A Night at the Bouncing Archer

March 4, 2015 - Short Story

A Night at the Bouncing Archer

By Kelly Tolman

When a lanky seven-foot troll, albeit small and clad in mail, pushed open the door to the Bouncing Archer, Vera hardly gave him a second glance over her serving tray. In general trolls in the nearby wastes had bluer skin and a stockier build than the deep green and warty complexion of this one.

The astounding woman with the deep green skin at his side caught more than a casual glance, not only because at nearly six feet she stood taller than the gentleman who followed her, but also because even beneath her well oiled armor the patrons could see that nature had endowed her magnificently. A man dressed in expensive, custom tailored traveling clothes led the group. His steel blue eyes seemed to take in everything in the room. Vera knew every rogue and adventurer in the country, and hardly expected anything unusual from them.

The man waved at Vera, who politely smiled and called, “One moment.”

The troll stared nervously around the room. His yellow bloodshot eyes blinked in the smoky lantern light. After the autumn harvest, more locals than usual crowded into the room eager to catch a tale from some stranger. Dock workers and riverboat hands gambled and drank away their wages, filling the normally calm tavern with raucous, lively laughter.

“Do you have a back room,” asked the man when Vera finally managed to reach them. “Someplace a little more private and less exciting. My friend gets nervous easily.” He gestured to the troll.

“I’m Vera,” she replied. “Follow me.”

“Harbeard,” said the man. He pointed at the troll who appraised Vera as she expected a man would judge a steak. He glanced at the troll. “He’s Turogg, or just Rogg. This is Maritz.” Harbeard jerked a thumb towards the woman. “Just point, we’ll find it.”

Vera pointed across the room to a doorway atop a short set of steps. “In there.”

Harbeard handed her a gold coin. “We’ll have some special needs later. For now send in a barrel of ale, and some wine for me and the lady.”

“Anything to eat?” she asked.

“The best you have,” he replied. As they walked away, he called over his shoulder, “don’t bother cooking Rogg’s.”

They found the back room both cold and empty, though tinder and kindling lay ready to light in the fireplace. They placed their packs along the back wall. Casually, out of long habit Harbeard helped Maritz with her chair though she seemed unused to the attention. Turogg sat with his back to the wall opposite the fireplace, looking suspiciously at the unlit logs. He had some difficulty managing the sword strapped across his back and finally removed it.

“So far so good,” said Maritz. A hint of music carried in her accent. She pushed a few strands of sea-green hair behind her delicately pointed ears after placing an elegant longbow in the corner. “I can’t believe you brought him here.”

“It’s not like we had anything else to do,” said Harbeard. He tossed a bag onto the table, and the coins inside clanked. He smiled back and relaxed with his elbows on the table. He kept his own sword within easy reach and sat where he could watch the doorway. “He was getting worse, and we need supplies anyway.”

“I thought you had a house in town. Why bring him here?” asked Maritz.

“I also have neighbors,” replied Harbeard. “Some would object to trolls, and some who would tell others that I am back.”

“Eat,” growled Turogg.

“You’ll eat soon enough,” said Harbeard.

Three young men wheeled a large barrel up to the steps and with the help of a dolly placed it next to Turogg’s chair. They placed three sturdy mugs on the table and Harbeard handed each of them a coin as they left. Turogg sniffed the barrel. Before Harbeard or Maritz could stop him he smashed an enormous fist through the top of the barrel.

“That comes out of your share,” said Harbeard with a chuckle.

The troll either didn’t understand or didn’t care. He eagerly dipped his mug and gulped the ale, casually spitting out the splinters. In the next room a table of dwarves with thick beards and bright clothes watched the action with envy. The Bouncing Archer always met the needs of its guests, and Harbeard noticed the shorter table and wider chairs fit the dwarves comfortably. For a moment Harbeard thought the nearest dwarf, a happy fellow with a finely combed blonde beard, might venture to fill his own mug at Rogg’s barrel, but after a second glance at the troll he turned back to his conversation.

“I see you managed to open it yourselves,” said Vera as she brought in the wine. She put a tray with two loaves of bread and a large cheese on the table. “I can bring some fruit if you like. We have harvest stew ready, or we can bring you steaks if you would prefer to wait.”

“Fruit please,” said Maritz.

Harbeard sniffed the wine, and carefully tasted it. “I believe I asked for your best,” he said. “This is second grade, and I happen to know that Tomlin keeps a much better vintage for those who can pay.” He placed another gold coin on the serving tray next to the wine. “A meal we don’t have to scrape together ourselves sounds wonderful. I see the harvest is in, do you have anything to serve with the meat?”

“Anything you like,” said Vera, smiling broadly.

“I can’t remember the last time I had a vegetable,” said Harbeard.

“Nor I,” agreed Maritz. “Anything you have, but no beans, and no soup. I’ve had enough of your road stews to last a lifetime.”

Suddenly Turogg reached a long arm out and groped Vera’s rump. “Goura,” he growled excitedly.

Instantly Harbeard’s sword flashed out of the scabbard. With precision born of long training and harsh experience he brought the blade down, severing Turogg’s arm just below the elbow. The troll howled in pain and anger as he picked his hand up from the floor. Harbeard’s sword burst into flame. “Try that again and I’ll make it permanent.” Turogg whimpered and shied back from the flames. He carefully held the twitching arm to the bleeding stump.

“Thank you,” said Vera. “I see you’re a gentleman.”

Maritz took the towel that Vera tucked into her apron and began to clean up the mess.

“Don’t bother miss, I can do it,” said Vera.

Maritz waved her away. “You’re working hard enough,” she said. “An expecting mother should take her rest.”

“Am I showing already?” A proud smile crept onto Vera’s face. “I knew it would sooner or later. Time flies, as they say.”

“Only if you know what to look for,” replied Maritz. “I’ve no children of my own, yet.”

“Time enough for that miss.” Vera winked. She bent in and whispered in Maritz ear, “He’s a nice looking gentleman you’ve got there.” Maritz blushed and giggled. “Now I am forgetting myself. Steaks all around. Will there be anything else?”

“You better get Rogg something sooner,” suggested Harbeard. “A pig’s leg or something.”

Vera excused herself and disappeared among the crowd in the main room. Harbeard watched her leave, and scanned the room for familiar faces.

“Anybody you recognize?” asked Maritz.

“Of course, but I’ve changed since I left.” Harbeard did not look at Maritz as he spoke. He noticed a man wearing fine black velvet toss dice with a group of riverboat workers in a far corner. Harbeard brought his attention back to the table, but looked out on the other patrons from time to time.

“I don’t believe that Rogg’s the only reason you didn’t want to go home,” said Maritz. She grinned. “Nobody with a clear conscious acts the way you are.”

“Purely habit, my dear,” he lied. She rolled her eyes in frustration. “Fine, I’ll tell you. There is a lady here, and I very much do not want her to know that I am here.”

“I didn’t know you had a woman,” said Maritz. Her eyes danced mischievously as she spoke.

“Only among the trolls do the women decide who marries whom,” said Harbeard. “We have more civilized ways.”

“Such as.” Maritz teased.

“Such as my parents choosing for me,” he replied.

Vera returned with another bottle of wine and a large rack of uncooked ribs, probably pork. “You must have been in the wild a long time to consider food here a change for the better,” she laughed. Turogg began chewing the ribs practically before they reached the table.

“I’ve been away for a few years.” Harbeard sighed. “There are some new warehouses near the docks. Trade must be good.”

“That it is,” replied Vera. She smiled a broad smile. “I myself only settled down about a year ago. I did some wandering before that.”

“Wandering can be lonely, can’t it Harbeard,” said Maritz. She half concealed a laugh. Turogg tossed a rib into the fireplace.

“Let him finish his dinner, at least,” said Harbeard.

“I’m sure he will be easier to handle with a full stomach,” said Maritz.

“Your dinners will be ready soon,” said Vera. “I am sorry, but we are much busier than usual.”

“No hurry,” said Harbeard, glancing at Turogg. “I’m sure we’ll enjoy them more after he has finished.” The troll appeared unaware of the conversation.

“You might as well make arrangements now,” said Maritz. “It won’t take him long to finish eating.”

Harbeard gave her a sideways glance and sighed. “Does Tilly still operate her business next door?” he asked Vera.

The waitress blushed in spite of herself. “I wouldn’t know about that, sir,” she replied.

“Nonsense, it’s no secret,” said Harbeard. “Just get her word that our friend here is lonely. We can’t very well take him through the font door of her place, he’d go wild.”

“A troll!” said Vera much louder than she intended. The shock clearly showed on her face.

Harbeard reached into the bag and took out five gold coins. “Just tell her. And bring him some more food.”

“Will there be anything else?” asked Vera. Maritz choked down her laughter. Turogg tossed another bone into the fireplace. The gentleman in the corner left his dice game. Harbeard thought he saw the man look his way as he stepped out the front door.

“I’m sorry to upset you,” he said, bringing his focus back to the table. “He’s been pining lately. Practically no use to us at all.”

“I’m not as shocked as Tilly will be. No girl in her right mind would. I can’t even think about it,” said Vera.

“I wouldn’t try,” said Maritz.

Vera slipped quietly away from the table. Maritz used Vera’s towel to push some of Turogg’s ribs away from her portion of the table. She noted that his arm had healed nicely.

“I think your friend at the dice game recognized you,” said Maritz.

“I didn’t know you were watching,” replied Harbeard.

“You hoped I wasn’t. You know better. Do you think she will cause trouble?”

“You’re assuming he went to tell her about me,” said Harbeard.

“Isn’t he?”

“Probably.”

“It’s my fault for talking you into this,” said Maritz. “We shouldn’t have brought him into a town, he’s not ready yet.”

“He’s doing fine,” said Harbeard. “My troubles have nothing to do with him. And yes, I think there will be trouble. The question is whether she will wait until morning to start it.”

“She must really hate you.” Maritz laughed. “What did you do to her?”

“Nothing,” said Harbeard. He could tell by her look that she did not believe him. “Honestly, I haven’t done anything to her. I just haven’t married her.”

Maritz nearly choked on her wine with laughter. A few faces looked up at them from the next room. “You skipped your wedding? If you tried that with a troll she’d hunt you down and eat you alive.”

“I’m afraid it’s not much better with our women,” said Harbeard. A frown spread across his face. “I didn’t actually miss the wedding. I left right after it was arranged, long before we were to be married.”

“Of course that makes it all better,” said Maritz as she rolled her eyes again. In spite of himself Harbeard found her teasing attractive.

“She doesn’t want to marry me any more than I want to marry her. Our parents arranged it,” said Harbeard

“Then why not just break the arrangement?” asked Maritz.

“Because she can’t legally inherit my property unless we’re married or I’m dead,” said Harbeard. “From what I’ve heard, she moved into my estate as soon as I left town.”

“Strange customs you humans have,” said Maritz.

“I’m not entirely human, thank you,” said Harbeard. “I doubt anyone would notice. I’ve even managed to fool you, and you’re quite the expert on the mixed races.”

“Being half troll doesn’t make me an expert,” said Maritz.

“But being half elf should,” replied Harbeard. The wine tasted good, and he felt lighter in spite of the situation.

Vera returned followed by a plump dark haired woman with a motherly face. “Tilly sends her regards, Harbeard” said the woman.

“I had no idea you were still in the business, Ann,” replied Harbeard with a smile.

“I help manage affairs now. I finally scraped enough together and bought a share of the place.” She smiled pleasantly. “You’ve not introduced me to your girl.”

“This is Maritz,” said Harbeard.

“And a handsome lass at that,” said Ann. She bent down and kissed Maritz on the cheek. “Keep your eye on that one, miss, or you’ll lose him. More than one girl has tried to tie him down.”

“I hope you aren’t being literal,” said Maritz. The women laughed while Harbeard fumed and turned red.

“Can you help my friend?” asked Harbeard, trying to steer the conversation.

“He’s a regular beast, isn’t he,” observed Ann. “Won’t be cheap. Ten gold will buy you an hour, if he’s civil.”

Harbeard drew the sack from the table and counted ten gold coins. Then he stacked ten more next to them. “He’ll finish when he finishes,” he said. Harbeard counted out ten more coins. “He knows eat, drink, and goura, which is troll for woman.” He counted out ten more coins. “Keep him fed, drunk, and away from any fires. When you think he’s done, you’ll be able to find me. Charge what he eats to my bill here.” He scooped the coins into Ann’s pouch and then added a few more.

“I see you’ve done well for yourself,” said Ann. “To bad you didn’t hit it off with Darla. I hear she’s been looking for you everywhere.”

“You’re too late to try and sell your silence,” said Maritz with a laugh. “But if you stay around you might be able to watch the fun.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Ann. She smiled and laughed a little. “It’s been good to see you again, Harbeard. I’ll keep an eye out for Darla just in case.”

“Tomlin won’t like it if you start trouble in his place,” said Vera.

“I won’t start anything,” replied Harbeard. Ann led Turogg through a side door. Vera knelt at the fireplace and replaced the tinder and kindling.

“You’ll want a fire,” she said. “Night is setting in to be cold.” She lit the fire with a candle. “Your dinner should be just about ready.”

Vera left them alone. The dwarf with the blonde beard approached with his empty mug. “Mind if I have a dip,” he asked, gesturing to the half-empty barrel.

“Help yourself,” said Maritz. “Take it all if you like.”

“Hey lads, give me a hand,” called the dwarf. A half doze of his companions jumped up and together they carted the barrel into the next room, sloshing ale into their beards. The dwarves broke into song as soon as they set the barrel down.

“What did you have to do that for?” asked Vera as she set down their meals. “All I need is a pile of drunken dwarves.”

“They’re helping celebrate Rogg’s birthday,” said Maritz. “It’s not often a troll remembers he has a birthday. He needs all the help he can get.”

They ate quietly, savoring the simple taste of good food they had not enjoyed for many months. Vera scooped the remaining ribs into the fire. The comforts of civilization did not dull Harbeard’s senses so much that he did not notice Vera lingering at the fire longer than expected. He caught Maritz’ eye but she had already noticed.

“Perhaps we should join the party,” suggested Maritz. Someone began piping a lively tune, and the free ale had spread beyond the dwarves’ table. Harbeard hesitated only a moment before catching Maritz’ hand and pulling her into an energetic dance. Though she did not know the steps, and had never heard the song before, loud cheers greeted their performance for the locals loved all things exotic and exuberant. Harbeard found himself carried into happier times when dancing and music marked the end of a hard week’s labor, and he fought only for recreation with the other wild youth in town.

“I never knew you could dance,” said Maritz when they caught their breath.

“Once my dancing was the talk of the town,” replied Harbeard. “You caught the tune quickly yourself. I had no idea the trolls had such entertainments.”

“They do not, as you well know,” said Maritz. She frowned at the thought of Turogg dancing. Then she winked. “Among the elves we have many dances for many occasions.”

“I had no idea you were with them for so long. When I found you I would hardly have guessed you could be so refined,” said Harbeard.

“I was born among the people of the moon, and I lived a gentle life until my cousins, the descendants of my father, raided the village.” Maritz spoke as one who had seen and done enough in life to accept its tragedies.

“And then I destroyed your cousins.” Harbeard did not know whether to be proud or sad. “All but Turogg of course.”

Maritz laughed out loud. “That lout better be having the time of his life, or we’ve wasted a lot of hard earned money.”

“If I know Tilly, he’s in good hands.” Harbeard winked. “Besides it’s all coming out of his share. Another round! We’re celebrating my good friend’s birthday!”

Nobody cared whose birthday they celebrated, only that someone else bought the drinks and that the music hadn’t stopped. The local music gave way to a resonating dwarfish melody when a pair of bearded merchants began playing long stringed instruments that neither Harbeard nor Maritz had seen before. They stopped to listen only long enough to catch the rhythm before joining the dwarves in their own strange dance. Local musicians competed with foreign singers and dwarfish players until Harbeard and Maritz found themselves sitting back at their table with Vera. One remaining dwarf attempted to out drink Maritz. The other patrons had either left or fallen asleep on the floors.

“Tomlin will charge them a copper for staying the night,” laughed Vera. “Less expensive than going across the street to a real inn, but certainly not as comfortable.”

“Liquor doesn’t affect her the way it does you and me, my friend,” warned Harbeard uselessly.

The dwarf attempted a reply, but collapsed after managing to say, “Nobody drinksh.”

“What about you two?” asked Vera. “Shall I add a copper each to your bill, or will you cross the street?”

“Join us for some wine and conversation,” said Maritz. “Surely you aren’t in a hurry to find the straw pallet Tomlin lends you.”

Vera looked at her, but didn’t ask how she guessed. However Maritz found out her situation could not be changed. Instead she opened a bottle of the less expensive vintage and poured a glass for each of them.

“What happened to your husband?” asked Maritz. Though he generally preferred to avoid personal entanglements Harbeard listened with interest.

“He died in a duel,” said Vera. “It seems so foolish. My old friends have returned to the adventuring life, but I can’t, not with my child.”

Harbeard noticed a strange shape, like a bony pig’s head steadily forming inside the fire. Several of the discarded bones appeared to be slowly stretching and bending to create other sinister forms. A low growl erupted from the flaming pig’s head.

“Somehow I don’t think this is entirely healthy,” he said, pointing at the fire. Vera choked back a gasp.

“I had no idea this would happen,” said Vera.

“So this is what you were doing with the fire,” laughed Harbeard.

“I was just trying to get rid of the stuff. Brolas gave me a coin to put it in your wine,” replied Vera.

“Any idea what it was?” Harbeard directed the question as much to Maritz as to Vera.

“You’re the local,” said Maritz with a smirk. “None of the poisons I use would do that.”

A tiny skeletal pig with an oversize head jumped out of the fire and snapped its fangs at Harbeard. He pulled his sword and swatted the creature back into the fire. The bones shattered against the stones at the back of the fireplace, but immediately began to grow together again.

“Inconvenient,” said Maritz when she saw the bones reforming.

“I’ll say,” agreed Harbeard. “If I ever get my hands on Brolas I’ll…” Harbeard trailed off, unable to find a suitable solution.

“Hit him with a thick cheese,” suggested Maritz.

“Funny.” Harbeard scowled at her as he swatted another skeleton back into the fire.

“Why would Brolas want to hurt you?” asked Vera, lifting an axe from the sleeping dwarf so she could help bash skeletons.

“I’m engaged to his girlfriend,” answered Harbeard. He kicked one of the animated bones back into the fireplace.

“I thought he was just trying to get me into trouble,” said Vera. “He’s been harassing me since my husband challenged him.”

“He’s the one that killed your man?” asked Maritz.

“No, he isn’t man enough for that. He is good friends with Darvuth, the swordsman,” said Vera.

“Perhaps we should visit Brolas,” said Maritz. She smashed the last of the pig bones with a chair. “That was a very annoying trick.”

“I would like to get some of my own back,” agreed Vera.

“We shall need your largest sausages,” said Harbeard with a wink. “As I recall Tomlin cures his own hard summer blend.”

Vera gave Maritz a questioning glance, but the taller woman just shook her head in confusion.

“I’ll be sure to add it to your bill,” said Vera as she went to the kitchen.

Harbeard handed Maritz her pack and then shouldered his own. They waited for Vera in the common room. Before heading into the cool autumn night Vera handed each of them a pair of enormous hard-cured sausages. Harbeard led them quietly through the dark streets. The occasional dog barked at them or the other passing scoundrels. Nobody gave them a second glance; the town seemed busy for such a late hour.

“Unless I am mistaken, Brolas will have joined my fiancĂ© for the evening. I know a hidden way in the back,” said Harbeard.

“You seem to know a lot about the estate,” said Vera.

“I should, I grew up here, and unless the laws have changed I still own it,” replied Harbeard.

He led them through a hole in the hedge and down a hidden path behind the stables. Though the horses caught their scent, either the stable master did not notice, or more probably did not care about the noise the horses made. The door to the cellars creaked loudly when they forced it open, but nobody from the house came to investigate. Harbeard lit a candle, and Maritz and Vera followed him through the cobwebs and shadows to an old wooden staircase.

“Now for the tricky part,” he whispered. “Step where I step. These stairs can make a noise like a banshee.”

Carefully he placed one foot on the first stair. It made no sound, so he tried the next. Slowly they climbed to the top.

“I see you’ve done this before,” whispered Maritz to Vera.

“I haven’t always worked for Tomlin,” she replied softly.

The bolt on the door at the top of the stairs had rusted through and Harbeard opened it easily. Harbeard poked his head out and checked that none of the servants had heard anything. He waved them forward, and they quietly crept down the hall to the master bedroom. He signaled to Maritz to listen at the door. After a few seconds she placed her hands next to her head to indicate that the occupants were sleeping.

“Now to give them the drubbing of a lifetime,” said Harbeard as he raised his sausage.

Harbeard tore back the covers, and the women commenced hammering with their improvised weapons. They managed a few solid blows before Brolas disarmed Vera. He attempted to strike back, but Harbeard’s sausage caught him directly in the temple and he staggered to his knees. After a brief flurry the fight ended, saturating the room with the smell of cured meat.

“I believe you will find that infidelity breaks the contract,” said Harbeard to Darla who was nursing a welt on her cheek where Maritz had connected. “This is my house, and you are unwelcome guests.” He menaced his sausage once before they scrambled to the front door. Maritz and Vera broke into wild laughter as they watched.

“Now what?” asked Vera.

“Now I am going to bed,” said Harbeard. “Ah, look here, a nice feather bed conveniently empty.”

“Sounds like a good idea.” Maritz gave Vera a wink.

THE END

› tags: Fantasy Story / Short Story /

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