'He's dead.' Wren Goodwort said. Her words felt final. They also felt alien. Elkbury wasn’t like other places. People here didn’t die of natural causes. If a dead body was found in the village, there was only one reason for it. Murder. And murder hadn’t happened here in a very long time.
‘Dead.’ Heather Boyd repeated the word. Dark bags sat underneath haunted eyes.
‘You know what this means, don’t you?’ Wren continued despite the blank look on the other woman’s face. ‘Are you sure you didn’t see anything?’
Heather shook her head.
‘And you didn’t hear anything?’ Wren asked and Heather responded with another shake of the head. ‘You’re sure?’
‘I told you everything I know,’ Heather said, wiping her eyes on a damp handkerchief. Wren was getting more and more frustrated by the minute. The woman had been crying since Wren had arrived. Wren was sure this was to be expected - the woman’s husband had just died - but she wasn’t used to displays of emotion like this. What was she supposed to do? Offer her comfort? Surely that was someone else’s job; hers was to catch a killer.
‘But you haven’t told me very much,’ Wren said, pacing around Crispin Boyd’s body. He was propped up against the back wall of the house, hidden from the rest of the village. It was as good a place as any for a murder spot, there was very little chance of being caught in the act. Looking out towards the line of trees that marked the edge of the village’s land, Wren caught sight of a small hut. Even though she didn’t want to, she made a note to pay that dwelling a visit after finishing up here. She liked solving and unravelling problems and mysteries, she didn’t much like talking to people to do it.
‘But it’s all I know,’ Heather said. She kept looking down at Crispin as if he might get up again at any moment. His eyes were closed like he was sleeping, but Wren doubted that was how he had died. People didn’t tend to look that peaceful when they were being murdered. Not that Wren had much experience in the area. There hadn’t been many murders in Elkbury in the time that she’d been the sheriff here. In fact, there had been zero... until now. But she spoke to any travellers who stopped by the Old Dead Oak and they usually had a tale or two. That made her as much of an expert as anyone.
The man looked very much as he had in life, aside from a grey tinge that had started to coat his skin, making him seem unreal. It was like someone had made a near-perfect replica of the man that Wren had seen wandering the village for as long as she could remember. Perfect, apart from the fact he wasn’t breathing, the gaping wound under his chin, and the huge bloodstain that covered the front of his shirt.
‘Can you think of any reason why anyone would want to hurt him? I mean, had he upset anyone recently?’ Wren asked, but she knew what the answer would be. Questioning Heather was a complete waste of time. She either didn’t know anything or, if she did, she wasn’t saying.
‘No, Crispin got on with everyone,’ she said.
‘And he wasn’t... He wasn’t sick, was he?’
‘No, of course not! I would have reported it to Father Arcadius if he was. Those are the rules.’ Heather said, her dull eyes suddenly blazing with fury.
‘Yes, those are the rules,’ Wren agreed.
‘And his throat wouldn’t be slit if he was ill, would it?’ Heather said. ‘So he couldn’t have been sick.’
‘Just because someone killed him, it didn’t mean he wasn’t ill,’ Wren said.
‘I said he wasn’t sick!’ Heather said before bursting into a fresh set of sobs. Once again, Wren told herself that trying to talk to this woman was pointless.
‘I’ll be back soon,’ she said. ‘In the meantime, you can make arrangements for the body. I’m sure Father Arcadius will help you.’
The air seemed to turn colder the closer Wren got to the trees. The hut at the very edge stood alone, the only sign of life was an old donkey that waited outside, watching her arrival. While Wren envied Gary and Ginger Groves and their way of life, they also made her feel awkward. Despite the fact they lived far away from everyone else, they were also warm and welcoming whenever someone did make the effort to visit them. Wren wasn’t used to that. Most people respected her, but they also feared her. Maybe they thought she’d find out they’d been up to something they shouldn’t have been. That served to make her think that most of her neighbours were guilty of one thing or another. The door of the hut opened, and a tall, bearded figure emerged. Gary was an imposing man, but most described him as a ‘gentle giant’. That aside, it wasn’t difficult to imagine that he could have overpowered someone like Crispin. He was definitely strong enough to hold another man still and slit his throat. At the prospect of having found a potential suspect, Wren quickened her pace.
‘Mornin’ Sheriff!’ he called out, his voice far more cheerful than anyone’s had reason to be so soon after sunrise.
‘Hullo, Gary,’ she replied, meeting him next to the donkey.
‘Not that it’s not good to see you, but what brings you out here?’
‘An investigation,’ Wren replied, unable to keep the hint of excitement out of her voice. There wasn’t much crime in Elkbury, so there wasn’t that much for her to do; she spent most of her time helping out the baker to make ends meet. Now she could actually prove her worth. She could show how much the town needed her. She could feel valued.
Gary’s eyes widened. ‘An investigation?’
‘Yes,’ she said before clearing her throat. She needed to be professional now. ‘I need to ask you a few questions.’
‘Oh, right, of course,’ he replied. ‘Go ahead.’
‘When was the last time you saw Crispin Boyd?’
‘Crispin?’ Gary said, looking across the fields in the direction of the Boyds’s home. Maybe he thought he’d be able to see him now. ‘Has something happened to him?’
‘Yes... he... er... he’s dead. Murdered.’
‘Oh...’ Gary said, leaning against the donkey for support. ‘You’re sure?’
‘I’m afraid so,’ Wren replied, thinking it would have been a miracle if he’d survived that injury. ‘I know he was your friend-’
‘My best friend,’ Gary said, his voice proud as if knowing the other man was a great accomplishment. Wren wished that she had friends like that.
‘Indeed,’ she said. ‘When did you last see him?’
‘That would have been yesterday afternoon.’ he said, ‘We had a couple of ales and then I came home to have dinner with Ginger.’
‘Thank you. So you were drinking at the Boyds’s house?’ Wren asked, trying to piece together what would have been Crispin’s final hours.
‘Yes... we didn’t feel like going to the tavern,’ he said.
‘Right... I’m going to ask you the same question I asked his wife. Can you think of any reason why someone would want to hurt Crispin?’
Gary shook his head. ‘Nope, not a single one. Everybody loves Crispin... or loved him. I suppose I should say loved now, shouldn’t I?’
‘How did he seem yesterday? Did he seem unwell?’ she asked, moving on quickly.
‘You mean, was he ill?’
‘He was fine. They would’ve reported it if he was ill, wouldn’t they?’ he said, echoing Heather’s words. ‘It’s the law.’
‘It most definitely is,’ Wren agreed. ‘I guess I’ll keep investigating. Thank you for your help today.’
‘No problem, any time.’ Gary said, his tone lightening now that it seemed this conversation would soon be over. ‘Well, good luck with it all.’
‘Thank you... I was thinking about talking to Grima next,’ Wren said, before saying her goodbyes and then heading back to the village. Talking to Grima seemed as pointless as asking Heather what had happened; the old woman had completely lost the plot. The rest of the village seemed to think that she was able to see the future - or ‘the truth of things’ as many described it - but not Wren. As far as she was concerned, the only thing the old woman was able to see was complete bullshit.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ Anastasia asked, looking at her grandson with an expression that somehow conveyed both confusion and disappointment.
‘C’mon, everyone’s scared of Grima,’ he replied, his voice full of the whining tone that teenagers communicated in a majority of the time.
‘Yes, but that’s because they’re scared she’ll see the truth of them. Everyone has a secret and people tend to want to keep them hidden.’
‘Can she really see everything?’
‘I have no idea. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe she only sees what she needs to at that moment. Only she knows that… and that’s her secret.’ Anastasia said. ‘Now, quit stalling, Heddy, and go take that tea out to Grima, I’ll be out in a bit.’
Taking the hot beverage out of the kitchen, Hedwin approached the old lady who was sitting in the small garden outside the house. Old and frail, she looked like she would float away on the slightest of breezes, but Hedwin knew better. Grima was made of sterner stuff. Sometimes he thought she was the toughest person in the village. She was sat on one of two rocking chairs with her eyes closed. To some, she might have looked like she was sleeping, but most of the village knew that she was more than aware of what was going on around her. Grima saw almost everything. No-one really knew how or why, but Grima had been able to see things she had no business seeing but was unable to see everything else. Having lost her normal sight at the age of eleven, Grima had been gifted with what she called her Verum Visus - or True Sight - almost immediately.
‘Thank you,’ she said as Hedwin approached. He’d been as quiet as possible, but she’d still heard him. Or saw him. It was unclear how her powers worked and that was what made the boy fear her; she was unpredictable. Knowing that he would probably stutter or say the wrong thing if he spoke, Hedwin handed her the tea without a word. ‘Be a good lad and tell your grandma to come outside. A visitor will be here soon.’
Hedwin nodded before remembering who was talking to him. ‘Yes, will do.’
Before walking back inside, he took a look around. While there were plenty of people wandering the dirt roads, getting on with their business, no-one appeared to be heading towards the house. People didn’t tend to visit when Grima was over, but Hedwin was inclined to believe her. ‘Grandma, Grima wants you to go outside,’ he said.
‘I’ll be out in a minute,’ she said, tidying up.
‘But she said you’re going to get a visitor.’
‘A visitor?’ she asked, turning towards her grandson. ‘Here? Now?’
‘That’s what she said,’ Hedwin replied with a shrug. After drying her hands, Anastasia picked up her own cup and went outside to join her lifelong friend.
Gary watched the woman leave. He’d known that Wren believed everything his Aunt Grima said was rubbish and lucky guesses, but he hoped she wouldn’t talk to her at all. But, if she did, he hoped this aunt would keep his secret if she was able to see it. They were blood, after all. ‘We did the right thing,’ he said, gently petting the donkey. The donkey snorted in response. Gary always took this to mean that the animal was agreeing with him. ‘I have to believe that we were doing the right thing.’
This time, the donkey didn’t snort. Instead, it bolted towards the tree line, leaving its owner standing open-mouthed. Usually a docile creature, this was completely out of character.
‘Hey! Alvin! Come back ‘ere!’ Gary called, but the donkey ignored him. Sighing, Gary chased after him. ‘What’s got into you?’ The animal stood stock-still, watching the trees. Holding his breath, Gary found himself watching the same area. Something had to be in there, hidden within the darkness and camouflaged by foliage. It was the only reason for Alvin’s behaviour. Minutes ticked by while Gary waited, and he’d almost reached the point where he was about to turn both himself and the donkey around and head back, but then he heard it. Something was crashing through the trees.
He held his breath again in the hope that it would make him hear better, but he needn’t have worried. The crashing was getting closer. And closer. Gary felt his curiosity slip away. Having lived in Elkbury his entire life, he’d always been told to stay away from the trees and the daemons that waited beyond them. In all his years, he’d only seen one from a distance, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was about to meet one face-to-face. He was about to see what they looked like close-up. They’d stop being part of a scary story and become real life. What if it was angry? What if it knew what he had done? Perhaps that’s why it was crashing through the trees; it was coming for him. It was coming to take him away. In a matter of moments, Gary was sure he would be dragged kicking and screaming to Taunriden Lake.
Something burst through the trees in a flurry of movement.
The scream seemed to echo through the tiny hut, instantly making Ginger panic. It sounded like Gary, but that couldn’t be right. Gary wasn’t prone to hysteria. Usually level-headed, he was the kind of person who could be counted on in an emergency. If he was screaming at the top of his lungs, something was wrong. Very wrong. Running barefoot from the hut, Ginger raced towards her husband as quickly as her legs would carry her. ‘What is it? What’s happened?’ she shouted.
The shadows from the tall trees sucked the warmth out of the morning and Ginger shivered. This was bizarre considering how hot the night had been. Autumn and winter were definitely on their way. Rubbing her bare arms to generate some heat, Ginger approached her husband.
‘Take a look at this guy,’ Gary said. Although he was still visibly shaken, he’d stopped screaming. His entire focus was on the horse that now stood before them. Even Alvin was taking an interest. The horse was huge; the kind of thing that a knight would ride into battle. The kind of horse the Queen’s Men had in Red Fern. A mighty steed.
‘He’s impressive,’ she said, giving the animal an appraising look. ‘Where did he come from? Who does he belong to?’
‘Us now... I guess...’
‘We can’t just keep a horse like this. Someone is obviously missing him,’ she said.
‘I don’t think anyone is,’ Gary said as he took her hand and guided her around the animal. ‘Take a look at this.’ Bite marks lined the animal’s flank. Angry, red wounds oozed and gaped at her.
‘What happened to him?’
‘He came from the forest,’ Gary replied as if that answered everything. ‘He just came bursting out like daemons were chasing him. Scared the life out of me.’
‘I thought he was a daemon for a moment.’ Gary lowered his voice as if making a confession. ‘I thought they’d come for me.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ she said, ‘why would they come for you?’
Ginger didn’t notice as her husband avoided her gaze by inspecting the horse a little more closely. Nor had she noticed that he’d left the hut the night before.
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ he said, still looking at the horse. ‘I guess I just spooked myself... How about you help me get this guy cleaned up? Even if someone is looking for him, I’m sure they’d want us to help him.’
‘You’re right,’ she said, as they made their way back towards their small patch of land. Alvin followed behind them, eyeing the newcomer warily. ‘You clean him up and I’ll let people know.’
Anastasia took a seat in the rocking chair opposite Grima, moving carefully so as not to spill her tea. ‘I hear we’re getting visitors.’
‘Just the one,’ Grima replied, ‘and it’s not going to be good news.’
‘I didn’t think it would be,’ she said, taking a sip of hot tea and letting the conversation lapse into a comfortable silence. It wouldn’t do to probe Grima with questions. If she had more information to give and she wanted to share it, she would. She didn’t need anyone to tell her to do it.
‘Something’s upset the balance,’ Grima said.
‘Should we tell Father Arcadius?’
‘Probably. No doubt someone will tell him before we get the chance.’
‘Tell him what?’ Anastasia wondered, but she didn’t speak the thought aloud. Sipping her tea, she looked out at the other villagers. These were the same faces she saw every single day. These were the people who she traded with. The people she cared about. What did Grima’s latest vision mean for them?
‘Here she comes,’ Grima said, and Anastasia looked down the main road. In the distance, there was a figure. They were too far away to see who it was and there was no way to know if they would end up coming to the house. But, Anastasia believed her friend. She had more faith in the other woman’s Verum Visus than anyone else. Perhaps even more than Grima herself.