Marshend: An Unexpected Visitor: The Song and Sheep
(Continued from Marshend: An Unexpected Visitor)
The Song and Sheep did not stand out by itself; Catriona likely had seen a thousand other inns or taverns just like it. But Gabriel's business did look profitable, at least; there was fresh whitewash on the outer walls, the thatched roof was trimmed and clean, and the floors were tiled stone or wood rather than thresh. There was a large taproom with a respectable number of customers, an obvious basement or cellar, and a wooden stair leading up to a second floor. Gabriel knocked on the bar, and a short, bald man with drooping mustachios appeared almost by magic. They had a low-voiced conversation for a moment.
"The cook's not fancy," Gabriel said to Catriona when he sent the bald man on his way. "Stews and roasts, mostly, but we have a lot of spices you won't see most places. My man Humble, there, is the one to go to if you need anything." He gave her another appraising stare. "There's a room off the main taproom. It's quieter. I'd like to have a few words with you."
Catriona nodded, surveying the taproom until she spotted the entrance to the smaller chamber. "Let me ask your man for something to warm me, and I'll meet you there."
She stepped over to the bar, and motioned Humble near. "Warm cider to take the chill off, if you have it. Or whatever else is handy and filling, if you don't. And some hot stew and bread when some is ready, please."
Catriona was conscious of the stares of the locals upon her, the stranger among them. To anyone who met her eyes, she gave a civil nod and slight smile.
Catriona received more than a few stares here, though it seemed no one was brave enough to meet her gaze for more than a glance. It did appear that everyone was a local, and the low buzz of conversation resumed its earlier volume after only a moment or two.
Whatever Gabriel had told Humble, it had an effect. Catriona had a mug of hot spiced cider in moments, and the tray he began to fill looked big enough to feed a large family.
Once she had a mug in hand, the woman wandered into the side room. Setting her belongings against a wall, she pulled up a chair and sat, facing the room's entrance. She sipped her drink while she waited for Gabriel.
The room was definitely smaller and more comfortable; there was still a serving table and benches, and a fireplace with an actual cast-iron fireback and grate. A small window showed the darkness and mist outside, and was slowly misting over itself with condensation. The room was still a little chilly, and it looked like the fire had not been burning very long.
Humble arrived first, setting down the tray, a mug of spiced wine, and then hung a cast-iron tea kettle on a hook over the fire. He nodded to Catriona and left, and it dawned on her that she had yet to hear him utter a word.
Gabriel came in a few minutes later, carrying the parchment, a large bowl, and a folded leather pouch. He gave the kettle a critical eye and sat down opposite her.
"Hope this is sufficient," he said. "So... what brought you to Marshend?"
Catriona finished swallowing her current sip of cider before she responded. "All of this is more than I expected. My thanks again."
She tore off a chunk of bread as she continued. "As for my business in Marshend, I have none here. Your village is merely a way station as I travel to Clearwater. I go to see if the Draupauds have need of a hunter. And if they don't, perhaps I can obtain some of their snow wine before my wanderings take me elsewhere."
Gabriel hid an expression of distaste. "Snow wine was always a little weak for me," he said. "Unless you heated it with spices, I lost my taste for it. It just so happens that I have some. There's another drink, have you heard of it? It is made by freezing some of the sweeter wines and then throwing the ice away. That, and the drier wines, are more what I look for."
"That drink with the ice discarded from the frozen wine sounds interesting," Catriona replied. "What's it called?"
"Ice wine, naturally," Gabriel said with a smile. "Some call it the Ice Hammer, and I can attest that my head feels like it's been pounded with one the next morning."
He brightens, a little, as he spreads the parchment out and unfolds the leather pouch; Catriona can see that it contains a variety of small knives. He holds the parchment up to the light of the fire to examine it critically. "If you don't know this region well, you may not know that there were several battles fought on the south end of the lake. If what the old man said is true, there might be something in the marsh that I've been looking for a long time. I trade in exotic items, you see. You could say that I specialize in getting uncommon things to the people who need them.
"This item, in particular, I've wanted for myself. And you've overheard the whole thing, a stranger in Marshend. What to do now? Of all the options that come to mind, I think hiring you would be the best. How would you like to help me find it?"
Catriona stares towards the fire, a thoughtful look on her face. "In all my time as a hunter, I've pursued creatures. Either ones that are on the move, or at least are capable of moving," she mused. "I suppose looking for this item of yours is just a different kind of hunt, isn't it?"
Her green eyes flashed back to meet Gabriel's gaze, and she smiled broadly. "I'd be happy to help you. And perhaps the marsh has some new tricks to teach me."
"That, I can promise," Gabriel said. He leaned forward. "The marsh will hold more tricks and secrets than you may care to stomach. The thing is, many of those secrets are mine. How would I guarantee your silence?"
"Your secrets are your own to keep or share as you wish. If you ask me to help you, I will honor your secrets as if they were my own," Catriona replied with solemnity. "If you wish me to swear to this before the gods, take me to the nearest weirwood. I do not hold to the southron faith of the Seven."
Gabriel shook his head. "I don't place my faith in gods," he said. "I place it in men. And my understanding of them."
She took another sip of cider before continuing. "As for the cost of my assistance, that depends on the challenge."
"Well, getting there, that might not be so bad," Gabriel said. "I doubt it would suprise you to learn that I know these marshes well. But as to the rest, it depends on this little token... ah. Excellent timing." The kettle had just begun to whistle; Gabriel passed the parchment over the steam, back and forth, until finally he moved the hook (and the kettle) out of the fire.
He sat across from Catriona again, and fiddled with the edges of the parchment. "Let's see what secrets this thing holds."
The two pieces of parchment peeled slowly apart and, inch by inch, the secret was relieved. A letter ... No. Half a letter, the second half - and a map.
The words were written in a cramped hand - the writing precise and careful, but becoming more hurried towards the end.
" ... and placed as my Lord ordered, but better - for what could be better than the enemy to act as a guard to this treasure? Surely the Prince himself would smile - and yet I cannot forget the bloody mask that I saw ... (some words here were obscured) ... Trident. But better by far, the dragonskin will guard against ... (another obscurity) ... for your best advice."
There followed a map - it seemed that the writer was better at words than at sketches and, moreover, it seemed to Gabriel that whoever drew this route through the marshes was unfamiliar with the territory.
In addition, the paths were not recent ones, but a route that had existed in the wildest part of the marshes some ten or dozen years ago. Since then the lie of the land had radically changed, and some parts of the area marked were lost under water.
Gabriel swore good-naturedly. "Seems this asks more questions than it answers. The trail it describes is long gone. We'll have a lot of searching, after all."
This was true - for the paths had shifted. But he had a clear idea of the general direction that they needed to go.
"Then search we shall," Catriona replied. "I may not know this area, but hopefully my eyes will still help read the landscape."
"Rest tonight, then," Gabriel said. "I'll meet you here after you break your fast, here in this room."
After a sound night's sleep, Catriona headed to the common room, her belongings in tow. She stopped by the bar to place an order for a pot of tea, some porridge, and bread, then stepped into the side room to await Gabriel.
Gabriel arrived early, not long after Catriona came down herself. He was dressed differently; a dark grey wool traveling cloak and thick wool traveling clothes, the tunic of which probably hid a breastplate of thick boiled leather, from his stance. All were dyed different shades of grey, which would make him difficult to see in the marshes at a distance. A scabbard for a thick-bladed short sword was at his hip, and a short bow and quiver of arrows was slung across his shoulder. His face looked subtly different.
"The first secret," he said. "The people here know me as Gabriel, and I would have it remain so, if you know what I mean. My name is really Keary, and that is the name I go by when I travel around the Lake. Gabriel is the lucky innkeep who occasionally can lay his hands on the rare item here and there... Keary is the man known by the people of marsh and lake, the scout with the collection of favors. I may need to collect on a few of those favors, to get us where we're going."
Catriona nodded respectfully. "Your names are safe with me. If at any point you need me to make myself scarce to protect your secrets, I can disappear until you wish for me to rejoin you."
"The lady is kind," Keary said. "Well, then... on to the next secret. But I need you to help me move this table."
After downing a final swig of tea, Catriona piled her breakfast dishes in a stack, and set them upon another table. She then stood up, and pushed her pack and the chairs out of the way against a wall. She walked to the opposite edge of the heavy wooden table and lifted her side on Gabriel's command. After the two set the table down where the innkeep/scout indicated, she watched him intently to see what secret was about to be revealed.
Keary grabbed one of the fireplace tools, one with a flat blade at the end, and used it to pry up a loose board in the floor. There was an iron ring beneath, which he pulled up to reveal a cunningly-hidden trap door in the floor. A wooden ladder led downward; Keary lit a lantern, nodded at Catriona, and began to climb down the ladder.
"Handy for when I don't want people to see me leaving," he said. "And we're right on the water, which makes it easy to row in and, ah, store things. Come on... Humble will cover for us."
Grabbing her gear, Catriona followed Keary down the ladder. "If I ever stay in one place long enough, I might have to install one of these myself," she said, grinning widely.
There was a large cellar underneath the Song and Sheep, about half-packed with barrels; Keary led her to a small wooden door that opened to another cellar, just as big as the first. This room had two tunnels leading out, one that led to a distant light and the sound of water, and another whose direction indicated it led out of Marshend.
"If something happens and you need a place to hide out, this would be it," Keary said. "I'd introduce you to the rest of my crew, but we'll be pressed for time to get away before most of the patrons start waking up. Humble knows you, though, so he'll pass the word around. Of course there's another storage cellar, an obvious one, around back. Any questions?"
Catriona laughed softly, then winked. "Oh, many, but not asking them is probably wiser." Her face settled into a more somber mien as she added, "Thank you for entrusting knowledge of this secret place to me. I hope I never need to use it."
"I certainly have," Keary said. "Maybe you will. After this little jaunt, maybe you'd be interested in sticking around. We'll see."
She took a moment to ensure that her bow and quiver were securely fastened to her back, and that her longsword's baldric was free of entanglements. Pulling her cloak about her once more, she motioned towards the two tunnels. "Which way now, Keary?"
"This way," he said, pointing to the drier-sounding tunnel. "I would have saddled a couple of horses, but out in the bogs it would just be asking for a broken leg. We'll have to walk. At least, I had Humble pack a lunch."
(Continued in Marshend: An Unexpected Visitor: Into the Marsh)