By Godfrey Blackwell

    “Master Vincent,” Harold said, “what are you doing? We must get inside the walls! The barbarians —“

    Vincent sent a stream of tobacco juice to the bottom of the dry moat and regarded his apprentice with languid disaffection. One never expected a gong-farmer-in-training to be an impressive fellow, but Harold was a special sort of disappointing — fat, stupid, a hypochondriac, and always, ALWAYS, exaggerating, panicking or otherwise getting himself into a tizzy.

    Vincent slowly shifted his gaze to the moat that hadn’t so much as a drop of water in it, the ground at the base of it cracked with heat and aridity, thanks to the longest drought Ancoux had seen in many a year. And the garderobe chutes all over the royal castle sluggish if not completely clogged.

    “Barbarians!” Vincent scoffed, spitting another gout of tobacco. “There’s always rumours of barbarians. If I left my work undone each time some crone said she’d seen a war band these chutes would be jammed right back up to where the lords and ladies sit upon the tower tops to relieve themselves!

    “And this one’s especially bad … Yep, this is definitely one of the chutes that feeds into that addlepated cross-system that’s supposed to be flushed by aquifers on the top of the keep! Bah … it only works in spring when it rains every other day. Bloody engineers.”

    Vincent turned back and saw that Harold was gone. He frowned, but he didn’t have time to hunt down and punish that layabout now. He’d be sure teach him a lesson in the morning though. But now, there was important work.

    As he knew he would (because the work of a gong farmer was never, EVER easy — the Almighty had a special place in His heart for gong farmers and intended that they spend not an instant in Purgatory when they went to their judgement) , he had to climb right up into the garderobe chute to unclog it.

    Slowly he moved his way upwards towards the upper portions of the central keep of the royal castle. So intent was he on his work that he heeded not the roar of war machines, the screams of horses, and the clangour of weapons striking shields that raged all around the castle from shortly before midnight.

    Only when he reached one of the horizontally running channels that was supposed to flow with water to flush the (normally) slimy pipe he’d traversed, did Vincent pause for a rest. He adjudged he was about halfway up the keep, not far from the great hall. The pipe he was working on likely ended not far above.

    He fished out a candle from his handy pack (which also held the tobacco — his one consolation in a joyless life) and lit it to check his calculations. Indeed, he was correct, for he could see above, perhaps ten feet up the chute, the garderobe opening. His work on this chute was basically done, and there was no collection up there. He now paused and noted odd, muffled noises from the other side of the stone.

    He pressed his ear up against the wall of the flushing channel. He knew the sounds of battle well enough to discern them from those of a particularly late and raucous party (he was a veteran himself, and after all, the King and Queen were actually in the castle not afield to leave the Crown Prince to his devices this fortnight). The clash of swords and screams of the wounded did not last long before a great cheer went up which quickly gave way to chanting of a most uncouth sort.

    That was no victory cry of the king’s knights! Vincent heaved a sigh. The kingdom was beset by incompetents and laggards on all sides, not merely in the gong farmer apprentice department! Had the scoundrels who held themselves out as knights actually let the keep fall? Vincent reached into his pouch and jammed a huge wad of tobacco into his cheek. Well, it wouldn’t be a day keeping the cess pits sweet if he didn’t have to do EVERYTHING himself.

    He extinguished the candle and with his long-handled scraper in one hand, he shimmied up the rest of the chute and emerged into the royal privy just down the passageway that led to the dias whereupon the king and queen were wont to sup.

    There were two barbarians right in the very room. By gum, these creatures would ransack anything. They’d not had time to pick their jaws up off the floor before Vincent caved one of their empty skulls in with his scraper and sent the other one headfirst down the chute all the way to the refuse pile at the bottom where he most likely (and most deservedly) broke his pagan neck.

    Vincent relieved the cloven-skulled one of his cruelly barbed sword and shook his head at the rust on it. Back in his army days he’d have had a trooper flogged for failing to maintain his weapon like that. Well, they were barbarians, but that the strutting popinjays who called themselves lords would let these defeat them filled Vincent with scorn.

    He padded down the hall in none-too-clean bare feet. The chamberlain wouldn’t like that, but he’d have to come out from hiding under a table to do anything about it, Vincent reckoned. When he peeked out of the door that led to the king’s dias, he saw that the great hall was in disarray, strewn with bodies, smoking braziers on the floor, tapestries torn from the walls and trampled. Rugged men in furs with axes and jagged swords capered about. Some were dragging screaming ladies in waiting out of the room, others were putting the cowardly surrenderers of the castle to the sword. The latter Vincent figured wasn’t totally undeserved, but the ladies being taken by such as these was an outrage.

    Most outrageous of all, a massive black-skinned man with silky black hair sat sprawled on the king’s throne! And some sort of shamen or witch-doctors were chanting over him and bowing and Lord knew what else.

    “Aight, enough of this!” Vincent bellowed, crashing through the door with great indignation.

    He beheaded the great big snake the witch doctors were fawning over, and ran the fanciest of them through with the sword. He grabbed the heathen’s great club-like staff as the wretch gurgled and stared with eyes wide full of shock and indignation. He spun to see the hulking black man heave himself off the throne, wielding a great battle axe.

Vincent spat tobacco into the man’s eye and waded in. The gong-farmer’s accustomed stench smote the barbarian king and the man staggered and left a huge opening through which Vincent swung the pagan medicine staff. This caused the ruler to drop his axe, with which Vincent beheaded him.

    He fulled expected to die in the next second or two after that under a flurry of blows to his back, but the hall was silent. He turned, and picked out the King and Queen from among the captives who had not yet been dragged off or butchered.

    “Yer grace,” Vincent nodded. “Now then, are you bloody barbarians going to fight me one-at-a-time or what’s your game?”

    “Good Lord, who are you, man?” Vincent’s lord king shouted. “What heroism! Do you not know what you’ve done?”

    “Eh? I mean, begging your pardon, your Grace, but I’m Vincent the Gong Farmer. I don’t suppose you’d know me since I work mostly at night —“

    “The gong farmer?” The Queen almost shrieked with hysteria and shock at the whole situation. The King, however, maintained his composure.

    “Vincent, these barbarians … by their pagan faith a man owns whatever belonged to the man he kills — you’re now the great Khan of the Varlak Horde! Their lands spread … why …”

    “Huh!” Vincent found the barbarian Khan’s head at the bottom of the stairs and took the great unvisored horned crown-helmet off it. He put it on and sat down on the throne of his own kingdom. “And I thought I had problems before! I really do have to do everything, don’t I?”


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