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Fiction Friday: The Ballad of Gunther Brunn

A digital painting of a small pale man with blue eyes, wearing a hat and a plaid shirt, holding a mandolin and looking nervous

Gunther Brunn, Hero of Odin

Today's story is The Ballad of Gunther Brunn, the story of how Gunther, one of the Heroes of the Runaround Boys playtest game, took his first steps on the road of heroism (and may or may not have instantly regretted it). This story was written by Gunther's player, Stewart, so you know it's nothing but the pure unvarnished truth... at least, if you believe in that kind of thing.


August 11, 2011. A Wednesday.

A scruffy kid, can’t be older ‘n 18, in a half-unbuttoned shirt and jeans rolled up to the calf skids down a washed out patch of sandy dirt into a dry creek bed in North Georgia. It ain’t right how hot it is, and he swears when he picks himself up and tries to unstick the shirt from his sweaty chest. His eyes are red'n sore, like he’s been cryin’. His face might be red from the heat, but it ain’t been helped by his mood. Somethin’ between rage'n pain, probably a fair bit of both, carries him out here in the woods again. He knows the creek will be dry, won’t provide no relief from the swelter, but he also knows where it is. Knows he can find his way back home from there, if home is even where he wants to go.

Kid turned 18 less than a week ago, and it seemed to turn off whatever was left in his momma and daddy that would put up with him. They didn't never have a real strong friendship, but there was a mutual understanding: he wouldn’t never be near as good as his brothers and sister, and they wouldn’t expect him to be. “Lazy runt!” momma had said, “You’re gonna die forgotten and let us do it too! Least you could do is try though!” Daddy just pointed at the door'n said to come back when cooler heads could prevail.

Gunther is the youngest, y’see, an' the last to leave the nest. He’s the smallest by a head in a family that prizes size, strength, fame'n good ol’ American heroism. He’s got a brother who’s a fireman over in Chattanooga, another who’s a sergeant or somethin’ in the army, an' a sister who flies them choppers they use to rescue folks from the gulf. The stuff the family cares about just came natural to ‘em, but not to Gunther. All he’d ever been even a little good at was strummin’ on a beat up guitar, but he was just bookish enough to get into college for it. Just gettin’ in don’t mean much if you can’t pay your way. So all Gunther had was a piece of paper that said, “Good enough, not great.” And, well, that wasn’t good enough.

So he asked the old man for help, and you c'n see from the state of ‘im how that went.

A fresh little spout of shame-fueled rage drives him the rest of the way across the creek bed and he goes farther into the valley than he’s ever been, and he just keeps walkin’. It must be later than he thought; the shadows are stretchin' out around him and the sun is tryin’ to touch the mountaintops. He keeps walkin’ anyway.

‘Round the time the crickets start comin’ out to compete with the cicadas for who c'n make the most noise, Gunther stumbles on a clearing. At the far edge of it is a cabin, lookin' about two hundred years old and abandoned to everybody but the crows for the last hundred. It’s got a little well next to it, more intact than it oughtta be based on the state'a the house, but built like a stock photo of a well would look: little stone circle with a little wooden roof'n a crank with a rope to lower a bucket down. If he was clearer-headed he would'a thought it was strange how well-kept it seems. Instead he just chuckles and fishes a penny outta his pocket. He whispers a private wish to the well as he flips the coin into the darkness, and is real surprised when he hears the copper hit water deep under his feet. He steps away from the well and sees one of the crows from the house restin’ on its little roof. “Shoo,” he says to it. “I’ll be on my way, sorry!” he says a little mockingly after a while when the bird don’t leave its perch, “gettin’ late anyway.”

He finally makes it back to his dry creek around the time the crickets start to win over the cicadas. The kid’s rage has calmed down quite a bit, replaced by the pure focus it takes to navigate the woods in the dusky dark. He’s focused like that when he starts climbin’ back up the high side of the creek, usin' old exposed roots as hand- and foot-holds. So focused he don’t see at first that the next root ain’t a root at all but the gnarled hand of an old man, reachin’ down to help him up. When he sees it, Gunther lets out a startled yelp and stumbles. He oughta fall, but the old man’s grip is strong, stronger than it oughtta be, and he holds fast to the stumblin' kid.

The old man, wearing a wide straw hat that hides most of his face 'cept a long white beard, hauls the panickin’ Gunther the rest of the way up the side of the ravine and laughs a little at his display. After a few long seconds of stunned breathin’, Gunther finally musters himself and says, “Thanks. Seems like I was gonna fall.” The old timer just leans on his walkin’ stick and says, “You’re welcome kiddo.” He tips his hat up'n looks the kid up and down from his one good eye. “Did you mean it, kid? What you said at the well? You want all that?”

Gunther’s mouth just hangs open like a dead fish for a solid minute before he looks around him, tryin’ to figure out what the Hel’s goin’ on. Over his shoulder he sees that two of the crows from the old house have followed him back to the creek and his skin prickles with goosebumps when he looks back at the old fella. “You been followin’ me or somethin’ you old creep?”

The gent just laughs, big and throaty. “That’s no way to talk to your father, my boy.”

At this Gunther scoffs like any teenager oughtta, “You ain’t my daddy, crazy old-timer. Thanks for pullin’ me up. Hope you enjoy the rest of your hike.”

And he starts walkin’ around him, but One Eye grabs him tight 'round the arm. “I’m everybody’s daddy.” He practically spits the words at Gunther, but his face is still calm'n he’s got the kid’s arm held firm so Gunther don’t try to get away. “And I can give you what you want. Everything you need to be great. Everything you need to be remembered...” One Eye pauses and tilts his head sympathetically, which really unnerves the kid, “...fondly.”

Gunther shakes his arm loose and starts to walk away, back home, back to his shame. Then he stops.

Then he turns back to the old man, who smiles like a cat with a mouse, and Gunther asks: “How?”

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