You wander back past the ferryman’s house and look north across the small peninsula which holds the settlement. From here you can see the remains of a stone wall along the far side of the spit of land, giving some small amount of protection to any attack that might come from the river on the north. It is at least head high in most places, and taller and in better shape where it meets the guard tower at the gate. The wall is only a few tumbled stones along the east side of the peninsula, though, and nothing is left of it in the area of the dock.
Built almost up against the wall on the north side, as far away from the rest of the settlement as it is possible to get, is a large wooden house: the home of Ulman Dark. It seems a bit odd that it stands so far from the other buildings, when some of the ones to the south are built literally on top of one another. You head north across the common space and realize it is grassy on this end, though it is mostly dirt near the inn and stables. The house ahead must be at least two stories tall; it is as tall as any other building in the village. There is a stone stoop, and two stone steps up to the front door. The main floor has no windows but the upper level has some, or at least you see two at the front.
Just as you near the house the door opens and a woman pauses in the doorway. She is dressed in dark leather and holding a black crossbow, with long auburn hair held out of her face by a woven band. A quiver hangs at her side, its strap around her neck and lying between her breasts. Her brown eyes survey you coolly, and then she smiles.
“So, have you come to see the necromancer in his lair? Come to hire the services of the great Ulman Dark?” Her voice seems slightly mocking, but that may be your own misperception. “You don’t look injured yet, so perhaps this is just a preventive measure? Always a wise choice, acquiring a healing draught before you need it. Just don’t use very many at a time – not even Ulman is always quite sure what’s in them, and too much of a good thing could kill you.” The woman turns gracefully, poised on the doorstep, and calls back into the house. “Ulman! Someone here to see you.” She leans her shoulder against the door frame for a few moments, the crossbow negligently dangling from her left hand.
A man dressed in black appears in the doorway behind her and speaks in a deep voice. “Kanndra? I thought you had gone out to shoot that nasty crossbow of yours.”
“How many times do I have to tell you? It isn’t the weapon that’s nasty; it’s the woman who wields it.” The woman – Kanndra – gives the necromancer a smile and a significant glance, then steps lightly down the stairs and walks around the west side of the house. By moving that way slightly yourself, you can see a large barrel sitting against the north wall, a target painted on it. The outer white and middle yellow rings are nearly untouched; you see some marks in the inner red ring but if there are any hits in the center black circle, they are not visible from where you are.
“Welcome to the abode of Ulman Dark.” intones the man now alone in the doorway, and you give your attention back to him. He is tall and slender with pale skin, as if he spends very little time out of doors. His black hair brushes his shoulder and falls into his eyes and his dark eyes are shadowed, as if he never gets enough sleep. “Please, step inside and let me tell you about my services.” He ushers you in, and then closes the door behind you.
It seems very dark inside, and your eyes try to adjust. Suddenly the room is flooded with more light; two hooded lanterns on the wall which were mostly closed have been opened to their fullest. You squint briefly against the bright light and see Ulman Dark seat himself on a tall, high-backed chair in front of the lanterns. His face is in shadow as he begins to speak in his smooth voice.
“I have studied extensively in many cities, and in the wilderness where few others have ever set foot. The knowledge of the stars is mine, and the animals of the night, and the plants that bloom in darkness, and things that grow in dark places. I have studied the persons of humans, elves, dwarves, and many other races; I know what makes them live, and I know what makes them die. I understand what herbs and substances are necessary for a body to heal itself, and I combine these rare ingredients painstakingly into a healthful draught than can help alleviate an injury or wound. In addition, there is more I can do!” Dark’s voice increases in volume slightly with his excitement. You also become aware of a rhythmic thumping outside, every several seconds, which seems to underscore what Dark is saying.
“My great knowledge of the body allows me to recognize many diseases both terrible and common. Through the use of such practices as leeching, and purging, and the application of plasters and the imbibing of nostrums, it is possible that I may help the afflicted to cheat death, and live, though the most deadly disease try to say me nay.”
He grips the arms of his chair and leans forward. “Yet more amazing is the possibility of removing deadly poisons from the body. I have studied poisons extensively indeed and know that few have a certain cure. But many may have a cure! The procedure is complicated and difficult, requiring precision and concentration, and the application of certain very rare ingredients. It can only be effective at all if begun within hours, lest the poison have too tight of a grip to shake.
“Any of these services is available to anyone, for a most reasonable fee. There is no need to appease a particular deity, or appeal to the good nature of someone who may disapprove of you. I ask only for payment in advance, for my best effort will be expended and my stores depleted, whether or not I am able to battle back the ravages that may come upon a body. I am able to make no guarantees, for I am not a god nor aspire to be one, that I should promise to cure all the ills of men. I can but do my best, but my best is very fine indeed.” His voice softens and becomes intense. As he leans forward his face is somewhat illuminated, and his eyes look very dark. His deep voice continues, persuading you of his abilities.
“The most amazing of my services, though, I have yet to mention. My studies, which some deplore as ‘black magic,’ have granted me a measure of power over life and death. The temples of the gods keep their secrets well hidden, but I have found that it is possible even to restore life to a body, after life has fled.” The sounds outside have stopped and it is suddenly very quiet here, as if everything is holding its breath in the face of this incredible claim. Dark continues in a hushed voice. “I cannot go into more details, for this procedure is my own secret, one thing that only I know, one gift that only I can give the world. However, it is costly, and horrendously difficult, to the point that I myself may be physically devastated by the procedure. Here again I can make no guarantees, but many an unfortunate adventurer has been brought to my door lifeless and cold, only to be restored to his or her comrades with joy after my own humble efforts.” He has drawn your attention with his recitation, made you feel the tension and triumph he describes, and so you are startled with Dark suddenly rises to his feet, silhouetted against the lamps.
“Now go!” he says, gesturing toward the door. He turns and with a gesture closes the lanterns, plunging the room into darkness. You hear his steps and then he flings open the door, giving enough light for you to make your way out. As you are stepping out, he urges you again. “Go on into your adventures and come back when you must, and from my knowledge and skills I will endeavor to provide you with what you need.”
Just then Kanndra Dark comes around the corner of the house, her crossbow held carelessly over her shoulder and her quiver empty. She is panting slightly, and sweating from her exertion. Her graceful movements make every step look as if she is dancing. “The bolts are stuck again, Ulman, but the guards say they will get them out for me.” She stands close to him and looks up at him with a smile. “Have you concluded your conversation? Do you then have some time for me, before I have to go?”
Dark gives you another intent look, then turns his gaze back to his wife. “Come, my dear, let us make the best use of our short time before you leave,” and turning his back on you he firmly closes the door.
Raised voices around the corner catch your attention, and you walk around the house to find three men arguing over a clutch of crossbow bolts stuck into the target barrel. All three are dressed in leather pants, plain shirts, and brown tunics with short sleeves, on one of which is embroidered a simple pattern of a river and a boat.
“One thing I don’t want is Kanndra Dark unhappy with me again,” the first one says with a shudder. “That tongue of hers could flay a bear alive and make him beg her to just stab him rather than haranguing him more.”
“Let’s see if we can get the bolts out without breaking them,” the second one suggests more calmly. “She wasn’t very happy with our results yesterday.”
“I am never doing anything to get a price on my head,” the third man says, digging at the bolts with his dagger, “if there’s a chance in hell that Kanndra Dark might be the one to come after me. I heard, before I came here, that she poisons her crossbow bolts with something exotic. That way not only is her target injured, he’s confused, or weak, or forced to cooperate, depending on who’s telling you. I didn’t credit it at the time, but now seeing who her husband is, I can believe it.”
“It’s true she’s a mite sharp-spoken,” the second man begins, and the first one snorts at the understatement, “but watching her fire that crossbow is a thing of grace and beauty. I’d be happy to watch all day, but we’d need to get her more than one target so she doesn’t feel a need to put all the bolts into one bull’s-eye.”
The two who are not engaged in digging bolts out of the target notice you watching, and motion you over. “Come take a look at this target!” one calls. “It’s some amazing shooting.” You stroll over and see that what you thought was the dark center of the bull’s-eye is instead the fletched ends of closely packed crossbow bolts. Evidently the shooter had put the bolts through the center of the target, directly next to each other. Up close you can also see differences among the three men. The one who spoke to you has light brown hair, closely cropped, and is a bit more heavy-set than the others. The second man is a bit younger and taller than the others, with dark blond hair, while the fellow attempting to remove the crossbow bolts has brown hair liberally sprinkled with gray and is slender but appears strong.
“That Kanndra Dark,” the younger man says. “The first day she was here, she had us set up a target for her. After a few shots she got us to weight it with a log. Her bolts really tore up the barrel that day since she kept hitting in the center or close to it. Yesterday she shot the center right out, but wasn’t this precise.”
“Yes,” agrees the brown-haired man, “And asked us to get her bolts out, and then gave us a tongue-lashing when we broke half a dozen of them.”
“Today I think she hit more than just the exact center,” continues the blond, “but it’s hard to tell with the middle of the target completely gone. I’m Tancred Malgun, by the way, one of the guards of Zelkor’s Ferry. You just arrived this morning, didn’t you? I saw Captain Skorma talking to you earlier. This fellow here is Corbel Grambien, and our friend who is so handy with a dagger is Bernhard Caxton.” Bernhard gives a nod over his shoulder and keeps working.
“Kanndra Dark always causes a bit of a stir when she’s here,” Corbel remarks. “She’s married to Ulman Dark right enough, but she’s a bounty hunter and so she’s away a good portion of the time. She’s here for a few days every couple of months, maybe, though I understand she’s been gone as long as six months at once when she had to chase some fellow right out into the desert down south.”
“I’ve heard she’s cruel,” Tancred says in a hushed voice, looking over his shoulder at the house behind him. “When a person gives her a lot of trouble she tortures him before she turns him in, or kills him slowly if the reward is for him dead. I dearly admire that red hair of hers and she moves like a dancer when she has a sword in her hands, but a poisonous snake is graceful too and probably a lot less dangerous.”
Bernhard straightens slowly, a dozen bolts in his hand, and motions for Corbel to take over the task. “You two wouldn’t remember this,” he says quietly, “because it was before Bristleback hired you, but one time we all saw what Kanndra Dark can do.” He glances at you, to be sure you are listening as well. “You know Ulman does healings for people, though he uses his own strange methods. Well, one time a healing went awry and it laid him out so that he was terribly weak. The folks he was trying the healing for weren’t happy with the results; not only did they refuse to pay him for his effort, they stole a goodly amount of money from him and some other stuff. They just rode out of town, and the rest of us didn’t know what had happened until the next day. Then we found Ulman and took care of him but there was nothing we could do about the theft – until Kanndra arrived that night.
“When she heard what had happened, she became like a scorching flame. Just her look would have started straw on fire! You think her tongue was rough yesterday? That was nothing compared to what she had to say about those thieves. She looked everywhere in and around the house. She questioned Igor and Vort, and searched the stables, then rode out of here like a streak of dark lightning.
“Evidently that group hadn’t gotten far enough away. Of course, there had not been anyone to warn them that Kanndra would be coming after them.” Bernhard narrows his eyes and gives you a thin smile. “Not that a warning would have done them any good. By the time Ulman Dark was back on his feet Kanndra returned with not only his missing things, and some other useful magical items, but also a present: six nicely-tanned human skins. Someone told me later that he used them to bind a set of new books for his notes. He just wasn’t able to make the books very large because he had to work around holes in the skins in several places.”
Corbel and Tancred just stare at Bernhard, their eyes a bit wide at this announcement. Corbel clears his throat.
“Here are the rest of the bolts; why don’t you,” and he passes them to Bernhard, “leave them on her doorstep? I’m sure she’ll find them there. I’ll be sitting on the other side of the barracks.” He turns to you. “You’re welcome to come, too. It just seems safer over there all of a sudden.”