Avina inhaled deeply as she swung open the huge oak door and stepped into The Serpent’s Tale. She smiled slightly in contentment, thinking how much she loved that smell of warm mulled wine, cold tavern ale, and the soap-scrubbed wooden floors.
“Mornin’, Av.” Bart called out from behind the bar. “.. she’s gon’ be a cold one today I reckon.”
“Sun’s high and it ain’t no warmer than this mornin’ so I reckon yer right.” Avina responded, mocking Bart’s backwater accent, shrugging off her overcoat and scarfs and throwing them behind the bar.
“Funny girl this mornin’… well we ain’t got no one here yet so fire up that hearth would ya so they know we’re ready for ’em, yeah?” Bart groaned slightly as he lifted a half-empty keg from behind the bar to the back. “And take a look at those tables at the back there – that scuffle last night mighta’ busted one of dem chairs.”
There was a certain comfort that came with Bart’s unnecessary instructions every morning, Avina thought to herself as she lined up some mugs at the bar – do something for years and it becomes habit, and the weather being like this meant the hearth better be roaring to fight off the drafts that snuck into the old tavern.
She didn’t mind the hours, smelling of spilled beer, or even mind the occasional row when customers got carried away – it was a good bit of fun kicking out the unruly ones and made for great stories with the girls later.
The Serpent’s Tale belonged to Bart’s father, and when he died, he took it over and that pretty much guaranteed that when Avina was old enough to carry a tray, her uncle couldn’t say no when she she asked to work there. The Tale was the closest thing there was to hearing about far-off lands and amazing adventures – the place wasn’t named by accident. Bart’s father could weave a story like few others, and the truth of them was much less important when the cold was harsh and the fire was high.
And lately, she had heard some whoppers.
“Did you hear Sam talking about those meteors last night?” Avina called out as she wiggled a loose leg on a stool.
“Yeah I heard somethin’ ’bout it… up north, yeah?”
“South of Candlefen he said. Close enough to shoot an arrow at, he said.”
“That bastid’ couldn’t hit the broad sign of a barn sober!”
“Heh yeah – wonder if they were really on fire?”
“We could use some over here then – save me some firewood.”
Just like any day, the regulars started filing in… some for lunch and others to get a head start on the drinking. The usual muted conversations were like a low noise, and it wasn’t long before Avina heard something els that piqued her interest:
“I’m tellin’ ya… they said they ain’t heard from em for weeks so they went east themselves it saw it with their own eyes! Their own eyes he says!” Hud had been coming to the Tale for more years than Avina was old, and she knew he wasn’t prone to exaggeration.
“Who’s they?” Avina asked as she put down three more mugs on the table.
“Don’t listen to him…” Balan interjected. “He’s talking about those gypsy suns-a-bitches from the forest… wierdo wanderers with their damn carts and damn music and stayin’ up all hours. They was here once, remember that?”
“Yea yeah, here we go…” Hud rolled his eyes and took a sip from the new tankard.
“Yeah they ain’t got honest bones in their bodies – what you think they gonna tell you the truth when there ain’t nothin in it for ’em?”
“They didn’t have any reason to lie, either.” Hug replied.
“What did they see?” Avina asked Hud – her empty tray poised motionless as she waited.
Hud looked at Avina now, serious and stern.
“Orcs in the forest. Hundreds. Thousands they said.”
Avina’s eyes grew wide. “Here!?”
“No no… but so many… like locusts they were carving through the forest they said. Animals and forest folk fleeing as they approached – almost unchecked.”
“Except someone was gettin’ at ’em, right?” Balan managed to chime in between breaths with the mug at his lips. “Yer leavin’ that part, eh?”
“Yes – they said orcs were looking for someone – or something – and there were places orcs were getting slaughtered – so maybe it was the elves… it was their forest, after all.”
“Wow…” was all Alvina was able to say. “Elves…” She had seen one once, years ago when Bart’s father was still alive – he came in alone – ordered a drink and left – but she watched his every move – he walked on air and moved like water – she’d never forget it.
“I’d gut a dozen orcs if they ever came ’round here..” Balan announced, swinging his now empty mug in the air. “I’d carve ’em up nice.”
“Sure you would, with your cobbler’s kit I bet, right?” Hud taunted.
“Better ‘n you for sure. You’d be runnin’ scared the moment they showed up.”
Avina left the table and the jawing, to return to the bar and the patrons there, but her mind was elsewhere. Deep forests, noble elves, horrible orcs… all a world away. She sighed and slid her tray to the back of the bar, and held another mug under the tap.
Just more stories… she thought to herself.
Avina lifted the full mug up to the bar and grinned weakly at her customer.