Chapter 1. A Bargain on Champions
THE TWO COMBATANTS circled each another amidst the raucous Swamp Rat Tavern crowd.
“FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!” the crowd tossed chairs and tables and goblins out of the way to form a circle.
“I piss on first-blood duels.” Madam Spew hopped atop a table. “Just ain’t proper. So, whoever survives gets the job!”
The crowd roared its approval.
Really, though, Madam Spew could only afford to hire one thug. And only one from the bottom of the barrel, which just so happened to be exactly where the Swamp Rat Tavern was situated.
“Two grunts on the Mullet!”
“I got one on the Tricorn!”
The first combatant was a straw-headed youngster wearing a tricorn hat, a rapier jutting from his quivering fist.
“A most unmanly weapon!” shouted his opponent, a tall mulleted man with a dashing patchwork cape cast across his shoulder. Within each fist, he wielded a bone steak knife.
“Kill him!” Madam Spew spat nut fragments as she screamed, entranced by the intoxicating promise of impending barbarity. Gimpy, her new chitterling pet, gnashed his rat teeth from the bottom of the bar stool.
“Stab him, mullet man!”
The Mullet acted first, hurling a knife end over end at young Tricorne who tripped, serendipitously avoiding the flying blade.
“Ahhhhhhh!” cried a goblin in the crowd, clutching the knife buried in his skull.
Tricorn recovered wide-eyed, breathless, and lunged forward. Awkwardly. At best. The Mullet lurched aside as the rapier stabbed harmlessly past and into the crowd—
“Ahhhhhh!” screamed the same goblin.
“A fair thrust, boy!” The Mullet tore his cape from his neck and whipped it around his forearm. “But no man is Donvannos’s equal!” He slashed wildly, missing, recovered, and slashed again, missing even more. “Have at thee!”
Tricorn circled silently, eyes tearing up bloodshot in near panic, jabbing noncommittally here and there, using the rapier’s superior length, where his skill was obviously deficient, to his advantage. He spasmed forward suddenly, slamming his rapier to the hilt through the mulleted Donvannos — but wait — NO! Donvannos had deftly dodged the thrust and ensnared the rapier within his wrapped cloak which he whipped into Tricorn’s face.
The rapier clattered to the floor!
The crowd roared.
“Yield!” Donvannos bellowed.
Limbs locked together, they devolved to hand fighting, slapping at each other as they danced for supremacy. Donvannos was the bigger of the two, and he muscled Tricorn awkwardly to and fro, punching him in the kidney and spine until he tripped and both collapsed in a lanky heap. Donvannos landed on top. He pressed the point of his steak knife into Tricorn’s throat, a dot of red growing. “Yield!”
Tricorn still struggled.
“Enough, boy. Donvannos may kill by necessity, but he does no murder!”
“WHAT—!? BOOO!” roared the crowd, Madam Spew spearheading the jeer.
Tricorn’s eyes bulged from his skull, unaware even that Donvannos was talking.
“Cease this!” Madam Spew appeared suddenly amongst the legs of the bristling mob. An idea had metastasized in her warped brain. “You, Tricorn, are the vanquished! You, Donvannos, are the victor. Yet,” she raised her hands to either side, “I see no need for death this day!”
“KILL HIM, YOU PANSY!”
Whimpering, Tricorn closed his glistening eyes.
“There, there,” Madam Spew managed as she edged closer, disgusted but also impressed somehow by Tricorn’s complete and total lack of manliness. “There…” she added for good measure. “Ahem. How could I hire but one warrior, when two have so proven their mettle.” Madam Spew managed to croak it out without choking into laughter. But here it was: the victor hadn’t killed the loser, thus breaking the rules of the duel. So… She could shave his fee! And the loser, the very embodiment of the word, she could chisel down his fee to a quarter plog. She glanced at Tricorn’s puddle of saffron desperation growing beneath him. Possibly a eighth.
“Up, my boon comrade.” Donvannos grasped Tricorn by the forearm and yanked him up. “T’is time we met our generous employer.” He dusted off Tricorn’s shoulder then turned and bowed low. “Madam.”
“I believe this is yours.” Madam Spew handed Tricorn his rapier. “And this, I believe is yours,” she said as she stepped over and yanked Donvannos’s steak knife from the stupefied goblin’s head. He fainted. Possibly.
“Uh,” Donvannos winced, “perhaps someone should see to that fellow?”
Unsurprisingly, there were no takers. Except for Gimpy.
Madam Spew took a seat that the bar and ordered some swill.
“Uh, that chitterling…” Tricorn pointed surreptitiously with one finger.
“Ahem, what exactly shall be the nature of our work?” Donvannos nodded thanks to the bartender and took a sip of swill. He shuddered.
Madam Spew shoved a fistful of nuts into her maw and commenced chewing and speaking and spitting nut fragments as she did so. “The purpose of our quest is confidential. Know only that we’re trudging west to Festerfern Gorse come nightfall. And you are both to be my personal meat shields—ah, bodyguards.”
“Uh, Madam,” Tricorn whispered, “your rat-thingy-guy. He’s, uh, gnawing on that goblin’s head.”
“Yes well,” Madam Spew nodded her head in approval, “he’ll do that.”