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THE BEST OF MEN part 2 INTRUSIONS
TEA AND TOASTED RABBIT
Black Hills, Segyllin Part 3057.7.24
Tregar had all but done with the first leg of his journey. For five days he had ridden hard after the kindness of Torhead, taking little rest, knowing that Seama was very likely taking less.
He was a strange man, The Wizard Beltomé, a man of terrible power and enviable skill but that surely was only a part of it. Though he counted Seama a good friend there was a barrier between them that Tregar found hard to fathom, a barrier indeed that seemed to stand between Seama and the rest of humanity. Seama went his own way whatever friendship or society or authority might seek to demand. Even in his dealings with the Council Seama maintained an uncommon degree of independence. Yes, he worked tirelessly in the Council’s name but only because the work suited his purpose. Luckily for all, Seama’s intentions were visibly benevolent. There was no politicking or machination here, no desire to order things according to his will. In fact Seama consistently rejected all attempts to draw him into any position of governance, and though the Council had asked, more than once, for him to have-done with his wanderings and to take up The Staff of Power, Seama steadfastly refused. “There has been no Tap-Rod for over a hundred years,” he’d said, “and we have managed very well without one.” He’d caused quite a furore, just a few years back, by insisting, in Parleyment, that the appointment would be a waste of his best qualities. There were hard words all round. Some members said it was an insult to the office for Seama to suggest that he had ‘better things to do’. The story of the confrontation had taken wing all over the continent and opinions on the matter were given breath from Garassa to Persepolis. There was debate about the viability of Errensea’s pre-eminence over a continent of four proper and equal nations; doubts were spoken about the justifiability of giving ultimate power into to one hand alone; in skeptical Gothery there were parties, revitalized by the issue, dedicated to denying even the basis of the dispute, braying out their call to clear reason over occult powers. It was all to little point. Lots of huffing and puffing for weeks on end but nothing was changed: Errensea stood resolute and Seama wouldn’t move an inch.
All ridiculous of course. People rarely listened to what was actually spoken. Tregar was convinced there was nothing flippant in Seama’s response, he was merely being honest. The problem Tregar had was in deciding what those ‘better things’ Seama had to do might be, and what it was that made him so determined to do them. The clue, he decided, was in the eyes. There was a look of yearning there, a look of terrible need sometimes that Tregar thought disturbing. Seama was looking for something not to be found in Errensea and the search for it controlled his every thought and deed. Tregar’s interpretation was that the Wizard Beltomé was the victim of a life-spell: a geas.
A life-spell is an attempt to infect the “nature” of the victim; commonly invoked at birth it would attempt to alter the whole course of the victim’s life. The geas controlled behaviour. A naturally quiet man would rage when faced with authority; a blithe man would find himself plotting to betray his friends. The geas was very often used by those wishing to curse and bring destruction upon the children of their enemies. Very often. But there were other circumstances, other uses. Tregar held to the belief that the spell could be used to good purpose and in fact he believed it need have nothing to do with an external force at all, that it could be self-imposed.
Tregar had not discussed this notion with others and it could easily have been wrong but it seemed clear to him that Seama Beltomé had quite deliberately given himself a geas. It took the form of a quest, but a quest with no obvious end, that drove him on and on through the years, that drew him away from anything that might be considered an easy option and pushed him towards toil and danger. Tregar wondered if Seama was still aware of this spell or whether he believed the decisions he made and the actions he performed were quite normal. He wondered if Seama knew where his life was leading him. Perhaps this nonsense about the Dedicae was something to do with it. And this book of Haslem's too. Tregar wondered if it was all linked. Seama's unstoppable need to conquer evil was almost legendary and it gained him respect, but was it now beginning to have undesirable effects? Was the man so concerned with a final victory over evil he had come to invent a final enemy? The more Tregar considered Seama's theory in this light, the more ridiculous it seemed. What if it was completely wrong? How would Seama react? A life-spell is a hard spell to break, and hard on the victim when broken.
Or so said the Books of Lore! Tregar had never been driven by anything more than average ambition. This is not to say that Tregar was a poor wizard. Far from it, but it was true that after the ventures of youth he was content to sit back and fall into the settled life of Mador's court. His duties, mainly to do with healing, were not dull as such, but they were infinitely less demanding than the problems regularly confronted by The Wizard Beltomé. Tregar did not envy Seama those problems: healing was honour enough for a boy from Great Spurl. He had found much satisfaction in his life.
And now this!
He had shaken out his old fur cloak and oiled his favourite boots. Back on the road he wanted the comforts of familiarity and his cloak and boots had been with him through many an escapade. He’d found the old breeches too but decided to leave them at home this time as they seemed to have shrunken around the waist.
What a pity his old horse Wanderer was gone. Fine hunter though he was Sirrah was not much used to long journeys that did not lead home. No doubt this campaign would improve his character: he was far too proud of himself.
"What did ye think of Bellus then? I saw you! Trying to show off like that. I doubt she was impressed, my young bucko. You're a wee bit short on experience for that one I'd think. Still, we'll see what you're made of. There's a way to travel, Sirrah, and battles to fight when we get there maybe. I hope you're looking forward to it. Now then, I’ve a sore backside and you’re getting to stumbling, so what say we have a break?"
The horse did not reply. He was too tired to think straight and the pictures in his mind were of nothing but food and water and rest.
They had fairly flown along the earlier stretches of the road into the north, passing through dozens of villages at a gallop, but within two days the landscape had changed. No longer could the road weave a path through the valleys: now long escarpments that stretched for miles, east to west, replaced the drumlins. One wearisome, winding climb after another slackened their pace. They shared this road with sheep drovers and with slow moving ox-carts that travelled from market to market across the region; they stayed for the first three nights at inns along the way, each full of the noise and bustle of the travellers and their livestock. With all this activity around him Tregar found it hard to believe that anything in the country could be wrong. It was only as the miles lengthened and the villages and markets and inns became fewer that the reality of his journey began to sink in. He was leaving behind the mild airs, the quiet beauty and the comfort of Par’s heartland, leaving behind the commerce and the energy and the feeling of being at the centre of things while ahead lay only days of toil, the promise of harder times to come and inevitable peril. The populous south was a blessed land, impregnable without the need for walls, sovereign without any need for caution or fear; the far-flung north with its sparse population, harsh weather and unforgiving terrain seemed anything but. The juxtaposition began to eat away at his sense of adventure. He saw little hope of it recovering.
By the sixth day Tregar was having to rely on what food he carried with him as the fields gave way to a high acid moorland. He travelled the Black Hills, a lonely landscape given over to the shrill of the grasshopper and the eerie call of the curlew, an awkward and often dangerous land. Sirrah struggled on through impossibly springy tussock grass and half-dry peat bogs; Tregar struggled with his route, confused by the twisting, ill-defined track. In a wetter season a wise man would have avoided the area entirely.
Marked by the maps, not far into this inhospitable country was a small valley, and in the valley a solitary farm called Small Cuttings. It stood close to where a little used road from Riverport joined up with Tregar's route offering a range of options for the onward journey; Mador had made it the point of rendezvous with Anparas and Temor. According to Ayer's Hall of Records, one Owen Cookson owned the farm. Tregar hoped he was a patriotic sort, the arrival of three thousand soldiers, even with the best of intentions, was bound to create havoc and the requisitioning of food to feed them was likely to test any man's loyalty. The more Tregar thought about it, the less he liked the idea of bringing him the news. Still, that was the least of his worries: by rights he should have reached the farm by early evening on this sixth day and so far there was not a sign of it.
Tregar, or rather Sirrah, plodded on. It was too treacherous underfoot to risk any great speed and the last thing he wanted was a lame horse. The wizard grinned wryly as he considered how maps tended to make things look so straightforward. The 'roads' marked as crossing the Black Hills were nothing other than slightly more trodden earth than the ground surrounding them. On the maps the gradual curve of the road suggested an easy journey but close up the path was so convoluted he suspected he was going round in circles. He could not count the times he had lost the track completely.
At least it was a fine evening. The clouds were out only for decoration in the reddening west. The breeze that seemed to increase moment by moment was warm after travelling over leagues of summer-kissed grassland and added music to the closing day as it whistled, hummed and plucked its way through the dry clattering stems. It blew up blizzards of fluffy grass seeds that sparkled in the sun's last rays. It rummaged in Tregar's swept back cloak, tickling life into his weary muscles. And the scent it carried of wild flowers, warm earth and distant trees almost entranced him out of his saddle. How pleasant it would be to snuggle down for the night, deep in the grass: to give himself up to the nature around him.
"Blast!" he swore aloud as he realized that once again he had lost his way. "I don't know, Sirrah. Why do I bother? I'd probably do better with my eyes closed. Come on, boy, let's try one more time. We're bound to get there eventually. I'm almost positive we are."
The light was nearly gone by the time he saw the farm ahead. He could only vaguely make out that there were three buildings and, at this distance, it was hard to tell which was for living in, as the lights had not yet been lit. Nevertheless he took the liberty of promising his horse good stabling and something to chew on as a reward for the day's efforts. To say he was relieved to be somewhere, anywhere at last was the least of it.
It was twilight when he reached the outfields, the young moon had yet to rise. Finding the gate in the prickle fence was not easy and when found it took a lot of opening. Still no light shone, no dog barked warning.
"Hello", Tregar yelled, and the wind that grew ever stronger took the word from his lips and carried it off into the hills. "Hello, is anybody at home?"
There was no reply.
Tregar dismounted to leave Sirrah in the yard while he walked over to the nearest building. Opening the door he decided that it was a barn. He created a light with his crystal to make sure, and in doing so found a torch in a bracket just inside the door. Returning to his horse, he searched his bags for the tinderbox and used that to light the torch.
"Well, Sirrah, there's no need for ye to stand about in this wind. Let's get ye settled in here, then I can have a good look round. You never know, ye might find me sharin’ with you the night."
Inside, Tregar did not bother to tether the horse but allowed him free range. There were a number of green sheaves scattered about, as though they had been tossed in out of the rain, and so he broke open a couple of them. Sirrah was duly thankful. The wizard, not long out of feather beds, was pleased to note the large quantity of straw strewn about. Though it was old and probably full of mice it might well be the nearest thing to comfort he would find. He found a stack of cut turves, dry and ready to burn, in one corner of the barn but what he could not find was water. There seemed to be neither well nor tank. Sirrah, at this stage, was too tired to bother much but Tregar had been looking forward to hot tea and was niggled he might not get any. Leaving the horse and saddle bags where they were, and taking the torch with him, he went to explore the other buildings.
The second he tried was an open ended shed with nothing inside bar a few rusty rakes and spades and what may once have been a plough, though it was so collapsed it was hard to be sure.
The third building was much smaller than the others and Tregar was right to presume it had once served as a dwelling. The badly fitting door needed to be forced but when closed again its swollen timbers kept out much of the draught. The windows were shuttered and, considering the general dilapidation of the farm, they were still surprisingly sturdy, though one rattled badly in the wind. There was only one room with a fireplace and chimney at one end, a low roof and a few odd bits of furniture: namely a table, three chairs and a pallet bed with no mattress. The floor was made of wooden planks that groaned with every step.
Next to the fire was a kettle, blackened and battered but still whole and next to that, as if in answer to Tregar's unspoken prayer, a bucket of water. It did not smell badly. The scowl he had been scowling became a grin and he went to retrieve his bags in a happier mood. Gathering up the straw for his bed, he wondered idly who could possibly be responsible for leaving the water. Probably some sheep farmer caught away from home.
His good mood did not last long.
The wind, a robust friend earlier in the evening, was now beginning to outstay its welcome. It whined in the chimney as if to emphasise how lonely and uncomfortable the place was. It steadfastly refused to make way for the fire he was trying to make. The peat proved difficult to light after all and he ended up using some straw and the broken seat of one of the chairs before he could get the flame to take. He had no bellows and they would have had little effect anyway as the wind was determined to go the wrong way. Just as the turves were beginning to catch a great gust threw itself down the chimney, scattered burning straw around the room. At this rate he was more likely to burn down the house than achieve anything more useful. Nevertheless, he tried again and eventually managed to produce a pathetic excuse for a fire that smoked heavily, as peat fires should not, and created little heat. And then the chimney had a coughing fit and the smoke started to puff and billow into the room.
Tregar choked and had to put his head outside the door for fresh air. He was surprised that the wind did not seem half as strong in the yard as it did in the chimney. Inside the smoke gasped and sputtered and giggled into the rafters. Somewhere there was a blockage. Suddenly Tregar was very annoyed and he marched back to confront his tormentor. Poised to summon the power necessary to blast through the blockage, he was surprised by a loud knocking. Someone was hammering at the door!
With his eyes streaming from the smoke he turned to look at the door in amazement. He could have been no more stupefied if the door had spoken to him. Who could possibly have turned up at such a desolate place; and where had they been a few moments ago when Tregar had looked out into the yard? The knocker knocked again very insistently and so Tregar called out:
"Come on in. The door is not locked."
The door flew open.
Part 1 “Coincidents” starts here PROLOGUE
THE BEST OF MEN
SONG OF AGES
An epic fantasy of monsters, gods, warriors and wizards, of heedless villains and decent everyday people.
Available as a Paperback Original
at £17.99 / $22
and as a kindle edtion
now at £/$ 6.99
COINCIDENT - The Best of Men Pt 1
is available as a kindle serial edition
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