Wayshrine was not what Rotgear 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 entertaining, and a good way of betting a quick coin, Rotgear was growing tired and thirsty, and had become 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 legs felt impacted together and his arse felt like it would fall off any second. Nurff was tireless. Her mountainous frame remained straight and her gravelly visage had the same stern expression that she had worn for hours. She stopped suddenly, and Rotgear’s plate rattled with the impact of a living brick wall.
“Rotty,” Nurff said, “I fink we are lost.”
“Yeah, I thought it’d sink in eventually.” Rotgear replied. “ Let’s drop into a tavern and get our bearings.”
Nurff grunted. “Which one 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.” He said.
“Which one den?” Nurff looked up and down the street, swinging her head with all 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 narky 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.
“Closest one.” Rotgear said.
“I’m not sure I like da look of dat one. Looks grimy.” Nurff said.
“Well you should pick then.” Rotgear replied, trying to knock the oncoming headache out of his helmet with the palm of his gauntlet.
Nurff scratched her mossy chin, then the back of her neck.
“What sort of places do you like den?” Nurff asked.
“One where I am sitting down and not in the street covered in road dust.” Rotgear sighed, he was pretty sure Nurff was too thick to read tone anyway. “One with a bath would be nice.”
Nurff peered at the signs, taking wayward steps up the steep and winding cobblestone. She returned to Rotgear.
“I don’t fink none of deez got a bath Rotty.” She said.
“Fucking hell.” Rotgear bee-lined for the nearest door.
The Sunken Tankard had character plastered over it like makeup on an unsupervised three-year-old. Rotgear pushed the intricately carved cedar door onto a winding, rickety staircase that lead down to a masonry pit swimming with spilled ale and missed spittoon shots. Every grizzled, one-eyed mercenary was flanked by darkly robed and heavily obscured wanderers on one side, and monks 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 nodded and grunted.
He scanned the floor for empty seats. There were two at the bar next to a one-legged sea captain obviously on the lookout for new recruits. There was half a table in a dark smoky corner next to a green cloaked stranger who was quite obviously pretending not to be interested in brave souls to help her reclaim her fallen kingdom. A small hand wrapped in vines belonging to a woodland sprite poked through the crowd and beckoned to Rotgear to take a seat beside it.
“We’re not gonna get out of here without six months of solid work.” Rotgear muttered to himself.
He searched for the biggest, hairiest warrior to take some of the heat off him and Nurff, his eyes resting on a pair of shoulders a full leg of ham taller than the rest of the bar.
Rotgear pushed his way into a gap next to a man built like an angry statue. The sound of glass shattering echoed in his helmet and he felt a spray of lukewarm ale between the gaps of his greaves. He kept his head down.
“That’s a lot of armour you’re wearin there.” The voice boomed in Rotgear’s right ear like submerged dynamite. Rotgear looked up past a hairy tattooed bicep into a hairy, tattooed face.
“You some kind of soldier?” The man asked.
“Sellsword actually. Just been successful enough to procure the right tools.” Rotgear cursed himself for saying it and glanced around. 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 somewhat of the same sort.” Rotgear said, his eyes begging for a yes.
“Nah, 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 4/5ths full of froth.
“New keg, might take a while to settle.” The bartender said, then sniffed.
Rotgear clicked his parched tongue and glanced around for a stool for his aching arse. Three were taken up by identically dressed magicians in obscuring blue robes. Though Rotgear was sure it was a single illusionist holding seats for friends, he felt a seat wasn’t worth losing a tooth in the inevitable bar-wide fistfight that would ensue if he started an argument. Instead he gazed like a labrador at a ham sandwich as the bartender drew another inch of beer into his mug of head.
“I’m actually a farmer by trade,” The large man interrupted Rotgear’s stupor, “Or at least I used to be.”
Rotgear grunted as a fat elf pushed his way next to him at the bar. The strap on Rotgear’s left greave started digging into his thigh.
“You see, 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 how hard I search or what payment I offer.”
The man looked at Rotgear with pleading eyes and a quivering lip. Rotgear’s jaw dropped below his gorget.
“You’re joking right?” Rotgear said.
The large man moved his mouth up and down and leaned back.
“You’re six-foot eight. Wide.” Rotgear shook his head, and was butted forward by the fat elf behind him. He steadied himself. “Find a warrior, pick him up, and swing him at whatever beasty is stomping your poor wheat you daft, fuckin… monolith.”
The large 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 thirty faces and hundreds of distinguishing features until Nurff loomed in front of him, a spire of rock in a sea of flesh and brightly coloured silk.
“Nurff, good.” Rotgear said. “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.”
“Ah shit, we’re outta here.” Rotgear said. He grabbed Nurff’s forearm with both his gauntlets and 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. Rotgear let go of Nurff’s fifty kilo forearm and aimed straight at the next bar up, The Far-Flung Gauntlet.
He opened the door onto 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 brawlers on the floor and hanging from the rafters of the tavern. Three more hits glanced from Rotgear’s gardbrace as he let Nurff in through the scratched and gashed oaken door and closed it behind her.
“Rotty.” Nurff said, a glass tankard exploding on her stone brow.
Rotgear ignored her and pushed forward through the brawl. A leg sweep glanced off his schynbald. 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 her right arm as she strangled another with her left.
Rotgear pulled a stool out from under the bar. Someone grabbed it and shattered it over Rotgear’s back. He winced and stood, 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 and peanuts. He turned, slid back through the mob, and out the front door.
Rotgear stomped out the door and hooked right for the next tavern over. Nurff emerged behind him, brushing angry dwarves off her shoulders.
“Third time’s always a charm.” Rotgear muttered, his voice growing more and more high-pitched. “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 quickly turned his eyes down, using his gauntlet as a makeshift blinker.
“Ah shit.” He said.
Nurff squeezed her way through the door behind him.
“Err, Rotty? Something very strange is going on ere.”
“Yeah, yeah I know Nurff.” Rotgear waved her forward. “Just keep yer head down and don’t say yes to nothing that aint 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 into his breastplate. A figure stepped in front of him.
“You lookin for a good time soldier?” A smoky voice said.
“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. Rotgear said a word he didn’t know he knew. “I fort we were looking for a good time.”
“Hear that? She’s lookin for a good time. Aim all of your good times in her direction while I keep walkin.” Rotgear said, pushing past and reaching the bar. He put his gauntlets on the counter, took a deep breath and whispered.
“Beer and a chair.”
He looked down beside him. A stool sat empty by his hip. He dragged it over, adjusted the sword on his belt, and sat his aching arse.
“Halfway there.” He said, then waved to the bartender.
The bartender ambled over with a seaman’s gait, smiling with wooden teeth the same colour as his rugged complexion.
“A drink for the gentleman?” He asked.
“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 being roused from winter.
Rotgear lifted the glass 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?” He said.
“The bartender shrugged, returning to polishing filthy glasses.
“Non-alcoholic beer. In a fuckin’ brothel.” Rotgear wiped the froth from his upper lip with his palm.
“Well we can’t have drunk patrons around with the… you know.” The bartender said, wiping his glass with the enthusiasm of a primary school bully at a spelling bee. “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 most recent best friend take the angry end of a cannonball.
“It’s fine. It’s fine.” He said to himself, barely audible among the crowd of groans and squeaking bedsprings. He stood and adjusted his sword belt. “Right. If I’m gonna have a bad time I’m gonna do it on my lonesome and in the bloody quiet.”
He stood up, put his hand over his eyes, and 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 piles building between the cobblestones. Rotgear ignored Nurff, keeping his back turned as he tried to prop the tent poles beneath the canvas. He swore and slipped backwards, Nurff caught him by the collar and lifted him to his feet with a fist the size of a keg.
“Rotty…” She began. Rotgear interrupted her.
“Say what you like Nurff, I aint 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 cross-legged. He pulled a waterskin from his pack and drank from it, then rummaged around for dry trail rations. Nurff hunched down next to him.
“We’ve been miserable walkin for three weeks straight, so I don’t think another night or week or month is 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 turned, trying to look over his shoulder, but couldn’t get his chin over his gardbrace. He heard loud swearing, then a crash as a patron exited via the window and rolled down the steep footpath.
Rotgear stood quickly, his hand grasping the pommel of his broadsword without asking his brain first. Nurff exited moments later, one fist grasping the backs of two shoddy wooden chairs, the index finger of her other hand slipped between the handles of two glass steins overflowing with frothy beer.
Nurff lumbered over to him, her hobnailed boots crunching on fresh snow. She placed the chairs down carefully, then grasped Rotgear by the shoulder and neatly 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 from her ale, noticed a tooth wedged between her knuckles and flicked it onto the cobblestone.
“Bloody miserable place dis is.”