The Nature of the Beast

August 1, 2018 | Posted in Story | By

“You boys were out late last night.”

Sieur Eristan did not look up from the letter he was reading, so he missed the apprehensive looks his students shot back and forth across the table after he spoke.

Breakfast at Fleuracy House was not formal, but Eristan expected the three young men he mentored to arrive promptly each morning, prepared for whatever lessons or duties he might assign for the day. Romeric, still hazy-headed from last night’s misadventure, had barely made it on time this morning. Barris slunk in some time later, with Eristan’s daughter, Neda, right on his heels. She looked ever bit as weary as Romeric felt, making him wonder what she’d been up to while they’d been out.

Surprisingly, Tierce had been the first one at the table. He’d been barely conscious when they’d dumped him on his bed the night before, still mumbling about his “wish cat” and stinking of sour beer and vomit. Romeric had been certain they wouldn’t see him all day, but here he was, washed and groomed and neatly dressed, besides. Discipline had its virtues, he supposed. At least he looked miserable, staring at the plate of food in front of him with an expression that was equal parts queasy and mortified.

The awkward silence at the table dragged out, until Eristan eyed them over the top of his paper, eyebrows creased in critical appraisal.

“Yes, sir,” Barris answered finally, far too late to be at all useful in defusing suspicion.

Eristan surveyed their faces, tallying the bloodshot eyes, pasty cheeks, and generally haggard expressions. When he arrived at the unavoidable conclusion, he pursed his lips, but whether he was disappointed or amused, Romeric really couldn’t tell. He folded his letter neatly and set it next to his plate. “I was surprised when you didn’t come and ask me about the Bell.”

The Bell! After everything that had happened last night, they had completely forgotten the ringing of the Gatehouse Bell. “It was so late,” Romeric said, catching Barris’s eye across the table. “We did not wish to disturb you.”

“I see,” Eristan said. “I appreciate the consideration.” He looked at them expectantly, but no further questions were forthcoming. Frowning faintly, he turned his attention to his meal.

The scraping of utensils on plates was the only sound in the room for several long minutes.  Breakfast this morning was the usual: smoked fish, crusty bread, summer-fresh melon and berries. Romeric had no appetite, but he forced himself to swallow a few mouthfuls for appearance’s sake. Barris, too, made an unenthusiastic show of trying to eat, though he was mostly just pushing food around his plate. Tierce didn’t even pretend. He kept his hands in his lap and his gaze down, food untouched in front of him. Romeric eyed him sidelong, wondering how much he actually remembered about the night before.

They had agreed to keep the events of the night to themselves. With no witnesses and only a mangled, nearly unidentifiable corpse as evidence, it seemed unlikely that anyone would believe they’d been attacked by some kind of magical beast in the middle of the city. If it weren’t for the deep scratches on his arm, Romeric wasn’t sure he would believe it himself. “We were all drinking,” he’d pointed out. “If we tell anyone, they only thing they will hear is that we killed a cat.” It was not a reputation any of them wanted to have to live down.

Neda, sitting on Romeric’s right, cleared her plate and took up a second helping for herself. Otherwise, the silence persisted,  and Sieur Eristan seemed to grow increasingly irritated. Finally, he set down his fork and knife with an indignant huff.

“It was a wrouke, if anyone is curious,” he said.

Romeric didn’t recognize the word, but clearly Barris and Tierce did, judging by the way their faces drained of color. Neda, too, sat up with a sudden, sharp interest. “What is a wrouke?” he asked, the unfamiliar Rhemish word uncomfortable in his mouth.

“It’s…” Eristan frowned at himself. “I can’t recall the word in Jurati…”

“It’s a spirit,” Neda supplied with enthusiasm. “Summoned through a Gate by a mage, and  bound to a host. Usually it’s some kind of animal.”

Romeric’s stomach lurched in a way that had nothing to do with food or hangovers. He understood what Neda and her father were talking about now, and why his friends were both looking so cursedly pale. “Maulath.” he said in a small voice. Literally, grief giver. There were stories about such creatures. Terrible stories. “In Jurat, it is maulith.”

Maulith,” Eristan repeated, nodding. “Of course. You’re right to be concerned, Romeric,” he added, misreading his unsettled expression. “Wrouke are clever and dangerous, and those that summon them rarely have the skill to control them. That’s what happened last night. The Bell Guard found what was left of the rogue mage, but the beast had escaped into the city. It killed at least two other people, that we’re aware of. I’m glad you three managed to stay out of its path.”

“What happened?” Neda leaned forward, eager to hear the story. “Did they find it?” Romeric was fairly certain he already knew the answer to that question.

Eristan shook his head, looking bemused. “That’s the odd thing. They found its remains early this morning, near Soz Bridge.” He indicated the letter sitting next to him on the table. “It was bound to a cat, apparently, but there wasn’t much left of it.”

“They don’t know who killed it?” Barris asked. His face was twisted into an expression of consternation which would have been comical if Romeric hadn’t been feeling exactly the same thing.

“Not a clue. Which is a shame. I’m sure whoever is responsible would have been rewarded for it.”

Whoever was responsible. Now would be the time to speak up, wouldn’t it? Barris or Tierce would say something, Romeric was certain. Claim this notable deed on their behalf. But neither of them said a word, and neither did he. Self-consciously, he tugged at the cuff of his right sleeve, making sure the long scratches on his forearm were hidden from view. He tried to be furtive about it, but Neda, ever perceptive, saw him do it. Her eyes narrowed in suspicion.

Eristan, who had obviously been expecting a more spirited response from his pupils, glanced between them with exasperation. “I can see any attempts at studying mathematics or philosophy would be wasted today.” He pushed his chair back and rose from the table. “I think we’ll just concentrate on some conditioning exercises. Meet me out in the yard in a quarter hour, boys.”

“Yes, sir,” they chorused. If Eristan noticed the lack of enthusiasm in their responses at the prospect of hours of intense physical exercise, he paid it no mind.

As soon as he was out of the room, Neda made a grab for Romeric’s right arm and pushed up the sleeve, revealing the angry red lines running up to his elbow.

“Is that a cat scratch?” she demanded.

With a deft twist, Romeric extricated his arm from her grip. He fixed a lewd smirk on his face that he didn’t feel at all but hoped was convincing. “I really think she would not like to be called a cat,” he said, adding a sly wink for emphasis.

Neda didn’t like that answer. She scowled and turned to Tierce and Barris. “Well?”

Barris answered by shoving bread into his mouth. When she glared at him, he shrugged as if he had no clue what she was talking about. Tierce wouldn’t even look up at her.

With a wordless sound of frustration, she smacked her hands on the table, hard enough to make the dishes rattle with her fury. She stormed out, leaving the three boys alone in the dining room, each pondering their experience the night before, and what they had just learned about it.

They had agreed to keep the secret out of shame, but now it turned out there was nothing to be ashamed of, after all.  They had fought a monstrous beast, a battle more desperate than epic, perhaps, but why stay quiet about it now, when they could be lauded as heroes?

Tierce began to laugh. It was not a particularly exuberant laugh, more of a hopeless snigger. Romeric looked at him, wondering if he was still drunk, or maybe insane. Tierce met his gaze with a glint in his green eyes, and just said one word.

“Zwishka.”

Romeric snorted, and Barris choked on his mouthful of bread, spewing crumbs across the table, which only made Tierce laugh harder. And then they were all laughing, because, really, what else could they do? They laughed long enough and loud enough that Neda came back to give them a dirty look. Romeric understood then why none of them had spoken up when they had the chance. Rewards and acclaim were all well and good, but this bond between them now, a bond formed in blood and steel and secrets, that was something worth much, much more.

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