Oonsus Koguja stared glumly into a now half-empty pitcher. Inside was kurbus, a type of spiced cider that gained its distinctive taste from a relative of the mustard plant that grew only in his native valley. Occasionally a large salty tear would make its way down Oonsus's face, dripping off of his nose and into his drink.
"Why the long face, ol' chap?" the bartender asked, addressing Oonsus.
"Who you calling old?" Oonsus demanded, raising a wizened eyebrow.
His eyebrows, which matched his hair, were almost completely white. Several patches of eyebrow were missing where long scars ran across Oonsus's forehead and down his face.
"I suppose you were just born with them there white hairs on your head, then?" the barkeep suggested.
"Do you mean to make some kind of insinuation based off of my appearance?" Oonsus demanded, seeming much more alert than he had just a moment ago.
"I didn't mean any offense by it," the barkeep said defensively. "It's just... well... anyone can see... you're—how shall I say— past your prime... at the very least..."
"Past my prime!?" Oonsus demanded angrily, standing up from the stool he had been sitting up and leaning over the counter towards the barkeep. "Who's saying I'm past my prime? Why I'll teach any one of you young whippersnappers a lesson you won't forget 'till next Tuesday if you think you're boy enough to take an old man like me..."
As Oonsus spoke, he looked around the mostly empty bar shaking his finger warningly.
"Easy there old-timer," the barkeep said, trying to calm the obviously intoxicated Oonsus. "Just because you're no spring chicken doesn't mean any of us be wantin' to pick a fight with ya."
"You can bet a fistful o' gold this big you don't," Oonsus said, stretching out his hand expansively for emphasis. "Why I've fought in more wars than most of you have probably ever even heard of..." he trailed off nostalgically. "I've fought on the Flatlands, the Holy Lands, the Midlands—north, south and outer—I've even fought in Rukilia—somewhere none of you probably never even even heard of..."
Suddenly one of the bar's few other patrons—a middle aged man with a formidible gut—interjected himself into the conversation.
"If you're such a great fighter and all, what you doing here in the boringest part of the world that there is...?" the middle-aged man asked contentiously.
"Now, now, now," the bartender interjected, cutting off the middle-aged man, who was also noticeably under the influence. "No need to be picking fights... I just replaced these here bar-stools, and I don't need them broken all over again..."
"Nah, no need to worry about that," Oonsus said, sitting back down and waving his hand casually as if chasing away flies. "I know there's no sense in fighting over it... and even less sense denying it... I have gotten a little... what did you call it? Oh, yes... old."
"Old?" the middle-aged man countered, waving his empty beer mug in the air as if for emphasis. "Calling you 'a little old' is a bit like calling the Patriarch a moderately religious fellow, bless his soul... Face it, you've got one foot in the grave already. The only thing standing between you and the pagan hells is a good fright..."
"And you'll be the one to give it to him, is that it, eh?" the barkeep interrupted, looking the middle-aged patron straight in the eye. "'Cause last time I checked, intentionally scaring a man to death still counts as murder in this here earldom."
"Didn't mean anything by it," the middle-aged patron said defensively. "Certainly don't mean to kill the old chap... After all, he's still good for a laugh now and again. How about another round of spiced cider, then? One for me and one for him..."
"No, you've had enough," the barkeep refused.
"For him then at least," the middle-aged patron suggested. "I'll pay for it myself to amend the offense..." Pulling a silver coin from his pocket, he held it up for the barkeep to inspect.
"No," the barkeep repeated a second time, pushing back the coin. "Not that it's any of your business, but he's had more than enough for the night too..."
"Enough what?" Oonsus demanded, obviously eavesdropping in on the conversation between the barkeep and the middle-aged patron. "I'll tell you what I've had enough of... I've had enough of this stale, soggy, worn-out, good-for-nothing, dilapidated life... that's what I've had enough of... enough of these tired muscles and squeaky bones and eyes that don't see right...enough of the long lonely nights and the aches and pains of getting up every morning... enough of this Eli forsaken life where everyone and everyone mocks me 'cause they can see I'm already done for... I'll tell you what I've had enough of! I've had enough of being OLD!"
Oonsus's rant may as well have been a soliloquy. Neither the barkeep nor the other patrons paid him any attention. This wasn't his first time at this bar, and most of the regulars knew there was no stopping him once he got on a track like this. Responding would only encourage him. Those who weren't regulars guessed well enough to play along. They had seen old men cry in their beer before. After all, life here wasn't exactly easy on those who could no longer support themselves and had no relatives to watch after them in their old age. Most of them just hoped that their fortunes would turn out better than Oonsus's appeared to have.
"You know what I wish..." Oonsus blathered on, ignored by all. "I wish... just for one day... that I could be young again... I wish... just once, you know... that I could take a walk without having to deal with the crick in my back, or the pain in my neck, or the ache in my knees, or the pain in my feet. I just want to be a kid again... I just want to go on a trip and not worry about whether I'd drop over in a ditch somewheres along the way... I just want to live again.. just a little... you know... just a little bit..."
"Hey, old chap," the middle aged man interrupted—breaking the unspoken rule of silence. "If you're so keen on being young and all, why don't you check out Metamor?"
A dead silence took over the entire bar at the mention of the name "Metamor". Before, the other patrons had stayed silent because they didn't want to get involved. Now, a different kind of silence gripped them all. Even to speak of that ill-fated valley was said to carry such a curse that none risked dare it. None that is, except a middle-aged man in a drunken argument with an old mercenary—too drunk, apparently, to stay within even the most reasonable of socially-imposed boundaries.
"Metamor?" Oonsus asked, blinking several times, taking a moment to regain his train of thought after being pulled out of his mindless rant.
Merely by repeating the name, Oonsus deepened the silence that had overtaken the bar tenfold. One did not speak of such things; when others chose to speak, however, most men thought it worth their while to listen. The memories of such conversations haunt all men's dreams.
"You know, the valley that leads to the Giantdowns," the middle age man said, explaining that which needed no explaining. "Surely you've heard of it..."
"Heard of it, yes," Oonsus agreed. "Damnnedest place on the face of this Eli-forsaken world, if you want my opinion. Nothing but a bunch of talking animals and he-shes. Not a human soul in whole valley."
Oonsus's description of Metamor Valley as the "damndest place in the world" was one all in the bar would agree with. The story of the Battle of Three Gates and Nasoj's curse was well-known throughout the whole of the Midlands and beyond.
"Talking animals, yes," the middle-aged patron replied. "He-shes, maybe. But what I hear is that you go there and you've got a one-in-three chance of being a kid again..."
"Oh really?" Oonsus demanded. "And where on earth did you get such a fool notion into that head of yours?"
"Straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak," the middle aged patron attempted to explain. "Met a fifteen-year old boy, only I could tell from the start that there was something queer about him—you known how you just get a feeling sometimes? Well, by and by he tells me that he used to be fifty, not fifteen, leastwise till he spent a week in Metamor valley?"
"Let me get this straight," Oonsus pressed the middle-aged patron. "So you're saying that this man—err, boy— that he went to Metamor and that he turned into a fifteen-year-old boy, and not—say a fifteen year old horse, judging from the difference between horse years and human years, perhaps?"
"I swear on the patriarch's bald head that he was just as much a man as you or me, only quite a bit younger," the middle aged man defended his story.
"I'd be careful how you use that language of yours!" Oonsus hollered, waving his mug in the middle-aged patron's face. "The patriarch ain't bald, and even so it ain't right to swear by his head. You know what I think? I think you're making this whole story up. Or better, yet, some fifteen year old boy made it up, and you're just enough of a drunk fool to fall for it!"
"I'd be careful who you're calling a drunken fool!" the middle aged man shouted in reply.
At this point the barkeep saw fit to intervene. He seperated the two men several bar-stools from one another and gave them each a severe talking-down to. Both quieted down and turned to nursing a quarter-mug of beer that the barkeep poured each of them in an effort to shut them up. Oonsus stared down into his drink with an unusually glum, almost repentant look on his face.
"What'd you say the odds of becoming young again were?" Oonsus asked in a half-whisper after several minutes of complete silence.
"Well," the middle aged patron replied. "The boy I met said you can become either an animal, a woman or a kid. So the way I figure, you've got a one in three shot of getting your youth back."
"One in three's better than I got here," Oonsus said cautiously.
"Sure as the pagan hells it is," the middle-aged patron agreed, he moved two bar-stools down to give Oonsus a friendly pat on the back.
"Well then, I guess I'll be off," Oonsus said.
Dropping a few copper coins on the counter as payment for his drinks, he stood up and started to stagger towards the door.
"Hey! Where are you going?" the middle-aged man asked as Oonsus approached the door.
"I'm off to Metamor!" Oonsus shouted.
Oonsus reached down and grabbed his sword—which had been lying near the door to the bar—and shook it above his head, as if rallying troops to battle.
"Wait! Come back! You can't do that!" the middle aged patron said, apparently having suddenly had a change of heart. "It's not safe! Metamor is dangerous! Possessed!"
Oonsus continued walking out of the bar and off into the darkness, ignoring the middle-aged patron's shouts. Besides the barkeep and the middle-aged patron, nobody seemed to pay any attention as he left.
"Now look what you've done," the barkeep said, looking down at the middle-aged patron. "You've gone and riled him up. Sure as Dvalin he'll be in here next week boasting about how he traveled all the way to Metamor and he's 15 again... And I'll see to it personally that you'll be the first one he whups in a fight using his new found youth..."
"Hey, you shouldn't be using the name of that pagan god!" the middle aged patron objected. "It's not wholesome and it's not good luck. Eli frowns on it!"
"I'll tell you what's not good luck and what Eli frowns on," the barkeep replied in an even tone of voice. "It's Metamor, the damndest place on earth."