Journeyman: On the Mangly Steppes
by Michael F. Flynn
For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to
-- Robert Louis Stevenson
a tall one, warm
Nagarajan the Ironhand sat on the patio of the Turf and Peak and enjoyed a
schooner of beer. Or he would have enjoyed it had it been chilled rather than
“If yer honor
wisht it cold,” the serving wench told him when he complained, “come ye back in
winter, though I doubt ye would like it then. The winds offen the steppes fetch
tolerable deep snow outen the east.”
Teo grunted at
this wisdom and fell to considering the eastward vista. To the northeast, the
Mangly Steppe rolled away, enough like the Great Grass of his home to stir a
twinge of memory, though the grass here was short and yellow.
southeast, mountains heaped upon mountains like stallions upon mares, reaching their
apotheosis in the snowcapped peaks lining the horizon. He wondered if the sight
triggered nostalgia in the heart of his boon companion, Sammi o’ th’ Eagles, a
hillman from the mountains west of the Great Grass.
He rather hoped
the surer route to Varucciyaman would be across the steppes but suspected for
that very reason that Fate would send him into the mountains.
pondered these things, he had been watching also the approach of a rider loping
from the steppe. No one else in the saloon or its patio seemed to pay mind, although
some had laid casual hands on their sidearms.
Cuffy, the saying ran, do
as the Cuffs. He had left Cuffland in his horse’s dust, but if this was the
way the locals greeted visitors, he would go along with the gag. He hooked his
foot around his duff, pulled it close, and unfastened its thongs.
The rider proved
to be a man with a sun-burnt face and a hunched-back. He galloped up to the
hitch-rail before the patio and leapt from his saddle in a billowing of his dirty-white
robes Teo noted a battered old musket in a saddle scabbard, a short, curved
sword in another, and a recurved bow tucked behind the cantle. When he strode into
the saloon, the rider left this arsenal behind, and Teo supposed from this that
he bore concealed arms. That the stranger was unarmed was too risible a notion to entertain.
The hunchback brushed
close by Teo and, not to be outdone by his eyes, Teo’s nose detected the strong
whiff of sweaty horse and sweaty rider and the suggestion that the rider had
not bathed in a very, very long time.
Curiosity – and
prudence– twisted him in his seat to watch.
breasted up to the bar and croaked in the local djabbah, “Wishkaybah. Long
and hard be the ride that lieth behind my horse’s hooves.” At least, Teo
thought he said that. He was still learning djabbah.
The barkeeper, a
tall, gangly man with prominent eyes, stretched his frame to maximum height and
said from that lofty altitude, “We don’t be sarvin Mangos here.”
Teo made no
sense of this, inasmuch as the stranger had not ordered a mango. He wondered if
the stranger and the barkeeper were having two different conversations. Others
in the saloon were taking notice, and another patron at the bar said, “Get this
smelly huncher outta here,” which, save for the effect of bad odors in confined
spaces, struck Teo as inhospitable.
stranger said nothing. He studied the faces in the room and, harvesting visages
ranging from the merely curious to the openly hostile, shrugged and departed
with an arrogant stride. Teo opened his duff. He could not have said why, but as
they said on the Great Grass, the fool builds a shelter once the storm has
stranger reached the patio, he whipped a knife from under his robe and
completed the motion with a swipe across the throat of one of the drinkers
seated at the tables there. The man fell gripping his throat, blood spurting
between his fingers, and the stranger leapt upon his horse with a yelp of
triumph. Guiding the steed with his knees, he pulled his bow from behind the
saddle. He knocked an arrow in one smooth action, twisted in the saddle as he
galloped off, and loosed it into the heart of another drinker.
this an intemperate response to the previous snub and retrieved his own bow
from his duff. Unstrung as it was, the bow curled in a tight circle, and Teo’s shoulders
and biceps bulged as he pulled the limbs back to fit the bowstring to the nocks.
A tall man with
short, sandy hair had come to stand beside him. “That thar Mango’s a-galloping off,”
he said, returning his sidearm to its scabbard.
Teo looked up,
saw the receding figure and the plume of dust in his wake. He nodded. “Yah.” He
pulled an arrow from the quiver in his duff.
range,” the sandy man suggested helpfully.
Teo looked up
again, nocked the arrow to the string. “Nope.” He loosed his shaft.
It struck the distant
horse in the rump, and the steed bucked and reared until the rider flew off and
struck the ground head-first. The horse continued to buck, trying to rid itself
of the pain in its hindquarters.
“Damn,” said Teo. “I missed.”
(c) 2023. Michael F Flynn