This passage is from Part 2 of The Best of Men
Roar (pron ro-arh) is an Errensea trained wizard sent to track down the Black Company. He is accompanied by Colm Peveril, an irritating hothead - and by something else. A young lad called Sammy engages Roar in a little conversation.
The Saddle, Aegarde 3057.7.24
‘Nice horses Mister.’
Roar looked around. Dipping his head to see under Calliope’s neck he saw a cheeky looking lad, in rough clothes and without shoes, no more than thirteen, peering back at him.
‘They are; well spotted. Do you like horses?’
The boy grinned. ‘I’m like to: m’dad’s a trader. Teaching me the business, ent he.’
‘You’re a bit young for business, son. Shouldn’t you be at school?’
The boy pulled a face. ‘School? No thanks, mister. M’dad says s’long as I can read a contract an’ do me sums I’ll be alright. Don’t need none o’those teachers yammerin’ on at me ‘bout kings and stuff.’
Roar, with seventy years of experience under his belt, could not honestly disagree with the lad. This one would find his way in life whatever happened.
‘So, you don’t belong with this lot then,’ Roar said, indicating the mass of humanity washing about them, ‘All these townies and villagers?’
The boy looked all around and then shook his head slowly, the look on his face indicating quiet amazement at the way others seemed to live their lives.
‘A travelling family?’
‘Ar, we travel alright. Buy the horses cheap over by Valdez, drive ‘em up into Gothery and then down into Sullin Part – we get best prices down there.’
Roar nodded. ‘But now you’re all caught up in this and it’s not good for business I suppose?’
‘Longer we keep ‘em, more we have to feed ‘em. Border guard won’t let none o’ that lot through an’ they won’t let us through neither. M’dad reckoned a bit of offloadin’ ‘ud be best. You can hear’m over there,’ the boy nodded in the direction of the auction. ‘Fair old voice ‘e got on him.’
‘And do you know why all this is happening?’
The lad wrinkled his nose, thinking back on it.
‘Not much,’ he said, ‘We were down in Altiparedo, just passing through, when this great fuss set up in the market place. There was this man, all messed up and bothered, an’ shoutin’ ‘bout somethin’ or other; an’ all the people round were shoutin’ back and gettin’ all aeriated. It was all upsettin’ to ‘em. I don’t know what exactly – you’d have to ask m’dad. He just said ‘Time we were gone from here!’ and away we went. But I reckon it must be to do with these bad’uns they got up north of here.’
‘And how long ago was this?’
‘Couple or three days? ‘S’only thirty mile round the Hammerhand.’
‘This Altiparedo, is it a big place?’
‘Big place? Well, I reckon; more like a town than village. What I saw of it. Big market anyway. If you go there you’ll find out won’t you? But look Mister… I… er… Can I… er…’
The lad seemed to have lost interest in Roar’s concerns.
‘You’re a little distracted. Is there a problem?’
The boy was looking up at Calliope with a strange look in his eyes.
‘Oh. No. No problem. Well, yeah; look Mister, can I ask you a question, given I’ve been answerin’ all yours?’
Roar snorted in disbelief. ‘The answer is No! I won’t be selling you either this horse or the other.’
The boy laughed.
‘Tell truth, Mister, I did think o’ makin’ an offer – m’dad’d expect it – but no: you di’nt look like the sort for tradin’. But that there: what’s that perch for, up on your pommer? Ent never seen one as big as that. You a falconer or somin’?’
‘Well, not exactly. It’s for a friend of mine.’
The boy raised his eyebrows, trying to imagine what sort of friend.
‘So,’ said Roar, ‘you’re interested in birds as well as in horses.’
The boy wrinkled his nose again.
‘No, not really. Just saw you goin’ past and… well, I just thought I’d ask…’
The boy seemed puzzled somehow. Roar wondered about that.
‘Would you like to see him?’
‘He’ll come for you, just like that?’
‘If I call. But let’s move over a bit. We need somewhere quiet. Wouldn’t want him to scare the animals hereabouts; or the people for that matter. My name’s Roar, by the way; what’s yours’?’
‘Sammy. Sammy Tozer.’
‘Well Sammy Tozer, today you will meet someone truly remarkable.’
Sammy looked at him in appraising sort of way.
‘You know, Mister, thought I already ‘ad.’
Sammy followed Roar without any qualms. They left the river path for a small field banked all round by hedges and tall poplars and so far free of settlers. There was something here Sammy didn’t understand, but none of it seemed wrong and whatever might happen the boy knew he could always take care of himself. Besides, the old guy was still grinning away. Normally Sammy would have counted that grin a bit of a victory: his line an easy manipulation to make the mark feel good – but no, not this time. He’d said what he meant.
He looked up above him. What with the limited space and the high hedges, the heavy grey-blue clouds looked like some giant tent roof rucking in the wind. A storm was closing in on them. Roar’s black cloak whipped up behind him but the man himself was unmoved; in the gathering gloom the light in his eyes seemed brighter than was possible. Sammy felt almost giddy with excitement.
The old man threw him a look, an eager and a challenging look, and then turning his face to the ragged sky he let out a tremendous cry. Sammy nearly staggered at the power of it. With no sort of word in the cry, or at least not one Sammy could understand, the old man’s voice soared and roared and wavered and cracked and pierced the clouds. It was thrilling…
And yet Sammy had an idea that it didn’t really mean anything at all, that it was just for show, to give him something to remember, or to give him something to explain. Somehow Sammy knew that the real call was more in Roar’s head and more in the head of whatever he was calling to. And that was an idea that completely enthralled him. Over such a distance!
Watching the old man’s face carefully Sammy saw clearly the moment when Roar realized his call had been answered.
‘He’s comin’ then, Mister?’
‘Yes, he’s coming; very soon.’
‘You’re a wizard, ent you Mister.’
Roar took a deep breath and then turned to look at him.
‘Yes, Sammy: that’s what they call us. Though I feel no wiser than anyone else.’
‘But you’re not like anyone else. You’ve a power.’
‘Some power. But there’s nothing to be scared of in it. It’s merely a skill, like any other. Just like you’re good with horses.’
‘Only some horses?’
‘Well, yeah.’ The nose wrinkled yet again but this time there was a smile in there too. ‘Some are that dozy there’s no dealin’ with’em. But there’s others… well, you can talk to ‘em.’ Sammy wouldn’t normally have said as much to anyone, not his dad, nor his brother, but somehow he reckoned that such a notion would hardly bother a wizard, especially not this one.
The old man’s eyes widened.
‘That was a more surprising answer than I was looking for, young Tozer. Are you telling me you can talk to horses?’
Sammy laughed freely, released from a tension that had bound him all his life. ‘Anyone can talk to horses, Mister. Just that most people ent understood by ‘em. An’ they don’t reck the answers they get neither.’
The old man laughed with him.
‘Do you know, Sammy, I think you and me need to get better acquainted, and soon, but look over there, down by the river. My friend is coming.’
Sammy held his breath. Up above the trees, in bright splashes against the purpling sky, white barred pigeons burst into the air in sudden fear and then dropped hastily into the canopy looking for cover. A chorus of children’s voices whooped in delight and then, like a lightning bolt given freedom, a huge golden eagle hurtled into the sky, climbing higher and higher, without any need for a current of air, so powerful was each beat of his tremendous wings; and then, as he reached an apogee directly above where they stood he dropped like damnation upon them.
Sammy actually threw himself to the ground, covering his head with his arms, not knowing any way to escape. There was a great thump as something hit the ground not five feet behind and Sammy rolled away in terror. Nothing happenend. Sammy sat up and suddenly realized how silly he must have looked. The eagle, if eagle was a word that could properly describe the creature, was already perched upon Roar’s saddle pommel casually ripping the head off a fat rabbit. But the rabbit looked tiny in its talons.
Roar pulled Sammy to his feet.
‘Come along young ‘un, and be polite: rabbits are starters not main course. Sammy Tozer, this is Cuahtemoc, my very powerful friend.’
The amazing thing was that the boy, after his initial panic – and who wouldn’t panic – didn’t seem at all scared. Cuahtemoc regarded him mercilessly and continued to rend his catch. But then again, Roar got no better. Cuahtemoc was a friend who took a lot of getting used to. Respect came before loyalty. Weakness did not gain respect. The boy seemed to know that. He stepped forward, without wavering, to introduce himself. No matter the words he spoke, now it was as if he were a King talking to a King.
‘I’m Sammy Tozer, horse trader,’ he said, ‘You will always be welcome in any place I call my home.’
Cuahtemoc paused at his meat and as he looked the boy squarely in the eyes the rabbit dropped to the floor. Roar was astonished. That never happened – food was too serious a business. The eagle shifted on his perch and then, with exact symmetry, slowly extended his wings to their full span.
Sammy returned the gaze, stood erect and raised his arms, palms out, fingers splayed.
Roar felt shut out. There was pain in that, but it was fleeting. This was so unbelievable, so unexpected, so important: how could he be petty about it? Cuahtemoc was still his—
‘He loves you.’
Roar felt warmth bloom deep inside him.
‘He does; you know it.’
Cuahtemoc gave out a mighty cry then, a cry that put the wizard’s effort to shame, and for the first time in many years Roar could not understand the full meaning of it. Fields away that cry made hundreds of people start in wonder.
‘Messing about with that bird of yours again?’
Both Roar and Sammy turned, shocked to be wrenched from a moment so intense, and both completely offended. Colm Peveril didn’t care, he rarely noticed the effect of his words on others. He failed to notice the eagle’s steely gaze.
‘Time to be off, Roar: I’ve found them.’
Roar shook his head in annoyance.
‘You really are the limit sometimes. I suppose you mean Altiparedo?’
‘Well if you knew already, you should’ve said. Good news, eh? Now we know where they are, or where they’ll soon be anyway, we can go and sort them out.’
‘Sort them out?’
Roar looked at him in disbelief. The bare muscular arms emphasized by the sleeveless vest, the neck thick from hours of throwing weights around, the picture of self-confidence that was his broad face, none of this did anything to make Roar feel any better about him. Colm was all conspicuous power, a natural athlete and arrogant as they come.
‘Well there’s no point waiting around for Seama to turn up is there? They’re only a bunch of sorcerers.’
‘So that makes them an easy mark does it?’
In answer Colm smiled, lifted both hands, clenched them in fists and gestured at the white five bar gate at the field entrance. The whole thing exploded into flames, hot and final; burning spars flew through the air.
Roar pursed his lips.
‘Let’s hope you didn’t hurt anyone. Look Colm, I know you’re confident and powerful and eager and all of that. I was a bit like that myself once upon a time. But the simple fact is we are charged with a mission: to find this Black Company, find out how they operate and then get the news to Seama. We are instructed to do no more. It’s his job to sort them out. You need to remember that.’
Colm wasn’t happy.
‘Look Old-Father-Time, what you need is a bit of umph; a bit of energy. That’s why I’m here. You know that don’t you? But you go on like I need a nursemaid or a… a chaperone or something.’
‘The word you are looking for is mentor. Part of my job is to be just that. Gods above know you need one. You’re with me to learn the meaning of the word restraint. An alien notion, I understand. You need to learn that in some circumstances a bit of umph is the last thing you’ll need. A bit of umph could get us in trouble. So, let me say it one more time: we have our mission and we will stick to it – whatever heroisms you may have had in mind.’
Colm didn’tt bother to hide the anger and dissent in his face. Roar often thought he behaved more like an adolescent than a young adult. He wondered momentarily whether that was a matter of upbringing rather than nature. He came down on the side of the latter.
‘Have I made myself clear?’
‘Clear enough.’ The normally smiling face became sulky. ‘But we’re still heading for this Altiparedo place?’
‘Yes we are.’
‘Right then,’ the sulk shifted as quickly as it had come, ‘That’s enough for now – but when we get there, well, we’ll see what this Black Company’s like. You might change your mind.’
‘Not likely. I promised Waldin and your father—’
‘So who’s the pikey, then?’
‘The gyppo lad. You want to watch that bird of yours, Roar: they’ll take anything not nailed down.’
Cuahtemoc took to the air in a wing-beat and clipped Colm squarely round the back of his head with a clenched talon in the process.
It was a dangerous moment. Colm let out a cry that was more to do with embarrassment than pain, and raised his hand to strike. Roar’s sword rang as it left the scabbard…
But Colm backed off.
Cuahtemoc, unconcerned, had swivelled in flight and was miraculously back on his perch only moments after he had left it, attending to his recovered rabbit.
‘If it comes near me again, I’ll kill it.’
‘And I will kill you. But we’ll not let it come to that.’
Colm and Roar faced each other in tense silence for a good minute before Sammy ended it by saying:
‘Suppose I’d best be gettin’ back to m’pikey dad, then.’
Roar shook his head as he put up his sword.
‘Don’t take such a name to yourself. It’s a name given in disrespect, and in prejudice, and in ignorance.’
‘Na. Reckon I’ve heard it an ‘undred times before, Mister, and it ent never done me any harm yet.’
‘Nevertheless.’ Roar turned to his so-called apprentice again. ‘Tell you what, Colm Peveril: why don’t you take care of these horses for an hour or so; get them settled and watered while I go with the lad and buy him a pie or something – by way of apology. Cuahtemoc’ll stay with you if you need company. And if I’ve calmed down before I find a baker I might just buy you a pie too.
‘Come on then Sammy, you can talk to our friend later.’
THE BEST OF MEN
SONG OF AGES
An epic fantasy of monsters, gods, warriors and wizards, of heedless villains and decent everyday people.
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COINCIDENT - The Best of Men Pt 1
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