‘It’s a long story, really.’
He took a deep drink of ale and, with exaggerated care, placed the mug back on the table.
‘I left my home twenty-nine years ago, or near enough to twenty-nine years ago, to find the girl I love.’
He didn’t know the girl sitting across from him. Normally, he avoided talking to people in public houses. Too risky. But she had a pretty face and today the loneliness felt heavier than usual. And she was buying the beer.
‘The village I’m from is so small, it’s not on any of those fancy maps.’ He burped and pounded his chest with his fist.
How many ales had the barmaid brought over? Surely no more than two. He had to stay sharp.
‘DunGallad. Ever heard of it?’
The girl shook her head and smiled sweetly. She looked a bit too clean to be in a rough place like this, and too young.
Raucous laughter rose around them and he eyed the other patrons suspiciously before turning back to her.
‘There you have it. I’ve never met another soul who knows of it. Sometimes…’ He swirled his ale absentmindedly. ‘Sometimes I wonder if it’s really a place. Have I made it all up? But no, the memories… Twenty-nine years… or near enough.’
The girl patiently waited for him to continue while he gulped down a mouthful of ale.
‘You won’t believe the things I’ve seen. Wizards and water people. Yes, don’t shake your head like that; seen them with my own two eyes. Ah, and I’ve seen the ocean. Ever seen the ocean? No? What a sight! Water right to the edge of the desert. It was unnatural looking, I’ll tell you that, whipped into a frenzy. Must be powerful magic.’
The girl’s mouth hung slightly open, revealing the uneven teeth on her bottom jaw. A pretty mouth.
‘And the sound!’ he whispered hoarsely, leaning in. ‘You should hear it roar.’
His frown pulled his thick eyebrows together and shadowed his eyes.
‘But that’s when it started,’ he said, looking around to make sure no one was listening. ‘That’s when they started following me.’
The girl lifted her hand and the barmaid rushed over to place a fresh mug of ale in front of him. He frowned after her as she left. Anyone could be a spy. Anyone.
‘I left my home,’ he said, scratching his greying temples. He felt lightheaded. ‘It’s been twenty-nine years. Almost.’
He lifted the mug to his mouth, but lowered it again. ‘Her name was Lolagh, and she was beautiful. A traveling merchant, can you believe? She came to DunGallad in the summer. “You buying or selling?” she asked me. And that was it. The bluest eyes and the sweetest voice. I would have sold my soul to her if she’d asked.’
The girl opened her mouth to speak, but he went on.
‘That whole summer, I believed that she loved me too.’ He swallowed back the bitter taste in his mouth and rubbed his eyes. ‘Then she was gone.’
The girl touched his cheek, and he jumped forward and grabbed her arm. She gave a squeak, but no one paid them any attention.
‘You haven’t seen her? Yellow hair, blue eyes? A merchant named Lolagh?’
The girl shook her head violently and tried to pull her arm away. Slowly, he released his grip.
‘I’m being followed you know, because of the things I saw. Maybe they took her, I don’t know.’
The girl rubbed her arm where white streaks appeared on the swollen, red skin. She caught the barmaid’s eye as she edged closer to them. He seemed oblivious to everyone else around them.
‘Maybe that’s why I can’t find her. They got to her first.’
The girl did not answer. She sat at the edge of her seat, smiling. From the corner of her eye, she watched as the barmaid expertly lifted his money pouch from his unguarded saddlebag and slipped away.
But his eyes never left his mug of ale.
‘They have spies everywhere. Many secrets, you see. Too many, and I’ve seen too much.’
The girl got up quietly, and disappeared into the crowd.
‘It’s been twenty-nine years since I left my village. And now I can’t go back because they are always following, everywhere I go. So, to answer your question…’
When he looked up, she was gone.
He thought it a shame. She was pretty, but he had to leave soon anyway. There might be spies here. And he had to keep going.
Enjoyed this story? Try The Collectors next. It’s a whimsical story of a boy, a bird and other forgotten things.
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