Posted by on January 7, 2017

Secrets of the Almoner

Written by Glen Donaldson

Illustration by Chris Cicogna

December 10, 2015

Fendrel Frost thrilled to the sounds of the marketplace. Stall holders hollering out their special deals, the aromas, bulging bags swinging into people’s legs and the polite, and not so polite haggling. Fendrel drank it all in like an elixir. This appreciation on Fendrel’s part was most prudent since the mart was situated directly outside his shop. Just as well the cacophony of noise and bustle, complete with baying animals and the shrieks of children playing on baked summer soil had always filled him with pleasant thoughts.

Today, however, was different. Outside, the cobblestoned courtyard echoed with the sound of heavy marching steps that grew louder as they drew closer to Fendrel’s ageing shop front.  For several moments Fendrel tried to ignore it but then it enveloped him.

The ill-fitting front door was shoved open, its rusted hinges squealing in defiance at the intrusion.  Two black winged hats, underscored by black brows, swept under the door frame to appear below it.  Fendrel’s first impression was that two large crows had entered the room. Half a breath later he realised with full discomfort the distinctive black winged hats belonged to the Kraken’s guards, three of which he was now hosting the company of within the small confines of his dirt floor premises.

Longer than it was wide with mildew-encrusted wooden shelving filling almost every available space and only two meanly-sized windows permitting sunlight to penetrate the grime, the wares on display held neither theme nor colour coordination and were crammed together rather than artistically arranged. ‘Cluttered’ seemed too kind a description befitting the layout.

Fendrel had sensed that morning the day might bode ill when he observed his tea leaves at breakfast had been fully clodded.

“Behold, you will present forthwith your ledgers by order of the Kraken,” one of the guards growled from beneath oversized whiskers, while at the same time unfurling a scroll worn from travel but with the red chop and seal scripted mark of the Kraken clearly visible.

Fendrel jerked his head in silent agreement.  He felt himself stiffen inside, though he was careful not to show it.

“Your pardon,” he replied, his voice trembling only slightly. “It shall take but a few small moments to ready what you ask.”

Fendrel busied himself beneath the shop’s counter while fighting back a sudden feeling of claustrophobia, due in part to the fact that the room now seemed smaller, subsequent to it being filled with two more black-capped guards.

As the appointed almoner of the fetid and hyper-regimented city of Lind, it was his job to receive and record the property and belongings of suicides and then offer them again for sale.  All monies, minus the miserly wage paid to Fendrel, were delivered straight back to the wretched tyrant known as the Kraken. By a vigorous development brought on by the Kraken’s appellate jurisdiction and his insistence on remitting excessively harsh penalties, suicides in Lind, of which there were now many, had been ruled as a crime against the Crown with the resulting forfeiture of all property, possessions and allocation deeds. This crooked funding scheme had netted the Kraken literally thousands of tracts of fertile land, helping to build his unholy empire – or as many had begun calling it – the ‘Krakenocracy’. While their possessions may have ended up on the dusty shelves of Fendrel’s shop, the bodies of those who had decided to take their own lives –  including many sentenced to die painful deaths but who’d managed to organise their own means first – ended up in the town ditch.

 

Amidst this dark universe, businesses were allowed to carry on, but always with the requisite kickback to the ruler and always collected by the outstretched, corrupted hands with grimy nails of those who accepted this was how business was done in Lind.

In one corner the guards amused themselves by inspecting the variety of vendibles on display. More closely resembling an unkempt holding yard than a traditional store, the shop stood shrouded in a kind of gloom, littered as it was with the proceeds of the dead. Yet there was enough odd assortment and unplanned array to enable fossickers and browsers to readily cast thoughts of their origin aside.

Some of Fendrel’s customers preferred just to pop in for a chat, promising to buy something next time. Along with an absurd variety of kiln-fired plates, twisted candle sticks, swords, glass, wax and earthen figurines, kettle hats and arrow quivers – all in various states of preserve – there were the more unusual items: among them an old rusted sign that read “Teeth pulled by appointment only”; a left-handed falchion; several stone corbels; a collection of three- handed drinking cups; a clay teapot fashioned like a duck whose beak the tea was supposed to come from; working parts to a disassembled catapult and even a pair of oak church pew ends leaning up against one wall in a corner.

One item on the decrepit shelving which brought sadness to Fendrel’s mind was a small tin drum. It had belonged to a boy who the Kraken’s guards cruelly used to investigate a cave they suspected of being used to store an illicit weapons cache belonging to forces opposed to the regime. The soldiers had sent the drummer boy into the cave to test the whispers that had befallen their ears that a trap lay in wait for them. They followed the sound of the drum for some time deep into the darkness, then the drumming stopped. The boy was never seen again although the Kraken’s stooges managed to recover the drum some weeks later.

Secrets of the Almoner by Glen Donaldson & Chris Cicogna

“Tis readied for your need,” Fendrel announced to the backs of the guards gathered in the corner, his head popping up from below the counter like a periscope, with the rest of him following a moment later. Though his tone was sardonically satisfied, his face was steely. Taking several steps towards the loitering group, he presented a cloth ledger to the main guard, who grunted his acceptance beneath a blade sharp nose before beckoning his fellow unwept agents of despair to gather from whence they’d entered.

Fendrel had already begun inwardly cursing himself for allowing dread-wrapped nausea to flood his body during the visit. True, his calf had not fully locked like during the last inventory visit but the ledger inspections were a monthly ritual; one that he should have gotten used to by now. Though he’d been keeping three sets of books and pocketing undeclared earnings for himself and his family for a number of years now, he reminded himself he’d never once been caught and so had no reason to believe he was at this time under any suspicion.

Still, deceiving the Kraken was not for the lily-livered. Surely one would pay with one’s life if ever mischievous deeds became known. Fendrel Frost could play the part of the boring clerk the district required, but his hatred of the Kraken and his damnable band of followers provided him with ample motive for deceit. Working by candlelight after dark he would copy the altered entries into the ersatz books and then hide them. He alone had knowledge of the existence of the duplicate ledgers and the trapdoor beneath the dirt floor in which they were secreted.

Fendrel also bore the weight of knowing the true significance of this repository. He and scores of others had toiled in secret these many years to shape what had become the resistance’s greatest tactical asset in their campaign to undermine and overthrow the Kraken. The trapdoor hidden within his shop was but a gateway to an infinitely more expansive clandestine world; one that housed a necklace of long and winding subterranean tunnels. Forged by the labour of sympathisers and devout supporters, some of whom had paid the ultimate price for their devotion to the movement’s whispered apothegm – ‘Facta non verba’ (deeds not words) – their branches led to various tactical rallying points within and just outside of Lind. This was no ordinary peasant’s revolt in the making but a full scale, intricately planned and orchestrated political insurrection; one which enjoyed the wide-ranging support of everyone from second tier stakeholders operating right from within the hierarchy’s own inner circle down to the rank and file of the town’s oppressed population, even including a few of the town’s several dozen mad beggars.

Fendrel Frost rubbed his temples. As he did so the shop door opened once more. Wind chimes suspended from the ceiling near the entrance way came to life in the breeze. Filing out the doorway, the guards emerged one by one back onto the street, rejoining the rest of their troop who had remained in formation while awaiting their return, ready to make their way to their next look-over. As the last guard took his final steps out of the shop, with Fendrel ready to flatter himself he’d made it through another judgment day, the sound of a sudden thud made him look up. The hapless guard had tripped and fallen, like a clumsy oaf, on his way out the door.

“That wasn’t there before,” the guard observed, lifting himself first to his knees then back onto his feet while motioning toward an almost imperceptively elevated mound of patterned dirt at the doorway entrance.

“Nay, ye be mistaken,” responded Fendrel, mortally regretting almost before the final word had past his unchecked lips what he’d just uttered.