Screams and cries from the villagers who witnessed the taking jarred Ryne into action. “Go!” he yelled to Sakari and Dren. “Fetch Lenka and Keevo. And gather several other hunters from the woods.”
“What about Mariel?” Sakari gestured toward the woman.
“I’ll deal with her. Go! Go!”
“No, Master Waldron. The elders, the villagers…you have to calm them,” Dren implored, his eyes frantic.
“The boy comes first,” Ryne snapped. He rounded on Dren, towering over him like a great cliff, his eyes steel. “I’ll be damned if I have his blood on my hands. If I ever had a son, he’d be like Kahkon. I won’t stand by—”
Dren grabbed at Ryne’s arm. His hands trembled. “You don’t understand, Master Waldron. The way Forian been going at them the last few days, they’ll attack Mariel for sure with this. You know how it was during the War of Remnants. The Tribunal will kill everyone if we harm Mariel. I have a wife, sons…Master Waldron. Please. Look, if we’re to save Kahkon, we can’t afford for them to go traipsing into the Fretian now anyway. We’d be sure to lose the lapra’s tracks. And if they go after Mariel, there’ll be nowhere to hide from the Tribunal’s wrath.” Tears welled up in the scoutmaster’s eyes.
Agonized by the need to save Kahkon, Ryne clenched his fists. Deep down, he knew Dren was right. Kahkon’s survival meant a lot to him, but so did the rest of Carnas. He couldn’t dream of sacrificing one for the other. Both needed him. As harsh as it sounded to himself, right now, staving off whatever malice resided in Carnas must take precedence. He needed to rely on Sakari and the others to find the tracks in time.
Torn, Ryne pulled his arm away from the scoutmaster. “Fine, fine,” he whispered, his voice hoarse. “You two go. Gather the others. I’ll inform the elders and settle the people down before I come. Sound the horn when you find the tracks. Sakari.” Their gazes locked. “Do not fail.”
“Thank you, Master Waldron,” Dren said reverently.
Without a word, Sakari bowed and ran off with Dren following on his heels. Sakari weaved his way amongst frantically pointing villagers who’d crowded the hard–packed dirt road surrounded by Carnas’ wooden homes. As he raced by, he gestured to two men in armor that matched his. One was a gray–haired, wiry man with a horn at his hip, and the other, a grizzle–faced hunter whose arms were all sinew. They ran after Sakari toward the woods.
Broad back and legs stiff from fighting the urge to chase after them, Ryne turned and stalked in the opposite direction toward Hagan’s Inn. Villagers still pointed and a few young boys had climbed onto a roof and were gazing out toward the Fretian Woods. Concerned chatter flowed among the throngs on the road.
The door to Hagan’s Inn burst open. Mayor Bertram, Hagan, and several other members from Carnas’ village Council rushed outside the three–storied sandstone building. Ryne strode to meet them.
“What’s happening?” Bertram’s scarred face was gaunt and grim. His one good eye scanned the panicked crowd. His left arm, which ended at the elbow, moved on its own accord.
Hagan waddled just behind him, chest heaving, shirt so tight about his barrel–shaped belly it appeared as if it would burst open with his next breath. “Has another body been found?” He popped his pipe into the corner of his mouth and kneaded giana leaves into the bowl.
A flurry of questions spilled from the other Council members. Ryne lifted his hand, and a reluctant silence followed as villagers gathered in a respectful band around the elders.
“No, there hasn’t been another body,” Ryne said, feeling a great weight on his chest as he thought about the boy’s small shape hanging from the beast’s jaws. “But an infected lapra took Kahkon.”
Gasps sounded from all around. Standing well over everyone, Ryne took in their wide–eyed expressions and animated gestures.
“An infected lapra?” Bertram repeated. “Here? You certain? How…What’s it doing here? The Rot is hundreds of miles away. And the wards…”
Several other elders seconded Bertram’s opinion.
Ryne shook his head. “It doesn’t need to make sense. That’s what took the boy. You can ask anyone who saw.” Some Council members did as he suggested. In turn, Ryne graced them with a glare. “Listen, you can stay here and continue to squabble about Mariel’s intentions. Or who or what killed those men we found near the kinai orchards. Or about what took the other eight villagers. I’ll have none of it. Before Kahkon ends up like them, I’m going after the boy. I’ve already sent Sakari to gather a few others for the task.”
A gravelly voice called from the crowd, “Mariel sent the beast.” All eyes shifted to the baldheaded man. Baker Forian wiped greasy hands on an apron dark with stains. “She took those who we be missing too.”
Ryne raised his brow. “You have proof of this?”
Forian sucked in his paunch as he held himself erect. “I seen her speak to plains lapras with my own two.” He pointed at his beady eyes. “They ran off without bothering the woman once. If that not be proof then what be?”
Several people gave doubtful grumbles, while others sounded as if they expected such an occurrence. Forian’s face flushed, but from his eyes, Ryne could tell the man believed what he said. Ryne frowned. Could Mariel have taken the villagers? The thought had crossed his mind before, but he’d yet to find proof. Yet, what made him more uncertain was the chance she might have an ability to commune with beasts similar to Sakari. He’d never seen anyone who possessed a skill comparable to his companion.
Despite his doubts, Ryne decided on caution. If he left now without knowing where the beast headed, the last mistake he needed was to unwittingly lead Mariel to the hunters’ location. Not to mention the consequences if he didn’t find a way to calm the murderous intent Forian had stirred up.
“But she’s a Devout,” someone from the gathered crowd shouted.
“If she be a Devout, she wouldn’t be involved in such things,” Forian insisted.
Mayor Bertram scoffed. “If, indeed. We’ve argued all day about whether she’s a Devout. I tend to believe differently. If only they would see it.” He regarded the other elders with his good eye narrowed. “I’ve yet to see a high priestess without their guards or their uniform.” All, except Hagan, avoided his gaze.
The innkeeper blew a puff of perfumed giana smoke into the air. “She bears the Lightstorm insignia. And—”
A wail broke out from the back of the crowd. Murmurs drifted through the villagers. A path opened between them to reveal a middle–aged woman stumbling toward the elders— Kahkon’s mother, Lara. Several men helped hold up the weeping woman. Dark circles ringed her eyes. Her disheveled clothing appeared as if she’d thrown on any scrap she could find when she received the news.
Lara’s body convulsed. “My Kahkon. My poor Kahkon,” she bawled.
One man bent close and spoke into Lara’s ear. Her head rose, and her gaze ran over the Council. They regarded her with pity. She scrubbed at her tear–streaked face as she shambled into the circle of village elders. When she saw Ryne, a faint, hopeful expression spread across her face before more sobs tore from her throat, and she swooned.
Ryne stepped forward and caught her. In her hand, she cradled one of the books he’d given to Kahkon—the boy’s favorite—When the Gods Walked Among Us, the title read. Kahkon had a love for the old stories and would often say he dreamed of being one of the gods. In his dreams, he said Ryne was one of his Battleguards, protecting him as he did Carnas. Ryne’s chest tightened with the memory.
“I’ll return your boy safely, Miss Lara. I promise. As soon as Sakari sends word he’s found the beast’s trail.” Ryne held her upright so he could peer down into her grief–ridden eyes.
Lara’s legs steadied, and she craned her neck. Her bloodshot eyes darted back and forth, peering into his, hope radiating from them. “I, I know you will, Master Waldron,” she said, her voice tremulous. “He’s my only boy. I told him, you know. I told him about the dead men they been finding. I told him stay away from the woods, but you know Kahkon. He loves the trees. Why me, Master Waldron? Why my boy?”
“I don’t know, but I intend to find out.” Ryne released his hold on Kahkon’s mother.
“It be Mariel’s fault all this be happening,” another person yelled from the crowd.
“Look at the kinai crops. It’s her fault we haven’t had constant rains the last few months for a proper harvest. In the middle of the rainy season. And this year’s fruit been sour besides. The storm gods punish us like in the days of the Shadowbearer.”
Ryne eyed the large warehouse a few feet from where they stood. The normally fist–sized kinai fruit stacked in buckets in front the building were withered and brown.
A second voice joined in. “The old blood still runs strong among us in Ostania. We’d never lay with daemons or wolves like the Granadians do.”
“Praise be to the true god, Humelen,” a third voice yelled.
“It’s because they partake in flesh instead of the purity of the land,” another villager shouted.
“The Granadians brought ruin to Ostania twice,” Forian announced. “And they will again. Let them keep their lecherous ways across the sea. It be them made all manner of monsters descend upon our lands. I say burn that bitch, Mariel, before she can make half–wolf children or any other daemon spawn who grow up worshiping the shade. Who be with me?”
Bloodthirsty shouts ruptured the air until the uproar grew to an incomprehensible din. Lara began wailing again. Men and women reached for swords or clubs, and metal rasped on leather. Those who did not already clench weapons shook their fists.
“Just head on out, Master Waldron,” old, toothless Sanada pleaded. “Sure as fleas to a dog, she follows you. My sons can go before you do. The rest of us can trail her. You all turn back and she be ours for the taking.”
Ryne ignored the man and the nods and murmurs of approval.
A smile curled onto Mayor Bertram’s lips. Ryne’s Scripts shifted like the tentative brush of a new lover’s fingers against his skin. For an instant, Ryne thought he saw the man’s aura flash to a darker shade, but it was gone so fast he dismissed the sight as a trick of the day’s heat. Bertram’s and Forian’s gazes met for a brief instant before Forian gave a subtle nod.
Ryne wanted nothing more than to make his way to the woods to help in the search for the boy. Yet, he’d seen this coming for weeks now. He’d hoped the Council meetings would have given Bertram pause in his efforts to stir up the people. But the hateful seeds sown by Bertram through Forian had taken stronger root. If he did nothing, and they continued to grow, someone would indeed be bold enough to attack Mariel. If only Bertram wasn’t so blinded by hate.
“Stop!” Ryne’s basso voice thundered over the riotous crowd. The din dwindled to a murmur. A few village folk standing close to him retreated several steps. “Listen to yourselves. When have any of you seen what you speak of? When have you seen any man control the weather? Daemon spawn? When have any of you seen a Granadian or a Devout give birth to or create a shadeling?” He met their heated expressions with an icy scowl, daring anyone to answer.
“Because you don’t see a thing doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” Baker Forian yelled.
Ryne gave the man a stare that could curdle milk. “Forian, when has anyone you’ve known witnessed any such occurrence? What is it but poison you’ve been spreading for years? Now even more so when this woman has shown up. You claimed to have proof of her ill intentions, but you provided none beyond your word. And that, in itself, can be called to account due to your own ways. Believe me, if you can prove to me here and now she’s involved, I’ll deal with her myself.”
“Her speaking to lapras not be proof?” Forian retorted.
“You’ve seen Sakari speak to all manner of beasts, does that make him evil? A child stealer? A creator of shadelings?” Ryne shook his head at the absurdity of his own questions. Everything he’d read agreed the shade’s beastly minions couldn’t be created in this realm. When Forian didn’t answer, Ryne carried on. “Miss Corten often spoke to her flowers. Old Sanada speaks to his dogs and the rats and pheasants.” Sanada shifted uneasily as Ryne continued. “Hagan likes to chatter to the birds. Are they evil? Does it mean they were involved in the creature taking the boy?”
Red–faced, Forian dipped his head and avoided Ryne’s cold stare. “All I know be what I saw her do. And it be said when the rot leaves the forest, the shade will walk the land.” He peered at the faces around him. “Well, the rot left the forest. An infected lapra. If what she did not be of the shade then what be?” He paused for effect. “This be the first time I seen any beasts leave the Rot. And it happens when she be here, after she speaks to the same type of creature.” He turned his hands palms up as if the conclusions were inescapable. “I don’t call that chance.” A few in the crowd nodded their agreement.
Concerned mutters followed from the elders before Hagan spoke up. “You should be careful what you say, Forian.” He kept his voice low, but it still carried. “We wouldn’t want wind of words she might consider blasphemy to get back to her ears.” He peered in the direction of Mariel’s last camp.
“Why should we care what she thinks is blasphemy?” Bertram shrugged, his one–eyed gaze taking in everyone. “Even if she is a Devout, none of us here worship her gods.”
Murmurs of agreement joined the nods, steadily increasing. Someone else yelled Humelen was the true god.
Glowering, Ryne drew himself up, causing those nearby to take a few steps back as he loomed even larger. “Most of you here have been a part of the War of Remnants. You helped drive the last of the shadelings from your lands. Yet, your lands wouldn’t be your own right now if not for the same people you rebuke. Take a look around you.” He pointed at the rolling plains, then he gestured to the squat wooden buildings along the alleys and lanes within Carnas. “Look at your children, your neighbors, your friends.” He kept his eyes fixed on the villagers until they did as he commanded. “Without Granadia’s help, without the Devout,” he grimaced even before he said the next bit, “without the Tribunal, you may not be here today. They saved you from the shade. Remember that.”
The unrest died down.
“You be the reason we be here today,” Hagan said, his voice quiet.
Bertram cocked his head to regard Ryne with his good eye. The burn scar tissue covering the left side of Bertram’s face puckered, but he said nothing.
Ryne ignored Bertram’s expression and continued, “The most important thing right now is seeing Kahkon to safety. Debate these outlandish stories and accusations another time. Return to your homes. Make sure your children are safe. No one is to venture near the Fretian Woods.”
Few grumbled protests followed, but after a look at Ryne’s hulking form and hardened face, the villagers dispersed in small groups. Ryne waited to make sure the village square was clear.
“A moment if you will, Master Waldron,” Bertram said. “Hagan and I would like to speak with you.” He gestured toward the door of the inn.
“I’ve more important things to do,” Ryne snapped. “As do you. You should be seeing to your people.” He took in the mayor’s glare with a look akin to frozen steel.
Bertram growled something under his breath and spun on his heels. The elders followed.
Ryne signaled to Vana and Vera. The serving women ambled over to him. “I need you two to take Miss Lara home. See to her needs and make sure she’s comfortable.”
“Yes, my Lord,” Vana said.
Vera held out her hand. “Lord Waldron, take this with you.” She handed a pouch to him, and he leaned forward to see what it contained. “It’s the best kinai we could find. We had the mender make a paste just for you. It may also be useful when you find the boy.”
“You should eat some now too,” Vana added. She tiptoed and brushed her hand on the scars that striped the left side of his face. “There’s never anything wrong with a little extra energy.” She gave him a sweet smile.
Ryne sighed. He almost told them again he was no lord, but he knew his words would come and go like a fluttering breeze. Instead, he accepted their gift, acknowledged them both with a nod, and admired their shapes as they curtsied and hurried off with Miss Lara in tow.
A hunter’s horn wailed from within the woods.
Ryne dashed off toward the sound. Villagers scrambled out of his way as he bounded along the main road before he veered off into one of the many alleys, startling a few dogs foraging among garbage, the foul odor of piss and other undesirable waste permeating the air—the result of almost two weeks without rain. He leaped over the clogged drains and past the homes that lined the alleys, his leather boots making soft, rhythmic thuds as he ran. More than once, children at play jumped from his path. Emerging from Carnas’ eastern exit, he dodged past the gate in the low wooden wall. When he glanced out to his left, he growled.
Mariel watched him from across the plains. As usual, she maintained a distance where he couldn’t see her aura.
Ryne focused ahead and made a straight path toward the Fretian Woods. As he ran, he took a quick peek over his shoulder.