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Available in ebook (£1.99) or in paperback (£10.99). 256 Pages.
1. A Tale Of Two Choices
(A twenty-minute read)
On a cold winter’s day beyond the middle years of my life, I find myself in a darkening wood on a road that now divides before me. One way is broad and well-trodden with the wheel marks and grooves of vehicles showing that it is the main roadway. The other is darker and less inviting: narrow and straight and disappearing off into the growing gloom in a line as straight as an arrow. Frozen along the path from this bifurcation, snow-covered dung marks this lesser path like a secret message.
At this time of day there is little choice. I’m too old to be thinking about sleeping outside in this weather. I’ll do it at need but it is not something that I would choose. Besides, it is that time when the world starts to take on a dark and sinister feeling about it. A time when you know deep down that you want to get home, wherever home is. A moment when you know that you need to be safe again, whatever safe is.
That is why I choose now to walk what will probably be three miles or so along a rutted and frozen road covered in snow. It will lead eventually to a settlement that I have never seen before and which could, in all possibility, be a nest of thieves, bandits and assassins. The alternative is to walk a short way along a narrow path until I find a suitable spot to build a makeshift shelter and light a fire for warmth. Here to sleep until morning wakes me or death collects me. So I ask myself one more time: am I seeking safety or is it the comfort of humanity?
The road fulfilled its promise and was every bit as difficult to travel as I anticipated as I struggled for what turned out to be about five miles to the next village. My reward at the end of a slippery trudge to the top of a low ridge was the sight of a small number of grey houses before me. They were fading now into the gloom of the low lying land below and partially smothered lights shone dully. Curling wisps of smoke rose heavily and reluctantly from unseen home fires, up through the murky blanket of mist that was hugging close to the ground, before they twisted away in the clear moon-lit sky that sat above it all.
At the edge of the village was a small inn and stable yard. A weary and faded sign swung from the main building and a few painfully drawn letters were scrawled on the wall below it. I think it said ‘hostel’ but it could have read ‘brothel’ from the poor spelling and from what I knew of the dialect of the area, it could equally have sounded as ‘stable’.
I kicked what snow and frozen mud and any other filth that I could from my boots on the lowest of the steps leading up to the main entrance. The door was low and solid looking, studded with brass and with a small view port which was now firmly shut. Though made of wood, the door felt as solid and cold as iron and when I turned the large boss of a door handle, I could feel the ice mashing inside the latch.
Three things came out as the door opened. First there was the noise of many voices within. Then came the warmth (although perhaps it was the relative warmth compared to the cold night air outside). Then came the smell which was nothing if not pungent. It was a heady mixture of wood smoke and tobacco, vinegar and over roasted meat, farmyard and the overwhelming smell of dog – if you know what I mean. It all but took my breath away and pretty near removed the contents of my stomach as well. Still, nothing else to be done about it. I wasn’t enthusiastic, I admit, but at least I wasn’t as committed as the pig that was roasting in the large hearth opposite.
I stepped into the reek.
Although I understood the language quite well, the dialect was a bit of a challenge and I have to say that a lot of the noise that I heard was pretty unintelligible at first. Fighting off the desire to walk back out into the snow and find that remote camp fire up in the woods regardless of wolves, bears or bandits I made my way as carefully as I could through the crowd.
I headed towards the bar where a fierce looking creature in possession of a face that would curdle blood was engaged in a brutal dialogue with what looked to be a couple of badly stained, if animated, blankets. I presumed that this creature was female. Even to my feeble vision she appeared to be wearing a shawl and some kind of strange bonnet. She had to be the proprietor or, at the very least, the proprietor’s wife but she looked like Grendel’s mother.
Squeezing my way through the steaming and noisome crowd I could not help but notice that I was being studied. In particular, one individual was watching me with serious intent from his seat at one of the tables to my right.
Whether it was a random act or whether it was at a signal or maybe because I had crossed some unseen line, something in a large trench coat lurched to its feet knocking a filthy looking tankard of slops that was before it on the table. A good quantity of the dirty tan coloured brew splashed onto the tabletop and slipped sinuously over the side.
“Ere, can’tcha watch’at wot’ya doin' ya gert tusspot,” shouted a toothless old guy sitting on the other side of the sticky and shiny table.
The speech that spilled from his collapsed mouth degenerated further as he looked down to brush away the greenish brown liquid that pooled briefly in his lap before soaking in.
“Nar lookat wot’ya dun te'ma kegs ya leetl basdad!"
I had no time to hear more of the exchange as I was brought to a halt by a large hand that was placed on my shoulder. It belonged to the individual in the huge trench coat which was badly stained with something brown that I didn’t want to guess at.
He was a big man and in the few seconds afforded me for assessment I determined number of things. I didn’t like him. He was filthy. There was movement amongst the thick black beard that covered much of his face. He also had absolutely no sense of personal space as he leaned right into my field of vision.
“You's a leetl su’thun basdad in’tcha!”
The words proceeded from his mouth with the same incontinence as the beer and spit also issuing from that orifice. His eyes, which were brown and cow like, had an obvious vacancy that wasn’t necessarily associated with his intellect. Of course, I had to respond. Failure to do so would invariably result in the repeating stubby finger jab to the shoulder followed by a series of accusations dotted with expletives. The fact that he was a lot bigger than me may also have influenced my desire to co-operate.
“Aye mayt, ye’ve been down tha'ways a waheel.”
I hoped that he understood my slightly purer form of the language and to reinforce it I added.
"Yes'm! ye’ma jevellin' abaht a’bit.”
I have to say that I was quite pleased with myself and thought for a few seconds that this response would do the job. The hand came back off from my shoulder and, as I took a step back to remove myself from the serious halitosis that was making me feel nauseous, its owner did not move with me.
Then I looked into his eyes. There was absolutely no sign that he had understood or indeed even heard me. The same brown-eyed vacancy looked out from them towards me (I do not say that he was actually looking at me). I noticed how big his pupils were: far too large to accommodate the dim-lit smokiness of this place. I noticed also that his teeth were stained red and that the saliva in his beard was also reddish or at least might have passed off for red in better light. I thought perhaps it might be betel although I didn’t think that it was grown this far to the north.
“Ah say'd,” he slurred as he drew himself up to his full height.
He was alarmingly bigger even than I first thought and in my head I could hear a strange little voice making frightened, strangled noises.
“You's a leetl su’thun basdad in’tcha, ya horsun!”
Even with the additional distance now between us, I felt his spit hitting my face. It stung like a mild acid. I wondered what it was he was drinking, or perhaps chewing, that would do that. Then I considered whether it might have been something about his metabolism. It also didn’t escape a thought that I hoped he hadn’t got any infectious diseases.
I decided to go for the obvious.
“Yer raht, ye’ma.”
A look of smug satisfaction split out across his hairy features.
“Faw shor mayt, ah nowse it,” the giant said grinning at me, “ish’ta smell, yu’see."
He paused for an effect that was lost on me and then continued beaming with an obvious sense of pride. That was also lost on me.
"Yu is smell good!"
He tapped the ugly protuberance that seemed to have been squashed hurriedly into his features as an afterthought at some time between his conception and his birth. Once again, there was that sense of pride radiating from him. Once again I remained oblivious to the cause.
" Ish’ta nose, yu’see.”
He paused just long enough to thump his barrel of a chest with his huge right hand.
"Ye'ma tracka!” he said.
More radiated pride glowed from him, seeming to add further to the oppressive partial warmth of the room.
He offered me what I took in context to be a smile, although had I been female I might have been more concerned. I noticed also that far from being merely a figure of speech, the left hand was in fact quite a bit smaller than the right. Nature or nurture, I wondered. Perhaps it was a standard configuration around these parts.
“Yu lookin' tracka?”
My heart sank. Here was another question and it also had a hint of menace in it. I went for the obvious again.
I refrained from adding ‘sorry’ as I knew that it would antagonize him and that the usual forms of politeness were culturally unacceptable in these parts. He looked at me and I would have said that it was an appraising look had I not doubted the level of processing going on inside his head. After a pause and without another word, he simply sighed and turned back to the group of people that he had risen from. The last thing that I heard from him was a plaintive exhalation.
“He don't want no tracka!"
Although his tone sounded quite sad, I suspect that he didn't give me another thought. Once he was seated amongst the other worthies, he took a huge gulp from the huge and filthy leather tankard on the table in front of him. I noticed then that there was only one drink on the table and, as I watched for a few morbidly curious moments, it became apparent that this was being shared by all those sitting around it with him. That would explain the size, I guess, for it looked more like a quart than a pint.
I watched for just enough time to see the tracker launch into what I could only take to be an obscure variation on animated conversation with his fellow tankard sharers. After a while, the sight of a number of dirty looking men sharing an even dirtier looking tankard began to take its toll on my sense of propriety, not to mention my stomach. I moved away leaving them to it and trying, unsuccessfully as it happens, not to think too much about the nature or quality of the various liquids that had been sprayed over me a matter of moments ago.
I made it the last few steps to the bar and to the creature that I took to be in authority. It is a simple observation that whilst I was watched with hawk-like intensity by this woman from the time that I opened the door to the moment when I stepped within a few feet of the bar, I became invisible as soon as I actually got there. I was a part of the scenery as it were.
I looked meaningfully in her direction but she had started to swill a tankard in some brownish liquid from a basin behind the bar. She appeared totally engrossed in that task as well as in an animated conversation taking place on the far side of the room. With all the noise around, I was pretty sure that she couldn’t possibly hear anything of what was being said.
I tried coughing and clearing my throat but even I knew that was pointless in the din and besides it prompted a series of hackings and spitting from a couple of men at the bar that made me sound like a girl. I waved: not a thing. I called out moderately loudly but in that room it was lost. I decided again on the obvious.
“Drank, ja’bas!” I yelled at the top of my voice.
A ripple of silence spread out through the room from where I was standing, passed out through the walls and was gone. It had worked though, for Grendel’s Mother stirred from her labours and looked over at me. Actually, it was more like she looked through me. It was quite disturbing.
Again there were those bovine eyes and again, the vacant look and the red saliva and, even more disconcerting, again the thick black beard.
“D'ya want?” she growled.
“D'ya got?” I barked.
“Horshp’s!” she hissed.
“Ya'll 'ave it then,” I grunted.
So far so good, I thought.
Then it was that I made the mistake. All those fifty-two years of good upbringing could not be held back. Much as I had tried, I simply could not help it and out it came uninvited from my hapless mouth.
“Thank’ee,” I whinnied.
It had not been said loud. In fact, I had almost swallowed the words as they came out and yet the silence in the room was immediate and utter. I could hear my heart thumping. God’s ear, I could hear a dozen hearts thumping! All eyes were on me. I could feel the hostility. Something quick was needed.
“Ye’ll thank’ee t' gi’me sum o' that peg rosten ‘er!” I said as loud as I dared, pointing with apparent enthusiasm (I hoped) to the pig roasting, for want of a better word, in the acrid smoke and sweaty warmth of the fire.
"Gi’me sum peg! Y’ah!”
I thumped my chest for emphasis with my clenched right hand.
I scarcely dared to look around in the unnerving silence that had enveloped the room so I kept my eyes on Grendel’s Mother.
Her mouth twisted slightly and worked its way into what I think was a grin although it could have been pity. It could also possibly have been lust. Hopefully I would never know.
“Ye'll cut ye sum peg, lurv," she replied, softening ever so slightly.
I was relieved. It looked like I had pulled it off: one serious cultural faux pas into what was frankly an acceptably rude demand for food. I ignored the all too obvious mutterings of, “fawkin' far'ners,” and a range of other similar obscenities and expletives from the others in the room as the volume went back up to full.
I then watched with detached interest as Grendel’s Mother poured a rich, slightly greenish looking liquid from a large tin jug under the counter into the battered tankard that she had hitherto been immolating in the basin. The liquid had a thin, oily look about it as it was poured out and small, lumpy white things floated and bobbed about on the surface in the tankard once it was placed on the bar before her. She gave it a vigorous stir with a stick that seemed to be lying about for the purpose and then passed the tankard to me.
The detached interest gave way to mild concern as I watched the oily liquid whirl around in the tankard that was now sitting on the bar in front of me. There were far too many bubbles forming on the surface to be accounted for by the mild agitation of the stick. Something was clearly metabolizing in my drink. I noticed also that the lumpy white things had ceased to bob about. In fact, they seemed to have disappeared or should I perhaps have said 'dived' beneath the oily surface.
“Horshp’s,” she hissed once more at me.
There was neither pride nor threat in her voice. It was a take it or leave it kind of statement and from the look of the drink that was described, I was pretty sure now that I was going to leave it.
“Ye'll 'af a tab ye’ll pay fer it now," she continued.
Then with a hard glint in her eye she threw the challenge at me.
To be honest, I had no idea what horshp’s was but I presumed that it was now before me in all its greenness, floating a slightly thin and oily froth on a surface that looked vaguely off white. However, fee trupps demanded a response. This was a land of hagglers and I was expected to do the business.
As it was I couldn’t tell from the dialect whether she had said fee (five) or thee (three) and I was not going to pay five trupps for a drink I was basically afraid off.
“F-Fee trupps," I stammered, “nay, nay! Ye’m nev’a fawkin' far'ner here!”
That at least drew some interest from those nearby. For a start, it obviously wasn't true.
"Tu trupps and ne mur fur dese greyn puss!"
“Ya horsun far'ner is'ta shyte,” she countered and followed it up with an emphatic hawk and spit, the like of which landed in all its redness at the base of my tankard just where it met the bar.
“Fur trupps – less halp fur coyn."
She added the latter part of this proposal in a slightly menacing tone, making what seemed to be involuntary stabbing gestures at the bar with a nasty looking knife that seemed to have materialized from somewhere within her voluminous skirts.
Three and a half trupps for cash was more than any reasonable man would pay but I threw down the coins in feigned disgust. At least that way I would keep all my remaining teeth, for now. I added for realism an obligatory, “Ja’bas,” which, it seemed, she took more or less as a compliment because she flashed me one of her twitching, grimacing smiles.
“Ye'll get ye summat peg," she offered in a tone that inferred closure on the horshp's whilst at the same time opening up bids on the smoke-roasted pork.
"Oh crap," I thought.
More haggling and we haven’t even got down to the main issue. Somehow I had to get myself a room in this place to sleep tonight. Best to go for it now I resolved.
There is something that I find fundamentally embarrassing about asking for a room for a night. To start with, I never really know what to say. Usually I’ll try something like, ‘Have you got any vacancies?’ or, ‘Do you have any accommodation?’ or perhaps, ‘Have you got a room?’
No matter how I try, though, it is never quite right. There is always that suggestion of embarrassment and invariably I’ll swallow the words or mumble so that I will not be heard properly no matter what language I am speaking. Then I’ll have to go through it all again. I guess we all create our own versions of purgatory one way or another.
That was more of less what happened when I tried to get a room sorted here. The only difference was that once we had got down to the issue, we haggled over the price. Well, that and the fact that I claimed that I was the mother of a smoking dog. Don’t ask me how. All I know is that I swallowed a couple of syllables in my translation of the word 'overnight accommodation’ and out it popped uninvited as it were. I have to say that this linguistic error was to my advantage though. It kind of caught her unawares and I think threw her out of focus on the price. Anyway five trupps was, I thought, a bargain even though there was the obligatory non-refundable deposit for fumigation, which the hairy witch told me was set at another five trupps in these parts.
"Fur dese calymeens," she had explained.
Then she had disappeared behind the bar for a few seconds before emerging with a look of triumph and a rather unhappy and pale looking creature about the size of her rather meaty hand and vaguely resembling a trilobite. She dropped the creature onto the bar before her and then crushed it with a cudgel that she had expertly whipped out from under the bar before the poor beast could flee.
“Dese calymeens, hah,” she said and then grinned a gap-toothed grin.
Personally I think that she had kept that one there for the purpose. As the viscous juices of the hapless creature spread over sticky surface of the bar, I paid my ten trupps (and the shreeve tax – another trupp) and the key deposit (another two trupps but refundable if the key is presented on departure). Then with my bag, a huge key and my plate of smoke roasted and slightly warm pork on a dirty birch-bark platter I made my way through the crowded room to the dark narrow opening with the words, ‘Slepish!’ scrawled on the crumbling plaster above it in the hand of a large but moderately literate spider.
The tankard of horshp’s remained on the bar untouched. The dead trilobite watched me through its lifeless calcite eyes.
Something to say?
The Collector of Tales
"I have travelled far to the south where the sun scorches the sky and where the great desert stretches out into the lights of oblivion. I have crossed the great sea to the east where I have seen the nations of people who are not people. I can tell that you don't believe the hyperbole but there is a general truth to it."
This is an tale of the ordinary: a quest through the mundane and the obvious. The Collector of Tales is no hero and his journey is, if he were to realise it, a search to recapture control in his own simple life. In this medieval-like and somewhat brutish world where the inhabitants are crude and where politeness can get a person killed, he is wandering across a landscape.
His quest is a simple one. He is looking for a tale about a lost people to add to his story-telling repertoire. Starting with a chance meeting on the road, The Collector blunders through a series of random events and meetings. On his way he comes to realise that he is only a small part in a very big world and begins to understand that despite all his best endeavours, the haphazard of living offers a world of infinite possibilities.
A tale of randomness, choice & the nature of journeys
The Collector of Tales is a story about an itinerant storyteller who has more than passed midlife and is trying to come to terms with his own mortality and the simple realisation that he has absolutely no control over the way that his life is played out. It is set in a medieval-like world somewhere in the future where books and learning are rarities and where pleasantries and politeness that we may take for granted can get you killed.
After a chance encounter on the road, the Collector sets off in search of a tale about a group of people called the Firedancers. The story opens with a decision about a path to take and this is intended to give the semblance of choice as well as reminding us of Dante when setting out in his Inferno.
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritroverai per una selva oscura
Che la diritta via era smaririta.
The words are deliberately similar and yet intentionally dissimilar: In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.
Thus, our Collector turns to the main road and avoids, in his view, the risks and dangers of the world beyond and maybe even death, who knows? His reward is an Inn inhabited by a strange collection of humans whose language is harsh and whose manners are rough and where personal hygiene and personal space don't seem to be recognised. Here he hears a tale of the Firedancers from the village storyteller before moving on to the violent town of Trellsheim.
On route he meets up with a travelling spice trader who goes by the name of Welcome, together with his pet bear and two flatulent oxen. Happenchance and randomness inexorably produce a further connection with the Firedancers in the form of a book that the trader has wrapped up in a cloth and kept under the bear as it sleeps.
In Trellsheim, the Collector finds himself drawn in on the fringes of strange happenings that take place around him. Who are the people in Black Capes that he keeps seeing around? What is the problem with the librarian and why is she so bitter? Who is the girl in the bath? He seems to be losing the plot and his search for the Firedancers tale is going nowhere when he suddenly contracts a mysterious and contagious illness.
The two lads who own the inn that he is staying at decide that he poses a threat to business and dump his unconscious form outside the town gates in the snow. Here, he would have inevitably died but he is rescued by a traveller family who are heading north to a festival of some kind. Despite the sinister undertones of the husband, the Collector is nursed back to health by the wife and by the time they reach the festival he is able to join them and participate in the rituals taking place there. Here he discovers not the Tale of the Firedancers but the people themselves. Not a myth, just ordinary people who are gathering together to celebrate death and new life. Here he finds himself in an entirely different tale and re-discovers a part of himself that he has kept hidden deep beneath the surface since childhood: a raw and innocent self that he had long forgotten as he trod this sweet earth.
As the story ends one is left asking whether he has achieved a form of enlightenment in the mystery of the events that are played out before him. That however, is a theme that is developed in the second novel, The Xandrian Quarters, now available.