One brisk autumn evening, the fatigued travelers and farmhands of the neighboring villages gathered at the local tavern, a seedy place with plenty of rough edged character, for their nightly ritual of drinking away their troubles, discussing their day, and purging their frustration with a lively, yet sometimes brutal game of cards. This usually brought some comfort to their aching bones and weary spirits. However, something would happen on this particular night that would make this evening different.
The sun was just beginning to fade in the west, when a slender, frightened woman, plainly dressed in a pale blue cotton gown and faded, yellowed bonnet, burst through the door with her young, sandy-haired son in tow. Upon entering the dimly lit room, they were immediately met by the overwhelming smell of musty, swirling pipe smoke, and the pungent odor of warm ale. As she looked around, the boisterous, overlapping conversations, scraping of forks on metal plates and clunking of mugs being smacked down on the table were gone in an instant.
With a quick glance, she assessed the blank expressions on the faces of the patrons in the room. Cold, lifeless eyes, set deeply into hardened, sunbaked faces stared back at her and caused her to instinctively pull her son closer to her, briefly rethinking her choice of action. A tavern was not a proper place for a humble farmer’s wife, but her need for help out weighed her need for propriety.
Mustering her courage she pleaded, and anxious catch in her throat, “Please, I need help!”
Upon hearing her plea, almost all of the patrons looked away. A few even shrunk down in their seats and averted their gaze, reluctant to get involved; others simply did not care one way or another, and coldly refused to pay her further notice, returning instead to their games, discussions, and meals.
Looking down at her son, still too young to understand her concern, she rushed toward the nearest man to her. He was sitting at one of the square, wooden dining tables. He was tall and lanky, with long fingers wrapped around a large mug of cider. He looked up at her with a staggered, anxious expression, his eyes pleading for her not to speak to him.
“Please… I need your help,” she pleaded, but he looked away, sipped from his mug, and turned her back toward her.
She could see that he was not willing to come to her aid, so she looked around for anyone else that she should plead her case too. She hurried to another man sitting nearby. He was stocky, unshaved and disheveled, and smelled of body odor. He glared at her with his one good eye in a way that spoke volumes as to his unwillingness to even hear what she had to say. She wanted to approach a man who seemed to be cowering in a corner, a small man, with a kind face, even if he was a Montique (part man, and part mouse). His kind was known for their big-heartedness, but this man seemed to be a whimpering shell, emotionally damaged, as well as physically. There was a large chunk taken from his left ear. Out of pity she looked for someone else, though he was the friendlies face in the tavern.
Turning away, she approached a portly man sitting just to her left. He held a half-eaten turkey leg in his hand. Again, she reconsidered, for he shook his head slightly, his eyes wide and pleading. Her eyes found the tavern keeper. He was a stout man with a scar on his cheek, the neglected scruff of whiskers on his chin, and a worn soiled apron covering his potbelly. He stared from behind the bar, taking notice of her humble appearance and panicked expression, but made no gesture to show her any willingness to come to her aid. His wary gaze pinned her in place as he spit into the bottom of a glass mug, which he proceeded to wipe with a cloth that he had tucked in his apron.
She wavered a moment, fearful, and unsure, but decided that even if he was indifferent that she would have to get someone’s attention.
She launched into an explanation, “Please. I need help. Someone has taken my husband! Some…men took him off the main road, large men… sort of!” She hesitated, looked down at her son, too young to really understand what was happening and then began again, “Some men took him! He is gone and I just don’t know what to do. No one in town will help me. I’m frightened and I don’t know where to turn.”
With her words unleashed she lost her composure and sobbed into her handkerchief. At her side, her young, brown-haired son stood fiddling with a bit of her skirt, his grey eyes wide with fear.
“Huh…,” the tavern keeper grunted. His voice was cold. “What would you like me to do about it?”
Horror stopped her tears. She could not believe she had heard him correctly.
The tavern keeper continued, his voice sounding hollow, “There is trouble all around, after all. I can’t run to check on everyone.” He resumed his work behind the bar.
Just then a shadowed figure hulking near the tavern’s hearth roared with an animal growl, “Palen!”
Everyone in the room turned to look in his direction. His bulky, fur covered body was silhouetted by the fire burning in the hearth just behind him, and the soft light from candles, which hung from the ceiling on a wagon wheel, reflected in his solid black eyes. The tavern keeper took a shamed step backward and lowered his gaze.
The woman looked up hopefully. The ancient-looking figure who watched her had charcoal grey gone white at the temples and twisted into long, tight braids that hung down his back. He wore a deep green cloak with velvet trim and traces of dirt at the hem. He stood and his robe, which flowed down to the floor, cascaded down. He tightened the rope belt around his stout, furry body, and grunted as he patted his extended belly. After adjusting the wire-framed glasses on his broad snout, his pointed ears shifted, as he looked over the woman and her son. With a slight limp in his stride, he approached the woman and took her hand gently between his clawed paws, and escorted her to a chair near the hearth.
“Lily?” He beckoned to the barmaid. “Will you please get this woman some water?”
“Of course Grandier,” Lily replied as she rushed to do as he asked, leaving behind a pungent trail of honeysuckle perfume.
Grateful, the woman looked up into Grandier’s solid black eyes. When the barmaid returned, the woman took the mug and drank deeply. While she did, Grandier asked Lily to take the boy to get a slice of pie while he spoke to his mother.
Lily nodded and stretched out her hand to the boy.
“Come along, sweetheart. It will be okay. Would you like a treat?” She smiled to coax the shy boy away from his mother, but he fiddled with his fingers, twisting them in his mothers’ skirt.
“I’ll be right her,” his mother reassured him. “Go and enjoy some pie with the lady.” She tried to hide her fear briefly with a small grin.
The boy looked up with brighter eyes, took the barmaid’s hand, and eagerly followed her to a distant table.
“Now, why don’t you tell me what happened?” Grandier’s gruff voice was compassionate, his expression concerned.
Still, it took a moment for the farm wife to compose herself and gather the hazy details of the event into a coherent tale. She wiped her nose with a handkerchief, pulled from her pocket, and then began.
“It was my husband. We were going to the market down the road, to get some supplies, and a man approached us, asking my husband some information.”
“Can you tell me what the man looked like?” he asked her.
She thought hard for a moment, but shook her head slightly. “It is so difficult to remember. I was just so frightened.”
Grandier’s voice was patient. “Just think a moment. Was there anything unusual about him?”
The woman looked at him with a surprised expression and replied urgently, “Everything about him was unusual. I have never seen his like before.” She shuddered. “He was a rough-looking man, with dark eyes and stringy black hair, and his face, he very odd features.”
“What do you mean?” He leaned forward, curious.
“Well, he had mud brown eyes, but they were deep and dead. And he was big, very big- but not just tall. He was wide. His face was strange, with the features of a wild warthog, and he had short tusks on either side of his crooked mouth. He smelled like the black mushroom roots in the Muskin Fields, dirt, and sweat. Leery of the stranger, my husband asked me to wait inside the grain shop with our son. I was reluctant to leave him, but I did as he asked.”
Grandier looked at her with a stern furrow in his thick brow, but he waited quietly for her to continue.
She paused to think again, and then she said, “It was strange. I noticed as he approached that he had a mark on his hand. It was some kind of birthmark or something.”
“How do you mean?” Grandier asked.
“Well, it looked like a misshapen red spider,” she replied innocently.
The barmaid gasped from where she stood beside the boy, who was hungrily eating a generous slice of mixed berry pie.
The woman looked back at her in surprise. Her anxiety deepening, she asked, “Does that mean something?”
Grandier’s reply was casual. “To some.” However, he cast the barmaid a disapproving look and then added, “It has long been believed that the mark of the spider is borne by those who should never be trusted, and in fact avoided. The beings that bear it usually practice the dark arts and use malicious tactics to get what they want. But please, I need to know more. Go on. What happened next?”
She took a deep breath and began again. “I went inside, but I kept an eye on them, watching them through the thick, wavy glass in the storefront. It was difficult to make out the details, but seemed to be having a normal conversation, but then, quite suddenly, it seemed to change.” She sniffed into her handkerchief. “My husband’s demeanor became aggressive. He began to argue with the man as if he had insulted him, but then as the man began to step toward him, my husband suddenly seemed to notice something behind him. My husband struggled with the stranger, and as he backed up, he was lost from my view. I rushed to the window, but I could not see him. I asked my son to wait inside till I got back. I ran out to the street but could find my husband. I looked around, and even called to him, but there was no sign of him. Then I saw the creature who had been talking to my husband a moment before, hurrying out of a nearby alley. He rode away with two other men, of his kind. They charged away from the town, all three on horseback.
“One of them held a large sack over his lap. That made me suspicious, but I became even more frantic when the thing in the sack struggled. I saw Argus’s shoe and legs sticking out from the bottom of the sack. They had my husband!” She broke down again, sobbing into her hands.
When she collected herself, she continued, her voice rough with suppressed tears. “I ran after them, but their horses were too quick. I called after them. I pleaded for help, but everyone else there on the street just threw me frightened looks and hurried into the closest place of business. I yelled, and yelled, but no one would come. I ran here when no one else would help me…”
She unleashed her tears again as she took her by the arm and helped her to steady herself, and he called to the boy to come with them. Together the three of them left the tavern, but not before Grandier turned and glared at the other patrons. He shook his head with disapproval and followed the woman out the door. The farm wife took Grandier to the market, briefly pointing out where the incident had occurred. After interviewing the clerk, Grandier escorted the woman and her son to the guardhouse where she again explained what had happened.
Grandier stayed with her until she had told her tale. He reassured her that all would be well, but as the door closed behind him and he looked out into the darkening street, the moss roofed and faded grey, wooden building disappearing in shadow, as the lamplighter was lighting the torches along the dirt main road he wondered to himself if it would. Nothing he had heard of the growing number of missing person reports made any sense. There had even been stories of conflicts arising between the rulers of kingdoms that had until recently been peaceful allies. Grandier knew that he had to do something. He would have to speak to Zimm.