The alehouse’s brash din was a welcome respite from the grave silence of the mountain crypt and its endless, solemn halls that Fulholme and company had traversed for the past fortnight. Though somewhat deafening, the overwhelming cacophony was an affirmation of life that the members of the haggard party had found themselves craving throughout the recent profitable — though eerie — excursion. Well, that and the ale. Most of them had looked forward longingly to the cheerfully bitter brew that now, as Fulholme himself was fond of saying, “tamed the long thirst” with the exception of Optiminius the Teetotaler, who was loathe to give up his long-coveted and recently earned nickname for even a few scant drops of what his order deemed to be “demon spittle.” No, Optiminius was to ever remain thirsty from such relief, though he and his brothers once brewed the very nectar that temptingly wettened the lips of seemingly everyone surrounding him.
Optiminius looked around cautiously as he took a long, slow sip of the alehouse’s savory hogswallow (pretty much water that had been used to boil the evening’s ham supper mixed in with a few secret spices and ingredients, which was then strained and cooled in a keg down at the nearby stream that washed down from melted mountain snowfall). Here at the Burping Peasant, situated conveniently where the trade roads crossed, the volatile tempers of the townsfolk could famously erupt when tall tales of passing adventurers (not so lovingly dubbed “waterfowl-fucking tourists” by the locals) got to be obnoxious beyond patience. Well, that and the ale.
While the Teetotaler was born and had spent the majority of his childhood near here, he’d been gone long enough to be considered a full-fledged member of his current company, which meant he was greeted with the same narrow stares and ominous sneers afforded unpleasantly to them. The hired help, however, was always obligingly polite — as long as the silver flats were stamped with the face of the current emperor and continued to make a satisfying sound as they clinked together in the palms of said help. While the silver flats flowed, so too did the ale (or hogswallow, depending on preference), and this made Optiminius more than a little nervous. The party’s recent trip into the mountains and its lengthy ordeal in the ancient catacombs where the dead were routinely plundered by the living (who could remain so) promised to pay handsome dividends, so old wealth would soon be traded for new; Fulholme and company spared no expense. The straw-strewn planks of the Burping Peasant’s floor were soaked with as much ale as the members of the party could spill — at least half as much as the vast volume that successfully made it into their swelling guts. Shards of unlucky mugs that didn’t pass the test of toasting lay scattered across table and under foot (at any alehouse in the realm, and especially this one, the savvy patron is a thick-soled patron), and boasting in earnest was not long in beginning.
“I’ve seen goblins!” Grunk the Glacierhost shouted as one of many torrents of errant ale flowed unceremoniously down his matted beard. His giant mouth, easily four feet above the tallest and silliest of hats popular in this part of the world that topped the heads of many around him, belched a volcano’s share of fumes and half-chewed rubble.
One of the older (and braver) townspeople retorted: “You’ve seen drunken mirages!”
Grunk laughed and let out a belch that was even more obscene than — and twice as loud as — the one before.
“I’ve seen those, too!”
Fulholme and company laughed (with the exception of Optiminius, who could only offer a faint, uneasy smile), and even a number of the locals couldn’t help but join in. Optiminius began to breathe a sigh of relief, imagining the tense situation had been diffused by the giant’s contagious humor. But he really should have known better.
“Goose buggering barbarian.”
Though another local merely muttered these words under his breath in what where barely half-whispers, Grunk’s superior Glacierhost hearing easily picked them out from the alehouse’s chaotic symphony of drunken revelry. As the giant’s eyes slowly fixed their gaze in the direction of the unfortunate transgressor’s location in the corner, the sounds of celebration diminished into silence.
Just as Optiminius was about to intervene in what was sure to be the last time he’d ever be clobbered by the giant’s barrel-sized fists, Grunk grinned and bellowed:
“It was a swan, you oaf-born oat-tiller! Bartender! Get this man a gallon!”
Optiminius, for the first time in months, signaled for a mug of ale from the surly (but defiantly appealing) alewench. Two sighs of relief were certainly in order.
[Photo by Patrick Fore]