Crocodilian ~ Chapter 11
Tales of Havek: Volume One | Duration: 12 Minutes 36 Seconds
The boardwalk swayed in a particularly powerful gust and collided against one of the tide columns. William Yitlin braced himself in a low crouch as the thud reverberated up his legs. When the large structure settled, he and his entourage continued following the nameless woman leading them to the nurse overseeing Ian’s supposed recovery. The rain soaked them to the bone, an element of nature William had always despised since water was unforgiving in its destruction of materials crucial to his line of work. He blinked through the drops running into his eyelashes, and held a hand against his forehead in the form of a salute to prevent it from worsening. No luck.
“This place is Burg incarnate,” Tamerond Blake said, speaking aloud William’s thoughts exactly. “Who would choose to live in a swamp? With seasonal weather like this?”
William agreed with Tamerond, but felt self-conscious with the nameless woman walking ahead, possibly able to hear their conversation and grow offended. “It’s just water, Temerond. I don’t think it’s all that bad. The town itself is quaint and intriguing, if you ask me. I’m curious what their cuisine is like. I bet the fresh fish is to die for.”
The golden-clad soldier scoffed. “I smell something off with this place.”
“Like I said… the fish.”
“You know I’m right. Penh is up to something. He’s caught in a muddy pit and the only way out is to convince everyone else it’s a spa. I don’t believe the crocodile-man story nonsense. It’s far worse than what they are letting on. Sinister, even.”
“What are you implying, Tamerond? That Mayor Penh is lying?” William asked. “That couldn’t be! I’ve trusted everything he’s told me from the beginning.”
“I’m serious, William,” Tamerond said. “I think what we’re really looking at is foul play.”
William had been smiling but it faded when he realized what the deputy commander was suggesting. He eventually spoke but tried to keep his voice just high enough to overcome the rain and just low enough for the nameless woman not to hear. “You think they’re covering up the disappearances in town with crocodiles? That they are committing… murders?”
The nameless woman had stopped and William halted just short of his nose smashing into her back. She didn’t move at first. William gulped and wondered if she’d overheard them. Then she faced one of the small cabin-like structures suspended next to the boardwalk which William presumed the townsfolk resided within. He hadn’t actually seen any townsfolk, but who could blame them with this weather.
“We’re here,” she said, without looking at them. William wondered if that had been the first time she’d spoken, but he couldn’t quite recall anything about her come to think of it.
The rain drummed against the rooftop of the cabin. The drapes on the glassless window were pulled shut but water still collected in small pools on the floorboards as the stronger gusts flung droplets inside. That was the least of Amal’s worries as she dabbed at Ian Merstellar’s forehead with a cool washcloth. She didn’t know this young man. The mayor had insisted she care for him, explaining how the Guild would definitely fork out money for his safe return and that the supplies needed for another successful year in Yonledo would finally be secured. So, understanding how important this young man had become to the town and its future, Amal had acquiesced.
Mayor Penh was a brute, but her husband saw something honorable in him, and even honorable brutes needed protection from dishonorable ones. Besides, he was rich and powerful, and the powerful created wakes of opportunity for the powerless to follow. And towns didn’t inherently function on their own, it would take each and every one of them pulling their own weight for Yonledo to work. Or, at least, that’s how she justified to herself the struggles of the past two years.
Amal hadn’t gotten much sleep while tending to Ian’s injuries. It had been roughly two weeks since he’d come into their home with a vicious bite wound on his left arm, the forearm broken. She’d set the bone but it’d become difficult to re-bandage the outer wounds without irritating the internal injury all over again. To make matters worse, he was fighting some sort of infection, a persistent fever plaguing him during all hours of the day. She struggled to calm him during his terrible episodes where he cried out in his sleep. There wasn’t much else she could do but keep his body alive. He would have to overcome the internal struggle on his own.
Today, however, Ian had remained calm after a particularly rough bout of fever the night before. He’d been recovering in her daughter’s bed, the young girl more than willing to give up her room to sleep in a makeshift fort in her parent’s room. Amal was thankful that the fever had broken and so she capitalized on the opportunity to leave him.
She closed the bedroom door with a soft click and braced herself against the wall for a moment, unsure if she could trust her own two feet. Her years as a nurse back in Blokravn hadn’t prepared her for this. In a hospital there were shifts and rotations, but here in Yonledo it was all on her for the most part. There was no room for mistakes. Yet, it seemed to bring the townsfolk closer together as a community. She loved and cared more for the people around her and wanted to be the best she could be. If Richta had vouched for the young man by risking his life to save him, then she, too, would treat him as family.
Taking a deep breath, Amal made her way to her bedroom, one hand brushing the wall for assurance that she remained upright. She opened the door and it creaked. Merai was sitting next to her father on the bed, holding a pointer finger over her mouth. Amal mouthed the word “sorry” to her daughter and tip-toed over to the bed and eased herself onto the side, opposite the young girl. It took everything she had not to simply collapse and fall asleep next to Richta, but he needed her care. The bandages on his back were faintly seeping through with blood. Due to this, he was forced to sleep on his side. He faced away from Amal, but based on her daughter's admiring expression, she knew her husband was sleeping. Although he would have severe bruising and soreness for the next few weeks from colliding with the column, Amal was thankful his wounds hadn’t been worse.
A knock came at the front door. Merai’s eyes went wide and Richta stirred slightly. Amal motioned for Merai to stay where she was and moved to the window facing the boardwalk. She peeked through the drapes, trying to hide herself. Amal’s jaw clenched at the sight of Empyrean soldiers standing outside. Yonledo, a makeshift town at the edge of the known world, was the last place she’d expected them to search.
“Amal, are you home?” a voice she didn’t recognize said.
Amal tied her long hair up in the back, pulling the wild strands tight. She looked at her husband, still sleeping, and hoped he would remain so for as long as possible. He couldn’t handle any strained movement right now, the wounds would reopen and potentially cost him precious recovery time.
“Watch him, Merai,” she whispered. Her daughter nodded and Amal kissed her on the head as she walked by.
The inside of the cabin was unexpectedly cozy, the space expertly utilized to maximize space. It was nothing like the mayor’s mansion, of course, but it was bigger than most folks’ living quarters back in downtown Asyrema. It was definitely larger than Tamerond Blake’s quarters for sure, his current allotment situated at the end of a crowded barracks next to the armory. He’d given his life to the Empyrean military and even with his meager allowance and housing, he’d do it all over again. There was nothing else for him. His determination to succeed in the one thing that would have him is what got him to his current position. Among other things.
Only three of them entered the cabin. Tamerond, William, and the nameless woman. The others had been instructed to remain outside. The woman who’d let them in stood with her back to a hallway leading to two other rooms. Her thin lips were pursed and her eyes were strained as if she were keeping them open by willpower alone. She leaned one shoulder against the wall in an attempt at being casual, but Tamerond guessed it was either due to exhaustion or to steady her nerves.
“I humbly thank you for inviting us soaked rags into your home, Mrs…” William Yitlin began.
“Amal,” the woman stated, curtly. Tamerond noted that she did not provide a last name.
“Mrs. Amal. Thank you. I suppose I should introduce myself. My name is William Yitlin, I’m the head of correspondence at the Cartographers Guild, which I’m sure you’ve heard of, and I’ve traveled quite the distance to visit this peculiar new town of Yonledo. I have to say, I’m quite impressed at the architecture of it all,” he said, looking around the room. “I hadn’t pictured it this way given the geographical nature of the location.”
“You mean, since we are in a swamp,” Amal said, crossing her arms.
William cleared his throat and guided the conversation back to introductions. “Ah, yes, and this young lady is…” he gestured with an open hand at the nameless woman eagerly. The nameless woman didn’t speak, but simply stared down at the floorboards. Tamerond studied the woman as if seeing her for the first time. She had a long braid running down the length of her back, and she somehow looked much older than he recalled. Faint markings in the form of raised bumps spiraled up her hands and across her wrists where they disappeared beneath loose-fitting robes. Her eyes were like dark almonds and they didn’t seem to blink, or at least, not while anyone was looking. Amal squinted at the nameless woman as if she’d never really seen her before, her gaze looking her up and down.
“Never mind. I assume you two know each other already since you both live here in Yonledo.” Amal unconsciously shook her head. The nameless woman did not seem to notice or care. Tamerond found this entire exchange too confusing and, again, noted it. If the nameless woman didn’t have a name, and another resident of the town didn’t recognize her, then who was she and why was she here. Another odd piece to the puzzle. Another factor to take into account for his plot to take down Penh for good.
“And this,” William said, turning to Tamerond, “is my temporary guard, Deputy Commander Tamerond Blake. He wasn’t cheap, but he was gracious enough to provide additional men to accompany us which made me feel safer, and he seemed eager to join me on my journey. So I upgraded, one might say.”
William smiled in his direction but Tamerond wasn’t paying attention to the short man. He was watching the woman, the supposed nurse, react to hearing his name. Amal grew stiff and removed her shoulder from the wall. Her eyelids no longer sagged as she stared at Tamerond in what could only be described as fear. He did not recognize this woman, but she knew him. He noted this as well.
“Anyway, enough with the introductions. I suppose we can cut to the chase. I’ve been informed that you are quite the town nurse and you’ve been treating a dear friend of mine by the name of Ian Merstellar. I’d very much like to see him, if you don’t mind.”
Amal swallowed and looked at the floor. “He’s resting and cannot be disturbed at this time.”
“Oh, well, that’s most understandable. But you see, I’ve traveled all this way. Can I at least peek in at him to make sure he’s doing alright? I won’t make a peep, I promise.”
“I’m afraid you can’t. I’m going to have to ask you all to leave,” Amal said, her voice low.
William scoffed. “I don’t understand. Why? Why can’t I see a man in my charge currently under your care? Is he okay? Please, you must consider that I have resources at my disposal and I’m very willing to make whatever you need happen in order to see poor Ian.”
Amal looked up at William, but her eyes twitched in the direction of Tamerond unintentionally. She opened her mouth to speak but no words came out.
“What are you hiding?” Tamerond said, filling the void.
William jerked and was quick to recall the previous transaction with the mayor. “Now, now, Tamerond. Please, we’ve been through this. Let me handle—”
Tamerond spoke over William. “Whether you know it or not, woman, you are harboring a potential murderer. This may soon become an official investigation. You no longer have a say in this matter. By the authority of the Commander of the East Empyrean forces and, by extension, our Emperor, I demand that we see Ian Merstellar at once.”
Amal’s top lip quivered and her nose scrunched. “Get out of my house.”
Tamerond stepped forward, his boots sounding heavy on the wood. He wasn’t sure why Amal was becoming so hostile, but he didn’t like it. He didn’t like that the objective laid in the next room, likely listening in on their conversation. He didn’t like that William was trying to give him orders. He didn’t like that Penh remained a threat to his entire reputation and livelihood. He didn’t like feeling insignificant and was determined never to feel it ever again.
“If you don’t move away from the door, I will move you myself,” he said.
“Try it,” Amal said.
There was a long moment of silence between them. Tamerond clenched his fists, trying to think of what to do. Trying to think of how she knew him and why she hated him.
“I do not think the individual in question is still in the house,” the nameless woman said in a flat voice. Tamerond snapped out of his fury. He had forgotten she was in the room. He wasn’t one to forget things easily. He’d made sure to note her strangeness, yet he’d forgotten still.
“What do you mean?” Amal asked.
“I mean, I think Ian has escaped into the swamp,” she said.
Amal backed into the hallway, likely unsure if she could trust the word of the nameless woman. She opened the door slowly and her expression said it all. Tamerond and William approached behind her, learning the truth for themselves. The nameless woman had been right, Ian was no longer on the bed. The child’s room exhibited nothing out of the ordinary save for the raindrops splashing in from the window and the curtains twirling in the wind.
“An innocent man does not run,” Tamerond said. “But first, how did you—” he cut off when he realized the person he was speaking to was no longer there. The front door was open and five soldiers stood in the rain, looking in. He noted that something was off about the whole thing, but he couldn’t quite recall what it was.
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