Elsin Fairdragan is an essayist. Now I confess that I have been quoted as saying harsh things about essayists. Indeed the phrase ‘over-entitled self-proclaimed geniuses’ may well have been credited to me. Still, Elsin is most definitely not in that category. Whilst she is an essayist, she concentrates as much on her craft as a writer as she does on the message of her essay. So her work can be read aloud to advantage, she has a mastery of cadence and rhythm which means her prose verges delightfully upon poetry.
Her husband, Marton, is a pleasant enough fellow who seems to regard his wife with considerable awe. He is a counting house clerk, makes a reasonable living but not so that they could afford staff ‘living in’. In contrast to his lady wife he sometimes gives the impression that stringing whole sentences together is a major task for him. Numbers on the other hand, he handles with casual ease.
Another place they differ is in their attitude to cards and games of chance. Elsin loves playing ‘Keeps’ which she does entirely by instinct. Marton also enjoys the game but for him it is a matter of odds and probabilities. Thus when playing socially they rarely sit at the same table. When they are reunited at the end of the evening Marton will almost inevitably show a reasonable surplus. Elsin on the other hand will take five vintenars which she feels able to lose. Most evenings she does just that. Then when her fifth vintenar disappears beyond her control, she will leave the tables and circulate amongst the rest of the company. She will talk but listens more, and out of the conversations another essay might be born.
But occasionally, on some evenings the cards run right, The Lady will smile upon her, and she will win. There was the evening when she won enough to pay for their children’s education. Then there was the never to be forgotten evening when she became a lady of property. In the final game, Elsin had established her keep and felt she had the cards to defend it. A gentleman thought otherwise and raised the stakes. Elsin, flush with funds at the end of a good evening, took up the challenge, she doubled. The gentleman asked, somewhat tentatively whether he could have some deeds valued. They were the deeds to a tower and associated land in Partann. Elsin deferred the decision to a jury of her fellow players, who assessed the deeds, noted that the land was north of Prae Ducis. From this they concluded that it probably existed. They allowed the deeds to be played to match Elsin’s stake. The two players then deployed their cards. I’ve talked to others who were at the table that night. One commented he had never seen anybody play a wandering Urlan, a maiden, a fool, and an assassin with the panache that Elsin displayed. She won the hand and took the pot, which included the deeds.
Next morning, Marton took the deeds into work to have them properly valued. His employers spend some time pondering the matter and suggested that the obvious thing to do would be to go to Prae Ducis and survey the land in person. Marton reported the results of his researches and suggested to Elsin that a trip south might do her good and provide further material for her writing. Now it chanced that Elsin was in the process of having a volume of her writing published. She was in two minds about the whole experience. Essayists are often fiercely competitive and she had a suspicion that by publishing she was opening herself up to vituperative literary criticism, snide comments, and ridicule. It struck her that a trip into Partann might give her some ideas for an essay or two which might help her to promote her work in a more positive light.
The trip was arranged and Elsin sailed south whilst Marton remained at home, combining work with childcare in his usual pragmatic fashion. Once in Prae Ducis, Elsin made enquiries as to where her land was located. She discovered that she actually owned several farms, but that the previous landowner had died two generations ago and the tenants were reputed to regard themselves as owner occupiers. Thus she sent her tenants a message asking them to meet her to discuss matters. They in turn sent a message back suggesting that she rode out to meet them, because they could show her round and discuss matters in a more informed manner.
Elsin hired a pony and rode off to the selected rendezvous. Being of suspicious nature she arrived early, hid the pony and waited to see who turned up. A dozen hired bullies gathered, and from their conversation she realised that it was her they were waiting for. Indeed she appeared to be listening to a policy discussion as to whether she should be merely killed and buried in a shallow grave, or saved for resale further south. The latter option was preferred by those who felt the day was too warm for digging. It was at this point that her pony whinnied, perhaps detecting a horse or horses on the road. Immediately the thugs produced daggers and cudgels. Assuming she was arriving, they spread out to ambush her. Realising that she was soon to be able discovered, Elsin blessed the day her father had insisted on her taking fencing lessons, drew her sword and attacked.
Now whilst the sword, the element of surprise, and the fact that her foes were spread out, played to her advantage, it was unlikely that things would end well. She was lucky in that the noise of combat attracted passers-by. Two Urlan maidens on horseback burst into the clearing, assessed the situation and laid about them. Within moments, Elsin’s assailants lay dead on the grass under the trees. The last two, who had tried to flee, died with arrows in their backs.
After ensuring that Elsin was unhurt, the two maidens (who had been riding to join a villaging party) proceeded to the next stage in any military operation, looting the bodies and taking heads. This they did methodically, explaining to Elsin which of the victims were ‘hers’. Gently they pointed out that her victims were easy to spot because she had a tendency to ‘slash’. As one of the maidens said, ‘More tip, less edge. Still, it was a good effort.”
They then pointed to her pile of loot, which consisted of the somewhat bloodstained clothing of her victims, (another reason for ‘more tip and less edge’) and their personal effects, plus of course their severed heads. It was as she somewhat nauseously contemplated the heads that one of the maidens asked, in a concerned manner, whether she knew how to bone them out.
This led to an interesting and technical conversation. All Urlan know how to prepare a head. Virtually all will have a trophy cabinet at home where the better specimens are displayed. Most will also wear a handful of shrunken heads dangling from various belts and from their horse harness. Not only that, but the skulls can, with only a little work by a skilled silversmith, be made into nice commemorative drinking cups. Indeed her two new friends recommended a chap who has a little shop down Coal Hauler’s Gill in Prae Ducis.
Various ideas were jostling for pride of place in Elsin’s mind. But she asked the two maidens if they could spare her a day or so whilst she put her affairs in order. So the three ladies rode companionably to a nearby village. There a short sighted village elder squinted at the heads and identified their previous owners. Armed with the names, Elsin, with her four heads tied to her saddle by their hair, then made her way, with her two new friends, to visit her tenants. In short order, new tenancy agreements were signed, and the previous year’s rent paid in cash as an earnest of their good intentions. Finally that job done, they returned to Prae Ducis where the two maidens boned out the heads and prepared them for shrinking. Elsin took her four skulls to the recommended silversmith who promised to start work on a set of drinking cups for her.
A month later Elsin arrived back in Port Naain, just in time for the release of her book, “The Collected Essays of Elsin Fairdragan.” She attended the launch in person and it has to be admitted that her book was very well received. I watched the various periodicals and read all her reviews. I feel that even those reviewers who weren’t positively glowing did at least admit that Elsin had created a respectable body of work.
I pondered the situation for some time. It seems that whilst producing excellent work can silence your critics, as a technique it is nowhere near as effective as attending the launch of your book wearing the heads of your enemies on your belt, or serving the free wine in their skulls. Even the most self-important literary critic can read the writing on the wall under those circumstances.
Should you want to learn more of life in Partann
Hired to do a comparatively simple piece of mapping work Benor should perhaps have been suspicious when the pay seemed generous.
Will he ever get to the bottom of what is going on?
How rough is the rough justice of rural Partann?
How to clean out a privy with a crossbow. Welcome to the pastoral idyll.
As a reviewer commented, “Benor the cartographer is offered a job away from home with unusually generous pay. It all has to be done on the quiet, too. Something’s up. Benor has a murder to solve. I thought he had, but there’s more to come. This story is a murder mystery and a comedy of manners, set in a world of fantasy. If you like a genre mashup, this is brilliant. The characters and their relationships and banter would make it worth reading even if it didn’t have a plot – but it does. Another winner for me.”