An excerpt from my still untitled novel, currently 33,000 words of slightly disjointed swearing, fighting and storytelling. This is the first draft, so may be changed at no notice and conceivably may be deleted entirely.
A week later we were well inside Dead Tiger Shi’s domain. My lady was taking advantage of the flat terrain to ride in her carriage. Lady Alixa and her brother took advantage of her being in the carriage to talk to one of the lower orders.
“Did he really spend five minutes praising her backside?”
Kell tried out his Stennish. “Hey! Listen up! Hear me talk about these buttocks of goodness, this fine looking rear end, this saddle cushion of loveliness.”
“Stop that.” I said. Alixa looked a little surprised at my tone. “Firstly, you’re telling Dead Tiger Shi’s men you speak Stennish. If they think you are ignorant of it, his court may speak more freely about you.”
They looked at me, impressed by this reasoning. “Secondly, you’re absolutely murdering the opening of their epics. Where did you hear that?”
“Graves and Heart Break Kau were talking three nights ago, and each began in the same way. Later I heard the bard saying the same thing.”
“What epic is that the opening to?” asked Alixa.
“All of them,” I said, “The Stennish are a very traditional people.”
“You’ve disappointed her. She wanted you to tell her a story.” She punched her brother in the shoulder.
I looked at them, then out at the large expanses of pasture and the small fields clustered around the ragged villages. Nothing to see for miles.
“A story. The Stennish are a strange people and their stories have a different shape to the ones we have and expect. So you may find this disappointing.
“Still, it will be good practice, and you may learn something of how they think.”
The Tale of Black Livered Ho and the Iron Men
Listen to me child, for I have something to say.
I will talk of the first steppe lords, the riders of the wind, the ancestors of the free men. Their names ring across the plains, are known along the curve of the world, will be remembered until time dies it’s long death. They were horse tamers, god hunters, man killers, arrow shooters, lance stabbers, net stranglers. It was the earliest age, the time when all was new, the days when men were what they were meant to be.
I will talk of Ho, Black Livered Ho, Strong Back Ho, Wolf Killer Ho. Ho who wrestled giants, hunted dragons, stole the secrets of the iron men. Ho, whose arrows would pass through three men and prick the flesh of a fourth. Ho, whose skin shed blows like water. Ho, whose lance made a hundred widows.
In their wanderings the iron men had come to a ford in the golden river. They settled there and built their tents of mud and wood, planted their grains and their greens. The free men came against them in the night to take their women and their goods and their lives. Their lances broke against the grey metal coats, their arrows bounced from the ferrous helms, and their horses blood slaked the thirst of the iron spears.
In his high summer camp by the holy mountain, Ho heard of this. “What is this?” he queried the taletellers. “Is the courage of the free men gone? Are the steppe lords broken men? The southerners are no true men, mere slave fodder before the nets and clubs of the riders of the wind. How do they now hold the ford on the golden river against all comers?”
“They have sorcery,” said the taletellers. “Their swords cut through our limbs like a spoon through mare’s milk. Blows struck on their harness simply bounce off. They stand as close together as bushes, and our horses cannot find a way through.”
Ho thought on this. The steppe was wide and long. A man could ride it his whole life, gathering wood and flint in the north in the summer, wintering in the south with his herds, and never need to cross the golden river. The iron men were no threat to him.
Three times the seasons made their circuit. Three times warlords took their followers against the iron men. Three times the iron men cut down the riders of the wind, spilling their blood, taking their horses. Any who wished to cross the golden river had to pay a tribute in gold or cattle or horses, and submit to being disarmed. Raiders had to cross at night, far upstream or down, and carry only what could be swum across. Ho heard of this and thought more.
The fifth spring came. The holymen, historyspeakers and clantallymen called for a meeting of the steppe lords, market and contest and prayer gathering. And they called for warlords to come and talk of the iron men who defied the free men and blocked them from the traditional raiding lands of the south.
Ho, Silent Thinker Ho, Black Livered Ho stayed with his herds in the north. His bondsmen who went to the gathering told him of the deeds that were done, the milk-beer that was drunk, the duels that were fought. They told him of the oaths that were sworn, the clans who sent warriors and the great warband of braves that went to fight the iron men, a warband of every tribe of the steppe. The hill men of the east sent lancers, the fish men of the west sent archers. Even the goat men, barely human, sent their axe men on their tiny ponies.
The ford was taken. The mud fort cast down. The iron men were slain. The warband set off south, on a great raid.
The news came with the autumn rains. The iron men had come back. An army as numberless as the stalks of grass had risen from their stone camps and defeated the warband. The scattered remnants had fled to the steppe and the southerners had retaken the ford.
Ho thought more. At last he spoke. “The iron men desire the world. They will never stop. Like locusts or marmosets or dragons they will overrun the world and eat it, and shit out their burrows. They do not know the curve of the world was given to the free men. They do not respect the authority of the horse lords over mankind. The iron on their bodies is nothing to the iron of their minds, which has shut out the rightful order of things.”
He turned to his followers, retainers, bondsmen and kinsmen. “Who here will kill for me?” They all cheered their willingness. “Who here will die for me?” More cheers from the young men, grunts and shrugs of resignation from the veterans.”
“Who will give up their honour? Who will get down on their belly and cower like a dog? Who will surrender to my enemies, break oaths, rebel against their master, spy on my enemies?”
Silence swept across the camp. Then spoke up Rabbit Hat Moh, Wolf Killer Ho’s cousin. “All my honour comes from my lord. If he requires it I can only give it up with a glad heart that I have had the keeping of it for a time.”
So Rabbit Hat Moh was taken down to the ford in the golden river, and sold into slavery there. He laboured in the dark cave of the forge, shovelling the black rock, pumping the bellows, burning in the heat. All winter he dwelt in the dark heart of the enemy. In the spring Faithful Cousin Ho came for him. The guards were covered in metal from their head to their feet. Ho twisted off their heads. The guards had swords that could cut through necks. Ho struck them as they nodded in the dark of night. The guards were many. Ho fought them so silently that they never knew he was there.
Moh and Ho united in the forge. Moh broke his chains with the tools made to forge them. They plundered the forge, taking the smiths with them as they left.
In the domain to the north Moh found iron rock. He made the smiths teach them the secrets of their craft, until the spears of Ho and his horde gleamed like a forest when the sun comes out after a rainstorm.
Their lances struck the iron men and were not deflected. Their arrows found their targets. Iron armour protected their hearts and heads and horses. The ford on the golden river was opened again.
Black Livered Ho and Slave Killer Moh learnt all they could from the iron men smiths. Then remembering the deeds of Moh, they killed them all, and built a cairn that guards the ford on the golden river to this day, and all the days until time dies it’s long death.