The Golden Curse Chapter Four
Nighttime was moving on and most of the local taverns were nearing their closing time, when a small dark-cowled figure flitted across an empty street to mingle with the shadows of the opposing alleyway.
Of course Narrinda couldn't be kept away from her husband for too long. She was a restless spirit, and her nature often manifested itself not only in her overly-curious excursions headlong into trouble, but also by her ceaseless chatter with anyone who would (or wouldn't) listen.
She had stayed behind with Deutsch at the inn as Alteng had instructed, until she was sure her brother-in-law was well-settled in and eating his fill of mutton. His sense of humor had not been wiped out by his bad experience, and after being badly beaten (though he proved to be a tough customer even when outsized and outnumbered), and suffering through a stitching up at the hand of his brother (who, truth be told, didn't do a bad job of it), Deutsch was still capable of being a charming conversationalist. When weariness began to overtake him (from a rough evening, of course- Kobolds commonly sleep during the day), she left him in order to do some snooping of her own. Narrinda actually thought about dressing up in Alteng's clothes anyway, for no better excuse than she was sometimes jealous of his fashion sense ("No husband should dress better than his wife" she reasoned), but she feared his wrath at seeing her doing an ill-fitting impersonation of himself, so Narrinda let his wardrobe rest in peace.
Narrinda found her way to the alley where Deutsch had fought with the gang. From there, she was able (barely) to track Alteng to the Filthy Pig. There were many drunks stumbling around in the streets tonight, but Narrinda had long ago become a master of avoiding the attentions of humans, if she felt like it. Eluding the notice of human eyes would be much easier tonight because it was so foggy, and Alteng did not use the streets anyway but climbed among the rooftops to reach his destination. Narrinda grumbled to herself about this at first, but she eventually came to see the wisdom in his mode of movement. After all, Alteng and Deutsch were often given sidelong stares with mildly raised eyebrows for their small childlike looks and fancy dress, but Narrinda's presence only instilled paralyzing dread with her cloaked and hooded skeletal visage, tiny though it was.
Her acquaintances often would wonder why she tolerated the company of the living in the first place. It may be because she still saw herself as living, in a way. To be sure, for a long time she disliked mirrors and did not want to be reminded of her appearance, but once upon a time this was not true- in life she was every bit as curious and somewhat haphazard as always, but she was also fetchingly beautiful for her race (which was not technically Kobold- her people were the Wichtleins, a small secretive dark-haired folk, more attuned to ancient lore and mysticism than their Kobold brethren). The only problem was, she knew how beautiful she was, and she became very vain and self-centered. I'm afraid that in this case at least, pride did not go before the fall, and deep down she remembered what she had been, though the memories of her curses were locked away, and she was left only with the knowledge that she had done something horribly wrong to be trapped in eternity in such a way, but to this point she had not discovered what she did, and it haunted her subconscious like the footsteps of a stalker.
Narrinda disliked being alone in the dark, if it can be believed, because she somewhat feared going crazy from loneliness, as had happened before. She would argue with herself about things no one else would begin to understand even if they were around to hear it. All that she knew and loved taken away from her was bad enough, but knowing that she somehow deserved it without the awful truth of the details was worse. She missed her old life, pampered and safe, admirers within her social circles, a few more from afar (whom she was content to tease with the glory of her arrival in the midst of their merely ordinary lives). The only reminder of her old self was the sleek, straight mane of raven hair that still crowned her skull and reached the last few vertebrae of her backside when she chose to unwind it. But her creamy skin, violet-tinged eyes, shapely breasts and athletic frame were all a dream.
It only took a few minutes for Narrinda to reach the nearest rooftop to the Filthy Pig. A man and a woman stumbled sideways out of the doors below. There was the unmistakable sound of talking (and a little yelling and cursing) emanating from the common room. Narrinda did not like the look of the Filthy Pig. It was aptly named, for the muddy street intruded nearly to the front doors, with copious amounts of the stuff splashed along the wall and windows from passing carriages. There was no fancy sign advertising their location- the letters were burnt into the frame above the doors (and "pig" was mis-spelled, to boot).
Narrinda slowly slid down to a second-story veranda and checked the window. It was locked, and there was plenty of candlelight shining through. She considered picking the lock, but at that moment a nude brown-haired woman entered the room, picked up a long white gown that had been lying on the bed, then dashed out again as she struggled to slip it over her head. Narrinda waited for a minute or two, then she started to work at the sash with nothing but two pointed fingers. In only seconds the window was open. With a wave of her left hand, all light in the room was instantly extinguished. Presently a tiny shape in flowing black blended in perfectly with the darkened room, and she crossed the floor to the door. Peeking out, she gazed down a hallway with several doors on either side, with a turn at the end towards the right. Narrinda closed and locked her door and sat on the bed for a minute to collect her thoughts and decide on what to do next. She strained to hear any voices, but they were muffled from the floor below. It seemed that the upper floor was deserted, and all the activity was in the bar downstairs. She sniffed uncomfortably at her surroundings. The air faintly stank of smoke and old ale, and the bed sheets smelled of sex. The rot of uneaten meat betrayed itself from somewhere nearby, and soiled clothing lay draped across a chair.
"Filthy pig, filthy humans" she mused. "Why anyone would actually want to serve them is beyond my ken. Polluters and plague carriers, they'll be the ruination of the world someday. I should remind Alteng of that more often."
In the midst of her thoughts, there suddenly pealed a shriek of bloody terror that hushed all other voices in the building. Narrinda was frozen in place and might have wet herself if she still had a bladder, but as it was she bounded to the door and out into the hallway. The scream had come from the far end of the hallway, around the corner. Other bodies were bustling up the stairs, trying to climb over each other in their eagerness to reach the top first, and their shadows could be seen rising over the last steps to the landing above. But she didn't care right now because she was just too curious (and a little scared) about what might be happening. It didn't sound like a scream from Alteng (frankly she couldn't remember that last time she heard him scream in pain or fear).
When she reached the end of the hall and turned onto the adjacent wing, Narrinda saw that a gaggle of grown women were already in the dimly lit hallway, and were standing around an open doorway. It looked as if one of the rooms might have been going through some kind of renovation, for there was a door standing free of its hinges, propped up against the opposite wall two doors down. If Narrinda had only gotten to the filthy pig a little while before, she would have known that the girls had already made more than one trip up to that room tonight, and the rest of the night promised even more excitement for them. Gawking at something of seeming great interest to them, the house women had no idea there was another about to join them. First one, followed by the rest, finally noticed Narrinda peering up at them from under her hood. Not knowing what to do, the group of gaudily and scantily dressed women stared down at the knee-high apparition before them. Narrinda only grinned back at them (whether she meant to or not), and figured she had better break the ice and get it over with. "My husband wouldn't go for the likes of you", she announced while placing her hands firmly on her hips, assuming a posture more suitable for a defiant little girl than a wife with a jealous bone (of which she had a multitude to choose from). "But if I don't like what I see in that room, I'll curse you all to the nunnery."
If there were more light, Narrinda might have gotten great amusement from the collective reaction of each woman. Faces paled and sweat froze on tingling skin. Someone in the back of the group broke wind and uttered a gasp of embarrassment. Then as one, the girls backed up slowly, turned around, and broke loose in panic for the stairs as shamelessly as possible. Cries of "Kobold" echoed throughout the top floor as havoc reigned supreme.
"Not hardly", Narrinda yelled out for the second time that night.
"Woman, why are you not back with the brother where I left you?" Of course that voice belonged to her husband Alteng, and there he was in the bedroom, standing on the bed near its foot. A chair had been pulled up to the edge of the bed and tilted backward, and in that chair was tied up a bloodied, disheveled figure. Alteng was standing at his full height (sans his overly-plumed hat), and one hand rested on the prisoner's right shoulder. The hook of his left was hovering menacingly behind the man's ear.
"That's one of the men that beat Deutsch!" Narrinda exclaimed.
"Yes, quite. Let me introduce the late Klaus Eingold of-"
"I'm not dead yet, ya dingle-dung berry rat!" The man broke in.
Alteng swiftly brought his hook down into the top of Klaus' shoulder, whereupon Klaus gave a throat-ripping yell of further agony. "Get used to the sentiments" Alteng snapped. "It will be apt phrasing soon."
"Don't kill him" Narrinda pleaded, "We need to know what's really going on behind all of this. Maybe this Klaus can come up with some names."
A sharp smile carved itself across Alteng's features. "Oh, he will sing like a nightingale under my tender care." With one hand he yanked on the back of Klaus' tangled hair. "Here you..." he began, "Talk to me or I'll hack your head off."
"That's no way to interrogate somebody" Narrinda interjected. "Give him some incentive for coming clean. This isn't the dark ages, you know."
"Oh, very well, just to humor you" Alteng huffed, as he turned back to his prisoner. "Tell me something I like and I give you my honor, you'll die quick."
He punctuated this last statement with the swinging of his hook deep into the upper part of Klaus' left shoulder, then he turned backward on it so that the hook caught beneath the collarbone. Without mercy he pulled up again, and Klaus was shrieking himself into near-unconsciousness from the pain. Finally, after more twisting and pulling, Klaus managed to form a sentence through the screams. "All right ya little effin' S#$-lickin' F#$-head, whaddya want?"
"Names" Alteng stated flatly. "Places, motives, and anything else that comes to mind. Now."
A shattering of glass immediately behind Narrinda stopped the conversation cold. She yelped in surprise and dove for the floor. Alteng instinctively hit the deck alongside her. There was a sound like someone being slapped softly across the face, and a sharp intake of breath. Alteng crawled to the newly shattered window and peered over the bottom sash just in time to see a dark figure retreating hastily across the rooftop of the building on the other side of the street. He was halfway out the window with the intent of pursuit when Narrinda urgently called him back inside.
"Klaus has been shot, I think he's dead. Get back in here before you get shot too!"
"Told you I'm not dead... ya' hole-hoppin'... kobold..."
Narrinda was now in no mood to be insulted. "Not hardly" she uttered in a tone that recalled the shutting of burial vaults far underground. Klaus was not comforted in his final moments.
Alteng cursed under his breath as he slid back inside. He came back to the chair where Klaus lay staring up at the ceiling gasping his last breaths.
"Well, someone has betrayed you" Alteng muttered in a low gravelly way. "I guess they think a trinket is more valuable than your life. If you can tell us anything, we'll get some justice for you. How about it?"
Klaus had barely any life left in him now, but he made a last conscious decision. "There was Schmutz my cousin... Gort Heinrich... Bermann, I don't know his full name... he was just a gambling partner. We got a bracelet from a lady... it goes to somebody, I don't know who... Schmutz came to us, he knows, ask him who hired him-"
That was really the last sensible thing Klaus was able to tell them. At Narrinda's insistence Alteng stayed for exactly two more minutes to watch Klaus expire, with the Virgin Mary's name on his lips. Unfortunately he was quite incoherent, and Alteng and Narrinda thought he was talking about a recent conquest, and Narrinda would have blushed at such a display of stubborn love for back-sliding from a dying man.
Alteng searched around the room for his hat for a minute, until he found it on the floor under a bed sheet. The plume was bent. With a snarl and a curse he donned his prized article once again, and made to go out the window in search of the assassin. "It never ends, does it?" he said to no one in particular (even though Narrinda was standing right there).
"No, and let's hope it doesn't end for you if you go out that window. Why don't you go downstairs and out the kitchen door?"
"Perhaps you're right" Alteng conceded. "I'll try to be back at our room by morning. But please make yourself scarce, the constables will be on their way."
Narrinda turned her left foot behind her right, put her hands behind her back and bowed her head. "Actually, do you think you could escort a lady back to her quarters?"
Alteng just smirked at her as he made his way into the hallway to greet the returning house ladies. "Not hardly" he grunted.