If there was one thing Marcin knew how to do, it was to keep his head down.
Before him, rowdy voices intermingled with the clatter of tankards and the sloshing of beer. Every once in a while, someone barked a drink order, and just as soon as their coin landed on the bar, a drink slid in front of their waiting hands. His quick and silent service kept him unnoticed—and as such, uninvolved in any trouble.
And there was always trouble.
It took on many forms. A belligerent brawler, itching for a fight. A transaction among cloaked figures that ended with a dagger through a throat. Or, perhaps most unexpectedly, a little girl, pushing through the heavy tavern door.
Marcin watched the girl hum and skip her way toward the bar. Behind her, the door slammed shut, one last swirl of winter air blasting across the room, the loud bang grabbing the last few eyes that weren’t already following her, baffled by her presence.
The girl clambered up a stool, barely peeking over the edge of the bar. Marcin took in the child’s bright red hair, the tattered toy clutched in her grip, the frayed satchel on her back, and the ragged, unseasonably short-sleeved, dress.
“What can I get for you?” he asked.
The girl stood on the stool and plopped her toy on the counter, peering at the many bottles on shelves. Marcin could see it was a stuffed bear, once well crafted, since well loved. The stitching at its limbs were visible after many years of stress. Somewhere in its life it had lost one of its button eyes.
“Could I get a glass of milk, please?”
Marcin raised an eyebrow but said nothing. He walked toward the far end of the bar to fetch the ceramic jug.
“Awfully late for you to be out by yourself, ain’t it?” a deep voice rumbled.
Marcin sighed. Trouble always attracted more trouble. He pulled the jug down from the shelf and gazed back down the bar. A large man next to the girl had turned to peer down at her with his one good eye. Seated in front of him, the girl looked like a pebble at the foot of a mountain. He was a pile of muscles criss-crossed with scars. The loops of ropes, chains, and hooks at his belt, along with the massive blade slung across his back, loudly announced him as a bounty hunter.
The girl looked up at him and flashed a smile. “I’m not alone. Tibbers is here with me. Aren’t you, Tibbers?” She held up the bear, beaming.
The bounty hunter laughed out loud. “Surely your parents must be missing you.”
The girl’s hands dropped to her side as her eyes drifted down and away. “I don’t think so,” she replied.
“Aw, but I do think so. Would pay a pretty penny to see you home safe, I imagine.” Marcin could practically hear the coins clinking in the bounty hunter’s mind, the man already tallying up the prize for her safe return.
“They can’t. They’re dead.” The girl plopped back down on the stool, staring into the button eye of her bear.
The bounty hunter started to speak again just as Marcin placed the mug down on the counter with a percussive thud.
“Your milk,” he said.
The girl turned and beamed at him, breaking from her sullen mood.
“Thank you, sir!”
She set her bear on the table and reached back into her knapsack. Marcin waited, prepared to accept any coin she put down as payment enough.
He did not expect the massive purse that landed with a clatter.
A few golden coins bounced onto the counter, one rolling toward the edge. Marcin stopped it on reflex, one finger pinning the escapee. Slowly, he lifted it from the bar, its heft and texture proclaiming it as authentic Noxian mint.
“Oopsie!” the little girl giggled.
Marcin swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. He reached over, hoping to shove the coin and the purse back into the girl’s satchel before anyone else noticed—
“That’s a mighty big purse for a mighty small girl,” the bounty hunter growled, far too loudly.
“Tibbers found it,” the girl replied.
The bounty hunter snorted. “Is that so?”
“It was on the man who stopped me in the road. He was a real meanie.” The girl took a sip of her milk, her attention back on her bear.
“That’s too bad…” The bounty hunter leaned in closer on his stool, hand sliding towards the purse.
The girl looked up at him, a playful smile dancing across her face.
“Tibbers ate him.”
For a moment, everything stood still. Then the bounty hunter’s laugh cut across the room.
“I’m sure he did,” he roared. He thrust a meaty hand forward, grasping the toy by the head and yanking it away from the girl. “This big ol’ scary monster.”
“Let Tibbers go!” the girl cried out, reaching up for the bear. “He doesn’t like being pulled.” The bounty hunter just laughed harder.
Marcin pocketed the coin in his hand and and turned away, walking unnoticed toward the back. He wished he could help, but he hadn’t survived this long by sticking around longer than he should.
Her voice stopped him cold.
“I said. Let. Tibbers. Go.”
The words rumbled with gravel and rage, cutting through the din. Against all his better judgement, Marcin paused and looked back. The girl stood on the bar, staring at the bounty hunter, fury smoldering in her eyes.
Then chaos erupted.
A flare of light and a burst of heat erupted from the girl. Too late, Marcin threw his arms up, crying out in pain. He stumbled back, knocking into the shelves behind him. Several bottles crashed around him as he ducked beneath the bar, cursing his idiotic hesitation. The screams of men and the sound of breaking wood punctuated a growing roar of flame. A guttural, impossible sound reverberated through the air, rattling his bones. Marcin crawled, still half-blinded, toward where he hoped the doors to the kitchens were. Around him, the screams heightened—then stopped with a stomach-turning crack.
For the second time that day, Marcin forgot all his honed skills of avoiding trouble and peered over the edge of the bar.
A hulking beast loomed, silhouetted against the firelight. Thick strands of sinew bound its limbs to its torso like stitching. With a start, Marcin realized the beast itself burned, unharmed by the hungry tongues of flame that danced across its fur. In its claws it held aloft, by the head, the slumped, bloody form of the bounty hunter, a limp rag doll in the massive paws of the monster.
Before it, the little girl stood wreathed in fire.
“You’re right, Tibbers,” she said. “He didn’t like being pulled either.”
Marcin looked around the room in horror. Throughout his tavern, overturned chairs and tables ignited, raising a thick, black smoke. The smell of blood and burning flesh crawled inside his nose, and Marcin choked back a cough, his stomach turning.
The beast turned and looked at him.
A whimper escaped Marcin’s lips. He gazed into the glowing abyss of the bear’s eyes, and swallowed in the certainty of his end.
A peal of laughter rang out over the crackle of flames.
“Don’t worry,” the little girl said, peering around the monstrosity. “Tibbers likes you.”
Marcin watched, frozen, as the girl hopped, skipped, jumped her way through the burning tavern, the beast lumbering behind her. He stared as it smashed the heavy door off its hinges. He gaped as the little girl turned back one last time, a sweet smile back on her face.
“Thanks for the milk, sir.”
And then, the girl walked out into the snowy night as the tavern collapsed behind her.