The Curmudgeon


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

21 November 869

It was virtually the hour of closing at the Gallows and Glockenspiel. Hooligan Motts was behind the bar, watering down the Plugguggly in case of emergencies, and was just about to announce, "November the twenty-first, eight sixty-nine. Nearly closing time," when the door sneaked open and admitted a large bearded head in a large hornless helmet. "Are we too late?" asked the head. "I was hoping for a quick one before starting back to Thetford."

Meeting no objections, the door sneaked open further and admitted the large leather-clad body to which the head was apologetically attached. After the body came another body, bearing on its back a large tub which emitted liquescent protests at every sudden movement. The card-players, several of whom had bet their teeth and lost, looked up curiously.

"You must excuse us," said the man in the helmet. "Battles cropping up at the last minute, and blood-eagles and what have you, and this thing," he aimed a kick at the carrier of the tub, who gratefully positioned himself at an appropriately painful angle, "this Edmund here, nearly spilled Ivar twice. Just put him down gently," he ordered the conveyancer, "and then be off to a dark corner and stay out of my sight for a while. Honestly," the customer resumed to Hooligan Motts, while Edmund reverently deposited the tub as directed, "honestly, it's been an awful day. Beer, please."

By way of improving matters, he kicked out again at Edmund, propelling him in the direction of Mr Boggust and Mr Blodgett, whose corner was as dark as most people could wish, and darker than many would care for.
"Battles?" said Mr Boggust, or possibly Mr Blodgett.
"Blood-eagles?" said Mr Blodgett, or possibly Mr Boggust.
"Both," stammered Edmund, trying not to look at either of them in case he saw the other. "Yesterday. A dreadful defeat by our pagan persecutors." He pointed at the bar. "Ubbe Ragnarsson and Ivar the Boneless."
"Mr Ragnarsson to you," the large man called over, "your majesty."

Edmund, who was still hunched over as though carrying the tub, flinched so badly that he nearly straightened out. While the large man wasn't looking, one of the card-players - not Constable Pring - sneaked up to the tub for a look inside and then had to visit the bathroom rather suddenly.

"You can't get the staff these days," Mr Ragnarsson confided to the bar in general. "The bowmen wanted to use him for target practice, and I'd just as soon have let them, but then Ivar had to have his way." He prodded the tub with his foot. "Had a perfectly adequate slave to carry him around: strong as an ox, good upholstery, nice and smooth over the bumps. But that wasn't good enough for Ivar, was it?" He prodded again, and the tub spluttered indignantly. "Oh, no," Mr Ragnarsson said. "Ivar gets it into his head, or into his brain anyway, that he needs better quality transport, something in the luxury line. A king, no less."

At the mention of the word king, Edmund squeaked slightly. It may have been a squeak of reverence, or it may have been a squeak of fear; then again, it may merely have been the sort of squeak people often emitted in the company of Mr Blodgett and Mr Boggust. Edmund did not elaborate upon the squeak, and nobody asked him.

"So we had to spare the cowardly little squit," Mr Ragnarsson complained, "and do the blood-eagle thing on one of his vassals, which isn't half so much fun. You've tried the blood-eagle thing yourself, I suppose? Cutting the ribs away from the backbone and pulling out the lungs?"
"Not recently," said Hooligan Motts, who kept a tidy house. "Used to do pies a while ago."
"Ah," said Mr Ragnarsson sympathetically. "Anyway, we offered the usual terms: do as you're told or suffer horribly for a very long time, which are more or less the terms they get from their god. I don't suppose you're acquainted with their god, are you - the Jewish chap with the sense of humour?"
"Not personally acquainted, no," said Hooligan Motts.
"You're not missing much, from what I understand," said Mr Ragnarsson. "But they're a stubborn lot, some of them. You'd think it would be easy for them to leave this church of theirs, since all you have to do in order to join is tell lies and get your head washed. But not a bit of it. That vassal kept on and on and on about this heavenly father of his who likes to nail his children to crosses; kept on about it right up until someone chopped his head off. It was quite distracting."

Mr Ragnarsson drained his beer, slammed the glass down on the bar, handed Hooligan Motts a coin and looked around for Edmund, who had sidled away to look for a dark corner which he wouldn't have to share with Mr Boggust and Mr Blodgett. "Come on, you," Mr Ragnarsson yelled, while the barman unobtrusively swept away the cracked glass. Edmund did his best to bow and scrape his way over to his master, but found himself unable to do so very effectively because his posture was already so obsequious. He banged his nose on the floorboards a few times, then scuttled to shoulder his burden. From inside the tub came gurgles in an imperious tone, and Edmund preceded Mr Ragnarsson through the door.

"Closing time," said Hooligan Motts.


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