The first sign of trouble came when Serenity ordered a beer.
"I'm sorry Miss, but we had to dump it all out."
Serenity furrowed her brow at the young man standing behind the bar. He was tall and gawkish, probably the son of the proprietor. The Riverhouse, as far as she could tell, was the only saloon in town.
"Whiskey?" she asked.
He shook his head. "Got rid of everything, all the way down to the milk. There's water from the well, but I'd check real hard on it before I drank it."
"You've got to be kidding." Serenity planted her elbows on the bar, leaning forward to give the boy a critical glare. "You're the only place in town, and all you've got—maybe—is well water? What the hell are you drinking with your dinner, kid?"
"Rained two days ago." He shrugged. "Saved a barrel after the storm and stored it down in the cellar."
Serenity grimaced. She looked away from the bartender, gazing around the saloon, taking in the handful of afternoon patrons, all of them hunched and surly.
D'aej—the demon partner bound to her—rumbled from his place of quiet observation at the back of her mind. Like a cat waking from a long nap, he unfolded himself with a luxurious stretch before sending out a probing, curious pulse of energy. Serenity waited while he searched the room with his supernatural senses. Nothing caught his notice, and he signaled confusion to match her own.
They're not sick or spelled. His sibilant, psychic voice grated with annoyance. But he's right. Not a drop of liquor among them, and judging from the staggering levels of enthusiasm around here, I wager the food isn't much to get excited over.
Serenity had magic for almost any situation, but one thing she couldn't do was conjure food or drink. The runes—arcane sigils and conjuring elements she'd studied since her earliest years—had certain limits, and the manifestation of edible matter and physical nourishment was one of them. Talented as she might be among weavers, and even paired with a darkling like D'aej, Serenity still had to eat whatever was available to her in the empirical world.
She rubbed at a spot on her chest, just below her collarbone, hardly realizing she did it. Following D'aej's inquiring gaze around the room, she agreed with him. The food at the Riverhouse probably wasn't anything to be thrilled about.
"Okay, what's the joke? Why the hell can't a girl get a drink and a decent meal in the town's one and only saloon? Are you on some sort of fasting holiday?"
She and her shadowy passenger had ridden past a church on their way into Westwater, and as they always did, took careful notice. Witches, especially those bound to demons, ran the risk of hanging or worse, no matter where they traveled in Geiral. So they kept their magic hidden. Any place with a church nearby posed significant risk. Serenity didn't think it was possible her cover had been blown: she'd barely said boo to anyone in the town, except to ask directions to the hotel and where she could stable her horse. Maybe some preacher or parishioner took notice of her and didn't like what they saw? Were the locals simply closing ranks to let a stranger know she wasn't welcome? Witch or no, sometimes a place just took a disliking to you. Paranoid, perhaps... but what other explanation could there be for a town saloon to deny drink, of all things?
"No joke," the young man explained, and she had an idea he might not be the sharpest tool in the shed. "Been an outbreak of blight around town. The worst of it hit Kelly Bradford's fields, which is where most of our supplies come from. Last week when Da' opened up one of the wine casks, we found the rot inside. Tainted the whole cellar, everything in it."
"The whole cellar?" Serenity cocked an eyebrow at him.
"The same cellar where you stored your rain barrel?"
The boy looked befuddled for a moment, then groaned, smacking his forehead. Yep. Definitely not the sharpest. In her head, D'aej uttered an impatient sound of disgust.
"Sounds like the well water might be the best choice after all." She slid onto one of the barstools and pushed a coin across to him. "Draw me a glass, and call your da' for me. I want to hear more about this blight."
The boy nodded, scooping up the coin and disappearing into the kitchen behind the bar. While she waited for his return, Serenity swiveled to take another good look at the room. The people at the tables slumped under a weight of trouble, listless, bags under their eyes. One man fumbled for his glass and sent it sliding across the table; it crashed to the floor and broke into pieces. Nobody seemed particularly interested. Nobody moved to clean it up. With a sigh, the man simply leaned his head on his folded hands, like a penitent in prayer.
Setting aside the pervasive glumness of the patrons, though, the Riverhouse was one of the nicer country saloons she and D'aej had come across. Bright sunlight streamed in through the wide front windows, and the glossy floors shone. The piano against the western wall appeared carefully maintained, and the tables and chairs were painted up nice. The bar top gleamed, made of a pale golden wood, and its sides and barstools had all been painted white. Somebody with pride and business savvy ran this place. It showed none of the careless wear and tear of the bars in the desert border towns, where rough terrain and rougher clientele took a hard toll on the décor. This place even looked like it might have ice for the drinks, if a customer wanted to pay for the privilege.
So why doesn't anyone seem comfortable and relaxed? And why is the food so sub-par?
D'aej chimed in with his own question. How did a blight make it into their stores and wipe out everything before anyone noticed?
A tall man had returned in the place of the boy, carrying a glass of clear water for her. He shared the same mop of rusty-blonde hair as his son, but wore it more tidily, and kept a neatly-trimmed beard as well. Serenity thanked him as she accepted the water, then extended her hand.
"Serenity Walker. Do I hear rightly that you had to throw out your entire store of liquor?"
The gentleman frowned. "Aye, that's right. It was a bad loss. I'm afraid I don't have a great variety of dinner specials to offer, either, since our main supplier's been hit with the blight. We're still getting a little chicken from the Dohling's farm, though I'm afraid it'll be a bit tough. The birds seem to be weathering the situation all right but it hasn't done them any favors so far as taste or tenderness. Better than diseased beef, but so's a sharp kick in the teeth. There won't be any bacon and I don't have bread. Best I can offer is chicken and corn or potatoes for dinner, coffee and eggs in the morning."
"Coffee?" Serenity feigned a dramatic swoon. "Your boy seemed to think the only thing fit to drink was fresh rain water. Your well's still good?"
"Still good so far." The man stooped to retrieve a tub of dishes and glasses from below the bar and began scrubbing them clean with a wet bar cloth. "If that numbskull is going to be spreading shit I should have him out cleaning the privy. The last thing we need is a panic over the wells. I'm Hank Travis, by the way."
So that explained the general disinterest around the place. If all he had was tough chicken, corn, and potatoes, even this stylish saloon was bound to get very sullen, very fast.
"Might want to call your boy out here to sweep up a mess, Hank." She gestured at the broken glass. "So what's the story?"
"A bad one."
He paused to call back over his shoulder, summoning his son. From his tone, Serenity didn't think he meant to share the tale with her, so she sipped her water and passed him some coin for a plate of food. The boy bustled out with a broom and Mr. Travis slipped into the kitchen to pass along her order. In Serenity's mind, D'aej gave a quiet burble of unrest, and curled in on himself to go dormant—his version of something resembling sleep. Darklings didn't exactly move or communicate in the same ways as their human hosts, and so approximation of tone and motion were their essential language.
When the barman returned, he surprised her.
"Blight started about two weeks ago," he said in the tone of a much older, frailer man. "First, a few spots of sulfur and spoiling, mostly in the grassy patches of the meadow, up by Kelly's property. It kicked into high gear fast, though, and almost before we knew it, Kel's farm was devastated. He lost most of his cattle, including his prize stud. He's got some heifers left and one or two steers, but they're in a bad way and who knows how long they'll last. Cattle probably caught it from the fields, because his grain, beans, and potatoes all shriveled up too. The man's probably lost his whole ranch, all in less than a fortnight."
Serenity whistled. "Just him, though?"
"Nope. Blight's running around the northern part of town from his fields all the way to the church, and on down to the doctor's office. Southeast corner still seems mostly healthy though. That's where you'll find the Dohling's farm, and thank the Lord, because if it weren't for them all of Westwater would be going hungry or catching sick from too much salted pork."
How convenient, Serenity mused. I daresay there's a pungent odor of rat in the air.
"They rivals? Bradford and the Dohlings?"
The barman shrugged. "Bradford might say so, but it's hard to see the Dohlings taking that attitude. They're chicken farmers and grow a little corn, sell bread and a little fried bird to their neighbors. Normally they do it all right out of their house. Don't have the workforce or the land to compete with Kelly Bradford. Of course, now they'll have to hire extra hands to keep up with demand, since his goods are gone, but they don't have the heart to gouge folks for food. They're not exactly going to make out like bandits."
A holler from the kitchen drew his attention, and he excused himself to retrieve her plate. As he set it down on the bar in front of her, he added, "Bradford'll tell you it's the tribal people got this whole thing started. Cursed his land with some kind of voodoo."
"There are tribals here?" Serenity tore a hunk of chicken off the bone. The man had been right... it was tough, and even a little gritty.
"A handful of them from up in the foothills. They're camped just outside the city. Say they're here to find the source of the blight, and with their own homes so close by, who could blame them? The church elders met with the clan's shamaness and gave her their blessing, but Bradford... he's always had a mean eye, when it comes to tribals."
Serenity nodded but said nothing. Church folk could get that way. The tribals—highlanders and hinterlanders, mostly, all possessed of a dark red, nearly-black mane and tawny, golden skin—worshipped a female trinity known to them as the Three Mothers. Tribal shamans and medicine women practiced pagan rituals and made their prayers in open glades or oak groves. People who found their religion in a house of the Lord, whom they preached to be the one and only true—and male—god, sometimes took offense.
"If you ask me," said Hank Travis, "I'd be more inclined to buy your theory of a rival sabotaging the farm. Not the Dohlings, though. There's kids involved. Even if the Dohlings were the sort of people to play dirty with Kelly Bradford, I know Myra wouldn't stand by and let kids be hurt."
Serenity straightened. "Kids?"
"Afraid so." The barman kept his eyes cast down, focusing on the glass he cleaned. "First one got sick just after the grass started dying. She's over at the doctor's, with her mother, and real, real bad. A couple of others have taken fever since then... but Mariana's the worst."
Serenity acknowledged him with a nod, and dug into her chicken. Wrapping up the dishes in the tub, the bartender returned it to its place under the bar, and disappeared back into the kitchen. In her head, Serenity ran through all the information he'd just given her.
"You listening, D'aej?" she mumbled under her breath. It was always easier to speak with darkling spirits out loud, even though she could have addressed him in the silent language of thought if she'd wanted to. Sharing your mind with another made thought-speech complicated, however, so despite the looks she got from people thinking she talked to herself, Serenity usually parlayed with her demon out loud. Only she did it very, very quietly.
"It's not the tribals," she said with confidence. "Heartlanders always think tribals have tricky heathen magic up their sleeves. I doubt they're even remotely interested in some rancher's lands or his profit, though, and there's no way they'd let kids get hurt."
Children were treasured above all else among the tribal people, and even if the clans did have dark powers or arcane conjuring, Serenity couldn't imagine any of them would let it spread to innocent kids. Beyond that, tribal people traditionally considered themselves stewards of the great earth-balance. They didn't work dire curses upon the land or its creatures.
D'aej considered. I say it's foul play. Whatever this man thinks of the farming couple, they're reaping too much benefit off this misery. I wouldn't rule them out for a plot of poison.
"It sounds to me like magic." Serenity hid her words behind a sip of water. "Which means you and I are going hunting."