Drinks on the House (September 2021)
By Mary Schlegel
Liquor made all sorts of people say all sorts of things. Especially when it was elven liquor, and the person drinking it was a wizened old human who didn’t know when to quit.
So Keres paid very little attention when her most regular patron, having had his usual one-too-many, leaned across the bar and hissed:
“Keres! I seen yer future!”
“Did you now, Gawen?” she asked, holding a dwarven-cut crystal glass to the light to check for water spots.
“I did! I seen it in me glass!”
Keres glanced at Gawen’s drink, suspecting that the future he had “foreseen” involved her pouring him another round. But it was over a third full yet, so she went back to polishing the glass in her hand.
“Keres!” Gawen hissed again. “Hell hounds, girl, don’t ye want to know yer future? I seen it, I tell ye!” His voice rose to a shout as he spoke, and he punctuated his sentence with a bang of his fist on the bar.
Vaclav, the muscle-bound giant for whose cooking the tavern was renowned, stuck his head out of the kitchen at Gawen’s shouting, and sought Keres’ eyes. She waved him away. Gawen was harmless ... and even if he wasn’t, she could handle a skinny old human.
“All right, Gawen,” she said soothingly, “settle down.”
He looked stricken. “Don’t ye want to know?”
“Of course I do,” Keres said, pulling up a stool across from him and folding her hands on the bar. “Tell me — what have you seen in my future?”
“I seen ...” Gawen scrunched his wrinkled, whiskery face into an expression that made one eye look ridiculously larger than the other “... the fire of passion!”
Keres raised an eyebrow and said nothing. Her rampant mane of flame-red hair drew plenty of jokes, remarks, and pick-up lines from strangers, but anyone who frequented her tavern as often as Gawen should have learned long ago not to tease her about it.
“Really,” she said, leaning back and drumming her fingers lightly on the bar’s polished surface.
“Aye,” Gawen went on, oblivious to the warning in her eyes. “I seen strangers enter this very tavern! Elves, bearin’ arms, and the sign of the white falcon on their armor.”
Keres stopped her fingers’ drumming mid-sequence.
“Scarred, they were, and worn, as though they’d fought a bitter battle and walked a long road.” Gawen leaned even closer across the bar. “And I seen yer eyes, Keres. I seen the fire o’ passion burnin’ in them!”
Keres drew a deep breath to rein in her anger. There was a fire in her eyes, all right, but it wasn’t one of passion, and had Gawen not been too drunk to notice it, he might have known what dangerous ground he trod now.
“There was one among ‘em — a dark-haired one — and I seen it, Keres. ‘Twas for him yer fire burned. It’s him ye’r to marry!”
Rage and tears and shock warred for dominance as Keres caught herself eyeing the club she kept behind the bar for emergencies, and reminded herself that Gawen was nothing but a fool — a drunk old fool who’d heard some gossip somewhere and was too drunk to keep his mouth shut — too drunk to realize that what he’d seen was the past, not the future.
Too drunk to remember that Aleron and the rest of the White Falcons had vanished without a trace in enemy territory nearly two years ago.
Slowly, silently, Keres placed both hands flat on the bar and anchored her gaze to a knot in its grain. “Get out, Gawen!”
“What? Keres! Ye don’t believe me! I seen it, I tell ye! I did!”
“Get. Out.” Keres raised her eyes to his. “If you ever want another drink from my bar. Now.”
Under any other circumstances the look on Gawen’s face would have been heartbreaking. The old man kept his gaze down as he put enough silver on the bar to cover the drinks he’d already had, and slowly backed away.
“I did see it,” he mumbled, so softly that Keres barely heard it. “I did.”
Keres watched him shuffle shamefacedly towards the door, a tear creeping past her right cheekbone, and more threatening to follow it. She drew a breath and counted seconds, forcing herself to exhale slowly. There were still patrons scattered around the tavern, finishing meals or chatting over drinks, which made closing early impossible.
As soon as Gawen was gone, she decided, she would ask Vaclav to take over for the evening. He wouldn’t mind, and she could retire to her apartment at the back of the building for the night.
Gawen had nearly reached the door when it opened from the outside and three — five — eight — how many were there? — men crowded inside, blocking his exit. They were elves, all of them, their long hair tightly braided against the backs of their heads, armed to the teeth and wearing dark leather armor.
If elf soldiers stopped a march to visit a tavern it meant they had probably been travelling non-stop for days. They would be ravenous, and thirsty.
Keres leaned back towards the kitchen door. “Vaclav?”
The giant’s head reappeared through the doorway.
Keres took a breath to tell him to stoke his cooking fires for a crowd, but it lodged in her lungs as the nearest soldier turned and she saw the emblem decorating his armor at the shoulder.
The White Falcon.
She stood still, stunned into numbness as she watched more of the men crowd into the dining room out of the night. Other patrons had seen them too, and whispers of “The White Falcon!” had begun to flit around the tavern.
“Keres?” Vaclav’s voice came from behind her. “Did you need —” He stopped when he saw them, and joined in her silent staring.
Keres’ senses began to return as she scanned the men: scarred, gaunt, dirty, and haggard from wherever they had been, whatever they had gone through in the last two years. The White Falcons had originally numbered eighteen, and there had to be very nearly that number here. Were they all here, all still alive?
Diners rose from their tables to greet the soldiers, ask them questions, give them their seats, offer to pay for their meals. Their attentions created congestion in the crowd, keeping Keres from being able to see all of them. She wished they would clear out — she wanted to go and search through them herself, but fear kept her paralyzed — what if he wasn’t there?
But then they began to spread out, moving towards the bar, and Keres choked on a sob when she saw him.
Vaclav’s hand, as thick and heavy as a brisket of beef, came to rest on her shoulder. “Is — is that him?” he whispered.
Unable to breathe, Keres nodded and reached up to grip one of Vaclav’s fingers. The giant was the only one of her staff who knew about Aleron — who knew that the kingdom’s grief at losing its most elite fighting force had been much more personal for Keres.
An instant later, Aleron stopped in his steps, staring at her. He wouldn’t have expected to see her here — she’d only moved from the capital and bought the tavern a year ago — and he looked as stunned as Keres felt.
As haggard and filthy as the others, his frame had withered from lithe to emaciated. Dark circles rimmed the bottoms of his eye sockets, and a thick, knotted scar ran from the corner of his forehead above his right eyebrow, back along the side of his head and across his ear to disappear into his dark hair. In fact, Keres realized that the top half of his earlobe was actually missing. Her chest burned with rage — what had that witch and her minions done to him?
But her anger vanished when she saw Aleron’s expression change and his eyes fill with tears.
Vaclav took his hand from her shoulder and gave her a quick nudge. “Go on — go on!”
The first step, Keres could barely lift her foot from the floor, afraid to move for fear of breaking whatever spell had wrought this. The second step came easier, and by the third she was running. She flung back the gate separating the bar from the dining room and threw herself into his arms as he ran to meet her.
She was sobbing — they both were — as they covered each other’s faces with kisses. Aleron worked his hands into her hair and pushed her back against the bar as he kissed her. Her foot caught on the leg of a stool and she reached back to balance herself against the bar, but her hand struck something that fell to the floor with a shattering crash.
Breaking their kiss — Keres suddenly became aware of scattered cheers and applause from the others in the room — they both looked down to see shards of glass and a puddle around their feet.
Where did that come from ...?
He’d left his unfinished drink on the bar when she’d thrown him out! Where was he now?
Keres sidestepped to see around Aleron to the door, just in time to see the old human’s back disappearing through the crowd.
“Gawen!” she shouted, running after him.
By the time she reached the door Gawen had made it onto the street.
“Gawen!” she shouted again.
He turned, and his eyes widened in shock as Keres grabbed him in a fierce embrace.
“Hell hounds, girl!” he cried indignantly. “I just seen ye in there kissin’ that other fella — what sort o’ man do ye think I am?”
Keres held him back at arm’s length. “How?” she demanded. “How did you know that Aleron was alive — that the White Falcons had returned?”
“I told ye!” He shook himself free and brushed at his patched and battered jacket as though Keres might have wrinkled or dirtied it. “I seen it in me glass!”
“You really can see the future in your glass?!”
Gawen sniffed imperiously. “When there’s aught to be seen.”
Keres couldn’t stop grinning. “You old souse — you wonderful old souse! Come on!” She grabbed a handful of his sleeve and dragged him back inside.
“Vaclav!” she called as she pulled Gawen towards the bar. “Another drink for the prophet here! Make sure it’s our finest!” She released the old human and returned to snuggle back into Aleron’s arms and kiss him again.
Gawen’s eyes widened and he licked his lips when he saw the bottle in Vaclav’s hand, but glanced cautiously towards Keres. “Girl, I don’t know that I’ve the coin for yer finest ...”
“I wouldn’t take it if you did,” Keres replied. “You do not pay for drinks anymore.”
She beamed up at Aleron and kissed him again as he settled his arms around her waist. There was so much to ask him — so many questions about where he had been all this time, what had happened, how he was still alive. But there was time — the entire night — for that. For now, it was time to celebrate.
Keres reached across the bar to take the bottle from Vaclav, then turned to the crowd scattered around the room and shouted: “Drinks are on the house!”
Text copyright © 2021 by the author. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: Mary Schlegel (website / Instagram) grew up spending as much time outdoors as indoors, acting out imaginary adventures with her dog and horse, fancying herself a Medieval princess, and devouring literary fiction. She is now a full-time mom and homemaker, a published novelist, and volunteers as a science journalist for a local museum. She writes fantasy and science fiction that are heavily inspired by her love of nature, science, and Medieval history, and her style is influenced by the literary fiction she loves to this day.
Mary is an unashamed tea fanatic, and was formerly a professional tea brewer and taster. She also has an unusual superpower for finding four-leafed clovers everywhere she goes, including foreign countries. She considers free-climbing a two-hundred-foot cliff on the coast of Northern Ireland, and working on a dinosaur excavation in Colorado to be some of her more remarkable accomplishments.