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The bell had rung out long ago in the Broken Horseshoe in Messiat eliciting a tide of last orders from the inebriated patrons of the tavern. While Gallus and Selmain enjoyed their ale and firewater respectively, Thalius and Avery traipsed over to the heaving bar to draw the attention of the young barmaid who had taken a liking to the rugged Denarien travellers. She knew not of the esteemed positions they held in Lapai-Dabu’s neighbouring ally, indeed, all she knew of these two were their endearing western accents and their humour. The young lady liked to laugh, it was her only vice.

“Good evening my dear,” Avery called to the girl from behind an exceedingly short regular. The girl forced the blush from her cheeks and served the short man before him. “Oh come now, I know you can hear me.”

“Indeed,” Thalius crowed jubilantly. “They can hear you back in Titua. Keep your voice down Avery, you’ll scare the girl.”

The barmaid smiled broader still while she poured a tankard of ale for the short man, her eyes flicking briefly to the dishevelled handsome men from Denari.

“Didn’t you hear the bell? Last orders have passed now gentlemen,” the girl told the travellers with a mischievous smile.

“And yet you serve this fellow a drink?” Avery chuckled while the short man paid for his drink and turned to stare up at the tall Denarien men with blinking eyes. “My apologies, we stand in your way. Come Thalius, stand aside.” Avery dragged Thalius away while the small man shuffled away leaving the fiery men to take up a position at the bar in front of the now fully blushing barmaid.

“You’ve caught me. Very well, what’ll it be?”

“Ah, see we have not come for a drink,” Avery replied smoothly.

“Oh no? Then I’ll be greeting you good night…”

“Please wait,” Avery called after the girl, who turned with a broad smile, her twinkling eyes taking in Avery’s dark mane of hair and the bristles of stubble the journey had drafted on his chin. “We have come to enquire about your ale.”

Cold disappointment filled the girl’s stomach and her smile fell slightly.

“The ale?”

“We were hoping to acquire a barrel for our travels,” Thalius spoke at last. He usually allowed Avery to take the reigns when fine conversation was required. He had none of his friend’s soft edges. “We travel west tomorrow, to the foot of the elven mountain.”

The girl raised her eyebrows.

“To the elven mountain? Truly?” The sarcasm seemed out of place on her pretty face. “Where do you think most of these travellers are headed gentlemen?”

“I know where they think they might be heading, that does not mean they will get there fair maiden,” Thalius countered, softening the girl’s bemused expression with his words. Perhaps Thalius had picked up a few tricks from his friend over the years, just a few of course.

“And the pair of you will?” the girl asked fondly.

“Not on our own merit I assure you,” Avery now added. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder to the table they had abandoned in the care of Gallus and Selmain. Avery could see he would need to mention their esteemed companion to get this maiden to give in to their requests. The girl wouldn’t part with her prize readily, taverns rarely sold barrels of their ale when it was brewed on site. “See there, our companion.”

“Which one?” the girl asked interestedly, her doe eyes resting on the king as many a maiden’s eyes were wont to do when wandering.

“Which one?” Thalius scoffed. “Not the stringy stretch of man girl, the other, the brooding one. See him?”

“What of him?”

“He is our king,” Avery answered softly and smiled inwardly when the barmaid’s eyes went wide.

“Gallus of Apollo,” Thalius added, in case the girl had not listened in school and knew not which monarch ruled the land beside her own. Gallus’ name and his reputation were Agea-renowned certainly, but there were those in the lands who knew not the difference between Denari and Faro.

The girl stared at the man at the table, her heart racing in her chest. There was certainly something about the traveller that was drawing her gaze, but the sovereign of one of the most powerful nations in the Agea, drinking in her tavern?

“Oh go away with you,” the girl finally grumbled. “As though the King of Denari would come to Messiat. Our ale is not for sale and no amount of bartering, haggling or tall-tale-telling will get you a barrel.”

Gallus and Selmain shared a smile as they watched their luckless friends stalk from the Tavern to meet them at the horses. They had watched the pair from afar, taking wagers on their chances of success. The king had thought them in with a slight chance after he had noted the barmaid doting on them unashamedly. Selmain though, had been quite adamant that they would never succeed. As their friends returned now empty handed and sore faced Gallus conceded defeat to his mage friend.

“A pleasant surprise,” the king chuckled while he took up the reigns to his steed. “There is virtue to be found in the women of the Shield Mountains.” Selmain laughed aloud and nodded.

“Alas, much to the ire of our friends,” he added and started leading his own steed up the lane toward a grassy patch where the men might build a fire and find a little rest for the night before the long Border Road rose up to greet them.

“I hope your mirth is not at our expense mage,” Thalius called ahead darkly.

“Thalius,” Selmain countered fondly. “My mirth is always at your expense.”

Gallus led the way forward, trying his best to stave his laughter at the tirade of insults that streamed from Thalius’ mouth directed at their tall friend. He wished to remain impartial and out of the firing line on this occasion. Perhaps the long journey ahead was bothering the king, or the troubles that had befallen his daughter; whatever the cause Gallus was feeling decidedly sensitive to the fluctuations in the ether and he wanted nothing more than to crawl into his bedroll and await a painful hangover in the morning. It would seem fate had other designs for Gallus however.

“My liege!”

All four companions stopped and turned around to see who had uttered such a dramatic call. Their eyes fell on a portly man in his mid forties, who had evidently been exposed to many of life’s finer luxuries and too few of life’s hardships. Well dressed and groomed, this man seemed out of place staggering from the travellers’ tavern, though this was evidently where he had sprung from, as the man could barely walk straight under the duress of his stupor.

“My king! I beseech you pray stop!”

Gallus’ friends reached his side and looked with smirks to the king’s bemused face. What did this fellow want? Unashamedly the man dropped to his knees in his fine velvet britches before Gallus, who rolled his eyes and quickly stooped to lift the drunken man to his feet.

“Sire, please, I am but a humble shoemaker from Jal Rein…” The shoemaker tried to drop to his knees in reverence once more, but Gallus strongly lifted him back to his unstable feet.

“And I but a man born in the right place at the right time,” Gallus insisted firmly. “I deserve none of your adulation. Stand man, I will not lift you again.”

“Your liege is so humble, so modest a man! Oh sire! I have waited so long to meet you.”

At Gallus’ side Avery and Thalius sniggered, entirely unnoticed by the offending man’s attention, as it was raptly caught by the king alone. Quite suddenly the portly man started to salute wildly, his hand taking several attempts to find his brow.

“Come friend, there is no cause for this,” Gallus uttered darkly, but the shoemaker did not heed him.

“It has been my lifelong dream to serve you and your family in the King’s Guard sire. I would give my life for you! I never quite made it to the Camp sadly. How I wish I could have served as a shieldsman.”

Gallus looked down from the man’s rosy cheeks to his rotund luxurious form and smiled kindly, his temper waning and his heart opening. This was a Denarien subject, one of his people, whom he would serve no matter the personal cost.

“If that is what you want out of life friend then by all means, take yourself to the Middle Mountains where you will find a man called Thadus, he is in charge of new recruits at the Camp. Tell him I sent you and he will see to it that you be trained. I will look out for you in the years to come and then we will see what we can do about this lifelong dream you have.”

The shoemaker’s face burst into a tearful expression and once more he tried to drop to his knees, but Gallus was ready for this and he propped the plump man up quickly.

“Your Grace! The stories of your greatness have not been exaggerated. I will tell all of your kindness and your generosity…”

“That will not be necessary friend,” Gallus countered kindly.

“No I must!”

“Then go,” Avery now spoke, finally drawing the round man’s eyes away from the sovereign. “Go friend, go tell the people of the Horseshoe of your encounter with the King of Green Throne.”

A clumsy smile pulled onto the round man’s face, before he looked with teary eyes to Gallus one last time.

“Guard yourself well shoemaker, I hope you find what you are looking for,” the tall warrior told him sincerely. Words could not express the shoemaker’s joy and he clumsily stumbled back to the tavern. At the threshold he tripped inside letting the door clatter closed in his wake. The moment it had done so Avery and Thalius burst into raucous laughter.

“Oh my liege!” Avery jeered dramatically, making a rather accurate impression of the shoemaker’s embarrassing fawning cries.

“Oh please sire!” now Thalius cut in, his disappointment at losing the barrel of ale entirely forgotten. “Were I but a girl so that you might make me your bride…”

“Enough,” Gallus complained, though a smile pulled at the corners of his mouth. “As though the pair of you have never disgraced yourselves after a long night at a tavern.”

“Never quite in so fine a manner I can assure you,” Avery countered joyously.

“Gallus you might have done that man a disservice sending him to the Camp. They will laugh him away from their mountains,” Selmain finally cut in, his face arranged into concern for the foolish drunken shoemaker.

“Who am I to ruin his lifelong dream?” Gallus countered happily. “Though I suspect this particular lifelong dream was brought on by the toxicity of that ale.”

“Hold on a moment,” Thalius interrupted. He alone of the four had spent hard years at the Camp. “Old man Thadus, he is in charge of the uniforms at the Camp is he not?”

A mischievous grin crept onto the king’s face.

“What good would the guard do a humble shoemaker long used to the luxuries of life. It would be the end of him. If he still wants a military life when he wakes up with a headache in the morning then he will go and be much happier for my lie when he arrives.”

“You are too soft king,” Avery accused.

“Please,” Gallus countered, lifting his hands to his own chest. “Who are you to address me in such terms. The proper way to address one of my standing is Your Greatness.”

Laughter accompanied the men on their walk from the tavern to the grassy dell awaiting them and their inebriated stupors. In the morning they would soon regret their frivolity, but for now there was fun to be had at a foolish drunken shoemakers expense. Only Selmain refrained and sipped firewater a little longer, pausing only now and then to smile at his companions.

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