The walk to my neighborhood took me through various side streets and less traveled districts. Pavestones beneath my boots slowly gave way to loose gravel that crunched at my steps before finally surrendering to packed stone dust. I hold no illusions that I reside in one of the more glamorous or refined residential areas of Emberhelm. But, I can say that the rent is reasonable, people don’t bother me much and nobody looks down on anyone here.
It really is a wonderfully welcome experience, one that I don’t think I could place a price on. After living among the other SpellHounds in our assigned quarters for so long the freedom to come and go was sublime. I had the blessed ability to do as I pleased, absent any authority to reprimand or order me about. No one even took any offense if I was different than them or didn’t adhere to the same ideals as them.
The only exception was a local landowner by the name of Gerald Garuff. There were only two major pleasures that Garuff enjoyed equally and without abandon. One was collecting his due from anyone who leased or rented space from him. The other was making sure he also acquired a similar amount of misery along with the money.
Even before I came to call this region as my home I had heard the stories about Garuff. He had established himself as the primary owner of much of what had commonly become known as Gutterside. Emberhelm itself was a sprawling thing that had started off as a settlement shaped into the very stone of a mountain side. The early inhabitants had progressively managed to carve out their civilization along the outside of the rocky region and then down into its interior.
Gutterside was a remnant of those earlier times, the view was nice enough but in the rainy seasons water was channeled at its edge. It was relatively safe enough but most people didn’t look too kindly on its cruder conditions. This allowed those without discriminating tastes to find an affordable place to settle down.
Garuff had locked up virtually every bit of space he could in Gutterside, so everyone had little choice but to deal with him. Sure, he didn’t leverage his monopoly of the landscape to extract a premium in payment. However I had come to suspect that was only thanks to the fact that he was aware that nobody could afford to pay higher prices. By keeping his rates reasonable he could enjoy a predictably steady stream of income instead. That and the honest truth that he didn’t want to draw the attention of the authorities by ruthless practices.
Despite his reasonable rates, Garuff was anything but compassionate. You never wanted to fall behind in your payments and even on the days your rent wasn’t due you could count on a visit to remind you it was impending. Garuff was tireless in ensuring that you never forgot his involvement in your life, he was rarely unseen for long.
As I approached my humble home I was rapidly reminded of how capable Garuff was at communicating a message. I had established myself in an old covered cart used by craftsmen, something I had acquired for a song. It wasn’t grand by any stretch of the word but it was serviceable and it was all I needed.
The first time I had started to fall behind in my rent I had awoken the next day to discover exactly how forgiving Garuff could be. My wheels had all been removed and were nowhere to be found. It was a clever tactic I had to concede; without a means of mobility I couldn’t easily just up and move now. Over time though, my wheels were never returned – even when I had kept my rent paid up.
Currently I had managed to fall a few weeks behind, bringing my owed rent to something around three or four Steel Shields. To add to the tally my rent was due again in a few days which meant to balance the matter I would need to part with no less than half of the funds I had left. Spending so much of what little I had left wasn’t exactly a warm feeling. But earning even a small reprieve from Garuff would be a reward in itself.
Waiting for me when I reached for the door was another unspoken statement – heavy chain had been latched to secure it from opening. A few fresh tears were also visible along the canvas covering that served as my roof as well. It didn’t take a scholar to figure out that Garuff was politely trying to emphasize his dwindling patience. This meant that he wouldn’t be far; likely he would be nearby looking to ambush me as soon as I showed up. That way he could enjoy my sweating shocked reaction along with emptying my pockets of anything he could in the name of my debt.
So when I hear the footfalls of heavy soled boots behind me stomping to a halt, I was anything but surprised. A mixture of building fury at being locked out of my home was rising up alongside an appreciable humor at being caught with my pants down so to speak. I couldn’t say it wasn’t anything I wouldn’t have done if someone had owed me a bit of money. But then again if Garuff had been a bit more civil in his transactions he might have been able to expect a measure of reliability.
“A bit of bad humor running into you like this, eh Gerald,” I asked with a chuckle to whoever was behind me. He didn’t wait for me to turn around before deciding to seize upon the moment. Ever quick to leap straight into matters of money, that is Garuff. Well, when it was coin he thought was owed to him anyways.
“Always a pleasure Master Vaen,” Garuff cordially commented. His voice carried with it his usual deep gravelly tone, one without the hint of expected humor or pleasantry. Making only slow careful movements I maneuvered myself around to face him, best to keep my eyes on him I generally preferred. You could only trust men like him to be predictable with regard to their unwavering relentless pursuit of profit. Other than that I didn’t hold any faith in any fairness from him, especially if your back was turned. My home being shackled shut and minus its mobility was proof enough of that.
Garuff was a short stocky man whose dwarven heritage was as plainly evident as if he was wearing a sign to proclaim it. He stood about even with my chest by my reckoning but I had never let my own height influence my measure of the man. A formidable frame marked him as anything but a pushover in a fight. In truth, I knew a rather renowned street fighter who fell far too behind in his bills to Garuff and when confronted about catching up decided it best to attempt to resort to his fists. Now his weekly debt continues to grow while he recovers at a healing house under a tab tied to Garuff. He’ll never see his way clear by my estimate.
In the mid morning sun Garuff’s slate grey suit almost shined against the brilliant blue shirt beneath. His once deep brown hair had already paled greatly; turning towards white with age was neatly trimmed into a short manageable style. Even his beard was all sharp angles and crisply cut as opposed to being the longer braided tradition among so many of the dwarf houses or clans. He carried no visible arms, nor did he wear any armor to protect him. And why would he, here in Gutterside what did he have to fear? My instincts still warned me not to assume Garuff didn’t keep some manner of weapons hidden on him as a precaution.
“You have managed to remain in the red in regards to your rent, Master Vaen,” Garuff proceeded to point out. “It would be wise to remedy the matter before more drastic actions need to be taken to deal with the debt.” He let the threat linger between us like a silent specter, certain that nothing more need to be implied. In that regard, Garuff was quite correct.
“I do confess, I was in truth on my way engaged in the task of locating you,” I explained. Doubt and disbelief stared back at me while I spoke. “Perhaps it does look a little to the contrary, seeing me first arrive at my home instead. But, honestly, I was just on the errand of finding you to balance my bill. Aimed to pay up what I owed and provide you with my upcoming rent due at the end of the week.”
“It isn’t that I don’t have faith in your financial fortitude,” the bully baron began. “But in my position I have little use for petty promises of payment. Hard coin in hand is all the assurance I can accept. So until I see the shine of your steel I think I will keep my caution instead of confidence.”
Garuff’s skepticism left a bad taste in my mouth as I reached for my coin pouch. I knew a big part of what he was doing was just trying to push me into paying him by saying such thing. And I wanted to do exactly that – just to get some smug satisfaction. Yet, knowing that I was about to give him exactly what he wanted didn’t make me feel any better about it.
Reaching into the bag I counted out five coins with my fingertips and slipped them free to rest in my palm. At the very least I could savor some small measure of the moment; so I closed my hand around the collection of coins and hid them from view. If he was so dubious, then let him set there and sweat for a few seconds over if he is really about to get paid.
“If my memory serves me,” I attempted to feign a forgetful nature. “My current debt sets at four Steel Shields behind for the last few weeks and I will owe you another at the end of the week…” While I spoke his face remained as expressionless as solid stone. There wasn’t even a smile of self satisfaction etched onto him like he wore often.
I stepped forward with my hand extended to offer him my owed amount but had to pause in hesitation. Just as I reached towards Garuff, his face exploded in an expression of colossal conceit. He was being so brightly I could hear alarm bells ringing in my head. Even though I tried to shrug it off and tell myself it was an affect of the sun still stirring my headache up.
“Actually,” Garuff said while in the throw of a deep throated chuckle. “By my own calculations you owe me a sum of some six Steel Shields total. You have been in the negative long enough that I have to add a fee for running you a line of credit. Strictly business you understand nothing personal. Can’t expect me to simply set around and allow anyone to go without paying their bills for any length they want. Its bad for everyone, if I did that everything might fall apart.”
“Yeah, you’re a real gleaming gem of generosity,” I snarled strongly. He knew before I had even fished out all five coins that he held me in his hand. My debt had been growing gradually, and even though he could expect me to be forced to pay up eventually (my belongings weren’t going to be going anywhere anytime soon since they weren’t mobile anymore) he also held the keys to me even being able to access my possessions. Garuff had me leveraged with my own situation to use against me, and it stung.
Disgusted by my own fault for putting myself into the position I had to swallow my pride and surrender to logic. The longer I stayed in Garuff’s debt the worse everything would be. My only real option right now would be to pay him what he wanted and move past the hurdle he represented. Then I could get out from under the burden, if only briefly to handle everything else that demanded my attention. But that didn’t mean that I would let this stand. Oh no, one day I would see myself clear of this scheming snake and his advancing attempts to pocket everything from your purse.
The five Steel Shields fell to the dirt with a chorus of thuds and then I tossed down another to add its own clink. Garuff didn’t take his overly joyous eyes off me to even regard them, instead still bent on laughing his belly into a bouncing rhythm. This only made me all the angrier.
“My debt is satisfied, Gerald Garuff,” I seethed with ill-restrained temper present in my tone. “Now remove yourself and your barriers from my property, immediately.” Garuff only made a dismissive gesture with his hand, as if bidding a child to run along and play. But as he did so I could make out the sound of a metal chain being moved along a wooden surface.
Spinning around I found a pair of thick armed thugs collecting the length of chain and a similar pair stepping forward to warn me against doing anything rash. Turning my attention away from Garuff himself I had only just then started to realize that there was no less than half a dozen grim goons awaiting all around to engage me if I had made any move other than payment. Like I said, Garuff wasn’t stupid – just a jerk.
“You aren’t always going to hold a debt against me you know,” I advised the cruel coin collector. “Some day I’ll be clear of you and you should take heed that you won’t always have your hired hands around to help you.” Let him take my words any way he wanted, he could consider them a threat for all I cared. But they weren’t meant for his ears alone, instead they were a promise I was making to myself.
And I always keep my promises.
“Entertaining as always,” Garuff giggled while someone else scooped up my money for him. “Be seeing you again next week and the weeks thereafter as well.” As he walked away presumably to go abuse another resident of Gutterside I watched him go. There wasn’t a royal leash to restrict me anymore, and I wouldn’t ever submit to anyone else trying to keep me controlled either. We’d have our day to deal with things like debt and I told myself to mark my own words; Garuff wouldn’t be the one giggling about it.
Right now, I had other promises to keep. And it was best that I got myself to keeping them.