Macht Wulf Rome, the man known as the Black Wolf, feared far and wide by his enemies, fierce and ruthless in battle, sniffled and wept openly. Tears poured down his cheeks and gathered in his great, bristling, black beard before dripping onto the breastplate of his distinctive black armor, smearing the dried blood splashed there. He leaned aside and blew his nose onto the floor, then wiped ineffectively at the tears with the back of his hand. The room around him was packed with sweating, shouting men. Curses and smoke filled the air. They surged around Rome, pressing on him from all sides, but he paid them no heed, his attention focused on his opponent and several small objects lying on the table before him.
Lucent sat opposite Rome on the other side of the table. He wasn’t as tall as Rome, but he was considerably older and the years had packed weight on his frame so that he was bigger around. A great deal of muscle lay hidden under his fat–a fact which many young soldiers had discovered to their chagrin when they faced him in the practice yard. He leaned back in his chair, his legs sprawled out in front of him, a broad smile on his face. His nose was red, the broken blood vessels attesting to too many years of hard drinking. A tankard of ale sat on the table before him. “Are you ready to give up then, Macht?” he boomed. His voice, honed by decades as a sergeant in the army, easily cut through the din. “There’s none will think less of you for doing so.” He leaned forward, setting his meaty forearms on the table. The glint in his eyes was mocking. “Except me, of course.”
“I’m not giving in,” Rome said, grabbing his own tankard and taking a long draught. The ale didn’t seem to help at all. Lucent was a blur through the tears. “I’ve only just started.”
“Too true,” the fat man replied with a laugh, slapping the table. “You’ve only had four,” he said with disdain. “My youngest is a babe of five and he eats more than that for breakfast.”
Rome wiped at the tears once again and tried to think of a proper retort, but nothing came. Realizing he couldn’t put it off any longer–not if he wanted to preserve some face in the middle of this debacle–he picked up another of the tiny orange peppers from the bowl in the middle of the table. The shouting and hooting from the crowd doubled and money changed hands as odds changed and bets were placed. Grimacing, he stuck it in his mouth, bit it off at the stem, and started to chew. Fresh tears started and his face darkened to a new shade of red that bordered on purple. “I think I’m getting used to them,” he gasped, tossing the stem down with its four brothers before him and grabbing his tankard.
Lucent already had a dozen stems in front of him and there wasn’t a tear on his broad face. The people of Managil called them scorpion peppers and now Rome knew why. He’d been stung by a scorpion back when he was stationed at the outpost near the Crodin lands. In retrospect, he didn’t think that hurt as much as this. Something seemed to have stung the entire inside of his mouth, his throat, and even his stomach. Why had he ever let Lucent goad him into this? Why didn’t he just keep his mouth shut when Lucent started bragging about how many of these he could eat? He’d known the man for twenty years now. Lucent didn’t brag unless he could back it up.
It all started earlier that afternoon. Lucent was training some of the new recruits and he was venting his frustration with them by yelling at them. That was about when Rome happened by and he’d made some comment about how surely young, strong men should be ashamed of themselves for letting an old, fat man kick them around. Of course Lucent responded to the insult by calling Rome out and naturally Rome just had to grab a practice sword and take him up on it. One thing led to another. One moment Rome was taunting Lucent and clowning for the recruits and the next moment Lucent backhanded him in the nose–which was where all the blood on his armor came from. Somehow one thing led to another and here he was, sitting in a tavern eating scorpion peppers.
A new wave of heat struck Rome and he started coughing. He didn’t have to be a genius to see this was going nowhere good. In the beginning there’d actually been a few bets placed on him winning this contest; now they were just betting on when he’d give up. If he had any sense at all, he’d quit now. There was nothing to gain here.
Instead Rome took another pepper from the bowl, nearly knocking it on the floor in the process, and stuck it in his mouth. This time he didn’t even try to remove the stem. What difference did it make? It was the only part of the pepper that didn’t hurt.
Across from him Lucent shook his head. “You’re a stubborn man, Macht. A stubborn, stubborn man.”
“Want to give up now, old man?” Rome croaked. “I can see you’re having second thoughts.” In fact, he could barely see at all. The pain in his mouth was bad enough but it was the tears that really bothered him. A leader shouldn’t be crying in front of his men. But he couldn’t seem to help it. He didn’t think he’d shed this many tears in his entire life. There was a fresh tankard by his elbow and he grabbed it like a drowning man.
“I am,” Lucent said with mock gravity. “I’m wondering what kind of fool’s calling himself my king!” he yelled. The room burst into laughter. Men whooped and slapped each other on the back.
Rome coughed again, felt the horrific mess in his stomach start to come up, and somehow fought it back down. This was going south fast. He really should quit before it got any worse. It was the only halfway sensible thing to do. He couldn’t win. His mouth opened to say the words but just then his vision cleared enough for him to see that Lucent had stood up and was thumping his chest, playing to the crowd.
Rome ate another one.
The crowd cheered. More money changed hands. Hands patted him on the shoulder. Other hands set a fresh tankard of ale down before him. Rome leaned forward, grabbing it with both hands as a fresh wave of pain roared up from his stomach and out through his nostrils. As he did he saw with relief that there was only one more pepper in the bowl. Maybe there was a way out after all. But just then a barmaid wormed her way through the crowd. She carried two tankards in one hand and another bowl of orange peppers in the other. Rome groaned. Fortunately the sound was lost in the din. It was looking like he’d made a serious mistake.
The crowd parted again and there was Tairus, shaking his head. The short, stout man yelled at a nearby soldier and a moment later a chair appeared. He pulled it up to the table and sat down. Leaning in close to Rome he said, “You’re a damn fool, Rome.”
He said it low enough so no one else could hear over the crowd, but somehow Lucent did. Or maybe he just guessed. Either way, he guffawed, slapped the table again and dropped into his chair. “I tried to tell him to quit, but he won’t.”
“Bad things are going to happen to your stomach,” Tairus said. He was wearing chain mail and his face was sunburned. He’d been at the training grounds outside the city, working with the soldiers they’d picked up from the other kingdoms during the summer campaign.
“Ain’t it the truth,” Lucent intoned.
“To say nothing of your arse,” Tairus added.
“Didn’t you eat a couple of these with me one time?” Lucent asked.
“I did,” Tairus said gravely. “Two days I was running to the privy. I wished I was dead.”
“And you only ate two,” Lucent said.
“It’s not that bad,” Rome said. He wasn’t sure if they understood him. His words were kind of garbled. He wiped at his eyes again. “I think I’m getting used to them.” This time when they tried to climb up out of his stomach he thought he was going to lose the battle.
“Help me out here,” Rome heard Tairus say to Lucent. “He won’t quit.”
“I was only having fun.”
“There are openings on the city watch. We need more patrols in the Warren.” The Warren was the meanest part of Qarath.
“No need to be nasty,” Lucent grumbled. Abruptly he stood. “I submit!” he yelled. “I submit!”
A chorus of curses and threats met this statement. Lucent’s face darkened and he turned on the crowd. “Some of you have trouble with this, we could go outside and discuss it up close like.”
He wasn’t yelling anymore, but every man in the room either heard what he said or caught the gist of it. The room went quiet and there was a lot of mumbling and averted eyes. Nearly every man in that tavern had faced Lucent on the practice field. He’d been training new recruits for years and he’d cracked a few of their skulls. Nobody trained the pups better, but no one was quite as mean. No one wanted Lucent mad at him.
Lucent sat back down. “All in good fun, eh?” he said to Rome.
“I never had so much fun,” Rome replied. What he wanted to do was look in a mirror and see if his mouth was blistered, but instead he took another long drink of his ale. “Any time you want to try again.”
He missed the dark look Tairus gave Lucent, but all Lucent did was laugh and say, “I think I’ve learned my lesson, Macht.”
Rome stood up. “I think I have a meeting.”