I have known Stanlan Needleborne for virtually all of my life. He was the tough kid on the street, the rough boy we were all a bit nervous of. Looking back I cannot imagine why, I don’t remember him ever being anything but a friend to the rest of us street children. As we grew up he went for a soldier.
Obviously with his background he didn’t follow the easy route. At fifteen he tagged along to one of the impromptu and largely expendable infantry companies. Against the odds he survived. Next year he went back into Partann again. By the time he was twenty he was an accepted captain of crossbowmen, and was hired as such by the great condottieri captains to command some portion of their infantry.
Obviously at this point he had to learn to ride and acquire a horse, because even infantry captains have to keep up appearances. Still he was never a man-at-arms, and never claimed to be.
Each year as winter started to fade away he would expect a summons from one or the other of the condottieri leaders. Cavalier Qualan and Lord Cartin would both call upon him, he was a useful man to have with you. If by the time spring was here and he still hadn’t heard, he would formally call upon them to see what the prospects were for the coming year. If they had no work for him, they might at least know of somebody who was hiring.
I served with him once. It was the time when Poltan Dilant was made general and I was made his military secretary. I’ve told that tale in ‘We all were young once.’
Stanlan was commanding several companies of infantry, indeed during the battle he commanded all the infantry on the left wing. But when I rode into the camp behind Poltan Dilant he saw me and made a point of being at the general’s tent when we dismounted.
“Tallis, I thought we had an agreement. I was to do the soldiering, and you were to be a poet.”
I shrugged. “It looks as if fate has intended me to do a spot of soldiering.”
“I hope this doesn’t mean I’m expected to write poetry?”
“Absolutely, in fact I’d go so far as to assert that it was compulsory.”
He shook his head sadly at the way the world had degenerated and then a sergeant came up asking for orders and he was whisked back into the world of martial expediency.
During the campaign I messed with him and his men from time to time. The general always has a bodyguard of infantry sleeping near him. If the enemy attacks at night, infantry can respond more quickly than horsemen. They aren’t overburdened with armour and equine entanglements. So many times I slept in the same hovel as him and his men.
But the reason he comes to mind at the moment was the Council of Sinecurists was contemplating some form of award for those gentlemen who had served the city by defending its interests in Partann. There was a motion put forward that the city would award a nicely engraved silver arm ring for each campaign.
Poltan Dilant put his name down to speak, but asked if he could speak the following day as he had material he wished to gather for his speech. This seemed entirely reasonable so the Chairwoman at the time agreed to call him first thing the following day. I got a message from old Poltan telling me I might not want to miss the occasion. I arrived and took a seat in the galley at the back. The chairwoman called for order and old Poltan rose to his feet. “May I summon my witness?”
Without waiting for an answer he gestured to somebody I couldn’t see, and Stanlan Needleborne walked in, wearing his half armour, long trousers of indeterminate hue and those sensible boots infantry soldiers wear. He carried his helmet on his arm.
“Captain Needleborne. How many seasons have you served in Partann.”
Obviously Stanlan had had notice of the question because he didn’t need to work it out. “Thirty-three, but I campaigned four times against the nomads along the Paraeba under Lord Cartin.”
Stanlan’s answers were quietly spoken. At the Battle of the Fords of Jourr I had heard him across half a battlefield, calling for his sergeants to dress their line on him.
“And why, might I ask, have you come to this Council building dressed for war?”
Simply Stanlan replied, “Because I have nothing else decent enough for company.”
That I could believe. I’d had a drink with him a month previously, and having seen what he was wearing I managed to find a husband of a patron who was about the right size. That’s how Stanlan came to have the trousers, otherwise they’d have gone to the gardener
“Where are you living this winter?”
“Barran’s.” He had named a lodging house which whilst not cheap was distinctly economical.
Poltan turned from facing Stanlan to facing the assembled Sinecurists. As he did so, his posture subconsciously changed. I could see again the man who sat at the front of our small army and gave us the command to attack.
“Fellow Sinecurists. We have been debating whether to give a silver arm ring to every gentleman who serves for a campaign for this city. I confess I do rather approve, a gentleman who has had the courage to leave the comforts of home and to stake his very life for us deserves our thanks. But what thanks do we offer for those who have given twenty, thirty, or even forty years? I move that for every arm ring the city presents, the city also pays a pension for every soldier who has done more than thirty-five campaigns.”
And I mentioned poetry. A week after the Battle of the Fords of Jourr, Stanlan had pushed a piece of folded paper into my pocket with the words, “Well you were a soldier so I thought that I better be a poet.”
I wrap myself in my blanket.
My mattress the floor of a stable
Three winters’ worth of dry dung make a snug bed.
Our evening meal a bottle of plum brandy
Grateful, we drank it.
I think of home
The city I love
In spite of its flaws
That drive me every spring
To belt on my sword and roam
Tallis has his place
Shorter than most,
He sleeps in a manger
Where rats won’t run over his face
But never scorn them
At one siege three of us feasted
Savouring each last morsel
Claiming no meat had ever tasted so sweet
A tasty contrast to the mayhem
And at home what would I be?
A pimp’s bully?
Threatening clients who cringe and stutter
Or a watchman pulling drunks from the gutter?
Locking them in cells for their own safety
No bugles blaring
Four lie between me and the door
Safe for a while
I drift into sleep
Lulled by Tallis, snoring
After all these years I still have that carefully folded paper. And the pension? After some deliberation, the Council declared that each contract the city issues with a condottieri captain would allow for five dead pays to go toward providing a pension for soldiers of good character who had served in over forty campaigns.
Should you wish to know more of life 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 one 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.”