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Evening At Ergath's

Stephen Sandford

     On the farthest barstool rested the moldy, yellowed skeleton of a man long dead.
     Dressed in rusting armor and scraps of rotting cloth, he seemed to leer at me with his empty eye sockets.  
     "How's about refilling the peanuts?" he asked after a moment.

     I filled another little wooden bowl with salted peanuts from the big jar and slid it along the counter to him.

     "Thanks," he said, and commenced to grinding them into powder between his rotting jaws.

     The tavern's massive oak door swung open and in strode a handsome towheaded knight, completely soaked from the rainstorm but quickly drying under the influence of his own beaming smile.      "What ho!" he shouted enthusiastically.

     Nobody responded to this, which didn't seem to bother him as he and the soggy dwarf who accompanied him came over to the bar.

     "Well, hi there, Joe!" he said brightly. My real name is Joglocktholos Bugsplatterer, but I tend to go by Joe these days. It fits on my name tag.  "How's business tonight?"

     "Not too good, Rupe. Nobody's drinkin' here but that deadie, and he's been drinkin' the same mug of ale over and over for six hours." The skeleton grinned at me as he sipped down the last of his drink, stood up, picked up the pan he'd been sitting in, and emptied it back into the mug. "Wouldn't bother me so much if he wasn't grindin' up all them free peanuts as well. Let's see... There was a guy in here earlier who drank quite a bit." I decided to get the subject away from my troubles and onto his-- that's what bartenders are for. "So, where you headed?" I asked.

     "Ah, nowhere much.      My mentor Thorgak and I-" he indicated the soggy, ancient dwarf, "are on a quest to rescue the kingdom of La-Bortofia from the grip of its malevolent vizier Razlom. And rescue the princess of course. And I'll marry her, I suppose."

     I lifted an eyebrow, dislodging a sleeping centipede, and commented, "Getting married again? What happened to Princess Roseflower?"

     "Oh, it wasn't meant to be. We parted on friendly terms." His smiled faded a bit. "Though I don't think it was fair that she got custody of my gallant steed.      Hey, how about a beer for me and Thorgak here?"

     "Sure," I said, filling the glasses. "So, just you two in the party this time?"

     "There's a cleric too," he explained, "but she's making the motel arrangements right now. We're actually supposed to be meeting a mysterious hooded stranger here, who's going to give us the secret to defeating Razlom. Might be one of these guys, but which one?" He gestured to the shadows around the edges of the room, where dark, hooded figures skulked at almost every table. This has gotten to be a real problem lately for me-- strangers coming into the place on dark, secretive errands of great import and not buying anything at all.

     "The guy in here earlier was pretty odd. Pale, sorta fishlike...?" I inquired. "He was real upset about something... somebody stole his 'precious'. Jealous husband, I guess."

     "No, that doesn't sound like him." Rupe said. "At least he was smart enough to go out and get drunk instead of going after the fellow with his sword. THAT's no picnic, let me tell you."

     "Yeah... Creepy guy, though. Kept muttering about birthday presents. But he bought a lot of booze. I had to have him thrown out when, gods know why, he suddenly started yelling and demanding to know what I had in my pockets."

     The door was flung open again, banging into the wall. Outside, the downpour had turned into freezing rain and wet, sloppy snow. An Amazon warrior stood framed in the opening, shivering violently. She dropped her sword into the umbrella stand and slushed over to the bar, sloughing off melting snow. The part of her skin that wasn't covered by her leather war-bikini, that is to say virtually all of her skin, was red and chapped from the cold.

     "G-g-g-goddess, I h-h-h-hade this c-c-code w-wedther." she stuttered, her words distorted by severely congested nostrils. "I'b f-freedzing to dedth." She grabbed a long hank of her sopping wet obsidian hair in one hand and blew her nose into it loudly before sitting down.

     Rupe, who thought of himself as a ladies' man, had cheered up noticeably the moment she walked in. "Allow me to introduce myself, fair lady." he purred as she wrung out her soaked tresses. "Sir Rupert Geldingweather of the Royal Order of Platinum Knights, slayer of the Harrnockian Bog-Troll, vanquisher of the Fanatic Hordes of Karraquesh, and much, much more, at your service." He knelt down and kissed her shivering hand, unfortunately coinciding with a particularly powerful sneeze on her part.

     "Oh, er..." He tried to think of something to follow up with as he wiped the top of his head with a cocktail napkin. Thorgak the dwarf broke his silence for the first time.

     "Back when I was a lad." he snuffled through his beard, "we all of us wore plate armor all the time, men and women. Couldn't tell anything 'bout anyone until you killed 'em and took their helmet off. You wouldn't be freezing if you dressed like that."

     "Agtually," the Amazon answered. "Metal transmidst cold pretty quickly. One year I wore a staidless steel halder-dop add g-strig and I had to hab skin grabts. So now I wear thids leather bikini all the dime."

     "Ah, you're my kind of woman." Rupe said smoothly, going into one of his routines. "Why, you are wise to show off your skin, for it is smooth and porcelain and smells of all the finest flowers of spring!"

     "Really?" she asked in surprise. "I diddit nodice... I hab a terrible code and I cad smell addythig ad all."

     "In that case, she might be more YOUR kind of woman, Joe." he said to me, laughing. I could tell he was trying to impress her because he was turning into a jerk to everyone else. I smell perfectly fine to other goblins, okay?

     "So... what is your quest, O fair damsel?"

     "I'b heading to the lands in the nordth, to assist in the battle against the vizier Radzlom..."

     "Hey, that's where I'M going!" Rupe said in a tone of elated surprise. "It's a wonder we haven't met before now. Why don't we join forces?"

     Her answer was lost in the noise as the door was flung open yet again, this time being wrenched of its hinges and falling to the floor. In the doorway stood a burly ranger, bleeding from numerous wounds, whose madness-lit eyes darted around the room.

     "Be there one among ye named... Zorrath?" he bellowed.

     One of the hooded figures rose up from his table in the shadows and seemed to glide forward into the well-lit center of the room. Through the cloth which covered his face, an ancient, reptilian voice hissed, "Ye seek Zorrath, Eater Of Souls?"

     "Nay!" the wounded man shrieked madly. "Zorrath, Seller Of Guaranteed Armor, is he who I seek!"

     "Oh...er, sorry." the Eater of Souls stammered, returning to the cavernous darkness a bit sheepishly.

     "Be he not here?" asked the ranger. "I was told he often drank at Ergog's!"

     "This is Ergath's, dumbass!" a drunken elf hooted from the back. "Ergog's is down the road!"

     The ranger flushed and tried to back out the door, keeping his eyes on the ground.      Unfortunately, he didn't see the mountainous shape looming up behind him. It knocked him aside and shambled forward into the light. It was an enormous sandstone golem, covered in ice and snow but apparently unconcerned.

     "I am the guardian of the Tomb of Thetohyep." he intoned solemnly. "Someone in here has defiled the grave of my master and stolen his sacred vestments, and for this they shall die."

     He stood there a moment. "Well?" he asked crossly, as if expecting the guilty party to leap up and let themselves be splattered by his gigantic stone fists. When no one seemed eager to play Gawain and the Green Knight with him, he muttered something under his breath and made his way to the bar.

     "Coffee." he ordered. "Hey, and put the game on, wouldya?"

     "Yeah, pud the gabe ob." the Amazon echoed. I flicked on the new color television and the bloodcurdling sounds of Monday Night Dragonslaying filled the tavern.

     "Loog, id's George's team." the Amazon said, pointing out the green- and silver-clad knights who desperately hacked at Mordath, Renderer of Kings, with their sabers. The platinum dragon ignored the battering against his sword-proof scales and grabbed another knight in his already blood-stained jaws.

     "Oh, he's got to be feeling that one!" the announcer boomed jovially as what was left of the warrior disappeared down Mordath's throat.

     "Mordath... he's not so tough..." Thorgak snuffled in his guttural way. "Went up against him in the big war, that I did. Kicked his scaly rear, as I recall."

     "Oh, you were in the war, huh?" I asked. "Where were you stationed?"

     "Errr..." he began, slightly astonished that anyone actually wanted to hear his old stories. "Oh, yes, I was one of the ragtag band of heroes who turned the tide of battle against the Hordes of Darkness at Demon's Mouth Ridge."

"Hey, I was there too," I said, "only I was in the Hordes of Darkness..." There was something of an awkward pause.

     "Well, it's all in the past now anyway." Thorgak said. "We've all moved on with our lives. Even Goraxis, the Shadow Sorcerer, did those infomercials after he was vanquished...."

     "Say, were you in... Division 5 of the Hordes?" asked the skeleton, leaning over and looking at me closely.

     "Yes, as a matter of fact I was." I answered cautiously.

     "Joe!" the skeleton cried. "It IS you?"

     "Hmm?" I looked at him carefully before I placed him. "Why... You're my old barracks buddy, 'Fatso' Phil! I almost didn't recognize you... You've lost weight!"

     "Yeah, the last bits a' meat finally fell off." he admitted. "So this is what you're doing now?"

     "Yep. I took over Ergath's Tavern and Family Restaurant after the previous owner was eaten by zombies. I do okay for myself."

     "Say, Joe, how about a friendly wager on the game?" Phil asked me, grinning fixedly. "I'll put ten on the knights."

     "Are you crazy?" I asked. "Betting on the knights? They're down by eight!" There was a scream and crunch onscreen. "Nine." I amended as the golem and the Amazon cheered wildly at the gory display.

     "It's only the first half," Phil said, "and they'll be bringing in that sorcerer pretty soon. This one's not over yet, my friend. So do we have a bet?"

     "Okay, Phil." I smiled. "You're on."

FIN

 Acknowledgments: I want to thank Terry and everyone else who read my story and commented it, and the many writers of swords and sorcery stories for giving me so much material to work with.




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