It was one of those days. The sort where the wind howls, the rain blows and all a man can do is to wrap his cloak more tightly around himself and press on.
I’d been working. I’d been asked to read a few poems by the wife of an innkeeper who had some hope of improving their clientele. Given that the inn was Sattir’s Drop, which ornaments the incongruously named Verdant Lane, I felt she was doomed to disappointment. Looking at those drinking in the snug I felt that only the gallows could have made any true improvement. But still I did what I could. She’d promised me what was left of a ham shank, a couple of beers while I was working, and whatever tips I got from the patrons.
Well the only tip I got was a belligerent “Don’t stand between me and the fire you long streak of misery”, and her beer isn’t particularly good, even by Port Naain’s undemanding standards. But to be fair to her, there was enough meat left on the shank for a meal for two of us and she even gave me some pease pudding as well.
So I wrapped my hard won treasurers well and holding them close to my chest, with my cloak wrapped tight about me, I set off into the night. And what a night; at the corner of Verdant Lane where it meets Fan Makers’ Gill there’s a lantern, high up, put there by the Reeders Friendly Society. By the light of that I could see the rain coming in great sheets; so I decided I’d cut through the Warrens. These great brick towers have passages and roads running through them. They’re not places where the fastidious should linger, but in the open passages where you just pass through they’re not too bad.
I ran down Chalkwalk almost bent double, through the puddles which were now ankle deep and into the lee of the great brick tower which stretched many storeys above me. I was through the great open doors and into the entrance hall before I thought to look round to see where I was. It was when I looked round I realised I was in trouble. I didn’t recognise it.
Now like all the others there were bullies loitering in the doorway on the off chance there’d be easy pickings. The hallway itself, perhaps three times the height of a man and so wide four horses and carts could drive abreast, was of course filled to the ceiling with crude timber and canvas shanties. Off to one side there was a great brick stairway, guarded by a different group of thugs. It was their territory and they were collecting protection money on that stairway and the rooms off it. This meant it could be any of the Warren buildings I had been in, but this one seemed to have no path through the shanties. The only way through seemed to be to climb up a crude wooden set of steps that led to a walkway running through the shanties at above head height. I acted instantly. Showing indecision merely marks you out as a victim. I pressed on up the stairway onto the walkway. The fact it wasn’t guarded meant that it was some sort of accepted route. On the walkway I was forced to watch my footing in the gloom. I ducked under low timber beams carrying tarpaper walls, and stepped over the bodies of those who I hoped had merely passed out with drink. I made my way onwards, and was finally rewarded by coming out into one of the great light-wells which these buildings are constructed around. Yet when I looked up, all I could see above me was a spider’s web of ropes and hawsers suspending platforms or decks on which people lived. These platforms were themselves connected by perilously thin walkways. The whole light-well was so built across and cluttered that very little rain made it down to my level.
At this point I began to worry; people disappeared into places like this and were never seen again. You could be murdered for your clothes. Indeed in some parts you could be murdered for your body, in various of the deeper recesses cannibalism was not unknown. In the middle of the light-well I had a stroke of luck, I could see where the old road ran, and I dropped down to join it. Although it was dark and wound between various timber posts, extemporized pillars supporting improvised floors above, I was at last walking on a solid surface. After ten minutes I was out of the clutter and entered a central hallway. Here there were lanterns and beyond I could see a clear roadway through the building that would take me back to the outside world.
But as I stepped into the brighter light of the hallway, men appeared from the shadows. One in particular stepped forward and blocked my path. The Hall-master I supposed, his ruffians forming up on his right and his left. He stood, hands on hips, and stared me up and down.
“Name and business; what are you doing in my hall.”
In cases like this, there never seems to be anything to be gained through obfuscation or evasion. So I just answered him. “I am Tallis Steelyard. I am a poet, returning home from a performance.”
“A poet.” It was difficult to tell whether he didn’t believe me or was just surprised. He actually walked round me, apparently studying me as he did so.
“A poet you say you are, then my fine fellow, give us some poetry. A verse we have never heard before.”
I thought swiftly, I would have to extemporise and the circumstances were hardly conducive.
“My wit, a shield
Against the blade, you wield
He nodded thoughtfully, and then came back with a reply, far more swiftly than I had managed. But then he was probably not terrified.
“No shield, a blade
My guard, betrayed
Obviously if this was his game, I too had to come up with a repost. So I answered him.
“A poet, to rhyme,
Poor taste, a crime
Looking back I’m not sure whether I was either too frightened to be rational, or to self absorbed to think through the consequences of my comment. In my defence I will point out that trying to improvise poetry off-the-cuff, when soaking wet, in the dark, with your life in danger, isn’t really beneficial to rhyme or metre. But he came back to me again with his second verse.
“If noble, my following
Poets flock, wallowing
But with this he turned to one of his henchmen. “Gaias, your comments?”
The man addressed rubbed his broken nose with the back of the hand carrying a long knife. “Well you know me boss, I’m more into alliterative forms.”
His leader made a casual gesture with one hand. “Hactor?”
Another of the Myrmidons looked thoughtful. “Well it strikes me that in your first verse you caught a hint of the essential pathos of our condition. With your second I think you managed to allude to the essential hypocrisy on which our society is built.”
“Yes, yes, but what did you think of his verses.”
Hactor glanced at two of the other ruffians and seemed to draw strength for their unspoken comments.
“Oh yes, he’s a poet. No reasonable man would have chosen this time or place to comment unfavourably on your rhyming scheme.” Then Hactor added as an afterthought; “Even if he were right.”
The leader turned back to me. “So Tallis Steelyard, it is agreed, you are a poet. It was a pleasure to detain you briefly, but now I feel it is only fair that we let you go about your business.” He turned away and then stopped. “But purely out of curiosity, where were you working?”
“At Sattir’s Drop, in Verdant Lane.”
He shook his head; his expression was one of a man surprised beyond measure. “Gods but you’re a lunatic. They’re savages, even we wouldn’t go there.”
Hactor nodded wisely. “Yes, I believe that they even eat people.”