“And that’s when Asyan understood that he not only lost his wealth. He lost his family, his reputation, and his dignity. Left with nothing, he spent the rest of his years seeking, obsessed with the treasure he had lost, and died a lonely man.”
The two-dozen people who had gathered around Thomas Grayweed at the Drunken Wolf, a pub in the Lower House District of the City of the Windy Mountain, applauded. As usual, Thomas’ story did not disappoint and his audience rewarded him with admiration and a few coins. It was no average accomplishment for a four-foot-tall rat living in a land of humans. His fatherly manner, his value as an oddity, and his knack as an entertainer had done much to promote his acceptance.
“Another, Master Storyteller!” a few begged.
“Sorry, but I have work to do,” Thomas said, holding up his paws to quiet his admirers. He had come to the city to study its inhabitants and record his observations. He hoped to return to his people an expert in human culture and attain tenure as a professor of anthropology at his university. “Tomorrow will bring another story.”
The crowd grumbled with disappointment but slowly dispersed.
Thomas finished his apple beer, collected his coins, and went to the bar. He walked upright, as was his habit among humans. This, along with his cloak and walking stick, made him look a little like an elderly man and helped soften the shock of his rodent features. He leaned against the bar counter on one elbow and plopped down his mug.
“Well told,” Bartleby, the pub’s proprietor, said as he took up the mug. He scratched his stubby blond hair and smiled. In his late forties, Bartleby was a man very much in love with life and all its pleasures. “Your stories always amaze me.”
“They’re not my stories. They belong to the multitude of beings that inhabit this land. I only tell them.”
“Well then, you’re wiser than most men. But I’ll wager Master Westailer here has a tale you haven’t heard.”
Bartleby gestured towards a sullen man in fine clothes bent over a mug of ale. It was obvious that he spent most of his day sitting, for while he wasn’t what Thomas would consider fat he certainly wasn’t fit. His brow was crossed low over eyes, as though turned toward some inner worry. He looked at Thomas with distracted disinterest. Then, “You are a sight up close, aren’t you. I always thought you were just some hideously deformed man, but you really are a rat.”
“Kitani,” Thomas and Bartleby corrected.
Westailer looked at Bartleby, questioningly.
“It’s what his kind calls itself,” he said.
“Oh. Well, he’s very clean, isn’t he?”
Bartleby eagerly agreed.
“Professor Thomas Grayweed, at your service, Sir,” Thomas said, showing all of his teeth.
Westailer grew a little anxious and looked to Bartleby.
“That’s a smile.”
Thomas settled onto a barstool as Bartleby offered another mug of apple beer and a washbasin to Thomas. “So what is this story, Sir?” he asked, washing his paws. He was thankful for the chance to clean up and a chance to hear a new story.
Westailer looked to Bartleby.
“It’s all right, Henry. He’s a wise critter.”
Westailer nodded. “All right then.” He turned to Thomas with the uncertainty of someone worried about making themselves a fool. “I must tell you first that this is not a story of fantasy as you may be used to. It’s my misfortune and it’s as true as the, ah, nose on your face.
“I’m a master tailor. My family has been in the business for as far back as I can trace. We’ve been a respectable lot, known for the quality of our work. Our clients include more than just a few of the wealthy families of the city, but despite our success we have been all but neglected by High Society.
“That all changed when I received a commission from the Temple of Demartis to mend the costumes for this year’s Harvest Festival. They are the wealthiest temple in the city and have connections to the very clients I want to make contact with. I was paid, upfront, with quite a large sum of money to complete the work in a week. These aren’t just theatrical outfits, you see. They are of the highest quality. They are stitched with gold thread and have gems sewn into the fabric. The craftsmanship is superb.
“I received the costumes a few days ago and immediately set about figuring out how I was going to finish my task. I soon realized that I didn’t have enough materials, so I locked up the costumes in a safe place and went out to purchase what I needed. I didn’t see the costumes until the next morning. That’s when I made the discovery.
“Something had made holes in some of the costumes and the fabric had taken an odd smell, like freshly turned dirt. I figured this was all the work of moths, but honestly the holes looked more like the bite and claw marks of a ravenous rodent. Even so, I spread around a powder I use to keep pests away and perfumed the outfits to get rid of the smell. I spent that first day repairing the damage that had been done. Then, I locked the garments in a trunk in the back of my shop.
“The next day, I discovered more of the same damage. The smell had become stronger too, like a marsh. I couldn’t understand how it was possible because the chest was sealed. I suspected a plot, so I went to see the Constable. He said I was inventing conspiracy and threatened to put me in the stocks if I bothered him again with my pest problem. I returned to my shop and set about repairing the damage. When the day was done, I locked the costumes away in a metal chest in my bedroom and prayed to Demartis to keep the costumes safe. He did not listen to those prayers because I found the same damage this morning.
“I’ve already spent the commission in simply repairing this damage. I haven’t had time to do the work I was hired to do, and with only a few days left I don’t see how I can complete the work in any satisfactory way. I could not care less about the money at this point. I don’t want my reputation destroyed and I don’t want to draw the anger of Demartis for ruining his festival. I wish I had never won the bid in the first place.”
“Well, I’ve found gods to be more forgiving than those who worship them,” Thomas said, stroking his whiskers. His curiosity had taken hold of him and he was already exploring a host of possibilities that would solve the mystery. “You do have a problem on your hands, though. It’s very tantalizing.”
“I too would find it interesting if it weren’t happening to me, I suppose.”
“I meant no offense,” Thomas said. “In fact, your plight has touched me and I offer my assistance.”
“No disrespect, but how can you help?”
“Master Grayweed knows many things,” Bartleby said. “He’s good at untangling strange happenings.”
Thomas recalled the aid he had given Bartleby in solving a little problem about a so-called ghost in the Drunken Wolf. He smiled and bowed slightly at the gratitude that Bartleby continued to express.
“Then I would be forever in your debt if you could help me,” Westailer said.
Thomas was pleased at this chance not only to help but also to learn something new. “Very well. Let me gather a few things and we’ll be off to your shop.”
Westailer’s shop was situated in the Middle House District, an area that contained the city’s market, shops, and the homes of some of the wealthier merchant families. Westailer’s place was pleasant, with a handful of displays showing the current fashions and rows of little compartments filled with bolts of fabric. It was all very much what Thomas had expected.
“I have two apprentices,” Westailer said as he led Thomas past a counter and into a back room where Westailer did his work. Here were the tools of his trade all arranged and stored away. “They alternate between minding the front of the store and working in the back with me. I had suspected that perhaps one of them was behind this.”
“Clearly they’re not,” Thomas said. “You have something more than can be explained by mischievous youths.” He took a moment to commit the layout of the room to his memory. “Now, can you take me to the garments?”
“Certainly,” Westailer said.
He led Tomas up a flight of stairs and into a broad area. It was appointed with a desk, dresser, table and chairs, and a bed. A locked chest sat at the foot of the bed. It was as wide as the bed itself and came up to Thomas’s chest.
“Let’s have a look at your costumes.”
Westailer unlocked the chest and laid out each costume on the table.
They were indeed fine garments. Thomas had seen priests wearing them at Harvest Festivals in the past. They had impressed him then, but he became more amazed with them as he examined each one. “You’ve mended these well,” Thomas said.
He examined the chest, turning it over and banging on each side with his paw. “This seems suitable.” He looked inside and noticed very faint footprints that looked like clawed duck feet pressed into the bottom of the chest. He’d seen such tracks before. “Now that that’s done, please pack the costumes away as you normally would and we can call it a night.”
Westailer looked dejected as he repacked the costumes. “I should have known a giant rat wouldn’t be able to help me.”
Thomas felt slighted. “I will solve this problem of yours tonight, but there is nothing I can do until this hungry little culprit of yours comes back for his nightly meal. He won’t do that until we’ve gone to sleep.”
Thomas examined the chest after the costumes were safely locked inside. Then, he sat at the table with his pack and laid out several pouches of herbs along with a mortar and pestle.
“What’s that you’ve got there? Poisons?”
This intruder of yours isn’t your average pest,” Thomas explained, taking pinches from each of the pouches and dropping them into the mortar. “It’s something more fanciful than that.”
“What do you mean?”
Thomas couldn’t tell if Westailer was more confused or frightened. “Oh, you’ll see. This concoction I have here won’t be much more than an irritant, but it will alert us to the culprit’s presence.”
Thomas ground the herbs into a powder and then sprinkled the mixture around the chest. Satisfied with his work, he returned to the table and washed his hands and face. Then, he curled up on the floor, ready to go to sleep.
Westailer was dismayed. “Now what do we do?”
“What about the costumes?”
“In good time. We won’t miss our guest, I guarantee you.”
Westailer looked doubtful but he crawled into his bed.
A sneeze woke Thomas from a pleasant dream about his swamp back home. He looked to Westailer, who had also been awakened by the noise, and shushed the man before the obvious question could be asked.
A sneeze exploded from the chest.
Thomas retrieved a pouch from his pack and then crept up to the chest. Westailer followed him with surprising stealth.
He undid the pouch and then motioned for Westailer to open the chest.
Westailer unlocked the chest.
Thomas flung open the lid.
A reddish creature no bigger than a cat sat surrounded by costumes that were laid out like a king’s meal. It had the general shape of a naked man with long, narrow arms that led to spiny fingers and equally long and narrow legs that ended in what looked like clawed duck feet. Its head was disproportionately small compared to the rest of its body, with long, floppy ears that made the head look all the much smaller. The creature sneezed again as it looked up at Westailer. Both seemed shocked to discover the other.
“I bind you,” Thomas said. He sprinkled the contents of the pouch over the creature’s head and then slammed the lid shut.
The creature sneezed again.
“What was that thing?” Westailer said, horrified.
“Hill goblin. They live in caves and sometimes in the sewers of cities like this one. They can make themselves disappear and pass through walls, which is how this one has been dining on your costumes. If you know a goblin’s name, you can force it to do something for you. Which is why this one is bothering you.”
The goblin sneezed again.
“What do we do?”
“We find out his name,” Thomas said. “What are you called, goblin?” he said to the chest.
The goblin sneezed again.
“Come now, out with your name.”
“I won’t,” sneeze, “tell you.”
“Come now, little fellow,” Thomas said. “That sneezing of yours can’t be pleasant and it will only get worse the longer you stay in this chest.”
A series of sneezes erupted followed by what sounded like a string of searing invectives.
“Hungoloosh,” the goblin barked.
“Very well, Hungoloosh, it’s a very simple thing I want you to do and then you will be freed.”
“Anything! Just make this sneezing stop!”
Thomas opened the chest.
Hungoloosh jumped out, scurried to the table, and hopped up onto it. He crouched down as though preparing to pounce but instead became eerily still, nearly blending with his surroundings.
Westailer was mesmerized.
“Now, Hungoloosh, who commanded you to destroy these costumes?”
“A tailor named Jespen.”
“Jespen!” Westailer shouted.
“You know this Jespen?”
“A rival of mine. He’s got a shop down the street.”
“Hmm. Well, Hungoloosh is now bound to me so your costumes are safe. You and I will go to the Constable tomorrow and explain what has happened, but I doubt he will do anything.” He turned to Hungoloosh. “All right, my little friend. I have no intention of pressing you into service, and I’m sure that Westailer is a good enough man not to chase after you himself.”
Westailer agreed all too quickly.
“So you are free to go. Just don’t get yourself caught again.”
“If that’s your wish,” Hungoloosh jeered. He leaped to the window, flung it open, and was gone.
“Now, Master Westailer,” Thomas said, turning to the man. “If you want to keep these outfits of yours safe, do not disturb the herbs that I’ve sprinkled around them. I’ll come back tomorrow afternoon with some more of the mixture for you. And don’t get any ideas of finding our little friend on your own. He’s sure to change his name and keep himself well hidden now. Besides, catching him will only put you in his bad graces, and hill goblins are vengeful beasts.”
“How can I ever thank you?”
“A fresh washbasin and a clean towel will be enough.”
* * *
A week later, Thomas was in his room at the Drunken Wolf recording observations in his journal when Westailer, accompanied by one of his apprentices, came for a visit. The apprentice was holding something wrapped in cloth.
“Master Grayweed, Sir,” Westailer grinned.
“Master Westailer,” Thomas hailed, pleased to see the man smiling. “What brings you down to the Lower House District?”
“I’m here to repay a debt, good Sir.” He gestured to his companion.
The young man stepped up to Thomas with regal ceremony. He unfolded the cloth and began placing articles of clothing in display on Thomas’s table — a houppelande, a doublet, hose, shoes, and clogs. Each bore checkered red-and-black patterns of varying sizes, the design for a man of letters, and each was trimmed in gold.
“Things turned out very well,” Westailer said. “The temple was quite pleased with my work. As a result, some of Jespen’s own patrons have begun coming to me, not that the rumors about his infestation haven’t helped in that regard.”
“Yes, I’ve heard those rumors. No doubt our little friend getting even.” He looked over Westailer for any sign that might betray his involvement but saw none.
“No doubt. They are meager in comparison to what you’ve done for me, but please accept these offerings as gratitude for your service.”
“Why thank you very much,” Thomas said, gently caressing the clothing with his paw. “It’s a thoughtful and very fine gift.”
“I guessed on your dimensions from memory but I can easily adjust them to fit if there are any problems. Now, there is only one more thing I would ask from you.”
“And what’s that?”
“How did you know? I mean, how could you know that someone had sent that little bugger after me?”
“Your description of what had been going on at your shop led me to suspect an imp, or gremlin, or some other similar being and the clues that I discovered there reminded me of an experience I once had with a hill goblin.” Thomas was pricked with the need to wash his hands. “A rather unpleasant business, truth be told, that I’m not keen on revisiting. Besides, I have a great many other more interesting stories to relate.”
“Well, you are a marvel, Master Grayweed. A true marvel.” *
About the Author: Sadly, the monkeys that have been writing Sean Hower’s biographies for him have gone on strike. So you, dear readers, are left with his own bland efforts at self-marketing. His technical writing career, after all, does not encourage creativity of a literary variety. Sure, he could spice things up with a bullet list and maybe a little font management, but he can’t bring himself to do it. He will only direct you to Planet Magazine, Bewildering Stories, C/Oasis, and DreamForge, where some of his other stories have found a happy home.
(c) 2004 Sean Hower firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Artist: Miranda Aschenbrenner is a student artist in her third year of a Fine Arts Degree. She reads whatever she can get her hands on, especially fantasy novels, and these greatly influence her work. In addition to fantasy illustrations, Miranda also enjoys doing still-life paintings, brightly colored, that retain an element of the fantastic. Miranda’s work can be viewed at: