story by Geoff Bottone
It was late autumn, but the rendering room was so hot and humid that Farai had stripped down to his under-robes. He paced around the cramped room, which was tucked away in the basement of the Rookhaven temple of Farnir, and watched as the contents of each of the large metal vats continued to boil. He knew it would be hours and hours before he had cooked off enough liquid for the maple sap to be usable, but he couldn’t help fretting and fussing over the vats like an overprotective parent. He stoked one fire, placed a log on another fire, and resisted the urge to give the amber contents of one of the slower-boiling vats a brisk stirring.
“Goodness, Brother Farai. It’s like a sauna in here!”
Farai looked up from his vats as Brother Maynerd descended the steps into the rendering room, his spectacles fogging in the steam.
“Hello, Maynerd,” said Farai with a smile. “I suppose I’m late for evening prayers again?”
Brother Maynerd removed his spectacles and polished them on the sleeve of his deep green robe. He blinked myopically in the firelight and looked rather uncharacteristically nervous. “No, no. Not at all. I just…”
There was a long pause while the monk returned his spectacles to his bulbous nose. “Quite the bumper crop you have here this year, eh, Farai?”
Farai nodded. “It’s true. The sap was really running. I think we’ll have enough for our usual stores of syrup, sugar, and candies. Plus, I’m hoping to have the extra bounty set aside for an experimental project I’ve been working on.”
“Ah,” said Brother Maynerd, twiddling his fingers together and shifting back and forth on his feet. “One of your delicious…ah…recreational beverages?”
“Two, actually,” said Farai. Watching Maynerd’s constant fidgeting and gyrations were starting to make him nervous as well. “Maple beer and maple wine.”
“Ah, delicious! Delicious! It should go without saying that I am only too happy to volunteer as a taste tester. As you know, my palate is quite refined.”
“And I also know how you will take any opportunity to hone it!.”
Brother Maynerd nodded vigorously, his eyes slowly disappearing as condensation again crept across his spectacles. “No shame in that, my friend. No shame at all. As the good book says, Farnir made alcohol because he wants us to be happy.”
“Indeed,” replied Farai, raising one eyebrow.
Then, after a long, awkward moment of silence, punctuated only by the bubbling of the vats, Farai added, “Brother Maynerd?”
“You had something to tell me?”
“Yes.” Despite his vision being completely occluded, Brother Maynerd cast his eyes down to the floor of the rendering room. “I am the bearer of some rather…ah…frightful bad news…I am afraid that the temple has come into a bit of…ah…financial…difficulty…and that the abbess has a rather desperate need for your services.”
Farai picked up his robes from the chair in the corner of the room and slung them over his shoulder. The fabric was damp and slightly sticky to the touch. He decided he would wait until he was outside, in the comparatively cooler air, to put them on.
“I’m happy to help in any way I can. Shall we?”
“Yes,” said Brother Maynerd, pulling down his spectacles so that he could navigate a path to the steps. “Let’s.”
The sun was setting over the trees of the Gloomwood. Its dwindling light suffused the trees with a corona of crimson and transformed the tall towers of Rookhaven Temple and Orphanage into stark, black shapes. The rooks, from which the temple had taken its name, had returned to their evening roosts, congregating in dense, feathery clusters on the eaves and the trees within the courtyard. Farai usually found their presence—and their gregarious cawing—soothing, but this evening, they sounded more like a chorus of doomsayers than excited gossipers.
Farai shrugged on his robes and crossed the courtyard with more speed and determination than usual, causing Brother Maynard to let out a yelp of alarm and struggle to keep up.
Ahead of them, a small group of the orphans that were the temple’s charges, sat in a circle under the watchful eye of one of the other monks and ate a small meal in the dwindling daylight. One or two of them looked up as Farai approached, and their excited greetings to him swiftly alerted their companions.
“Farai! Farai! Good evening, Farai! How are you?”
Farai slowed his pace and walked up to the circle of now standing and excited children. He put on his very best smile.
“Hello, children,” he said, moving into the center of the circle and taking a knee so that he would present a less intimidating figure. “How are we this evening?”
As the children peppered him with their answers, Brother Maynerd at last caught up. He mopped his forehead with his sleeve as Farai reached into his waist sash and pulled out a small pouch.
“Izzat what I hope it is?” said one of the orphans.
“Can we have some?” said another.
Farai looked at Sister Durgana, the monk who was currently minding the children, and favored her with a sly wink. “I don’t know. Have you behaved yourselves today?”
Durgana theatrically rolled her eyes. “Some better than others, but mostly, yes.”
“Well, then,” said Farai, opening the pouch as the children clustered around, “I really don’t see the harm.”
The pouch contained small, hard lozenges of maple candy. Farai handed them around, one to each child. The candies were immediately popped into mouths as the children returned to their places in the circle. Farai thought about telling them to save the candies until after they had eaten their dinners, but by the time he had considered it, it was too late.
He stowed his pouch and stood up. Maybe it was all right if they had dessert a touch earlier than usual, or in lieu of more nutritious food. From what Brother Maynerd had told him, he suspected that the temple was facing difficult straits. Better for the orphans to have all the happiness that they could.
Farai had palmed one last piece of candy and now he brought it over to Durgana, who took it with a rueful grin.
“Thank you,” she said. “Farnir bless you and fortify you.”
“You as well,” replied Farai.
The abbess’ office had a large, peaked window that overlooked the temple’s perimeter wall and the treetops of the Gloomwood. The sun had just about set by the time Farai and Brother Maynerd entered the office, and, in the twilight, the forest took on a foreboding appearance that made it more than live up to its name. Even from here, Farai could see the eldritch glow of will-o-wisps tracing their arcane paths through the trees, could hear the yelps and howls that could just as easily have been plain old wolves or fearsome werewolves.
Avna, the abbess of Rookhaven, looked more dyspeptic than usual. She waved Farai and Brother Maynerd to a pair of chairs in front of her desk and held out a thick scroll to them as she seated herself.
“Brother Maynerd says we’re in some financial trouble,” said Farai, taking the scroll. It smelled of old parchment, dust, and something rather unpleasant. “I’m happy to go through the records and check my math again, but I’m fairly sure that, with all the tithes and donations, along with the sales of our maple products, we should be in the…”
“It’s not your maths that are the problem,” said Avna, throwing herself so heavily into her chair that the wood squeaked in shock and protest. “Read the scroll.”
The scroll crackled in his hands as he unrolled it. It was packed with spider-like script, much of which was the sort of legalistic jargon that was so dense and boring that it served as a ward to anyone trying to glean deeper meaning from it. Fortunately for Farai, he had read more than his fair share of religious texts and hagiographies, and was less affected by the dry, dusty contents of the dry, dusty parchment than others might be.
“This document,” Farai heavily paraphrased, “informs you (and by you, I mean ‘the brethren of Rookhaven Temple and Orphanage’) that I, (and by I, I mean ‘Lisette Shówerey, the Baroness of Desce’) have, through marriage, increased my demesne in the Gloomwood, and am now the possessor of the Lease for Rookwood Abbey. While my recently wedded (and recently deceased) husband never thought to enforce the Lease, out of respect for your faith and good works, I—I am afraid—must do so in order to raise enough capital to maintain my now much larger estate.
“You have until the Solstice to pay the fees that you owe per the stipulations of the Lease agreement, which amounts to 5,000 gold pieces. Otherwise, you will forfeit the Lease agreement. If this happens, the temple, the orphanage, and all of its holdings, possessions, and children, will legally belong to me. Signed L. Shówerey, etc. etc.
“She wants to own the children?!” shouted Farai. “That’s outrageous! She can’t do that, can she?”
“We have yet to find any legal text or statute that prevents her from doing so,” said Avna. “One of the numberless perks of being a baroness. And we don’t even have a tenth of the proposed sum in our coffers.”
“I could go to the baroness,” said Farai. “Show her our numbers. Convince her that we’re happy to pay her in good faith. Well. In faith, at any rate. Maybe she’ll give us an extension?”
“Oh, I suggested that already,” said Brother Maynerd. “Though not exactly in those terms.”
“And,” said Avna, leaning across her desk. “I told him that I not only thought that it wouldn’t work, I also thought that it would be very dangerous for him. And for you.”
Avna placed her palms on her forehead for a moment before running her fingers through her unruly, greying reddish hair. “Because of some important facts that I have learned about our new landlord. First of all, the page who delivered this document was a rather sunken-faced, cadaverous young man who had a rather strong stench of death clinging to his person. Second of all, the note that accompanied this one explains that, if we wanted to visit Baroness Shówerey at her manse, we would have to arrive sometime late in the evening, as she is,” Avna made quotation marks in the air with her fingers, “‘usually indisposed during the day.’ Third of all, her newest husband–her fifth one, by all accounts–died on their wedding night from sudden and traumatic blood loss. And, lastly, but most notably, the genealogical records we keep here at the temple indicate that she’s just slightly north of three hundred years of age.”
“Ah,” said Farai, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. “So she’s a vampire, then.”
“Yes,” said Avna, as she took the scroll and dropped it in an open drawer inside of her desk. She then shut the drawer with a more than sufficient amount of force. “I suspect that she discovered that she technically owns Rookhaven and has chosen her claim not for the money…”
Farai nodded along with the abbess. “…but because she wants to eat everyone within our walls.”
“Yes.” Avna rested her elbows on the desk and steepled her fingers. “I asked Brother Maynerd if he had any ideas, and he told me I should talk to you. So. Thoughts?”
Farai cocked his head and looked past Avna, out the window, into the darkening Gloomwood.
“Just one,” he said. “It may not be a very good idea, but it is an idea.”
The village of Alpenburg was like most of the settlements in the Gloomwood–on the smaller side, surrounded by a wall bedecked with strands of garlic. Inside the wall, small houses with thick walls, sharply-peaked roofs, and reinforced shutters and doors stood clustered close together around a cobblestone square.
The only major difference between this village and the handful of villages that Farai had been to in the past few days, was that Alpenburg was built on the slope of Mount Desce, the central feature of Baroness Shówerey’s lands. Farai reined in his mules just outside of the entrance to the village, shielded his eyes with his hand, and gazed up to the Castle Desce, perched precariously atop the mountain.
“Doesn’t seem like we’ll fare much better here than we have anyplace else,” he said to the mules, who whickered their ears, but otherwise ignored him. “But we’ve got to try, for the children’s sake. Besides, we might learn something that’ll help us.”
With a gentle flick of the reins, Farai urged the mules forward. They plodded through the gate of Alpenburg, down the cobbled road that led to the village square, drawing Farai and his still-very-full cart behind him.
The other villagers were about as friendly as he expected, and the sight of his vestments and the oak tree symbol of Farnir painted on the sides and back of the cart did little to improve the reception. Farai tried to remain undaunted as the mules walked on, but the villagers’ hostile and suspicious glares curdled the little hope inside his heart. There wouldn’t be much help to be found here, either. Best just to get on with it.
Farai reigned in his mules, hopped down off the cart, and greeted the small assemblage of villagers with as hearty a smile and hello as he could manage.
“Hello, my friends. I am Farai, one of the holy brethren of the Rookhaven Temple and Orphanage.”
Farai walked around to the back of the cart and dramatically flung open both of the doors, allowing the afternoon sun to glint warmly off of the bottles filled with rich, amber liquid contained therein.
“We’ve had quite a good run of sap this year, and we’re already hard at work making our famous maple syrup and sugar. Now, I know that most of you are happy to take the trip to the temple when your stores are running low, but I thought it might be wise, this year, to beat the winter rush and help you stock up a little early. Remember, all proceeds go to help the orphans that are in our charge.”
Farai gestured at the back of the cart with a flourish and smiled his most winning smile at the assembled villagers. They gave nothing back, their utter silence and fearful and hostile expressions swiftly devouring the brief jolt of levity that Farai had tossed into the atmosphere.
“We don’t have much need for maple syrup,” said one villager, an old, crook-backed man, who raised one bulging eye to gaze at the castle that loomed on the mountaintop far above. “Pancakes and waffles and breakfast foods of similar types were never very popular in Alpenburg.”
“You could try using it to flavor your sausages,” said Farai, trying to keep his voice bright, even though his heart wasn’t really in it. “Gives it a nice, extra bite of flavor. Really perks up the morning meal.”
A couple of the villagers crept toward the wagon cart, their hands going for their pouches, but the old man coughed noisily and they stopped in their tracks.
“Now, brother,” said the old man, with a touch more iron in his voice. “We’re but poor villagers without much free coin to spend on your fancy flavorings and garnishes. Surely you understand that we’re not in a position to help you.”
Farai met the old man’s eyes and felt, rather than heard, an unspoken sentence pass between them. “She’s right above us, you fool,” the old man’s rheumy gaze seemed to say. “Do you want to get us all killed?”
“I understand, my friend,” said Farai, for he did. He silently prayed to Farnir for forgiveness as he applied a none-too-subtle twist to his verbal knife. “And you must understand that I’m only thinking of the children.”
“I know you are,” said the old man, looking away. “May the five gods go with you.”
The small crowd that had gathered around the cart began to break up and drift away like a wispy bank of fog before the morning sun. The departing villagers could not meet Farai’s gaze as they turned and slunk away back to their shops and homes. Farai, for his part, turned to button up the back of the wagon and prepare his mules for departure. There were still a few other villages in the outer parts of the Gloomwood that he had yet to visit. Maybe the baroness’ “people” hadn’t threatened them yet. Maybe there was still hope.
“Maybe,” he said, looking forlornly at the too-many bottles of maple syrup in the back of the cart.
Then his eye alighted on one bottle in the back, that was of a shape and size different from the other ones. This was the first product of his recent experiments at the temple’s rendering vats–a bottle of maple beer. Farai stared at it, and for the first time felt how dry and tired his throat was.
Farai reached over the rows of carefully-packed syrup bottles and extracted the small container of beer. As he uncorked it, he felt a wave of shame wash over him. Doom was coming on swift wings to destroy Rookhaven and everyone in it, and yet here he was drinking.
“It’s only the one,” he said, trying to reason with both Farnir and his conscience at the same time. “Just to wet my whistle and draw some strength.”
He put the bottle to his lips and took a long pull. The beer was delicious. Better than he had expected it would be. He rolled its weight and aroma around in his mouth before contemplatively swallowing it.
As he lifted the bottle for a second swig, Farai heard a strangled cough of surprise from nearby.
Farai lowered the bottle and looked around. It was the old man, who had moved toward the other end of the courtyard, but who had not yet departed.
“I know that times are hard,” said the old man, limping back in the direction of the cart. “The Five know I know that! But there’s no reason for you to drown your sorrows in a bottle full of maple syrup, lad! That can’t be healthy for you at all.”
“Oh, it’s not maple syrup,” said Farai, as he showed the bottle to the old man. “And I agree with you. I wouldn’t just drink maple syrup from the bottle. That would be insane.”
The old man took the bottle from Farai’s hand and gazed at it skeptically.
“It’s actually maple beer. It’s made out of maple sap, obviously, but it’s fermented. The process is quite similar to how regular beer is made. I’ve also been working on trying to make maple wine, but unfortunately that process is much slower, so I haven’t gotten anything via–”
Farai paused, mid-sentence, as the old man took a slug of his maple beer without so much as asking.
The old man smacked his lips together, looked up, and, for the first time since Farai had met him, smiled.
“Say,” said the old man. “This is really good.”
“Is it?” said Farai. “I’m glad that you like it.”
“I do.” The old man looked past Farai now, into the back of the cart. “I don’t suppose you’ve got more of this in there, have you?”
“No. Just the one bottle. It’s sort of a proof of concept, if you’ll pardon the pun. I honestly wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out.”
Farai and the old man locked eyes again and, once again, Farai felt the weight of an unspoken statement pass between them. He nodded, slightly, once, just to let the old man know that the message had been received.
“But I could make more!”
“How long do you think that would take?”
Farai surveyed the village of Alpenburg. He wasn’t sure if they had the exact tools and facilities here that he would need to convert the maple syrup to maple beer. Even if they didn’t, he could probably throw a proper still together with whatever the villagers did have.
“A couple of days, probably.”
The old man clouted him on the shoulder with a gnarled hand and offered Farai back his bottle. “That’s good, that’s good. Because I know people here don’t have much use for syrup, but they certainly do have use for as many bottles of cheer that they can get their hands on.”
The old man glanced back up at the castle on the mountaintop, this time with a gleam of defiance in his eyes. “That, we’ll pay money for.”
The villagers of Alpenburg set him up with a small cot, a chamberpot, and a makeshift still, which they had set up inside of a small barn between the last street of houses and the city wall. As Farai got to work cooking down his maple syrup into the makings of maple beer, several of the villagers arrived and began decking out his temporary home with all manner of folk remedies against the dark arts. The most notable of these was the two long strings of garlic that a young girl criss-crossed above the stable door.
He thanked them all for their hospitality and their help and got to work refining the syrup, mixing in the yeast and other ingredients, and pouring the finished product into makeshift carboys to bubble and ferment away. As he worked, the internal temperature and humidity of the barn steadily rose, until maple-tinted moisture ran in little rivulets down the inside of the walls.
Within a week, the people from the other villages within the Gloomwood had begun traveling to Alpenburg to taste and purchase Farai’s new beverages. The week after that, he had sold out his first large batch of maple beer and was struggling to keep his stocks up to make more. Farai enlisted the aid of villagers to tap any nearby maple trees he could find. Using his brewing skill, his still, and a few lesser prayers of Farnir to increase the speed of the fermentation process, he was able to just barely keep up with demand. Even when there were shortfalls, the villagers were still content to give him payment in advance–sometimes with a wink and a smile–and told them they’d be back to pick up their orders sometime later.
The season wore on. The days grew steadily shorter. The crumbling castle overlooking the village of Alpenburg seemed, at least to Farai, to grow larger and more malevolent. The earth was seized in its first frost, and an early snowstorm blanketed the land in deathly white. The maple trees ceased to produce sap, lulled into their winter dormancy by the cold. No matter how creatively Farai counted, or how much he prayed to the Lord of the Land, he found that he had only gathered half the baroness’ total fee.
And the Solstice was fast approaching.
A week before the Solstice, Farai was nearly bowled over by an overwhelming stench of death and decay wafting in through the barn door. He placed his head as close as he could to the steam rising out of one of the rendering vats, in the hopes that the last dregs of amber tree syrup would drive the noxious odor from his nose.
It worked. Kind of.
Standing in the barn entrance, dressed in garments that, though they had once been very fine, had become discolored and frayed around the edges, was a lean, bald man with a grey-skinned and cadaverous look. He seemed to be more than a touch dehydrated, as his skin was coarse and flaking and his gums had receded in such a way that the teeth in his smile looked unusually large and sharp.
“Hello,” he said. “My name is Lawrence. I am Baroness Shówerey’s manservant.”
“Hello,” said Farai.
He slowly reached for his holy symbol, wondering if he had the conviction and mental fortitude to call upon Farnir’s powers of Life and Nature to reduce the baroness’ ghoul to ashes on the spot. Farai stilled his hand. No. That seemed rather unlikely. He doubted he could even muster up enough righteous fury to force Lawrence to leave the barn. If he had tried to rebuke Lawrence and failed, he realized, it would just make things very awkward for the both of them.
Instead, he regarded Lawrence as quietly and as calmly as he could. The baroness’ ghoul stared back at him for a long moment with disquietingly dry eyes. He didn’t blink.
At least, not literally.
Lawrence let out a low, raspy cough and looked away. “So you are the one that my lady has heard so much about? The brave and enterprising monk who seeks to pay off Rookhaven’s fees with your…” the ghoul gestured with an emaciated hand, “…cottage industry. Very good. Very clever!”
“Thank you,” said Farai. “The brethren of Rookhaven do, of course, apologize for having been in arrears so long. I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to have the full amount by next week.”
Farai gestured at the leather sack resting on the straw-covered floorboards next to the still. “If you like, you can take this partial payment back to the baroness.”
“Indeed? Well then!” Lawrence stepped forward to claim the sack, but hissed and retreated when he accidentally bonked his head on the strands of garlic hung across the door.
Farai smiled a little as Lawrence retreated back a step, rubbing the angry red spot that had suddenly appeared on his forehead.
“Well, you are a pious monk and the folk of Alpenburg are…goodly…so I suspect that there is no harm in waiting a week to collect the full amount.”
Lawrence paused, licked his lips with a tongue that looked and sounded like sandpaper. “With all that being said, it would be better for you, I think, to keep your wilderness searches for sap and other ingredients to daytime hours. The nights grow longer as the Solstice approaches, and numerous predators emerge from the Gloomwood as dusk approaches.”
Despite the low fires, the boiling syrup, and the thick humid air inside the barn, Farai felt a shiver run down his spine. “Awfully kind of you to warn me.”
“Thank you,” said Lawrence, who raised a pair of fingers to his brow in a jaunty salute as he took another step backward. “Oh, and one last thing, the baroness herself shall be coming down to Alpenburg next week…both for the Solstice preparations and to collect the full sum of what is owed to her. I do hope that gives you enough time.
“Until then,” Lawrence waggled the fingertips of his right hand in a coy, rasping wave. “ta ta!”
The baroness’ ghoul departed, leaving Farai alone and shaking in the barn. He was not afraid for himself, but for the orphans of Rookhaven who would be vulnerable to Baroness Shówerey’s depredations if he failed, and to the people of Alpenburg who had, for reasons he had not quite yet fathomed, put their trust in him. He could not leave until his task was done, but he did not want to subject these poor people to any more horrors than they had already experienced.
Farai walked to the still open door of the barn and looked around for any sign of Lawrence. He saw the ghoul striding purposefully out of town, the few villagers unfortunate enough to be in his path pinching their noses and giving him a wide berth.
He had a week to raise the rest of the money, which would be all but impossible without a sharp upturn in the temperature to get the sap flowing again. Even if Farnir saw fit to grant him such a miracle, it might not be enough. Lawrence as much as said that Farai had attracted the notice of the baroness. Trekking out to the maple trees in the forest might spell the doom of either himself or of any of the goodly people of Alpenburg he sent in his stead.
And even if he was able to raise the money and prevent the baroness from turning the temple into her personal larder, what of Alpenburg? What of the other villages in the Gloomwood?
Farai’s eye was drawn to the strands of garlic across the door, still swaying gently from their brief impact with Lawrence’s head. Farai grasped one of the bulbs of garlic, looking at it as if he was seeing it for the first time.
“Maybe…” he said. “Maybe…”
A week later, a very exhausted Farai leaned against the doorframe of his distillery and barn and watched the sun sink down over the Gloomwood’s canopy. Tonight was the night of the Solstice. The townsfolk had decorated their village with scarecrows, corn husk dolls, and other trappings to welcome the longest night of the year. Dressed in masks and strange and somber robes, they huddled around the bonfire that had been built in the middle of Alpenburg, clutching at earthenware bottles and awaiting the inevitable. Their children neither laughed nor played, instead they gathered into tight knots and stared dubiously at the yellow-white candies that were the only Solstice sweets they would get this year.
Farai took a long pull from his own bottle, wincing at the bitter bite of the liquid within. This new brew was an acquired taste, to be sure. He only hoped that they all lived long enough to acquire it.
As the sky deepened to a rosy purple and the stars began to emerge, Farai heard a distant creak as the gates of Castle Desce slowly swung open. He, along with many of the villagers surrounding the bonfire, lifted their eyes and stared up at the mountainside, watching with mounting dread as a horse drawn carriage came bouncing down the winding trail and into the village.
Farai drained the rest of his bottle in one final, desperate swig, picked up the leather pouch full of coins, and stepped out of the barn to meet the arriving carriage. He came to a halt on the pathway leading from the village square to the mountain gate, interposing himself between the people of Alpenburg and the approaching carriage.
Since adolescence, Farai had always been the biggest and the broadest of his peers. Nevertheless, the approaching carriage, and its grinning ghoul driver, made him feel as small and fragile as a gnat.
The carriage came to a halt. Lawrence dismounted from the driver’s seat and, with an overly theatrical flourish, stepped over to open the carriage door. A lady’s booted foot appeared from within and trod delicately upon the step just below the door. At the sight of this foot, the villagers huddled around the bonfire all went down on one knee.
Farai remained standing as Her Ladyship, Lisette Shówerey, the Baroness of Desce, stepped out of the carriage. She was shorter and plumper than he had expected, with skin the color of freshly fallen snow and lips, eyes, and hair the color of ripened cherries. She wore a simple, but elegant gown of black and purple fabric, accented with a fortune of silver jewelry.
She strode forward, her teeth sharp and gleaming in the firelight. Lawrence stalked behind her, holding the train of her ornate dress.
“Good evening, people of Alpenburg,” said the baroness, her voice high and clear. “A very merry Solstice to all of you.”
The crowd of villagers behind Farai muttered non-committal Solstice greetings in return.
“And you,” she said, winking an overbright eye at Farai. “You must be that industrious monk that Lawrence has told me so much about. I had thought it quite impossible that you could pay me what your little enclave owed me by this evening, but here you are with a sack fair bursting with riches. Tell me, Brother Farai. Is it all here?”
Baroness Shówerey took another step forward, which put her well inside the invisible boundary that marked Farai’s personal space. She smiled up at him, and her canine teeth seemed to lengthen in the dimming light. Farai held his breath–partially out of fear, partially because he did not want to give the baroness even the slightest hint of his final, desperate gambit.
Instead, he simply raised the sack up to his face. The baroness snatched it from him, still grinning. Farai stepped a short distance away as she opened the sack and considered the riches collected within.
“My, my,” she said. “Is it all here?”
“No, baroness,” said Farai, keeping his head down in what, he hoped, looked like a gesture of respect. “I have just a little under four thousand gold pieces to present to you tonight. However, considering the very brief time that the Rookhaven Temple had to raise this amount of money, I was hoping you would consider giving us a brief extension in order to get the rest…”
Baroness Shówerey’s cackling laugh slashed deeply into his soul. For a moment, Farai felt all strength go out of his knees. He struggled to remain upright.
“That was not the bargain,” said the baroness, her voice deeper, more menacing. “You were to pay the full amount, by tonight, or else Rookhaven Temple becomes my property. And, like Alpenburg and all the other villages that, by right and by marriage, belong to me, I may now come and go as I wish, without invitation, taking what I desire when I desire it. Do you understand?”
Farai steeled himself for what was coming. He begged Farnir for the strength to see it through.
“I do, baroness,” he said. “You are a woman of noble birth, and no one would dare to oppose your will. However, as I have paid you most of the fee, and as I have developed another new product which has proven to be quite popular with the folk of the Gloomwood, I thought that you might show some mercy, as befits–”
The baroness let loose another, horrible laugh. “Mercy? From me? Foolish monk. You have dwelt beneath the shadow of my castle for so long. One would think you would know what I was. What I was capable of.”
“Oh, I am more than aware, my lady.”
Baroness Shówerey’s voice descended several octaves as she stalked forward. “Then you are no doubt aware of the torment that now awaits you. You shall serve as an example to all of Rookhaven for daring to defy me. For daring to keep from me what is rightfully mine!”
Faster than the blink of an eye, she surged forward. Farai found himself caught up in an iron embrace, his head bent painfully back, the cold, fetid breath of the baroness raising gooseflesh on his neck. He felt almost no pain as Baroness Shówerey’s fangs pierced his skin. His blood seemed to freeze in his veins. His head went light. Above him, the Solstice stars began to spin.
Then, all at once, Farai struck the cold mud of the village path with enough force to knock the breath from his lungs. As his vision cleared, he saw the baroness recoiling, one hand clutching at her throat as she made the most unladylike gagging and spitting noises.
“What is this! What is this?!” she screamed, as she clawed at her throat with her hand. “It burns! Why does your blood burn? Why?!”
Farai sat up, pressing a hand over the tiny puncture wounds on his neck.
“I do apologize, my lady. That might be an unintended side effect of my newest brew.”
The baroness seemed unable to reply. She collapsed to her knees, gagging and retching. Sores and blisters bubbled up around the fringes of her bloodless lips. Lawrence, a look of growing horror on his ashen face, reached out to lift his mistress to her feet, and tried to bring her back toward the carriage.
“I thought I was done for when the winter cold froze the tree sap,” said Farai, standing. “No sap meant no more maple beer, which meant no more money to pay your ladyship with. But then Farnir reminded me that it’s possible to make beer out of just about anything. And then I realized, what does Alpenburg have in abundance aside from maple trees?”
Lawrence shot a baleful glance at Farai. “Garlic!”
The baroness wrestled free of Lawrence’s grip and stumbled forward, hands raised in rigid, angry claws. Farai noted, with some satisfaction, that Baroness Shówerey’s eyes had almost swollen shut, and that unchecked tears streamed down her now blotchy and puffy cheeks.
Farai stepped forward to meet her, took a deep breath, and sent out a thick plume of garlic-scented exhalation into the baroness’ face. She shrieked and tumbled backward. She would have fallen, had not Lawrence been there to catch her.
“With a touch of wolfsbane. You know, for color.”
The baroness let out a final, ragged scream as Lawrence shoved her into the carriage and shut the door. Farai locked eyes with the baroness’ ghoul, feeling larger, broader, and stronger than he had in weeks.
“It’s very popular,” said Farai. “Everyone in Gloomwood is drinking it. I suspect it’s going to become the regional beverage.”
Lawrence let out a dry, froggy croak.
“I wish your mistress good luck with her sudden change in diet.”
“Damn you, monk,” said Lawrence, as he mounted the driver’s seat and whipped the horses into a frenzy. “Damn you to hell.”
“You first,” said Farai, as the carriage turned and went rattling back up the mountainside, toward the castle, and out of sight.
The tasting room in the Harmonious Cup was so quiet that the assembled adventurers could hear Pooky padding around on the floor beneath the bar. Gerki, whose mouth had been set into an open-mouthed “O” for the latter part of Farai’s story, was the first to recover from its shocking ending.
“You are,” said Gerki, “the most badass priest I have ever met!”
Next to him, Deirdre elegantly crossed her arms, rolled her eyes, and ruefully shook her head. “Thanks a lot, Gerk.”
“Oh, no offense.”
Farai had taken advantage of the ending of his story to procure fresh glasses for each of the four adventurers. He then reached down from behind the bar and produced a bottle of greenish-white liquid. Zot, who had already guessed what was inside the bottle, refused its contents with a polite, albeit firm, wave of his hand.
“And here it is,” said Farai, smiling, “the pride of the Gloomwood. Care to have a taste?”
“I’m not that drunk. Yet,” said Fiona.
“I’d prefer the elven wine,” said Deirdre. “If you have anymore, that is.”
Gerki, on the other hand, pushed his fresh glass forward. “Sure! I’ve got antidotes. Hit me!”
Farai uncorked the bottle of reeking garlic beer and poured Gerki a finger’s width of the cloudy liquid. As Gerki struggled to get his beer down, Farai sealed the bottle and poured out elven wine for the rest of the quartet. Deirdre leaned away from Gerki’s very potent potable, smiled, and lifted her glass in salute to Farai.
“I agree with Gerki,” she said. “A very impressive story. But I still don’t understand how it relates to your coming here to Greyport.”
“Oh, that’s easy to explain.” Farai slid the cork back into the bottle of elven wine and put it back on the shelf. “It turns out that word of my deed reached the Great Temple and Ohava herself came up to the Gloomwood to seek me out. I’ll never forget the first time she met me.
“She came into my brewery, put her hands on her hips like this, and said, ‘Young man! You’re too resourceful and pious to live in obscurity! I know a city full of undead-hunting adventurers that would pay you good money for your so-called garlic beer.’”
Deirdre snort-laughed at Farai’s impression. Farai only winked in response.
“The rest, as they say, is history.”