Lucky’s Rolling Barrel
Lucky’s Rolling Barrel
story by Geoff Bottone
For Zakhan, the Harmonious Cup served two equally spiritual purposes. It was located within the Great Temple of Greyport, and whenever he visited it, Zakhan felt the peace and oneness that he always felt whenever he was close to the divine. It was also a place where he could drink alcohol of exceptional quality, thereby allowing himself to establish a deeper connection with his chi. He hoped that, by drinking as much as Farai, the proprietor, had to offer, and by practicing his art in the quiet tasting room, he would swiftly ascend to the next level of mastery. Even now, he felt his third eye beginning to open as the loci of energy in his body began to thrum and resonate in har—
“I’m sorry, Zakhan,” said Farai, who had spent the last few minutes blowing out candles and extinguishing lanterns. “I’m closing down for the night.”
Zakhan blinked, his concentration shattered. He had been studying the intricate shape of the carved oak tree that was the focus of the Cup and Farnir’s holy symbol. He looked around, perplexed, and only just noticed how quiet and dark everything had become.
“Apologies! I didn’t realize how late it was,” he said.
“It’s not really all that late,” said Farai, his tone finding the middle ground between apologetic and insistent. “But, you know, I am a priest and I do have to attend the evening’s worship services, sooo…”
“Oh, of course, of course,” said Zakhan, standing up from the well-padded chair and sprinkling a few gold coins on the bar. “Perhaps I will come by a bit earlier tomorrow night and try again.”
“Tomorrow is Farnir’s holy day,” said Farai, with a smile. “So it’s time to get back to sharing Farnir’s wisdom, rather than seeking His insight. You could still come by, if you’d like to, you know, pray and meditate, or something.”
“Ah,” said Zakhan, feeling defeated. He felt like he was getting close to reaching the next level, and was afraid he would swiftly lose all of his progress if he did not keep at it. “Let me think about it. Perhaps I will come by tomorrow to join you in the contemplation of the infinite.”
“If you do, I will be here,” said Farai. “Good night, my friend.”
Zakhan wandered away from the Temple and down along Greyport’s mazy streets until his feet and the gently descending hills of the city brought him eventually to the docks. The cool night air, which had taken on a deeper bite thanks to the dampness of the seaward breeze, had sobered him just a bit, further blunting the brightness of his inner power and insight. Zakhan breathed deeply, felt his inner eye squint against the sudden inrush of cold air, and wondered what he was going to do next.
He peered at the moon, hazy behind the clouds, and frowned. Not even midnight! There might be time for him to salvage this evening and all of the progress that he had made. He simply needed to find a new place where spiritual oneness and easy access to alcohol presented themselves in equal quantity. Only then would he be able to hone his perceptions with fiery drink while his mind and body sought the next step in his spiritual process.
“I could go to the Dragon, I suppose,” he said, to no one, his breath pouring from his mouth in an alcohol-scented stream.
Zakhan took only one step toward that old, familiar tavern before reconsidering. He loved the Red Dragon Inn, of course. It was where he had met his good friends and adventuring companions and where he spent most nights. He was sure that some of the party were already there, celebrating their success after one dungeon delve or another. He was also certain that good old Warthorn and Olivia would both be happy to see him, and would give him as many drinks as he was able to pay for.
And yet, he realized that this was not what was needed right now. The old, the comfortable, the mundane, none of these would help him achieve the next level of enlightenment. That was why he had sought out the Harmonious Cup in the first place. What he needed was a new experience. Something to stretch his mind and body in ways that they had not been exercised. One could never reach a new plateau by taking the easy way, but only by hard work, determination, and either a metaphorical–or literal–vertical climb.
He stared off across the harbor, out at the tall outcropping of rocks that marked the entrance to the sea. It would be a long walk and a perilous climb, but the peak of that outcropping would be the perfect place for him to practice his balance and hone his technique. Maybe that would be enough?
He heard the rattle-clang of bells echoing up and down the street.
Zakhan wheeled around, catlike, and saw a large pushcart, its wares covered by draperies of gaily covered fabric, come rolling out of the fog, as if it were a ship that had broken free of its mooring. At the rear of the cart, Zakhan saw an old goblin woman of particularly ancient visage. She huffed and blew out her cheeks as she strained at the cart’s sturdy wooden handle, slowly pushing it upward along the harbor road.
“Hello,” he said, walking up to the cart. “Do you require any assistance?”
The goblin woman looked up from her labors and smiled, “Oh, hello there, young man. Why, that’s most generous of you. I would welcome your assistance! I’m just taking this lot here up to Rotas Square, do you know where that is?”
Zakhan shook his head.
“Well, that’s all right, my lad, that’s all right,” said the old goblin woman, as she gestured at the push bar of the cart. “I can certainly give you directions easily enough.”
He took her place behind the cart, rubbed his palms together to awaken them for the task to come, and took the push bar in both hands. Even with his greater size, strength, and martial training, the cart was still an impressively heavy thing. His first exertion of effort only caused the wheels to squeak as they rotated forward a tiny fraction.
“My goodness,” said the goblin, a sparkle of delight in her eyes. “You are quite a strong young man, aren’t you? This will be no trouble for you at all! Come! Rotas Square is right over this way.”
She led and he followed, pushing the cart ahead of him. It was not as trivial a task as Zakhan had first assumed it would be, especially when he was confronted with some of Greyport’s steeper hills. However, he had trained long and hard to strengthen his body against any foe or challenge and that, plus the dual work the alcohol in his system was doing to dull his pain and align his spirit, allowed him to persevere against even such an intractable opponent as gravity.
He did find that pushing the cart got easier the longer he worked at it, however. This was due, in part, to gaining a gradual understanding of the cart’s physical layout. He had soon worked out where its center of balance was, how different pressures on its handle caused it to respond, that the front left wheel turned a bit more swiftly than the others, and how the back right wheel badly needed grease and preferred to not turn at all unless coaxed.
But it was more than that. Zakhan was now focused only on the labor, of pushing the cart up the crest of the next hill, of maintaining a firm hold on it so he could ease its descent down the other side. This eventually put him into a state of hyperfocus, where he was thinking only of his own body, the cart, and the hills that they faced together. The alcohol that he was not burning off in his exertion coursed through his body, racing along the pathways between his loci of power, awakening hidden gifts. For the first time after leaving the Harmonious Cup, he felt that the next tier was within his grasp.
When they at last arrived in Rotas Square, Zahkan was surprised to see that there already seemed to be a group of people waiting for them. The group consisted of several young folks who were out on the town, nocturnal revelers who were already quite well-pickled, and aimless adventurers such as himself. As Zakhan guided the cart to a stop, the assembled people formed an orderly line and, with money in one hand and mug in the other, cheerfully greeted the elderly goblin.
“Good evening, good evening to you all,” she said.
The aged goblin smiled at the assemblage and, with a bow, and a theatrical flourish, she pulled on the glittering cords that controlled the cart’s multicolored draperies. The drapes slid back, revealing two racks of kegs standing side by side. Their taps, although of chipped bronze and tarnished silver, still managed to somehow glimmer in the diffuse moonlight.
Taking cup and coin from the first person in line, the goblin announced,. “Lucky’s Rolling Barrel is now open for business! And it shall remain so…”
She paused theatrically to glance around the square. Then, with a smile, she said, “until those stiff-as-boards guards toss us out!”
A hearty cheer went up from the crowd. Zahkan joined in, as he was made excitable both by the lightheadedness brought on by his recent exertions, and by the prospect of acquiring some additional alcohol to continue to fuel his growth.
While Lucky poured from various casks and kegs and handed out cups, flagons, bowls, and even empty bottles, Zahkan patted down his pouches for stray coins.
“Here you go, love,” Lucky said to him, mid-search, pressing a battered tin mug into his hand. “On the house. Only fair for the industrious young man who brought my wares over hill and dale, I should think!”
“Thank you very much!” said Zahkan, taking the proffered cup. With great gusto, he raised it aloft and shouted, “to our hostess!”
The clusters of drinkers and the people still waiting patiently in line gamely responded with an inarticulate cheer. Zakhan toasted them with his borrowed mug and drank. The beverage in the cup was mostly foam and more than a little sour, but it went down well enough. It slithered into his stomach and, from there, began to disperse its spiritual warmth through the rest of his body, further heightening his martial prowess.
As his inner eye cracked open, Zakhan peered around the square. He noticed, for the first time, how shifty and dangerous looking many of his fellow drinkers were. Some were heavily scarred, others had numerous blades tucked into their belt, and one was even wearing a ring with the Thieves’ Guild insignia right on her finger for everyone to see. Those that didn’t slip off into doorways and alleyways merely vanished into the cool night, clutching their recent purchases close to their chests. He also noticed that Lucky, seemingly invigorated by the thought of so many customers, was moving much more gracefully and with the easy strength of a goblin almost half…no…perhaps three-quarters…of her age.
It was then that he noticed that a goodly portion of the barrels on her cart had various curious brands seared onto their lids. He spotted one that looked like it might have been a wyvern, another that looked like a spired oak, and another that seemed to be a tusked boar.
No, not a tusked boar. A stylized orc, perhaps? He squinted closely at the brand. Honestly, it could go either way.
The woman with the Thieves’ Guild ring was now at the front of the line. She lifted her empty cup to Lucky and said, “here for my pick up.”
Lucky winked as the woman poured much more than a drink’s worth of money into her hands. Lucky slashed out with her leg, thumping her ankle against the side of the cart. Inside of the cart, something clicked, and a small panel opened up right beside Zakhan’s knee.
“Excuse me,” said the woman, affably, as she bent and received a tightly-wrapped parcel from inside the cart.
Zakhan continued to stare at the woman as she closed the panel, retrieved her now full cup from Lucky, and strode away into the crowd.
“What was all that about?” asked Zakhan, pointing after the woman.
“Oh, nothing, my lad. Nothing at all.” asked Lucky, all smiles, as she took Zakhan’s now empty cup from his hand. “Just doing a bit of a delivery for a dear, dear friend of mine. Some people pay couriers, you know, but they’re expensive, and my cart and I can get across the city just about as fast as they can. Especially when we’ve got such a strong young lad like you to do the pushing.”
“I suppose that makes sense,” said Zakhan. “It just seemed that…well…the ring…”
“Fancy another, my dear?” asked Lucky, as she pushed the cup back into his hand.
“Oh, yes,” he said. He took a long drink. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, my dear. Of course!”
Zakhan lowered his cup and swallowed. He was definitely feeling much more insightful already, and there were quite a lot of new things for him to both notice and think about. He was aware that the line of customers was almost at its end. One of the last people in line, a smallish kobold with a hook for a hand, opened the panel on the side of Lucky’s cart and deposited a small statue of singularly ugly design.
“Cheaper than a courier, eh?” said Zakhan, raising his mostly empty cup to the kobold in what he hoped was a friendly manner.
The kobold glanced at Lucky, who smiled winsomely and winked back.
“Sure,” said the kobold. “Whatever.”
The kobold scuttled off into the night. As Zakhan watched him go, Lucky took his mug from him and filled it a third time.
“Thank you,” he said, before taking a sip. “I was wondering if I could ask you a question.”
“Of course, dear, of course,” said Lucky, as she produced a rag and began polishing the spigots on each of the kegs. “Anything. Just you name it.”
“I was noticing these brands on your barrels. Do they denote the type of alcohol they contain or…”
The familiar sound of a city guard horn echoed throughout Rotas Square. At the sound, the handful of Lucky’s customers and hangers-on that remained made themselves extremely scarce, vanishing into the shadows and fog as easily and as completely as one of Eve’s illusionary tricks.
“Ah dear,” said Lucky. “Time to go. Best finish that up, my lad, we’ve got to be on our way.”
He chugged the rest of his drink. It went down quickly, being mostly water, but it still burned enough to fuel his growing enlightenment. Zakhan handed the cup back to Lucky, took the cart’s handle in both hands, and began to push. As he resumed his heavy dance with the cart, his mindfulness and his inner focus resumed.
“Not that way, my dear,” said Lucky, walking beside him and hooking him around the elbow with her cane. “This way! We’ve more customers to meet. We’ll take Bohm Way. You push. I’ll shout directions.”
And, with a sharp turn of the cart, they were off.
As the night wore on, Zakhan’s mental focus softened until it was as wispy as the low-lying fog that now clung to Greyport’s streets. He would push the wagon to a new location, wait as Lucky sold drinks, gratefully accepted free drinks from Lucky as recompense for his work, and drank them down.
Occasionally, he found himself staring blankly at the brands on the barrels. Though he was certain that his inner eye was by now fully open, he was still unsure what to make of them. It did not help that the brands had begun moving of their own accord. The orc face–he was at least sure of that, by now–glowered at him, the oak seemed to sway in an alcoholic breeze, and the wyvern was not only turning slow, reeling loops, but also seemed not to look all that much like a wyvern anymore. In fact, it almost looked like a…
No. It was gone. His mind and body were so relaxed from drink that they had become one, unfettered by such piddling concerns as doubt, hesitation, fear, or where he had seen that wyvern symbol before. Zakhan had never before reached this stage of enlightenment. The combination of intense physical labor and a steady supply of drink had worked together to push his senses beyond their previous limits. He could hear the air. His feet felt perfectly balanced; rooted to the ground. His movements were perfectly loose and fluid, able to anticipate and avoid any or all incoming attacks. His pain tolerance was now so high that he thought he might be able to shatter a stone wall without feeling it.
As he looked up and down the street to find a likely target upon which to test his theory, Lucky approached him, all smiles. The cup he had been using all night, which was once again filled with drink, rested comfortably in her hand.
“I’ve one more stop this evening, my dear,” Lucky said, as she passed him the cup. “Just a few things to pick up down at the docks. If you’d be so kind as to help me gather them, I will give you a final reward for all your hard work tonight.”
Zakhan raised the cup in an unsteady toast and drank it.
“I am pleased to help you, of course!” he said.
Or, at least, tried to say.
Lucky regarded him for a moment, smiling slightly, before gesturing at the handle of the cart. “Well, well, I do believe that was a yes. At least, I’m fairly certain that it was. Come, come! And do be careful, my dear. The way we’re taking is mostly downhill.”
“Here we are,” Lucky said at last.
In the rosy light of pre-dawn, Zakhan beheld the Greyport Docks for the second time in only a few hours. There were many ships moored there, some small, some quite large. Despite the occasional shape of a harbor guard waving a lantern and pacing back and forth along the salt-scoured boards, it was deserted. Even the nearby Scurvy Dog was buttoned up tight—its last patrons having staggered home hours ago—and its latticed windows were completely dark.
Lucky directed Zakhan down the warped planks of one of the piers. Up ahead lay a fat-bellied trading ship, still carrying cargo and riding low in the water. Zakhan watched the ship bob up and down, until its motion caused a sympathetic churning in his stomach. He closed his eyes, focused his chi, and breathed deeply and rhythmically until the unpleasant feeling went away.
“Now,” said Lucky, in a quiet whisper. “These lads will be unloading my latest shipment later today. But, as you are no doubt aware, I’ve had quite the busy night of it and could do with replenishing my stores. So, I thought to myself, Lucky, my dear, why not take advantage of this strong handsome boy you’ve found, while making slightly lighter work for the sailors and the dockworkers besides, eh?”
Zakhan opened his eyes and stared at the ship for a long moment.
“I…what?” he said. “Sorry…I don’t…”
“It’s no trouble at all, my dear. You’ve had quite a few tonight; certainly, I haven’t been stingy in the compensation department, oh no. Let me try smaller words.”
Lucky pointed at the deck of the ship, all green-apple cheeked smiles. “If you could just go aboard, pick up my order, and bring it out to me, I’d be most grateful. It should be stowed just on the port side there. Now, not all of them are for me, you understand. Just the nearest five—” she looked Zakhan up and down, “—no, six barrels. Those are mine, all paid for in advance.”
Zakhan nodded, all of that sounding perfectly reasonable. He favored Lucky with a deep bow, as befit his martial artistry and his noble heritage. “I shall be back at once,” he said, this time only slightly slurring his words.
“That’s a good lad,” said Lucky. “Now, do be careful not to awaken the sailors. Poor, hardworking folks, they don’t need to be up and about any earlier than they ought to be.”
With effortless grace, Zakhan hopped aboard. His mastery of the drunken style allowed him to reach the main deck of the merchant ship without a sound, and to instantly adapt himself to the gentle rhythm of the slowly bobbing ship. Nearby, one sailor was curled up inside of a large coil of rope, snoring and clutching at a raggedy pillow. Behind her, two other sailors had rigged up hammocks within the ship’s rigging, gently swaying in time with the ship.
It took Zakhan a moment to orient himself toward the bow of the ship. Then, after several careful checks of his hands later, he determined which side was the port side and headed there. The barrels—perhaps twenty all told—were right where Lucky said they would be. A heavy cargo net had been placed over the barrels and secured to cleats to keep them in place during the voyage.
Zahkan unfastened a corner of the net and bent to pick up the nearest barrel. The edge scraped on the deck, and he froze, fearing that the noise would awaken the sailors. Upon glancing around, however, he discovered that they were all still sound asleep. Relieved that he hadn’t bothered them, he hoisted the barrel to his shoulder, strode across the deck, and brought it down to the dock.
He did this five more times, keeping a careful tally on his fingers. With his alcoholically enhanced agility and his impressive strength, it was nearly no trouble at all. It was the work of but a few minutes for him to offload the barrels onto the dock and, from there, to help Lucky affix them to the cart with loops of old rope and leather. Despite Lucky insisting that it wasn’t necessary, he crept aboard the ship one final time to refasten the net on the cleats, ensuring that the other barrels would stay right where they were.
“That was most deftly done, my dear,” said Lucky, smiling and extracting a small coin pouch from the folds of her skirt. “Thank you, thank you. A hundred times, thank you. Alas, here we must part ways for the day, for I have other business to attend to under the city, and I’ve kept you a bit too long already.”
“No…trouble at all,” said Zakhan, smiling back.
The wrinkled old goblin pushed the purse into his hand. “I’m afraid I’m a touch behind schedule, so I won’t be able to give you a final tipple for your labors. Instead, take this small token of my esteem. Use it to buy your own drinks later—or anything else, if you like.”
“Thank you,” said Zakhan.
“You’re very welcome, lad,” she said.
Zakhan watched as she secured the last of the barrels on her cart and carefully arranged the rainbow draperies to cover them up. As the multicolored fabric swished closed for the last time, Zakhan noticed a brand on one of the barrels he had just fetched down from the ship. It looked like the wyvern brand he had ruminated on several times over the course of the evening, but much more detailed. It was as if whoever had branded the barrel had gotten the iron just a bit hotter, pushed down with a little bit more force and just a smidge more evenly. It almost looked like a…
“I do hope we meet again, and that that meeting is as pleasant as this one was,” said Lucky, taking her place at the push bar of the wagon and giving Zakhan a final wave.
“I’ll be…around,” said Zakhan.
She winked. “I do hope so! Farewell!”
Lucky turned and pushed her wagon along the pier and out to Harbor Street. Zakhan waved to her until she rounded a corner and she, and her wagon, were out of sight.
He weighed the pouch in his hand, took a deep breath of the early morning sea air, and congratulated himself upon a night well-spent. He had made lots of new friends, enjoyed quite a wide variety of beverages, and reached new levels of insight and mastery into his art. Now all that remained was to go get a few hours’ sleep, see how his companions had fared at the Red Dragon Inn the previous evening, and find out if anyone had discovered any new adventuring leads since he had seen them last.
Red Dragon Inn…
“Excuse me,” came a gruff voice from behind him.
Distracted from his thoughts once again, Zakhan turned around and looked down at a heavily tattooed dwarven sailor.
“Good morning to you,” said the dwarf, her voice flat. “We were just getting ready to offload our cargo and we noticed we’re a little light. You wouldn’t happen to have seen anyone mucking about on our ship a little while ago?”
“Well…other than me? No, not really.”
The dwarf sailor raised one very thick, pierced eyebrow. “What d’you mean, other than yourself?”
“You see, I was here with a friend of mine, she was picking up a shipment of barrels that she had paid for. So I went aboard to offload them for her while the rest of you slept. I would have told you I was coming aboard, of course, but I know you work hard and I didn’t want to wake you.”
“Barrels, you say,” said the dwarf, pressing the knuckles of both hands hard enough to crack them.
“Yes, from that side of the ship. There were…six. They had a wyvern on the tops.”
Zakhan stopped abruptly.
Because it wasn’t a wyvern.
It was a dragon.
In that moment, he felt his third eye open all the way. The alcohol surged through his body, its latent heat stoking his power loci to their full brightness and kindling new foci that Zakhan hadn’t known he possessed. He felt as if his body was buoyed upward on a blazing wind as the sky opened up above him. The clouds in the sky, around his mind, parted all at once, letting in the clean, clear radiance of perfect understanding.
The brands designated which taverns the alcohol was meant for. The tree was the holy symbol of Farnir. The orc face was for that weird little boutique he had seen on one of his walks down past the Mages’ Collegium. The wyvern. No. The dragon. Barrels with those markings were meant for the Red Dragon Inn!
Zakhan was so stunned and overwhelmed by his sudden ascension and enlightenment that, of all of the things that he could now see, he could not see the weathered dwarven fist hurtling toward his face.