“Find it! Don’t let it get away!”
An old woman’s voice, thick and raspy.
“You there! Dwarf!”
Fenn blinked and frowned at the awful, astringent taste in her mouth. Her breath was coming in heavy gasps. She was bathed in a cold sweat, leaning with her head against an unfamiliar wall, staring down at shoes she didn’t recognize, spattered with something wet, lumpy, and white.
“Oy, you sot!”
Her head might have been full of the same sludge her shoes were covered in. The clatter of metal and mucky squelch of footsteps tugged at her attention. She sensed rather than saw the restless crowd pressing in around her. People were shouting and hissing at one another most noisily. It made her head pound. She wished they’d give off.
“‘e won’t ‘ave seen it, Captain! Tunn’ler’s well fuddled!”
Someone grabbed her by the shoulder and gave a sharp twist. Fenn found herself staring up at into the eyes of a complete stranger. He scowled down at her from beneath his pointed metal cap, his wide nose flattened by the thin steel guard pressed against it. It made his head look like a big blustery pinecone.
“A girl!” he huffed, inches from her face. His breath smelled like hot horse piss. “Did you see it, girl? Is it near?”
His words were slippery fish and she had trouble keeping hold of them. She was standing in a mud-spattered alley, encircled by six mud-spattered men. Their flushed faces shifted in the flickering light of the torches they held aloft. Their heavy breathing stirred their red tabards, emblazoned with the heads of baying hounds. They looked like city guards, or soldiers. She didn’t recognize a one of them.
Each carried a naked blade in his hand. Fenn scrunched her eyes shut. Tried to think. Bad. That’s… I should… She opened them again. Tried to focus. It was no use.
“Girl!” The man shook her. “Did you see it?”
The men behind him glanced warily about. They looked ready to burst into violence at any provocation. Behind them a balding man in a straining tunic and a stained leather apron was wringing his hands, on the verge of hysterics.
“See what?” asked Fenn, making a valiant attempt to gather her wits.
“The Beast! Did you see the Beast, girl? We’ve chased it from the Apothecary down the road.” He jerked his head at the pudgy man. “It fled this way!
“Downed enough to kill two horses…” one of the guards complained.
“Or a horsefly,” sniggered another.
“It isn’t natural!” moaned the first.
“It was terrible!” the distraught apothecary wailed. “My entire supply! Oh, it was awful!” He tipped his fleshy head toward the sky. “I barely escaped with my life! Imagine! Such a tragedy. A travesty—!”
The guardsman interrupted his outburst, never taking his eyes from Fenn. “Did you see it or not?”
“I… I don’t know,” Fenn whispered, finally lucid enough to be afraid. Her eyes flicked sideways down the alley. It seemed to twist and ripple in the torchlight. “I can’t remember. Perhaps if you told me what it looked like?”
“The Beast!” exclaimed a guardsman with a hooked, drooping nose and a hollow, pockmarked face, “has great, glowing yellow eyes.”
“It has long, coarse fur, matted with the blood of innocents!” proclaimed another.
“Claws for ripping!” pronounced a third, leaning close.
“Fangs for tearing!” cried a fourth.
“A wicked tail!” said another.
“It finds you where you’re sleeping!”
“It drags you from your bed!”
“Takes you back unto its lair!”
“And feasts upon your head!”
“Did you see it, girl? Did you see it?” They were a chorus now.
The guardsmen leaned close around her. She could smell the sweat of their unwashed bodies. The sourness of their breath mingled with her own. The smoke of their too-hot torches filled her lungs. The flames made her squint. She pressed back against the wall. Her feet sank into mush.
“Speak up, girl!”
“I don’t… that is—”
Their staring eyes made her heart flutter. She couldn’t think. Couldn’t breathe. The nearness of their bare steel turned her blood to ice. She wished they’d leave her be.
“Yes? What is it!”
“I don’t know where I am!”
She hadn’t realized it till she said it, but it was true. Fenn was lost.
The guardsmen drew back as one. Deflated. Puffed heavy sighs of disappointment. Their heads began to turn again. Their hound’s noses sniffed this way and that: scanning rooftops, dark corners, and distant window frames.
“She’s mad,” said one.
“She’s daft!” another.
“She’s led us all astray!”
“Let’s go!” one cried.
“She lied! She lied!”
“Before it gets away!”
The herd of guardsmen lumbered off, a seven-headed beast of their own. Their chain clinked, boots splashed in the turbid muck. They left her there in darkness, alone and confused, heart pounding, eyes darting—terrified of a creature that might come along to devour her at any moment.
“Where am I?” Fenn whispered. Left on my own with a beast about. “What’s happened to me?”
The last thing she remembered, she’d been… she’d—
She’d been dying.
Fenn’s eyes glazed. There was nought about but mud and grime. The dross of city life. It was quiet, save for the fading sounds of the troupe of guards about their search.
But all at once a cool wind from nowhere stirred her hair, and the smell of dry grass filled her nostrils. Her mouth was parched and open. Her lips were torn and cracked. Her eyes were closed. Her belly hollow. She lay upon her back.
Fenn had been walking for three days, crawling for the better part of one—chasing after the missing Master Tinker. Master Fenwick, who’d vanished in the night, along with his wagon and his ass. Along with the stone Colossus that had looked like so much rubble the night before, strewn across the road in the light of his yellow lamp.
He’d been so surprised to discover her stowed away inside his little gnomish cart. He’d wrung his hands and fretted. Pacing back and forth in the dark, he’d said he ought to take her back. But she’d begged and wheedled, and he was in ever so great a hurry to get to the Royal Patent Office of the ÜnterKing. Every moment wasted was another chance for that devil Wallenby to get there first!
And so he’d given in. Against his better judgment, of course. He’d send her back as soon as they reached the Bulbous Mountains, but for now they’d ride together. Across the unbroken expanse of the Windy Plains. Fenn could have her little adventure, and then—then she’d go home. To her brothers and her mother, the fine Ms. Farrow, and the Tinker’s Home in the little forest town of Wynne. But just for now…
Master Fenwick had lain out a bedroll beneath the wagon. There was no room inside for the both of them, and besides, it was improper. Even if he was a gnome and old enough to be her grandfather. They would wake at sunrise and set off after breakfast.
But in the wee hours of the morning, long before the sun would be a hint on the horizon, Fenn had woken, not to the smell of camp food cooking on the fire—but to rain. Falling cold and heavy upon her face.
It had stormed for hours in the dark. Drops had stung. Lightning flashed. Thunder rumbled. The wind had howled which had given the place its name. People said that that wind wasn’t a natural one, but a thing of spirits, here on the Windy Plains. Fenn could believe it, the way it shrieked.
The sun had eventually risen, lighting up the clouds. The rain had stopped. And shivering there in the middle of the road, Fenn had seen that she was alone.
Gone was Master Fenwick. Gone his wagon. Gone Doris the donkey. And leading off into the interminable long grass, blocky footprints bigger than cartwheels. She’d never heard a thing.
It hadn’t taken her long to make the fatal choice. To go after them. Following the tracks was no difficult task. If there had been signposts with arrows the whole way it could have been no simpler.
It must stop eventually, she’d reasoned. A stone giant has no use for a Tinker. We’ll ride back in his wagon and all be saved.
The sky had cleared; the wind eased but carried on. The ground had dried out, along with Fenn’s mouth. The grass had waved, and at the end of the first day the stars had come out. Fenn had been thirsty. Hungry. But she’d manage.
The next day she’d risen and walked again. She’d glimpsed one of the Great Hives in the distance, and it had filled her heart with fear to see legend proven true. She’d walked and walked, until another day had passed, and then she’d walked some more. On the fourth day she’d found she could not stand, so she’d pulled herself along the ground instead, until she couldn’t do that either.
The last of her strength had deserted her, stolen away by the wind. She’d prayed, and she’d hoped, and she’d regretted, and she’d realized she wasn’t going home. She’d tried to cry, but couldn’t spare the tears. And finally, when her heart and her body could take no more, she’d drifted off into oblivion.
And now she was here. Cowering in the dark in fear of the Beast.