The sun rose and the city rose with it. Old maids threw open shutters, emptied the contents of their chamber pots into the street and shook out their sheets. Hawkers emerged to cry their wares. Shopkeeps unlocked their doors and readied for business. Cart-horses drew jouncing wooden wagons across the sodden earth, and the narrow thoroughfares began to fill with people. Smoke rose from the chimney of the baker, who’d already been at work for hours, and the blacksmith fired up his forge. The sky was clear, except for a few stray wisps of cloud. It promised to be a beautiful day. And yet…
There was something in the air. A vague something which pervaded everything. It robbed eggs of their savor, soured sips of wine. Made every note of birdsong sound just a smidge off-key. The people put on a good show, but conversations were briefer than they might have been. Their laughter was forced. They walked faster than was their habit, and spent little time idling out of doors. The guard was out in force, their red tabards bright spots of color, and their hands never far from their swords. There was something in the air.
And that something was fear.
Fenn woke lying in the mud. She lifted her head, looked around groggily, squinting in the light of the morning. The movement pained her. She raised a grimy hand to her face and found it covered in inexplicable scratches all the way down to her neck. She couldn’t remember if they’d been there the night before. She wrapped her filthy green blanket more tightly around her shoulders.
No. Not a blanket, she realized. A cloak. Another possession she couldn’t explain, to go along with the unfamiliar clothes. She tugged at the edge of it. Besides the mud, it was strewn with strange symbols. Writing that she could neither read nor recognize, all angles and straight lines, worked in silver thread.
Where on earth did it come from?
She peered upward. The wall she leaned against, unbroken except for a single round window, was of white plaster, spattered with dried mud and topped with an uneven shingle roof whose architecture had been complemented by a number of gummy swallows’ nests. Their occupants were noisily about their own business. The wall she faced was much the same, save that it was spattered with slightly different mud, and its roof was uneven in a marginally different way.
The impressions hardening in the alley muck told a clumsy story of the night before. Fenn saw that she must have fallen in the spot where she now lay. After, by all accounts, a very stumbling walk from a short ways down the narrow street—bouncing off one wall after another.
She saw what she guessed to be the footprints of the guard, memories of whom were slowly drifting back; like moths gathering by a fire.
The Beast! Did you see the Beast, girl?
After some confusion, the prints trailed off down the alley and away. There were no inhuman prints that she could see. They’d told her the Beast had come this way, but if that were true, should there not have been signs? Claw marks, or pads, or deep depressions? Yet there was nothing.
Perhaps it is a flying beast, she reasoned. Like one of the enormous wasps that they say live upon the Windy Plains.
All around her, the city and its people readied for the day, and it occurred to Fenn at that moment to wonder if she was dead.
It was an unsettling thought, but a logical one. After all, she remembered dying. Death and dying—one seemed to follow the other as a matter of course. It wasn’t something she’d given much thought to before, death. It was something that happened to older people. And animals. Wynne was a quiet town, and more of its residents passed of old age than anything else. Her father was dead, or so she’d been told. She hadn’t any memory of him.
What happens to you when you die? Fenn wondered. People seemed to have different opinions on the matter. Perhaps it depended on which God you believed in. But what if you don’t believe in any God? Ms. Farrow didn’t speak of such things, nor hold with her children doing so either.
The possibility that you were plopped down, friendless and alone in a strange land, with no knowledge of having traveled the distance in between, seemed plausible enough. Perhaps death isn’t death at all, but rather one step in a much longer journey. One which you are not allowed to know about until you take it…
Fenn blinked upwards. Am I in the clouds? She looked down. Or in the Underworld, deep in the bowels of the Earth? She flicked her hand, sending mud flying in all directions. Wherever it is, it certainly isn’t Paradise. I wonder if Master Fenwick is here. Her eyes widened. Or my father. Not that I would recognize him if he were.
Her stomach growled. Dead or not, apparently I still get hungry. She grimaced. “I hope the food here isn’t made of vapor… Or dirt.”
Fenn drew herself up and stumbled on stiff legs to the nearest corner.
Wherever I am, it must be a great city, Fenn thought.
There were more people than she’d ever seen in one place on this street alone. There are dozens of them! Not all of them were men, either. Here she saw an elf, slender and proud. There, a stout dwarf. And when she spotted a gnome, darting between the legs of horses and taller folk, she thought for an instant it might have been Master Fenwick. She was mistaken, of course.
Fenn simply stood and watched them for a time, nervous and unsure. Where should I go? I don’t know anyone here.
It was a strange feeling for a girl who’d spent the first sixteen years of her life in a town of less than two hundred. She’d encountered her fair share of strangers. Growing up in a Tinker’s Home you were bound to meet just about everyone who passed through town. But that had not amounted to much, in Wynne, on the edge of the Windy Plains.
She was surprised to feel a keenly painful loss of footing. At home, she’d had a role to play. She was Ms. Farrow’s only daughter. She was the youngest of six. She was the bookworm. The dreamer. She was going to do something with her life. When she’d stolen away in Master Fenwick’s wagon, she’d been an Adventurer, at the start of a fantastic journey. Or so she’d thought.
She had found the great adventure she’d been looking for. But now that she had it, she wasn’t sure she wanted it after all. Robbed of all the relationships that had always defined her, she didn’t know how to engage with the world.
Her stomach growled again, insistent. Whatever ill she’d felt the night before, it had passed. And though her breath was still sour, and her throat a bit sore, her stomach was intent on reminding her that she was famished. So she gathered her nerve and set off in search of something to eat.
The street sloped gently upwards; to the north, judging by the angle of the sun. Jutting over the rooftops of the shops and homes that lined the way, she could see the highest towers of a stone castle, topped with waving red pennants. Perhaps a Great King lived there.
Fenn slogged through the muddy streets, her shoes catching in the muck, scrunching her nose and hoping it would lead her to something edible. The city was host to an array of smells—most of them unpleasant.
Her home, the town of Wynne, was huddled a short ride from the outer edges of Lisley Wood. It was the last stop on the only road east out of the Kingdom of Worthe. From there it passed through the Windy Plains: a vast, inhospitable expanse. Wynne, being as it was, in the woods, had smelled primarily of trees. And rain, and fresh soil, and chimney fires. This city smelled of mud, and mildew, and chamber pots. It smelled of horses, and unwashed bodies. Upon a moment of reflection, Fenn realized to her dismay that so, in fact, did she.
The one thing the city did not smell of was food.
As the elevation rose, so too did the quality of the buildings and the things inside them. The walls grew cleaner. The rooves more even. And flowers began to appear in neat little boxes beneath the windows.
Having walked for some minutes, Fenn reached a short stair. No more than five or six stone steps—but she sensed that it marked a boundary of sorts. Beyond it, the muddy streets gave way to cobblestones. She had never encountered a cobblestone before, but realized discovered that they were easier on her feet. She’d gone no more than a few steps beyond the top of the stair when she received the first look.
A heavyset woman stood voluminous in a wine-colored dress, a blue shawl draped over her shoulders, perusing a selection of scented soaps and candles. They were astounding in their variety of colors and shapes—from plump tulips to fierce dragons, and other strange creatures so real that the only clues that they were made of wax were the wicks curling from their heads.
Fenn, intrigued despite her hunger, was standing a few feet behind, peering over the woman’s shoulder, when she gave an affronted sniff! and whirled around. Her nose, a great, bulbous thing, was wrinkled; her brow furrowed in disapproval beneath her frilly purple hat. She bestowed upon Fenn a most unfriendly gaze. Her dark eyes followed as Fenn took a startled step backward and hurried on up the street. The woman’s final salvo came in the form of a loud harrumphing directed at Fenn’s retreating back.
Fenn soon realized that this was the sort of treatment she should expect in this part of town. Below she’d been invisible. Above the stair, she was a source of repulsion and consternation to seemingly everyone she passed. She was on the verge of turning back when a singular building caught her eye.
Sandwiched between a woodcarver and a boot maker, it was smaller and plainer than the buildings around it, constructed of small blocks of pale stone. It had an arched, shingled roof, and rose to two stories at the back. Painted on a diamond-shaped sign affixed to the front wall was a field of stars, one of them larger than the rest. The doors were open, and inside, someone appeared to be crying.
Curious, Fenn drew up and peered inside. The air was a bit dusty, the space coolly lit by rays of sun slanting in through high windows. A threadbare carpet that had once been red ran the length of the room, flanked by a few rows of low wooden benches. It ended at a low dais, upon which rested an altar. Seated on the left foremost bench was a man. His bony shoulders were evident through his robes. His head was in his hands, and he was sobbing.
An uncomfortable itch between the shoulder blades caused Fenn to turn. Across the street, a pair of city guards stood in conference with a sour-looking middle-aged man. They were far enough away that Fenn couldn’t hear what they were saying, but she could read their gestures well enough—the guardsmen looking back and forth. The man pointing, scowling. They’re talking about me.
She did the only thing she could think of—she ducked inside the church.
The man on the pew, hearing her footsteps perhaps, surreptitiously glanced over his shoulder. An instant later, however, his head was back in his hands and his sobbing redoubled, increasing in both volume and intensity as Fenn approached.
“Oh, me!” he cried. “Oh, poor piteous me!”
His body was wracked with convulsions of sorrow. He tugged at his thinning hair and shook with dismay.
“Excuse me?” Fenn called softly, loath to interrupt.
The man seemed not to hear. If anything, he grew even more distressed.
“Excuse me,” Fenn said, louder this time, glancing uneasily toward the door.
She bit her lip. She was just behind him now. She reached out and lay a hesitant hand upon his trembling shoulder. He shot up at her touch, vaulting out of his seat and whirling round to face her. His eyes were wide with what appeared to be genuine surprise.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” Fenn stammered, craning her neck. It turned out that he was exceptionally tall. “I—that is… are you all right?”
His shoulders slumped and he breathed a heavy sigh. “I am undone,” he lamented, wiping with the back of his hand at a face that was gaunt and red—but curiously dry.
“He’s taken it! It’s gone! Oh, whatever shall I do?” The man turned to lean heavily upon the altar. It was conspicuously empty, save for a simple yellow cloth. He tilted his head back to gaze up at the heavens.
“What’s gone?” asked Fenn, stepping up beside him. “Who’s taken it?”
The man lay an arm across his forehead. “The golden key!” he moaned. “The sacred token of Dario! It’s gone, oh it’s gone!
“Where has it gone?”
The man twisted round to face her, his face dark. Fenn heard a sound and glanced back to find the guardsmen standing at the door—but she turned again when the man’s hand closed upon her shoulder. If the appearance of the guards concerned him he gave no sign of it. His skeletal fingers curled tighter, and he rasped:
“The Beast, girl. It lies in the belly of the Beast!”