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fantasy novel chapter 29
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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 29

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Chapter 29

        The village, though it was out on the open plains, was a crowded, noisy, smelly place. Lean yellow mongrel curs scavenged, fought and mated in the mud-paved alleyways between the mud-walled huts. Chickens, voicing a persistent chok-chok-chok, strutted about underfoot, their heads bobbing forwards as they walked. Cats and rats played games of pursuit and evasion by day and by night.
        Worst were the children. Togura, coming from a remarkably small family, had never had much to do with them. Here they were in abundance. They were everywhere. They screamed, squabbled, shouted, chased the chickens, harassed the cats, made excavations in the mud walls, scratched obscene drawings on the ground, played with dung, pulled each other's hair, stole food, told lies, committed acts of arson, and experimented, with no sense of shame whatsoever, in gang warfare, sex and torture.
        By day, the place was largely left to the women, the children and the old people. The men kept to the open plains, hunting, racing horses, and tending the horse herds which were the wealth of the village. Some of the men stayed out for days at a time, guarding the herds or riding their territory on long, military-style patrols, but most retired to the village in the evening, gathering in the village meeting hall to eat, drink, tell jokes, wrist wrestle, throw food at each other, experiment with strange drugs, show off their jewellery - which was only worn indoors - or boast about their weapons and their kills.
        Togura slept in a small, windowless annexe to the meeting hall, and nightly attended these gatherings. Nevertheless, he had no place in the society of men. His place was with the women, and the triple-harp, an instrument now hateful to him, was the cause of his exile from masculine affairs.
        In Sung, the making of music was stout, hearty, heroic work. At feasts and banquets, sweating, beer-swilling men belaboured the krymbol or blew on the kloo; ancient warriors, bearing the scars from many honourable feuds, tortured the air with the skavamareen; battle stalwarts with walnut-crunching fingers manhandled the thrums. Music making, like drinking, fighting, gambling and rampant fornication, was one of the marks of manhood.
        In the land of the savages, however, the status of music was reversed. The younger, thinner women with the least status were tasked with the job of music making. They rattled husky gourds, blew on plaintive bone flutes, beat horsehide drums with little whips, provided a supplementary background rhythm by shaking clickety-clackety multi-jointed sticks, hit racks of little bells with human thigh bones, and sang wailing little songs. Togura, with his triple-harp, fitted in as best he could; his first beating had persuaded him it was best to show willing, and his second had convinced him he must succeed or die.
        The evening entertainment ran right through the month except on the night of the full moon, when the men - exclusive of Togura - barred the hall against all comers and did something within which involved a lot of shouting, stamping and chorus singing, and the occasional scream.
        On all other nights, Togura sat with the women, making music. He was always seated directly behind the headman, a lean, alcoholic old gentleman with a war raising its monticulus in the middle of his bald pate; Togura grew very familiar with that wart. He was less familiar with the headman's face, which he saw less often, and which always came as a shock to him. The headman had a hare lip, one good eye and a deeply-seamed inflamed red scar channelling into his face where his left eye should have been.
        During the day, Togura was not left in peace to practise with his triple-harp. Instead, he was put to work with the women. Those of the highest status were, in this village, tall, wide and hearty. And immensely strong. If he displeased them, they slapped him about with hands which could have killed an ox by accident; he was terrified of them.
        All the women felt free to express their contempt for him, but for one alone. She was plainer than some, but slimmer than most. She was a little thick in the waist all the same, and a little square-shouldered, but she was still, in his opinion, the most womanly woman of them all. Her name was Namaji. She was a ltitle bit prissy and very, very vain.
        Togura courted Namaji as best he could, though he had to be careful. If the other women caught Namaji exchanging endearments with Togura, then both the young lovers would get slapped about severely. There was precious little privacy in the village. Togura was sure he could have got himself laid if there had been any long grass to lie in, but there wasn't. He was still a virgin.
        He was also an overworked virgin. A woman's work is never done, and Togura now had a share - and more than a fair share, in his opinion - of that unending labour. Could he escape? No. Given a chance to venture the open plain on horseback, he might have tried to break away. But he only got beyond the village walls when he was compelled to go to the nearest stream to draw water, or spend an afternoon at the horse corral, milking the mares in the company of stalwart amazons who would have killed him without blinking if he had tried to steal a horse.
        The sun whiled away the last of the spring and began on the summer. Togura grew desperate.
        - These are my golden years. I have my life to live. I can't stay here!
        He didn't have much choice. Those horses used for riding and for the village milk supply were coralled at night under guard; sentries watched from the village walls; foot patrols roamed through the darkness, checking and double-checking; dogs barked at strangers in the night.
        So he stayed.
        Really, he should have counted his blessings. He should have been happy. He was integrated into a closely-knit society living a properly balance life in harmony with the local ecology and the surrounding environment. It was one of those traditional societies where, or so we are told, servitude is painless because a rigid hierarchical stucture leaves people with no choices. The village had its own rich, unique culture, complete with song, dance, music, myth and legend.
        The people deployed efficient population control, without recourse to unnatural practices such as chastity or abortion, by a simple and healthy expedient - they strangled unwanted infants and ate them. They practiced warfare, of course, but mostly by way of sport and ritual. War helped release unhealthy aggression, and helped bind the community together, particularly when they had prisoners they could torture to death.
        It could be said that they had no concept of land ownership; unlike the greedy, depraved peoples of other civilisations, they did not build fences, dykes, ditches or walls to mark off little fields and gardens as "mine" and "yours." Instead, they had a healthy, spiritual attitude toward the land, which they regarded as a communal heritage; they celebrated this healthy, spiritual attitude by butchering anyone caught trespassing on their territory, and by making such incompetent trespassers the main course at cannibal feasts.
        The children, products of a largely peer-based education system, grew up without any unhealthy neuroses; they did not repress their basic urges, but delighted in expressing a full and frank physical and emotional response to their natural and cultural environment.
        In contrast to the rich, complex tapestry of village life, the daily life of Sung could be seen as what it was: a thin, distorted parody of what life could be and should be. The economy of Sung, heavily dependent on mining and organised trade, was not properly integrated with the local ecology; the people of Sung, their lives perverted by mercantile greed, did not have a spiritual attitude toward land and the environment.
        Togura, as one of the unhealthy products of what is known in some quarters as "civilisation," should have welcomed the opportunity to immerse himself in the multi-faceted, communal and so-called "primitive" lifestyle. He should have welcomed the opportunity to integrate himself with the natural environment in a timeless, sustainable, communal mode.
        But he didn't.
        He hated it.
        As far as he was concerned, he was living in a stinking hole in the mud in a stinking dungheap village filled with stinking jabbering savages who were making life hell for him.
        Namaji was his only comfort.
        It was Namaji who started to teach him the native language. Togura found this heavy going. For a start, he was no linguist. Galish was all he spoke, and Galish was a coarse, brutal creole, its grammar simplified by much use and abuse along the trade routes. The villagers, on the other hand, spoke a subtle, reflexive dialect full of difficult tenses, and using, as part of its daily vocabulary, references to the local religion, which was entirely unknown to him.
        One dy, under a hot, blazing summer sun, Togura sat streamside with his true love, Namaji, trying to work out whether "shomana shomo" meant "blue sky," "sun at zenith" or "clear horizon"; his difficulties were due to the fact that the words actually meant "God (is) manifest," and were said, for good luck, at times when the sky was blue, the sun at zenith and the horizon cloudless.
        The stream was running low, slow and sluggish. Namaji and Togura were supposed to be drawing water from it. Nearby, some fierce boy children were playing. They daubed their faces with clay, scratched their wrists with thorns, mingled their blood, then split into teams and went hunting. Shortly, they caught a frog. With much shouting, they broke its legs, one by one. They embedded it in the earth, with only the head showing. Then there was an argument. Togura suspected that one faction wanted to bury their victim alive with the other side wanted to stone it to death.
        Namaji nuzzled his neck.
        He shivered with pleasure. He wanted her. She was so close, so warm, so yielding.
        The boys saw what Namaji was doing. They started to jeer. Then they began to throw things - clods of dried earth, handfuls of water, sharp little stones.
        "Stop that!" shouted Togura.
        One of the boys hauled the quadriplegic frog out of the earth and threw it slap-bang! into Namaji's face. She began to cry. Togura, to his shame, retreated. What else could he have done? He could think of nothing, short of breaking a few skulls, which would not have endeared him to the parents.
        He began to contemplate suicide.
        The summer days shortened to autumn. Togura thought of several ways of killing himself, but could not bring himself to take the final step. Planning suicide, in fact, made life easier, for at least it gave him a hobby of sorts.
        One autumn afternoon, while helping the women to make felt from horse hair, Togura realised it was now two years since he had left Keep, that friendly, familiar mining town far away in the land of Sung where, according to his memories, he had been very happy. His beard was stronger now, a hairy little tuft at his chin, which he did not trim.
        Winter came, and, for him at least, it was a bitter season. His growing competence with the triple-harp was no consolation. He found out how to use its twelve multicoloured buttons to sustain chords, to raise and lower the volume, to add vibrato, or to generate percussion, woodwind or brasswind effects. But music could not make him a man. It could only make him a more competent woman.
        At mid-winter, he got a real shock to his system when he was made to tend the fire in a hut where a woman was in labour. Right from the start, he felt uneasy, feeling he should not be there - but the women, delighting in his embarrassment, forced him to stay. The labour lasted a day and a night. No man visited the woman in question; it was Togura's impression that the men of the village shunned all contact with pregnant women.
        The birth itself terrified him. So much pain! So much blood! And the child, when it was born, so ugly! Covered with blood and mucus and something that looked like a layer of white fat, and might well have been. And the mother took that horrible disgusting slime-covered animal to her breast, and smiled as it suckled. And then, when he thought it was all over, something obscene happened. A great lump of the woman's guts followed the baby out of her body! Togura vomited, straight into the fire, there being no other place available; realising the cause of his distress, all the women howled with laughter.
        The birth, from their point of view, was a victory.
        The female who had given birth was up and about the very next day, apparently none the worse for losing a great big chunk of her guts. But Togura did not get over it for days. Though he was a country boy, he had never done farm work; he had never seen an animal give birth, let alone a human being.
        And, while he had always known, vaguely, that a baby grows in its mother's belly, he had never thought about where it comes out, and had never been told. At an early age, his father had instructed him on how a man impregnates a woman; that stage he found intensely interesting, but he had never troubled himself much about what comes afterwards, having no curiosity about the private mysteries of women.
        Now that he knew the truth, it quite put him off the thought of sex. For practical purposes, that made no difference one way or the other; however, considering his sensitivities, it was probably just as well that he had not yet had a chance to learn about menstruation, as that might have quite blighted his steadily developing romance with Namaji.


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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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