The life of the jobbing poet is not without incident. People tend to assume that just because you are willing to oblige patrons there is no real limit to what a poet is willing to do.
Obviously we all have our standards, but in all candour these can be infinitely mutable. The timing of your previous meal (yesterday or perhaps the day before?) can introduce flexibility into one’s thinking which might not be present if you were dozing well-fed in front of a good fire with silver in your pockets.
Also there are times when one unthinkingly takes on work which at other times you might quietly foist off onto somebody else.
I well remember one such time when matters were looking distinctly grim. Not only was my poetic muse paying poorly, even by her own low standards, but Shena was also finding things difficult. Her income as a mud-jobber is normally better than mine, but a series of poor tides can empty even her purse.
So it was that I was sitting under the awning of her ‘office’ on the Old Esplanade, watching the tide sweep across the mud of the estuary. It was at this point that young Mutt dropped onto the awning from the road above.
“Tallis, you’re wanted.”
I sprang to my feet. Was this a call for immediate flight or a chance of work? Mutt dropped to the floor in front of me. “Madam Ioni wants yer.”
Now I was willing to swear that I’d never knowingly offended the lady. But you know what some people are like; they can take offence where none is intended. Indeed I’ve know people offended because I insulted someone else and not them. Never let anybody tell you my job is easy.
“What does Madam Ioni want?”
Mutt struck a pose which in somebody older than ten might even have been dramatic, “Rescuing.”
“What or who from?”
A not unreasonable question I’m sure you’d agree. Mutt stared at me and said, “Errrrr.”
Now I was perplexed. Mutt is rarely lost for words. His vocabulary isn’t big enough, those words he has he keeps close at hand ready for use. I stared at him.
“But what is the problem?”
“Mutt my dear boy, you are singularly failing to elucidate.”
At this point Shena took charge. “Tallis, just go with the boy and find out. Otherwise the poor lady could die of old age and boredom waiting for you.”
What can one do when faced with this sort of attitude? I gestured grandly to Mutt. “Lead on my grandiloquent friend.”
I must say I don’t think he needed to make that sort of gesture.
Still as I followed him, I brought to mind everything I knew of Madam Ioni. She was well past that first flush of middle age which gives to many ladies that stability of beauty which will last them for another four decades. Indeed an incautious man might well describe her as old. In her youth she hadn’t been a beauty but had apparently been much sought after because of her personality and charm. Eventually she fell for a Condottiere Captain, Allen Reash, at the time in the service of the city. They married and for the next ten to fifteen years she travelled with him, raising three children in army camps and acting as a nurse on a score of forgotten battlefields. Eventually the inevitable happened and her husband was killed in a combat that was doubtless important at the time. She returned to Port Naain and shunning offers of marriage from lesser men, settled down to raise her two sons and a daughter. Her sons followed in their father’s footsteps and her daughter also married a soldier. Her small house on the edge of the Merchant Quarter rang to the sound of marching songs. But her family slowly dispersed. One son died of camp fever, another fell in the siege of a Keep somewhere in Uttermost Partaan, whilst her daughter moved to Prae Ducis when her husband got a job commanding a company of the City Watch.
In spite of the vicissitudes of fortune she was still seen around Port Naain, straight backed and with brown eyes which seemed to stare through somebody rather than at them. Family might have moved on but they didn’t forget her. Two granddaughters, cousins rather than sisters, came to live with her, and occasionally a grandson would ride into the city, sometimes at the head of a troop of his own. Between them they seemed to keep her young.
So this is the lady I was supposed to rescue.
I caught up with Mutt. “So what exactly is the problem?”
“It’s her granddaughters. They’ve got into trouble with Gandy Hulf”
This wasn’t good news. Few living now will remember old Gandy, merchant adventurer, blackmailer, slaver and scoundrel. He had two sons who we all assumed were twins, for no better reason than nobody could envision a free women sharing Gandy Hulf’s bed on two separate occasions.
Mutt continued to lead me along the Rope Walk, heading to the warehouse Gandy used as his base of operations. We were almost there when I saw Madam Ioni ahead of us. She was walking briskly, straight backed as always so I sent Mutt to intercept her.
She waited for me to catch up with her. “Good, I’m glad you could come young Steelyard. My granddaughters are being held by Hulf, he is threatening to sell them in settlement of a debt.”
“Shouldn’t we get the watch? Selling people into slavery is frowned upon.”
“Steelyard, how many people get shipped south as indentured labourers?”
She had me with that one. She continued, “I’ve sent word to my grandson Dorn but he might not arrive in time. So I want you to witness that I have paid my families debts.”
This bemused me; it’s not that I’m some sort of notary. I was about to suggest she had the wrong person, but she just looked at me and I shut up and followed her as she walked to Gandy Hulf’s warehouse. Mutt tagged on after me. I gestured to him to go but he just muttered about not missing this for ready money.
We didn’t knock at the office door, she just opened it and walked in. There was a thug sitting at the desk but she strode past saying, “We have an appointment with your master.”
Mutt and I followed her into a larger office. Gandy Hulf was sitting behind a large desk, a couple of body guards were with him and a third was putting some coals on the fire. He looked up, a little surprised. “So you can pay?”
She looked down at him, “Bring me the girls and I will pay you, but not a dreg will you get until I see them.”
Old Gandy seemed to think that seemed reasonable so he gestured to the bodyguard by the fire and he went out of a side door. He was soon back with two young women who fled to their grandmother. The old lady patted them in a somewhat distracted manner and then reached into a bag she was carrying. “I thought to pay in kind, could you value this please.”
Old Gandy stood up and stepped around the desk to look into the bag. She passed him a small cloth wrapped parcel. As he opened this, she drew a poniard out of the bag and drove it into his stomach, ripping it upwards with both hands. Gandy screamed and the bodyguards rushed forward. Madam Ioni stepped back and slashed at one of the guards; I snatched a poker from the fire place and prodded at the other. Mutt disappeared out of the window. By this time others were running in and we were soon pressed back into a corner. I laid one man out with the poker, Madam cut another badly with her blade, and the two granddaughters were behind us throwing coals at our assailants.
The problem is that this wasn’t going to end well. I am a poet, not a man at arms, and Madam wasn’t as young or as fast as she might have been in her youth. I heard her gasp and glanced sideways at her; a blade had slipped up under her guard and she fell backwards into the arms of her granddaughters. I lashed out with the poker and caught her attacker on the side of the head but then somebody hit me with a chair. I went backwards in a heap of women and lost my grip on the poker.
Then the door crashed open and a young man at arms burst in, sword in hand, he was followed by a dozen companions and by the time I’d recovered my senses they’d cleared the room. My first thought was for Madam. Her granddaughters were frantically trying to bandage her, but she feebly waved them away. She looked at me, “Who has come.”
At that point the leader of our rescuers came and knelt down beside me. The old lady focussed on him with difficulty and lifted her hand to his face. “Allen.”
He started to speak, but I laid a hand on his arm to silence him. The old lady let her hand drop down to her side. Softly I heard her whisper something; I leaned closer. “Allen, you have returned.”
With that she closed her eyes and seemed to relax into the arms of her granddaughters. I gently took her arm but could feel no pulse. One of the girls took her other wrist, held it for a while and laid it back on the old lady’s lap. “She’s dead.”
I stood up. Mutt appeared next to me. “Was we in time?” He sounded a little desperate. I rested a hand on his shoulder. “I think so.”
The young Condottiere captain gently picked up his grandmother and accompanied the two young women we made our way out into the street.
I was invited to the funeral. Even Mutt was invited to the funeral. It wasn’t a fancy affair because everybody was riding south. They were going to cremate Madam Ioni and carry her ashes south to bury with her husband. At the end of the short service, as they carried the body away to the furnace, the grandson came across to me and shook my hand. “There’s not a lot I can offer, but remember me if you ever need a favour doing.”
He was a handsome young man, without the darkness in him you see in so many mercenaries who’ve seen too much and cannot bring themselves to care any more.
I smiled at him. “You go safely young Dorn; I was just honoured to serve a great lady.”