started to groom its face. As he moved I caught a whiff of perfume.

“You groomed and perfumed the bear?” I said. It was part question, part exclamation.”

“Atcha,” Welcome replied, “Novata boursa,” he grinned back at me.

In my head, my mother’s voice was berating me for my lack of hygiene. I felt like a dog. If I was capable, I would have howled.

We reached the gates within the hour and in time to pay the discounted Gate Duties. As we had approached, I started rummaging in my purse for some coin but he pushed my hand aside with a smile.

Non necesse est,[8] he said in a kindly manner.

At first, the Gate Wardens were surly and offensive to him. This was not, I think, because he was Ruardean, they were probably rude to everyone more or less in equal measure. As we approached I heard a muttered exchange that was deliberately not a private conversation.

“E’s a Ruad’n bastard in’t ‘e?“

“Why ‘es one a’right. All that teeka marsala and chapartee  stuff and all.“

“Why there’s a fawkin farner too. Ja bas!”

The last comment was directed at me and I considered this. The only direct insult had been thrown at me not the Ruardean and I was more or less their neighbour of sorts by geographic comparison. Then again, there were some pretty hefty laws against racial and religious discrimination in this part of the world, so perhaps they had opted for a safer attack. Discrimination against me was neither racial (sadly as I was like them ‘barbari’) nor religious as I was as much a believer in the old gods as I suspected they were.

Welcome drew the cart to a halt and looked down at the Wardens. He spoke to them in Latin, despite his comments to me in the camp the night before. As he spoke he brought his hands up to his face, bowed his head and then drew them away again. As he did so, he brushed against the right side of his cloak, exposing the white robe that he wore and the curved tulwar that I noticed he now had strapped to him in a bright and expensive looking scabbard.

“How much have I got to pay to you bastard sons of goats to enter your filthy little hovel here on the edge of nowhere?” Welcome asked politely in perfect Latin.

Whether it was the language or the tulwar I could not tell (I suspect it was the latter) but the effect on the Wardens was impressive. They sort of stiffened to a kind of rigidity and grew a few inches in height from their previous slouching position. When they asked for (not demanded) twenty trupps they added the word, “Sur” which in these parts is a courtesy afforded to the nobility or to warriors.

Welcome’s olive coloured, manicured and clean hand dropped the heavy coin down into the dirty upheld paws of one of the wardens and when he offered back one coin.

“There’s too much ‘ere, Sur”.

Welcome waived it away with a smile. The coin soon travelled with surprising speed down into a pocket.


 

 

 

PART THREE

 

INTO TRELLSHEIM


 

Trellsheim’s Tale

 

As the ox wagon followed the other wagons ahead of it up the gentle incline away from the gate, I got my first view of Trellsheim. I hadn’t seen much of the town as we had approached it, partly because it had been dark at first. Then as we drew nearer the walls, which were unusually high, tended to obscure much of what was within.

The central road from the gate was quite narrow with only two lanes for traffic: one up and one down. The lanes were rutted by design so that the cart wheels fitted into the grooves and ensured that traffic moved in an orderly and safe manner through the relatively narrow streets. I wondered what happened to wagons that didn’t fit the design but in the event, I didn’t see any in my whole time in the town. Beside and between the lanes were areas for horses and walkers to move around and this looked to be a less organized affair as there was no clear ‘up’ or ‘down’ route.

Although early in the morning, the road was chaotic and packed and very noisy. On either side of the road were houses, official looking buildings and here and there an inn. These were built in the early modern style mostly, being big beams and uprights of black wood and in-filled with some form of mortar. Each of the three or four storeys overhung the previous by about two feet so that there was a sense of enclosure about the whole area. At certain points along the road, there were arched constructions across the road to the buildings opposite which appeared to be both functional and structural.

There were few windows in most of the buildings with almost none at ground level. Generally, these were small with small panes of glass, usually leaded. The windows in the high arches, however, seemed particularly large. Large enough for a person to fall through, I thought. I recalled that one of the less savory aspects that the town was known for was its underworld.  The standard method of criminal assassination was by defenestration. This was unknown anywhere else in the northern world.

Looking up at the floating arches above, I could see the sense of it (as it were). I was also pretty sure that such defenestrations were unlikely to take place at this time of day on the basis that the victims fall would probably be broken by the heaving mass of humanity, oxen and goods wagons in the streets below.

The houses opened onto the road with no form of pavement and I saw that such doors were unusually stout and reinforced for buildings that lay within a town wall. There was very little snow on the ground here, a lot of slush and a foul smelling rivulet of liquid and solids running in two small gullies on either side of the road.  Sitting some six to eight feet above it on the ox cart, the stench was appalling. It must have been breath-taking at pedestrian level.

Welcome had been completely silent as we travelled slowly up from the gate and I noticed that he had stopped chewing betel and had drawn a scarf across his mouth and nose.  I could just about smell a perfume above the reek. It was similar to that on the bear. The bear was also silent and, unusually, it was not curled up asleep but sat upright and alert in the back just behind Welcome.

“Barbarians! Look at all this filth. In my country we have our excrement run in pipes beneath the surfaces to take it away from habitation. It is unclean and a sin against god to behave like this,“ he muttered in angry Latin to me.

At least, I think it was addressed to me although it seemed to be to the world at large or perhaps just an escaping angry thought. For my part, I briefly wondered where the channels carried all the sewage. I left the thought at that and decided to rummage in my pack for a scarf to cover my own mouth because I could sense that my breakfast was getting a bit rebellious in my stomach.

Once I had recovered a suitable garment cautiously from the pack beside the bear, Welcome offered me a small bottle of a clear liquid that smelled of roses and jasmine. I sprinkled some onto the scarf and offered the bottle back.

“Keep it, my friend. You will need it here and I have plenty more.”

I thanked him and slipped the bottle into my day sack. I had never owned a perfume and, if I am honest, I was a little pleased to receive such a gift.

Eventually the road leveled and opened out onto a large central square. The houses followed the edges so that the effect was of a flat space the size of a small arena into which, it seemed, the human and bovine contents of the entire northern world was pouring like effluvia. Here, the snow still lay in small, shallow drifts and I noticed that the channels of sewage had actually disappeared. This was, presumably, because we were on top of a reasonable sized hill now and everything other than human activity was flowing the other way. This gave the whole expanse a much more wholesome feel.

This, Welcome told me, was the central market and this was where he was going to set up his stall. I noticed that the ruts that channeled the movement of carts and wagons had smoothed out now so that vehicles were free to move in any direction. I was surprised at the relative lack of chaos as wagons and carts started to make for what seemed to be known and recognized pitches.

That is not to say that there wasn’t a bit of tension here and there. I saw one knife fight erupt between the men in a hide wagon and a rather thick set looking brute carrying eggs and cheeses. We didn’t wait to see the outcome but a number of wagoners had stopped to watch and from what I could tell, were placing bets on the winner.

Welcome brought the cart to a halt and a spot that seemed to be almost as near to the centre of the square as was possible. The centre itself was marked by some form of memorial. It was some kind of miner with brutish arms a pick and a lantern all cast in a dirty looking bronze. Welcome’s wagon drew up alongside it at its base.

“This will be my home for the next few days,” he said, “and sadly here we must part for I need to set up the stall and get both myself and the bear cleaned up.”

I wondered how much cleaner he, and indeed the bear, could get but I let that thought go.

“If you need me at all over the next few days you will find me here. That is unless of course I am trading at another stall or fulfilling a call of nature, but on those occasions don’t worry, just ask the bear,” he grinned at me.

I thanked him for his kindness and asked if I could help him set up or anything. He declined saying that it was best he did it all alone. Once the merchandise started moving, the bear got a bit possessive of anyone other than the trader. He told me that he had had one unfortunate incident a couple of years ago where the creature took a large chunk out of the shoulder of a well-meaning but foolish man who insisted on being helpful.

I knew it. All along I had been sitting near the beast and all along in the back of my mind both man and boy were yelling, “danger – wild animal,” and I had been arrogant enough to ignore it. Still luck had smiled upon me and I was mercifully in one piece.

We shook hands, which to be honest, Welcome looked unhappy to do – no doubt the fact of my state of hygiene now that he had cleaned up for the market -  but he did it anyway. His hand was warm and soft and he squeezed mine lightly and quickly. Then he took a step back and gave me a slight bow, which I took to be the parting of his homeland. He accompanied the gesture with some words that I did not understand and which were melodious and pleasant to the ear: easy to recall.

At first I took these to be a parting in his native tongue but later I was to find out that this was not so. It was a prayer. I asked once more if there was anything I could do to thank him or to repay him for the kindness that he had shown to me but he just smiled. I turned and had begun to walk away when I heard him call out behind me.

“Atcha! Atcha. I had almost forgotten,” he called. “This is for you.”

He handed me a parcel wrapped in waxed paper and smelling vaguely of rose water and lemons. The waxed paper was dusted in a coating of white powder, which I later found to be a form of sugar, although why that should be was beyond me. I took the package. It was heavy like a book.

“It’s not,” I said as a hopeful realisation dawned on me, “I couldn’t,” I trailed off, not really meaning it.

“Yes you can. I have read it,” he replied with a smile that accompanied the obvious lie.

“But you said it was worth a fortune. I couldn’t possibly,” I trailed off again. I really didn’t mean what I was saying but I just couldn’t accept this gift.

“No. Take it. I have more,” he said, “and I would probably only get forty marques at best for this forgery.”

He winked and then laughed at the look on my face.

“Well, no, it’s not a fake actually but let’s leave it at that shall we. Take it in return for the story. You will find it interesting.”

What could I do? The boy said to keep it. The man said to give it back (but I knew that he was lying because the sale of this thing alone would keep my family for a whole season). I laughed, embarrassed and thanked him. With nothing to offer him in return I felt foolish (that would be the boy) and churlish (the man) in equal measures. I hugged him and patted him on the back. I couldn’t help it was an involuntary reflex from bringing up children. He smelled clean and fragrant: beautiful, I would say. I must have smelled rank.  He relaxed into the embrace, squeezed my shoulders and then stepped away.

“Take care.”

Those were the last words that I heard from him. I made my way across the wide expanse of the market square without incident, clutching the sweet smelling parcel in my hand. I felt a little guilty and a lot of pleasure at the gift. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure now if it was a genuine copy or a fake but I’m not sure how important that was. The contents alone were invaluable and in a sense it didn’t really matter if it was worth fifteen Marques or a hundred and fifty. After all, I wasn’t planning to sell it. Well not right now at any rate.

The first task was to find a base that was comfortable and that I could afford: preferably somewhere with a bath. The inns and hostels along the market square looked a bit expensive on the western side and the ones on the eastern side that I had noticed as we came into the square had looked a little basic, if not rough. I decided on a standard tactic. Find the expensive hostels first and then get into the backstreets behind them for some of the better quality inns.

There were plenty of people milling about and so, despite my earlier thoughts on crime, I didn’t have too many concerns about disappearing into some of the quieter lanes and alleyways that ran off the market square. Besides it was quite light now and with the snow on the ground, even where it was melting in the water dripping from the eaves, there was a general lightness about.

After a few abortive attempts I found a tidy little inn about three hundred yards further uphill west from the main square. The Sun Inn was the name on a rather neat sign painted outside with a once bright yellow sun painted in traditional style: a pointy star with a bright smiley face. However, this smiley face was winking.

Inside there was a young lad behind the bar, I guess about mid-twenties with a series of rings through his left ear and his nose. He was neatly dressed and although his clothes were old, they looked very clean. He was wiping a clean cloth over the even cleaner looking oak surface of the bar as I walked in.

“Morn’en,” I offered as he looked up at me.

“Mornin,” he replied.

This enabled me to recalibrate my dialect slightly and gave me an even greater sense of optimism about the quality of the place. The spectres of Grendel and his Mother started to amble off into the dark passages towards the rear of the building.

“‘Appen you’ve a bed?” I asked.

“For t’night?”  he queried.

“No indeed. Ffor five nights or more,” I answered.

By way of response, he reached down behind the bar and brought up an old book with a battered cover which he opened and consulted. Running an immaculately clean finger down a page half filled with tiny neat handwriting he came to a halt alongside the number fifteen – today’s date – followed by another number, seven.

“I’ve got room seven free for six nights and nothing else,” and then added,”you got a mate with you?”

Ah, I thought, as the all too obvious penny dropped. “Mate” was a term for a partner but unless I was mistaken was used for partners of the same sex.

“No,” I replied trying to sound nether shocked nor too casual. This had all the makings of a good stay and I didn’t want to screw it up, literally as well as figuratively, by appearing either too sanctimonious or too available.

“But it’ll have hot water for sure, no?” I added in an effort to move away from my sexual preferences.

“As a dog’s got flees,” he replied with a smile, “all the rooms ‘ere ‘ave hot water, my boy!”

“Ah for sure,” I replied with perhaps a little too much enthusiasm.

“This smells good,” I said sniffing the parcel that I was holding, “but I stink of stuff, no?”

I was mindful of the heavy dousing of feshstynkas bru that I had received the previous night to ward of those bugs. In fact, I wasn’t entirely sure that those very same bugs hadn’t propagated themselves unknown to me in my hair or clothes. In the back of my mind a grim little voice added “or skin” with a nasty little snigger. I chose to ignore that although I couldn’t suppress an involuntary shudder.

He looked at me a little distastefully, for which I have to say that I was grateful if for no other reason than that it moved him away from any sexual interest in me – I hoped. Then he brightened up and sniffed.

“Well, I can smell flowers and something else,” he said and sniffed again.

“Roses I reckon,“ he sniffed once more.

“Ah me,” he exclaimed almost clasping his hands together, “It’s Jasmine!”

Once I had worked out what he was on about, I took out the bottle of perfume from my pocket and showed him. He took it from my hand almost with reverence.

“O it’s a beauty! And it’s a glass bottle as well,” he sniffed the stopper.

“Do you want some of it?” I offered, hoping that it wasn’t taken the wrong way – well actually both wrong ways. It was the first perfume that I had owned in my life and I wasn’t offering to give it to him, nor was I offering him anything else, as it were.

I didn’t need to worry, he opened the stopper and dabbed a bit on the tip of his finger and then wiped it behind his ears. He then used a different finger (in this world that is seriously focused on hygiene, believe me) and tipped a tiny drop onto this and wiped it across his throat. He popped the stopper back and smiled a smile of genuine pleasure.

“That’s truly kind of you, thank you.”

I was shocked. I tried not to show it but I couldn’t help it. This was a deliberate breach of etiquette in these parts and one I worked hard not to fall foul of. He must have seen my disquiet for he added, in a slightly harsher tone.

“We use bruta speak here don’t we? Well we don’t have to behave like brutes as well. Thank you is as thank you does, so to speak. There’s nothing wrong with a little politeness whatever the rest of the world thinks!”

Then, changing the subject he added, “It’s a gift from a mate, eh?”

O crap,” I thought, “we’re back to my non-existent partner.”

I decided to try another approach and by that way, if necessary, make myself less available.

“It was a parting gift. He’s a Ruadean.”

It was probably a mistake and I had no doubt that it would return to savage me, but it seemed to work well. His face took on a sympathetic look and he smiled.

“Ah, the ways of love eh, the ways of love,” he sighed.

That was the end of that conversation.

I got the room for ten trupps a night all in, which I was pretty pleased with. The room as I guessed it would be from the state of the bar itself, was immaculate. In fact, so much so that I took my boots off before stepping over the threshold. My host had taken me up to the room and I could see that he appreciated the gesture, even though one look at my socks could have told him that he was probably better off with the boots. He gave me the key and explained how the late latch worked in case I was out in the town – which from the wink that he gave me probably was a euphemism for having sex in the courtesan quarter – and after showing me proudly around the place, left me on my own.

The first thing that I did was run a bath. I feel that I need to point out a couple of things here, just to set all this in perspective. The world in which we live here is pretty basic and is a bit light both on amenities and in a lot of cases, the basics that some might consider standard for a civilized modern society. For example, the only forms of power available to us in the northern marches were wood, club moss (a poor form of coal), peat and sphagnum and where luck and geothermal vents existed, the planet itself.

Things were a little different in some of the southern lands and in the more organized and developed city states such as those in Xandria, Heros and Gypeta. Here there was also the technology of antiquity which had been passed on and honed to near perfection. In Xandria we could harness the heat of the sun and turn it into sources of power in ways that the ancients couldn’t even dream of. In Heros, wind turbines of both colossal and micro scale harnessed the power of the maritime winds so effectively that the island of Cypria traded in energy with other parts of the civilized world that were incapable of deploying this resource. Households on the islands, with their own micro turbines installed on their roofs hooked into the city state grid and sold energy on the same simple basis as they also sold hens eggs from their garden gate. Gypeta led the classical world with its harnessing of tidal power and the conversion of saltwater to fresh using the phenomenal forces of nature.

Sadly, here in the north, there was no such capability and the basic and primitive method of combustion was used to squeeze out each inefficient therm of energy from more or less anything that stood still for too long.

So what I am getting to is that the action of running a bath (and a hot bath no less) was a serious luxury and not one to be scoffed at.  Trellsheim had, in one sense at least, the incredible good fortune not only to be sitting on some of the planets biggest remaining and accessible deposits of minerals and ores but also sat at a major interstice of the North-East to South-West Caledonia and the Iapetus fault lines. As such, it had a superabundance of heated and very mineral rich water forced up under pressure from the superheated rocks below. Thus I could walk into a bathroom in the town, almost any bathroom, no matter how poor, and by turning on the tap have instant access to heated water.

There were down-sides to this abundance of course because the planet itself occasionally took payment in return. Trellsheim and its entire surrounding area had been leveled something like eighteen times over the past seven hundred years by the kind of earth movement that probably hasn’t otherwise been seen since the planet was in its infancy. The loss of life on the most recent occasions had been phenomenal. It was pretty near total on the last earthquake about one hundred and fifty years ago.

So that is how I was able to be standing naked, dirty and smelly in a bathroom in the barbaric north with a steaming bath before me full with all its promise of warmth. All that was really missing was something sweet-smelling to add to the mineral rich brew before me. I searched around for a short while and found, in a cupboard in the bedroom two stone jars: one labeled, “Es’a stink as good”; and the other “Es’a stink as nat so good”.

I sniffed inside the first one and it smelled sweet and lemony. The other smelled vaguely of leather with a hint of something else (although what the something else was I could only guess: it had a hint of the spice cumin probably). Thinking that I was better safe than sorry on all counts I added a bit of both to the water which then fizzed away for a while rather vigorously slowly turning the water to the colour and cloudiness of milk. Putting the jars back from whence they came, I climbed into the water and slipped comfortably and luxuriously below the surface.

I don’t know what it is about baths but they are guaranteed to put me to sleep within a very short space of time. Obviously I hadn’t stayed under water for long but I was soon fast asleep and probably snoring loudly. How long I had been there was anyone’s guess. I was awakened by the sound of loud banging on the bedroom door next to mine.

At first I thought that it was some form of complaint about me as I struggled back into wakefulness and wrestled myself from the now tepid water. It soon became apparent however that this was some other matter: a bit of a domestic, by the sounds of it. There followed a lot of shouting between two individuals together with a third voice chipping in now and again calling for moderation although it has to be said that the various terms for “moderation” had a certain colour in them. After about ten minutes of almost constant dialogue (with interjections, bangs and expletives) and by the time that I was dressed, there came a sudden silence. Whatever it was, it was over.

When I checked the time, I found that it was well past midday so I wrapped up and went out in search of the library. I knew that it was somewhere in the district known as “above town” which I understood was where the principal church or cathedral was located. When I left   I could find no one around to ask for directions and so, standing outside the Sun Inn with the snow starting to fall again, I chose the uphill direction of the alley on the basis that above town meant exactly that. It crossed my mind briefly that there could be more than one hill in Trellsheim but I was in no real hurry. I had arrived there earlier than planned so technically I had an extra day or so to spare.

The alley was steep and cobbled and treacherous with ice and snow so the going was slow and it took me best part of an hour to reach the top. Here I found the church, which was in fact a simple affair of wood and mortar in much the same style as the houses that I had first seen. It was small and badly windowed like the houses that lined the steep alley that I had just climbed. Somehow I had expected something grander for such a famous place and this gave me little comfort for the quality and indeed the content of the library, wherever it was. I had expected to be able to ask someone for directions at some point in the walk or failing that once I got to the district but I had seen no one in the past hour. The place seemed completely deserted.


 

The Young Mother’s Tale

 

I don’t mind isolation on the open road and I have no particular worries about being alone in the wilderness (other than the usual and sensible ones such as the fear of bandits, bears or wolves). However, I find an empty town - or in this case empty streets - a cause for serious concern. Somehow, it doesn’t seem natural and I start to get spooked.

As I had walked up the steep cobbled alley, I had started to imagine that I was being followed. On a couple of occasions I had stopped, ostensibly to gather my breath (these stops being in addition to the genuine rest stops) in order to listen out for the unwelcome sound of someone following. All I had heard was the dripping of melt water from the eaves above and the quietness and sense of peace that seems to accompany falling snow.

There hadn’t even been any animals about. No dogs or cats; not a rat or trilobite; no birds; in fact, nothing. As I had walked on however, the feeling of being followed or being watched had grown on me again. Hairs had started to rise on the back of my neck.

This discomfort had remained even at the top where the alley opened out into a broader area where the houses and the church were spaced apart.

There were a couple of trees growing in what looked like a small area of grass that was now covered by a blanket of unmarked snow. Again I looked around. This time I was more obvious about it. Firstly, I was actually looking for the library and the only way to find it was to look around the wide expanse of the square in which I now stood. The second reason was because, apart from being generally rattled, I was beginning to get a bit irritated. It has to be said of course that the irritation was with myself rather than person or persons unknown who was, or were, probably not there in any case.

There was no obvious sign of the library and I didn’t want to walk back down the alley without having satisfied myself that I was not being followed.  I decided to walk around the perimeter of the open space, checking for a sign or label of some sort or for evidence of books within the few windows that were visible. This also gave me a chance to check for possible assailants in any alleys running off this area. Of course, it probably escaped my mind that to seek out a potential assailant was in fact to create exactly the confrontation that I was afraid of, but no matter: that’s how I am.

The strategy was also slightly flawed on the basis that walking around and peering into people’s windows was not usually the kind of action to promote anything other than aggression. In most cultures it wasn’t exactly acceptable unless of course it was family or relatives where for some obscure reason all the usual barriers designed to give us time and space seem to be discounted.

I didn’t find anything resembling a library in my search and peering in through windows like an ancient and nosey relative revealed not a single book nor, I would add, did I see another person. This latter fact was probably a good thing because, as already commented, it would be difficult to explain why I was generally poking about in a fairly shifty manner. Looking for a library?

“Yeah right!”

Slightly downcast (but not too much - it was only a library and I could always ask at the Sun when I got returned) I decided to walk back. First however, in a childish whim, I decided to cross diagonally the virgin snow in the centre of the open area. It doesn’t really matter how I got to this point in the square – I had obviously doubled up on my searching of the houses without noticing it. More importantly, from a self-analytical point of view was why I wanted to do this at fifty-two years and a quarter. I don’t know why but I did and so I stepped out onto the blanket of snow. That was when I decided that I was definitely being followed.

There on the grass – I could see it through the snow crushed beneath the large footprints – was clear evidence. When I had arrived, this was virgin snow. Now there was a trail of prints laid down by a hastily moving biped wearing boots heading from where I stood across the square to a point where my alley came out opposite.

In the brief time that I allocated for analysis as my heart rate increased and my breathing became shallower and all sort of complex little chemicals started whizzing around my bloodstream, I considered a number of points.  I ruled out time travel for, as I understood it, all research into this had ceased some centuries before on the basis that such travel was too challenging intellectually. Most attempts had apparently resulted in total loss of the subject as a result of Mandelays Paradox: moving backwards in time and space from a point of origin results in the displacement of the exit point where the origin and the exit are the same. In other words and by way of example, you walk out of one door into a predetermined year in the past and then when you return though that same door you find yourself back in Jurassic Gondwanaland looking down the throat of a small tyrannosaur.

I also ruled out amnesia, absent mindedness and dementia for obvious reasons (from where I stood). This left the simple fact that someone had crossed the square whilst I had been here and that I had not noticed.

Even scarier was the fact that this person was now in my alley and that this was the only way that I could see that would get me back down to the rest of the town and more importantly to the Sun Inn.

I am not a total wimp and the only way was back so I crossed the square to the alley without any of the anticipated pleasure of sloughing through the virgin snow. I had my knife in my pocket but it was only a small blade and was (I shamefully confess) rather rusty at this point as I had recently used it to slice an avocado pear.

Other than that, I had no other form of weapon – though it has to be said of course that I wouldn’t have known how to use one anyway. Suppressing thoughts of defenestrations, throat slitting and general beatings, I tried to make myself look as large as I could by breathing in as far as I could, swing my arms about and walking as slowly as was reasonable – if I had a tail I would have fluffed it up.

To reinforce this rather doubtful position, I massaged my mind into an aggressive state, took another breath and plunged into the relative darkness of the alley. I headed down towards the Sun Inn trying, and probably failing, to look as though I wasn’t running away from an unknown fear (which I was) and whilst trying to move at a pace that said I was afraid of nothing (which of course was untrue). I also had to avoid slipping on the treacherous surface underfoot which, according to the man in my head, could result in broken bones. He was probably the only one with any sense here but I decided to ignore him on this occasion (as, sadly I have done and will do on many more).

I made it to the Sun in good time but frankly I must have looked ridiculous. Fortunately for me no one saw me (or rather I saw no one else) and the probably mythical foot-pad or assassin or just plain bandit did not materialise. I reached the door of the inn, which was closed against the cold and slipped at the last minute, catching my head on the door frame. I don’t know what it is about me and doors that often I seem to make contact with them and frequently this is by way of my head.

I opened the door and went in, stamping my boots on the mat provided for that purpose. No one looked up at me although there were a good few people in the bar. That was pleasant. It was nice not to have your every move watched. I also noticed that quite apart from various beers, a number of people were drinking hot drinks. There was a strong smell of coffee in the room. The background noise was lively but moderate. I dropped my day sack on a chair (for some reason that attracted attention) and walked over to the bar. There was a different lad behind it. He had one ring in his ear and tattoo of a rose on his left bicep. He wore a black vest that showed off a muscular physique. It has to be said that for a man, even to me, he looked pretty good.

I asked him what hot drinks he had and was told that apart from various coffees they had a number of herbal teas, some honey drinks and various flavorings. He winked at me at the last point leaving me to wonder what exactly that meant or indeed what exactly the flavorings were. Sometimes ignorance is bliss and so I left it at that ordering a mint tea.

You’ll ‘ave pastries with ‘at?” he asked automatically.

Now there is something that I really hate about ordering food and drink which I can only attribute to my age and disposition.  If I order a drink, I order a drink. If I want food with it, I’ll damned well ask. Even with half a brain and a tongue I could manage that much. True he was a big lad but I couldn’t help giving him a look that said more than I was prepared to do to him.

To his credit, he looked a little sheepish.

Sorry, pet,” he said, “It’s the Bo’sun. He likes us to make extras.

The last bit was lost on me as my head was working on the “sorry, pet” bit. I could see that I was going to have some problem with the courtesies here.

It isn’t that I am an impolite person but when I head up this way for visits I try to adopt a different persona in order to ensure that I fit in and that no one tries to stab or otherwise injure me for insults imagined or otherwise. The risk here with this excessive use of routine courtesy is that I am likely to relax and walk into another hostelry, say thank you and get beaten to the ground. The fact that the boss, presumably the multi-ringed laddie, had probably worked in one of the great franchises of the southern cities (mercifully not present in the farther reaches of the north) didn’t cut any ice with me but I stopped glaring at the boy.

“I’ll take it over there.” I said and went to sit at the table where I had left my day sack. Here I took out the parcel that Welcome had handed to me and placed it on the table, having first checked that the surface was clean of fresh or otherwise stale sticky beer or any other liquids (or indeed solids). I needn’t have bothered. The table was immaculate and shone with a new layer of well buffed wax.

I un-wrapped the paper, trying not to spill any of the remnants of sugar (if that’s what it really was) onto the table or the floor. In my head the man said something like, “god what do you care, you’re in Trellsheim and you’re was in the northern marches. The normal rules of society and intercourse are more or less on temporary suspension!

Once the paper was put back in the sack I placed the book on the table and opened it up. On the inside front cover, someone, presumably Welcome had written a note, “alienum est omne quicquid optando evenit.”[9]

The man must have read my mind. I really wanted this book but wasn’t even going to offer to buy it. (That is even before he told me of its potential value to him and before I realized that I wasn’t in his league on this matter.) Of course, it could be that he just saw the desire in my eyes.

By this time, my mint tea had arrived, neatly contained within what at first I took to be a glass. In fact, it turned out to be crystal and beautifully made at that. A small bowl was set down on the table for me to place the leaf-holder in and as he did this I asked him whether the library was up the top of the alley above town.

What, this alley?” he asked. “No one goes up this way beyond the Sun.

Then he added, “That way goes up to the plague quarter!

Well that was good to know. I had just casually wandered up into the plague quarter and walked around snooping and peering into the windows. No wonder there was a church up there.

I should point out that there was probably no actual risk of catching the plague by going into the quarter. This plague, as such, was not like those contagious diseases of antiquity, carried by rats and fleas and the like. Nor was it like the great diseases of the twenty-first century as these had been contained, in part by human intervention but mostly by the co-evolution of virus and host to merge with our mammalian DNA to become an integral part of all of us.

This plague was the great virus of the twenty-first century that had jumped ship from its original hosts and had latched onto common genetic material that we shared with those unfortunate creatures inducing a disease in humanity similar to myxomatosis in rabbits.

Within the space of a hundred years or so it is recorded that over eighty percent of the population of the planet had been killed off by it or associated diseases. No amount of research could accommodate the disease or halt the inexorable advance through all populations. Of course the consequences had been dire in social and political terms as well as in human but it had managed to sole one pressing problem of that day. With a planetary population of some ten billion reduced over a few tens of years to around two billion, the pressing matter of human devastation of the planets very finite resources, had been put on hold for a while. Time enough possibly for most optimists to think that the species could work out where it went wrong the first time.

As the remaining custodians of the human gene pool, this decimated population went on to breed up humanity as it is today in all its glory. With the privilege of hindsight one can say, with confidence, that so far it is only by luck and a relative decline in sperm count that we are not yet back to our glory days of ignominy and climate change. Well that and the fact that we had already put much of our fossil fuel carbon back into the atmosphere before the plague had struck.

There were however, occasionally in populations, genetic mutations that made individuals susceptible to the disease. Where these occurred the poor creatures were placed into plague quarters where they could live out their days as the disease took hold of them. Frankly there was no reason to segregate them as they posed no threat at all to the rest of the population but I suspect that we have learned very little about how to deal with social attitudes to disease over the ages.

I learned that “above town” was to be reached by way of another alley that ran off the central market square about a couple of hundred yards to the north of the alley on which the Sun Inn was to be found. However, Jimas (the name of the lad that served me) had no knowledge of any library although he did suggest that maybe the Bo’sun would know about this. He was, it would seem, a bit of an avid reader when he wasn’t “trying to get his leg over”. This was just a bit too much information for me and I was a little relieved when someone called out for the lad from over by the bar.

So it looked as if I had more or less wasted the day. It was now heading towards early evening and I had done no research whatsoever.  I sipped my mint tea and started to leaf through the book a slight sense of deflation mixed with a certain amount of frustration evident in my slightly erratic movements. Perhaps I could recover some sense of achievement by looking for information on my quarry in the book.

Some of the text was a little difficult to understand but I managed to read a fair bit about the Illuvaqu’e in one of the chapters. Here I learned of their origins in the steppes and grasslands of the east ‘before the world was changed’ whatever that meant. I read of their mythology – interesting - as they were in their own right mythology to me.  I read on into the evening, knowing from the feeling in my stomach that I was moving well past time to eat and not caring that the mint tea in my crystal container was now cold and untouched.  It has to be said that in most inns of this part of the world I would have had some surly landlord wander over to demand in a tone that took no prisoners.

You wanna drink or summat else, ja bas.”

This didn’t happen here and for that I was grateful. In a brutish world, here was a little space of quiet and peace, seemingly devoid of the usual noise of men (and I do mean men the sex, not man the species). It was a breath of absolute fresh air in an otherwise stinking world.

I heard tell of the Fire Dancers gods and in particular their great god, who gave them life and then sacrificed himself so that they could grow and multiply over the land.

I had started to read a particularly interesting piece and was about to turn the page to a new chapter when a face dropped uncertainly into my field of vision. She startled me and so at first I failed to realise for a few moments the true, as opposed to the obvious, strangeness of this incident.

So far I had seen only men in the Sun Inn and generally speaking the only time that you would have seen a woman in a bar in this part of the world would be if they owned the place or were serving in the place or selling their services in the proximity (well usually in a bedroom or a doorway nearby) and sometimes both of the last two and rarely all three.

You a’right, mate?” she slurred ever so slightly as she tried to bring her eyes into focus on mine.

Indeed,” I replied cautiously.

I wasn’t in the habit of procuring female company for my evenings away from hearth and family and I didn’t want to get myself into a position where I was either going to offend, insult or find myself in a situation of compromise.

“I’ve been here fer three weeks, no more nor less,” she paused and swayed a little uncertainly in front of me.

Where a‘ you a comin‘ to?” she asked and then belched.

I saw a couple of faces look over in our direction at her noise but they soon returned to their own matters and, regrettably, I was obliged to return to her.

Not ‘round ‘ere. Down south no less,” I said, hoping that she would be satisfied and go away.  I was wrong.

’tcha got?” she asked, looking with a slightly unsteady expression at my book.

“It’s a book,” I replied keeping it short, obvious and not too familiar.

“What’s it about then?” she persisted.

“O crap,” I thought, “this could go on for ages.”

“It’s a story for my kids,” I tried.

I was hopeful that the mention of children would do the trick and send her away thinking that either I was sad and espoused or a weirdo that read kid’s books. I should point out here that the words for brothers and children are the same in the language of the North. It is a measure of the development of social perspective and culture that there is no word for sisters or girl children. Context tends to be used to determine the sex of the children and given that the assumption has a bias to the male, mistakes are often made. This is not misogyny on my part: I am simply recording what I know.

Kid’s eh?” she repeated and then added, “I’ve  got three kids.”

She sounded both sad and proud at the same time if that were possible. My hearing was not great and her words were rather slurred but looking at her I felt pretty certain she meant three and not five. She can’t have been more than twenty-six. Although I tried not to, I found myself looking her up and down. She wasn’t particularly pretty in the face but she was quite shapely: nice legs beneath a wide skirt that was cut to enhance the shape of her hips. Nice waist. Lovely breasts... Oh dear, perhaps a little too much! Whether she noticed or not, her next question half read my thoughts – fortunately the ones before I started looking at her in a sexual context.

Can you tell how old I am? “ she asked coyly.

It was the way that she asked it that said that she wanted someone to appreciate and to praise her. I began to feel a little guilty about the sex bit and so I looked at her in an attitude of considered appraisal and replied.

Twenty-six, no more nor less,” I said as though making a bid at auction.

She smiled and her eyes sparkled with a new light. She looked both pleased and (sadly) grateful and as she responded she brushed back her hair with her hand.

“No. I’m twenty-eight and no more,” she demurred.

When someone is that desperate, it is wrong to be too blunt. Do the young really have any idea about the insignificance of year measured in less than tens?

“No way,” I said with a hint of astonishment mixed with part incredulity that I hoped she would take as genuine.

You don’t look it, and that’s a fact.

Funny how we try to reinforce lies with data. Some popular “science” and much political discourse seems to be written that way also.

She smiled. I don’t really think that she believed me any more than I did but she was, I could see, grateful for the kindness. Of course I have to say, she was a good looking woman, whatever she thought of herself.

“And you? What would you give me?” I asked her. This was, I should say, more by way of conversation than with any ulterior motive despite the unfortunate innuendo.

She looked at me for a while as if studying me. Then she looked me up and down in much the same way as I had done her. I did not feel all that comfortable about it and it crossed my mind only briefly (that is, before the man inside my head reminded me of the truth) that perhaps she had thought the same about me when I was eyeing her up and down like an old lecher.

Eventually she answered me.

Pretty old,” she said with simple finality.

I was crushed. That was a killing blow and no mistake. I had expected at least a stab at forty from one so young (well I was hopeful) but I really hadn’t expected to be beyond count.

She must have seen the hurt look in my face.

“I’m not good at ages with old folks,” she added.

It went from bad to worse. I decided to end this before I was deflated any further (as if that were possible).

I smiled.

“It doesn’t matter,“ I said to close the conversation off.

I was gutted actually.

I really didn’t want a post mortem on the matter. After that however and at a great cost to my own self-esteem, she seemed to become disinterested. Shortly afterwards she wandered off and started a conversation with a couple of men sitting at a table in a corner of the room. They weren’t over excited about it I deduced from the looks on their faces, but at least she was no longer in my face.

I spent the last part of that evening in the Sun, eating a well presented meal there in a neat and sparsely decorated dining room with a dozen other guests. Other than me, the guests were in pairs and with one exception chatted away quietly about their own business.

The exception was the couple that I took to the couple from the room next door who had been exchanging a few heated words earlier that day. A dark cloud seemed to sit over their table and they ate their food in silence, occasionally throwing a meaningful and sometimes bitter glance at the other when the other was studiously not looking in their direction. One looked truly upset and the other looked defiant, angry and resentful. It called to mind a comment that Welcome had made in passing when discussing the love of his life.

Aegra amaris,[10]” he had said, “aegrescit medendo.[11]

After the meal I dropped my things back upstairs in my room (where I noticed that it had been cleaned and the bed had been made) and then returned to the bar with the book to read quietly. This I managed to do without interruption and after a couple of hours and a reasonable quantity of the Sun’s excellent ale, I headed unsteadily back to my room for the night.


 

The Paper Seller’s Tale

 

The book that Welcome had presented to me gave me some interesting insights into the lives of the Fire Dancers but although parts of it were well written, there were some chapters that made little sense at all. This was not only because my Latin was not fully up to the mark, nor was it because the writer had himself been a little limited in his knowledge of the language and was in any case using the vernacular rather than classical Latin. Some of it just didn’t make sense.

What was even more peculiar was the fact that I hadn’t noticed anything unusual when had first read parts of the book when I was sitting on Welcome’s wagon. For example, within a passage setting out the origins of the myth of the Cor’moran there was what appeared to be an inventory of household goods set out in a single continuous sentence. In another chapter on wolves there was a passage setting out instructions on how to roast lamb. In another chapter, there was a note about how to repair socks. Later in the same chapter a piece on how to thread a needle if you had poor eyesight – that was at least informative and potentially useful to me.

Whilst each bit made perfect sense it its own content, it made absolutely no sense whatsoever in the context in which it was placed. The last piece I came across before disappearing into sleep was a passage that seemed to be made up entirely of groups of numbers of differing lengths (or sizes of magnitude) with no separators other than spaces and none of the usual mathematical symbols. I could only assume that these were forms of transcription errors that had crept in as the documents had moved from one language and or medium to another over the very many years since the first story was told.

Yet, if so, these were pretty weird copying errors as they seemed to represent extracts from completely separate documents. It was as though at some point in the evolution of these tales, some copying agent had either randomly, or otherwise unconsciously, drawn text from one document and copied it into the other. My last conscious thoughts were bizarre as the book slipped from my fingers onto the bed, creasing pages three hundred and fifty-five and three hundred and fifty-six, and my mind was released from constraint to wander the realms of my subconscious.

I overslept the next morning and woke up with the sunlight streaming into my room, the candle had burned down to a random mess of wax on the table and (to my horror) had dripped and melted off its holder and over the neatly polished surface of the wood. That might cause an upset on discovery, I thought as I tried to pick off the determined and resistant substance without much success. It would have made little difference for I already knew the damage underneath to the beautifully polished surface was probably irreversible.

Outside I could hear a few people moving about in the alley below but there were not many and as I didn’t yet know what was normal for the time of day I had no idea of the real time. I couldn’t smell breakfast and that was a bad omen.

I washed and dressed quickly and went down to the dining room to see if I could recover something to eat. There was no one there and the tables although empty and clean had the distinct look of tables that had been eaten upon recently. There was a vague smell of bacon and slightly burned toast in the air. I picked a small table set for one person and sat down.

As I was considering my next action, as if by request the Bo’sun appeared. I decided that he wasn’t a morning person because he was fairly offish with me and had a singularly unpleasant look about him that I hadn’t noticed when I arrived the day before.

Ja missed it,” he said, putting down a vase of fragrant yellow flowers on a table near the door.

“Breakfast’s at sun up today and no later.”

He gave no thought to the tense as he said this and inferred that the meal times changed on a daily basis. However, he looked so angry that I decided not to challenge this. I also managed to refrain from apologizing, partly because I didn’t think I had done anything to be sorry for – after all I had paid for the missed breakfast – and partly because I didn’t want to fall into the trap of apologising in this part of the world too readily. That really was a risk of personal injury despite the unusual manners in the Sun Inn.

I have always considered (and made good use of) the value of the long silent pause and in this case it proved useful. As the missing speech dragged on between us, I could see a slight change in his face. He seemed to soften slightly and then finally, after a moment of subconscious tidying at a nearby table, offered to get me bacon and eggs and some bread.

He moved off into the kitchen at the back of the inn, leaving me at the table. I waited feeling a little conspicuous and with nothing to do I simply looked around the room like an idiot at all the everyday items that were there. Before long he returned with the food and a steaming mug of coffee.

As he put these down in front of me on the table I took the opportunity to ask him about the library. The news wasn’t quite what I was expecting.  Yes, the library was above town and could be reached by the alley that his partner had described but, and this was a very big but, the library had burned down some months ago.

“They’ve still got some books up there though,” he added quickly, seeing the look of disappointment flower on my face, they’re kept in a house nearby.”

Oh that was a comfort. No library and the books gone up in flames. Those rescued were now in some house nearby where no doubt the damp had been creeping and the vermin had been feasting for the past months. I chose not to think about the combustible nature of the medium that was always useful to light the odd fire in the cold.

“There’s a lot of stuff up there, is there?” I asked with more cynicism in my voice than even I had intended.

“No, it’s all shyte and stuff,” he replied, going on to explain that the library had been full of local histories and tales but that most of the books salvaged from the fire were from the reference section which contained mostly historical monologues and law books. He said that he hadn’t been up there since the fire and that he wasn’t sure which house now held the books but that it was definitely nearby and bound to be signposted.

After breakfast, equipped with that information and with about as much optimism as a dying man, I decided to wander up “above town” and find out just how bad things really were. Firstly, I headed down towards the central market square joining a large crowd of people who seemed to be milling about expectantly. I had no idea what was going on and to be honest I didn‘t really care. The problem was that I couldn’t get through the mass of flesh and it was blocking the way onto the square. I tried to ease my way through but people just refused to move. I pushed a little harder but there was absolute resistance.

“Ere, what you’s a pushin fer?” asked a rather large, troll like individual as he peered down at me from a height of about seven feet. God he was an ugly brute, huge snout pushed sideways on his face with a mass of warts and other fleshy protuberances covering it. He had small dark eyes: no teeth to speak of; small ears set back flat on the side of his head and his hair was in tufts about his otherwise bald skull. Yes, there was some troll blood in there somewhere.

“Wos ‘appen’in?“ I asked trying to keep it simple.

“It’s a killin’ or summat for sure,” he replied.

In truth he must have been able to see something for he stood a good head or more above almost everyone else. On the strength of that and on the basis that no one was going anywhere fast in the near future, I decided to hang around nearby for a while.

It seemed a little odd that an apparent killing should command such an amount of excitement in a town that was notorious for all forms of murder and violence. Still there was nothing for it but to wait patiently for some movement. After a short while this followed.

With the same surge as bath water moving after a blockage has been cleared, the whole body of the crowd suddenly flowed forward as one. It was quite scary as there was no option but to move with the current or otherwise fall and who knows what then. We roiled and washed into the market square for quite a way before dispersing in the greater, open space. On the way we passed a number of military types with batons, staves and halberds. These were the creatures that had been holding us all back. They were now lounging against the walls or against various wagons that were pitched near the outer perimeter of the square.

From the look of it, all the routes onto the square seem to have been closed off for a while and then all released at once. The result was a lot of very curious people wandering about expectantly in the market square looking for signs of blood in the snow, slush mud and all the other substances lying about. By some coincidence I soon found myself near the centre of the square. I could see perhaps fifty feet away the statue of the miner.

I thought that as I was here I might as swell say hello to Welcome so I headed in the direction that I recalled he had set up his stall. Here the crowd seemed thicker for some reason and it took me some while to get to him. When I did, I wished that I hadn’t.

The crowd parted unexpectedly before me as it moved around a wagon and I saw an area that had been roped off. The area was around what I recognised as Welcome’s wagon. The remaining snow on the ground had been stained red and lying in it was a shape covered in a dirty blanket that was not large enough to cover the feet which were wearing sandals.

Alongside it lay a heap of matted black fur. Blood pooled from a huge wound in its head that looked to have been made by some blunt instrument. I felt sick and shocked. I just stood there like an idiot whist people moved about with almost casual indifference.

“E’s a faw’kin farner for sure,” said a voice close to my ear.

“’E won’t be  sellin’ books no more,”

I turned to see who had spoken but it was too late to tell. It was just a conversation between a couple of the onlookers. As I understood it, Welcome sold spices and not books. It was true that he had suggested that he would be selling some books but I didn’t get the impression that it was his main source of income. Then again, who was I to know who had spent so little time with him. However, for some reason it did catch attention.

It was a big crowd on the marketplace that day and I felt very alone. As I stood there I found myself mulling over the matter of the Spice Trader. I had met Welcome a couple of days ago. I had never seen him before and in all probability would have never have seen him again with or without his unfortunate demise. He was to me a total stranger, almost as much as the nearest person standing next to me now. Apart from the shock of what looked like a brutal murder, the only other reason that it hit me hard was that I knew a bit about his life and history. He had after all come to life in my memory.

Then again, who said it was a murder. For all I know, the bear could have savaged him and then itself been killed by someone else coming to his aid (albeit a little too late). That thought was killed off almost immediately when I heard a couple of soldiers nearby discussing the matter. They were there to watch over the corpse and the wagon until such time as the assessors arrived, I would imagine.

“’E got a bashin’ for sure!”

“That’s for sure,” repeated the other “Es’a faw’kin farner, he was. What d’ya think ‘appened?”

“Do you think thieves nabbed ‘em?”

“No way! What was taken, eh! Nothing for sure, I reckon,” he paused, “ ‘es an ‘onour killin’, thats what it is.”

“You think?”

“For sure. I’ve seen it ‘a fore.”

“Maybe. Perhaps the bear did it?”

“No way, ja bas! The bear don’t know anything about ‘onour killin’s! He was protectin’ him and got bashed for good elsewise.”

“You think! E didn’t survive for sure!”

’E didn’t.”

Honour killing? I thought at first that this had to be absurd. Who would want to kill a spice trader in a god- forsaken town like Trellsheim for honour? Then on consideration, I reminded myself that I knew nothing really about Welcome than the brief snippets of his life that he had let me see. Obviously, his dead wife’s brothers could have travelled into the far north with the express intention of killing him but it seemed pretty unlikely.

He was after all a trader and wagoner and this was a pretty dangerous bunch of people. It would be pretty easy to fall foul of someone in this environment and end up dead. It was all pointless speculation. I kicked a piece of ice at my feet and started to move away. That was when I saw a piece of paper on the floor.

When I picked it up I saw that it was the page of a book that had been torn out. It was wet and crumpled and had blood on it. I decided that I wasn’t going to look at it here so, with a look around me that was more shifty than anything else, I slipped it into my pocket and turned away. I headed back towards the alley that was supposed to lead to the library and when I got to the point where the alley met the square this was confirmed by a signpost. With a bit more confidence, I started up it.

There were a lot of strange looking people in Trellsheim. Now whether that was specifically true of the town or whether it was simply my own misconception, I have no idea. However, to me, wandering around this place it seemed a fact.

One such oddity thrust a strange looking sheet of paper at me as I walked slowly up the increasingly steep hill towards what was left of the library (I hoped). She said something unintelligible to me when I ignored her. Then she thrust the paper harder at me and spoke again. I could not ignore her now as she had more or less moved to stand in front of me. For some reason I didn’t feel threatened in any way, despite the events of the morning, so I stopped and took the offered paper.

It was a folded sheet of newspaper with a couple of pictures of someone and a few columns of print. I didn’t attempt to read it but I did look at it quickly. The woman then said something to me and something about the voice made me look at her for the first time. I found myself looking into the eyes of the woman I had seen in the camp outside the walls. Close up they really were wickedly appealing eyes and a blush swept up into my face at about the same rate that blood started to course in other parts of my body.

I hadn’t felt this confused since I had been an adolescent but I had no time to consider this further. She spoke to me in a language that was wholly unfamiliar: a rich language full of life and passion and thick with sexual undertone. Her voice was like a fine wine full of body and her smell, which had only now started to pervade my other senses, reminded me of things that I would prefer to keep to myself.

I pride myself on language, but this one was alien to me. I couldn’t offer a plausible guess at what it was that she was saying. In my confused mind it sounded like an offer that I could neither refuse (because I am a man) nor commit to (because am an aging man, not to mention married). I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know where to look. To make matters worse I found that my eyes were fixed on a space below her mouth, below her throat, above the line of her dress that gathered her breasts together, disappearing down into her cleavage. I was a drowning man. I swallowed painfully and asked her if it was for me, ignoring despite my confusion and some of the less obvious innuendo.

She nodded.

I asked her if it was free and she nodded again to that, and followed it up with a throaty laugh that really should not be allowed in any woman. My eyes managed to find hers and my mind wished that they hadn’t. I gazed into bright, moist deep brown inviting eyes with pupils that seemed to dilate as she looked back at me, opening like…

Confusion took control of most of my head and radiated round the visible surfaces of my skin. I swallowed and tried to thank her, hoping to move on.

That was when she placed her hand on my wrist. It was warm and it was wet with sweat, even though in the cold air our breath showed as mist.

No,” she said, “enjoy. We have but one life!”

She had said this in my own language. No hint of accent or error. I looked at her and was about to ask who she was when she laughed once more and turned away, waving her hands in the air in a gesture that was half goodbye and half abandon. As my eyes followed her of their own accord, she headed off down the alley towards the market square.

I looked at the newspaper sheet. It looked like some kind of religious tract. On the top of it on the front page were the words “One Life!” and below this it read, “New readers turn to page four.” There were only two sides to it.  I thought this a little bizarre and yet it was not as strange as the fact that again, the words that littered the page were in the language that I call my own.

Shaking my head and muttering inaudible comments to myself, I pulled off my day sack and stuffed the paper into it. Then, replacing the bag, I headed up the alley. To those passing me by, I must have looked as mad as they get.


 

A Felon’s Tale

 

After a while I reached the place known as “Above Town” and found the partially burned out shell of a building that I presumed was the former library. I say this because it looked no different to any of the other buildings around the top of the alley which, as with the plague quarter, had an open space in the centre of a square of buildings.

This time however there was no church but there was one of those strange external urinals in one corner and nearby what looked like a small lock up for felons. There was also a set of stocks raised up on a stone platform. These, it appeared were occupied. As my movement caught his eye, the man in them looked up as best he could and peered at me from under his eyebrows. This was partly the result of the way that he was secured and also partly because he was equipped with a prodigiously heavy forehead, the like of which made me consider whether Homo sapiens had in fact originally interbred with Neanderthals.

“Water matey,” he shouted out at me.

He offered me a leering sort of a smile that I think was meant to be disarming. I might have been a stranger in these parts but I knew the rules. If you helped a person in the stocks, you replaced them in the stocks. I could see a couple of soldiers crouched and leaning with their backs against a wall watching me and hoping for some sport. I must have disappointed them.

I’m not the faw’kin farner here,” I shouted back at the soldiers rather than the man. (I won’t go into the protocol of talking to – or rather not talking to - convicted criminals here but it is another of those oddities of the northern marches.) One of them spat a red juice into the snow and they turned back to a game that they had been playing. It looked like bones but it could equally have been something far less savory from where I now stood. The convict in the stocks slumped back to his enforced position of rest.

I went in search of the temporary replacement for the library. All the houses looked the same which of course was no help at all. Furthermore, all the buildings in this place had very small windows and what with the absence of any form of lighting inside, it was impossible to see into the rooms without more or less sticking your nose up against them. This of course is what I was obliged to do and I made my slow way around the area on a house by house search peering in at each window and probably looking for all the world like a burglar. The soldiers, though, paid me absolutely no attention and so I assumed that this was seen as normal behavior whether I was seeking out the library or not.

Most of the rooms that I peered into were empty both of people and books. One of them had people sitting at a table eating a meal. They ignored me and I moved away pretty quickly. In another window I saw a couple having sex. The man was naked and very skinny but the women mostly clothed. They weren’t that young and somehow I felt that sex that early in the morning on admittedly a warm day in a very cold part of the world was a bit over enthusiastic if not a bit tacky. They were too engrossed to see me and I have to admit that I took longer to move away from that window than I should have.

It has to be admitted that after a certain age – I regret I cannot recall when - one comes to regard the sexual act as a little ridiculous. I would suggest that this applies not just to primates but quite honestly to all vertebrates and indeed possibly many invertebrates. If one chooses to believe in the gods, then it is surely a jest in bad taste. If we go for the more scientific approach, one can only consider that it might have been better for some small creature many millions of years ago to have chosen a more subtle form of procreation. It would be tempting to suggest that it might have been better to stick with binary fission but then we would probably all be swimming about with our one cell in the sea still.

I guess for the younger of us it is only the rush of hormones into the system and blood to the peripheral parts and away from our brains that stops us from realizing just how absurd the thing is, even if we consider what copulating dogs look like for example. Thrusting buttocks look daft from any angle unless they are integral to you (and then they don’t look any less daft, it’s just that you don’t necessarily care). For someone of my age of course the blood doesn’t necessarily rush quite so fast (in fact rush is probably not the right word: maybe ‘slip’ or ‘flow’ would be more appropriate or then perhaps ‘cajoled’) and so one has more time to study form. I have to say that I probably preferred the rush of ignorance and youth.

In one window there was a very large fat cat, possibly one of the biggest and fattest cats that I have ever seen. It looked at me out of half-closed eyes as it squatted on what I took to be a woman’s large fur hat and soaked up the little bit of warm sunlight that was trapped by the window glass. Beyond it in the room there were some books on a shelf but not enough (I hoped) to be classed as the replacement library.

In the end I found that the soldiers were lounging on the steps of the temporary library. I had almost to lean over one of them to look into the window and nearly knocked over the halberd that had been left carelessly against the doorframe.

“Hey, you be careful o’ ma pike, yer tus putt,” growled one of the men.

“You’s a touchin’ it and you’s in the stocks.”

He added, “ja bas,” for additional emphasis and then spat on the ground.

With my recent experiences at the Sun Inn, I damned well nearly apologised. Fortunately, I managed to retrieve the word as it was beginning to form in my head.

“Why it’s a daft place to put it i’n it,” I replied, and also added, “ja bas,” for additional emphasis myself. I did not spit.

“Why ‘es a good’un,” replied the soldier almost affably and he grinned at me.

Frankly I’ll never get used to the etiquette of these parts. Retorts, tones and phrases that would nearly get you knifed in other places were considered friendly banter here and yet the risks of being polite, I have already over laboured.

Is there a book-place nearby?” I asked, using the colloquial term in case they didn’t understand.

“Search me,” the soldier replied. “I’m not a reader, no ways.”

He paused for what I guessed might be thought.

“You is, Maeket?”

This latter comment was made to the other soldier who so far had been indifferent to my presence.

“No more ‘en you. Read a book once though: lots a pictures of girls ‘nd stuff,” he replied.

That’s not a book, ja bas. It’s faw’kin,” he let the comment die off in flight.

“Ye’sa,” replied Maeket with a broad grin and a couple of pelvic thrusts.

Ye’sa mon!”

Leaving these two talking and making various suggestive gestures amongst themselves, I knocked on the door of the house. After a while (quite a while) a rather timid looking person opened the door, after first opening and peering out through the viewport and then shutting it again with what seemed like serious attitude.

Appearances can indeed be deceptive. Timid, this person was not. Although wearing trousers and a very large jumper of some descrip