Togura Poulaan was once more cold, wet and hungry. As he made his way back to the tavern, the thought of its warmth, its drink and its food was increasingly appealing. Nevertheless, he had his misgivings. It was dusk, and Togura did not think the tavern a good place to be at nightfall, even though he was no longer alone.
Togura's new companion was Gelzeda Zurdok, a merchant from Androlmarphos, which was a distant city in the south of Argan, one of those fabulous foreign places which Sung knew only by rumor. Togura and his new acquaintance made an odd couple, for Togura was still in his barefoot rags, while Zurdok, on the other hand, was a mature, bearded man, richly dressed from his swaggering seaboots upwards.
Whistling lightly, Zurdok led the way. Togura was still unarmed, but Zurdok wore an ornate swordbelt which sustained a cutlass, a throwing knife, a dirk and an apple corer.
"Why did they let you keep your weapons?" said Togura.
It was a question which had only just occurred to him.
"I was on parole," said Zurdok. "We merchants of Androlmarphos have the highest reputation when it comes to probity. When I told the pirates I'd make no trouble, they took me at my word."
"That was kind of them."
"I'm rich. The ransom was going to make their kindness worth their while. Believe me, they knew it, too. Every pirate on the twenty-seven seas knows the wealth of Tezelja Burnok."
"I thought you said your name was Gelzeda Zurdok," said Togura.
"So it is, my son. Gelzeda Zurdok. A good name, too, isn't it? My credit's good from Androlmarphos to Selzirk. And beyond."
"But just now you called yourself - "
"I can't remember."
"No, boy, I don't think I called myself that. Gelzeda Zurdok's the name, always has been, always will. If you start hearing different, was the wind out of your ears. That's the tavern, I take it?"
"That's right," said Togura. "That's the tavern."
Bending his steps toward it, Zurdok resumed his whistling. The wind, which had weakened dramatically, was blathering away in the background; thhe rain had eased to a drizzle, and the sea to a sullen chop. Occasionally a wave larger than the rest sent a little bit of water slouching up to the tavern walls, but it seemed the storm was over.
As they neared the tavern, picking their way with care between the boggier bits of ground, a blue-feathered mocking gull, a bird of ill omen, went caterwauling overhead. Togura spat, and made a warding gesture in the direction of the retreating gull, but Zurdok did not seem to notice. Togura had already tried to dissuade Zurdok from seeking refuge in the tavern. He had failed, but now he tried again.
"I don't know that the tavern is quite the place for us," said Togura.
"It's full of thieves, pimps, card sharps and drunks."
"Low types like us," joked Zurdok. "They'll make us feel at home."
"They'll more likely draw cuts for the privilege of slicing and dicing us. It was bad enough by day. It's no place to venture at nightfall."
"It's not dark yet, boy," said Zurdok. "So we'll risk a look at the place, at least."
For a man who had recently come close to death, Zurdok was in exceptionally high spirits, all smiles and whistles. Then, as they approached the tavern from the blind side, the whistling abruptly stopped. They heard hoarse shouting and a cry of pain. A duel? A brawl?
"This may be one of those times," said Togura, "when it's best to leave before arriving."
"Gather your courage," said Zurdok. "And follow me."
They ducked round to the doorway side of the tavern. The first thing Togura saw was a man lying dead on the ground. The landlord was being held at bay by half a dozen masked men armed with staves, flails and hatchets. He was armed with a whip and a pitchfork. His horns were stained with bright fresh blood.
"Back, you braggarts!" roared the landlord. "Back, before I scupper the lot of you."
"You're the one who's scuppered," shouted a bald man with golden roses tattooed on his naked pate. "Here's reinforcement!" He appealed to Togura and Zurdok. "Will you join us for the monster's gold? His death's a fortune for each of us. Will you join us?"
"Yes," said Zurdok, striding forward.
"Good," said the man of the golden roses.
And Zurdok booted him in the crutch then wrecked him with three well-placed blows too swift for Togura to follow. As the others gasped alarm, Zurdok's fingers flickered. A man went down with a throwing knife in his throat. The landlord hurled his pitchfork and slashed away with his whip. Zurdok drew his cutlass and laid about him. Closing with his nearest victim, the landlord gored him through the heart.
And suddenly there were four men freshly dead and two men running for their lives. The action had been so swift that Togura had scarcely had time to realise it had started. The landlord shook himself free from the body of the man he had gored.
"You!" said the landlord, in surprise.
"Me!" said Zurdok.
And the two of them embraced.
"I thought you'd setsko and amanacain," said the landlord.
"Me? Log Jaris, you'd fana-ma-skote."
There was a lot more of this swift, jabbering argot, which Togura found impossible to follow. The language the two men were speaking was basically Galish, but it was so full of slang and foreign lingo that he found it incomprehensible.
"Well," said the landlord at last, breaking off the conversation, "I'm sure we can bed down a boy and a pirate. So come in, the two of you."
"Pirate?" said Togura, looking around.
"He's the pirate!" said the landlord, laughing as he pointed to Zurdok.
"He's no pirate," protested Togura. "He's Gelzeda Zurdok, merchant of Androlmarphos. He was being held prisoner on the pirate ship which was wrecked."
"And you helped him escape from the frenzied mob."
"Yes!" said Togura, whho was proud of his effort, which had taken a lot of quick thinking and a nimble bit of bluff.
"Well, well," said the landlord. "What a brave little boy. Come on, let's no more linger. Inside!"
And in they went.
The landlord's woman, she of the cat's paws, was standing behind the bar, mopping the counter. She greeted them with a placid smile, then carried on sponging up the blood which had been spilt so liberally on the counter. There were at least five sodden bodies floating in the water.
"Love," said the landlord to the woman. "Fetch us two bailing boys from the Nun's Backside. And send a messenger to old Karold; tell him there's butcher's meat here for the taking."
"Shall I set up first for the evening trade?" asked the woman, her voice smooth and mellow.
"There'll be no evening trade tonight," said the landlord. "They'll be whooping it up at the wreck, burning their prisoners alive. Come, boys, let's have an ale."
The three sat themselves down at a table with bread and tankards, then the landlord talked ninety to the dozen with Gelzeda Zurdok. Togura, unable to follow their quick-weaving cant, felt excluded and insulted. Finally he could stand it no more.
"What's that language you're talking?" he demanded.
"Galish," said the landlord easily. "Galish as she is spoke in the Greater Teeth."
"The Greater Teeth? But only pirates live thee!"
"And what else would we be? I told you already, the man you saved from the wreck is a pirate. No - don't give me that merchant nonsense again. What merchant from Androlmarphos would walk with a sea swagger as he does? Besides, boy, if you knew your Androlmarphos you'd know that the men there have a fashion for clean shaving. They walk their lives beardless - not like Draven here."
"Draven?" said Togura, staring at the man he knew as Gelzeda Zurdok. He'd heard that name before. The more notable sea bandits were known by name even in the households of Keep. "Draven the Womanrider?"
"No, boy!" shouted Gelzeda Zurdok, slamming the table with the flat of his hand. "Do I look like him? Do I speak like him? Do I stink like him? No, and no, and again no. Don't confuse me with the most notorious coward of the twenty-seven seas. I'm not the Womanrider. I'm not Draven the leper, either, or Battleaxe Draven. I'm Bluewater Draven, and you'd better remember it."
"Peace," said the landlord, with a smile. "Peace, the pair of you."
"I wasn't arguing!" said Togura.
"Then peace regardless," said the landlord. "He tells the truth. An unusual experience for him, but he tells it. He is, in truth, Bluewater Draven of the Greater Teeth. His ship, which was wrecked today, was one of three on a passage to Ork, an island far distant which you're not likely to have heard of. They were on a mission which does not bear naming at this moment."
"How do you know all this?" said Togura.
"We've been talking, haven't we? Why so fierce, youngster?"
"Because I've been cheated and tricked and lied to. Because I risked my life to save him and because I thought him an honest stranger. Because he conned me and duped me and gives me no thanks. Look at him smirking!"
"Thanks is not in his nature," said the landlord, "but he can surely redeem his debt to you all the same. As I was telling you, his ship was one of three. They had a rendevous point for gathering in case they were separated in the Penvash Channel - which is that body of water on our doorstep, in case you didn't know."
"I know," said Togura, who hadn't until that moment.
"If one or both remaining ships survive, they'll search for Draven's vessel. In all probability, they'll put a boat ashore to make discretions in D'Waith."
"They'll ask after the lotch, but carefully," said the landlord patiently.
"The missing one, the retarded one, the latecomer," said the landlord, supplying the meaning of the cant word. "If they varry - "
"Enough of this language lesson!" said Draven impatiently. "Come on, let's pay off the boy."
"I don't want to be paid off," said Togura. "I want an apology."
"What an innocent little mannikin," said the landlord, with a laugh which - and this was unusual for him - had something of a jeer about it. "Apologies? From a pirate? You'd be searching! There now, don't take it hard. You saved a life. That's something for a day's work. You've got Bluewater Draven in your debt, so take what's offering. Take his gold or his services. He can ship you to Ork, if you're wanting."
"Can I think about it?" said Togura, seeing that argument was going to get him nowhere.
"Thinking's free," said Draven. "But have a decision by tomorrow's daylight."
At that moment, two boys arrived with buckets, and began to bail out the tavern. Shortly afterwards, a butcher from D'Waith arrived to take away the dead bodies to be made into sausage meat. Then some jubilant wreckers entered, bearing trophies - the heads of five sea rovers - and pirate gold. As the tavern began to get lively, despite the landlord's expectations, talk of sensitive matters ended.
From the tavern talk, Tokura was able to complete his picture of what had happened while he had been absent from civilization. On the day on which the Warguild had attacked the wedding at the Suet's Grand Hall, Baron Chan Poulaan had gone missing. Rumour had it that Togura Poulaan, also known as Barak the Battleman, had pitched his father into a mining pit, thus murdering him.
Togura's half brother, Cromarty, had assumed control of the family estate near Keep, and had offered a reward for Togura's head. Rumour held that Togura, aka Barak, had been sighted in fifty different places during the time he had been hunted - which was now almost a year. He was credited with five rapes, two murders and several acts of vandalism and arson; most recently, or so rumour had it, he had attacked a homestead in the mountains, routing the seven men who tried to defend the place against his depredations.
"Ay, I can credit that," said a one-legged card sharp, and proceeded to give a vivid eyewitness account of how he had confronted Barak half a year ago. "Chewed off my leg, he did. Turned himself into a great black manul, leapt, fanged him, bit, chewed, swallowed - kneecap, ankle, shin, he ate the lot."
"Give over, Doss," said an onlooker. "You lost that leg ten years ago if it was a day."
"No," insisted the card sharp. "That's not true. Listen, it was up in the mountains. A cold day. I challenged him. One moment he was standing there, as clear as I see you - a great big unruly fellow with a spiked club in his hand - and the next moment he'd turned himself into this gory great cat, as big as a horse if it was larger than a mouse."
His eyes shone with sincerity; his voice carried the tones of impeccable conviction; it was clear that more than a few believed him.
These being the rumours that Togura did hear - and in a single night, at that - he could only guess at those he didn't hear. Offering a reward for a man's head was a foreign practice previously almost unheard of in Keep; the reward made this manhunt a novelty, and the recent increase in the amount of the reward had made it a topical novelty at that.
With his dream of retiring into this father's home now shattered, Togura had to think of his own safety. There were no portraits or sketches of him in circulation, so few people outside Keep would know what he looked like. Nevertheless, it would be safer to get out of Sung until this trouble blew over.
By morning, Togura had come to a decision. He asked Draven to take him to Larbster Bay; from there, he would make his way along the Salt Road to Estar. Once he reached Estar, he would be faced with another decision. There were two possibilities.
Either he could stay in Estar and work at some honest trade, hoping for Cromarty to get himself killed in a duel or a feud, thus opening the way for Togura to return home; or, alternatively, he could approach Prince Comedo of Estar and ask for permission to dare the terror of the monster which guarded the bottle which contained the box which contained the index which spoke the Universal Language which would give him control of the odex.
"Can you take me to Larbster Bay?" said Togura.
"Nothing easier," said Draven. "Once a ship calls for us. It's on the way to Ork. Perhaps, of course, there'll be no ship. If so, I'll buy us passage with the next Galish convoy travelling from D'Waith to Larbster Bay. We'll get you on your journey, youngster. Trust Draven. Thousands do - and no man ever regretted it."
Togura, judging Draven to be sincere, ate well, drank well, slept well, helped the landlord tend the bar, and waited until they could start their journey.