This particular tale was commissioned for SFX Magazine’s Fantasy: The Ultimate Celebration Special Edition. Fantasy rarely satisfies me, especially the “high” version of it, although really my first love was fantasy and not SF. One thing that always plucks me out of these imagined worlds is how clean and fair they are. (Either that, or it’s grim visits grimtown with added torture, but that’s for another post). I wonder, who grows the food, where does the sewage go, and where are all the dogs? This story draws on that, harking back to an earlier era of fantasy when things weren’t quite so rosy.
“The Great Tide” is set in a secondary world that I’ve been working on for some time. If you’ve read my other, tongue-in-cheek fantasy stories available at the Robot Trading Company, this is different. You may see more of this world. Watch this space.
The Great Tide
The canyon lip curled over the gleaners’ shelf , layered stone petals that shrugged the rain and sun’s glare off and hid the children from the disapproval of Moracs-Gravo. The shelf was open on the side of the canyon, perishing cold in winter to be sure, but tonight their fire kept the chill of autumn away well enough
The gleaner children sat around the fire on a stone floor polished by their feet. Travnic, their gang boss, sat on a keg. It was a worthless gleaning, its hoops corroded right through in places, staves rotten. For all that it made an adequate seat for the old man. The fire burned blue from the salt in the wood. The smoke it gave was briny, redolent of distant waves.
The evening was two hours past sundown. The day’s gleaning had been unrewarding. Another gang boss, a gang boss who was not Travnic, might have punished the children for their poor pickings. Markovitski, the boss of bosses, had already had cause to threaten Travnic. Another boss would have handed his fear on to his gang with a belt and hard words. Not Travnic. He’d looked at the pile of salvage, he’d sighed and he’d scratched at his bald scalp, and he’d said what he always said: “Tomorrow will be a better day.”
As was his custom, he was telling the children a story.
“In a time not so long ago, there lived a farmer,” he said.
“What’s a farmer?” said Lavina.
“Shut up Lavina,” said Rusinka.
“You shut up, Rusinka.”
“A farmer,” said Travnic, “is a man who makes his way in life by growing food, out in the country.”
“They sell it here, to the city,” said Morunik. He was approaching adulthood, and had the surliness that the change from boy to man inflicts. “Where do you think it comes from?”
A spirited argument erupted. Travnic watched his charges bicker with amusement.
“Quiet!” said Tuvacs, the eldest. “Or you’ll all be off to bed now, get it?”
They quietened at Tuvac’s rebuke.
“Now, are you going to let me tell this story or not?” said Travnic.
“Tell!” they said.
“Good.” He continued. “This farmer had a herd of fine dairy cows. He and his wife lived in a glade in a forest and by his house he had a little dairy. He drove his cows to the dairy every morning, and he and his wife milked them, and then he drove them to a different part of the glade so they might enjoy fresh grass. In winter they went into the barn under his house. His wife and he would churn butter and make cheese, and every secondweek…”
Tuvacs had heard the story many times. Travnic’s eyes were as bright as always, but the face they looked out from was more haggard by the day. Just this year, Tuvacs thought, he has aged a great deal.
Travnic told how the farmer’s wife had died, how the farmer had become mad enough with grief to hear the singing of the Wild Tyn in the forest, and how he’d tricked one of the magical creatures into taking the shape of a vixen. The Tyn had been forced to serve him and grant his wishes, until, as is the way such stories, the Tyn had tricked the farmer in its turn.
“…and the farmer toiled and toiled. His herd was never dry of milk, no matter how much he milked, and the Tyn laughed behind her whiskers at him. He could not leave his cows, for they would sicken and die, and so he could not churn his butter or make his cheese or go to market. The milk went bad, he poured it away and carried on milking, for he cared for his animals very much.
“On the eighth day, the Tyn approached him, her tail swishing.
“‘Are you happy master?’ she said slyly.
“The farmer looked at the Tyn. He was tired and he missed his wife and he knew he had been a fool. His eyes were clear of grief for the first time since his wife had died, and he knew what he had to do.
“‘Thank you,’ he said, and the Tyn knew he was not thanking her for the great amount of milk she had magicked up. ‘But now I wish it would all stop,’ he said.
“The Tyn licked her lips nervously, for she was bound to grant his wish, and yet the Tyn Y Dvar do not know how their own magic will turn out, not entirely. ‘Your wish is granted,’ she said.
“The farmer lay down, and then he died.
“Now, the Tyn at first was happy, but then a terrible shame came upon her, for she had broken the Tyn’s gravest law and taken a life, and she knew in her heart that the farmer had been grief struck, and not a bad man, and that made it all the worse. ‘Master! Master!’ it cried. The Tyn Y Dvar leapt around the farmer’s corpse like a mad thing. ‘Master!’”
Travnic was good at the voices, thought Tuvacs. He smiled and rested his head on the rock at his back, and remembered when he was very young.
“The grief of the Tyn addled its mind, and it ran into the forest without changing shape. It was stuck forever as a vixen. And so it screams in horror at what it had done, whenever the moon is out, like tonight.” Travnic sniffed. The moon was behind him as if he had timed it, white and round between the piers of the Mrostovyn bridge, the dark bulk of the Twin behind it. “And that’s why foxes scream at night.”
“There was only one Tyn,” said Lavina doubtfully. “All foxes scream.”
“The others copied it,” Tuvacs said. He patted his little sister’s head. She scowled at him and shrugged his hand away.
“That’s right,” said Travnic. “That’s right.”
“What’s it mean?” asked Mirta.
Mirta persisted. “All stories mean something.”
“This, and that,” said Travnic. “You have to figure it out for yourself.” He slapped his knees and pushed himself awkwardly to his feet. His left leg was lame. There was a scar down his the thigh there, a gift from an Ocerzerkiyan sabre. He had shown Tuvacs once. “Enough for tonight. We’ve a Great Tide gleaning tomorrow. Off to bed with you.”
The children made noises of disappointment. Drassna and Dravina ran ahead to their pallets, grabbing each other and giggling. The others trudged. It had been a long day, and no one could match the twin’s energy.
Tuvacs looked over his shoulder at his master as he shepherded Lavina towards bed. Travnic stood wheezing gently, hands on the lower part of his back, elbows like sharp wings in the fire’s uncertain glow.
It was then Tuvacs realised he was worried about Travnic.
Tuvacs tucked Lavina in quickly, jamming their blanket under the wooden pallet where they slept.
“Where are you going?” she said. Her eyes reflected the lights of the city, the fire, the moon, the Twin, the stars. Her eyes were huge. He could see a pout form. She didn’t like to be left alone.
“I’ll be back before you go to sleep.”
His sister rolled over. “That’s not fair. I’m cold.”
Tuvacs waited for her to say more, but she did not. He went back to the fire.
If Travnic had noticed Tuvacs’ concern, it did not show. He looked over the canyon to the Moracs side of Moracs-Gravo. The buildings were high there, and graceful. Their shelf was on the Gravo side, the poorer side. It seemed to Tuvacs that Moracs would not tolerate so humble personages as the gleaners, not even at the filthy roots of its cliffs.
“We all know what we’re to do,” said Tuvacs. “I’ll make sure it goes smoothly. We’ll get a good gleaning, I promise.”
“So I don’t have to come down there, Tuvico? Even for such a gleaning? I suppose I should thank you.” Travnic whistled through his teeth and rubbed his back. “My knees hurt, my back hurts, my war wounds hurt, my eyes are dull, my hands…” he held them up and looked at them. “When I was a boy, there was no one better than me on all the gleaning gangs. You know that? I could dance up and down these cliffs. I was always the first to spot the glimmer of a coin in the mud. And then I was a soldier. Now?” He snorted, half despairing, half amused. “Let me tell you something boy, something true. You never think you’re going to get old.” Travnic looked at the boy, the boy who was as good as his son. He was mildly surprised, as he was every time he realised Tuvacs’ face was level with his own. “You’re nearly a man Tuvico,” he said. “You are a good boy.” He reached out a hand to ruffle Tuvacs’ hair. He hesitated, and did not. He grasped his shoulder instead.
“What’s going to happen to us?” said Tuvacs abruptly.
Travnic’s face became hard, the brittle kind of hard that hides worry. “I don’t know Tuvico, I don’t know.”
Tuvacs was up while it was still dark. Before he roused the girls to make breakfast, Travnic would put him through his paces. “I can’t teach you much boy,” he’d said to Tuvacs years ago. “Nothing but gleaning and swordplay. Best you know how to handle yourself.” And so Tuvacs had had his fencing lessons every day since.
“Keep your guard up boy,” Travnic said. He sat on his keg, his lame leg stretched out in front of him, a pot of small beer in his hand. “Cover your centre, cover! Oh for the eight’s sake.” Travnic put his beer aside on a little shelf in the rock, and pulled himself onto his feet. He moved stiffly over to where Tuvacs was working with his gleaned half-sword. He grabbed the boy’s arm and adjusted its position. Then that grin came onto his face, and he fetched his own old weapon, muffled in rag. He and Tuvacs mock-duelled. Travnic’s leg meant he could not move from the spot, but his command of the blade was such that Tuvacs struggled to land a blow. The blades hit one another with dull rings. Travnic and Tuvacs made little noise, so as not to disturb the others, but they breathed hard, and Tuvacs made little grunts of frustration as his attacks were turned aside.
“You’re getting better,” said Travnic.
Tuvacs was too occupied to reply.
Travnic began to cough, dry barks at first, but soon his chest was heaving. He fought for breath. His guard dropped, and Tuvacs came to help him. Travnic rested his free hand on Tuvacs’ shoulder and bent double.
Travnic heaved and gasped. Each cough sent a spasm down his damaged leg that showed on his face as a sharp grimace. Finally, the coughing eased.
“Are you all right?” asked Tuvacs. And then, somehow, he was on his back with Travnic’s sword at his neck.
Travnic’s off hand grasped his bad leg. To sweep Tuvacs legs out from under him had cost him. “Never let your guard down,” he wheezed.
“That’s not fair, Travnic,” said Tuvacs, and put his hands forward in surrender.
“Who said life was, Tuvico?” Travnic wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. They both pretended they could not see the blood. “Who said it was?”
The others grumbled at being turfed out of their beds before daybreak, but they could not afford to waste daylight on a Great Tide day. The eldest three girls fed them black bread, a tiny portion of salt fish, and a cup of ale close to turning sour.
As they ate, Kostarno came to see Travnic. They spoke away from the children, right at the edge of the shelf. Tuvacs strained his ears and stole glances over to where they spoke. Travnic was one of life’s natural wheel-greasers. Even Markovitski liked Travnic sufficiently to send his enforcer down rather than making Travnic struggle up to see him, and Kostamo was Markovitski’s least unpleasant enforcer.. But business was business, and Kostamo looked sterner than usual.
Travnic raised his hands. Kostamo pointed a finger and said something that made the old man’s smile fade. Tuvacs could not hear it over the chatter of the others. He would not say what it was as he herded the children out to work.
The sky was heavy with high and barren cloud. There was no one about. A few people unwilling or unable to pay the upper bridge tolls had come down the stairs to use the pontoons, which were currently sat in the mud. They were annoyed at crossing the reeking ooze of the canyon floor, and they pushed past the children rudely as they made their way up or down the rickety stairs.
Above, the double city crowded the lips of the canyon. The three ancient Maceriyan bridges crossed the half-mile gap, carrying roads in their cradles of magic-spun metal and stone. The noise above was muted, the rumble of the soil carts and the occasional bark of the dogs that pulled them. Much of the city slept. The purple-dark globe of the Twin glowering menacingly over it all, the moon entrapped in its circle.
Down at the bottom of the canyon it was still dark. Tuvacs set the others to their tasks. The twins were on lookout for fresh drops. The younger three were put to work as spotters, clambering along the side of the canyon. Morunik and Kuhalc were to work as haulers, dragging the heavy stuff out of the muck. Tuvacs , Mirta and Culita were to do light gleaning. That way he could work and keep an eye on the whole gang.
“Everyone ready?” he shouted. The individual calls of the children echoed off the stone, the whistled trade-tongue of the gleaners. “Double call for uptime!” he said. Travnics had paid the tidemaster for a reading of the charts, the money had come out of his own pocket. Travnic lived in fear of losing them to the waters. Tuvacs despaired of his kindness sometimes, but if he were going to pay for an accurate reckoning, said Tuvacs to Travnic, they might as well work until the last moment.
Tuvacs and the girls stepped down into the muck. There had been no tide for a fortnight, so it was at least firm underfoot. On the other side of that particular coin, there was garbage everywhere, the stench of shit and blood and rotting flesh was overpowering. Salt flies buzzed in choking columns. Tuvacs hated them, the way they crawled into his mouth and eyes.
The canyon was Moracs-Gravo’s cesspool. Soil carts worked all day to drag the city’s waste to the edge and tip it in. Servants and poorer citizens would toss all manner of rubbish over the lip. By city writ, more waste was deposited prior to a Great Tide. In three day’s time, when the great tide receded, the canyon would be swept clean. Until then, it remained a dismal miasma.
Tuvacs pulled his scarf up over his nose. Most days he was inured to the stink; not today.
Anything that might fetch a few pennies, they gathered. Most of the city’s refuse was reused before it got down here, taken away to whichever industry needed it. But things were lost, things were thrown away by mistake, or were in too small a quantity to be worth the bother to others. The gleaners were the last filter in a system adept at making use of everything, they would collect every rusty nail, every stick suitable for firewood, every chop bone and oyster shell.
The twins whistled out, warning of drops. Tuvacs moved away from the edge of the canyon and mess rained down from above. His sister called a find, a terse flurry of notes for shells, good for the mortar makers.
Tuvacs ambled along, eyes intent on the mud. He held his breath as he skirted past a slick of exhausted pure; tanner’s refuse. It was the worst kind of filth. He was so intent on avoiding it that he nearly missed the dead man.
He saw the boot first. He’d been a gleaner long enough to know it still had a foot in it. The man was half hidden behind a boulder. His body was a contortion of broken bones, his fine clothes crusted with blood.
Tuvacs looked around him before he went to the man. The gang never worked more than three hundred paces apart. Kuhalc and Morunik were hauling at a beam. Lavina, Rusalka and Tomar were looking over a tangled pile of debris together. He could not see anyone else. There were other gleaners, of course, but they were a long way away. Good, he’d get first look.
The man had been armed. His scabbard was broken under his twisted thigh, empty. There was a dagger on the opposite hip, and this Tuvacs unhooked, scabbard and all, and tucked into his shirt. He patted the corpse, looking for a purse. It was still there.
There were seven thalers in there. His heart hammered. He put it away. He checked himself to make sure his gains were hidden, and then he whistled for help to strip the man.
Bells rang throughout Moracs-Gravo, and the gleaners watched as the tide came in.
It was a wall of water, black and alien, an invader from the distant sea, pulled up abruptly by the combined strength of the Twin and the Moon. There was little to announce it, a swift trickle of moisture, and then it came around the bend in the canyon, a black hill, its glossy surface already choked with debris. It reached the pontoon bridges grounded in the mud, and they rose at its command, groaning as the Great Tide forced them up their anchor ropes.
The wave passed by, and that was that. Water filled the canyon to ten yards below their shelf as if it had always been there. The pontoon bridges floated on it. The gleaner children gasped and cooed at it, rarely did the tide come so fast or so high. Music sounded from around the city. A priest to the Absent Ones began a speech from the centre of the Lubinchac bridge, but his voice was as lost as his gods were, drowned in the roar of humanity emanating from the city.
The festival began.
Travnic and Tuvacs stood apart from the others.
“You are sure no one saw you?” asked Travnic. He hefted the purse in his hand. “If you were seen, gods, they’ll hang you for robbery.”
Tuvacs shook his head. “Not even the gang. I took it before they saw. I didn’t want any trouble over it.”
“You are a good lad, Tuvito. Anyone else might have taken it for themselves.”
“I am not anyone else,” he said. He did not mention the fine dagger or the thaler he’d kept for himself.
“How did he die?”
“A sword thrust to the heart, quick and clean.”
Tuvacs shrugged. “Maybe. They did not rob him. What will you do? The money will keep Markovitski off your back for a long while.”
Travnic smiled. “No. He may believe you found one coin one day, and maybe even a second the next, but if I put a fresh quarter thaler into the gleaning every day, then he’ll know I’m holding out on him. I have to give it all over at once, or not at all.” He looked out at the canyon. “I’m on my last chance, Tuvito, you know that. One good find like this won’t stop him from taking my license. It’s going to happen soon.”
Tuvacs said nothing. For Travnic, it was enough that he was there.
“You could have kept the money. You should have,” said Travnic.
A procession strode over the nearest bridge, a squadrons of dismounted uhlans at the fore. They were resplendent in their uniforms, flashes of colour that defied the greyness of the day. Two wheeled cages containing an example pair of the Uhlan’s drakkars were pulled behind by dogs. The reptiles were battle mounts, too dangerous to ride in the city.
Travnic looked at the boy.
“I’ve got an idea. Come on.”
The master at arms looked down the full length of his nose at them. His breastplate shone as glorious counterpoint to the contempt on his face.
“You cannot possibly apply.”
“All can apply. It is the day of the Great Tide,” said Travnic.
“Then you almost certainly do not have the fee,” said the master at arms.
“We do,” said Travnic, and deposited two silver thalers upon the desk.
The master at arms sighed. He had run out of objections.
“Very well,” he said. “Name.”
“Alovo Tuvacs,” said Tuvacs.
“You cannot possible win,” said the master at arms as he wrote Tuvacs’ name. “You would be best spending your stolen money elsewhere.”
“I would not count on that, sir,” said Travnic.
They were given a wooden round with a painted number upon it, and directed through into the training yard of the barracks.
The barrack’s yard was austere. A cloister ran the length of one wall, wooden dummies and weapons racked under it. A large desk had been placed on the training ground’s sand. It was ornately carved and hung with scarlet cloth. An officer sat behind it, two troopers in full uniform either side of him.
“Why bring me here?” asked Tuvacs.
“It’s a way out boy. The better regiments are only open to the likes of us on Great Tide days. The money, the tide, it’s fate, see?”
“What about my sister? Lavina can’t join the army? Travnic, I can’t abandon her.”
“Even on a recruit’s wage you’ll have enough to see her right. Your contract will be bought out by the army, you can buy hers later. Get her to apprentice, or train for service, you’ll have enough to afford that.”
“And the others? What about them?”
Travnic looked away. “I can’t help you all,” he said guiltily.
Tuvacs stopped himself from pressing the point. He knew it was true. If he doubted it, why was he here?
They were called out in pairs, and set to sparring. There were poor boys there and rich, but even the poorest looked askance at ragged Tuvacs and Travnic.
Travnic ignored their disapproval. He tutted and made withering comments as the others fought. Twice he shouted in annoyance. The second time he was told to keep his counsel to himself by the master at arms.
Tuvacs watched them fight in silence, and then it was his turn.
“Forty-four, Alovo Tuvacs to fight twenty-seven, Priyep Donatz Kustarowic,” called the master at arms.
A priyep, thought Tuvacs. Marvellous.
Travnic grabbed both his shoulders and whispered in his ear. “Random draw my old arse! They’ve given you an aristo, Tuvito. He’ll have been training most of his life, they’ll think you’re sure to lose.” He was excited. “But he hasn’t been training with me. These boys are all honour and drill, surprise him.”
He slapped Tuvacs so hard on the back he staggered out of line onto the sand.
The Priyep was in consultation with a man Tuvacs guessed was some kind of instructor. He was a little older than Tuvacs, muscled from good food and hard training. His clothes were worth more than Tuvacs had earned in his entire life.
“Come on then boy!” called the priyep. “Let’s see what gutter scum like you can do.”
“I’m a gleaner,” growled Tuvacs.
A training sword was pressed into his hand. The Priyep had his own, a wooden sword as richly mounted as a king’s blade.
The priyep prowled the sand. Tuvacs took up his stance as he’d learned it from Travnic. He felt ungainly. For the first time, he felt out of place.
The priyep darted forward fast. His wooden blade flashed toward Tuvacs’ head. Without thinking, Tuvacs deflected it, and returned his sword to the position of the fourth guard. His arm was jolted by the impact. He was gripping the hilt too hard. He loosened his hold and bent low on his knees. The priyep laughed.
The priyep attacked several times, testing Tuvacs’ skills. Tuvacs parried them as simply as possible, not wanting to give anything away. A couple of times they fell into a flurry of actions as the priyep redoubled his attacks after the initial parry. Then he started to feint, to slide his blade under Tuvacs own. Tuvacs’ sword was ready in position when the real attack came in.
The priyep was fighting duelling-style, suited to rapiers. Tuvacs was used to Travnic’s war-style, for heavier weapons that favoured edge-blows. To his mind, his was the better suited to the training swords.
The priyep was predictable. He always went for the right. For all his confidence, his attacks varied but little. A low line attack, high sweep to the sixth position, counter parry to the eighth, redouble of the thrust. He kept his distance well, but that was the limit of his ability.
Tuvacs waited until the priyep was panting. A wiser man would have backed off a little, but the priyep’s arrogance had become anger, and it was burning his stamina fast.
The priyep came in. Tuvacs parried the first two blows, and then he switched feet, stepping his right behind his left and rotating his body out of the way, chest high. The priyep’s thrust carried him straight past the gleaner. Tuvacs brought his wooden blade down hard on the other boy’s wrist. The priyep yelped and dropped his sword. Tuvacs ducked low and swept his leg around, knocking the overextended priyep to the ground. He stood over the aristocrat and put his blade to his throat.
“Yield,” he said.
The priyep’s face was a mixture of outrage and pain. He gripped his wrist.
The priyep hesitated. He swallowed. “I yield.”
Tuvacs tossed his sword away and walked back to Travnic. A murmur of surprise went around the waiting boys and men. They looked at him differently now. What made it special for him, however, was the look of pride on Travnic’s face.
At the end of the day, all those victorious in their bouts were invited to join the regiment.
All except Tuvacs.
That night, Travnic took Tuvacs to a tavern and they got drunk. Many times Tuvacs heard “Dishonourable victory? No such thing!”, accompanied by a long stream of expletives.
As they walked back to the canyon edge through Garo’s festivities, Travnic became introspective.
“I grew up a gleaner, Tuvacs. I thought I’d escaped when I joined the army. At the worst I’d die, but so what? All I wanted was enough for a nice little farm, or a good death, but when I was injured, that all went out of the window. There were few jobs that would accept a lame soldier. I knew nothing but swordplay and gleaning, so I returned whence I’d come, but not abashed! No!” He shouted this loudly at a pair of passers-by, startling them. “I’m proud of what I’ve done. So it didn’t work out quite the way I wanted.” He coughed, not so badly as in the morning. The alcohol made it easier. “But you? Whore-fucking aristocrats! Damn them if they can’t see a good thing in front of them. I…” He stopped and leaned against a wall, sliding down it some way. “I have tried for you son, I have, but there is nothing more to do. I’ll be gone soon. The other masters are not like me. There are some who are kind, but many are not. Don’t let yourself get trapped here.”
“What are you saying?”
“You know what I’m saying. Don’t be like the fox.”
“What fox?” Tuvacs’ head was muzzy with the beer.
“The fox in the story. You know what it means, right?”
Tuvacs shook his head. Travnic groaned.
In the morning, Tuvacs woke his sister very early. He told the others to go to sleep, that they had errands to run for Travnic. He retrieved the dagger and thaler from where he’d hidden it.
He made Lavina wait, and woke Travnic.
“We are going,” said Tuvacs.
Travnic nodded. “It is for the best. Go far, before you are missed. Try for Karsa, the world is changing, and it is beginning there.” He sat and looked at Tuvacs and a mix of emotions played across his face.
“I know what the story means,” said Tuvacs.
Now it was his turn to smile. “The fox, remember, or were you too drunk?”
“I remember, Tuvico. I mean, what does it mean?”
“We are like the Tyn, we cannot help but love those that enslave us.”
“And love itself is a kind of slavery. The farmer did it all because he loved his wife, and it made him blind.”
Tuvacs nodded. “Goodbye, father,” the first and final time he had called Travnic so.
He left quickly. It was better for them both that way.