Togura Poulaan was cold, wet and hungry, but his spirits were high, for he could see D'Waith in the distance. It was a small walled city set on a hill about half a league from the sea. He could not make a beeline for it, as swathes of barbarian thorn blocked the most direct route; instead, he was forced to follow the coastline.
The weather was the worst he had seen so far on his journey. He was astonished to see a boat on the sea, and was not surprised, shortly afterwards, not to see it. He stumbled forward through the wind, which hazed and harassed hyim. He was cold to his bone marrow.
"Civilization," he said, promising himself a hot fire, a mug of ale and a meal of something good and nourishing.
Hope kept him going.
As he staggered on, buffeted by the wind, he passed an old herbalist who was gathering gypsywort, horehound, vetch, chickweed, bistort, bracken and sea-cranny. The old man bent to his work, regardless of the weather, ignorning him.
"He must be mad," said Togura.
This clinical judgment, though made by a rank amateur, was entirely accurate.
The weather, if anything, was getting worse. The tumbled sea was wrought into great spumes and fraughts by the gale. The avalanching waters, afroth with yellowish foam, sent sleets of water spuming over Togura's shore path.
Ahead, Togura could see D'Waith's marginal harbour, where several ships were rocking at anchor, a beleaguered hebdomad which, until a disaster earlier in the day, had been an octet. The waves were roaring in over the mole which attempted to guard the anchorage: the tides were even threatening some of the low-slung buildings scattered around the foreshore. There would - surely - be a road from here to the city on the hill.
"If I'd built D'Waith, I'd have built it by the harbour," muttered Togura.
This being so, it was fortunate that he had not built D'Waith, as the boggy ground would have swallowed it. He found out just how boggy it was as he sank to his waist in the marshy ground. He struggled to firmer ground and plugged on relentlessly until he came to the nearest building. A wave from the sea foamed around the building and tugged eagerly at his ankles.
Soaking wet, shivering, stung by the pelting rain and driven by the wind, Togura hobbled to the door. He opened it. The door swung inwards, opening to a roar of conversation, laughter and thumping tankards. Togura, peering into the gloom of beards, voices and storm lanterns, wondered if he was hallucinating. Three fires were blazing in three separate fireplaces, three rousing drinking songs were competing against each other; gusts of noise, heat and communal stench billowed out, together with smells of drink and food which set him reeling with giddy hunger.
"Come in!" roared the landlord, who had the head and the horns of a bull.
Embarrassed, Togura hesitated. He could imagine what he looked like, soaking wet from head to toe, mud from waist to foot, his hair in tangled dreadlocks, his body clad in mouldy old sealskins, an unkempt feathery moustache clinging to his upper lip just beneath his notched nose, and an unkempt straggly growth - a boy's excuse for a beard - sprouting from his chin.
"Come in before I break out in half," bellowed the landlord. "In boy, and shut the door."
A wave, chasing round Togura's feet, swarmed through the door to join the waters inside, which were already knee-deep. He went in, closed the door with effort, descended a couple of steps to the floor level, and stood there in the knee-deep water, gawping.
"Here!" yelled the landlord, thumping the bar. "You paralysed, boy?"
Togura waded to the bar, which was a vast slab of battle-scarred oak. Behind it stood the landlord, a towering figure who really did have the body of a man but the head of a bull. His eyes were fierce, burning, red. His horns, their ivory polished to the brightness of the moon, grazed the ceiling. There was a heavy gold ring in his nose. Ranked up behind him were casks, barrels, stone jars, stone bottles, wineskins and tobacco holders. Helping the landlord at the bar was a motherly woman of middle age who looked perfectly normal except that her hands were the paws of a cat.
As Togura reached the bar, a drunk, bleeding badly from a recent knife fight, embraced him and gave him a kiss. Togura shook him off. The drunk fell backwards to the water, where he floated with a seraphic smile on his face, singing incoherently.
"Here we have us a hungry little man," said the landlord to Togura. "Hungry. Pinched, even. Yet honest, all the same. I pick you for an honest man."
"How can you tell?" said Togura.
"I can't," said the landlord. "But I was born and raised politely." This, apparently, was a joke, for he laughed uproariously, his merriment deafening the storm. The patrons took no notice; they were used to it. "Come on now, boy. Will you eat? Answer me!"
"I won't deny my hunger," said togura. "But I have no money. Have you any work that needs doing?"
"None, but there's plenty in town. Here, have a bowl of polenta," said the landlord, shovelling great gollops of steaming porridge into a huge wooden bowl.
"At what obligation?"
"What do you mean, none?"
"I mean this is free, gratis, given for nothing. Come on, boy, don't look so startled! Eat! Eat! It's hot. It's good. Oatmeal, maize, chestnuts, barley. Here, have some hot milk with it. Now eat. No, not with your fingers! Were you born in a barn?"
"Yes," said Togura, in all honesty.
"Then here's a spoon regardless. No slobbering fingers here. This is a respectable house, you know. We have standards to maintain!"
And the landlord laughed again.
"Well, thank you," said Togura, sampling the food.
It was hot, it was good, it tasted like youth and wild honey, like nectar and sunlight, like hot bread and kisses, like pollen and potatoes, like the strength of life itself. The first mouthful cleared his head; the second mouthful warmed him; he took a third, then remembered his manners.
"Thank you," said Togura. "Thank you."
"Thank me later, boy. Thank me when you come swaggering back to town with gold in your pockets and silver in your socks."
"That may be never."
"What a dirge! Come, boy, why so grim? Have you not arms and legs and balls and a cock the girls will greed on? Have you not eyes and ears and nose - well, nose of a sort - and a good stout stomach within?"
"I've had a hard time," said Togura, a little offended to find this stranger dismissing his rightful claims to pessimism without even hearing them out. "I've suffered."
"I tell you - "
"Don't tell me, boy, eat. Slop down the food, it's good for you. Priorities, boy, priorities! Food first then friends. And a drink withal. That's the making. Dox! Dox, my good man. Buy the young man a drink. A drink for a boy born in a barn, and, by the looks of him, not yet recovered from the shock. Dox! Don't pretend you can't hear me. You hear me all right, you cheese-faced stoat-shagging tobaccanalian. Come on, Dox, you idle son of a shit-shoving whoremaster, bring out your silver."
A disfigured man with a clay pipe wedged between his naked gums waded to the counter. He smelt heavily, but not unpleasantly, of tobacco.
"Cold potato twice," he said, laying his bronze on the counter.
"Hard spirit for you, Dox," said the landlord, passing him a beaker of a clear and odourless fluid, "but ale for the boy."
And he drew a tankard of thick, nourishing dark-stained ale and passed it to Togura. It was cold; Togura preferred his beer warm - preferably at blood temperature - but he accepted it with a good grace nevertheless.
"Come," said Dox.
Togura, food and drink in hand, followed him to a crowded table, where they found buttock-space on a creaking bench jammed with men in rags, furs, flax raincoats, fighting leathers, feather capes, canvas coveralls or businesslike sea gear. Wile men eyed him and summed him, Togura ate and drank, bewildered by the landlord's hospitality, which was so unlike what he had learnt to expect from the world.
"Who are you?" said Dox, suddenly, without any preliminaries.
Dox, the toothless pipe smoker, had a hoarse and rasping voice, and had an ulcer the size of a fist on one side of his face. He was missing his ears and his nose. Togura, disconcerted by his appearance, and even more disconcerted by the free food and drink, concealed his own identity with an untruth of some cunning.
"They call me the Forester," he said. "Before certain misfortunes, I was part of a party searching for Barak the Battleman, also known as Togura Poulaan."
"Ah! After the reward, no doubt. But you have no sword about you. So how would you take him?"
"I have my hands," said Togura, restraining his astonishment.
"Hands, yes. Lovely things! Strangulation, hey? Yes, of course. That's the story! Squeeze them till their eyes pop. I love it. Take him when he's sleeping, eh boy? But find him first. The reward's worth having, nay-so? Did you hear Cromel's doubled it?"
"His name isn't Cromel," said another man, a hard-faced villain with pietra-dura eyes. "It's Cromdarlarty."
"No," said a third, a sallow-faced consumptive windlestraw with a thin, piping voice. "Cromarty, that's the name. I met him face to face in Keep myself. We argued belly to belly. He told me himself, the reward's now set at a hundred crowns. A hundred crowns for the head."
"That head's probably done and deep rotted by now," said another voice, slurring out of an alewashed face which was one part tattoos, one part scars, one part burns and one part syphilis sores.
"What do you mean?" said a big, brawn-voiced one-eyed man with a beard dyed green and yellow.
"I mean that the oath-breaking father-killer is probably dead and buried. What do you think, Forester?"
Togura, spooning down his polenta, said nothing, waiting for Forester to answer.
"Forester!" said Dox, seizing his elbow and banging it on the table. "Are you deaf?"
"Somewhat," said Togura, remembering, as he rubbed his elbow, that he was Forester. "What was the question?"
"He claimed a death for Barak. You agree?"
"The last rumour that came my way," said Togura, lying as sweetly as a poet, "held that Barak had been to Estar and back. Lately he happened on the road for Chi'ash-lan, or so it was told, but then I met a man who swore he'd turned to D'Waith."
"That's wrong," said a hoar-skinned fellow with sausage-shaped lugs of ulcerated flesh spilling down his cheeks and his neck. "He's at Larbster Bay for certain. What do you think - "
The rest of the question was drowned as a huge wave, larger than all the rest, pounded into the building. The storm-lanterns hanging from the roof beams were set to swaying. As see-saw shadows and gutteral light swung back and forth across the haggling card games, the helpless drunks, the boozing syndicates, the wrist-wrestling bravos and a gaggle of pipe-smoking ancients, an even larger wave slammed against the seaward wall, bursting shutters open. A torrent of water poured inside, scattering a game of dragon chess. The participants shouted in dismay, but the rest of the tavern broke into drunken cheering.
As hands laboured the shutters home to close out the wind, the door was flung open and a woman entered. She was tall, she was blonde and she was build like a butcher's block. The cry went up.
"Mary!" "It's Mary!" "Why bless your heart and spit on it!" "Mary, my doxy, come kiss me quick."
"Silence," she roared.
The building shook with her voice, which could have shouted the landlord himself right down to nothing. Every jargoning mouth in the whole building quailed down to zero. Even the sea seemed muted.
"That's better," said Mary. "Now stay your cheek and rattle your plins. There's pirates wrecked on the coast. West of us, three leagues. Get up off your shit and get moving."
With a roar and a whoop, the tavern emptied to the howling storm. Togura, only half understanding, swilled down the last of his potenta in three and a half desperate gulps, drained his tankard, then allowed himself to be carried along with the othrs. As they staggered through the brawny weather, he saw that other buildings were also emptying. The mob, a rough and raggedy beast if ever there was one, slouched and stumbled through the storm, heading for the west.