“Six disappearances, in such a short time,” Heskan said. “No bodies have been discovered?”
Even with his back turned, Tahis could sense the Sheriff frowning in response to Heskan’s mild, authoritative voice. Tahis stood at the window, where a breeze delivered to him the sounds and the dry, savoury smells of a bustling market square–a welcome relief from the hot, still, dry air of the room behind him. The sight troubled him: As active as the market was, the town did not look large enough to lose six people lightly.
Yet despite those deaths Sheriff Loke was surprised to see Knights Heskan, Tahis and Donaar from Lythran ride to his gates. He had been, and still was, offended to hear they came in response to a monthly report he did not consider significant. But he was an old campaigner and hid his offence well. Like any good officer faced with an intrusion into his authority, he would accept it until it was gone.
“One was seen,” Sheriff Loke said, “the fifth. A week ago. A herbalist from the village came across a dead hunter. She returned to the village for assistance to carry him home, but when they returned to the spot, the body had disappeared.”
It was barely half an hour since the Knights had arrived. Their horses were being looked after, and they themselves had been given the use of richly furnished quarters on the upper floor of the Town Hall, despite Tahis’s private assessment that Sheriff Loke would like to see the Knights bedded next to their horses. The room, where they now made counsel with the sheriff, contained two large beds in curtained alcoves. Heskan and Tahis would share one, Donaar the other, although Donaar never tired of raising valid arguments for any other arrangement. From its windows, the Knights could see in and out of Sweetwater: Over the market, or over the garrison’s practice ground to the palisade surrounding the town.
As Tahis stared out over the square, he kept his attention half on the conversation behind him, half on the town itself. Sweetwater was plainly prosperous, its houses in good repair and its market stalls well-stocked with goods from half the Kingdom. Its people carried themselves tall and straight-backed, were well-fed and well-clothed and gazed at the Knights with frank interest, not fear or caution. Yet something about it irked him. His mind was seeking what was wrong the way a tongue might worry out a pip lodged between teeth. The people he saw before him were well-dressed, but the farmers in the fields had not been. Moreover, there had been at least as many of them. Sweetwater was a small town, with a large town’s population. Where, then, did the rest live?
“This herbalist is trustworthy?” Tahis asked over his shoulder in his mild tenor. The sheriff had said ‘village’. Sheriff Loke would not use any word less noble than “town” for his own fiefdom. Battle-hardened officers do not seek postings as sheriffs without some desire for grandeur.
“There is no suggestion she is a murderess,” Sheriff Loke said with a level look at Tahis. “I am not aware of any stain on her character.”
Tahis simply nodded, and paid careful attention to the fact Sheriff Loke had not leapt instantly to this herbalist’s defence. Together with ‘village’, that suggested a settlement tolerated but not loved. Tahis thought that, and decided he disliked this sheriff immensely. His Knightsgift stirred, tasting the possibility of a challenge, but Tahis soothed it down. Sheriff Loke might not volunteer help to Knights who took it upon themselves to intrude on his domain, but he had no authority to impede them, either. Let him try to distract or confuse them, and he would discover that Knights schooled in Lythran’s court were more than a match for a man who was merely skilled in warfare.
“No others?” Heskan asked. His voice, as deep as far-off thunder but gentle as morning dew, could soothe men more hostile than Sheriff Loke. Besides, his lined face and greying hair had won the sheriff’s respect in a way Tahis’s youth–more apparent than actual–never could.
Sheriff Loke shook his head. “No. Nor has anyone heard anything from them, nor found any trace of them save some disturbed earth and some blood.”
The report that had stirred the Knights into action had mentioned three disappearances, two men and a woman. His previous report had mentioned one disappearance. Two more men had disappeared since, despite the hunters staying close to Sweetwater and few others venturing into the woods at all.