“I’d give anything for a beer right now,” Marl said as he polished his battered helm with a rag. “What about you, Thumbs?” he asked, wiping his long blond hair back with his dirty fingers.
Jishnu shifted. He looked down at his right thumb, focused on the malformed sixth digit grown out the side of the second knuckle. He flexed the offending finger and sniffed. “Aye, I’d do with a beer.”
“Will you two shut up? You’re making me thirsty,” Frog snapped, lying in the middle of the wagon’s bed. A sellsword from the Sixteen Kingdoms of Sutia, like Jishnu, he stretched in his small frame in his bit of space, trying hard not wake the twelve other warriors packed in around them. Clad in mud-stained armors, the fighting men of The Grinder Sellsword Company let the world pass by as their five-wagon convoy crossed into the wilds of Mystland, ready for the end of their current contract and a well-earned payday.
Musings over where they might find a beer ended when the wagon’s driver behind cried out in surprise. The cart ground to a halt. “Wags,” the driver screamed. A horn pealed in the distance, a clear note beneath the boom of thunder.
Slamming his helm onto his head, Jishnu grabbed his shield and spear. Looking over the wagon’s side, he spied a wall of green-needled pines. Shapes writhed in the fog behind the trees, forming into a line of pig-snouted warriors. Their grimy hair, weighed heavily in black and white beads, whipped around their yellow faces as they charged. Crude spears and long bronze knives thrust into the air.
Jishnu leapt over the wagon’s side. He landed hard, wincing as a fiery pain flared in his knees. “Tortoise around wagon three!”
Grinders in the first, second, fourth, and fifth wagons of the convoy heeded his call, flooding out in an instant. From the last wagon rose the Captain, his wide shield emblazoned with a snorting black bull on a red field. Clad in an iron breastplate, he pushed through his men to join Jishnu at one of the third wagon’s corners. The thirty-seven sellswords closed in a tight circle, shields locked together.
“Finally,” the Captain cried. A wide smile held his face, the face of a man away from wrath and woe for far too long. “At the ready!”
The Grinders lowered their spears. “Shed the blood, save my brothers,” they intoned together. Jishnu breathed to calm his nerves, his lips peeled back in a half-growl of anticipation.
The first Wag slammed his shield, his knobbed club raised to strike. Jishnu answered from behind his defense with a thrust of his spear, skewering the savage in the eyes. The Grinders stabbed out in quick succession, leaving a heap of bodies gathered at their feet. The Captain roared in delight beside Jishnu, felling one enemy, then another.
For every Wag felled two more filled the gaps in the enemy line, until the sellswords were surrounded, the nucleus in a swarm of death.
Marl struggled to pull his spear from the chest of a downed enemy. “Will they never end?”
The Captain laughed. “Aren’t you having fun, soldier?”
“Not really, Captain,” Marl replied, finally freeing his weapon.
Jishnu pressed into his shield, grunting as he fought to keep his feet from sliding in the mud. “Shove off, Captain?”
“Shove off, Thumbs.”
“Shove off,” Jishnu shouted. The Grinders stepped forward in unison. The sudden surge smacked the Wags’ line. The burst of coordinated strength sapped their resolve, and the piggish fighters fled for the shadows of the forest.
“Hey.” Marl lowered his shield. “Where are they going?”
“Wags fight in short skirmishes. They weren’t winning this round,” the Captain said, reaching into his helmet’s left eyehole to wipe away some blood. “It’ll be like this all the way to Sutia, boys.”
“Well shit,” said Frog from down the line. “Guess I’m not getting my nap today.”
Jishnu pulled off his helm. His long black hair, matted from weeks without wash, lay heavy on his shoulders as the rain intermingled with the sweat on the back of his neck neck. “Should we check on them, Captain?”
The Captain clapped him on the shoulder. “Aye, let’s go check our guests.”
At the back of the third wagon, a small gray hand from within reached out and lifted the edge of the canopy’s mildewed cover. Four pairs of milky-white eyes, void of any pupils, stared out at Jishnu and his commander.
One of the four sirtyas, a short man with a long black beard and barrel chest, spoke first. “Everything all right, sirs?”
“No trouble, Jorgen,” said the Captain. “Just a spat with the locals.”
Jorgen scratched at his chin beneath the coarse hair of his beard. “The Wags, I take it.”
“Only two score,” Jishnu said. “We will get you to Sutia, rest assured.”
“Well, there’s a slight problem…”
“Problem?” The Captain frowned within his helm. “You’re not reconsidering our contract, are you? It was told to me in Daojing’s markets that I could trust Clan Steelbeard in deal-making.”
“Oh, no problem with the contract,” he said quickly, waving off the Captain’s glare. “More a problem with one of my boys.” He stepped out of the way.
Past Jorgen and two more of his comrades sat the fourth of their number, a curious little fellow much like them save for one striking detail—he had no beard. Smooth-faced and cheery, unlike his grim brethren, the bald traveler remained oblivious of the many eyes upon him as he scribbled in a small red book while whistling a bouncy tune.
The Captain’s hasty frown shifted into one of confusion. “And the problem?”
“My cousin there, Stout, is… well, how do I put this?” Jorgen tugged on his beard. “He’s a Dowser.”
“He is a stick?” asked Jishnu.
“About as conversational as one sometimes, but no. Sirtyas have an ability to detect veins of iron the earth, which has made us giants of the ore industry,” said the diminutive Jorgen, his chest puffed in pride. “But Stout doesn’t find iron. He finds water.”
The Captain leaned his spear on the wagon’s frame and rubbed his old hands. “We have plenty of water, if that’s what he is worried about.” He shrugged. “It’s fairly clean.”
“Well, there’s the issue. Right before the attack we were going to stop the convoy. He thinks there is better water out there. He needs it.”
Jishnu grunted and motioned at the sky. “It’s raining. There’s plenty for him to have without leaving the wagon.”
“My commander has a point,” The Captain added. “We don’t have time to stop if you want to reach Sutia by the month’s end.”
“Aye, perhaps, but this is special water,” Jorgen replied. “The type of water we might be willing to shed a few more coins for.”
The Captain straightened from his slouch. “Well, we might be able to make a bit of a stop.”
Jishnu grit his teeth. His knees hurt, and he wished for nothing more than the uncomfortable corner of his wagon, with its wet hay and grumbling sellswords all struggling to find sleep. “Orders, sir?”
The Captain chuckled. “You think me so cruel, Thumbs?” He spoke to Jorgen, “You’ll have to tell me more before I go and waste men on such strangeness, sirtya. What does your cousin need this water for?”
“He’s making beer.”
“Beer!” Marl appeared out of nowhere, eyes wide and searching. “Is there beer back here?”
“Have you been eavesdropping the entire time, Marl?” The Captain asked.
“Just looking around, is all. I wanted to stretch my legs.” He gave a half-smile and gazed at his feet. “I heard something about a beer, is all.”
“I am thirsty, come to think of it,” commented The Captain, licking his lips. “How quick can he make us a batch if we get him this water?”
A grin split Jorgen’s face, revealing the square teeth in his mouth. “You get Stout that water and we’ll whip you up a batch right quick.”
The Captain looked to Jishnu. “What do you think?”
Jishnu caught sight of Marl out of the corner of his eye. The white soldier pressed his hands together, tapping his fingertips with his eyes shut. His lips moved, whispering an unintelligible prayer. He rolled his shoulders and let out a loud sigh. “How far is this water?”
Jorgen turned back to his cousin. “Is it close, Stout? Can you get them there?”
The beardless sirtya raised his head, his nose in the air. He sniffed hard and nodded. “Yep.”
“We’ll need barrels, I imagine,” Jishnu said, his tone withered.
“You will have them, friend,” Jorgen replied. “It will be good for young Stout to get out for a bit. He’s always writing recipes for new brews in that little book of his. Some of them are a bit queer for taste, if I’m honest.”
“We’ll stay here with the wagons and set up a perimeter until you come back,” the Captain told Jishnu. “Take Marl and two others to help out.”
Jishnu brought his fist to his heart. “Shed the blood.”
The Captain returned his salute. “Save my brothers.”
Stout marched through the forests of Mystland, his short arms pumping as he whistled a merry tune. He stopped a few times to pat pines trees on their gray trunks as he headed off into the thickets.
“Quite the peculiar little fellow isn’t he?” asked Lucky, the fourth man of Jishnu’s contingent. A recent recruit from the white west, the chestnut-haired teen had been named so because of his luck with the wenches and camp-followers the Grinders sometimes attracted.
“He’s mad and stupid,” Frog said, grunting as he tried to steady the barrel on his shoulder. Shorter than his friends by a full head, he wiped the sweat from his dark brown face and balding scalp. “This entire mission is stupid.”
“I don’t care if he’s mad or stupid,” Marl replied, his pleasant expression out of place in the group. “He can do cartwheels over coals as long as I get that beer.”
“What do you think, Thumbs?” Frog asked. “He’s a little loon, isn’t he?”
Jishnu balanced the barrel on his shoulder and scanned the tree line, his free hand rested on the pommel of his short sword. His unit had left their spears and shields behind to carry the containers for the sirtya’s special water, hoping they would not need them if a problem arose. A hawk called out in the sky, and for a moment Jishnu picked out the sound of a horn blast, far off in the misted vales. “Keep marching. Crazy or not, I want out of this forest before dark.”
“See? Even Thumbs thinks the little bastard is nutty.”
“That’s not what he said,” Marl hissed. “And will you shut up? The sirtya might hear you and get offended.”
“The little git can’t hear us,” Frog cawed. “I doubt he can even understand what we’re saying.”
Stout stopped, dead in his tracks, and spun around. He stared hard at Frog, the anger in his white eyes intense. He pointed at the mouthy sellsword. “No beer for you!” He floated his finger over to Marl. “More for him.”
Marl thrust his fist into the air. “Yes!”
“Is he serious?” Frog asked Jishnu, his bottom lip pushed out in injured surprise. “Thumbs, is he serious?”
“You shouldn’t have insulted him,” Jishnu replied, marching after the sirtya. He tilted his head to the right, blocking out Frog and Marl’s bickering in an attempt to find out another sound carrying on the wind. It was faint, hidden behind the calls of animals in the forests, low and groaning.
Stout stopped at the foot of an old oak tree and leafy branches. “Hey.”
Jishnu came up behind him. Not far from his reach hung a thick branch, half-broken and hanging on by frayed livers of wood. “What are you looking at?”
The sirtya stood on his toes, stretching for the hanging limb with a groping hand. “Mine?”
Jishnu studied Stout’s earnest expression. “Why do you want it?”
That droning noise sounded a second time, louder and more distinct. Without another word of argument Jishnu grabbed the branch and yanked hard. He handed it to Stout, who restarted the march northward. The little sirtya pulled a small knife from the large pouch on his belt and began to whittle away at the bark.
“What was that about?” asked Lucky.
They followed Stout deeper into the woods, sticking as close to the sirtya as they could without stepping on his heels. Walls of trees gave away to a wide clearing matted in dark green patches of clove and purple wildflowers, a glorious run of beauty. The rain ceased for a brief spell, and through the dark gray clouds above peeked slices of blue, clear and crisp like the rays of sun that followed. The aches of marching, riding in the cramped wagons, and the endless fighting faded in that rare moment of peace.
“If only we could stay here a day,” Lucky mused when the five reached the middle of the field.
“A day?” Jishnu laughed at such a pitiful rest. “Are you ready to settle so easily?”
“No, but if I had to, this would be a nice little slice to settle for.”
Jishnu breathed the fresh air in through his narrow nose, filling his lungs. “Sometimes a little slice is worth more than everything else.”
Stout had remained quiet during the jaunt, intent on stripping away the bark as he carved himself a new club. The perfect length for his small arms, a swollen knob bloomed at the business end, large enough to ruin a knee if enough power was placed behind it.
“Looks like the little git is ready for a fight,” Frog said.
“He’s smarter than you think,” Marl replied. He searched the perimeter of the clearing.
Jishnu raised a fist, halting his troop. His feet sunk into the moist green ground, the mud and grass squelching under his sandals. Storm clouds returned, and away went the sunlight, casting the forests back into walls of gray trees wrapped in needles. The wind picked up again, clawing its chill into gaps in his leather breastplate.
A horn blasted.
“Do you hear it, Frog?” Jishnu asked, placing his barrel down and pulling his short sword from its scabbard.
Frog sighed. “Aye, Thumbs. I hear it.”
“We have no shields,” Lucky said.
“Shit happens, kid,” Marl replied. “You want one of us to grab the sirtya and run, Thumbs?”
Jishnu’s answer never came as ten Wags appeared in the gaps between the trees. The four Grinders spread out, at the ready. “Ran back to the wagons, Stout,” he bellowed. “We will find you if we live!”
“For beer!” Stout burst past the sellswords, his club held high as he ran to meet the snouted denizens of Mystland’s hills. He reached the first Wag, who stepped from the gloom. The beardless sirtya swung up his race’s oldest enemy and connected, cracking him in the face. A shard of broken tusk flew from the warrior’s mouth, trailed by a long line of glistening blood. He fell dead to the ground.
Stout placed a foot on the fallen Wag’s chest and raised his club skyward. “For beer!”
Jishnu looked on, dumbfounded. “What in Asdra’s name?” He just stared at the little sirtya, astonished. A second passed before he realized the other still bore weapons. He and the other Grinders charged as the Wags surged from the tree line.
Jishnu ducked a spear thrust as he reached Stout, howling when the Wag wielding the weapon jerked it back. The hard edge sliced into his elbow. He grabbed the shaft with his left hand and pulled its owner close, gutting him on his sword. He ripped out of the dead Wag and slashed out, chopping into a small wooden shield held by another attacker.
“There’s too many,” Frog shouted from somewhere in the melee.
Jishnu dodged to the side and crashed into one of his brothers, leaning away from a knife thrust. He riposted, catching the shield-wielding Wag in the eye. He did not see his enemy fall as another barreled into him, knocking him off his feet. He swung in a crooked arc to keep his new attacker at bay, missing the obese Wag’s stomach by mere inches. The savage raised his spear high, snorting and cackling with glee. Stout entered from the right, his club arcing up to crush the Wag’s fanged mouth. They fell together. The sirtya hammered until the Wag stilled.
Sitting atop the bloody corpse, he twisted around to look at Jishnu, a happy smile on his face. “For beer!”
Jishnu dug his heels into the mud and pushed, sliding on his back until he scooted to his bottom. Sitting up, he saw two Wags standing over Lucky, their hands hooked under his armpits. Blood trickled from the boy’s mouth as they dragged him into the woods.
Jishnu crawled onto his hands and knees. Before he could stand a boot stuck him in the temple, sending him to darkness.
The world sharpened as Jishnu blinked in the first few moments of consciousness. A haze of multi-colored lights formed the canopy above him. He gazed into the muddled sky, its vault peeking through the leaves of the trees. Sweat and rain wetted every crevice of his body, yet all he could feel was the searing pain on the side of his head. He pressed his malformed thumb against a fresh bruise, wincing as the mound throbbed against his touch.
Stout sat a few feet away, faced in the direction the Wags had departed. His club rested upon his small shoulder, crusted red. The bodies of Frog, Marl, and Lucky were nowhere to be seen on the ruined field, its beauty destroyed in the fight. The barrels they had brought along had rolled to the other side of the clearing, intact but stained in debris.
Jishnu sat up, one arm braced against the ground. “Stout?” he croaked, his voice raw.
“Yep.” Stout pointed at the pair of bodies beside him. “Wags.” Their faces and skulls were caved in, pulpy messes open and oozing. Jishnu’s two victims from the battle lay where they had fallen. All told, five had been left behind to rot in nature’s embrace.
“Where are the others?” Jishnu stood, teeth gritted as he remembered the cut on his right elbow. He brushed the wound gently, feeling the ragged edges. It would scar in time, adding another line to the tapestry war had left across his arms and chest.
Jishnu bent down and retrieved his sword. “You kept the Wags from carrying me off, didn’t you?”
Stout hung his head bashfully, looking away. “Yep.”
Jishnu considered the sirtya for a moment. “We need to find Marl and the others.”
“Yep.” Stout popped to his feet. He nodded in the direction of the barrels. “Water.”
“No, Stout. The others come first.” Jishnu slid his sword into its home and brushed off his body. “If we can find them.”
Stout waved hands, shaking his head. “No, no. Friends and water.”
“I don’t follow.”
Stout raised his club and spun around once, ending his turn by pointing at the forest. “Friends.” He spun around the other way, and pointed again in the exact same direction. “Water.”
Jishnu put his hands on his hips, eyeing the little trickster with a slight frown. “Tremendous.”
At first the chanting was a nothing more than a quiet sound, lost in the grumbling thunder as Jishnu and Stout crept through the forest. Yet with each step into the thickets the sounds formed into a word, followed by another, until a sentence was made and repeated over and over.
“From the swill comes the swirl.”
The pair came to a large wall of brambles separating them from the chant, with only a small opening wide enough to let Jishnu crawl through on his hands and knees.
“We need to go around,” he mouthed.
Stout stepped into hole. The points of the vines barely touched the top of his bald head. “Nah.”
“I can’t fit,” Jishnu said. “We need to go around.”
“From the swill comes the swirl.”
Stout furrowed his brow at Jishnu. “Friends and water.”
Jishnu glared at him before getting down on his hands and knees. “Little git.”
After a brief struggle through the sticking thorns and tangles, he reached the end of the small tunnel. Jishnu pulled apart the wall before him and crawled out onto a small ridge lined in towering oaks. A red fire burned at the bottom of the hill he stood upon, the first of many set in a circle within an oaken grove, a peaceful scene save for its inhabitants.
Around the fires danced more than a score of Wags, their tattooed arms linked together as they whipped themselves about in concentric circles. In the center of the grove lay a small pond, its blue water the clearest Jishnu had ever seen in his many travels.
“Water,” Stout whispered.
“There’s too many,” said Jishnu.
“But… boom,” he said fretfully, holding up his club.
“There are two of us and more than thirty,” Jishnu said, exaggerating the number. “How much ‘boom’ do you think you have?”
Rolling his opaque eyes, Stout let out a frustrated sigh.
Night arrived, and the circle of the fires glowed like a ring of red stars, their dull light gleaming off the sweaty bodies of the revelers. The frenzied tempo reached a dizzying climax, and with a great cry the Wag dancers dropped to the ground, face down in the dirt.
“From the swill comes the swirl.”
A lone figure entered the grove armed with a knife and walking stick. Wearing an antlered deer skull for a cap, the Wag shaman stared at his followers with drug-addled eyes. His tusks were painted blue, and inscribed on his entire body was a long connective line of white glyphs that started on his face before wrapping around his arms and legs in a snaking pattern.
“From the swill comes the swirl,” he shouted in a guttural tone. He grinned at his followers as they repeated the chant, and motioned at some unseen figures off the trees. Five more Wags emerged, dragging behind them Marl, Lucky, and Frog, their hands and feet bound together.
“You stupid shit,” Frog screamed over the chanting. “All this for a gods-be-damned beer!”
“Just be quiet,” Marl replied, his left swollen shut. “I would like to die without having your squawking as the last thing in my ears.”
The shaman approached the small pond, his captives carried along with him. He knelt down and started to wave his gnarled staff over the water in a slow circle.
“What’s he doing?” Jishnu whispered to Stout.
The sirtya did not answer, busying himself with his club. He carved small runes into the knob with his little knife, grumbling under his breath. Shaking his head in annoyance, Jishnu returned his attention to the weird scene below.
Bubbles appeared on the water’s surface, as if it was ready to boil. The water burped and gurgled for a moment, and then settled. It started to swirl, to the left at first before the growing vortex ground in the opposite direction. As quickly as the resulting funnel had opened it slapped shut, splashing the pond’s grassy banks. A geyser shot into the air, long and languid. Arms sprouted, and then a face, its eyes and mouth depressions in the surge.
Jishnu gaped as the elemental rose out of the pond. “By Naraka, what is that?”
Stout swung his club a few times to stretch out his arm and shoulder. “Shini.”
“They’re going to feed Marl and the others to that, aren’t they?”
Jishnu looked down, expecting to see the sirtya brooding on a plan, but instead discovered a bare patch of ground. “Stout?”
“Yoo-hoo!” Stout had slid down the hill on his bottom and entered the grove, his club on his shoulder as he headed for the pond.
Jishnu stumbled down the incline of the ridge after him, skidding until he reached the bottom. The sacrifice had halted, paused by at the sirtya’s audacious arrival. Even the Shini, towering over the mass gathered to worship it, seemed a bit surprised.
The shaman was the first to break the moment. “From the swill comes the swirl,” he bellowed, shaking his staff and his knife in the night air. His devotees repeated the chant, and the Shini swelled in response, its geyser-body grown taller and thicker.
Jishnu caught Stout before he could reach the watery monster. Wrapping an arm around the sirtya’s waist, he lifted him up like a small barrel of ale. He held his sword out at the monster, ready to be crushed in an instant.
“Great job, Thumbs,” Frog called. “This is the greatest rescue ever.”
Stout kicked his short legs until he wiggled free. Landing on his feet, he shook a gray finger in Jishnu’s face. “No,” he said. He spun back around to face the Shini. “Shini. You. Me. Boom.”
The Wag shaman burst out in laughter.
The Shini stared down at the sirtya with an almost-human sneer. It spoke, its voice a roar of rushing water. “I will crush you.”
A great cheer sounded from the Wags. They convalesced in a closer circle around the three combatants, leaving no gaps for Jishnu or Stout to escape.
Jishnu stepped in front of his pint-sized friend, ready for the onslaught of nature’s most primal force. “Stay behind me.”
Stout ducked between his legs and ran into battle, his club wound back for a blow. “For beer!”
The Shini screeched, bending forward to swallow him up. Stout swung into the flow of the creature’s face. The runes etched on his small weapon ignited in a bright light as the head connected with a loud crack, as if the Shini was made of hard glass. Dashed to the ground, it shuddered, a weird shape quivering to keep its form.
The shaman dash forward, his knife held high. Jishnu intercepted the cult-leader, directing his strike away with a deft parry that threw the shaman’s arm wide. He followed with an upward slash that opened him from armpit to neck. Blood sprayed from the gully in a gory arc.
Seeing their god incarnate laid low and their leader slain, many of the cultists broke for the forest.Jishnu checked on Stout. The sirtya had battered the Shini back to its pond, each blow soaking him as he assailed the weird creature. The elemental wobbled under the assault, shaking and giggling until its unnatural form collapsed. The pond refilled to the brim, bubbling one last time until Stout struck the surface with a smack, forcing a gentle stillness.
Jishnu walked over to his friends and cut their bonds. “Some rescue, aye Frog?”
“Where the hell are the Wags?” Lucky asked, rubbing his wrists where the rope had chaffed the skin.
“Wouldn’t you run if someone had beaten the snot out of your god?” Marl asked, helping him to his feet.
“Oh be quiet, the both of you.” Frog retrieved the slain shaman’s knife, dissatisfied with the weapon. “Wags or no Wags, I don’t want to spend one more horrid second in this place. Let’s just go back to camp.”
“Wait.” Stout jogged to Jishnu and grabbed his hand, pulling him toward the pond. He bent down and scooped a handful of the clear water, sipping with a loud slurp. “Try.”
“We don’t have time, Stout,” Jishnu said, wary of the monster’s remains.
“Calm down.” Jishnu squatted beside the pool. He winced as both knees cracked in unison. He stuck both hands into the cold water and scooped out enough for a meager sip.
A jolt of energy ran through Jishnu as he swallowed. The grove seemed to brighten around him, the night swirled in a beautiful haze created by the glimmer of the stars on the pond’s surface. The warmth of the fires, the wind’s gentle caress—his senses begged for attention, an offer of rest and relaxation.
He fell forward on both knees and drank another handful. “Marl, Lucky—all three of you need to try this,” he said, a wide smile on his face.
Grumbling and exhausted, the three Grinders trudged to the pond. The first taste eased their tired expressions; the second left them sitting there on the grass, and the third put a happy grin on each of their faces.
“You know… it is dark,” Marl said, his fingers trailing the water’s surface. “I don’t think The Captain would be too happy if didn’t come back with those barrels full, and since we do have these fires to keep us warm tonight, we could tough it out for the evening and fill them up tomorrow. What say you, Lucky?”
Lucky had already claimed one of the bonfires for himself. “Marching about in the dark is dangerous.”
“What do you say, Thumbs?” Frog asked.
Jishnu found the sirtya had laid down, already asleep at the edge of the pond. He reclined on the grass and set his sword atop his chest. “Sleep well, brothers.”
The five crested the hill overlooking the wilderness highway just as the sun broke the horizon. The Grinders’ five wagons stood in a tight circle off the beaten road. Jishnu paused at the top of the rise and set his barrel down for a moment, alleviating the soreness in his shoulder. Frog and Lucky flanked him, quiet in their own contemplations.
“So it is going to be an ale?” he asked Stout, taking time to make sure he did not outpace the latter as they walked past the three.
The sirtya tapped his fat bottom lip in deep thought. “Yep.”
“Is it going to be dark? I like my ales dark,” Marl said, licking his lips. “And with this water, oh… Is it going to be heavy or viscous?”
The four sellswords and their charge entered the camp. The Captain sat on his bedroll beside the bonfire, still dressed in his iron armor and helm. “There you all are,” he called, nodding to Jishnu. The bearded sirtyas seated on the other side of the flames rose to their feet and approached to take the barrels from their human allies.
“What took you so long?” Jorgen asked as he finished tying his black beard into a thick braid. He licked his thumbs and scrubbed the dirt off Stout’s cheeks. “He didn’t get you in any trouble, did he?” he asked Jishnu.
“No trouble at all,” Jishnu replied.
“But we are thirsty.” Marl set his barrel down. “And we did bring the water.”
“Aye, you did.” Jorgen retreated to one of the wagons and returned with a brown leather sack. “Show them, Stout.”
Stout pushed the four barrels beside the fire. Popping off the lids, he opened the sack his kin had given him and scooped four handfuls of brown-green dust into each barrel. The water bubbled and hissed. The heady smells of yeast, oats, pine, and brown sugar filled the air around the camp. More sellswords emerged from their tents, reawakened by their curiosity. Stout tapped the lids of the barrels back into place with his club.
“When do we get to drink it?” Marl whispered.
“Shush,” Stout said, pressing his ear to the side of one of the barrels. Silence reigned over the crowd of warriors and merchants as they waited for the beer to finish its magical fermentation. A time that normally lasted more than two weeks boiled down to a few wonderful minutes.
Stout removed the lids, gently this time, peeling them from the barrels’ rims. Jorgen retrieved a large horn for his beardless kin to ladle the first draught. He stared into the dark beer he had created, sniffing and running his finger around the creamy head. For moment he glanced to Jishnu.
Jishnu thumbed toward Marl.
“For me?” Marl asked when presented with the horn. He took a long draw from the vessel, his hands shaking as he drank.
“Well?” asked Jishnu.
Tears rimmed Marl’s eyes. “My mouth has been freed.”
“For beer,” Stout shouted, thrusting his fists in the air.
The other sirtyas hurried to his call, scrambling to their wagon to find their own cups. The thirty-seven Grinders broke out their mess kits, ready to indulge in a simple luxury of a kind drink.
Jishnu brought his tin cup up to drink after it was filled. Pine and sweet malt tickled his tongue as the divine darkness of roasted oats and honey flowed past blackberries. A refreshed smile found a home on his face. He felt a tug on the hem of the tunic he wore beneath his scratched breastplate, and looked down to see Stout staring at him with questioning eyes.
“It’s wonderful,” he said just before he noticed that one member of his company was missing. “Where’s Frog?”
Both Jishnu and Stout searched the camp, and discovered the sellsword had taken a seat beneath a make-shift overhang, away from the festivities. He stared glumly at the celebration, like a child left out by his friends.
Jishnu’s joy diminished. “Are you going to keep punishing him?”
Stout walked over to where Frog sat.
Frog glowered at the sirtya. “What do you want?”
Stout flared his flat nose, and then nodded in the direction of the barrels. “Go.”
Stout loosed a great sigh, deep and controlled. “Go.”
Frog bolted for the barrels, the cup from his mess kit already in his hand.
Lucky ambled over. “You were right, Thumbs,” he slurred, his arm hooked around a tree to keep himself on his feet.
Jishnu patted Stout on his shoulder for his good deed. “What do you mean, Lucky?”
The sellsword raised his cup. “Like you said—sometimes a little slice is worth more than anything else.”
© February, 2015 Jay Requard
Jay Requard live in North Carolina. His story "Narrows" was published in S&S in May of 2014 and he has also had stories published in anthologies, including "Paper Demons" in Thunder on the Battlefield, by Seventh Star Press and "The Chase" in The Big Bad, by Dark Oak Press.