Halfway to Saltern, Owen cast a wary glance over his shoulder. Nothing. Just like the last dozen times he’d checked for the nekru. Nevertheless, gazing into the foliage alongside this trail left the nape of his neck atingle. The Beast never attacks in broad daylight, he reminded himself. But what if the reports were…flawed? What if daytime attacks had been misidentified, just like the Beast of Saltern?
Better sift through my notes again.
Eager to turn up a fresh clue, Owen hustled down the footpath. Sunlight warmed his weathered cheeks as forest gradually gave way to rolling hills. In the distance, a handful of shepherds watched over their flocks. Ah, safety in numbers! Whether the man-eater hunted by day or night, it wouldn’t strike so close to the village. Why risk a nasty wound from strange human weaponry when ambushing more isolated prey kept its belly nice and full?
All the tension bunching up his muscles ebbed away, replaced by bone-deep weariness. Warm food and an even warmer bed sounded downright divine after sitting up all night. Sleep tugged at his eyelids, but he skirted the hills and followed another pathway north until it merged with the muddy road to Saltern.
“Sir Gibbs!” A little boy in a leather skullcap waved at him. Mud stained his chubby cheeks and blue tunic, but Owen would’ve recognized the lad anywhere. Rhys Tanet. Son of the shepherd and washerwoman whose hospitality he’d enjoyed since arriving in Saltern. After rolling up his trousers with muddy fingers, Rhys jumped into a puddle. “Mama was afraid you wouldn’t come back. Did you slay the Beast, Sir Gibbs?”
“Not yet,” Owen answered as he trudged toward the village, “but I finally caught a glimpse of him.”
Blue eyes wide, Rhys squatted down like a frog and hopped from puddle to puddle. “What animal is the Beast? Papa thinks he’s a tiger from the Toothy Shey.”
“Tuthei Shey.” He chuckled and edged toward the opposite side of the road so the next frog jump wouldn’t splatter him with more mud. “Anyway, this kind of animal isn’t one you would recognize.”
Rhys scampered after him. “Is it a bear?”
“What about a snow leopard?”
Shaking his head, Owen slogged up to a wattle-and-daub cottage on the edge of Saltern. “Snow leopards don’t attack humans. Little Folk and their riding goats, yes, but not humans.”
“Then it must be a wild gryphon!”
“Gods, if only.”
Scrunching up his muddy face, the boy unleashed a fresh barrage of questions. “Can you give me a hint, Sir Gibbs? Is it big? Is it small? Does it have fur? Does it have scales? Feathers? Oh, is it a dragon?”
“Rhys,” a feminine voice said from behind him, “stop pestering Sir Gibbs.”
Owen turned to find Alys Tanet striding over with a basket of laundry resting against her hip. She wore a red woolen dress, her brown hair in a long braid, and a welcoming smile that shifted into a furious scowl as she drew close enough for a good look at her son.
“Not even midday and you’re already filthy!” The washerwoman whisked past them and headed for the clothesline beside their cottage. “Tell Auntie we need the tub again, then fetch some water from the well.”
Behind his mask of mud, Rhys pouted. “But Mama—”
“No buts. If we don’t wash you right away, you’ll ruin another tunic. Go, or your father will hear about this at supper!”
Shoulders drooping and head hung low, the boy shuffled off.
“And don’t think you get to splash in more puddles along the way!” Alys watched him with both hands on her hips until he rounded a bend and vanished behind a row of cottages. Shaking her head, she started hanging the laundry out to dry. “Folk will be glad to see you’re still in one piece, Sir Gibbs. We feared the worst.”
“So the boy said.” Owen fiddled with his crossbow strap. Should I share everything? Talk of a nekru might spark panic, and panic wouldn’t help anyone. For now, a half-truth was safer than the more daunting whole. “Missed our man-eater by a hair last night. Worse, he escaped with my bait.”
“Madoc says we can’t afford to sell you more billy goats.”
Arms crossed, he glanced at an empty cottage across the road — an empty cottage the poor, devoured salter had called home until yesterday. “Isn’t losing goats better than losing people?”
“Aye.” Alys sighed as she pinned a pair of pantaloons to the clothesline. “My husband will sell you another goat. For now, there’s porridge on the table and our bed is yours.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
After washing up inside, Owen fetched his journal and sat down for breakfast. Mmm… Lukewarm porridge seemed a banquet compared to the hardtack from yesterday. Scarping down the meal, he flipped through tattered pages until he arrived at a year-old entry.
Rumors of partially eaten remains discovered near Thornby. Little Folk. Female. Variously described as young or middle-aged. ‘Massive’ cat-like pugmarks found nearby. A Sheyn tiger turned man-eater? Best to keep an eye out in case it crosses the border.
Owen tapped his wooden spoon against the bowl. Thornby. Strange. Even though he’d never paid the name any attention in the beginning, it stuck with him like a bur now. But why? Why?! He swallowed another spoonful of porridge, chased it down with a pitcher of water, and almost choked when all the links he’d overlooked welded themselves together.
Thornby stands a few days out from Gilsa…
…and Gilsa had fended off one of the final raids the akor’mari launched into the Shey Lands, albeit at a terrible price.
The spoon clattered against the trestle table as he frantically checked the date scrawled in his journal. Hmm, two weeks after the raid. But rumors took time to spread. Perhaps a week had passed before word of the attack reached him. Perhaps the woman wasn’t discovered until a few days after her disappearance.
Meaning the Beast of Saltern claimed its first victim shortly after the Battle of Gilsa.
What if his first guess was wrong? What if all these deaths weren’t part of some akor’mar plot to rekindle the war? What if this nekru had lost its rider at Gilsa? What if it couldn’t find its way back underground before the akor’mari sealed off all their tunnels at the end of the war?
The timeline fits almost perfectly.
Sensing a breakthrough, Owen flipped to the next page. Entry after entry described a cluster of attacks along the base of the Tuthei Shey. Hvallatr, Kollavik, Skaney…all those villages stood near caves suspected of leading down into the Reaches. Searching for a way home.
A shame the nekru never found one. Instead, the carnage meandered southwest until it spilled over the border. Page after page of detailed entries described a fresh cluster of attacks on the roads around Saltern. Back when Baroness Lothridge first assigned him the case, Owen had simply assumed they were driven by the appetite of a massive predator. But now…what if hunger wasn’t its only motive?
What if it’s still fighting the war?
Compared to most creatures, nekru possessed a wicked intelligence. They learned quickly and obeyed even complex commands. Commands like, “Kill humans and the Little Folk.” Of course a nekru stranded above ground would fall back on those instructions, especially when obedience meant a full belly.
Memories flashed behind his eyes and left him trembling, but Owen wasn’t afraid. Not the slightest bit, even though nekru had haunted his nightmares since Glassock. One well-aimed bolt or sure thrust from the bear-spear offered him the chance to banish those nightmares forever. The chance to avenge Glassock. To strike one last blow against the akor’mari.
A giddy flutter filled his chest, and he ate heartily before climbing into bed for a much-needed rest. Tonight, Owen vowed as he pulled up covers, the war in my head ends.