The Ballad of Stagbold Keep
Initially, I confess, I had intended to write this as verse and then find some poor and credulous musician to supply music. But frankly the story is too complex for such treatment and I lack the patience.
In short the story is simple. I was lured to Stagbold Keep by the promise of commissions, it was sacked, and I fled. I am perhaps the only person still living who emerged from the sack without making a large amount of money out of it and this Ballad is my last opportunity to remedy the oversight.
Let us start at the beginning. Lord Stagbold, the eponymous holder of Staghold Keep, had a daughter. I’d like to say she was as beautiful as she was virtuous, but whilst I can vouchsafe her beauty, her virtue I am in no position to discuss.
Still her father must find her an appropriate suitor. Not a difficult task, her spouse would become Lord of Stagbold in time. There is some decent ploughland, excellent vineyards, a nice bay that is good for both fishermen and pirates and plenty of hunting.
The problem with these Partannese lordlings is that they think of themselves as bold and chivalric knights. They strut and preen; they send their sons and daughters to be educated in Prae Ducis or even Avitas. Some families hold sinecures in Port Naain and the head of the family will sit on the Council of Sinecurists. But when all is said and done, most of them are just brigands and the best of them, courteous hired muscle. But they’re free spending brigands and are reasonably generous patrons of the arts.
So it happened that I was at the Misanthropes Hall, listening to the gossip and looking for work. A minion of the Lord of Stagbold arrived and was looking for somewhere to take off his boots and cloak. I was the one deputised to show him the way to the cloakroom. I was just making conversation and asked him why he was present. It was then he told me that the Lord wanted a poet to be present to record the events that surrounded the courtship of his daughter. Immediately I asked him what terms he was offering. When told that it would be my board and ten alars in gold, I accepted the offer. I then led him directly to the barge where Shena and I accommodated him. That might seem overly generous on my part, but be damned if I was letting word of this job leak out, otherwise he’d have every poet in Port Naain pawing at his money belt. Not only that but the wine cellar of Stagbold Keep was legendary, the current Lord and his Father cosseted the Keep’s excellent vineyards and also purchased the finest vintages. I then rode south with him next day on a spare horse he’d brought with him.
If you don’t know Stagbold Keep, it’s south along the coast from Prae Ducis. It was a fair ride, but I was in good spirits and my companion was also happy. Apparently it had been assumed that he would need to stay in Port Naain for some days and he had been given expenses considered sufficient for the period. This money he splurged on our way back.
Stagbold Keep itself is a splendid sight as we saw it, illuminated by the evening sun. As we clattered into the inner court the place as a riot of colour with banners and bunting and men-at-arms in their finest. I was assigned a room in a turret barely large enough to lie down in and told to present myself at the great hall when the horn was blown.
Given that I had time on my hands I took the opportunity to look round and frankly I grew less impressed the more I looked. Of the great keep barely half was inhabited and the rest was frankly ruinous. It struck me that the last time the place had been properly functional must have been a century or more previously. At this point I began to worry for my ten alars, suspecting that this was a family prone to promising more than they delivered.
Still I presented myself when the horn was blown and was led to the top table. Here I was introduced to Lord Stagbold himself and his daughter and sole heir, Violetta. I’d like to say that I was overwhelmed by my host’s nobility, if only because I have the rhymes off pat for that. A more accurate description, for example ‘Querulous middle-aged debauchee’ is difficult to fit into any metre and is a brute to find rhymes for.
Still I was ostentatiously paid my ten alars and was then informed that I was to work with the lady Violetta.
The next morning I was summoned to the lady Violetta’s breakfast room. I trust you are not assuming this led to any sort of intimacy between my good self and the lady. There again, please don’t think I looked down on her as the barely literate daughter of a backwoods bandit chieftain. I had seen her in Port Naain, (Although we had never been introduced) and she had studied there under some worthy scholars.
But even in the most eccentric circles of Port Naain society, it is rare to have a steel cage suspended outside your bedroom window so that you can mock the poor inmate at your leisure. Still, I was instructed to sit down at a small table and then she chased the maids from the room before turning to me.
“Poet, we have a problem.”
This wasn’t the opening gambit I’d expected and I immediately thought that she wanted the ten gold alars back, to replace them with something less valuable. I’d checked them with a touchstone the previous night and had been stunned to discover they contained as much gold as circulated coinage ever does. Still I tried to be non-committal.
“We have my Lady?”
“Yes, have you seen my suitors?”
“I saw them at table at dinner yesterday.” I tried to keep my voice neutral at this point. I felt too much enthusiasm, or alternatively too little, would not be welcome.
“Have you ever seen such a nondescript ragbag of petty villainy? Or such an uninspiring collection of rustic ignoramuses? I doubt any of them could sit the right way on a water closet without having a manservant to direct them.”
It has to be said that given the complete lack of water closets in this Keep, any lack of ability in this direction was a purely theoretical disadvantage. But still I agreed with her overall assessment of the young men. Thus I felt I could show some sympathy for her cause.
“I confess that I wasn’t entirely impressed with them my Lady.”
“So you and I are going to do something about it. I want you to pen a letter for me.”
She gestured to the writing implements on the table and obediently I took up a pen. She started to dictate.
“My most gallant admirer. It is with a trembling heart that I write to you to throw myself upon your mercy.”
I pondered the line. “Would that perhaps be better as your chivalrous mercy?”
For this observation I was awarded a smile. “Yes, probably; I’m glad to see you are joining in the spirit of this.”
She continued her dictation. “You stand out from the others like an elegant steel blade, hanging in a barn surrounded by rusting farm tools.”
I felt this was an interesting turn of phrase, but you can get away with so much more in prose. Poetry forces an artist to distil, to refine, and to concentrate one’s musings.
But still she continued.
“I have come to a decision, you are the one I have chosen, let the others prance and caper in front of my father as long as they wish. I will meet you at the foot of the north tower, exactly two hours after sunset tonight. Fetch your men and a spare horse for me and a pack horse for my trousseau.”
She looked at me, expectantly. I read back over what I had written.
“Will they know what a trousseau is?”
She bit her bottom lip as she thought. “What would you suggest?”
“Assuming you want to encourage them, why not just say ‘and a pack horse for my clothes and jewellery?’”
She pondered. “I didn’t want the bait to sound too blatant.”
“Having looked at those young men, I’m not sure it could be.”
She made her decision. “Clothes and jewellery it is then.”
I did and read it back to her. “Is that what you want?”
“Yes, I think that is perfect.”
I took a fresh piece of paper. “I will do a fine copy for you to sign.”
“Six copies, I’ll write the envelopes myself.”
I wrote the six copies as requested and she busied herself with envelopes, dripping scent onto everything and finding little bits of lace to place in the with letter as a token. Then when all was done, she despatched her maids to secretly give the letters to their intended recipients. I was told to wander about doing whatever poets do when they’re working, and she went off on some other errands.
I wasn’t entirely sure whether she really did want me to drink too much and flirt with the maids, so instead I drank moderately and occasionally stood, darkly brooding, staring into the far distance, pen in hand. It was whilst I was doing this that I noted the Lady Violetta. She was talking to two fishermen at the water-gate, their boats moored there. I thought no more about it, and was contemplating flirting with the maids but then we were summoned to the great hall for the evening meal.
The atmosphere was strange. At least six of the suitors wore the smug expressions of men who are watching others playing for a trophy that has already been won. The others seemed driven to up their game, bragging of their prowess and boasting of what they intended to achieve. Violetta, acting as hostess in the unexplained absence of her father, allowed the wine to circulate more freely. I left as soon as I decently could, but before I had even got to bed was summoned to attend upon Lady Violetta. When I arrived at her rooms she was dressed for travel and had a large purse hanging heavily from her belt.
“You sent for me my Lady?”
“Yes. We have work to do at the North Tower.”
I followed her and we made our way to the North Tower. This area is the more ruinous part of the Keep, the curtain wall so low that an active man could climb it with ease. But the tower itself seemed sound enough. On our way to the tower she stopped by one of the lesser towers. She opened the door and there was a stairway spiralling down. But it seemed to have been blocked by having some stout boards placed across it. She nodded approvingly and looked around the inside of the walls. In several places there were those tightly wrapped packets miners and quarrymen use, joined by a common fuse. She took a candle down from a niche in the wall, lit the fuse and ushered me out of the door, saying as she did so, “We have half an hour.”
I kept silent. It is best in these circumstances to nod knowingly and trust that at some point you will be able to work out what is going on. Asking for explanations only irritates people.
I followed her to the top of the North Tower. Looking down I could see that clustered below us were six suitors, all armed and armoured and ready to ride. Each managed to look somewhat irritated by the presence of the others. Further off sat their guards. Each of the six groups sat huddled on their horses, watching the other groups with deep suspicion. The Lady Violetta gently tapped a wooden barrel that was standing on the top of the parapet. “Poet, when I give the word, empty it over the wall.”
“Am I permitted to ask what is in it?”
In the moonlight I saw her face light up with a broad smile. “I have had my maids emptying their chamber pots into it every morning for the last month.”
She then leaned over the wall and said in a low voice. “Beloved.”
Immediately all six of them surged forward, collectively they answered, saying something which approximated to, “I am here.”
“Gather close. There is something I must say.”
In spite of the fact that each found the proximity of the others distasteful they clustered closer to the foot of the tower. Violetta continued, “I have weighed you in the balance and feel that you are the ones least likely to win my hand.” From below there was a growing murmur of resentment, but she continued. “Still I feel that I ought to give you a gift to show how much I esteem you all.” With this she whispered to me, “Pour.”
I did so and the barrel discharged its contents on the group below. Violetta’s voice rang out, “Dolts, fools, pantywaisters, and cowards.”
With this she turned and fled down the stairs. I was hot on her heels. As we got down to ground level we could hear the shouts from outside, and finally one voice bellowed, “Sack the keep.”
The curtain wall presented no obstacle to the attackers. Violetta ran for the water-gate where one boat still waited. She climbed on board and I followed her before anybody thought to stop me. The two men in the boat pushed off and started raising the sail. She asked, “My father?”
“Left with Zare an hour ago.”
She sat back on a seat. From the keep came shouts, cries and the clash of steel. It seems that the attackers were meeting resistance. She listened with apparent indifference. “Poet, how much time has passed since I lit the fuse?”
Before I spoke there was a dull explosion. The shouts stopped and I could hear the sound of stones falling. This built to a crescendo and as it grew silent I was aware we were sitting in a thick cloud of dust, carried by a rush of air which made our sail billow. The tower that had shadowed us was gone and we were starkly illuminated in the moonlight. The shouts restarted but I could see men on the water-gate pointing at us. We let the breeze carry us away.
We sailed for a couple of hours, rounded a headland and pulled in to a small bay. There was a fire burning on the beach and it was for that we steered. When the boat grounded on the shingle, the lady Violetta and I splashed our way up the beach to be met by a young man who kissed Violetta extravagantly. As he did so an older, broad shouldered man came out of the shadows. He had a neatly pointed beard, and a strong aquiline face. The young man turned to the older. “Father, may I present my intended bride.”
Violetta curtseyed low. “Baron Garagan, your humble servant.”
The Baron stepped forward and kissed her on the cheek. “Welcome to our family my child. Now we have a keep to sack.”
Violetta pointed to me, “Take him, he’ll be able to go in ahead of you and let you know how things are.”
With that I was led to a horse, helped onto it and rode with the Baron and his force of at least a hundred horsemen. When we got close to the keep I was given a dark lantern and the instruction to raise it on the wall if it was safe to attack.
It was with some trepidation I approached the wall. I skirted it, heading for the North Tower because there at least I could guarantee being able to get in. From inside I could hear shouts and drunken singing but there were no signs of fighting. I climbed over the wall and made my way through the keep. In the inhabited area there were men wandering about in high good humour, most were half drunk and those who noticed me merely nodded. What I didn’t see where any women. I made my way into the turret I had slept; it might be possible to salvage my own small pack of belongings. I didn’t really expect to find anything else worth taking. As it was my pack had been emptied, the contents picked through and discarded as not worth taking.
I was just about to return to the North Tower to show the light when a woman’s voice hissed, “Poet.”
I turned and there were Lady Violetta’s maids looking at me. Obviously I bowed and said, “Ladies.”
“Less of the blather poet, we’ve got to get out of here and fast. We need horses but we cannot get them ourselves or we’d be seen and raped.”
I could see their problem. “Didn’t your mistress make arrangements?”
The older maid merely spat onto the floor. Then one of the younger ones, with a more boyish figure said, “I’ll come with you, we can take horses to the small side door in the north wall. We can ride off from there.”
“I’m supposed to show a lantern from the top of the North Tower.”
One of the women pushed an elderly man towards us. I recognised him as the man responsible for polishing the boots. “Give him the lantern, he can do it. He’ll be safe enough.”
I handed the old man the lantern, and with the youngest maid made my way towards the stables. I was surprised to find that most of the horses were already saddled and bridled. It was as if all were planning to leave. The guard on the door was hopelessly drunk so we led half a dozen horses past him.
At the wall the other maids met us. The old man climbed the tower, showed the light, and an arrow came out of the darkness, hit him in the chest and he died.
We rode out.
I feel that for maximum artistry the story should end with our flight north in the darkness. Already I can see the painters in my audience toying with their brushes. Foam flecked horses, riders with hard, tired faces, catching the first light of dawn. Given that all the other riders were women I have no doubt that these artists are already picturing heaving bosoms, dresses torn to reveal more than a respectable lady would, and all that sort of thing.
But actually we rode sensibly to spare the horses, picking our way over quiet paths avoiding the road and before noon we were on the outskirts of Prae Ducis, where my companions bid me farewell. They rode into the town and I rode on. It was only a couple of hours later I realised one of them had picked my pocket and had stolen my purse with the ten gold alars.
Needless to say I wasn’t going back. It did occur to me that I might well be the only person who knew the whole truth. Violetta and the Baron had undoubtedly thought something similar. Had it been me who had shown the light from the tower as instructed, it would have been me the arrow killed. I made my way back to Port Naain, sold the horse and kept quiet. I had no wish to sit and gibber in a steel cage outside lady Violetta’s bedroom window.
But it’s funny how as you grow older you watch things develop. Violetta married the heir to Baron Garagan. Her husband is now the Baron. After a year or two a cadet branch of the Zare clan from Prae Ducis started squatting in Stagbold Keep. It had been comprehensively looted; the Baron had even removed the great roof timbers. So the Zares built low huts among the ruins.
From there they followed the family tradition by having some of the family practice law in Prae Ducis, whilst the rest practiced piracy. Indeed they even had a boatyard in the bay where ships were taken, altered, and then emerged to rejoin the world of commerce under new names and with new legal papers.
The old Lord of Stagbold Keep retired to Prae Ducis after the sack. He lived the life of a gentleman there. He was supported both by estates he owned in the area and by a small pension awarded him by the municipality as one who had led the fight against piracy and brigandage. Apparently his legal affairs in Prae Ducis were managed by lawyers of the Zare family.
The tale of the sack was allowed to grow. According to most accounts there were over a score of named dead, most of them men who I certainly never saw there.
Then a few years ago the piratical activities of the Zares in Stagbold Keep got to such a level that many merchants agreed something had to be done. Lord Garagan, being paid by Prae Ducis, Avitas and Port Naain to keep order in that area, was invited to a conference with representatives of the three cities. He pointed out that he could chase the pirates away, but unless the keep was rebuilt and garrisoned, the pirates would just come back. Sighing deeply the three cities put their hands deep into the pockets of their taxpayers. Baron Garagan drove out the Zares in a swift and bloodless campaign, and the cities paid to rebuild the Keep. They even purchased the roof timbers back from the Baron.
Huis Stagbold, a kinsman of Baron Garagan by marriage has taken up residence in the new, well build and gentrified keep. There is rumoured to be glass in the windows.
Apparently, during the construction work, they had to clear away a lot of rubble. They came across a cellar that had been sealed off by the sack. It seems that a tower had collapsed onto its entrance. In the cellar they found the legendary wine cellar which had survived the looting untouched. Apparently a young lawyer, one Zelkin Zare, has been hired to value the cellar and its contents.
And also scattered about the cellar, in steel cages hanging from the ceiling, were a score of men, long dead, their bodies mummified by passing years. These may have been the only real casualties of the sack of Stagbold Keep.
Should you wish to know more of the adventures of Tallis Steelyard and friends, then we dutifully advise you to purchase;
Tallis is also too polite to mention his own published volume, ‘Lambent Dreams’