Half way there, Kreemon stopped under the light of a tavern window, crouched down and turned his pockets inside-out. Most of what he'd gotten from the floor of the tunnel was a uniform organic slime, which explained the smell that had turned away the heads of a few passers-by. He poured a waterskin over the pile of sludge to filter it.
What was left when the sludge washed away was an interesting collection of lost items that must have been accumulating for a long time. There were six severely corroded copper coins and one golden attle in reasonable shape; a simple gold band mounted with a yellowish gemstone, which was still quite dirty since slime and mud had sunk down into the mounting; a bronze signet ring; and a rusty key. Finally, rubbing his hand over what was left of the pile, Kreemon found three smooth stones, a rusty nail and a small fish, which was still squirming.
Kreemon left the fish where it was, put the rest back in his pocket and continued on. It took him a long time to find the house among the maze of streets that was Huerten. The last time, he'd found it by accident, and that seemed the only way to find it now. However, after a couple of slow, wet, freezing cold hours, he saw the familiar door.
Kreemon knocked once heavily and followed it by five light taps, for Zahira and the moon-children. He crossed his arms over his chest to keep warm. When the door opened, he formed his hands into arches and held them apart, then put them together to make a circle. “Have you any room for a cold wet traveler?”
The woman who opened the door was short, no more than four and a half feet tall, and solidly built, with muscular limbs and a flat chest. Her face looked distorted. Her lips were tiny and close to her narrow chin, while nose and eyes were wide and far separated. Hair came out of her head in every direction, some falling over her face. She opened her large eyes wider. “Of course, Zahiran,” she said, and stepped out of the way.
Kreemon passed through the doorway and said, ”'May your future deeds balance all'.”
“And your feet ever find the Way.”
Kreemon smiled at the active fireplace and the cooking food whose sweet smell almost overwhelmed his own stench. He entered the house and moved close to the fire, finally relieving some of his intense chill. “I am wet to the bone but that is no excuse me for being rude. I am Kreemon Fangly.”
The woman seemed surprised – or maybe that was just the natural shape of her eyes. “There is no need to tell me your name, Zahiran.”
“Is that a custom here in Huerten? To call all of the Wheel-bound Zahirans? Where I am from, we just use that term for the Druids.”
“Oh, I thought –”
Kreemon looked puzzled. “Why would you think I am a Zahiran?”
“You look – you hold yourself – I don't know. You seem like one.”
Kreemon replied, still puzzled, “I have had cause over the past few weeks to pray a lot and I have felt some sort of… presence or reassurance… I don't know how to explain it.” All True Zahirans he had seen had looked very similar to each other… “Do you have a looking glass?”
The strange-looking woman bolted, latched and locked the door, and then said, “No. It won't matter anyway. Either you are a True Zahiran or you're not. You can't become one.”
Kreemon reflected, “Maybe I always have been and never knew it. I have always felt Zahira's presence in my life. I need to seek Her guidance.” Kreemon asks, “Is there a grove near town?”
“If you were a True Zahiran, you'd've known.” She walked over to the pot and stirred it with a giant wooden spoon. “And I don't know about any groves. It's all farmland around here. Maybe an orchard.”
“Well, I definitely need to get cleaned up and dry out my clothes. Can you help me with that?”
“You think you'd look good in this?” Her smile was not at all pleasant to see when she pointed to her own clothing. “No, I can't help you with clothes, but I can feed you, and you can sleep on the floor if you want. Zahirans should always help each other.”
“Food would be welcome, thank you. Is there a planted grove near town?”
“Of course. You're in Huerten. Apple and orange orchards everywhere. But if you're looking for an oak grove or something, I can't help you.”
“I'm liable to catch my death of cold unless I get these clothes dried out. Do you have a blanket I can wrap myself in while my clothes dry?”
“Here,” she said, and went to a corner to get a blanket. “And stand near the fire. Not too close, or you'll get cooked on one side.”
Kreemon unabashedly stripped down and laid his clothes out near the fire. He wrapped his lower half with the blanket and stood by the fire.
“Why do you want a grove, anyway?”
“I want some place that I can relax, meditate, and pray to Zahira.” Kreemon paused and then asked, “Do you have an altar or shrine to Zahira here?”
“Here? In Huerten? There are three of us in the whole city, and another eight in the villages. Who's going to build a shrine? And how long would it last in a place like this?”
Kreemon frowned. “Yes, I guess it was too much to hope for.” He leaned in closer to the fire and warmed himself up. Every few minutes, he reached over and flipped his clothes so they would dry thoroughly.
Kreemon slept on the woman's hard floor that night. Long before the sun rose, there was a knock at the door, then it opened from the outside. A man entered and unlatched the windows' shutters, letting the freezing pre-dawn air inside. He then sat on the floor next to Kreemon, not saying a word. The man was plain in dress and features. His was the kind of face that was so ordinary it would be almost impossible to remember afterward.
Kreemon unwrapped himself from his blanket and sat up saying. “May your future deeds balance all.”
“Who are you,” the man asked while looking at one of the windows. The fire shifted wildly in a breeze.
“Zahiran, I am Kreemon Fangly. I have felt a calling.”
Kreemon nodded, “Yes,” and then looked down dejectedly. “But I don't know what to do.”
“You have felt no calling. You are too old, and there is no such thing even if you were young.” With those words, he walked out, leaving the shutters swinging back and forth in the wind.
As the Zahiran turned to leave Kreemon shot back, “Then why are you here?” Ignored, he quickly donned his pants, grabbed his shirt, and stomped his feet into his boots in pursuit of the Zahiran.
Without a fire to balance out the wind, the air was freezing. Fog clung to Kreemon's beard and crystallized, and he had to stuff his hands in his pockets to keep his fingers from stiffening.
Through the darkness and the fog, Kreemon could see little blurred circles of light in the distance, but in this part of the city, all lights were off. He stopped for a second to listen for footsteps, and heard none. Then he saw someone moving out of the corner of his eye and ran after the figure.
Whether or not it was the Zahiran, it seemed impossible to catch. No matter how close Kreemon got, it was always a bit farther, and soon, Kreemon was unsure that it wasn't just an illusion created by the fog. He continued to follow, sometimes losing the figure and then spotting it again somewhere else. By the time that dawn started to brighten the sky and the fog started to dissipate, the figure was lost.
Kreemon let out a groan of frustration as he sent out a silent prayer: “Am I unworthy of Your grace?” Freezing, he turned and headed back the house where he had spent the night.
The next day, the streets were full of soldiers. Kreemon could watch them passing by through the slats in the shutters. Then he noticed they were knocking on doors.
Kreemon, dressed and as ready as possible, told the woman of the house, “Um, there are soldiers in the street. They might be looking for me. Do you have a drop hole?” In Hollybrook, Zahirans often had secret places to hide fellow Zahirans who were found out during years of oppression.
The woman looked out the window and then locked the shutters and doors. “You mean the basement?” She went to the fireplace and swept the charred red wood aside with a metal broom, revealing the grate used to collect ash. She lifted the grate, and Kreemon, looking over her shoulder, saw a hole that descended into darkness. “Can you fit through there?”
The hole was small – smaller than the pipe he'd squeezed out of the day before – but this time gravity was in his favor. The difficult thing would be getting out. Kreemon nodded hesitantly, and climbed in. Soon he was crouched in the foundation of the house, in a tiny space no wider than he was tall, and only three feet high and long. “They won't find you in there.” The woman's voice seemed muted with distance. Light trickled in at various points, through the grate, between the beams that served as walls and ceiling. It was a good thing, because soon, it became very hot and the air seemed thinner. The woman had brought the fire up to a full blaze, which would further reduce suspicion.
Kreemon relaxed as much as possible and prepared for a long wait. Using the time, he meditated on the events over the past few days, his encounter that morning with the True Zahiran, and the changes he felt within himself.
As time passed, Kreemon's meditation was interrupted more and more often by the sheer discomfort of his situation. The pans full of water that the woman passed down occasionally were barely enough to replace the sweat that streamed off of Kreemon's body in the heat of the air. He found it difficult to lie perfectly still and sleep, with roaches and biting spiders crawling about his body, and with the sharp contrast between hot air and cold earth. And occasionally, the shifting flames would thin the air enough that he would pass out for a few minutes. Soon he came to regret that it was only a few minutes. Tiny specks of light, reminiscent of those among the castle scaffolding, changed in brightness excruciatingly slowly. By lying in an awkward position and forcing parts of his body through narrow spaces, he was able to peer through one of the holes. At that angle, he could see the light flicker, as a leafless branch or something swayed in the wind. Kreemon found that focusing on the flickering light was the only way he could keep his mind focused on what he wanted to think about.
A full day went by in the crawlspace, and most of another. After all the tiny lights had gone dark, Kreemon heard a voice other than the mumblings of the old woman. “Kreemon?” it asked. Kreemon crawled closer to the opening and listened. “Kreemon? Is that you? What have you gotten yourself into?” A pause. “How did you get in there?” The voice was Korisca's.
Kreemon put his ear closer to the opening and wondered if he was hallucinating. Cautiously, he asked her, “How did you find me?”
“People here and there saw you two days ago, and when I found out there was a Zahiran living here, it seemed like a good bet. Took a while. What happened? Everyone disappeared. I still haven't found Ardith and Kay.”
“Help me out of here.” Kreemon tried to wiggle out of his cramped haven, but found that he was stuck. It took more than half an hour for Korisca and the Zahiran woman to get him out. Once free, he took a deep breath of clean air and let out a sigh. “Ah, air never smelled so good.” His clothes were torn from his escape, and he was weak and aching from the lack of movement, but he hardly thought about any of that.
“So what happened at the castle?” Korisca asked again, when Kreemon had had a minute to relax and breathe.
Kreemon frowned. “How did you know about the Zahiran?”
“Word gets around about these kinds of things.” This seemed to worry the Zahiran woman, who rushed to the door, opened it, and jerkily looked up and down the street. “I didn't find the thieves' guild that Ardith asked me to find, but there's a lot of people who know a lot of things around here. Even more than in Maelbourg.”
Kreemon continued to stretch. “Well, some bureaucrat tried to take the scroll we were carrying and not give it to the Baron. I tried to make sure the scroll made it to the Baron and then things… got out of hand. I am not sure about the others, we got separated.”
“Oh, that kind of 'out of hand.' I like you, but sometimes I think you're nuts.” Korisca laughed, only a bit of nervousness showing.
Kreemon finished stretching and then gathered his belongings. “I think it for the best if we found the others and left town.”
“Yeah, it's good time to leave. You know the entire town's out looking for you, right? They don't know where you are yet, and the only thing I've heard about Ardith and Kay is that a fisherman named Brunner rescued them on the docks.”
“Do they have a description of me? I might need to alter my appearance.”
“They have a drawing they've been taking door to door. I haven't gotten a good look at it, but I think they did a better job of you than of Ardith or Kay.”
“Well, I had better shave and cut my hair then. That will drastically change my appearance.”
“You should think about getting cleaned up too. I could smell you a mile away.”
“What about Bork? Have you seen him anywhere?”
“The bartenders – the knighted ones – have been talking about some mess at the castle with a dog. I think a guard was killed. Could be an exaggeration. I don't know if it was Bork, or if he escaped.”
“What have you been able to find out about Brunner? Maybe you should go see where he lives or something so we can track down the others.”
“He's a fisherman, popular with the other fishermen. Widower, has his own house, hangs out at Sir F's at night. I had lots of time to figure things out.” She smiled.
“Have you been by his house to see if they are hiding there?”
“I walked by it a couple times, but I didn't want to get on the baron's hit list. I kept my distance.”
Kreemon took a razor from his pack and started to shave. “Why would you get on the baron's hit list? Does he have guards watching the fisherman's house?”
“You bet he does. Two or three of them, watching from different angles. Not too hard to spot if you hide out there long enough.”
Kreemon looked puzzled. “If he knows that they are in the fisherman's house, why hasn't he moved to arrest them? Why haven't they left?”
“They don't _know_. There are guards waiting near six or seven houses around town, and some law keeps them from going in until they see something. I don't know either, but from what I've heard of Brunner and what I know about Ardith and Kay, I think he's our man.”
“What do you recommend we do? This skulking and sneaking seem more to your abilities than mine.”
Korisca gave a half-smile. “Thanks. First, none of this 'we' stuff. I'm not getting near that house, or near Brunner. I'll help past that though. I still owe you one, and I owe Ardith one too. Brunner goes to Sir F's every night after work. He should be there now, in fact. That might be the place to start.”
Finished with his grooming, Kreemon asked, “is my appearance altered enough to go out into public without fear of being instantly recognized?”
“Maybe.” Korisca paced a full circle around Kreemon. “You look funny without the beard. Take the beads out of your hair so it hangs loose, and put on a cloak or something. Hide your weapons or leave them behind. That might be enough, unless someone who got a good look at you at the castle sees you.” Kreemon followed Korisca's advice, taking the beads out and trimming the hair that fell in his eyes.
Korisca came up close and looked at Kreemon's chin. “You know, I think your scar is fading.”
“Fading?” Kreemon looked around the small dwelling for a looking glass, but again found none. He pulled out the ring he'd found and showed it to Korisca. “Do you think you could sell this ring and get me a change of clothes and a cloak? I found this ring in the sewers.”
Korisca took it and gave it a good look. “Sure, I can sell it. I'll get someone to clean it and tell me how much it's worth. Might be beryl, or even a dirty white sapphire. I wonder who lost it.”
“I have no idea how long it was down there. Hopefully it is worth enough to get me some nice clothes and have some change left over.” Kreemon thought for a second and then continued. “Also, if you could ask around to see if anyone recognizes a seal that looks like,” he described the symbol on the signet ring but did not show it to her, “I'd appreciate it.”
“Sure. I'll be back in no time. The shops close soon, so I'd better hurry.” With that, Korisca was off. The strange woman looked at the grate next to the fireplace, and looked back at Kreemon. Seeing that he had no intention of returning to his hiding place, she adjusted the grate, and cleaned up the mess of ashes Kreemon had made while escaping. By the time she was done, Korisca had returned.
“I got you an inconspicuous cloak, baggy enough to hide a sword but not a bow, and the hood is large enough to cast a good shadow.” She handed him the cloak. “I also got you this,” she said, and handed a small but heavy sack to him. “A month ago, I would have run off with that. I guess friends can change a person.” She smiled. “There are a hundred and eighty two attles in there. Should last you a long time. It was a nice stone.”
“Thank you. Did you learn anything about the symbol?”
“Nothing yet. That'll take more time.”
Kreemon gave his bow and twelve attles to the Zahiran. “Thank you for your help and support,” he said. “Please accept these with my thanks.” The woman nodded and accepted them. She lay the bow down and ignored it, but she had a gleam in her eye when she took the gold. “If you have to hide again, come back here. I'm always ready to help a Zahiran.”
Kreemon donned the cloak and pulled it around his sword. His sack, he tied to his belt. “Let's go to – Sir F's was it? – and find this fisherman.” Stepping outside into the late afternoon air, Kreemon took a few deep breaths. “Ah…” Kreemon paused after his next breath, as if he smelled something odd, and then with a puzzled look on his face said, “Lead the way.”
The noises of Sir F's could be heard fifty yards away, even with the windows shuttered against the cold. When Kreemon opened the door, he was assaulted by the smell of a hundred working men crowded into one room, the sounds of loud, friendly conversation and mediocre music, the sight of a crowd so dense it would be difficult to move. Kreemon made his way into the room, and the large, well-muscled fishermen were surprisingly polite, stepping aside for him while continuing their loud conversations.
The crowded, enclosed nature of the inn made Kreemon huddle in on himself. Keeping one hand on his money sack, he asked Korisca, “So, where is he?”
“I don't see him. I'll look around.” Korisca disappeared into the mass of people sitting and standing on every surface available. A couple minutes later, she was by his side again. “Can't find him. You could ask the bartender.”
Kreemon nodded his head and made his way to the bar. “Hey there, a pint for me and my girl.” As the bartender poured the drinks, Kreemon asked, “Hey, I'm looking for Brunner. I was told he'd be here. Would you happen to know where he is?”
The bartender's smile disappeared as he put the drinks down and took at good look at what little was visible of Kreemon under the shadow of his hood. “What do you keep bugging me for? You already know where he lives, and I don't know anything he don't.” He turned away to deal with another customer, but then looked back at Kreemon. “The hood isn't much of a disguise.” He turned again to pour a drink. Korisca had a smirk on her face.
Kreemon pushed back the hood of his cloak. “You must have me confused with someone else. I have never met you before. I am just looking for Brunner.”
The bartender finished pouring, looked back and almost dropped the drink. Instead he set it down and brought his face right up close to Kreemon's. “Look, I don't want any trouble in my bar. Brunner went home. He's celebrating a new bottle of ol' Gergy with some friends. Now put that hood back on before someone reports you, and get out of here.” It appeared that shaving his beard wasn't enough. The bartender had still recognized him from the pictures.
Kreemon pulled his hood back up and left the tavern. Outside, he said, “Brunner has already left. Should we try his house?”
“Go ahead, but be careful. There will be people watching you enter, and it wouldn't surprise me if there was someone inside. I'll find you later.”
Korisca gave Kreemon directions, and he approached the house. It was easy to find once he got close, since the noise from the party carried quite a way down the densely-packed streets. Brunner's house was large for a single-resident home in this part of town, two stories high and twenty feet at the base. It was separated from its neighbors by two- foot-wide alleys on the sides, and six feet of open area in the back.
Kreemon looked around to make sure he wasn't being watched, and slipped into an alley. He pulled out a waterskin and then exited the alley heading to the house. Stumbling along as he shambled towards the house, Kreemon sang a drunken ballad off-key. Once he was closer to the house he cursed. “Shawz! I'z be late.” He continued his drunken blather all the way to the house and entered through the unlocked front door.
Brunner's home was as crowded as the bar, though there were only two dozen or so people. A bottle of smoky liquid sat on a corner table with a few cups around it, and other bottles had made their way around the room and were now in people's hands, balanced on furniture or on the floor. The people were much the same as those in Sir F's – loud but polite, stocky bodies, strong upper arms. One man had arms nearly as thick as his legs. There was a person in the room who didn't quite fit in with the rest. He was tall and thin, and had blond streaks running through his dark, well-trimmed beard. He wasn't speaking to anyone, though he was trying hard to look as if he belonged.
Kreemon moved into the room and grabbed up one of the bottles before continuing through the house. There was a clear consensus as to the boundaries of the party. Most of the people stood or sat in one of the two largest rooms, and the door leading to the whatever was left was blocked by a massive cushioned chair. The upstairs, while not blocked off, was also not invaded by the guests. Two men sat talking on the third step, and no one went any higher. While Kreemon was examining the blocked door, a large hand slapped him on the back.
“Welcome! I don't think I've seen you around, but make yourself at home!” It was the man with the thick arms. “A little warm for that cloak, isn't it?”
“Thanks! I'm just getting over a cold. I accidentally took a dip in the lake the other day when my boat capsized. I heard that some of my friends, who fell into the lake too, might be here. We got separated after the accident. You wouldn't happen to know anything about them, would you?”
“I'm the one who pulled them out of the lake. I brought them to Sir F's to warm up, and then walked with them to the center of town. Haven't seen them since. They mentioned a third person in that boat. What was your name again?”
Kreemon took a swig from the bottle as he started moving. “Center of town? I best be going. Who knows what trouble they could have gotten themselves into by now?”
“That was two days ago,” Brunner said as Kreemon walked out the door. Then he shrugged his shoulders and went back to playing host. Kreemon watched Brunner out of the corner of his eye as he left. In the guise of a loud conversation with the two people sitting on the giant chair, the man tapped twice on the blocked door.
Kreemon continued out of the house and started down the street, turning at the first corner and then peering around it to see whether anyone was following him out of the party. He neither saw nor heard anyone, so he followed the side streets until he found a secluded alley where he could watch the house and remain unseen.
It was half an hour before people started to leave the party. Two people entered separately after the house started to empty, but Kreemon didn't recognize either, at least not from this distance. Another half hour, and the two men who had been sitting on the large chair walked out together. Kreemon kept his distance but quietly followed the two men. They stopped at a house not far from Brunner's, where one man said, “Good night. Stand up straighter or the wife'll notice.” They both laughed, and then the second man entered his house. The first continued walking alone for a while, finally stopping at Sir F's. He knocked loudly on the door, waited, and then knocked loudly again. “Who is it? We're closed,” came from inside. “It's me, Gerjer. I'm still paying for the room, you know.” The door opened after a few seconds, and the man entered. Dissatisfied with this adventure, Kreemon returned to Brunner's house, keeping an eye out for anyone following him.
Brunner was on his step, chatting and laughing with a trio who were on their way out. The three said goodbye and passed Kreemon as he approached. Kreemon sped up his pace and wedged himself in the doorway as Brunner was closing the door. “Wait,” he said. “I was hoping you had some more information about those two women you found.”
Kreemon heard a heavily accented voice from inside. “Please let him in Brunner! I need to talk to this man.” The speaker walked closer, and through the open door, Kreemon saw a much changed Sahlman. Instead of his desert robes, he wore a typical suit of clothes that might be seen on any town guardsman, or perhaps on one of the poorer knights. His southern weapons had been replaced by arms more common to Huerten. Most notably, his giant moustache had been trimmed and he now had a short, well-groomed beard. “Hello Kreemon, I have been hearing bad things about you.”