The Year of the Red Leaf
“I am called Dréoteth.”
I enunciated each syllable slowly, unable to abide the pleasure of his death with the wrong name on his lips.
It was the first time I have uttered it in—I do not know how long. Decades. Centuries. Mister Mathan, a prominent member of society, now knows exactly who and what has been picking off the citizens of Malmsbury.
I worry not for my safety. The dead tell no tales.
If the villagers knew what an atrocity walks among them, as one of them, they would look upon me with horror rather than intrigue and curiosity. But they do not.
The people have no idea that the scribe in their midst is the one responsible for their nightmares, for the dark whispers in the corners of the inns and taverns.
I have been here for six months and have chosen my prey wisely. I have not attacked them in groups even though I have been tempted. Sometimes I want to change right before their eyes and watch them flee en masse, terror thick on the air, their screams layered one over the other.
In this subtle way, taking one victim at a time, I can stretch out the duration of my stay and study them. The townsfolk have concocted many stories about the unexpected disappearances; one rumor insists that one of their own has gone insane. Another is that a curse has been placed upon the village by a troupe of gypsies that passed through not long before I arrived here.
A random stroke of luck, that, since it throws any suspicion off me. As a newer member of their small society, any ill news or bad omens and strange deaths might be blamed upon the man they know the least about.
In an attempt to blend in better, I gave them a false name when I arrived. Here in the village of Malmsbury, they know me as Nehemiah Trimble. I amuse myself with these trivial little details. Centuries past, I never bothered to try and integrate or get to know them. There is danger in doing this, which I suppose is part of the lure. In a fit of brash honesty, I admit that humans have always been nothing more than food in my mind, not worthy of my time or commitment. They are prey, and I am a predator. I found their trials and tribulations tedious. Humans fret and worry over nonsensical things.
However, the longer I spend among them, the more I find myself annoyingly intrigued. There are several men in this town with intellects almost as big as their egos and on more than one occasion we have engaged in interesting conversation. I find myself seeking their company out, shockingly, and could swear that they seek mine out also. I wish that did not fill me with a sense of satisfaction. They are only men, after all, vastly inferior and I know in time they will prove that their true worth is in how well they fill my belly.
In another contradiction, I find myself loathe to target those with artistic skill; painters, architects, musicians. I am secretly fascinated by their abilities, as much as I wish I was not.
A woman who serves here at the inn, Eugenia Bailey, bears watching. It is almost as if she can peel open the layers of a person and take a look inside. I know, because I caught her doing it to me and it was most unsettling.
For a rare moment, I thought she knew my secret.
I have not lived this long to be disabled by a glance, no matter how incisive, and dismissed the notion immediately. I will see her, in fact I will see them all again on the morrow. There is a great festival planned and while they revel, I will do my best not to be incited by their energy.
For now the candle burns low and the hour grows late.
The distorted image that stared back at him in the looking glass resembled a gentleman. His coat, black wool with matching trim, fit loose from his shoulders to his thighs. Layered underneath, a black vest and white shirt added contrast but he cast a critical eye on the snug breeches that tapered down into knee high boots.
They were gray, the color of ashes, and he considered changing them to match his coat.
When Dréoteth realized that he was dawdling over his appearance like some normal human, he snorted.
Humans and their wardrobes, in his grandiose opinion, were too bright, too frilly, too overdone. If he weren’t careful, he would next be shuffling through wigs and ruffles and lace kerchiefs that had absolutely no business anywhere in the vicinity of a man. The thought was laughable if he’d been the type given to fits of amused whimsy.
He was not.
Austere. Over-confident. Aggressive. Those were words that better suited him.
Weak fingers of light, the last hurrah of a dying dusk, painted the spartan room more orange than ochre. It turned his olive skin a jaundiced hue and streaked his jet-black hair with bronze.
He stalked to a small desk under the open window and collected his journal from the surface. The covering, brown leather worn soft from so many handlings sported no name, no marking, no initials. He took it to the armoire and crouched down in front of it. Setting the book on the floor, he gave it a shove and watched it disappear into the space beneath. He wasn’t too concerned with someone stealing it. Any unfortunate soul daring to invade his room would meet with an unpleasant, permanent end.
A moment later he stepped into the gloomy hallway, closing the door behind him. Mellow candlelight flickered from sconces on the walls, too far spaced to chase the shadows away. He would not have been hindered had the corridor been totally black.
He encountered no one as he descended three floors to the main room.
The Rose and Lion Inn was said to be the best in Malmsbury, a fact he found ironic considering there were only two. After observing both for several days prior to his official arrival, Dréoteth found that this one served his purposes better than its smaller rival, Cantley’s. The Rose and Lion backed up to a sweeping forest, giving him some sort of cover if he suddenly needed it. Cantley’s sat in the middle of the village, providing less protection if he found himself on the wrong end of a hunt.
“Good evening, Mister Trimble.”
The intrusion of his name into his thoughts ended them abruptly. He glanced through the empty room to the diminutive woman behind the bar.
He smiled, a slow curve that didn’t expose any teeth.
“Mistress Bailey. Are you not attending the festival?” he asked, weaving through the maze of vacant tables with uncanny grace. Arriving at the counter, he rested a hand there, long fingers spare of rings or adornment.
He stared across at the redheaded, gray-eyed woman and drew in her scent: apples, wine, spice, meat and rose soap. It was always some combination of food and flowers.
She lifted her chin and maintained eye contact, drying the goblet in her hands with quick, nervous swipes.
“When Jared relieves me of my shift, yes. You may call me Nia, if it pleases,” she said.
He thought Miss Eugenia Bailey must not be overly fond of her given name, because this was the fourth time, at least, that she’d briskly offered an alternative. Intrigued, he watched her present a feisty façade while her fidgety body language suggested unease in his presence.
She set the heavy goblet down, snapped the small towel onto the counter and regarded him with that look.
The one that was too sweet to be suspicious and too knowing to be ignored.
In one fell swoop, she set the situation on edge. He stared at her from lidded eyes, nostrils flaring. The predator in him felt challenged by her boldness, real or perceived.
Sixty seconds passed in unrelenting tension until she glanced down at the counter and cleared her throat. The ends of the towel, already fraying, were now shredded into skinny strips. She picked and picked and pried and tugged.
Mollified by her retreat, his aggression eased.
“I will consider it, Mistress Bailey.” There was a scratch and rasp to his voice that hadn't been there before.
Her voice cracked with a meek question, eyes downcast. “Will you have a drink before you go?”
He didn’t realize he’d leaned a few inches closer until he straightened to step away from the counter for the doors. Fighting for diplomacy he didn’t feel, he said, “No, but thank you. Perhaps I will see you at the festival.”
The woman tried his patience like no other.
“Have a good time, Mister Trimble!” She sounded stubbornly cheery.
He paused just before he stepped out, looking back, half expecting to see her smiling and waving. She smiled and waved when he looked, like they had not just traded several minutes of awkward friction.
Humans were the most confusing creatures on earth. The door whispered closed on his shadow.
Eugenia exhaled a breath she didn't realize she was holding. Positive she hadn't imagined the threat she felt in the air, she willed her heart back into a normal rhythm and released her white knuckled grip on the towel.
Nehemiah Trimble remained an enigma. They had passed like ships in the night for months and she was no closer to knowing him, really knowing him, than she had been when he arrived. None of the other women knew him any better than she. Nor did any of the men she’d been brazen enough to ask. They knew the simple things; that he was six months new to the town, that he was living at the Rose and Lion, and that he worked as a scribe for scholars.
Usually, she had no trouble getting to know anyone. Exuberant and merry, she asserted her goodwill and compassion onto the citizens and people responded in kind. Except for the shoemaker, grumpy Mister Rou, who scowled and fussed and tried to pretend he wasn’t charmed by her smiles.
She wiped down the already clean bar and set a clean stack of trenchers on the back counter. Everyone was at the festival and business would be slow until morning.
Jared, the lumbering, giant man who tended the Inn at night, ambled in the side door a few minutes later. Blocky and bulky, he had the finesse of a bull in a china shop but fists the size of warhammers; it kept any rabble-rousers in check in the off hours. He had sandy blonde hair and gray eyes so light they almost looked white. His clothing consisted of a threadbare muslin shirt and dark suspenders that helped hold up tan colored breeches.
Eugenia perked when she saw him, putting away the last of the goblets she’d washed.
“I am off to the festival, Jared. I do not think you will be too busy tonight.” Eugenia didn't expect a verbal answer from Jared, who preferred silence to speaking. Always.
She patted his arm on her way by, whisked out from behind the counter, and hurried to the door.
Eugenia left the Inn for her small cottage nestled at the very edge of the woods, hurrying past the stables where horses nickered when they heard her go by. It wasn’t her own, this little house, but she always warmed at the sight of it. Ivy twisted up the outer walls like skinny, seeking fingers. Leaves draped down from broad branches overhead, creating a whispering rustle on the roof that she’d grown used to over time.
Now she found it charming instead of annoying.
Most of the merry flowers lining the cobbled walk were starting to wane as the season inched toward winter. Patches of snapdragons and broad-faced pansies surrounded roses of red, pink and yellow. Morning glory twined around the post of a birdhouse in the yard.
The lock on the door had been broken for some time and she swished inside, closing it soundly behind her.
“I am home, Honey!” She smiled, amused at the ritual of announcing her arrival.
A small living room sat to the right, a kitchen to the left, and a harrowing, rickety staircase between led up to the loft. Straight ahead, two bedrooms split off a short hall.
Bypassing the living room, Eugenia all but ran into her bedroom. A plaintive meow greeted her from the bed. The cat, roused from its sleep, yawned and sat up. Honey had been her companion for six years, twelve days and four hours. They shared a great affection and she paused to pet and coo, earning a lazy lick along the end of her nose.
Moonlight poured through the window in an elegant stream, bathing the dress she’d laid out in anticipation of the festival. It was the best one she owned, bought back in the spring after months of careful saving and planning for just this occasion. Burgundy and cream brocade, it had a fitted bodice, full sleeves and embroidery along the hem. Without any help, it took her fifteen minutes to change. At least it laced up the front instead of the back.
She traded her dusty work slippers for a newer pair and brushed her hair without the benefit of a looking glass, leaving the wavy tresses shining gloriously down her back.
“I will be home late, Honey. Do not wait up for me!” She scratched the purring feline gently under the chin, laughing, and had just straightened when she heard rustling outside the open window. The crack of a twig drew her gaze there immediately. All she could see were deep shadows made by the trees. Eugenia had never feared for her safety until several members of Malmsbury society went missing.
The silence stretched thin, expectant, as if someone was standing just outside the window against the wall, listening to her. Honey’s ears flattened and she darted off the bed and under it, disappearing from sight. Eugenia saw it in periphery because she couldn’t take her eyes off the window. Any second a dark silhouette was going to blot out the moonlight, sinister and scary, intent on dragging her into the woods.
Eugenia Bailey wasn’t having it.
Picking up a heavy stick that she’d set by her bed, she stalked to the window.
“Who goes there?” she shouted.
Leaning out with the stick raised, ready to strike, she glanced left and right.
No one waited on either side. She scoured the shadows and found nothing suspicious.
“A deer then,” she surmised, pulling back inside with an indignant huff. It didn’t explain Honey’s strange dive off the bed or the eerie feeling of being stalked. Deliberately, she put it from her mind. She’d been listening to far too many rumors flying about town.
She leaned the stick against the wall and briskly left the cottage; the festivities were well under way and time was wasting.
The Fall Festival was the biggest event of the year. Families came out in droves to celebrate the harvest, participate in games, and to see and be seen. Dréoteth, with his hands clasped behind his back, strolled along the heavily decorated main street on the way to the field. Chrysanthemum wreaths hung on the doors of every shop and squat pumpkins sat on the stoops. Haystacks, low candles, awkwardly shaped gourds and scarecrows with potato sack faces all added to the ambiance.
Children ran amuck, absolutely frenzied with excitement. Barefoot, carefree, hair wild, they shrieked and whooped and hollered, running circles around the festivities.
Bales of hay were stacked everywhere in no certain pattern. They provided more than just seating—they became obstacle courses for the children. Up and down, around and around.
Dréoteth took a few steadying breaths. Their darting to and fro threatened his careful control. He waited until there was a break in the madness and entered the clearing.
Long tables were set up on the perimeter, loaded with food. Baskets of apples, pears and peaches flanked platters of roasted pork and fragrant duck. Casks of wine sat at each end with tankards and goblets lined up in rows.
Some of the women wore their better dresses with the necklines scooped low, gossiping about fabric and style and embellishment. There was a hierarchy here, as in most societies, and it was easy to detect the affluent by the cut and expense of their cloth. Men stood in notable groups; the farmers over there, the merchants over here, and the scholars apart from the rest. No matter what group, most doubled as warriors and had swords attached to belts at their hips. The disappearing residents of Malmsbury assured that the men were armed at all times.
Musicians took up a corner and played for dancers that made intricate circles in the center of the haystacks. The crisp evening boasted a clear moon glowing brightly in a black velvet sky. Bonfires spewed serpents of smoke into the air, casting a flickering orange glow across the dark landscape.
He headed for the group of scholars, nodding a greeting to a few couples along the way. It had taken him only a few weeks of intent scrutiny to learn the proper etiquette of polite society.
“Mister Trimble, a pleasure to see you again.”
Greetings overlapped each other as he reached the circle of distinctive men. William Tuttle sported a cane, a round belly, and had lost all but four strands of silver-gray hair; Ronald Upham stood tall and lean like himself with a hawkish profile that reminded Dréoteth of a bird; Meyer Lyon, younger by a decade than his counterparts, was fit and hale with a full head of dark hair. Tuttle and Upham were attired in expensive surcotes and had an unflappable presence while Meyer wore black chausses and a leather hauberk of sturdy quality.
“Gentlemen. I trust the festivities are getting off to a good start?” Dréoteth asked.
“I'd rather be next to the fire with a good book,” Upham said. He had an imperious lift to his chin and he stared at the dancers skeptically.
“There is more to life than reading, Upham.” Tuttle scolded his hawkish companion, disinterested in the complicated steps that he had long forgotten in favor of other, less strenuous pursuits.
“Says the man who tears through three books a week,” Upham said. He scoffed, drawing laughter from Tuttle and Lyon.
Dréoteth examined each man in turn as they spoke, pulling in their distinctive scents with a slow, unobtrusive breath. Experience had taught him how to be subtle about these unusual habits of his. He smiled faintly at the banter, recalling from prior conversations that Tuttle and Upham were both avid and unapologetic readers. He glanced at Meyer Lyon when the man suddenly pinned a direct, jovial question on him.
“What of you, Mister Trimble? Tell us what you think of Malmsbury’s annual Fall Festival.”
“I hope it will be more exciting than standing here conversing about books with the lot of you.” His wry statement earned a rumble of laughter.
Dréoteth had only discovered his own love for the written word mere decades before. There was much to be learned of the ways of men between the covers of a book. One such work, an old diary he’d happened upon, inspired him to keep a journal of his own. Unfortunately, he’d found his entries somewhat lackluster and staid.
He hunted, he killed, he slept.
All the drama he recorded was about other people’s lives. There were no conspiracies or touching deaths or mystifying puzzles revolving around him. Which was exactly the way he wanted it. The redundant entries ceaselessly reminded him, however, of the limited scope of his life. A restless mind had first led him into the outskirts of humanity. The curious things he found, both annoying and intriguing, held him sway. His loathing for them fluctuated wildly sometimes, tipping between volatile and temperate.
A trio of passing horses led by a farmer shied violently, straining their leads. They drug the man ten feet before he regained control. Tossing their heads, wild and unruly, they seemed to startle in the direction of the scholars.
Tuttle, Meyer and Upham observed the incident with perplexed expressions.
“I say, that's a strange thing,” Tuttle said.
“It is a rather large crowd.” Upham, barely bothered by the uproar, decided it was the chaos.
Dréoteth subdued the urge to bare his teeth and growl at the horses. He was their natural enemy, as hungry to destroy them as they were to flee. In his time here, he had taken care to avoid them in the presence of others. People would start to suspect something if every animal he came into contact with had such a vehement reaction. It created a tedious and treacherous environment.
He glanced around like the others, frowning, feigning confusion. He spied hound dogs across the field that had also picked up his scent but their baying seemed random from this distance.
“Perhaps the dogs?” Dréoteth suggested.
“Perhaps,” Meyer said, glancing away from the horses. “Probably the children, too.” Several waved sticks and screamed as they ran.
The scholars were content to let the odd occurrence pass.
“So, Mister Trimble, to pick up where our last conversation left off--” Tuttle was interrupted by a sweet, high-pitched voice closing in from their left.
“Meyer Lyon! You come dance with me this instant!” Miss Merriweather marched their direction with determination. Petite and dark with rosy cheeks, she smiled charmingly. The peach frock skimmed her slim frame, her fingers pinching the skirts to hold them a few inches off the ground.
Meyer laughed and bowed chivalrously. “Or what?”
“Or I will go find Henry Bower and dance with him instead!” She helped herself to Meyer’s elbow when she arrived and smiled a greeting to the men.
“Henry Bower has bowed legs and dances like a chicken,” Meyer scoffed.
“Chickens do not dance,” she laughed.
“And if they did,” Meyer said, feigning seriousness. “They would dance just like that.”
“Did we hear something about dancing?” Tuttle and Upham’s wives arrived, smiling, apparently intent to disrupt the men.
“Oh, the wives.” Tuttle sighed melodramatically. He rocked back and forth on his shoes and stamped his cane once for emphasis.
“There is more to life than discussing business and books, Tuttle. I have not seen you dance in quite some time.” Meyer’s dark eyes gleamed with mischief. He was regarded as one of the most eligible bachelors in Malmsbury after his wife of ten years perished tragically two seasons past. He was also known for his good-natured bantering.
“Dancing, pah.” Tuttle voiced his discontent and clutched his cane while his wife plucked and picked at the arm of his coat.
She was thin next to his roundness with a pretty face and fair hair touched with silver at the temples. Missus Tuttle wore her age well.
“Oh come now! It's been an age since we danced,” she said.
“It will be another age before I do so again!” Tuttle announced, before whispering conspiratorially to Dréoteth. “Don’t ever marry.”
“I will heed your advice well.” Dréoteth replied. The feigned gravity made the men chuckle.
Regarding them all with a neutral smile, hands loosely clasped behind him, he watched as the couples retreated to dance. He was perplexed at the interactions. How the women cajoled the men and although they complained, they pandered to their whims.
Women rarely ever approached him, for any reason, so he was not subject to the ridiculous displays he had just witnessed. Eugenia Bailey was the exception, although even she hadn’t gone so far as to touch his arm or ask for escort.
While the men took their places amongst the lines and waited for new music to start, Dréoteth strolled the perimeter of the gathering. He took care to appear casual rather than like he was hunting—which was exactly what he was doing. He took the opportunity to examine the townsfolk while they were unaware of his scrutiny.
Many people were already well into their cups, laughing drunkenly, and several couples slipped away into deeper shadows only to return a short time later with leaves in their hair and their clothes askew. Some of these would have been prime targets, but Dréoteth was not yet ready to kill. Tuttle was also a good choice; too slow to move quickly and the extra mass around his middle made for a tasty meal.
Even as he considered the scholar, he found himself reluctant to end his life. It was a startling revelation. Rarely, if ever, did he second-guess the slaughter of humans. Curious over his own hesitation, he stood at the far end of the clearing, not directly involved but not apart from the festivities.
A small girl, no more than seven or eight, broke away from the other rowdy children. Directly, without pausing to ask permission from her mother and without any trace of fear, she ran past the haystacks for Dréoteth. She halted before him and stretched out her tiny hand, extending a bright yellow dandelion. A pale halo of curly blonde hair framed her face.
“Is this for me?” Dréoteth asked, glancing down. His lips thinned faintly at her intrusion.
She nodded, smiling, dimples appearing in her cherubic cheeks. With her other hand, she reached up to impatiently push a few strands away from her mouth.
He took the weed with care and examined it as if it were the most precious of flowers, as delicate as the girl who gave it to him.
“Then I shall wear it proudly,” he said, tucking the dandelion into one of the buttonholes on his coat. As a rule he avoided children at all times, finding them irritating and noisome. This particular one surprised him with her fearless charm.
They made a sweet cameo against the celebratory backdrop. Not one of the townsfolk could have guessed that the small child stood before the very man who had made four of their citizens disappear.
She performed a miniature curtsy, short legs bobbing her down and up in a flawless imitation of women thrice her age. Her dress, a haggard thing three different colors of brown and dirty at the hem, proclaimed her as one of the less privileged.
“What is your name?” she asked.
The abrupt question nearly caught Dréoteth off guard and he bit his real name back in favor of the fake one. “Nehemiah Trimble. Yours?”
“Miss Thea!” Exuberant, she hid a giggle behind her grubby hands. Dréoteth thought she had the palest pair of green eyes he'd ever seen. In contrast, his own were a vibrant blue.
He spared her a scant smile, head and shoulders bowed just enough to make eye contact less of a strain on her little neck.
“Mistress Thea. I shall not forget it, or your thoughtful gift.” In retrospect, he thought he sounded almost gallant. On the heels of that, he realized that he was standing there chatting with a mere child. A human child. He should be choosing a victim from the herd and instead here he was, coddling one.
“Charming the ladies, Mister Trimble?” Eugenia asked, approaching the two with a smile.
Dréoteth straightened his posture and glanced aside. Eugenia Bailey, with her lively eyes and freckled complexion, annoyed him. She didn't have a reedy voice or an ugly face and yet he discovered that she put him on edge.
Perhaps his victim had inadvertently come to him. Thea darted away with another giggle, leaving the pair alone.
“My attempts are poor, since they keep running away. If you will excuse me, Mistress Bailey, I was just about to find dinner.” Without waiting for her to forestall him, he inclined his head and stepped around her.
Eugenia opened her mouth to speak and closed it when she found herself summarily dismissed. Staring after him, she balled her small hands into fists at her sides. She had intended to apologize and try to open what she hoped would be enlightening dialogue. Instead, she wound up alone.
She had heard rumors of his lengthy conversations with Tuttle, Upham and Lyon and itched to probe past the indifferent veneer he always presented.
Perhaps he wouldn’t seem so threatening if she could just understand his mind.
She muttered under her breath, watching until the crowd obliterated him from view.
Rather than follow and force her company, she allowed one of the farmer's sons to lead her into the dance. She was a little stilted in poise and grace but her partner, the handsome and sought after Thom Liston, never noticed.
When the music came to an end, Eugenia found herself standing next to Meyer Lyon. She added her applause for the musicians, dipped Thom a curtsy, and took advantage of Miss Merriweather being absconded by another partner to face Meyer.
“Mister Lyon, I wonder if you could answer a few questions for me,” she asked.
Meyer, following Miss Merriweather and her partner with his eyes, glanced down. “Of course, Miss Bailey. Let us get a drink and get out of the dancers way.” He offered her his elbow gallantly.
She slid her fingers under his arm, grinning, and let him lead her between the bales of hay toward the refreshments. “I wanted to ask you about Nehemiah.”
Meyer chuckled. “Let me guess. You want to know if there is any particular woman he has his eye on.”
“Of course not! I mean—well—is there?” Eugenia hadn’t intended to ask any such thing. Meyer piqued her curiosity with the thought there was a woman Nehemiah might be interested in. What kind of woman would he like? She knew all the single girls in town and she found herself impatient to know whether it was a dainty miss, a snobby one, or something in between.
Meyer glanced down, grinning like a he-devil. “If there is, she is the best kept secret in Malmsbury. As far as I know, he has not shown interest in any of them. Some men are like that, though. They keep their secrets close to the chest.”
They passed a row of children bobbing for apples and stepped up to a long table. Meyer picked up a goblet and gestured at one of the wine casks.
She nodded, distracted with their conversation.
“Has he confided anything else to you of late? I know the last time we spoke, you did not know where his family was from, or even where Nehemiah was born.”
Meyer filled the goblet halfway and handed it to her. He filled a tankard with mead for himself. “I know nothing new. He does not seem to enjoy discussing his past.”
“Thank you.” She took the cup and had a sip, rolling the taste of the wine across her tongue. “I cannot manage to get past ‘Hello’ or ‘How are you’ with him.”
“Are you interested in Mister Trimble, Miss Bailey?”
She choked on her wine, coughing delicately. Rounding on him with wide eyes, she said, “Have you taken leave of your senses? Indeed not!”
“Really?” Meyer’s dark eyes glittered with amusement. He led her toward the tug of war game about to start. “I wonder then, why you are so curious about him.”
“I am curious about every new resident of Malmsbury.”
“I seem to recall that you could not be bothered when –“
“Mind yourself, Meyer Lyon.”
“—when Ixworth Buxlowe arrived.”
She scoffed and rolled her eyes. “I cannot even say his name without tying my tongue in a knot.”
“If you had come to know him, instead of pretending he did not exist, you could have become familiar enough to call him Ixy, or perhaps Buxo.”
“You are quite lucky I do not have a sharp object,” she informed him archly.
Meyer barked a laugh, patted her arm in a brotherly fashion, and left her with the line of other women at the end of the rope.
Eugenia realized that once again, she had discovered no inroads or insights into the elusive Nehemiah Trimble.
The celebration lasted late into the evening. Food and drink were consumed in startling amounts, children ran wild, and the townsfolk engaged in contests that Dréoteth refused to participate in.
There was a watermelon seed-spitting contest that he found repulsive, a potato sack race, bobbing for apples and a pie-eating contest where the contestants ended up wearing more food than they ate. Half the time he was disgusted, wondering why he walked amongst these heathens like he was one of them. The other half he spent bemused and troubled.
At midnight, old farmer Thornton invited all the kids into the back of his wagon. Hay bales lined the wooden sides, used as seats and leaning posts.
Even from a distance Dréoteth could tell that one of the adults riding along was telling the children a scary story. Their faces were rapt, eyes wide, tension tightening the slim structure of their bodies. Some sat huddled together, clearly enjoying the thrill. He smelled their anxiety like he smelled the smoke from the bonfires. His senses were razor sharp, as any good predators should be.
He followed the wagon with his eyes while it made a circuit of the clearing and wound up staring across the distance at Eugenia Bailey.
Sitting next to Thea on a bale of hay, she locked gazes with him. None of the other women ever held his eyes so boldly. They always glanced away if he caught them looking, blushes on their cheeks, pretending like it never happened at all.
He stared until she grew uncomfortable and finally glanced away. Eugenia Bailey played a dangerous game. He didn’t know if she baited him on purpose or whether she genuinely didn’t recognize her folly.
Meyer Lyon joined him, providing a timely distraction, and they spoke at length about Tuttle's idea of opening a School of Higher Learning. The village was far too small for a University, they both agreed, but the School would be a step in the right direction. It could pave the way for such a venture in generations to come. Meyer always enjoyed discussing the possibilities with him, going so far to mention interest in a teaching position even though he owned and worked a rather large farm on the edge of town.
Dréoteth steered the topic away from subtle inquiries of his supposed job as a scribe, a convenient lie to allow him to mingle in society better. He did know how to read and write the English language, a task that had taken him some few years to learn, but he did not actively pursue a steady position. It gave him opportunity however, to get close to ancient tomes and tablets of some renown, which he enjoyed trying to translate when he could get his hands on them.
He was rarely around long enough for anyone to get suspicious about how he supported himself.
It was conversations like these that put doubt into Dréoteth's mind. Doubt about killing them. The longer he lived in their midst, the more he found himself morbidly attracted to human interaction. Some of them had intriguing ideas about the earth and the stars, things he had never given much thought to before now.
Meyer Lyon's intelligence was nothing to trifle with, either, and he took care to give nothing unusual away.
The citizens of Malmsbury started to stagger home in waves when a fine mist crept over the treetops, threatening to blanket the landscape and obliterate the low hanging moon. Dréoteth separated from Meyer with a final goodbye and a surprising promise to visit him tomorrow.
Most of the adults were inebriated to some degree and he saw several opportunities for hunting as he departed the clearing: one man staggering into the woods toward his cabin; two women arm in arm, laughing, paying scant attention to their surroundings; Tuttle and his jovial wife making their way to a wagon drawn by two horses that would take them to their farm on the edge of town. They made it almost too easy.
He saw Eugenia Bailey, her cheeks high with color, unsteadily waltzing in the general direction of home. He knew where her cottage was. He’d seen it once from the air. She earned his full regard for exactly thirty seconds before his mind was made. The nearest shadow belonged to a building lining the main street and Dréoteth sank into the confining darkness to hide his malicious intent.
He followed her by scent rather than sight, silent now that he was actually hunting. His boots made no sound at all on the ground and his posture, should anyone have gotten a glimpse of him, was absolutely predatory. He didn't crouch or hunch or creep through the shadows, he stalked.
The fog grew thick and cloying around the buildings, reducing visibility to less than ten feet. Just before the gauzy mist swallowed her whole, he saw her glance back. He noticed the wariness in her astute gaze, recognized the first trickle of fear. Even with several goblets of wine in her system, this woman was still intuitive. Not for the first time, Dréoteth wondered if humans had an extra sense that allowed them to detect danger. Something they were barely even aware of, ingrained into the core so deep that they couldn't separate it from senses much easier to define and explain.
He didn't allow her to see him. Stepping away from the last building, he took three large, lunging strides and launched into the air. At first it seemed like he wouldn't do anything other than fall flat on his face.
But then, then, his lean body grew ultra streamlined. When his arms snapped out to the sides, they became wings. The change happened smooth and effortless, his olive skin growing scales, his maw filled with needle sharp teeth. Hard ridges protruded above the slits of his eyes, along his sinuous spine and around the oval shape of his nostrils. Smaller hooks ran the length of his tail, which ended not in the shape of a spade or something equally devilish, but a tapered point. The wedge-silhouette of his head looked sleek instead of blocky.
Dragons of lore were often described as bulky and large, but this creature was serpentine. Snake-shaped. Built for stealth and speed.
An iridescent blue sheen gleamed across his black scales whenever moonlight struck it just right.
Climbing above the foggy veil, he glided over treetops. Below, Eugenia was nothing more than a vague presence of heat with the fog between them. Guided by that and the sound of her running feet, he sliced down through the mist at a wicked, deadly angle. Under his belly, his talons curled tight and close, his long tail whipping behind him for turns and balance.
Something felt strange about the night. Eugenia couldn't say what made her glance back, or start running. Maybe it was the thick fog, the poor visibility, or the wine. The hair stood up on the back of her neck and goosebumps swarmed down her arms under the sleeves of her dress. It was a bad time to remember the dark whispers about what kind of threat lurked in Malmsbury: a crazed citizen, gypsies and curses, witches and spells.
She tripped over the gnarled knob of a root and went down with a thump and a gasp.
She felt the sudden rush of a brisk breeze but it wasn't like any wind she'd experienced before. It seemed too... contrived. As if something enormous had just flown past, low and threatening. The soft whoosh reminded her of wings, but even the biggest owl or eagle couldn't have felt large enough to blot out the sky. She couldn't see the sky, but the impression was the same.
Scrambling to her feet, breathless, she paused to listen. She looked for silhouettes in the fog that didn’t belong, for shifting shapes, lumbering bodies. Her imagination was running away with itself.
The mist should have felt protective, cloaking her from prying eyes. Instead she felt blind and exposed.
Something was out there.
She knew it as sure as she knew her own name. Shirking etiquette with shocking swiftness, she snatched up handfuls of her skirt and started running.
Her cottage could only be another hundred feet, if that, ahead of her.
Keep running, don’t trip, don’t look back.
Just as she started to think she imagined the entire thing, something crashed into her from behind. She hit the ground hard, painfully knocking the wind from her lungs. Rolling twice before coming to a stop, palms scraped and abraded, she wheezed sharply and got to her feet again.
Instinct had kicked in; these next few minutes would decide whether she lived or died.
Convinced of it, she ran with a stitch in her side, pain shooting through her ribs and one ankle, so completely terrified that she couldn't even scream. She needed every breath, every ounce of energy to run the final forty feet. When her cottage suddenly loomed up in front of her out of the gloom, it startled her. She didn't stop until she barged in the unlocked front door, slamming it behind her. Desperate to brace something against it, she hobbled over to one of the heavy chairs at her small table and jammed it up against the knob.
Isolated from the rest of the town, and more importantly, help, she barricaded herself inside and listened for any sounds of menace. Wounded and afraid, her imagination ran wild over what exactly had attacked her. Was it the same thing that had absconded with the other townspeople? Was this the fate they met? Checking for blood on her nape and what part of her back she could reach, she discovered no blood and no rips in her dress. Whatever it had been simply knocked her down, perhaps misjudging her size, or its own speed.
As the gloom thickened into the wee hours of a new morning, Eugenia Bailey thanked her lucky stars to be alive.