The wooden door of the Bugbear’s Mug creaked, as it always did when someone was pushing their way out of the cold and into the slight warmth of Aldencross’s only tavern.
I recognized Egelbert’s voice as he called to me across the small commonroom. “Uh, boss?”
I ignored him, and continued to sit in silence at the barkeep’s counter. He knew better by now than to address me so openly, and in public nonetheless.
Delwin, the portly barkeep, was preparing me a small mug of mead off to the side. He eyed Egelbert at the doorway. “Close it behind you, you lug! You’re letting the heat out!”
I heard the second creak and the thump that followed as the door was reunited with the frame. Egelbert must have eyed Wilbert across the room, sitting at the table in the back corner where he could keep an eye on the door. I heard his lumpy footsteps plodding in that direction as I continued to refuse him a response.
Delwin brought over my drink. He had a thin crop of iron-grey hair on his round head, a heavy brow over small green eyes, and ruddy cheeks. I accepted the beverage with all the grace and repose that I had acquired from my twelve years in a thespians’ troupe. As was my habit, I kept my back perfectly straight while I brought the mug up to my lips. Before it reached my chin, I noticed my hand tremble with rage.
This was annoying. I had assumed that I could contain any signs of my current mood. Perhaps the drink would assist me with that endeavor. I took a sip, and then set the cup down. It tasted like cow’s bile. Nevertheless, I twisted my face into a satisfied smile.
“Ah Delwin, I simply cannot see why you choose to languish in this miserable little town with talent like you have. Why, you would put the brewmasters of Matharyn to shame in their own feasting halls with mead as sweet as this!”
He looked at me funny, and then grunted. I thought he might brush off my praise and turn back to his other duties, but he mumbled something.
“The secret is a sprinkle o’ ginger, wot gives it the flavor.”
“Ginger, truly?” I mused, pretending to be impressed. As if I didn’t know ginger when I tasted it. “You know, I happened upon a pair of the king’s soldiers this afternoon. They mentioned the Bugbear’s Mug, something about the outstanding mead, if I recall. I wasn’t aware that there were any soldiers here in Aldencross. Have they ever been your customers here?”
“Oh yes, milord. Those be men from the Tower o’ Balentyne, west along the river.”
Delwin nodded. “A hundred men, under the good Commander Thomas Havelin. The soldiers from the tower are the only ones in a fortnight’s journey that our town can trade with.”
I was about to ask him to tell me more, but I noticed a faint sound from behind me. The twins were mumbling to one another across the tavern. There was a hint of urgency in their voices.
To my surprise, Egelbert piped up once again. “Uh, boss, I got something you might want to hear.”
I shot a venomous glare behind me in the twin’s direction.
Egelbert was sitting next to his brother, looking to me stupidly with his beady little eyes. He was nearly impossible to tell apart from his brother, but his shiny bald head was just a smidge narrower than Wilbert’s shiny bald head, and I had stopped mistaking them for one another once I had learned to perceive this small detail.
Both of them looked apprehensive at having successfully gotten my attention. They looked like a pair of children awaiting a scolding from their father.
I left my barstool after mumbling my thanks to Delwin, and joined them at our table in the corner, bringing my mug with me.
“It was very impolite of you to interrupt my conversation with Delwin, Egelbert,” I hissed.
The brute’s face fell. “Sorry boss.”
I rolled my eyes with relish. “What was it you needed to tell me?” I promptly demanded.
Brightness returned to his eyes almost immediately, as if he had forgotten momentarily that he had anything to tell me at all. “Oh! Um, I saw someone come into town just now!”
“And who would that be?”
“Well, I don’t know their names.”
“But, they looked…” he was clearly struggling to find his next words. “They looked like you would want to meet them.”
As he said the words, there was a loud crash of wood. Wilbert and Egelbert nearly jumped out of their chairs. I even flinched.
“Oi!” Delwin bellowed. “Are ye daft, ye bolty planker? Look what ye’ve gone and done, eh? Knocked me door right off its hinges!”
I was sitting with my back to the door, so I could not see the source of commotion. All I heard were several massive, hulking footsteps stomp in through the door. I saw Wilbert and Egelbert, large men themselves, tense up with apprehension at whatever it was they saw walk through the door. Out of the corner of my eye, I also noticed that Delwin had frozen and gone pale.
Whatever-it-was let out an uproarious hearty bellow, and then took several more thunderous steps in Delwin’s direction. Next there was a wet slapping sound on the wooden counter. I saw Delwin gag.
The creature spoke. “You, barman! Make Conan a gyro with this thing.”
I turned my head slightly to get a better view. I saw the back of a vast pair of shoulders atop a mountainous frame. And it had plopped something on the tabletop in front of Delwin. It looked like… a whole pig carcass! The rancid stench of it was already starting to reach the back of the tavern where I sat. The behemoth was nearly naked save, thankfully, for a thick wooly garment about his loins.
I caught sight of another figure, smaller than his gargantuan companion by several orders of magnitude, walking through the doorframe, which no longer supported a door.
“Dammit Conan!” squeaked a shrimpy little male voice. The little man scuttled into the tavern with stiff strides and joined the brute at the bar, grumbling all the way. When he got there, he hopped up on the barstool next to this Conan fellow and began talking to him in harsh, low tones. I was amused. He appeared to be scolding this monster, who was easily three times his height.
A third figure entered the tavern through the doorframe, this one with movements far more graceful than the previous two. It paused to regard the remains of the door.
“Sorry about your door, bartender.” The voice was melodic, and clearly that of a woman. “Rest assured, I’ll cover the cost of repairing it.”
I heard the jangling of a coinpurse.
“And here is a little extra, if you would also be kind enough to… prepare a few gyros out of this wild boar that my friend captured while we were on the road?”
The woman glided over to the bar, and I heard her hand over what sounded like a considerable sum of coins to Delwin.
Delwin gulped. “Um, of course, milady.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the woman steal a glance back at the twins and myself. She stopped Delwin just as he was preparing to bring the pig carcass into his backrooms, and she asked him a few questions in a hushed tone. They mumbled back and forth for a moment. I could only assume she was asking for information about us.
After a moment, she thanked him and he turned to leave. She and the small one exchanged glances briefly.
“Conan darling,” she cooed, “won’t you wait here for those yummy gyros that the nice man is cooking just for you?”
The monstrous fellow nodded eagerly. With that, the woman and the halfling began to make their way in our direction.