The next afternoon the weary Hunters made their way into the village of Four Corners. After stabling their horses, they decided to split up. Chris and Vin went to talk to the village Speaker, the person elected by the people to represent their interests before the Crown. Her name was Mary Travis and she was the one who brought the petition before Baron Royale. JD stayed in the stables to talk to some of the local horses and see if they knew anything. Josiah and Nathan were going to visit some of the merchants and townfolk while Buck went to the saloon. People were always willing to talk after they'd had a few drinks in them. And with Buck's special "charm" they'd be more loose-lipped than usual.
Chris and Vin found Speaker Travis at her place of work. She was not only Speaker for the village, but she also printed a small weekly leaflet of local information and important news from other areas of the kingdom.
"So you're the famous Hunters."
"You sound surprised to see us."
"I wasn't sure the problems of our little village were important enough to warrant such a response. I'd hoped, but I wasn't sure."
Vin looked at her strangely. "That's what we do, Ma'am. We go where the people need us."
Chris thought there was more to it than that. "You didn't think Baron Royale would petition the king on your behalf, did you? Why?"
"It's no secret that he couldn't care less about the welfare of the people. I threatened to take the petition to the king myself and file a formal complaint if he didn't. If the king had listened, it would've resulted in an investigation into his affairs. I don't think he wants that kind of attention. I'm sure that was part of his motivation for finally doing something. I also think he's afraid of this dragon, too. He's had his men out looking for it, but it's too smart for them. It's even left footprints around his manor. He probably thinks it's out to get him."
Vin smirked at that. Chris gave him a quelling look that had no effect.
Chris turned his attention back to Speaker Travis. "I take it Baron Royale isn't too well loved around here."
"His uncle was a decent enough man, but Royale is nothing like him. His taxes are unreasonable, the protection he's required to give the village under the Law of Royal Responsibility almost non-existent, he and his men take what they want whenever they come into the village, and the only people who witnessed the 'accident' that killed his uncle and cousin have conveniently disappeared."
"Do you have any proof he killed them?"
"If I did, I would have have printed it...providing I hadn't disappeared by that point."
"You could make some dangerous enemies with talk like that."
"Too late. Baron Royale would like nothing more than to get rid of me and my paper. He can't openly do away with me--that would be too suspicious. But I've been very watchful lately for 'accidents'." She sighed. "I've heard that King Michael is a fair and decent man, but we don't have much contact with the royal court here."
Vin answered her before Chris said something in a temper. "What you've heard about King Michael being a good man is true. Besides, Itreya wouldn't have any other kind of ruler on the throne."
"You really believe that? That Itreya is alive?"
"Seen it, Ma'am. Seen its power, anyway. That's how we all got chosen to be Hunters."
Chris steered the conversation back. "We'd like to know more about the dragon attack."
Mary shook her head sadly. "It was a terrible tragedy--what happened to those men. I'm just thankful that my son is okay."
"He's the child the dragon attacked. If Robert Mathers hadn't been chopping wood in the forest that day and heard Billy screaming for help..."
"I'm sorry. Ma'am. We didn't know. Is...could we maybe talk to him about it?"
"I'd rather you didn't. He was very traumatized by the whole thing. He just gets confused and upset when the subject comes up. You should talk to Mr. Mathers, the blacksmith, about what happened. You should also see Mark Anderson. He's the local glass blower. His shop is just down from the smithy's. He was also there when those two men got killed."
"Thank you for your time, Speaker Travis."
Chris and Vin went to talk to Robert Mathers next. He was hard at work in his shop. The man shook his head sadly when they told him why they were there. "If was a terrible thing, what happened to them men. I never liked that Jake and his brother, Bart. Couple of no-good troublemakers. But nobody should've died like that, running and screaming..."
"Could you start at the beginning?"
"I was out chopping wood when I heard this screaming for help. I ran deeper into the forest to see what was what. And then I saw it, bigger than life."
Mathers nodded. "Big, ugly green thing. It had that Travis boy in its mouth. I wasn't thinking too close on it or I might have been too scared to do what I done. It was a crazy fool thing but I ran down to the river waving my axe around and yelling at the top of my lungs. Must've surprised it because it dropped the boy and took off into the trees. My legs were shaking so bad I don't know how I carried him back to the village healer. Good thing the boy only had a few teeth marks on him."
"What did Billy Travis have to say?"
"Didn't say nothing. Boy was kind of in shock and just kept crying and shaking. His ma asked us not to talk about it to him so he won't think on it too much and get all upset again."
"So you're sure it was a dragon?"
"I never seen a dragon before in my life, but I know what that green monster was. It was maybe twelve feet tall with a long skinny neck. It had clawed feet and big teeth. I saw them teeth when it had that boy by the scruff of his neck. And it had long wings a-laying across its back. I won't ever forget the likes of him. No, Sir!"
"What happened after that?"
"A bunch of us men got together and decided to go after that thing. If it was attacking people in the forest, none of us was safe. It was just a matter of time before that beast thought to come get us in our own homes! We decided to track it down.
Our town healer's a pretty old woman, but she's mighty sharp and she's been around. She told us to go in a large group into the woods and gather up some of those plants with little white flowers on them. We always called them starweed, but she said some places they was called dragonbane. She said it was good for fighting dragons. So we rubbed the juice on our weapons and weaved the leaves and stems into nets and such and went out to get that dragon. Took us two days but we found it. There it was, sitting in its lair bold as you please. It probably didn't figure on getting hunted down by its own prey.
It tried to run off but we had it surrounded. The net worked like a charm. The dragon couldn't stand the touch of the stuff and got all weak. Jake got in a couple of good hits on before the monster went crazy. All of a sudden it shot this big ball of fire out of its mouth and burned Jake and his brother real bad. Their clothes were on fire and they were screaming something fierce. When we ran over to help them, that dragon managed to wiggle out of the net and get away. Figure we didn't wrap him up real tight like we should've. We tried to find it but it was gone."
"What about the Baron? Did you ask him for help?"
Mathers snorted in disgust. "What did he care? It was only some village boy that almost got ate up."
Vin scratched his head. "But we were told he sent some men and scouts to find it."
"Yeah, after he found out the dragon had gold in its warren. We were all too scared to go into its cave at first, but some of finally got up the courage a couple days later. When we went deep into the tunnels we found a pile of gold. Oh, not much, mind you, but more than any of us had ever seen! The Baron must have heard about it somehow because his men came riding into town to take it all. They said it might give them some clues as to where the dragon came from and maybe where it went so they could track it down. But we all know where that gold ended up--right in the Baron's coffer! That's why he started looking for that dragon so hard. He thinks it might have a second warren full of even more stuff. When Speaker Travis threatened to file a formal complaint about him to the king, that's when he finally decided to do something." Mathers eyed the two of them with a grin. "I bet the Baron thought the king would send just a couple of scouts and that would be that. Bet he didn't figure on getting visited by the king's own Hunters."
Chris had to smile at that. "No. Don't figure he did. Thank you for your time." He and Vin then went to find Mark Anderson, the other man Speaker Travis mentioned. He told them pretty much the same thing. The two of them noticed it was getting late and took their leave of him. They were supposed to be meeting the others at the stables. When they got there, their friends were already waiting. Chris and Vin told them what Mary and the two men had to say.
Josiah nodded. "That seems to be pretty much what we've heard from the merchants and shopkeepers. Baron Royale seems mighty interested in finding that dragon's warren, but they say he's getting a bit nervous that it's still on the loose. Everyone's sure it's still in the area. The signs are there. The idea that a fire-breathing monster is out there somewhere and that he has the creature's gold, well... Baron Royale may be an important man in Four Corners, but he's minor nobility and can't afford a lord's marble castle. His manor house is made of wood--just like the village folks'. A rich man's wood burns as easily as a poor man's if a fire-breathing dragon has a mind to destroy it."
Buck snorted at that. "The guys down at the tavern think he's shaking in his boots. One of his scouts found what he thinks are dragon tracks not too far from Royale's manor. This dragon must have been taking a look-see. Heck, they've been finding tracks all over the place in the woods and countryside, but nothing leading to any warrens. The men were talking tough about what they'd do if they found that dragon, but that's all it was--talk. They were scared."
"Nobody's been traveling, either." JD patted one of the horses affectionately. "The horses were telling me that they hardly ever leave town anymore since that dragon showed up. It's kind of funny though..."
"They said there's a stranger in town, a fancy-dressed foreigner who doesn't seem to be afraid at all. He comes and goes from the village all the time. He even claims to know how to track the dragon to its lair, but he wants to get paid for the information."
Nathan was appalled. "These people are living in fear of this monster and this man wants to get paid to track it down?"
JD nodded. "Royale's men don't believe him, anyway. They think he's just trying to con them out of their money."
"Do the horses know where we could find this man?"
"He goes into the tavern a lot. They think he might be stabling himself there."
Vin smiled at JD's way of phrasing it. That's probably just the way the horses said it.
"Anyone hear anything about the 'accident' Royale's uncle and cousin had?"
Nathan shook his head. "Not much. Some of the people we talked to were afraid to say anything. A few told us everybody knew he killed them, but there's no proof."
"Same thing at the tavern. No witnesses. No evidence. Just a lot of rumors."
Chris looked out over the village. "I think we're going to have an easier time with this dragon problem than with Royale. Keep your ears and eyes open. I think maybe we should have a talk with this foreigner."