Mandi Mercallion gritted her teeth in irritation as a high, mournful wail sounded through the common room of the Inn of the Broken Anchor. “Stupid ghost!” she thought as she forced a smile and continued plucking out a lively tune on her mandolin. Some of the patrons shifted nervously in their seats or glanced uneasily at the stairs leading to the upper floor where the wail seemed to come from, but to Mandi’s relief no one decided to leave. She finished her song and bowed to the scattered applause, but before she could start her next one another wail pierced the room.
“Pay no mind to that,” Mandi said lightly, brushing a curl of auburn hair from her face. “Just the neighborhood cats having a little fun, is all.”
An old man at the bar snorted. “No cat I’ve ever had made a keening like that!” He cast a wary look at the stairs. “It’s back, for sure it is.”
Mandi sighed and inwardly cursed her luck. The only inn in all of Port Sevlyn that would hire her, and it turned out that the place really *was* haunted. Still, she had to make the best of it. Turning to the man, she said, “Well, if you mean to say that my playing can call back the spirits, I must be better than I thought!”
A few people laughed, but the old man shook his head. He slapped a few coins onto the counter and staggered to his feet. “What I mean to say, girl, is that this is the only place in town where the spirits sound last call!” He shuffled across the room and lurched out the door.
Mandi giggled and put a hand to the side of her mouth. “Oh, the spirits are with him, all right!” More people laughed, and she resumed her performance.
Halfway through the song, she noticed a young man sitting by himself on a bench by the unlit fireplace. He kept his head low, as if trying to hide his face, but she could see that he was staring directly at her. Mandi openly stared back at him as she continued playing. After a moment he averted his eyes, pushed himself off the bench, and slowly made his way out of the building. She chuckled inwardly; most boys didn’t expect a girl to stare them down.
Three songs later the wailing began again, this time accompanied by a distant rattling sound, like someone trying force open a door. The crowd seemed less amused, and patrons began departing. A few moments later, the only people left were a trio of youths trying to appear unfazed by the sounds, and a couple of old men who were too drunk to care. Mandi went over to the bar and motioned to Gauth, the barkeep.
“Where’s Rasford?” she asked when he had joined her. “He’s losing customers out here!”
“He doesn’t want to come out of his room,” Gauth replied, twisting a large rag.
“Well, he’d better *do* something about that … that ghost or spirit or whatever is making that bothersome noise! I can’t keep playing with it interrupting me all the time.”
The barkeep shrugged. “I doubt he’ll –” His words were cut off by a loud shriek that echoed throughout the room. The youths abandoned their bravado and, after tossing some coins on their table, quickly left the inn. The old men awoke from their stupor and likewise departed. The lone serving girl went around gathering the money into a pouch, then came over to the bar where Gauth and Mandi stood.
“That’s it for me, then,” she said, dropping the pouch onto the counter. “I quit.”
“Audra, not you too!” exclaimed Mandi.
The serving girl nodded fiercely. “I’ve had enough of that evil wailing, haven’t you?”
“Look,” Mandi said, “do you really know for sure what’s making that sound? It could just be the wind, or –”
“There’s no wind tonight!” Audra broke in. “And it’s not cats, or wolves, or whores in the alley!” She fixed Mandi with a look of concern. In a lowered voice she said, “I don’t think you should be working here anymore, either; it’s not a wholesome place. My friend Sandy over at the Lazy Madame might be able to find work for us there.”
Mandi shook her head and sighed. “They don’t need a musician.”
“How would you know that?”
“I was there last week. They told me so!” Mandi explained that shortly after the Vanguard Voyager (the trading ship on which she was the cabin girl) returned to Port Sevlyn, she had gone around to the inns and taverns that usually hired her to perform on a nightly basis, but found that all of them had either already hired a new musician or no longer needed one.
“In truth,” Mandi continued, “this was the last place I tried. If Rasford hadn’t hired me to try and attract more business, I’d probably be out singing in the marketplace.”
Gauth smiled wanly. “The last place, eh? Not because you’d heard it was plagued by ghosts, was it?”
Mandi wrinkled her nose. “Well, I was never sure until last night.” That was when the wailing started, not long before sunset. Mandi had immediately asked Rasford, the proprietor, about it, but he refused to answer; instead, he had ordered her to ignore the sounds and to tell the customers to do the same. When she questioned Gauth and Audra, they had replied that Rasford had told them not to speak of it to anyone.
“So, are you coming with me?” Audra said, looking at Mandi expectantly.
“If I do, will you tell me what you know about those pox-damned noises?”
Audra started to reply, but just then the door from the back room opened and Rasford strode through. His gray hair was unkempt, and he walked with an air of resignation. Mandi greeted him, but he didn’t seem to notice.
The man walked past them and sank down into the nearest chair. He looked around the empty room and murmured ruefully, “The ghost sounded last call, did it?”
Audra moved toward him and began to speak, but he held up a hand. “I have something to say to all of you.” The serving girl frowned and exchanged looks with Mandi and Gauth.
“Business has been bad the last few months,” he said simply. “I think you all know the reason. Now, I have only one day’s supply of drink left, and cannot afford any more. When it runs out, I will have to close down the inn.” At this, Gauth moaned and put his face in his hands. Audra pursed her lips and folded her arms high across her chest. Mandi felt tears welling up and fought down a rising lump in her throat; it wasn’t so much that she would soon be out of a job, but that Rasford looked so sad at losing his livelihood. On impulse, she went over to him and put a hand on his shoulder.
The man looked up at her, weariness evident in his eyes. “I am sorry I have to do this.” He glanced over at Audra and Gauth, then back to Mandi. “You will all be paid tomorrow night.” He stood, picked up the money pouch from the bar, then headed toward the door. “Lock up when you leave, Gauth.”
“Um, Rasford?” Audra said softly. He stopped and turned to face her. “I –” she paused and glanced at Mandi, who gave a small shake of her head. “I’ll be here early.”
“Thank you,” Rasford replied.
When he had gone, Mandi squeezed Audra’s hand. “That was a nice thing you did.”
Audra bit her lip and nodded curtly. “I have to be going now.” She slipped behind the bar, gathered up a small cloak and a leather pouch, then left the inn without another word.
Mandi helped Gauth clean and straighten up the place as they waited to see if any more customers would come in before they closed up for the night.
“So,” the young woman said as she wiped off the bar, “now that the place is about to close for good, you can probably tell me what Rasford told you not to speak of, right?”
Gauth set a tray of wooden mugs down at the end of the bar and shrugged. “Doesn’t matter now, I would think.” With a rag, he wiped out one of the mugs, filled it with ale from a small bartop keg, and motioned for Mandi to join him at a table near the window. After taking a long pull of the ale he said, “Her name is Dervla.”
“Who? You mean –”
“The ghost. Yes, it’s true what you’ve heard …” Gauth went on to explain that almost one year ago, a girl named Dervla had been snatched off the street by a drunken sailor. He took her to the Broken Anchor, brought her up to one of the rooms, and had his way with her before beating the terrified girl to death.
“That’s so horrible!” Mandi exclaimed, wide-eyed. “Did they catch the scrud-sucking bastard?”
“Well … yes. He admitted his crime, but showed no regrets about it.”
“And so it’s Dervla’s ghost that’s making all that noise? She haunts the room where she died?”
Gauth nodded solemnly and took another sip of his ale. “Almost no one has rented a room here for months — since the Night of Souls, in fact. She’d been quiet up until then, only making the odd thump or creak now and again.” He jerked his thumb at the front door. “You’ve noticed that Rasford no longer lives here himself, though I think it’s safe enough. What thief in his right mind would steal from a haunted inn, eh?”
Mandi twirled a lock of her short, curly hair. “I suppose that’s one good thing about having a ghost around. Better than a watchdog!”
Gauth looked out the window at the gathering twilight. “We might as well go home. No sense in lighting candles when there’s no one about but the deceased.”
“But wait,” said Mandi. “Isn’t there a way to, um, un-haunt the room? Make the ghost go away?”
At that moment, a faint moan floated down from the floor above. The young woman shuddered. “Sorry!” she called loudly.
Gauth snorted. “Well, on the day after the Night of Souls, Rasford asked a Stevenic priest to come to the inn and perform a soul banishment. The noises stopped, but started up again several weeks later. Rasford then paid a mage to cast a spell of abjuration on the room. It was quite expensive, but again seemed to work. We thought we’d heard the last of Dervla, but last night she began calling attention to herself again, as you know.”
He drank down the last of the ale and stood up. “Are you ready to leave? It’s getting dark, and I can’t wait to tell my wife the good news.” The bitterness was evident in his voice.
Mandi nodded absently and watched the barkeep move around the room as he checked the latches on all the window shutters. She mused that since the priest and the mage had failed to completely banish the ghost, Rasford probably felt that there was nothing more that could be done and had just given up. But surely there was *something* they hadn’t tried. Maybe it wasn’t possible to get rid of the poor, persistent spirit, but … perhaps it could be persuaded to be silent?
Gauth announced that he was going to check the back room. When he returned, Mandi was ready.
The sky was noticeably darker when the two of them finally stepped outside. The heat of the day had diminished, but the air was still slightly humid.
“Hold a moment, I forgot my mandolin,” Mandi said as Gauth prepared to lock the front door. The barkeep offered to go back and get it for her, but Mandi told him she knew where she had left it and would be back in an instant. She brushed past him back into the common room, retrieved the mandolin from under one of the tables, then made her way to the door that led to the back room. She opened it slowly, slipped through, and silently lifted the latch from the shutters on the window next to the rear door.
Just then she heard Gauth calling for her. Damn! She returned to the common room, hoping he wouldn’t be suspicious.
“Found it!” she said, holding up the instrument. Gauth was half inside the inn and saw her emerge from the back room. He said nothing, however, and after he secured the front door the two of them started walking down the street in the semi-darkness.
“Well,” Mandi said brightly, “I guess Audra’s going to find work at the Lazy Madame, so she’ll be okay.”
Gauth shrugged and made no reply. Mandi kept up a stream of idle chatter until they came to his house. He half-heartedly waved goodbye and, with a heavy sigh, went inside.
Mandi continued nonchalantly down the street for a bit, then turned around and took a different route back to the Broken Anchor. There was scarcely any daylight left when she arrived.
She approached the rear of the building with caution, making sure no one was about. With great care, the young woman pulled open the shutters near the back door, wincing at each little creak. Finally they were open wide enough; she slipped her mandolin through the window and set it gently on the floor, then swung herself up and over the sill.
Once inside the building, a frisson of excitement — or was it fear? — raced up her back as she moved away from the window and waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. It was a simple idea, really, and she wondered why no one had thought of it before. Then again, trying to actually *talk* to a ghost would most likely be considered a very silly notion in many people’s minds. But on the other hand, why *was* it such a silly idea? Gauth may have been right when he said that Dervla’s ghost was simply calling attention to itself. And didn’t everybody need some attention now and again? It was human nature, after all, and being dead shouldn’t change that. Or did it have something to do with the actual date of her death? Gauth had said that the girl was killed almost a year ago, so perhaps the anniversary was drawing near and she wanted to remind everyone of that fact.
Mandi felt her way through the kitchen and into the common room. She located the bar and knelt down behind it, feeling around on the shelves. Several moments later she found the candle and flint striker that she had placed there when Gauth had gone to check the back room. After lighting the candle (which was already in a small brass holder) and dropping the flint striker into a pocket of her vest, she stood up and made her way to the stairs leading to the second floor.
Halfway up the stairway, she realized that she hadn’t heard a single moan or wail since she had returned to the inn. Was Dervla still haunting tonight? Mandi hoped so, since she didn’t want to have broken into the inn for nothing. But if she could only talk to the girl’s spirit and convince her to stop making such a loud fuss, then Rasford could re-open the place with the assurance that ghastly noises would no longer interrupt people’s conversations.
At the top of the stairs, there came a cold draft that snuffed out the candle flame. Mandi cursed softly as darkness dropped around her like a heavy cloak. She bit her lip against a rising anxiety as she fumbled with the flint striker. Relief washed over her when she managed to re-light the candle.
The young woman took a deep, calming breath and asked herself, “Okay, now which door?” There were four rooms on each side of the hallway, but she didn’t feel like exploring every single one. She thought for a moment, and reasoned that the priest who had attempted the soul banishment might have put some kind of holy symbol on the door to the dead girl’s room. The mage, likewise, might have also inscribed a sigil or warding sign. Pleased with her sensible thinking, Mandi stepped over to the first door on her left and moved the candle close to it, looking carefully for any markings.
After similarly examining the other doors, she found what she was looking for on the third one to the right. The teardrop-and-cross symbol of the Stevene was painted in red on the door, a handspan above her eye level; next to it was another symbol, one she didn’t recognize, painted in black. “This must be Dervla’s room,” Mandi thought grimly.
The young woman touched the doorknob and immediately recoiled; it was unexpectedly warm and sticky. Doubt began to form in her mind, and she wondered if she had completely thought her plan through. What if the ghost couldn’t be reasoned with? How would she even begin to talk to it? What made her think that she — a nineteen-year-old girl who almost never went to church, and who had as much magical ability as a piece of cheese — could succeed where holy men and wizards could not?
Then again, just to *meet* the ghost would be a fantastic thrill!
With a renewed sense of purpose, Mandi opened the door and stepped over the threshold. A powerful odor of decay and mustiness assailed her, and she held her breath for a moment. The room was warm and quiet, and in the feeble candlelight she was barely able to make out a small bed, a table, and a chair.
Something brushed against her foot. With a yelp she jumped back, her heart pounding. She thrust the candle out in front of her and saw a small dark shape scurry into the hallway. “Just a rat,” she thought with annoyance.
After taking a few moments to steady herself, she looked around and said into the gloom, “Um, hello? Is anyone here?”
There was no immediate response. “Uh, Dervla? My name is Mandi, and I, um, was hoping I could talk to you for a moment?”
Silence. The young woman felt a twinge of embarrasment. Here she was, talking to herself in a dark, empty room. Well, empty except for the rat, which she should probably mention to Rasford. Then again, he was closing the inn tomorrow, so he probably wouldn’t bother to do anything about it. That would be a problem for the next owner, though …
The candle flame flickered wildly, and Mandi felt a rush of cold air coming from someplace. She moved further inside and saw that the window was closed. The coldness quickly grew heavier, dispelling the warmth of the room. Mandi shivered and gripped the candle holder tightly, cupping her free hand around the flame.
“Dervla!” she said in a louder voice, “If you can hear me, please show yourself!”
A faint cry startled her. She spun around but saw nothing. Another cry came, sounding hollow and distant, as if coming from the other end of a long tunnel. A moment later the cries became more distinct, and Mandi could make out the shrill sounds of a girl pleading for someone to stop what they were doing. Then she heard a low, rough mumble, followed by harsh slaps. More cries for mercy, then more slaps. Finally, the girl’s cries turned to sobs, then a sharp screech.
At this point, Mandi felt a sudden jolt of unspeakable loathing. Bile rose in her throat, and she began trembling as a sense of horrible violation spread through her like a sick black liquid. The young woman backed toward the door, determined not to flee, but her resolve started to crumble as the wailing began. The fearful sound frightened her more than anything she could ever remember, but she stood her ground, fighting back every instinct to run from this horrid place.
The wailing washed over her like an icy wave, then began to build. At the same time, a dim shape slowly took form over the bed. As the wail reached a crescendo, the shape coalesced into the disembodied head of a dark-haired young girl. Hollow, sunken eyes stared impassively from her pale, bruised face; a trail of blood trickled from her nose, and a strip of bloodstained cloth dangled from the corner of her mouth. Shaking now with true fear, Mandi watched as the head started to drift forward. At this, the floodgates of panic finally burst open in her mind. With a strangled cry, she turned and raced down the lightless hallway, taking no notice as the candle flame blew out from the desperate speed of her passage.
Several menes later, the young woman stood by herself at the bar of a nearby alehouse that stayed open after dark. With a slightly trembling hand she lifted a mug to her lips and took a quick gulp of the warm, bitter brew. She had nearly injured herself in her panicked flight down the stairs to the ground floor of the inn, and her thighs ached from bumping into furniture as she ran to the back room and out the window, barely stopping to grab her mandolin.
The meeting with the girl’s spirit had not gone at all like she had imagined it would.
Mandi gulped another mouthful of her drink. It would be difficult to return to that cursed inn, but she would do it for Rasford’s sake. Then she would take Audra up on her offer. Maybe the Lazy Madame didn’t need a musician, but they could always use a serving wench or kitchen scullion.
A man approached her, and she recognized him as a regular patron of the taverns in this part of town. He made a casual greeting and started to signal the barkeep, but stopped when he caught Mandi’s expression.
“Anything the matter, girl?” he asked. “You look as if you’ve just seen a –”
“I have,” Mandi snapped. She thumped the mug onto the counter, spun on her heel, and strode frostily out of the alehouse.