I have often said I would never accept a position with the old aristocracy. It is not that they don’t pay. It isn’t even as if they don’t value poetry. After all many of them are perfectly accomplished in the older forms. It’s just that they are not content to let you be a poet, you have entered their service and they keep finding jobs for you. Still I confess that I have, after a fashion, broken the rule. I am court poet for Lord Artor.
Lord Artor is the current head of the family, a family which is frankly penurious. Their vast lands and grand estates have shrunk to a modest manor house which stands in its own grounds on the edge of Dilbrook. The grounds are not extensive. Large enough to keep a couple of horrocks for milk, and a large vegetable garden. Certainly not enough to maintain a scion of the old nobility.
Thus every year since he was fifteen, Lord Artor has ridden south into Partann. As a lord in his own right, it is impossible for him to serve as a mere man-at-arms in somebody else’s following. Not only that but he couldn’t afford the armour, or the sort of horse that armour demands. So he rides south and does what he can to earn his daily bread.
He tends to work in the centre of Partann where folk aspire to be decent, but are cursed with covetous neighbours. Some of these covetous neighbours are the brigands of Uttermost Partann, some of them are local folk who also aspire to be decent but hope to achieve this by pillaging those whom they dwell amongst.
Lord Artor has served Partannese lordlings whose military might is comprised of their sons, and who live in a keep which barely warrants the title of a pele tower. In the case of ‘Lord’ Baggar, Artor accepted his money and served for a full campaigning season. He would sit quietly with a crossbow and would take out the last man in every party of bandits crossing Barrar territory. Their heads adorned stakes marking the territory’s boundaries, designed to deter others from entering. Finally when the bandits grew more cautious, but still refused to avoid the territory, Artor took Lord Baggar and his two sons and mounted an ambush which hit the largest band as they were camping for the night and dispersed them utterly.
Finally another bandit chieftain decided that Lord Baggar needed to be taught just who was in charge. He and his men hit Baggar village and stole away six young women. Artor, assisted by the two sons of Lord Baggar, followed them to Chatterfield. Quietly and methodically over the next weeks, Artor cut off the stragglers and crucified them by the side of the road. By the time the remnants of the raiding party reached the Chatterfield, the surviving brigands had surrendered themselves into the custody of their prisoners. Without ceremony, Artor escorted the young ladies back to their families. It was this season’s exploit that earned him the sobriquet of ‘The rat catcher of Partann.’
This epithet brought him much of his work. Somebody would approach him with a name and a reward. He has been approached by peasant communities, petty lordlings, the burgomasters of small towns, and widows and orphans. Lord Wallon tried to hire him to hunt down and kill Garron Wheel. In the middle of Lord Wallon’s keep, surrounded by Lord Wallon’s retainers, Artor refused, pointedly. He explained, in somewhat dry tones, that Lord Wallon was in point of fact the problem in the area, and if matters continued, he, Artor, would doubtless be receiving a commission to collect Lord Wallon’s head. With that he turned on his heel and left.
Some have disputed Lord Artor’s right to execute these felons before delivering their heads to his current paymaster. Lord Artor merely retorts that the Lords Artor have always held the right to dispense low, middle, and high justice. In his presence the obvious retort, “But not in Partann, surely,” might come to mind but nobody has yet voiced it.
I once asked an Urlan of my acquaintance what the Urlan thought of Lord Artor. He called his dog across. This dog was an Urlan hunting beast, an erret. It stood as tall as a pony. Up to that point I had been treating it with absolute formality, lest it felt I had somehow insulted it. The great dog moved across towards me, with the easy grace of a predator who fears nothing in this world or the next. The Urlan tapped me on the shoulder and said, Tallis.” He then rested his hand on the dog’s head and said, “Ducas.” Given I was seated, the dog stretched out a paw and rested it on my shoulder. It then proceeded to lick my face and let me scratch its ears.
“That,” the Urlan commented, “is how we treat Lord Artor. With deserved respect, and we take no liberties with him until we have been introduced to him. He rode into a hunting camp where Brodan Vect was in charge. We all stood up, but nobody drew a weapon, and Brodan asked him who he was hunting. Artor merely replied that it was nobody in our camp. So we all sat down again, he ate with us and slept in our camp. Next day he rode on to do whatever he was going to do.”
Yet every year, as autumn starts drifting into winter. Lord Artor heads for Port Naain. In my experience he has ridden into the city on his own horse, he has ridden in on the back of a night soil cart, and at least twice he’s arrived on a stretcher. Every time he goes first to the Goldclaw baths. Here a respectful attendant will greet him and lead him to the private suites. There he will divide his clothes into three piles, burn, wash, and send to the blacksmith to get the rivets renewed. Finally, bathed, shaved and with his hair, beard and moustache neatly trimmed, he will ride to the family home on the edge of Dilbrook. He will tie his horse up in an empty stable, where there is always fresh hay waiting for him. Then he will go into the house where he will be greeted by his younger sister, her husband who is a usurer’s clerk, and their two children.
He will spend the evening with his nephew and niece, telling them the tales of his adventures. Then he will sit for a while with his sister. She sit quietly in her wheelchair as he tells her as much of the truth as he thinks she can stand. Finally when she goes to bed, he sits up with his brother-in-law and the two men drink a last glass of wine and Lord Artor will push across the table a pouch. When opened it contains some coin, some hacksilver, irregular lumps of gold traded by weight and pieces of jewellery, little of it fashionable. Then the two men will discuss investments, bursaries, scholarships and medical bills. Between them they will map out the prospects for the coming year for the woman and children they both adore.
Over the next few weeks Lord Artor will wheel his sister into the great social events of the winter season. Yes she has kind friends. These are ladies who will send a message saying, “You must visit us tomorrow, I will send the chair to collect you.” Two or three times a year she will ask me to organise something as a way of repaying their hospitality. Thus she will name a dozen friends to be invited, and ask me to find a few more. So I invite those I know and can trust, and each lady will ‘bring a little something. With startling lack of imagination her friends all used to claim that their cook had produced something new and they wanted honest opinions. So we how have ‘new cake’ gatherings, and doubtless cooks spit as they say my name, because three times a year they have to produce something novel but delicious, such as nobody has done before.
But in the winter season, in a dress ‘refreshed’ with material taken from her daughter’s cast offs, (because girls grow so quickly don’t they) she will be The Lady Artor and her brother will push her wheelchair and she will be present by right.
And on other days, men of business send messages saying how grateful they would be if Lord Artor could find time to drop in to see them to discuss affairs in Partann. Or perhaps leading Sinecurists will invite him and the Lady Artor to dine with them. And on those occasions the gentlemen will foregather over brandy to ponder the future of Partann, whilst the ladies, over a nice wine, will settle the future of Port Naain.
And finally, with the first hints of spring, Lord Artor will rise early one morning and go to the stable. There a man grown old in the service of the family ………………………….
We’re on tour again, and today we’re with Stevie. So to read the rest of this story click on the link below.