Water seeped through the fibres of Dryden’s hood as he trudged to Martron’s newly finished shed, a bale of sodden hay slumped over his shoulder, sharp ends of straw jabbing his neck. Despite the downpour, he had managed to finish the final touches on the shed today. After throwing the last bale inside, he shut the door and stepped back to admire his work.
Looks better than my house.
The thought reminded him of the countless repairs facing neglect at home—the leaks in the roof, the broken shutters, rickety stairs and more. It seemed a shame that the hay for Martron’s livestock would live in more luxury than his own parents. He wondered why Flint refused to take the money Vilitamian offered.
Picking loose straws from his bandages, he hurried to Martron’s house, curious to know why the mayor wanted to see him so badly. He did look agitated this morning. Maybe the ride from Feldamor had tired him out.
He kicked the mud off his boots before knocking. Footsteps clacked from inside. The door swung open, and Martron’s wife greeted him with a courteous smile.
“Good evening, Dryden. Thank you for all your hard work today.” She held out a towel. “Please dry yourself and warm up by the fireplace. I can take your coat for you.”
Dryden removed the dripping coat. The cold fabric rubbed against his back as he pulled it over his head. He dried the long strands of wet hair clinging to his face then wrapped himself in the towel. “Thank you, Phelona. I’m getting tired of this weather.”
He eased towards the fireplace, careful not to brush his wet legs against any of the sapphire-hued divans.
“I am as well,” said Phelona. Her azure eyes darted to a window splattered with specks of rain. “I haven’t set foot outside in almost a week. I’m starting to feel like a cooped up hen.”
“My parents are getting restless as well. Neither of them like to spend this much time indoors.”
Martron’s voice called out from another room, interrupting the two. “Is Dryden here?” Heavy steps thumped on the ceiling then pattered down a flight of stairs. A door flung open as Martron joined the two with his coat half-buttoned, a handful of papers in hand. His son followed at his heels, picking up sheets of paper that fell from his grip.
The mayor nodded tensely, as if his mind was caught up elsewhere. “Good evening, Dryden. Sorry to bother you. I’m meeting with a few men to discuss what you found in the forest and to make sure they know I’ve requested soldiers from Feldamor. Would you like to come along?”
Dryden opened his mouth, but Martron spoke before he could answer. “I’ve talked to your father already. He might be there, though he never confirmed. But he knows where you’ll be if you’re not home for dinner.” He grabbed a satchel hanging by the door and tucked the papers inside. “It’s your decision, but to be honest, I’d like you there. I always appreciate having your common sense…especially with such a, um, tender situation.”
Dryden looked out the window. Rain battered the glass like arrows. He worried what the men would think to have him at another meeting, but he also feared the nonsense that might spread if Herthrim or Gravenir were there and left unsupervised. At the very least, he ought to go to keep the stories straight.
“I’ll come along. Who else will be there?”
“Mostly the same people,” said Martron. He cast Dryden a wary look. “I had to exclude Herthrim because of the little…escapade at the tavern. But I need Gravenir there, if you’re okay with that.”
A small weight lifted from Dryden’s chest. “That’s fine.” I’d rather deal with Gravenir than try to keep Herthrim quiet.
A smile lit up Martron’s tired eyes. “Wonderful.” He hugged Phelona goodbye and tousled his son’s hair. “I’ll see you two later tonight.”
“One moment,” said Phelona. She left for another room then returned with a burgundy coat and a pair of black trousers in her arms. “Take this for now, Dryden. Leave your wet clothes here to dry, and you can pick them up tomorrow.”
She passed them over. Dryden held them in his hands, paralyzed by the coat’s vibrant fabric, decorative buttons, and tapered collar. “It’s—” His expression drooped without his consent. It’s too regal. I’ll look like a pomp.
He noticed a concerned frown creasing Phelona’s lips. Before the situation could grow too awkward, he flung it over his shoulders and forced a smile. “That’s very kind of you. It’s nicer than any coat I’ve ever owned.”
Phelona’s cheeks glowed, though Dryden felt he had been too late to avoid offending her. After changing in another room, he muttered a clumsy goodbye, buttoned up the coat, then hurried for the door.
Eight men sat waiting in a tangible silence as Dryden and Martron entered the meeting hall. Ulvimon and Chrizodo were seated beside each other; Gravenir slouched on the opposite side with his arms crossed. Kinmount made another appearance, though he seemed to be shaking with fright as his fawn-like eyes flicked from one side of the room to the other.
Dryden took a seat beside Hiran, a skinny fellow with eyes like a hawk. He nodded to Dryden with a sort of half-smile, as if showing too much goodwill might betray a human and thruin’s presupposed animosity. Wox, San, and Dansria finished the count, all farmers from the west end of Byromar who hadn’t been at the previous meeting.
Before it could garner too much attention, Dryden shed his coat and tucked it carefully beneath his seat. He shuffled forward with his hands hidden under the table, eyeing the room’s stern-faced occupants. Flint, Janir, and Brikston were all noticeably absent, though he hadn’t expected Janir to return.
Martron seated himself at the head and set his satchel on the table. “Thanks for coming. I’ll try to make this quick, since we all have more important things to do. For those of you who missed our first meeting, we discussed Sargan’s death. Since then, Flint, Dryden, Chrizodo, Herthrim, and Ulvimon checked Bonial Woods, where they ran into a…concerning sight.”
Ulvimon held out one hand, his fingers curled as if they were claws. “A monster. Probably ate Sargan whole.”
Hiran lurched backwards, nearly tipping his chair. “A monster? What kind?”
Ulvimon shrugged. “I don’t know. It had one eye, and its body almost looked like a—um…”
“It had a shell,” said Chrizodo. “With horns like a bull, and a tail like a lizard.”
“And huge teeth,” added Ulvimon.
Martron looked to his left. “Kinmount, you’ve travelled more than the rest of us. Do you have any idea what this creature could be?”
Kinmount started at the sound of his name. He replied in a shaky voice as his gaze strayed to the floor. “No, it doesn’t sound familiar.”
“Do you think it was a dragon?” asked Dansria.
Gravenir rolled his eyes. Ulvimon shot a sideways glance then turned to Dansria. “I mean, none of us have ever seen one, but it didn’t look anything like the ones you hear in folktales.”
“It didn’t breathe fire,” noted Dryden.
Ulvimon looked as if he was about to mention the energy it had shot from its mouth, but he remained silent instead. A brief moment passed before Martron digressed.
“Either way, it’s a predator that doesn’t belong in Byromar. I went to Feldamor and requested fourteen soldiers. They’ll check the other forests for us, so we won’t have another tragedy like Sargan’s.”
“Just out of curiosity,” said Ulvimon, as his concerted eyes scanned the others, “has anyone seen tracks near any woods?”
The men shook their heads. Dryden checked Gravenir. His vacant stare seemed to suggest he was paying little to no attention.
“That’s good to know,” said Martron. “The soldiers will still provide some relief to the people.” His face suddenly turned grave. “But until the soldiers check, make sure nobody goes into the forests. I don’t care if you need to hunt or cut firewood—stay out until this is over.”
All the men murmured in agreement.
“What do we do if the soldiers find more monsters?” asked Wox.
“Nothing,” said Martron. “The soldiers will kill them.”
Wox soured. “Seems awfully barbaric to slaughter some creatures just because they happened to wander into Byromar.”
“We can’t jeopardize the safety of the people. These things are too large and too deadly to leave alone.”
“I have a different question,” said Ulvimon. His hardened expression hinted of a reserved zeal. “Purely hypothetical, mind you, but what if we find a link between the monsters and the foreigners?”
Martron sighed. “I can’t imagine they have anything to do with it.”
Hiran seemed to take immediate interest in the connection. “I’ve heard some strange rumours about those men.”
“Like what?” asked Dansria, his eyes wide.
“Well…one of Tylan’s cows broke its leg, so he had to kill it. He said the day before it happened, he saw someone watching his pasture, but didn’t know who it was.”
Martron straightened his back, as if intending to interrupt, but Hiran continued before he had a chance.
“A whole row of Wilon’s crops dried up, even though we’ve had more rain than usual. He thought he saw someone near his fields, too. Then there’s Casin’s girls, who are all still bedridden.”
Gravenir grumbled. Hiran looked like he had a dozen more cases ready, but the mayor intervened with a wave of the hand. “Who’s telling you all this?”
Hiran’s expression dropped, like that of a scolded child. “It’s all over the west end.”
“I expect you to quell these rumours, not spread them. I don’t want people panicking when they see soldiers arrive.”
“They’re going to, regardless,” said Ulvimon. “And it’s only a matter of time before it turns to the foreigners.”
A sudden urge to speak rose up in Dryden. His stomach growled from the dinner he would likely miss. “Why don’t we just admit there might be an infestation? It’d be better than keeping secrets.”
His heart lightened to see Chrizodo and a few others agree. “Dryden’s right. If we don’t tell people the truth, all their guesses are going to veer back to the foreigners.”
“Do you think so?” asked Martron.
Chrizodo nodded. “Animals are less intimidating than people. At least you know they’re only attacking out of instinct.”
Silent thus far, San puffed out his chest, as if signalling for attention. “Now this is just an idea, but why don’t we play along with the rumours? Those foreigners have been here far too long. We could sham the blame on them, then we’d have legal rights to have them removed.”
Dryden glanced at Gravenir. He remained in the same position—arms crossed and gaze downwards, though every comment regarding the foreigners seemed to irk him more and more.
Hiran sent the innkeeper a timid look. “Gravenir, you’d know best of all. What do you think of them?”
Dryden almost shuddered from the tension as the room fell to an expectant hush. Gravenir looked ready to storm out of the meeting. He took a long breath through his nose, but kept silent.
“They speak another language,” said Martron. “I don’t think there’s much more he knows.”
“Last meeting,” peeped Kinmount, “Chrizodo said he’d spoken to one of them.”
“So they can speak a bit of Velian,” said Dansria. He turned to Gravenir. “You must be chatting with them every now and then.”
Gravenir scowled. “Yes, exactly that. Chatter. I’m not their mother. I don’t need to keep track of everything they do.”
“Maybe you should ask them about Sargan,” offered Dansria. “I’m sure they’ve heard about it already.”
Gravenir looked ready to bark back, but the door to the meeting room burst open. Dryden whirled around to see Herthrim, Brikston, and three others barge inside, their faces dripping with blood.
“I was right!” roared Herthrim. “Those foreigners are up to no good! They tried to kill us!”
A buzz of anxious voices took over the meeting as everyone began talking at once. Brikston approached the table. He slammed his fist against the top. “Martron, you ought to do your job and remove those men at once!”
Liman, one of the other farmers with Herthrim, pointed a crooked finger at Gravenir. “Same goes to you, you greedy weasel! I know those foreigners are slipping you money so you’ll hold your tongue. If I were mayor, you’d never set foot in Byromar again!”
Gravenir leapt from his seat, his glare sharp as broken glass. “I’ve had it with you ignorant yokels blaming me for everything! I have nothing to do with them!”
“You’re full of lies! I wouldn’t trust you if you were my own brother!”
Gravenir knocked his chair over as he rushed towards Liman. “Which of your bones do you want me to break? I’ll give you the choice.”
Dryden jumped from his seat and blocked Gravenir’s path. The innkeeper recoiled as if he’d been scalded by a flame. “Get away from me, snowblood!”
Hiran joined the cluster, separating Dryden from Gravenir. Dansria moved to hold back the bloodied quintet as they shouted insults at Gravenir.
“You’re a money-hungry leech!”
“Ghathil take you!”
Martron exploded onto his feet. “Enough!”
His thundering voice silenced the crowd. The five bloody farmers stepped back, the others returned to their seats. Gravenir righted his chair, slumping into it with a murder of venom in his eyes. Dryden adjusted his hat and tucked his hands back inside his pockets. He kept his focus away from the innkeeper as Martron spoke in a voice crackled with disgust.
“Have some civility, will you? If I had known you all came here to squabble like hens, I would’ve cancelled the meeting!”
The men lowered their heads, offering apologetic words blemished by excuses.
“Now it seems we have another issue on our hands,” Martron continued. “What happened, Herthrim?”
The pig farmer wiped his bleeding nose then leaned against the table. “We confronted those foreigners ourselves, since nobody else had the courage to do it.”
“Stupidity and courage are two different things,” said Gravenir with a sneer.
Herthrim didn’t seem to hear the remark. “All we did was ask them why they’re in Byromar. Then they did this to us.” He pointed to his face.
“How many were there?” asked Martron.
Herthrim hesitated a moment. “…Two.”
“And they beat five of you for asking a simple question?”
“Well…” Herthrim’s eyes fell. “It started with a simple question, but things got heated, I guess.”
“Why don’t you tell the truth?” said Ulvimon.
Miklar, the shortest of the five bloody farmers, stepped forward. He almost looked remorseful, though it was difficult to tell when his right eye was swelled shut. “We found two of the foreigners outside the inn, so we demanded they tell us why they were in Byromar, but all they would say is ‘just visiting’.”
“Which they are,” said Gravenir.
Miklar dabbed his sleeve against a gash on his forehead then resumed. “None of us believed them, so we kept arguing until, ah…” He glanced over at Herthrim, who stood with his eyes downcast, blood dripping from his face. “…Until Herthrim threw a punch. The confrontation ended shortly after.”
“We didn’t land a single blow,” muttered Brikston. “Those men are trained fighters.”
Creases lined Martron’s furrowed brow. “You didn’t say anything about Sargan or the monster in Bonial Woods, did you?”
Herthrim swore under his breath. “Well…I, uh, might’ve said a thing or two.”
Martron snapped upright with a groan. “Why? You knew I sent for a group of soldiers from Feldamor! Now it’s going to look suspicious.”
“You said the foreigners were the ones who killed Sargan,” argued Herthrim.
“I never said that! We don’t know what the foreigners are up to. That’s why we wanted to leave them alone until the soldiers checked the forests for more monsters.”
Ulvimon shot Herthrim an indignant glare. “You’re an idiot. Why don’t you ever keep to yourself?”
“It’s Flint’s fault,” argued Herthrim. “He mentioned something Dryden said about the foreigners.”
Dryden shirked back in his chair, caught off guard by the sudden blame. “What are you talking about?”
Herthrim pointed at him while speaking to Ulvimon. “Flint, Martron, and Dryden had their own meeting. Flint told me they discovered the foreigners were involved.”
Dryden nearly leapt out of his seat. “He never—”
Brikston slammed a fist on the table. “Martron, you’re discussing things outside these meetings? Do you think we’re just pawns or something?”
“I went to Flint’s house to see the monster’s head!” shouted Martron, his face red. “Do not accuse me like I’m leading a conspiracy. Everything was under control until you five interfered, and now we’ve got a real mess on our hands.”
Brikston continued to crack his burly fists against the table. “It seems you’re doing whatever you feel like without our consent.”
“This is ridiculous!” cried Martron. “We’re not a council! This was supposed to be a simple discussion with men I thought I could trust!” He began to pace about in circles, looking ready to tear out his hair. “All I wanted was to find out how Sargan died. Now it’s unraveled into complete chaos!”
Liman jabbed a finger at Gravenir. “I know exactly how this could’ve been avoided.”
The innkeeper rolled his eyes. “Don’t start again.”
“Maybe if you’d cooperate a little, things wouldn’t have come to this.”
Gravenir answered with a slur of colourful words. Liman riposted with some phrases of his own, and soon the room burst into another uproar. Dryden stared in silence, baffled by the collective display of temper.
I should be at home eating dinner right now. What a waste of time. He looked over his shoulder. I wonder if I could slip out the door without anyone noticing.
He rose from his seat while the arguing raged on, then shuffled for the exit. Just as he set a foot outside, the commotion reeled to a halt.
“Where are you going, snowblood?” said Gravenir.
Dryden replied with his back to the group. “I didn’t come here to bicker. I’ve got better things to do.”
“Let’s hear your thoughts first.” Gravenir’s tone carried a subtle mockery. “You were awfully quiet until Herthrim started naming names.”
Dryden turned to face him. The collection of riled, red-faced farmers looked rather amusing. Or pathetic. He couldn’t decide.
Only Chrizodo showed any composure. His calm demeanour lent Dryden a bit of confidence as he rehearsed a reply in his head.
“It seems to me like we’re trying to solve an imaginary problem.”
“How poetic,” said Gravenir. “Care to explain?”
“Well,” began Dryden, his words slow and careful, “we’re getting the foreigners involved without any proof they did anything.”
“Interesting…” Gravenir leaned back in his chair. “So how come you came with Flint and Herthrim to spy on them at my tavern?”
Dryden winced. Curse him. I should’ve known he’d use that against me.
“We weren’t spying on them. We came to see what you thought of Sargan’s death.”
Herthrim leaned in, nose crinkled at the innkeeper. “But somebody was acting suspiciously tight-lipped.”
“I was being cautious,” said Gravenir. “To be frank, I was a little nervous with Dryden there. Rumours say he used a bit of black magick to kill that monster.”
Ulvimon and Chrizodo stiffened in their seats. Herthrim’s mouth drooped. Gravenir gave a wide grin then winked at Dryden. “Yeah, word spreads quickly in Byromar.”
“It had nothing to do with black magick,” said Dryden, though he could feel the mood of the room shifting already.
“I heard it was an act of inhuman strength,” continued Gravenir. He accentuated his words with a flourish of the hands. “Not that you’re human. Pardon the expression.”
“That’s not our concern right now,” said Martron in an icy tone.
Gravenir outstretched his arms. “Well, since we’re throwing every problem on the table now, maybe we ought to pay a bit of attention to everyone’s favourite thruin. I’m a little concerned. You know black magick opens the path to another world of danger. If you think the foreigners are causing trouble, imagine what the Xavadal could do.”
Kinmount bounced to his feet, his face drained of colour. “Don’t say their name!”
“Exactly,” said Gravenir. “If mentioning a name is enough to wake the Unspeakables, imagine what actual sorcery could do.”
“Dryden’s no sorcerer,” said Chrizodo. “I didn’t see any signs of black magick.”
Gravenir gestured to Dryden’s pockets. “What’s under those bandages then? I’ve never seen his bare hands. A man from Feldamor is staying at my inn, and he had a few thoughts about them. Very interesting stuff.”
“If the doctors here don’t know what’s wrong,” growled Dryden, “Why would some random traveler?”
“What?” laughed Gravenir. “You think a doctor from Byromar knows more than he does? It’s clear you’ve never been to the city before.”
Herthrim stomped his foot. “I don’t want to hear your hogwash, Gravenir! You’re getting on my nerves!”
The innkeeper held up his hands in defense. “Why? Am I jumping to conclusions? Oh wait, jumping to conclusions? Who else has been doing that?”
“Enough!” snapped Martron. “I’m ending this meeting now. Get out—all of you!”
Kinmount scurried from the room with Wox close behind. San and Dansria followed. Gravenir rose to his feet.
“You!” Martron pointed to the innkeeper. “Stay here. Everyone else, get out. Dryden, wait downstairs. I’ll drive you home.”
Dryden left the room with the others, his stomach in a knot. A cold resentment towards Gravenir had begun to form.
He kept his hands hidden in his pockets as he paused at the edge of the balcony. Brikston brushed past, his square jaw locked in a surly frown. “Looks like someone is the mayor’s favourite.”
Ulvimon stopped beside Dryden. “Go home, Brikston! Wash that ugly face of yours. It’s even worse when it’s all bloody.”
Brikston prattled something unsavoury then clumped down the stairs to the exit. Chrizodo and Herthrim joined Dryden while the rest of the men departed.
“What an unpleasant meeting,” said Chrizodo.
Ulvimon turned to Herthrim. “What were you thinking? Do you know how many more problems you created?”
Herthrim scowled. “I was just trying to get something done.”
Ulvimon fixed him with a cold stare. Herthrim leaned his elbows on the balcony rail then let out a long sigh. “I know. I’m a complete oaf.”
“What did you tell them?” asked Dryden.
“I can’t remember exactly. I told them to watch their backs, because you ripped the head off their monster. It was just a threat. They probably weren’t even listening to me.”
“Did they admit the monster was theirs?” asked Chrizodo.
Herthrim shrugged. “I don’t know. I was already running to find Martron.”
“At least they don’t know who Dryden is,” said Ulvimon. “And even if they did, they can’t do anything about it. If they pursue him now, it’s basically a confession that the monster is theirs.”
Herthrim scratched his scalp. “Is it? So I might’ve cornered them?”
Ulvimon smirked. “You might’ve, actually. But don’t congratulate yourself. You still made a mess.”
“You’re right. I’m an idiot. I was supposed to go to town to buy some tools, but I went after the foreigners instead. I’m going to hear it when I get home.” He shook his head and marched for the exit, shoulders slouched.
Dryden watched him step out into the rain before he banged the front door shut.
“I ought to get home as well,” said Ulvimon. He patted Dryden on the shoulder then departed.
Dryden kept his lips pursed. Chrizodo remained at his side, his eyes locked on the floor below them. “Would you like a ride to your house?”
“I’ll go with Martron,” said Dryden. “He lives a lot closer to me than you do. Thanks, though.”
“Don’t mention it.” Chrizodo threw on his coat. “I apologize for not defending you much. I didn’t want to add to the commotion.”
“I know you’re not a sorcerer. Don’t worry what people think.”
He left, leaving Dryden by himself in the main room, accompanied only by the patter of endless rain. Martron’s voice seeped through the door in a blur of muffled words. Dryden thought about eavesdropping, but decided he’d had enough drama for the day. He puttered down the stairs instead, his footsteps harsh against the empty building. A breeze blew through cracks in the walls.
He stared out one of the windows at the gloomy hills of Byromar. They looked like ocean waves as rainwater slithered through the grass. Zaltoras engulfed every inch of sky, its massive bulk coloured an ashy-maroon.
I wonder if a downpour always follows a clear sky. I can’t remember what happened last time.
The door to the meeting room flew open. Gravenir and Martron walked together in tense silence, the wooden floor creaking beneath their weight. The innkeeper passed by Dryden without a word and stepped outside. A gust of wind slammed the door shut. Echoes bounced through the town hall.
Martron paused beside Dryden. He gave a dreary, emptying sigh. “What a day…Do you smell onions?”
Dryden almost laughed out loud, then realized it was a serious question, and the hall did in fact have a faint odour. “I didn’t notice until you mentioned it.”
Martron shrugged. “No matter. Let’s get out of here.”
Dryden followed the mayor into the rain, his mind now occupied with the thought of onions. He had smelled that exact stench somewhere before. It wasn’t until he had climbed into the carriage that he remembered why it bothered him.
He poked his head out an opening. A shadow ducked behind one of the town hall’s windows. Or did he imagine it?