pathfinder: beyond the vale
Part 6: Poisoning the Well
The next day was Starday, the last day of the working week, and Woodsmen were returning from their various camps with their loads of precious Darkwood. Fathers and sons were returning home to their families and there was a tangible lift among the inhabitants of Falcon’s Hollow.
After a simple breakfast of bread with a little butter and hard cheese, washed down with strong black tea, Cirice sat at the kitchen table with her friends, Garren and Duriel, wondering what the new day would bring, and surely enough, there was a knock at the door. A messenger from Boss Payday was at the door, summoning the three to Low Market.
Cirice had learned a lot from Garren and Duriel over breakfast. Firstly, that Falcon’s Hollow’s booming economy was based on Darkwood, a magical wood as hard as normal wood, but exceptionally light. It was highly prized in the manufacture of bows, spears, and shields. The woodsmen of Falcon’s Hollow felled Darkwood trees in Darkmoon Vale which she was surprised to learn was the name of the woods that she had lived her whole life in. It made them sound far more mysterious and frightening than her lived experiences had shown her.
She had also learnt that there were two markets at Falcon’s Hollow. High Market was atop a hill, inside a second palisade within Falcon’s hollow, near the North-western wall. On top of the same hill was a manor where the master of Falcon’s Hollow, Gavel (his title) Thuldrin Kreed, lived. Here the richest fare was available: the freshest fruits and vegetables, the best cuts of meat, the most ornate fabrics, and the more expertly manufactured tools. The normal folk were not allowed to shop there, even if they could possibly afford the goods therein.
The other market, beneath the hill, was for the common folk and was called “Low Market”, so that each market was named for its physical location as well as for their socioeconomic differences. Poorer fare was available at the various stalls of Low Market: bruised fruit, day old meats and offcuts, poorly woven fabrics and second-rate tools and equipment. The stall holders did their best with what they had, but what they had was not much to begin with.
As they approached Low Market, they saw that a stage of sorts had been fashioned from old barrels and planks. Boss Payday stool nearby as did the Sheriff, Deldrin. Deldrin looked exceedingly unhappy.
A couple of people were walking down the path from the High Market, one a heavily armoured half-orc woman, and the other a balding moustached man who immediately climbed the makeshift steps to take the stage. He raised his hand to call for silence, nodding at the same time, as if silencing rapturous applause that only he could hear.
“Good people of Falcon’s Hollow!” he said with a lisping voice that Cirice thought made him sound childish and ridiculous.
“I must share some important news that cannot be delayed! I’m sure many of you have already heard, but for the benefit of our newly returned woodsmen, this week has been a truly tragic one!” the murmur among the townsfolk quietened.
“Darkwood is our most important industry, and the brave souls who venture out into the forest to bring back Darkwood to be sold down the river, that we may eat and prosper…”
A few townsfolk were nodding but Cirice heard a dissenting voice quietly remark, “so some of us can eat, anyway…”
“…have been attacked by the evil Fey in the wood!” There was a collective gasp from some of the more credulous townsfolk.
“I am overjoyed to report that the main camp managed to crush their attackers with no losses,” he raised his hands to quiet the sounds of relieved voices rising “however, our newest and nearest camp, did not fare so well! They were attacked in overwhelming force and only one of our courageous enforcers survived!” Kreed now had their full attention and milked the tension of the moment by pausing, he looked to Payday who scanned the crowd and pointed out Duriel.
“And here he is!” Kreed pointed directly at Duriel, who looked like he might turn and flee. The crowd in front of them parted as people turned to get a good look at this heroic survivor.
“Come forward and bring your companions with you.” Said Kreed. The three walked a little hesitantly towards the stage. Cirice looked around in case there was a concealed gibbet and felt more vilified than praised in this moment,
she had the look of a frightened rabbit, rather than a conquering hero.
“Your name…?” he didn’t wait for Duriel’s reply. “This dwarf, Durien, is an example to us all, not only did he bring back word so that we might strengthen our defences against the Fey menace, but he wanted to go back the next day – wounded though he was – to get revenge!” This raised a few shouts.
“I was reluctant to put him again in harm’s way, but he insisted, and you know I have a soft heart…” Kreed placed his hand on his breast in an elaborate dramatic gesture. He was in full flow now.
“He and his companions returned to the forest to recover the valuable tools that this community relies upon for its lifeblood, but more than this, they brought back the lumber that had been felled by our fallen brothers and sisters so that their deaths would not be in vain!” There were a few scattered cheers.
“Oh, that we would all display such care in our duty to our fellow man!” no one made a sound at this. He was stretching their credulity too far now and patience was fraying.
“And let it not be said that Gavel Kreed allows such valour to go unrewarded!” He produced a coin purse.
“Five gold coins for each of you!” there were a few gasps, more horrified than impressed, “and you are granted access to High Market until the end of Tova!”
Cirice felt jealous eyes on her.
“Here are the heroes who take a stand against the fey, for the survival of us all and for the good of all Andoran!” He clapped his hands and while a few members of the audience appeared to take up the clapping with genuine warmth, the majority only grudgingly took up the applause. Irony dripped from slowly clapping hands.
Oblivious to the hostile undercurrent, Garren waved at the crowd with a huge grin.
“Now, to work with you all, and with every draw of our saws and swing of our axes, let us show them we are not afraid!” this raised no cheers, and even a few groans escaped indiscreet lips.
The crowd quickly dispersed and finally, the agonising spectacle was over, much to the collective relief of Cirice and Duriel. They climbed down from the stage and they stood in a little knot with Payday and Kreed for a few moments while Kreed tried to work out why people were standing in his way when he would be elsewhere.
Garren tried to engage Kreed in conversation, referring to some prior correspondence that he expected Kreed to know all about. Kreed absently acknowledged this while looking pointedly at Payday. He finally said dismissively that “Payden” would be able to assist him. Garren, as usual, seemed undeterred.
Duriel piped up. “Provide assistance or order us around?”
Not missing a beat and turning sharply to face Duriel, Kreed haughtily remarked “Sometimes the best assistance one can provide for a fool is tell him what to do.” Kreed had had enough of being talked to by lesser men.
The blood drained from Duriel’s face and he was about to step forward but Cirice lay a hand on his should and whispered into his ear “Not now.” Duriel gritted his teeth and nodded.
Now Cirice spoke directly to Kreed. “Have you… I mean… have the people of Falcon’s Hollow done anything to provoke the Fey?”
Kreed took her hand and kissed it, she was too surprised to offer any resistance. “And who might you be?” he said. He was looking at her with the same sort of expression that a starving wolf had, when it smelled prey.
“Cirice” she answered a little distractedly, he smelled of soap and perfume and it stung her nose, making her feel like she would sneeze.
Boss Payday piped up. “She’s the girl who came from the woods. She says the Fey burned her house down.” Kreed nodded.
“The Fey have been interfering with our logging camps since I was a young lad, my dear” Kreed said. He still had hold of her hand.
“To begin with they just played tricks: Hid the woodsmen’s saws and the like, it was only a nuisance. Some of the woodsmen even thought that the Fey looked out for them, occasionally saved them from accidents, if you can imagine!” he said, as if this was the height of absurdity.
“Lately they seem to have progressed from deliberate sabotage to murder.” His face darkened and he looked off distractedly, gripping Cirice’s hand the whole time.
“We haven’t done anything to provoke them.” He said, looking back to her. Cirice had been trying to extricate her hand from his with polite pressure but he continued to maintain his grip. She stopped pulling and looked up from her own hand into his eyes.
He finally released her hand and she cradled it with the other, clutching it to her chest defensively. “A pleasure to meet you, Cirice. I’m sure we’ll talk again in High Market.”
He bowed stiffly and walked back towards High Market with Boss Payday and the Half-Orc woman in tow.
Deldrin suggested they go and get a drink, and no one disagreed.
Over a table in Jak’s, Deldrin spoke with candour about Gavel Kreed. There was clearly no love lost between them.
“The reward he paid you came from the extra profit he made from not having to pay the dead men from the logging camp massacre.” He said with barely concealed disgust.
As one, Duriel, Cirice and Garren pulled the coin they’d been given out of their pockets. Cirice felt like she could feel the weight of spilled blood on it. “How much were their wages? Please, take it” she said guiltily pushing it across the table towards Deldrin, her voice cracking slightly.
Deldrin looked at them all a little guiltily and said “Oh, you’re kind souls, the three of you. Look, you needn’t give it all up, you certainly deserve something for your troubles. Give me a gold piece each. That will cover their wages and a little more besides. Their widows will appreciate it.” He put the coins away with a promise to give them to the families of the victims.
“You know why he made a spectacle of you all like that, don’t you?” asked Deldrin.
“Because by rewarding us with profits he made from dead woodsmen, instead of making us look like heroes to the people of Falcon’s Hollow, it just made us look like paid lackeys.” Said Duriel cynically.
“Exactly” said Deldrin draining his ale. “He doesn’t want any heroes who might gain popularity and stand up to him. Curse his black heart. I hope he gets woodworm in his cock!”
Cirice snorted ale from her nose.
Deldrin went on to speak at length about how unsustainable logging practices and the massive deforestation they had wrought in the area was surely to blame for the escalation in Fey antics. On his second ale within about half an hour, Deldrin even gave voice to a rumour he had heard about Kreed consummating marriages on behalf of local grooms. Clearly, he despised the man.
“Well, that’s enough setting the world to rights for one day” he said pushing his chair back from the table. “Oh! I nearly forgot. Laurel at the herbalist shops wants to see you…”
Laurel was a beautiful, ebony skinned, Garundi woman with chestnut brown eyes. Cirice had never met anyone from Garundi before but recognised her looks from a description in a book she’d read about the different peoples of the world. To her sensitive nose Laurel smelled slightly of cinnamon and Cirice couldn’t help but stare at her. Cirice was equally amazed by her shop. She gazed in open awe at her collection of dried herbs in stoppered glass bottles and baskets and she walked from one end of the shop to the other naming them one by one as she went.
This had the effect of filling Laurel with similar awe. Learnéd herbalists would scarce be able to name half of her stock, let alone all of it.
“Would you like to work for me…?” Laurel asked in a smooth, deep voice as she gazed a little dreamily into the girl’s honey-coloured eyes. She shook herself from her momentary reverie.
“Wait! That’s not why I’ve asked you here. There are more pressing matters at hand.”
She showed them to a back room where a man was tied bodily to a chair.
“People have been disappearing” said Laurel, “and I need help to identify the source of the trouble”. The man, whose name was Terrence, had been tied up to prevent him from disappearing.
“The victims all develop a red rash around their necks and as far as I’ve been able to discover the only other thing that marks then out is that they all drink water from the same well.” She said.
“Oh, help me Laurel! I don’t want to disappear!” said Terrence, pitifully.
“I’m trying” said Laurel, a touch testily. “Now be quiet.” Terrence hung his head.
“As you might expect,” said Laurel in a tired voice. “Kreed took no interest in the disappearances until a highborn woman became one of the victims. Now, they need to be found yesterday…” she let out a long sigh.
Laurel turned to Cirice, Duriel and Garren. “I need you to go and investigate Brookman’s well to the north of the settlement. See if you can work out what’s causing these disappearances”.
Brookman’s Well was a natural spring that had been dammed to fill a well shaft. It was surrounded by a high fence and was guarded jealously by Kreed’s men. Only those that could pay could drink the clean water. Anyone that couldn’t afford it had to drink from the river, which was heavily polluted with sawdust, sap, and effluvia from the settlement. Those that drank the river water were usually in poor health.
The three walked up to the guards who sat on short stools playing cards over an old barrel. “Pay up if you want to drink” said one as he stood up and extended an upturned palm.
“Let me look at your neck,” said Cirice. The non sequitur baffled the guard who was not especially bright at the best of times. “We’ve been sent to investigate the well water” she added “Now let’s have a look at that neck” she grabbed his collar and pulled him down to her eye level so she could inspect his neck more closely.
His mother had taught him to be respectful of women so rather than put his sword in her as was his first impulse, he waited while she looked at his neck. He was somewhat intimidated; this was the closest he’d been to a woman of marriageable age. Her cool breath on his neck raised hairs all over his body and he shivered.
“No rash there,” she concluded, releasing her grip on his collar, and causing him to stagger backwards. “Now unless you want to disappear, you’d better let us in.”
The mystified guards opened the gate and let them inside to look around. When they got to the well’s bucket Garren leapt in “Lower me into the well and I’ll have a look around” he chirped.
Cirice and Duriel took hold of the rope and lowered him in. He called out for them to stop when the bucket reached the surface of the water. He looked intently into the crystal-clear water and just beneath the surface he saw a little alcove. Mud and grass had been arranged on it as if to make a comfortable place to sit.
There were also a few strange objects arranged there. A small, pale blue mushroom that looked as if something had taken a bite from it, as well as a collection of small bones, like those belonging to a bird.
He picked up the odd collection and popped them into his pocket before calling to the others to pull him up.
They examined the things but made little of them, although, Cirice detected a faint fishy odour about them picked up by her potent sense of smell.
They decided to return to Laurel with the strange objects to see what she could make of them. Then they decided they would return to the well in the dusk to watch and wait…