“Wenn! You’re grimy, dear! And what are all those cuts on your face?”
Fenn looked left and right, but she wasn’t mistaken. Jinny was talking to her. She raised a dirty hand to the raw skin of her face and neck. “I—my name is Fenn, not Wenn.”
Fenn peered over her shoulder, seeking support from Old Moll over the shoulders of the men and woman crowded in behind her, but the old woman was gone.
“Fenn, is it now? But last time you told us it was Wenn.”
Fenn spun. “Last time? We’ve met?”
“Of course, dear. Don’t you remember?” She raised a hand to Fenn’s cheek. “Though you were in a sight better condition than you are now. Have you gone and hit your head?”
“Maybe.” Fenn shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. I—I have money.” She showed Jinny the coins that Old Moll had conjured. “Might I have something to eat?”
“Not like that, you won’t!” said Jinny sternly. “I’ll not have this mud all over my other customers. Look. You’ve got hay in your hair!”
Fenn’s eyes widened. “Oh! I—”
“You’ll go straight on back and tell Valt to have a bath run. You’ll change out of those filthy rags, and into some of my old clothes. Duke himself knows they haven’t fit me for nigh on twenty years.”
Fenn opened her mouth to speak, but Jinny forestalled her. “I’ll brook no argument. Go on now. And don’t worry, I’ll set aside a plate for when you’re done. Now shoo.”
She waved Fenn off toward the the back of the room and turned to the next customer in line. “Oh, hello Furrel. Will it be the soup for you today then…?”
So dismissed, Fenn was left to seek out Valt on her own. The room was wide and low-ceilinged; filled with small, square tables and booths. At most every one, the patrons of Mossy’s Inn were bolting down dishes of hot, steaming food, talking amongst themselves, and generally seemed to be having a merry time.
There was a bar along the back wall lined with stools, half full, and behind it a door which Fenn guessed must lead to the kitchen. As she watched, a wiry old man of an age with Jinny, bald head ringed with a white fringe and spotted with old scabs, pushed through with a plate in each hand. “One hot, one burnin’!” he announced, and a serving girl hurried over to take them.
He made for the door. Fenn squeezed between chairs and tables and hurried across the room before he could disappear once more. “Excuse me,” she called across the bar. “Valt?”
He turned. “Wenn. What the blazes happened to you?”
“Err. It’s Fenn, actually. I—that is, Jinny told me to ask you—”
“To have a bath run and get you out of those rags? Aye, aye, and I can’t say I disagree.” He stretched his neck and shouted over Fenn’s shoulder. “Maggie!”
One of the serving girls hurried over.
“Take Fenn here upstairs to one of the empty rooms and run her a bath. And go find her some of Jinny’s old clothes to put on. Duke himself knows they haven’t fit her for nigh on thirty years.”
The girl nodded and waved at Fenn to follow. She led her to a staircase at the side of the room and together they climbed up to the second floor, leaving the din of the common room behind.
A short time later. Fenn sat in a little wooden tub of luke-warm water, scrubbing herself furiously with a scratchy, wooden brush. Her skin was pink, her fingertips pruned, and her eyes stung with the soap that she’d accidentally splashed into them. She felt wonderful.
She couldn’t believe how thick the grime had been, that had caked her from head to toe. It must have been an inch deep if the color of the water was any indication, and there was no small amount of hay floating on the surface. It had been everywhere. Shedding it felt like a rebirth.
The only drawback of this lavatory excursion was that she was suddenly able to truly examine her inexplicable newfound girth.
Her arms looked the same. As did her feet. Her ankles. Her calves. But above the knees things got troubling. Her thighs were thicker than she’d ever seen them. They touched in places they never had before. Her hips were wider, padded with a layer of flesh. The real tragedy was her stomach though. It folded.
In an extremely unattractive way.
It creased at the bottom, bulged in the middle, and seemed to have divided itself into a number of unappealing lumps. Her—*ahem*—chest had gotten larger as well, but that was hardly enough to offset the negatives. She had never given any thought to being thin until now, but she found that she was decidedly in favor of it.
Women with children get fat! But I’m only sixteen!
Below she could hear the regular jingle of the bell that hung from the front door of the inn. The room she was in was a small one. It contained the wooden tub, a chest of drawers, and a little three-legged stool. Fenn had acquired a simple cloth tunic and pale green breeches. They sat folded up on the stool, out of splashing distance. Along with a pair of low, worn leather boots that had been mended more than once.
It seems that foul Priest is the exception, rather than the rule in this town. Everyone else is so kind.
When she’d nearly stripped off the top layer of her skin along with the grime, Fenn decided it was time to get out, and rose from the water with a whoof of exertion. She dried herself and dressed in the new, clean clothes. They fit surprisingly well, and the tunic was loose enough and stiff enough to hide her recently discovered belly.
The clothes she’d come in wearing lay in a dusty heap on the floor. After a moment of consideration, she extracted the belt—little more than a rope, really—and tied it around her waist. She took the brush she’d washed with and applied it to the green cloak. If no cleaner, it was in decidedly better condition than everything else, so she decided to keep it—wondering all the while where it had come from, and what language the strange characters all over it might be.
Once dressed, she made her way back downstairs. The lunchtime rush had quieted some since she’d left, and there were a few empty tables. Jinny, she discovered, had left the doorway and was busy about her work behind the bar. She spied Fenn waffling at the bottom of the stairs and waved her over to a seat at the counter.
“Oh, don’t you look as good as new,” Jinny said as Fenn sat. She went to the serving window and hefted a steaming bowl of soup, which she deposited in front of Fenn. “There y’are dear. Eat up.”
Fenn’s stomach tried to jump out of her and get at the food directly. It didn’t quite make it, but it made its point. Without a word, Fenn spooned some of the hot broth into her mouth.
It was the best thing she had ever tasted.
“’Ng’ by g’n,” Fenn exclaimed. “‘Uz dewishus!”
Fenn wolfed down a few more mouthfuls and nearly burned her tongue. She fanned herself. It was a little spicy. “What is it?” she asked.
“Bog Leg Soup,” interjected a heavyset man to her left. “Best in Yarde, and as a result, best in the world. Right here at Mossy’s.” He leaned close to Fenn and added, “They come for the Bogs Legs. They stay for the hospitality.” He winked. “Ain’t that right, Jinny?”
“You hit your head, girl?” inquired Valt, who appeared at that very moment from the kitchen. “You’ve had bogs legs three nights out of the past four. You telling me you don’t remember?”
Fenn smiled politely at the man beside her, then answered. “I may have,” she admitted. “Though I haven’t found any lumps…” She ran a hand over her scalp, just to be sure. “I can’t remember anything before last night.”
“Including yer name, apparently,” Valt observed. “Fenn, is it, now?”
“I’ve heard of losin’ memories,” Valt said. “But the alphabet…” He shook his head. “You were sure enough you were Wenn when I met you. Still, it isn’t too great an upheaval. I suppose I can get used to it, if I must.”
Jinny swatted at him with a spoon. “Do not tease the girl, Valt. She’s obviously had a traumatic experience. Bogs legs, dear,” she said to Fenn, “are a local delicacy. Hunters must travel all the way to Moss Shaw to acquire the meat. It’s very dangerous, catching Barogga—what we call bogs. Savage creatures. Some even capable of magic.”
“Look like great big frogs,” added Valt. “Walk around on two legs.”
Fenn blinked down at her soup. “Two legs?”
The man to her left gave Fenn a sidelong glance and asked in a low voice. “It wasn’t the Beast that got your memories, was it lass? Devoured them whole, did it?”
“Oh, bedevil you, Duglass Calwert, for speaking that name here!” Jinny hissed. “After what happened to my poor Heini.”
“I’m sorry about your eiphin, Jinny,” Duglass said. “But ye can’t hardly blame a fellow for mentioning the creature that’s been terrorizing the town nigh on a week.”
“Eiphin?” Fenn said through another mouthful of soup.
“Little bug-like things,” Duglass explained, holding his hands apart, “roughly the size of a barnyard hen.”
“They’re lovely.” Jinny said. “As green as sweet lettuce. With big, shiny black eyes, and six long legs which tickle just terribly.” She gestured to the top of her head. “They have very delicate antennae, and they’re excellent jumpers. They live out in the woods, naturally. But they make wonderful pets. And, they’ve a nose for Borean Parsley, which is notoriously difficult to get ahold of.”
“Oh,” said Fenn. “I’m sorry yours got eaten.”
“Heini’s not been eaten, child,” said Valt. “Any more than the Duke’s prize turnip.”
“Careful, now Valt,” cautioned Duglass wryly, peering around the room. “Ye never know who is listening.”
“Oh bugger that.” Valt waved him away. “That turnip was a hundred fifty stone, and I’m a prancing pony.
“Give us a prance, then,” Duglass laughed.
“Turnip?” said Fenn, once more utterly lost.
“Aye,” nodded Duglass. “For the City Faire.”
“The Duke purports it to have been a hundred fifty stone,” Valt explained. “And bigger than a bleeding cow.”
“Trouble is,” said Duglass, “that no one of any character—”
“Which is to say, not in the Duke’s employ.”
“—can confirm ever having seen it.”
“Talk around town is that the Duke couldn’t stand to lose to Cynara Milkthistle for a fourth year in a row. That he had the turnip done himself. That the so-called Beast is just a ruse—a scapegoat.”
Jinny was scowling. “The two of you would be wise to keep those opinions to yourselves. Men of your advanced age would not survive many nights locked up for slander.”
“Your wife has a point,” Duglass told Valt before turning to Fenn. “Besides, he’s only half right.” He held up a thick finger and shook it at her. “The Beast is real. As surely as I sit before you now.”
He turned to Valt and Jinny. “I know it, because I was out on the road a week or so past, before this all started, and chanced to stop at Murkerrie’s farm for a visit.” He lowered his voice and peered around the room. “Something had eaten one of his sheep.”
Jinny leaned towards him. “You mean—devoured it whole?” Fenn could tell by the look on her face that she was imagining the size of a creature that could do such a thing, but Duglass shook his head.
“Nay. It was torn to ribbons, as if by long knives… or talons. And odd bits missing. As though whatever ate it didn’t know which parts of the animal were food.”
“Wolves,” said Valt. “They’ve visited Murkerrie before.”
Duglass was adamant. “No wolf did this,” he said, leaning back in his seat. “I’m sure of it.”
Jinny was pale, her eyes faraway. She clutched a dishcloth to her breast. “Heini,” she murmured. “Poor Heini—gobbled up by a Bugbear…”
“A Bugbear?” said Fenn, confused. “Is that what the Beast is?”
Valt groaned and rolled his eyes, but Jinny nodded, shooting a quelling look at her husband.
“What,” Fenn said slowly, “is a Bugbear?”
Valt, said nothing. He didn’t have to. It was clear enough by his expression how much credit he gave to this particular theory.
“A Bugbear,” Jinny began, giving her husband ample time to interrupt, “is a fearsome creature. They’re over ten feet tall, with eyes like fire, and long, deadly talons. They have thick, coarse fur, like a cross between a razorback and a hedgehog—and an enormous beak the size of a milk bucket.”
Fenn scratched her chin. “I’ve never heard of a Bugbear before. That might be what the guards were describing, although they seemed to think the Beast had scales… I think. I was quite confused at the time…”
“There’s a reason that my wife’s colorful description doesn’t add up,” interjected Valt. “Bugbears don’t exist.”
“I beg to differ,” replied Jinny. “There have been Bugbears in these parts since before the Duke’s family built this city. Why my uncle Edward—”
“—was half mad after forty years in the flash powder mines.”
“That has nothing to do with—”
“Bugbears are nothing more than old wives’ tales.” Valt looked pointedly at his wife. “Made up, to frighten children into coming home before dark.”
“What I saw,” Jinny said in a warning tone, “was no fairytale.”
“You did not see anything. Because there was nothing to see! Your Heini simply—”
“Do not tell me,” Jinny nearly shouted, “that he wandered off! Not when I found his wee collar lying in the street!”
“He probably just slipped it in a—”
“He was eaten!” Jinny shouted. “By a—”
“There’s no such thing!” Valt shouted back. “As a—”
“A bloody bugbear!” the two of them finished together. They stared at one another, red in the face, till Jinny harrumphed and stormed off through the kitchen.
“See what you did?” Valt said to Duglass. He leaned across the bar, so that his face was not far from the other man’s. “I’ll ask you not to mention that creature here again, Dug,” he said softly.
Duglass nodded, looking after Jinny, chagrined.
“I’ve got to get out of here,” Fenn whispered, mostly to herself. “It’s not safe…”
“What’s that, lass?” said Valt.
Fenn looked up at him, eyes wide and glistening. “I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve got to get home.”
He nodded. “I might of know some people who’d be willing to take ye. Where is it you’ll be heading?”
Fenn licked her lips. “Wynne,” she said. “In the Lisley Wood. Do you know it…?”
Valt frowned. Shook his head. “Nay. Is it north? South?”
“I don’t know,” Fenn said hopelessly. “I don’t know where anything is.”
Valt and Duglass exchanged a glance. The two of them nodded in tandem. “What you’ll be needing then, is a map, “said Valt.
Duglass gave Fenn a kindly look. “Only one place to find those.”