In a realm of magic and mayhem, there was never a lack of interesting happenings. Live long enough, or go wandering far enough, and there would always be a guaranteed chance of stumbling upon the strangest characters reality had to offer.
Or one could simply walk into a decent tavern. Amazing the kinds of powers at work wherever there were many things going on in a busy place.
It was exactly why anyone who owned a tavern was never one to be messed with. Ever. Didn’t matter how friendly they were, if they could keep a tavern running come famine or war or occurrences not meant for mortal knowledge, then they could handle anything.
The owner of one particular tavern wasn’t someone who often thought of himself as such. True, by the time he’d set up the place he’d survived more than what most would consider a “reasonable amount of adventure”. Lost a few fingers for it, gained a few friends, faced death and worse more times than he cared to remember—but really, what was all that when he’d finally built up a thriving business to run and a charming clientele to entertain, and had a nice, comfortable abode to carry on with his cooking and tinkering in peace? It was all about the little things in life.
At first glance, the girl sitting at the bar didn’t appear anything beyond ordinary.
Just a starry-eyed slip of a thing in a faded, homespun dress, very obviously trying to gaze out at the entire tavern at once. The jumpy, curious energy of her showed itself in her idly swinging feet, her fluttering hands, even in the ends of her brown-blonde hair as she turned this way and that.
But then, the hair was…long. Exceedingly so.
So long, in fact, that merely calling it “long” would be like calling The Fiery Pits Of Death Eternal a little bit toasty. Even as a thick braid it near brushed the floor. The flowers that bloomed in it twitched at the slightest movement of her head. Out of the corner of the eye, they even seemed to glow.
…Well. This should be interesting.
Slinging a rag over his shoulder, the owner ambled up to his newest customer and tacked on a well-worn grin. “Hello there, love. Welcome to Quincy’s Tavern, my name is Quincy. What can I get for you?”
She whipped around faster than it took him to finish his sentence. Wide, green eyes met his. A second later the words seemed to register and she went from surprised to panicked.
“Oh—no no no! I’m fine, I’m fine, really! Just, um…waiting for a friend. Friends. They should be here soon. But if you think—if I’m causing you any trouble or you want me to sit somewhere else or if I’m getting in the way or, wait, no, actually I think I am getting in the way, oh dear I’m so sorry I’d better go to the corner there or maybe wait outside I’ll just be leaving now—”
“That won’t be necessary,” he interrupted, before she could edge further off her stool. “There’s no rush going on right now, and I see no reason why you shouldn’t be here. You are a customer, correct?”
“And when your friends arrive, you do wish to buy or trade something?”
She nodded again.
“Then please stay where you are. I insist.”
The nervousness slowly faded out of her. She sheepishly brushed a stray bit of hair behind her ear. “Sorry. I’m a little bit…new to all of this. Sometimes I don’t really know what to do with myself.”
“Oh? Have you not been to a tavern before?”
“I’ve never been to a city like this before.” She gestured out the window, to the just-big-enough-to-call-itself-a-town outside, the bells on her wrist jangling erratically. “Everything is so big! And new and strange and wonderful and interesting! And the people—they’re so nice here! They’ll say hello and wish me a good day, or some of them will stop to give me flowers, or these little children will run up to me and ask if I’m a flower princess, and isn’t that the sweetest? I think it’s all perfectly lovely and I’m so happy to be here!”
She bounced in her seat, hands clasped happily together, and…yes, some of the flowers were indeed glowing. To the untrained eye she looked the picture of a forest nymph. With the town itself beholden to the local forest and the people celebrating holidays for it, was it any wonder why the locals treated her kindly?
Not that they were terrible to everyone else, per se. Hardy? Yes. Self-sufficient? Also yes. Having a healthy distrust for outsiders thanks to the neverending power struggles happening on a nearby mountain where one overlord upstart tried to overthrow the next while pillaging and plundering along the way? At that point it was anyone’s guess how trade hadn’t died off entirely.
(It wasn’t. Not really. Considering his tavern was where it happened to be.)
But all that aside, her joy was contagious. Even he wasn’t immune, and he found himself pulling out a stool across from her.
“I’m very glad you’re enjoying your time here. Would you like to tell me more, if you don’t mind my asking? I’m more than happy to listen.”
“Oh, but I wouldn’t want to keep you from your work. That would be terribly rude—”
“It’s fine, it’s fine, you’re not keeping me from anything. Why, look around,” he waved to encompass the rest of the tavern. It was the time of day where it was too late to call it afternoon and too early to call it evening. Aside from them, the only stragglers left kept themselves near the walls and away from wandering eyes.
“With everyone here, I could get any work I have done in five minutes and be done with it. But what’s the fun in that? Most of my usual entertainment comes with lots of running around, filling out orders, mixing up potions, sticking the occasional boot up a rowdy ogre’s nose—which, by the way, highly do not recommend, the boogies don’t wash out. Nearly lost one of my favourite boots like that.” That earned him a giggle. His smile grew a touch more genuine. “So you see, you’d be doing me a service. Or—how about this?”
From seemingly thin air, he flicked out a deck of cards. “Want to play a round of cards with me? If you win then you might just earn yourself a prize.”
She giggled again. “You’re very nice, thank you. And it’s very kind of you to want to stay here, although…” The way she looked at the cards, head tilted to one side, it made something in her face go sly and knowing. “…I get the feeling you might be better at the game than me.”
“Perhaps, perhaps not. But if you insist.” Another flick and the cards disappeared. “In that case, how about…you tell me something interesting?”
“Oh, anything you’ve come across. Something you saw while travelling, something you’ve heard of, or something you experienced, or even a story, fiction or no. There’s plenty I’ve heard but I’m always on the look-out for more to learn. Never hurts to be knowing things, you know?”
“…Something interesting…?” She rocked back on the stool. Her eyes wandered around the room, until they alighted upon a point over his shoulder. “Oh! I know!” She clapped her hands. “Pickled onions.”
“Yes. Pickled onions. Brownies are good with them.”
Quincy raised an eyebrow. “Are they now?”
“Well, yes—or, the ones I've met are. There’s this village, about two days away by road I think, and you’ll know it because they have this old shrine to Father Winter out on the edge of it. There are these little, itty bitty onions that grow in the forest but you can’t grow them in any garden, and if you try they won’t live. But if you do find any then you’ll likely get them from a brownie, and they’ll be pickled. They’re very good, so make sure you don’t argue with them about it. Brownies are very serious about their onions. Not so much bush berries, I think, but they are partial to root vegetables.”
“…I see. And I’m guessing they trade them for some milk?”
“Oh, they might, I’m sure. But a round of candied cheese and a liberated horse also works.”
“I'm sorry, what—?”
At that moment the girl sat up. There was nothing to visibly suggest why. But then she looked behind, gave a shout, and leapt from her perch.
Quick as a blink, she was across the room and running full tilt at a figure who’d just walked in through the doors and looked up in time for her to tackle them.
Miraculously, they didn't fall to the floor. It was a near miss. The sheer volume of delighted squealing and gushing she was doing was enough to send curious—but not irritated, oddly enough—looks their way, and which her companion must have noticed because they started making their way to the bar.
The new guest resolved itself into the shape of a boy with a mop of shaggy brown hair and a face more freckle than skin. And also red to the ears. Not that that seemed to stop the girl happily clinging to him and chattering away.
“—and did you see the town square? They’ve done it up so nicely, wouldn’t it be splendid if we could—?”
“No,” he interrupted. Low as it was, his voice carried the remnants of left-over puberty. Mid-twenties, then, same as his friend. “We’ve already stayed too long. We need to be packed up and heading out soon.”
“Because there are things that need doing. Like, you know…” he tugged on his bag. It was bulky, but not much out of the ordinary, save for the few bobs and ends that poked out and identified it as an artificer’s bag, “…that thing.”
“What do mean—” she blinked. Then she looked between him and the bag and something clicked. “—Oh. Oh, okay. That. That thing. Yes, that’s, um, wow. But wait, how did you—?”
The two seemed to notice Quincy at the same time.
The girl reacted first. “Right! Introductions! Quincy, this is—oh wait. Oh no. Did I forgot to introduce myself? I did, didn’t I? Oh goodness, I’m so sorry, I always do that.” Bobbing a quick curtsy, she stood up beaming. “Hello! My name is Rapunzel Wellspring. It’s nice to meet you.”
Quincy matched her smile. “It’s nice to meet you as well.”
When the two looked at the boy, he gave an awkward shrug. “…You can call me Hiccup, I guess.”
Something about what he said made Rapunzel frown. She turned to him, hands going to her hips like she intended to tell him off, when Quincy stood.
“Hiccup it is, then.” He nodded, gesturing to the stools. “Make yourself comfortable. If you give your orders now, I can have them out when your friends arrive.”
“No, no, we’ll wait for them. It’ll be better that way,” said Rapunzel, even as Hiccup started shaking his head.
“Are you sure? Remember what happened last time?”
She waved his question aside. “Details, details. It’s not like we blew things up too much—”
“Famous last words.”
“—but even then, I’m sure it’ll be fine this time. They can handle themselves if they want to. By the way, where are they?”
“Oh, you know how it is with them. One gets an idea, the other one follows. But like you said, I’m sure they can handle—”
A crash sounded outside. It was followed immediately after by shouting, shrieking, more crashing, and at least one person laughing over it all.
The doors burst open and two figures tumbled inside, both of them tripping over each other while they caught their breath between giggly wheezes.
“…And there they are. Wonderful.”
By then Rapunzel had gone bounding over to them. The first to notice met her half way and caught her up in a spinning hug. The hood fell back and brilliantly red hair came tumbling out. With her green attire, the quiver of arrows at her hip, and her light-weight boots, it was easy to see that this one was a hunter or ranger of some sort.
While the other figure received their own hug, the ranger/hunter skipped up to the bar and slung an arm around Hiccup. “Hel-lo, look at you! Can’t believe most of your bits are still on you, lad. How’d you survived so long without me?”
“Well, to be honest the last few days were pretty peaceful now that you ask, Mer—oww, ouchouchouch,” Hiccup tugged at her wrist, from where her hand held a firm grip on his hair as she pulled him down to her height.
“Need I remind you that the first time we met you were half drowned and clinging to driftwood? I wouldn’t call that such a fun, peaceful time, now, would you?” she asked sweetly, a strong, northern brogue thick in her words.
“Alright, alright, fine, ow. Yes, I’m very glad to see you and I missed you too. Happy?”
“Better.” She pecked his cheek. Ignoring the face he made, she gave the cheek a pat and flung herself onto a stool. “G’dafternoon, sir! Could I get two pints of ale over here?”
Quincy went to do just that. “Of course. What kind would you like?”
“What do you recommend?”
“Well, we have a fresh batch of apple ale, brought it out just yesterday.”
“That’d do nicely. And could you make mine extra sweet?”
Suddenly, Rapunzel popped up behind her. “Sweet? What sweet? What’s this about sweet? I want sweet.”
Hiccup tugged her down, so that she sat between her friend and his pack. “It’s ale, don’t worry. Ask for something sweet later. Or see if there’s something you like on the menu.”
He nodded towards a wooden board hung up on the back wall, between the shelves of odds and ends. Smooth, curling lines graced its edges, the neat writing carefully etched out in the common tongue.
Rapunzel glowed with delight. “Oooooh, that looks so nice! Mer, look, look, there’s a menu, Merid—”
“It’s Meredith. Remember? And yes, I see it,” she said, through gritted teeth.
“See what?” A pale arm wrapped around Meredith’s shoulder. It belonged to a boy with hair so white it near hurt to stare at. The point of his ears were just visible underneath, and with the way his curling staff showed patches of frost growing on it, in the height of summer…well. There was another story.
His sharp features took on an air of mischief as he read over the menu. “Oho, that looks fun. Would you look at that list of magical goods? Wow.” He tossed a grin at Quincy. “Nice selection you have here. Any items I could get a discount on?”
Quincy set down two tankards and tossed it back. “Win a round of cards with me and you just might.”
“Get off me, Jack.” Meredith whined, the puff of her hair crushed under the weight of his arm. Her trying to wriggle out did nothing but make him lean down even more.
“Aww, don’t be like that Fluff! Did my confession of love mean nothing to you? I cannot bear to be parted from you for long, my dearest of conspirers, my partner in crime—”
“Your ‘confession of love’ happened when you were stealing my knives!”
“It’s the spirit of the thing that counts, doesn’t i—oomph!” Her elbow met his gut. Meredith shoved him off.
Jack fell limply onto the stool next to her, clutching his side like a puncture wound. “She rejected me again, oh, the pain! The agony! I’ll never recover—”
“Drink your ale and suffer, toothpick.”
Rapunzel sniggered, and nearly fell against the bar when Hiccup’s elbow met her back as he tried to manoeuvre himself and his bag with the stool without upending all three.
Clearly, there wasn’t a rogue amongst them.
Then again, there were many things any one of them could be, from what Quincy could see of it, most likely depending on who asked. He wouldn’t ask—a large part being that it was fun to guess—but it was a rather lively, dissimilar bunch that made up this party. And a party was never hurt from too much variety.
He set down a small box and flipped open the lid.
Rapunzel visibly perked up. “Are those…?”
“Cookies? Why, yes. Quite a few of them magic, in fact.” He tapped one of them, a small, round one which had a thin plate of chocolate embedded on it, the surface covered in intricate carvings. “I believe I said I’d give you something in exchange for earlier, didn’t I?”
“Earlier?” Hiccup asked.
Rapunzel quickly interjected. “A story! He asked for a story, so I gave him one. And didn’t you promise that for winning a game? I don’t think you said anything about this.”
Quincy shrugged. “This lot’s been sitting in the back for a few days now—not as popular as usual, for some reason. They’re still good, of course, and it’s not as if it makes any difference to me. And depending on what you pick, you might even get a surprise.” He picked up the chocolate one. “Take this, for example. If you eat it then it will allow you to cast fireball once.”
“Fireball!” Meredith burst in, mid-conversation with Jack. “I want that! Can I buy it?”
“Careful, red, you look like you’re trying too hard.”
“You’re just scared I’ll beat you again.”
“That was one time and you snuck up on me—!”
They got into a bout of bickering, which their two friends ignored.
“It seems like fun, doesn’t it?” Rapunzel poked at the box, while Hiccup gave it a quizzical frown.
“I don’t know about that. I mean, wouldn’t it be a bit overkill? With, you know,” he gestured to Rapunzel's general vicinity, “you being a cleric and all.”
“Well, true. But I mainly use what I have for healing.”
“And for blinding enemies,” added Jack.
For some reason this had Rapunzel grinning. “And deflecting weapons.”
“And making weapons.”
“And carrying a horse!”
The two of them high fived over Meredith, who went into a fit of giggles. Hiccup shook his head at them.
“I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: I have never seen anything more terrifying than you and Rapunzel teaming up and for everyone’s sake I hope you two are never, ever put together again. Also everyone here is messed in the head.”
“Bold words coming from the Fire In The Mountain society, I see,” said Rapunzel. At Hiccup’s betrayed look, she donned a winning smile.
“Speaking of that—what’re you doing sitting there like you don’t have anything to do with it? Admit the obvious already and come join us! One of us! One of us!”
“Already here. What else you want?”
Apparently, Jack had an answer for that, too. “More snow-globes.”
“Another singing sugar jar?”
“That weird, tubey metal thing from when we counter-pranked those hob-goblins, but bigger.”
“Pointy spear but with spice.”
“Okay, fine. I get it. I've learnt my lesson. I take back everything I've ever said in my life.”
Quincy didn’t catch what they said after that, but when he emerged from his shelves it was with a thick book cased in a peeling cover. He set it down in front of Hiccup and dusted off his hands.
“There! I just remembered I had that.” At Hiccup’s hesitant pause, Quincy nudged it towards him. “Go on, give it a read, see what you think.”
The book was one of his older journals. It held plenty of knowledge about tinkering, but much of it covered other subjects as well, from simple potion making to detailed descriptions on different lunar-powered insect species to the shapes and signs of unnatural storms. With the way Hiccup leafed through it, the contents could’ve been the recipe for gold.
“I’ve always told myself, after I’d finished about half a dozen of these, that I’d make sure to lend them out to other artificers, inventors, or those who like to learn like myself. To spread the knowledge around, you know? Lots of good tips in there, whether you’re just starting up or not. If you want you can take it with you.”
He jerked up from where he’d been leaning over the pages. “Oh, no, I couldn’t. I wouldn’t want to just take it—I should at least pay before I—”
“The only price I put on borrowed books is returning them and that’s not changing today. If you like it then use it, and keep it as long as you need. Sound good?”
“I—…yes. Thank you. Thank you very much.”
Hiccup made as if to put the book in his bag but then paused. Instead of trying to fit it into one of his pockets—he had plenty on him, one of them should’ve worked—he did a strange, awkward wiggle that sent him and his bag slithering out of sight. The only thing visible over the bar was the top of his hair.
Jack leaned back on his stool, craning his head to see around the others. He squinted. “What are you doing down there?”
“Just trying to get this new book in. It’s a tight fit.”
“Why do you have to be down there to do that?”
“Because this'll all spill out everywhere if I don’t. You know this already. I could be sitting on solid ground not touching anything and something will happen anyways.”
“Yes, but you’re taking too long. Do you want me to help y—?”
“So!” Hiccup popped up. “I’m hungry! Is anyone else hungry?”
Meredith slowly turned to him. “…Hiccup. What are you hiding. Because I swear if it’s another—”
“Boy, all of this looks so good I don’t know if I could choose!” he continued over her, his voice an octave higher than before. “But since I have to make a choice, then no time to dally—”
“You are the worst liar alive and this is pathetic. My wee brothers could do better than you when they were still growing their teeth in.”
“—so for me it’ll have to be the copper meal, please and thanks!”
Hiccup smacked a copper onto the bar and stared at Quincy like he held the answer to all his problems. Before Quincy could react either way, someone else did.
“I’ve got it!”
A pause. All eyes turned to Rapunzel. She blinked at them. Then she lowered her hands, which had been raised mid-cheer, and ducked her head.
“Um, it’s just, I was wondering what to do about the cookies. A cookie would be nice, but, well, I don’t know, I feel like I was more in the soft kind of sweet mood and not a crunchy sweet one. So…I was thinking…maybe I could exchange it for something else instead? If that’s okay?”
“What did you have in mind?” asked Quincy, if for nothing else than to break the silence.
“Well, the menu says there’s something called lost bread and that seems nice. Is it a sweet?”
“It is. It’s sweet, fried, and filling, goes well with amethyst syrup. But if you order that then it would likely count as a meal, since you’ll get a few stacks of it.”
The sound of that sent joy to her face. But instead of saying yes, she turned to Hiccup. “Hiccup? What do you think?”
He folded his arms. “You tell me. Do you think you could hike for a couple more hours after eating a stack of fried sugar?” The joy fled as fast as it had come and Rapunzel drooped. “There’s your answer.”
She looked so melancholy about the matter that it nearly drew a chuckle. At least the problem was an easy fix.
A quick mental inventory, and the smells coming from the kitchen, gave an answer. “…How about this? I have a fresh batch of honey-nut rolls in the back, made them an hour ago. Normally two of them go for a copper, but for you I could give one for free, and then you can order whatever else you want.”
Rapunzel brightened immediately. “That sounds good. In that case…could I have one honey-nut roll, a miso soup, and some of that amethyst syrup drink?”
“Done.” Quincy swept up the copper from before and the money she put down. “And you two?” he asked Meredith and Jack.
Jack answered first. “I’ll have the biscuits and dragon gravy, if you wouldn’t mind!”
He got a smack over the head from Meredith. “You’re going to burn your mouth, regret your entire life, and then come crying to me. Just save yourself the trouble and tell me you want to steal my food.” Digging out a handful of coins, she counted them up and placed them on the bar. “One King Mulligan’s stew for me, please, and a glass of bottled sunshine for both of us. That should be enough to cover that, the gravy for the genius here, and the apple ales, yes?”
Quincy added the numbers and found there to be more than the prices listed. The coins were also those well known for belonging to the coastal clans, and very good quality. On closer inspection, the metal fastenings on her cloak carried a distinct pattern to them.
He made no comment, pocketing the coins and nodding his thanks. “They do. I’ll have everything brought out right away. If you’ll excuse me.”
It was good that they’d come well after the rush hour. Most of what they’d ordered were common enough items that there were left overs, still hot enough for his assistant to simply plate and deliver. Whatever cooking he had to do was done in minutes and he quickly ladled them up and brought them outside.
He stepped out just in time for Jack to go into a coughing fit. And for the front doors to burst open.
A group of black-clad soldiers trooped in. They were tall, all sharp edges and sleek lines, and moved with a deliberate precision that didn’t look anywhere near as human as it should have. They could have been human, but it was hard to tell with their faces covered.
One of the soldiers in the front of the group marched forward. He—or it, probably; anyone’s guess either way—held up a wide scroll of parchment and let it unfurl.
“By order of his noble majesty King Draconius, ruler of these lands, the ranger Meredith “Green Arrow” Lightfoot and ice sorcerer Jack Frost are hereby summoned to present themselves before his majesty on grounds of vandalism, injury and assault, damage to property, contempt of authority, and theft. They are ordered also to return the following: two chests of seafoam jewels, three chests of gold bars, five crates of seeds, a herd of Yaknogs, and seven barrels of mead. Failure to comply will result in immediate execution.”
The soldier rolled up the scroll. They waited.
And that was the first definite hint that they couldn’t have been human. Local or no, anyone with good sense would know that when it came to brawls with the law, the tavern was left well out of it because the only laws the tavern followed were its own.
The fact that the tavern at that moment held half a decent travelling party on one end, a group of hammer-wielding miners on the other, a tiefling interrupted from trying to flirt with what may or may not have been an assassin, something under a hood that had slime trailing out from under it, and, of course, the tavern owner himself, should’ve been enough for anything with a pulse to run in the other direction. But clearly this lot didn’t have a pulse.
From her seat, Meredith gazed languidly at the gathering. “…Huh. So that’s who we robbed.”
She made no move to turn to a still quietly coughing Jack, so Quincy wordlessly slid a cup of milk his way.
“Yaknogs?” he asked.
Jack downed the cup and shrugged. “They looked sad.”
“Then I suppose I owe you a favour.”
Quincy made his way out from behind the bar. Clasping his hands together, he stood before the soldiers and allowed a polite smile to cross his face.
“Greetings. As the owner of this tavern, I must demand that you to leave at once. This is your final warning.”
The first soldier who’d spoke took a threatening step forward. “You are under the command of his noble majesty. You are ordered to comply at once.”
“Ah, see, that is unfortunate, because I'm not under his command. I really do not wish to do this to you.”
“Bring forth the accused or you will be punished.”
“No. It is you, I am afraid, who will have to be punished.” His smile grew sharp. “You are breaking the rules. That is not allowed.”
He clapped his hands.
At once, the soldiers vanished. No sound, no bang, no sudden light. Just a sudden lack of someones in a place where they’d just been.
Quincy nodded. He meandered back behind the bar, a whistling tune starting up in his throat. He took the emptied cup and regarded his guests. “Will that be all? Or is there anything else I can get you?”
When all of them still gaped at him, he raised an eyebrow. “What?”
It was Hiccup who spoke first. “…You…you just…” he raised a hand to the doors, then looked back at him, “…but how…?”
“Well, this is Quincy’s Tavern and I am Quincy. What did you expect?”
Hiccup closed his mouth. His face paled.
“…What? What is it?” asked Jack. Hiccup looked at him like he’d just summoned death.
“I am not discussing this here with you!” he hissed.
“But why? First it’s your bag of secrets, now this—” Meredith started to go off, only for Hiccup to interrupt, and the three of them went into a furious bout of whispering. The only one who didn’t join in was Rapunzel, who idly sipped her drink and watched them go back and forth like a kickball match.
It was when they remembered that Quincy was still in hearing range that they quieted. On some unspoken agreement, they set to quickly finishing their meals. Quincy pretended not to notice and carried on with his cleaning.
“By the way, when you’re done you can go out through the back,” he said, after some time. If someone startled behind him, he pointedly didn’t see it.
He fiddled with one of his potion bottles, gave it a good shake, and returned it to its shelf. Then he turned back and nodded to the covered passage behind the bar. “Just go through there, down the hall, first door on the right, can’t miss it. If you want, my assistant can show you.”
“No, no. We’ll be fine.” Hiccup stood. “Thank you for having us. This was a good meal and we appreciate it.”
The rest of them repeated the same. Quincy waved them off. “It was a pleasure. You kids stay safe out there.”
“We will. Thank you again.”
They shuffled behind the bar and filed through. The last to go was Rapunzel. But right before she left, she looked back at Quincy and gave him a cheery wave. An arm reached through the opening, looped around her elbow, and tugged her out of sight.