TROUBLE IN THE MARKET PLACE
In the cabin the situation was tense. The two Lords, Admiral Jemenser and the stranger either stood or sat, or propped themselves against the knobby bulkhead, staring at each other. Anparas broke the silence.
‘Who are you?’ he asked, eyeing the tall ruffian with more curiosity than suspicion.
‘Does it matter who I am?’ the ruffian demanded, ‘I bear the King’s dispatches, they bear his seal. Is it not enough?’
‘No it damn well is not,’ Temor’s intrusion was terse, ‘Not by a long chalk. Look at him! King’s Messenger? I don’t think so. And the orders? Simply incredible. Who’s to say that both you and your message aren’t false, meant to trick us into the wrong move?’
‘None apart from myself. But you do not like the look of me. What can I say? I’ve worked for Mador many times. He has reason to trust me. What does it matter if my clothes are not as fancy as yours?’
He shrugged. It was up to them.
Lord Anparas frowned more deeply. He found it difficult to reconcile the way the man spoke with the way he looked. And when he thought about it, he could almost swear the fellow’s accent wasn’t the same now as it was on the quay. He was about to comment on the change but the stranger raised his hands.
‘Enough!’ he said, ‘This is no time for games. I ask your pardon, but I just couldn’t resist testing the disguise. You know me well, friends.’
Turning his back upon them, he ran his hands over his face, perhaps to further obscure what was happening as he spoke the words of what was, apparently, a spell. There was a silence. When the stranger turned to face them they were amazed. They knew him very well. Anparas struggled for the presence of mind to greet him; Temor still gripped the hilt of his sword, his comfort in uncertainty; Jemenser did the honours:
‘Welcome to Riverport, Lord Seama. It’s worrying you feel the need to resort to disguise in any town of Pars. Things must be serious indeed.’
‘Serious enough, but disguise is always useful. I’m heading for Gothery and I’d rather my arrival was a surprise. But let’s forget my plans for the moment, we’ve others to deal with and I haven’t much time. Sorry to be abrupt, gentlemen, but really I shouldn’t stay long: people might not believe me an ignorant messenger. Do you mind if I read the orders? I haven’t seen them yet.’
Together the wizard and the loyal soldiers read and discussed Mador’s directions. Seama emphasized the urgent situation in the North and the three Lords all revealed their great relief that the invasion of Gothery had been cancelled. They trusted the wizard’s ability to handle the problems in the west without question. The King’s orders were as Seama expected. Anparas and Temor were to go north immediately leaving Jemenser to organize the shipping of supplies to Coldharbour and from there on towards the Francon and Greteth. It would take a deal of fine planning. Seama, sure they didn’t need his help, announced it was time for him to leave. Anparas was not satisfied.
‘This is all very well, Seama,’ he said, ‘but what exactly is going on? We’re told to rescue Sands but not what to rescue them from. Who is it: Aegarde, Masachea?’
‘It’s a vexed question. There’s no easy answer and I haven’t the time to go into all the ins and outs. I won’t do it justice if I try.’ Seama was still smarting from Tregar’s rejection and didn’t need another. ‘Leave it for now. Tregar knows what I think. When you reach the rendezvous, discuss it with him before you go on. He’ll have some ideas of his own. But now, I really must be going.’
They found it disturbing to see Seama twist his features once more but couldn’t help watching. Anparas had the guards throw him out onto the quay and, to add authenticity, tossed him a very small bag of coins. Picking himself up, without dusting the dirt from his already grimy clothes, Seama walked away from the ships and, by devious routes, made his way towards a guesthouse, deep in the slums off the back end of Ragmarket Street.
Above him the sky darkened. A great pall of dense cloud had mounted up in the heat of the day and, as Seama and the generals discussed the frightening onset of war, the horns of the storm had encircled the city. It rumbled like an angry beast, exhaled a fetid breath over the rooftops. The breeze that ran ahead, desperate for escape, snapped the flags on top of the traders’ warehouses but got no further than the waterfront. In the maze of streets the heat was oppressive, the thick air tense, expectant. From the alleys, between tall buildings the sky seemed black.
What with the news of the activity on the river and the stifling heat and the overbearing clouds, a sense of unease descended upon Riverport. Her citizens lost their normal vigour and stood, or wandered about, not knowing what to do. They stole nervous glances at the sky, muttering about the weather spoiling trade, and all the time they were really worried at the prospect of war and all it could lead to. It wasn’t that they were cowardly but their lives were so bound up with commerce that if they lost their opportunity to trade, they lost their purpose. A war would disrupt communications and relations that had taken years, generations to build up. They might even be called upon to leave their stalls and workshops and warehouses and go to war themselves. It would be dreadful.
Seama walked through the crowds of despondent marketeers, too preoccupied to notice their lack of enthusiasm. Tempers were frayed; the moody silence was broken only by argument, and argument was brief and frowned upon by others. Seama heard none of it.
He was thinking of a village five hundred miles and fifteen years away from this day in Riverport. It was no great event he remembered, just a happy day spent in the company of a good friend. They had relaxed in the safety of a small village in the south of Aegarde after a hectic month among sailors threatened by piracy, over in the Sea of Birds. Through the morning they had rested on the banks of the River Lune, fishing to while away the hours. Actually, Seama didn’t care for the sport and only pretended to fish, keeping himself amused by quietly creating convincing illusions of pike to scare-off the carp straying too close to his friend’s hook. Frustrated, the friend gave up and led the way to an inn he knew that served a fine dish of smoked salmon. There was, Seama remembered with a grin, a very fine pint of beer to be had as well. Predictably, a good deal more beer than salmon was consumed.
The memory gave him quite a thirst and made him smile. And he must have seemed strange to those he passed by, as he cast about, looking for the hostelry: strange because he seemed to be the only person smiling in the whole of Riverport.
It became even darker, even hotter. Shutters were put up along the length of Ragmarket Street to protect the precious cottons and silks. People began to disappear indoors. They didn’t want to watch the coming storm. Within ten minutes, apart from Seama himself, the streets were deserted.
And then, as if it had waited till all was ready, the rain came pounding down. Seama was drenched in just a few seconds and so decided to continue his journey rather than seek shelter too late. He welcomed the downpour: it was cool and cleared away the sweat of the city.
Strolling, unconcerned, through great sheets of rain, Seama had thought he was the only person foolish enough to be abroad and was surprised to hear the sound of feet on cobbles. People running for cover, he guessed. Because of the gloom he could hardly see a few yards around him, and the shout he heard was indistinct as the downpour drummed on the wooden roofs, but he knew something was very wrong. He ran. In the first tremendous flash of lightning five figures were outlined ahead of him. Fighting figures. One man attacked by four others; the four were the biggest men Seama had ever seen. The defender used a short sword to parry blows from two longswords and two, very cruel looking, metal-studded clubs. He was doing remarkably well but it would be only a matter of time before he tired.
Drawing his own blade, Seama leapt into the fray. He took one of them from behind before they were aware of him, dealing the man a savage blow to the head with the flat of his sword. The roughneck dropped, stunned, but immediately two of his accomplices turned to give Seama more serious attention.
They came at him with clubs raised and Seama backed into a niche between two stalls. The gap was too small for two men but one berserker scorned the danger and charged in, hacking as best he could. Not quite prepared for the violence of the attack Seama was caught off-balance. His stumble saved him. The club whistled over his head and smashed into the timbers of the stall to his left. As his attacker struggled to right himself the wizard thrust his blade deep into the man’s shoulder. He howled in pain. A vicious kick at his standing leg, dislocating the kneecap and tearing sinews, brought the big man crashing to the ground.
Seama trod on him to get at the third. Twisting away, this one was just quick enough to dodge Seama’s first cut. Not the second. A thunder flash blinded him for an instant and Seama’s eager blade bit into his wrist. The thug wanted no more of it and took to his heels, clutching at his streaming arm. Seama didn’t spare him another thought but whirled about to go for the last of them.
‘Nice work! Glad you were on my side. Four against one was pretty bad odds.’ Distorted by the noise of the drumming rain the voice was still familiar. And so was the swaggering pose as the man stood, arms folded, shoulders well back, over the prone form of the fourth attacker. Seama stepped forward grinning. Another stroke of lightning illuminated their faces and Angren, the Weapon-Master, gasped and fell back a pace or two.
‘You!’ he accused. ‘What is this? You’re following me. Why? Did Rixbur send you?’ Angren seemed confused. ‘No. No, you wouldn’t have helped… Look, I’m sorry if I don’t sound all that grateful but, it’s just I’ve seen you twice already today and I can’t really believe it’s a coincidence. So who the buggering hell are you?’
‘You know me, Angren,’ Seama said, ‘This disguise has to be my best: first Anparas, now you. I wonder what Burgil’d think of it.’
‘Burgil? But he… Seama? Well, you bugger, it is you! Seama Beltomé, as I live and speak!’
They were overjoyed and embraced, both amazed at their meeting.
‘I was only just thinking of you,’ Seama told him, ‘I was remembering Tyndaldale just before the rain started.’
‘Gods, but that was a long time ago. Tyndaldale eh? I remember it well enough. Many’s the cold night I’ve thought of the fair Andrena.’
‘Trust you. I was thinking of the day, not the night. Hmm. I do seem to recall she was pretty, not that I saw as much of her as you did.’
‘Stuff the prettiness, Seama, it’s not what you have, it’s what you do with it that counts.’
‘I think you’ve told me that before.’
‘Because it’s true. Anyway, you old conjuror, how are you? And what’s with the disguise, and what was all that with Anparas and Temor? What are you up to?’
‘Steady on, Angren. You want me to discuss it in the street? Besides, you’re injured and I’m soaked, so let’s get out of this mess; I’ll give it to you over a good jar. I daresay you’ve some sort of tale to tell yourself?’
‘Oh, just the usual. I seem to have upset someone.’
‘I’ll bet you have!’
They were both laughing as, ignoring the injured, they walked off in search of the house where Seama had stabled his scrawny looking animals.
Wilf Kelleher Jones
A Song of Ages