"I'm sorry, sir. You can include only one sword, mace, or war hammer in your carry-on baggage. The rest will have to be checked."
It had been the first indication to Kronak, the wind-bronzed warrior of the North, that the southern lands had changed. On his last visit, fifteen years before, the airlines had not been so finicky about luggage. More laws had been set in place since then, more rules. And yet these soft, civilized kingdoms, with their outlandish edicts and degenerate denizens, had need of a warrior like himself, and their gold and stock options were good. Still, as he made his way to the airport bar he was beginning to wonder if he had made the right decision to throw his lot in with these decadent Southrons.
With catlike agility Kronak slipped through the crowd, brushing the robe of an orange-garbed man with outstretched palm. He slipped past a group of blue-bearded wanderers from the Minnesotan wastes, swinging their briefcases, wearing battle-axes on their wide, bronze-studded belts.
Kronak turned a corner, and there it was -- the airport coffee shop. A dim place of velvet and glass, lit by flickering lanterns carved into the semblances of leering dragons. He strode up to the entrance.
"One, sir?" The hostess was a comely wench, with a short blue frock and an appraising stare. Her fever-bright eyes traveled up his muscled body to meet his own, of a hard flint-blue.
"I'm meeting someone," he rumbled from deep within his massive chest. "Gavin Fitch."
The wench glanced down at the piece of yellowed parchment she held in one red-nailed hand. "Yes, sir. Mr. Fitch is waiting for you. If you'll follow me?"
Kronak would have done so even without the invitation, and he stalked her swaying figure as she led the way through the maze of tables. Even as he noted her voluptuous curves, however, his hawklike gaze flashed around the room, alert as a jungle cat to any sudden danger or opportunity.
"Here you are, sir," the wench said, beckoning him to a table. His gaze flicked to the table, the man sitting there, then back to the wench.
"May I get you anything?" she asked, promise heavy in her breathless voice. "Cappuccino, perhaps? Or we have a lovely mocha, with a hint of cinnamon --"
"Mead," Kronak growled, slipping into the booth with the grace of a panther.
"Mead? I'm very sorry, sir, but I don't believe we carry that. Perhaps a latte?"
Her words meant nothing to the barbarian. "Coffee, then," he said. He had tasted the bitter beverage on an earlier visit.
The wench looked confused. "Would that be a caffe Americano? Or perhaps a nice cafe au lait? Maybe you'd prefer a latte macchiato?"
Kronak tensed and his face darkened, his muscles bunching in anticipation.
"I said 'coffee.'"
The man across the table from Kronak laughed. Gavin Fitch looked a typical Southron, fat and soft, with creased jowls and loosened tie, his fingers glittering with heavy rings of beaten gold and bright silver. Kronak doubted the man knew how to use the jewel-encrusted dagger sheathed at his side. How a man like this could rise to become a corporate king was beyond the warrior's comprehension.
"Confused? You're in civilized lands now, Mr., uh, Kronak," Fitch said. He looked up at the wench. "Just bring him a cappuccino. Short."
The wench nodded, evaded Fitch's pinch, and was gone. Fitch raised his own cup, filled with some noxious blend of brown liquid and white foam. "It'll put some hair on your chest!" he said, then, looking again, "Well, more hair, if that's possible! Have a good flight?"
Kronak simply said, "Make your offer. My band lusts for glory and blood, and we grow bored waiting out the long winter of my homeland."
"Ah, a man of business, I see!" Fitch chuckled. "You don't waste time. Very well. I don't either." He lifted his briefcase from the seat and set it on the table. He opened it and began fishing around through the scraps of parchment within. "I don't normally conduct these kinds of interviews myself -- a man in my position. Heavy rests the crown. Leave it to the underlings, you know." He looked at Kronak with a beady eye. "But I understand you wanted to meet the man at the top, and I had some time between flights. So you see, Mr. Kronak, we are anxious to acquire your services. My company has come under escalating attacks from our competitors, and a man like yourself -- one versed in commanding other warriors -- would be a great asset. I won't deny it."
Kronak glowered around the cafe. It was a crowded establishment. At the next booth a cowled Seattleite with the shaved head of a student sat with a laptop, brooding over nameless mysteries, a cup of a dark, odious liquid before him. At a booth against the opposite wall sat a loud group of tall, supple warriors of the Wyoming lands with dark hawk-faces, wearing cowboy hats, clinking metal, and curved swords, sipping unknown fluids from tiny porcelain cups.
"I understand that Consolidated Security Services has been showing an interest in your group as well, but I think you'll be glad you came to us first." Fitch found the parchment he had been looking for. "Ah, here we go. Yes. It's a basic contract for services, industry standard -- you know, health plan, dental, recognition of domestic partnerships, forty percent of any plunder, sick leave not to exceed--"
"'Health plan'?" Kronak repeated, puzzled.
"Yeah, sure, with a 200 gold piece deductible. We cover hydrotherapy, aromatherapy, massage therapy, acupuncture -- from the scars, looks like you might have had some bad experiences with that -- and it even covers couples counseling, stress reduction workshops, hypnotherapists. Really, it's quite inclusive."
Kronak, his brain bewildered by this arcane language, was grateful for the return of the waitress. She placed a cup of a brown liquid on the table before him, brushing her fingers against his muscled forearm as she did so.
"Would you like... anything... else?" she breathed.
"We'll let you know!" said Fitch loudly, dismissing her with a wave. "Now, as to your expense account--"
Kronak glowered at Fitch. He sipped his drink. It ran down his throat, burning like a bitter fire. His mighty throat convulsed as his honed physique rejected the vile fluid. He coughed, slapping the table with a brawny hand.
"Ah -- hah, hah!" Fitch was distracted from the contract. "You got to take it easy on that stuff, barbarian! It can be pretty strong." He lifted his own cup and took a long sip. "Ahhh. I wager you'll not find its like in your rude north country. It only grows in the warm lands of the south, you know, on inaccessible mountain peaks. Picked by sun-bronzed hands and packed out on llamaback."
Kronak merely growled. He took another drink -- damned if he would be shamed before this soft, decadent king, no better than a marketplace merchant. He kept it down, now that he was aware of the heat of the liquid. It was coffee, he realized, of a sort. Different than the coffee he had tasted on earlier trips. It remained bitter, however -- why would these people subject themselves to such a taste?
"Now you're getting it," said Fitch. "But back to business. Taxes due on any spoils you or your subcontractors take in the course of employment will be, of course, paid by--"
Taxes, that he understood all too well. He had encountered them, too, on his earlier travels. Kronak took another drink. His tongue recoiled from the vile taste, and his head was beginning to buzz, but perhaps this drink, 'cappuccino,' wasn't as bad as he had first thought. A trial of a warrior. He drank again.
He glanced at the bar, where somber Bostonians glowered darkly, remembering their ancient glories and nursing mugs of darkness, sheathed broadswords clutched in their sweating hands. Outside the entrance to the bar he could see a band of the black witch-finders of Detroit, caps reversed, rapping ominously about caches of jewels and casks of wine.
Kronak's head hummed, and he could feel an odd tingle in his arms, his legs; an answering hum arose even inside his deep chest. An enchantment? If so, it was nothing like any he had experienced in his years of wandering in foreign lands. His vision was clear, but the cappuccino, the air-conditioning, and the intricacies of the negotiating language, were causing his brain to pulsate painfully against the inside of his mighty skull.
"..and a uniform of leisure suit, bearhide, or wolf-pelts, to be issued -- hey, barbarian! Are you even paying attention?"
"A uniform? Never, by Mrok!" Kronak lurched upright. For some reason he was on his feet before he realized it, as if the drink had accelerated his reactions. The buzz in his head, in his entire body, thrummed, and the room reeled around him, the babble of unknown tongues filling his ears. The drink whetted his keen, wild-honed senses, and it seemed to him that he was filled with an inexplicable energy.
Maybe a uniform wouldn't be so bad. Not as long as he could get more of this drink.
"Hey, barbarian!" Fitch also rose to his feet, but the degenerate Southron knew better than to attempt to lay a hand on the thews of the mighty barbarian.
Kronak grunted, and sat down.
"Easy, big guy," said Fitch, eyeing the barbarian warily.
"Go on," Kronak said.
"Sure, yeah." Fitch seated himself again and shuffled some papers, and then seemed to come to a decision. "OK. Well, when a man comes with the recommendations that you have, and with a resume like yours -- if one excuses the spelling -- I guess we have to make allowances. Some nice stuff there. Busted up the Potioners strike, lent some muscle to the Thieves Guild in their conflict with the EPA. Hacked into the arms industry on several occasions, pirated that Japanese anti-spam tech. Squashed the development of the water-fueled car. All good stuff."
"This cappuccino. The cup is too small."
"Ah. Developing a taste for it, eh?" Finch signaled the waitress. "Another cappuccino for our big friend here. Make it a tall this time."
The waitress smiled at Kronak and left them.
"Yes, Kronak, we'd like to offer you and your band an opportunity to become employed by our security firm. VP of Internal Control. You know, bashing heads together. Directly under me. Not in the direct line of succession, I hope you understand. I mean, you know what they say -- you can take a barbarian out of the wilds, but you can't take the wilds out of the barbarian! But I'm sure the intricacies of running a huge company like ours never crossed your primitive brain. And why would it? You're good at cracking bones, we Southrons are good at taking meetings, and everyone's happy.
"So. What do you say?"
Kronak looked into Finch's eyes until the king glanced away. Yes, this one would be easy to intimidate.
The waitress came back and wordlessly placed a larger cup before the warrior.
Kronak swigged from his cup, taking his time. "They say you have sorcerers, working arcane spells for the undoing of your enemies."
"Wizards? Sure, we got some. Oh, I see!" Fitch laughed. "I know that you types don't exactly get along. Brain versus brawn, I guess, huh? But don't worry about them. Nah, the wizards are mostly all down in Advertising and Promotions. You won't see them around much."
Then Fitch gathered his courage and leaned forward again. His eye turned hard, and his voice assumed a feral purr, low and dangerous. "I'm not used to asking twice," he said. "It's a generous offer. Are you interested, or not?"
Fitch leaned back, smiling again. "'Yes.' Well, that's to the point! Now, you understand that for reasons of liability and all that, our human resources people ask that your group participate in a training program --"
"We don't need to be trained, taught like young pups! And I need more cappuccino."
"You finished off that one in about two gulps!" Fitch said in amazement, signaling the waitress. "We'll get you a grande this time. But you ought to know that these drinks can --"
"If you think my band requires training, you have chosen the wrong warriors."
"Believe me, Mr. Kronak, we wouldn't be making this offer if we didn't trust in your abilities. No, no. This is just for our records, you know, our human resources liability for accountability, you know. Just for three weeks. I think you'll like the training site. It's over in Cleveland--"
"Sounds good, hey? And the facility there has got everything. Jacuzzis, HBO, mints on the pillow --"
Kronak nodded. "This Cleave-land. Do they have -- cappuccinos - there?"
"Sure, sure. Great coffee town, Cleveland. Ask anyone. Starbucks, Tully's, whatever you want."
"Yes. We will go to Cleave-land."
Gorak's jaws clenched, his mighty chest heaved, and ripples moved along the thick muscles of his arms and back, but he remained standing. When the trembling had subsided he stepped forward and slapped the taser from his opponent's hand. He seized the smaller man, jerking him into a tight hug, then reached for the man's face. He pushed. The man's spine snapped, and Gorak dropped the lifeless form to the ground. The dead man's head bounced twice on the polished wooden floor of the training gym.
He turned to face Kronak. "How was that, Chief?"
Kronak grinned. "Very good, Gorak." He looked to the man next to him. Mr. Hunce's face had gone white. "And what did you think, Mr. Hunce? I think you were talking earlier about economy of motion?"
Mr. Hunce managed to swallow on his third or fourth attempt. "My gods," he choked out. "What he did to Mr. Butters!"
"So much for the taser," Kronak said. "I told you -- bare hands work just as well. Or a proper weapon. Why stun a foe with your mage-weapon when you can use a broadsword, and hear the ka-chunk?"
Brakur grunted and raised a tentative hand. "I have a question, too, Mr. Hunce. I still don't understand something you said yesterday. Why stop applying a choke, just because your opponent has passed out? For that matter, why no concluding spine-snapping head-twist?"
"Show us, Brakur," said Kronak.
Mr. Hunce stepped back and opened his mouth, but no words emerged. He looked at the body of the fallen Mr. Butters.
Brakur lumbered to his feet, and Mr. Hunce finally found his voice. "I suspect, I think, that perhaps your team, Kronak, can forego the remaining self-defense trainings. I think I can just certify you now. Perhaps that would be best."
Kronak nodded. "Good. Everyone, to the cafeteria. It's time for lunch."
Gorak shoved the rest of the hamburger into his mouth.
"Tasers!" scoffed Kronak. "The ideas these Southrons come up with. Like that conflict resolution speaker, what was his name. The look on his face when Zark broke his wrists!"
Gorak laughed, spraying the table and his tablemates with bits of burger. Brakur picked some out of his beard and swallowed it. "Who was the teacher then?" he said.
Kronak sipped at his espresso. Since coming to Cleave-land, he had discovered this brother to the cappuccino -- an even stronger drink. He was downing four or five a day by now. "Yes," he said, "they have nothing to teach us about fighting. But the other parts of our training... I never thought I could sit and listen for so long. But I find it strangely captivating. Dental plans and retirement accounts, sick leaves and personal days. New ideas."
"Sexual harassment guidelines and the ownership of company stock. Time-clocks and hazard pay and retirement accounts," said Gorak. He gulped at his own drink, an espresso con panna, and white whipped cream tinged his moustache when he put the drink down.
All of the barbarians had taken to the new coffee drinks. Espressos of various stripes, caffe mocha and caffe lattes -- every sweaty, meaty hand now gripped a large cup most of the day. The caffeine coursed through their systems, pumped by mighty hearts to every part of their bodies. Their brains hummed, buzzed, sang, and whirred, working at fantastic speeds. Sleep was nearly a thing of the past.
Their barbarian brains -- unsullied by education -- were empty, ready to be filled, and the caffeine accelerated the acquisition of the new knowledge. The barbarians closely examined the arcane brochures, the esoteric pamphlets, the creased scrolls. Late at night they would delve into cryptic websites and hold long bull sessions in their rude and ancient language.
And they learned.
"Gorak. You're here. Good." Kronak closed the bathroom door behind him. He reached under a sink and grabbed a pipe; his muscles bulged, and the pipe came free in his hand with a screech. He jammed one end of the pipe under the door, wedging it shut.
"I got your email," Gorak glowered. "What has happened?" He fingered his battleaxe.
"Hold this." Kronak handed a large cup to Gorak.
Gorak sniffed it. "What is this?"
"An espresso ristretto. I was introduced to it by a headhunter from Consolidated Security Services, who invited me out to coffee for a little chat. I gather they still have an interest in us."
"Yes. He was almost too slow to explain what he meant. He's a recruiter."
"From Consolidated! The competition. If Fitch finds out, he'll take your head off your shoulders and nail it up in the conference room."
"He can try." Kronak was digging in a pocket of his sports jacket.
Gorak took a sip from Kronak's cup. "Whoa! This is strong."
Kronak pulled his PDA out of his pocket. "It should be. It's made with half the water."
"Half! Can one drink it, and yet survive? By Mrok, I must try it!"
"Yeah, it's good. And then I found out they make a doppio ristretto. That's a double. I had a doppio ristretto viente."
"You'll be awake for two weeks!"
Kronak gestured at his PDA with a muscular, bronzed finger. "I have been. And I found something." He and Gorak bent over the tiny screen. "I've been compiling data concerning the company's performance over the last few quarters," Kronak said. "I want you to take a look at this. Someone has been stealing the gold right out of our pouches."
Gorak grabbed his pouch, jingled it.
"I mean our stock in the company, Gorak. Now pay attention. Tell me if I've miscalculated anything. You know, my primitive barbarian brain is hardly up to snuff when dealing with abstract financial concepts and leading economic indicators."
"Mr. Kronak! Hey, looking good there, big fella!" Fitch stood up behind his desk. "I don't actually recall you making an appointment, but I guess I can spare a moment."
Kronak still felt uncomfortable in the suit. Why a man needed a garment covering chest, arms, and legs remained a mystery. Still, he would play their game a moment longer.
"Your Highness." They shook. Kronak took a familiar pleasure in squeezing the other man's hand just a little too hard.
Fitch gestured Kronak to a chair, then seated himself. He steepled his fingers on his desk. "And to what do I owe this pleasure, Mr. Kronak? I hope the training in -- hah, hah -- 'Cleave-land,' isn't that how you pronounced it? -- went OK?"
"Good, good. And you've been working here now for what, three, four weeks? How's that going?"
"Six weeks. Fine."
"Ah. Well, good. And your companions, are they --"
Kronak threw a parchment down on the desk. Fitch stared at it for a moment, then reached over and picked it up.
He read. He tried to laugh. Then his face paled. "Th-there must be some mistake, a misunderstanding --" he faltered.
"But I can't have this! This, this... Why? How?"
Kronak leaned back in the leather chair, putting his mighty thews behind his head, and swung his sandaled feet onto the table. "A hostile takeover, I think is the term," he said. "Each member of my band has thrown his shares of stock in with mine, and a white knight -- none other than your arch-rival, Consolidated Security -- has come in with us, with an offer the Board of Directors just couldn't refuse. Especially since most of your diehard supporters have, well, died recently. And not so hard."
"The deaths -- yes, I'd wondered about them." Fitch clutched the parchment in a sweaty hand. "Conway, from Advertising, with the salad tongs, and Wenters from Accounting with the toner in his cocoa. Not accidents?"
Kronak did not respond.
"No, of course not. And Polk, strangled with his own Rolex. And then poor Harris, both wrists sliced to the bone, his eyes gouged out, and four of his neck vertebrae crushed -- not the suicide we had assumed it to be. Of course.. I can see it now."
"Actually, Harris was a suicide," Kronak rumbled. "But the others, yes. We took care of them."
Fitch let the crumpled sheet drop. "I see." He cleared his throat. He turned to the window, the view looking out over the city. "Yes, indeed I see." He turned back to face his rival. "I underestimated you, Kronak."
"I can see that. But still -- why? You've been treated well here, haven't you? You've raked in enough plunder to pave the streets of your home village with gold!"
"Oh, I've done all right," agreed Kronak. He uncrossed his arms from behind his head, brought his feet down from the desk, and leaned forward. "But we can do better.
"You Southrons! The way you live, the way you conduct business -- it's loathsome. You've got whitehairs who can no longer earn their keep doddering about in corner offices. Your pension plans and health benefits are extravagant, serving only the weak. I have it on good authority -- goat entrails don't lie! -- that a majority of your workers vote Democrat!
"You provide free daycare, and give maternity leave to the wenches and paternity leave to the knaves. Free cappuccinos in the break rooms -- well, actually, I think we'll keep that. But only for executives."
Kronak tore the suit jacket from his torso with one yank, exposing his mighty chest and, of course, his thews. "Fitch, you've run the company in a most unprofitable way. You've grown fat. We're going to increase profits by downsizing the workforce and slicing benefits to the bone. We're cutting out the daycare and slashing the employee clinic, gutting the worker benefits and carving up the pension fund. Throwing out the sorcerers, too.
"We'll run this company the way a business should be run -- the barbarian way."
"But where's the gratitude?" bleated Fitch. "We trained you!"
"Your training was lacking," Kronak said. "Your coffees, though -- yes, we owe you for that. Your removal will be painless. Relatively."
He stood up. "Gorak. Rarg." Kronak's men pushed through the door, holding their swords and bringing a large platter.
"The board has agreed, Fitch, that you're in the way of these improvements. You will be the first to be downsized. They're giving me your head on a platter."
Kronak left the office, and strode to the elevators so quickly that the screams had barely started before the doors closed. If he hurried, he could catch the 2:35 to Phoenix, and another meeting with Consolidated.
And after that meeting -- Kronak considered. Perhaps it was time to introduce cappuccinos to his rude homeland. Coffee was all that was needed to awaken his Northern countrymen to their true power.
The limo deposited him at the doors of the airport, and he pushed his way toward a group of ancient Floridians, who quailed before him. He brushed past a knot of ragged nomads and gripped the ticket counter in an iron grasp.
"Sir?" the clerk quavered, slick sweat suddenly staining his tight collar.
"Get me to Phoenix," Kronak said with quiet menace.
"Yes, sir. Of course, sir. Flight 426, departing right away. However, I am afraid you can include only one sword, mace, or war hammer in your carry-on baggage. The rest will have to be checked."
"I think you're mistaken," Kronak said, directing the man's attention to his ticket. "First Class passengers are allowed all the weapons they want. Now get me an aisle seat."
This story originally appeared in Abandoned Towers.