By the time she’d left Old Moll’s, the sun had hung low in the sky. Now, as Fenn trekked across town toward The Emporium, it was dark enough that she had to squint, and the Duke’s men were out in the streets lighting lamps with their torches. Up on the Hillock, anyway. Down below, the light came from fiercely smoking bundles of burning pine.
There seemed to be a concerted effort on the part of the citizenry to get behind closed doors before nightfall. The vague feeling of menace that had pervaded the town by day was now, as night fell, closer to real dread.
Yarde was on the verge of panic.
It was under control for now. In the way that a fire is under control when a line of men with buckets gather around it, frantically splashing water at its base. Those men were the City Watch, and their proverbial water consisted of stern gazes, stiff jaws, and tightly gripped hilts.
The Emporium wasn't far now, but Fenn hurried. She was passing an growing number of shops with Closed signs hanging from their doors. She worried that by the time she arrived it would be shuttered as well. She arrived just as the sun slipped behind the uppermost turret of the castle, rimming it with gold.
“Oh. Thank goodness,” she breathed, stopping before the wide, two-story facade. The doors are still open.
Warm yellow light spilled out and into the street. A number of customers lingered inside, browsing the shelves or haggling with the shopkeeps. Worrying what she might find, Fenn stepped inside.
The Emporium was large. It was the biggest shop she’d ever seen, hardwood floors stretching away in all directions, worn smooth by the passage of booted feet. Yet despite its size, the place was full. Wooden shelves stretched floor to ceiling along the walls. The space in between was taken up with bins, tables, barrels, and more shelves, holding a quantity of things that Fenn had never seen before.
The shopkeeps—there appeared to be two: a tall, thin man, and a younger, shorter one, nearly of an age with Fenn—appeared to be busy with customers, so Fenn decided to browse. It would give her time to work up the nerve to ask the questions that Old Moll had sent her to ask. With everyone on edge as they were, she wasn’t sure they would be welcome.
She started at the end of one wall and worked in, admiring the neat rows of merchandise. In spite of herself, the eye for value instilled in Fenn by her mother since she was in swaddling began a catalog of listed prices and relative worth.
The shelf before her held dry goods. Burlap sacks filled with meal, flour, and varieties of beans. One stone or two, all labeled and neatly arranged. A wealth of the common trappings found in any general store worth its salt—which they had in quantity as well. She saw barrels of dried fruit and nuts, stacked casks of beer and wine; things which the Farrow family had traded in for years, albeit in far lesser volume.
There were strange things too. Fenn found a large, square bin which appeared to be filled with egg-sized green and grey rocks. And yet it was quite clearly labeled Carreg Feed. Fenn hadn’t the faintest idea what a carreg was, but if they ate rocks she was fairly certain she had no desire to meet one.
One rack had a wooden sign hanging from the ceiling above it that simply read Treats. It was stacked with small boxes in rows of five, cut at an angle to see inside. On the shelf just below eye level, the labels read, from right to left: Igneous Grapes, Thunder Spuds, Bellowing Blue Beans, Wooly Plums, and Ordinary Hornboffle. The grapes glowed a dim orange. The second box appeared to be filled with regular potatoes. The third was full of colorful little pods, which Fenn was most distressed to find were quietly burbling. The fourth was brimming with what looked like oversized balls of cotton, and the fifth with hard-looking, fist sized seeds.
When Fenn glanced up at the row above, she saw with a start that one of the boxes read Smoked Fire Newt.
She was standing on tiptoe, attempting to see inside when she caught movement out of the corner of her eye. The younger shopkeep had apparently tripped on his way out the back door. When Fenn looked over he was mid-flail. He managed to keep his feet, barely. He spotted Fenn staring and froze, turned white as a sheet, and then bolted out the door.
Someone cleared his throat behind her. Fenn turned to find the other shopkeep, hovering a polite distance away. Peculiarly, he was rather pale as well. She noticed that his hands, clasped before him, were trembling. A thin trickle of sweat slid down his cheek. He made no move to wipe it away.
“G-g-good evening,” the shopkeep stuttered. “How— M-might I assist you with something?” His eyes flicked to the shelf behind her. “Smoked n-n-newt, perhaps?” He grimaced.
Fenn glanced over her shoulder. “Oh,” she said, wondering at his unusual behavior. “I was a little curious, actually—”
“Y-yes!” he squawked. “Fine specimens. B-best in town.”
“Are they very popular?” asked Fenn. “I’d think they would cause indigestion.” She offered him a friendly smile, hoping to put him at ease. But if anything it had the opposite effect; his eyes widened and the trembling spread from his hands to his elbows.
“Oh, they’re not for humans!” he exclaimed, his voice cracking halfway through. “But they’re common fare for some of the more exotic birds and b-b-b—” He fell into a fit of uncontrollable stammering and was unable to finish the word.
“Beasts?” Fenn suggested helpfully. His eyes widened even further and his eyebrows looked like caterpillars trying to crawl off of his forehead and bury themselves in his hairline.
“Oh!” Fenn said, “you’re worried about the Beast! I suppose you want to lock up and get home before it gets too late.” She glanced around and saw that most of the other customers had gone. “I’m keeping you, aren’t I? I’m terribly sorry.” She reached out to pat him on the arm. He yelped and leapt backwards.
“Oh!” said Fenn. “I didn’t mean to startle you!”
The shopkeep shut his eyes and shook his head violently from side to side. “N-n-no! No, th-think n-nothing of it! N-n-no trouble at all! Anything I can d-do…”
“Well,” said Fenn, rather emboldened by his insecurity. “If it isn’t too much trouble, I actually wanted to ask you some questions…”
The shopkeep bobbed up and down. “Anything!”
“I suppose,” Fenn began, “that is—I wanted to ask you about…” she looked around and whispered, “about the Beast.”
He nodded jerkily, Adam’s apple bobbing up and down.
“What I wanted to know is… do you know what it looks like? Have you s—?”
“NO!” he shouted over her, the vehemence of his protestation all the more startling due to the echoing silence that followed.
“Really?” said Fenn, frowning. “Because I was told—”
“Aaaaaaaaaaah!” Someone shrieked directly behind Fenn.
She jumped, spun, already on edge after the shopkeep’s eccentric behavior. There was no one there. Only the shelf.
“AAAAAAAAH!” It came again, even louder. Fenn realized that the shouting was coming from the box of beans. She sighed and put a hand to her breast.
“Oh,” she breathed. “It was only—”
The pounding of booted feet sounded heavily on the wooden floor behind her, and Fenn turned back to find red-draped watchmen streaming in the door after the younger shopkeep. Their swords were out and they’d torches in their hands. They looked ready for battle. There must have been a dozen of them.
“There it is!” yelled the young man, pointing a quivering finger directly at Fenn. “There’s the Beast! Quickly!”
Fenn nearly pulled a muscle in her neck, turning as quickly as she did. The Beast? Here? Where? What does it—she glanced back. Why—are they all looking at me?
The guards moved quickly, surrounding her and pointing the vicious tips of their swords not behind her. At her.
What’s going on? Her mind reeled as she attempted to grasp the situation.
“—some sort of doppelgänger! Masquerading as a beautiful girl!” the younger shopkeep was yelling at the guards, his face flushed. “Last time it was here, it ate all sorts of impossible things! Carreg feed and—and smoked fire newt!”
“It would cause terrible indigestion!” the elder shopkeep screeched helpfully.
“Don’t let it fool you! It’ll rip your throats out, given the chance!”
“What?” said Fenn. “No!”
“Don’t listen!” he cried. “It came in here that first night, wearing that face. Before all the attacks began! It ate things! Things that no human ever would! And now it’s back for more! Stop it! Quickly! Before it strikes again!”
“No!” Fenn cried.
But it was no use.
“Don’t move!” roared the guards in unison, thrusting swords and torches.
Fenn fought and squirmed and cried out, but all to no avail. They were too strong and too many. There was nothing she could do. Before she knew it, they were carrying her out into the street by her hands and feet.
“We’ve done it!” they called out to the whispering townsfolk lining the street as they carried her up toward the Castle. “We’ve done it! We’ve caught the Beast! Long live the Duke, we’ve caught the Beast!”
As they climbed the hill and darkness closed in, Fenn heard bells start to toll behind her.
“They’ve done it!” the people took up the cry. “Long live the Duke, they’ve caught the Beast!”
The last person Fenn saw before she gave in to despair was none other than Old Moll, wrapped in her yellow shawl, a thin cigar glowing in her hand and a look of grim satisfaction on her face.
The guards carried Fenn down; deep, deep into the bowels of the hill. They passed through stony passageways and narrow stairs, clogged with the smoke of the torches that lit their way into the belly of the earth. The walls seeped murky water. The air grew stale. A chill wind carried the voices of the damned.
At last they arrived at a long narrow corridor, lined with shadowed cells and lit by a single, dimly glowing brazier. A ring of iron keys was taken from a hook on the wall, a barred door unlocked, and Fenn was tossed onto the unforgiving stone floor inside. The door was shut with a resounding clang, and before Fenn could gather herself, the guards had vanished up the spiral stairs, taking their light and their torches with them.
“Wait!” called Fenn, hands wrapping around the cold iron bars. “Wait! You’ve made a mistake!”
“Quiet, Beast!” came their echoing reply, and then she was alone.
Or so she thought.
“Beast?” came a husky voice from the cell diagonal to her own. Pale fingers and a wan face emerged from the shadows.
“Priest?” Fenn’s eyebrows rose. It was the priest of Dario, who she’d met that very morning. “What are you doing here?”
Mocking laughter emanated from the cell to Fenn’s left. “He ain’t no Priest, girl. That there’s a crook, and nothin’ more.” She could hear the smile in the unseen speaker’s voice. “Yon disciple of the Wand’ring God was caught tryin’ to melt down his patron’s holy symbol, after telling half the town it’d been devoured by the Beast. Hah!”
The priest scowled. “The evidence is circumstantial at best.”
Fenn put a hand to her mouth. “But, you’re supposed to be—”
She was interrupted by the appearance of a second face, red and bristly, in the cell across from hers.
“You!” he repeated, thrusting a fist through the bars as if to strangle her from across the hall. “You stole me bloody cloak!”
“I—” Fenn began to protest.
“Don’t deny it!” the dwarf growled. “I know’t was you! It was you took Vanimoots’ chocolate, too! Wasn’t it? This is all your fault! I’ll kill ye! I’ll kill ye!” He shook the bars with all his strength, gnashing his teeth in fury.
“Careful now, dwarf,” came the sneering voice. “That there’s the Beast!” Rasping laughter echoed off the walls, and it reeked of madness.
“I didn’t…!” Fenn objected. “I’m not! I don’t remember…” But the argument sounded weak in her own ears. All the clues pointed to one truth. As much as she wished to deny it, they all pointed at her.
She thought back to her first waking moments.
“The Beast! Did you see the Beast, girl? It ran this way after devouring the Apothecary here’s entire stock of agarics! Enough to kill two horses!”
“Or a horsefly…”
The pile of white that had lain at her feet. Vomit. Induced by the consumption of poisonous mushrooms.
She thought about Jinny and Valt. Her stomach turned. Heini.
She thought about Old Moll’s battle buns. The cuts on her face and neck.
“I thought I’d find you here. And I see you’ve shaven…”
And Old Moll, standing outside The Emporium, looking smug.
She was wearing the dwarf’s cloak.
And Mr. Vanimoots said the dwarf stole his chocolate. If I had a beard at the time…
And that’s only what I know about. How many more people have I harmed? How many have I killed?
The priest had been lying, but the shopkeeps at The Emporium had been half out of their minds with fear.
Of me. The whole town was terrified. Of me!
“What’s happening to me?” Fenn whispered, curling up in the darkest corner of her cell.
“Why can’t I remember? What am I?”
“I’ll tell ye what you are,” the dwarf was shouting. “A stumping thief!”
But she hardly heard him. Fenn was fading, out of the world and into the unforgiving darkness of her own thoughts. She was overcome with misery. With guilt, and fear. She closed her eyes, hugged her knees. Rocking back and forth, she cried. And as the tears streamed down her face, she whimpered to herself.
“I’m not dead—
I am the Beast.
I am the Beast.
I am the Beast…”