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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 9

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Chapter 9

        The servitor lanced one last blister. Clear fluid eased out, forming a painless tear which the servitor wiped away with a fleece-white dabbing cloth. Togura flexed his hand, which felt stiff and sore.
        "Another time, bandage your hands before you fight," said the servitor, a rough-bearded man with a strange accent. "Until such time as your hands are battle-hardened."
        "Where did you learn that?" said Togura.
        "In another place, another time."
        "Tell me about it."
        "Not today. No - don't get up. Rest. I'll be back soon with something good."
        "What?"
        "Wait and see."
        The servitor departed. Togura lay back in bed, staring at the cobwebs sprawled across the timbers overhead, and listened to the fury of the autumn storm which raged without. The wilderness weather was scattering the ilpses far and wide across the land, or blowing them out to sea; it was killing or dispersing the mobs of birds; it was grounding most of those quarrelsome machines which had not yet run out of fuel. The war weather was dealing with the pests and enemies unleashed by the odex, bringing a kind of peace back to the city state of Keep.
        The servitor returned, bringing a two-handled drinking jug filled with something hot and sweltering.
        "Drink," he said.
        Togura did so. Warmth paunched in his belly and invaded his veins. His senses slurred. The colours of the darkened timbers overhead began to drift.
        "Drink," said the servitor, encouraging him.
        Togura drank his fill. Though he was lying in bed, he felt that he was floating. He tried to ask a question. On the third attempt, he managed to curl his tongue round the word.
        "What is it?"
        "Quaffle," said the servitor.
        "And what's that?"
        "A mixture of all good things. Alcohol, opium, hemlock, dark nightshade, the red-capped mushroom and the blue, a foreign herb called ginseng and a little oil of hashish. And honey, of course."
        "I could learn to like it."
        "You could learn too well," said the servitor, with a laugh. "But it's good for the sickness. Sleep now."
        And, at his command, Togura drifted off into silk-blosomed drug dreams which suckled him with nectar and fed him on honey-basted melody cats.
        He woke later, in darkness. The rain and the wind were still at work beyond the walls. He was alone, without the company of so much as a candle. Lying there in the darkness, he remembered Day Suet, in spring, cradling a tiny bird in her little hands, and laughing when it stained her fingers with a tiny bit of lime. Hot tears blistered his eyes.
        He wept.
        Later, in the darkness, he found the two-handled drinking jug. What was left in the bottom was cold to the touch. It sidled down his throat, cold as a snake, then transmuted itself to living fire. Sweating from the heat of the fire, and reeling from weariness, he allowed his bones to compose themselves once more for sleep.
        When he woke, it was morning.
        The servitor brought him mutton chops, swedes, rutabaga and water cress. He ate, ravenously. For lunch, there was leek soup, venison and the brains of a pig, with a side-helping of fried snails and pickled slugs. He devoured everything. In the evening, there was a slab of bread loaded down with beefsteak and a gill of milk, with blackbird pie to follow. He polished off the lot.
        "Why am I so hungry?" said Togura.
        "Good health makes you so," said the servitor.
        For days, as Togura recovered from the effects of the unknown weapon which the strange woman from the odex had used to knock him unconscious, the cold rains of autumn lashed the town, washing away dead fish, drowned rats and the smells of blood and cheese. While Togura ate and slept, while the days shortened and the rains pounded down, the townspeople counted the cost of their orgiastic disaster with the odex, and argued whether it was a blessing or a disaster.
        "Of course it was a disaster, no question about it!" said Shock the Cobbleman, who had broken both legs on the Night.
        But not everyone was quick to agree.
        On the debit side, at least thirty-four people had been killed, fifty houses flooded, seventeen other properties damaged or demolished, and incredible devastation wrought underground by war machines fighting to death in the mines. Through autumn and winter, the miners would be able to retrieve little gemstock; they would be too busy repairing and shoring up mineshafts.
        On the credit side, three of the fighting machines, burrowing deep into the rock, had finally burst out into the daylight at the very bottom of Dead Man's Drop. Water was now cascading out of their escape tunnels. The problem of flooding in the mines, which had worsened as the miners delved deeper over the years, was now easing. This unexpected solution to the drainage problem meant that the total amount of gemstock available in the long term had greatly increased.
        Bankers at banquet, gleaming with perspiration, toasted Togura Poulaan - also known as Barak the Battleman - with goblets of diluted ambrosia or strong mulled wine. The Gonderbrine mine, the largest in Keep, which had been threatening to default on its loans because assets underground had proved to be also underwater, had now negotiated a very satisfactory repayment schedule.
        "To chaos," went one of the more drunken toasts. "To havoc."
        That was daring, but another toast capped it.
        "To the unexpected."
        Now that, for a banker, was truly extraordinary.
        While bankers celebrated, and while mienrs, though grumbling, admitted that they ultimately stood to benefit, a few dour, incorrigible pessimists argued that drainage would hasten subsidance, leading to a swift collapse of the town. They were ignored.
        Meanhile, also on the credit side was the personal wealth so many had garnered. Many houses in Keep were now glutted with venison, and also with cheesestock, the name the people invented for the unholy mish-mash of half a hundred different cheeses which had resulted from the excessive generosity of the odex.
        Others had gained birdmeat, fishmeat, gold, silver or interesting articles of metalwork. And many of those who had gained nothing had, nevertheless, abandoned themselves shamelessly on the Night; aware that they had fought and scrabbled and kicked and clawed, squabbling over the loot like so many carrion eaters, they were, for the most part, too ashamed to speak out and criticise the Wordsmiths, the odex or Togura Poulaan. Collective benefits and collective guilt served to nullify the chance of retribution.
        Togura scarcely thought of the damage to the town and its people, but was deeply worried about the probable reaction of the Wordsmiths.
        "Will I be punished?" he said.
        "No, boy," said the servitor. "They're quite pleased with you, if anything."
        Indeed, within the ranks of the Wordsmiths there was general agreement that the Night had been a good thing. For more than three decades they had explored the odex in a slow, cautious, deferential fashion, learning little of its practical use. Now, in one wild, rampaging Night, Togura Poulaan had taught them something very important about its use.
        Brother Troop, the new Governor - the old one had died from an allergic reaction to an unfamiliar type of cheese - codified their new knowledge in Brother Troop's First Law of Odex:

The volume, variety and reality of production of the odex increases in proportion to the length of unbroken linguistic stimulation and the variety of linguistic excitement employed for that stimulation.
        In other words, a long shouting match with the odex, with plenty of people shouting, would lead to a great many things being produced, lots of those things being real objects instead of ilpses.
        Brother Troop, pleased to be wearing the Governor's pink felt jacket and fur-lined codpiece, had his First Law of Odex inscribed on a piece of the finest timber available. He ordered it to be done in letters of fire, by which he meant red paint; what he actually received was a fine example of poker-work, but he decided that his words looked splendid even when rendered in charcoal.
        Now that he was head of his little empire, Brother Troop set about a little empire-building. Even though the Wordsmiths were having little success with the Universal Language they were trying to develop, there was still the possibility of recovering great wealth from the odex. However, as Keep might not take kindly to further frenetic experiments being conducted within city limits, a new location was in order.
        Brother Troop sent scouts out into the surrounding countryside to search for a high, well-drained place where they could build a new stronghold, well away from inhabited places. A suitable spot was soon found on the estate of Baron Chan Poulaan, who objected violently to Brother Troop's proposal.
        "My estate," said the baron, "is not uninhabited. Even if it was, I would not permit vermin to spawn and fester upon my freeholding. I demand the return of my son, the disbanding of the Wordsmiths and the destruction of the odex."
        Brother Troop thus became aware that his order now had an enemy. He decided that the baron was upset at the fame and acclaim his son had won by killing a monster, slaying a dragon and so on and so forth. That was true, but there was more to it than that.
        Baron Chan Poulaan was worried about the forthcoming marriage between the king's daughter, Slerma, and the valiant Roy Suet. King Skan Askander, on his own, was harmless, but the Suets were a wily breed - cunning, scheming, and devious. And rich. And numerous.
        The Suets had already taken the matter of the currency in hand, and now the baron's spies brought him unconfirmed rumours of plans for a paretorian guard, a police force, a small army of infantry, a poll tax, a mining tax, a road toll and a bridge toll, and, in addition to this, a special estate tax to be levied on barons.
        It seemed that the wealth, power and energies of Keep were about to be harnessed and directed, undoubtedly with the idea of establishing a true kingdom which would end the privileges and freedoms of the barons. For his part, Baron Chan Poulaan was coming to see the Wordsmiths as part of an alliance of his enemies; he was sending horseback messengers across Sung, summoning a meeting of the Warguild.
        This could mean civil war.
        As Brother Troop refused to yield up Togura Poulaan, Baron Chan Poulaan finally sent Cromarty to Keep to bring the errant lad to home and to heel. Cromarty, admitted to the Wordsmith's stronghold, found Togura matching swords with a rough-bearded servitor. As Cromarty had arrived with no more than a boot-blade to his name, and with no bully boys to back him up, he had to attempt diplomacy; his wretched efforts in this direction excited laughter from the servitor and open contempt from Togura. Cromarty, to his shame, had to go home empty-handed.
        Togura was training with the sword because he was preparing to go questing. His mission: to venture to Castle Vaunting, in Estar, and there, hopefully with the permission of Prince Comedo, to contend against the monster guarding the green bottle, retrieve the bottle, recover the index, return to Sung, find out how to use the index, and rescue his true love from the clutches of the odex.
        A jovial Suet had already told him that the loss of a daughter was of no account; there were plenty more in stock and, if he wanted, he could marry one tomorrow.
        "I have to save her," said Togura. "It's a matter of honour."
        It was a matter of many things. It would be one in the eye for his father, if he could rescue Day Suet from the odex. It would raise his status in Keep, confirming him as a hero. It would make him rich, because he had negotiated an agreement with Brother Troop which would guarantee him one percent of the wealth generated by the odex. It would prove that he was a real man. It would make him famous. And, apart from all that, he was in love with Day. He thought.
        So he trained with the sword, and received good advice from all quarters. The more he learnt, the easier his mission seemed to be. The chance of getting killed came to seem comfortably remote; he could not understand how other people had failed, and suspected that they were misfits who had not really gone questing, but had sneaked off into the never-never to start their lives afresh elsewhere.
        After all, Estar was fairly close. Galish convoys went there all the time. Prince Comedo of Estar was, according to his reputation, not the nicest of men, but a promise of a percentage of the gains from the odex should sweeten his temper enough to bring him to let Togura have a crack at the monster guarding the green bottle.
        The monster itself, he learnt, was a kind of disk-shaped slug known as a lopsloss; he could not imagine an overgrown slug giving him much trouble. He was startled when told that he would actually have to go inside the green bottle to get at the box holding the index; he doubted that this would be possible until the magic of bottle-rings was explained to him, at which point it came to seem easy.
        In fact, he thought the whole thing was going to be a doddle. When he heard that Brother Troop was laying on an escort to take him to Estar, it seemed easier than ever. There was not a cloud on the horizon. Until he received his invitation to Slerma's wedding.
        Then he panicked.

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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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