The Beggar’s wake


A hundred chanters chants rising in the morning mist

From the poorest quarters towards the river

Each tone is single, sharp and distant

A birds flock of lonely chanting, coming nearer


The chants are how beggars speak

Though no others ever have waited to listen

The language chanted is only their own

almost a lifetime of begging is needed to speak it.


I am a very old man, neither scribe nor monk

not merchant, not tradesman, nor priest

Noble once, but that is neither here nor there

and none remember enough to judge.


My rooms are here near the market,

Across from the greater library,

where I can spend my days and nights in idle thought

and remember.


It  is small effort to pass the stairs

and cross the square to the library

The rich reserve all but a few places there

If I would sit I must cross before dawn


When I can, I  stop where Nor sets up , He’s one of the peddlers

He has a cart, some stools, cups and a charcoal pot

and always is selling tea when I cross

in the plaza but never in the same spot


A group sat on the stools this morning

 in our own huddles, like egrets in a river

Randomly placed there to watch mists rise from our cups

All still and posed among each other in the morning’s fog


Some carriers who had tethered firewood wagons nearby

were drinking tea neigh their unloading

One nearsighted farmer sorted his oldest radish to top

kneeling next to his barrow


A laborer who set up the some of merchant’s stalls

now finished, was clutched the meal Nor had warmed for a fee.

while mouthing the words he read

was another man who sold religious tracts


A well dressed rake had his sword propped near to hand

and was letting the tea make a night of it.

and I hunched in my warm old cloak

was just an old man to one side


Some thieves, back from their own work

were quickly sipping tea

Nor will sell to any one, but that guild is banned by law

and we pretended not to see them


One was still a boy, without the braids of his companions

“It’s Croroy the beggar, He’s died” he wondered aloud

speaking in the cant, not normal talk causing

the others to warn him with cold fixed eyes, take note of us and depart


It’s a sad seeing thief children

as their lives begins to form

They can be your friends beforehand

and the next day kill you for a but a coin


But that name is one to set my mind astir

I learned their cant in prison long long ago

and I am likely the only soul who remembers

Croroy, by other names before those days and the lancers


Nor most often leaves at first light

His customers are those who set up the market

not the day folk and he does not pay taxes,

but this morning he seems to have decided to wait


So we are guarding our stools

While the market shrugs to awaken

We sit, not eyeing each other much

While the thieves have gone, The rest of us are strangers


The mists have lifted from the stones of the yardway

Revealing newly opened stalls and a myriad choice of hand placed goods

But we all focus on one still figure

Next to an alley by the road to the river


On hands and knees near the market edge

sloped stiffly down and forward

so all you could see were the tightly tied rags

from foot to head covering his back


We were still hearing a hundred wailing chants

one  which was that beggars own drone

a rolling casting out of spiteful horrid words

that no mortal voice should have known


Now we had other figures scattered through the market

All in bizarre postures chanting

Beggars often come here to beg

But today they come in a mass, at one time


A sharp slap echoes from the walls

followed by a hundred more

claClaClaChaCha ClaClap

and all stop, paused and searching for the source


Before restarting what they were doing

Now consciously ignoring the beggars

Who are chanting again

unperturbed by being so obviously unnoticed


This was the way of it for some time

I forgot that place and drifted into my memories,

leaving the beggars chanting behind me

to mix with cries hawking goods


Croroy the beggar man was dead

I first knew him so long ago

when I was a student at Morino

gaining language and the arts of polite company


He was very young then

and just come from some village in the countryside

driven from it to the city by wanderlust

and some village girl's relatives


It was a low class and drunken tavern

we had dared ourselves into visiting

ten or twenty men were playing horseman’s draughts

and I’d already lost my weeks allowance.


Croroy was just another who had come near to us

pushing someone else aside

and asking the players what the rules were

and if he could try


Just a young man in ragged country clothes

with no House mark of  favor showing

no trade tattoos and unarmed,

not wearing either sword or dagger


The gamblers who ran the game

held up their ivory sticks

One said “You bet before on where they cross,

and what the total is”


“But only some sticks are thrown in each round

depending on the round before” “It takes time to learn

to dodge displeasure from the gods

and the greatest skill to win”


The youthful stranger surveyed the game for two more throws

then tossed a copper in

After the sticks were thrown the gambler frowned

pushing a pile a back to him


I decided that I would ride with his luck

and when he bet, yelled out “the same”

and won back my losses on the toss

and  the crowd grew silent watching the game


My partner did not win each time he bet

but when he bet all he’d won he did

and after only seven tosses it was over

the gambler bowed and surrendered his sticks


This meant that he was broken

to a greater skill or the will of the gods

but I’d seen his companions go out the back

and did not like what I’d surmised


So as we were pouched our winnings

I whispered “We must leave now, After me”

and we dashed through the door and on down the lane.

towards escape and that quickly


The expected shouts came our rear

We were pursued by an unknown number

through unlit alleyways and paths 

and running blind at that


My  other friends slipped away from us

they were not pursued

Though Tisol of the Obeyons (later king Tisol)

Yelled “If you live tell me what did you to do?”


Our pursuit bore lamps and we did not

and I did not know the way

and soon in some shut off tract cornered us

My drawn sword held them at bay


Four of them obstructed us, all armed

three swords and a knife

We had but my lone sword

to set the price for life


My companion shifted towards one side

and two followed to keep him there

while the two in front of me

engaged me, most unfair


I danced about, they circled

One at either hand

One of the two facing my doomed partner

lunged to finish it then and there


I almost didn’t see it

It was done during that very stroke.

A Toss of the gambling sticks

distracted the swordsman for that moment


Inside of the very lunge, slipping past the flying blade

and has taken the sword

to run through his attacker

Who falls


But I have lost in that same moment

though I killed the man who did it

He struck my arm

and I am without sword facing a ruffian


As my new acquaintance appears behind him

and cuts him down

The headless cadaver of fourth footpad

who had had but a knife, lies beyond


We stealthy made our way out of that district

I learned he had nowhere to stay

knew no one at all in the city.

And had arrived late on that very day


But he saved my life in that contest

so I would refund what was owed

and find him a life to make with what he would

 From the arrangements that I could dispose


The city was run then by the great houses,

The royal court and tradesman guilds

When none of them mark you as one of their own

you are nobody and nothing


Your testimony can not be taken

in the law courts

and all may bring charges against you without fear

of your being found innocent


I never told Urich about it. Don’t laugh, that was his given name

but I called in a large favor

then from one Captain Daekome who owed my family for his position

and got Urich enrolled in the city guard


then guard was independent

paid by all parties to be on no single side

but it would give this Urich a enough of a life

and cost me my nights winnings to pay for it.


I awoke from my revere when the beggars clapped again

claClaClaChaCha ClaClap

Three of them following the Lady Mirsisa about now

making hip gyrations while they chanted


I laughed, she had been a prostitute

when she was young and clean,

In those days I was newly banished from the kings court

and had been the leader of 1000 in the lance


But back when I  was still a student

the man who died today as Croroy the beggar

was Uricth the city guardsman

and some of us would meet each evening to carouse


Uricth, never seemed to need to sleep

worked in the guards every day, training and patrolling

and yet could join us at night

To ply our wits against the others in all the brothels and bars


We lent him apparel so he fit

and someone had began calling him Icathon instead of Uricth

Uricth being to common

and he learned our ways to fast for most to have seen


He was wining money gambling every night

and fighting in the duelists circles

and could dress in the gentle fashions

and speak like a nobleman’s heir


Icathon took  on any challengers with the sticks

and searched far for  masters of the game

He gained a reputation as one who had never lost

and his became a well know name


The next year he began to gather a following

amidst the leisured and the children of the peerage

He had drollery and regard as a swordsman

who knew all the latest hearsay


When  he claimed indisposition to escapade

His friends and now some of his retinue

would crowd into our student lodgings and party

Where we confirmed that all mysteries are solved by drink


Afterward when we all slumbered

after the caresses of the ladies we bought were done

I would awake to see him reading

near the fluttering candles above my snoring guests


All good times will end

The years went by and that crowd went apron their way

some of us married, some died in the duels

and some were called to serve at one thing or the another


Either in the temples, or at the palace for the great houses

Me, I was required by my acquisition of  letters

to return to my families estates soon after that year

much better at writing and with a sword than when I reached the city


I married and then my father and brother conveniently died

leaving me a minor baron at two score and two

I devoted myself to mostly local matters

and rarely thought of my life the city


Icathon wrote to me occasionally, much to my surprise

I had not realized he could but the couriers delivered

his news of his lieutenancy in the guard

and much of gossip from intrigues


That was when first invasion came from Primilon

and as I had been ceded my fathers commission

I was asked to bring a troop of lancers

to Miros on the great road where the king’s army was to gather


I was made leader of 100 at the camp there and given a uniform

and some more troops to command

Most bought scarlet and silver if they could afford it

and would ride back and forth  very colorfully waving their lances

in the rising dust from all the companies


Icathon was present

He had become a leader of ten in the king’s horse

a more prestigious position than my own

supposedly granted as an award for service in the city


I  was good natured about it

after all my rank was still higher

and besides

I  knew who he’d bribed


We rode to war on the fourth day

trotting  in columns betwixt the flowered trees

that grow scattered over the lands

near the great road for miles near Miros


For a glorious week the army rode

In the high summer,

when on each warm night the camps

were full of singing, drink and camp followers


The last eve before we were to fight

I was commanded to the Kings camp and pledged

amidst all those others never presented formerly

while the king supped


Arrayed on the plains the next morning

were King Wnomi and his Primilon military

Having left a siege at Urinath

to come to us


Bringing thirty-thousand cavalry

forty-thousand other troops

a score of mages, two dragons

and his harem


We were sixty thousand lancers

a few mages and sixty thousand spare horse

The dragons were at the median of  the hostile force

with Pike and infantry men dug in on a funnels wings  to each side


Their cavalry waited behind the pikes

all of them within my sight

We were arrayed in front of them in separate order

for each company


Our instruction came, we were to charge

down the dragons very throats

we must blood them with the greatest speed

and blood them quickly into rage


Then they must pursue as we fall back

to the center of the field

So that the rest of our lance would be  behind them

keeping any of the pikes advance  slow.


They would then wheel about from the dragons rear

faster than an unhorsed army can run

We would then kill the dragons

and after let the battle be won


We began our charge down the center

a full thirty thousand horse

ninety thousand lances weaving

in the gallops dance


We arrived into where dragons fire did reach

and entire companies began to die

We rode strait over the burning men and horse

screaming our companies battle cries


A dragon is as tall as sixteen men

and again as long as seventy

A dragons fire is quite as big the dragon

with a range five times that size


Though while a lancer who rides into dragons fire

will never ride hence

A charging lancer can progress five dragons lengths

in one minute alone


Four times in that minute a dragon may flame

and his breathe reach four chosen spots

Each breath was burning about nine-hundred men and horse

It was only fate I was not


The first band  to reach one of the dragons

Hit with one at least twenty lance

The other dragon had chose to breath in close

but that gave us our chance


Every man in my command hit fair

and released as our mounts scrambled away

Another hundred lancers hit behind us

and perished in the fires that day


The first dragon was struck once more

after his next flaming, while we

made deadly choices

Selecting when and where to ride


We must have done what lancers do best

teasing, almost being where the dragons

thought we’d reach each moment

while we were slowly slipping back


We were lost in the call of glory

riding to taunt and draw the dragons fire

and some rode to the fire

to draw it away from the rest of us


Fifteen thousand of us riding to all compass directions

but somehow

reaching the middle of the field

after some time, where


The dragons were then poked to rags

by forty thousand lancers

who came from all sides at once

and planted every lance


In dragon bone, muscle and tendon

until the dragons did not move

still more, till you could ride through

the holes in the scaled hides


We then turned on Wnomi’s troop

who were somewhat advanced

but were scattered in disordered groups

some already making to the rear


If their cavalry had responded then

They might have stood some chance

but they were only saber men

who dared not face our lance


Twenty thousand lancers died that day

our enemy all died or pleaded surrender

We destroyed the first of dragon hoards

which is all that will ever be remembered


Afterwards the king learned it was Icathon

who gave this plan to his commander

I was soon to became leader of a thousand men

But he was one also, and that much faster


We met often in the next few years

He would visit me bringing journals and maps

He drew full plans of entire campaigns

from the histories with legendary armies


so he could fight all those engagements again

Once told me of what he called the difference

between himself and other men

While others might need to compute


feed and water for their horse and troops

when each had some different number of men

who were to were to travel varied numbers of leagues

The answers just came to him


It worked the same as the gamblers sticks

He picked out the numbers he coveted

from the lot of them just laying around

in anything  he envisioned, including the battleground


He knew which card was the best play

as soon as he saw the hand

and in the games where everything could be seen

could  choose the best move with a glance


In those days we were often at court

and in council with the king

My wife visited in the summers

My two son’s were born in the springs


Soon Primilon had new ruler

Wnomi’s only son

and he determined to set all his forces against us

some also coming with dragons


Unlike his father, he did not wish to stop

to siege to any cities he encountered

but only seeking  revenge and not gain

burned each of them as they were encountered


That war was to last only three years

We defeated all of their armies

unwise enough to march without the dragons

and some of the dragon hordes


The first year

My own lands and my family were charred

and I surrendered any plans for this life

but those of a officer in the lance


Icathon was a general after those battles

commanding on the north

He was never defeated in battle

but said he could not prevail in the war


A lancer asked him how we could win it,

He replied “There are times when

you can only dodge the displeasure of the gods

and hope for skills unknown to them”


He distracted the enemy commanders

Preventing them from sending us

all of  their warriors at one time

by all types of trickery and misdirection


In summer there were the battles

and each winter hunger and great efforts before another year of war

half of our cities had been burned by dragons then

and those lands become a waste


only used by the crossing armies

where no one lived who could have mourned

The villages and fields had been ruined and burned

and no crops grew there


most of us were now but children

beardless and still called to war

these would hold high the lance’s honor

but after them there were no more


In the third year we left

before the end of winter

and drove through the baron lands without

a supply train, bringing only spare mounts


We rode from before the sun had risen

 until long after it had set

and slept in the snow between our horses

melting snow for them to drink


We rode through the open gates of that first city

taking only new provisions

and killing any one who stood before us

and every soldier that we found


It was the same at the next place

and the third city had no walls

An army waited in front of the fourth

one-hundred thousand men


But we were nine times that

and slew them in three hours

and left before dusk

affably, eating their horses as we rode


we  bypassed two more of their armies

that turned to slowly follow

while we raced to Orinair

safe behind. with it’s 13 mans reach walls


but it's bridges were still intact when came

and we crossed their river before dawn

watching the lanterns above the top of the wall

move about while rode on


Primilon was then an empire

that stretched as far as  the eastern sea

while we were but a land on it’s edge

It’s king chose to butcher painfully


We were already a good two-thirds of the

way across that empire’s lands

and were in the heart of it

where Sarith  their capital stands


There we stopped and waited

sending some units to the lands around

and soon enough twelve dragon armies

were all Sarith bound


We met three of them in mad dashes

ridding out into the night

and took them while we were unexpected

and they were unprepared to fight


and once after that we spit our forces

and were victorious twice

Their legions pulled back and banded then

approaching us more carefully


We were down to our last mounts

and but a third their number

The winter had returned again

and now we’d no hope of going home


Icathon was our warlord now

Our other general died

and he had us still, wait by Sarith

while the enemy hordes arrived


On that winter morning the lancers stood in rows

Each lancer raising  holding his lance in salute

As the horde pushes slowly near through the snowdrifts

eleven dragons coming with


Then we were racing to them

companies moved to break all sides

Sacrificing much to pass the dragons

and reach the troops behind


We fought until they withdrew that night

not seeing we had almost none survived

who could fight on another morning

so we fled that night.


I lasted to reach our homeland

early the next year

and was put at once into prison

such now was our kings fear


But no attack came in the spring

and the next year Wnomi’s son had died

I passed two more years in the cells

and no battle came to our countryside


So I was pardoned and pensioned

and given back a minor civil rank

and being something of an embarrassment

I found no one to thank


So I began to live softly

much as I do now

and for more than five score years since

I’d crossed the market near this hour


It was only a few years after that

I first saw the beggar called Croroy

of course I knew him as the warlord Icathon

but it was months before we talked


I asked him why he was in hiding

for he the could have surely regained

much the fame and fortunes he deserved

but he said only two words “I lost”


many years I found discussions in books

brought to the library from Primilon

of the chronicle as they saw it

most claimed the last battle was a draw


But I never told Croroy about it

That was the last ride of the lance

and who was I to gainsay the decisions of

the man who commanded such a battle


Evan a draw under those conditions

was victory and I had a suspicion

that the wining card in the game of life

had a beggars picture on it


I record that beggars chanted throughout that day

and vanished come that night

as I walked home and up the stairs

none of them were in sight.



Saul Scudder December 8 1998