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CHAPTER 1: 16 years after…

Standing with one foot on a crate, a bearded man in a blue doublet strummed his lute while he sang. Another man in red fiddled his viola and sent air kisses and winks to the ladies. With the allure of her curves in an airy dress and a loose open bodice, a girl danced along with her tambourine. The three performers roused a growing crowd in the middle of the city square with the beat of clapping hands and stomping feet.

     At a nearby butcher shop, William heard the music playing and simply released the pig’s foot he held and headed out.

     He squished through the gaps between the mass, using his lanky frame. “Excuse me. Sorry. Coming through,” he said as he stumbled up front.

     The man in blue carried the song while the one in red kept his eyes on the ladies as they purred with every note he sent their way. William was at awe with how the sound lifted his spirits and everyone around him. But what struck him the most was the girl who leapt and twiddled her feet over the cobblestone ground like it was her playground and nothing else mattered.

     “Nice beat huh?” a tiny voice said to William’s right.

     Without looking, he answered, “Yes it is. A great beat.” He tossed coins in the viola case where all the other money were.

     They played and played until the audience had doubled its size. And when the man in blue seemed satisfied, his rhythm changed; the two followed his lead. Suddenly, their playing was faster-- heart thumping and blood pumping. They fiddled their strings vigorously, their faces adorned with the addiction of music, and their bodies trapped in movements of harmony.

     “You know what else is a great beat?” asked the tiny voice.

     “What?” William asked aloud.

     “Your father’s fist when he gives you the beating of your life.”

     He faced his right and saw Bapholin propped on his shoulder with a tiny scowl on his goat face.

     “It’s only two shillings. I have enough money for the rest.”

     “What if the cost increased? What then?”

     He was lost for words. He could sell something, but he had not any belongings worth anything. “But I watched them perform. I have to pay them something,” he reasoned.

     “We came here to buy supplies for your father. Not squander coin and see the show,” interrupted the beast. “Now move your lazy bum and get to the supplies.”

     William wanted to tell the beast off, but decided against it in fear of retaliation when it would tell his father. He begrudgingly left the town square as it exploded with a roar of whistles and applause. He had figured they had done something spectacular for the last part of the show.

     At the marketplace, he made his way into the food stalls and picked up ingredients for cooking. He then went to a shop selling trinkets of oddities: bracelets fitted with bones and gems, blades with animal parts as hilts, organs of carcasses in jars and more.

     The lady in the store met with him. “Oh, how are you my dear?” she asked, wiping her hands clean on her apron over her plain brown dress.

     His pinkish lips stretched to his ears as his dark brown eyes flicked to Elise—a triggered response he always had with her. He had been coming to her shop with his father since the day he could walk and talk. He had never known a mother in his life, but the neighbours and young children he knew had one. And when he had met them, he gathered they were of different sorts. Some were fat and talkative, others were skinny to the bones like he, some were meek and fragile and others were heavy and aggressive. But throughout all those he had seen, he told himself if he ever had one, she would be exactly like she.

     “You really like this wench don’t you?” Bapholin hopped from his shoulder and landed on one of the pots that had white beans in them.

     “I’m fine Elise. Thank you for asking,” he replied, trying his best to ignore the beast’s comments.

     “Did your father need supplies again?” she inquired with a kind smile and sparkling blue eyes.

     “Why else would we be here? Certainly not to see you,” chided the beast, lying down on rat balls, yawning.

     “Yes, please,” William answered promptly.

     After years and years of practice, he had learned not to be surprised by the beast’s comments when other people interacted with him. He knew fully well that reacting would only incur questions such as: Who are you talking to? Did you say something? Or William’s favorite: Child, are you seeing demons? If only he could tell the truth. But then again, living in the Howe household had given him secrets he would not know who could believe.

     Elise produced a sack from under her wares and began stuffing it with clay jars and items packed in leather. “He isn’t coming today?” she inquired.

     “For a woman, your observations can be astoundingly astute,” commented the beast.

     “He left this morning to the mountains again,” answered William. “Picking up moonflowers and blooming Jasmines.”

     Her shoulders slackened as she placed a tied number of red twigs in the sack. “It’s that time of the month isn’t it? I do hope he takes care travelling.”

     “Has something happened?” His brows met.

     “You didn’t know? The Ameries eldest hasn’t come home for two weeks already. At first they thought he was in the forest, camping, hunting. But after days, they were worried he hasn’t come home or sent for word. His father and some of the soldiers went looking for him in the place he usually hunts. All they found was his clothes, cot and rotten food. Nobody has any idea where he went off to.”

     Bapholin yawned another mouthful and airy release. “So someone is missing again. What’s new about that? You know what could be great? You. Missing. Now that’s certainly news for me.”

     “Do you think this is like the others?” asked William earnestly.

     Ever since the year started, young people had been disappearing. One day, people from the ages twenty and below were seen going on with their day and the next they were gone. There were no bodies, blood or any evidence of a struggle or signs of foul play. They simply vanished and left no trace.

     “The soldiers cannot make heads or tails of it. I hope it isn’t but…most likely it is.” After tying the sack secure, she handed it to him.

     He placed a small bag of coins on the table and took the sack. “I hope nothing has happened to him.” He untied the knot and inspected it. After checking chicken brains and sage petals off his list, he found a dagger wrapped in a fine leather holster.

     “I really wished you didn’t do that in front of me,” spoke Elise in an answer to William’s puzzled look.

     “What is this?” He lifted the dagger from the sack.

     “A gift from me to you.” She smiled brightly.

     His eyes veered from her to the dagger. Its hilt was made from bronze with an etching of a serpent, coiling around it. “Why not just hand it to me? But still I can’t—this fine leather and the carving…this is…this is…” He shook his head. “I cannot take this. This is too much, too grand for someone like me. I’m sorry. But I can’t take this.” He held it back to her.

     She placed her hands on his and tightened his grip on it. “This is why I didn’t want you to find out. Take it. Whoever or whatever is doing this, I’ll have a bit of peace knowing you’ll be protected.”

     “Take the damn thing,” howled the beast. “Fighting with that is better than your girly fists. Look at you, you need one. Badly. And we both know that your father isn’t going to give you any. Or even if he did, a bread knife is the best deal you’re going to get.”

     “Please?” She pleaded with a slight nod of her head.

     William sighed. “All right. But please don’t tell my father about this.” He took the dagger and strapped it around his hips.

     “It will be our little secret.”

     “Thank you Elise…” He found it hard looking straight into her eyes.

     “Don’t mention it. I was glad to give it.”

     With a casual wave, he went for the exit and walked off.

     “That was awfully nice of her don’t you think? Coming from someone looking that wretched,” mouthed the beast, appearing again on his shoulder.

     “Would you shut up already,” hissed William. “Why do you hate her so?”

     “I don’t hate her, I just don’t like her,” it explained. “And besides, hating takes too much energy. I have no time for hating.”

     “Then quit your comments at her. It isn’t nice,” he said. “She’s been nothing but good to me and father. The least you can do is—“ As he turned to the beast, he bumped against someone. He lost his balance and fell on his bottom.

     A thin-framed man in red robes stood with a displeased grin. “God doesn’t want stupid boys like you wondering the streets with his head in the clouds.” His diamond eyes pierced through his spectacles, commanding respect and position.

     William could only bring his head lower and avert his eyes. “I apologize sir.”

     The man gave a last look before he turned and left.

     Gripping the sack in his hand tighter, he pulled himself up from the ground and patted his bum and trousers, removing dust and dirt. “I really don’t like priests. They’re creepy and scary, don’t you think?” he mumbled.

     When no one answered him, he looked to each of his shoulder and then to the ground. “Bapholin? Where are you? Bapholin?” He searched around him, but all he could see where the glum smiles and tired looks of the people out shopping. “Great. Leave me alone again in the middle of conversation. As if I didn’t look stupid enough talking to an invisible man-goat,” he exasperated.

     “I don’t think you look stupid,” said a soft female voice.

     “Trust me. When that goat talks to me, I look even more stupid,” he blurted out involuntarily as he turned and saw a child a good ten feet from him.

     With her frosting blonde curls tucked in a blue bonnet, the little girl stood in her white gown and silver bodice. She stared at him with a placid face. Her eyes were of crystal blue that made her fair skin glow even more. “I’m sure it isn’t as bad as you think,” she answered.

     “Wait. You saw that?”

     “Saw what? You bumping into the priest or you having a fight with your pet?”

     “You see him?” He watched her with a confused look.

     She batted her eyes nonchalantly. “Him? Isn’t it supposed to be an IT? It’s a small, brawny, goat isn’t it? Or is it a man? I’m frankly confused.”

     “How can you see him? You’re—this is impossible. How can you?”

     “I have eyes don’t I? So I see him.” The girl shrugged, turned and started ahead.

     “Wait!” As if pushed from behind, William walked a couple of steps then ran for her.

     When the little lady turned a corner, he turned a corner; when she crossed a bridge, so did he. And when she went inside an abandoned home outside of town, he followed suit.

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