The Tavern and the Brownie
Hobol crouched on the edge of the woods, took several deep breaths, and steeled himself. It would be about a mile’s walk through open plains, along a trail etched into the terrain by the feet of humans and the occasional mount. Of course, the adventurers mostly went on foot-
His breath caught in his throat, and he relaxed himself forcibly. It was tempting to just stay here, to lurk in the forest, to make friends with that helpful badger who’d showed him the way a while back, to take off his shoes and his hat, to dwell in the woods until he forgot his name. It would bring him peace, of a sort.
But Hobol was a Brownie, and destined for service. And so he breathed a few more times, and then, hesitatingly, reluctantly, stepped out.
It didn’t seem fair to Hobol that mortals were so long-legged. Even the halflings had a good foot on him on average, and most of the mortal races had much more. It meant that what would be a simple puddle for a mortal to walk over forced Hobol to go quite out of his way. It wouldn’t do to arrive at his destination muddy and unpresentable, of course.
And then he rounded a hill, and was blinded by the flash of sun reflecting off bronze. There it was. The Sword Tavern, named for gigantic bronze blade thrust into the ground. Some said that it was the sword of a demigod who fell in battle. Others say it was given by a demigod to the owner of the tavern, as collateral against a truly divine bar bill. Most said it was simply a sculpture, gussied up with a tiny bit of magic to make it mysterious.
An old man, apparently human, stood on a ladder, polishing the sword. Hobol regarded him carefully. He could be anywhere between 20 and 80, younger if he was orc-blooded, older if he had elven ancestry. Mortal lifespans were very complicated.
“Excuse me, sir!” he called. The man looked around for a moment, then looked down.
“Pardon me for asking, but have I reached the Sword Tavern, on the outskirts of the Dragonlands, bordering Geslar, in the world of mortals?”
The man raised a bushy eyebrow, and looked significantly at the polishing rag in his hand, and the giant bronze sword-blade he was applying it to.
“I reckon you just might be. Who’s askin’?”
“I am Hobol, thank you. Do you know if the proprietor of this fine establishment is inside?”
“Ah.” said Hobol, trying not to panic. What was he supposed to do now? He had only thought as far as getting here, talking to the owner of the tavern, and then-
“Do you know where the proprietor is?”
“I do, yes.”
Hobol took a breath. “Is he outside, polishing the sword in front of the tavern?”
“You catch on quick, little one.”
Hobol breathed out.
“So, what’s your business here? Got plenty of rooms, if you’re in need.”
“I wish to seek employment here.”
“Mmm.” said the old man. “Ain’t rightly sure we’ve got a need for a household brownie. Place is iron-reinforced as well. Plus, usually full of iron swords. And adventurers, holdin’ em.”
Hobol couldn’t restrain his flinch.
“Mmm.” the old man repeated. “And summat tells me ye knew this. And came anyway. Mmm. Tell you what, Hobol. I’ve got a good bit of polishing to do. You tell me how you came to think this was a good idea. You’ve got until I’m done polishing. Then, I’ll make my decision.”
That was a far more generous offer than he had been expecting. And yet…to have to tell his tale…
He didn’t have time to waste, he could tell. The sword already glowed in the setting sun; the old man had to have done most of the work already.
“I am Hobol, formerly in service to Duke Aelrin, Master of Faerie, Lord of the Fruitful Woods and associated territories.”
“Aelrin. Hmm.” said the man.
“Aelrin…” Hobol breathed again, but forced himself to continue. “Aelrin had power over the foods that grew in his domain. Over all of it. To accept a gift of Aelrin’s food, and to take the tiniest sup of water or let the smallest crumb pass your lips, was to become his creature, utterly in his power. He was not particularly cruel, by the standards of fey lords, but he was ambitious, and his appetites for power and domination mirrored the hunger of those who found themselves in his lands. He trapped any who stumbled into his terrain there, snatched their supplies from them, then laid out great banquets, orchards bursting with fruit, fields thick with vegetables. He trapped many.
Then, some time ago, at a banquet…”
Hobol gasped, as memory threatened to overwhelm him, but used his fear to spur himself, and continued in a rush.
“…At the banquet, adventurers came. Hungry, starving. They knew of the trap, and had resisted. But their supplies were exhausted.
Aelrin sometimes traded food to fey lords. Food traded, or stolen…”
He breathed. It was easier, now that he was telling it.
“…stolen food didn’t convey ownership. But Aelrin gave away all. He was…supremely generous. The adventurers offered treasure, magic, a limited term of service, for the meanest food he would sell.”
“Aelrin had seen their kind before. As they grew more wroth, he called his servants. He had many servants, and he liked for them to see what happened to those who displeased him. None of us who belonged to him were capable of displeasing him, he so rarely got to make an example of anyone, so he liked to really show off when he did get the chance.”
“Duke Aelrin was the finest swordsman I had seen in six centuries, before the Grand Tournament, where he lost five falls to three against Oberon himself. He had his court present, and his raiment. He was expecting it when the adventurers drew steel. He laughed. He’d faced hundreds, thousands like them before. And as he laughed, one of the adventurers moved, and Aelrin fell, gutted, his mail and magic torn aside like down feathers. And then…and then the adventurers turned on us.”
“A table from the banquet landed on my legs, and that saved my life. I was compelled to fight to save my lord, as were all of Aelrin’s creatures. All who could fought, fought. The assembled host of one of the greatest lords of the Seelie perished that day. In seconds. Not in a grand battle, they just…started killing, and nothing and no one could stop them.”
“But when they were done with their slaughter, Aelrin lived still. And the adventurers still needed food, and none of them knew what would happen if Aelrin perished. Then one of them said…that there was food there…that Aelrin would not and could not offer up. But which they would take, and which they would feast upon. So they dragged Aelrin to the cook-fire, and took a spear, and they…they…”
Hobol gasped again, then let out a shuddering sigh. He would have traded all he owned for the mortal gift of forgetfulness, for the ability to put the thoughts and experiences that defined him aside if he willed it hard enough. But he was not mortal. He was a brownie, and meant for service, and his service was to tell his tale.
“As they…ate, they spoke. They…compared their repast to what was served here, at the Sword Tavern, on the border of the Dragonlands, just outside Geslar. And they laughed as Aelrin finally perished, and one of them jested about returning here. And then they departed, their bellies full. And as the hold of Aelrin collapsed, and I remained pinned, trapped, I made a vow, to myself. All I knew of the adventurers that slew Duke Aelrin was that they misliked the Sword Tavern, and did not wish to return. And so, Master Tavernkeeper, I have come here, to beg to work for whatever wages you choose to offer, that I might be permitted to stay here, in the one place in all the worlds I might feel safe.”
He looked up. The old man had stopped polishing the sword some time back, but hadn’t stopped him.
“Mmm.” he said again. “There’s other adventurers here, I’ll have you know. Bad types, some of ’em. Maybe some of ’em even worse than the ones you met.”
“I will accept that risk.”
“And how long you plan on working here, then?”
“As long as you will have me.”
“And if you hear the adventurers you met are dead?”
“Master Tavernkeeper, one of Aelrin’s creatures was Belizth, one of the Infernal Judges, lured in and fed a soul belonging to Aelrin. The adventurers slew him with all the others. I do not believe, Master Tavernkeeper, that a hell exists which could hold them.”
“Mmm. And whatever wages I offer, you say?”
“I would request that there be some wages, Master Tavernkeeper. I…have had enough of gifts and entrapments for one lifetime.”
“Unnerstandable. Well, listen here, little one. I don’t run a charity here. You work for me, it will be work. It’ll be long hours, rude guests, and you better get used to every short joke, because you’ll be hearin’ ’em all, from guests that think they’re just the cleverest thing to walk in. As for pay…hmm. I don’t reckon you’ve got a lot of use for coin. There’s Melia, one of the serving girls…she does go off and practice singing every so often. Think she wants to catch the ear of a bard, go off wandering and lookin’ for trouble. Not a fan of cleaning, she is. So, you’ll take her duties there, and I’ll have her sing for you. Start with fifteen minutes a day, say.”
Hobol was thunderstruck.
“I…mortal music? Every day? Just for me?”
“Well, she’ll want days off. And if she does leave, we’ll work something else out.”
“Then I accept your offer, Master Tavernkeeper! And I swear by all the lights in the sky that I will serve you faithfully and honestly as long as you will have me.”
“Mmm.” said the man. His face had gone strange.
“Can ye keep a secret, little one?”
“Er…yes, Master Tavernkeeper.”
“Then I think I can offer you some peace of mind, in exchange for your sworn word that you’ll not repeat what I’m about to tell you.”
“Those adventurers…one was a half-orc with one eye, a wizard all in blue, an elf woman in armor that covered her whole body-”
“Yes! That’s them!”
“Aye. Them.” said the old man. He smiled grimly. “I remember them. Not often I have to throw people out, but they took offense, picked a fight.”
“You…you threw them out?”
“Aye. See, little one, the rumors are wrong. I just put it down for a while, that’s all.”
The old man reached out, and stroked the bronze blade affectionately, and Hobol realized that the light shining from the great bronze blade had nothing to do with the setting sun.
Then he sighed, and picked the polishing rag again.
“Blasted thing smudges if you so much as look at it. All right, then, Hobol. Melian’s in the kitchen. Tell her the tavernkeeper sent you.”