It was perhaps the strangest job we’d take that year, that century even. Lady Farfeather was to be our employer, and I’ve no doubt she employed others, too.
Hunters, guardsmen, farmers, butchers, they had each bore witness to it in one way or another. Hunters would fell a wolf only to find coin spill from their innards. Guardsmen would skewer thieves and recoil in horror as they started coughing up glass from shattered vials, forcefully ingested. Farmers would find their chickens lifeless in the fields, all manor of oddities scattered about their bodies.
And as for the butchers… well let us just say if you’re quite accustomed to the taste of bacon then it’s best we don’t speak of what they found in the pigs.
The truth of these strange happenings all hinged on whether the rumours were to be believed, and the issue there was that the rumours weren’t all that reliable. Especially when you considered that rumour had it these happenings were a consequence of Dilon finding Jebb’s daughter fooling around with Lady Farfeather’s Son.
It’s a plague from above! Some said. It’s a curse from below! Others argued. It all depended on your outlook. Though both parties agreed it was wholly unnatural for a Prince to lay with a Pauper.
To get to the truth we made camp in the marshes, where the Wolfmen, Witches and Swampling held home, in hopes of catching whatever demon was menacing with the realm’s creatures (and live stock).
We could have asked dear old Gretta for a room in her delightful little cottage, but again rumour reared its ugly head to put a stop to all that. She cooks children, you know. Lures them into her cottage with candy and then boils ’em alive!
“Did you hear that?” Ava sat bolt upright in her bedroll, the fire dwindling beside her, a hand firmly clutching the the hilt of her blade. Ashleaf was the blades name, a really awful name at that. Who’d ever heard of fighting with ash and with leaves? Short of inconveniencing your enemies eyes there isn’t much you can hope to do.
Drum gave a snort, raised the lid of his eye, sighed and collapsed back into a heap. Drum was of the Cyclopic family, meaning he had only one eye, one arm and one leg, but plenty of ears and great deal of lice. “I didn’t hear nothing.”
“So you heard something too?” Ava was up now, searching the shadows of the marsh. It wasn’t particularly difficult on account that the Swampling Critters let off a sickly, yellowish glow that lit up most the marsh around them.
“What exactly did you hear?” I asked, reaching for my crossbow perched at the foot of the fire.
“I don’t know… exactly. It was like… like the whisper of winds on a warm summers day, gently caught between the highest bristles of the tallest trees.”
Graham, bard supreme, gave a short laugh, “Why m’lady, what a wonderful way of speaking. Mind if I join?” he took up his banjo and plucked a few strings.
“STOP THAT.” we screamed, Drum, Ava and I, in hushed union.
“No need to be so rude.” Graham muttered.
“Over there, did you see that?” Ava gestured for a rather dull looking lake, more oil patch than lake, surrounded by spurs of shattered trees. There was something moving in the waters, its tail, curled and full of teeth, veered along the liquid surface, sending ripples pouring outward before disappearing down below.
“That’s no Swampling.” I called the team to me, and together we set about concocting a plan to confront the creature.
The problem with plans is they take time, and most everyone involved has a different idea on just exactly what the plan should be. So it won’t be much of a shock when I tell you that by the time we’d finished arguing about how to signal for danger, about who would go left and who would go right, and about many other terribly mundane things, the creature we were about to hound had started thrashing wildly in distress… it had already been caught!
“What in Gods name is that.” Drum rose to his full height, which wasn’t particularly impressive, and settled his lone eye on the slick, oily lake.
“Keep still ya bugger!” a gruff voice cried, “Or it’ll be more than just me fist I’m plunging down there!”
“Oh Gods, that’s… that’s disgusting… I really wish I hand’t…” it was too late, Graham was already doubled over and vomiting hard. It was an image that would imprint on his mind for many a year to come, and it would have a devastating effect on his career as a bard. No one is much fussed about hearing a song or a story that starts; the fist so great and hairy…
“There ya go! Easy ain’t it.” the owner of the voice gave a belch of triumph, scuttling off the back of the creature. A creature that can only be described as the result of asking a blind man, who had never in his life so much as heard an alligator (but had heard a great many turkeys, goblins and dolphins), to craft one from clay.
“Oh, the poor blight that cuts ya open is gonna get a nasty surprise. Can’t let all the loot be fancy rings and goblets now, can we!”
The owner of the voice was in fact some sort of Gnome. He was short and stumpy (as a great many Gnomes are), with great hairy fists and a beard that touched his barefoot toes. He wore slacks of a snow-white denim and a cherry red hat.
“You there.” I called, crossbow primed and sighted for the the Gnome’s chest, “What in all the World do you think you’re doing?”
“Oops, ya wasn’t meant to see that.” the Gnome hiccuped, “I’m usually pretty…” hiccup, “…good at hiding.”
“Sure. If you’d call flailing about on the back of an alligator hiding.” Ava grunted.
“Have you ever actually seen an alligator?” Drum asked.
“I suppose it’s the ale, Ma said I’d better be laying off, but ya know how it is. A lad gets to an age of…” hiccup, “…of seventy three, and he just has to start making some decisions of his own.” hiccup.
The Gnome was gathering up a sack that looked miles too large and too heavy to carry, but somehow he managed it with ease. “What brings ya lovely folk to these Marshes, anyhow?”
“Rumour has it some madman’s been stuffing creatures…”
“And live stock.” Ava added.
“…yes, and live stock, full of coins and jewels and pots of jelly.”
“Pots of jelly!” the Gnome raised a fist to the sky, “I’ll ring her neck when I see her next. I said, I’ll tell ya what I said,” hiccup, “I said, there ain’t no sane Hero who’s gonna be wanting a pot o’ jelly for their troubles!” hiccup, “A nice mince pie or good swig of ale might not go a-miss…”
“What about a trifle?” Drum asked.
Graham had just returned from emptying up his innards, and at the mere sound of trifle started vomiting all over again.
The Gnome regarded Drum with a certain sense of shock, “Trifle! No, no, no.” hiccup, “A nice mince pie or swig of ale, I said. But ya try stuffing that up a Swampling’s arse without…” hiccup.
“Yes, yes. We get the picture.” I lowered my crossbow, Ava followed suit with her sword, Drum with his carefully weighted fork. Clearly this Gnome was no threat.
“We’re here to find out why you’ve been doing all this.”
“Why?” the Gnome chuckled, “Isn’t that obvious?”
We stared at him blankly.
“Do ya even know who I am?”
“An egotistical little psychopath with a habit of sticking his fists where they don’t belong?” Ava muttered.
“Really?” the Gnome sighed, he looked genuinely sad, “Perhaps things are worse than I thought.”
“Well, who are you?” I asked, more than a little intrigued.
The Gnome flashed a smile made of crooked, pinkish teeth (pink like candy cane, a mix of white and red), then took off his hat and bowed deeply, “Saint Nicholas the First,” hiccup, “at your service.”
Copyright © K R Perry 2019