“He’s not here?” Gorbi squawked. Or maybe it was a squeak. It was hard to describe the gnome’s voice when he got excited. Gorbi pounded his little hands on top of the wooden counter and stood on his tip toes so that his largish nose poked over the edge and then he furrowed his bushy brows, casting his most ferocious and intimidating gaze at the innkeep. “What d’ya mean, he’s not here? Not here as in he’s not in this inn, or not here as in not in this town? Be clear, man!” Gorbi finished with a grunt for good measure.
For his part, Master Harden, the proprietor of Traveler’s Rest, did his best to look intimidated while simultaneously suppressing a mirthful grin. He took a step back and held up his hands as if warding off a rabid animal.
“Well, hold on there, young man. No need to get tough with old Oren. I’ll tell you what you want to know.”
The inkeeper winked at Kate. “This is your son, I presume?”
Kate’s mouth dropped open and found herself momentarily speechless.
Gorbi’s face turned a deep red and he took in a deep breath. Galdar recognized the signs of an imminent Gorbi-explosion and quickly stepped up next to him, jamming the heel of his boot onto Gorbi’s foot while delivering a sharp elbow to Gorbi’s ribs. The gnome let out his breath all at once at the sudden pain and managed to not say anything.
Kate, on the other hand, regained herself and put her hands gently on Gorbi’s shoulders.
“Oh, yes. This is my little rascal, all right. You’ll have to excuse him. He gets a little excited sometimes.”
Oren Harden let out a chuckle. The man was of average build and average height. Kate guessed by his once-blonde hair, which he wore to shoulder length and held in a pony-tail by a strap of leather, that he was probably somewhere in his mid-fifties. His face was smooth and beardless, but deep crow’s feet marked the corners of his eyes. Oren brushed his rough hands on a worn leather apron which covered a spun cloth shirt and baggy trousers.
“Catspaw drops by Saltmarsh every few weeks, or so, but when he does it’s the Traveler’s Rest he stays at. He doesn’t talk much about where he’s off to, and all that, but I can usually tell he’s been on the road. All that means is that I can’t tell you where he’s at right now. Your best bet would be to just settle in for a nice wait. I’ve got room here if you need, and I can even cut you a deal if you stay by the week.”
Galdar winced. They were getting fairly short on coin and had already spent about a quarter of what Derg paid them back in Sasserine. What seemed like a fortune in gold admirals was quickly drying up.
“How much for the week?” he asked.
Oren looked at the young man as if sizing up him up. “Well, I’d settle for five admirals for the week, but that doesn’t include food or drink! That would be extra, of course.”
Kate bit her lip. Five more gold coins would make quite a dent in their collective funds and then they would have to find a way to feed themselves. And then what if this mysterious Catspaw person didn’t show up this week? What then?
“You said Catspaw stops by this place on occasion. When was the last time you saw him?” she asked.
“He was just in last week. Are you some kind of relative of his? I don’t remember him saying anything about family before and he’s never has anyone come ‘round asking for him,” Oren said, squinting suspiciously.
“No. We’ve never met him before, actually,” Kate felt no need to be anything but honest with this man. “We’ve just got a message from our employer that we need to deliver to him.”
Oren smiled. “If it’s something you trust me with, I can give the message to him, if you like.”
Kate shook her head, “I thank you, Master Harden, that is very kind of you, but I think we had best deliver this to him in person,” she said, frowning. “It’s just that five gold is a lot of money for us.”
“Do you know of any way we can make a little coin while we wait?” Gorbi asked suddenly.
The innkeeper looked down at him and cocked his head to one side as if suddenly second guessing Gorbi’s little kid status. “Coin you say? You seem awfully young to be worrying about things such as that.” The innkeep leaned down on his elbows and looked Gorbi in the eye. “But, we here in Saltmarsh don’t take well to them that cannot pay their bills and you won’t find much in terms of charity on our streets. If you walked the long Coast Road from Seaton than you know we live alone out here. You’ve reached then end of that road, there’s nothing else further on but miles of swamp, where if the bulywugs don’t get you, the mosquitos will. Those who can’t pull their own weight around here, those who go looking for handouts, usually end up locked in the poorhouse, or worse, dumped in the swamp.”
Oren Harden stood up then and put his warm smile back on his face. “So, if you plan on staying long, best make sure you can keep your tab paid.”
Galdar gulped loudly and Kate felt like she was going to be sick. Gorbi, however, was deciding he didn’t like this man much. The little gnome was fairly well known in Sasserine. The people there that saw him on the docks or attending his studies at The House of the Dragon or just loitering with his two friends Kate and Galdar, knew the diminutive lad had a feisty temper. The dockhands and the burley boys and wharf gangs tended to leave him alone, for while he wouldn’t be all that much of a challenge in a straight-up fist fight, those that tangled with him soon found out Gorbachev Mushroomnose didn’t play, or fight, by the rules and sooner or later, Gorbi would find a way to make you pay. Gorbi was smart and he was stubborn and he didn’t always succumb to fits of uncontrollable anger. More often than not, when Gorbi didn’t like someone, he would simply find a way to beat them. Now, here, in a strange town at the edge of the world, Gorbi found himself dealing with a man he wasn’t too fond of, and his mind focused in on what he might do to make this man regret treating him like this; like a child or a worthless beggar.
“So,” Gorbi said, grasping the edge of the counter and pulling himself up again to furrow his brows at the innkeeper once again, “tell us who’s hiring.”
This time Oren really did stand back in grand startlement. He put his hand to his chin and regarded Gorbi, having never seen a gnome or having no understanding of what one was, he was still unsure as to what to make of this young, brash child, who clearly seemed a lot older than he looked, not to mention the unmistakable unshorn whiskers that he noticed for the first time upon the boy’s chin and upper lip.
“Well, sometimes Louie Barr down at the Custom’s House hires workers to help unload cargo at the docks, but we’re not expecting any ships here for the next week or so. Liz, the herbalist sometimes buys goods off travelers, but even if you arrived fully stocked with roots and herbs and who know what else that woman wants, you probably wouldn’t make enough to get by here for long. Booker Lane lost his deck hand last week, kid took off for Burle chasing the daughter of the Earl. But fishing doesn’t pay much and he’d only hire one of you.”
“No, no, no,” Gorbi said with an edge of irritation to his voice, “you don’t seem to understand the line of business we’re in.” Gorbi paused and let the innkeeper mull over his words. Gorbi puffed up his chest and sauntered over to the paned, salt-crusted window next to Oren’s countertop. He looked out at the misty morning as waves crashed upon the beach and the palms lining the avenue swayed gently in the warm breeze outside.
“We’re no common deckhands or teamsters or merchant’s lackeys,” Gorbi said while staring out the window. Then his voice got softer for dramatic effect, “We’re looking for bigger work. You see, we fix things. Things that others are . . . “ and he turned then giving Oren Harden his most piercing stare, “. . . too afraid to deal with. Do you have work like that around here?”
Galdar’s eyes got wide and he waved his hands at Gorbi, silently mouthing the word, “WHAT?” Kate just looked down at Gorbi as if she smelled something unpleasant.
“Uh,” Oren stammered, “oh, wait, are you saying you are adventurers? The three of you?”
The innkeeper looked skeptically at Kate. Kate just shrugged, warming to the ruse. She met Oren’s gaze and stood a bit taller, resting her hands on her hips and elbowing her long cape out of the way so the pommel of her morningstar strapped to her belt came into view.
Oren’s jaw dropped open slightly and he turned his head to look at Galdar. The young lad looked surprised at first, but then realized he needed to play his part in this so he threw back his traveling cloak and unclipped his mace from his belt and then smacked the head of the heavy weapon into the palm of his free hand. Gorbi shook his head, reminding himself to talk to Galdar about overdoing it.
Oren’s jaw dropped a bit more as he turned back to regard Gorbi, who just smiled back at him.
“Adventurers.” Gorbi heard Oren say almost under his breath, “here. In Saltmarsh. Well, I’ll be. There’s something you don’t see around here every day.”
“So,” Gorbi said, “about the work. . .”
Oren cleared his throat and shook his head. “Yes, uh. Well, we don’t get many adventurers around here so we don’t have any sort of official adventurer hiring policy or anything like that.”
“We?” Gorbi asked, “you keeps saying, ‘we’. Who is this ‘we’ and is it ‘they’ who are in charge around here?”
“Oh, yes. The town council, I suppose, is who is in charge around here. But, like I said, the Council don’t really have a policy for hiring adventurers.”
“You make it sound as if your mayor and town council might actually have some jobs for people like us. Is that right?” asked Gorbi.
Oren lowered his head as if ashamed. “I suppose Saltmarsh does have its share of problems.”
“Like what?” pressed Gorbi.
“Well, there’s the lizardfolk in the swamps,” Oren said. “Usually them creatures keep to themselves, far out into the Hool and never come bother us folk. But lately we been seeing them coming close to town and last week Ross Jarton said he lost a cow and figures it was one of them lizards. Council might really appreciate it if someone brave went out there into the swamp and taught them beasts a lesson.”
“Next!” Gorbi shouted.
Oren looked startled again. “What? What do you mean, next?” he asked.
“I mean next job. We’re not tromping into lizardfolk territory and roughing them up just because some dumb farmer misplaced his cow. So, next,” Gorbi said.
“Okay, then,” continued Oren. “I suppose there’s always bulywugs. We’ve got great nests of them all over the place and they’ve become quite a nuisance. And the sounds they make at night during mating season! The croaking and the….well, the croaking. No one sleeps well during bullywug mating season. I bet the Council would look mighty fondly upon the fierce band of adventurers who wiped out the bullywug nests closest to town.”
“Next!” Gorbi shouted. Even louder this time.
Oren winced. “What? What’s wrong with that job? It would take some real heroes to clear out a bullywug nest.”
“It’s a stupid job,” said Gorbi.
“Wait, stupid? Why?”
“Because it’s too easy to get rid of bullywug nests,” said Gorbi.
“It is?” asked Oren.
“Yeah, of course. We’ve got so many bullywugs back home you can barely walk anywhere without bumping into one. But everyone knows bullywugs have super high metabolisms?”
“High..metabowhats?” Oren asked, looking terribly confused.
Gorbi gave him a withering look. “Metabolis….oh, never mind. Their hearts beat really, really fast. That’s all you need to know.”
“Uh, okay. So, what’s that go to do with anything?” Oren asked.
Gorbi rolled his eyes. “Kafe,” he said.
When Oren just looked at him blankly he continued. “Kafe wakes us all up in the morning, right? It gets your heart beating a little faster. So, just dump a pile of kafe grounds outside a bullywug lair. They are hungry little cretins and will gobble it down as soon as you leave and their little hearts start pounding that much faster and then, POP!” Gorbi clapped his hands gleefully, “Their hearts explode. No more bullywugs. Stupid job, so next.”
Oren looked horrified. “Okay, then. Well, I guess there is the old Weer House,” he said.
Kate suddenly looked up in surprise. “Weer House did you say?” There was something to that name she felt she should remember. As if she knew someone by that same name, but she just couldn’t place where she’d heard it before.
“Yes. The house up on the hill,” Oren said while pointing roughly westward, further up the Coast Road. “It’s haunted again.”
“Again?” Gorbi asked. “You mean it’s been haunted before?”
“Yep,” continued Oren. “Years ago. Before my time actually. It’s probably been sixty years since Old Man Weer disappeared and the house went vacant. The old-timers around here say the place filled up with spooks and ghosts soon after. They say the ruckus those ghosts caused up there on the hill was enough There are stories of people going in there to chase the ghosts off and then never coming out again. I guess after a time things settled down, but no one ever wanted to get to close to the place, so it just sat up there on the cliffs overlooking the bay and fell into ruin.”
“But now its re-haunted somehow?” Gorbi asked.
“It’s been nearly a year now,” Oren said. “People say at night they can hear strange sounds again. Like loud bangs and screams and weird lights can be seen in the broken windows. It’s got the townsfolk pretty worried!”
“And you think the mayor and the town council might, perhaps, pay some brave adventurers to go clear the place out of ghosts?” Gorbi asked.
“Well, I suppose they might.” said Oren. “it would at least get their attention. I am sure there are plenty of things around here that the council might hire a proven and experienced group of adventurers to do.”
“We’ll take it!” said Kate, enthusiastically.
- * *
“Okay, that is officially the!! creepiest house I have ever laid eyes on.”
“I’ll have to second that. I mean, if I were a ghost I’d even have second thoughts about living in a place like this,” Gorbi said. “What do you think, Kate. You’ve been pretty quiet since we left Saltmarsh.”
Kate scrunched up her brow the way she always did when she was trying extra hard to concentrate on something. “Ug! It’s like right there! In my mind, I can see it, but the more I think, the more it runs away from me!”
Gorbi shot a worried glance at Galdar who just pulled a face and shrugged.
“Uh, Kate?” Gorbi asked in careful tones, “I think you kind of lost us, there. We were asking you if you thought the house was creepy, and then you said something about stuff in your mind and things running away from you and ….and…”
“What he’s trying to say is, are you possessed?” Galdar blurted out.
Both Kate and Gorbi stared back, wide-eyed, at the him.
“What!? That’s what you were going to ask her, right?”
“No!” Galdar cried.
“Yes you were, Galdar! I mean, we both were thinking that if we are about to go into a haunted house,” Gorbi looked up at the dark structure looming on the hill before them and pointed, “in particular, THAT haunted house, which we had just determined was pretty much the creepiest house in existence, and then all of a sudden our fearless warrior woman starts acting crazy. Isn’t asking her if she’s possessed the most logical question at a time like that?”
Gorbi scowled at the lad and muttered something half in the gnomish language and the other half something unintelligible.
Kate threw her hands in the air. “No, look, it’s just that there is something about the name Oren told us about. You know, the people who used to live here. Weer. I know that name somehow but I just can’t remember and it’s driving me crazy. Not possessed, Galdar, just a little insane – and there is a difference.”
“Well, I’ve never heard that name before today, so I can’t help you out there, Kate. But I vote we head up the road a bit further and get a closer look at this place. Then we can figure out what to do next.”
The house was ancient and its weathered wooden walls and shingled roof was black with age. It had two stories with a round corner tower with a conical roof on one end and a series of pointed gables on the other and along the fronting face. The rotten remains of fluted columns, once white, lined a long, railed porch and a balustrated stair led up to a set of entry doors. Glassless windows punctured the walls like dark wounds and at least six crumbling chimneys sprouted from the rooftop. A wing of the house jutted out towards the sea, making the whole structure form a giant “T”. The house itself sat upon a tall cliff with spectacular views of sun-speckled Jeklea Bay to the south, the town of Saltmarsh at the base of the hill to the east and, spread out as far as the eye could see to the west, the vast Hool Swamp. To the north, nothing but rolling hills and grasslands could be seen. Out of sight, beyond the mists, the massive Dreadwood stretched for many leagues, effectively walling off this desolate stretch of the Kingdom of Keoland from the rest of the nation-proper.
Kate and her two friends had left Oren and the Traveler’s Rest soon after their conversation ended. The trio had wandered into town to see the sights and were sorely disappointed. There wasn’t much to be seen in the salty town by the sea. A couple of hundred, warped, wooden buildings were clustered around a smelly slough that had been dug several hundred yards inland from the beach. A dozen, or so, fishing ketches were tied to half-submerged piers and the stench of rotting fish and aged seaweed filled the air.
Local townsfolk stared at the strangers as they passed. Swaggering fisherfolk gawked at them in the street while chamber maids stopped hanging laundry and emptying thunder pots …to be continued…