Tall Tales

by Talya Firedancer

The tavern was low, dark, and packed with dense-wreathing smoke, a dive on the water's edge where even sailors in their cups might hesitate before entering to top off the evening. A thieves' den, maybe, but the price was right at a hundred potch a night for party of six and a group of hardened mercenaries wouldn't think about bunking down in such a place. There was worse on the road, after all.

At the largest corner table of the Cock's Comb, that party of six was gathered. The leader of the group, Geddoe, had taken the seat furthest back in the shadows. His dark eyes tracked over the table from face to face, beyond to assess the rest of the tavern, and returned to his table in a silent, watchful circuit. His lean face was creased in a faintly grim look, though anyone who knew him well would recognize the look as his smile.

"And so we were holed up on this island, see? Way off in seas you've never heard of, with no exit strategy and no help on the way–" To Geddoe's left, Ace gesticulated with his long-fingered, clever hands. Thief's hands, though he plied the throwing knives with more finesse.

"I could tell it was all up to me to get us out of there, with that horde of Kooluk breathing down our necks, no ship in sight... So what was I going to do? Fire was the old stand-by, and we had plenty of arrows, but the soldiers could just run right down to the beach and put themselves out."

Sharp-eyed Queen set her empty tankard on the table with a forceful clack. "Really, Ace, if you expect us to believe this..." She trailed off, shaking her head.

Further down the table, Joker lifted his head from his arms, bleary-eyed as he nodded. "Yeah, I mean, we've heard five different versions of this one already."

Ace's leathery face creased in puzzlement, then he pulled that wounded look that he did so well. "You people have no appreciation for a well-told tale," he said, throwing up his hands. He took another pull from his tankard and turned toward the other female of their party. "Aila?"

The petite Plainsgirl was busily cleaning out the bowl of her frilly concoction with a spoon. She looked up once, green eyes disdainful, then turned her attention back to the drink. "When I was young, I heard plenty of stories by the campfire. Enough to recognize heroic deeds well-told from a shameless exaggeration."

Joker guffawed. "When you were young? Like that's not still so?"

"ANYWAY," Ace said loud enough to drown out any riposte Aila might try, "like I said, we had plenty of arrows. And fire was a flint's strike away. But I had to figure some way so's that they couldn't put it out just by jumping in the sea. That's when I came up with the great idea of wrapping the arrow-heads in cloth, and attaching fish-bladders filled with oil to the arrow-heads."

Joker groaned loudly and got to his feet. "Last time it was fishing lures loaded with sheep's fat." He moved off with his empty tankard and the drunkard's shuffle.

"You did not invent the flaming arrow," Queen said, enunciating each word in the way she only employed when more than casually drunk. "Besides, that wouldn't even work." She got up as well, heading for the stairwell with unwavering strides.

"It worked just FINE!" Ace called after her. "The tip of the arrow-head broke through the fish-bladder, see, and the oil–"

"Everyone knows that the Grasslanders were the first to use flaming arrow volleys," Aila said with disdain, rising to her feet and taking the pewter goblet with her. "It was horribly effective, you know, scorching the plains to keep out invaders."

Near the other end of the table, Jacques opened one eye. "I like his stories," he said softly, making Aila pause for a moment and Joker, still within earshot, rumble with laughter.

Geddoe contained a smile. He'd heard ten different versions, all of them impossible unless Ace had been around for over two hundred years. Yet given his own longevity, he hardly had room to throw stones.

Besides, he hardly wanted to own up to being first to use a flaming arrow volley, so for now he'd let Ace have the credit.