first: A Door in the Wall
Second: On the Other Side of the Door
Third: The Call Comes Again
Fourth: New Travelling Companions
Fifth: Complications and then Complications
Sixth: Stranger Things
Seventh: A Change and Changes
Eighth: But Not A Return
Ninth: The Gods Not Tamed
Tenth: The Tiny Queen Arises,
This way turned out to be into a tavern and to the darkest back corner. Peter and Edmund were waiting outside the building — the Mended Drum — for them, somehow already looking as if they belonged there. Peter had always been able to do that, step into a scene and belong there. Susan had watched Edmund learn it over their time in Narnia, and then again when they returned.
It seemed to relax Soleck. He smiled sidelong at them and held open the door, leading them far into the back.
In a shadowed corner, a figure sat with hood up, nursing a thick-walled mug of ale. She glanced up at them — Susan had only Soleck’s use of the pronoun to go on, as the cloak the figure was wearing concealed everything — and nodded. “Herald.”
“Polla. We have a deal?”
“These are them?” Her voice was deep for a woman, or high for a man, and husky. Susan caught the woman eyeing her, and did the same in return. “Well, on Valdemar’s head be it.”
The insult was clear. Susan braced herself, hoping neither her brothers nor Lucy would take obvious offense.
Instead, Edmund flopped into the chair nearest the woman and grinned. “That’s the idea, no?” He held out his hand. “Edmund.”
Susan could not see the woman’s expression, but her voice sounded pleasantly surprised. “Polla.” She took Edmund’s hand and shook it; her hand was broad and scarred, the nails trimmed short. “And the rest?”
“Oh, this is my brother Peter, Peter, say hi to the nice lady, and these are our sisters, Susan and Lucy.” Something about the way Edmund said it made Susan feel like he wanted to add on their titles, the names Aslan had called them by. It made her bow a little more regal than it would have otherwise been.
“Pleased to meet you,” she offered. “You are to be our guide, then?”
“That’s me. Bonded and paid by… them that’s hired you.”
Well, on Valdemar’s head be it. Susan did not say it, but she thought it might show in her face.
That was confirmed, or nearly so, when Polla threw back her head and laughed. “This one, I like. She has steel in her spine. Tell me, Soleck-Herald, what brought these four to you?”
Soleck cleared his throat. “The SunLord,” he muttered.
“The SunLord?” Polla’s voice shifted, dropping down into a conversational tone, and she leaned forward. “Interesting. The gods do not so often interfere directly, do they? Especially not V’kandis, and especially not here in Valdemar. Well.” She nodded to all four of them. “This will be an interesting trip. You can ride, I’ve been told. And you can fight?”
Edmund started to lean forward, as if to speak, and then leaned back, nodding at Peter.
Susan raised an eyebrow but did not interrupt. She wondered if they had been doing some negotiating of their own, while she and Lucy had been off shopping.
Peter cleared his throat. “Ed and I are fine in close-quarters fighting. We’re good with a sword or a mace. Lu and Susan are good with a short-sword, but you don’t want to get between Susan and her target; she’s a wicked shot with a bow, and Lucy’s pretty good too.”
“Girls good on distance, boys close up. Check.”
“Are we likely to see much combat on this mission?” Susan hoped she didn’t sound like a ninny; it was an important question, but sometimes she found her information requests were met with disdain.
Polla leaned back. A smile was visible from under the shadow of her hood. “Likely? Depends on you four. Is it possible? Combat is always a possibility. Once I got jumped while I was eating soup at a tavern three hours’ ride from the nearest battlefront.”
Soleck cleared his throat. “There’s no need to frighten them.”
“There is every need to frighten them, if the idea of battle makes them quake in their boots. But I don’t think they’re frightened. I think they’re measuring me up, am I right?”
Peter cleared his throat. “If you’re to be our guide… then we should know you. This is a strange land to us, and Herald Soleck and his Companion are the only ones we know apart from you.”
Polla laughed, a deep and happy sound that echoed in their small corner. “See? HE’s a diplomat, too. I see why you picked ‘em for this mission. All right. When can you be ready to leave?”
“Immediately, if necessary,” Peter answered for them. “We have little in the way of luggage and our mounts have been rested.”
“Don’t talk half fancy, does he? Well, maybe it’s for the better. Let me settle up my tab, and then we’re off, me kiddos.” Polla levered herself to her feet; it was then that Susan noticed the walking stick by her side.
Soleck put a hand on Polla’s. “I will pay. ‘Expenses’ was said, no? This is an expense.”
Polla laughed again, shorter and more clipped this time. “If you’d been my client…”
“But I am the client now, and we cannot go chasing after last year’s chickens. I will pay. You see these children on to the road.” He bowed low to Polla, and then to Susan and Peter, to Edmund and Lucy. “Bring him home,” he murmured very softly. “Sunlord’s-gift, we are all counting on you.”
Susan stood. Next to her, she could feel her family doing the same. She nodded her head to Soleck, the words and tone of Queen Susan coming back to her. “We will do all we can, Herald Soleck, to bring him home safely to you. On that, you have our word.”
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