Whenever you wanted to imply someone had lost their train of thought or gone stupid or was otherwise off wool gathering, you’d say, “Well he’s gone off to Gracker’s Fen.” The insignificant, out-of-the-way hamlet had been important back in the early days of the Commonwealth, before the Frozen Horde had forced the capital to move south. Now, the wide, well kept and well patrolled Lord’s Road saw almost all the traffic through the Commonwealth, with Gracker’s Fen reduced to nothing more than a collection of small houses within a stone’s throw of an even smaller trading post. For all intents and purposes, the Fen was little more than an afterthought.
Exactly what Tooks was looking for.
He’d run far once he’d washed the filth of the Gasp off himself in the Ralladan. He didn’t dare head straight for Gracker’s Fen, so instead he roamed far in a great circling meander, out past Bordertown, through the Outer Hamlets and deep into Far Caeldon, where the accents were thick and strange. He’d called himself Callow and Gander and Bellclap and Fortin, all names he knew from Baycloak, and which he didn’t care bringing a bit of trouble to. He never stayed in one place for more than a night or two. Nearly three weeks he traveled, until he felt certain Malkin’s men weren’t lurking just over the horizon, and he finally wound his way to the Fen. He bought a box of a house with some of the coin he’d brought with him from Baycloak, turned more coin into a few meager pieces of furniture from the grizzled old merchant at the trading post, and settled down to the task of being completely and utterly uninteresting.
Which didn’t prove very difficult in Gracker’s Fen. The most excitement during Tooks’ first week there was the escape of one of Hennald’s chickens that turned out to have somehow gotten onto the roof of Widow Mabben’s house. This remained the topic of conversation at the trading post for days after, much of it centered on whether this constituted a change in ownership of the chicken. Inwardly, Tooks thought he’d go out of his mind with boredom, but still having a mind to go out of was worth enduring a poultry based controversy or two. And so Hennald’s chicken passed into the lore of Gracker’s Fen, time passed, and Tooks began to think he might just live to the ripe old age his mother had sworn he’d never see.
Until a week later, when Tooks awoke to the most horrendous smell he’d ever encountered. Cobbletown had never been the cleanest of neighborhoods, but this odor was well beyond anything that squalid neighborhood could possibly produce. With it came a faint shuffling sound outside his door, slowly drawing nearer. Tooks stayed still in his bed, his mind racing. For a moment he thought Malkin’s men had finally come for him, but they wouldn’t be anywhere as obvious; they’d never make a sound, and certainly not give themselves away with their scent. But what else could it be?
Ice ran down his spine as a scratching sound came from the door. There had been witches in these parts in the distant past; some of his neighbors still hung sprigs of holly on their doors at night to ward off evil spirits. No such sprig hung on Tooks’ door, and the knob jiggled slightly. No, definitely not Malkin’s men. They would have kicked in the door and been on him before he knew what was happening. “Toooooks,” came the frail, raspy voice again.
Tooks would never call himself brave, but he’d faced the Gasp, and he wasn’t about to meet his end tucked meekly in bed. He slowly rose and took up a wooden stool. As quiet as a proper gutterman, he moved to the door, hefting the stool like a club. He paused with his hand above the knob, ear close to the door, holding his breath both for the silence and to keep the horrid stench out of him. “Toooooks!” the voice insisted.
He threw open the door with a shout that promptly died in his throat. Before him stood a stooped figure in what had once been a fine white gown, now torn and stained with dirt and gods knew what else. The figure swayed slightly, as if new to its legs. The smell overwhelmed him, coming from chunks of flesh that hung loosely from the figure’s body, or spewed out behind it in a grisly trail. A dirty, gaunt face stared at him, framed by gray wispy strands of hair that stirred slightly in the breeze, at least the ones that weren’t matted down with dried mud and blood. And around its neck hung a pendant on a chain, engraved with seven stars in a circle around a sun. The figure hissed through a crooked jaw.
“It’s about time! Were you going to leave your poor old mum out here all night to catch her death?”