Staffan Valeed was one of those young men you knew would always go far. Opinions varied. Some claimed that as he wandered about with his nose in a book he would end up being mugged by the crimp and sold for a sailor. Others commented that his habit of being naturally charming to young ladies could lead to him fleeing the city ahead of a band of bullies hired by an irate father. Still I feel his tale shows the danger of teaching all and sundry to read.
Let us be frank, Staffan was making a reasonable living unloading boats as a casual labourer. Yes, the ability to reckon a tally stick, read the packing notices on crates and sacks, and count your wages at the end of a shift, are all useful life skills. But Staffan was addicted to those ‘fifty dreg dreadfuls’. Romance and adventure stories set in regions of Partann with better plumbing than those parts I’ve ventured into.
It was one of these stories which set him off on his mad adventure. Apparently the hero made his way into the Aphices Mountains and there, in the higher valleys, he carved out a kingdom using nothing but his wit and the strength of his right arm. The tale is full of beautiful woman, dashing adventurers, and wealthy merchants making their way through almost forgotten mountain trails and just asking to be robbed.
After a particularly hard shift, unloading green hides in the rain, Staffan mentioned this option to three of the lads he worked with. Obviously he painted a rosier picture of the opportunities than I would have done but still, he sold them the plan and they agreed they would follow him and be his loyal lieutenants.
But where to go? Staffan made his way to the Great Library and closeted himself in the map room. There in solitary state he perused the maps. Normally the map room can be quite busy but it’s perhaps not surprising that a man who has spent the day unloading green hides in the rain should discover that everybody else finds a reason to be elsewhere.
Eventually he found what he was looking for. The contours bore a blurred and unconvincing air, as if they weren’t sure where exactly on the paper they should be. Village names were well scattered and tentative. There was even a ‘Tower’ (Abandoned) which he felt would provide the perfect base.
So with a destination and a goal the four desperados set of. If there was a young lady who asked Staffan, a little pointedly, how long he was going to be away, this is perhaps not the time and place for the answer. Still you would have said that they were four reasonably presentable young men who left Port Naain. Still, a month or so tramping the roads meant that by the time they arrived at the first valley, Staffan was leading a party who looked distinctly rough, even unkempt. As they lay on the thin grass where the road crossed the pass into the valley they looked at their new kingdom.
Even the most poetic would struggle to conjure forth riches. It was Grunt who summed things up. “Miles and miles of damn all.”
They made their way into the valley, and came to the first village. Staffan could now understand why the names had been tentative. This village consisted of two hovels and they stood perhaps a mile apart. Firmly he knocked on the door. A middle aged woman opened it and looked out.
This was the second blow. There was a sudden realisation that if you are looking for maidens with skins as soft as milk and with eyelashes so long they rest on their cheeks, the upper valleys of the Aphices Mountains may not be the best place. Indeed it has been suggested to me that in these areas female
Pulchritude tends to be weathered.
Still, Staffan was firm in his purpose. He explained he was the new lord of the upper valleys and would be collecting rents from his tenants.
The woman pondered his words. “So what do we get fort’ money?”
Loftily, Staffan (who had wisely foreseen this question) replied, “My protection.”
The woman looked round at the empty landscape. Thoughtfully she pointed towards a wall. “See yon wall? Gap in it lets wolves through into t’ewes. Happen to protect us you’d better fix it?”
Staffan looked at his three companions. Grunt shrugged. “Happen it’s how protection is done round here?”
Staffan gave the woman a half bow and led his companions to the wall. Felon, the youngest of them, had worked in the building trade so had some idea how to tackle dry stone. They set to work. It was fine and whilst the wind was a touch chill, the work kept them warm. It was mid-afternoon when the woman came across to see how things were proceeding. She studied the length of wall they were working on. An honest man would have been forced to admit that it perhaps lacked the classic lines of the original. Still it was obvious that they’d got better as they’d progressed and it would have been a harsh judge who failed to regard it as a tolerable effort.
Without comment she merely asked, “I thought happen you’d be ready for a bite o’ dinner?”
She sat the four of them down to orid stew. Now the orid was old and tough, but it had been cooked long and slow. So whilst not exactly tender it was perfectly acceptable and the flavour was stronger than anything they’d ever known. Also in Port Naain we night not thicken a stew with quite as much oatmeal as she used, and we’d use more vegetables and fewer herbs. But in the upper valleys they know that herbs are just vegetables that grow where other, lesser, vegetables won’t.
After the best meal they’d had for over a month, they bade her good day and set off to look for their tower. They found it. It wasn’t entirely abandoned, an elderly orid tup had obviously decided to wander in and die there. They ushered him out and set too to clean the place up a bit. Staffan did make his way cautiously up the spiral staircase. The room above was open to the sky, or partially. Where the roof still survived, bats roosted. Fortunately there was a layer of bat droppings on the floor. By any estimate it was at least a foot thick and seemed to have set like concrete. This explained by the room downstairs was dry, the bats had inadvertently weatherproofed the ceiling.
Next morning a fiercely bearded face appeared in the doorway. “Who’s the new lord?”
Staffan stepped forward. “I am.”
“Which valleys are yer lord of?”
“All of them.”
“Good, me ewes need protecting.”
Their day was busy. The morning was spent dagging out one flock, and after a decent lunch their afternoon was spent protecting another flock, this time from lameness.
It was as they made their way back to the tower that they met the woman who had greeted them on the first day. “I’ve heard from my daughter. She sez as how her ewes need protecting.” Leaving Staffan to talk to her the other three made their way into the tower.
Staffan, more tired than he’d been for a long time, asked, “Will tomorrow do?”
“Oh aye. But she sez as how it would make more sense if their valley had a lord who could live there.”
“We’ll go and see her tomorrow.” Staffan promised. By the time he got into the tower the other three were already asleep.
It was three years later when the Urlan arrived. He was a young man, younger that Staffan, but he moved with the easy self-confidence of a man who fears nothing. His helmet was fresh burnished, his armour bright, his surcoat obviously fresh out of his pack. There was an air of formality about him.
Staffan was sitting outside his tower. He’d still not got round to doing anything about the roof, but he felt his vegetable patch and herb garden was something he could legitimately take pride in. It was even fenced off to protect it from the attentions of the elderly orid tup who was still looking for somewhere to die.
The young Urlan saluted Staffan politely, and leaned forward, resting both hands on his saddle horn. “Have I the honour of addressing the Lord of the six Valleys?”
Staffan felt that courtesy did at least mean he ought to stand if so addressed. “I am.”
“Of what right do you hold them?”
A question Staffan had never really considered. “Well, Felon holds two to the north and calls me lord, an’ Grunt holds two to the east. I look after these two.” He added, “Because frankly, two is as many as a chap can cope with.”
The young Urlan looked thoughtful. “So what do you do?”
“As Lord, I protect them.”
“Maggots and footrot mainly, but even the folk round here admit I’m at least a middling waller.”
Then he added, “Oh aye, and if any of ‘em ever have any reading or writing need doing, I does that an’ all.
“And you do this on your own, there is no lady?”
“Well Grunt married a lass in one of his valleys, they’ve got a babe now. Felon married a young widow, he’s a man of property. Must run a hundred ewes of his own. Me, I’ve never got round to it. It’s not as how they’re queuing up to marry me.”
He allowed his gaze to pass over the empty fell.
The Urlan appeared to consider his next question. “There were four of you.”
“Aye, Doggat couldn’t cope with it, went back to Port Naain. He took a couple of letters for us but of course there’s never anybody comes this way to fetch an answer.”
The Urlan unstrapped a horn from his saddle and putting it to his lips, blew a horn call that rang out across the empty terrain. It was a horn call to summon ten thousand mailed horsemen, a paladin at their head. The fell should have trembled under their hooves and the sun should have been blinded by the reflections off their armour.
As it was, a pack pony with a young woman riding ‘side saddle’ came galloping up. The pony ignored any instructions from the rider and halted abruptly to the left of, and just behind, the Urlan’s great destrier. The young woman slid off, perhaps a little more rapidly than she intended.
She looked Staffan up and down. “Well I got your letter, but the only way to answer it was in person. So I came.”
If you want to discover more about the world of Tallis Steelyard, try
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.”