It is many years since I last saw Eltan Door, Lord of the Golden Keep. It is strange, I only met him by accident. I was very young and had just started trying to support myself as a poet. When I look back at the things I did, the work I produced, I astound myself that I survived. But still the work was good, even if it lacks the maturity of my later work, and when it came to supporting my patrons, I was loyal. This is something others couldn’t claim.
Still I was struggling for work, my patrons were few and my meals infrequent. Then I got a letter claiming to come from Eltan Door, Lord of the Golden Keep. He invited me to perform for his court during the coming solstice festivities. A quite respectable sum of money was mentioned, as was the fact I would be there for the full week.
Now if I had been older and more cynical I would have checked details, but I was young and probably a little naive. Whilst I hadn’t many patrons, and none who would miss me if I didn’t appear over the solstice, I had rivals who obviously feared my charm and ability. One of them had written the letter. Their timing was good, even if I could have found somebody to take a letter back the other way, there wasn’t time for that. I just had to pack and go.
The Golden Keep is in Partann and it isn’t. It’s to the east of the River Dharant, tucked into the Northern Aphices. Technically it might be considered to be in the territory of Fluance, although the good burghers of that town refuse to claim control of anything more than a day’s walk from their boundaries. So the area is debateable and whilst not lawless, there is little formal jurisprudence.
I managed to get a boat, working my passage until I jumped ship at Fluance and walked the rest of the way. Eventually I found the keep. It was high enough in the hills to have had snow, and somewhat worryingly, there were no tracks leading to it.
Now whilst I was young, I was not stupid. I thought that the ‘court’ of the Lord of the Golden Keep would be restricted to family, a few elderly hangers on, and a number of retainers. Perhaps a score of people, certainly not many more. But as I approached the keep I could see that I had been over optimistic. The great gates had long gone, some of the stone had been robbed, and the keep itself looked to be barely inhabited. Still, I hammered on the only door I could find and an old man, wrapped in a blanket, opened it and looked out at me. I handed him my letter of invitation. It was obvious he could read, he turned the letter round so it was right way up. Then he shook his head sadly.
“You’d better come in lad. I never sent this, but as you’re here, at the very least you can have a warm and a bit of supper and you’ll need a bed for the night.”
To be honest, I was too tired and footsore to be embarrassed. So I followed him into what I discovered was the one properly furnished room in the keep. There was a decent fire, a box bed, a table, a chair or two and a dresser with a little crockery stacked on it. There were also several shelves of books.
Still Eltan mulled me a tankard of ale, and set before me bread and cheese. As I ate, we talked and he told me a little about himself. He was Lord of the Golden Keep but it was an empty title. He had left in his youth to go to Port Naain where he had become a costermonger. He had married, there had been children, and then things had gone wrong and he had come back to the keep. Here he supported himself with his few beillie and a few orid. He grew enough grain for his own bread and had a vegetable garden that sufficed for his own needs.
In return I told him a little about myself, recounted some humorous stories I had prepared for my performance, and as we drank a second tankard, I gave him some verse and even a comic song. Next morning it was snowing, so I helped him carry hay to his livestock. Whilst he prepared a meal I carried fresh water to them. Then after our lunch we split logs and I carried them up to stack against the wall ready for the fire. On the following day the morning was fine, but it looked as if snow would come in later. So I bid him farewell and promised to drop in again at some point in the future. I walked briskly to Fluance, and managed to get a passage back to Port Naain for the price of helping load sacks of grain onto the boat.
To be fair, when I made the promise I did so with little thought of ever being able to keep it. But later that year I had to go to Fluance, and the timing was bad. I had one performance on one day, the next recital was four days later. I couldn’t afford to stay in Fluance and I couldn’t afford to go home. So I made my way to the Golden Keep. Eltan Door welcomed me and I spent the time with him. During the day I worked alongside him, during the evenings we just talked. He knew a lot about Port Naain ‘before my time’ and I could bring him up to date with things as they currently stood.
Looking back now I suspect that I dropped in to see him most years. Even if just for a day or so. I liked the old chap and just from things he said in passing, I came to the conclusion that there had been some great sadness in his life. He never mentioned it but there were many gaps in his story, things he ever referred to.
It was perhaps ten years after my first visit that I got a message from him. It was simple, ‘Please come soon, I want to say goodbye.’ Now I knew his health was failing him, and he was a fair age. I felt I had to go. The only event I was due to perform at was an evening affair at the house of the Widow Handwill. Indeed it’s so long ago she wasn’t even a widow then. I arrived at the house, explained the situation and her husband felt in his pocket, pulled out some coins and said, “Here’s your fare. Of course you have to go.”
Madam Handwill took me down to the kitchen, wrapped the breast of a plump fowl in waxed paper for me with the words, “If he’s ill, this in a broth might help.”
With the package thrust into my shirt for want of a better place to keep it, I ran from the house, caught the first boat going up-river, arrived at Fluance as night fell, and walked through the night to Golden Keep. I arrived at dawn to find Eltan shivering in bed in a cold room. I lit the fire, made him some broth and helped him eat it. It was obvious that he had not got long for this world.
I got him comfortable, kept him warm and sat with him. I suppose I talked more than I should, probably to cheer myself up as much as to cheer him. Eventually he shushed me.
“Tallis my boy, it’s time you knew the whole story.”
I insisted that I mulled two tankards of ale first. I thought that at least I’d use the story as an excuse to get some more nourishment into him. As it was, I had to help him sit up and hold the tankard for him, but he told me his tale.
His family had a long history in Partann. The trouble with Partannese genealogy is that some families will take their name from where they live, and if they move, lose a keep or gain a keep, they’ll just change their name. But his family had been among the great in the country. Apparently his grandfather had been a mage of some ability. Indeed he’d been powerful enough to deal directly with demons. Whilst it wasn’t an ability he flaunted, even rumours of it ensured their keeps (of which the Golden Keep was merely one, and one of the lesser ones) were not troubled too much by acquisitive neighbours. The problem is that grandfather was ambitious, he felt it was time that Partann was unified again. Now if he’d tried it using magic, there were plenty of other, greater mages, who would have crushed him. But if he did it using force, hiring fighting men and proceeding down the road trodden by many ambitious lordlings before him, they wouldn’t turn a hair. So he needed gold. He got it by the simple expedient of cheating a demon.
The problem with demon gold is that it is just that, gold that has been cherished by a demon. Aea alone knows what they do with the stuff, but some of them covert it and the demon was not happy that he (or she) had been cheated. So the demon cursed the gold. Given it was tainted anyway, the curse was probably the final straw. Grandfather’s alliance, held together by gold, dissolved into treachery and backstabbing and grandfather died with a knife in his back.
His son, Eltan’s father apparently salvaged something from the wreck and when Eltan was young, he started hiring men with the intention of taking back what grandfather had lost. The legend of the almost infinite amounts of gold that grandfather had won cost the father his life. His mercenaries mutinied and in the fighting between loyal and disloyal mercenaries, he died. Eltan’s nurse got the child to Port Naain where he was left with a handful of distant relatives and a small bag of gold, all that she had been able to salvage from the wreck.
Initially things went well. Once he had come of age he purchased a small shop and started his costermonger’s business. He married a nice girl and they had three delightful children. But the gold was still working. His nice girl grew ever more acquisitive, his children bickered and demanded more and more. Eventually he could cope no more. When he discovered his wife was also the mistress of a wealthy financier, he just abandoned everything and made his way back to the Golden Keep. Here he slowly built up his small flock, grew his own food, and handled no money. But even this life was slowly slipping though his fingers. His livestock, which he could no longer care for, he traded with a small farmer down the valley whose daughter brought food for him once a week.
It was in the middle of the night when he awoke from sleep and shouted, “Tallis.”
I was at his side in an instant.
“Tallis, open the chest by the bed.”
I did what I was told and took from it a cloak. It was heavy, of excellent material and when worn it was fastened by a heavy brooch in gold. I took it to him.
“Tallis, this belonged to my great-grandfather. It is all I have that comes from before the demon. Take it, a gift from me.”
It was beautiful. A great prince could have worn it without shame, even after all those years.
Then he said, “Tallis, under my bed there is a flat stone, it should shift easily with the long crowbar in the corner. Bury me under the stone.”
With that he died.
So I moved the bed, and there was the stone. It was longer than the bed but as he said, with the crowbar it moved easily enough. I got his spade and started digging. The soil was loose and I barely got two blade’s length down and hit timber. I was intrigued, I cleared away the soil, exposing all the timber and then using the bar, I lifted that. There was a space below, perhaps it had been a cellar. In it were barrels and chests. With the bar I tapped one of the barrels. The wood was rotten and broke under by blow. Gold coins cascaded out. I reeled back as if they had bitten me. I looked at the virtually infinite wealth and then I quietly put the wooden boards back. I wrapped Eltan in his great grandfather’s cloak with the brooch at his left shoulder and lay him on the boards. He looked like a prince. Then I shovelled the soil back, patted it down hard, and put the stone back in place. The surplus soil I took out to the vegetable garden. I dug a shallow trench the length of a man, poured in the surplus soil and then filled the hole with the spoil that had come out of it. I shaped the mound neatly and found a suitable piece of wood. With a poker I burned on it, ‘Here lies Eltan Door, Lord of Golden Keep.’ This I hammered in at the head of the ‘grave’ in the vegetable garden. If the neighbours came looking for Eltan, this would answer their questions and I couldn’t imagine them digging down to check.
Then I walked to Fluance, couldn’t afford the fare, but got a job helping a drover drive a flock of fat orid lambs to Port Naain for slaughter. He didn’t, in point of fact, pay me. But to be fair to him, he fed me as well as he fed himself.
I assume the gold is still there with Eltan guarding it. It’s just I’ve never disliked anybody enough to suggest they go and dig for it.
Should you wish to join Tallis Steelyard as he recounts more interesting episodes from his past
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.”