A brown piano sat in the middle of the kitchen. It was missing the lid, and looked like a misshapen heart with rusted wires and pins exposed to the flies. Its keys were stained a grubby yellow and brown color. The twin top-hat wearing brothers each sat at the piano’s bench, foreheads sunk into the keys, staring at the floor. They had taken turns puking for the last twenty minutes or so, creating one ugly brown puddle around their four boots.
“Pete, you think we’re murders for starvin’ that lady upstairs?”
“Nah, Lou, we just forgot,” Pete replied. “King Gallant, he’s no better than us, slipped his older bro’ wine with alligator poison in it.”
“Who told you that?”
“The lady upstairs, bout five days ago,” Pete said.
“You’d never do that to me,” Lou asked.
“Never,” Pete said.
Lou wiped off his mouth and patted Pete on the back.
“How do I know you’re telling the truth?”
“Cause I’m drunk,” Pete said.
“Hard to believe the King would do such a thing.”
“Hard to believe they got a piano up here,” Pete said.
They snickered hysterically, turning their heads towards each other and pressing down more keys with an awful sound.
The men who sat around the piano paid no attention to them. Cracking old cards slid beneath the piano wires towards Sheriff Kensington. He was shirtless, pink-faced, and wearing a quiver backwards on his chest with a bottle in the arrow pouch. June leaned against the doorway, out of everyone’s line of sight except his, glaring until he noticed her there. He fanned the cracking old cards in front of his face. She watched his blue eyes straining to make sense of his hand, then look up to her. He shrugged. She watched him, for a fat half-hour, clinking glasses with men he may have to kill at any moment. He laid his cards flat inside the piano and the group burst into laughter.
“Two jokers?” said the skinniest man she’d ever seen, reaching into the piano and raking back steel coins. “What a lousy poker face you have. At the rate you’re going, you’ll have to bet your whore just to make up for the losses.”
The whole table turned to her.
“She’s not worth the ante,” Kensington said. Laughter exploded. They banged their hands on the piano so hard that the cards seemed to be jumping an inch high. She stared through the laughter at Kensington, with a look that promised his next hangover morning would not be one he enjoyed.
On the front porch, a one-armed man belted into a harmonica. He took whimsical steps onto the plank to make his way towards the bonfire. He staggered, swiped his arms forward as if to grasp the open air, and flipped backwards off the plank, landing belly-down with a blue splash—nobody seemed to notice; he came slogging out of the water and went right on playing the harmonica as his coat dripped dry. The porch was bright gold from the fire and the railing was hot to the touch. June found a wicker rocking chair off to the left and sat in it, keeping her right leg straight and resting a hand on the saber’s handle. That was about as close she could get to the bonfire’s heat—and it was about as close as she cared to get to the drunkards dancing around it. Two men cussed at each other with others stepping between them. The ones that weren’t face down in the parlor were face down in the grass, and the one’s that remained on their feet dragged dead pine branches to the bonfire. One man’s eyes looked up to her, and for a moment it seemed he was going to ask her to dance, but he puked down the front of his shirt, smiled, and raised a bottle to her. She waved. Orange and purple flames snarled higher. The two men who were cussing at each other were now laughing, arms around each other, and broke into song.
Yes I’ve been cuckolded by the Banshee,
Aye the Banshee stuck it to my wife!
Just its eyelash could castrate me,
I’m lucky to have escaped with my life!
They grew louder in the second chorus.
I’ve been cuckolded by the Banshee,
But I must confess something to thou,
What the Banshee did was sure handy,
All I know is that she’s Its problem now!
The harmonica player was dizzily out of tune, but the group still swished glass jars back and forth, sloshing moonshine onto their chests without care. Even June caught herself tapping a foot and stifling a smile. She wiped a laugh from her face.
Beyond the highest lick of purple flame, something tumbled down the ridge and crushed everything in its path. She walked sideways along the railing to get a better look. It wasn’t Chambers. It looked like a boulder flattening out ferns and other brush. It seemed to be getting bigger. Whatever it was, it picked up momentum with each rotation down the ridge and slung towards them on the flat grass.
Just as a man set his bow to the strings of a fiddle, he flipped backwards over a black cask. It crashed to a stop in the bonfire with a spray of light blue ash wafting peacefully to the canopy. The group keeled their heads back in laughter as the man crawled for his fiddle—too numb to feel the pain of his tumble. She couldn’t help but laugh too.
She stopped laughing.
She knew that bastard cask.
Maybe she’d blinked, maybe she’d fallen asleep on her feet for ten hours, but when she opened her eyes the bog was white as day and hot as the seven hells.
A flying orange board smacked her right in the chest. She was knocked backwards into the doorway from the scalding air, hands flailing, legs flailing. Even through shut eyes, the light burned orange through her lids. She shoved the burning wood off her chest and coughed until her lungs felt skinned. It was quiet. She sat up and straightened her top. Flamedust hung in the air, all the way to the canopy roof, falling like red snow to the grass. She was instantly sweating. Bodies littered the front yard in a perfect circle of charred ground. To her left, the rocking chair creaked back and forth, slowly, engulfed completely in flames. She coughed again. Debris continued to flutter down, accumulating on the shoulders of hanging corpses in the trees. The last pieces of falling debris sizzled to dark in the bog.
Up on the crown of the ridge, a chariot was parked beside their carriage. It was jockeyed in the front by horned bears. One of the creatures stood on its hind legs, stretching head and shoulders over the tarp of their caravan.
The Sheriff was at her side in the lobby, sword drawn.
“What in the King’s name was that?” Kensington asked, leaning to get a look out the front door. “That’s the chariot of Jimmy Gallows, I’ve heard rumors of those bears.”
A bald man in black robes ran down the valley.
June drew the sword from her pant leg.
“Not him,” Sheriff said, “that’s Chester Hemlock.”
“We can trust a man that runs with Gallows?”
“He’s an expensive coward.”
Chester Hemlock scurried up the plank, robe swiveling under his waist. He plunged his hand into a satchel and sprinkled powder into the torches. The flames whooshed from green to red. Still panting, Hemlock entered the house and found them.
“Chester Hemlock, am I glad to see you,” Sheriff whispered. Hemlock’s tiny black eyes scanned her.
“She with you?”
Hemlock jogged his robe up over his knees and took the L-shaped staircase three steps at a time.
“First tell us what you’re doing in the company of Gallows,” Sheriff asked. Hemlock turned on the stairs beside a snakeskin that was nailed to the wall. Another man wandered into the lobby.
“Get up these stairs!” Hemlock said. “Both of you.”
They ran up the staircase and through low ceilinged rooms on the second story. Hemlock pulled a cord, dropping a ladder of stairs that led to a windowless attic. Clothes were scattered all over the floor around a square framed bed. A woman was on her back, unmoving, skin flushed white, with a bucket of that black mulch spilled on the sheets beside her.
“That woman’s dead,” June said.
“Under the bed, now,” Hemlock barked. June looked at the grey haired corpse. The woman’s foot was chained to the corner bedpost and her eyes seemed full of water; the way they stared out of her face was exactly how her parents looked when she’d found them.
“Your turn, sweetheart,” Hemlock mumbled, pulling the attic door up by the cord. She crawled along the dusty planks, seeing a gap in the floorboards that she lowered herself through. She’d always hated the space beneath beds—it belonged to spiders and monsters and things forgotten. She lowered herself hands first onto a thick branch beneath the overhang of a gabled attic. Only after a horsefly bite did she realize they were outside. The whole swamp glittered indigo below. She crawled, hand over hand, gripping into ridges of bark up the winding branch. Moonlight came through the tangled spaces of the branched roof. It warmed the back of her neck, it was sunlight.
“Inside the tree,” Hemlock said from the back of the line. Sheriff lifted a fur, revealing an empty hollow inside the tree. They piled in, rather comfortably. It smelt of cut mulch and she let herself enjoy that in the silence that followed—if she closed her eyes, it was just another hot night of fieldwork back in Hastings.
“Anyone have a match?”
Oscar Fenwick struck a match and handed it to Hemlock, who lit candles inside carved recesses all around the hollowed out tree. Vascular purple veins mixed with decayed splotches of heartwood spots along the walls. She ran a finger over a lavender ringlet shining in the wood.
“The trees are alive?” she asked, then realized how stupid of a question that was.
Hemlock dragged a hand across his forehead and pushed June aside in search of a quill. He tore a page from his Bible and pressed it against the wall. In the purpled light she could read “In the beginning was the word” and Hemlock wrote over it in fat black penmanship.
He spoke as he wrote.
“Gallows and his men rode into Hastings on white horses and slaughtered everyone. When they didn’t find Chambers, they ordered Hastings be burnt to the ground.” Hemlock’s eyes jumped around the group. “I can only assume the feral looking boy in your caravan is Chambers? Don’t answer that, I know it is.” Hemlock peeked out an oval shaped knot in the tree. “I lied to Gallows and told him your caravan is his moonshine shipment. Whether or not he looks inside is in the stars, but we best all pray he doesn’t. I will manufacture the false truth of a caravan passing by three days ago with a prisoner on-board.”
And with that, Hemlock was gone, taking whatever he wrote with him. June wondered how long they’d be stuck up here, staring at the haloes of purple growth rings in the ceiling. She lifted a candle out of the wall and looked into the puddle of wax in the center. Again, flies. A few of them kicked uselessly in the melted wax—unsure how to swim. She reached in and picked them out one by one.
Oscar peered out the oval shaped knot in the tree.
“Girl, you remember the Banshee I told you about?”
June didn’t answer.
“Well it exists,” Oscar continued. “And Jimmy Gallows is wearing its pelt.”
It looked as if something cold had gotten into the Sheriff’s bones. Everyone in the tree sat with hands together between their legs. Sheriff unscrewed a metal flask from within his coat and tipped its contents entirely down his throat.
“Ms. Foster, do you want to know why none of the men from Hastings came on this escort?” Kensington asked, “It’s because they all said it was suicide.”