“What goes on here?”
It was one of the guards, calling out from the doorway. Fenn angled her neck to look, but the priest’s hand was still clamped around her shoulder. She squirmed sideways and managed to slip free.
The red-trimmed guardsmen had stern expressions on their faces and their hands resting on the hilts of their swords. Swords which, so far, at least, remained in their sheaths.
“We’ve had complaints about that one.”
“She’s been disturbing the peace.”
Fenn took a step forward. “Disturbing the—? I haven’t done anything! I was only looking for—”
The guard raised his voice so that his words rolled over her own. “Just look at her. She’s not fit to set foot on the Hillock.”
“Smells to high heavens, I’ll wager!” agreed the other with a sniff.
The priest peered at Fenn appraisingly down the bridge of his nose. “Now, now, officers,” he said. “This is Dario’s own church, and I his holy Herald.” He made an elaborate and mystical gesture with his left hand, faster than Fenn could follow. “Dario, as you well know, is Lord Patron to Wayfarers and Lost Folk. As sure as the Duke is just, this child is one, if not the other.” He nodded down at Fenn, but his suddenly fiery gaze stayed on the two men. “You would not dare violate the Law of Sanctuary—in a sacred place such as this?”
The guards exchanged glances. They appeared discomfited, though not entirely convinced. “That’s all very well and g—”
“And at such a time!” the priest cried, returning with frightening alacrity to his previous hysterics. He turned and threw himself over his empty altar, heaving.
The guardsmen, stunned to silence, exchanged an uneasy glance.
“The Beast walks the streets! Unseen. Unheard, it stalks. It flouts the laws of Gods and Men alike!” The priest spun and was across the room in an instant, his neck craned forward and his eyes shadowed. He jabbed a sharp finger into one guard’s chest. “Chooses with care the time to strike, and then—!”
He threw up his hands.
“Two nights past, the foul Beast—it stole into the church as I lay slumbering. Just there.” He thrust a finger toward the back of the room, where his quarters presumably lay. “Hampered neither by barred door nor a God’s own ire, it came! It came, and it devoured the key! Dario’s key! Gone! And you—”
He prodded accusingly at the two increasingly flustered-looking guardsmen, whose faces were reddening to match their tabards.
“You, who let it happen—who are charged with protecting the people of this fine city from evil, who are given authority by the Duke to carry out his work… With the Beast afoot, and all of us in danger of losing our very lives, you spend your energies pursuing… what—a lost child? You ought to be ashamed of yourselves, setting foot in this holy place with your ill intents!”
The priest of Dario rose up to his full, considerable height, so that he looked down even upon the two grown men. By now both were looking quite sheepish.
“Well? What do you have to say for yourselves!”
“I—” began one.
“We—” the other.
“Spare me!” the priest thundered, knowing he’d won. “Begone from this place, and leave this child be! Do not come back until you’ve slain the Beast or driven it from these lands. Then, perhaps, we—” he turned his gaze theatrically skyward, “will hear your apology.”
The guards, faces twisted with consternation and muttering weak excuses, shuffled back out the door and were gone.
“Thank you,” Fenn said to the priest, who was staring out the door after the departing guards. “Everyone seems angry I’m here, except for you. What did they want with me?”
The priest looked over at her. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
Fenn shook her head. “No… In fact,” she looked down at her stained and unfamiliar clothes, tugged at the ends of her tangled hair, “I don’t know where here is. Or how I got here in the first place.”
The priest raised an eyebrow. “You are in the city of Yarde, ruled by the Duke and his fair wife, Josephine. And if you truly are a stranger, you have chosen a most inopportune time to visit.”
“You’re talking about the Beast,” Fenn whispered.
“The Beast, yes.” The priest’s face closed up when he said it. His gaze was faraway. After a moment he turned from her and went to stand before his empty altar.
“You seemed very upset when I arrived,” said Fenn, following. “The Beast. It… took something of yours?”
“Something very precious,” the priest nodded solemnly. “A golden key. I fear even now it is being corroded by the acids of that unholy bowel, never to be recovered.”
“It must be very valuable,” Fenn commiserated. “What does it open?”
“Open? It doesn’t open anything. It is a symbol.”
“I see,” said Fenn, though she was not entirely sure that she did. “What is it a symbol of?”
“Surely you know Dario,” the priest replied.
“I—is that the Duke’s name?”
The priest’s brow furrowed. “The Duke is simply the Duke. Dario is a God. One of many.”
“Oh,” said Fenn. “What is he god of?”
The priest recited: “Dario is Patron of Wayfarers and Lost Folk, Conjurors, Explorers, Road Builders and Shoemakers. His holy churches can be found in any civilized town.”
“Perhaps that’s what drew me here,” said Fenn. “There’s no doubt that I’m lost. I’ve never heard of Yarde… or the Duke, before today.” She bit her lip. “Perhaps you can help me. More than you already have, I mean. I’m from a town called Wynne. Have you—do you know where it is?”
“I have never heard of it,” said the priest.
Fenn’s shoulders slumped a little and she nodded. “Maybe someone else will know.” She was silent for a moment. “Why do you think the Beast ate your key? It must not have been very tasty.”
The priest’s face darkened. “Who can guess at the intentions of a monster? Perhaps it believed that by consuming the sacred icon, it could grow even bigger and more beastly. Though it hardly need to, as it is already nearly as big as a house and more frightful than a troll.”
“How did it get inside,” said Fenn, peering around the narrow confines of the room, “if it is so big? It could hardly fit through the door.”
“Did you not hear me tell the guard? The Beast is unhindered by such meager obstacles as doors.”
Fenn nodded. “But what about Dario? If this is his church, why did he let the Beast inside? Shouldn’t it have been, I don’t know, struck by lightning or something?”
The priest’s expression darkened even further, and he bent so that his nose was inches from Fenn’s own. “The will of Gods is even more inscrutable than that of monsters.”
“So… you think Dario wanted the Beast to eat his key?”
The priest sputtered. “I—No! Perhaps… perhaps it is a test. Of my faith. A trial, to prove my resolve. Do not presume to guess at the Gods’ intentions. Foolish girl.”
“I’m sorry,” said Fenn. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“It’s fine,” snapped the priest, though she was not entirely sure that he meant it.
A thought occurred to her.
“How did you know the Beast was as big as a house?”
“You said the Beast was as big as a house. But you told the guard that it came when you were sleeping. I was just wondering how you knew.”
The priest was scowling openly now. “You are rather well-fed for a transient,” he said coldly, rather than answering her question.
“I…” Fenn looked down at herself. Now that he mentioned it, she did notice something rather odd. Something she had not noticed before. Despite her hunger, and the generally loose hang of her clothes, the flesh of her belly pushed against her shirt. She wondered how she could have possibly missed it before. Frowning, she lay her hands upon her stomach. It was soft.
That doesn’t make any sense, Fenn thought.
She had never been fat. She was far too busy for that. And she’d never had much interest in rich foods. Even when her family had been able to afford them.
Besides. Before last night, the last thing I remember is dying—of thirst, and starvation. How could I have gone from concave to convex in the space of a single night?
It didn’t seem possible.
Now I’m not only lost, I’m fat? Where did these clothes come from? How did I get here?
And now that she was on the subject, she realized that she felt taller than she ought to as well. That feeling had been nagging at her since she’d woken, but it was only at this moment that she’d been able to put a finger on it. All of these thoughts flashed through her mind, triggered by the priest’s accusatory remark.
“I don’t know,” Fenn said at last.
“If you do not know yourself, then how can anyone else trust you?” the priest replied, all sympathy gone. “For all I know, you’ve been sent here to spy on me.”
“Why would anyone want to spy on you?” asked Fenn, confused. “I thought—I heard you crying… This church—I thought you were supposed to help people who were lost.”
But the priest had her by the shoulder now, dragging her toward the exit.
“The Gods help those who help themselves,” he said. And with that, he shoved her out the door.