Like everybody else, I wondered what to make of Gyp. I’d met him one evening when I was hired as part of an entertainment. Lord Cartin’s Condottieri Company was home after a long campaigning season and Lord Cartin would put on a ball to celebrate. He doesn’t do it every year, but some years he obviously feels that such an event is needed.

It was a grand affair, spread across the entire house. The centre was the grand ballroom. Here anybody who knew the steps got up to dance. I saw Lord Cartin dance with three different ladies, one a man-at-arms, one a cook, and one the wife of an infantryman who travelled south with him as ‘a camp follower’ and helped with the cooking, nursing and anything else that needed doing.

I was summoned to deliver a couple of poems, old things really. I gave them some verses by Stanlan Needleborne, the captain of crossbowmen. Stanlan was present and blushed as he heard the words. I’m sure you’ve heard his poem, it starts

I wrap myself in my blanket.

My mattress the floor of a stable

Three winters’ worth of dry dung make a snug bed.

Our evening meal a bottle of plum brandy

Grateful, we drank it.

When I’d finished, Stanlan came across to top up my glass and to catch up with the news. We’d not seen each other for over a year. We drifted across to a table and I noticed a young man standing in the shadows, watching. Somebody had gone to the trouble of ensuring he was clean, but he was wearing everyday clothes. Even the camp followers had produced finery from somewhere. Stanlan saw where I was looking.

“That’s Gyp.”

“The only creature I ever knew called Gyp was that dog of Etan Stor’s.”

“The dog is brighter.”

I must have looked surprised, because Stanlan isn’t somebody who will casually mock somebody, so Stanlan explained.

A couple of years a youth had stumbled into their camp. He’d barely known how to speak, and was obviously hungry. Lord Cartin tried to talk to him and got nowhere. The general feeling was the lad was a bit simple. So he passed him over to the baggage train, to see if they could make anything of him.

After two or three days the miscellaneous non-combatants who made up the baggage train came to the conclusion that the youth wasn’t too bright. This is more common that people seem to think, after all, it’s been pointed out to me that half of all people are below average intelligence. He was called Gyp as a cruel joke, but he was biddable enough, was perfectly happy to chop wood, carry things, or load a wagon. But if anything went wrong, or he was given a task he’d not been shown how to do a number of times, he was lost.

He found his place by accident. One of the draught oxen went lame and had to be slaughtered. Whilst it meant they all ate beef that night, the following morning when they came to start out, they had one ox in a two ox yoke. Somebody, joking shouted for Gyp and told him to take the other side of the yoke. With the same serious expression that he tackled any new job Gyp put his shoulders under the yoke and he and his yoke mate started forward.

Stanlan elaborated, Gyp wasn’t as strong as an ox, far from it, but because he was taking the weight of the yoke, the ox could pull the half-loaded cart. By night they’d picked up another ox, but Gyp found his place. He worked with the oxen. He would carry food, bring them buckets of water, and watch them as they grazed. One of the older men had shown him how to lift an ox’s foot and each morning, before they started off, Gyp would pick up every foot and run his finger between the two claws to make sure there was nothing jammed in there which might make the animal lame.

As captain of crossbows, Stanlan was also in charge of the baggage if it accompanied the force on the march. So he saw Gyp develop. Being male they had wondered whether he might make a soldier, but he showed no sign of it. He lacked any aptitude or interest. He ate when people told him to eat, washed when they told him to wash, and every so often somebody would give him a shave. Stanlan saw one of the older women slap one of the younger ones who was flirting with the lad. She pulled her away by her ear and told her that only a fool awakens what lies sleeping that deep.

Over winter Gyp went with the cattle to the farm Lord Cartin reared his draught animals on. Technically he was paid, but nobody ever saw him show any interest in money or buying anything.

As I watched Gyp watching the dancers he reminded me of so many other men I’d come across. People avoid seeing them but for every person with a sparking wit and a love of learning, there’s a Gyp. They’ll never marry because any woman can do better than that, they’ll never know respect or even real friendship. The most they can hope for is a place where they’re fed and aren’t treated too badly. Gyp was lucky.

I saw him a couple of times over the next two or three years. I suppose that because I’d been told about him, he’d become an individual to me and I kept an eye open for him. It must have been four years later, Lord Cartin held another ball to round off the campaigning season. It had, by all accounts, been a damned hard campaign and they’d done well to get through it. There’d been defeats as well as victories.

Stanlan was obviously looking out for me because he came across as soon as he saw me. “Gyp’s dead.”

“What happened? Was it an accident?” Somehow I couldn’t imagine Gyp getting caught up in the fighting.
Stanlan found us a table and a bottle and told me the tale. They’d been on the march, his crossbowmen had been split with half forward as a screen and supporting the scouts. The other half had been marching with the baggage at the rear. Their scouts must have been asleep that day because their route took them down a steep, wooded hill, to a river. There was a ford, and then across the ford there was some large fields with woods on the far side.

The scouts had spread out on the far side of the ford and an enemy cavalry force had appeared out of the woods and had deployed in the fields to face them. Lord Cartin had led his own horseman across the ford and deployed them to face the enemy. There was some desultory skirmishing and the enemy numbers slowly increased.
Meanwhile the baggage train was winding its way slowly down the hill. Because it was steep the crossbowmen were hanging on ropes to slow the carts down, stopping them forcing the cattle forward too fast. It was then that the Partannese riders came through the wood and struck the baggage train. Everything degenerated into chaos. The riders were trying to run off oxen, women and anything else they could carry. Some of Stanlan’s crossbowmen were cut down before they even realised there was a problem. Gyp apparently stood there, utterly lost. Somebody managed to blow a horn call. Then it seems that a woman screamed. Gyp picked up an ox yoke and laid about him, smashing his way towards whoever was screaming. At this point Stanlan arrived, closely followed by some men-at-arms that Lord Cartin had sent to see what was going on. Scanlan commented that he’d never seen anything like Gyp, he was just lashing out, but was making no attempt to defend himself. More and more men-at-arms appeared and the raiders fell back.

Lord Cartin appeared, apparently this was a trap. The enemy deploying in front of them was too strong and was moving up to attack. He sent Scanlan back with what crossbowmen he could salvage to support the defence of the ford. Lord Cartin then tried to create order out of the chaos that was the baggage train. Carts with no oxen were pushed off the road, vital supplies were loaded onto the carts that they had cattle for, the enemy dead were dragged out of the way, the wounded had to be tended.

At the ford, a score of men-at-arms had dismounted and formed up with their lances set as spears on their side of the ford. Crossbowmen drew up on either side of them. The Partannese made two attempts just to rush the ford and these ended in bloody chaos. The second attempt didn’t even make the line of spears before petering out. The third attempt was made properly with cavalry dismounted and fighting on foot, drawn up deep. They had their own archers brought up to give support. This too was beaten back but barely. As the Partannese retired to lick their wounds, Scanlan rode back to find Lord Cartin, he wanted to know whether they were falling back or whether he would get reinforced.

He found them standing round Gyp. Much to everybody’s surprise, when they had come to drag his body away, Gyp had whimpered. They rolled him gently onto his back, he had half a dozen wounds in his stomach and chest and had no right to be alive. The surgeon knelt beside him and examined him. “He might linger for an hour, perhaps more. To move him is to kill him.”

He turned to one of the women kneeling next to him. “Lift his head please, I can give him some poppy syrup. It’ll ease the pain.”

The woman laid Gyp’s head on her lap and the surgeon dripped the syrup into his mouth. Around them carts were starting to move back up the hill. Lord Cartin looked towards Scanlan. “Pull back, I’ll send you some more men-at-arms, we’re going to have to retreat.”

Scanlan went back towards the ford, shouting orders to cornets of horse and lesser captains. Already mounted men were following the carts up the hill and his crossbowmen were jogging back from the riverbank to the edge of the wood ready to make their next stand. Slowly Scanlan pulled the crossbowmen back through the woods, covering the flanks as the men-at-arms retired along the road. Eventually he arrived at where Lord Cartin stood, reorganising squadrons and giving orders for the withdrawal. At his feet, Gyp still lay, his head on the woman’s lap. The surgeon returned, “Those of our dead who could be recovered and all our wounded have been moved out on the carts. Only the dead are left.”

Lord Cartin gestured down to Gyp. The surgeon said, “With respect sir, only the dead are left.”

“We cannot leave him to die at their hands.”

The surgeon knelt down again and gently opened one of Gyp’s eyes. “Here lad, just another drop, you’ll sleep soundly and wake up well.”

He poured a little more syrup into Gyp’s mouth and watched him swallow. “Now you’ll feel no more pain.” With his scalpel he slit Gyp’s carotid artery. Blood ran out onto the skirt of the woman holding his head. Gyp seemed to relax.

The woman said quietly, “That’s the first time in his life anybody ever bothered to lie to Gyp for his own good.” She started sobbing quiet.

Lord Cartin bent down and picked up Gyp’s body and slung it over the back of his horse. “Scanlan, you command the crossbowmen or the left, I’ll command those on the right, the surgeon here will take my horse.”
He turned to the cornet of horse whose men were dismounted and watching the road running uphill towards them a little nervously. “Cornet, you hold the centre, the crossbowmen will cover your flanks and we’ll make damned sure they don’t come through the woods at us againl.”

They buried Gyp with the other dead that night.

When Scanlan had finished his tale, he poured out the last of the wine. “When we got to Port Naain, we stopped at the temple of Aea in her Aspect as the Personification of Vainglory. As always we carved the names of our dead. Gyp’s name is there with the others.”

I sat in silence, the sadness of that young man’s life washing over me.

A dog’s name?

A dog’s life?
A sad existence, dim lit, empty.

Too slow for shame?

Too ignorant for strife?

To win the scorn of the cognoscenti

No hope of fame

No hope of wife

No hope of comfort, but sorrow aplenty

Scanlan sighed. “He lies with the rest in a bed of cold clay, no man in that grave can claim to be better or worse than any other, but it wasn’t much of a life.”
I thought of those I have seen round the city, without hope, with just enough understanding to realise how useless they are. Scorned, mocked and exploited.
“Gyp was one of the lucky ones.”


Should you wish to read more from Tallis Steelyard

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, “More of Steelyard’s vignettes on the life of a jobbing poet in cut-throat literary world of Port Naain. Wittily written, a fascinating background and and an ever-varying cast of colourful characters. An excellent way to spend a rainy afternoon.”

15 thoughts on “Gyp

      1. Not only that but frankly a lot of ‘apprenticeships’ aren’t worth a lot, especially those that last six months to a year. A proper apprenticeship should last at least three years, about the same length of time as a degree course, interestingly enough

        Liked by 1 person

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