It took eight more days of gentle riding to reach Durmouth, stopping each night at a wayside inn or staying with a friendly farmer. But still each evening Hepsy was feeling as if she had been run over back and forth by her hill-pony rather than sitting atop of it the whole way. But she didn’t complain, just took a good soak in a tub by the fire when there was one and rubbed ointments into her muscles and joints, charged with a little easing magic. Poll seemed not to notice the ride so much. He seemed happier than she had seen him for a long time.
“You are enjoying this,” she chided as they passed through the open gates of the city, cheek by jowl with wagons of goods and produce going in and nightsoil going out.
“And why not?” Poll asked and grinned at her, in that moment looking for all the world as he had the day they first met. “It’s still an adventure.”
Hepsy shook her head and said nothing to that. She was marrow-deep sure he couldn’t have forgotten what adventure had led them into the last time.
The Red Dragon Tavern was not the finest in Durmouth, but it was not in the dockside area where the very poorest scrabbled to make a living either. It was set on a decent street that led to the main city market square and offered refreshment to people of a middling kind – the farmers bringing produce to sell or the smaller merchants come to trade salt, pottery or good solid cloth.
It was not hard to spot the cheerful tavern keeper as she had the look of her brother. She wore sensible shoes, smart clothes and a harassed smile as Hepsi asked her about Stref.
“Ye’ll his friends from before? Well good luck to ye, ye’ll be needing it if ye want to get him to talk to ye. He’ll be in his room at the back.” She gestured to the door which was opening and closing with a flow of staff carrying laden trays. “Help ye’selves though.”
A lad carrying a stack of used soup bowls nodded them towards the right door, but there was no reply to the brisk knock Poll rapped on it. Or the next three.
“You think maybe he’s asleep?” Hepsie asked. “He was always a deep sleeper.”
“Likely so. I remember the time he was supposed to be on watch and fell asleep. We were just lucky Galthin always had one eye open or those land pirates would’ve slit our throats before we woke up.”
“He was good like that, saved us more’n once.” It was always hard for her to think of Galthin and not get just a little maudlin.
Poll tried the door and it opened easily. The smell from within rolled out, stale ale, stale sweat and undertones of urine and vomit. There was also a steady snore. Hepsie couldn’t see in and when she moved to do so, hand over her nose, Poll held her back.
“You’ll not want to see this, love. Go find us a table and I’ll be with you in a bit.”
His face left no room for argument so she bit back her questions and retreated to the bustle of the common room, finding a table being cleared which she could claim. It had a window view of the courtyard and barely had she sat down than she saw a door open and her Poll manhandling an obese, half-naked man to the water trough and douse his head into it over and again.
It was only when poll finally let his victim up, choking and protesting that Hepsie realised this was Stref. For a moment she couldn’t reconcile the bejowled and angry face, balding hair and lumpen body with the care-free, slender and agile man she had known. Then she did and she had to look quickly away, feeling embarrassed and hoping he hadn’t noticed her through the small window. She busied herself ordering food and it was being served just as Poll pushed through the press to join her, Stref trailing behind, decently dressed, and looking sheepish.
“You look as beautiful as ever,” he greeted her and kissed her hand in his old way, but with less of the grace. Then he sat looked wistfully at the food she had ordered for herself and Poll. That was so much the Stref she remembered that she pushed the plate of bread and cheese over to him.
“I’ve told the tale of it,” Poll said. “Stref will come with us.”
The quick look Stref shot her man told Hepsie that had not been the first answer he’d given.
“So do you know where we might find any of the others?”
His mouth half-full of bread and cheese, Stref spoke through it. “Linis left the Kingdom years ago. Last rumour had it she turned merchant and married. Could be anywhere now. I still have her ring so we could pay a spell caster to tell us where she is, if you want. Galythin, I heard went back to his forest people so unless you want to take ship to to Farward, you’ll not find him.”
“What about Raya and Coldon?”
Stref shook his head, swallowing down the mouthful before he replied.
“Coldon took ill soon after you left. Wasted away before our eyes until he was gone. Raya, well she took it bad. She upped and took vows to be a priestess of Shal. She’s living in a nunnery just west of the city. I used to go see her now and then, but she told me I just made her think of Col. That was over ten years ago, but far as I know she’s still there.”
It was hard hearing Col was gone. He had been the strongest of them all, lifting boulders as if they were pebbles and saving them all by anchoring the rope bridge with his own powerful muscles, when they would have fallen into the bottomless chasm.
“We’ll go see,” Hepsie decided.
“I won’t,” Stref said. “I promised her not to.”
Which brought a frown to Poll’s face. “That’s as it goes, then. You can gather supplies and talk to that spellcaster about Linis. You never know she might not be so far. We’ll fetch Raya – if she’s willing.”
“And if not? If Raya won’t come and we can’t find Linis?” Stref was asking but Hepsie wondered that too.
“If not, then there’s the three of us and that’ll have to do.”
Poll pushed back his stool and got to his feet in a single movement. You’d not have known his knee was bad. “But we’re not lighting that fire yet,” he said firmly. “Just be ready for when we’re back. We’ll be leaving for High Top tomorrow either way.”
“Thank Shal it’s summer then.” Stref pulled the remains of their meal towards him, then glanced up and caught the looks. “What of it? My sister has me on a diet, I’m half-starved.”
Hepsie failed to smother a laugh and turned it into a cough, but she could tell Poll was not seeing it as funny.
“Just be ready,” he said, voice cold.
This wasn’t going so well so far.
From a fantasy tale by E.M. Swift-Hook