Clovir: An Overture
Part 1: The Ballad of Rolf
This short story is the first in a series meant to introduce to the world of The Yoga Trilogy and its more fantastical elements. There is a lot in this story, including and introduction to magic and the threads that are not picked up until the second book, The Yoga of Pain. I hope you like it - writing the characters in this story was definitely a guilty pleasure for me. You will find just how deeply Irvine Welsh influenced my writing here.
If you like the story, please consider pre-ordering a copy of The Yoga of Strength.
The Ballad of Rolf
"We deserve more than lies and illusions
way more than what we're getting
We don't remember what life is for."
“Wouldja shut that blasted babe up?”
“You knows I can’t do that, brother. 'e wants milk.”
“Christ-man, you're useless, you know that, Karla? Can't even pup a babe properly.”
Rolf turned from his sister and looked back at the bassinet tucked away in the corner of the tavern. It was just about gloaming. The field hands and squires would be finishing up soon and within moments the Green Dragon would be packed to the walls with Isha’s thirstiest young men. Or so Rolf prayed. There was no telling what kind of effect the squalling child would have on them. Perhaps they would leave and go to the Golden Ram. Or the Bursting Firkin. Or, worst of all, White’s Public House.
Rolf let the fingers on his right hand play a drum on the jerkin pulled taut over the bulk of his belly.
Raymond White. That fucking pimp. He thought himself clever, turning his tavern into a whorehouse on the sly, coaxing the City Guard into protecting him from the harsh laws of the castle with promises of sex and ale. His pub was the most well-attended in Isha, and all Rolf could do was hopethat his customers did not leave his tavern to go see Ray White for a two for one deal on knobbing and a mug of Cistern Ale.
Cistern Ale. What an insult to injury that was. The bastard had exclusive contract on the best beer in the city. The Cistern Monks did not make enough to supply all 47 taverns, or so they said to Rolf when he knocked on the monastery door one cold and bleary-eyed Novembus Month morning.
“That’s it, Karla, I’m takin’ some fuckin’ air. You’d best have him shut up before I gets back or there’ll be a shuttin’ happenin’, and you know who’ll do it?”
“Who, Rolf?” Karla responded, rolling her eyes and sighing.
“Christ-man, woman,” Rolf sagged, “it’s not my fault you got up the duff from a fuckin’ idiot farmhand. Who can’t take care of his own, I might add. Where's Soren now? On to seedin' another of Isha’s most desired debutantes?”
“Fuck off, Rolf. You don’t want me here, I’ll go stay with Alfred.”
Rolf shot Karla a look. Alfred, their older brother, was an unhinged creature with a fuse of varying lengths. Some days he was as patient as the Christ-man himself. Others would see him flip at a single snide comment and put the place up. Alfred was not the type that would stop until the scarlet flowed. He was an old hand at violence now, having been involved in inflicting it his whole life. It was rarely Alfred who ended up at the apothecary’s for a blood-staunching poultice.
“I won’t have my nephew over there, Karla. Just take him back into my bedchamber for now. The door should block some of the noise. I don’t want to hear a single squeal once the lamplighters are at their work. Got it?”
Rolf threw the towel that had been resting over his shoulder and belly onto the light grain of the bar top, stepped out from behind the counter, and made his way to the door of the tavern. He took a long look at one of the patrons, a nominally employed creature named Kory who regularly came into the tavern at noon with scarcely enough coppers for a brace of ales. Day after day, he somehow managed to finagle the money he needed for drink from the other desperate cases on charm alone, a skill that never failed to astound Rolf.
What surprised the tavernkeeper even more was how he got so much from the more dependably wealthy booze fiends that he ended up passed out in his chair every evening before the rush. Rolf had been meaning to throw the man out or deny him entry, but he always seemed to fail to find the words whenever he determined that the layabout needed to be ejected. Instead, Rolf would simply freeze up until he walked away without uttering a single syllable. Or if he did get his nut up, Kory would somehow talk him out of it, leaving Rolf to ponder what had just happened.
Fresh from the sting of his impotent failure with his sister, and seeing an analgesic win in finally triumphing over the charismatic vagrant, Rolf walked up to Kory and kicked the wooden leg of his chair.
“Alright, you wretch, you’re getting out of my bar.”
“Huh? Whuzzat?” Kory blinked several times in rapid succession. “Ah, Rolf, my good man. How are you this fine evening? You are looking well.”
“None of that ‘hail fellow, well met’ shite again, Kory. You’re so fuckin' wrecked you slept through that goddamn babe’s racket. I'm not havin' it. Between the way you slither among my customers and the fact that my sister’s dry old bags won’t give that child what he needs, I can’t afford to have two liabilities in this place. Not the way Ray White is gatherin' up all my regulars. So you are gettin' up and pissin' right the fuck off, understand me? Why don't ya go see Ray, I'm sure 'e would be happy to have a sot like you terrorizin' the place.”
“Now Rolf, dear old friend, I grant that you may be upset, but please, perhaps I could offer you something if you let me stay here. I have knowledge, esoteric and strange, that will lead you to the-“
“That’s it,” Rolf said, smacking quarter filled pewter mug from the drunk’s hands and pulling him to his feet. “I like you, but you’re not worth that shite eatin' grin of yours. Out!”
Kory stumbled away from Rolf, turning back from his shamble just as he was about to make it across the threshold.
“It is about White’s Public House.”
Something on Rolf’s face must have betrayed him, because the reaction from Kory was instantaneous. He swiveled and opened his palms.
“Now, I know you want me to leave, so I will. Good day, sir.” Kory swayed a bit as he bowed low, then turned and grasped the wood of the tavern door.
“Wait, Kory,” Rolf said, disgust with himself seeping into his tone and expression. “What is this fuckin' secret?”
Witchcraft. The whole fucking thing stank of it. It was the kind of thing old Charles Mountpence would use as political fodder to mount the pogroms again, enlisting his priests and contacts at the castle, killing the dark-skinned foreigners with ‘legal’ hangings for the sake of the soul of the Kingdom and giving Rolf’s brother Alfred the huge stiffy he always got from manning the trap door on the gibbet.
That kind of thing was worse for business than the threat posed by that shitheel White in the first place.
“So you’re saying this stuff-“
“You’re saying this stuff keeps ‘em whorin' and drinkin' all night? No tirin'?”
“Yes,” said Kory. “He gets his ladies to put a dollop in every cask of ale they get from the monks. I heard he procures it from one of those red-robed fellows. March, Mason, Milson-“
“Milton, Kory,” said Rolf, sighing. “The man’s name is Milton. Milton Card.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because he’s my cousin, you dolt.”
Rolf stood up from the table where he and Kory sat to have their discussion.
“I am goin' to have to go see him. Do you know where he’s preachin' this week?”
“You know I spend the majority of my time here or at the shop, Rolf.”
“Ah yes,” Rolf said returning to his position behind the bar. As Rolf watched, Kory began eying a pair of newly-arrived men with black soil smeared across their forearms. The cheerful façade on Kory’s face had drifted into the ether. It was replaced by something cold, calculating, and reptilian.
“How could I forget?”
“King Janus would see each and every one of you subjugated by himself and his heirs from here until the end of time. He thinks you are not worthy of knowing the truth of reality, that you could not handle it, that you would fall victim to chaos and send the realm into dissolution. The truth of it is that he does not want to share power! He and his… advisors. They have knowledge, great knowledge-“
“Yeah,” said a man dressed in a tattered black overcoat, “what knowledge is that, mate? What the fuck are you even talkin’ about?”
Milton Card glanced from the man who interrupted him to the figures in white cloaks who stood silent near the side street off to the right. They had great steel visored helms that obscured their faces, aside from a narrow horizontal slit through which they silently watched the proceedings. Vicious spiked maces hung from leather thongs on their belts. Milton had set up his washtub, the makeshift dais from which he shouted his warnings, on the cobbles of Eric’s Lane, one of the main thoroughfares in the poorer western district of Isha. Milton gulped as he shifted his gaze from the armed men and looked down at the narrow band of copper on his wrist.
“You will know impotence, Novice Card," came a voice from Milton's memory. "You will come to know it like a would-be lover, one who will not give you what you so desperately seek. Despair will follow. And you shall live like this until you perish. I invite you – simply try to speak of what you know in a direct way.
“And pain. There shall be pain.”
The laughter that followed Milton’s former master’s words still echoed in his head, these five years since his expulsion into ignominy.
“That is not important!" Milton continued. "Just know that this knowledge exists, and you are not privy to it! You could be free to be whomever you choose, and your King denies you your liberty!”
“So why not just fuckin’ tell us? You and the rest of your red-robed friends, you’re always telling us to beware the King, but you can’t tell us why?” The man spat. “Fuckin’ liars, the lot of ye. The King is a good man. You’re full of shite, like the rest of ‘em.”
Milton opened his mouth to speak just as a rotten apple sailed through the air from somewhere in the crowd to strike him in the face. It had taken a lesser period of speech before the attacks started this time. He was happy. The task was completed, the spell was broken. He could leave now.
“If that is how you feel, I will go.”
Mercifully, there was no beating to follow. The four or five people who had stopped to watch, mostly with simple glee that he was at it again, walked on, laughing with each other and pointing at him. Most weeks he would receive at least a punch in the belly from a man, usually stinking of ale, who found Milton’s denigration of the Crown to be particularly incensing. Sometimes the beatings were worse. Like that Maia Month when a pack of animals had streamed out of the Golden Ram and…
No. There was no sense revisiting that. He had survived this one with just an apple to the face. He should be grateful for that and leave the tears for shedding later, when he was in his cups. Milton bent to pick up his battered washtub.
“Milton, old boy,” Rolf said to his doubled over cousin, “it has been much too long.”
“It does what?”
“It will keep you up for days. It also makes you feel like a chest full of gold and jewels – unstoppable. For a time, anyway. It is not the same as Coxswain’s Root – it will not kill you, Not immediately, anyway. Terribly moreish, though, that I must admit.”
“And where did you get the recipe?”
“I, uh... well, that is...”
Milton glanced around the bar. It was mid-morning on an Odin’s Day, so of course it was empty.
“I cannot tell you.”
“What? Why not?”
“I cannot,” sighed Milton. “It is as simple as that.”
“You can’t tell me, but you can tell that piece of shite Ray White how to make it.”
“No,” said Milton. “That is not exactly true.”
“I never told Mr. White how to make the draught, nor can I you now. It simply is not possible. What I did do, however…”
“Wouldja stop lookin' around like that?” Rolf said, smacking the bar before him with an open palm. “It’s just me and you.”
Milton opened his mouth to speak. Would the spell keep him from speaking so indirectly, so obliquely about his forbidden topic?
“I make Ephestor’s Folly and bring it to Raymond White at the behest of my master. Then I go to collect the money he makes with it.”
“And who, pray tell, is your master, o cousin of mine?”
This time the magic made the words die in Milton’s throat.
“I cannot say,” he responded, feeling the hot sting of tears welling in the corner of his eyes. He looked down at the pitted grain of the bar top. “You know I would if I could, Rolf. But I find myself unable to tell you.”
“Unable,” snorted Rolf, “or unwilling.”
“You think I don't want to tell you, cousin?” Milton moaned, looking up at Rolf as the well-practiced posh evaporated from his voice. “There are things in this world, things that defy even explanation. You've got to understand that there are men, evil men, in positions of power…”
“No!” shouted Rolf, smashing the bar again with such force that the pewter mug of ale in front of Milton danced before coming back to rest on its bottom. “Save that shite for your washtub, Milton. I don’t give a damn about your stories. You disappear for nearly a decade before you come back and start preachin' insurrection, fine. But when I ask you a question, your own flesh and blood, the cousin with whom you spent your summers as a boy fishing at the Pond of Sacrifice, you refuse to answer in anything but riddles." Rolf sighed. "That's less fine."
“It's because I’m powerless to do aught else, Rolf! Don’t you bloody well see that? Christ-man!” Milton grabbed the mug by its body and downed the entire draught in one go. “No better than a fucking slave…”
“Hmm?” Rolf intoned, peering at his cousin, who had slumped over to lay the left side of his head on the bar.
“I said I’m a fuckin’ slave, cousin. I have no will of my own. I tried to defy powerful men and I lost. So now you see me as I am, broken and without worth.”
Rolf stood for a moment outside the little house packed in between the bigger ones on either side. Alfred was gleeful when he told his brother he had managed to secure a place in Hightown, that part of the city reserved for the nobility and upper crust of the merchant class. Alfred thought himself a big man then, someone who meant something. That had always been important to Alfred. Rolf could not for a moment reason why that might be. But it was not the out-of-place little shack in the row of palaces that brought pause to Rolf’s fist as he considered knocking.
Did Rolf really want to do this? Once Alfred was involved, all bets were off. The man was a force of nature.
When they were children, Mr. and Mrs. Forsythe, Rolf and Alfred’s parents, had hired a psychoprobist to come look at Alfred. They were concerned about the mutilated cats they had found in the little ten square foot patch of grass behind their house they called the garden. Rolf still shuddered when he thought back to the pale skin of the ornately dressed man, with his silver chain and skull measuring craniometer hanging from his neck, clearly spooked by what he had witnessed in Alfred’s room. Rolf was hiding behind a chair too far away from his parents and the psychoprobist to hear much, but he was sure he heard “psychopathy” uttered more than once. When, in his later years, Rolf had finally attended at the Royal Library and asked a definition of the word from the attendant, he could only nod with grim recognition at the squat woman’s words.
Still, Milton needed him. And if he could help Milton, perhaps Milton could ensure that this Ephestor’s Folly was diverted to the Green Dragon, rather than White’s shithole. Rolf gulped back the fear that needled his chest, raised his hand, and rapped three times on the door.
Rolf breathed relief as the fatter man, dressed in his black tunic and large gold links of the Office of the Royal Executioner, reached out and embraced him on the cobbles. He was in a good mood.
“Why don’t you just come down to the Green Dragon and see him? I’ve put him up in one of the bedrooms. He had nearly a full cask to himself, so I dare say he will be fit for questions in about six hours. Or sooner. The man is used to the drink.”
“Witchcraft,” said Alfred, drumming his fingers on his belly. Mercifully, at least insofar as Rolf was concerned, it was one of the few mannerisms he and his brother shared. “Have you told the Bishop? One of the clergy?”
“You are the first one I have come to, brother,” said Rolf, hoping that the proud creature across from him on the fauteuil would feel gratified by such an admission. “I did not know who else to trust with this.”
“You were right, of course,” said Alfred. The drumming stopped and Alfred ceased staring off into the space above the hearth. He looked at Rolf, a devilish grin blossoming on his mouth. “You would like to have it, would you not? This Ephestor’s Foibles-“
“Folly. At least, I think that's what Milton said. And of course, I would, Alfred! You see the way that pimp draws off my customers like a leech suckin' blood. He has turned his place into a brothel as well, have I told you that? Meanwhile, I am stuck at the Green Dragon, scrapin' the bottom of the barrel, home to only the worst drunks-“
“Brothel, you say?” Alfred said, his eyes lighting up. “You know that prostitution is illegal in the Kingdom of Thrairn, brother. Punishable by a long stint in the dungeon. But keeping a common bawdy house – do you know the penalty for that?”
“What?” Rolf asked, knowing full well the answer but taking pains to humour his brother.
Rolf and Alfred watched from the mouth of a small alley as the City Guard, clad in leather with the large inverted crimson triangle of their uniform stark on their chests, filed out of White’s Public House. They were dragging screaming women by their hair as a small crowd of half naked would-be clients in a throng on the cobbles were being watched by another half dozen or so of the Guard.
Rolf could not help but smile as Ray White finally emerged into the grey Novembus Month light. He was shackled and there was a wild look on his face, like a rabbit with its foot caught in a trap. Where Rolf was smiling, however, Alfred was grinning ear to ear.
“Yet more justice to be served,” Alfred said to his brother as the last of the prostitutes were wrangled down the street towards the castle’s dungeon. “I must thank you for bringing this to me. You will come to know that I have many contacts at the castle. You told me this man was protected by the City Guard. Ha! I have the King's ear. Look at how he is protected." Alfred gestured grandly with a sweep of his arm before returning his gaze to Rolf.
“You and I brother, we have much to discuss.”
Rolf allowed himself to give in to glee for a moment, before his forehead crinkled into a mask of concern. “What about Milton?”
“Milton,” said Rolf. “Our cousin? He is still embroiled in whatever witchcraft gave Ray the confidence to think he could get away with something like this.”
“Ah, yes, well…” Alfred said, shifting on his feet.
Rolf peered at his brother. He had known him his whole life, and had only seen an expression like the one he saw on his face a handful of times throughout their years together. It was fear.
“You know something about this, don’t you!?”
“Rolf, keep your voice down. I will come see you in a couple of days. This ends our conversation.”
Rolf knew his brother well. It was the kind of command that was questioned at great peril to one's person. The pair stood, silently watching the empty street for a pregnant moment, before setting off their own ways, Rolf towards the outskirts of Isha where the Green Dragon stood, and Alfred towards his home in Hightown.
“Christ-man, Karla, it’s been nearly a fortnight. Get a fuckin' wet nurse! I'll pay for her, you know I will.”
Karla did not respond from the room in the back of the bar where her child screeched his displeasure. Rolf was scrubbing the tables with a rag, trying to get off the last of the caked-on ale from the previous night’s patrons before the bustle of the evening began.
Things had gotten better since Ray White had been put out of business, no doubt about it. All of the bars in the city had prospered when White’s Public House had sunk. And no new leviathan had risen from the ashes. Not yet, anyway.
How long before that, Rolf mused. When he had returned from watching White’s get torn apart, Milton was nowhere to be found. Karla did not see him leave and the troubled man left no trace. Rolf had gone back to the places where his cousin had shouted his vitriol, only to find them empty.
Rolf assumed the worst, of course, because the worst was exactly what the world tended to dish out. He had spent a few jumpy days expecting to be grabbed as he made his way down the cobbles, wondering if Milton’s master was going to come for him, too. After all, he had a hand in the end of White’s Public House. The money from this Ephestor’s Folly was no longer flowing into the hands of the shadowy creature that had been pulling Milton's strings.
The tavernkeeper shook his head and continued to scrub. It was with thoughts like that that Rolf had decided to accept Alfred’s proposal. His older brother was in a position to protect him, just as he had offered. Protect him from the consequences of the proposition the elder put to him. Perhaps the protection would extend against men like Milton’s master. And a ‘full service’ tavern was exactly what was needed to fill the vacuum left by White’s Public House. Leviathan or not, there was coin to be made.
“’’Ello, sir? I’m not sure if I’m in da right place or not…”
Rolf swivelled to look upon the young woman at the entrance, clad in a stained dress and filthy from the grime of the street. Putting aside his own revulsion, Rolf peered at her for a moment. She did have big ears, crooked teeth, and a nose too hooked for her face, but her smile was pretty and she had hair a shade of red that reminded him of his mother’s. There was potential there.
“Yes, my sweet, you’re in the right place” Rolf said, grinning at the prospect of gold the urchin represented to him before turning to scream at Karla to run a bath. Then he gazed hungrily again upon his new treasure, the smile returning.
“Welcome to the Green Dragon.”