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A Face from the Past for Hex

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It had been a good year. Until now.

Profits from the wine trade had lined Hex's pockets. Dornish sand proved excellent for glassmaking as well as a good ballast. And Hex had another customer in the North as well; fired by the experiments at Holdfast, Maester Lutwin had set up his own lenses at Winterfell; he called it an 'observatory'. Hex had even brought North lenses made in Myr, where they were conducting experiments of their own. Maester Luwin expressed himself impressed by their quality; Maester Sewell and Rhys declared they could get better results with their own manufacture (which would have irked Hex, who had paid handsomely for the lens he had given to Rhys as a gift, had he been less fond of his cousin).

But now he found himself preparing to travel north again with a consignment of Dornish sand and Dornish wines, seated in the inn at the great crossroads, where the Kingsroad crossed the Red Fork. Masha Heddle kept it, a large grey-haired woman with reddened teeth from chewing sour leaf. Hex was in time to get a good room and a share of the dinner, for Masha prided herself on waiting for no man - no woman either.

He was just enjoying a good meal when the door to the inn opened and a group of men came in, dressed in clothes that proclaimed all too clearly their status to one who knew of such things. Sellswords. But, more than that, the insignia proclaimed that there leader, at least, had some passing acquaintance with the company that called itself the Brave Companions and which was known - when its members were not present - as the Bloody Mummers.

And even more than that, Hex knew him.

Darcy Thelbane. Wastrel, fop, braggart ... and ruthless killer.

At the sight of Thelbane the taste of Hex's meal turned to ashes in his mouth. The smell of fresh baked bread, sickly sweet, filled the dornishman's nostrils. He spit the last bite of his dinner back on to the plate and stood to bring the dish back to Masha.

"No complaints, my lady." He said as he handed the plate over. "The meal was excellent, but I've suddenly lost my appetite."

At the sound of his voice, Thelbane stiffened in his seat and then turned, slowly, smiling.

"Well," he said. "Upon my word. If it isn't my dear friend Hex." He lifted a languid hand.

"Come," he said - in a voice that was half an invitation - and half a command. "Join me."

"Thank you, ser, but no." Hex replied. "I find that I've had my fill." Although the dornishman maintained a relaxed posture, he scanned the room for any other familiar faces.

There were a couple, down the far end of the tavern - but there were more he did not know. That could mean they were new come to the company; the Blood Mummers, by its nature, changed its constituent parts regularly. If he made a push to avoid Thelbane, he would assuredly find out rapidly just who was on Thelbane's side - and of those who weren't - not many were likely to come to a stranger's defence against the Bloody Mummers.

"A drink," said Thelbane, smiling. "For old time's sake."

"One drink," Hex replied. "To clear the taste from my mouth."

Thelbane's smile flickered for a moment, and then he made an expansive gesture, inviting Hex to seit down - a desture that also indicated that a jug of the finest wine was to be provided, without loss of time.

Thelbane had very expressive hands.

"So," he said as soon as Hex was seated and the wine before them - the two events having a remarkably short space between them. "How goes the trading, my old friend?"

"Uneventful." Hex replied. "And life among the Brave Companions?"

Darcy Thelbane shrugged nonchalently. "I serve a new paymaster now. He would have me ride north and remove an irritant from his blood.A tedious task by all accounts ... but there could be a profit to be turned. For the right man, of course - and the right guide."

"A new paymaster," Hex answered and gestured towards the Companion' sigil still displayed by Thelbane and his sell swords. "But the same shield. Or is it just that you pine for the good days past?"

Hex was not oblivious to the mention of profit, and a small company of sell swords accompanying his cargo could discourage raiders. But the dornishman had spent years disassociating himself from Hoat's bloody thirsty band. A reputation as a murderer could be bad for business.

Darcy Thelbane smiled. "It's a recent contract."

One of the sellswqords sitting near snickered.

"Well," said Thelbane. "Are you interested? If you're not, we might just follow you anyway - there's some in the band who could do with the practice of hunting prey."

"Is it already the time for threats, Darcy?" Hex tasted his wine. "And we haven't even had the cheese course. Shall we just treat them as exchanged and move on to the empty praise and bribery? I suspect you'll that to be more efficient."

Thelbane waved a dismissive hand. "Let's take the praise as read. I can offer you fifty silver stags to take us north - and another fifty when we find our quarry."

As an opening offer, that was generous. No. As an opening offer, it was worrying.

"To lead you north, or to abandon my own business and help you chase after your quarry?" Hex asked. "Or are you purchasing camoflauge for your hunting party? Darcy, I have business in the North both now and in the future. Fifty stags is generous, but it's a poor pension if it costs me a lifetime of trade."

"To lead us north and help us find the quarry," corrected Thelbane. "After that, you can cover your tracks. And a hundred stags can cover a lot of tracks." He shrugged. "And it's not even as though we have to cover the whole of the North. A big place that. No, we can narrow down our search much more than that."

Hex paused a moment and then made a slight gesture with his goblet. "And who am I to help you find, and where?"

"A woman," said Thelbane. "A rather unusual woman, in fact. She possesses a direwolf."

Hex's laughter was as unexpected as it was loudly spontaneous. "A northern woman possessed of a direwolf? Tell me, Thelbane, do you get twice the bounty if you also bring back the ghost of Bran the Builder and a brace of green men?"

Hex held up a hand to stay a reply from the other man, and took a long drink of wine to clear his throat. "All this northern spooky clap trap will be the death of me. A wolf can't just take a sheep because it's hungry, it must be sent by a witchy woman or skinwalker." Noting Thelbane's blank look, Hex explained. "Do you not have skinwalkers in the North? You'll find them throughout Dorne wherever errant children stay up past their bed time or fail to eat their vegetables."

Alexander paused to re-fill his goblet with the passable house wine. "I'll guide you north, your men can practice looking tough to any that look sideways at my cargo. And practice hunting grumkins under pebbles for all that I care. But I'll have no part of your bounty."

Lifting the glass, Hex continued. "I'll not give you any reason to report back to your pay master that you would have had the witch woman, and her little dog too, if only your guide hadn't lost her in the woods."

The dornishman finished with a passable impersonation of the man seated across from him. "The guide was a dornishman and half witch himself, mi'lord. None would miss him if that's your pleasure."

Thelbane laughed. "Well, I wouldn't object to keeping the stags myself. And we've already had some word that she's around the Long Lake. Do you know it at all?"

"I've been working on trade routes up there for the last couple of years," Hex answered. "I don't now it as well as a local, but I've figured out some fast routes and some safe routes to get between clients. Sadly none that are both."

"We've both seen enough hovels called Glorious What Not to put little store in names, but Long Lake doesn't do it justice. Unless you can narrow it down a bit, you've got a lot of territory to cover." Hex paused to consider, and then added. "There are two keeps, Holdfast and Clearwater, along with a village called Marshend. The town may be your best start, as both Houses trade through there."

"We'll start there then," said Thelbane - and then he smiled. "And until then, we'll be no more and no less than guards to a certain Dornish trader."

It looked as though Hex did not have a lot of choice in the matter.

"Twenty silver as guide and camoflauge to Marshend," Hex answered. "And then each on to our own business."

"Done," said Thelbane ... and he smiled.

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Page last modified on March 20, 2006, at 10:12 PM