A mighty laugh spilled from Gax, issuing between his large orc teeth, some of which were sharpened, drowning out the laments of several humans. He reached across the bar table, his rickety stool wobbling threateningly beneath him, and raked a small pile of copper ovals toward his person. The other players begrudgingly shoved their dice back into their cups and began shaking them.

Gax snatched his ale and drained it in a mighty gulp, a bit spilling from the corner of his grinning mouth. He slammed it back down and looked triumphantly at the others.

“I need me a drink!” he bellowed. “Which one of you lowly dogs will be paying for it? ” He ran his hand gingerly over the pile of small copper coins. “All of you, it seems!” He pushed away from the table laughing, stood, swept the copper into a hide satchel, then bid the others a swell night with an obscene gesture that meant nothing near as much.

He spun around, intent on calling out to Darsil’eit, who was garnering coin and drink by throwing knives with a few other elves. Before he could muster a shout, however, the round, ruddy face of a large shirtless man appeared, startling him backward a step.

“Gax!” hollered the muscle-bound man.

“Eron!” Gax responded, clapping him on a shoulder stiff with rippling muscle. “I barely recognized your ugly face, what with all that muscle stuck to your bones!”

“Glad you noticed,” Eron said, flexing his arms proudly. “Sold the farm last spring. Starting traveling as a mercenary. Bit of luck I had at it too! You see, these ain’t natural muscles. Wizard bet me I couldn’t catch three fish with my bare hands in thirty seconds. This,” he slapped his chest, “was my reward.”

“You almost look like an orc, mate. Looks good on ya. Now, I need me a drink. The boys back there are paying.” He shook his satchel and the coins within jingled happily.

“About that. What’s say we wager like big boys, eh?”

Gax stopped mid stride. “Over what?”

“I bet you five silver rounds I can best you in a grappling match. First one to land on his back loses. What say you?”

“I say…” Gax smirked wickedly as he pulled his axe from its perch on his back. “Hold my battleaxe.” Without handing the weapon to anyone, or even speaking to anyone in particular, he thrust it out and dropped it onto the table he’d been sitting at. Dice and coins clattered and the wood groaned as though it would split.

A great buzz erupted in the tavern. Games abruptly ceased, drinks were grasped, and tables and chairs were moved aside leaving a clearing roughly ten feet across on all sides.

Gax shed himself of any bits of armor bearing spikes and a handful of knives from his belt while Eron snatched the sword hanging from his hip and handed it to a man with a pockmarked face and a hooked nose. As the two dropped into crouches, whispering voices filled the room. Bets were hedged. Then the room fell silent.

Eron surged forward, dropping low at the last moment to attack Gax’s lower half. The orc threw his hips backward, landing with his chest on Eron’s shoulder and back. Most men would have been flattened beneath Gax’s impressive size. Eron, however, wasn’t most men.

Eron began to straighten, lifting Gax from his feet. The orc’s grin faded, replaced by a childish mask of surprise and worry. Eron reached out and his fingers brushed Gax’s thigh, nearly seizing the limb. If Eron got a hold of Gax’s legs, the match would be over in seconds.

Gax snaked his arm across Eron’s chin then pressed his forearm into the man’s jaw. Eron growled against the pain and continued to push forward, albeit slower. Gax gave a final shove and disengaged from the man.

The tavern walls shook now with the hoots and hollers of the bystanders.

Before Gax could recover and mount an attack, Eron bolted forward again. The two locked up, arms entangled, and began wrenching each other back and forth. Eron nearly slipped both his arms under Gax’s armpits, the orc stumbling backward to prevent it. He suddenly stopped moving, the pair crashing against the crowd of onlookers.

Eron threw Gax’s arms up then ducked. Eron snagged one of the orc’s legs and heaved it upward. Gax reeled backward but the crowd caught him, stalling his descent. He began to regain his balance but Eron, realizing that the crowd kept Gax suspended, began to violently jerk him around toward the clearing.

Gax knew he couldn’t maintain his position, hopping on one foot while the knee of his other leg was jammed up near his chin. Eron’s muscles bulged, veins exploding all across his rigidly carved framed. Gax pushed against Eron’s face but his neck swelled in response and Gax felt as though he was trying to shove a mountain aside.

Only another few seconds separated Gax from being either lifted or tripped. Either way he knew he’d be painfully planted on his back. Without a second thought, he spun away from Eron as much as possible then dived and rolled… or so he tried. Eron’s grip on his leg turned out to be nothing short of an unbreakable vice. Rather than roll, he dove headfirst into the wooden floor.

Wood splintered and cracked, white stars exploded before his eyes, then blackness drowned him.

When he came to, the world seemed to greet him as though it was slowly squeezing its way through a tunnel far too tiny for it to fit past. His vision swam, hundreds of blurry faces dancing before him. Then Dar materialized fully, along with a few other onlookers.

“Dar,” he croaked, “what happened?”

Most of the bar erupted with laughter.

“You won,” Dar said, her angular features glowering. “When you tried that roll horseshit, your heel slammed Eron right in the balls. He went over backward like a toppled statue. Whereas you smacked yourself unconscious… on your stomach.”

Gax shook the fog from his mind and sat up. “Why do you seem so upset then?”

“Because you lost me two rounds. But don’t worry,” she added with a wry smile, “I took those from your haul. The other three went to the barkeep to repair the floorboards you smashed.”

“You bet against me?” he said, his tone incredulous. “How could you, Dar?”

“Because I’m no idiot. You just got lucky.”

“Hey, Gax!” came a gruff voice. Gax turned to see the barkeep standing behind his bar. “You owe me thirty coppers for the spirits we gave Eron to shut him up. Damn near popped one of his testicles, man!”

Dar rolled her eyes and strolled away. Gax looked to the nearest bar patrons and smiled, his chest puffed with pride. “Least I won.”