We all were young once.


That at least was my excuse. I was a poet, but a very young poet. I had few patrons and those I had I tended to cherish because they were all that stood between me and starving in a gutter. Thus I suppose I allowed them greater liberties that I would now. Hence I was foolish enough to allow myself to be caught up in the machinations of Madam Dilant.

Her husband, Poltan Dilant was a cheerful enough old chap. He’d made his living involved in ‘business’ in its widest sense. It was all investment and suchlike, I was never entirely sure which businesses he owned or was invested in. Still it didn’t seem to take up too much of his day. He was also greatly interested in literature and had a fine library. He was the sort of man who could lose himself in a book for hours. Yet he wasn’t a hoarder, he not merely welcomed others into his library, he actively encouraged it.

Now this didn’t sit entirely well with his wife. She was of a generation who believed that the man of the house spends the absolute minimum time possible within the house. The last thing an independent woman needs is her husband getting underfoot. Especially as, in this case, the lady in question had at least three lovers competing for her attention. Having a husband keeping open house in the library, with a constant stream of young men and women passing through to join him in a world of literary delights was forcing her to put her own social life on hold.

But she had a plan. Old Poltan was a Sinecurist, he had accepted responsibility for a couple of minor sinecures which he accomplished with proper diligence. Madam Dilant felt that Poltan ought to accept more authoritative roles which kept him out of the house more. Thus when there was an expedition planned to deal with a bandit host raiding through Partann, she put him forward as the leader.

Now you’d have thought that a banker in late middle age was hardly the first choice to be made general. Certainly when I heard what had been suggested I confessed to chuckling quietly to myself. A nicer, more pacific and tolerate gentleman than old Poltan you could never meet.

But given that the committee of three Sinecurists tasked with finding a suitable commander for the forces of the city were the lovers of Madam Dilant, and thus complicit in her desire to dispose of her husband for a while, Poltan got the job. Even more worrying, because Madam suspected I knew more about her activities than she would like, she had me appointed to be her husband’s military secretary.

Now it isn’t entirely ridiculous. The forces the city sent were those maintained by our Condottieri captains. They were all perfectly competent, all vastly experienced. The purpose of the General was to act as a referee in their discussions. Hence, provided the General could ride, look good in armour, and occasionally passed through the ranks with an encouraging word for the men, he was perfectly acceptable. Strangely enough, thanks to a conventional education suitable for a young gentleman of quality, Poltan could do all those.

And so we rode to war. A thousand lances with the infantry and train that goes with them. As we rode south of Roskadil, had you been watching to wave your handkerchief in sad farewell to some handsome knight, you would have seen Poltan riding in the centre of his host and me clinging desperately to the back of a horse following right behind him.

We rode south for three weeks, by which time even I could ride. The various captains ran things with proper efficiency and Poltan looked wise, give the officer of the watch the watchword for the day and generally left matters to the professionals. Other than that he bestrode the battlefield like a tourist. He showed immense interest in all sorts of irrelevant details, suffered from several tummy bugs from eating unwisely or drinking the water, and got sunburned.

For three weeks it went well. Then things went wrong. We crossed a river north of Chatterfield. We had scouts out; the enemy was known to have concentrated his forces in this area. There was even a chance the raiders would face us in battle. Then came the word that the bridge had been destroyed behind us and enemy forces far larger than had been expected were concentrating to our front.

We managed to make our camp in the head of a shallow valley running north-south. We were camped at the northern end and within a day the southern end was getting more and more densely packed as various Partann lordlings brought their men at arms to join in our destruction. I remember that it was Pardo Fuen who had placed our infantry in line in front of the camp. He drew them up behind stakes so that the enemy couldn’t just ride them down with their horsemen.

With the men deployed Pardo joined Cavalier Qualan and Lord Cartin in Poltan’s tent. The three Condottieri captains were distinctly nervous. I would not say they were despondent, but they gave the impression they felt we were in trouble.

Poltan listened courteously to their discussions. Apparently if we tried to fall back towards Prae Ducis we would be fighting a constant rearguard action and would be lucky not to be picked off and destroyed before we got half way there.

Merely standing on the defensive was not to be thought of. Even if we dismounted the men at arms to stiffen the line, the enemy had the numbers to not merely match our front but also to lap round our flanks and take us from the rear as well.

Poltan at one point wandered out of the tent and by the time I caught up with him he was staring down the valley at the host encamped below us. Finally he came back in and asked, “So if we cannot sit here, and cannot retreat, I suppose we will have to attack?”

Well this rather silenced them. It was Pardo Fuen who spoke first.

“Well it would be madness…”

Lord Cartin examined the back of his gauntlet as if he’d never seen one before. “Still I can think of no sensible options.”

The Cavalier stood up and looked out of the tent. He came back in, “If we time it right then who knows?”

So the men were roused long before dawn. All men armed in as much silence as could be managed, and then we breakfasted. Finally we marched out of the camp without ceremony, no drums, no bugles, and no sergeants shouting to keep men in line. At last we were deployed with the horsemen in the centre and the infantry hanging on our flanks. Poltan, in full armour, sat on his horse at the very centre of our line, refusing to take any other place. Which was fine for him, but as his secretary I found myself sitting next to him. Poltan stood up in his stirrups, raised his sword high and then swung it down to point at the enemy encampment. Our host marched steadily forwards.

I must admit that I was surprised that we hadn’t been seen already, but the Partannese are notoriously badly disciplined. We were within half a mile of their camp before they started blowing their horns in warning. With that Poltan picked up the pace slightly. Still we didn’t go so fast that the infantry couldn’t keep up. Finally as the enemy horsemen started pouring out of their camp to face us he had the trumpeter sound the charge. With him in the lead was crashed into the enemy horse.

Luckily for me, the gendarmes had closed up on Poltan. The captains had assigned him a few good men as a bodyguard and these were given the task of keeping the old boy alive. Inadvertently they’d pushed me back into the rear rank, which I feel was in keeping with my martial ability.

So the first Partannese horseman I saw close up was sprawled dead at my horse’s feet as we rode forward. Poltan had his blood up. I suppose the frustrations built up in a lifetime of being a nice chap and the sound pair of hands all came bubbling out. One or two of the bodyguard who were riding nearest to him claimed that he’d actually gone berserk. Certainly they struggled to keep up with him as he somehow carved his way into the heart of the enemy formation.

Caught disorganised, driven back into the chaos of their camp, the Partannese were beaten. A lot of their captains never even committed their men to the fight. They could see the writing on the wall and I’d guess well over half the contingents quietly departed without even drawing a sword. Once the rest started fleeing, they were more lightly armoured than our horsemen and there was no way we could catch them. We halted, looted the camp and set up a trophy.

Four weeks later we crossed the Paraeba during the night and made a formal entry into the city next morning. The three captains insisted Poltan ride at their head, and as we rode down the Ropewalk, people threw blossoms down onto us.

We rode up to the Council building. There the Sinecurists were gathered on the steps to wait for us. The small committee of three which had chosen Poltan to be general stepped forward to congratulate him.

With a simple gesture he gave orders for his men to arrest the committee. Within minutes their bodies were jerking from an improvised gallows. Apparently, written into the law codes of Port Naain is the injunction that anybody who seduces the wife of a serving soldier whilst he is away on campaign must die. Who would have thought it?


As mentioned previously, ever keen on expanding the boundaries of his art, (and even keener on eating regular meals), Tallis has put together a longer story,

As a reviewer commented, “Jim Webster’s sly wit and broad understanding of human nature makes his work deliciously appealing. The adventures of Tallis Steelyard, and the characters who inhabit his world, are particularly delightful. Tallis and his creator both have a dry, wry and wonderfully playful perspective, and while the tales may seem like a bit-of-fluff entertainment initially, the aftertaste is that of rich wisdom shared with a wink.”

20 thoughts on “We all were young once.

    1. People forget that traditionally generals were also magistrates, granted power over their fellow citizens 😉
      And if they’re the one at the head of a thousand lances, who, one might ask, is going to quibble 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

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