Rustic Pursuits

Tam O'Shanter:  (1855)

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.

Then, out of the shadows of the ruin came the woman who had been serving punch. I didn’t initially recognise her because now she was dressed only in her shift. She was leading a man who was stark naked and very drunk. She led him to the edge of the fire pit and he stood there, swaying unsteadily, looking round in a confused manner. Suddenly she stepped behind him, grabbed his hair, pulled his head back and with one swift movement, slashed his throat with a knife held in her other hand. The man’s blood spurted out, and she pushed his body forward so it collapsed onto the grid. The chanting grew louder and more fervent, and the woman gestured towards the ruins. I saw two women bring out another victim, naked and almost incapacitated by drink. The crowd emitted a mighty ululation and one loathsome entity stepped forward out of the crowd, seized the victim, and carried him to the fire pit. There it opened it’s overly wide mouth, bit off the victim’s head and cast the corpse onto the grid.

Making sure I couldn’t be seen I made my way back through the woods to when my horse was waiting. Behind me the tone of the chanting grew ever more malevolent. Around me the woods seemed to grow darker and I felt around me a growing sense of evil. I began to sense presences, to feel them rather than see them. I saw strange misshapen creatures, tenebrous in the shadows. They seemed almost but not quite men and women, moving through the trees near me. The chanting, and the blood poured onto the fire, were drawing them out of the woods and into the light.  By the time I got to my horse the poor creature was wild eyed. Something far larger than a man was crashing through to woods towards me. I could hear it but fortunately it was still out of sight. Hastily I mounted the horse, my plans for a meal forgotten. I left the bottles in my coat pockets, reached forward whilst still in the saddle and untied my mount and then guided it back to towards the house. I was going to spend no more time in those woods than I had to.

Unfortunately as I came up to the ruins, it was obvious that things were building to a climax. Mixed now with the dancers were other stranger and more repugnant entities. They capered rather than walked, they yammered when they should have been silent.  Indeed one such burst out of the bushes behind me and lunged for me. The horse skittered sideways away from the threat, and then we were seen from the ruined window. The woman in her shift saw me and threw herself out of the window at me, whilst behind her; something darker and more terrible howled and charged towards me. I was saved by my horse. Whereas I was almost petrified with fear, sheer terror awakened in my gallant mount’s breast the urge to flee. Clinging desperately to her neck I gave up any attempt to control her. I occasionally risked a glance backwards to discover that the pursuit was close behind. Ahead I could see the gateway onto the road, fortunately the gate still stood open. We passed through at speed and without any prompting on my part the horse turned right, back the way we had come.

Something grabbed my leg. Instinctively I groped for a weapon and pulled a bottle out of one of the deep poacher’s pockets in my coat. I turned and saw the woman in the shift was alongside me, running as fast as the horse. I gave no thought to how she might be achieving this but brought the bottle down on her head. She let go of my leg as she avoided the blow and I hastily abandoned the bottle and clung once more to my gallant mare’s neck.

Suddenly as we rounded a corner I saw a small force of horsemen across the road. My mare burst through a gap between two of them and stopped dead, quivering and shaking. I fell off her and groggily got to my feet. The Urlan were here but were dressed for war, not hunting. The late evening sun glinted on mail. Some wore steel helms; others had helmets with bronze face masks.  Some, probably the maidens, had long hair hanging down from under the helmets. All wore totems, charms and the shrunken heads of their defeated enemies.

One, in the second rank looked down towards me. “Stick close if you can.” I recognised the voice of Keikel, the maiden who had loaned me the horse in the first place. Slowly I mounted the horse again and turned it to follow the others. As I caught up with her she smiled encouragingly at me and handed me a long dagger as a weapon.  

Now we were riding slowly with lances raised. My pursuers came round the corner in a mob and stopped abruptly as they saw the force awaiting them. Keikel raised a horn to her lips and blew it. I heard answering calls in the distance, all from well ahead. As the notes of the horn died away a hideous demonic creature stepped forward from the mob. It raised above its head a sword which shone with an otherworldly light.

Brodan Vect shouted, “Now,” and the line of horsemen, lances lowered, crashed forwards.

I cannot claim to have witnessed everything. My horse just kept up with the others, and I did my best to say aboard. Now we were moving more slowly I did attempt to keep hold of the reins. The leading demon moved with remarkable rapidity, it sliced through the lance coming towards it, then stepped aside to allow the horseman past. But this merely put it in the path of another horse which struck it so forcefully is was knocked sprawling. It leapt to its feet, still holding the sword, but then Brodan Vect started raining blows down on it and it was hard pressed to do more than parry. The rest of the horsemen had swept through the mob, riding many down and were swinging round to ride back.  

I had stayed back to avoid the demon. It was as I tried to get my horse to edge round the fight between the two champions that I saw the woman in the shift stand up from amongst the bodies. She had obviously thrown herself to the ground when the horsemen charged and now she had a dagger drawn and was coming up behind the Urlan. Brodan’s attention was entirely given over to his opponent, who had stopped giving ground and was starting to put in attacks of his own. I urged my mare towards the woman. When she saw me coming she ducked down to avoid my blow. I lunged at her with the dagger I’d been loaned, lost my balance and fell off my horse on top of her. Frantically as she went to strike me, I grabbed her hand with the knife, and we wrestled in the dirt. She attempted to savage me with her teeth and twice I head-butted her in the face. Finally she manage to wriggle out from under me, turned to strike and as she did she stiffened and collapsed forward as an arrow took her between the shoulder blades.

I glanced round. The rest of the Urlan had returned, two more had joined in the fight against the demon. The creature backed away from them, but only until it had its back to the trunk of a great tree. There it stood at bay. The Urlan landed blows on it; but the creature’s skin was tough. Not only that but it was covered in boils and pustules, and as the blades stuck, the pus which wept out would corrode steel and burn flesh. The fight continued, it took three warriors to keep the beast in check. The Urlan made no sound, but the demon roared and cursed.
Behind me I heard a voice. “Tallis, step back please.”
I glanced round to see the maiden Keikel, on horseback, with a great Urlan bow in her hands. Next to her was another Urlan who had discarded her lance but was now carrying what looked to be a great sharpened tree branch. As the creature roared, the Urlan bow sang, and an arrow hit the beast in the mouth, pinning the head to the tree. As her arrow struck Keikel shouted “Now”, and the three men on foot threw themselves out of the way as the other rider charged through with the sharpened branch held in both her hands. With the weight of horse and rider behind it, the lance smashed into the creature. Even as it fell the other Urlan returned to the attack, hacking at the neck with their swords and cut the creature’s head off. Even as they did so, it faded, leaving nothing but a dark patch on the ground where the grass was dying.

Brodan Vect stepped away from where the corpse should have been, and saw me standing watching. He grinned at me. “Well you’ve witnessed an Urlan exorcism.”

I bowed slightly. “Then sir, I thank Aea that I am a poet, not a theologian.”

He laughed. There as genuine humour and good-fellowship in the sound. It heartened me and I think it boosted the others. He gestured and somebody fetched me my mare. As I approached her, I felt she looked at me with an air of reproach. To be fair, she was probably used to more martial riders. I mounted again as did the rest of the Urlan. Keikel gestured for me to ride next to her.

“What now?”

She gestured ahead. “The other parties are in position, we heard their horns. They will be sweeping through the estate; we’ll take out anything they drive to us.”

It was dawning on me that this was long planned. “So why are you all here?”

“Last autumn my brother was here on a hunting trip. Some of the peasants approached him with tales about what was happening on the Tweil estate. So he promised to help. We drifted here in small parties in the spring and did our reconnaissance. Then we gathered up the peasants, split them into three parties, each led by a couple of our sergeants, and they would be our beaters.”

She smiled. “You were lucky. If you’d come through any other day, you’d have missed all this.”

We rode forward but we had no more fighting. By the time we arrived at the house, it was being thoroughly pillaged by the peasantry. I saw women staggering out with piles of bed linen and furniture. At the fire pit, the sergeants had a good fire going and were throwing the bodies of the slain into the pit. We watched for a while as various creatures, some more or less manlike, were thrown into the flames and more timber was thrown on top. Finally word was given to set fire to the house as well. I shared my bread and sausage with Keikel and passed around the wine. We watched as the house burned. It was dawn before the flames died down.

A man, whom I assumed to be some sort of village elder, finally came up to the Urlan. He took his hat off and bowed stiffly. “Our thanks for what you’ve done.”

The Brodan Vect bowed back. “We do what we can.”

The village elder gestured to his people. Four of whom then carried forward two bed sheets. They laid them down on the ground and opened them. Each was filled with the more valuable loot from the house. The elder said, “Take a sheet, the choice is yours.”

Brodan gestured to the nearest. “That one will do.”

The elder nodded and gestured for his people to take the other one away. He turned back to Brodan. “It’s an accursed spot. This house always brings trouble.”

Brodan nodded. “Yes, it’s the second time our kindred have been here.” He pointed to the older ruins around the fire pit. “My mother’s grandfather burned that.”

The elder didn’t look particularly surprised. “I trust we will not bother your family again in the future.”

Brodan watched as two of his sergeants strapped up the sheet full of loot and fastened it to the back of the horse I’d been loaned. He turned back to the elder. “If you want my advice, I’d take the whole lot down, stone by stone, until nothing is left. Get rid of everything and just plough the site.”
The elder half smiled. “And so your mother’s grandfather advised us. This time we will heed the advice.”
And me?
The Urlan decided they ought to camp to rest their horses and invited me to join them, which I felt was decent of them. I remember lying down and then I knew no more. When I finally awoke, they’d broken camp and departed, all save for Keikel who they’d left behind to keep an eye on me.

When I awoke she passed me a parcel and with that she rode off to catch up with the others. I opened the parcel. There was bread, cheese, a good wedge of meat pie and a smaller package. When I opened that I found a necklace, silver set with pearls.
I walked back to Port Naain, gave Shena the necklace and she wears it occasionally. But not often because it’s worth more than the barge we live on. But yes, I like the Urlan; they’re honourable and are, after a fashion, polite to artists. 


Should you want to wander longer in the world of Tallis Steelyard

As a reviewer commented, “

When unavoidable circumstances meet with unfortunate events, as Tallis Steelyard could no doubt tell you, the only option is to run like hell.

However for Tallis that meant winding up on a flatboat being towed behind a steamer. His adventures include a contribution to opera, absconding with religious tomes, a friendly – if at times rather dangerous – rivalry with the crew of another flatboat, being the judge of a local flower show, nomad attacks, a well-educated mule and a mysterious ancient cult.

Jim Webster is one of those authors who makes me wish for a louder voice so more might hear about and discover his works. They are simply wonderful.

There is nothing quite like a Tallis Steelyard adventure. It has pathos, humour, danger and a uniquely engaging, secret, unidentifiable ingredient all of its own which Mr Webster must keep as close to his chest as Coca-Cola.

So if you have never been introduced to Tallis Steelyard before, this is a great place to meet him. If you know him well and have yet to take his boating adventure then delay no longer.

Either way, this is a wonderful book that will surely delight you.”


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