Three days had passed since they found Sargan’s severed hand in Bonial Woods. Dryden sat with his family at the back of the town shrine, shuffling on the rickety bench while Bevera bawled at the front. It seemed like half of Byromar had crammed inside for the improvised service. An unbearable heat bore down on the crowd. Dryden felt like steam might come out his ears if he kept his hat on any longer. I’d give anything to dunk my head in a bucket of cold water right now.
From the second row, Martron rose to his feet and climbed the pulpit’s stairs. He rested his arms on the bent and dented podium, waited for Bevera’s current fit to wane, then addressed the crowd in a sombre voice. “I thank all of you for coming.”
Some folks nodded, but none replied. Martron adjusted his collar and continued. “As a man who’s grown up and lived his entire life in Byromar, I can say for certain that this is the most jarring tragedy we, as a community, have faced in a long time. Sargan was a friend to everyone who met him. He was the son of Grintle and a part of Byromar’s long family lineages…”
Dryden rolled his sleeves. He looked over at Monilia. She sat with her back upright, eyes fixed on Martron as he spoke. Her braided hair drooped over her right shoulder in the style of a young woman in mourning.
I wonder if she’s as hot as I am. He glanced at his parents. The two sat close beside each other. Flint leaned forward with his hands folded, brow knitted. Liliana watched Martron with an unshaken expression. She hardly looked upset, though she never was one to show much emotion. If anyone could last an entire funeral without crying, it would be her.
Wismire and Deletha sat a few rows ahead, both with heads slightly bowed. Dryden counted the people he knew, fantasizing all the while about rain, snow, ice, and whatever else might cool him off.
Martron suddenly paused. Dryden and the rest of the daydreamers looked up from their laps. The mayor took a deep breath as if he longed to scold the rambling minds, then continued his speech. “I want to thank Flint and Dryden again for their bravery in the search. Unfortunately, no body was found, so we cannot conduct a proper funeral. We must end this ceremony abruptly.”
Bevera threw her face in her hands and wailed. Martron waited with a pained expression until she quieted. “We can only hope Sargan’s soul will find peace on its own. May this be a stern reminder to never venture into Bonial Woods, especially if you’re alone. And may we all remember to offer Bevera, her five children, and her thirteen grandchildren our deepest condolences during this tragic time.”
The mayor returned to his seat. Only his footsteps and Bevera’s weeping cut through the silence. One by one, in a timid manner, people began to rise. Some left for the exit while others went forward to speak with Bevera. Dryden had the misfortune of presenting the bad news to the new widow, so there was no need to see her again. He hurried outside to the reprieve of fresh air, its taste as sweet as honey. Monilia, Flint, and Liliana joined him shortly after, where they huddled beneath the shade of a nearby tree.
“One more minute,” said Liliana as she fanned herself, “and I would’ve melted. Is there any reason we had to use the shrine? It does no good if there’s no body to bury.”
Flint answered with a shrug of the shoulders. “I suppose it was more an act of goodwill than anything. It’d be awfully cruel to do nothing for Sargan, even without his body.”
“Poor Bevera!” said Liliana with a sigh. “All her children live on the other end of town. I wonder if she’ll sell her farm and move in with one of them.”
Monilia undid her braid and shook her hair free. “I don’t understand why Sargan went into that forest. He hardly ever hunts.”
“It is uncharacteristic of him,” said Flint. “People are going to be upset about this for a while.”
Liliana cast Dryden a brazen leer. “I hope you remember this day whenever you’re tempted to try anything foolish. Young men can’t seem to keep away from danger, especially when they know how dangerous it is.”
Dryden took a step back, caught off guard by the sudden lecture. “Don’t worry, Mother. I wouldn’t do anything I thought was unsafe. You can be sure I’m not going into Bonial Woods again.”
A shadow caught his eye. He turned to find Martron walking towards them, his face sullen, his mouth bent in a frown. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and smiled at the two women. “Good day, Liliana, Monilia. Thank you for coming.”
They gave polite bows in response. Martron turned to the men. “Flint, Dryden, thank you again for what you did. It was nothing short of heroic.”
Flint cringed at the words. “We weren’t trying to be heroic. We were only helping.”
“And you did. But I have some concerns about Sargan’s death—or to be precise—some other people do. I’m holding a closed meeting about it. It’s nothing formal, but I’d appreciate it if both of you would come, since you know the most about the situation.”
Flint seemed hesitant. “What do you think?” he asked his wife.
Liliana crossed her arms. “Of course you should go.”
“You don’t mind if Dryden and I are gone for the afternoon?”
“Not at all. I’ll take care of the animals.”
Flint turned to Martron. “Then I guess we can come.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” Martron folded his hands in a gesture of gratitude. “Thank you for understanding, Liliana. And thank you once again for coming. I’m sure it meant a lot to Bevera.”
“Don’t fill my husband’s head with any ridiculous ideas,” replied Liliana.
Martron chuckled. “I wouldn’t dare.”
He left for his carriage and beckoned Dryden and Flint to follow. They passed the downtrodden voices drifting from the shrine, where a small crowd hovered about the open doors. Dryden caught sight of Haley standing with her mother, chatting with another family. She looked up then smiled and waved. Dryden exchanged a greeting of his own before climbing into Martron’s carriage, a pompous vehicle that dwarfed the rickety wagons surrounding it. Feeling somewhat like royalty, he seated himself on a plush cushion and stared out the patterned window as they departed.
Though Zaltoras had repossessed its spot above the earth, the sun powered through whatever seams it could find, and speckled the land in scattered slivers of gold. Byromar’s rolling hills glowed in a tranquil serenity. Songbirds whistled. It seemed cruel that the land could look so beautiful during such a tragic time. But who were they, insignificant farmers, to demand the sky shed tears on a funeral day?
Martron parked the carriage in front of the town hall, a two-storey building overlooking the main square. Nearly a dozen murky windows, lined with mildewed frames, decorated the front face. Split wooden arches curved above the faded double-doors. The three climbed the stone steps and entered.
The peculiarly dim interior seemed at odds with the many windows, and both the door and floor creaked from old age. A large counter sat in the centre of the room. Behind it, two staircases rose parallel to each other and merged into a balcony, which hugged the perimeter of the building. They took the stairs on the right and passed through the closest door.
A collection of twelve men sat inside a plain room outfitted with little more than an oval table and some chairs. The smell of straw, onions, and manure hung heavy in the air. Dryden examined the faces that looked up as they entered. Chrizodo sat beside Herthrim the pig farmer. A subtle smile curved his lips.
Dryden took a seat between Flint and Janir: an unusual man from the north end of Byromar, known to keep to himself. Martron sat at the head of the table, next to Gravenir the innkeeper and Westman the shepherd. Every voice fell to a hush as the mayor looked over the room.
“I’m glad all of you could make it,” he began. “And you know why we’re here. I’ve already heard some…imaginative theories about Sargan’s death, so I think we should smooth out the truth before things get out of hand.”
The men all murmured in agreement. Martron waited for their voices to settle before continuing. “Flint and Dryden are here with us, and as some of you know, they were the ones who searched the forest for Sargan.”
Flint straightened his back like a student ready to give a presentation. “We never found the body. All we could find was a bloody hat and a severed hand, which leads me to believe he was eaten by a wild animal.” His eyes darkened. “There were no signs of anachlems anywhere, and something chased us out of the forest before we could search more thoroughly.”
Herthrim slapped his meaty hands on the table, nearly spilling a jar of water. “Something chased you? Was it a man or a beast?”
“A man?” Flint seemed puzzled by the question. “No, it had to be some sort of creature.”
“How do you know?”
“It muscled through the forest far too easily to be a person.”
“And it looked to be at least eight feet tall,” added Dryden.
Brikston, an elderly farmer half-hidden beneath a mat of hair and thick moustache, gave a grunt as he leaned back in his chair. “I’ve been exploring these woods since half of you were still at the teat. There’s no creature bigger than a deer in Byromar, let alone one big enough to devour Sargan. Someone was out to kill him.”
Ulvimon, the town miller and a good friend of Flint’s, threw back his head with a laugh. “So you’re saying someone sent an eight-foot mercenary to kill Sargan, a farmer who barely had enough money to buy his wife a gift? I don’t believe it.”
Chrizodo nodded. He cupped his hand over his mouth as he spoke. “It chased after Flint and Dryden, almost like it was an animal guarding its kill. I can’t see it being a person.”
“For all we know,” said Ulvimon, “Sargan could’ve slipped and cracked his head. Then a fox or coyote might’ve eaten him over time.”
“But that doesn’t explain what chased us,” argued Flint.
“A coyote wouldn’t be alone,” muttered Brikston.
“Or big enough,” continued Flint. “Sargan’s hat also had large claw marks.”
Brikston puckered his lips in an unenthused manner. “I could rip a hat with my bare fingers. I think it was made to look like an animal had done it.”
Martron waved his hand at the group, as if dismissing all their ideas. “I don’t mean to change the subject, but what about Sargan? Does anyone know why he went to Bonial Woods?”
The room quieted as the men waited for someone to give an answer. Kinmount, a frail fellow with jittery eyes, lifted his timid voice. “I don’t know why he went, but the day before he died, I crossed paths with him. He kept talking about those foreign men staying at Gravenir’s inn.”
Ulvimon looked over at the innkeeper. “Yeah, who are they?”
All eyes turned to Gravenir. He sat with his arms crossed and his feet resting on the table. “I don’t know,” he said in a flat, disinterested tone.
“What do you mean?” cried Brikston. “We’re trying to solve a murder, and that’s your answer?”
“A murder, eh?” Gravenir rolled his eyes. “No, they don’t talk much. I don’t know where they’re from, why they’re here, or how long they plan on staying.”
“I don’t think they have anything to do with Sargan,” said Chrizodo, “but they have been wandering around town. The other day, one of them showed up to my shop and asked me if anyone else worked there. He left as soon as I told him it was just my family.”
Dryden leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table. “I saw one of them as well. He was walking along the bluffs the day Sargan died.”
“Well, there’s quite a few of them,” said Gravenir. “You’re bound to see them every now and then.”
“Do they come back to the inn every night?” asked Martron.
“Some do. It’s hard to say how many. They’re not stuck together like ducklings.”
Brikston harrumphed. “They sound suspicious. Has anyone else tried talking to them?”
Ulvimon shook his head. “Gravenir’s around them the most. I don’t think they come far enough south for me to see them.”
Brikston glowered at the innkeeper. “Well? You must know something. They’re your customers.”
Gravenir took his feet off the table and folded his hands together. A sour expression lined his face. “I told you, they don’t say much, and if they do, it’s in their own language. I don’t know what they’re up to, but I think we’re forgetting why we’re here.”
“This is a valid concern as well,” said Herthrim, his voice tense. “We’ve got strange men lurking about and innocent folk dying at the same time.”
“It’s not related,” grumbled Gravenir.
Brikston struck his fist against the table. “Say what you want, but it wasn’t an animal that ate him. Not a local one, anyway.”
“Could it be…” Herthrim trailed off. He looked about, as if he were afraid to speak his mind. “…A dragon?”
A silence fell over the room. The men exchanged glances before chuckles began to emerge.
Herthrim’s face reddened. He spun away from the table. “Don’t laugh. They exist. My grandfather said his father saw one when he was young. He says they roost on islands out in the ocean and sometimes fly into Byromar to look for food.”
“Now that you mention it,” said Brikston with a laugh, “perhaps it could’ve been a warlock or a witch.”
A smirk creased Gravenir’s face as he kicked his feet back onto the table. “Oh, I forgot to mention, a clan of faeries checked into my inn last week. And an elf lord.”
Martron scowled at the men. “That’s enough!” His expression softened as he turned to Herthrim. “I think someone would’ve seen a dragon flying in from the ocean. It wouldn’t have landed in Byromar unnoticed.”
The pig farmer muttered something under his breath, his face red as a beet.
Gravenir snickered then eyed Dryden. “What about you, snowblood? What do you think did it?”
Flint’s back stiffened. He looked ready to bark a sharp retort, but Dryden brushed off the insult and answered before his father could. “I can’t say for sure. I looked over my shoulder as we fled, but all I could see was a silhouette. It’s odd, though, because I saw the shadow against the forest, as if the thing were darker than the night.”
“That’s no coyote,” said Brikston.
“Sounds like black magic!” cried Gravenir, his tone rife with mockery.
Chrizodo straightened himself, as if garnering for attention. “Here are my thoughts: It’s no coyote, as Brikston said, but we still need something to tell people. We don’t want any wild rumours spreading, especially when people might already have concerns about those foreigners. It’d be wise to leave them out of it. The smartest thing to do would be to say an animal killed him—no details given.”
Martron gave a low hum. “I agree, but I’d like to know the truth.” He paused and seemed to mull over his words. “Flint, this might be too much to ask, but what are your thoughts on checking Bonial Woods during the day for any tracks?”
Flint remained silent. A shadow fell over his eyes as he tapped his fingers on the table.
A chuckle sounded from Gravenir as he folded his arms behind his head. “No shame in being afraid.” He watched Dryden as he spoke, seemingly taunting him and his father.
Undaunted, but mostly annoyed, Dryden faced Martron. “I’ll check. I remember the path we took.”
Gravenir grinned, as if the offer amused him. Flint flashed Dryden a scolding look. “It’s dangerous to go alone. If you go, I’ll have to as well.”
Herthrim shirked backwards in his seat, his turgid eyes wide with horror. “But what if it’s some kind of monster? It might eat both of you.”
Flint turned to the pig farmer with a mischievous smile. “Are you offering to help?”
Herthrim gritted his teeth and averted his eyes. “That’s not—what I meant is…well…” He sunk into his chair. “I mean…if you’d like my assistance, I’ll gladly give it.”
“I think that’s a good idea,” said Martron. “You ought to bring a few men with you. Who else wants to help Flint and Dryden?”
Chrizodo raised his hand. Ulvimon followed shortly after. The rest of the men ducked their heads like students hoping to avoid the eyes of a searching teacher.
The mayor scanned the crowd, his expression grim. “You five are incredibly brave. Of course, I couldn’t ask this of you without—”
“You’re not coming,” said Ulvimon. “You have a young child to take care of.”
Martron looked ready to protest, but Chrizodo interrupted him. “We won’t go if you’re with us.”
Martron eyed the men, his mouth ajar. He collected himself then gave a sombre nod. “I understand…Perhaps we should meet again once we’ve checked the forest?”
Everyone murmured in agreement. The mayor rose to his feet in a contemplative manner. “It’s settled then. Thank you for your time. Let’s do as Chrizodo says, and if anyone asks, Sargan was killed by an animal. Don’t get the foreigners involved.”
Chairs screeched against the floor as everyone began to clear the room. Gravenir walked by Dryden with a conceited expression, slapping him on the back as he passed. Dryden shot him a dirty look in turn. There wasn’t any need to have addressed him as snowblood.
Outside the room, near the balcony rail, Herthrim, Chrizodo, and Ulvimon circled around Flint, all conversing with animated gestures. Dryden went to join them, but someone grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him back into the room. He spun about to find Janir holding him in place, a grave seriousness hunkering his watery, bloodshot eyes. The stench of onions slithered through his crooked teeth. “What do you expect to find in the woods?” he asked once the room had emptied.
His voice came as a quiet hiss, like the sound of a flying locust. Dryden craned his neck to escape the man’s rancid breath. “Hopefully some clues to what happened to Sargan.”
Janir checked behind him, as if he were afraid someone had snuck back into the room to eavesdrop. “I’ll tell you a secret, but you can’t repeat a word. There’re more foreigners than you think. They’ve been wandering in and out of Byromar’s forests, and a handful of them are staying at the inn as a decoy. There’re monsters, too—black enough to make your eyes hurt.” He fixed Dryden with an expectant leer. “Do you know what I’m getting at?”
Dryden snuck a quick glance at his father. He and the others seemed too preoccupied to notice him being held captive. He tried gently to pull himself free, but Janir kept his grip locked.
“That’s what chased you,” the man continued. “You saw one of those creatures. Some foreigners have camped in Bonial Woods as well, so be on your guard at all times. They’re probably waiting. They killed Sargan, and they won’t be afraid to kill all five of you.”
Dryden answered with a blank stare. His mind scrambled to make sense of the audacious claims. “How do you know this?” he asked.
Janir’s dry and cracked lips formed an unsavoury smile. “I’ve been watching.”
His grip slowly loosened. Dryden wasn’t sure if he was imagining it, but his skin seemed to itch where his fingers had rested.
“Tell no one,” insisted Janir. “Those foreigners will catch wind quicker than you’d expect.”
“I won’t say a word.” Dryden shuffled towards the door, eager to get away.