Supper and Solace
"Corliss!", wailed the widow-matron Libby Gladstone as she leaned partially out of the front door of her dwelling. "Corliss Roderick Gladstone! Where are you?"
Her desperate voice fell flat against the evening fog that crept in from the bay into the darkened, narrow alley. Like some doomed and lonely sentinel, the only visible light came from the misty, muted glow of the distant torch that flickered bravely in a wall sconce attached to the greybrick wall of the cobbler's shop down the alleyway. Libby could feel the temperature quickly dropping. And while it was always cool in the city during the short brumal season, it was particularly cold and damp this evening; the sort of bleakish chill that neither dumpling stew nor even the comforting embrace of a loving spouse could completely quell. At this moment, she truly longed for both of those things. At most moments, really. Luckily, a pot of stew was on the stove, but there was no spouse to enjoy it with her.
Libby had been without her Bertram for almost two cycles now, his passing having been particularly difficult for her. But everything was hard in the City of Opportunity. Port Frailty was a sprawling, cursed place that swallowed everyone whole eventually. Like so many before, they came here searching for prosperity and a new life for their young son, Corliss. In the beginning, everything seemed to be meant for a future of family and plenty. Being a skilled fisherman and an even better negotiator, Bertram secured work on a boat that made daily excursions beyond the city gates into the River Kem, where the best fish were. He made good coin, eventually saving enough to purchase their dwelling in the southern part of the city, something that was quite rare; to own a dwelling. Yes, it was among mostly businesses and shops, but it was home. The locals had warned them not to purchase near the docks on account of the nocturnal Shamblefolk menace. Only a few were brave enough, or desperate enough to go through with it. As such, most city dwellers of similar social stature lived further north and payed steep rents to merciless factions for unkempt, rat-infested hovels, such was life in Port Frailty. And yet, they managed a decent life despite the dredgery and merciless moodiness of such a gargauntuan, dark and unforgiving city.
As Libby scanned the alley one last time for her son, she recalled how Bertram refused to let the despair around him infect his spirit. He was a good, hearty sort; a generous and attentive father. Libby recalled with no small amount of pain how his deep laugh might just be the one thing that could warm her bones on a night such as this. Indeed, there were many such nights. The three of them had been happy once. The three of them had been safe once.
Libby shut the wooden door and secured it with two iron bolts. She wished she could leave it open for Corliss but that was not wise, given the late hour and the Shamblefolk that came with the night. Besides, Corliss would be along soon, hopefully before the Shamblefolk. Still, she knew they could not hope to breach the threshold of her dwelling without being given a very specific offering. That was the rule. She had never heard otherwise. But neither she, nor any one else in the southern part of the city, wanted to listen to their pleas to be let in. Truly, most dwellings in this area were devoid of windows for that very reason. It was better just to keep the door shut, she decided.
Satisfied that Corliss would remember the knock she had taught him, Libby returned to her work in the small, open kitchen. The embers of the small, buttonwood rounds in the wood stove were almost out. Libby grabbed a small towel, bent forward and turned the iron handle of the stove door. As soon as the door opened, she could hear them. With a start, she slammed the door shut with her other hand, burning it on the handle. She stood straight, bit her lip and held her hand up to see it. It was not so bad. She thought some ointment might help. Just then, she caught her reflection in the mirror on the wall behind the stove. Looking back at her was a woman who would turn forty cycles this coming burgeoning season. Clear, green eyes held her gaze and told the story of many sleepless, tear-filled nights. She possesed a nobility in the way she had aged, as if time itself respected her enough to negotiate terms rather than do its work indescriminantly. Her shoulder-length, silver-touched, brown hair emerged from a tan, cloth hat, framing her round face haphazardly. She wore a tan apron-dress with olive trim. It was one of two she had owned since their arrival. The other one was carefully folded in a wooden box under her bed.
Libby's eyes darted toward the stove door and sweat beaded on her generous forehead and thin, upper lip. She needed to put more buttonwood in the stove, but she did not wish to hear them again. They were on the roof, near the chimney top, speaking unthinkable and unknowable blasphemies down the chimney pipe and into her ears; into her heart. Keeping the fire going drowned them out. They could get quite loud in the small hours of the morning. True, it made for some very hot nights during the ardent season; a small concession to avoid the fetid lull that came with the whispery words of the Shamblefolk.
Libby nervously looked around for something to aid her. There was nothing save for the usual, expected accompaniments of a respectable, if somewhat modest kitchen with a few professional touches. When Bertram was still with them, he would bring home the surplus from the day's catch, which she would then dry, spice and sell among the dock workers for a hefty bit of coin. As it turned out, her fish became quite popular in the neighborhood. Mr. Thorntree, the Cobbler down the alleyway, was particularly taken with it. He, alone, accounted for half of her sales. She had become so skilled at drying fish that an entire room was dedicated to it in order to meet the demand. But lately, it was all she could do to keep from withering away. Grief had reduced her productivity greatly; well, except for Mr. Thorntree who had generously subsidized her operation for his own consumption, paying her what she was making before but for only a fraction of the fish. She did not fish herself, having no desire for the sea. But Mr. Thorntree's generosity meant she could buy from the local fishermen, many of whom knew and respected her husband. Mr. Thorntree he had stated on many occasions that he was still receiving the better end of that deal. She appreciated the gesture. If life in Port Frailty was hard for anyone, it was certainly hard for middle-aged widows who lived near the docks.
Resolved to keep the fire going, Libby spied a bit of leftover dough on the wooden counter from the day's preparation of bread. She gingerly tore from the lump two small pieces and pushed one into each of her ears. The dough was cold but pliable. She hesitantly opened the stove door once again with the hand towel and winced in anticipation of the worst. There was no sound afterall; a welcome surprise. Quickly, Libby gathered some short, skinny buttonwood rounds from the wood basket and latticed them inside the stove before again slamming it shut.
Just then, Libby felt an evacuation of pressure in the room and a rush of cold. She froze, staring at herself in the mirror, unwilling to turn toward the door. After an eternity measured in heartbeats, she saw the reflection of her son come into focus behind her. She nearly collapsed at the sight and her knowing, emerald eyes grew wet. She regained her composure and turned. He was still there. She raced at him and fell to her knees and embraced him there in the kitchen among the mess of a day spent cooking and hiding from life. She sobbed and quaked, yet he remained still, not returning her affection. She pulled away slightly and studied his eyes with her own. They were brown unlike hers, and they were empty of intent or even humanity. This was made all the more disturbing by his thinly stretched smile. Such a smile should not ever come from a child. But she knew he would be different now.
Corliss Gladstone, a boy of ten cycles, lifted a hand and pointed to his own ear, not changing his expression. Libby understood and fished out the dough in one of her ears. Immediately she was assaulted by the horrific, wailing beckoning of the Shamblefolk. Despite it being locked, the front door had somehow been opened. Without another thought, Libby sprang to her feet and made for the door, only to stop abruptly in her tracks at the sight of a tall figure standing at the threshold, holding a peculiarly small, lighted lantern. Her heart jumped.
"Hello, Mrs. Gladstone," It was Mr. Thorntree. "I don't mean to intrude, but I saw your door was open. It's not at all safe what with the Shamblefolk about. Are you alright?"
Mr. Thorntree towered over most men and for his age was considered spryly at the least if not outright virile. A booming but velvety voice was his most recognizable characteristic most would say, while a few would say it was his manner of dress, which was always perfectly formal, well cared for and included his lantern. This evening, he was completely in black, from his doublet and shirt to his slops and masterfully crafted, hard leather boots. A thick shock of black hair lay about his shoulders on top of which sat a wide-brimmed, high-crowned ebon hat with a blackened leather band about it. He'd not shaved in perhaps a week but the pierce of his genuinely concerned and jade-colored eyes stole attention from the fact.
Libby held up her burned hand in protest. "Mr. Thorntree, don't think me rude but you need to leave." She shuddered just then as one of the lurking Shamblefolk repeated her in a sinister whisper from outside somewhere. Libby quickly looked behind her, causing Mr. Thorntree to look past her into the kitchen suspiciously.
"You shouldn't leave your door open," Mr. Thorntree reasoned. "And I know that you hear them more loudly than other people do. Are you sure you are alright? What happend to your hand?"
"Oh this? Perils of the job," Her laughter was not convincing. "Nothing to concern yourself with. I just wish to be alone. Thank you for checking on me. You've been a great boon these past cycles."
Mr. Thorntree softened somewhat. "Ah, I apologize of course," he conceded. "I had forgotten that today was the remembrance of the day you'd lost Bertram". And so soon after losing young Corliss." He removed his hat and held it to his chest, revealing that he was mostly bald on the very top of his head; a truth that his hat expertly concealed.
"Yes," said Libby, forcing back something like tearful anger. "This is a difficult day."
They stared at one another in the eye for a stretch finally broken by a crashing sound from the kitchen behind the counter block. Libby backed up some and placed her hand on the counter. She could hear a chorus of sinister laughter from the Shamblefolk. Her heart was about to burst she'd thought.
"Vermin, Mrs. Gladstone?" asked Mr. Thorntree. "I could take care of that for--"
"No!" yelled Libby. "No. just go. Really, you must." Her voice was quivering.
Mr. Thorntree took one last look around the main, common area and again in the direction of the kitchen. Then, in a swift motion, replaced his hat atop his head and bowed as was his customary departure.
"Good eve, Mrs. Gladstone and again, my apologies."
"Think nothing of it. Tomorrow I'll bring a fresh batch of dried fish to your shop."
"I eagerly await it! I will shut your door. Farewell!" He quietly escaped from view, pulling the door shut.
Libby feverishly leapt at the door and secured the two bolts again. The Shamblefolk voices were gone. She was breathing heavy, her forehead on the door.
"Mother," came a small, but inhumanly hollow voice from behind her. It was not how she remembered her son's voice to be.
Libby spun around and placed her back against the door as if she alone was holding up the entire building. Corliss stood near the end of the counter block, having come out from behind it.
"Who are you? What are you?" Libby wiped the sweat from her palms on her apron-dress.
"I am Corliss. I am your son," the voice pleaded. His eyes remained expressionless; his smile rueful.
"Is this real? Are you really here?" Libby clutched her sweat-laden temples.
"Yes, Mother," said Corliss. "But I am not all the way here. Father was not enough. You have to finish. Then I can be here all the time."
Libby fell to her knees and became violently ill. Once she had stopped heaving, she looked up and he was still in the same regard as before, having no change in affect.
"Mother, I don't like it there," said Corliss. "I want to be here."
"I want you to be here too, my son," appealed Libby. "But I want to be here with you."
"You can't. You made an agreement and you can't take it back. You can't."
Libby knew it was true. There was no escaping the consequences of that single decision two cycles past; the decision to deal with the Shamblefolk. Defeated, she slowly nodded and turned toward the front door once more. With her head down, she ceremoniously unbolted both locks and opened the front door. Standing there, were four men clothed in the modest livery of Port Frailty fishermen, like her husband had worn. When she tried to look at their faces, she could not describe nor even remember from moment to moment what she was seeing, as if her mind would not allow her to know the truth of her nocturnal company. The only thing she could fathom were the deeply red, smoldering and spiraling pits that twisted into oblivion where their eyes should have been.
"Are you ready to fulfill your part of our agreement?" The voice poured into her mind from some long forgotten place in the sky even as the four Shamblefolk repeated it in unison.
Barely perceptable, Libby nodded and tears flowed down her cheeks.
"Good. Yes, good," the voices enthusiastically agreed. "Take it."
"Take it, Mother," encouraged Corliss almost in a mocking tone. "Take it."
Libby looked up to see one of the men holding out a flask of what she knew to be brierberry oil, typically used in baking, but also used as oil for lamps. As she clutched the flask, the room grew dark and the Shamblefolk gleefully flooded into her dwelling, at least several dozen, lining the walls while dancing and celebrating with an almost ecstatic and carnal anticipation of the coming event. Libby turned and saw Corliss. He now stood in the kitchen beside the wood stove, having opened its door to reveal the buttonwood flames which only slightly illuminated the kitchen enough to show shadow and his expression. He still grinned, but now his eyes showed malice.
"Here, Mother," Corliss' voice was deeper, older and cruel.
Libby made her way into the kitchen and knelt by the scorching stove. The heat from the flames brought a welcome sting on her face. She stared at it for a moment, realizing her error. She had been so lonely and angry. She had lost them both. First it was Corliss. He had gone fishing with Bertram and was lost to the sea while his father napped in the noontime sun. It was not until Bertram pulled in the fishing nets that he found Corliss' drowned corpse entangled in them. Her grief was indescribeable. She took silent and remained in her room for months. The more forlorn she became, the louder the pleas of the Shamblefolk resounded in her mind. Finally, she asked them what they could do for her. They said what she wanted to hear, but it would be costly.
Not breaking her gaze into the fire, Libby poured the oil over her own head as Corliss giggled.
She thought back to Bertram's stunned expression when he had realized that he had been murdered by his own wife. He had been perpetually drunk since Corliss' death. On most nights he did not even return home, instead sleeping on what had eventually become his own fishing boat. One night, Libby slipped out to the docks and found Bertram unconsciouss on the bow from too much to drink. Even as he slept, she effortlessly bound him in rope, wrapped him in the fishing nets and forced him over the side to his doom. In the time it took him to plummet to the water, he'd awoken to see her above leaning over the bow.
Libby looked at Corliss, now understanding that this was not him. "You promise you will send him back. That is the agreement." brierberry oil dripped from her features.
"Of, course," cooed the evil thing that masqueraded as her child. "Now, do it."
"Do it!" The company of Shamblefolk prodded as one voice. They were now very close, peering over the counter with those spiraling pits for eyes.
With no more to do, she placed her head in the woodchamber of the stove. The creature that looked like Corliss joined the others in celebration.
With a crash like lighting, the front door to the dwelling exploded inward and a flood of blue and white light blasted into the space. The shockwave sent the Shamblefolk this way and that. Mr. Thorntree and several, similarly dressed men entered the room and engaged the Shamblefolk with steel, lanterns and determination. The enemy was ferocious, fighting with claws and the strength of large beasts. They changed from the look of men into that of something else; something wormlike. Mr. Thorntree managed to approach the kitchen, flew over the counter and pulled Libby from the flames. It was too late. Her injuries were too severe.
As the other Cobblers dealt the final, winning blows with their swords, Mr. Thorntree held Libby Gladstone in his arms until she drew breath a final time. Two Cobblers came to him.
"Take her to the catacombs," Mr. Thorntree ordered. "Her remains must be exorcised."
"Yes, Lord Cobbler," they returned. "Fealty and light!"
"Fealty and light." Mr. Thorntree hailed another Cobbler. "Set it ablaze. We need to be assured."
"But Lord Cobbler, your shop!"
"It can't be helped, good Cobbler. It is of no consequence. Even in Port Frailty, the light goes where we go."