--Chapter Seven: Salt, Part One
Visitors from Pril were rare, but when they did come, Isa knew they had some of the most interesting stories. This was in part because they spoke of things Isa could hardly even imagine (an ocean, for example, was a completely foreign concept to her, though every description she had heard of it made her want to go there someday), and partly because people from Pril talked so rarely at home for fear of whom they might be speaking to, that when they were this far inland, they tended to equate “land-lover” with “harmless,” and to that end, they would break into epic anytime someone in the heartland expressed enough of an interest to listen.
Four days had passed since Diamo’s last visit when an old man walked into the tavern only a few minutes before midnight. The rest of the place was empty, and Isa was about to close up; right at that moment, she was just finishing a last sweep of the floor.
The man saw her and said, “I know I’m late in getting here... Are you closed?”
Isa instinctively checked the clock and said, “Almost. I can get you a drink if you want, but we’re only open until midnight.”
“I understand,” he said. Tiredly, he lumbered his way to the bar and took a seat.
Isa set her broom aside for the moment and looked over this late-night customer. He was burly and gray, from his outfit to his hair and even eyes. He may have been strong in his younger years, but age had taken more than its usual toll on his features. His skin was heavily tanned and wrinkled, and his charcoal-colored hat showed many years of wear; a combination of holes and water stains lay claim to practically the entire fabric. Every aspect of his body looked tired, almost defeated.
He leaned on his elbows at the bar. “Pardon my manners,” he said. “But it’s been a rough road, and I’m not used to traveling the land.”
Isa nodded as she stepped behind the bar. “What’ll you be having?”
“Oh, anything’s good. Just so long as it can ease an old man’s nerves.”
He received a glass of the house ale and said, “Thank you” before drinking.
Isa looked over at where her broom lay against the far wall and decided that the rest of the floor was clean enough, really.
“So what brings you here? You say it’s been a rough road.”
The man smacked his lips in satisfaction at the ale and said, “Aye, that it has. Especially considering there’s not really a road to speak of from the west up to this point. I come from Pril.”
Isa had already guessed that much, but she smirked a little when he confirmed her suspicion. He definitely seemed like the type who would need little encouragement to tell his entire life story. She would give him the necessary budge, though...
“Pril? Wow, that’s a long way. We hardly ever get travelers from there. I’ve heard stories, but I still can’t even imagine what it’s like. I’ve never even seen a sea before.”
The man kept his eyes focused on his glass, but he smiled and almost chuckled. Under his breath he said, “Land lover.” Then he added at normal volume, “Oh, it’s very different from what you’re used to, I suppose. For one thing, it’s a whole lot wetter than out here.”
They both laughed a little at that comment.
The old man sighed and said, “The sea is really the only good part about Pril. The people aren’t much, most of ’em. And the land is all rocks, hills, and cliffs. There’s nothing that you’d call a pasture, and not a single tree grows in the soil. It’s an ugly city in almost every way, except the sea.”
He was slipping away into reminiscence, and Isa was not about to stop him. She grabbed a nearby stool and sat down so she could rest and listen at the same time. The clock chimed midnight, but neither seemed to notice.
“The moment you see that sun set out over the waters... that bright red that promises calm waters in the morning... That’s when you know why people came to this city in the first place. I’ve spent many days chasing that sun. I’ve been to the Far Continent and back. There’s something about setting out to find that red horizon. It’s one of the most dangerous businesses out there... yet if you need to find your reward, it’s always right in front of the ship’s bow.”
“So why are you going east?” Isa asked.
The man sighed and drank again. When he had finished his glass, he said, “Look at these hands.”
Isa looked. They were fairly ugly hands: freckled, wrinkled, and rough.
“These hands are never again going to look any younger than they do now. I told myself that when I was a little boy, and again when I was grown, and again only last year. It was my reminder that if I’m going to get things done, there’s no better time to begin than right now. Because there’ll come a time, I knew, when these hands couldn’t do anything anymore.
“Well, that time has come. I’m just not as young as I used to be, and sea travel is out of the question for me anymore. On my last voyage, we came across a storm, and three younger men almost died because these hands failed them. I was to hold a rope steady, like I’d done in many gales before. I slipped...”
The man paused and closed his eyes, his head still facing the empty glass on the bar.
“It pains me not to be able to go out at sea anymore. I guess that’s the hard part about chasing the sunset; eventually, the sunset always wins...
“But as long as I’m still alive, I’ll still have adventure in me. That’s partly why I’m headed east: I’m curious what’s out there.”
“There’s a war in the East,” Isa answered.
“Oh.” The man opened his eyes again. “Well, that wouldn’t be too good a thing to ride into, now, would it?”
“Let me ask, then, since my other reason for going east is to try and find a particular man: my brother’s son, Geppith of Desdon. Which way would one travel to find that place?”
“Keep traveling east, and when the road forks, head southeast. If it forks again, keep to the right side of every fork until you meet either the army from Desdon or the city itself. If you meet the former, and you introduce yourself as an ally, they’ll point you in the right direction. If you meet the latter, well, then you’re there.”
“Sounds simple enough.” The old man stood and said, “I thank you kindly. I’ll be up at the break of dawn to ride, so here’s for the ale and the advice.”
He paid her only two linnes, just enough for the ale with no tip. Isa smiled and thankfully pocketed the money. She realized the man probably was traveling with little more than that on him, and to get to Desdon, he would need all he had left.
Isa never learned the man’s name, but because he never learned hers either, all was fair. Maybe that was just how people acted in Pril.
She washed and cleaned the man’s glass, then swept the rest of the floor just so she would have time to herself to think before going home to bed. The way the man had emphasized the advantages of youth made her consider her whole life up until the present. It did not make for much of a life story: born in a small town, raised there and brought up to serve drinks as a common waitress. All her years, she had stayed in an area of a few hundred meters’ radius. Why, then, did she feel as if she had been everywhere and seen all there was to see? When she closed her eyes now, she could envision perfectly the western sunset over the ocean, just as the old man had described it. She even added her own details to brighten the picture: oranges and yellows enveloping the red sun, a dark sea with a piercing glare reflecting off it... twilight moving in with a soft sea breeze. On a previous occasion, Isa had learned that the ocean was made of saltwater. Now, she could imagine breathing salty air, even though she had never really experienced it before.
She finished cleaning and blew out all of the tavern’s candles. Then she left and locked up for the night. When she took her key out of the door, she paused and looked at her hands for a moment. They were of course young, though suited to practical purpose. She wore no nail polish, and a few calluses had naturally built up where heavy ale and water pitchers’ handles had leaned against her forefingers during pouring. Otherwise they were fairly light and healthy.
Isa put her key in a small but convenient pocket in her dress and walked home.