War was declared against a great nation. The occupying enemy’s army was great. It was not only the enemy’s might alone that made them victorious. It was also their cunning. The enemy poisoned the nation’s allies against them until the nation was defeated. The nation’s king was forced into hiding.
Nevertheless, hope remained. The king continued to scheme for a foothold—supply caravans ambushed, armament theft, assassinations on enemy officials. Despite some successes, his number of able men dwindled and there were soon too few to risk more loss. However, the king remained resolute in his goal, only made to consider that not all things are settled by the blade. Thus, he waited.
One evening, an enemy captain, followed by a scrap of his company’s warriors, gathered in the street adjacent a lively tavern. Though it was commonplace for soldiers to roister after long assignments, the presence of their new rulers was not warmly met by the local residents.
As the captain and his men crossed the threshold and stepped into the static air, weighted by the redolence of bourbon and tobacco, the patron’s merriment washed into a stiff hush and side-eyed scorns. Shuffling, clinks of a glass, and a few stray coughs echoed through the alehouse. Someone grumbled, hacked and spat.
A few soldiers took to a table. As the rest followed way to the low, wooden stools, a local smith—a man younger and bolder than most present—slipped his foot to catch the captain’s gate. The captain fell to one knee before seizing himself against the nearest table. His guard sprang to attention, a few raising fists and grabbing the garb of whoever was in reach. The captain motioned their halt with a raised hand.
“Who’s the fool?” said the captain as he rose, cutting the silence. His stolid voice and potent presence jarred more than most of the bar dwellers, who were fearsome men in their own right. With a countenance of composed ire that could force a spit swallow, the captain’s fiery eyes landed at every soul in the room as he scanned.
“No talkers, eh?” the captain turned to his men. Edging on seats, the room was throbbing for a fight. The captain gave his orders, “Arrest the lot!”
The soldiers drew their blades, and the bar came alive. Some men jerked back at the sight of steel, while others pressed forward in the heat. Men were cut and bruised, some wrestled and restrained. All but a moment of hysteria before a booming voice, the kind not heard but once a legend, erupted from the corner.
“I’ve heard the captain likes his drink!” The local storyteller stepped forward to meet the captain until they were nose to nose. “I’ve also heard,” continued the storyteller, pressing his finger into the captain’s coat, “he likes to wager.”
By this time, all ruckus had stalled, the soldiers released their drunken challengers, and a few of the regulars had already slunk to their seats.
The captain stood taller. “I would not turn down a wager for ale. After all, we are guests and owed drink, are we not?”
The storyteller called to the proprietor, “Three bowls! Two filled with warm rice! And prep some tankards for another round!”
The storyteller removed his hat and gestured to the captain to sit opposite him. The bowls were placed in front of them. From having heard the commotion, a few folks—women now too—filed into the tavern to observe the spectacle.
The storyteller spelled out the terms of the wager, “Whoever can guess the number of rice grains in the other’s bowl more accurately is crowned winner. Loser buys drinks for everyone present.”
This piqued the captain’s pride even more. To decide amid battle, he is able to accurately account for a large number of troops—both foe and his own—spread over a battlefield among the remaining alive. A bowl of rice is easy work.
“I accept your wager.”
“I will guess a number first,” explained the storyteller, “then you count from your bowl. When you finish counting, you can guess a number for my bowl. I will then count. At last, we will reveal the number of rice in our bowls and declare the winner.”
This was yet another advantage for the captain’s confidence. The rice bowls are of equal size and the captain will have counted one of them before wagering his guess.
The storyteller gave his number and asked the captain to count the grains. The room grew as more gathered around. All watched the meticulous count of the focused captain, sliding the rice grain-by-grain into the empty bowl.
By the time the counting was up, the tavern had gathered even more onlookers. The captain’s confidence wavered, being surprised at how closely the storyteller was able to make his guess.
Now it was the captain’s turn. He studied his opponent’s rice bowl and thought for a while. He finally settled on a number. But as soon as the number slipped from his lips, the storyteller slammed a pile of coin on the table, swallowed the whole of the rice in his bowl, and through a mouth full, said, “You win!”
Laughter and cheers woke up the block, beer spilt from glass and mouth as men and women were brought to tears in the roar. Musicians began their tunes as drinks were passed around.
“Ha! You bested me!” admitted the captain. “But your ruse left me wanting. And I want a real challenge!” Someone hushed the crowd as the captain continued. The captain raised his glass to the storyteller, “The last to finish their drink buys the next round.”
It was the storyteller’s turn to become prideful. If there was any challenge he could win, it was drinking. “I accept!” said the storyteller, raising his glass in kind.
Beers in hand. Everyone cheering. The bold, young smith from before stepped up to give count, “Ready? And go!”
The storyteller raised his glass to his lips, opened his mouth, and threw back his head. All in attendance loudly rooted for their side. When the storyteller finished, he lowered his head and wiped his beard, only to see the captain had not taken a drink. It was still full. The captain splashed his beer in the storyteller’s face and said, “You win!”
The storyteller sat stunned, face dripping with foam. The whole bar became deathly quiet, save a few gasps and murmuring. The storyteller grimaced and grew red in the face, finally letting out a chuckle that quickly escalated into a belly laugh.
To the disapproval of many wives—and some husbands—the packed tavern spent the rest of the night drinking together in a merriment that would have continued if not for the sunrise. This quickly became the new commonplace at this tavern—the locals drawing out the night with the storyteller, the captain and his company. Unlikely friendships were forged, bonds made perhaps stronger than to one’s own nation.
On one occasion, the storyteller was asked to share his best story. All gathered round as he began, “The ancient heron was king of his tributaries. For thousands of years, his rule was in harmony with all natural order. That is until the expansion of man threatened his kingdom.
“The heron took to the air, facing an army of 10,000 soldiers on the battlefield. The heron’s swift flight made him victorious. For many seasons, the armies of man could not best him in battle.
“Man’s generals conspired a new plot, whispering to the spirit of the river to betray the heron. They told the river that the heron thought himself greater than it. So the river sent a flood to smother the heron’s wetlands.
“The heron’s strength could not hold, so he fled. He made his home in the heavens, where he was found worthy to reside among the clouds that form the lake in the sky.
“Myth was born from the heron’s bravery. It is said that whenever a shadow is cast over the land, it is the great heron’s wings passing across the light of the sun. Man looked to the sky for the heron’s wisdom until they too learned to live in harmony.”
The storyteller, with warm, boozy breath, in a hushed voice to the captain, said, “Though your army occupies my land, I am that great heron. And this tavern is my home among the heavens.”
The secret of the lost king was their bond. By the end of his time, the captain had risen to the highest military rank. His influence led his home nation to live in harmony in the land.