It was midafternoon at the Orb and Claw tavern. The small common room was mostly empty save for a few regulars who sat at either the long table in the center of the room or at the bar. The door of the tavern was propped open to let the breeze from outside bring relief from the summer heat.
Christabel Montegarde stood behind the bar, smiling cheerfully as she passed a mug of dark ale to a waiting patron. Her friend and fellow serving girl, Sheela, joked with the men sitting at the main table and occasionally dodged a swat at her rear. Christabel shook her head as she wiped off the counter, wondering how Sheela put up with such treatment.
Suddenly, the door to the kitchen crashed open and a small gray cat darted out with a yowl. A large white-haired man, his face red with anger, loomed in the kitchen doorway. He shook his club-like walking stick at the fleeing cat and shouted, “Get out, ye filthy creature!” He shot an angry look at Christabel and limped heavily over to her. Though the bar was between them, she backed away. The large man slammed the head of the walking stick on the countertop and thundered, “Gods bleedin’ eyes, girl, how often must I tell ye ta keep your flea-crawlin’ beasties out of my tavern!”
Christabel jerked at the sound and folded her arms across her chest. “I — I’m sorry, Uncle Fergus,” she said quickly, casting her gaze to the floor. “He must have gotten out of the room, and –”
“Enough excusin’!” Fergus leaned forward and continued in a low voice, “The next time I see that accursed creature, I’ll smash its blasted skull to splinters. Clear enough, girl?”
“Yes, Uncle Fergus,” Christabel replied, still not looking at him. His breath smelled of wine and decayed food. “I promise he won’t –”
Fergus snorted. “You promise,” he echoed derisively. He turned and began limping back into the kitchen.
From across the room, Sheela gave Christabel a look of sympathy and called out, “It was my fault, sir. I was supposed to look after the cat today, and –” Her words were cut off as Fergus slammed the door.
In the awkward moment of silence that followed, Christabel became keenly aware that the tavern patrons were all looking at her. Suddenly she remembered the cat. She rounded the end of the bar and dashed to the doorway.
“Ranulf!” she called, looking frantically up and down the street. She shouted the cat’s name again.
Sheela came up next to her. “Don’t worry, he’ll be back,” she said, patting Christabel’s shoulder. “He lived for quite a long time by himself before you found him, didn’t he?”
Christabel rubbed her bare arms. “I wish Uncle Fergus didn’t hate animals so much.”
“He doesn’t do so well with people, either,” Sheela remarked. “I’ll see if I can’t find Ranulf. He shouldn’t be too far gone.” She slipped out the door and into the street, calling for the cat.
Christabel sighed. She brushed a wisp of light-brown hair out of her eyes, then went back into the tavern and resumed wiping the counter. Her anxiety gave way to sadness; she wished for the hundredth time that her father hadn’t sent her to live with Uncle Fergus when her mother died of the blackspot several months ago. The death had greatly affected the entire family, but Fergus most of all since her mother was his only sibling. He had since grown cold and withdrawn, and rarely paid Christabel much attention except to scold her or assign her duties. She longed for the company of her three sisters, but they now lived with their grandparents; the cat was now the only other family she had.
Her thoughts were interrupted as Sheela strode back into the common room. “Did you find him?” Christabel asked.
Sheela shook her head, but a sly grin spread across her face as she replied, “Sorry, I didn’t find Ranulf.” She turned and gestured as a dark-haired young man dressed in a white silk cote entered the tavern, cradling the gray cat in his arms. “He did!”
Christabel gave a cry of delight and relief as the young man handed the cat to her. “Oh, thank you, Trevin! Where did you find him?”
“Not far from here. He seemed to have found some new friends.” The young man explained that Ranulf had been caught by a pair of street children who were about to dunk the hapless feline into a full rain barrel. After rescuing the cat, Trevin had run into Sheela, who led him back to the Orb and Claw.
Christabel smiled broadly at Trevin, but quickly dropped her eyes when he grinned back. Sheela caught her friend’s look, and held out her arms. “Here, let me take him. He must be tired from running.” She accepted the cat and headed for the stairs that led up to the private rooms.
Christabel tugged at her ear as she absently rubbed the bar rag at a spot on the counter. “So, will you be having your usual today?” she asked.
Trevin glanced from side to side and ran a hand through his dark shoulder-length hair. He shook his head. Leaning forward slightly, he said, “Truthfully, I came here to see you. To ask you, really, if you’d –”
“Greetings, all!” came a shout from the tavern doorway. The two of them turned to see a thin man clad in brightly-colored clothes juggling three large eggs as he walked carefully into the room. “I come from the traveling troupe of Rushike, the most famous and renowned master of amusements and wonders in all of Baranur!” Without taking his eyes off the eggs, the juggler made his way over to the nearest table and snatched a mug off the table. The eggs splashed one by one into the ale. But before the owner of the drink could react, the juggler made a flourish with his free hand and a copper coin appeared between his fingers. “My apologies and thanks,” he said as he flipped the coin to the man. He set the mug on the table and made a deep bow.
Christabel and Trevin joined the tavern patrons in applauding. Just then, the kitchen door flew open again and Fergus limped out. “What in the name of the bleedin’ gods is this?” he roared. Shaking his walking stick at the juggler he shouted, “Get out, ye glowin’ freak, or I’ll crack that skinny head of yours, see if I don’t!”
“The show begins two bells before dusk. May you all attend and be amused!” the juggler said quickly, backing to the door. “Even you, my good sir,” he said to Fergus, who snarled and thumped the stick hard on the floor. With a hasty bow, the juggler was gone. The large man gave a satisfied grunt and retreated back into the kitchen.
Trevin turned to Christabel. The girl gave a weak smile and said, “That’s just the way he is.”
“Is he that way with you, as well?”
Christabel shrugged and avoided his gaze, feebly swiping the counter with the rag. The young man seemed to sense her discomfort and gently reached out to touch her cheek. She looked up at him and he said, “Never mind that. What I wanted to ask you is if –”
“What was the old man foaming about?” called Sheela, jumping down the last two steps of the stairs and striding over to them. Christabel informed her of Fergus’ displeasure with the juggler.
“You mean he scared the poor fool away?” Sheela made a disparaging sound and shook her head. “But — you said he was from Rushike’s troupe? The odd lot that took over Bannon’s Field the day before last?”
“That would be them,” Trevin affirmed with a nod. Sheela’s eyes widened and she leaned in close to Christabel. Her voice dropped low as she said, “My friend Kendal’s been keeping a watch on them, and he said that they’ve got this huge tent set up in the middle of the field.” She went on to say that the tent had apparently been put up in the middle of the night, and armed guards now stood around it to keep away the curious.
“Truly?” Christabel asked. “What do you suppose is so secret, then?”
“Kendal thinks it’s a dragon.”
Trevin laughed. “I’ve seen the tent — it’s big, but not so large as that. Besides, any dragon surely would have burned it’s way out by now.”
“That’s only if you believe they breathe fire,” Sheela replied smugly. To Christabel she said, “I’d give a week’s wages to find out, wouldn’t you?”
Trevin cleared his throat. “You might, but she won’t have to.” The two girls looked at him sharply. “That’s what I’m here to ask you, Christabel,” he said with a grin. “Some friends of mine and I will be attending the troupe’s show this evening, and I was hoping you would like to come along.”
Christabel’s eyes lit up, and she drew a deep breath. So he did have some interest in her, after all! Ever since he and his friends had started frequenting the Orb and Claw, she had done all she could to attract his attention. He had been friendly enough with her, but she thought he might have been more interested in Sheela, who certainly had ample charms in her rich blond hair and long legs.
“Well?” Trevin’s voice snapped her out of her brief reverie. She pulled at her ear and smiled shyly. “I — I’d like to, very much.”
The young man grinned widely, and she thought she detected a hint of relief in his pleased expression. Then he sobered and asked, “Will your uncle allow you, though? Do you have to work this evening?”
Christabel’s smile crashed. “Oh. I hadn’t thought of that. I may have to.” Deep disappointment began to well up within her.
Sheela put her hands on her friend’s shoulders. “No, you go with Trevin. I’ll get Tisha to take your place.”
“You will?” Christabel said, immediately brightening. “Oh, Sheela! Thank you!” She gave the blond girl a hearty embrace.
Trevin favored Sheela with a look of thanks. “Until this evening, then,” he said to Christabel. He waved to the girls as he left the tavern.
Fergus did not growl a refusal or smash his walking stick about when Christabel asked for permission to attend the traveling show with Trevin. Rather, he stared for a long moment at the girl, then grunted his assent as he turned back to his inspection of the ale casks that lined one wall of the kitchen. Somewhat surprised, she then mentioned that her friend Tisha would be taking over the rest of her evening shift. Fergus nodded and waved dismissively, not bothering to take his attention away from the casks.
Christabel thanked him and left the kitchen, casting a curious glance back at him as she did so. Was this his way of apologizing for chasing Ranulf out of the tavern? She shook her head. More likely, he didn’t want to have to deal with her for the rest of the night.
Trevin returned to the Orb and Claw a few bells later. He now wore a brown leather jerkin over a red cote decorated with gold embroidery. Upstairs in the girls’ room, Christabel heard Fergus calling for her as she fumbled with the laces of the black bodice she wore over the pale blue chemise that Sheela had lent her. “I’ll be down in a moment!” she called back. In a softer voice she said, “Oh, Sheela! I feel so nervous.”
The blond girl finished braiding Christabel’s hair and stood back, examining her handiwork. “You’re as lovely as the sky is wide, Belle. Trevin will forget all other women when he sees you! I’ll go down and let him know you’re nearly ready.” Sheela patted her friend’s shoulder as she left the room.
Christabel sighed and looked over at Ranulf, who was curled up on Sheela’s bed. “At least you’re calm.” The gray cat flicked his tail and yawned. When she had finished lacing up her bodice and checked her hair in the mirror, Christabel took a deep breath and started resolutely downstairs, making sure that the bedroom door was firmly shut behind her to prevent Ranulf from escaping again.
Once down in the common room she saw Trevin sitting at the bar with a mug in his hand, keeping an uneasy eye on Fergus, who stood behind the counter. Catching sight of Christabel, Trevin abandoned the drink and took a copper piece out of his belt pouch. He started to hold it out to Fergus, but since the large man made no move to accept it he placed the coin on the counter. Fergus stared at the youth, then palmed the coin without comment.
“Here she is!” said Sheela, straightening up from wiping off the long table. With obvious relief, Trevin went over to Christabel and took her hand, pressing it against his cheek. “Delighted to see you again,” he murmured.
Christabel felt herself grow warm all over. “I’m glad to see you again, too,” she replied softly. Trevin smiled into her eyes as he released her hand reluctantly. Turning to Fergus, he promised to have Christabel back before the tavern’s last call. The large man grunted and muttered, “See that you do.”
“Well, I hope you two enjoy yourselves,” said Sheela, walking with Christabel and Trevin to the door. “And make sure you find out what’s in that tent!” she whispered.
Outside, townsfolk were already heading to the north side of the town toward Bannon’s Field, an uncultivated stretch of land where fairs and festivals were usually held. Parents were pulled along by eager children, groups of young people chatted and laughed, and some of the more prosperous citizens rode by on horseback or in private carriages.
Christabel noticed that many people carried food baskets and rolled-up blankets, and pointed this out to Trevin. She offered to go back and get a blanket for them to sit on, since the grass of Bannon’s Field tended to be sparse in some places. With a knowing grin he told her it wasn’t necessary, and gazed expectantly down the street. Presently, a black carriage came into view and halted in front of the couple. The driver nodded to Trevin, who opened the door and motioned Christabel inside. Somewhat taken aback by this unexpected luxury, the girl hesitated before climbing aboard.
There were two other people already inside: a bearded youth wearing a black-and-white doublet, and a small dainty-faced girl in a long purple silk gown. The youth smiled pleasantly at Christabel, while the girl regarded her with a look of cool disdain as she ran a silver comb through her pale blond hair.
Trevin took the seat next to Christabel and shut the door. As the carriage lurched into motion, Trevin made the introductions. The girl was Joya Faulken, daughter of a local wool merchant, and the youth was Giles Renier, youngest son of the town goldsmith.
Christabel didn’t know Giles, but certainly knew of Joya since her family was one of the most well-known and respected in the town. Her father was the head of the local Merchants’ Guild, and often had public and private dealings with Baron Marstowe. Her mother organized lavish feasts for visiting nobles and officials, as well as for the wealthier townspeople; to be invited to one of her banquets conferred an immediate elevation in a person’s social rank. Christabel often fantasized about attending such a banquet, but knew that someone of her station in life would hardly be considered. But now, she was sitting directly across from the daughter of the eminent Faulkens! This was certainly something she had never expected.
Giles made to take Christabel’s hand in the usual greeting, but was brought up short by a sharp look from Joya.
“So you’re the one Trevin thought to bring?” the small girl sniffed, looking Christabel up and down.
“Now Joya,” Trevin began, “you did say that I could — ”
“Yes, yes, fine,” Joya cut in with an impatient nod of her head. She tucked the comb into a small pouch that hung around her slim waist. Regarding Christabel with a look of someone being asked to taste an unfamiliar food, Joya said, “So you work at that little pub, then? The Horrid Claw?”
“Orb and Claw,” Christabel corrected her. “And yes, I do work there. My uncle owns –”
“You would be a serving wench, then?”
Christabel nodded. “I serve the customers their drinks.”
“Indeed. How fascinating.” Joya turned and contemplated the view out the carriage window, stifling a yawn.
Trevin and Giles began talking among themselves. Christabel sat silently with her hands clenched in her lap, feeling a little stung by Joya’s aloof manner. It was clear that the blond girl considered herself the center of her own social circle, and that she saw Christabel as unworthy of being a part of it. But in working at the tavern, Christabel had encountered people like Joya on a few occasions, and had a bit of an idea of how to deal with such folk.
“That’s a very pretty gown you’re wearing, Joya,” Christabel remarked. The small girl turned away from the window, eyebrows raised. “Why … thank you,” she said after a moment.
“I especially admire the embroidering on the collar. Did you do that yourself?”
Joya glanced down at her gown and replied, “No — actually, it was made for me.”
“It suits you quite well.”
A slight smile tugged at the corners of Joya’s mouth. “That’s nice of you to say, Christabel,” she said.
The carriage dropped them off at the edge of Bannon’s Field, which was already filling with people. The four youths passed through an iron gate in the low stone wall bordering the field and walked toward the large white canvas tent that was set up a short distance away. Christabel estimated that it could hold a good number of people, but certainly not the entire crowd that was presently gathering behind the rope barrier that stretched for several yards in front of the tent. A purple pennant fluttered from the conical top of the huge canopy, and the symbol of the traveling troupe — a unicorn inside a ring of fire — was emblazoned on either side of the entrance. And back beyond the tent was a collection of wooden wagons that also bore the unicorn symbol.
Christabel held onto Trevin’s arm as they walked across the thick grass of the field, and slowed her pace until the two of them lagged behind Joya and Giles.
“Why didn’t you tell me you knew Joya Faulken?” Christabel whispered.
“She asked me not to,” Trevin replied simply. “She told me I could bring anyone I wanted, so long as I didn’t mention her name.”
“How do you even know her? Has her family started buying wine from your father’s shop?”
Trevin shook his head and explained that he had met Giles, who was betrothed to Joya, at an archery tournament the previous month. The two of them began spending time together at the Faulken estate practicing archery, and when Joya expressed an interest in attending the traveling show Giles had convinced her to allow Trevin to accompany them.
“So why hasn’t Giles ever come with you to the tavern?” Christabel asked.
Trevin cocked his head and grinned wryly. “Joya won’t let him. She says that — ” he lowered his voice and affected a haughty tone — ‘common establishments are for the common folk.’”
Christabel giggled. “If that’s the way she’s bent, I can’t imagine how she’ll bear sitting among us common folk.”
By now they were nearing the tent. Several tall, muscular men stood at intervals along the rope, carefully watching the crowd. They all wore swords, and their dark blue uniforms — guard’s uniforms, Christabel noted — bore the unicorn-and-ring design of the traveling troupe.
As the foursome picked their way past the townsfolk who sat upon spread blankets or the ground itself, a piercing whistle sounded above the murmuring of the assembly. Giles acknowledged the whistler with a wave and motioned for Christabel and Trevin to follow.
A few moments later they came to a section to the left of the tent entrance where several wooden benches had been arranged in a line. All of them were occupied except one that seemed to be guarded by a large, brawny youth dressed in padded leather armor. Beside him stood a tall dark-haired girl wearing a loose white tunic and a pair of definitely unladylike brown linen trousers.
Trevin and Giles exchanged hearty greetings and gripped forearms with the leather-clad youth, while the tall girl gave Joya a hug that nearly lifted her off the ground. Trevin introduced Christabel to Linc, the son of the captain of the town guard, and his half-sister Kharsti.
“About time you all arrived,” Linc rumbled to Trevin as the six of them sat down on the bench. “Don’t know how much longer I could’ve held our place. Someone actually offered to pay us if we let ‘em take it!”
Kharsti playfully punched her brother on the shoulder. “And he was going to take the money but not let the poor geebs have the bench!” she said with a laugh.
Giles pointed to the tent and said, “I say they’ve got a dragon in there. That’s why they need those guards, I’m sure of it.”
“Couldn’t be a dragon,” said Linc. “No one’s seen a live one in years. A two-headed jantral — now that’d be something worth showing all over the kingdom!”
“Or maybe a giant rat,” Joya said sardonically.
The speculation continued until a burst of white light in the sky, accompanied by a sharp trumpet fanfare, silenced the crowd. Everyone looked up as a glowing white sphere shot up from behind the tent and silently exploded over the audience in a brilliant cascade of silver sparks.
“How wonderful!” exclaimed Joya, clapping her hands.
As if the light was a signal, the guards drew back from the rope barrier and took up positions close to the tent. Another sphere of light, yellow this time, shot high into the air and plummeted to the ground in front of the pavilion. The crowd gasped collectively as the sphere burst into a thick cloud of yellow smoke. Another fanfare sounded, and a broad-shouldered man stepped out of the cloud. He was clad in a gaudy vest and billowy pantaloons, and he smiled widely behind a thick black mustache.
“Good people of Bannon’s Landing!” he shouted in a deep, clear voice. “My name is Rushike, and I bring to you from the corners of the kingdom the most amazing display of wonder and spectacle you have ever seen! I bid you welcome, and present to you the Grand Players of Baranur!” He threw up his arms and a dazzling red light shone forth from his body. The tent flaps flew back and a procession of jugglers, tumblers, dancers, and other colorful characters streamed out past the troupe master and spilled onto the field, capering and cavorting to the cheers of the audience. The last to emerge were the musicians, who moved off to one side of the tent.
Rushike lowered his arms, and the musicians ceased playing. The red light suffusing him shifted to gold.
“And providing the fantastic illuminations you have seen but a mere glimmer of — the lithe and lovely Arwenna Prysm, illusionist of Corvaira and light-shaper of the mystic realms!” The musicians struck up an expectant melody as the troupe master flung his arms to his left. The golden glow surrounding him seemed to flow from his body like a liquid and stream out from his fingertips, collecting in a sphere that hung in the air.
When the glow had drained from him, the golden sphere took on a human shape, slowly solidifying into the form of a young woman. She was dressed a white silk gown that fit close about her lean body, and she wore a jewel-studded circlet in her short amber hair. With a tight-lipped smile, the young woman curtsied to the awestruck crowd and took Rushike’s hand.
“And now,” said the troupe master, “let the amusements begin!”
Another trumpet fanfare sounded, and Arwenna Prysm made a complex gesture with her free hand. The sky above the white pavilion seemed to shatter into a cloud of glittering silver particles which briefly formed the outline of the unicorn-and-ring symbol before fading away.
Christabel was so utterly captivated by the marvelous display that she almost didn’t notice Trevin nudging her. She tore her gaze away from the spectacle and looked at him almost with annoyance. He asked her what she thought, and she replied that it was beyond anything she had ever seen in her life.
Once the troupe members had filed back into the tent, Rushike called them out one by one, the musicians providing appropriate accompaniment. The jugglers (including the one who had visited the Orb and Claw) tossed wooden rings, knives, flaming torches, and pottery vases back and forth to each other. A trio of young girls in flowing Lashkirian garb performed the traditional Snake Dance of the desert clans, while Arwenna cast shimmering snake images over their heads. A jester came out with an endearing group of trained cats, then a bard gave a moving rendition of “The Maiden in the Mirror.”
During a lull in the proceedings, food vendors circulated through the crowd. Trevin bought sugared fruits for Christabel and himself, while Linc and Kharsti opted for the dried meat strips. Joya wrinkled her nose at the thought of eating without the benefit of a table and a place setting, and discouraged Giles from getting something for himself. Christabel felt sorry for him as he sat glumly watching the others eat, so she contrived to distract Joya while Trevin slipped Giles some of their treats.
The show continued. A pair of leather-clad warriors engaged each other in a mock duel, the jester and one of the jugglers did a comical routine, the bard returned for another song, then a group of acrobats performed an amazing set of physical feats that culminated with all of them bounding though a series of flaming hoops in rapid succession.
When the thunderous applause finally died down, Rushike stepped before the crowd and announced that the show was over.
“But,” he said, holding up his hands, “I know that some of you have been wondering what lies within our tent. All that I may now tell you is that it contains a great and ancient mystery from the deep forests of the Darst Range. For those of you who wish to discover the truth, all that I ask is a mere Sterling piece, and a moment to prepare. For the rest, I humbly thank you for your kind attendance, and wish you a glorious evening.” He went on to say that the troupe would be in town for two more days, and that donations would be humbly accepted. As the townsfolk stirred to their feet, Arwenna cast the unicorn symbol above the tent as the musicians played a lively processional tune.
“So, what say you all?” Linc asked, stretching. “Do we find out what the great mystery is?”
Giles pursed his lips and said, “Whatever it is, I would hope it’s worth the cost.”
Trevin clapped him on the back. “How about if the rest of us go in, and tell you about it later?”
Joya made an exasperated sound. “You have money enough, Giles, especially after not spending it on food. Now do come along.” Without waiting for his reply, she started off toward the entrance to the troupe tent. Linc and Kharsti laughed as Giles sputtered helplessly, then followed him as he ran to catch up with Joya.
“It looks like she’s decided for us,” Trevin said with a chuckle. Christabel said nothing as she glanced around and saw that the majority of the audience was heading back to town. She wondered if she shouldn’t ask Trevin to take her home now; even though she very much wanted to see for herself what the tent contained, she didn’t want to exhaust his generosity by expecting him to pay for her admission — a silver Sterling was indeed a week’s wages!
The young man seemed to read her mind, however, and assured her that he could afford the cost of entry for them both. “And if this great secret is even half of what Rushike claims,” Trevin continued, “I’d consider the money more than well spent!”
Christabel looked at him with gratitude, and on impulse kissed him quickly on the cheek. A wide smile crossed Trevin’s face as the two of them joined the small group of people waiting to be admitted into the tent.
The troupe workers began removing the wooden benches and taking them around to the back of the tent. Curious, Christabel left Trevin’s side and started to follow one of the workers. She managed to glimpse a tall wagon being drawn up to the rear of the pavilion before a guard stopped her and escorted her back to the group. A short while later, Rushike emerged and declared that everything was ready. Another guard collected the admission fee as each person passed into the great tent.
The interior was spacious, and illuminated by lanterns mounted atop tall metal poles set at intervals around a huge canvas-covered cylindrical structure. The wooden benches were arranged in a half-circle around the structure, and as the group sat down Christabel thought she detected a faint musky odor in the air.
A few guards strolled around as the rest of the people entered and took seats. An almost palpable sense of excitement filled the pavilion, and people spoke in hushed whispers. Giles still clung to his belief that they were going to display a dragon — “a small dragon”, he amended upon entering the tent.
Christabel held onto Trevin’s arm but paid no attention to the speculation of the others. She reasoned that whatever was about to be revealed had to fit into that wagon behind the tent. The presence of guards meant that it was either very precious, or possibly dangerous.
She was jolted out of her thoughts by a loud trumpet fanfare. Looking around, she saw that the tent entrance had been closed, and that the benches were now all occupied. The musicians stood somewhere to her left, behind the seated audience. She also saw Arwenna Prysm standing almost out of sight to the rear of the tent; she was still wearing the circlet but was now dressed in a gown of mourning blue.
A moment later, the light from the lanterns dimmed. Rushike stepped before the crowd, a somber look on his face.
“Good people of Bannon’s Landing, I thank you again for coming,” he said gravely. “What you are about to see has, until recently, been a great and mysterious legend from times long past. Many have sought it out, but few have returned to tell the tale.” He paused and looked out over the assembly. “What you are about to see is not for the weak of heart or frail of spirit. If you are easily frightened, you may leave now and your money will be returned.” Several long moments passed, but no one moved.
“Very well.” Rushike raised his arms and intoned, “The ancients called it the Kushago. The elven tribes called it The Forest Lurker. But all men know it as — BEAST!”
The canvas was suddenly pulled away, and even in the dim light Christabel saw that it had covered a high iron cage. Something loomed within its confines, something large and hulking and shadowy. Suddenly the lantern light flared to full illumination, and what she saw caused her heart to freeze.
An enormous man-like creature stood motionless in the center of the cage. It was covered with thick brown-black hair, and was half again the height of a normal man. Its body was well-muscled, and its arms looked powerful enough to smash through stone. A pair of dark, brooding eyes were set deep in its skull, and a gold collar with a single purple jewel was fitted about its neck. The creature’s legs were shackled to a large iron ring set into the ground, and its loins were just barely visible through the thick mat of hair covering its groin.
“In the name of Stevene!” Trevin breathed, and out of the corner of her eye Christabel saw him make a holy sign. She pressed herself close to him, wanting to shut her eyes but unable to turn away from the sight of the creature.
“Do not be afraid!” said Rushike. “At all times it is under the control of Thavolous, our master mage from the beyond the southern desert.” Christabel looked to where the troupe master pointed, and through the bars of the cage she saw a thin middle-aged man standing at the back of the tent. He wore an ill-fitting gray mage’s robe, and around his neck was a gold collar exactly like the one worn by the beast.
Rushike nodded to the mage, who closed his eyes and placed both hands on his gold collar. The gemstone set into it became colorless, and the jewel on the beast’s collar also turned clear. Instantly, the creature stirred as if awakening, and let out a fierce roar. Several people screamed and bolted up from their benches, and the beast immediately became motionless once again. Rushike quickly assured the audience that the beast was under the mage’s firm control and could not break out of the cage. He also indicated that more guards were waiting just outside in the extremely remote chance that anything should go wrong.
Once the audience was calmed, Thavolous again released the beast from its magical immobility. It howled with rage and surged forward against its chains. Christabel felt a moment of terror and involuntarily shrank back, but the beast was drawn up well short of the bars. Her heart pounded in her chest and she yearned to flee from the tent, but she felt as frozen as if the mage had cast the immobility spell upon her.
As the creature roared and pounded the air with its huge fists, Rushike told of how a band of hunters, aided by a forest mage, had sought the Kushago near the mountains to the east of Bannon’s Landing. A recent drought had apparently forced the creature to forage near the village of Skye, where it was sighted numerous times before finally being captured. The troupe master, upon seeing the Kushago for himself, had purchased the creature from the hunters and included it in his show.
By this time, some of the townsfolk had lost their initial fear and began taunting the creature. One of them even threw a rotted apple into the cage; it struck the Kushago on the head, causing the beast to cry out with fury and strain mightily against the chains. Rushike sternly warned the audience against such behavior, and quickly gestured to Thavolous. The Kushago’s collar stone instantly flared red, causing the beast to make another cry — this time of pain. A sudden convulsion caused it to crash to its knees. A moment later it recovered and quietly staggered back to the center of the cage.
Christabel’s mouth dropped open in disbelief, her fear turning to outrage. What right did they have to take a creature from its home and torture it in this manner? She tugged on Trevin’s sleeve and told him that she wanted to leave immediately, but her words were drowned out by the cheers of the townsfolk upon seeing the beast forced into submission.
Rushike grinned broadly and motioned for quiet. “And next,” he boomed, “I present to you a very brave young man who will do what few men would ever dare. A great welcome for Darion of Hawksbridge!” The musicians played a heroic melody as a flap at the back of the tent opened and a broad-chested youth of about Christabel’s age strode through. His dark brown hair brushed his muscular shoulders, and he wore an open leather vest that revealed his firm, tanned chest. As he came around to the front of the cage he smiled and acknowledged the crowd’s applause by raising the short wooden staff that he carried.
The troupe master beamed as he announced that the young man would fight the Kushago. The rules of the combat were that Darion must strike the beast a total of three times in the chest in order to win. “And if the creature should strike him but once ….” Rushike’s voice trailed off. “Well, once is all the Kushago needs.”
He clapped Darion on the shoulder, and the young fighter went around to the back of the cage where the door was located. Thavolous immobilized the beast as a guard unlocked the door and let Darion inside.
“Skulls and blood, but this should a good fight!” Linc shouted with glee.
As soon as the cage door was locked behind him, Darion took up a fighting stance. The Kushago stirred and let out a roar at the sight of the young man. The crowd let out a similar roar, and the noise caused Christabel to put her hands over her ears.
Darion circled the beast warily, twirling his staff. The Kushago watched him, growling ominously. Darion feinted and leaped back as the beast lunged. The leg chains stopped its charge, almost causing it to fall. The youth thrust several more feints at the creature and gauged its response. The Kushago seemed to learn from its mistake and always halted before being drawn up by the chains. Finally, Darion charged at the creature’s right side. The Kushago lashed out a huge fist, but at the last moment Darion slid to the ground feet first and swung the staff up and into the beast’s chest. He rolled over and was up and away before the Kushago could react. The townsfolk yelled wildly, and Darion made a quick bow as he scrambled around the cage.
For the next several minutes, the man and the beast continued their dance of combat. At one point, Darion slammed the Kushago soundly on the buttocks, drawing a huge laugh from the crowd. Another time, the Kushago managed to trip Darion and threw its whole body at him. Darion rolled away a scant moment before the beast would have landed crushingly on top of him. Eventually, the young fighter scored another hit by going into a diving roll straight at the beast, shooting to his feet, thumping the staff into the beast’s chest, then backflipping away. A few moments later, he threw himself to the ground on his back, just outside the reach of the chains. The Kushago rushed over to him, stopped and raised its massive fists. As it bent over him to strike, Darion flung the staff up and solidly struck the chest of the beast. At that instant Thavolous froze the Kushago; Darion pushed himself to his feet and raised the staff in victory. The crowd cheered and applauded.
When the young fighter had left the tent, Christabel again told Trevin that she wanted to leave. Trevin shook his head and said that the show wasn’t yet over. Before she could reply, the troupe master called Arwenna Prysm to his side and announced that the final act was to begin.
The mage Thavolous unfroze the beast and had it return to the center of the cage. Arwenna then reached into a pocket of her gown and withdrew four small figurines, vaguely dog-like in shape. She held them up for all to see, then turned and tossed them one by one into the cage, evenly spacing them around the beast. A moment later, the figurines shimmered and transformed into four large black wolves. Rushike and Arwenna moved off to the side as the townsfolk gave another cheer and surged to their feet. Horror-struck, Christabel watched as the wolves circled the Kushago and leaped to the attack.
The air was soon filled with animal snarls, roars of pain, and the frenzied yells of the crowd. The wolves lunged and snapped at the Kushago, who kicked and punched back with obvious desperation. Christabel felt a sharp twist in her stomach as one wolf managed to leap up and sink its long fangs into the beast’s left thigh. The Kushago screamed, grabbed up the wolf, then savagely bit into the animal’s back. There was a cracking sound, and the wolf went limp. The Kushago then used the body like a club and swung wildly at the three remaining wolves. Finally, the beast hurled the wolf corpse away. It bounced off the bars, then transformed back into a figurine as it hit the ground.
After this, the crowd seemed to take the side of the Kushago. They cheered whenever the beast managed to strike or kick one of the wolves. Still, the wolves had the advantage of numbers, and the Kushago was forced to keep moving. At one point, two wolves rushed at the beast from the front, while the third attacked from the rear. The beast seemed to sense this and leaped aside. The wolves collided, and the Kushago took advantage of the momentary confusion to stamp down hard on the nearest one. There was the sound of bones breaking, and the wolf let out a plaintive howl as it flopped onto it side. The other two wolves retreated as the Kushago picked up their injured companion and twisted its head from its body.
Christabel gasped in shock and staggered to her feet. It made no difference that the wolf immediately reverted to figurine form in the beast’s hands — she had seen far too much.
She pushed her way out of the tent and ran blindly across the field, sinking to her knees a short distance away. She spent several moments sucking in huge breaths of air in an effort to calm herself. With a trembling hand she wiped away the small tears that had begun to form near the corners of her eyes. It was all so cruel, so horrible, so violent!
Suddenly she felt a touch on her shoulder. She involuntarily flinched away, but saw that it was only Trevin. “Christabel, what’s wrong?” he asked, concern plain on his face.
“Nothing, I — I just … ” She swallowed hard. “I couldn’t watch that anymore.”
Trevin knelt down beside her and gently squeezed her shoulder. “I’m sorry. If I had known … ”
Christabel nodded and forced a smile. “You couldn’t have. It was a great secret.”
“Of course.” He glanced back at the tent. “Well, I can take you home now, if you wish.”
She shook her head. “I’ll be fine. We should just wait here for the others.”
The two of them sat in silence until the crowd began trickling out from the tent. Soon, the other members of their group approached. Kharsti was the first one to reach them, and she asked if Christabel was all right. Linc and Giles were talking animatedly about the Kushago’s fight with the wolves and did not notice Trevin and Christabel until Joya loudly cleared her throat.
“Blood and skulls, but that was a glorious battle!” Linc exclaimed to Trevin. “Why’d you leave before the end? You missed it when –” He stopped abruptly as Kharsti elbowed him the ribs and informed him of Christabel’s discomfort. Linc apologized and suggested that they all have a drink or two at a nearby tavern before returning home. Everyone agreed, and the group headed toward the gate at the edge of the field.
As they walked along, images of the Kushago’s brutal treatment refused to leave Christabel’s mind. The “show” was like a bear-baiting, but worse because of the collar that inflicted pain and controlled movement. And even though the troupe master had called it a beast, the Kushago seemed closer to a human than an animal. But the worst part of it, she felt, was how much the people appeared to enjoy the vicious spectacle.
A knot of conviction formed within her and grew stronger with each passing moment. The mistreatment of the Kushago could not be allowed to continue; Christabel firmly resolved to do whatever she could to try and stop it.