I wonder at what stage even a poet realises it is time to be sensible? When does adulthood creep over us? It was not long ago, I was in northern Partann. This wasn’t one of my usual mad escapades, slipping out of the city to avoid creditors or those who thought I’d gratuitously insulted them. Indeed, as an aside I feel the latter particularly strongly. As if I would ever gratuitously insult somebody. If I insult somebody it is entirely reasonable, relevant and necessary.
But no, in this case I was in Northern Partann because a patron of mine had retired to the family estate for the summer. I had organised a summer birthday party for his wife and next day I set off to walk back to Port Naain. The weather was fine, I had been generously recompensed by the grateful couple, and had been given a perfectly adequate luncheon to take with me by the cook. I was set to enjoy the day.
It was as I walked through a section of woodland I thought to hear some distant piping. Indistinct, perhaps on the edge of imagination, but there was something there. I pondered briefly. As far as I knew, bandits had not yet taken to playing music to lure their victims to their fate. Also I knew that the mystery would irritate me if I didn’t investigate it. I turned off the track and followed a path into the wood. I hadn’t gone far before I came to a clearing. There, standing in the shadow, was a shape, a person. I halted and a young woman stepped out of the shadows. Given she was wearing a sword of undoubted efficacy I was determined to greet her with every mark of respect. She also held a staff which seemed to glow from within, and strange shining runes were running up and down the shaft.
“Good morning, Madam. I am Tallis Steelyard, poet.”
She bowed slightly. “I am Adari Laikin.”
The name meant she was Urlan, the sword and dagger confirmed this and I had no doubt there would be other weaponry concealed. But unusually for an Urlan maiden travelling, there was no armour, no helmet. Also, and here it might merely be my lack of familiarity, but I’d never seen an Urlan maiden with something which looked like a magical staff. Mind you, I have met enough Urlan to know that the Laikin are a notable family.
“The name of Laikin is not unknown to me.”
She almost spat on the grass. “I am cousin to Kierkal Laikin, who was not merely ladies champion at the lists, but rode a bull Maedrag into battle destroying a horde of beast men, killed the Mage Lord Arach Gohr, slew the great Scar war chief Gat Har, and is worshipped in Gorodas as an aspect of the Goddess Aea. Her escutcheon is indeed well polished.”
Somewhat hesitantly I commented, “I have heard tell of the lady, there appears to be a lot of killing involved in the tale.”
“Then it is probably true.”
Things were becoming a little clearer now. I gestured towards the staff, “So you have decided to follow a different path?”
“My legs aren’t long enough to wade through the blood.” She threw up her hands, almost in a gesture of despair. “What would I have to do to match her? So I went to the Magistrorum at Meor and studied the magical arts. I apparently have an affinity for them.”
I had heard of the Magistrorum. It is apparently some sort of academic institution which manages to exist in the barbarian lands to the east. “I have not heard of the Urlan studying there?”
“Few do.” There was a note of dismissal in her tone so I didn’t press the matter. Then after a moment’s silence she asked, “Can you hear the music.”
I stopped and listened again. “Yes, it is still there.”
“Then you are indeed a poet. My teachers claimed that only a true mage or a poet could hear one.”
“A piper at the gates.”
I shook my head. “I am afraid I am no wiser.”
“Then come with me and learn something new, good poet.”
Now this decided me. If I was investigating anything I would prefer to do it in the company of an Urlan. The maidens are no less lethal than their male kin. Whilst the male might cut you in half with a backhanded blow, his sister, accepting her lesser size and strength, will kill you with the edge of a blade which carries a poison so lethal you are dead before you realise you are injured.
I followed her at a respectful distance along a path. The music, a plaintive tune, hinted at lost vistas and forgotten roads left untraveled for too long. Finally Adari Laikin halted and raised a hand to beckon me to join her. In the clearing was the musician. Manlike but not man, half the size of my companion, it danced among the butterflies, the creature’s feet not quite touching the ground.
Adari stepped out into the clearing, her staff raised. “Greetings.”
The creature lowered its pipe. “Greetings.” It paused, “Adari Laikin.”
Adari lowered her staff. “Greetings, Naoman, Piper at the Gates.”
The creature bowed. “An Urlan and a true mage.”
“I wish to pass through the gates.”
The creature seemed to assess her. “You have the staff, you are a true mage, you have the right. There will be a price.”
“Name your price.”
“You have a poet.”
Adari glanced back at me and beckoned me forward. “Whilst he is with me, he isn’t mine.”
“Even so, the price is a poem, never heard before.”
Piper at the Gates.
The story began
When you entangled our fates
Your piping drew me
As I wandered carefree
And now, confused
Lest of ingratitude I am accused
And my good nature you downplay.”
Dryly the creature commented, “I can understand why it has never been heard before.”
I sighed dramatically and said,
“Hearts hardened and scleritic
Now everybody is a critic.”
“Thus am I put in my place. The price is paid. Adari, where do you want to go?”
“Where can I go?”
Naoman waved a hand, “Here is the true seeing.”
I rubbed my eyes. As I looked up, instead of the trees, I could see islands in a tranquil sea. Scores of them, hundreds of them, extending to the edge of visibility. But on the very edge of sight I could see a wood, and somehow I knew that I was standing in that wood, looking up at the sky, and it wasn’t another me, it was me.
“All of them.”
Naoman shook his head with a smile. “I would expect nothing else from an Urlan.” He gestured and a staircase appeared, but it wasn’t a staircase, it was a series of stepping stones across an ocean. I could smell the salt breeze and hear the cry of the gulls.
Adari turned to me, “Do you want to come?”
I gazed at the sea that stretched out, the islands, some of them surely as large as worlds. “But how far, how long?”
Naoman said quietly, “Time is a concept only. It is a stream that flows at different speeds. You could spend a year exploring and arrive home to find a minute or a millennium had passed.”
I contemplated the worlds revealed. Even from here I could see tiny people going about their business. Adari said quietly, “I need a poet, a bard to record my deeds.”
I sighed. “In a barge tied to Fellmonger’s Wharf, Shena is getting home from an early tide. She will be tired. She will sleep for an hour or so and then she will sort the various things she has purchased from the shore combers. Rags in one heap to be washed. Then she will put the mixed metals in another heap, a third heap for things immediately recognisable. Then that done she will take that for which she has an immediate market, sell it and with the money she will purchase various things for our evening meal.
When I arrive home she will kiss me, we will eat, and I will sit with a collection of tools, trying to clean the accretion of years from metal scrap whilst she washes the rags and we tell each other of how our time has passed.
I have found my magic, I know my destination.” I paused. “I suppose I am old.”
Naoman raised his pipe to his lips. “You are wise.”
Dancing and playing his pipe he set off up the staircase that was somehow stepping stones. Adari raised a hand to me in farewell and turned and followed him. Slowly they climbed out of sight. The canopy of the woodland closed over my head and I stood in shadow. I am not sure I felt wise, but I certainly felt old.
You may have noticed the art work. This is by a very talented artist, Ian Bristow.
Check him out at
Should you wish to know more about Tallis Steelyard
When he is asked to oversee the performance of the celebrated ‘Ten Speeches’, Tallis Steelyard realises that his unique gifts as a poet have finally been recognised. He may now truly call himself the leading poet of his generation.
Then the past comes back to haunt him, and his immediate future involves too much time in the saddle, being asked to die in a blue silk dress, blackmail and the abuse of unregulated intoxicants. All this is set in delightful countryside as he is asked to be poet in residence at a lichen festival.
As a reviewer commented, “What’s a poet to do when one of his lady patrons is being blackmailed and his own life may be at risk due to his actions in defending another from attack some time in the past.
How are both these events connected?
Well – read this tale and find out – trust me, it’ll be time well spent.”