Two days! Two bloody days and there were still more people wanting a chance at his coin. He couldn’t deal with these villagers anymore. Their ridiculous stories and outlandish lies were driving him insane.
It was after one farmer tried to convince him of a fire-breathing Morzi that Caldor stood from his seat and ordered everyone to leave. He had gotten no useful information. What he had thought was a good idea had turned into an utter nightmare.
Foe had been right. He shouldn’t have put a reward. He shouldn’t have put an advertisement up at all.
When the tavern was clear, Caldor took a moment to contemplate his next step. There was no point in staying in town if no one had information he could use. The next logical step would be to start heading to Downrow and hope Foe was there to meet him.
He’d need a horse or a carriage to take him through the woods. The Gryphon Guard wasn’t stationed this far west and it would take him over a week to get there by foot.
Travelling by foot was out of the question when it came to the main roads. Bandits, slavers, and Fate knows what else were hiding in those old oaks and thick shrubbery. Hopefully, someone could take him where he needed to go.
As he scuffled out into the bright, yet cool, noon weather, Caldor asked those working near the roadside where he could find a carriage master, or if possible, a horse. After asking an older gentleman close to his age with two missing teeth, he heard of the boy named Gabber.
Thrilled about his approaching escape from the worthless pit of Irbet, Caldor asked where the boy could be found. The sage was instructed to go to the forest. Gabber was helping his father track animals that posed issues for the local farmers. Caldor didn’t like the sound of that, but Gabber was the only option he had to leave sooner rather than later. He needed the boy. So he headed for the forest, crossing the fields filled with tall stalks of corn and golden wheat that the farmers were beginning to harvest.
The sage shuffled over the uneven path, around horse manure, and finally - with the help of a log - crawled over the stone wall which divided the forest from the village. He could feel the cool dampness of the ground through the soles of his leather shoes as he sauntered along. He listened for voices and examined the ground for tracks.
There were tracks for squirrels, chipmunks, and a rabbit or two. There were larger tracks for a firant - a small cat like creature similar to a lynx aside from the thick bushy tail and stubby ears. Those were the predators the farmers wouldn’t want lurking near their fields or livestock.
A crow cawed in the nearby tree before flapping its massive wings to disappear into the thick cover. The smell of mildew and decaying plant life filled his nose: a fresh smell that made him feel suddenly relaxed.
Mushrooms grew on the north sides of the trees. Some were orange and yellow, others were pink and purple. None were edible, but they were fascinating to admire.
It was when he began admiring a cluster of poisonous amanita with their bright red speckled caps that he heard voices echo up through the trees. They were a group of four when he arrived where the men had gathered. They stood around a small cave, talking, as if waiting for whatever was inside the cave to come out.
“Do yah see somethin’, Gabber?” a young man wearing a leather vest called down into the cave.
“Nah, not a thin’, but give me a sec,” a voice echoed from the mouth of the cave. One of the men tapped his foot. The others had their hands on their waists or arms crossed.
“Good hunting?” Caldor asked, noticing the group of men turn to look at him.
“Nah. Lots of tracks but no game. Not that we’re lookin’ for game,” an older man with a balding head replied.
“Then if you do not mind, what are you looking for?” Caldor asked.
“A child,” another of the men coughed. He had been the fellow with the tapping foot on the far side of the group. “A youngling was spotted a few nights back stealin’ from Millie’s line before headin’ back to the woods. This isn’t a safe place for lil ones with those ankle cats and trolls.”
By ankle cats the man had been referring to the firant, though Caldor believed there were worse things in the woods than the two creatures the man had listed.
“Was this child from your village?” Caldor inquired.
“Nah,” the vested boy replied, “we don’ know where this one came from, but we want to make sure they’re safe.”
“Comin’ up,” Gabber called. The scruffy haired boy knelt at the opening of the rock cave, crawling across the ground on his hands and knees until he was clear to stand. In one hand he clutched a bloodied yellow dress.
“What’s that?” the balding fellow asked.
Caldor took the smooth, slippery material in his hands. The dress was covered in a range of stains, while the long sleeves and hem were torn. There was soot from fires and burgundy splotches from wine, but it was the dark crimson stains that made his stomach churn. The neckline of the dress was stiff with dried blood, as was most of the back and shoulders. The girl - he assumed - had suffered injuries.
That strange stain. Caldor remembered the center of the circle. The marks on the clothing would have fit the stain on the stone, but no one would have survived losing that much blood.
“Is that the child’s blood?” the vested boy asked.
“No, I do not believe so. She would not have survived to take things from the line if it was,” Caldor muttered, folding up the dress before passing it to the balding man. “Are you going to continue the search?”
“Yeah, if she’s near we’d want to find her,” Gabber chimed.
“All right, I will help with the search as well,” Caldor sighed. He had wanted to head out right away, he couldn’t leave without Gabber.
The sooner they searched, the sooner he would be closer to finding answers, or if not answers, closer to leaving for Downrow.