“You came,” Old Moll rasped as Fenn stepped across the threshold, last in line behind several others. “And I see you’ve cleaned up.”
The old woman took a puff on a long, thin cigar pinched between her middle and forefinger and flicked a glance Fenn over square spectacles as she said it. Her eight free fingers went on wrapping a warm loaf of rye in linen while the cigar drew lines in the air above it. The man at the head of the line handed Old Moll a tied bundle of wheat stalks in exchange for his bread and sauntered out the door. Everyone stepped forward.
Moll smiled briefly and waved a smoke-trailing hand at Fenn as she beckoned forward the next customer in line with the other. “Take a seat,” she said. “I’ll be with you in a moment.”
Fenn did as she was told. Against the wall there were three simple wooden chairs, topped with pale blue cushions embroidered with clusters of elegant white flowers. Almost as soon as she sat, Peter the cat appeared and jumped into her lap, where he curled up and promptly closed his eyes. Fenn scratched behind his ears while Old Moll saw to the rest of her customers, and took the opportunity to look around the room.
The floor was of big red bricks, the walls white plaster except for one, which was made of large pale blocks and had a large, openmouthed oven set in the middle. The area around it was stained black with soot. Around the oven hung pots and pans, and a big iron cauldron squatted in one corner.
The room was bisected by a long wooden counter, behind which Old Moll bustled back and forth. It was topped with a vibrant basket of fresh flowers and many of the things for which Moll had bartered her bread. It was covered, like the table behind it, and the shelves along the back wall, now mostly empty, with a thin layer of flour.
Beside the shelves stood a cabinet, its upper half filled with small glass vials of colorful liquids; the lower with larger, paper-wrapped packages. In another corner there was a stack of wicker baskets and a straw broom with a long, knobby handle.
Warm afternoon sunlight streamed in the open door, and through the deep-set round windows, catching the motes of dust that wafted through the air. Atop Fenn’s lap, Peter had started purring.
The customers departed quickly, except for one woman, who got into a haggling match with Moll over how many eggs constituted a reasonable trade for one of her rolls. The woman seemed to think two was the right number. Moll countered with six. In the end, the woman left with a sweaty face, four rolls, and none of the twenty eggs she’d come in with.
At last, Fenn and the old woman were alone.
Though she was sorry to displace him, Fenn gently lifted Peter from her lap, set him on the neighboring cushion, and stood. Old Moll was behind the counter organizing her haul, apparently ignoring her. Fenn opened her mouth to speak.
Old Moll beat her to it. “Come here a moment, child.”
Fenn approached the counter, wondering what the old woman was about.
“Four nights past,” Old Moll said, turning and walking over to her cabinet, “the Beast stole into my cottage in the dead of night.” She opened the rattling glass doors and withdrew a clay jar just big enough to require two hands, and set it on the counter. “Seeking to sate its appetite.”
She waved Fenn over. As Fenn drew closer, Old Moll opened the jar and withdrew a small red object about the size of a large hen’s egg. Peering at it, Fenn realized that it was a tiny roll. Although it looked rather hard, and oddly colored, there could be no mistaking what it was. There was even a little slash across the top. Old Moll held it up for Fenn to see.
“I’d sold all my breads earlier in the day, of course—and so it fell upon my little cabinet here. Where I keep my special items.” The old woman’s hazel eyes bored deep into Fenn’s own. “It ate one of these.”
“It’s very small.”
“Would you care to guess what it is?”
“It looks like a miniature roll… except for the color, of course. It looks like it would be hard to chew.”
“Some teeth are stronger than others.”
“What is it then?” asked Fenn curiously.
“It’s a Battle Bun.”
“Battle Bun,” repeated the old woman. “It’s my own creation.”
“What does it do?”
“Whosoever eats one of these will grow a full and luxurious beard in no more time than it takes to say ‘curdled milkthistle.’”
“A beard?” Fenn said, surprised.
“That any dwarf would be proud to sport,” Moll nodded.
“Why would anyone want to grow an instant beard? And what has that got to do with battle?”
“Have you ever seen a beardless dwarf go into battle?” Old Moll replied.
“Well, no… But—”
“But why would the Beast want to grow one?”
“Why indeed?” Old Moll said cryptically.
“Could the Beast grow a beard? I mean, it isn’t a man, is it?”
“Are men the only ones with beards?”
“That is—there are dwarves and gnomes of course. They have beards. But the Beast is a—a… a monster.”
“You’re quite certain of that?” Old Moll leaned back, crossed one arm over her chest and rested her elbow on that wrist, taking a long, slow draw from her cigar.
That gave Fenn pause. “Well. I don’t… I haven't seen it precisely.”
The old woman nodded once.
“No one seems to know what it is. Everyone has a different idea, and none of them add up. The guards said it had both fur and scales. The priest thought it was as big as a house—but somehow able to fit through a door to eat a… key. Do you know what the Beast is?”
Old Moll tilted her head. “I didn’t see it, I’m afraid.” Another puff sent a cloud of smoke curling toward the rafters. The old woman watched the girl. The silence stretched, until Old Moll suddenly turned away and paced the length of the counter. “The Beast has hurt so many people,” she said. “The city isn’t safe while it runs free. If only someone could stop it. That person would be—”
“A hero,” Fenn said.
Old Moll nodded. “A hero.”
“Couldn’t you do something? Something with… magic?”
“Perhaps,” Old Moll said, turning to face Fenn once more. “But I couldn’t do it alone.”
“What about the city watch?” Fenn suggested. “They have swords, and torches—and numbers.”
“Aye, they might be able to do it,” Moll allowed. “Alas. The Duke doesn’t hold with witchcraft. And his men are… superstitious. There’s a reason I keep this place hidden, even if everyone does know where to find it. No, the watch would not believe a word that came out of my mouth. No doubt some of them believe that I’m behind the Beast myself.”
“But that’s ridiculous.”
“Nevertheless. But do not fret, child. I believe I have already found a solution.”
Old Moll nodded and drew deeply from her cigar. “A most serendipitous one.”
“Will you tell me?”
The old woman pointed her cigar at Fenn, and bits of ash tumbled down onto the counter. “You.”
Fenn took a step backwards. “Me?”
“I want the Beast dealt with,” Old Moll said. “And you want—”
“I just want to go home.”
Old Moll nodded. “I know that, dear.”
“Can you help me?”
“I can get you out of this city.”
“But you want me to help you stop the Beast in exchange… But what can I do? I can’t do anything! I’m just a—a girl who doesn’t know where she is.”
“I believe that you are stronger than you think,” Moll said. “Far stronger, in fact,” she added softly, almost to herself.
Fenn swallowed. “What—what is it you want me to do?”
“I believe that the key to stopping the Beast lies in identifying it.”
“But no one can agree about what it looks like,” Fenn said helplessly. “The guard… they thought it had long fur and dragons scales. The priest, he said it was bigger than a house, yet it somehow managed to fit through a door hardly bigger than the one to your cottage. Jinny—of Mossy’s Inn, you know—she thought it was a bugbear, but her husband Valt was just as confident that bugbears don’t exist. And you. You were sleeping when it came, isn’t that so?”
“It is,” Old Moll agreed. “Though in my case, that is no guarantee of anything. The real trouble is as I told you before. The Duke would not believe it even if I told him that Lady Milkthistle herself was the Beast, and that would please him ever so much.”
“Then what can I possibly do?”
“To my knowledge, there are only two other people in Yarde who know what the Beast actually looks like. You are going to find them.”
“Find them? Find them where?”
“It is called The Emporium.”