The Fool

Morning - 4th Day of the 6th Month of Year 751 - Mordentshire, Mordent - Preface

The little herbalism shop was about as unassuming in appearance as any of the dozens or so of other combined merchant establishments and living quarters that populated this portion of the city of Mordentshire. To the casual passerby the building itself looked well maintained, though by this time of the year one could see that by next spring it would certainly require a new coat of paint on the eaves. And the left most of four window shutters was made of wood that had dried out more in the early months of this summer than it should have and was now beginning to separate quite significantly at the seams. It would have to be reworked by a professional carpenter, but once again that task could wait until fall.

The sign, however, that hung above the door and swung in response to each gust of wind that blew off the Sea of Sorrows and down the street was still bright and clear in displaying the words 'herbalist shop' above a picture of a set of spice rack type jars that themselves sat upon a stack of books. Below this advertising montage and almost as an afterthought the words 'research center' had also been added to the sign below the picture of the books. The bright paints on the sign was demonstration enough to those who lived or spent time in Mordentshire that the owner had commissioned and received this sign sometime in this past few months for colors this bright rarely lasted beyond a single year in this land of rain and gloom.

And that was exactly the type of conditions the sign was battling this day as it swayed back and forth in response to the storm just beginning to blow in from the sea. If anyone would have chosen to stop long enough and look closely they would have noted the face of the sign was currently covered in rivulets of water that had formed from the heavy mist that hung in the air. But such determined analysis was unlikely to occur this day. While it was not actually raining yet, this haze had been hanging over the town since well before dawn and now by the tenth bell of morning it was obvious that only those who absolutely had to be outside were going to do any shopping on this day. That still boded well for the bakeries whose bread ovens were churning out their warm products to entice those with a chill, and for the farmer's groceries that still made sure milk and cheese and produce stocks were all available for purchase since people had to eat and these were all staples of normal diet in the land of Mordent. Even the butchers were doing a slow but still respectable level of business this morning considering the weather, but then again what were warm bread, butter, and cheese without a slice of salted ham or bacon to go with it on a day such as this one?

But for the herbalism shop, the chance of customers this morning was unlikely at best partly due to the weather which appeared to be a late spring holdover of the storms that had been common over the preceding months. Being nearly the start of summer, the storm would also likely not be the precursor to a flood of customers seeking remedies for coughs and colds as it would in the months of late fall through mid spring. In a way that was good because those particular supplies of medicines had been well reduced in their stockpiles over the past eight months or so and it would likely be another month perhaps before the suppliers and their caravans would be able to start restoring these inventories to their proper levels.

Medicinal needs aside the shops other frequent customers were scholars, warriors, and professional treasure seekers, called thieves by everyone else, who used the shop not only for necessary supplies of their trade, but also since its second floor of the three was a dedicated library full of research material on the strange, forgotten, or deadliest aspects of the Lands of the Mist, of which Mordent was but a single land. These 'adventurers,' the term often spoken of with a hint of contempt by the average citizen, came to the herbal shop looking for insight into the mysteries of the land or to barter off goods and especially knowledge they had acquired recently themselves. Unless they had a reputation with the establishment for less than honest dealings, such folk were welcomed with open arms and offered to share a glass of chilled wine or mug of warm tea, depending upon the season, as they related their recent adventures to the owner or staff of the shop. Other such businesses in the area were happy to take the coins such groups had recovered, but were still quick to speak poorly of these customers once they were beyond earshot.

Adventurers were a rare breed however and on a day such as this one it would likely take a near emergency for any to come seeking the knowledge stored in the thousands of books and journals neatly arranged and catalogued on the shelves of the library. Instead most would see this as an excuse to sleep in or spend the day recovering with a fine bottle and a good meal at whatever relaxation establishments they found that catered to their kind. Perhaps this afternoon would change some minds, that is if the storm blew itself out, though from the looks of such things that was unlikely to happen anytime in the immediate future.

Inside the shop though the staff still went through the required morning processes first to prepare for daily business and then to keep the shop properly cleaned and presentable as the owner expected of them. The fact that the owner himself had disappeared a year ago and not been heard of by any of his regular contacts did not seem to deter the staff at all, at least to the casual observer. And the 'staff' had every intention of maintaining this façade as long as was required regardless of the personal fears they shared over the unknown fate of the owner who was also their mentor.

Gennifer and Laurie Weathermay-Foxgrove were twins and currently the only staff the herbalism shop had. The nineteen year olds were the nieces of the famous, many in Mordentshire said 'infamous,' George Weathermay, often called the premier monster hunter in the Land of the Mists. Stories of his conquests over creatures of darkness were almost as spoken of in this town as were the stories of how he had put aside his responsibilities for the management of the family business, passing it on to his siblings and their spouses, in order to free himself from these responsibilities so he could go forth and chase dark things that were better left alone. Many of these same voices whispered that it was beginning to appear that his two nieces seemed to be on an occupational course of self-destruction to follow in their uncle's footsteps rather than becoming proper ladies and wives like society expected of them. Why neither of the two young ladies were even betrothed yet which was nearly unheard of any other girls born into such privilege and good family names.

Had the girls been unsightly to look upon or their manners and etiquette deemed to be lacking, then of course the negotiations of their betrothals would have included an increased dowry, more so than perhaps the norm, but those of society in Mordentshire had to grudgingly admit that both girls were beauties and their speech and manners were without valid challenge. If the girls had any fault, besides their adventurous nature for which their uncle was universally blamed for putting such thoughts in their heads, then it was that both were undeniably more educated that any of their current crop of rivals or likely suitors. While most girls of their age knew the home arts and perhaps higher hobbies such as painting or music, the twins had an impressive insight of history, religion, mythology, geography, and even medicine. These were so prominent that more than a few prospective suitors who had put their hat in the ring for their attentions had retreated after a single conversation when they found themselves unable to even understand the subjects the girls were speaking of.

While Uncle George may have inadvertently encouraged the girls to pursue unladylike occupations through the fireside tales of his adventures that the girls had grown up with, their blame for their education was firmly placed by the society members of Mordentshire at the feet of their mentor and the herbalism shop's owner; Doctor Rudolph Van Richten.

Those who knew the infamous doctor only though the stories of the evil creatures he had defeated in his long war on those beasts who stalked the night would likely have expected him to look as imposing as the famous George Weathermay. Those who knew of him primarily through his scholarly treaties on the various types of base evils that populated the Lands of the Mists and more specifically on how to ultimately destroy such evils, usually envisioned him as a book bound educator who works were based solely on theory, conjecture, and the experiences of foolhardy adventurers.

And those who actually met the doctor in person found the truth lay somewhere between these two extremes, though on first appearances certainly the latter seemed the more dominant. A man of education and thought the doctor had come to Mordentshire years before when his name was only starting to be recognized commonly beyond the borders of the land of Darkon where he had been born and lived the first four decades of his life. While the upper crusts of society looked down on adventurers in general, the doctor was not made in this mold and his first introduction into society generated such a volley of conversation that the good doctor became the unofficial guest of honor at many upper crust affairs. In fact more than one society function had its annual date changed at the last moment when it was learned that the doctor would be unable to attend and then was rescheduled instead for a time that just happened to be convenient to his calendar.

A small portion of the very highest elements of society found his ability to steal the spotlight from them to be insulting, and they tried to use his constant work association with 'adventurers' as a black mark against him. That worked for a while until someone within the second strata of society with their own agenda against these whisperers made known that his other occupation also regularly required him to treat sick people as well, and this was seen as a noble endeavor by most compassionate people. In the end most neutral observers were forced to admit that who someone associated with was a function of the occupation they had and not so much a free choice to make. Since none could fault Van Richten's desires to heal both people and the land by removing diseases and the blight of evil, none could truly fault the tools he had at his disposal to use to achieve these goals.

More than a few members of society, those who still relied upon a steady income of trade rather than inherited wealth, actually strongly supported the good doctor's activities and were happy he had made his home here in their city. The adventurers and scholars his second occupation tended to attract did spend money during their stays. And each year as the good doctor's reputation grew larger, businesses in Mordentshire saw their yearly incomes increase right along with it. None of them attributed this increase solely to their most famous, some still said notorious, citizen but none were eager to see him leave their town anytime soon either. So when the occasional unplanned for and unfortunate incident occurred here locally that could be linked to the doctor or those who came seeking his knowledge these occurrences were overlooked and just considered a cost of doing business.

A year ago the doctor had departed without leaving much in the way of an itinerary of where he was headed or when he planned to return. This was in no way a unique event and had occurred often on roughly a quarterly basis over the past nearly thirty or so years since Van Richten had moved to Mordentshire. Those society members who learned of this departure rearranged their party plans for a latter time in the season, hoping that perhaps their eventual event would be the one the doctor chose to attend upon his return and regale the other attendees with the latest news on his life. The word 'adventure' was never used in polite society to refer to the good doctor's absences. Adventures were to closely associated with adventurers and only the Weathermay family willingly invited such people to their homes.

When the season changed and the doctor had not yet returned, his absence was noted, especially by those who had been putting off events in anticipation of his return. One family was even known to have pushed off their daughter's sixteenth birthday for three months in a row because they had hoped to use her coming out party as the reason for their invitation to the good doctor to attend. These parents eventually gave up their wait and held the birthday party in conjunction with a rather rushed betrothal and wedding shower. The fact that the young couple's baby was born seven moths later, a full two months early so it was said by the family, was taken to heart by others as why not to schedule all events on the doctor's itinerary.

By the time winter had arrived and there was still no sign or word from the doctor quiet speculation began to be whispered that perhaps the invincible Doctor Rudolph Van Richten had met up with an untimely end. No one of course dared to say so directly to the Weathermay-Foxgrove twins who were managing the doctor's store, though a few whispers to that effect seemed to them to be intentionally loud enough for the girls to overhear. Neither sister though showed any concern. Both proclaimed regularly that Doctor Van Richten had gone off for longer periods of time in the past and would undoubtedly return or at least send word soon. In fact this declaration was true, as some knew the doctor recently had spent nearly a year travelling with a gypsy that resulted eventually into his published Guide to the Vistani.

By the first days of spring when no sign or word of the good doctor had been received a confident George Weathermay told his nieces that he was getting cabin fever after having spent a full season with family and now looked forward to heading out on the road once more. When asked where he intended to travel the elder Weathermay only responded that his plans were fluid but that he might try to catch up to the good doctor wherever he was and share a few stories over a good bottle of the family brandy. After preparing in secret for two days on the second floor of the herbalism shop George kissed Gennifer and Laurie on the foreheads each and said there was no reason at all for them to worry. He ended by saying that he and the doctor would see the girls again soon before the elder Weathermay was once again heading off into the wilds that he so loved. Neither girl failed to note their uncle was armed with his best armor and his most potent weapons even though he had told them that there was 'no reason at all for them to worry.'

Now by midsummer true worry was beginning to set it with the twins. There had still been no word from the doctor himself, and while Uncle George regularly sent them updates on his condition and location, which seemed to have crossed most of the major lands of the core in a mere three months, his veiled questions on whether their had been any word on Doctor van Richten left little doubt that the great adventurer was now actively yet still unsuccessfully seeking his friend as well.

Laurie and Gennifer did what they could during this time period, namely they kept the good doctor's store open and available to the adventurers who needed its knowledge to do the doctor's work. They also politely began to question those who came to the shop from far off lands if they had heard anything of the doctor's latest adventurers even though only a few had. This piecemeal information was quickly written down and dispatched to the next location their uncle was planning to visit in hopes it might put him on their mentor's trail.

It was the endless waiting for word of his condition that the twins found the hardest to deal with. While the girls did not mind putting on a show of a lack of concern to anyone who now asked after the doctor's whereabouts or inquired after his health, the girls could not lie to each other when they were alone. This was especially true on cold and rainy days like the current one where it was unlikely they would see any customers and be distracted from such thoughts for a few more hours at least, if at all today.

The doctor had been quick to say that idle hands are the fiend's playground so both young ladies made sure to keep active to the extent that goal was possible. In truth though one could only dust the same shelves so many times a day before the mind began to wander and both girls had reached that point for this day almost an hour ago. Neither of the twins was one for meaningless blather either since they were constantly subjected to this when forced to spend time with their peers. Instead it fell to Gennifer to come up with a reasonable solution to their boredom.

"Laurie what do you think Uncle George was looking for up in the library during the two days before his departure?" Gennifer asked aloud mostly to break the gloomy mood in the herbalism shop.

"Probably looking for a clue as to where the doctor went off to." Laurie said surprised that such a thought had not been as obvious to her more studious and analytical sister.

"But the library is not where Doctor Van Richten kept his personal notes or plans until he was certain of the facts within them." Gennifer replied. "All his private documents he kept up in his apartment and we have already gone through all those and know there were no clues to his planned whereabouts in any we could find."

Laurie paused as she considered exactly what her sister was saying. It was true that the doctor had not kept his private investigation notes with all the other data he had collected for he often felt it was either unready to be shared or far too dangerous for most adventurers. Uncle George had been with the girls when they had made a search of the doctor's personal documents and had also agreed that none they found seemed to be of a pressing nature, rather they represented only a lot of open and ongoing research. So why then had Uncle George spent two whole days on the library level where only documents open to anyone and everyone were kept? And why then did he suddenly have the inspiration to go 'take a walk' around and look for the doctor unless he had come up with some idea of where to begin his search. That meant to Laurie that there was something on the second level of the building that Uncle George had found interesting enough to be worthy of investigation, even if the trail he followed so far had not panned out.

As the girls looked at each other the same thoughts crossed their minds. While Uncle George was a great hero in his own rights and had brought down many dark evils that plague these lands on his own, he was not nearly the researcher that the doctor was, or in truth even equal to the girls. It was not inconceivable that had he actually found some intriguing hint to the doctor's location on the second floor, but in doing so he might have inadvertently overlooked a critical clue or two. But the girls would likely catch these insinuations since the doctor had been their educator.

Without a word to each other the twins quickly ascended the stairs to the second floor, confident in the fact that the little bell the doctor had installed on the shop's door would ring loud enough to announce any customers who arrived at the store. But upon reaching the second floor and looking truly at the daunting task before them the twins paused.

The library easily contained thousands of volumes and scrolls that the doctor had either collected on his many travels or those that had been traded for from other successful adventurers. It seemed almost every book seller in the Lands of Mist likewise knew those subject areas the doctor was interested in and often kept aside for him such works that came into their possession and soon thereafter sent word of their acquisition so that he could chose to purchase them even before they went on display. Also more than one family library had been donated to the doctor in honor of his achievements which meant he had painstakingly reviewed them all personally or had his protégés do so for him. This way the valuable ones could be put aside for future review and the others could be sold off. The girls knew that one such family donation had filled three full wagons and taken more than a full day to move from these conveyances to the second floor by six well paid young men and women!

This task before the girls though only intimidated the pair for a moment since they knew that if their uncle had somehow waded through this mess and found a potential clue in only two days then the two of them would likewise be able to do the same in less than half the time since there were double the number and both were far more familiar with the layout and contents of the library than Uncle George was. The duo started by applying the first lesson their mentor had drilled repeatedly into them at the beginning of any task; namely to step back and get a good look at the problem and the current situation before deciding upon a course of action to follow.

The girls went to work assessing the scale of the task and where best to begin by carefully wandering through each section and looking for possible clues as to what had caught their uncle's interest. Some areas of the library were easy to dismiss as the amount of dust collected on some individual tomes or even complete shelves showed that the contents had not been disturbed in a very long time. Unlike his apothecary Doctor Van Richten did not mind if his books had a layer of dust upon them. Another one of his truisms tended to be that the best secrets were often contained in such dusty old books.

But while this neglect was able to reduce the size and scope of the problem by half that still left a few thousand books as potential sources for the solution they sought; a task still beyond the two girl's immediate capabilities. While Gennifer continued her detailed examination to further reduce the number, Laurie sat down on one of the reading benches by a window. The enormity of the task remaining before the pair seemed to deflate the momentary feeling of hope she had felt when the girls had discussed it on the floor below. Laurie lowered her head to rest in her hands and looked down at her feet trying to find the strength in herself to get back up and start searching once more with her sister.

The fairly new scratches of wood between her shoes immediately caught Laurie's attention for it potentially boded ill. She quickly kneeled down and was thankful to see the scratches had been made by moving the heavy bench and not by rodents. This meant that neither the old books nor the materials stored downstairs were in any immediate threat of being consumed by unwanted guests in the building.

These scratches though intrigued her for she could not immediately find a reason they would be here. The bench was well situated where it normally sat so that light from the windows made it a perfect place to read during the daylight hours. Furthermore none of the shelves were so tall as to require the bench to be used as a step ladder to reach some rare or forgotten volume on a top shelf. So why then move the bench? The only other reasonable answer is that the bench itself was in the way.

With a bit of a grunt of effort Laurie pivoted the heavy and padded piece of wooden furniture out of the way so she might see what lay beneath it. Sure enough while the wooden slat floor below it appeared normal to the casual observed, a single scratch, possibly made by a dagger tip right next to a plain looking knot of wood was evidence enough of more surprises to come to the trained investigator.

Laurie was not carrying her own dagger at the moment. It was currently sitting under the counter downstairs in case any unscrupulous individual tried to depart the store without paying. But like a good student of the doctor she did have two long hair pins as backup weapons that could function as small poniards in a flash if self defense were required. And when battle was not imminent, they did make a stylish statement that was all her own.

Pulling one of these from her hair Laurie pried out the knot of wood and then after first testing the hole with the same hair pin to ensure no traps were present, a skill again acquired through the doctor's thorough training, she inserted her index finger and easily lifted up a well disguised and hinged piece of false floor, revealing a treasure trove of more than a score of neatly arranged and similar looking books. Not surprisingly there seemed even more such volumes in a second and perhaps a third row below those.

"Gennifer I found something." Laurie called to her sister who had already been approaching anyway, somehow sensing her twin was becoming excited due to the empathy the two shared. Before touching any of the volumes the girls looked to the books and noted that only the very last one on the right appeared to have been disturbed in the recent past.

Carefully so not to disturb the order the books had been placed in the girls slowly withdrew that single volume and opened it carefully. They were immediately pleased to see the all too familiar penmanship of their mentor. And after reading aloud just a few of the first paragraphs the girls realized what they had found, though Laurie still felt the need to confirm this vocally to her sister and get her agreement as well.

"These are Doctor Van Richten's personal journals!" She said excitedly. While both girls knew the doctor was always scribing notes in similar volumes, especially right after completing one of his night hunting forays, neither had ever thought to ask what had became of these books when he completed one. It seemed a strange oversight on their part they now realized, especially when the answer to this unasked question now lay before them.

The fact that only the last volume showed evidence of being disturbed also further confirmed the girls' hypothesis. Uncle George had obviously known of this secret stash and had come up here looking for a clue to the good doctor's whereabouts. But since he was a warrior more so than a scholar he focused solely on the last volume, expecting since it was the most recent it would contain the best chance of a clue to the doctor's whereabouts.

The twins though saw this situation in just the opposite way since the doctor had been working on filling a different volume before he had departed. It was therefore unlikely that this completed one held actual the answers their uncle suspected it did. Once again the doctor's teachings seemed to provide the girls with the best possible solution to this situation.

When hunting evil creatures of darkness the doctor often said that only by coming to understand where the creatures had come from and what they had experienced could a hunter truly understand what the beast was likely to do next. While neither girl would dare to place their mentor in the same category of monsters the doctor hunted, the lesson's general concept seemed to apply in this situation as well.

Carefully so as to not disturb the ultimate order, the girls emptied the hidden space of all its books and transferred them in reverse order to an empty book crate that was still a hold over from the last donated shipment the library had received. Now the bottom most books from the cubby, which were the oldest, were now on top and immediately available to be reviewed. And through this method as each volume was finished they could with little effort return it to the hiding spot in the same place it had rested.

While the crate was now filled with something like three score of works, the challenge these books presented was far less daunting than the few thousand or so they had been facing minutes before. And in this case since the books were related to the good doctor, the chances seemed better that the clues needed to find their friend and teacher, if such things even existed, would be found in these books rather than others he himself had not written. More than once Doctor Van Richten had during his lessons grieved over creatures that had escaped him in the past, so it was not unreasonable that one of these might be the reason for the doctor's absence, either in his continued dogged pursuit of the monster or perhaps by his incarceration by such a creature. Neither girl was ready or willing to believe yet that so great a man could have been taken from them permanently.

It was now well past the noon tolling of the great bell and there was still no signs of a break in the storm so the girls took the first volume back downstairs to begin their own search for the doctor in the only way they knew how. According to his last missive in two weeks Uncle George would be stopping back in Mordentshire. The girls wanted to be ready to present him with as many good leads to the doctor's whereabouts as they were able providing of course if his own searches had been unsuccessful.

Gennifer picked up the familiar dusting rag they used on the jars while Laurie sat down to read aloud. Since she had been the one to discover the hidden treasure trove it seemed only fair she be the one to share the books contents. Besides Gennifer was now too excited by the possibility of finding their beloved doctor to be able to sit still and read. As she began to lift each jar and run the soft cloth to remove any nonexistent dust once more Laurie's comforting voice began to roll through the herbalism shop.