“I think something went after his marrow,” she said. “There is a predator that traps travelers by the side of the road; one that would have the teeth to attack the bone. This is too far, though. The boy wandered off the trail for half a league.”
“They found him when another child followed the same impulse. Nobody brought him here. He was drawn to this place.”
“Yes, but the creature wouldn’t have settled so far from the road unless it didn’t have a choice.”
“What do you mean?” he asked his sister with a puzzled look.
“The tree is what drives the curse into the soil. The predator relies on the roots to carry down the curse. Once inside the trap, the child couldn’t leave. It baits the travelers with visions of wealth and waits for hunger and thirst to weaken its prey.”
“No, it exudes a hallucinogen. It would have had to trail it from the road.”
“And that beast attacks grown men?”
Kayla nodded. “Yes.”
“The long distance might explain why it only affected children. If that thing had to go further than usual, the concentration would have been lower. What’s it called?”
“A sneerer, because of the patterns on its head,” she replied. Toikem’s horse pulled on his reins. “We’d better start back. They sense the curse and they don’t like it.”
Her brother agreed; the horses too.
“You said it wouldn’t hunt that far away from the road unless it didn’t have a choice?”
“Yes, the pole is what allowed the sneerer to lay its trap.”
The siblings exchanged a worn look.
The way back to the village seemed shorter to Kayla. It almost surprised her to see the wooden buildings surround her so suddenly. She’d been lost in thoughts. They visited the parents of the departed first, to bring them back the boy’s remains. They were thankful but demanded justice. They followed the siblings to the bailiff’s.
The earl’s representative was a strong man, probably a soldier who’d gained the noble’s trust in battle. His family lived in the town’s largest building after the tavern. People tended to draw closer during harsh times such as these. The bailiff played with his youngest when Kayla and Toikem came in. But he asked that the children be sent upstairs when he recognized them.
“I thank you, on behalf of Earl Tarend of Givreterre.” The bailiff handed them a purse that Kayla accepted gratefully, matching his eyes as she knew she should. Northerners held humility and vainglory equally in contempt.
The bailiff gave up his solemn tone when he looked at a young man and was brought two daggers. “I know you pack lightly, travelers. I had my first son forge these for you. A bit of an original. He does not deign to make the same weapon twice, so I am afraid they aren’t identical.”
He extended his hands towards the siblings. The daggers did not seem to have been the product of a single man but they shared the same quality. Kayla took the one with a cross-guard; Toikem the one with a curved blade.
“Do you think the conjurer is still among us?” the bailiff asked.
“The murderer might be, but he is no mage,” Kayla answered while her brother remained silent. There was a sudden stillness in the room. She sensed she needed say more. “We believe the boy was killed by a beast. It is possible it wasn’t trained or tamed, but the murderer had extensive knowledge of the creature.”
“There isn’t any beast master here. The Old North is poor in fauna.”
Kayla realized why the way back to the village had seemed so short. She had not been eager to face the truth. She had a suspect in mind.
“The tavern’s stable is manned by a former circus trainer,” she said. She saw her brother squaring his shoulders soon after.
The bailiff frowned. “How do you know?”
“He had my mare in his care. We discussed animal behavior for a good part of the evening.”
“I’ll get him!” the lost boy’s father exclaimed.