A Game of Groans

A Sonnet of Slush and Soot

George R.R. Washington

St. Martin's Griffin/Thomas Dunne Books

Allbran Barker broke wind.
Fortunately for Allbran’s sake, the wind from the sky dissipated the wind from his hindquarters to the point that he was the only person who heard the foulness. Unfortunately for Allbran’s sake, the wind was such that he was forced to inhale the foulness, a foulness that somebody with a sharp sense of smell would accurately surmise was born of a combination of onions, wild boar, raw oats, and more onions.
The seven-year-old scrunched up his nose with self-loathing, and his father, Lord Headcase Barker, noticed. Lord Barker inquired, “What’s with the face, Allbran?” Gesturing to the scene in front of him, he asked, “Is this too much for you?”
Allbran said, “Oh, of course not, Father. I look forward to this!” The this Allbran and Lord Barker spoke of was the weekly Deserter Demolition.
Some believed Deserter Demolition to be barbaric, but even Allbran understood it was a necessity. Due to its horrible climate—brutal cold one day, deadly heat the next, even hotter than that the next—Summerseve, the town in which House Barker was housed, was a less-than-ideal place to live. Angered by the broken promises about universal air-conditioning service, the townspeople began an exodus from the region—most of those who left relocated to Caelifornea, while a small contingency escaped to Paeresfrance—and Summerseve nearly went bankrupt. In order to salvage the region, Lord Barker instituted a strict no-deserters policy, the penalty being beheading. That did not stop people from trying to leave Summerseve on a daily basis. Some made it out. Most did not.
In order to cut costs, Headcase—Head to his friends—scheduled all his beheadings for Monday afternoons, and to Allbran, those Mondays tasted as good as a plate of lemon cakes. Lemon cakes with a healthy coating of deserter blood, granted, but lemon cakes nonetheless. The beheadings were enjoyable in and of themselves, but part of the fun was the opportunity to spend time with his father, his older brother, Bobb, and his not-quite-as-old-as-Bobb-but-still-older-than-Allbran jerkoff brother, Juan Nieve. For one day a week, the Barker boys were on an equal plane, and Allbran wanted to keep it that way, thus his concern about the windbreaking.
Head smiled at his son and uttered, “I look forward to these days too, son. It’s a pleasure to have you boys here by my side.” Looking at Juan, he said, “Even you, jerkoff.”
“Gracias, Padre,”1 Juan said.
“I apologize to you boys that we only have one deserter. It was a slow week. I feel horrible. I have let you down. Down I have let you. If somebody were to ask me, ‘In which direction have I let you,’ the answer would be ‘down.’”
Allbran—who was uncomfortable with his father’s predilection for self-flagellation—farted, then coughed to cover up the air tulip. “That’s alright, Father. One beheading is better than no beheadings.”
Head’s smile widened, and he said, “Ah, Allbran, you are growing into a fine young man.” He pulled the bloodstained axe from his tool belt and said, “When I die—and I will die, probably soon, because characters like me, we always die—this will all be yours. Well, not yours, but your older brother’s, who might lend it to you once in a while. And now, to the business at hand.” He lifted the axe above his head and called, “It is decreed by me, Headcase Barker, the Seventy-Eighth of His Name, King of the Swordfish and the Hemorrhoids, Lord of the Eight, no, Nine, no, wait, Six Kingdoms, and Protector of the Protractor, that this nameless deserter’s head be removed by mine hand with one whack, and one whack only.” He asked the deserter, “Have you any final words?”
The deserter mumbled, “I do have a name, you know.”
“Of course you do,” Head agreed, then—as Bobb yelled, “I loves me some violence!”—brought the axe down upon the back of the deserter’s neck.
Halfway through Head’s downswing, Allbran’s hindquarters emitted a sound so thunderous that he who supplied it could not deny it. It so disconcerted Head that his typically straight and sure axe chop was a tad wobbly, wobbly to the point that the axe did not slice all the way through the deserter’s neck. Head attempted to remove his weapon from the deserter, but it was so embedded in the man’s spine that the handle popped free of the blade, and the blade stayed put, half in his neck, and half out.
While the three full-blooded Barker men and the one jerkoff watched blood gush from the deserter and onto their respective shirts, Bobb pulled out his sword and asked, “Would you like me to finish him off, Father?”
Juan unsheathed his sword and declared, “Dios mio, Padre,2 give me the chance to prove myself. My swordwork has become muy3 impeccable.”
Head chuckled, “My son, my jerkoff, I appreciate the sentiment, but the law is clear: One whack, and one whack only. I know, I know, in the story outline, it was suggested that we should be as violent as possible, but once in a while, subtlety is called for, and what’s more subtle than one whack?” He turned to the deserter and said, “You are free to go. But I would advise you to stay in Summerseve. I think if you give it a chance, you’ll find it to be a wonderful place to live.”
The deserter stood up, bowed, gingerly touched his gushing wound, and said, “Yes, my Lord. Thank you, my Lord.”
Head nodded. “My pleasure.” He tapped the blade embedded in the deserter’s neck and said, “Hey, if you get a chance, could you return this thing to my castle?”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“Fantastic. Give it to my assistant, Maester Blaester, and he’ll get it to me.”
“Yes, my Lord,” the deserter repeated, then staggered off.
As he watched the wounded man walk away, Allbran complained, “Father, I’m covered in deserter blood.”
“We all are,” Head pointed out. “Let’s get ourselves cleaned up. I think a trip to the pond is in order.”
With each muddy step, Allbran’s piffles became more and more pronounced; his companions, being polite sorts, did not comment on the increasingly loud, increasingly odiferous emissions. He sped up his pace, in hopes that he could get out of earshot (and noseshot), but the faster he moved, the louder his cheese cut. By the time he jumped into the pond some ten minutes later, his insides felt as if somebody had scooped out his guts and replaced them with onion juice.
At the pond, the other Barker men stripped down to their undergarments—Head’s, Bobb’s, and Allbran’s were made from chainmail, the preferred undergarment of the royals, while Juan’s consisted of a piece of string and two feathers—and dived in. Bran watched his family rinse themselves in the soupy water, hoping against hope that he would soon outgrow his stomach issues. He let out a sad sigh, and a sadder fart.
While the others dried themselves off and put back on their bloodstained clothes, Allbran remained in the pond, floated on his back, and stared at the overcast sky. He almost drifted off to sleep, but a significant ripple in the water jolted him from his trance. Standing up, he peered toward the other side of the pond, and his jaw dropped. He pointed to the South and burbled, “Over there.” He could barely get the words out.
The rest of the Barker clan followed Allbran’s finger, and were greeted by a sight so shocking that they were shocked. There, frolicking in the water, were six animals, rare animals, animals that were thought to be extinct for generations, animals that nobody in Easterrabbit thought would ever be seen in their lifetimes, or their children’s lifetimes, or their children’s children’s lifetimes.
Those animals? It might be better to tell you what they were not. They were not direwolves, because they would be too obvious, too common, and too close to a tale told by a man with the most absurd white beard you’ll ever see. They were not direpenguins, which might upset some because direpenguins are beloved beasts. And they were not direbananas, because direbananas were a fruit.
No, they were direpandas.
And not only were they direpandas, they were tiny, fluffy baby direpandas, smaller even than Allbran, and Allbran wanted them all. He jumped out of the water, splashing his family in the process, and galloped toward the other end of the pond, screaming, “Direpandas! Direpandas! The Barker family symbol! Direpandas! Direpandas!” And then he broke wind so loudly and sharply that the direpandas froze with shock, fear, or admiration.
“Allbran,” Head called, “get back here! Direpandas are vicious killing machines! And they probably haven’t gotten their shots!”
Allbran ignored his father and continued his beeline to the animals. Bobb smirked at his brother, then took off in a sprint. After Juan followed suit, Lord Barker sighed and trekked after his brood.
The baby direpandas were romping as only baby direpandas could—gaily—and Allbran was enchanted. He gently reached out his hand to the smallest one and let the bear inhale his scent. The animal made a quiet hooting noise, then licked Allbran on the arm, covering the boy with bubbly direpanda saliva, a liquid that, for some, was the nectar of the Gods, and for others, was as deadly as it was gooey. For yet others, it was simply gross.
Giggling, Allbran exclaimed, “These direpandas, they are ours! They are on our land, and they are drinking our water, so they belong to us.”
Ignoring his son’s enthusiastic fart, Head pointed out, “They are not ours, son. They belong to their parents.”
Juan noted, “Padre, I see no direpanda mamacita or papacita. It appears to be just the little ones. Is it possible that they, too, are jerkoffs?”
Shrugging, Lord Barker said, “It certainly is possible, Juan. If anybody would recognize a bunch of jerkoffs, it’s another jerkoff.”
“Then they need parents,” Juan said. “They need care. They need love.”
Bobb pointed at the viscous direpanda saliva congealing on Allbran’s arm and said, “They need a trip to the dentist.”
“They need us,” Allbran insisted, picking up one tiny direpanda and squeezing him to his chest. He asked Head, “Can we take them home, Daddy? Can we? Can we? Huh? Can we? Can we? Huh? Can we? Please please pretty please? I promise to feed them, and walk them, and clean up their poop, and I’ll do my homework, and eat all my vegetables, and pick up my room, and I’ll stop doing Dutch ovens to Dickoff. Please please please please please?”
After a moment, Head sighed. “If I see one piece of direpanda poop inside the house, I swear to the giant parakeet in the sky that they will all be beheaded.”
“Giant parakeet?” Juan asked.
“Here in Easterrabbit, the religion stuff is a bit, um, er, let’s say nebulous. In book one, when we’re cursing something, it’s always all Gods this and Gods that, but we’re never told who or what the Gods are. It’s a different story in books two through five, but I won’t bore you with that, because they’re Godsdamn boring enough. So for now, I’m going with the parakeet.”
Disregarding his father’s admittedly pointless aside, Bobb queried, “You would behead the animal who graces the House Barker sigil?” For centuries the Barker Flag had borne the image of a direpanda peeing on Calvyn from Calvyn and Hoakes.
Waving a dismissive hand, Head grinned. “Just kidding, Bobb. I would never simply behead them. Like any good ruler, I’d behead them and turn them into direpandaburgers. But a mere beheading? Never.”
“Waste not, want not,” Juan said.
“Well put, Juan,” Head said. “Spoken like a true jerkoff.” To Allbran, he added, “There are six direpandas, and I have five kids, and one jerkoff. One animal for each of the seeds of my loins; black and white pets for all but the jerkoff, who can have the white and black beast. It’s almost as if it was meant to be. Well done, son.”
“Thank you, Father,” Allbran said, then let one rip. And if ever a fart sounded and smelled contented, it was that one.

Copyright © 2012 by St. Martin’s Press