Tales from a Thousand Lands:

Concerning the Distraction of Mages


By Mark James



Part Two:        A NIGHT IN BANTULE


            Welcome, Traveller, welcome to Bantule! Where life is cheap and pleasure a religion. In Bantule there are a multitude of things to be wary of, but forgive me, Traveller, perhaps you are one of those sad souls drawn by the prospect of danger? In which case ignore my warnings; your pleasure lies in not knowing. Remember, if you will, that the festering Gavrot Marsh lies not a mile from the city walls. When the wind hies from that direction ware its balm! Aye, Traveller, it is hot in Bantule. The females go only partially clothed and the men must sleep in the afternoon lest the sun drains their energy, still you must mind the Marsh-breezes for they carry more than cooling comfort, they carry disease! In Bantule, a man may die at any time; he might be sitting in a gambling den losing his fortune or drowsing in the arms of a two shilling whore when his breath will grow short, his face turn ashen grey, his muscles constrict and spasm; he is dead, Traveller, slain by one of a thousand terrible maladies that swarm unchecked in the Marsh-Breeze: The Yellow Flux, Andromais' Universal Palsy, Melting Fever, Gavrot's Constrictive Revenge; he is dead, Traveller, and the good citizens of Bantule will spare him less thought than they would for the droppings of a cur. Above every door in Bantule there is a bell which is rung when a man meets death and thus becomes an inconvenience. Moments later the City Disposers arrive towing their cart and its terrible cargo; they drag the corpse to join the twisted puzzle and when the cart is almost too heavy to pull they harness an ox and drive it out to the Marsh, jettison the bodies, and return.


            Life is cheap in Bantule; a dozen establishments exist in which, after the payment of a modest fee - nothing is free in Bantule - one may watch desperate men fight to the death, and wager on the results. Mayhap you would patronise any one of a hundred bagnios where women of all ages, shapes and sizes will pleasure you for less than the price of a meal in one of Albia's more modest cafes. Would you slake your lust with the dead? In Bantule you may. Would you couple with animals? Hie you to Bantule!


            By day the streets are free of people, abandoned to the ten thousand cats of the city that, contrary to the nocturnal habits of the race, scavenge the bins and gutters for last night's leavings. Bantule truly exists only when the sun dies, when the braziers are lit in the streets, when the pavement vendors begin to cook over open fires and the smoke and the steam rise into the air stained red  by the light of the rush torches that hang from sconces high on building walls.


            Ah Bantule lives at night! It bustles and thrives and spends its energy like a dying merchant throws his gold to the horde of his relatives. Through the North-Gate is pleasure, through the Marsh-Gate only death. The journey between the two is accompanied by a miasma of emotions: anticipation, satiation, anxiety, desperation, dread. This is the essence of Bantule, this is why the city is necessary; men will do such things in Bantule that in their home cities they would not even dare to dream of. What would shock the respectable citizens of Albia or Guirey Town, is boring in Bantule. Death's shadow always darkens the city, no matter, men would have it no other way, men will always hie them to Bantule.


            Tis a city of dreamers , Traveller, a city where dreams are made reality but, as is the way of the world, a man who lives his dream finds the execution a disappointment. There is always another extreme, except that in Bantule there are no extremes!


            But I see you do not heed my warnings, I see the sweat of expectation on your upper lip and the twitching of your hands as you contemplate the delights to come. Already it is dark, already the fires are alive, go to your pleasure, Traveller, but I fear your journey will end at the Marsh.


            Look, here is Gethin, a poor man from Guirey Town with a dream; he is Journeyman to one Anlagh, Master Glass Blower; already the pupil far outstrips the Master and the Master knows it. Gethin would be the Master in his turn, he would leave Anlagh's establishment and found his own, but a Journeyman earns little and Anlagh asks a thousand Shilling to release the poor young man from his time. What is he to do except hie him to Bantule where his skill with the dice bones might earn in a night what his skills as a glass blower will never bring in twenty years. In the evenings in Guirey Town, it is the habit of the apprentices and Journeymen who live and work on Masters' Row to gather on corners where illegal games of dice bones help to erase the boredom of the working day. Gethin is good, Gethin has won a hundred shilling and now, leaving his pregnant wife Meera only a few weeks shy of her confinement, he has travelled to Bantule, to risk the Marsh and the sum of his wealth. There are a thousand like him walking the streets of Bantule this night but there is the smell of a story about Gethin, so I follow.


            He walks uncertainly past whores who, seeing the cut of his clothes and the cast of his features, do not trouble to waste their imprecations; he is thrust into the gutter by large men hired to escort nervous aristocrats and merchants to the dens in which they will sate their particular lusts. No matter, Gethin is determined. Despite his obvious naiveté, the footpads and hugger-muggers leave him be, for there is the smell of a story about Gethin.  He is not for them, his destiny this night is in the hands of the Gods who are known to play their own particular version of dice-bones and are not always fussy about whom they choose to dice with. Would a God be a God if it only let its interest rest on the high-born and rich? I cannot think so. Gethin is God-chosen this night; his story will be told for years to come by the bards who tour the markets and Great halls of Maerydeyn carrying gossip and new tales. The citizens of Bantule recognise this even if they do not articulate it, Gethin with his dreams and his innocence, is already claimed.


            A warrior stands at the door of the establishment Gethin has travelled so far to visit. As Gethin halts, the warrior crosses his massively muscled arms and spreads his feet wide to block the way. “If ye cannot prove ye have fifty shilling The Lady's Purse is not the place for ye.”


            Suspecting some ruse to milk his riches, but desperate to pass and excited at the prospect of the game, Gethin displays his modest wealth and the warrior steps aside. Here is his last opportunity to avoid the fate the Gods have willed this night; now he can turn back and return to Guirey Town where Meera, sad and worried Meera, even now feels the first stirrings of the baby who will arrive early. But Anlagh asks a thousand shilling to release Gethin from his time...


            Inside, the patrons play in earnest, here is wealth! Hordes of silver shillings piled high on twenty tables, not a space to be had but already, though it is early, there are folk about to gamble the last drop of their life's work away, people who have been playing for hours, days, mesmerised by the prospect of an end to all labour, except, except they know in the deepest recesses of their hearts that no amount of wealth would ever be enough; the game will always draw them on.


            Gethin hovers uncertainly by the entrance, a comely waitress espies him and carries a tray of wooden cups across. “Wine, ale or grains?”


            'My wealth's to be used elsewhere, mistress, though if you have a little water...'


            'Customers do not pay for drinks in The Lady's Purse, Traveller, have what you will, have as much as you need!'


            Gethin understands and determines to be wary, but a poor man learns to grasp every treat, however mean. 'A little ale then, mistress, the lightest you have.'


            The waitress hands him a cup and speaks once more, though it is not her usual policy to interest herself in the affairs of the customers. 'Good gaming, traveller, I pray you are not snared in The Lady's Purse.'


            Before he can unravel her meaning she is gone; he half follows then spots a man at a distant table standing to leave the game, there is a look of hopeless resignation on the man's face, he draws his dagger and strokes it in a strange, tender fashion as he quits the establishment. Quickly, lest anyone should hijack the seat, Gethin crosses and makes the traditional enquiry: 'Is my silver acceptable?'


            Someone answers: 'Traveller, in Bantule even Revik The Demon's silver would be acceptable!'


            Gethin sits and places half of his wealth on the table.  No one worries that he does not immediately place a bet.  A good gambler always waits until he has seen the state of play and the skill of the players. He is one of five, the traditional number.  The man to his left holds the bones and having failed three times to throw his prediction, offers the set to Gethin, Gethin passes them on and watches. To his right a Captain of The Guard calls five dragons and waits for the bets to be placed before making his first cast.  There are two dragons on the table and another flurry of heavy betting takes place before he throws again and adds another dragon to his tally. Now the essence merchant to Gethin's right, how sweet he smells of ambergris and persimmon!, calls an end to dragons and makes a significant wager, another flurry of betting which Gethin regrets he cannot join. The Captain does indeed make an end to dragons, and the essence merchant is well pleased with his four hundred shilling. A Priest of Gallith Dreamweaver holds the bones now, and he surprises no one by calling the modest three clouds; slow and steady accumulation is his way.  The odds are too low to interest many there, but Gethin, seeing an opportunity to put his toe in the water, indicates that he is now an active player and commits ten shilling which brings him another five when the priest makes the prediction on his third throw. A Lady holds the bones, and Gethin is delighted to look upon her, for she makes his wife Meera, now only hours from her time, seem a country drab by comparison. The Lady is dark, raven black hair, violet eyes, an aura of sweet, triumphant corruption. Gethin has never known anyone like her before; not even the great ladies who alight from their carriages on Merchant's row in Guirey Town have ever excited him as much. But Gethin is a good gambler, he cannot allow any distractions, though his heart almost stops when the Lady clamps her eyes to his and calls six hearts.  Against his better judgement and all experience, Gethin supports the prediction with twenty-five shilling, reaping a hundred when the hearts array after just two throws.


            On goes the game, on goes the night! Ah to play like this, Gethin, Journeyman Glass Blower of Guirey Town, has never known anything so wonderful! How many hours perish he does not know, how many pieces of silver pass across the table is impossible to say, but as the night wears on, Gethin's fame and fortune grow so that by midnight he has enough to settle with Anlagh three times over, but he cannot quit the table. He is snared by the game, and The Lady's Purse becomes his home. No matter that wife Meera is even now screaming against the encouragement of a midwife and giving birth to an early, but nevertheless healthy, baby with a lusty cry, no matter that the world turns and all around him Bantule flares to the height of its cycle. Gethin must play. Every wager he makes is sound; every time he calls, the bones obey him as though his mind is their master, so much money is beneath his hands that it ceases to be meaningful.  He has no conception of what such wealth might mean to his family.  There is nothing for it but that he must double, treble, multiply the stacks a hundredfold. Now all that matters is their symmetry; he stacks them ten high in rows of five and everywhere there is a gap he must wager to fill it, his shillings must form a perfect square on the table, so on he plays, accepting predictions, refusing predictions, calling for himself: seven dragons, nine eagles, and the bones obey his will as they always do in his dreams.  Ah but in Bantule dreams are not wispy flibbertigibbets of the mind which dissipate with the first light of day.  Dreams are merely another commodity and in The Lady's Purse Gethin has bought all the fulfilment he has ever craved, except...One more throw, one more pile of coins to further complicate the harmony of his wealth.


            Now only two players remain; Gethin and the Lady, and both are rich beyond the strangled fancies of a poor man from Guirey Town. Gethin calls eight dragons and fails! Ah, a gambler's luck will suffer these little hiccoughs, no matter, only to be expected, pay the wager and gladly for it makes no impression on your wealth, Gethin. Now the Lady makes the modest prediction four clouds, Gethin loses but no matter; he misses his next cast, calls wrongly, calls two clouds and misses that! But the game has hooked him sounder than any fish that ever swallowed a bait.  What a gambler loses on one throw, he will regain with interest on the next. But his skill is gone, and surely he must quit with what he has.  Still he can settle with Anlagh and provide for the mewling son at Meera's breast; but no, he must continue and the Lady draws his wealth like a spider draws the essence of a fly.


            It is half an hour shy of dawn and Bantule is readying itself for sleep, but in The Lady's Purse one table remains alive where a poor man from Guirey Town considers the sum of his fortune; five shilling, and shakes his head in bewilderment. 'My Lady, as you see I cannot back any call with these few coins, I must stop this now.'


            The Lady, looking as fresh and corrupt as she did fourteen hours earlier, smiles  and speaks. 'In truth wealth is of no moment to me, I am rich beyond care, I would call for a final time; I would call thirteen dragons!'


            The audience gasps in wonder, thirteen dragons, the most difficult prediction in the game, no serious gambler would ever risk it. Gethin considers his five shilling and realises that she is toying with him.


            'I have nothing to make it worth your while, Lady, let me go now, at least this five shilling will buy me breakfast!'


            The world narrows to the table and the two people there, Gethin might be floating in a void; his only point of contact is the lustrous lady who smiles crookedly at his rueful words.


            'I have said that wealth does not interest me, perhaps you have something else that might?'


            'Only my life.'


            'And that of your son.'


            'Lady, Meera my wife is heavy with child but cannot expect to be confined for some weeks, why do you jest with me?'


            'Journeyman Gethin, your wife bore a son this night; early he came but lusty and in no danger.'


            'How do you...'


            'I know many things, Journeyman, I have The Sight.'


            'Then surely you see thirteen dragons and the death of my firstborn!'


            'I cannot unravel the random factors, Journeyman; the bones fall more by chance than skill as you well know; their fate is never revealed by The Sight, but enough of this, I wager the wealth here against the life of your son that I throw thirteen dragons.'


            Thirteen dragons, impossible! Gethin looks at the stacks of coins spread out before the Lady and he sorely desires them.  She could not make the throw, and, may the Gods forgive him, Gethin indulges in the rogue's art of casuistry; a son born early, likely a milksop or soft in the head, likely he would grow to be a lally-boy and sit outside his father's workshop drooling and foolish, the laughing stock of Guirey Town!


            'Lady, throw the bones!'

            A hundred breaths catch in a hundred throats as the Lady gathers the bones and makes her first cast: five dragons.


            Gethin smiles a sickly smile and takes a cup of grain-spirit from a passing waitress.


            Second cast: one dragon.


            Gethin drinks and his confidence is high, the Lady has seven bones left and each of them must fall a dragon. No one in The Lady's Purse that night can recall anyone throwing seven of anything, they tell each other this and Gethin knows his money-lust is about to be sated.


            Third cast: seven dragons.


            Gethin's face collapses, his cry of anguish is lost in the general cacophony.


            The Lady smiles. 'Well, Journeyman, it had to be done one day, after all it lies within the realm of possibilities'


            'My son!'


            'Is mine to do with as I will, but I do not claim his life yet. Let him grow awhile, perhaps a year from now, ten years, a lifetime, who knows.  It is possible that I shall never call in the debt, but you must assume I will, Journeyman Gethin. When I call, you will deliver the boy into my power; you must or be forsworn in the eyes of the Gods. This night's entertainment has pleased me greatly! I feel replete and generous, so tell me, Journeyman, what is the wish of your heart?'


            Gethin speaks through his tears. 'Lady, I wish only for wealth and see what a pass my desire has brought me to.'


            'The wish of your heart is only money?'


            'It is.'


            'Then take all this fortune and remember, you might have asked for the life of your son.'


            Gethin wishes he owned a knife, it would indeed be a delight and a pleasure to plunge it into the woman's heart. She stands and pushes the coins across the table to him. 'Tell me one thing, Lady, tell me your name?'


            She laughs to freeze the blood of every man in The Lady's Purse and she speaks: 'I am mostly known as Chylla the Witch, look for me on the long road, Journeyman.'



The End… (for now)


© 2002-2003 by Mark James.  I'm in my early forties, married and living in the North West of England. I began my writing career scripting television drama which I gave up in the late eighties in order to earn something like a proper living. I now work as a technical writer for a software development company. I'm the guy who writes the manuals that no one reads! Perhaps this explains my recent return to writing fantasy - my first love - which really couldn't be very much different.