Dillion’s feet found worn cobble as he entered town. His stomach growled. A tavern caught his attention. Food. Pushing forward, Dillion headed into the tavern, the wooden door creaking louder than any bell to announce his presence.
“Come in! We’ve got a fire going!” The barmaid called out across the room. Heads turned at her word, eyes on Dillion. Curious and wary.
Dillion hesitated. Attention was not something he wanted. “At least close the door!” The barmaid called out again. Dillion complied.
Now fully inside the tavern, Dillion had little choice. He crossed the room to the bar and claimed the least rickety free stool he could. “What can I getcha?” The barmaid asked, using a cloth to dry a mug out. Her apron bore the evidence of her years of work.
“Just looking for some food. I- ah…” Dillion tried to think what the tavern would have but the barmaid seemed way ahead of him.
“Food I have. Like fish? You seem the sort.” She bustled into the back, on the hunt for something as Dillion was left mildly dumbstruck.
A snicker (at his expense?) came from the other end of the bar, and Dillion risked a glance that way. A hairy looking man sat there nursing a drink. “You’re new,” the hairy man stated. No question, just a statement. “But I’ve seen you around town. Two months now?”
Dillion nodded, feeling ill at ease with the company. Maybe it was best to leave before the barmaid came back.
To his chagrin, though, before he could move, the barmaid came back and planted a steaming bowl in front of him. The smell was… heaven.
“Whitefish stew. Not the best I can do, but the nets have been lean lately. Something about the tides,” she cast a glance to the man.
“Bad time for it.” The hairy man sipped his drink as the barmaid planted a spoon on the bar next to the stew with a hearty “eat up!”
Dillion needed no more encouragement than that. He picked up the spoon and took a hearty bite. Delicious. It tasted of fish, of salt. Of home.
“This is amazing,” he told her, his mouth half full.
“Chew and swallow,” the barmaid laughed. “But I’m glad you like it. It’s a favorite of mine.”
Dillion felt a warmth growing in his chest, and it wasn’t just the stew. He kept eating, eager to have his fill of this feeling.
Meanwhile the hairy man and the barmaid were speaking quietly, the barmaid polishing mugs all the while. She looked thoughtful as the man told her things Dillion could not hear. There was something about the two of them that Dillion couldn’t put his finger on…
When Dillion paused eating long enough to breathe a sigh of happy relief, the barmaid spoke up. “You’re at the Finnigan place, right?”
Dillion froze like a caught criminal, suddenly remembering Maeveen. “Yes, I am.” What would she think if she saw him here at the tavern?
The barmaid just nodded her head slowly. “I remember their daughter mentioning she’d found a lost sailor on the shore. That you?”
“I… Yes.” Dillion swallowed hard, then filled his mouth with another large spoonful of stew. The salt seemed harsher now.
The barmaid filled the mug she’d been polishing with some ale and set it down beside the bowl. “Welcome to the Slumbering Tide. Come as often as you like.”
Dillion blinked, surprised and feeling flush. This was… new. He took a sip of the ale, not wanting to seem rude.
The hairy man got up and stumbled off to another table, looking for conversation no doubt. The noise seemed to drift away from Dillion and his thoughts.
The stew really did taste like home, he decided. Eventually he worked up the courage to speak up. “So what’s the secret?”
“Secret?” The barmaid seemed to sing the word, a grin catching her mouth and pulling it up at the corner. “What secret?”
“How do you make a fish stew taste so good?” Dillion asked. The barmaid laughed. “Oh that secret.” What other secret would there be?
“It’s the ingredients, dear. All to do with good ingredients.” She set down her last mug and gave Dillion a look over. He felt nervous again. The barmaid’s gaze had this… piercing quality, like she could see through him.
“You’re looking brighter now; that’s good.” The barmaid refilled his drink without him asking. “I hate seeing folk come in here looking as grey as the sky.”
Dillion looked at his empty bowl for a moment. He really was feeling better, like something drained from him had returned.
“I mean what I said,” she continued. “You come as often as you like, ok?” The barmaid smiled as she moved to go serve another customer.
“Er, wait… How much do I owe you?” Dillion asked, suddenly remembering where he was. Food and two drinks… how much was in his pocket?
“On the house,” the barmaid told him, flashing him another smile. “Like I said, I hate seeing folk come in here grey. You keep your spirits up.”
As she wandered off to the table of some elderly couple Dillion hadn’t noticed before, a hand clapped over his shoulder.
“Don’t get too many ideas in your head. She ain’t got the eyes for you; she gives that look to everyone.” It was the hairy man, looking serious.
“Course you weren’t. Ye got that Maeveen and all… But most would. So, I warn you.” He released Dillion’s shoulder. “Don’t mess with the lady.”
Dillion turned back to his stew bowl as the hairy man took his seat at the bar again. Had he been looking at the barmaid like that? Maeveen…
Maeveen. Dillion knew he needed to get home to her soon. with a heavy sigh, he got up from his seat and prepared to leave.
“Leaving already?” The barmaid was suddenly at his shoulder, startling him. “Oh, uh, yes…” Dillion fumbled for the words.
She nodded and smiled. “Alright. Take care. Come back any time.” That phrase again. Dillion felt there was something more.
“Your name,” he suddenly piped up. “May I have your name?”
The barmaid smiled big, clearly happy to have been asked. “Aine. My name is Aine.”
“Dillion,” he replied, feeling flushed at her smile. “I’m Dillion. I’ll drop by again…” Not wanting to embarrass himself, Dillion hurried out of the tavern.
Aine took her place behind the bar again, breathing out a small sigh as she let her smile drop. Maintaining her joyful demeanor could be hard.
“You shouldn’t lay it on so heavy,” the hairy man told her. “He’s going to get ideas.”
“He needs a bit of hope,” Aine told him. “As did you at one point. Now, where’s your brother? Isn’t he supposed to be here by now?”
“Beats me. I just hope he brings his wallet this time. Sick of paying his share of the tab.” He laughed as Aine swatted him with the bar rag.
“I swear, Marcus. You know I keep your tabs separate. You can’t blame him for your bad habits.” Aine sighed as she checked the window. The sun was lighting the windows orange now. That time of day again.
“Don’t think there was any rain today, girlie.” Marcus fiddled with his drink but Aine knew he’d cover for her. She hurried to the back room to check outside.
Sure enough, the air was humid, but not the right sort of humid. Aine sighed, taking in the fresh evening air before stepping back into the tavern. She made a beeline over to the elderly couple she’d spoken to earlier that day.
“Back again, Miss Aine?” The short gentleman asked, squinting to see her as clearly as possible. He was a tender heart with a bright smile. His red hair was receding after so many years. His wife sat across from him, equally smiling at Aine’s approach.
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