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fantasy novel chapter 33
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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 33

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Chapter 33

        Togura's arrival back at the village was a source of some surprise to the inhabitants. Unbeknownst to him, one of the village men who had survived the fight in the night had come riding back, wounded, to say that the pursuit party had been slaughtered by half a thousand of the enemy. As Togura's return cast doubt on this story, a rescue party was sent north ,eventually retrieving the headman from the open plains. Apart from his broken wrists, there was nothing wrong with him but a slipped disc, which was put back into place by skilled manipulation.
        As for Togura, his leg was properly splinted. With time, the bone healed, as bones will. The skin he had lost grew back, or was replaced with scar tissue. By the time he was able to walk again, his muscles were badly wasted. He found his tendons had shortened because of his long, idle days in bed without any exercise; his legs were stiff. But the headman, who took a personal interest in his case, showed him, by sign and example - Togura's language skills had not improved - how to build up his strength and regain his flexibility.
        Togura foudn that his right leg ached in damp weather. But there was not much damp weather for it to ache in; spring was at an end, and summer had begun.
        Soon after he was up and about, there was a big festival, with much eating and drinking. And music making, which he took no part in. He did not sit behind the headman, as he was accustomed to, but beside him, in a place of honour. The next day, all the unmarried women - Namaji this time beign excluded from their ranks - were lined up in front of Togura.
        He hesitated.
        Someone said something, and all the women laughed. The headman silenced them, then pointed to one of the taller ,wider women and gave her an order. To shouts, applause and the stamping of feet, the woman stripped, proudly. She was not what he was looking for, not exactly - she was stronger than he was, and taller - but there was no doubt that she was a real woman. He smiled.
        The headman laughed, slapped him on the shoulder, then drew thirteen crescent moons in the dust. He pointed first to the moons, then to Togura, then to the woman.
        "A year?" said Togura in dismay.
        The woman was already getting dressed again. It seemed he would have to endure his virginity for another year. But he was tough. He would survive.
        And life, in the days that followed, was sweeter than it had been.
        Togura had a hut of his own now. And a knife, a spear, a bow, arrows, saddles and harness. And a horse, given to him by the headman. He wished he had a stallion which could have challenged the wind. Instead, he had a scrubby little gelding with a hard mouth and an evil disposition; he vowed that as soon as success in battle gave him something better, he would volunteer the gelding for sacrifice.
        Early that summer, when Togura had just about finished cataloguing the defects of his present mount, some strangers arrived in the village. They were clean-shaven foreigners in long robes, who brought with them bearded, heavily tattooed tribesmen who acted as interpreters. The strangers spoke at a public meeting; each man of the village then had his say at length. Togura wondered if all this palaver had anything to do with him, but nobody was discussing the life and fate of Togura Poulaan.
        What they were talking about was war.
        The very next day, all the men began to pack. They were taking all the food,weapons and clothing they could muster, so this was not likely to be a casual overnight raid. Not knowing what the future might hold, Togura packed the magic casket holding his triple-harp, stuffing it down to the bottom of one of his saddlebags. He hated the very sight of it, but knew it would be valuable if they ever reached civilisation.
        Once packed, they rode south. A day along their journey, they fell in with another group. To Togura's surprise, those in the other group had their hair knotted in front and tied in three pigtails behind; he recognised them as enemies. But everyone got on very well, singing, joking, laughing, and, in the evening, engaging in friendly wrestling matches. So where were they going? What superior power had made them allies?
        As they rode south, the places they passed were more substantial. The villages became little towns. They picked up a track, which became a road. At one of the larger towns, there were negotiations with a blacksmith, after which their unshod horses were shod for the first time in their lives.
        At that town, another foreigner in long robes handed out a little bronze coinage to everyone, including Togura; he had to sign for it by inking his thumb then pressing it on a piece of paper against some foreign writing. It was the first piece of paper he had seen for months. He regarded this little ceremony as proof positive of his involvement in a great adventure - and found it increasingly disconcerting not to know where he was going, or why.
        They began to travel through farmland under cultivation; the fields of grain by the roadside had been badly damaged by trampling horses, as if a great body of mounted men had passed this way, and had found the road too narrow for their numbers. Those fields which had survived intact were badly in need of weeding, suggesting a labour shortage.
        Their journey through cultivated land lasted a day. Late in the afternoon, they surmounted a rise and saw before them the sea, which occasioned many great shouts of amazement. They came to the water's edge in the early evening. Men tasted the water and exclaimed in delight or dismay; much money changed hands. There had obviously been heavy betting on the question of whether the sea was really salty. One man rode his horse right into it, then returned, grinning, and claimed some money from a sceptic who had refused to believe in the existence of such a vast amount of water.
        The next morning, they rode into a huge harbourside city. It was larger than Keep, D'Waith and the ruins of Lorford all rolled into one. A foreigner in long robes did a roll call. Togura was delighted to find that his name was on the roll. He was Someone now - he only wished he knew what. A little more money was doled out to each person in turn. They housed their mounts in vast, empty stables; they were shown to a great, gaunt, empty barrack building where they could sleep.
        And now what?
        Now the men began drifting off in ones or twos; Togura gathered that they had a free day. He wandered off on his own, careful to take good note of his route, so he could find his way back. The city was almost depopulated, the streets filled with sunlight and silence. It stank, but only in a half-hearted way. Togura saw some children, some old women, and a few legless beggars propped up against walls. No whorse accosted him, their bodies hot for his money, though he lived in hope.
        Walking down one narrow street, past some buildings which had been looted and burnt out, Togura heard Galish voices. Turning a corner, he saw two Galish merchants in conversation.
        "Please, please," he said, running to them.
        His voice sounded hoarse, febrile, over-loud. He was in a panic in case these miraculous people suddenly vanished. They did not. But they looked as if they wouldn't mind him vanishing.
        "Run away, beggarman," said one.
        "Oh, please. I have to talk to someone, where am I?"
        "On your two feet, by the looks of you."
        "Is this Selzirk?"
        The men laughed.
        "No, seriously," said Togura. "Where am I?"
        "Away with the bats in the darkness," said one, meaning that he was crazy.
        They began to stroll away. When he went pestering after them, they first ignored him, then turned on him with knives drawn.
        "I've got a magic harp I can sell you!" cried Togura, desperate to keep in conversation with them.
        "Yes, and a sister, for sure. Go back to your lunatic kennel! Leave us alone!"
        He did not think it wise to risk his life just to find out where he was; he let them escape. Now that he had met two people who spoke Galish, he was sure he would find others. But he did not. He had a long, hungry day wandering the city; there was little food for sale, and what there was was high-priced. Using sign language, he bartered for some fish; he was almost certain that the fishmonger knew Galish, yet could not persuade the man to converse with him.
        Toward the end of the day he managed to buy a considerable amount of garlic, which he ate raw, hoping to rid himself of the worms which had been troubling him of late. He bought some more in case his war band moved on without warning.
        They did.
        The very next day, they boarded a ship, one of the few vessels in the harbour. It had been modified to take horses; ramps led from the deck to the reeking darkness down below, and it was a devil of a job to get the horses down it. They then sailed south. The ship, a big-bellied two-masted trader, trudged along through the big blue oceans, rolling heavily. The journey seemed to last forever, as Togura had nothing to do but complete his worm cure - which had partial success, though he resolved to obtain a proper vermifuge when he could - and to watch off-duty crew members fishing for fish and for seagulls.
        For this coasting voyage, they had the western shores of the continent of Argan on their left hand side. The land was flat; much of it was marshy. They were four days south when the winds turned against them. The ship, almost as broad as it was long, could not tack against the wind with its big square sails; the crew, used to long, leisurely voyages, cheerfully anchored.
        The next few days were very hard work. A raft was made from barrels and spars; a horse-hoist was improvised with ropes, pulleys and big leather slings; the horses were lowered onto the raft and rowed ashore so they could exercise and pasture on the bitter salt shore grasses as best they could.
        Two horses drowned; a crew member was kicked in the head and died; Togura's mount, the first time he exercised it, stumbled and dropped dead under him, possibly of old age. The dead horses were all recovered, cooked and eaten; the dead crewman was stuffed into a barrel of brine, to be taken back to his family.
        Togura, horseless, helped gather mud snails from the marshes; boiled up, they made a hearty dish to supplement increasingly meagre rations. He looked out to sea, often, longing for the wind to change; as he was a landsman, he did not trouble himself over what would happen if the wind started blowing onshore and the anchor started to drag.
        Finally, graced with favourable winds, they sailed on south. The headman had a bad stroke, and died a day later; they tossed his body overboard, and watched the seagulls mob it as it floated inshore with the tide. Togura felt desolated by this death; he had come to feel that he could trust the headman, and did not know how he would fare in that worthy's absence.
        The next day, they made landfall at a rivermouth city. With the help of boats and ropes, their ship was muscled into a harbour protected by a mole. The harbour was crowded with ships, and every ship was crammed with men.
        A bureaucrat arrived in long robes, accompanied by an interpreter who spoke Savage. They were given a harbourside sail loft to sleep in, through they had to park their horses in the street. Both men and horses got fed and watered, after a fashion.
        Togura never got to explore this new city, for, soon after arrival, he feel sick. Perhaps the riverwater was to blame; in any case, he was soon down with dysentry. A bureaucrat came and inspected him, and he was shifted out of the sail loft and into a hospital - the hospital being a ship in which dozens of people in a similar condition lay in the darkness between decks. Body handlers came round daily, to see which of the filthy, stinking bodies had become corpses overnight; other workers served up soup and water at noon each day.
        Togura fully expected to die, and was soon past caring. He was marinated in filth, embraced by the stench of filth, jostled by the moaning, groaning darkness. Rats scampered across him, occasionally testing his powers of resistance with their teeth. Lice, fleas and bedbugs bit him. Cockroaches set up houses beneath his shadows.
        This, he was certain, was his end.
        Nevertheless, though he was sick, suffering, humiliated by his predicament - no chance to get from here to the topdeck jakes, and no such thing as a chamber pot to hand - he retained enough cunning to protect his prospects as best he could. He put his triple-harp, his most valuable possession, in a small pouch, which he hid beneath his clothes, knotted round his waist on a piece of rope; everything else, including the last of his garlic, stayed in a saddle bag which he used to pillow his head.
        The saddle bag got stolen while he was sleeping, and he once woke and kicked away a villain who was trying to remove his boots, but the triple-harp stayed with him.


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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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