Quentin smiled as the barmaid placed two mugs filled to the brim with foamy brown beer on the worn wooden table in front of him.
“Lovely jugs,” he said with a wink. The barmaid, who was indeed extremely well-endowed and wore the clothes to show it, giggled at the goblin.
“Ooh, sir, you are a card,” she said, then sashayed away to the next table, blowing a kiss to Quentin over her shoulder as she walked. The goblin sat back in his chair with a self-satisfied sigh, picking up one of the beers with one long-fingered hand.
Across from him, Scrote furrowed his brow slightly. Quentin noticed this, and his sigh turned into one of exasperation. “It’s a figure of speech, Scrote,” he said. Scrote’s face uncurled and he grinned as realisation sunk in. Quentin shook his head and looked around at the other patrons of the “Croak and Stagger” tavern.
It was the kind of bar that attracted people who, for one reason or another, wanted to avoid the glittering lights, glamour and watchmen of the rest of the town. It was a dim, gloomy affair, the kind of place where it barely matters if the barman spits in your beer because it would probably improve the taste. A pair of burly men sat at the bar, comparing tales of their sexual exploits in loud voices, whilst next to them sat a pair of cat-headed ladies who were merely comparing their tails. A group of hobbits fresh from their holes occupied the table next to Scrote and Quentins’, bits of soil and worms still stuck in their curly hair; their annoying squeaky voices could be heard even above the dreadful piano music that filled the tavern.
Quentin’s eye was caught by a shadowy figure who sat alone in the corner, half-concealed in the smoky gloom. He was a strange-looking man, with a hood covering the top half of his face; what could be seen of him looked weather-beaten, as if he spent a lot of time outdoors. He wore a dark green, travel-stained cloak and sat with his feet up on the table, showing off muddy boots of supple leather. In his hand he held a long-stemmed pipe which was responsible for much of the smoke that floated around the room. The hilt of a sword protruded from the level of his waist, its pommel plain and its handle well-worn.
His demeanour and the air of mystery surrounding him spoke of some hidden agony, some inner majesty, some manifest destiny that would inexorably place him amongst the greatest heroes ever known on Analgesia. Quentin was almost lost in the sense of legends yet to unfold that radiated from the man; he flagged down the busty barmaid.
“That man,” said the goblin as she leant down close to him. “Who is he?”
“’im? Rightly, sir, no-one really knows,” the barmaid whispered, directing a swift and fearful glance at the man in the corner. “Some say ‘e’s one of them woodland folk…”
“An elf?” Quentin said, eyebrows raised in shock and not a little awe.
“No, no,” the barmaid said, “’e just lives on ‘is own in the woods, like. ‘E comes to town quite often, though. ‘E’s a master of camouflage, I ‘eard; ‘e can ‘ide in any bush and you wouldn’t be able to see ‘im ‘owever ‘ard you tried!”
“Wow,” said Quentin, avoiding the temptation to forcibly introduce the barmaid to the letter “h”, “he sounds… amazing. What’s his name?”
“Well, sir, no-one knows ‘is real name. We do ‘ave a kind of name for ‘im, though, round ‘ere, cos of ‘is night-time ‘abits…”
“Yes?” Quentin insisted. Both he and Scrote, who had been listening in, leaned forward as the barmaid’s voice dropped another octave.
“”Well, round ‘ere,” she whispered, “all the women call ‘im “stalker”.”
Scrote immediately burst out laughing. The barmaid sashayed away again as Quentin turned bright red and took a long, steadying pull of his pint.
On the table next to them, the group of hobbits were still chatting incessantly, their heads just about protruding above the tabletop. Usually Quentin tried to avoid hearing any aspects of a hobbit conversation, due to their idiotic accents and their rabbit-like obsession with fornication; but as in this instance it was either eavesdrop on the hobbits or listen to Scrote repeat what had just happened in his usual tiresome way, Quentin chose the lesser of two evils.
As is usually the case, the biggest and fattest hobbit seemed to be leading the discussion, the rest of the group caught in his gravitational pull. He seemed to be telling a funny story, judging by the laughter emanating from his fellows. Quentin strained his ears to listen in.
“And then, right, then, this bloke, the one wiv the bad ‘alitosis, well blow me if ‘e dain’t throw up bloody everywhere!” More howls of laughter; the fat one joined in this time, tears streaming down his wart-covered face. They couldn’t be talking about… Quentin thought.
“What ‘appened then, Hobo?” asked one of the hobbits, whose hair had been styled into spikes (Quentin shuddered to think what he’d used for hair gel).
The fat one, Hobo, wiped his face with his hand, adding an extra layer of dirt to his already grotty visage.
“Then, right, they grab the little smelly one and cover ‘im in feathers, right, and they chase ‘im and ‘is stupid mate right out of the bloody village!” Again, gales of laughter; on the next table Quentin clenched his jaw, as steam began to trickle out of his ears again. He picked up his beer mug with a white-knuckled fist and drained it to the dregs.
Gradually, the hobbits’ laughter died down, although the occasional chuckle still sporadically escaped.
The fat one leant back in his chair and inserted a stubby finger into his excessively hairy nostrils, wiggling it around thoughtfully as he spoke his next words.
“They’re lucky they dain’t try that in the next village over,” he said. “There’s a witch terrorisin’ that village, they say, and she don’ like people musclin’ in on ‘er act.” Having found what he wanted, the hobbit withdrew his finger and flicked the enormous bogey he’d extracted into the air, where, in accordance with the dual principles of gravity and comedy, it described a beautiful parabolic arc and landed, unnoticed, in Scrote’s beer. “Terrified of ‘er, they are. Do anything to get rid of ‘er, I’ve ‘eard say.”
Quentin stopped listening, and turned excitedly to a still chuckling Scrote. “Did you hear that?” he said.
“Yeah, I did! “Stalker”!” Scrote broke off into another fit of laughter. Quentin put his hand over his eyes, and spoke through gritted teeth.
“No, you idiot, not that. What the hobbit said, about the witch in the next village.”
“A witch?” Scrote’s eyes were suddenly wide, the laugh dying in his throat. “Those poor people!”
“No, Scrote,” Quentin said, “not poor, stupid. Witch indeed! There’s no such thing. Probably just some old woman who lives in the woods that they all blame for their crops failing ‘cos she mumbles a lot and owns a mangy cat.”
“Oh,” said Scrote. His brow furrowed, as it usually did when he was pondering a large problem, like which direction was “left”. “But, what does that have to do with us?”
Quentin turned his eyes up to the ceiling and took a deep breath. “Seriously, Scrote, that fall from the ugly tree really messed up your brain as well as your face, didn’t it?” Scrote gave him a blank smile. “What it has to do with us...is that it’s our ticket to being able to drink and sleep in a better place than this dung-heap, for starters.”
“Ooooh,” said Scrote, leaning forward. “Does this mean you have an idea, Quents?”
“Don’t ever call me that again, idiot,” said Quentin. “And yes, as a matter of fact, I do.”
“Is it a particularly clever and guileful idea, Quen...tin?”
“It is indeed a most devious scheme, Scrote.”
“Could you perhaps describe it as a cunning plan, then?”
Quentin frowned at him. “You need to stop reading those stupid parchments,” he said. “Nobody speaks like that. ““Cunning plan”, who’d ever call it that? Now, listen, because I’m only going to say this once.”
“Why?” said Scrote.
Quentin was saved from having to answer as the door to the tavern burst open. Every head in the bar turned to see it, some patrons even moving their chairs so they could get a better view. The wind outside howled, the rain driving against the cobblestones and forcing its way over the threshold. There was a flash of lightning and a tremendous peal of thunder; the barman peered out of the small window above the bar that let some light in on its customers, a puzzled frown upon his superbly moustachioed face.
“It was sunny a second ago,” he said, but his customers’ attention was elsewhere. A large and impressively bearded figure had filled the door, silhouetted by the sudden lightning. Its wide cloak billowed in the doorway, as if its wearer was gathering the shadows around itself; in its hand it carried a long wooden staff carved with strange and eldritch sigils that twisted and writhed as the awestruck crowd looked on. Something about it looked familiar to Quentin, but he couldn’t quite place it.
The figure stepped into the pub, the door swinging shut of its own accord behind him. The wide brim of its large pointed hat cast a shadow over its face, obscuring the detail; the staff made an impressive booming noise as the figure grounded it on the floor. After taking four paces forward, the figure halted, and threw its arms wide.
The penny dropped for Quentin. “Oh, not again...” he said.
“Good mowwow to all in this place!” said an annoyingly nasal voice. Quentin looked down into his mug and shook his head sadly as around him the entire pub burst into laughter. The figure’s face fell; it reached up a scabby hand and adjusted its hat, which was in danger of slipping over its eyes.
“Godwin!” cried Scrote, beaming happily. Quentin swiftly grabbed him and forced his head down under the table, hoping that the wizard had not noticed them; but it was too late. Godwin’s smile reappeared, and he strode over to the table; Quentin noticed his staff had stopped making the booming noise. Entertainment seemingly over, the rest of the tavern’s customers turned back to their drinks, although the occasional smirk was aimed in their direction throughout the conversation that followed.
“Well, hello again,” the wizard said, in his annoying, nasal voice. Quentin straightened up to greet the weary traveller.
“Sod off,” he said.
This time the smile on Godwin’s face did not disappear. Instead, completely ignoring Scrote, he insinuated himself onto the seat opposite Quentin; Scrote was pressed up against the wall by the wizard’s bulk. “Can I at least buy you a dwink?” he said.
Quentin looked at his empty mug, and bit his lip. “Alright, then,” he said. “You get five minutes, then you can sod off.”
The wizard clapped his hands. “Barmaid, bring some dwinks for my fwiends!” Beside him, Scrote smiled, despite his uncomfortable position; Quentin rolled his eyes. The barmaid looked coolly at the wizard for a moment, then pulled three pints into stained mugs and bought them over. Godwin took his and quaffed it with every sign of enjoyment; a good quantity of it slopped down his fake beard, which at least washed off some of the remaining residues of bird droppings. Quentin sipped his own drink more decorously, whilst Scrote at least managed to avoid spilling his down his filthy shirt. Godwin set his now empty mug and smacked his lips.
“Well?” Quentin said.
Godwin steepled his fingers and gazed over them at Quentin. Evidently, he felt that it gave him some gravity, but to Quentin it looked like the wizard was about to blow his nose. “I have a... pwoposition for you, my fwiend,” the wizard said.
Quentin pressed his back against his chair, his eyes widening. “No,” he said. “Look, no offence, I have nothing against...you know, what you like or whatever, but I don’t swing that way.”
Godwin looked puzzled for a moment. “No, no, you don’t understand-I mean a business pwoposition,” he said, and Quentin’s suddenly tense shoulders relaxed a little.
“Oh... well, go on then,” he said. He may as well hear Godwin, he thought, at least until he’d finished his own drink; the idiot hadn’t paid for them yet.
Godwin cleared his throat, and leant forward. “What if I told you that I was here on diwect orders fwom the King of Analgesia?” he whispered.
Quentin gave a gasp of barely concealed awe, his eyes wide. He leaned in close, taking a conspirational glance around, and placed his mouth next to Godwin’s ear. “I’d say you were a lunatic,” he said.
The wizard pulled back, his bushy eyebrows drawn together. “Look, are you going to take this sewiously or not?” he asked.
Quentin just smiled. The wizard adjusted the hang of his false beard, peering suspiciously at the goblin. Satisfied that his carefully rehearsed speech was not going to be further interrupted by anyone other than himself, he continued.
“I am here on the diwect orders of His Majesty, and I have chosen you to aid me on my noble and dangewous quest to save the wealm from destwuction,” he said. “Our land faces gwave and tewwible thweats, even here, deep within its borders, and it is my sworn duty to oppose them in any way I can. And, having heard about your talents, Mr Quentin, I want your help. I feel there is more to you than meets the eye. What do you say?”
Quentin looked deep into Godwin’s eyes. Solemnly, he placed both of his hands flat on the table before him; when he spoke, it was in the deep and earnest tones of a goblin ready to face up to his patriotic duty.
“Would this mean I would travel with you far and wide, risking death on a daily basis for king and country, with you always close by my side?”
“Well, er, if you want to put it that way, then, yes,” said Godwin, smiling.
“Oh. Then, no.” said Quentin. “The day I aid you is the day pigs start flying.”
The wizard’s eyebrows shot sharply upwards, and his false beard slipped from one of his ears and ended up hanging loosely from his face, exposing rose-tinted cheeks. “You would turn down a chance to save your country... to save the world?” he asked.
“Pretty much, yeah,” Quentin said. “Scrote, show him the door, will you?”
Scrote, with some difficulty given the squashing proximity of the wizard, turned around and pointed towards the door to the tavern (Quentin rolled his eyes again). Godwin stood up, false beard swinging wildly. He extended an ominous finger towards Quentin.
“Mark my words, goblin,” he said. “You will wue your flippancy!”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Quentin. “Now you’ve had your five minutes, so get lost.”
With a snort of rage, Godwin turned on his heel and stormed off towards the exit. As he passed the last table, the swarthy man sitting there called out “’Ey, mate, you’ve got bird doin’s all down yer cloak!”, and the tavern burst into laughter again. As the door slammed shut behind the irate wizard, Quentin turned to Scrote again.
“Now, where were we... Oh right, this “witch” thing. Well, Scrote, here’s what we’re going to do...”