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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 5

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Chapter 5

        Togura found refuge in a fire watcher's hut by a mine shaft. It gave him at least a modicum of shelter against the cold autumn weather. Exhausted, he slept. He woke, once, to find something gnawing at his boots. He kicked it away. Hissing and spluttering, it retreated; after that, he found it hard to get back to sleep again.
        At dawn, the fire watcher arrived, a big, gruff man with a red beard and bloodshot eyes, and big dirty boots, one of which had marked Togura's backside by the time he made his escape. Outside, a light drizzle was falling. Miners, with pick axes and shovels slung over their shoulders, were trooping to the climbing shafts.
        Shivering, Togura wandered off, wondering what to do now. He had already considered turning to Day Suet for help, and had rejected the notion; he was too proud to beg, and, in any case, doubted that her family would welcome him if he came as a beggar.
        The streets of Keep were dangerous, as always, for housewives were going through the morning routine of emptying chamber pots out of the window. Ducking and dodging, Togura escaped with no more than a few stray licks of splatter. His zigzag course through the drunken streets brought him to the very brink of Dead Man's Drop.
        Togura stood on the Edge, looking out at the dim grey horizon now soured by stormclouds. The ground dropped away sheer to the pinnacles of the Claws which would receive his body if he jumped, fell or was pushed. Between the Claws and the enclosing horizon lay the leagues of the Famines, a regular wasteland of scoured rock and eroding hillsides speckled with colonies of gorse, clox, snare and barbarian thorn. Down in the hollows there was the occasional glint of lake or slough.
        Far below Togura's feet, some nimble birds darted through the dull-weather sky. They, at least, had homes to go to, and regular occupations to follow.
        Overcome by a sudden access of self-pity, Togura considered throwing himself over, but decided against it. The pleasures of self-pity were, for the moment, far too sweet. Besides, he still had some money left. It would be foolish to suicide before spending all his cash.
        Turning away from Dead Man's Drop, Togura walked down the street. He had only just departed when the piece of stone he had been standing on fell away, almost soundlessly, and toppled into the gulf. Hearing the fant sound the stone made when it slipped away, Togura turned. But, seeing nothing, shrugged, and went on his way.
        Two streets from Dead Man's Drop, Togura bought some roasted chestnuts from a street vendor, a crippled hag with a festering rupia despoiling the skin beneath her left eye. She tried to cheat him. They argued. He swore. She cursed him. They parted, both convinced that they had got the worst of the bargain; rounding a corner, he kicked at a cat with ringworm, swore again, then stopped to eat.
        As he ate, he began to feel better.
        As Togura savoured his chestnuts, he watched two raff-taff street dogs fighting. Then a man came hurrying down the road; after him came a hunting harridan dressed in harn, who screamed abuse at him.
        Togura thought to himself:
        - Now what was all that about?
        He was accosted by a rough, burly swordsman of middle years, who spoke to him in a strangely accented Galish.
        "Which way to the king's palace, boy?"
        "Who is it who wants to know?" said Togura.
        "Barak the Battleman, hired killer and trained assassin," said the swordsman.
        That was a lie. The stranger was, in fact, Guest Gulkan, sometimes known as the Emperor in Exile. He was the son of Onosh Gulkan, the Witchlord; he had been wandering the world for years now, travelling to places as far distant as Dalar ken Halvar and Chi'ash-lan. He lied about his name because there was a price on his head in many parts and places.
        "The palace lies that way," said Togura, pointing firmly, and hoping that he was right; at the moment, he was more than a little disorientated.
        "Thank you, lad," said the stranger, and strode away with an easy, rolling gait.
        Togura watched him go, struck, momentarily, with horror. The king was angry with him! The king had hired an assassin! He was going to be hunted and tortured and killed!
        Then Togura realised he was being ridiculous. There was no way the king could have got hold of an assassin so soon, even supposing that he had been made that angry; the stranger's appearance in this place was probably just idle coincidence.
        Togura's analysis was correct.
        Realising that the stranger was no danger to him, Togura was taken by the wild notion of following him and questioning him. Perhaps the swordmaster-assassin could use a road companion to carry his burdens and light his fires, to cook his food and to haggle for provisions in the marketplace. There was no harm in trying.
        Enthusiastic about this idea, Togura set off in pursuit of the swift-striding man-killer, but lost him in a tangle of narrow streets crowded, suddenly and without warning, by a flock of sheep which were being driven through the town. He contemplated pursuing his quarry to the palace, but the thought of going anywhere near Slerma made him decide against it.
        So it was that Togura Poulaan came within an ace of becoming the road companion of Guest Gulkan. The fact that he failed probably saved his life, for the Emperor in Exile was on a dangerous quest which would in time decide the fate of powers, kingdoms and empires; there was horror behind him and peril ahead, and the life expectancy of anyone travelling with him would probably have been short.
        The last of the sheep went by. Togura idly squished a knobbly dropping with his foot, chewed on another chestnut, and wondered what to do now.
        As he was wondering, a small procession went by. It consisted of about twenty people dressed in mourning who were carrying amidst them a bier on which there reclined a man who was both very old and very sick. Togura, as a native of the district, knew enough to guess that the old man was going to be fed to the odex. He had never yet seen this process; as his meal had nourished his curiosity along with his other organs, he fell in behind the procession.
        By and by, they came to the stronghold of the Wordsmiths. The original building, made of stone, had collapsed five years previously; the Wordsmiths had rebuilt in wood. The main gate in the stockade was open, but a grey-robed wordmaster halted the procession before they could enter. After a low-voiced argument, the leader of the procession signed his people to one side, and they sat down to wait.
        Was it too early in the day? Or was the odex not hungry yet? Or was there an argument about how much the people should pay to dispose of their sick old man? Togura did not know, and was not rude enough to ask. While waiting to see what would happen, he loitered beside an abandoned mine shaft, kicking occasional stones into the darkness, which fell straight and sheer to a pool of water far below.
        From inside the stronghold of the Wordsmiths there came sounds of confusion. Then there was some banging and crashing and shouting, then three wordmasters sprinted through the open gate, running for their lives.
        "Curiouser and curiouser," said Togura.
        Then there issued forth a monster, which came striding out of the gate on five or six of its seven or eight legs. It was not terribly imposing, as monsters go; it was scarcely twice the girth of a bull, and barely twice the height of a man; its grappling claws were hardly the size of a pair of shears.
        Nevertheless, people screamed and ran.
        Togura, amused, wondered why people were making so much fuss about the manifestation of an ilps. As it bent over the sick old man, he sauntered forward. The creature lifted its head and regarded him. Its skull was bald bone like that of a vulture. Its eyes were as green as gangrene, and its breath was fetid. Its skin was covered with warts and fents. The warts were a mixture of pink and grey; a few seemed to be purulent, while stark yellow pus oozed from the fents.
        "Who are you?" said Togura, his voice loud and strong.
        The creature blinked.
        "Where do you come from?" he insisted.
        It took no notice.
        "I demand your nature!"
        Losing interest in Togura, the creature bent down over the old man once more. And something terrible happened. As Togura screamed and screamed, the creature raised its head, slushed a mouthful of flesh and spat out a bone. Blood ran down its chin.
        "Who?" screamed Togura. "When? What?"
        But the creature remained undamaged by his questions. Belatedly, he realised it was not an ilps at all. It was a genuine monster. As it forked, scrabbled and glutted, spraying the area with blood and offal, he turned and ran.
        The creature roared and followed.
        Blindly, Togura fled. The ground opened up in front of him. In a moment of sickening horror, he realised he had fallen into a mine shaft. He gasped for air as he fell. Then he went barrelling into the water, which went riveting up his nose. Stunned to find himself still alive, Togura struggled for the surface and looked around. In all directions were rock walls, dimly lit by wavering, splintered reflections of half-light from the water.
        To his relief, he saw there was a ladder fastened to the side of the shaft. He swum across to it, took hold, and hauled himself out of the water. He had climbed to three times his own height when the wood, many years rotten, gave way, and sent him plummeting back into the sump.
        "Help!" cried Togura, floundering.
        He looked up and saw, far overhead, someone looking down at him.
        "Help!" he cried. "Help! For the love of Mothra, help me!"
        Someone began to climb down. Too late, he realised it was not someone but something. The monster was coming to get him. Suddenly, it slipped, scrabbled then fell. He cowered against the side of the shaft. The monster shattered the water beside him. As it heaved up out of the depths, he took his only chance, and leapt onto its back.
        Shoving his hands into two of the larger fents which disgraced the creature's hide, Togura hung on for dear life. The creature snapped and thrashed and shook and bucked. He thought it was urgently trying to get at him, but in fact it was urgently trying to save itself from drowning.
        Finally, the monster got claw-hold on the flanks of the shaft and began to climb, slowly and painfully. Once it slipped, and almost went crashing back to disaster. But it struggled on, gaining, at last, the daylight. Togura, still back-riding, looked round and saw a small crowd watching from a distance.
        A man advanced, bearing a meat cleaver.
        As the man drew near, the monster attacked with a lurch and a slither. Its intended victim dropped his cleaver and fled. Exhausted, the monster collapsed. Togura, in danger of sliding off, shifted his weight. A mistake! Remembering his presence, the monster rolled over suddenly, almost crushing him. He fell off, leapt away from the grappling claw, ducked under the monster's scooping jaw and fell, almost on top of the meat cleaver.
        Snatching the weapon by the handle, Togura slashed the next claw which tried for him. He lopped it off. The monster screamed and tried to scoop him with its jaw. He weaved and evaded, then hacked. His blade chopped into the monster's neck. In a frenzy, he slashed, stabbed, gouged and underthrust, fighting in a beserker fury. He never noticed when the monster died. Then, finally, one wild swipe took its head off entirely, and he realised it must be dead. Or, if not dead, then pretty sick.
        Panting, sweating, swaying, Togura halted. He became aware of distant cheering, and realised it was for him. He felt dizzy and very distant.
        A wordmaster advanced and clapped him on the shoulder.
        "That was very well done, young man."
        "Thank you," said Togura, good manners providing him with something to say.
        "Come with me," said the wordmaster.
        "I must clean my blade," said Togura, remembering that to be something that heroes were said to say after battle.
        He tried wiping the bloodstained blade against the monster's flank, but succeeded only in getting it stained with yellow pus. He tried again, and failed. He was shaking. He was rapidly becoming tearful.
        Realising the meat cleaver was causing his young charge some distress, the wordmaster wisely removed it from Togura's grasp and threw it to one side. Then he led Togura into the Wordsmiths' stronghold. As they walked along together, Togura tottering and leaning on the older man for support, the crowd cheered once more.
        "Who was that who just went in?" asked Baron Poulaan, arriving on the scene.
        "A young man. He killed the monster."
        "What kind of young man?" asked the baron, on the off chance. "Do you know his name?"
        "Oh yes sir," said a milkmaid, who was more knowledgeable than her years might have suggested. "He's Barak the Battleman."
        "And who might that be?"
        "A visitor, sire," said a woodcutter from Down Slopes. "Assassin and swordfighter, they say. Escaped gladiator from the murk pits of Chi'ash-lan, if you ask me."
        And he pulled down one eyelid in a very suggestive gesture.
        "Oh," said the baron, losing interest.
        He turned away and set off for the Suets. He would challenge them and find out where they had hidden his son. If the Suets failed to yield up Togura, then there might be feuding about this.


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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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