“Excuse me, Sir, but which way is Red Grove?”
The grizzled old farmer examined the traveler slowly, from her floppy brown hat and green poncho to the tips of her dusty leather boots, as he leaned against the fencepost the bordered the wildly overgrown path. Finally, he pointed to the upcoming fork in the road with a gnarled finger.
“It's t' yer left, real close t' the Sky Divide river. Y'can't miss it; it ain't exactly small. But,” he paused, sighing, then continued, “I wouldn't go there if I was you. Not the best place t' be anymore. Used t' be real nice, music, food, trade, anything y'could want, but not n' more.”
“What happened?” asked the traveler, curious.
“Well,” the farmer thought for a moment, scratching his balding head, “Lord Ty, he's the guy in charge down there, he had a daughter, y'see, name of Anna.”
“Yeah, y'heard of her? Not surprising, what with that reward and all. Anyway, Lord Ty was all happy and the like, like any father. So he wanted Red Grove to be a real nice place for 'is daughter to grow up, so he lowered taxes, encouraged th' arts, y'know, that sort a thing.”
“Sounds like a nice place to me.”
“It was, trust me. I used t' live close t' there. Well, when 'is daughter grew up, a bunch a rich pretty boys started tryin' for her hand in marriage. Y'see, Lord Ty had no other children, so whoever won her got the whole place t'boot. Not t' mention she was as pretty as a summer sunrise...” the man's eyes misted at the memory. “I remember this one time, there was a parade, in honor of... I fergit, some noble or another, they're all alike. Anyway, the carriage that Anna was ridin' in passed right by; I could right in, an' the girl waved right at me, she was wearin' a blue dress, it was her favorite color, from what I heard, and smiled right at me. I'll never forget that smile, like all the joy in the world rolled into one little lady.” He looked sad for a minute. “Ah, how I miss those days of livin' near Red Grove, what with th' parades, and th' markets, I even talked like a city folk back then. An' I would still be there if it hadn't happened...”
“I'm gettin' to that, lemme finish. Well, Anna weren't no fool, she knew what those suitors were after. So she turned 'em down, every last one. Couple of 'em went away real mad, sayin' nasty things, you know the type. Anna was wise to turn 'em down.”
“And?” Impatience tinged the traveler's voice as she edged closer the the side of the path, or at least what of it that was clearly the path.
“Well, one day, three or four years ago, she was out in the little garden 'er daddy made for 'er, or so the story goes, an' when 'e went out t' talk t' 'er, she was gone. Disappeared, jus' like that.”
“Didn't the townspeople see anything?”
“Well, sure they did, but most weren't sure what they saw. Some of 'em were just plain scared t' come forward, the lord was so angry, threatening and arresting people left and right. A few said that it was a dark, mysterious shape from th' shadows that leaped higher than any man over th' wall of the garden and vanished with th' girl; some others said she was lured away, like that could ever happen, she was much t' smart to go off like that. A few crackpots even thought it was the sleepwalkers, wanderin' around in the daytime, an' stealin' her away, but no one believes 'em.” He smiled, smug and mysterious, and said, “But I know what really happened.”
“You mean you saw the kidnapper?” the traveler asked, surprise in her voice.
“Sure did, clear as day. I was takin' my first crop of the year to market when it happened, right before my very eyes.”
“Did you tell Lord Ty what you saw?”
“An' get my head chopped off? I'd have to be crazier than a drunk duck to tell 'im what really happened.”
“Why? What's the worst that he'd do? I'm sure he'd be happy to know what happened to his daughter.”
“I didn't tell 'im because it was a celestia that did it, an' he hates celestia! He wouldn't let 'em in the town, not ever. 'E claimed that it was t' protect 'is daughter's innocence against their savagery, but we all knew that it was jut because 'e hates them.” The farmer scratched his head again. “Never quite understood why, they seem nice enough t' me. Every once in a while a few help out on th' farm, in exchange for food and shelter fer a few days. They're good, hard workers, even if their wings do knock things over sometimes. Anyway, that's when things really started goin' downhill for Red Grove.”
“Lord Ty, as good an' kind as 'e had been, became desperate to get Anna back. 'E offered a reward t' anyone who could find th' kidnapper, 15,000 gold coins, but nothin' came of it but hoaxes an' mercenaries. 'E even raised taxes to increase th' reward, highter an' higher, til folks like me could barely get by. Th' reward went up t' 20,000, then 25,000, an' even up to 30,000 til 'e stopped raisin' it. Then, 'e made a declaration that surprised everybody, even me, tho' I moved out 'ere before th' taxes got too high.”
“What'd he say?”
“Ty said that whoever brought his daughter back t' 'im would not only get the reward, but 'e would also give 'is daughter to 'em in marriage. I don't think 'e realized the kind of man that was likely t' find her would be th' worst kind, mercenaries and th' like. But then, 'e said that anyone who tried t' claim th' reward falsely, they'd be beaten, tied t' a rock, an' thrown into the Sky Divide to drown. That was proof enough for me that 'e's gone mad; 'e'd never do a thing like that when Anna was around. But I pity anyone who hasn't left Red grove yet. His lordship is gettin' worse.” He look the traveler straight in the eyes, his gaze burning into her with a dead honesty that would have unnerved the bravest warrior. “My advice? Steer clear of Red Grove.”
“Thank you, Sir, but I'm going there anyway. I'll be careful.”
The farmer shrugged. “Your funeral.” He turned to leave, when a thought struck him. “Hey, would y'like t' eat at my house t'night? An old guy like me gets lonely sometimes, no family, no friends, except for th' few that fly in occasionally. A friendly face at th' table is always welcome.”
“I'd love to, sir, but I have to get going. I want to reach Red Grove as soon as possible.”
“Ah, well. I'll see you around then.”
She smiled. “Indeed you will. Goodbye, sir.”
And with that last, enigmatic comment she began down the road again, leaving the man to ponder her words alone.