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fantasy novel chapter 24
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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 24

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Chapter 24

        Togura woke from unpleasant dreams about salt beef to find that it was night. Without surprise, he noted that it was cold and wet. The night was full of shadows and pattering rain. His clothes were damp; his knees were aching; his flesh felt thin. Cold rainwater - very wet rainwater, by the feel of it - was dripping down his neck.
        Perhaps this was the night he would escape. Yes! He would run away into the forest. He would make for the north, for home. Home! Warm beds, warm honey, friendly voices. Once he got home, he would stay there, and never stir again. As for the idea of being a hero - piss on it!
        Comforted by thoughts of escape, Togura began to slip back into sleep. He was jerked wide awake as a shift in the wind brought him sounds of fighting. Rain, wind and distance hashed the sounds together; he could not say how far away the combat was, or how many people were involved. Someone muttered; another voice spoke curtly, in a tone of command. Togura realised the soldiers were all wide and awake, straining to hear the noise of the distant alarm.
        The sounds of combat rumoured away to nothing, leaving only the sea-soughing wind and the tap-rapper rain coming skittery-skit through spring leaves. Wind, rain and leaves were all the colour of night. As were the low-pitched voices of the soldiers, who, now that the noise of battle had died away, were evidently discussing it. While they were still talking, Togura quietly dropped off to sleep.
        At first, Togura dreamed of darkness. Of pitch. Charcoal. Midnight. The colour of silence. Eclipse. Throttling fingers. Dead echoes. Shadows mating with stone. Mud underwater. The true ideology of the worm. And then, hearing, in his dreams, the high, cruel note of a flute, he began to dream of brightness, of rainbows, of turbulence, of heat.
        He dreamed of a flesh-eating rat in a teakwood beaufet, gnawing on a diamond tiara. Of a cat, demolishing a boiled entomostracan. Of a whirlpool, in which the island of Drum span round and round, its resident sea dragons prating poetry while they slipped toward destruction. Of a padma bouquet, in the middle of which was a frog. Of Day Sue,t a sausage between her lips. The sausage became - well, it became something which made Togura positively blink.
        "This dream," said his dream, "signifies that you are asleep."
        Togura blinked again, and, blinking, woke. Blinking once more, he realised it was morning. Rain was falling steadily. He wished he could have slept longer, but knew he was expected to get himself moving. Cold and hungry, he quit the makeshift lean-to which had been keeping him alive - but not dry - during the night. Hunched against the rain, he tried to light a fire. It was hopeless. Yesterday's ashes were sodden, the timber was damp, the wood was wet - nobody could have done it. But he got kicked for his troubles all the same.
        Sullen and resentful, Togura breakfasted on salt beef. Reluctant and weary, he once more shouldered the weight of the heavy pack loaded down with other people's gear. He hated the brusque daylight. He hated salt beef. He hated mud, rain, wet, cold, damp, and the prospect of another day spent marching from here to there with no apparent purpose. This was lunacy!
        As they marched off through the cold and the wet, Togura longed for a shot of quaffle or bub, anything to put some warmth in his limbs. Marching under load warmed him soon enough. Indeed, it made him too warm. He was sweating when, unexpectedly, they paused. There were men in the forest up ahead.
        The men, a dozen in number, were allies. Togura, conticent and uncomprehending, listned while they talked away merrily. The men of Togura's party, who had been dour, sour and despondent over the last few days - they were low on rations, for one thing - grew cheerful and animated. One of them did a little dance in the pelting rain, while the others cheered. There was a lot of backslapping and ready laughter.
        Then thw two groups parted. The dozen men went north. Togura's party went south, with their lead scout setting a vicious pace. Togura, bowed down by the weight of his pack, went slip-slop through the mud. He had no breath to spare on curses. They took no rest breaks and did not stop for lunch, but made all the southing they could with all speed they could.
        After a march which seemed almost endless, Togura heard axes at work up ahead, then the crash of a falling tree. His party went past a forestry work gang, and exchanged jubilant, shouted greetings. Then Togura heard the sound of a river, and, distantly, the tumultous sounds of many men, of voices shouting, of horses neighing.
        They burst out of the forest and into the open daylight. They saw before them a clear stretch of land, a river with a bridge across it, and, beyond the river, an amazing array of men, carts and animals, and, beyond that, a castle on a hill. Togura was stunned by the size of the castle. Downstream lay the smouldering ruins of a town.
        "Where am I?" said Togura.
        But there was no-one who would give him an answer.
        As his party trooped across the bridge, Togura tried to figure out where all these thousands and thousands of men had come from. Seeming oblivious to the rain, they were raising tents, digging pits in the ground, excavating trenches, shouting and arguing. He had never seen so many people before in his life. He could scarcely credit the existence of so many people. Most of the men he saw were accoutred as soldiers. This was an army! Comedo's army? Or an army of invasion?
        This army could scarcely be Comedo's. Estar, from what Togura knew of it, was poor and sparcely populated, its wealth and population both depleted by the dragon Zenphos, lord of the heights of Maf. So this army had to come from foreign lands.
        But Togura, though his grasp of geography was sketchy, was convicned that there was no country within marching distance which was rich eough and strong enough - and mad enough - to dare and army of this size into Estar. There was nowhere all these men could have come from. There was no reasonable explanation for their presence. With a growing sense of dread, he realised the whole thing must be part of a nightmare incarnated for the sole and special purpose of persecuting him.
        "What have I done?" wailed Togura.
        Again, there was nobody who could give him an answer.
        They were now tramping through the encampment. The ground underfoot was churned into mud. They were challenged; there was an argument; Togura was made to drop the pack he was carrying. Near at hand, there were a whole lot of men standing in a circle. Togura had the impression that a fight was taking place in the middle of that circle, but he did not get the chance to investigate. A squad of spearmen took him in charge and marched him away.
        "Do you speak Galish?" said Togura, hopefully. "I'm Togura Poulaan, also known as Barak the Battleman, or, if you prefer, as Forester. Do you recruit mercenaries? I'm a trained soldier, you know. My father's head of the Warguild in Sung."
        Nobody answered him. And, belatedly, he remembered that his father, Baron Chan Poulaan, was missing, and probably dead. The spearmen were arguing with each other in their foreign jabber. Coming to a decision, they forced Togura into a tent. He was just getting his bearings - there was a monster in one corner of the tent, and someone huddled on the ground - when he was dragged out of that tent and forced into another, which was crammed with all kinds of people - men, women and children - shouting, coughing, crying, bleeding, snotting public and eating it, or babbling their foreign nonsense.
        Togura was just about to ask if anyone spoke Galish when two soldiers claimed him from the tent and marched him away elsewhere. By this time he was confused, disorientated, bewildered and positively dizzy. Then, as they marched along, he thought he saw a familiar face. It was Draven the pirate, ambling along looking sleek and well-fed, if a trifle wet.
        "Draven!" he cried.
        "Do I know you?" said the pirate, pausing.
        "It's me, Togura Poulaan. You know."
        "No, I don't know. Oh - snatch on, I remember! Yes, it's Forester."
        One of the soldiers snarled at Togura and thumped him with a spear butt. He held his ground.
        "Forester, that's right. I saved your life, remember? At D'Waith. I saved your life!"
        "Thank you kindly for the courtesy," said Draven. "And, while I think of it - welcome to Lorford."
        And with that, Draven turned and walked away.
        "Draven, help me! What's going on? Who are these people? What's happened?"
        But Draven walked on.
        "Draven!"
        The pirate turned, gave a parting wave, and called:
        "Sorry, can't stay! Busy, you know!"
        And he disappeared from sight amidst a crowd of soldiers. Togura tried to follow, but was restrained. He was forced into a tent - which was empty - and left there. While he waited to be moved yet again, he tried to make sense of his meeting with Draven. The pirate was happy, cheerful, free, and evidently doing well for himself. So were all these people pirates? They couldn't be pirates, otherwise they'd know Galish. Foreign pirates, from the distant island of Ork, perhaps? What did he know of Ork? He knew, in a word, nothing.
        Scattering rain was falling on the tent. Through the tent fly, Togura could see the legs of a soldier standing guard outside. The soldier was singing softly to himself; he swayed from time to time, giving Togura the impression he was drunk. Togura was hungry. And thirsty. He could have done with something to eat. Even, at a pinch, a bit of salt beef. As time went by, he started to get quite nostalgic about salt beef. He stuck his head out of the tent fly.
        "Hey," he said. "I have to - "
        He ducked back inside swiftly, as the guard tried to clout him with the butt of a spear. Well, so much for that. Now what? With a bit of stick, Togura dug a little hole that he could piss in and bog in. Digging, he found a worm, which he ate. A little water dripping through a hole in the roof of the tent allowed him to moisten his mouth.
        Now what?
        Now nothing.
        Togura waited, while rain washed the day away. When it was dark, he saw a fire burning outside; half a dozen soldiers were sitting round the fire, talking. This was enough to make him forget all thoughts of escaping. He was tired; he wanted to sleep. He laid himself down in the dirt, and, by now inured to the cold and the damp, he slept.
        Togura had odd dreams, in which thunder brawled with earthquake. When he woke, the night was just about to capitulate to the dawn; the ground underfoot was shaking, and a dull, thunderous roar dominated the background. What on earth was going on?
        His mouth was dry. He was parched, and more hungry than ever. He was most relieved when a surly soldier entered the tent and handed him a bowl of mash made from bran, turnips and water. He was used to such a lean diet by now that it quite satisfied his hunger; it also helped slake his thirst, though he could have done with a proper drink. He would also have preferred the mash to have been hot rather than cold.
        Much, much later, the soldier returned and ordered him to his feet with a gesture. Then, with another gesture, ordered him to follow. More tents had gone up all around, cutting off the view in all directions. Togura, longing to satisfy his curiosity, was irritated. What he wanted most of all was to find someone who spoke Galish.
        "Draven?" said Togura.
        The soldier ignored his query, perhaps not understanding it. He pushed Togura into a tent which was filled with the smells of food, of drink, of pipe tobacco, of opium. Half a dozen men were inside, singing, making a terrible drunken charivari. Razorblade laughter broke out as he entered. One man pinched his cheeks, one pawed his buttocks. One kissed him, then pushed him to another, who grabbed him, and rammed his own finger into Togura's mouth. Togura, shocked, disgusted, frightened, felt sick. He did not dare to bite. He was released, and shoved into the centre of the tent. Commanded by a gesture, he sat.
        The men started to roll dice. Their noise died down; gambling made them serious. Togura, appalled, suspected that he was going to lose his virginity - but not in the way he had intended. He knew that he should have tried to escape in the forest. Or should have tried to escape the night before. He swore to himself that he would take his very next chance of escape. But by that time -
        One of the men giggled.
        The world wavered.
        "Sharskar?" asked Togura.
        He did not understand himself.
        "Day?" he said, seeing Day Suet in front of him.
        She took him in her arms and kissed him.
        "Oh, Day," he said. "Oh help me."
        He breathed in. The air tasted of marzipan. Day Suet disappeared. Togura shivered, and rubbed his eyes.
        What had happened?
        In the tent, there was a dead man at his feet. He had been knifed. Two men broke off fighting; they had been trying to strangle each other. One was sitting in a daze; another was vomiting. One was screaming, and no wonder, for he had just clawed his eyes out.
        "What's happening?" screamed Togura, in a mixture of terror and frustration.
        He blundered to the door of the tent and exited. One of the men pursued him, and grabbed him. Then the outline of the world stumbled. The sun became five suns, which blinked green then purple. The clouds rolled acrsos the sky with terrifying speeds, shaping themselves into the form of a dragon.
        Then the world snapped back into its usual focus. Togura found himself sitting in the mud. He got up and staggered off. A soldier pursued him. Togura turned and smashed him in the face with a bunch of fives, cutting his knuckles against teeth. The soldier went down.
        Through a gap between two tents, Togura saw a riderless horse, fully equipped with saddle, harness and saddle bags. He sprinted for the horse, mounted up, and was off in an instant. Taking the line of least resistance, he rode hell for leather, seeking to get out and away as fast as possible.
        When the horse, lathered and exhausted, refused to gallop any further, Togura started to calm down. Looking around, he realised his flight had taken him south of the army, the castle and the ruins of the town. Near at hand was a battered, badly maintained stone-paved highway, which must surely be the salt road, if it was anything at all.
        Looming Forest lay to the north. That way was home, shelter, safety. But an entire army lay between him and the forest.
        "South, then," muttered Togura.
        He was still very badly frightened. He could not, for the life of him, work out what had happened back there. Why had he imagined that he had seen Day Suet? Why had a man gouged out his own eyes? Why had he seen those terrifying hallucinations - five suns in the sky, and the clouds breeding themselves into a dragon? How had the horse lost its rider?
        "Get out," said Togura, "while you're still alive."
        It was good advice. He took it.
        The horse, urged on by his knees, advanced down the Salt Road at a steady trot, thus advancing Togura on what, obviously, was going to be a new adventure.
        "A pox on adventures," said Togura. "A pox on all the world."
        He said it, and meant it.
        Later, he realised it was getting dark. And, moreover, he realised that the mountain on the left-hand side of the road, which had been getting nearer and nearer all the time, was, in all probability, the mountain of Maf, where the dragon Zenphos had his lair.
        "A pox on dragons, too," said Togura.
        He spoke bravely, but he was very much afraid, for Zenphos was a true dragon, strong, ferocious, air-worthy and ravenous in appetite. While sea dragons were virtually harmelss if handled properly, a true dragon like Zenphos was the stuff that nightmares were made of; even the wizard of Drum acknoweldged that much.
        It was going to be, obviously, an uncomfortable night.


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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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