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fantasy novel chapter 30
questing hero novel text online
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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 30

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Chapter 30

        In spring, the men daubed themselves with clay, as had the frog-hunting boys of the previous summer, then rode off to take a slap at someone beyond the horizon. They came back a few days later, some wounded, a few missing, and one, slung over the back of a horse, most definitely dead. The men had a roistering feast; as part of their celebration, they honoured their dead comrade by eating him.
        As a great concession, even Togura was honoured with a bit of human flesh, which, over-roasted, tasted mostly of charcoal. He ate it eagerly, for it gave him at least a momentary association with the world of men, which is the world of swordblade legends and conquering heroes; Togura was living in the world of women, and he hated it.
        The human flesh concession was a once-only indulgence. It changed nothing. Togura, in the eyes of the men, was a nominal woman, which made him almost invisible. They might give him a kick if he got in the way, or get rid of a bit of rubbish by throwing it at him, but generally they scarcely seemed aware that he existed, except when they came to have their hair cut. He had no knife, his blades having been confiscated long ago, so the men provided their own. Often he was tempted to cut a throat or two, but never managed to nerve himself to the act.
        Togura did not know it, but his readiness to cut hair had lowered his status to about that of a dog. In terms of the local religion, hair, once separated from the body, was regarded as a particularly unpleasant form of dead and death-inducing matter; Togura, as hairdresser, was ritually unclean. He had compounded his uncleanness by stockpiling a great heap of hair in the annexe in which he slept, intending one day to stuff a mattress with it. This stockpile was now the subject of many jokes which were, in the local context, obscene.
        Namaji, however, did not mind. Namaji thought Togura was wonderful. Namaji longed for him. Namaji worshipped him. Togura, having outgrown his brief-lived horror of human flesh - he had by now convinced himself that the birth he had seen was a tragic medical freak, and that most babies probably exited to the outside world by way of a woman's naval - was once more being tormented by his unappeased lusts. Given half a chance, he would appease them with Namaji.
        That spring, a stranger arrived, bearing a green bough, which was perhaps a sign of peace, for he was admitted, even though he was not of the village. He smelt differently. His hair was elaborately styled, tied into ornate knots in the front, plaited into three pigtails behind, in start contrast to the men of the village, many of whom, thanks to Togura Poulaan's latest contribution to the world of fashion, were wearing their hair shaven close to the skull in front, and wild and woolly behind. The lobes of the stranger's ears were tattooed with blue, black and red, which, for reasons unknown to Togura, made many of the women giggle.
        After a day of public palaver, in which the stranger made several speeches which were very well received, the men of the village fêted the stranger in the meeting hall. Togura was there, sitting on a three-legged stool just behind the headman, playing his triple-harp.
        It was a wild night. The men got drunk on fermented mare's milk heavily laced with a juice extracted from a special kind of toadstool. This potentially lethal brew was forbidden to women, and to untouchables like Togura, so he could only watch, stone cold sober, while the men got legless to the tune of his music.
        At the height of the festivities, when most of the men were flat on their backs, the visiting stranger suddenly drew a knife and advanced on the headman. Togura at first thought it was a joke. Then a warrior, staggering on uncertain legs, tried to intercept the stranger, and was stabbed with three swift, professional blows. Nobody else was fit to stand.
        As the women screamed, Togura picked up his three-legged stool and hurled it at the stranger. It clipped him on the head. Momentarily stunned, he wavered. Togura closed with him. And down they went, fighting for control of the knife. The women started to shout, stamp and applaud.
        "Don't just stand there!" yelled Togura. "Hit him!"
        But nobody understood his Galish.
        The stranger was a strong, tough, wiry warrior, experienced in battle. But he had drunk a little of the night's brew, so as to appear sociable. Togura had drunk nothing. He, too, was tough, strong and wiry, capable of spending entire days lugging around heavy pots of water, milking mares or making felt. He found a stranglehold, and made good use of it.
        Togura, with the stranger dead, stood up.
        The stranger started to stir - he was not dead at all. Togura tried to finish him off, but the women restrained him. Since the would-be assassin was not dead, they would have the pleasure of skinning him alive.
        The next day, terrible things happened to the captive. In public. He clung stubbornly to life; he was not a pretty sight by the time he died. Togura watched it all, without emotion. He had seen worse. The body lay in state while everyone filed past to give the corpse a good hearty kick, which helped tenderise the meat; Togura gave it the hardest kick of all. The corpse was then demolished; some small boys began a tug of war with the intestines, while the women sizzled chunks of flesh on a barbecue.
        "Togura!" said the headman, when the first steaks were cooked.
        At first, Togura did not realise he was being addressed, for the headman's hare lip made the name slurred and distorted. Every time Togura heard the headman speak, he was reminded of Slerma, who also used to have a strange, slurred voice; he still had occasional nightmares about her.
        "Togura!" said the headman, again.
        This time, Togura realised who was being spoken to. He got such a shock that he almost jumped out of his skin. He advanced, with some hesitation. The headman embraced him, then presented him with a prime piece of rump steak. He was flattered. He ate heartily. Excellent! But this was not the end of his reward, for, after several long speeches, all the unmarried women of the village formed a line. The headman thumped Togura on the chest, then indicated the women.
        Slowly, he began to understand.
        A miraculous future revealed itself.
        By triumphing over the assassin, he had saved the headman's life; he had proved himself as a man and as a warrior. He was going to be allowed to marry into the tribe. He would have weapons and a horse. Riding off to battle with the other men, he would prove himself as a great war leader. In time, he would become chief, an honoured patriarch revered at home, and feared abroad for his cunning, his sagacity, his reckless violence on the field of battle.
        He looked the women over. He could see which ones fancied themselves - those who were tallest and widest. Well, bugger that for a joke! There was no way he was going to get himself hitched to a woman he couldn't beat up if it came to the crunch. There was only one choice for him, and he kenw it. He picked Namaji.
        Incredulous laughter greeted his choice. The headman laughed until tears of mirth came blubbering down his cheeks. Little boys rolled about on the ground, chortling, kicking their heels as if they were being strangled. Togura dearly wished to have a go at a few of them. Namaji, embarrassed beyond endurance, broke down and cried. Togura confronted her bravely.
        Finally the headman recovered hyimself, and made a short speech which set the people stamping and cheering. Namaji managed a small smile, and Togura knew everything was going to be all right.
        The marriage took place the next day. The ceremony started at dawn and ended at sunset. There was a lot of singing, dancing and eating; Togura, for once, took no part in the music-making. During the ceremony, a horse was tortured to death as part of the festivities. Togura couldn't help noticing that it was a rather old horse, which had been lame to start with. He felt slightly insulted by this, feeling that he deserved the best.
        At sunset, all the men escorted Togura and Namaji to a hut which had been made ready for them. He found himself trembling as he closed the door on the outside world.
        "Namaji."
        "Togura."
        They found each other in the darkness. Togura, his hands shaking, laid rough hands on Namaji. In his haste, he stripped her more swiftly than he should have; he heard a little rip as fabric gave. Urgently, he grappled with her, sliding a hand straight to her privacy, and finding -
        Togura screamed.
        "No no no no!" he shouted.
        Outside the hut, there was a chorus of cruel, knowing laughter. The men were out there. They knew! And what they knew was that his "she" was a "he." Namaji touched Togura with small, gentle, seducing hands. He slapped them away. Namaji wept.
        "Togura," said Namaji, pleading.
        "No," said Togura. "It's no good. I don't want a make-belief woman. I want the real thing."
        He desperately wanted, needed, lusted for the real thing, so he could rut it under, taking what other men wanted, thus proving his strength, sagacity, wisdom, superiority and manhood. His ego lusted for status as much as his body lusted for the flesh.
        He opened the door to the night, finding the men without. Gleefully, they bundled him back inside. He slammed the door on them, and swore.
        "Togura?" said Namaji, tremulously.
        "No!" roared Togura. "No! Forget it!"
        He threw himself down in a corner and lay there, sulking. When Namaji lay down beside him, he did not have the heart to push her away. Nevertheless, he lay there stiffly, rejecting her with silence. She touched him again.
        "Namaji," said Togura, removing her hand. "It wouldn't work."
        "Togura?" she said hopefully, not understanding his Galish.
        "No," he said. And then, using the local word: "Kal."
        Understanding, she began to cry again. And Togura felt ashamed with himself, and sorry for her, and, at the same time, disgusted by her, and hated himself for being so narrow and cruel as to be disgusted, and felt bitter, angry and outraged at being forced into a position where he had - he felt this strongly - just had to be narrow and cruel to be true to himself. And -
        But there is no need to elaborate. Suffice to say that he felt very mixed up, his emotions flickering like a chameleon trapped in a kaleidoscope, making his mind an agony of confusion.
        He should be loyal to Namaji. But she had tricked him, so he shouldn't be. But maybe she thought he knew all along. And, after all, a warm body was a warm body. But nobody else in the village wanted this body! But he had known that all along. But he had not know why. But -
        "Sod it sod it sod it," said Togura, biting his arm viciously, trying to relieve his agony by hurting himself.
        And he started to weep.
        Outside the hut, the men started to sing a loud, vigorous song which was probably obscene; maybe they had made it up especially to mock him. He wished he could kill them all. Kill them and castrate them. Rape their women one by one and burn their village down to nothing.
        Why were people so vicious?
        Why was life so cruel?
        "Why was I ever born?" said Togura.
        Whatever the reason for his birth, he was sure he was not fulfilling it by lying in a mud hut weeping for the amusement of a bunch of jabbering savages. As his sorrow began to ease, it was replaced by a fierce, furious determination.
        "Live free or die," said Togura.
        And he started making a hole in the roof.


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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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