Chapter the Eighth: The Town That Rejected Our Modern WorldI could smell Dernholm nearly a day before Virgil and I actually arrived in it. I'd read about it once and I'd heard the stories. My expectations were decidedly low. Nothing could've prepared me for the reality, however. The town was desolate. The stench of decay hung about thickly in the air. So this is how a town dies.
At one point it had been the capital of a kingdom and a prosperous town, but now it had sunk even lower than Shrouded Hills. It was dirty, run-down, and half abandoned. If there weren't money to be made I would've turned around and left immediately. Even the road was cleaner, and probably safer, too.
The first thing that caught my eye was a worn old paper lying on the ground next to a rubbish bin. It looked as though somebody had intended to throw it away at least a week prior, missed, and nobody bothered to clean it up afterwards. I looked at it, curious, since I knew there couldn't be any printing presses in Cumbria.
Hogwash. Caladonians don't care one whit what goes on in Tarant, nor does King Farad. It's Tarantians that would support a technological revolution in Caladon, not the other way around. We embrace magick and technology equally. The paper partially infuriated me until I reminded myself that I could no longer properly consider myself a citizen of Caladon. Then my feelings drifted more towards sadness. A part of me missed Caladon, and I was also saddened at what the kind of blatant misinformation that passed as news in Tarant.
The citizenry didn't know any better, they were largely comprised of factory workers and ne'er do wells. Not knowing any better, they'd support the ridiculous, biased ideals in the paper and that... would lead to this. Just look at this place. They want to do this to Caladon just because magick hasn't been outlawed? Ludicrous. I blamed the Gnomish Industrial Council.
Nevertheless, the more time I wasted pondering world politics the less time I spent earning money. Dolan's General Goods was just around the corner and I had a pickup to make. I wandered into the shop, a dirty old place with boarded up windows. Junk was lying about in heaps and the smell of grease and oil layed heavy on the air. Normally I would be comfortable in such a place, but in Dernholm it was somehow different. The trash available in the store wasn't the kind of mechanical parts and metal bits that one would usually find, instead it was well and truly trash. Discarded books, soiled clothing, and chunks of rotted wood. I wanted to get out as quickly as possible. "I'm here to pick up something for Jongle Dunne..."
"Thank you. What sort of wares do you carry here?" I couldn't imagine there would be much demand for trash, but maybe things were different in Dernholm. I was hoping that if I stumbled upon the secret phrase he would turn around and show me a whole wall of daggers. Much to my disappointment he launched into a typical speech, the likes of which you could hear in nearly any shop in any small town from here all the way to Tarant.
"Just look around Madam... Our specialty here is reasonably priced wares, at excellent value. We stock common items, a little of everything you might need. Let me know if I can help you." I politely declined and turned around right back the way I came. I would be arriving in Tarant sooner or later, I had no need to scavenge through rotten Cumbrian junk. I'd much rather scavenge through the local rumor mill to see what work could be had before moving on to greener pastures. My expectations were quite low, however... and with good reason.
I wandered on into the local bar: a likely place to gather hearsay, rumors, and outright lies. A friendly looking gentleman gave me a smile as I walked past. The dirt around the bottom of my dress and the fact that I hadn't bathed in well over a week made me fit right in. Perhaps I was even a cut above the rest. I sat down, "What do you know, friend?"
"Sure..." There was no hesitation in my acceptance whatsoever. Who needs to rob banks when you can rob drunks? 500 coins for a bet?! This is the most legal crime I've ever committed. The man sat up straight and looked me in the eye with confidence, sure he had me beat. He announced his question as though I would fold in defeat at the mere mention of it.
Oh, please. You call that a question? Even if I didn't know it offhand, which I do, it's written on the note sitting in my pocket. I sighed, thinking about Wilhemina briefly once more and her man Jared, working... "Vermillion Station." I could swear the man almost perked up when I answered correctly.
"Right! Nicely done! Here's your money!" Good heavens, he even paid it! Willingly! What in blazes?! I really hadn't expected him to actually fork over the cash. It was too good to be true.
"Th-thank you, kind sir." I stood up a bit dazed and wandered around to the other side of the bar. I suppose all that time spent reading in Frederick's study had its uses after all.
There was a woman sitting at a table alone, drinking a small glass of wine and wearing an old, dirty dress. I almost felt sorry for her. "Heard anything interesting lately, madam?" Care to make a bet, perhaps?
Oh hell. I hadn't thought about that topic coming up. I laughed nervously. "Ah, nothing I'm afraid. Can't say I've heard the slightest thing about that..."
She looked a bit disappointed, as though she'd just wasted the finest gossip on a complete and utter dullard. "Oh, I see. Well, I suppose one can't know everything. Good bye, madam..." She finished her wine and stood up to exit the bar. It's nothing personal, I'm just tired of having people try to kill me. I decided I'd had enough with muddying around. It was time to go to the grand font of rumors himself: the bartender.
"Hello bartender," I intoned casually. He looked up without a care in the world, barely even noticing me. Good. That's the way I like it.
"What can I do for you?" he said by rote, just another repetition of the same old routine he'd done a thousand times before.
I slapped a few coins on the counter, "A shot of whiskey and the latest rumors, please." It was as good an excuse as any to drink. Bartenders, unlike common folk, spill more information the more YOU drink.
He fetched a shot glass expertly from behind him and poured some caramel colored liquid into it from out of a nearby bottle. "So the adventurer woman wants to know the local rumors, eh?" He gave it some thought.
"Pel Dar? Didn't a man by the name of Warren Pel Dar serve in the Dragon Cavalry during the war against Tarant? Could that be the father you're speaking of?"
The bartender's mouth nearly dropped open, his eyes wide with shock. "That's... that's quite impressive, madam. These days not many are so well acquainted with the history of this place. Do you know what happened to old Warren?"
Although the topic of conversation was quite grim, I was secretly proud of myself for having retained so much of what I'd read. "That is not a difficult question, good sir. The Dragon Cavalry were, regrettably, completely wiped out. There is no doubt that Warren Pel Dar is among them."
He sighed deeply, as if shaking off an unpleasant memory, "You are correct once again, madam. It was a sad day, indeed. Tell me, how do you know of these things? It is obvious to any who live here that you are not from around these parts."
I shrugged, not really wanting to draw overly much attention to myself. "I've just read quite a lot of books. I believe what I know of this place stems from the title, 'The Fall of the Old Ways'. It was quite interesting to me at the time and I seem to have remembered much of it."
He nodded, "You've an excellent memory, madam. How about I try telling you something that you wouldn't have read in a book, eh?" I smiled at him and nodded, downing my shot of whiskey. He wiped a glass clean, setting it on the shelf behind him, then leaned in closer and whispered to me. "You didn't hear it from me, friend, but King Praetor wasn't the rightful heir to the throne. And I'll say no more about that..."
Now that was a juicy bit of gossip. He was right, that certainly wasn't the kind of thing that got written down in books and passed around. Sadly, it was gossip and nothing more. No money to be had in poking your nose in business like that. This kingdom has seen better times, though... perhaps this Praetor could use a woman of my talents? Nobility always pays well. "Of course, good sir. I think that was worth another whiskey. Have you heard anything else of interest?" He continued speaking as he fetched another glass and poured my second shot into it.
Ugh. Well, I guess he does have me pegged as an adventurer. I made note of it, but didn't really have the time nor inclination to check it out. Curiosity prickled at the back of my mind, but I forced it down. I will not explore something purely for the sake of getting myself killed. I started plotting out exactly what lied to the northwest, eliminating places where the maze couldn't possibly be. "I'll certainly think on it, my good man. Could you possibly tell me anything else that goes on around here?"
He gave it some thought, trying hard to accommodate the curious traveler that insisted in badgering him. "Have you met Jayna Stiles? Poor girl, living all alone the way she does. And always studying her books... says she wants to be a healer!" I could hear a young voice faintly in the back of my head. I want to be an herbologist. I'll create medicines, and heal people! I quickly drowned it out with the second shot, savoring the burning feeling as it rolled down the back of my throat.
My silence is all too telling. I've got to change the subject. "Many thanks. Is there anything else you can tell me?" He shrugged, grasping at anything else he could think of.
I slapped a few more coins on the bar for good measure, "That'll do, my good man." Sounds like a job to me. I'm good at 'finding' things that are 'lost'. I wandered out of the bar, a bit too sullen and a bit too confident.
Virgil gave me an odd look as we wandered around town looking for this Gladys that the bartender mentioned. He was sort of staring at me as though he wanted to say something, but wasn't sure he could find the right words. "What is it, Virgil? Do you fancy me?"
He chuckled, "No, that's not it, madam. I just couldn't help but notice you have an exceptional knowledge of the world. I... I've never even heard of the Dragon Knights, and I don't remember the details of Tarant as well as you seem to. I just wanted to tell you that I'm impressed."
I shrugged. "I spent large portions of the last several years in Frederick's study, reading books or papers or whatever else I could get my hands on... and I was quite the gossip, too. I bet I can still incriminate half the housewives in Caladon."
He gave me a rather confused, pleading look, "I'm sorry... who is Frederick?" I rather suddenly realized how casually I'd just brought up my past. Not my past, but the past of that other life I was trying so desperately to run away from. The moment I stopped thinking about running it seemed I grew to accept it as a part of me once again. I can't just pretend I didn't say it. I have to give him some kind of answer.
I started stammering. "I... uh... if it's all the same to you, I'd rather not talk about that just now." I'm truly sorry. I know how it feels to be on the receiving end of that. I suppose now you do as well.
He began to protest, but then the same thing seemed to occur to him that occurred to me when we first arrived in Shrouded Hills to find Joachim missing. "I understand, madam. I'll say no more." I'm sorry, Virgil. I've got more important things to do than to dally in the past. We arrived outside of a rickety old house, barely more than a shack. I could hear sobbing noises from inside.
I entered and spoke softly, "Gladys?"
The old woman in front of me turned, wiping tears from her eyes. "Hello..." she creaked. I didn't quite know what to make of the whole thing. It seemed strange and weird. Cumbria had certainly fallen on hard times, but there was something terribly off with this situation that I couldn't quite place my finger on.
"Is there anything I can help you with?" I asked curiously. It once again struck me as odd that I'd just barged into the woman's house and began asking her if I could do her any favors. I blamed the whiskey.
The old woman's creaky, strained voice came out again, "I wouldn't wish to burden a stranger with my trouble." That's a lie and you know it.
"Please, tell me. Perhaps I could help." She was beginning to get on my nerves. I was admittedly irritable, but this was really quite silly. Now that I think about it, her face seems awfully dry. If she's been sobbing over something so long that even the bartender knows about it, shouldn't she look the part?
Well, I'm involved in it now. "Do you have any idea who could have stolen it?" If I was going to do this favor for the woman I'd do it properly. I didn't like how things looked, but that was no reason to be lazy about it.
She shook her head, "No. It has been missing for years. I fear I will pass before I see it again." Years? For goodness' sake, get over it, woman! You don't mean to tell me you've been here sobbing your eyes out ever since. That's entirely ludicrous.
I gritted my teeth, forcing back the desire to hollar at the old crone. I didn't like being lied to, but if I became belligerent I'd never find out the truth. "When did you last see it?"
She looked me straight in the eyes, "I entrusted it to my son before he died." Is that supposed to make me feel sorry for you? All right... it worked. Nevertheless, that wasn't really an answer of when and that was a somewhat important piece of information.
I had to ask, "When did he die?"
Enough already. I didn't ask to be invited to your pity party. A ring could go an awful lot of places in twenty years. Even the woman had to know that it's probably in a pawn shop by now, collecting dust... unless she knew otherwise. With how hard she was trying to make me feel sorry for her I had to assume that was the case. I tried to think like she was, I needed to ask the right question if I was going to get any information out of her. She wanted to send me somewhere, but where? "Who else could I talk to about your son?"
Her response seemed almost prepared, she didn't have to think of it at all. "A man named Archibald was friendly with my son before he died."
Jackpot. So you've got some business with this Archibald fellow, eh? "How can I find this Archibald?"
"I will talk to him. Perhaps he knows something." Wordlessly the woman turned around and continued staring at the corner, her job for the time being done. She thought I'd been properly deceived, but in actuality I was just damned curious. I walked off towards the docks.
Virgil and I chatted some more as we traveled. "Madam, I mean no disrespect, but are you sure you're going to get what you're looking for out of this?"
I didn't want to tell Virgil I was just doing it for my own amusement, to satisfy my curiosity more than anything else. I didn't really want to tell him what I thought of the old woman, either. "Well, I... uh... is there something wrong about helping an old woman get her heirloom back?"
To my surprise Virgil smiled, "No, no madam. There's nothing at all wrong with that." What's with you, anyway? Shouldn't you know better? I think you trust me a bit too much.
The wind that blew off of the nearby ocean was a breath of fresh air compared to the stale, rotten stench of Dernholm. I lingered for awhile, carefully observing the small number of houses while I took in the refreshing atmosphere. It seemed like all of the houses were either abandoned or nobody was home with a single exception. I knocked on the door and a tall, older man answered it quickly. He was a grumpy looking old coot and huffed at me the moment he answered the door, "Yeah, what is it?"
I hesitated for a brief moment, but pressed on despite my initial reservations, "May I ask your name, good sir?" I don't really have to ask. This is some kind of set up. Just what is it you're going to do with me, Archibald?
He seemed to grow angry merely at my asking. "My name's Archibald. What of it?" His chest puffed up as if he was preparing to say or do something.
No backing out now. "Gladys sent me. She thinks you might know something of a ring?"
Your threats will get nowhere with me, you cantankerous old fart. What kind of trick is this? Here I thought you'd at least try to bilk me out of some money or kill me. Anything! I decided to play the part of the unwitting fool a little while longer. "I can not believe you would be so cruel to an old lady, sir!" He didn't seem phased at all.
Hmph. Well, that went nowhere. "All right, I am leaving."
I stormed out of his house in a fury like never before. What a tight-lipped old goat! In my haste I quite literally bumped into a man minding his own business on the docks. I would've knocked him clear on his rump if there hadn't been a few barrels nearby for him to grab hold of and steady himself. "Greetings, miss," he said politely, wiping the fresh layer of dust off of his trousers.
Damn it all. "So sorry about that, good sir. I don't believe I've had the pleasure. Who are you?"
He brushed off his hands a bit, clearing them of the dust that had rubbed off from the barrels. "The name's Bernard. I work the docks here... what little work there is." Ah, how fortuitous. Yes, that does seem to be a logical place for my investigation to continue.
"Bernard? Are you the son of Archibald?" I asked innocently. I didn't want to tip my hand too early... this was my last chance to get to the bottom of things.
He looked uneasy when I asked him that question, worry and suspicion crossing his face. "Yes... why do you ask?"
I guess now's the time. "Gladys thinks your father might know something about a ring."
Yes, that's right... spare no details. I was suspicious of that old hag from the moment I set foot in her dilapidated old shack. "What do you mean?"
That's it? That's the grand deception? Why the bloody hell didn't Gladys just tell me all of this in the first place? "Then why does she say it was stolen?"
I supposed, if anything, I should've been more suspicious about why the bartender seemed to hesitant to tell me this particular bit of information. He knew it would lead me on a wild goose chase. I guess my curiosity had gotten the better of me yet again. "Have you tried to talk sense into them?" It has to bother you, too. I don't imagine everybody leaves your father's house as easily as I did.
That's it? It's just some twisted little game of theirs? And the whole town already knows about it so there's not even any sinister scheme for me to expose? Virgil was right, I had no reason to carry on with all that nonsense. "I see. Thank you for your time." Pah. To hell with both of them.