Fenn stumbled out the door and back into the morning sunlight. She couldn’t believe the priest, who’d defended her only moments earlier, had turned on her so quickly.
What happened? Why is he so sensitive to questions about the Beast?
His story didn’t entirely make sense, either.
How did he know how big the Beast was if he was sleeping when it came? And she still wasn’t entirely convinced that any living creature would want to eat a key. Blessed or not. She had never heard of this Dario individual. Perhaps the priest had made him up.
I ought to turn around and give him a tongue-lashing that mum would be proud of, she was thinking—when she noticed the guards. They noticed her at almost the same time.
There were three of them—draped in red, steel caps glinting in the sun, gathered a little ways up the street. And if their wild gestures were any indication, they were having a rather impassioned exchange. Two of them she had already met.
If Fenn had to hazard a guess, they were informing their compatriot of how sorely they’d been used. Debating, perhaps, the best way to communicate their displeasure. And she had stepped right into the middle of it.
The movement must have caught their eyes. The staggering. The windmilling arms that Fenn had been forced to employ in order to remain upright after she’d been shoved—because they’d begun a mutual tapping of shoulders and thrusting of chins in her direction. Even at this distance she could tell they didn’t look happy.
Fenn tried to play it cool. After all, she hadn’t done anything wrong. As far as she knew. The priest had given them a browbeating, not her.
I’m a victim as well! At least they weren’t pushed.
Very calmly, very casually, she put her hands in her pockets and started walking back down towards the stair. She kept her head down and aimed for unassuming. Perhaps they’d forget about her.
She had no such luck.
That much became clear when she heard the steady beat of three pairs of hard-soled boots pounding purposefully nearer on the cobblestones behind her. She didn’t run, but she did pick up her pace. Maybe if I—
Rough hands slid under her armpits from behind. Unfriendly fingers wrapped around her biceps and Fenn found herself being lifted off the ground.
“Hey! What are you doing? You can’t—Let go of me!” She kicked and flailed, twisted her arms and tried to break free. It was no use.
A nasty voice rasped in her ear.
“Think you can make fools of us and get away with it?”
“Nobody messes with the Duke’s Guard!”
“Not so tough without that bloody priest, are you?”
“She’s blasted unwieldy for a lass!”
“Unhand me!” Fenn shouted. “I’ve done nothing wrong! Help!”
But no one was coming to help her this time. Not the priest and certainly not the other residents of the Hillock. In fact, she noticed a number of smug, satisfied expressions on the faces of people she passed as she was carried inexorably toward the stair—which she now sorely regretted having climbed. As her panicked mind drove her heart into a frenzy; as she kicked and squirmed and screamed, she wondered what they were going to do with her.
Will they lock me up? Beat me? Expel me from the city? Put me in the stocks?
She didn’t have to wonder long.
They reached the top of the stair. It was only five steps. Quite short really. But when Fenn realized what was about to happen, she felt it was quite tall enough. The guards stopped walking and began swinging their arms.
“Don’t—!” Fenn cried, and redoubled her efforts to break loose. It was no use against their viselike grips. And then she was airborne. Fenn had fantasized about flying, but this was another experience entirely.
She tumbled through the air head first, arms and legs spread wide in an attempt to soften the coming landing. She cleared the stair—all considered probably a good thing, seeing as it was made of stone—and landed an eternity later on her shoulder and her hip in the half-baked mud. She slid a few feet further and came moaning to a stop.
“Stay down, dog!” one of the guards called out.
“Where you belong.”
“Don’t let us see you on the Hill again, girl. You’ll regret it if you do.”
“That fool priest won’t be there to protect you next time!”
She heard a hawking sound and a thick wad of phlegm splattered on the ground beside her. At least they’d missed her head. She listened to the sound of their retreating footsteps.
The last thing she heard before they passed, laughing, out of hearing, was, “Maybe the Beast’ll get ‘er.”
Groaning, Fenn pushed herself to her feet and tried to clean herself off. It didn’t do much good. She was wearing more mud than cloth at this point, and they hadn’t exactly been pristine to begin with. She’d never been treated so roughly in her life.
Wynne was a small town, where everyone knew everyone else. And even if they’d wanted to, there were few people brave enough to cross the formidable Ms. Farrow. Excluding her children, of course.
But Fenn’s mother wasn’t here to protect her now. Or her brothers either. Donalt would have a thing or two to say to those bullies. Picking on a lost, defenseless girl!
Fenn wished that she were bigger. Strong enough to do something about it herself. It was unfair that men were just born with big arms and brawny chests. All that weight to throw around and no need for brains to back it up.
She wondered where they were. Her mother and her brothers. Or rather—she knew where they were. What she didn’t know was where she’d gotten to herself.
She rubbed her shoulder and grimaced. It was bruised, but nothing seemed to be broken, at least. But worst of all, she was still hungry. Her stomach gurgled pitifully.
Are all people in this city so unkind? What kind of man is the Duke that he allows folk to be treated so?
What’s that? Fenn suddenly turned her head. It was a smell. One that had not been there before, she was sure of it. She sniffed. Her stomach very audibly growled. It was a particular kind of smell. The smell of food!
Fenn peered around, searching for the source. Nothing she saw looked edible. A knife maker. A cooper. A carpenter… Then she noticed the people. A large number of them were turning down a single cross-street. They looked to be barely keeping themselves from running. Maybe…
The side street was narrower than the main thoroughfare; hardly wide enough for a single horse and cart. The buildings on either side seemed to lean toward one another, so that the sky above was but a thin blue sliver. And it was packed. There was a throng. An excited, muttering crowd—all pushing in the same direction. All aiming, it seemed, for a single, busy storefront.
Fenn squinted up at the painted sign that hung above their heads. Mossy’s Inn, it read: Best Bog Leg in the White Isles! Beside the words danced a jolly green frog.
Bog leg? What’s bog leg?
Whatever it was, it certainly smelled like food. The smoke drifting across the rooftops carried on it the most delicious aroma that Fenn had ever had fortune to encounter. Rich, savory, and not a little spicy.
But, Fenn realized, they aren’t letting anyone in.
Indeed, there was a crowd around the front door. But that door was solidly shut. Everyone about was pushing and jostling for position near the entrance, but none of them could get inside.
Suddenly a window swung outward on the second floor, and a plump, white-haired old woman stuck out her head. She had a bell in one hand the size of a cow’s head, and she struck it with a heavy wooden spoon. The bell clanged loudly enough to be heard up in the castle, and the scrum quieted some as eyes turned upwards.
“Good morrow, everyone!” called the woman.
The crowd replied with, “Morning, Jinny!” or variations of it.
“How’s the catch today, Jin?” enquired one mouse-haired man in the midst of the crowd.
“Just fine, Raymon,” the old woman replied. She addressed the throng.
“All right, you lot. We’ll be opening up in five minutes. Most of you already know the rules, but I’m going to tell you again for the sake of any newcomers.”
She held up a finger. “Give your orders at the door. Ye’ve three choices. Hot—that’s roast. Wet’s the soup. And burnin’. That, I do not recommend for any with a delicate constitution. That means you, Tammas Murtin. I don’t need you quaffing my cream again.”
The crowd laughed.
“It’s first come, first served,” Jinny went on. “When we run out, there’ll be no more till dinnertime. Lastly, I know ye’re all eager, but I can’t well open the door with all of you pressed against it, so if you’ll kindly leave some room.”
The crowd pushed backwards a few feet, as best they could without giving up any position. Jinny nodded.
“Much obliged. All right. Five minutes! Don’t go dyin’ of hunger while ye wait!”
With that, the old woman withdrew her head and closed the window behind her. As soon as she was gone, the crowd started murmuring excitedly amongst themselves.
“Oh, I’m famished.”
“I could eat a carreg!”
“Did ya hear about the Duke’s turnip?”
“My wife says I’m not to eat any of Valt’s burnin’ bogs legs anymore…”
“Was it the sound or the smell?”
Fenn looked around for the source of the hissing.
“Pssst!” it came again, more insistently this time.
She found it. She did not expect to find it directed at her. It was an old woman—judging by her wrinkled face, even older than the white-haired Jinny. She stood back a ways, at the edge of the crowd, in the shadow of one of the buildings opposite the inn. She wore a pale, dun-colored dress and a canary yellow shawl was wrapped around her shoulders, held with a pin that looked like a cluster of small white flowers. She caught Fenn’s eye and waved her over.
“I thought I’d find you here,” the old woman said as Fenn approached. Her voice was low and raspy. “I see you’ve shaven.”
“Pardon?” Fenn said. “Do—Do I know you?”
The old woman frowned. She turned her head to the side and scrutinized Fenn from a single, hazel eye. Like a bird. It was rather unnerving. “Don’t you?” she said.
Fenn shook her head. “I’m afraid I don’t know. I don’t even know how I got here, to—Yarde, was it?”
“Might I ask you a question?”
The old woman nodded.
Fenn leaned close, whispered conspiratorially. “We aren’t… dead, are we?”
The woman threw her head back and barked a laugh. “I’m certainly not,” she said. “Not yet.”
“Oh,” Fenn breathed. “That’s a relief.”
“You were having doubts?”
“Well… perhaps a little,” Fenn admitted. “But if I’m not dead, I am most certainly lost. And I can’t remember anything before last night. Have we met? Maybe you can tell me what happened before I woke up…” she tugged at her filthy clothes, “…like this!”
The old woman regarded her silently for a moment. “No,” she said at last. “I was mistaken.”
“Oh,” said Fenn, deflated.
“Moll,” the old woman said, holding out a wrinkled hand. “Old Moll, people call me.”
“I’m Fenn,” Fenn said, taking her hand.
Old Moll squeezed Fenn’s fingers with unexpected strength and smiled sweetly. “It’s a pleasure, dear.”
Fenn smiled back.
Moll released her hand and nodded toward the inn over Fenn’s shoulder. “You’ve come for lunch, then?”
Fenn glanced back. “Oh, I… I suppose I saw the crowd—and it smells so nice. I came to see what everyone was so excited about. But I’m afraid I couldn’t pay. I’ve nothing more than the… the clothes on my back.”
“Here,” Old Moll said. The old woman held out her hand, which as far as Fenn could tell was completely empty.
“Hold out your hand.”
“Just do it.”
Fenn did as she was told, and Old Moll closed her fingers and rubbed them back and forth. As she did, a number of small copper coins tinkled out and into Fenn’s outstretched palm. Fenn gasped.
“How did you—?”
Old Moll smiled innocently. “An old trick,” she said. “Get yourself something to eat. On me.”
“But—I couldn’t! I’ve no way to repay you.”
“You can pay me with a visit. I run a little bakery down the hill. I’ll set aside a loaf or two, to see that you don’t go hungry tonight.”
Fenn blinked back tears. “Thank you so much,” she said. “I—”
Her stomach chose that moment to growl like she’d swallowed an angry house cat.
“Mm,” Moll said knowingly. “That settles it. Now go take your place back in the queue. You’ll not want them to run out before you find a seat.”
Fenn nodded, and obediently half-turned before she stopped. “How will I find you?” she said.
“Down the street, and turn left at the milliner’s.” She tapped the side of her nose. “Follow this, and you’ll find me sure enough.”
Behind Fenn there was a commotion, and she turned to see that the door had opened, with Jinny standing just inside taking people’s orders. She looked back at Old Moll.
The old woman gave her a shove. “Go on, then. Don’t dawdle!”
“Thank you!” Fenn said again, and hurried off to fill the bottomless pit that was trying to eat her from the inside.