Over the years I’ve travelled more widely than many of my fellow citizens of Port Naain. Some of this is perhaps due to my romantic nature, my love of the new vista, new people, new customs. Rather more of it is probably due to the cantankerous nature of some of my fellows.
Off the cuff, I produced a short verse about Boggis Callow, who irritated me immensely for reasons I can no longer completely bring to mind. I remember somebody making the comment about him, “A Pompous fool who knows how to put the moan in sanctimonious.”
I was at the Misanthropes one evening and he was pontificating loudly about something or the other to a collection of sycophants. They cling on his every word in the vague hope that if they are suitably ingratiating and obsequious, he’ll scatter largesse in their direction. He may be a pompous fool but he is a well-heeled pompous fool. At one point he started denigrating free verse. I retorted with the following.
Boggis spends his wisdom sparingly,
Callow youths stand in awe
Is this a masquerade?
A lesson on which we can draw?
Fool, there is nothing to see, pass, carefully.
He waved it away. However, next day he saw it written down and realised that the first word of every line spelled out a message. At that point he lost his temper. The problem wasn’t his temper, the problem was that his various toadies assumed that if they were to ostentatiously assault me they would win his approval. I was faced with a quandary, I could go everywhere armed with a sturdy bludgeon, or I could spend a week or two following where my muse led in in northern Partann. I chose the latter, there is a limit to how much time one wants to spend beating off somebody else’s admirers with a stick.
I followed what has been a common practice of mine, I boarded the first boat out of Port Naain, allowing random chance to determine my destination, aiming to leave the boat before being actively ejected over the side. Thus chance found me wandering among the minor hamlets south of Fluance on the east bank of the River Dharant. I suspect that they are somewhat starved of high culture, so much so that they are remarkably generous to poets and story tellers. Hence I managed quite well as I tramped north heading in the general direction of home.
I arrived, late in the afternoon, at a hamlet I was later to discover was called Mottwash. There was a chap whitewashing his cottage at the edge of the village and as he saw me he commented, “Almost finished, I said it wouldn’t take long.”
I stopped and leaned on the gate. “I can see that. You’ve made a nice job of it.”
Indeed he had. Far too many people get the damned stuff over everything but he was obviously somebody with the knack.
“I’ll see you later tonight in the Fat Mott? We could do with a tale and I’m sure there’ll be a bit of supper for a good story.”
That sounded positive. “If the landlord will have me, I’ll be there.”
“Oh, old Ponky will have you, he’s a placid temperament, always says how as a fellow as waits sees everything, given time.”
I left my informant and made my way through the hamlet. The Fat Mott was easy to find, a long low rambling building with a stack yard to the rear and the unmistakeable sounds and smells of mott coming from the paddocks further to the rear. Old Ponky was indeed an individual of emollient temperament. He greeted me warmly and I’d barely asked whether he would like me to perform for my supper when he said, “Of course. But a word of warning. We can have too many tales about the doings of Port Naain. Give us something of your adventures, how you come to be travelling. Tell us of the folks you’ve met on the road.”
“Nothing could be simpler, have you a quiet corner I can sit and make a few notes?”
“Certainly.” He led me through to a small snug off the main bar. “I’ll shut the door and folk will leave you in peace. If you want to, you can even sleep here the night.”
I thanked him for his kindness and gave some thought to what I was going to tell his guests that evening.
The evening went well. In all candour I think the landlord was on to something. It’s far too easy for those of us who live in Port Naain to assume that the doings of the inhabitants actually matter to people who live outside the bounds of the conurbation. As it was I took the tales I’d been told over the previous days, tweaked and improved them, added in some of my own observations and also gave an account of my leaving the city. This allowed me to do my celebrated impersonation of Boggis Callow, a chap who really needs to lose thirty pounds of gravitas so that he can see his shoes without having to peer over his spreading prosperity.
During the evening not only was I fed but my glass was kept topped up. Indeed it must be admitted that the company probably indulged more enthusiastically that was perhaps wise. I could imagine that there would be some thick heads next morning. Old Ponky hustled backwards and forwards with trays of tankards, bowls of his thick mott ham and pea soup, plates of bacon sandwiches. He even passed round a tray of pickled trotters for folk to chew on as they listened to my tales. He slipped a couple in my jacket pocket on the grounds he didn’t want me to miss out.
I’m not sure what time it was when somebody said, “I reckon we’ve got enough folk to get that stone put back up.”
Old Ponky looked round the room. “I reckon you have. Take Master Steelyard with you, it’ll give him a tale for the next village. I’ll have some mulled ale ready when you comes back.”
So we set off into the night, following a path that led up to the moor. Now I heard half a dozen different versions of the story of the standing stone. All agreed that there was a standing stone. All agreed that from time to time it fell down and they had to re-erect it. It was the reasons for why things happened that differed. Some claimed that the stone was a totem of their people and if it remained fallen the hamlet would fade away. Others claimed it was their defence against a mage of dubious intent who lived somewhere on the moor. Yet another story claimed that fell beasts couldn’t pass the stone.
Anyway there comes a time in every evening when a chap realises that after drinking so much beer you have to get rid of the excess. I’d not thought to stop at the jakes on the way out. But others were dropping off to one side and then catching up again, nobody seemed surprised when I stepped off to one side to relieve myself.
When I stepped back onto the path, everybody had gone, but I could hear voices ahead, so I followed. Eventually it was obvious that I had taken a wrong path, the voices were off to my left, and then fell silent altogether. Now there’s no sense in blundering about in the dark on a moor you don’t know. I decided I’d find a place to shelter. I was lucky, I reached an area with a lot of rocks and finally found three standing together with a fourth laid across their top. Here I huddled, wrapping my cloak tightly about me and tried to doze as I waited for morning.
I woke up abruptly, a voice spoke.
I said, “Pardon, I missed that.”
“I said, you are a long way from home, little poet.”
I looked around me but there was no sign of a speaker, and the voice came from directly in front of me anyway. I should have been able to reach out and touch the them. There was nobody there. “You have the advantage on me, Sir.”
“Fear not, they have raised the standing stone again. We are all quite safe. Although you are less safe than some. In the morning, you will have a choice of leaving through one of the three openings. The one you are facing now will give you fewest problems.”
I felt slightly cheered. Fewer problems meant that my unknown conversationalist did at least assume my problems were capable of being counted. “Thank you for your advice, Sir.”
“You are welcome. But as you are awake, is there any chance of a poem or two, it can be a lonely life.”
I gave him the full, ‘Assorted verses.’ By Quoloen the Indelicate, it contains the immortal lines, ‘In Cascavai of the Silks before you die, on beds of shredded linen lie.’
I would shudder to think what I looked like, standing along under a stone, declaiming verse to the false dawn. When I finally came to a halt, the voice said, “Master Steelyard, you are indeed generous. I will do what I can to repay. Step forward four steps, briskly mind.”
I did so, and as I passed from under the capstone of my shelter I could almost hear a clang, as if a gate had slammed shut behind me. The voice continued. “I must rest. For you, dawn will come in another hour, bare left and keep the sun on your back when you can see it. Your route will take you downhill.
I moved away from my shelter. With the rising sun, darkness was replaced by mist. The whole area took on a most peculiar atmosphere, unnerving, even eerie. I slowly picked my way through rock formations, the sun remained a pale disc in the sky. It was past noon before I arrived at a road. I had remembered the pickled trotters that the landlord had slipped in my pocket and I chewed on them as I marched. By mid-afternoon I realised where I was, I had joined the road that led into Mottwash. I decided I might as well press on to the hamlet. Avoiding it would take me out of my way, and whilst I would doubtless be teased, I had a tale to tell and they were friendly enough.
It was as I came to the start of the hamlet I had my first surprise. There was a chap there whitewashing his cottage, but he’d barely started the job. I said ‘good day’ to him and commented that he had a few days’ work ahead of him.
“No, I’ll get it finished tomorrow.”
With that I made my way to the Fat Mott. Old Ponky didn’t recognise me but was civil enough. That night I gave them some of the stuff I do about Port Naain. It’s knock-about stuff which works well in country inns. All in all it was a reasonable night. Not a lot of people but they were friendly enough. Nothing was said about standing stones, nobody seemed to recognise me. I slept on a bench in the common room, had a good slice of Mott bacon between two slices of fresh bread for my breakfast, and this I ate as I walked briskly northwards. It did occur to me that if I walked south instead, would I meet myself coming back? But there again, I hadn’t met myself previously so obviously I hadn’t walked south. A few days later I got the ferry across to Port Naain. I was leaning against the side trying to reckon up the days. I was trying to work out whether I’d lost one, gained one, or had the right count. Then Fiddish Mullow appeared alongside me. Of all Boggis Callow’s flatterers he is the one whom I find the most nauseating. He started berating me and I ignored it. Then he waved his finger under my nose. At that point I confess my self-control may have weakened. I tipped him over the rail and into the estuary. The crew threw him a rope and we towed him to Port Naain.
Should you wish to read more about the travels of Tallis Steelyard
Instead of his usual collection of anecdotes, this time Tallis presents us with a gripping adventure. Why is Tallis ‘run out of town’ by hired ruffians? Why does a very sensible young woman want his company when plunging into unknown danger? Who or what was buried in the catacombs? And why has there been so much interest in making sure they stay dead? Also featuring flower arranging, life on the river, and a mule of notable erudition.
As a reviewer commented, “
Tallis Steelyard is a poet with champagne tastes on a beer budget. Chased out of town, and into the bay, by irate creditors, he’s rescued by a passing boat and given the opportunity to become a part of the crew. Thereafter follow a series of adventures, many funny, before Tallis can finally return home again.
I thoroughly enjoyed the story and recommend it highly!”