Aphelion Issue 281, Volume 27
March 2023
 
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A Barbarian Enters the Bar

by Beowulf Martinson





The large, very blonde barbarian slouched over the bar, leaning heavily against the old polished wooden surface. He was shaking his head softly while muttering curses under his breath at any religious figure he could remember. Hands the size of meat hooks were run first through long, bundled hair, and then his full somewhat darker beard over and over again in obvious consternation. Even the oversized double-bladed axe seemed to have lost some of its usual luster as a result of the deepening gloom of its heavily muscled owner.

Cliff, the barman, was polishing an already spotless glass mug for the fifth time in an hour while he debated over the exact timing of his approach to the desperate barbarian. It was obvious that the man needed something to drink, and, judging by the quality and polish of his leather armor, he probably even had money to pay for it, but when the barbarian had entered Cliff's little family bar nearly an hour ago, he hadn't seemed very approachable. In fact, he had seemed downright pissed, and more than a little ready to hit something. Seeing as how it was a little before noon, and Cliff couldn't count on any other customers showing up at least for another couple of hours, and another couple of hours after that before they were feeling good enough to risk asking an angry barbarian what his problem was, Cliff decided to let the man cool for a bit before popping the question. Who knew, maybe the barbarian might even start the conversation himself? It was a bar after all.

Finally, at long last, there was a sign. The barbarian sighed loudly, and put his head down on the bar, draping one rather long right arm across its wide surface to dangle his hand loosely over the back. Cliff didn't know any other barbarians, and this one was more than a little out of place in Marysville, but a good sigh from most people usually meant the likelihood of being hit had been substantially reduced. Cliff stretched non-threateningly (or so he hoped) as he replaced the mug on the rack above him, and said lazily to his only customer, "You doing ok over there?"

The barbarian lifted his head up off the bar part ways, just enough to get both of his hands up under his forehead. His hair dangled all over the place, and his weapons and armor chimed repeatedly as metal clanged against metal during the shift. The only response Cliff received, however, was a soft, defeated grunt.

Cool enough, thought Cliff to himself. The man is ready for human contact.

Sidling over to where the barbarian sat, making sure to stay well out of arms reach, Cliff put a glass down behind the bar for the inevitable drink. "Need a drink perhaps?"

"Yeah," said the blonde man in a deep gravelly voice, "anything."

Cliff poured up a beer for the barbarian and placed it down next to the man's large left hand with a light thump. There was a time for smoothness, a time for sliding, and a time for thumping. Now was a good time for thumping.

Grabbing the handle of the beer, the barbarian put it to his lips and started in on what looked like a long-draught, only to nearly drop the mug in slack jawed surprise. "What is this, barman?" demanded the barbarian with a heavy, but understandable accent.

"It's a beer," answered Cliff with a frown, "and it's Cliff, by the way, not barman." Cliff never could stand the generic title, 'barman'. It always sounded more like an insult than anything else, and he felt that his little polished wooden bar and gas-lit establishment was deserved of at least a little respect.

"Beer?" echoed the barbarian stupidly, "But it's cold?"

"Yeah," said Cliff, "It's cold because I store the stuff in the ice box. Only way to drink it you know."

"Ice box?" echoed the barbarian again, frowning.

"Oh," said Cliff, who was feeling stupid himself for not having figured it out earlier, "you're from out of town, and you don't get cold drinks in the summer, do you?" The barbarian simply nodded affirmatively, grasping the mug several times in rapid succession as if to verify its coolness. "Well, having the Mage and his students around has its advantages sometimes. Apparently they like cold drinks and unspoiled meat, and they discovered that a lot of other local people did too."

"Do you know the Mage, then?" asked the large man, then, the beginnings of hope coming back to his face. Obviously, the presence of a magical ice box must indicate a special relationship.

"Sorry, but no," said Cliff to his disappointed customer, who slouched back down onto the barstool again. "I take it you're looking for the Mage, then?"

"Yes."

Nodding to himself, Cliff noted that his hairy customer had finally overcome his surprise at the cool beer and drained the mug. "You have a name?" Cliff asked.

"Angvar."

"Angvar," replied Cliff, "that's quite the unusual name around here. Can I perhaps get you another drink, Angvar?"

Having begun a good stare into his empty mug, Angvar seemed almost reluctant to part with it, not replying for at least a minute. "Please," he said with another sigh, which carried a low raspy growl along with it.

"Ahhh," Angvar shouted quietly, raising his hands up to the side of his head and staring at the ceiling. "This is so damn frustrating."

Cliff, who was busy refilling the glass behind the bar, merely said, "Oh?"

"I traveled dangerous paths to reach the insane city, seeking desperate advice from the all-powerful Mage, only to find out that he isn't here?" He was shaking his head in frustration again, like he had been doing for an hour before after entering the bar. "I don't have much time, and he's not here? What did he do - go on vacation just to spite me?"

"Vacation," said Cliff curiously, "what are you talking about?"

"I've waited for days outside the Mage's place, never letting that door out of my sight," replied the barbarian, slamming his fist down onto the bar. Cliff was relieved to see that the wood beneath appeared undamaged, despite the strength of the blow. "I've knocked, over and over again – he just isn't here!"

By this time, the volume of Angvar's deep voice had gone well pass common decency levels, or so a wincing Cliff thought as he prepared to shush his agitated customer, but Angvar, seeing Cliff's expression shot an apologetic look at Cliff, and lowered the volume himself. "What do I do now?" he asked hopelessly.

"Did you try this morning before you came in?" asked Cliff perplexedly. Seeing the barbarian nod, he stated matter of factly, "I'm sure I saw him this morning as I passed his house."

"What?" blinked Angvar, brushing some loose hairs out of his eyes, "When exactly? I banged on that door and shouted until I was hoarse, and no one ever came."

"Not that I know the Mage personally, mind you," said Cliff, wanting to repeat that fact again for the easily worked up barbarian, "but I passed his house this morning on the way to work and saw him through the window. I don't remember seeing you, though, and I think I'd remember that. Did you take a break or something?"

"Yes," frowned the barbarian, scrunching his eyebrows together in frustration, "but only for a very short time."

"Well," said Cliff, nodding to himself, "that must have been it then, as I'm sure that was him I saw sitting down to eat in the living room."

"Living room?" echoed Angvar, as if the concept were somehow alien to him.

"Yeah, you know. It's the room with the table in it you can see through the big glass window."

"I know what a living room is," assured Angvar, who was still frowning despite the Mage's apparent reappearance, "but I don't remember any big glass windows." He raised an eyebrow at Cliff and asked, "What kind of tower has big glass windows anyways? Are we talking about the same place?"

"Tower," replied Cliff, an odd thought entering his head at seemingly the same time it entered the barbarians. "Where exactly were you standing for the last 3 days?"

"Outside the Mage's huge tower just north of the city. Why?"

Pinching the bridge of his nose as he rubbed his eyes and tried to suppress a small laugh, Cliff replied gently, "Ahhh. That would explain it then."

"What?" hollered Angvar in disbelief, "Don't tell me I've been standing outside the wrong damn tower these last three days."

"Well, you see," began Cliff, "that is his tower, and it is his only tower, so far as I know, but he doesn't live there."

"What kind of self-respecting magician doesn't live in a tower?" replied Angvar, settling down again onto the chair. His hand, left this time, found its way back to his forehead and began kneading an obvious headache.

"It's actually a rather amusing story," began Cliff, settling in for one of his favorite tales. "Before that tower, the Mage was relatively unknown in the lands, especially around here. He apparently had power and money aplenty, but he'd never settled down long enough to do anything with it. About thirty years ago, the Mage walked into our little town of Marysville and decided to stay. He even sat at this here bar a few times before he became famous. Now, though, he mostly goes down to Harrys' place or stays in, so that's why I don't really know him."

"Anyways, after scouting the town for a bit and finding just the right place, he strolled into the town square and began demanding to see the mayor quite loudly. He even shot off a few small fireballs and torched a dead tree trying to get someone's attention. When the ruckus started, I took off without father's permission and ran down to the square to see what was going on, so that's why I can tell you these details."

Angvar motioned for another drink while Cliff talked on, apparently willing to stay long enough for the duration of the tale. Cliff was only happy to oblige.

"Poor old Jerome had been elected Mayor only the month before, and so it fell on him to talk to the angry magician in the square. Truth be told, we all pushed him forward, anxious to see what happened next. The Mage hadn't actually hurt, or even threatened anybody yet, so we weren't too worried for Jerome. I'm not sure Jerome ever quite forgave us for that, though, as he stole the town's taxes and headed for the hills shortly thereafter, but I digress."

"Apparently, the Mage was just announcing to the crowd in his own spectacular way that he was going to build a huge tower and school here in Marysville – make us all famous. He made it clear that he wasn't asking our permission, but he wanted us to know anyways. Jerome later told us that he also promised to take care of any trouble makers."

"So he did build that tower," questioned Angvar. "Why isn't he there now?"

"I'm getting to that," said Cliff, calling for more patience. "He did build that tower, yes. It took him nearly a week to put up all 7 floors, magically of course. Half the town showed up for the show as he would create a wall out of thin air, or maybe calling it from deep within the earth (I really couldn't tell you), and levitate it into place with the flick of his hand. He also called down lightning to fuse parts of the tower together and even occasionally shaped the stone directly with his hand as he sought out the perfect shape. Now you know that most of that conical effect was done by hand."

Angvar was blinking his eyes and rubbing the muscles in his arms as he contemplated the feats of magic necessary to build that tower. Most building was done by a team of laborers where he was from, and anything as tall as that tower was likely to fall down during the first winter storm.

"And once the outer walls completed, the Mage created himself a doorway in the front and moved inside. " Cliff waited for a moment for Angvar to chime in something about the magical construction, but nothing was forthcoming. Sometimes the customers participated, and sometimes they did not. Neither really affected his enjoyment of the story. "So it was one week after the Mage started that the walls were finished, and it was another two after that before the insides were done. Much of the crowd left after the big show was over, and even I had to go back to helping out Dad at the bar, but I snuck out to the tower as often as I could to watch windows suddenly appear in the thick stone walls and lights flash every now and then from the inside. It was very cool."

"The whole tower was done in less than a month, complete with seven floors, an impressive sloping conical structure, and the mandatory platform at the top for controlling the weather. The mage moved in right away and began work on planning for the school back in town."

"So if the mage moved into the tower," asked Angvar, who was still trying to figure out how to complete his mission, "why isn't he there now? It is an extraordinary tower that any magician would want for their very own. Even back home, we've heard stories of the magical chaos tamed in the construction of that tower."

"True enough," answered Cliff. "That tower sealed the Mage's fame, as everyone with an ounce of magic in their blood could feel the power of its awesome construction. Even the rest of us yokels knew it was special."

"So what happened?" asked the blonde barbarian.

"Well, that's the funny part. The tower was built in the Fall, and for most of that winter, no one here in Marysville saw hide nor hair of their resident magician. Most just attributed it to the well known surliness of magic-users in general, while a few others like Phil Brakson, who had a crazy idea he wanted to pitch about building magic powered mills next to his fields, took it rather more personally."

Clearly caught up in the story, Angvar risked a tangent, "and the man who thought up the ice boxes, too, I suppose?"

"Not really," answered Cliff. "Elisabeth, the Mage's wife of nearly twenty-five years now, didn't think those up until after they'd already been married a few years. I doubt she'd held much of a grudge, or even had a get rich scheme at the time, or the Mage probably wouldn't have dated her."

"Anyways, like I said, the tower was completed in the Fall, but, come Spring, the Mage came marching back up the road from out of town, this time with a small group of people. We hadn't even known that he had left, and I think Phil had waited out in front of that tower on more than a few occasions just like you had, Angvar." Cliff said the last with a smile, but wanting to make sure he added, "No offense." Frowning slightly at his own stupidity for not enquiring about the Mage's residence earlier, Angvar waved just off the jest.

"It turns out that the after all that construction on the tower, the Mage moved in just long enough to realize that it was really unpleasant to live in. All the stonework made the temperature impossible to control, even with magic. It was constantly dark, and dripping water in all sorts of random places during every rainstorm. He'd done his best to patch up the problems magically, but never liked the place. Apparently, he took off that winter to go asking his other magician friends for advice, but all of them simply told him to get used to it. That was the nature of towers apparently." Cliff looked about at his cozy bar, which, although the fire wasn't burning now, even contained a fireplace for long, cold winters. "Glad I don't live in one."

"Hmph," said Angvar, clearly disagreeing. "That IS the nature of towers," he stressed, "but magicians are supposed to live in them. It's how we find them after all."

"Well apparently," countered Cliff, "the Mage disagreed with both you and most of his friends. The small group of people he brought with were master house builders from neighboring cities. They hired a small army of us Marysville folks, and we built him a wonderful house down on Blackberry Lane – complete with indoor plumbing, gas lights, and a full kitchen. He even insisted on those big glass windows in the front for his living room, which he magically enspelled not to break. A few kids some years back actually threw a couple of rocks at those windows just to test out the spell, and while the windows didn't break, I've been told that the rebounding rocks hurt almost as bad as the beatings the kids got from their parents."

"A house?" repeated Angvar, shaking his head in disappointment. "The most powerful magician anyone has ever heard of lives in a house with glass windows and indoor plumbing?"

"Can't say as I blame him myself," replied Cliff. "Do you want to live in that monstrosity outside of town? Besides, here in town he grows a wonderful little flower garden that all of us can stop by and admire. I understand he's quite proud of it."

"I suppose I can't blame him for wanting something else," admitted Angvar, as if his hero had let him down, but a smile had appeared on his face for the first time since Cliff had seen him enter. Standing up, Angvar shifted the big axe on his back and adjusted the leathers of his armor. "I can't believe I've come all this way to talk to a magician with a house and flower garden, but at least he's here. " Rolling his eyes again and sighing, he asked Cliff, "I don't suppose you can point me in the right direction this time?"

"Not a problem," said Cliff, smiling broadly. It wasn't everyday that a big barbarian got lost here in the city looking for the Mage, and he'd make sure everyone heard about it, but, what with the Mage and his students about, it wasn't too extraordinary either. "Take a left out the front door, and then take another left down Apple Street a couple blocks up. Go for a few blocks, I don't remember how many, and turn right on Blackberry Lane. If you get lost, most of the locals call it Mage St now. You're looking for the large, single-storey house with a white picket fence. If you reach the house with the big barking dogs, you've gone too far."

"Thanks."

"You're welcome," said Cliff. "Oh, and by the way, don't open the front gate without getting the Mage's attention, you'll..." Cliff heard the front door shut as the barbarian walked left the bar again in pursuit of his epic quest, "... let the dragon out again."

Cliff scooped the barbarian's money up off the bar and then paused. "I'm probably going to get blamed for it getting out, aren't I?" he asked aloud in the empty room. "I suppose I'd better go help catch the damn thing." Sighing deeply, Cliff hung up his apron and headed for the door.


THE END


2016 Beowulf Martinson

Bio: Dr. Martinson plays with robots for a living in the San Francisco Bay area. He has authored more than 30 scientific articles professionally and enjoys writing short fiction whenever he can.

E-mail: Beowulf Martinson

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