The Journeyman: On the Mangly Steppes
by Michael F. Flynn
For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go.
-- Robert Louis Stevenson
a tall one, warm
Teodorq sunna 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 warm.
“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.
To the 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.
While he 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.
When in 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.
The rider 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.
But the 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 passed.
When the 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.
Teo thought 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.
“He’s outta 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