One or two people have commented that I rarely mention dance. Obviously I can dance. Anybody with an elegant leg, a well turned ankle and a poet’s appreciation of tempo and rhythm can dance. But I rarely dance nowadays; one feels sorry for the young and their strange way of dancing. Where are lascivious gyrations of our youth, the lubricious gestures and salacious glances? Now their dances are so staid, so formal, and so frigid.
But still, I have danced. Yet more importantly I, as a poet, have worked with dancers. After all, how could somebody who has known Calina Salin for as many years as I have manage to avoid working with dancers? But any fool can dance, how many poets have been commissioned to produce an Urlan Saga? This is perhaps less a tale of dancers than of how I came to achieve that rare honour.
Still it was a year or two after the disgraceful episode with the singers and the sedan chairs. Perhaps longer but time flies and memory is fickle. Calina was still making some money from her stable of pretty boy songsters. Fashion is capricious but she managed to keep at least some of her boys in work. Yet for Calina, dance is her first love and even during the height of the craze for music, she had continued to give dancing lessons.
Many girls from good families attended her lessons; so many in fact that Calina hired her better pupils to assist her. But Calina was still an artist and she would look out for girls in whom she could see potential. So at her dance classes you would find young temple dancers and girls plucked from the street mixing with the daughters of sinecurists.
But while the daughters of the wealthy could look to comfortably making their own way in society, and temple dancers could always return to the temple, Calina felt obliged in some way to assist those girls for whom the future held out little hope. She summoned me and announced that she wanted these girls to form a troupe. I looked at her a little blankly, “Doubtless an excellent idea Calina, but why are you involving me in this?”
“Because you’re cunning and devious and know everybody.”
I felt obliged to protest at this description. The city has inhabitants who are far more cunning and devious than I. Indeed when mixing with lawyers or usurers I always feel strangely defenceless and naive. She relented a little.
“I can put together a troupe of good dancers, I’ve got the perfect girl to lead them and to continue teaching them, and I can hire musicians, but they need somebody with gravitas to act as master of ceremonies, to chant poetry when they dance and generally to keep order.”
Put like that I could hardly refuse; especially when I was to receive a percentage of the earnings. So I agreed and over the next few months, two or three times a month, we would perform.
Now I don’t want you to get the idea that this was just some venereous charade. It was not merely genuinely artistic; it was a most chaste performance with the dancers demurely costumed. Indeed Zenodia, our lead dancer, was almost ferocious in her determination to keep things that way. As she repeatedly told the girls, “Any cheap tart can be alluring when she forgets to dress, but a great dancer can be alluring covered from head to foot in cheap sacking.”
Anyway this went well enough, the nights I spent working with the dancers were as well paid as any other job I did, and I even managed to bring them more work, dancing at events put on by my patrons. Still even Port Naain is not infinite and Calina announced that we needed fresh worlds to conquer. She had made arrangements for us to perform in Avitas, the second city of Partann. I well remember her words. “Obviously I am too busy to accompany you, but with Zenodia in charge of the girls and with you to provide her with sage advice, I have every confidence the troupe will be a great success.”
“I wish I shared your confidence. Perhaps I have spent more time in Partann than you.”
“Nonsense Tallis, the northern part of the country, especially that area between Port Naain and Avitas, is comparatively civilised.”
“If by comparatively civilised you mean that there can be as much as five miles between gibbets and the cadavers of bandits and brigands dangling for the birds of the air to devour, then I am forced to agree with you.”
“Tallis please, surely you’re not the sort of fellow who shies at a dead brigand.”
“No Calina, what unnerves me is the fact that they always manage to replenish the stock displayed on the gibbets. This indicates to me that there is a population of living bandits still plying their trade.”
With this she made an impatient gesture. “What do you want? Should I hire the Avitas militia to march out to escort you?”
“No, but I want to take somebody I can rely upon under these circumstances.”
“Well it’s out of your pocket, as his wages will come out of the profits.”
“Better a small profit one lives to collect than a large one paid to the executors of your will.”
In the end she saw sense, and I was instructed to hire a guard and a musician. The musician was not a problem; I had a word with old Jerky. He had been playing bars and inns for many years. Admittedly his face looked like the face of a professional prize fighter, but when he called for silence, even the noisiest bar would fall silent. I took him to meet Zenodia who wasn’t initially impressed. Still she listened to him play, made suggestions, challenged him with strange combinations of rhythm and finally danced as he played. Faster and faster she danced yet Jerky never put a finger wrong, kept up with her and matched both her actions and her mood. Eventually she finished her dance, turned and kissed him on his battered nose. “Tallis, this one we will keep!”
For the guard I had in mind young Luft Vectkin. He was, almost by definition, a couple of years older than when he’d been the pretty boy singing for Calina. He’d filled out, but the young Urlan still had a cherubic expression and was pretty enough to charm even the harshest of dowagers. He’d faded quietly from the singing scene. Once there were no opportunities for sudden violence, music had lost its attraction and he’d gone back to his uncle Taldor and was training to be a Man at Arms. So I explained to him that accompanying us south into Partann not only offered unparalleled opportunities for mixing with pretty girls, but I’d be most surprised if he wasn’t repeatedly insulted. Once I promised him that there was a reasonable chance of bandit attack as well he would probably have paid to join us.
The advantage of having an Urlan as the guard was he was the obvious person to drive the wagon, a task that otherwise would have fallen to Jerky and I.
& & &
The first week of the trip from Port Naain to Avitas was comparatively quiet. The initial excitement of being ‘on the road’ soon wore off and as the girls discovered the delights of the woodland privy, ants crawling into their blankets as they slept and other such symptoms of the rustic idyll, they became more focussed on the task at hand. We performed in several villages, more to keep practiced than for the money we got when the hat was passed round. But still, it got the girls used to dancing in the open air. Finally, perhaps two or three days from Avitas, the inevitable happened. Much to Luft’s disappointment, no burly peasant had offered him any insult. Whether they took into account his obvious ability with the horses, or else they recognised the young Urlan for what he was I don’t know, but he’d been met with universal courtesy. But finally we got bandits. It was growing dark, we were still a couple of miles short of the next village and the bandits just rode up behind us, surrounded the wagon and several of them pointed bows at us. Zenodia was inside the wagon but leaned forward and whispered to Luft and I, “No violence now, let’s wait for a better chance.” Luft regarded Zenodia as the captain of the force and so he obeyed and sat there looking cherubic and a little simple.
The captain, a pot bellied thug whose chain mail acted as a corset, dismounted and bowed deeply.
“Ladies, we would be most gratified if you could accompany us to our humble abode where you might find it in your hearts to dance for our edification.”
Zenodia stepped forward between Luft and myself and with regal dignity looked down on him. “Let it be so.”
So they led us down a side road, then up a lane, and finally we came to a small farmstead. One of the thugs dismounted, went into the house and chased a man and woman out. “Bring ale and food; we have guests who will dance for their supper.”
The couple fairly scampered back into the house to be replaced by a clerk. He saluted the leader formally.
“Scandan, do you want me to value them now, or do I wait for morning?”
The leader looked doubtful, “Why, how many virgins to you think we have?”
The clerk shrugged. The leader continued, “Worry about value tomorrow, tonight we dance.”
With this he shouted orders to his men and the wagon was unhitched and the horses were lead into the barn. The leader came across to Zenodia and I. “Plan your performance dancer; we expect it within ten minutes.”
With that he left us. Men busied themselves bringing benches and chairs to sit on. The woman appeared with a tray of tankards and her man followed her carrying jugs of ale. Men stripped off arms and armour and took the tankards, drinking thirstily.
Zenodia beckoned Jerky, Laft and I to her. “Right, we’ll do the first dance that we always do. Just as if they were a normal audience. Understand?”
We all nodded solemnly. “Then I want Laft to do a ‘Dance in arms.’ I’ll help prepare him during the first dance. This will end formally, without violence.” She looked sternly at Luft, “And dance it, I want grace, not power. Understand?”
A little chastened Luft merely nodded.
“Then I will dance, and if I judge that matters are ready, I will act and you follow.”
With this she turned and chivvied the girls back into the wagon to prepare. Luft was standing next to me and a little formally said, “Tallis, could you write the saga of this night for me please.”
“I think I remember the form.”
“A short ley form, not one of the long sung ones.”
I nodded and he went off to the wagon to get ready. The girls, now ready, assembled around me, bringing me the cloak I wore for gravitas and the heavy staff which symbolised authority.
Jerky picked up his hurdy gurdy and started playing softly. As I intoned the first phrases, the girls started to dance, graceful by the light of the fires. As they danced I took the opportunity to study our audience. I’ve seen the brigands of Partann; indeed I’ve performed for them. Our audience seemed to me to be made up of Port Naain street thugs rather than the outlaws and broken men of Partann. The Partannese bandits I’d met might have taken their armour off to relax, but they wouldn’t have taken off their sword belts. The leader still wore his mailed shirt and his sword, there were two guards who were still armed, but the rest were lounging about looking like the drinkers at a particularly unsavoury Port Naain bar.
The dance continued, the drinkers drank, and the man and woman scurried backwards and forwards topping up tankards. At one point the woman had brought out a tray piled high with slices of meat pie and had passed that round. Finally we finished the dance and Zenodia stepped forward out of the wagon, ushering before her Luft. He was wearing only his breeches, but was carrying a sword and shield as if he was afraid he’d damage them and be expected to pay to have them mended. In the centre of the open space he started into an Urlan dance in arms.
The Urlan will dance these every day. A combination of attacks, parries, dodges and intricate footwork the dances not only build up stamina, but make various moves instinctive. Thus an Urlan fighter will have parried your blow and made a counter attack without needing to think about it. They are normally danced in full armour with sword and shield and with an emphasis on speed and power; but as instructed Luft danced with grace, the light from the fires shining on his oiled torso. There was some applause, as all our audience could at least appreciate the resilience necessary to perform the dance. Yet when he finally sank into a finishing position the leader, holding out an empty tankard to be refilled, asked, somewhat petulantly, “And when will we see some real dancing?”
With this Zenodia stepped forward and gestured to Jerky. He had been silent during Luft’s performance and now he put down the hurdy gurdy and picked up a pair of bongos. Slowly he tapped out a rhythm and Zenodia, clad from head to foot in a long robe, started to dance. Gradually, as is traditional in these dances, the dance grew faster and she whirled, her robe spreading out around her. I hope her girls were watching from the wagon because they would have learned a real lesson in dancing that night. Although no-one could have been more demurely dressed, equally no woman could have been more desirable than Zenodia. Finally she slowed her dancing a little and reached out to the leader of our captors. “Come, dance with me.”
He lumbered to his feet and stepped forward towards the centre of the impromptu dance floor. Zenodia started dancing round him, her robes brushing both him and Luft who still knelt, almost forgotten to one side of the floor. Then as she danced closer to the bandit chieftain she drew in her right leg and suddenly kicked out with the whole power of her body behind it. Her heel struck the man in the solar plexus and lifted him off the ground. Even before his body hit the floor Luft was on his feet. Previously we had seen him dance, but now he danced again with power and speed. I remember a little of the saga I wrote
Luft Vectkin dances.
Hammering on the doors of hell
Their wounds on their backs
When Luft Vectkin dances
Silent the fighter
Luft Vectkin dances.
The rest of us didn’t do much to be honest. I prodded a few with my staff and Jerky tripped one up with was running away. The man and woman who had been serving beer brained one guard with a tankard. But really we weren’t needed, save perhaps to applaud and remember. Zenodia kept her wits about her and captured the clerk thus keeping him alive. Finally the screaming and gurgling stopped and the evening fell silent.
& & &
It was decided that I would question the clerk. Given that Luft was standing behind him, sword still drawn I feel he was suitably intimidated.
“So who are you?”
“And who employs you?”
“I work for the Thallawell family.”
I knew the name, as did Zenodia. They were a legal family from Port Naain. Wealthy and well connected they had extensive business interests.
The woman who had been handing out tankards stepped forward. “I know that name, they own us.”
Luft asked, “Own you?”
“We’re indentured labourers.” She gestured around her. “We used to own this farm but couldn’t keep up with the payments and Thallawell foreclosed. He owns it and us now.” She pointed at the clerk. “He arrived and said that there were some men coming and we would have to provide them with accommodation.”
I looked back at the clerk. “So you organised this.”
“No, no…” He looked terrified, “No I was given orders in Port Naain. Somebody in the Thallawell family had decided that a party of girl dancers would have a respectable resale value in Uttermost Partann, and I was sent down here to keep the accounts and make sure that the men were fed. I never met them until the day before yesterday when they rode in.”
“The Thallawell family,” Luft said thoughtfully. “I feel that they have offered our ladies a ‘Grievous insult’.”
I don’t know a lot about the Urlan but I do remember Benor mentioning this custom. A grievous insult is one which is regarded as a declaration of feud and can only be answered in blood. I said hastily, “There has been a lot of blood shed.”
Luft turned to the clerk, “Are any of the dead Thallawells?”
The clerk, in spite of his terror, almost managed to laugh. “Ha, catch them doing their own dirty work?”
Luft bowed slightly to Zenodia. “When we return to Port Naain, I will avenge the insult.”
“The family have an office in Avitas,” the clerk said helpfully.
& & &
After some discussion we decide that we would perform as arranged in Avitas. Not only would this earn us some money, but it would give Luft chance to sell the wagon load of arms and armour we had acquired, plus a score of horses who no longer had owners. It has to be confessed that when comparing our takings with the money Luft made, it struck me again how poorly remunerated the performing arts are. Still, Luft insisted the money he made be shared equally amongst us, a charming gesture and the sort of action the Urlan are renowned for.
Still once we had finished our engagements, Luft, Zenodia and I visited the offices of Thallawell,Thallawell and Thallawel with the clerk in tow. We were eventually ushered into the presence of a young lady, Zebel Thallawell. Being female probably saved her; I suspect that Luft had been planning to just take the head of the lawyer present as a warning to the rest of the family. As it was Zenodia took the lead.
“We are here to notify you that we have a formal complaint to make about the Thallawell family.”
Zebel picked up a pen. “Your complaint is?”
“We were kidnapped by thugs hired by Thallawell,Thallawell and Thallawell, insulted and only narrowly avoided coming to harm.”
Zebel wrote this down then laid aside her pen. “With respect and without jeopardy, if our company had organised this, surely I would have heard of your escape?”
Luft said, a little smugly if you ask me, “There were no survivors of the party that attacked us.”
Rather hastily Zenodia added, “But we have a full confession written here by the clerk employed by your family firm.” With that she handed across an account the clerk had written and sworn to.
Zebel Thallawell read the deposition carefully. When she’d finished she put it down. “Obviously if it comes to law, we will fight this and bring counter-claims for compensation for the slaughter of our staff.”
“Who mentioned court?”
Zebel looked at Luft, a little surprised. “Well I did rather assume…”
“There will be no court case. I merely do you the courtesy of giving you a warning. I am on my way to Eklin Keep. There I will present a copy of the document to Lord Eklin and ask for permission to declare the actions of your family a ‘Grievous Insult’ so that I and my kin can hunt you down and kill you all.”
Zebel stared at him, and Luft met her gaze and stared back at her. Finally she turned to Zenodia. “Firstly I would like to say that personally I had no knowledge of what was planned, but in spite of this, I would like to extend an apology for what you have suffered.”
Zenodia replied gravely, “Your ignorance in this matter is accepted and your personal apology is also accepted.”
Zebel leaned back in her chair and held out her hands, both palms upwards. “So what can I do here to sort the matter out?”
Eventually the two women hammered out a deal. For a woman with an Urlan blood feud hanging over her head, Zebel was a tough negotiator. The couple on the farm got their debts cancelled and their farm back. The clerk got a cash payment and quietly left, while we all got a modest cash payment each.
As we walked out of the office clutching the money (which was less than we got for the horses and arms) Luft shook his head a little sadly. “It’s not often you get a legitimate reason to declare a blood feud on a clan of lawyers.”
Zenodia patted him on the arm. “Be brave. You have to take the long view. Wipe out one clan and another will just rise to fill the gap. Doing it this way you might have taught this family a tough lesson they ought to remember.”
& & &
Well we went back to Port Naain. We never bothered mentioning the incident on the journey to Calina. It would only have upset her, and anyway she’d probably have expected a share of the loot. Still in the long term Calina did lose out, losing one of her best pupils.
Luft obviously did some serious thinking and commenced to assiduously court Zenodia. You can see his point of view. She was attractive, intelligent, and could kill a fully armoured man with one blow. What was there not to fall in love with?
She allowed him to lay siege to her for six months before agreeing to marry him. It was a simple ceremony during which I recited the lay of Laft Vectkin. I well remember Zenodia looking beautiful in a simple long dress, Luft still managing to combine an air of boyish charm with full armour and a drawn sword. The latter he swore by when the oaths were exchanged. After the ceremony they left Port Naain and headed out over the Aphices Mountains to where the cities of the east shiver in darkness and barbarism.
Should you wish to know more about the world of Tallis Steelyard, help is at hand!
As a reviewer commented “This is a great collection of quirky little tales which are a spin-off from a series featuring Benor Dorfinngil. Tallis is his friend, landlord, drinking companion and a jobbing poet. There are some lovely phrases used in here, as you would expect from a wordsmith like Tallis, who presents us with his pragmatic take on life. It’s an example of what happens when a minor character takes the reins and gallops off on his own. A great little book.”