Obviously as one’s fame grows, it’s inevitable that one will find oneself in greater demand. This I had been promised by my elders. Yet I confess that this fame seemed to take a long time to come. Admittedly Port Naain is a large city with any number of poets, some of whom are perhaps my equals. And yet, I always struggled to find patrons. Indeed I found that those patrons I had valued my abilities as a master of ceremonies, able to maintain order in their soirees, keeping the musicians sober, the singers chaste and everybody appearing in approximately the correct order. The fact that I could engage in witty banter, produce amusing verse when needed and could hold a room spellbound with my stories and verses was merely a useful bonus.
Still, I did get offers of work, in Partann of all places. This area lies to the south of the city; the populace is rustic and unsophisticated. Indeed the further south you travel the more unsophisticated do they become, until finally they lapse into little more than barbarism. My offer of work came from the Tweil family. I didn’t know them; they almost shared a name with a prosperous Port Naain family, the Tweel. From what I could discover the two families may have been connected a couple of centuries back. Still, I received an invitation, on elegantly headed notepaper, to perform some of my latest works to an audience of family and invited guests. The only disadvantage was that their estate was perhaps forty miles out of the city and this was going to take me at least two days to walk. I had to set off immediately.
So I bade my wife Shena a fond farewell, crossed the Paraeba Estuary on the Roskadil ferry and set off, on foot, into Partann. The first day I made good time. I slept in a stable, paying for my keep with a few romantic verses and some help with the chores. Next morning I set off, confident that I was in good time.
It was about noon when I came upon a group of Urlan camped by the site of the road. I like the Urlan, although I confess I am always courteous in their company. Trained from childhood in arms, they are consummate fighters, chivalrous with a strong sense of honour, and if they do take offence, you can be dead before you even understood what exactly you’d said.
Still these were a merry crew, none of them older than twenty, and some of the younger ones barely fifteen or sixteen. As an aside I would recommend the young Urlan to you. They can be so intensely serious, but their innate courtesy means they tend to be polite to artists. So when I mentioned I was a poet travelling to perform, they were genuinely interested. One maiden called Keikel, perhaps the youngest as she had no more than four shrunken heads hanging from her sword belt, asked where I was performing. I mentioned the Tweil estate.
It was then they informed me that I’d spent that day marching in exactly the opposite direction. Instead of being a mere five or six miles from it, I was nearer twenty. I could have wept.
Then the maiden suggested they lend me a horse. Their leader, a knight by the name of Brodan Vect, agreed with her. He pointed out that they were intending to travel in that direction for the hunting. They could camp near the Tweil estate, and when I left, I could meet up with them and regale them with tales of my successes, before leaving the horse with them and returning home.
To be absolutely honest they didn’t actually say, ‘regale them with tales of my successes,’ but they certainly said they’d be interested to know how I got on. They even suggested that, if it seemed appropriate, I ask the Tweil family whether they would mind the Urlan hunting across the estate. So I thanked them, mounted the horse I had been loaned, and set off at a canter.
Now others might think that this would be a chance to disappear with the horse and sell it in Port Naain. After all I’d make more money on that than I would entertaining the Tweil household. Still anybody who suggests this course doesn’t know the Urlan. They live for war and for hunting. Hunting horse thieves is considered a particularly honourable pastime. Indeed, if it’s an Urlan’s horse the thief has stolen, that Urlan feels pursuing them to the ends of the earth and slaying them is almost obligatory.
I arrived at the Tweil estate perhaps four hours after noon. I had been musing upon the origins of my horse. The trouble is that some of the Partannese aristocratic families are not enamoured of the Urlan. They feel that the Urlan do not treat them with the respect they deserve. Actually I think the real problem is that the Urlan do treat them with the respect they
deserve. Still, having a mare with Urlan markings might not be tactful. So once I was in the grounds I picked my way slowly through the woodland, watered her at a stream and fastened her behind a spinney where she was screened from view, but had some decent grazing to keep her busy. Then I walked back through the grounds to the house.
I was greeted with almost total disinterest from the maid who opened the door to me. She merely directed me down a corridor to the Morning Parlour. Even as I approached the parlour door I could hear somewhat discordant singing and I looked inside to see perhaps a dozen people standing around the room, clutching tankards whilst a young lady, elegantly attired, kept them all talking and simultaneously kept their drinks topped up as well. She saw me enter and beckoned me across to the table on which stood a punch bowl.
Now I have seen many punch bowls in my time. Most of them are glass and are often very fine, with a matching ladle which will hold enough to fill a small wine glass. This allows even a grasping host to pose as wildly extravagant by offering you a second ladle full. On this occasion, whilst I call it a punch bowl, I’ve seen smaller cauldrons hung over fires cooking stew. The ladle she was using to serve punch with was better suited to serving porridge. She asked me my name, and ran her finger down a list which lay on the table next to the punch. Finally she found me, smiled and offered me a tankard of the punch.
At this point she was called away by one of the other guests and I took the opportunity to glance at the list. Frankly I was a little put out; it was a collection of nobodies. A few of them I’d vaguely heard of. When I looked round I decided I might know some of them slightly, but none of them were persons of solid literary merit. In fact, if she had set out to create a list of those Port Naain would never miss, then with the obvious exception of myself, she had done a excellent job.
I sipped my punch. I’m glad I did; if I had tried to drink off a mouthful or two, then I’d have had a coughing fit. The damned stuff was almost pure alcohol.
I looked inside the bowl. There was a little fruit floating in the liquid, probably enough to flavour it, but not enough to threaten it with dilution. To be fair, it was pleasant enough, but not something to drink on an empty stomach. I moved away from the bowl and made an attempt to join in the nearest conversation. One has to be collegiate.
I’m afraid it wasn’t really worth my while. The others had obviously been hard at the punch for some time and their conversation had frankly suffered.
When the young woman came past to top up our tankards, I asked when we were to dine. Frankly, I was hungry. She glanced towards the clock and said she thought it could be three or four hours.
As she moved to the next group I came to a decision: I had to get something to eat, if only as a defense against the punch. I had noticed that there was a door behind the punch bowl table, and detected it led to the kitchens. So when I could see the lady was caught up in some discussion with another group, I quietly made my way to the table, surreptitiously emptied my tankard back into the bowl, and slipped through the door.
I found myself in a short corridor leading to a large kitchen. Much to my surprise it was empty, and there was no sign of any cooking being done. On occasions like this, the kitchen should be the very centre of activity. Yet this was empty, there was no fire in the grate–indeed, the range was cold.
I looked round. Stacked tidily next to the door there were a dozen empty bottles. I picked one up and read the label. It was ‘Urlan plum brandy,’ produced by Grine Halstrop, Brewer and Dyer. Whilst Halstrop may not produce the worst beers in Port Naain, it is rightly a contender for that particular crown. It also produces a range of spirits which are just that, pure spirit. The only thing the Urlan would have done with this stuff was to use it to clean rust off armour.
I looked round the rest of the kitchen, hoping to find something to eat. Eventually I’d assembled a small loaf, some sausage, and four bottles of excellent wine. These latter were so out of place I did wonder how they had come here. Now I felt that morally I owed one bottle to the maiden who’d lent me the horse. The other three could be sold to help me cover my out of pocket expenses; given there was no meal and everybody was drunk, I couldn’t envisage getting paid. So I decided to take the bottles out to my horse, stow them in the pack behind the saddle, eat the bread and sausage, and then return to the house. There, with the others, I could await developments.
The kitchen door opened onto a small kitchen garden. On the other side of that was a low wall and on the other side of that I could see the woods where my horse was. I crossed the garden. To my left, towards the back of the house, there seemed to be a ruined building or two, and there was also a fire burning. I couldn’t see it, but I could smell the smoke.
I left the kitchen garden by the gate which led to the woods, and once in the woods I made my way closer to the ruins. There I could see a considerable number of people, dancing and cavorting around a fire pit covered with a metal grill.
This appeared to be the real party. Even as I watched, the dancing came to a halt, and the participants, in various states of undress, started instead to sing. Or perhaps they started to chant, because there was more rhythm than melody. As I watched and listened, the hairs on my neck started to rise. The whole thing seemed fey and unseemly.
To read the rest of the story, it’s on Christina’s blog