Chapter 9

Distant thunder rumbled. Rain drizzled down, the light shower a welcome change from the vengeful downpour of days prior. A warm breeze blew in from the east, something Dryden had sorely missed. He sauntered along the main road in good spirits, though the grey sky seemed less enthused by the change of weather.

A lone crow cawed at him, taking to flight after he unlatched the wooden gate bordering Chrizodo’s orchard. Mud squelched under his boots as he walked along rows of apple trees dripping with water. The quiet orchard seemed lifeless without Haley’s singing or the buzz of honeybees darting through the leaves. Everything felt despondent and dim, as if he walked through a graveyard rather than an apple farm.

The sound of someone hammering broke the silence. Its harsh echo reverberated into the sky. Dryden hurried to the shop, where he found Chrizodo on the top rung of a small ladder leaned against the building’s cracked siding. He swung his hammer at the boards. Dirty water spilled out from inside as if he were breaking apart a dam.

Chrizodo turned to look at Dryden. He nodded and spoke through the nails clenched between his teeth. “Good morning. I’m glad you could make it.”

“Of course,” answered Dryden. “Are you looking for some help repairing the shop?”

Chrizodo took the nails out of his mouth and hooked the hammer on his belt. “No, I should be alright here.” He gestured to the hole in the wall. “My shop’s been leaking since that rainstorm started. I couldn’t find where it was coming from. Turns out, the water’s been gathering inside the walls. But anyway—I’m down to my last few nails. I need Haley to buy some more from town while I remove these rotten boards. I’d like you to go with her, since…” His gaze fell to the ground. “Well…you know why.”

Dryden offered a blank stare.

Chrizodo’s eyes widened in response. “Didn’t you hear?” He ran his fingers through his hair then sighed. “I thought Flint would’ve told you. Maybe he doesn’t know. Anyway, those fourteen soldiers Martron requested…they went to search Koriok Woods and never came back.”

Dryden couldn’t help but gawk. His tongue seemed to wither as he struggled to force a dry croak. “Were they killed?”

“I don’t know. We can’t find out. Nobody’s brave enough to check.”

“And there’s no traces of them?”

Chrizodo shrugged. “They were supposed to bring Martron reports every day, but they never returned.” He paused, biting against his lower lip. “There’s either an unstoppable monster in Koriok Woods, or somebody’s plotting some devilry.”

He lowered his eyes, his forehead creased as though he were deep in thought. “The good news is that if it’s a monster, it’s not leaving the forest. But it’s still too dangerous to wander around Byromar alone. That’s why I was hoping you’d accompany Haley to town while I finish with this siding.”

A light flickered inside Dryden, despite the soldiers’ grim fate. He came expecting to help with some kind of chore, but to spend the day with Haley instead was nothing to complain about.

“I’ll definitely go with her.”

He cringed at the unintentional enthusiasm in his voice.

Chrizodo didn’t seem to notice. He pointed to the house with his thumb. “She should be inside. Make sure she remembers to buy some herbs for her mother.” His eyes darkened. “She’s been having trouble breathing again.”

Dryden scampered off in the direction of the house. Its modest timber frame bore a similar resemblance to his own, either by coincidence or because Flint and Chrizodo had helped build each other’s houses. He thought of the stories that claimed they could’ve doubled its size with all the money they had spent on whisky, though it felt more like a Byromar legend than actual truth.

As he raised his fist to knock on the front door, it flung open on its own. Haley rushed outside while looking behind her. Dryden shirked to the side, but couldn’t clear the way in time. She bumped into him then gave a startled yelp.

“Dryden!” She rested a hand on her heart. “You scared me! Why do you always do that?”

Dryden took a step away. He could feel a warmth colouring his cheeks. “Sorry! You scared me, too.”

“I wish you’d make some noise every now and then. You’re like a cat.”

She shut the door behind her and pattered down the stairs. A half-smile creased her lips as she cast a sideways glance. “You showed up just in time to help me out. Father told me you’d be my chivalrous escort today.”

Dryden returned the comment with a smug grin. “Only if you deem me worthy.”

She waved her hand nonchalantly. “I have to take what I can get in a town as small as Byromar. You’ll do, I suppose.”

She led the way to the paddock, a small hut hardly bigger than the shed Dryden had built for the mayor. A lone horse huddled beneath the straw roof, flapping its tail at persistent flies. It eyed the two with a look of bored indifference.

Hanging from a hook was a rough, weathered saddle. “Where’s the other horse?” asked Dryden as he lifted it off its mount.

“We only have one,” said Haley.

Dryden paused. He glanced from the saddle to Haley. She eyed him with her brows knitted. “What?”

“Ah…nothing.” He returned the saddle to its place. “I guess we’ll ride bareback.”

“We have one with double rigging.” Haley cleared the lid of a dusty box covered in hay and old, rusted tools. She returned with a larger saddle in her arms and a mischievous grin on her face.

“You look nervous. Have you never ridden with a woman before?”

“I’ve never ridden with anyone,” said Dryden. “Let’s hope I don’t get you bucked off.”

Once they’d prepared the horse, he hoisted himself up, took Haley by the hand, and helped her mount. Her long hair trickled over his shoulders as she seated herself behind him.

He tried in vain to shuffle further forward. The heat of her body pressed against him; her warm breath tickled the back of his neck. She smelled like the orchard—of apples and flowers. He took a tense breath then spurred the horse into a trot, towards the main road. Yesterday, when Chrizodo had asked him for help, he never would’ve guessed that he’d be sharing a horse with the man’s daughter.

 

 

A flock of screeching seagulls welcomed them to the town square. Dryden dismounted, and walked alongside the horse as they passed under the wooden arches leading into the market. A gathering of shops circled a statue of Gulid Byromar, the village’s founder. The stone figure stood tall and proud, gazing to the east with one hand shielding his eyes, though time had ebbed many of the details into blunt edges.

Clucking hens bobbed about the town square, pecking at the grass and squabbling with others that wandered too close. The smell of rising bread drifted from the bakery, a contrast from the metallic odour puffing out the blacksmith’s brick chimney. Almost fifty people bustled about—quite a large number for a day of no particular significance. Dryden counted the faces he knew and noted the ones to avoid. He took the path on the statue’s right to keep a distance from Gravenir’s inn. He watched its front door from the corner of his eye.

Haley joined Dryden on foot. “You’re tense,” she said as she took the reins from him. “Do you not like the town square?”

A man in a black robe strode by. Dryden’s heart lurched in his throat, then settled as he realized the figure was too short and hunched to be one of the foreigners. “No, it’s nothing.”

Haley’s eyes narrowed. “You’re worried about running into Gravenir, aren’t you? Or is it the foreigners?”

“A little bit of both,” chuckled Dryden. “I’m just being cautious.”

They weren’t his only concern. He noticed a number of people who passed shot him pejorative glares—ones that practically screamed accusations of sorcerer. Whatever gossip Gravenir had spread must’ve found roots to grow. It had been some time since he felt such hostility from mere gazes.

Haley didn’t seem aware of the looks directed at them. As she led the way to the store, she spoke of her mother’s condition. Dryden listened, though he couldn’t keep his focus away from the eyes of the villagers. They bore down on him like the weight of a yoke.

A young mother walking their direction stopped at the sight of them. She took her child by the hand and veered clear of their path. The child peered over her shoulder at Dryden, her eyes sparkling with curiosity. Her mother whispered something in her ear, then they hurried away.

Dryden carried on. A bitterness towards Gravenir festered in his chest. He rankled over the potential stories the innkeeper might be distributing when a hand clamped his shoulder. He whirled around and nearly struck a hooded figure. The horse whinnied. Haley staggered backwards as it yanked on the reins.

The fellow tripped over his long robe. His hood slid off to reveal the pale skin, bony cheeks, and sunken eyes of Janir.

Haley hushed her horse into a calm. Dryden took a breath to still his thumping heart. “What are you doing, Janir? Don’t sneak up on me like that!”

The man rose to his feet and pulled the hood back over his face. It hid everything but his crooked teeth and the tip of his hooked nose. “My apologies. I didn’t want to call your name.” He leaned forward. A grin formed creases along his papyrus-like skin. “I have something to show you.”

Dryden held up his hands in refusal. “I can’t. I’m shopping with Haley. We have to be back at the orchard soon.”

Janir’s smile faded. “I have to show you now. This can’t wait.”

“It’ll have to. Chrizodo needs us back.”

Janir shook his head like a stubborn child. “No! You’ll come to my house immediately!”

Haley joined the two. “Why don’t you let me buy the nails for my father, then we’ll come to your farm? I’ll only be a minute.”

Janir’s mouth sagged. His nostrils twitched. “Only Dryden can come. I trust no one else.”

“I trust her,” said Dryden, “so you should too. Besides, we only have one horse. I can’t ride all the way to your farm and leave her behind.”

Janir crossed his arms. “No! This is an important matter between the two of us. Very important.”

“I’m not leaving Haley behind. You can either share your secret with her, or wait until tomorrow when I’m alone.”

Janir muttered something under his breath. He pondered for a moment then turned to Haley. “Can you hold your tongue?”

Haley lifted her chin. “I won’t say a word.”

“Fetch your nails, then. Hurry before I change my mind.”

Haley rushed into the store while Dryden waited with Janir and the horse. An awkward silence loomed over them. Janir stood so still, he looked frozen in place. He didn’t move until Haley returned with a small box under her arm. “I have to buy a bag of herbs as well, but it’ll only take a moment.”

Janir made a low click with his throat. He spun on his heels. “I have to go. You know where I live, don’t you, Dryden? Come as quickly as you can. Do not keep me waiting. And don’t ignore me. We have no time to spare.” He rushed through the town square, past the wooden arches, and disappeared beyond a cluster of trees.

Dryden watched him depart. An unsavoury feeling welled up in his stomach.

“What does he want with you?” asked Haley.

“I don’t know. But I have a feeling I won’t like what he shows me.”

 

 

With every mile of land they crossed, Dryden questioned his decision to agree to Janir’s request. The road had faded to little more than trampled patches of grass flanked by the drooping branches of surrounding woods. No sound came from the thickets other than the light slap of rain against leaves. Thoughts of the missing soldiers kept Dryden on edge the entire time. If there was ever a place to be ambushed by foreigners, this would be it.

If Haley had any concerns, she kept them to herself. The two rode in complete silence as the rain escalated from a thin drizzle to heavy droplets. Dryden’s hands trembled. His numb fingers could barely keep the reins in his grip. He prayed that Janir had thought of starting a fire for their arrival. That, or a set of dry clothes.

A bend in the narrow path led them to a small clearing. Resting in the centre was a charming, tidy home situated at the foot of two hills. Proud and vibrant sunflowers surrounded the four walls. A stone walkway wove from the neatly painted gate to the paneled front door. Beside the house, a fenced garden flourished with an abundance of vegetables that spilled over the edge of every raised plot. Ochre warblers whistled from a birdhouse hanging overhead.

After tying the horse to a fencepost, Dryden and Haley approached.

“Do you think he beat us here?” asked Haley. “It looked like he left on foot.”

“I was wondering that too,” said Dryden. “But he must’ve ridden into town. It would’ve taken him all day to get there.”

Haley’s eyes sifted over the clearing. “I don’t see a stable anywhere.”

“If he’s not here,” grumbled Dryden, “then I’m breaking in. Damned if I’m going to get rained on a second longer.”

He knocked on the front door. To his surprise, Janir opened it immediately. He no longer wore his black robe, but a collared shirt fit for a city general.

“You finally arrived. I was beginning to think the rain had forced you back.”

“We left right after we bought the herbs,” said Dryden. “How’d you get back so fast?”

Janir didn’t give an explanation. He ushered the two inside before bolting the door behind them. “Come this way. Take off your shoes, please. Don’t drip on my floor.”

Rather than offer a towel or dry clothes, he led the way through a hall lined with closed doors. He opened the furthest then took a burning candle from a mount on the wall.

Shadows flickered around the three as they descended a flight of stairs, into a basement rife with the smell of onions. Something shuffled in the darkness. A weak groan echoed from deeper in. Shivers rippled down Dryden’s back.

“What’s going on?” asked Haley. The candlelight reflected her wide-eyed expression.

Janir said nothing. He prodded them around a corner, where they met a foreigner strapped to a chair.

Tears stained his pale face. His bloodshot eyes darted from Dryden to Haley. Though he didn’t have a single scratch or bruise, he trembled like a prisoner who’d been beaten close to death.

Dryden could do nothing but stare. He watched the foreigner’s mouth creak open. Blood and drool dripped from the corners of his mouth. “Help me…”

Haley gave a hoarse croak.

Dryden whirled to face Janir. Anger and horror expounded through his body. His hands tightened into fists. “Are you insane? What are you doing?”

Janir pressed his fingers to his forehead and sighed. “I thought you would judge me, even after I offered you my trust.”

“You’re torturing him!” cried Dryden. “What do you want me to say? You want me to act like this is okay?”

Janir stomped his foot. He bore his teeth in a scowl. “I told you about these foreigners, but you did nothing about it! I’m the one who should be angry!”

Dryden’s blood seared. “I searched Bonial Woods! There wasn’t a single sign of the foreigners. Let him go now!”

“You think I should?”

Janir kicked over the chair. The foreigner hit the ground with a crack. Janir rested a foot on the upturned chair and leaned over his captive. “Why don’t you tell us why you’re here?”

The foreigner gave a frail moan.

Janir shook the chair until the foreigner cried out in a slur of Velian and his own language. “Lutuj mrą! Mercy! Please!”

“Stop it!” shouted Haley.

Janir ignored her. He rattled the chair more. “What happened to the man named Sargan?”

Dryden stepped forward to intervene, but froze as the foreigner blurted in a hysterical voice.

“We killed him!”

“And the soldiers from Feldamor?” asked Janir.

“We killed them!”

“Why?”

“They found us hiding in the forest!”

Janir slowed the rocking. “And why are you hiding?”

The foreigner raised his head. His flaccid, tortured eyes stared pleadingly at Dryden. “You must help me. This man…he’s not normal. Take me away from him.”

Janir shook his head. “That won’t do. Why don’t you tell Dryden why you’re in Byromar?”

“I can’t,” wheezed the foreigner. “I’m sworn to secrecy.” He gurgled, then spat a gob of saliva. “Please help me. I can’t handle this pain.”

“Why are you here?” demanded Janir.

The foreigner pointed a trembling finger at Dryden. “For him.”

Dryden’s blood jammed in his veins. His heart felt as if it stopped beating. He looked over at Haley to find her deathly pale.

Janir took his foot off the chair and righted it, the foreigner lurching along like a limp doll. “What do you want with Dryden?” he asked.

The foreigner shook his head. “I can’t say.”

Janir grumbled to himself. He crouched in front of the foreigner with his back to Dryden and Haley. The foreigner gazed into his hood. His watery eyes grew so wide, it looked like he might tear his skin. “Stop doing this to me,” he whimpered.

“Tell me what I want to know,” said Janir.

The foreigner craned his neck, as if Janir were a scorching flame. “I can’t.”

“Tell me,” whispered Janir, his voice like ice.

The foreigner’s head slumped forward. He rasped for air. “We are looking for a Vohev. That man you call Dryden is one.”

Janir stood straight. His tone shifted to a curious innocence. “Interesting. You never said that before. What’s a Vohev?”

The foreigner spat out another gob. Blood tinted the string of saliva. “I won’t tell you. I’ve revealed too much.”

“But you’ve been so cooperative,” said Janir. “You ought to continue.”

“There is no need. You might as well kill me. If I say any more, my master will do it for you. I’d rather die in loyalty than as a traitor.”

“You’re very docile. I must say, I admire that.” Janir turned to face Dryden and Haley. “What do you think? Want to hear more?”

Dryden’s tongue felt like a wad of cotton. His mind reeled at the sight before him. “Let him go,” he muttered. “You’re a monster.”

Janir flinched at the words. “Don’t criticize me. These foreigners have killed fifteen innocent men, but you’re their main target. I’ll bet you’re next. Do you want to let them prance about Byromar unmonitored, or do you—”

He leapt upright, as if he had stepped on a spike. “What’s that?”

Haley staggered backwards. “What’s what?”

Janir snuffed out the candle. Dryden braced himself, hair on end, half-expecting Janir to lunge at him. “What are you doing?”

“Quiet!” hissed Janir. “I sense something.” He began to pace. “This isn’t good. This isn’t good!”

His footsteps shuffled along the dirt floor then clumped up the stairs. A ray of light beamed down as the door flung open. “Hurry!” He waved Dryden and Haley on. “Don’t idle!”

Haley pointed to the foreigner. “What about him?”

“Forget it. I feel a darkness closing around my house. You need to get out of here.”

“You have to let him go,” argued Dryden. “I’ll do it myself if I have to.”

Janir moaned. “Why don’t you just chop off your head and place it on his lap, then? He’s hunting you!”

Dryden clenched his fists. “I’ll confront them myself. I’m not going to let you torture them.”

Janir’s eyes turned as sharp as broken glass. His stare seemed to take control of the air around them. Dryden stifled a groan as his chest constricted so tight, he struggled to breathe. Haley slumped forward and leaned against the wall. She gave a quiet whimper.

“What…” Dryden couldn’t force any more words.

“Get out,” whispered Janir. His voice struck like an axe. “You’re in danger.”

Dryden craned his neck to look at the foreigner. The man watched him with tears smeared on his cheeks. A thin line of blood bubbled from his mouth. “Help me…”

Janir’s voice echoed through the basement. “Out!”

Dryden’s mind grated his skull. Haley rushed ahead of him, then, as if driven by another force, he followed.

The foreigner called out behind him. “No…please… Lutuj mrą…”

A suffocating power dragged Dryden upstairs. His stomached churned as Janir shut the door, damning the foreigner to a hopeless fate.

“It’s for your safety,” said Janir. “Stay away from all the forests, and keep your faces hidden.”

“You’ll let him go?” asked Dryden.

A brazen defiance squared Janir’s jaw. “Your safety comes first.”

Rage sweltered through Dryden. He yearned to protest further, but his body seemed out of his control. He could hardly breathe, and Haley urged him on.

“I want to leave,” she murmured, tugging at his arm.

Dryden moved for the door. The weight loosened around his ribs as he approached. By the time he stepped onto the front porch, the pain had faded. His wrath reignited itself.

He spun on his heels. “I’m taking him with me!”

Janir slammed the door in his face. The bolt clicked shut.