The inn's door stood slightly cracked, and yellow light poured from the wide windows onto the worn stones below. Edan shifted his pack onto one shoulder and went inside. Tables and chairs filled with people and food crowded around a large circular brick hearth in the center of the wide hall. A high counter ran along one side for the room, and behind it stood shelves stacked with a decent selection of wine and liquor. A large man with a bushy beard and a gut as big as a sow was wedged behind the counter, conversing merrily with a couple of young men in long cloaks while serving girls rushed about bringing beer and stew and fresh bread to tired folk. Setting his pack neatly beside one of the stools by the bar, Edan raised a hand to one of the girls, calling her over.
“I'd like some of that stew, please, and a slice of that bread too. Oh, and a mug of cider if you've got it.” he said over the crowd.
“No cider left, just beer. Although, we have some mulled wine if you prefer.” The girl was young, but had a haggard look in her face, and seemed slightly out of breath when she spoke.
“That sounds nice.” he reached for his purse tucked into the top of his pack and pulled out several coins, “How much...?” he started, but she had already run off to the kitchen for his meal. Frowning slightly, he sat back down on the hard stool and dropped the money into the pocket of his coat. Even from several yards away the fire was already beginning to take the cold from his body, so he pulled the red woolen scarf from his neck and began unbuttoning his coat. He folded the scarf and pressed it into the top of his thick canvas sack next to the purse and a large leather-bound notebook. His fingers lingered for a moment on the smooth cover, but he decided against getting it out here. He did not want to spoil his dinner with what that journal had inside. There was a soft thump as the serving girl set down a large wooden bowl full of steaming lamb stew and a plate with a thick slice of warm bread. Edan handed her the coins from his pocket, “The wine?” he said expectantly, when he saw that her tray contained nothing more.
“The owner's bringing it.” she picked three of the coins from the handful and handed them back to him, pocketing the rest. He put them back in his coat pocket and thanked her before she ran off again. The stew was filling and flavorful, but that may have just been his imagination since all he had been eating since he set sail two weeks ago was bland cheese, stale bread and salt pork. He had eaten even less since he came ashore on this island, with just a few apples and some dried fish to last him until he arrived in town. Luckily he hadn't gotten himself lost this time, and still had half an apple in one of the pockets of his bag. He thought about eating it after the stew and saving a few of his pennies, but then he saw another girl bring a slice of cherry pie to an older woman by the hearth.
“Here y'are lad,” a heavy clay mug of wine was thrust into his hand, “Just arrivin' into old Marrdell eh?” The owners voice was as warm as the inn itself, or maybe it was the other way around, and the inn took after him. “Can't say we get many traveling folk these days, 'specially with the way the roads are these days. The rains' all but washed everything away. Name's Rab, by the way, and what brings you 'round here?”
“Thank you,” he held the mug close in both hands, letting it chase the last of the cold from his fingers, “Edan Thatcher, I'm here on charter from the university in Starford. You wouldn't, by chance, have a room to let for the night? I seem to be making poor time on these rain-washed roads. I was supposed to meet a colleague at the ruins today, but he's surely gone home by now.” There was no colleague, but people were more hospitable to scholars than to occult seekers. He had, however, spent time at the university, studying biology and medicine. He left after only two years when his mother passed away from some unknown illness.
“Aye, a room and a hot bath we got, but I don't know no one here come all the way from Starford. Who's this friend of yours?”
Edan took a swallow of wine and savored it for a moment, its spicy sweet warmth reminding him of home, “We've actually never met. I've been sent here to conduct some research and he is apparently something of an expert in my field of work.”
“And what field might that be?” The innkeeper inquired, raising one bushy eyebrow.
“Archeology, history and the like.” he took another sip of wine to avoid saying any more. Most country folks either had no interest in the subject or didn't even know what 'archeology' meant and wouldn't try to pry any further. This man, however seemed a bit more stubborn than most. Seeing Rab's expectant look, Edan continued his tale, “The ruins aren't properly mapped, you see. We suspect that there was much more to that area than previously known, and with more research I think we may be able to get a better idea of what sort of people lived there and what happened to them.” Some of the patrons must have heard him because several now eyed him suspiciously. He knew it had been a mistake to mention the ruins at all since most common people feared things from the Old Kingdom.
The innkeeper leaned forward on the bar and spoke more quietly now, “Them ruins ain't got nothing but trouble for people like us. Miss Laina's son went missin' up there not a month ago. You'd be better off goin' back to your school than getting yourself into trouble up there. But, as long as you don't say no more 'bout that nasty place, you can have the room for the night.”
“Thank you for the advice,” Edan smiled his most innocent smile, “I'll try to be more careful. Now, how about a piece of that cherry pie?”
* * *
The room was small, but well furnished. There was a polished oak table and matching chair with a glass oil lamp sitting on a cloth in one corner. A small wardrobe made of darker, older wood occupied the corner opposite the table. The bed was not large, but the mattress was thick and soft and the blankets warm. One of the serving girls had lit a fire in the gray stone fireplace. He was unpacking a few things into the wardrobe when she returned to tell him the bath was ready. She led him back downstairs and handed him a lump of soap and a towel from the cabinet on the wall and closed the door behind her as she left. Edan kicked off his boots peeled his grimy shirt and pants away from his slender body. He tossed them unceremoniously on the floor and placed his cleaner set of clothes on the stool by the tub. With a hand on either side of the wide metal basin, he lowered himself into the steaming water and sighed contentedly. For a long time he just sat in the hot water. Starford was on the mainland, and a good deal south of this cold rainy place, and as such was significantly warmer. But no matter how many of the northern islands he traveled to he still could not shake the biting cold that always came with them.
From the main room he could hear the lilting song of a violin, and the high clear voice of a young woman singing a melody of love. The patrons were settling down, growing sleepy and warm. Soon most would head home to be ready for a long harvest day tomorrow, and the place might actually be silent for a few hours. Edan listened to the song and the din as he scrubbed two weeks of dirt and sweat from his pale skin. The water was losing its heat and he wanted to be back in his warm room before it bled away completely. His hair was the hardest to get clean. He kept it long, about to his shoulders and parted on the side as was the fashion in Starford. After breaking off a piece of the soap he worked it into his greasy hair. Standing and shivering a little he took the extra pitcher of hot water the girl had left from the floor and upended it over his head. The towel he had been given was small, but he managed to work himself mostly dry with it and put on his second set of clothes. He left the damp towel and the now slightly mushy lump of soap on the stool in their place.
He thought about walking barefoot on the well-worn wood back to his room in order to avoid putting on his dirty boots again but decided against it and slipped the soft leather over is calves. There was a small polished silver mirror on the cabinet door that he used to make sure his bangs covered his mismatched right eye. Finally he grabbed his smelly clothes from the floor and walked out into the hall. The fiddler and the singer were doing a more lively tune now, but everyone was too tired from the fields and the good food to dance. Edan managed to get the attention of one of the girls, incidentally, the same one who had served him his dinner.
“Could you see that these get washed? I plan on heading out in the morning.” He handed her the bundle of clothes.
“Of course.” And she was off again before he had a chance to thank her. I guess people in this place don't like strangers much, He thought, and made his way back up the stairs to his quarters.
The room was cozy now, and smelled pleasantly of cloves. He took off his boots again and set them on the hearth, resolving to scrub them tomorrow morning before heading out. His bag still lay on the floor in front of the wardrobe, open and with its contents jumbled into a pile on the floor. That dark journal stared up at him, its cover tied shut with a bit of red cord. After considering simply flopping onto the bed and going straight to sleep, he picked it up and opened it to a dog-eared page near the center and read to himself:
“We have been walking for weeks and still seen no sign of the cat sὶth that's supposed to live in this bog. It's been described by locals as a great black beast in the shape of a cat, but one girl said she thought it looked more like a man than a cat. The folks round here are too afraid to speak any more on it and some have turned us away from their inns at the mere mention of its name. My brother Jacob recons we ought to stop skirting around it and just walk straight up to the Fay ruins, but Mr. Thatcher thinks there's something more to this beast than folks is sayin. We made camp outside Marrdell and Mr. Thatcher wants to head closer to the wall tomorrow and set some traps.”
Edan skipped a few pages and continued reading the account of his father's expedition. The pages were more wrinkled now, and had spots of water-smudged ink, as if the person writing the entry had been sobbing at the time.
“Jacob is gone. He disappeared two days ago. Mr. Thatcher's been tellin us not to get any closer, but Jacob just got impatient and stupid. After that a couple of the other men deserted and ran back to Marrdell. Me and Mr. Thatcher are the only ones left. He thinks we're getting closer to catching this thing, so maybe we can go home soon. Though there's no telling what Mr. Thatcher wants with a great mean cat, he certainly keeps his reasons to himself. I told him I wasn't gonna stay much longer if I was just gonna end up dead like Jacob probably was. He just nodded and said I could leave if I wanted, and that there's no sense in another person dying on his account.”
The next entry was dated a full week later, and was the last entry in the journal. There were still a couple dozen empty pages after that, but Edan had avoided using them. The journal was the only remnant he had of his fathers life even if it wasn't written by his hand.
“The camp caught fire the night after I wrote the last entry. I don't know how, I always made sure to smother all the coals like he said, but the tents are all gone and Mr. Thatcher is dead, burned up in the blaze. I took what was left of his things and walked back to Marrdell. I'll be catching the boat back to Starford in a week when it comes back. I plan to give this journal to his wife but I'm not sure what good it'll do. Maybe at least it'll give her a little comfort.”
Sighing, Edan closed the book. It had proved little comfort for his mother, who had refused to look at it again after reading through it once. He wished his father had been more open with his plans, maybe it would have made his quest a little easier. Even though he had read the journal hundreds of times and could probably recite those last three passages by memory, all he had gleaned was that the thing he searched for was in the ruins near this little farming town and that it took people who got too close. Not really much to go on, but at least he was in the right spot.
The other book in his bag was larger, and held, among his own writings, maps and clippings from various sources recounting sightings and encounters with the cat sὶth. Some were more dubious than others, and none were in complete agreement, but they all shared one common thread: It always appeared as a huge black cat. He pulled a slim black case from the depths of the canvas bag and opened it to reveal a set of silver pen nibs, a long brown goose feather and a bottle of ink. He set to writing a bit of what happened over the last few days since he had gotten off the boat, and after an hour started cleaning and taking apart his pen. Once it was safely stowed away again, he stretched and, much as it pained him to do so, he doused the fire making sure no coals were left. He then slipped into the narrow bed and withing moments was sleeping soundly.
* * *
Edan awoke suddenly to a hard knock at the door. The pale morning sun was already streaming through the window. The knocking came again, and he scrambled from the bed, tangling himself in the blanket and pulling it along with him as he made for the door. He, thankfully, had the presence of mind to cover his one red eye with his hair before greeting whoever was on the other side.
“Morning, sir. Your clothes.” It was the girl from last night, bearing his freshly laundered and neatly folded clothes. “There's breakfast downstairs, too.” Edan took the clothes and thanked her. He decided to continue wearing the ones he has slept in in an effort to try to keep these clean for a little longer. He didn't know when, or if, he would be welcomed back to this inn or any other in the area. He repacked his bag, making sure his ink bottle was tightly shut and shrugged on his black wool coat. The red scarf was stuffed into his pocket for when it would almost certainly get cold later today. Hefting the bag, he closed the door behind him and went down to the dining hall where he ate sausages and baked apples with cinnamon. The innkeeper had been kind enough to sell him some traveling food: six fist-sized apples, some cured mutton, a loaf of bread and a wedge of hard cheese. Edan wrapped it in a cloth and packed it under his books.
He borrowed a stiff brush from the stables as he left and used it to get most of the caked on mud out of his boots. The stable boy was more open than the staff at the inn had been.
“Do you know of anyone around here who might have more information about the Fay ruins up there? The innkeeper seemed none too keen on talking about it.” Edan asked as he sat on an old barrel, scraping the mud from his boots.
“There was a man what came down here from the hills last month after Coll went missin'. He was askin' 'bout his family or summat, but his ma wasn't havin' none of it. She reckoned maybe he come to steal her daughter too.” The boy talked while he worked oil into a saddle on his knee, “He was a mighty odd lookin' fellow, too. Long white hair, even though he couldn't a been older than me da. He wore a hat too, and his eyes was yellow! Like a wolf or summat. Ma said not to go near him, but I weren't scared none.”
Finished, Edan put the brush back on the shelf behind the boy and gathered his pack from the hay bale against the stable wall. He pulled out his map and unfolded it on the hay.
“Do you know where this man lives, by chance? Could you mark it on here?” He held out a stick of charcoal to the boy.
“Don't really know where he lives, Rab says he came from this direction.” The boy drew an arrow into town from the western road, “The road curves north here and there's a pond back there what ain't on your map.” He filled in a lumpy circle for the missing water.
“Thanks, and take care.” Edan said stuffing the charcoal into his pocket and refolding the map into his book. He estimated the pond to only be a few miles away, and it was a good place to start anyway. This mysterious man may have some insight into what his father may have wanted with an evil cat demon, even if he was a dangerous looking wolf man. He tipped the boy a penny before heading out along the main road to the west. Even with the bright morning sun the breeze was cool enough to make the hair on the back of Edan's neck stand on end. He pulled out his scarf as he walked and looped it once around his throat. The road was rocky but made for easier walking than the muddy slope he had climbed from the port to the town. He continued until the sun was high overhead and there was still no sign of any water.
He finally sighted a long legged water bird when the sun was only about a hands breadth above the horizon and knew he was close. After only a few hundred more yards a nearly unnoticeable path split off and wound into the woods. There was less light on this path but it would still be navigable for a couple hours. Before entering he fished a small hand held oil lantern from his pack and clipped its handle to his belt for later use. He stuck the flint and steel into his pocket next to the charcoal.
Having to pick his way through the thorns and brush made for slow going, and more than once he got his clothes caught on the undergrowth. He wished he had something bigger than a folding pocket knife to cut down some of the more troublesome branches. Even with his slow pace he managed to make it to a soft green grove with less than an hour of daylight still to spare. Across the clearing, behind several reddening maple trees there was a long log cabin that looked a little dilapidated, but not yet abandoned. A covered porch stretched from one corner of the house to the other, but the roof had fallen in on one end. About fifty yards beyond the house Edan saw the last reddish sparkle of the sunset on the pond. Edan let out a small sigh, happy to be rid of the catching limbs of the forest. He walked across the plush grass and up the steps onto the more intact side of the porch.
“Hello?” he called, knocking on the door, “Is anyone here?” No one came to the door, so he walked around to the side of the house. A small open shed stood there, shelves and pegs heavy with tools, but most were caked in rust and looked as if they hadn't seen use in years. In front of it was a fat, gnarled stump with a long handled woodsman's ax wedged in the top. Still he saw no one. Shiny black crickets gave startled chirps and leaped from his path as he made his way toward the pond. It was a peaceful walk and the sight of the sun sinking behind the brightly colored trees and casting lengthening lacy shadows on the water was enough to stop him in his tracks.
“Can I help you?” came a voice as smooth as the mirrored surface of the pond. Edan jumped in his boots and spun around on his heel, almost falling over himself as he did. He stumbled back a few paces and finally caught himself on a birch sapling. The man who stood before him was tall and lean, wearing clothes that did not suit a the woodsman Edan had expected to find living here. He was as the stable boy described: wolfish and white haired with golden eyes. That white hair was tied back with a green ribbon at the nape of his neck and trailed several inches past his shoulders onto his richly dyed shirt. He wore a grey flat cap and black boots over high waisted black pants.
“Well?” the man took a step closer, “What brings you to my humble abode? Has the mayor sent another of his lackeys to scold me for coming into town during the day? Let's have done with it then, so you can be on your way. The road isn't safe at night, I hear.” The last sentence he said with a grin that was more than a little unsettling.
“Mayor? No, I'm from- I mean I came to ask your help.” His hand dove into his bag and pulled out the notebook with the red cord, “My father-”
“Where did you get that?” The tall man demanded. He reached for it and Edan handed it to him. With delicate fingers the other man pulled the cord from around the book, opening it and leafing through the pages.
“It belonged to one of my father's assistants. He brought it back to us after... After the expedition was over.” Edan shivered a little. He hadn't spoken out loud of his father in a long time. Most everyone in Starford knew the mysterious circumstances of his death, as well as his fascination with the Fay. He did not die a respected man and his mother forbade him from speaking of him in public. “How do you know about this? It happened years ago, when I was a child.”
“I'm older than I look.” He was still fixated on the pages, “What fools.” he said under his breath.
Edan snatched the book back, “My father was not a fool! Please let me explain,” He flipped to the single illustration in the book, a drawing of a sinister looking black cat with a white chest. “My father was cursed, and so am I. He thought this thing could rid him of it somehow, but he never explained why or how. Please, you have to help me find it.”
The tall man frowned at the image, “I can't.”
“But, I've no where else to go! My family is dead, I have no home and everything I touch eventually turns to ash. You have to do something! Help me!” Edan thrust the book back at the man, urging him to look more.
“I don't have to do anything. Now, leave. This is beyond my power.” He said with finality. The tall man turned and walked back to the house, slamming the door behind him.
Edan almost sank into the grass and cried right there, but he knew that would solve nothing. Instead he marched down to the water's edge and pulled his bedroll from his pack, along with some of the food from earlier, and spread it out on the grass. He found a forked stick and drove it into the ground so he could hang the lantern from it. However, the light it provided was meager at best. Sitting cross-legged, he tried to write in his journal, but found it difficult to keep the ink bottle upright on the uneven ground. The failing light was certainly not helping either. Finally he gave up and decided just to eat and try to sleep.
He wished he had a cloak like the huntsmen from the inn, because his knee length coat made a poor blanket. As he lay on his back he picked out the constellations he had learned from the sailors he had spent so much time with over the last few years, filling in the stars that were hidden by cloud or leaf. He counted out dozens, even the obscure ones that he suspected some of the sailors had just made up, before he was able to sleep.