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fantasy novel chapter 15
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Warning: this novel is intended for an adult audience. It contains violence and vulgar language and, additionally, contains at least a little sexual content.

THE WORDSMITHS AND THE WARGUILD by Hugh Cook - Chapter 15

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Chapter 15

        In his early childhood, Togura Poulaan had once visited the coast in the company of his parents. They must have gone there on business connected with the Warguild, for the baron would seldom stir from his estate for any other reason. Or perhaps that had been the year of the plague, and they had fled to the coast for their health. That was long, long ago, back in the days before his mother had gone mad and died, back in the days before his little brother Stoat had died of rabies.
        From that visit of long ago, Togura had dim, distant memories of a quayside clatter and of a hot, clamorous harbour where boats like broken insects sculled to the leering hulks floating in a stifling calm. On that hot, hot summer's day, the harbour had been filled with simmering sewage; he had spent an entire afternoon on the quayside, stoning helpless turds to death.
        That was how he remembered the coast.
        Here, however, there were no close-shouldering houses loud with voices and barking dogs; there were no cobblestone streets reeking of fish nets and onions; there were no vendors offeering cockles, whelks and whitebait for sale; there was no putrefying mass of enclosed harbour waters, quiescent as a jellyfish.
        Instead, there were open shores of rock and sand; there were cliffs, headlands, inlets and bays; there were creeks, streams, and rifts of coastal marshland alive with herons, shags and nameless stilt-legged birds; there were sheltered dells, fragrant with herbs, lumberous with bees, swamped with heat in the noonday summer sun; there were rolling hillsides and uprearing cliffs, a mix of stunted trees, wild roses and impoverished coastal grasslands; there were wide, wild vistas, bare of habitation, where even the slightest summer breeze hinted at the possibility of summeer storm.
        And there was the wide-shouldering sea, booming in from the far-flung horizons. The sea! The sea, the ultimate cuspidor, here running clean and empty, bare leagues of weather-water where the white-whip winds scoured away to the distance.
        Togura was fascinated, watching blue rolling upon green upon grey as the lumbering billows swayed switch-back onto the shore to break - break! - with a coruscating roar of turbulent thunder, a roar swiftly dissolving to a clattering rush of baubling light shimmering over pebble sand and rock, ending with a final hiss, that hiss itself annunciating the start of the sea suck which would haul back all in an incoherent jumble of rock-sliding shale and snake-sliding light.
        The sound of the sea was always with him as he tramped along the coast for day upon day. At nights, sometimes he slept in caves high above the sealskin rocks, or laid himself down beneath a fallen log, or rested beneath the open sky on a patch of pebbly sand on a scrubby beach nestled between high-pitched headlands.
        He was almost alarmed to find himself free.
        For the time being, his march along the coast provided him with necessities which liberated him from the problems of free will. Dealing with the demands of the march and the day to day difficulties of survival, he did not have to trouble his head about the probable political situation in Keep, or about where he stood in the conflict between his father and the Suets, or about what, if anything, he should do about the quest he had promised to undertake for the Wordsmiths.
        He was at peace.
        His peace was interrupted when he sighted a tower on a promentary in the distance. He approached with circumspection, and, drawing near, he laid himself down in the sea-heather while he puzzled out his next move. The tower was of white stone which dazzled in the sealight. It appeared to be octagonal. Concluding that it was deserted, Togura approached, and walked round the tower.
        Each side was pierced by a single doorway. As there were no doors to bar the way, he entered. Inside, the stone floor was bare but for a few broken snail shales; there were no windows, but it was bright with doorlight and sunlight.
        Togura looked up - and up - and up - and saw above him an octagon of day. This building had no roof. Remembering the torture pit inside the stone beehive, he imagined that he smelt an intolerable stench of decay. Half-singing voices yakkered and laughed. A tentacle clutched for him.
        He staggered outside, fleeing from the tower, screaming as he ran. Then, panting, he stopped. He shuddered, and looked back. The tower rose, high, white and graceful, gleaming in the bright, clean light. He could see through one door and out through another. It was an open place which could imprison nothing. He shook his head at his own foolishness.
        Then, to give himself time to recover completely, he sat himself down on a convenient rock, breathed slowly and deeply, and watched the thick brown slubbery kelp rising and falling in the sea surge. Waves came billowing in, drenching over the rocks, flinging spray to the sky. When the waves withdrew, bright fish scales of sunlight glittered on the rocks; pebbles, momentarily gemstones, gleamed with smooth satisfaction. Out across the ocean, two gulls tangled in the sky, contending for possession of a fish.
        "This is a good place," said Togura.
        Calmed, he returned to the tower, and laid his cheek against the dry skin of its whitewashed masonry. The rock underfoot was warm, but the tower was cool.
        "Forgive me," he said.
        Then he entered its hospitality. With eight open doorways and no roof, it hardly offered him much shelter against bad weather, but he was minded to stay. It had frightened him at first, but he was starting to realise that for a long time a great many inconsequential things might alarm him.
        "I will be happy here," he said, coming to a decision.
        And, with his flight along the coast at an end, he explored the promontory and the hinterland beyond, singing makeshift little songs to himself, peculiar melodies which he invented on the spur of the moment, thinking himself very musical.
        Deep in the hinterland, amidst thickets of conifers loud with clicketing insects, he found a dry, deep cave half-concealed by tumbledown rocks. It was not very dark, for flaws in the roof admitted shafts of daylight. They would also admit rain, in season, and the cave would be draughty. Nevertheless, someone had once lived here for many years, carving a stone sleeping platform out of one side of the cave. On a stone shelf, there were half a dozen stone jars, in which were the blackened husks of some food now many years dead.
        "I will stay here," said Togura.
        He lived there for many days. He made snares to catch rabbits and birds and traps to catch fish. The sea gave him the rotting wreck of a whale; it was foul beyond eating, but he salvaged bones which he later sharpened against rock. He made a stabbing spear, a bow, and arrows without fletching. He plaited the intestines of animals to make cordage. He ate seaweeds, frogs and butterflies, raw fish, raw meats, wild mushrooms, limpets gathered from the rocks, snails, grassland grubs and incautious beetles.
        He repeatedly tried to make fire, rubbing sticks together, trying to build a fire drill, and, finally, trying to conjure wood to flame by force of will alone. Although he failed, he was not unhappy. He cut fish and flesh to thin strips and dried it in the summer sun, arranging black rocks in a sheltered spot to form a suntrap. When he got bored, he found a cliff which was difficult but not quite suicidal, and climbed it, or swam in the surf, coming out shuddering from the cold of the summer sea.
        But he was not often bored, for he had so many things to do. They were things which properly belonged to childhood, yet he did them shamelessly, for there was no-one to disparage his play. He investigated the close-coiling shells of the sea, the articulation of the claws of the crab, the quill-pen feathers of the gull. He built a sand castle, and thought it an original invention. He sorted sand from pebble and sifted it through his hands, letting it drift down to make patterns on flat black rocks.
        As the days went by, he had fewer nightmares.
        Sometimes he saw sails in the distance, but he had no desire to join their journeys.
        "Time is my journey," he said.
        And, having said it, wondered if he would become a philosophical hermit living out his days amidst wind and rocks.
        A day later, he was sunbathing when something shaded out the sun. Opening his eyes, he saw a stranger standing over him. A man. Black hat, black beard, black coat. Weapons? A dagger. Black strides, black boots, black bootlaces. A weatherbeaten face.
        "Hello," said the stranger, in a barbarous accent.
        "Greetings," said Togura.
        Then closed his eyes, to make the hallucination go away. When he opened his eyes, the hallucination was still waiting patiently.
        "Are you real?" said Togura.
        He meant the words to mean what they meant in his native patois: do you truly exist? But the stranger interpreted them to mean what they meant in mainstream Galish, which was, literally, "Is your presence sincere?" and implied "Do you really wish to make a bargain?"
        "Boy, I've said nothing of trade," said the stranger.
        "Neither have I," said Togura.
        "Where is your keeper, boy?"
        "What do you mean by that?" said Togura, speaking slowly, and with some difficulty; he had fallen out of the habit of language.
        "Have you no keeper, then?"
        "What would I need a keeper for? Do you think I'm simple or something?"
        "If you're not simple, then how else do you explain yourself?"
        "I don't explain myself at all to nameless earth-walkers," said Togura. "Name yourself."
        "My name is Jotun," said the man, meaning "dwarf."
        "That's a strange name for a fellow of your height," said Togura, for the man was the same size as he was.
        "Truth to tell, I guard my name amidst strangers. But whatever you are or aren't, you look honest enough to me. So I'll give you my true name, which is Soy Doja. I'm a healer by trade; I'm on this coast to look for the plant they call Moonbeam. Very rare. Do you know it?"
        "No," said Togura, who had never heard of it. He felt it was now time to name himself, but, since the other had lied about his name - and was, incidentally, still lying - Togura decided not to trust him with the truth. "I'm Parax Gemenis myself," said Togura. "I'm a fisherman from many leagues along the coast. There's a feud in my village which threatens my life, which is why I'm here."
        After telling each other a great many more elaborate lies, and exchanging a considerable amount of deliberate and accidental misinformation, they did a little trading. Togura sold the traveller some sun-dried fish, accepting in payment a small coin which bore the head of Skan Askander.
        The traveller stayed the night in Togura's cave. He had a tinder box, so they had a fire; when the traveller moved on the next day, Togura kept the fire burning. He would need it in the winter.
        Now that he had fire, he should have been happier still, but he was not. He was restless all day. Brooding. That evening, he sat by the fire, turning the coin over in his fingers. Part of the new coinage minted by the Suets, it brought back memories of the wedding feast in Keep. Of the cakes baked in the shape of coins. And of Slerma, who must surely be dead by now.
        Overwhelmed by homesickness, he remembered, with an intolerable sense of longing, the pleasures of his former life. Drinking, jokes and conversation. Real shoes. Horses which would carry you over the league-roads and eat out of your hand. Hot meals cooked by women. Women themselves, their eyes alive with temptation, their breasts hot and swollen beneath their clothes, their reception waiting. Real blankets. The welcome of friends. Lying in bed in the morning, dozing. Spending days being utterly idle. Eating real bread. Shutting out the wind at night. Cock fighting.
        Togura knew what he had to do. He had to return home. He would be reconciled with his father. He would beg his father's forgiveness, and would become a true brother to Cromarty. They would live together happily ever after.
        Enthused, animated and excited, he could barely sleep. He rose at first light, tied his bow, spears and arrows into a bundle he could carry over one shoulder, ate the little bit of dried food he had left after dealing with the traveller, knotted the traveller's coin in a bit of bark then knotted the bark to his waist and was ready to go.
        "Goodbye cave," he said. "Goodbye rocks. Goodbye tower."
        He spent some time sentimentalising in this manner, then turned his back on the place and trudged along the coast, heading in the direction his itinerant stranger had come from.
        He was making for D'Waith.


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The text on this page is part of the fantasy novel The Wordsmith and the Warguild by Hugh Cook, which, when published in North America in 1988, was divided into two separate volumes, The Questing Hero and The Hero's Return. This text can be read for free online. However, the text is copyright - all rights reserved. For permission to use this text or any portion of it contact Hugh Cook.

The Wordsmiths and the Warguild was first published in 1987. Copyright © 1987, 1988, 1998, 2004, 2006 Hugh Cook.


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