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  • L.L. Stephens

STORY: What Beats Pipe and Fiddle

Updated: Sep 23, 2022

Come guess me this riddle what beats pipes and fiddle

What’s hotter than mustard and wilder than cream?

What best wets your whistle, what’s clearer than crystal

Smoother than honey and stronger than steam?

What’ll make the dumb talk, what’ll make the lame walk --

The elixir of life and philosopher’s stone?

A drinking song

“It’s like this,” Marc Frederick said. He picked up a piece of charred wood and drew three big circles on the surface of the tan stone between him and the rebel leaders. Two dark slashes represented the path along which they had dragged him to their cavern stronghold. “My soldiers are here, and here. You are here.” He stabbed his stick of charred wood at the slashes. “Snug as your hideout may be, you can’t defend this ravine for long.”

“A month, maybe more.”

The man who spoke, the Kheld chieftain Kadlec Gaal, eyed him suspiciously. Short and broad-faced, Gaal sat on the other side of the stone table. A dozen men armed with cudgels and stubby swords stood at his back. Other men, similarly armed, ringed Marc Frederick. He himself possessed no weapon but his wits.

“Don’t be a fool. My men will dam the stream.” Marc Frederick slashed another line, this one across the two previously drawn. If the stream were blocked, water would flood the caves and tunnels of the rebel stronghold.

“Such work takes time. Days. By then, my clansman Toortil and his lads will have made the journey from Saemoregh and be at their backs.”

Gaal had a point, unfortunately. Marc Frederick calculated his chances of talking his captors into releasing him and found them not good. His whole situation was not good, a fitting end to his having believed the Enlad of Glamon’s claim that the Kheld rebels had agreed to parlay. Just the two of them, the Staubaun noble had said. Too bad it wasn’t talk the rebels had wanted. So far, at least, the Khelds appeared more interested in obtaining a hefty ransom than taking his life. What the Enlad intended was more insidious.

Marc recalled a Kheldish saying about how you knew a Staubaun was your friend if he stabbed you in the front instead of the back.

“Believe me, the king’s forces are too many. Toortil and his men will be slain without hindrance because you’ll be trapped here unable to help. After that, the soldiers will kill you.” He arched an eyebrow to emphasize the point. “Not a great outcome for you and your men. If you accept the king’s terms and agree to a peace that includes allowing your people to keep the farms they now settle, you save yourselves a great deal of life and trouble. You really have no better option.”

“We have you.”

Marc Frederick sighed. Khelds greatly misunderstood his position. The king was his great-grandfather, true, but that counted less than people liked to believe. All his kinship with old Endurin had gotten him so far was a mountain of resentment among the Staubaun nobles and the thankless task of subduing the region’s Kheld rebels. Not to mention a fine backstabbing, courtesy of the Enlad.

“If you think I have much value as a hostage, you’re mistaken. My captains would prefer me to meet an unfortunate end. As for my great-grandsire, the King, he sent me into this mess to test my worth. Any attempt to seek ransom would simply label me a failure for having fallen into your hands. He’d tell you to keep me.”

A pig-nosed man seated to Gaal’s right snorted in disbelief. “Tell us to keep you, his own Heir’s grandson?”

“His long-dead Heir’s grandson,” Marc Frederick clarified. “I’m not Highborn. Indeed, my own father was quite common. Many among the king’s nobles say I should have no place in the royal family at all.”

Gaal leaned nearer. His eyes narrowed. “So your life’s worth nothing?”

“I wouldn't say that. It's worth something to me. I'm simply informing you of the likely outcome.”

Gaal glanced over his shoulders at his gathered henchmen, then stroked the coarse bristles of his unkempt brown beard. “If you’re as useless as you say, we might as well kill you.”

“I’m not completely useless. I speak for the King and bear his sign.” He moved his hand slowly to the breast of his jacket, folding back the leather so he could reach into an inside pocket. He pulled out a flat velvet bag, holding it up for them to see. Opening the bag, he fished out an object the size and color of a large silver piece, oval in shape. As he held it in his open palm, color flooded the disk, revealing the design in full -- a white, winged horse, gold-crowned, upon a field of brilliant blue, flanked by a golden ship and a silver, serpentine Wall.

“A pretty piece of work,” Gaal acknowledged. “Stauberg’s ship and the King’s Wall.”

“I swear upon it, on the name of the King, my great-grandfather--and on that Wall, which is a god as you know--that I will honor any terms we agree upon.”

“You? What about him?”

“If I swear to them, so will he.”

“A Staubaun’s word is only worth as much as the last lie that left his tongue.”

Marc Frederick shook his head. “I’m not Staubaun. Not a drop of Staubaun blood in my veins, unless you count that of my mother’s Highborn sire. I’m more of a Kheld, really.”

Bold laughter erupted from the depths of Gaal’s barrel chest. “Are you now? A Kheld man, you say? Takes more than boasts to be one of ours!”

“Look at me. Black hair, blue eyes--and come morning a beard will darken my face.” Beards distinguished Khelds from the ruling, gold-haired Staubauns, who boasted no facial hair at all. Fur-faces, they called the Khelds… and sometimes Marc Frederick as well.

“All I see is a half-breed in a Staubaun general’s leathers, putting on airs.”

Fair enough. Marc Frederick couldn’t deny the clothes he wore. Just hours ago he’d arrived among them as a royal prince, confident he led a company of the king’s soldiers. These brigands, however, thought he didn’t know his mother’s kin. He played his best card. “The clan of Thegn counts me in its number, and here I find myself, seated at another Kheld man’s table—thirsty.”

Gaal’s beady eyes narrowed. His scowl deepened. The kinship Marc Frederick had just invoked was too widely known for the rebels to deny it. That they were dealing with a man who claimed clan standing changed the situation in significant ways. Among other things, he’d just challenged their hospitality. Marc Frederick kept his expression calm but held his breath until the Kheld leader grumbled.

“Set aside your weapons,” Gaal said to his men. “Fetch some food and fill the cauldron.”

Marc Frederick’s tactic paid off as Gaal’s men followed Kheld custom and laid down their swords and cudgels.

“Here’s the deal.” Gaal, having set aside his own sword and put a burly arm on the table to better show his open hand. “I’ll feed you, and you can have my ear while there’s food on the table and drink in your horn. That much I owe you, because your mother was born of a Kheld woman’s choosing. I want to kill you, but I can’t so long as you’re a guest.”

Marc Frederick nodded. His frequent visits with his Thegn cousins were at long last proving useful. He too kept his hands upon the table, in plain sight. A familiar, pungent smell wafted from the cooking kettles at the back of the cavern and sparked a new idea. He eyed Gaal hopefully. “Might I have some of the cabbage?”

“Cabbage? Since when does a King’s man eat cabbage?”

“Never, which is why I am availing myself of the opportunity. Only Khelds cook cabbage fit for a man to eat. I haven’t had any since I left Stauberg.”

Gaal growled to one of his men. “Get our guest some stinking cabbage.”

The food the men brought was plain and savory. They’d recently raided a great Staubaun estate, making off with numerous goats and sheep. Some of those sheep had gone into the brigands’ cooking pots and the meat now made its way into the wooden trencher Marc Frederick shared with the leader and a few other men. A second trencher, heaped with stewed cabbage, perfumed the air when it was plunked down before him.

“If I might?” Marc Frederick fished in his inside pocket again, producing a folded three-tined fork. He straightened and locked the handle into place, then began to eat.

Gaal turned to Pig-Nose. “I thought you said you searched him.”

“We took his sword, dagger and knife. Didn’t know what that thing was.”

“Mother’s fool! If you don’t know what a thing is, you take it!”

Though he kept an ear to the squabble, Marc Frederick made a show of enjoying the food. The stew in particular was quite good, rich with tender stalks, roots and hints of herbs. The cooking at this Kheld rebel camp surpassed that of his Staubaun camp staff, who most often served up overdone shanks of mutton. Meat, however, was not part of his plan. He lifted forkfuls of steaming cabbage into his mouth and chewed happily, savoring the sour juices.

Gaal pointed a greasy finger at his guest. “You’re trying too hard. We won’t think any more of you for eating our poor fare.”

“An acquired taste, true.” He dug his fork into another heaping portion of cabbage, eschewing the common trencher of meat, which the others greedily probed with their fingers. “Not unlike Kheldish mead. No Staubaun will touch the stuff, but I find it fair drinking.”

Gaal chuckled. “Do you now?” He hefted his drinking horn, dark and broad, banded with rune-engraved pewter. The runes denoted the horn as having formerly belonged to a priest of the Grove. “None but a true Kheld can drink the golden brew and stay standing.” Seeing men emerge from the rear of the cave with a brace of kegs, he shouted them back. “Not beer, you brigands! Got us a long-named prince at the table! Fetch out the mead for our drinking tonight!”

Cursing and metallic rumbles accompanied the rolling and wrestling into place a gleaming bronze cauldron, its rim embellished with wrought oak leaves and reclining stag figures whose interlocked antlers formed sturdy handles. Men followed it, rolling barrels which they then tapped and lifted to pour stout streams of golden liquid into the waiting vessel. A promising aroma of honey, must, lavender and borage issued forth. Gaal grabbed a horn from one of his men and scooped up some of the mead, handing it to Marc Frederick.

“Here, prove yourself a man.”

The horn filled his hand, curved and heavy. Marc Frederick lifted it to his lips and, tilting his head, swallowed the fermented contents in one draw.

It was a challenge few Kheld braggarts could resist. The rebel leader’s gaze locked onto his. “Well, now, there’s no good cauldron worth the drinking but there’s a wager on the finishing of it.”

Marc Frederick shrugged. “I would wager my sword, had your men not taken it.” He picked up his emptied trencher and held it out to the cook who’d just wandered near. “Might I have more cabbage, good man?”

“Can’t wager what’s already ours,” one of the men said. He’d been one of those who had brought Marc Frederick in. His hard eyes threatened more than words if the matter continued.

“The gold and jewels in the hilt of that sword would be worth a keg—or twenty.”

A booming guffaw escaped Gaal’s throat, rounded out by those of his men, all of whom fixed wondering eyes upon Marc Frederick. “Jewels, you say!” With a bear-like snarl, tossing his own horn aside, Gaal rose and grabbed by the throat the man who had spoken. He slammed the man down on the table, upsetting the trencher and splattering men and stone alike with broth and lamb. Wide-eyed, the attacked man squeaked as thick fingers squeezed his life breath. “Jewels in the hilt, are there? And not just one little winker for luck, by his own telling!” He spit into the man’s eye and released his grip. “Now go, and fetch the thing, you damn thief, wherever you hid it!”

The man lurched off, scurrying for the back of the cave. His fellows shouted threats after him and at least one threw food—it looked like a potato—at the man’s retreating back. Torchlight glinted off scores of gold disks affixed to Gaal’s breastplate and the makeshift armor of the seated Khelds. Each disk signified a king’s man killed. Marc Frederick wondered who might get the disk for killing him.

“Do your men steal from you, prince of the Northlands?” Gaal asked, retrieving his horn.

“What do you think? They’re Staubauns. They steal my dignity every chance they get; they steal my worth to the king wherever I attempt to prove it; they’d steal my life if they could. But they haven’t tried to steal my sword.”

“There’s the difference between us. A Staubaun would rather steal your woman than your sword, your honor than your life. He steals land not because he can use it, but because he doesn’t want the likes of us to have it.”

Gaal scooped mead from the cauldron into his horn and other men followed. A youth yet to show fuzz on his cheek hurried to stand over the cauldron with a flagon, which he used to draw mead from the vat for pouring into the horns of men crowding toward him. Marc Frederick battled a frown. Getting drunk in the company of a rebel chieftain and his men was the riskiest kind of gamble, yet it might be the only one left to take. He looked up, grateful, when the cook appeared at his side, plunking down a second trencher of boiled cabbage. Fond as he truly was of the pungent vegetable, he was fonder still of its reputed power to stem the effects of drink.

The men nearest him laughed and wrinkled their noses. He’d eaten only half of the second serving by the time the man returned with his stolen sword. The rebel placed the weapon on the stone before Gaal, who picked it up. It was indeed a prince’s weapon, crafted for Marc Frederick using metal brought entirely from his native land. The glittering blue jewels set in the hilt had belonged to his mother. The sum of Marc Frederick’s wealth and inheritance was enshrined in that work of steel.

Gaal lifted the blade, admiring it. “This is a hell of a weapon for a Staubaun-soft Northman. What’s it worth?”

“It’s beyond price.”

“To you, perhaps, but I’m looking to my own coffers.”

“Consider this, then: the King would ransom the jewels in that sword before he would ransom me.”

Gaal looked impressed by that, and also as if he believed it. How not, when Marc Frederick had spoken the truth? “Magic?”

“It’s Highborn made, and they are sorcerers as you know. They have the Wall and look into the future. I was promised I would never be defeated in battle while wielding that sword. Of course,” Marc Frederick said, feigning regret, “it’s not mine to wager. Your man took it from me, so I suppose it now belongs to you.”

“It does, provided that’s how I want it.” Gaal turned the weapon in his hands, thinking.

“Winning it back would be useless to me, of course, if I continue to be your prisoner.”

“You want your freedom, then?”

He wanted far more than that. Revenge on a certain back-stabbing Staubaun Enlad, to start. He forced a smile to his lips and answered with the confidence of the adventurer he had been most of his thirty years. “I can out-drink a dozen men if it will gain my freedom and my life.”

A scowling, one-eared brute with no hair on that side of his scalp laughed. “What care I for your freedom, king’s man?” he roared. “I want that damn sword!” Other men answered in the same vein, until the cave echoed with their voices.

Gaal rose and, waving the sword over his head, shouted them down. “You’ll all get a chance at this beauty—and him! Same as always: Last man standing wins the wager.”

All of them? Marc Frederick stared at the grinning faces around him, some already loose-featured and well into drink. How many would want in on the wager? For a sword such as the one before their eyes, that might be every man in Gaal’s thieving band. Killing him would be an after-thought, with an eye to keeping the loot. He drew a deep breath.

“I need a better wager,” he said.

Get them all in on it, he thought as more men joined the table. At least the prospect of a drinking contest had taken the murderous edge off their mood.

“Better than your freedom?”

“If I’m to take on so many men.”

“Name it.”

He drew a deep breath. “If I win, I want my freedom—and for you to surrender and accept the King’s amnesty. You know the terms. I laid them out when first you took me: the fighting to cease immediately, your people to keep the lands they now hold, the Staubaun lords to keep theirs, thereafter to obey the laws of the Prince of Gignastha.”

Gaal laughed loudly. “Surrender to you?” He looked around at his men. They were laughing also.

“Yes. As representative of Endurin, Essera’s King.”

One look at the odds provided all the persuasion they needed. “You’re a bold one, king’s man, I’ll give you that. Better yet, I’ll take you on,” Gaal agreed. “If you be standing when no other man at this table can stand, then you walk free and surrender we will, the lots of us, my men as my witness. But if you fall over, I get your sword and the pleasure of using it to remove your head if the King doesn’t pull his men back over the river.”

He’d be in no position to prevent either event. “Very well, I accept,” he said, standing.

But could he out-drink them all? True, he had drunk many a Stauberg sailor and Mercedan trader under the table—hard-drinking men who’d sell their mothers before their last bottle. He held his liquor better than most. Over the years, he’d learned a trick or two… before leaving the table, he shoveled another mouthful of cabbage into his mouth, quickly chewing the wad of fibrous pulp. Getting so many men drunk was not the best plan he’d ever hatched. If by chance the rebels got violent, his military jacket and royal emblems would make him a popular target.

Shrugging out of his jacket, he took the horn the serving lad held out to him. With the terms agreed to, he watched as the rebel leader climbed on the table and hung the sword from a hook overhead, where it glittered above the gathering like a beacon.

“To Lud!” One-Ear cried. A chorus of rebels lifted their horns, and Marc Frederick did the same, managing to slosh some of the contents onto his sleeve. He downed the rest along with the company, to laughter and calls for another round.

It took time to refill so many horns. He used it to beg his own for last, and picked up his fork, saying he wished to finish the best meal he had tasted that year. A few mouthfuls of cabbage and stew later, he hefted his horn again.

“You’re a fair drinker,” Gaal said as they waited for the horns to be refilled a third time. The burly leader belched loudly and thrust his fingers into the trencher again, spooning out another chunk of meat and licking his fingers after. “If I wasn’t going to lop your head come morning, I would invite you to court my sister.”

Few Kheld compliments rated higher than for a man to invite another to sire his family’s heirs. “And if I had a sister, I would tell her to run away from you.”

Gaal narrowed his eyes at the barb, though his men laughed loudly, for they would have said the same themselves. Gaal had raped several women that they knew of, as had many of his band, making the lot of them unsuitable for any man’s sister. They were still sober enough to know this.

“I’d run her down—and catch her,” Gaal threatened.

“Then I would have to kill you.”

“You’d do it, too, for I can see death behind your eyes. That sword of yours has drunk the blood of men.”

“A few.” Marc Frederick watched the boy fill his horn again. “Some Kheld, some Staubaun. Some barbarians in the frozen north.”

“An honest killer. I like that.”

All the horns were filled. He raised his along with every other and downed its contents in long, slow gulps. Honey smooth, the mead flowed down his throat.

“Tell you what,” Gaal said as they waited for the next round to be poured. Despite a disadvantage in height, he looped a congenial arm about Marc Frederick’s shoulders. “As I have your ear, I’ll give you words of good advice: Should you end up back in friendlier lands, don’t be fooled by flower-eating Lords into thinking they’d accept our blood mingling with theirs. Staubauns breed cold men and colder women. Save yourself the grief and take a Kheld woman to wife, a lass who’ll warm your bed, not drive you from hers.”

Marc Frederick laughed, though he refused to engage in a round of boasts about wenching. These men need not know that whenever he was near his pretty Kheld cousin, Thora, his thoughts turned to bedding her one way or another. Marriage would suit him very well, he thought, recalling the one glimpse he’d had of Thora’s lovely thighs.

He felt the seductive pull of drink in his blood, but so did they. A few men, having drunk three full horns on empty stomachs, looked a bit glazed, but the rest, a score at least, were standing strong.

“It’s shameful thing, what that Staubaun did.” Gaal’s breath was redolent with odors of tooth rot and honey. “Tricked you, he did, into giving yourself over. Surprised the piss out of us, seeing you ride up on that silver horse of yours.”

“He will pay for his treachery, soon as I get back.”

“That, I’d give much to see.” Gaal glowered around at his fellows, most of whom nodded their concordance even as they held their horns over the cauldron for the boy to fill with mead. “Though I’m going to have to kill you, it’s a crime to give any Staubaun villain the satisfaction of a Kheld man’s corpse.”

Marc Frederick nodded and smiled, feeling very much welcomed into a temporary brotherhood. Drink had a way of oiling the gears of diplomacy. For the moment, at least, the rebels overlooked his loyalty to the king, or more likely they simply assumed it had changed along with their opinion of him. Even the torchlight seemed softer, steady and buttery rather than flickering and sharp. The cave and stone table took on a sanguine, even homey glow. The faces around him, in addition to wearing expressions far less hostile than before, now looked slightly flaccid, eyes unfocused even as they sought his. One-Ear almost looked friendly. A fourth—or was it fifth?—horn of the potent mead would knock at least a few of his captors off their pegs.

What he needed was to eat more cabbage. Anything to keep the spirits in his gut and not his blood. Unfortunately, he’d consumed the last of his portion during the prior three rounds -- and the cook was one of the men drinking. A glance at the table showed another man’s trencher, half-filled and barely an arm-length to his left, and he pondered his chance of securing it. The jostling near the cauldron gave him an opening and he pulled the trencher within reach, whereupon he pinched a fair measure of the soggy contents and popped it into his open mouth. Men far into their own cups would simply assume that he was now far into his.

Gaal nudged him with an elbow, and Marc Frederick lifted his horn to slosh drink with the staggering crew.

“Here’s a toast to the three things we fear,” the chieftain shouted. “Women, snakes, and a life without beer!”

One of a group of three men, each leaning heavily against his fellows, finished his horn only to lurch forward at the waist. “I think I’m going to be sick now—”

“Not there!” His companions pushed him away from the cauldron, toward which he had staggered.

Mead was potent stuff, more potent than the beer most Khelds generally drank, one reason Marc Frederick had agreed to the wager. He was more accustomed than they to quantities of hard spirits and counted on the mead to overpower most of the men who’d undertaken the contest.

Another man fell to his knees. When he tried to rise, he dropped back onto his hands and lost his horn under the table. He groped for it. “All right, which of you heartless bastards moved the floor?”

Gaal, however, simply laughed, and didn’t look much worse for the amount he had downed. He thumped Marc Frederick on the chest.

“I once got so drunk I woke up in a tree. Which wasn’t so bad, except the tree was outside the Lord Governor’s bedchamber. Before I climbed out, I pissed right into his window.” He signaled for another round. “Now tell me you ever did something like that.”

Drunk stories. A promising turn. Marc Frederick had a fine store of them. And telling drunk stories had a way of making drunk men drunker still.

He held out his horn to be filled. Only a little more than half the men were standing now. A few sat on the floor near his feet. “Once when Lord Omphalos was drunk, he wagered there was not a man in Stauberg brave or stupid enough to punch his snake. Well, I happened to be in the room, and I was just as drunk and feeling brave, so I walked over, pulled back and socked him right between the legs. He fell like a tree, and so did I. My friends credit themselves with saving my life, but I remember not a moment more.”

The Khelds roared their approval of his drunken deed. Other men followed, relating deeds just as monumentally stupid. He basked in the glow of fellowship. An old man with a neck so skinny it looked like that of a chicken, embarked on a story. Another round came quickly.

“. . . never wake up in bed with your mother’s sister!” Chicken-Neck finished. He finished his mead to rowdy laughter and claps on the back that threatened to send him across the room.

More men had fallen, some no further than the benches so they might lie across the table. Others had collapsed against the cave walls, a few in pools of urine or their own vomit. One man staggered against another, and they both collapsed to the floor.

Even the boy ladling the mead wove alarmingly as he placed one foot ahead of the next. He had taken liberty as the night went on of swiping a horn and partaking for himself.

“Grab hold, men!” Gaal cried, hoisting the first of another round, not waiting this time for every horn to be filled. “I’m about to run to the top of the hill and take a bite out of the moon!”

A few took him at his word and grabbed him, but not before he’d poured his horn’s contents down his throat. They were all drunk now, good and drunk, and Marc Frederick knew he was drunk, too. His balance wasn’t what it usually was, though he still had his legs and a handful of wits. He counted the men who were left. One-Ear and Pig-Nose, and three others besides Gaal and himself. Six more . . . no, make that five. Another man lurched to his knees.

Five men. Well, that at least was within reason.

“The secret to being a good drunk,” Gaal confided, “is to do it often, as often as you would enjoy a woman. To me, that means every day. It just comes naturally.”

“You aren’t good-looking enough to get a woman every day,” Pig-Nose slurred.

“Why, you—!”

Gaal gave his detractor a push and the man toppled into one of his fellows, taking him down, too. Even had they wanted to rise from the floor, they were no longer able. Three, then. Marc Frederick was liking his odds. To judge by their paunches, the trio that remained—Gaal, One-Ear and Chicken-Neck—were veterans of many a contest. Hard-headed, hollow-legged, stone-bellied drinkers such as these would be tough to fell. For better or worse, Marc Frederick had only one way with which to do it. The surest way to manufacture a man’s ruin was to continue pushing him along the path of excess.

“You’re drunk,” he said to Gaal, with a smile.

“Drunk?” the man bellowed. “You think I’m drunk? Just give me another horn and I’ll really show you drunk.”

There being so few of them, they dunked their own horns into the by now shallow contents of the cauldron, hauling them out dripping with golden brew. This time it was Marc Frederick’s turn to toast. All four of them swayed as though on a ship’s deck as he saluted them.

“When I think about the Staubaun bastard that stabbed me in the back, I’m just glad as hell I’m here drinking with friends. You are my friends, right?”

“None better,” One-Ear said. He looked as though he meant it.

Chicken-Neck added, “To the end.”

“If I had three wishes,” Gaal said, “all three would go towards killing you!”

“You can’t.” Marc Frederick showed him his horn. “My horn is full and I’m a guest at your table, and if I make it home I shall wed a Kheld woman.” He was pleased that he could string together such a cogent argument.

“You haven’t wed her yet.” The rebel chieftain looked around the cave. “Have you?”

“No women to be had and your men are too ugly.”

He lifted his horn and his hosts followed. He drank and they drank. He hoped this round did it, because he wasn’t convinced he could successfully manage another. Whatever was fermenting in his gut, be it cabbage and nerves or bad stew and fear, or simply too damn much drink, the mixture was showing signs of wanting to fight its way out.

Chicken-neck leaned forward, squinting. “You’re looking damn blurry, king’s man.” He pitched headfirst into the cauldron. Gaal and Marc Frederick reached over together to grab his collar and pull him out. The old man spluttered and fell to the floor as soon as they released their holds. He fell atop the serving boy, who only groaned and complained about the cavern spinning.

Gaal dipped his horn and tested the contents of the cauldron. “Doesn’t taste like he puked in it. Should be good for one more.”

Just then One-Ear hauled another man off the stone table, then laid upon it himself, arms hung over the sides and eyes staring up at the cave’s high ceiling. “It’s such a nice night . . . if only the sun were out.”

“Poet,” Gaal grumbled. He blinked, first at Marc Frederick, then at the cauldron. “It’s up to us to finish it.”

Marc Frederick would have nodded had he not feared shaking his head would make the world wobble. Much as he wanted to think he had a good grip on his balance, he didn’t want to put it to the test. All would be for nothing if he could not outlast this one man.

“Tell me all your secrets, you bastard.” Gaal swayed with every step. “I’m pretty sure I’m well past the point where I’ll remember ‘em in the morning.”

Marc Frederick smiled. “But I’m not.”

“Now there’s a Kheld man’s answer.” Gaal’s eyes rolled back in his head and he clasped his horn to his chest, splashing his breastplate of gold disks with mead just before he fell straight backward. He landed without ever letting go of his horn.

Taking a deep breath, Marc Frederick poured out the contents of his, watching the heavenly mead fall in a golden stream onto an open spot on the cave floor. “If we’re done drinking, gentlemen, I’d like my sword back.”

Unfortunately, getting it back meant climbing onto the table. He did so unsteadily, his legs wobbling and head throbbing unpleasantly. He’d never thought to drink this much.

Pulling his sleeve over his right hand, he took hold of the naked blade and made a concerted effort to steady his body as he unhooked the weapon from its perch. The cave spun, or maybe it was just him, hanging on to a swinging sword for dear life. It only took him three tries, and then the hilt slipped off the hook and without its support he toppled. He fell unceremoniously atop One-Eye, who merely grunted.

“Sorry,” Marc Frederick murmured. He rolled over and staggered back onto his feet, sword in hand. He had to be standing to win.

“I am taking my freedom, as promised,” he said to the lone sentry as he staggered out of the cave. The other sentry had joined the drinking as soon as the contest had gotten well underway and had passed out under the table.

Outside it was cold and stars pooled overhead. A cold wind fluttered Marc Frederick’s silk shirt but helped clear his mind. He found his horse among the mounts tethered in some pines just outside the cave. The tall beast with its silver coat stood out among the darker Kheld horses. The rebels had left the bridle but had unsaddled the animal. No matter. It only took him several attempts and a helpful boulder nearby to haul himself onto his patient horse’s back. That he could do it at all was an accomplishment. Though the surrounding cliffs loomed blacker than night, the moonlit creek bed stretched before him like a highway.

It was still dark before dawn and he was belting out a drinking song when he encountered the first of his troops. A company of twenty mounted men led by Zelos, his senior captain from Stauberg, stared at him in amazement.

“You are inebriated, Sir.” Zelos stated the obvious.

“A vat of mead can fell a man as surely as any sword, Zelos.”

“The Khelds—”

“Kadlec Gaal and his lads are drunker than I am.”

“Thank the gods you escaped their foul clutches. When the Enlad told us how they’d seized you—” Zelos looked around at his men, his face set and grim. “Where are the brigands? Perhaps we can take them before they sober.”

Marc Frederick nodded, then wished he hadn’t. He let his head fall back and looked up at wispy clouds painted silver by moonlight. Was his horse swaying, or was he?

“I really couldn’t tell you. I was blind-folded going there, and I don’t remember leaving.” He drew himself as upright as he was able. “In any event, there’s no need to bother. My parley with them succeeded. They accepted the king’s terms.” He made a point of looking Zelos directly in the eye and keeping his own gaze steady. “Leave a man to bring me safely back to camp, and the rest of you ride to fetch the Enlad of Glamon. Bring him to me and don’t take no for an answer. I wish to thank him for his efforts in person.”

“Yes, Sir.”

He watched the soldiers ride off, tall, beardless, golden-haired men from an empire he barely knew. The king’s men. Men who secretly scorned him. They weren’t truly his, and he wondered if they ever would be. Earning their respect would be a great deal harder than earning that of the Khelds. Among Kheld men, at least, he always knew where he stood. There would be no poison in the drinking horns, no false welcomes. Any knives a Kheld aimed at him would be in the open. They’d make good allies one day.

Kadlec Gaal and his men would honor their word. So would the king. And so would he.

When Marc Frederick had slept off his drunk, the Enlad of Glamon would regret having placed his fortunes into play.

Marc Frederick fingered the jeweled hilt of his sword and smiled. He still had yet to be defeated while using it.


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