Kayla thought the bailiff would react with authority, but he calmly approached the man and put a hand on his arm. “The man might be innocent. Let us find him and search for the beast. Don’t waste your wrath on an innocent and risk the culprit to go free.”
The family must have trusted the bailiff, because they accepted without resentment this refusal for a quick vengeance. Kayla and Toikem stepped outside with the earl’s representative.
“Most of the villagers will be willing to help, but I suppose it be best we only take my best swordsmen,” the bailiff said.
Toikem shook his head and opened his mouth for the first time since they’d come back. His voice was low. “We’ll take care of the stablehand ourselves. Swords aren’t proper weapons when it comes to beast hunting. Have them prepare, but we cannot wait. It’d be better to take the man by surprise.”
The bailiff silently agreed and jogged away, off to find the warriors himself. Kayla waited for him to be far enough not to hear her before she turned to her brother.
“Why refuse?” she asked. “The beast isn’t much trouble in open combat and we might need the help finding the stableman.”
“What if he learns you spent the night with the man? What if he decides you’re not to be trusted? What if the stableman pretends you’re exerting some revenge? What if he escapes and they think you helped him?” He attached the dagger he was offered to his belt using the metal clinch on the back of its leather sheath.
“Rumors. Are you afraid of rumors?” she asked, on his heels.
“I am.” He kept going on foot, his quick pace apparently designed to keep her from looking at him in the eye. “Where would he keep the beast?”
“A cage, most likely.”
“Let’s search the stables,” he suggested.
“There’s no need. Alba would have sensed its presence.” Sneerers were predators; her mare couldn’t have had a good rest if she’d been staying with one.
“Then, we go for the tavern. The circus man better be convincing.”
The door opened without a sound, properly maintained as it was. Delicate notes floated around released by the swift fingers of a distracted wench sitting by the window with a mandolin. The door closed and the warmth of the tavern embraced them. The innkeeper approached with a bright smile. It was a beautiful day.
Toikem’s blank expression and the worried look on Kayla’s face mismatched the peaceful setting.
“What’s wrong, dear clients?” the innkeeper said. By the look of it, he was worried they had come to complain about theft. The music stopped.
“We’d like to have a word with your stablehand.” Kayla looked at him in the eye as she spoke. The innkeeper showed some amusement – he knew she’d slept with the man – but no concern.
“He’s upstairs. Likes to eat by himself.”
Toikem took off running. Surprised at first, Kayla then noticed the wench had gone before him, probably as soon as she recognized them. She must have known the stablehand’s crimes, because she alerted him a second later with a loud yell. The innkeeper went after them.
Kayla chose to go outside. The stablehand was likely to flee and the window would be the quickest method of egress. Thanks to the night she had spent with him, she knew exactly which it was.
A whistle blared from up high. A horse galloped furiously, at first heard, and then seen. The wanted man jumped in his saddle from the roof. A showman, no doubt!
The stablehand tried to ride her down, but his mount took a sudden fright when it came ten yard close to Kayla. The horse wouldn’t have been more afraid of a band of wolves. It tripped trying to stop. Kayla rushed forward to grab the horseman while he was still stunned, but he wasn’t. The circus man twirled back to his feet, seemingly unharmed.
“Neat trick,” he complimented her with a smirk. “I thought you showed me your wild side. I didn’t think you’d be that good at giving off bloodlust.”
“Trust me. It’s no trick.” She drew the dagger she’d been offered – a fine weapon that fitted her needs. “I am looking for cold meat.”
He walked towards her with confidence. “You’re a sweet girl, even a strong one, but don’t fool yourself.” The stableman unsheathed a large one-bladed knife. “You can’t kill me.”
“Cowards are easily to kill, especially those that send beasts after children.”
“I’d have killed the boy myself if the bloody animal fed off corpses,” the man spat back.