Fate decrees that certain things only happen in winter. I was minding my own business. I was sitting in the cabin of the barge working on a few ideas I had for a poem. Shena, my lady wife, was working on her accounts. In the past hour I had moved only to make coffee for us, and to put more wood on the stove.
There was a knock on the door. I put down my pen and opened it to see a small child standing there.
“Message from Madam Galwaine.”
Now Madam Galwaine was one of my oldest patrons. Eventually age had got the better of even her indomitable spirit and she had finally conceded that she could no longer live in her own household. Still she had a will of iron, and she announced that if she was going to die anywhere, it would be in the house where she was born. Unfortunately for her daughter, this house was the farmhouse of a small farm the family owned deep in the Aphices. Still, given that a grandson and his wife now lived there, the daughter was happy to agree to this. So the old lady moved. I looked down at the small child at my door.
“Unless you’ve run a damned long way, you haven’t come from Madam Galwaine.”
The child gave me the sort of look reserved for those who are too stupid to come in out of the rain, but who you don’t want to insult because there is still the hope of a tip.
“I come fra her daughter. It’s her as sent on the message. The old lady’s dying and wants to see you before she goes.”
The child then passed me a letter. I recognised the handwriting on the envelope even before I opened it. It was indeed from Madam Galwaine. The letter confirmed the child’s comments.
I’ve had many patrons over the years but Madam Galwaine was one of the best. I remember the maid who ‘fell pregnant.’ Madam not merely kept her on, but helped the midwife with the delivery. She made no great show, but nobody was ever turned away from her door to go hungry.
When I told her that Shena and I were to be married she made her way down to the Old Esplanade and quietly joined the queue of shore combers waiting to sell their finds to Shena. When she arrived at the front of the queue, Shena rather looked at her askance. Madam merely commented, “I had to see what sort of young woman would marry a poet. It strikes me he’s found one who can probably cope with him.”
With that she handed my intended a card, an invitation for the pair of us to dine with Madam and her husband. I think Shena came to love the old woman as much as I did.
Shena had joined me at the doorstep and looked at the letter. She then turned to the child. “Here’s a vintenar. It’s yours if you get the Song of the Morning to wait for Tallis to join her.
The child sped off and Shena turned to me. “The Song of the Morning is steam tug which hauls empty barges back upstream. She can drop you off somewhere closer to the mountains and you can strike north from there.
Two days later I was trudging north following little known roads. Finally I asked a local for the way to Galwaine Steading. He scratched his head and suggested I take a side road. Apparently it would cut my remaining journey from over thirty miles to nearer twenty. I thanked him and took the track he suggested. Two hours later, climbing steeply, I wondered whether I’d been entirely wise. The short day was ending and it would soon be dark. I was hungry, tired and cold. Not only that but the night was clear and there was obviously going to be a sharp frost. As I pressed on I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. When I looked in that direction I could see nothing. Then as I turned to walk on I heard a twig crack. I spun round but still there was nothing. Briskly I set off again. Several times I was aware of something loitering in a cluster of trees. Once or twice I saw something gleaming. It was like moonlight on dull steel. Or perhaps on polished bone. Sticking as much as I could to the middle of the track, I kept walking. Off to the east, deeper into the mountains, I could occasionally catch glimpses of a bonfire. Not knowing the lie of the land I couldn’t tell whether it was a large fire some miles away, or a smaller fire somewhat closer. But nothing would have convinced me to head in that direction. On the edge of hearing I could catch what might have been eldritch singing. An hour later, in the bright darkness of a country night, I saw light streaming out of windows ahead. I approached with modest caution and found myself standing outside the door of a small monastery. I knocked and eventually the door was opened by a man in a threadbare black robe, with a piece of sacking wrapped around his shoulders for extra warmth. I explained my business.
He nodded. “Well your informant was right, but frankly I’d have taken the longer road. Still you can stay here tonight.”
With that he took me to a large kitchen where half a dozen other monks of various ages were eating their evening meal. A place was set for me at the long table. Slowly I returned to some semblance of humanity as I was warmed by the conversation, food and the great fire burning in the hearth. Eventually I was ushered to what my guide described as a meditation cell. He apologised, explaining that they had no other room to loan me. But he gave me two mattresses, both stuffed with rags. They were thick enough to stop the cold of the floor striking through and soft enough to be comfortable. I also got a generous supply of blankets. I placed my bed under the stone table. I put the shutter up to block the window and used a couple of blankets to hang across it to help cut down on the draughts. Even though I could still hear that dark singing in the far distance I was soon asleep. But my sleep was shallow and I kept drifting awake.
Finally I awoke to find a monk bending low over me. “Young Tallis, are you awake?”
I managed to stifle the first reply I thought of and instead replied, “I am, now.”
“Good. Madam Galwaine is dying. You must leave now or you will arrive too late.”
I sat bolt upright. “But I don’t know the way.”
“Don’t worry, I am here to guide you.”
With that he led me back to the kitchen. A large bowl of porridge was already waiting for me. He pushed a jar of honey to me, and at the same time poured something from a bottle into the bowl. The smell of plum brandy rose from the porridge. I spooned on a little honey and set about my breakfast with a will. The bowl empty I asked, “What about the creatures outside?”
He set coffee down beside me. “Don’t worry about the creatures of darkness.”
The coffee was excellent. After I had drunk it, he passed me a waistcoat of orid hide with the wool on the inside. “Put this on. You’ll need more than your cloak until the sun comes up.
With that he led me outside, stopping only to select a staff for himself and another for me. I hefted the staff in my hand. “I’d prefer something stouter if those creatures are still about.”
The monk looked at me calmly. “The forces of darkness are of no account, they have already lost.”
“Walk down any street in Port Naain and you would beg leave to doubt it.”
He smiled at that. “Every woman, every man, whether in Port Naain or out of it, knows where the line is drawn between light and darkness. Each must make their choice, but each knows themselves to be wrong when they chose darkness.” He smiled at me, “Even as they attempt to convince themselves otherwise. Indeed even as they try and block out thought with manic action and noise.”
He led me along a trail that narrowed. Soon it was too narrow for us to walk abreast. The moon came out from behind clouds and I could see that our path ran along the edge of a cliff. Far below us on our left there was the glint of moonlight on a river. My guide stopped. I could see that in front of him a barrier had been erected across the path. The air was still and thick with a stench so foul even Port Naain couldn’t match it. To my right I heard the noises I’d heard the previous evening, but the shapes, the dull glint in the moonlight, were nearer the path. My guide tapped the barrier with his staff. “And one day Aea will snap her fingers and banish the darkness for ever.” The barrier seemed to shiver and then collapsed into dust.
We walked on, I was silent. In all honesty he set such a good pace I didn’t really have the breath for conversation. The path widened. He stopped and faced me. “Until that day men and women learn to walk along the line between light and darkness, and in exploring both they explore themselves.” With his staff he marked a line on the road. “Without that line there is no art, no poetry, no love.” He stopped suddenly as if he heard a voice. “Hurry now young Tallis. Walk along this path and at sunrise you will see a farm off to the right. They have set its name on a stone. Galwaine Steading. A young girl will be standing there, scanning the road for you.”
With that he smiled and faded from my sight. The last things to be visible were the upturned lips of his smile.
I walked briskly along the path. Sunrise was later than you’d expect, so close were the mountains to the east. But as the first rays illuminated the road in front of me I saw the farm. A girl was standing in the lane searching the horizon. She saw me, “Are you Tallis Steelyard.”
I bowed. “I have that honour.”
“Grandmother is dying.”
“Then take me to her.”
She set off at a run and I was hard pressed to keep up with her. We passed through the house leaving doors hanging open behind us until finally we came to a large farmhouse kitchen. The old lady had had her bed made up in a corner of this, the common room of the house, the hub around which the household rotated. She was well propped up in bed and opened her eyes at our arrival. I knelt by the bed and held out a hand. “You asked for me and I am here.”
She patted my hand gently. “He said you would be here in time.” She paused as if gathering her strength. “Many years ago you sang for me, one of the great love songs from Phristus and Cimbu. Could you sing it again please?”
I stood up, coughed to clear my throat and slowly I started singing. I well remembered the other time I had sung it for her. It was the day her husband died. He’d died from injuries, a handsome young soldier grown into a stalwart man, yet rendered prematurely old and drawn by his wounds. She had nursed him for months.
I’m not a great singer, when I start from cold it takes time to get the key but soon I was performing as well as I could hope to. Finally the song drew to its close and I knelt once more by the bed. She smiled faintly, but her breathing was laboured. Her skin was grey. She opened her mouth as if to speak but made no sound. Then I saw, kneeling on the other side of the bed, the monk who had guided me that morning. He winked at me and faded away. At the same time Madam Galwaine gave a little sigh and died.
Should you wish to know more of Tallis Steelyard
More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. Marvel at the delicate sensitivities of an assassin, wonder at the unexpected revolt of Callin Dorg. Beware of the dangers of fine dining, and of a Lady in red. Travel with Tallis as his poetical wanderings have him meandering through the pretty villages of the north. Who but Tallis Steelyard could cheat death by changing the rules?
As a reviewer commented, “Another great collection of short stories about Port Naain poet Tallis Steelyard. This is the second collection I’ve read, and I enjoyed it as much as the first one – if not more so.
The individual stories are amusing, and a little quirky, and well suited for a quick read to disconnect from reality after a long day.