Samuel Maguire

For Claire, my lifelong adventuring companion and favourite troll berserker

Wayshrine wasn’t what Rotgear had expected. A slight left turn and a rickety sign, pointing to what was supposed to be a quick stop and a quiet word to the guys upstairs, turned into a tightly packed town, heavy traffic and several short and sporadic arguments with Nurff.

Nurff had already been in two fights since arriving or, more accurately, Nurff had been the two fights, while others had briefly participated and been quickly ejected. While this was entertaining, Rotgear grew tired and thirsty, and became hopelessly lost amongst the winding stairs, thin canals and low-hanging roofs of the alpine city.

Rotgear hoisted his sagging pack and stretched his aching shoulder backwards. His arse felt like it would fall off any second.

Nurff was tireless. Her mountainous frame remained straight, and she’d worn the same stern expression for hours. She stopped suddenly, and Rotgear’s plate rattled with the impact of a living brick wall.

‘Rotty,’ Nurff said. ‘I fink we’re lost.’

‘Yeah, I thought it’d sink in eventually,’ Rotgear replied. ‘Let’s drop into a tavern and get our bearings.’

Nurff grunted. ‘Which of deez is a tavern?’

Rotgear looked up the street. It was lined with wooden signs inscribed with strange heraldry and phrases: The Headless Arms, The Dreary Maiden, The Lofty Standards. Rotgear scratched his helmet. ‘All of them I think.’

Nurff looked up and down the street ‘Which one den?’ She swung her head with the gravity of a celestial body.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ Rotgear snapped, hoisting his pack. He took a breath; it wasn’t smart to get snarky with an eight-foot troll berserker. ‘If it’s got beer and a chair, I’m there.’

Nurff looked at him with a blank expression.

Rotgear bee-lined for the nearest door. ‘Fucking hell.’

The Sunken Tankard had character plastered over it like makeup on an unsupervised three-year-old. Rotgear pushed the intricately carved cedar door open to a rickety staircase that led to a pit swimming with spilled ale and missed spittoon shots. Every grizzled, one-eyed mercenary was flanked by darkly robed wanderers on one side, and scholars of premium, exotic religions on the other.

‘Alright, let’s rest our legs and sink some walking booze,’ Rotgear said.

‘You find da table, I’ll get da drinks,’ Nurff said.

Rotgear scanned the floor for empty seats. There were two at the bar next to a one-legged sea captain on the lookout for new recruits. There was a table in a dark corner next to a cloaked stranger who was pretending not to be interested in brave souls to help her reclaim her fallen kingdom. A small hand, wrapped in vines and flowers, poked through the crowd, beckoning Rotgear to take a seat beside it.

‘We’re not gonna get out of here without six months of solid work,’ Rotgear muttered.

He searched for the biggest, hairiest warrior to take some of the heat off him and Nurff. His eyes rested on shoulders a full leg of ham taller than the rest of the bar. Rotgear pushed his way next to the man.

‘That’s a lot of armour you’re wearin there.’ The voice boomed in Rotgear’s right ear like submerged dynamite. Rotgear looked past a hairy, tattooed bicep into a hairy, tattooed face.

‘You some kinda soldier?’ the man asked.

‘Sellsword actually. Just been successful enough to procure the right tools.’ Rotgear cursed himself for saying it. A sellsword with a full suit of plate could expect himself to be employed in a place like this within seconds.

‘I expect you’re the same sort?’ Rotgear ventured, his eyes begging for a yes.

‘Not in the slightest,’ the man said. He waved to the bartender. ‘An ale for my friend.’

The bartender drew ale into a large glass mug, filling it with froth. ‘New keg,’ said the bartender. ‘Might take a while to settle.’

Rotgear clicked his parched tongue and glanced around to no avail. No stool for his aching arse. Instead, he gazed like a labrador at a ham sandwich as the bartender drew another inch of beer into his mug of head.

The man interrupted Rotgear’s stupor. ‘I’m actually a farmer. Or at least I used to be.’

Rotgear grunted as a fat elf pushed his way next to him at the bar.

‘You see,’ the hairy man continued. ‘One dark day last autumn, an evil beast invaded my land and scorched my earth. Slew my best farmhands and kidnapped my only son. And now I can’t find a warrior brave enough to help me, no matter what payment I offer.’

The man looked at Rotgear with pleading eyes.

Rotgear’s jaw dropped. ‘You’re joking right?’

The large man stammered.

Rotgear shook his head ‘You’re six-foot eight. Wide. Find a warrior, pick him up, and swing him at whatever beasty is stomping your poor wheat you daft, fuckin’… monolith.’

The man’s lip trembled. Rotgear glanced at his beer, it was still half head.

‘Fuck it,’ he said, and slipped back into the crowd behind him. He pushed his way through hundreds of distinguishing features until Nurff loomed in front of him, a spire of rock in a sea of unique outfits.

‘Nurff, good,’ Rotgear sighed. ‘No seats anywhere. Please tell me you got drinks.’

‘Even better,’ Nurff said. The stones on her brow and mouth arranging into a makeshift smile. ‘Dis guy says he’ll shout us drinks fer da whole night if we help him open his magic puzzle box dat he bought off a demon.’

‘We’re outta here,’ said Rotgear. He grabbed Nurff’s forearm and somehow dragged her towards the door.

It was snowing outside. Rotgear’s plate misted over, reflecting the dull glow of the street lanterns like somebody else’s Christmas through a frosted glass window.

He let go of Nurff and aimed for the next bar up, The Far-Flung Gauntlet.

He opened the door to a meaty fist already headed in his direction. It impacted with his helmet and another curse joined the cacophony of sailor’s tongue that filled the gaps between chaotic brawl spreading out before them. Three more hits glanced from Rotgear’s armour as he let Nurff in through the door and closed it behind her.

‘Rotty,’ said Nurff, a glass tankard exploding on her stone brow.

Rotgear ignored her and pushed forward. A kick glanced off his greaves. Someone’s face slammed onto his breastplate. He instinctively broke someone’s forearm with his vambrace.

‘Rotty!’ Nurff called after him. She heaved a drunkard back into the crowd with one hand as she strangled another.

Rotgear pulled a stool out from the bar. Someone grabbed it and shattered it over Rotgear’s back. He winced, gesturing to the bartender for ale. Nurff joined his side.

‘Rotty,’ she said.

The bartender slammed a pewter tankard onto the bar, froth covering it like a cloak. Rotgear reached for it as a dwarf slid down the bar on his stomach, clearing it of drinks. With that, Rotgear turned, slid back through the mob, and out the front door.

Rotgear hooked right for the next tavern over. Nurff emerged behind him, brushing angry dwarves off her shoulders.

‘Third time’s a charm,’ Rotgear said, pitching higher. ‘Rule of threes. I ever tell you about how three is the number of divinity?’

He stepped through the door of The Leisure Chest, the red lantern above it bouncing off his helmet with a sharp ping. He glanced around, then cast his eyes down.

‘Ah shit,’ he said.

Nurff squeezed her way through behind him. ‘Err, Rotty? Something strange going on ‘ere.’

‘I know Nurff.’ Rotgear waved her forward. ‘Just keep yer head down and don’t say yes to nothing that ain’t a big cold beer and a chair.’

He glanced up again. ‘Actually forgo the chair,’ he said.

They moved forward. Every cry or giggle he heard made Rotgear shrink in his breastplate. A figure stepped in front of him.

‘You lookin for a good time soldier?’ said a smoky voice.

‘Nope, definitely not. Looking for a terrible time actually. Just a real shit of a day is what I’m after.’

‘But Rotty…’ Nurff said behind him. ‘We are looking for a good time.’

‘Hear that?’ Rotgear said. ‘She’s lookin’ for a good time. Aim all of your good times in her direction.’ He pushed past for the bar. He put his gauntlets on the counter, took a deep breath, and whispered, ‘Beer and a chair.’

He looked beside him. A stool sat empty by his hip. He adjusted his scabbard, and sat his aching arse.

‘Halfway there,’ he breathed.

The bartender ambled over with a seaman’s gait, smiling with wooden teeth.

‘A drink for the gentleman?’

‘Ale. Big as you got,’ Rotgear said.

The bartender drew a foot-and-a-half tall stein from under the bar, flipped it, then started pouring. Amber liquid filled four fifths of the glass, leaving a creamy head pouring over the side like a waterfall just roused from winter.

Rotgear melted into his chair, his armour creaked as his joints relaxed. He lifted his helmet and took a deep breath, smacked his lips together and sank a mouthful.

His heart sank with it. He slammed the stein back down, spraying his stubbled chin with the contents. ‘You’re joking right?’

The bartender shrugged, returning to polishing filthy glasses.

‘Non-alcoholic beer. In a fuckin’ brothel.’ Rotgear wiped the froth from his mouth.

‘Well, we can’t have drunk patrons around with the… you know,’ the bartender said. ‘It’s not very safe.’

Rotgear pulled at his face. He felt tears sting his eyes for the first time since he had seen his previous best friend take the angry end of a cannonball.

‘It’s fine. It’s fine,’ he said to himself, barely audible among the groans and squeaking bedsprings. Then, he stood. ‘Right. If I’m gonna have a bad time I’m gonna do it on my lonesome and in the bloody quiet.’

Putting his hand over his eyes, he walked out the door.

Nurff joined him shortly after. Rotgear pitched his tent in the middle of the street, his sabatons sliding on the snow between the cobblestones. Rotgear kept his back turned as he tried to prop the tent poles. He swore and slipped backwards, Nurff caught him and lifted him to his feet with a fist the size of a keg.

‘Rotty–’ she began.

Rotgear interrupted. ‘I ain’t going into any more bloody taverns. A town with hundreds of ‘em and I can’t even get me a beer and a chair. It’s enough to turn a man into a bloody poet.’

Rotgear sat down. He drank stale water from a skin and rummaged in his pack for dry trail rations.

Nurff hunched down next to him. ‘We’ve been miserable walkin’ for three weeks straight, so another night or week or month ain’t gonna do us any worse.’

Laughter and cheers erupted from a tavern across the road, then the sound of a hundred glasses clinking. ‘What a miserable place this is,’ Rotgear said, chewing the heel of bread with difficulty.

Nurff stood without a word. Rotgear adjusted, trying to get his belt buckle from out of his stomach. His armour scraped on the cobblestone. Nurff crossed the street to the loud tavern, ducking her eight-foot frame under the doorway.

Rotgear heard swearing, then a crash, as a patron exited via the window and rolled down the steep footpath.

Rotgear jumped to his feet, hand grasping his broadsword without asking his brain first. Nurff exited moments later, one fist grasping the backs of two shoddy wooden chairs, her other hand holding two steins overflowing with frothy beer.

Nurff lumbered over to him, her boots crunching on fresh snow. She placed the chairs down carefully, then lifted Rotgear and placed him on the seat with a beer in hand. She sat opposite him, the chair groaning under her weight.

‘I fink you’re right, Rotty,’ she said. She drank, noticed a tooth wedged between her knuckles and flicked it onto the cobblestone.

‘Bloody miserable place dis is.’

Author: Samuel Maguire is a bipolar himbo and Brisbane author currently studying at QUT. His first novel, No Point in Stopping, was published in 2018 and he is the editor of a collection of Queensland inspired speculative fiction stories called Far-Flung to be released later this year. He currently works as a commissioning editor at Tiny Owl Workshop and you can find his work in ScratchThat and Scum Magazine.

Artist: Cyndra Galea (she/they) is in the third year of her Bachelor of Fine Art’s in Creative Writing with a minor in Professional Communications. When not found with her head in a book or three, Cyndra can be found radioactive antique hunting, fixing classic cars with her dad, drawing on her iPad, or writing and editing her manuscript. Cyndra aims to work as a structural editor when she finishes her Masters of Editing and Publishing, but also dreams of releasing novels of their own.

Editor: Rory Hawkins