Looking for Andylyr, whose life was likely endangered, Rothtia and Krapp entered the cursed
. village of Boverroth
Tia’s grip doubled. She hissed, just audible to his better-than-human ears—“Krapp!”
The grizzled sentry waited, his eyes squinting as though he was having trouble seeing. “What is it? Who’s there?”
There was no way he couldn’t see him!
Krapp cleared his throat and spoke in a voice deeper than his normal one. “I am right here, good man.”
The sentry continued squinting. His gaze abruptly settled and his eyes opened wide. “There you are! Why the hell were you hiding? What is your business in Boverroth?”
Krapp’s hat, through overlarge, was, he was sure, completely inadequate to hide his non-human features: his large, almost elven ears; his grayish-blue skin; his front teeth, which were much more fang-like than human front teeth. His black, depthless eyes.
Nor could his hat hide his voice, which was a rasp that definitely didn’t sound human, no matter how deep he made it.
What was his business in Boverroth? Certainly he couldn’t speak the truth—that he was looking for his kidnapped host! To do so would surely alert any who might be involved—including this man!
He hadn’t thought of what he should say! He had spent all his time worried that he would be discovered as an Orc and killed!
He went to open his mouth, but Tia suddenly peered from behind him. “I’m here to see my mom. She spent the night here last night and wanted me and my uncle to join her this morning.”
That settled it, he was certain. How did Rothtia know this sentry wasn’t in on the dark plan to kidnap her mother?
The sentry’s grizzled face lighted with a big smile. “Tia! Darling! I didn’t see you behind your guardian! Please, please—come in!”
“Thank you, Mister Crutril,” Tia called out.
The sentry’s face disappeared; the little door slammed shut; and Mister Crutril’s voice rang out: “Sentry one visitors, all clear!”
The right gate swung open. Krapp directed Shygar; the colt trotted confidently down the short path and through the gate into Boverroth.
Two guards waited just inside. They squinted at him as though they couldn’t see him; a moment later, just as Mister Crutril had, their faces cleared as though what they were looking at was entirely normal. One of them even said, “Have a good day!”
Krapp not only felt out of his element here, but out of his element within his very skin. He feared for a moment that he was going insane.
A third guard appeared just beyond where the sentry building ended and held up his hand. Shygar stopped.
“Sorry, sir,” he said, squinting up. “Horses must be dismounted once inside the village walls.”
“Oh, that’s right!” whispered Tia, who quickly dismounted, and then helped Krapp to dismount. “Sorry!”
They dismounted. Krapp struggled not to cringe and hide himself, to keep his face out of view. Whatever Mister Crutril saw, and whatever these guards saw, wasn’t an Orc.
“Stables just over there,” pointed the guard.
“We know!” replied Tia brightly. “Thanks!”
Tia took Shygar’s reins, while Krapp forced himself to lead. Every step he took was conscious, every breath. His skin tingled as though ants were crawling on him. Every single instinct screamed at him to run! Run and hide! Now! NOW!
Very fortunately, it was still quite early, and almost no one was out and about. From just behind him, a nearly soundless hiss: “I can’t believe we made it! I can’t believe they don’t see you’re an ...”
“Shhhhhhhhhhhh!” he interrupted, glancing around.
Boverroth, from the initial looks of it, seemed just like many other human villages, too many of which he had visited only after they had been leveled. Being in one that hadn’t only added to the skin-tingling strangeness of the moment. There were streets and a fountain (in the distance, up and to the right), and structures—homes. Many were two and three stories; a tower near what was probably the town’s center was probably a good hundred feet tall. The streets here, in contrast to the villages he’d seen, were a bit narrower; here too they were cobblestone, which amplified the sound of Shygar’s hooves, which made him even antsier.
“Go left here,” said Tia in an almost-whisper at an intersection.
Krapp peered left. The stables were a couple hundred feet off. A short, wide man busied himself by pitchforking hay into the open, large, square shadows, behind which was the hint of random, lumbering motion. The shadows made Krapp long for them, to find the darkest corner and huddle.
He was taking a monstrous risk just being here and knew it to the marrow in his bones; and he knew just as damningly that he was risking Tia as well. He was also fighting exhaustion. Riding all night did that to a person.
A person. He had never used that word until just now to describe himself.
He glanced at Tia, who kept up just behind him, Shygar’s reins in her hand.
“What next?” he asked.
“We need to find Momma!” she whispered.
“I know that. But—where do we start? How do we begin?”
“I don’t understand how the guards didn’t see you!”
“When the lightning struck me, I went ... somewhere. I met an Elf. It’s true,” he continued, noting her blank awe, “I went to another Realm. The Elf gave me tea and a talisman. The Curse of Boverroth works on me better than anyone, apparently. I’m to use it ... and the talisman ... and the tea ... to ...”
He shook his head. “I don’t know where to begin!”
They got to the stables. The laboring man stopped long enough pitchforking hay to glance over his shoulder at him. He squinted, and then saw Tia and turned around fully.
“Tia!” he exclaimed with a sudden smile.
“We need to stable Shygar,” said Tia. “How are you today, Mister Rilton?”
“Oh just fine, just fine,” Mister Rilton answered, approaching and opening the gate. At Krapp he squinted again. “I’m sorry, sir. I did not get your name.”
“I ...” Krapp rasped weakly, then caught himself, his voice going artificially low again. “I’m Mister Krapp, good man.”
Mister Rilton held out his hand. “It is good to meet you, Mister Krapp.”
Krapp stared at the hand a moment longer than good manners allowed, and then took it. Whatever Mister Rilton felt did not alarm him. His grip was tight, sure, and then released as bored custom demanded, not because of revulsion. “Bring Shygar through. I’ll take good care of him while you two are visiting. It’s two coppers, as you well know, dear Tia.”
She opened her small leather purse and paid him. “Here’s four,” she said, handing the money over. “We may be in the village for another day.”
“Good to know, good to know,” said Mister Rilton, who took Shygar’s reins. “Stall six, you two. I’ll get him fed and watered right away.”
“Thank you, Mister Rilton!” said Tia.
“Yes ... Yes,” said Krapp, lowering his voice once more. “Thank you, good sir.”
When they were out of Mister Rilton’s earshot, Tia said, “We should get a room at the inn, and then go looking for Momma!”
Krapp shook his head in admiration as he studied her. “You are putting on quite a brave face, Rothtia. You do not appeared anxious or worried at all!”
She blinked heavily, all traces of good mood gone. “Momma always told me that when you talk to people you should act like they want you to act, not how you want to act. She always told me that the truth is for the few, not the many. I’m terrified and I don’t know how to even begin looking for her!”
“I don’t know either,” said Krapp. “But we need rest. We can do your mother no good while famished and fatigued. Whatever enchantment is camouflaging me is working!”
“What if she needs our help right now?” demanded Tia. “This way—” She pointed left down a street, at the end of which was a big sign that looked similar to all other inn signs located throughout Middle Earth.
“More reason to feed ourselves, rest, and think this through. The Elf did not tell me your mother was in immediate mortal danger, just that she was being held against her will. If the law was involved, we would have been clapped in irons the moment they saw you, which tells me that scofflaws and outlaws are the ones holding her, which hints to me that they are holding her for ransom or some other similar bounty. Which hints that they will be expecting us, which hints that there are others waiting to direct us.”
He glanced at Tia when nothing came from her but silence. Her stare was one of unbridled awe. “Wow ...” she said. “How did you come about all that? Did the Elf enchant you?”
He wasn’t at all sure. “I ... don’t know. I just ... don’t know!”
Whatever Darver Dreph gave him—the tea, the talisman, or both—seemed to have sharpened his mind and heightened his senses, almost to the point of unbearability.
To get his mind out of his body and the ever-surging adrenaline burning through it, he asked, “Are you hungry? You must be famished!”
“I shouldn’t be, but I am,” admitted Tia.
“Why shouldn’t you be?”
“Because Momma’s in trouble!”
“I know, Rothtia. I know.”
He put an arm around her shoulders, and she leaned into him. “Thank you so much, Krapp, for doing this. You must be so scared!”
“To say the least,” he murmured.
They got to the stairs leading to the front door of the inn, which on the sign announced itself as the Barker & Flame.
“Have you ever stayed here before?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I’ve heard that it’s a nice place.”
“Do we have the money necessary to stay and eat?”
“Oh yeah!” said Tia with a smile. “We’ve got plenty of that!”
She took his hand and led him up the stairs to the door.
“Let’s eat, get a room, and rest. Then we go find Momma!”
“Agreed,” said Krapp, steeling himself. “Agreed.”
The innkeeper was a Dwarf by the name of Rhaehold.
“Just Rhaehold,” he grumbled as he took the coins, and after Tia greeted him as “Mister Rhaehold.” He stared up at Krapp for a long time. “Have I seen you around hereabouts before?”
Krapp had to consciously keep from lowering his voice, which sounded ridiculous whenever he did. “No, sir. I have never visited Boverroth before.”
The man glanced at Tia. “I believe I have seen you around, Miss. Your name is—?”
“Rothtia,” said Tia.
“And this is your—?” he shot a suspicious glance at Krapp.
“Oh—this is my uncle!” said Tia brightly.
“Krapp,” said Krapp, nodding in greeting.
“Krapp,” grumbled the innkeeper.
The man’s brow furrowed. “Funny name, if you don’t mind me saying.”
Before Krapp could respond, Rhaehold said, “I’ll have to charge you a little more, because this is a quality inn, and we serve only respectable customers.” He glanced at Tia. “You, Miss, will need to stay in your own room.”
Krapp didn’t understand; and it appeared for a moment that Tia didn’t either. “Oh!” she exclaimed when she got it. “Oh, no! That’s not ... I mean ... of course!”
She quickly reached into her purse and handed the innkeeper more coins.
He took them, pocketed them, and said in a monotone voice, “This way ...”
Krapp and Tia followed him around a corner to a staircase, which led to the second floor. A short hallway led to doors, one on the left, and one directly across from it on the right. He opened the left one and motioned Krapp in; at the right one he motioned Tia in.
“The pub is open until midnight; food is served until 9 o’ clock; and checkout is noon. You’ll have to forgive the minstrel and the music and the crowds later. They can get boisterous.”
He jangled his pocket as though to make sure he still had their money, turned and lumbered back downstairs.
Tia, at her door, glanced at Krapp waiting just inside his. She closed hers and crossed the hall to him.
He felt winded, terrified, and exhausted. It must have sounded that way in the sigh that followed, because she leaned her head against his chest and wrapped her arms around him.
“Thank you, Krapp, for doing this. Thank you so much!”
He took a deep breath. Her presence was very comforting. “Let’s get some rest. It may be that we’ve already been seen by the kidnappers. They may come to us. We must be ready!”
The inn served beef stew, which was quite good, Krapp thought as he finished a second bowl, but not quite as tasty as what he regularly made for Andylyr and Tia. Tia sat across from him and sipped from a flagon full of water and peppered him with questions about the Elf and his “trip” to see her. She had eaten like a starving wolf as she listened raptly to his uncertain and halting answers.
She yawned after another drink of water, setting the flagon down.
“Yes,” said Krapp, who had done the same thing not a minute earlier. “We need more rest, despite sleeping through the day. Come, Tia.”
Standing under her doorjamb a few minutes later, she gazed up at him. “I don’t want to sleep in my room. I’m scared. Can’t I just ... sleep in your room?”
Rhaehold thinking that he, Krapp, was just some perverted “uncle” actually made him feel quite good about the curse and the talisman. They were working perfectly. Tia had, many times in the past, fallen asleep on his bed in his room at home while he read to her or played a game of dice or dominoes or twigs. He had taken his place next to her and fallen asleep as well. Andylyr found none of it strange or untoward, and even asked many times when they emerged together, “Sleep well, you two?”
He glanced down the hall. The inn had been relatively empty and quiet while they ate; now it was filling up with drinkers and revelers. Several minstrels where playing guitars and singing. It indeed would be loud, as Rhaehold had warned.
“Give it an hour,” he said, cupping her face. “Leave your door unlocked. Go wash up. I’ll do the same.”
She hugged him tightly. “An hour!” she said brightly, then yawned again. “I’ll go wash up!”
He went to his door and in, closing it softly behind him.
The hour passed. He closed his door behind him and went to Tia’s. His brow furrowed. Her door was slightly open.
“Rothtia?” he called out over the sounds of music and patrons downstairs having a good time.
“Tia?” he called out louder.
She hadn’t lit a lamp. It was completely dark in there.
“Tia? I’m coming in. We must get on our search ...”
He pushed the door open.
She was gone.
Cold dread sank into his gut. Without a single doubt, he knew:
Tia had been kidnapped too!