Shielding his eyes from the brilliant setting sun, Owen pointed at a brown billy goat grazing a few paces from the flock. “How much for that one?”
“I hate to lose Cottontail,” Madoc grumbled. His leathery face puckered like he’d just swallowed snot. “Ornery, but he gives our does a steady supply of kids.”
“You may lose him regardless. The Beast enjoys goat almost as much as people. But unlike the Beast, I’ll give you a fair price.” The fat purse on his belt jangled as Owen gave it an emphatic pat. “How much for Cottontail?”
Madoc leaned against his shepherd’s crook and scratched the whiskers on his chin. “Well—”
They both whirled around to find Alys racing up the hill. Brown hair streamed freely behind her, and tanned cheeks glistened with tears. She took a spill on the muddy footpath, scrambled up, and threw her arms around Madoc.
For a moment, the flabbergasted shepherd simply held his wife.
“Madoc,” she sobbed into his shoulder, “it took him!”
“What took who?”
“The Beast,” Owen whispered as his stomach sank like a stone. “The Beast of Saltern attacked Rhys and dragged him off into the forest. Am I right, Alys?”
She nodded and whimpered softly. “Everything happened so fast. When I headed out to gather all the laundry on the clothesline, Rhys was playing by the gate. He must have drifted down the road even though I told him to stay close. Then something roared and he screamed. When I looked up, this thing held him in its mouth as it bolted for the trees.”
Blinking back tears, he shook his head in disbelief. The boy had seemed so full of life when they met on the road to Saltern. So full of questions. And now, just a few hours later, Rhys was…gone. Snuffed out by a creature who didn’t even belong on this Sphere of existence.
“Gods,” Alys sobbed, “I can still hear him screaming for me. Begging me to save him.”
Owen stiffened, then swallowed the lump in his throat and met her gaze. “Are you sure? Rhys screamed for you while the Beast dragged him away? He used words?”
Three sharp nods answered his questions.
This can’t be right! Nekru always struck at the throats of their prey, hoping to sever the spine with their long fangs or suffocate larger beasts. A tactic they shared with the great cats of Talmenor. By all rights, this technique should’ve made short work of any child.
So how was Rhys able to scream for Alys?
Only one answer made any sense: those fell jaws hadn’t clamped around his neck. Why? Why risk losing an eye to desperate little fingers instead of ending him outright? Why make such a raucous spectacle instead of quietly dragging a tiny body back to the woods?
At first glance, this seemed like the work of a reckless hunter…but all the other attacks painted a very different portrait of the Beast. Careful. Deliberate. Even skittish. Worst of all, nekru possessed more cunning than any wild animal. If the Beast hadn’t killed Rhys despite all the risks of hauling off live prey, it probably had a damn good reason. Maybe even a plan.
Memories from this morning bubbled up: paranoia setting every hair on end as he traversed a man-eater’s hunting grounds alone, waves of relief at the first signs of civilization, a prickle of annoyance every time his little companion asked another question.
What if it wasn’t just paranoia?
Maybe the nekru had stalked him all the way to Saltern. Maybe that was when it first noticed the boy splashing from puddle to puddle. An icicle of dread sliced through his chest. What if the attack was part of a larger ploy? What if the Beast meant to bait a trap using Rhys?
Gods, this is all my fault! If he hadn’t stayed with the Tanets, the monster wouldn’t have targeted their son. If he hadn’t gone weak at the sight of a nekru, he wouldn’t have botched the ambush on the beach. And if he hadn’t botched the ambush on the beach, this nightmare would already be over.
Owen surveyed everything threatened by the Beast. Saltern on the low rise a mile away, fertile fields and lush meadows beyond, a shallow creek and dirt road running in tandem down to the salt works on the beach, all surrounded by the wild hills and forest where his foe awaited him. Smothering guilt with duty, he started down the path back to Saltern.
Darks eyes brimmed with tears as Madoc glanced up from comforting his wife. “Where are you going, Sir Gibbs?”
“To bring your son home or die trying.”