The Blackmore Tavern is not the world’s safest place.
But how could I know? The Blackmore proclaimed its robust good nature for all to see on the faded wooden placard of a minstrel’s lute hanging askew above the half-shattered door.
Of course, I had to duck when a scaly-skinned Torg hurtled backwards through the doorway, apparently an unwitting victim of some dastardly fiend inside. Unless, of course, the Torg was the dastardly fiend.
Patting the scabbard of my trusty Craftsman™ broadsword, I stepped carefully over the inert Torg and into the large, torch-lit central room. I deftly dodged a pair of grappling Akatas as they toppled past me. It was a mite noisier for lunch than I had expected, with a bottle breaking here and a death scream there, but I did not think my business would be affected.
I strode briskly across the room, throwing only a few punches along the way, all purely in self-defense. I don’t normally derive pleasure by hurtling my fist into the face of unsuspecting beings unless, of course, I’m unusually thirsty. And I was. So, with my path well-cleared, I snatched three tankards of Blackmore Beer from the tray of a serving wench. They’d been destined for a trio of short, stocky Brimulung at a nearby table but it’s amazing what a well-placed left hook can do in silencing the complaints of fellow customers.
Choosing a table in a private booth in the far corner, I swept away the still-twitching meal left over from the previous occupants and sat down to await my boss’ arrival.
Although I was distracted by the occasional body thudding onto my table, I did not have to wait long. What else are shiny black boots for if not to thrust away such unwanted vermin in order to protect the boss’ beer?
He slid in opposite me almost unnoticed until his bench creaked rather loudly under his impressive weight. Drama has never been his strong suit. The boss wore all black, as did I, but rather than dressing proudly in studded leather and a tastefully gold-inlaid cloak, he always hides himself in a dull voluminous robe. In fact, I never have seen his face, a mystery causing me some apprehension. I worry that he must have suffered a horrible accident as a child, perchance scalding water poured on him by an unwitting mother or maybe a vengeful older brother of a girlfriend slashed open a cheek with a knife, or perhaps he inherited a father’s acne. Even in the brightest daylight, he keeps his face carefully hidden under that deep hood.
“Whspznx dzspxshxz clvzzx?” he whispered hoarsely after downing his first tankard of Blackmore Beer.
“I beg your pardon?” said I. “You’ll have to speak up. The howling is a little loud in here.”
He eased back his hood, revealing a black mask that covered nearly all his face except his nervous, shifty eyes and shiny bald pate.
“All right, all right,” he bellowed, his rancid breath blowing out under the words.” Is this better?”
I was not prepared for the onslaught and so did not handle the situation as tactfully as, in hindsight, I maybe could have.
“Phew! Have you thought of using a little mint after you eat? Freshens the breath right up, you know.”
His shoulders drooped visibly and his voice grew shaky. “Oh, knock it off, Roger. You warrior-hero types are all the same. Just because your mother slept with a god, blessing you with impossibly rugged good looks, blue eyes, and a perfectly chiseled chin, you think you can embarrass those of us spawned by demons.”
“No!” I protested weakly. “I didn’t mean that at all, sir! It’s just that your breath is, well, not pleasant.”
“Go ahead and rub it in. Crush what little remains of my ego.”
This was quickly getting out of hand. I had to restore his pathetic self-esteem quickly or I might be out of a job.
“Really,” I said comfortingly, “Without brave souls like you to do provide management assessment, we heroes would never find the truly career-enhancing jobs that bring us glory, gold, and girls.”
He seemed to brighten up a little when I mentioned the three g’s, but quickly sank even deeper into his bench. “But we fearless leaders never get anything except the gold. You know, Rog, I haven’t gone pillaging for years. Ahhh, those were the days. Now it’s just creep, creep, creep. Even the occasional poisoned goblet or knife-slitting has lost its thrill.”
A cheery idea flashed through my mind.
“Say, boss, would you like me to go rescue a princess for you this time? Maybe save a damsel from a dragon? If we set it up just right, you could get all the press and I could get the gold. What do you think?” That glory and girls stuff only goes so far and if it helped out the boss, well, a hero’s bank account is never what it’s cracked up to be.
The boss immediately perked up. “What?! Let you have more money? What kind of fool do you take me for? Hrmpf!”
Oh well, I suppose a grumpy boss is a happy boss. At least he didn’t seem depressed anymore.
“Enough nonsense,” he continued. “Let’s get down to business.
“This job will be a little tougher than most. The princess you are after this time is actually beautiful, not unlike your typical damsel.” He was right. Princesses are vastly overrated. Weakened gene pool from inbreeding, I suppose, but great scandal-ridden press. The real babes are always the damsels.
“Are you sure this one’s portrait wasn’t touched up? The last three princesses all had far longer noses and much bigger warts than advertised.”
“Nah, this one’s the real thing. Here’s a recent oil.”
He unrolled a small canvas and handed it to me. My boss was not exaggerating. Either the princess had a great press agent or she was indeed very beautiful. Thick, long black hair cascaded past slender shoulders. Large dark eyes gazed thoughtfully, eyes that a warrior could get lost in for a very long time. Her demure nose was perfectly shaped and no warts appeared at all.
The boss took a long swig from his beer as he watched me study the painting. After several enjoyable moments, I looked back up. He lowered his tankard and eased back.
“Now for your assignment. This is Princess Lalena of Javern. There is something you must know about this princess. In addition to being beautiful, she is also an outstanding ack…”
Obviously, the last word was not intended. Unfortunately, the boss fell forward, his masked face crashing into the still-moving food. Even worse, his beer spilled and soaked into his cloak. I reached forward to check his pulse. There was none. Grabbing the now-empty mug, I sniffed the rim. As I suspected, poison of the most devilish kind, working only on short, fat bald men. Someone knew of us, possibly knew my assignment.
Unfortunately, there was no time to worry. At that very moment I found myself suddenly surrounded by a half-dozen suspicious, heavily cowled figures. I say suspicious because only their eyes were visible beneath their hoods, and those were awfully beady.
Normally I wouldn’t hesitate to take on all six but, in this instance, they all had bright pointy swords directed at me.
I tried to be as cheerful as possible.
“Gentlemen! May I help you?”
“Ysspqjsls ssdjsssh wssmsdnfxhs!!!” shouted one of the creatures.
“I beg your pardon?”
My assailant slipped off its cowl. It was a black-scaled Torg. Good fighters with blunt faces and hairless bodies, but as light as princesses on the brains end.
“Oops! Sorry! I tend to forget about that cowl muffling effect,” apologized the lizard-like Torg. Before I thought to escape, he had his sword at my throat.
“Now, en garde! Prepare to die, rebel scum!”
One of the other hooded beings leaned over and whispered in the leader’s ear.
“Oh, is that what I was supposed to do!” he said to his associate. Then he turned to me, peeled off a glove and hurled it to the floor.
“You have insulted me for the last time, you slimy piece of worm-ridden filth! Get on your feet and arm yourself, for I will pierce your heart with my sw…”
“No, no, no!!!” cried his associate as he yanked off his cowl. It was a thin-faced, green-skinned Greshi. So, it was mercenaries that I faced, mere hired hands. “You’re just supposed to get him to come with us, not kill the poor bugger!”
“Didn’t you just tell me I’m supposed to duel him?”
“No, no, no!! I told you to apprehend him!”
“But you said pusa, duel!”
“No, no, no! I said pusat, apprehend. It’s this darned cowl that keeps getting in the way. Why do mercenaries have to wear these stupid robes every time we’re supposed to look mysterious? It’s not as if we’ve taken the assassin’s creed!”
“And I even threw down my glove on that filthy floor. I suppose I’ll have to send it to the cleaners!”
“Well, we oughta all get these darned cowls off our faces so we don’t end up skewering each other.”
“Thank goodness!” “Phew!” “It’s about time!” came the cries from the remaining mercenaries as they uncovered their heads as well, revealing a motley crew of various races. A more wretched group of scum and villainy I had never seen.
At that moment, I realized the chance for escape had arrived. I leaped to my feet, skillfully drawing my trusty Craftsman™ broadsword, knocking over the table and saving my mug of beer all in one swift, suave motion. Well, maybe two or three fairly skilled, quick movements. All right, it was a whole series of disastrous, clumsy stumbles in which the table, myself, the mercenaries, my trusty Craftsman™ broadsword, and the beer all ended up in one unbelievable tangled mess of sable cloaks and dun-colored robes.
I quickly attempted to extricate myself. Unfortunately, so did my would-be apprehenders. As did the table and the sword. Then there was the beer and the barely-moving dinner underfoot. The tangled mess became worse. But that’s what bouncers are for.
The Princess Problem, Part 2
Note: This is a six-part short story I wrote a very long time ago and recently rediscovered. I’ve polished it up a bit for your enjoyment. It’s set in the same world as my “White Magic” series and inspired by The Princess Bride with nods to Deep Purple and Star Wars, among others.