A full tavern roared with the noise of a dinner rush. Barmaids ran from table to table, hands full of overflowing plates or wielding the handle of several tankards each. The muscles in their arms are obvious to any man who enters. Those who found themselves with their hand among one of the barmaids soon found their hand broken. But it didn’t stop the men who entered from trying. The Shieldmaiden tavern was well known for its strong drinks and even stronger female workers.
By the time the tavern emptied, there was food and drink spilled all over the floor, tables were tossed during fights, and despite their hardy design, there were several pieces scattered throughout the dining room.
A lone man walked in while the chaos was being cleaned up; sitting at the bar, he rested a satchel on the top and waited patiently for someone to serve him. Opening the bag, he pulled a thick, stained journal out. Flicking through the pages, there were flashes of dirt and blood stains on every other page. Stopping when the used pages stopped rolling by, he turned back to the last page and continued writing.
After a long while, one of the former shield maidens approached from the other side of the bar.
“I am so sorry; we did not notice you come in. You are so small and quiet. Not our usual clientele.”
The man looked up, grinning; pressing his charcoal pencil into his journal, he interlocked his fingers and rested his chin on them.
“That is right, I am not like your other patrons. For one, I have intellect, and for another, I am going to be the first to bed you bar owner, Roxanne.”
Roxanne laughed as she wiped her hands with a damp cloth, the bruising on her knuckles from settling a fight earlier still vibrant and swelling her fists to hide her knuckles.
“Oh really?” She chuckled. “You are bold for a tiny man.” Roxanne leaned on the countertop and lowered herself to eye level. “So you know who I am, but who are you?”
The man grinned, closing his book. He looked back up to Roxanne.
“Well, I have a name, if that is what you mean, or I have a story if that is what you mean. While my name is plain and dull, I guarantee my story is enough to enter a woman such as yourself.”
Roxanne leaned back, pressing her hands firmly on the bar. She rose above the man.
“You got balls; I will give you that. But if we were to do anything, I would snap you like a twig. You’re barely bigger than my leg. What makes you so sure you could handle me even if you got a woman like me?”
“For starters, you have never spoken like this with any other of your patrons. You would have already slammed their face through the counter. So on that front, I am the person who has gotten the furthest with you since you opened this place; you are already daydreaming about us doing things.”
“Woah, okay. Where in all of that did you get that I was daydreaming about you?”
“Easy, you said, ‘if we were to do anything.’ Meaning you had to think about how your much larger form would crush my little body.”
Roxanne tensed her jaw and smiled with a deep sigh.
“I mean, you aren’t wrong, annoyingly. But it really wasn’t a positive experience in my mind. So calling it a dream is probably farfetched.” Roxanne looked around the mans sitting position and twisted her head.
“I mean, if you are to be the first of my patrons to bed me, you better order something. Otherwise, if we were to sleep together, it would all be for naught.”
The man pulled a silver piece from his bag and placed it on the counter. Slowly pushing it across the counter with one finger looked at Roxanne longingly.
“Whatever plate of food you think a weedy, little man like me needs to eat to get big and strong.”
Roxanne rolled her eyes and wandered out of sight. When she returned, she had a plate full of shaved meats and roast vegetables. Placing it down on the counter top she slid it across. The plate size makes the man’s hands almost seem child-sized.
“This does look like a fine meal.” He said content. “Now, I would like to make you an offer.” He said as he started to eat the food in front of him.
Roxanne raised one eyebrow and rolled her tongue in her mouth before answering.
“Well, more of a challenge, really. In this journal, I have a story about my accomplishments over the last month. I want to read it to you.”
“Got to say, as is, that does not sound like a challenge. Unless the challenge is to stay awake.”
“No, no, that is not the challenge. The challenge I present is for me. If I can convince you I am worthy of a woman such as you, by the time I finish this meal, we go upstairs, and we don’t come back down until the morning. But if I fail, I work here for a week, for free.”
The two of them locked eyes, Roxanne waving her head side to side. She reluctantly agreed.
“Deal, but I warn you, when I listen to stories, I like to eat. So, you will have to beat my hunger as well as yours.”
The man grinned, patting the stool next to him. Roxanne shook her head in disbelief.
“All right, ladies, you can clean up without me; I need to listen to this story, then I will be back to help you.”
Roxanne shouted as she made her way around the bar; sitting next to the man, she took a whole potato and managed to put it all in her mouth, chew and swallow before the man could even turn his journal back to the beginning.
“You better work faster than this if you think you can sway me.” Roxanne leaned in. “I work all day; I learned to eat fast.”
The man licked his thumb and flicked back the first page of his journal.
“The story is yet to be named, but it does start in the Shindred mountains.”
Roxanne stopped herself from grabbing another potato; resting her hand on the bar, she looked the man up and down.
“Are you a magic user?”
“You will have to listen and find out.” He said, staring at her.
She leaned back from the plate of food and crossed her arms.
“You have my attention for now.”
“So this story starts at the base of the Shindred mountains, where I was staying in the Chasm’s Claw. The local inn for the area. I stuck out like a missing finger as everyone around me weighed twice as much as me on the lighter end of the scale. Needless to say, I found it easy to draw the eye of anyone who came through, which worked to my advantage because before long, I met the man I had gone there to find.”
The man took a mouthful of meat and washed it down with the water from his personal water skin.
“Well, are you going to tell me who it was? Or am I supposed to guess?”
“I assume I will need to stop to eat on occasion. Otherwise, the challenge will be made much easier.”
“Fine, but don’t waste my time. Chew faster.”
Finishing his mouthful, he cleared the meat from between his teeth with his tongue and cleared his throat.
“Yergon’Ther, the iron hammer.” The man paused, gauging Roxanne’s reaction.
“Yes, I know who he is; you are staying in his inn, after all. You are not impressing me yet.”
“Yet!” He emphasized. “Approaching him, I felt like a gnome walking up to a giant. I was a child compared to those in the inn, but compared to him, I was a baby. He barely noticed me when I first approached; laughing to himself, he acknowledged my presence and knelt to insult me further.
‘What are you after, son, are you lost?’ He laughed through his thick beard.
Meanwhile, I pulled a piece of parchment out of my bag and showed it to him.”
The man pulled a scroll out of his bag and showed it to Roxanne.
“This is the scroll I had.”
Roxanne unfurled the scroll and read it.
To anyone who dares, we have found the trials of Epoch.
Anyone who can complete the challenges set by Epoch will be granted the attributes of a warrior.
Those who fail the task will have their energies sapped from their body and added to the pool for the victor.
“Yes, I am aware of the Epoch challenge. Compete the demi gods challenge and gain the physic of Epoch, fail, and your body will wither, and your strength will be added to the one that triumphs the task. I mean, looking at you, I assume you didn’t do this task.”
“You will have to just find out.”
Roxanne took another chunk of potato from the plate and made short work of it.
“I guess I won’t have to wait long to find out because you better be talking quick to beat this meal.”
“Anyway, I handed him the scroll, and his laughs got even louder. I looked him in the eye as best I could and told him that I was there for the challenge. He just looked at me in utter disbelief.
‘You know this challenge was set by a demi-god, right?’ He asked me as I tucked away the scroll. To which I told him that this life is my own, and if I want to attempt the Epoch challenge, I would like to be shown the way like any other man. His friends kept laughing but stopped when he hit the table.
‘If this man wants to die on the Epoch road, that is respectable. Don’t treat him like the pansy-looking wet blanket that he is when he is willing to do something so challenging.’”
“Oh wow, I can tell he really liked you.”
“I didn’t need to be liked; I needed to be directed to the Epoch journey.” He said sternly
“Wow, a bit of fight in you. I must confess that is an enticing attribute.”
“Can I get back to the story?” The man asked.
Roxanne raised her hands and gestured for the man to continue.
“As much as he was mocking me, he did have a modicum of respect for me. Even if he thought I was going to die. I ended up waiting nearby for the hours needed before the challenge could be attempted. I watched as Yergon’Ther kept an eye on the sun, occasionally raising a hand to the lowering sun he eventually stood.
‘All right men, anyone foolhardy enough for the Epoch, follow me.’ He called out, his voice booming like thunder as he spoke.
Nearly half the tavern stood and followed him out the front door, all of them carrying large weapons and bags full of supplies for the perils of what the journey is supposed to hold.
Do you remember the challenges that Epoch underwent to save the Shindred mountain towns?”
Roxanne leaned back, scratching at her head, her face curled up as she struggled to remember the rhymes.
“Can’t say I do; from memory, the first challenge was defeating a Minotaur. But that is all I recall; there were four altogether if my memory serves me right.”
“Five tasks he underwent.” The man corrected. “While it was a Minotaur, you got the wording wrong.”
Roxanne stared at the man; she tapped her hand on the bar top as she eyed the meal. Her eyes returned to the man, and she lay her hand flat as she waited for the story to continue.
“The group of us was led by, Yergon’Ther. We trudged through the snowfall that had come down over the day and made our way to a hidden crack in the mountain.
‘Through this cave is Epoch’s challenge. This crack will only be open when the sky is colored, so while you still have the stones to, I suggest you get in. Once in, you won’t be able to get out after the crack closes. Once in there, you can fight over who goes first; hell, you can all go at once if you want. But if you use a group to get to the end, it is said you must fight to the death until only one remains.’ Yergon’Ther finished his speech, and people started to move into the crack; I watched as he eyed through the crowd until he eventually saw me. I was the last to go through; taking a moment to stand outside the crack, I looked up at the man.
‘When I come back down the mountain, will you get a drink with me?’
Yergon’Ther laughed. ‘I like you, I’ll tell you what. If you come back down the mountain, I will hand over the deed to the Chasm’s Claw. The last stop before the Epoch trials gets a lot of coin coming through.’
I did not reply; I simply smiled and held out my hand. We shook on it, and we went our separate ways. He watched as I entered the crack, keeping a side eye on it until he saw it close behind me.
Once in the cave, there was a warmth as various people had pulled out their torches to light the interior. There was bickering and flaunting of goods, along with muscle. But when it came to moving forward, everyone hesitated at the mouth to the chasm that lay just beyond the only exit to the cave. I wandered through the men, making my way to the front of the group. I turned back to the others. Taunting them, I pulled out my dagger.
‘Don’t mind me, off to squash a Minotaur.’
I then moved through into the area of the first trial.”
Amberley laughed slightly under her breath, trying not to interrupt the story. The man gave her a short moment before continuing.
“I walked out into the cold of the Chasm, stepping to the side I did not head all the way in. Instead, I hid out of the way, waiting for the next man to move through. It wasn’t a long wait before the next pride-struck muscle head charged in. Stepping far enough in, I watched as the snow swirled, and out from it stepped an enormous Minotaur, larger than any I had ever seen, even larger than the tales from the wildest of storytellers. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t scared; it dwarfed the man who dwarfed me. So naturally, once I squashed it, I was filled with a great deal of relief.”
“Wait, you can’t tell me you killed this giant Minotaur with a dagger.”
“I did not; that would be impossible. That would be a lie that even I would fail to spin. Anyway, once I was on the path to the next trial, I made sure to go over the rhyme, studying it carefully. I… you look annoyed.”
“Of course I am; you can’t just skip how you defeated the Minotaur. Does not make for a very believable story.”
“I watched as that Minotaur cut down five men before I figured out how to defeat it. But look at me, really look at me. Even if I said I conquered it with magic, would you believe me?”
“I guess not.”
“I will tell you in the morning how I did it if I get that far with you.”
Roxanne frowned at the man and started to eat the meal again, taking large portions in her hand, she ate as fast as she could. The man seemed unfazed as he watched her for a moment before looking back down into his book to continue.
“It turns out that each task needs only be beat once a day. For once, I squashed the Minotaur. Everyone else followed behind with words of astonishment at the corpse of the beast. The next challenge was the one that gave me the most concern.
It was the challenge of the ice cliff; it is said he made his way to the top of the ice wall in seconds. Something I found hard to believe, even more so after I saw the size of the sheer ice cliff that lay before me. There was no way I had the strength to conquer this wall, but thankfully I had my cunning. So as the story said, I made my way to the top in mere seconds. At the top, I tied my rope to a nearby pillar of stone and threw it over the edge, giving the others an easy way up.”
“So I assume I am not going to be told how you did any of these great feats?”
“I told you, come tomorrow morning, if we are lying in the same bed, I will tell you all my secrets.”
Roxanne eyed the man up again, trying to see magic books hanging from his person. Using a sly eye, she peered into the satchel to only see a couple rolls of parchment but no books of magic.
“Even with the rope hanging down, it still took the others well over an hour to climb to the top. It was lucky I had plenty to think about for the next challenge. Seeing as you don’t recall the rhyme, I will fill you in on some of the more important details at this point. Epoch did not do this trial alone. He may have been the one tackling all the challenges, but it is said that he left a rope for others to follow. He led many great warriors through this trial; I mean, how else was his story told, right?”
“Others may have followed, but he did do all the tasks on his own though, didn’t he?”
“Yes, or at least I assume. Even the rhymes state clearly, he accomplished each task solo, but less clear in the rhymes is the fact that others followed him. Just a little information for you, something you might find interesting; come the morning.”
Roxanne looked at the nearly empty plate of food, flicking her hand in the air. Another woman came over with a plate of leftovers; Roxanne piled them onto the man’s plate before looking at him to continue. He took a large piece of crackling and crunched down on it before continuing.
“The third task was the narrow pass. Barely wide enough for one man. Let alone a man of Epoch’s stature. I thought that this one would be easy enough. But I had to wait for the others to catch up before I could figure it out. Their faces were priceless when they saw me sitting at the mouth of the narrow pass writing in my journal. One by one, I watched individual men turn on their side to squeeze through the narrow pass, just to have their body eaten by the strange creatures that lived in the stone. Launching out of the stone like snakes, they would have chunks of their body removed until there was nothing left. This halted even the boldest of the men.”
“Let me guess, you figured it out. Then they all followed you like the others followed Epoch, then you were standing in front of the fourth challenge. All without telling me how.”
“You learn fast. I did discover the way through, and the others did follow me. But I will tell you…”
“I get it; come the morning. Providing we are in the same bed.”
The man grinned and ate more of the food.
“Now, the fourth challenge was one that did not make sense in the rhyme, but once I was standing before it. I felt like a moron.”
“I swear if you dare.”
“Then we were all standing before the fifth and final challenge.”
Roxanne slapped the plate of food from the bar top in frustration. The food flew across the newly cleaned floor.
“You can’t just skip parts of the story like that. You are not doing yourself any favors for getting my favor. If you want me to listen to the rest of your obviously fake story, you better utter some sense out of the last challenge.”
The man stared at Roxanne with a wide grin. He watched as her muscles clenched and how her shoulders rose and fell with heavy breaths. He still held the large piece of crackling in his hand, taking slow bites from it.
“I still have some of my meal, and you made a promise.”
Roxanne slammed her fist into the bar and sat. Leaning forward with a scowl and a twitching eyebrow.
“Once this story is over, I am going to throw you from this bar. You are the most infuriating little man.”
“Ah yes, I get that a lot. But trust me, the payoff is worth it. We stood before the fifth challenge, the fight to the death. There was an arena situated in the stone of the mountain; in the center was the demon that Epoch fought; with malice in its eyes, it had one large claw on Epoch’s back. Pinning him to the ground.”
Roxanne had been talking to one of her workers when she stopped to look back at the man.
“Epoch is still on the mountain? But he was supposed to have died a decade ago.”
“That is right, the demon he defeated sat on a throne of bones. Its claws digging into his flesh, he bled as if the wounds were new. By this point, there were about six of us left. The others dropped their bags and drew their weapons. Pacing around one another while I ran off to hide.”
“Finally, something in this story that makes sense.”
“I am sure you are going to love this. As I ran off to hide, I realized what I had to do. So I did as I initially planned. Then when there was only one man left, I walked out of my hiding spot. I was fearful that I was going to die, but I did as I believed I needed to do. Then I walked back down the mountain and into the Chasm’s Claw.”
Roxanne scoffed and shook her head.
“Okay, your story is done; you can leave. Good try, little man.”
“The story is not quite over; I have just one little piece to add to the story. If you will let me.”
Roxanne flourished her hand before she rested her chin on it.
“Thank you.” The man said earnestly. “I returned to the inn; I got many strange looks. My favorite was the expression Yergon’Ther gave me. I walked over, and he wandered off, returning with this.” The man said as he rummaged through his bag and pulled out a scroll, declaring him as the owner of the Chasm’s Claw.
I Yergon’Ther hearby declare Oliver as the owner of the Chasm’s Claw.
“How did you get that from Yergon’Ther? That inn is his pride.”
Oliver raised an eyebrow and leaned back on his stool, chewing on the crackling. Roxanne struggled against her urge to resist. But eventually, she stood.
“One night, but if you get hurt, it is not my fault.” She turned away, then turned straight back. “If you do not explain everything you said you would, I will crush your head between my thighs.”
Oliver packed his satchel away, standing with a grin. “All I could ever hope for.”
Come the morning, Roxanne awoke, still in disbelief.
Oliver laid on his back with a grin; once he was aware of Roxanne being awake, he started to speak as he stared at the ceiling.
“The first challenge was described as Epoch squashing the Minotaur, so after some searching, I found a large boulder above the animal. Dislodging it, it fell onto the creature. I heard its neck snap before the area was filled with the echo of it colliding with the stone. For the second challenge, I used a magical scroll of ascending. So even though I cannot cast that level of magic, I had bought the scroll. It took every coin I had. But it was worth it.
The third challenge was the narrow pass. This one was exceedingly simple, so much so that it hurts. The pass led straight to the fourth challenge he faced, but it was a distraction. If you search for long enough, you will find another pass, still infested with the stone worms. But wide enough to walk through unharmed. The fourth challenge was one that is hard to explain.
In the rhyme, it is said to be an impossible feat that defies logic. Which is exactly what I found, a long gap with no way across. Hundreds of meters that Epoch was supposed to have leaped. I laughed when I saw this because it only took me a few minutes to figure out. There was a narrow bridge of stone stretching across. But it blended into the texture of all the other stones so that it was nearly invisible. Less of a challenge, just a matter of perspective. Or a leap of faith to those who step blindly.
The fifth challenge he faced was the demon, the very reason he made this journey.”
Oliver climbed out of bed and started to get dressed while the early morning light shone like gold through the window.
“This last feat was described as his final sacrifice, so I waited till only one person remained. Covered in the blood of the others who tried to best him. I walked out to him from my hiding place, throwing my weapon to the ground; I knelt before him. He took no time to strike me, but as his axe came down, I felt a warm embrace. I raised my head to see the demon had risen from his throne. It caught the blade with its hand, its blood dripping on me. Taking the man who assaulted me, it returned to the hell it rose from. Taking the new man and Epoch with him.”
Roxanne looked confused as she watched Oliver get dressed.
“But what does that mean? How did Epoch defeat the demon by bowing?”
“It is simple; his greatest sacrifice was worshipping the demon. Becoming a slave to the very thing he promised to kill. It did tell me one thing before it left. Would you like to hear it?”
“It said this to me.
‘This one fell to me; I have used his legend to gain strength from the mortals that sought his power. But I am tired of waiting; I have a new task for you; raise me an army.’
So, I have begun my journey. With his blood blessing me, I do as he asks.”
Roxanne looked shocked as Oliver stepped into the sunlight. His eyes glowed softly with a red hue, his pupils shaking till they turned to slits, and his grin was filled with razor-sharp teeth.
“But I find blood to be an archaic way to bless others. Instead, I found my own way to fill others with his cruelty.”
Roxanne’s eyes went wide as she grasped at her stomach; she keeled over in pain as she screamed. Cutting her tongue on her new teeth, she smelt the blood as the flavor filled her mouth. Her vision vibrated until the edges fell from focus, and everything was covered with a red hue. She eventually calmed down and looked at Oliver.
“What can I do for our lord?”