Just one more dance


I was always told, by somebody older and wiser than me, that a grey hair you spot when shaving is to remind you of an old friend you no longer see. Certainly this morning I remembered, for no obvious reason, Jan Wandad. He was old when I knew him. A poet and philosopher who in his youth had been a soldier. He lived in a small house with just a couple of rooms and a courtyard. I would call upon him with his breakfast provided by the Society of Minor Poets. He was always friendly, always busy and he always had that prodigious sword of his standing near at hand.

He was a great one for writing letters. Indeed many mornings, if there was porridge to spare, I would take three bowls, one for him, one for me, and one for the street child waiting quietly to collect the letter Jan would be writing, secure in the knowledge that the recipient at the other end would also give them something.
Some days the old man would take me on an expedition. If I had nothing especially to do we would tramp through the streets to the Great Library. There he would lead the way through the forgotten stacks where lost poets or forgotten philosophers mouldered silently away, the gloom dispelled only briefly by our questing candle-light.

Occasionally I would arrive as the old man exercised in the courtyard. If I did he would pass me the great sword and demand I go through the same moves and steps that he had just performed. I can still remember his words, “For Aea’s sake Tallis, the sword is your dancing partner. You wouldn’t use her to bludgeon your way across the dance floor would you? Guide her lightly, the absolute minimum of control. Let her flow naturally and exhibit her own grace and elegance.”

Sometimes we’d just sit and talk about poetry, or about ideas, indeed once or twice we went out and drank coffee and watched the world. I just sat there, trying to absorb his calmness and wisdom, drinking it in with my coffee. Then one afternoon he paused and said, totally out of the blue. “Oh and tonight I have been invited to a dance. I’d like you to come with me. Nothing formal, don’t dress up to much.”
So obvious I said I would, and perhaps four hours later returned to collect him. I had dressed a little more carefully than I might. When I arrived he had trimmed his beard and had combed his hair. He wore a robe, belted at the waist, in the old style. He had his old sword over his shoulder, the blade and hilt polished until they gleamed. He led me towards the Sump, and at this point I wondered exactly what sort of dance he had in mind. At Sluice Gate Square he halted, stood in the shadows and said quietly, “Now we wait, my invitation was most explicit.”
We stood in the shadows, and I allowed my eyes to grow accustomed to the light. Across the square from us I saw a young woman. Dressed for her trade, perhaps trying to entice a client early before the square filled with drunks. Then from outside the square I heard laughter, raucous and loud. It was followed by shouted gests I could only half hear and the laughing continued. A dozen men wandered into the square. One of them I recognised, Blaggan the Pimp, the others must have been his bullies. I sensed Jan tense besides me, and I noticed the woman try to drift deeper into the shadows so they didn’t see her. Then somebody shouted and pointed. A cry when up, she turned to flee and they all ran after him. Jan breathed out, a long breath. Then he stepped forward into the centre of the square. The woman ran towards him and one of the bullies grabbed her.

“Unhand her.” The order rang out, spoken in a voice that had casually echoed across battlefields.

Blaggan seemed to see us for the first time. “Kill the madman, the one who gets him can have half the value of the sword.”
Like a pack of wolves they swept down on us. The woman, forgotten, fled. Jan Wandad, without seeming to move, was suddenly in the middle of them and I too was left forgotten, watching from the sidelines.

I was forced to rub my eyes, as he twirled and weaved his way amongst them he seemed a younger man. His hair was golden, held back by a headband, and he danced with a maiden whose silver hair flowed around her and mixed with his. He would smile and gest with her, and she would respond with some witty remark of her own, and with each passing sally on her part, another of the bullies would sprawl on the cobbles.

And then it was over. There was an old man, leaning on his sword, alone in the square. “Tallis, come here please.”

I ran over to me and without a word he placed my hands on the sword hilt and sat down to rest. I bent down to look at him, to see if he had been hurt in any way, but he just smiled, closed his eyes and fell asleep as a weary man does in the arms of one he loves. I felt his neck, there was no pulse, he had drifted companionably into death.

And I stood there, all night, alone save for a sword worth more than my life in those parts. What could I do? Where could I go? I could not abandon him to those who would loot the bodies. And as I stood there, alone with the sword, surrounded by the cold, stiffening bodies of the dead, the sword sang to me.
I clutched her hilt and her song flowed over and through me. I sat with her by campfires, drinking bad beer with good men. I kissed pretty girls on shady riverbanks, I stood night watches, looking up at the great moon of Partann. And all the way through she stood next to me, her arm entwined in mine, somehow closer to me that my breath. And all night, as the sword sang, nobody came within the circle of my gaze. Dawn brought Sergeant Maggon of the watch. I have never known anybody who knew old Maggon before he was a sergeant, can a man be born a sergeant? He suddenly stood in front of me, perhaps I had awakened. I looked around, a dozen bodies on the bloody cobbles and Jan, his head pillowed on his arm.
Then the sergeant brushed the hilt of the sword, gently, as you might rub the ears of an old hound that sleeps having served well. I wondered at this point whether Maggon too had danced in his youth.
“You get yourself home, young Steelyard. I’ll sort this business out and I find paperwork is always easier without a poet to complicate things.” He paused, “And find a home for the sword as well.”

I threw the sword over my shoulder like I’d seen Jan do and walked out of the square. It was then I thought of Taldor Vectkin, the Urlan, Lord Cartin’s Master of Horse. I made my way to Lord Cartin’s mansion, but went round the back to the exercise yard. There I saw Taldor Vectkin, stripped to the waist, leading his men in their dances at arms. I stood, sword over my shoulder, it’s naked blade glinting red in the morning sun.
Their exercises completed, Taldor walked across to me and I handed him the sword and told him the story.

He took the sword and went into the barracks mess hall. This gradually filled as word got round, and once he sensed the time was right, he told the tale of the sword. Obviously he had known Jan, or known off him, because he told tales I didn’t know. And then when he fell silent, others would tell their tales, sharing their memories.
Finally he hung the sword from the wall at the back. Then he stepped back and bowed to it.
Finally he turned to the men assembled.

“Jan Wandad. Lived well, died better.”

Apparently even now, when a man joins Lord Cartin’s company he is told the tale of the sword, and when any man enters the mess hall, he nods to it as you would to an old acquaintance you see across a crowded room.


If you want to spend a little more time in Port Naain


More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. Meet a vengeful Lady Bountiful, an artist who smokes only the finest hallucinogenic lichens, and wonder at the audacity of the rogue who attempts to drown a poet! Indeed after reading this book you may never look at young boys and their dogs, onions, lumberjacks or usurers in quite the same way again.
A book that plumbs the depths of degradation, from murder to folk dancing, from the theft of pastry cooks to the playing of a bladder pipe in public.


As a reviewer commented, “Thanks to the inimitable generosity of Tallis Steelyard, in this selection of tales, we are given further insight to the denizens – sorry, I meant ‘Citizens’ – of Port Naain, who are an education in the diversity of humankind, from physical through spiritual, from adroitness through haplessness, from … but I think you get my drift.”

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