Kevin L. O'Brien
"Are you Röthgâr the Reaver?"
The barbarian warrior turned away from the counter of the open air wine shop and looked behind himself. Standing in the street was an incredible sight. It was a woman as tall and nearly as massive as himself. She had wide shoulders and hips, with a large, firm, well-rounded bosom and backside, but also a narrow waist and hard, flat stomach. Based on what he could see, he had little doubt that her arms and thighs would be well-muscled. Her companions were no less remarkable. On her right shoulder perched a large bird, while on her left shoulder crouched a Zoog. At her feet sat a young tomcat.
Röthgâr casually drained his goblet, then wiped the back of one hand across his clean-shaven chin. He stared hard at her with his ebony eyes. Her long oval face with its sharp features and ruddy skin was too strong to be called beautiful, but she was extremely handsome nonetheless, with her bright, cold emerald-green eyes and her eyebrows painted jet-black. Her hair was the color of golden bronze, long and straight, falling loose down her back, with two braids that hung from either side of her head down her front to her belt. A number of little golden balls were woven into the braids at their tips. She wore a simple long-sleeved, ankle-length gown embroidered in red. Over her shoulders was draped a folded cloak, secured at her throat with a red-gold brooch. Around her neck was an open ring of heavy twisted gold with large, uncut red gems attached to each end, while on her brow sat a headband of silvery metal.
"Who asks?" he growled in his deep and powerful bass voice, trying to intimidate her, though he doubted it would work. From a belt of woven strips of black leather hung a dirk with a heavy, foot-long blade and a slim sword as long as his arm. In her right hand she held an eight-foot spear, with a foot-long, leaf-shaped serrated blade. Based on that alone he decided she was a woman who was used to getting her own way. Still, she looked like the kind of a woman a man such as himself could enjoy, whether he fought her or wenched her, or just drank her under the table.
"I am Medb hErenn," the woman replied evenly; her contralto voice was also strong, but melodic, almost sing-song. "These are my entourage: Teehar'owan, my herald and scout," she indicated the bird; "Conaed, called Runt, my bard and fili," nodding towards the Zoog; "and Crèmedevoyageur of the feline messenger service, my advisor and special envoy to Her Most Serene Feline Majesty, the High Queen of All Cats Great and Small."
Röthgâr grunted indifferently, swatting at an errant fly. "I know you not, nor have I heard of your companions. What have you to do with me?"
"You have made a number of enemies in Ulthar."
The barbarian brushed away a lock of his blue-black hair that had fallen into his craggy face. "Should I care?"
"Well, you owe Seidhlóch the Moneylender twenty-five silver tahlers, you wrecked Gündersen's tavern, you roughed up several of Lady Titania's and Lady Trotula's bondwomen, you stole a purse of jewels and gold crowns from Scylla the Hetairae, you thrashed a number of Burgomaster Kranon's guardsmen, you got drunk at The Laughing Cat where you tried to assault Eibhlín Chrón and then fled without paying your tab; I doubt I need to continue, being as those are just the highlights."
He hooked his thumbs into his metal-mesh belt. "And what does any of this have to do with you?"
"They have asked me to collect damages from you."
Röthgâr narrowed his eyes and walked right up to the impertinent woman, until there was barely a dagger blade's width between them. "Do you believe you can accomplish this feat?"
Medb gave him a cryptic smile. "Let us say that they have well-placed confidence in my ability to solve these kinds of problems."
Smiling coldly himself, Röthgâr said, "The fact that I was able to leave Ulthar, despite the number and severity of my exploits, should tell you that I will be difficult to get the better of." He reached up and began to run the fingertips of his large and powerful hand along the line of her jaw. "Let me offer you an alternative. I shall be leaving here for Dylath-Leen in the morning. Come feast and drink with me today, then share my bed tonight. If you please me, I shall leave you a rich reward. You may then return to your friends and pay them off, and tell them any story you like." As he spoke, he dropped his hand down to her bosom and grasped one of her breasts. Despite the size of his hand, her breast not only filled it, but overflowed as well, and he delighted in squeezing the firm flesh.
Grinning lecherously, she said, "I am amused at your suggestion, for I intended to propose something similar. We shall have three challenges, you and I. If I win all three, you must accompany me back to Ulthar to make restitution to those you have wronged. If, however, you win even just one, I shall let you have your way with me, and then I will return to Ulthar alone and make restitution in your stead, while you go on to Dylath-Leen. Is that agreeable?"
He returned her a predatory grin of his own. "It is. How shall we choose the contests?"
"You may select the first two, but I will choose the last."
Röthgâr bellowed with laughter. "Agreed, and for the first test I choose a drinking contest."
Gesturing with her free hand, Medb replied, "Lead the way." And the barbarian trotted off down the street.
Medb hung back to allow him to get out ahead of her without losing sight of him. "I don't like this, Mistress," Teehar remarked. He was a crested, long-tailed bird the size of a jay, with gaudy red, blue, green, and gold plumage, and sharp scarlet eyes.
"Did you think this would be as easy as catching birds?"
Medb chuckled. "My apologies."
"Teehar is justified to be worried, Lady," advised Conaed. He was only half the size of his race, but his verdigris-speckled bronze coat was darker and his tarnished silver facial stripes brighter than his brethren. His peat-brown eyes were huge compared to his face, and his nose was long and flexible and festooned with wriggling pink tendrils at the tip. "Röthgâr has a reputation for being insatiable, whether it be food, drink, or women. Even with thy stamina, thee may not be able to best him."
"You should have more faith in me and my appetites, Runt," she replied laughingly.
"I have no doubts," Crème volunteered. He had a rangy stocky build, a bronze-striped, fawn-colored, short-hair coat, a salmon-pink nose, and dust-blue eyes. "But my people have on old saying: trust in Bast, but keep your mice caged. I have already spoken with the cats of this village. They will keep an eye on this barbarian, and should he try to slip away, they will hunt him down and subdue him."
"I appreciate your commonsense precautions, but by dawn tomorrow Röthgâr will be under my control."
Medb saw the barbarian vanish inside a tavern, so she hurried to catch up. She entered in time to see him greeting the keeper with a bear hug and slaps on the back. Röthgâr then jumped onto a table.
"My friends!" he shouted, drowning out the hubbub of conversation, "you are in luck, for today this magnificent and generously endowed wench --" and he indicated Medb, who bowed to a chorus of cheers, catcalls, and lewd comments "-- has challenged me to a series of tests. The first shall be one of indulgence, so clear away a table that we may begin. Landlord! Two tankards of your finest home brew."
In no time, a table was boisterously prepared, and Röthgâr sat himself down in one of the chairs. Medb placed the Zoog in another and took a third opposite the barbarian as Teehar flitted to the back of Conaed's chair. Crème hopped into the fourth as a patron took charge of her spear and sword. Moments later the tavernkeeper reappeared, followed by two beefy serving wenches, each carrying a ceramic tankard nearly as large as a gallon barrel on a thick pewter tray.
The tavernkeeper placed one in front of each contestant, then stepped back into the crowd. "In this contest," Röthgâr explained, "whichever one of us downs the contents of his tankard first is the winner."
"So simple?" Medb objected. "Then let us make it more interesting. Landlord, two swallows of your worst rotgut." When the barbarian gave her a quizzical look, she added, "Regardless of who finishes first, the winner will be she who can keep it down while drinking one last swallow."
Baffled, the crowd buzzed with speculation, but Röthgâr grinned and agreed lustfully. The two then lifted their tankards with both hands, clacked them together in salute, and began drinking. The barbarian's strategy was to chugalug, that way he was able to consume large quantities at a time. However, he was forced to rest for some moments before drinking more. Medb, on the other hand, took frequent sips, thus she consumed less but drank more frequently, and needed no rest. Conaed coordinated the betting, using Teehar to collect the coins and bring them to Crème, who watched over them, being a cat and therefore a trusted neutral party. Eventually, however, it became apparent who would win. Though Röthgâr's tankard decreased the most early on, the time between draughts increased and the amount he swallowed grew less, so that his tankard drained more slowly over time. Meanwhile, Medb increased the frequency and size of her sips, until her tankard's level first met, then passed Röthgâr's.
At almost the last second, however, a patron stumbled into the barbarian and jostled his arm. The last of his tankard spilled onto the floor just as Medb drained hers. Cries of "Tie!" and "Cheat, cheat!" filled the air, but Medb silenced them by pounding on the table. "I accept the tie," she declared, which brought about a round of Boos and Hurrahs. Silencing the crowd again, she announced, "Now for the final swallow!"
The tavernkeeper came out of the crowd, carrying a shot glass in each hand. He set them in front of Medb and Röthgâr as another round of betting commenced. "We drink simultaneously," Medb said. "Landlord, give the command." And she and the barbarian picked up their glasses. The crowd grew silent as they raised the liquor to their lips, keeping an eye on each other. The tavernkeeper watched them, and when they had brought the glasses to their mouths he shouted, "Drink!" At the same instant, both contestants snapped back their heads, poured the liquid into their mouths, and swallowed.
Everyone held their breath as Medb and Röthgâr froze. The former queen hiccuped once, twice, then burped loudly. After a short pause, she slammed the glass down onto the table with a resounding thud, her face beaming in triumph.
The barbarian, however, turned a vivid shade of pea-green, grabbed his empty tankard, and vomited up the ale.
Absolute dead silence filled the room, broken only by the sound of Röthgâr retching. Conaed, Crème, and Teehar looked around themselves nervously, expecting trouble, but then the tavernkeeper stepped forward and raised Medb's hand over her head as members of the crowd cheered. Even those who had bet on Röthgâr acknowledged her victory, if somewhat sullenly.
Conaed quickly paid off the bets, after deducting a small commission, while Medb waited for Röthgâr to recover. Fortunately, far more people bet on the barbarian than the former queen, so he was able to pay even the exorbitant odds he had offered and still make a killing.
Röthgâr gave Medb an evil look. "You were lucky," he said, to which she merely shrugged, "but I shall prevail in the next test. I choose single combat."
Unperturbed, Medb agreed, then inquired, "What are the rules?"
"We each choose a weapon, but no knives or daggers. The first to land three blows or make three cuts or knock the other off his or her feet three times will be the winner."
"Agreed. Which weapon will you choose?"
In reply, Röthgâr stood and removed his belt. He then pulled out his sword before handing the belt to the landlord. The weapon was shorter than Medb's own, but thicker and heavier, with a keen edge on both sides of the blade and a sharp point. The tip was also slightly wider than the base. A few of the patrons gasped when they saw it; it was designed to chop as well as slash and stab.
"I choose my sleg," Medb replied as she stood, and she took her spear back from the man who held it. That set off a new wave of betting as the contestants headed out of the tavern into the street.
"How are we goin' to know when one of yous been hit or cut?" a voice from the crowd called out, and his was seconded by many more.
Shouting above the tumult, Röthgâr declared, "We will fight naked to the waist." Turning to Medb he asked, "If you agree?"
Medb did not hesitate whatsoever, but removed her cloak, then her belt and shoes. Finally she reached up and untied the lacings at her shoulders, letting the gown fall to her feet. The crowd gasped again, this time at the sight of her completely naked body. Whereas she had been magnificent dressed, she was now breathtaking. The landlord collected her clothes as she took her spear from an onlooker and headed out into the street. A few snickers and obscene comments followed her, but all she had to do was pause and look back at the crowd to silence the hecklers. Erotic she may have appeared, but the sight of her massive, powerful frame, her look of cold disdain, and that wicked-bladed spear put off even the most lecherous cretin. Meanwhile, Röthgâr removed his fur tunic, then his leather byrnie, leaving only his tied leggings, before following the former queen into the middle of the avenue.
They took a moment to cross weapons in a salute, then they began circling one another. Röthgâr expected her to use her spear as a long-distance stabbing weapon; as such he believed that all he needed to do was get inside its reach where she couldn't maneuver it well and he could easily score his three hits. Unfortunately, she didn't do anything like that. Instead she wielded it like a staff, whirling it around in front of her and over her head and around her body as she twisted, spun, danced, kicked, and slashed. She was able to hold him at bay with the serrated blade even as she blocked or parried his sword thrusts and struck at him with the shaft. He simply couldn't get close to her, and he quickly realized that in this kind of battle he was at a distinct disadvantage. Normally he relied upon his strength to beat past his opponents' defenses and batter them into submission, while simultaneously relying on his quick reflexes to avoid counter-blows. Finesse was wasted in such circumstances, but it was an important asset in a duel of coup-counting such as this contest was. She was nearly as strong as he, but she combined it with a speed and grace he could not duplicate.
A moment's distraction on his part gave her the opportunity to score the first hit, by ramming the butt of the shaft into his stomach.
"That's one!" shouted the tavernkeeper.
Growling his frustration, Röthgâr renewed the battle with double intensity, but it seemed to have no avail. Even after he managed to break her spear in half she fought on without hesitation, using one piece as a club and the other like a short sword. Still, he thought he might finally have a better chance, so he pressed the attack with a lunging slash, but she parried it with the blade, only to whack the wrist of his sword hand with the ersatz club. As the sword dropped from his nerveless fingers, she whirled and hit him on the back of his neck, sending him sprawling on his face into the dirt.
"She won!" a disbelieving voice shouted from the crowd, which was answered by a number of cheers, but the landlord called out, "No, that counts as one blow!" A number of angry voices disputed him, but Medb announced, "I accept the judgment!" and the threatening tumult died away as a wave of disgruntled grumbling.
"For your last blow," the tavernkeeper informed her, "you must throw him down again." That elicited a fresh burst of incensed objections, but Medb merely smiled and nodded her head.
Still stunned from her blow, Röthgâr could only watch helplessly as she picked up his sword and tossed it aside. Then she did a very strange and surprising thing: she tossed the pieces of her spear after it. This was the break he had been waiting for. Reinvigorated by hope, he pushed himself to his feet and charged at her. He expected to grapple her, bear her down, and pin her to the ground. Again, though, she proved to be his superior in hand-to-hand combat. Her agility allowed her to keep out of his grasp even as she was able to rain kicks and blows on him. Still, he doubted she could throw him down bare handed. All he had to do was avoid getting hit in a vital area and absorb her blows as he waited for his opportunity.
It came sooner than he expected, when she tried to trip him up. He managed to get one arm around her waist and as she tried to twist away, he used her momentum to spin her around so that she faced him. He then wrapped both arms around her chest and pinned her against him as he pressed a fist into her spine. He squeezed as hard as he dared, trying to cut off her breath without breaking her back. Rather than struggle futilely, however, she relaxed first, then expelled her breath. When his arms slackened she pulled hers free and quickly boxed his ears. He let her go reflexively and as he held his ringing head, she stepped up to him and rammed the heel of one hand up under his chin. The blow threw his head back and pitched him off his feet; he then crashed onto his back with a satisfying thud.
The blow actually knocked him unconscious. He was only out for a few seconds, but it was long enough to prove that he had been beaten. When he came around, he saw her standing over him, and he knew what must have happened. Medb held out her hand to him; he took it and she helped him to his feet. He held onto it, though, for a moment longer than necessary, as a gesture of respect.
"And now," he said, "what contest do you choose?"
Medb made no reply; she simply took him by the shoulders, drew him close, and kissed him hard on the mouth. When she pulled back she said, "We bualadh craicinn until one of us is too exhausted to get out of bed."
Surprised at the unexpected challenge, Röthgâr nonetheless grinningly agreed.
"How're we ta know who really wins?" another voice from the crowd called out, and again a chorus of additional voices seconded it.
"I am not adverse to an audience," Medb said, smiling wickedly, but Röthgâr refused, mortally embarrassed.
"I will be their witness," announced Crème, and the gamblers agreed that would be fair.
The landlord declared that he had a room they could use, and he led Medb and Röthgâr back into the tavern and up a flight of stairs, Crème following in their wake. A few minutes later he descended again, then sat himself in a chair at the foot of the stairs to prevent, as he put it, any peeking. As such, the patrons had no choice but to settle in with their drinks, and content themselves with listening to the moans and shrieks of agonized pleasure that boomed down through the ceiling.
Conaed kept the bidding going all night, with the tavernkeeper holding the money. The odds fluctuated back and forth, often as a result of changing speculation over which of the two contestants made the most noise, but shortly before dawn they stabilized at even money not long after the sounds ceased altogether. For another hour the patrons waited, their anxiety increasing. It wasn't long before some began to suggest they go up and see what was happening, and sooner still before more insistent demands were made. The landlord stubbornly continued his vigil, but as time dragged on even his resolve began to weaken. Yet when he finally decided to check up on the contestants himself, everyone heard the door open upstairs. A minute later Crème appeared on the stairs. In his loudest caterwaul he announced, "The contest has ended; all hail the champion." And as he descended the rest of the way, Medb, now fully dressed and seemingly quite rested, followed him down.
Röthgâr slept until noon, at which time he awoke, dressed, and ate a huge lunch. He and Medb were on the road back to Ulthar soon after. Her purse and a couple of other bags bulged almost to bursting with her winnings and the Zoog's commission. For his part, Conaed rode on her shoulder while the cat and the bird scouted ahead.
The barbarian and the former queen walked in silence for some ways before they tried to strike up a conversation. "I was surprised I did not have to come looking for you when I was ready to leave," she remarked casually.
He shrugged and said, "I had given you my word; besides, it strikes me that you are a woman worth getting to know better."
Medb smiled, not out of gratitude or embarrassment, but pride. "I would have thought you found out all there was to know last night."
He waved her comment off. "That was mere physical investigation; I want to know what you are like as a woman and a person."
"Such as, why did you suggest a series of contests instead of simply taking me by force?"
"It would have been easier for me, as well as yourself, if you agreed to return to Ulthar of your own free will, and I decided that the best way to accomplish this would be to appeal to your honor. Also, I wanted to find out what kind of man you are; as such, they were tests of character as well as strength, endurance, and skill, and you won the final, unspoken challenge when you did not run away. Besides," she added conspiratorially, "as much as possible I prefer to mix pleasure with business."
"But how were you able to win so easily?"
Medb laughed out of genuine amusement. "Well, as to that, I am afraid you were beaten before we began."
"How so?" he asked incredulously.
"I have certain special talents that I have acquired throughout my life, as well as natural abilities I was born with. For example, I cannot become drunk, I am invulnerable to any weapon made by the hand of man, and I can draw power from the earth, so my strength and vitality are inexhaustible. Nor can I be harmed by disease, injury, or even drinking hard liquor on top of a large amount of rich, heady ale. And I can rob men of their strength simply by being in their presence. Also, despite my appearance, which I maintain through my knowledge of glamour and various arts of sorcery, I am quite old, older than you would probably believe. As such, I have forgotten far more about armed and unarmed combat than you could ever know."
"So you cheated," he said, but without reproof.
"No," she corrected, "I fought fairly and without resorting to any tricks, but you were outclassed."
"All that I can accept without rancor, but what really hurt me was that when we had sex you exhausted me after only a short time, while you were able to continue on until dawn. I need three good women to satisfy me; I simply cannot understand how you used me up so quickly."
Medb laughed again. "Actually, that is very simple: I need seven men to satisfy me."
"Oh, well, in that case, it all makes sense. I never had a chance, did I?"
Röthgâr fell silent for some minutes afterwards, but then he started to laugh. "That's actually a great relief." And when Medb gave him a quizzical look he added, "I was afraid I was losing my amateur standing."
"I do not understand."
Looking rather sheepish, he explained, "I'm not actually a barbarian, I just play one here. In the Waking World, I'm an accountant."
She halted abruptly, turning towards him. "An accountant," she repeated, in an incredulous tone of voice.
"Yes, that's someone who —"
"I now what an accountant is," she said irritably, "I just find it hard to believe you were able to hold your own against me as well as you did. Not to mention somewhat humiliating. But why the masquerade?"
Röthgâr chuckled. "Pure escapism. What with a million dollar mortgage, a wife who likes living beyond her means, three teenage kids who think I'm an ATM machine, and a dead-end job with a loser firm and a martinet of a boss, this is all that keeps me sane."
"But why a barbarian?" she asked mystified; "that seems so at odds with your normal life."
He gave her a frank stare. "Have you any idea how many people in my time dream of being a half-naked, mighty-thewed, sword-wielding, barely civilized warrior who can drink, wench, slay, and destroy with inexhaustible impunity? But I guess it's not enough in the end. I'll never be half the barbarian you are."
Medb looked at him for a moment or two, then smiled warmly. "That has to be the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me." Taking hold of his arm as she resumed walking, she added, "Stay with me for a time, and I will be pleased to teach you how to be a real barbarian."
Created: October 28, 2006; Updated: October 29, 2006