Wesley hugged his knees. Another shadow glided past the curtain. It was tall with elbowed horns sticking out from its head. He could see, just for a moment between a slit in the curtains, a large black skull on human shoulders. Teeth masked the face beneath. Cracked antlers, the color of sun-bleached driftwood, branched from the forehead. A black pelt lengthened the figure’s shadow by another stride. Wesley watched it grow smaller and smaller down the ridge. It used a serrated blade as a walking cane for balance, then dragged the metal tip along the dirt as it strolled to the shack. It stopped, sword handle leaning against its hip, and stood with straight posture in front of the fire, so its shadow eclipsed the entire front porch.
Others were beside it. They were pale, all wearing skulls of Vesper animals as head dresses, and flanked the first one on both sides. It looked as if their torsos were carved from white wood. The man to the figure’s right wore the decaying head of an elk over his face and shoulders. Blood-stuck strips of flesh hung down his back. He gripped a chained lash in his hands. Another, wearing some kind of horse skull, motioned for silence with a raised fist.
The figure straightened fur tails at his cuffs with meticulous care and then lowered both arms neutrally at his hips.
“Kneel… please.” The voice was soft yet Wesley could hear it from the caravan. Everyone knelt, and if the faceless bog-striders weren’t so far out in the marsh, Wesley believed they would have knelt too. “Friends and guests… it’s pleasant to see you all… enjoying my hospitality,” Jimmy Gallows said. He spoke slowly, like an evangelist, annunciating each word to the last stitch and pausing between sentences. The drunks walked down the plank in a straight line, cold sober in his presence. His words seemed to hang in the silence, ringing off the responses that wouldn’t come. “But… I would appreciate it… if you… showed… respect.”
Lou and Pete knelt and removed their top hats.
“My grace, I trust you’ll find all your moonshine stock intact,” Pete said. “None of these cats here touched it.”
“Keep your eyes… down,” Gallows said, dragging the heavy nose of the blade through the dirt. “The mistake is my own… to have left you in charge. I apologize… for trusting you… with such a simple task.”
Wesley leaned an ear towards the curtain. He wanted to run, he wanted to do anything but stay where he was. Warm exhales of the two bruins breezed through the curtains. Someone threw the knotted end of rope over a giant Maple’s branch and raised a noose to half-mast. Lou and Pete trembled, heads bowed into the dirt. Gallows rested the blade flat on Lou’s shoulders, the metal triangle teeth leaned down on the vertebrae.
“I didn’t—I didn’t,” Lou said. “I kept watch. No Chambers. But-but there was…one suspicious party.”
Wesley pushed out the front of his cage, careful not to let the hinge squeak, and peered closer through the curtains. The footman’s shivering rattled all the way up the blade into the palm of Gallows’ hand.
“Speak more of this,” Gallows said.
“A group of two—one was a whore but didn’t touch anyone, the other was very well spoken—sounded like a man of law.”
Gallows did not lift the blade but turned to his men.
Lou continued, “They asked for Hemlock.”
Jimmy Gallows remained where he stood, but the skull turned slightly on his shoulders to face the shack. Hemlock jogged down the plank, holding a piece of ripped paper in the air.
“I lied to a band of gypsies,” Hemlock said, bending in half to rest his hands on his knees. “They think I’m working for them. They’ve already departed. But they left a note,” Hemlock said, lifting a written document which seemed to verify the truth. “The gypsies claimed to have passed a group of six soldiers on foot, escorting a boy in shackles which fits the description of our Wesley Chambers. I gather we’re a day and a half ride behind them. If you leave tonight, Master Gallows, we can still intercept them before they make Kingdom.”
Gallows lifted the sword off the back of Lou’s head.
Wesley turned, crawling to the front end of the caravan. He swung one leg up and over the alcove, careful not to shake the wagon.
“Capturing Chambers is of the upmost importance,” Gallows said to the undivided attention of his men.
Wesley froze, straddling the divider. A green dragonfly landed on the chest button of his shirt.
“Wesley Chambers holds something dangerous on his person, something that can turn this entire continent into the sea.”
Wesley never had a single possession to his name; he patted down his pockets but there was nothing, just the stupid picture of the Foster girl’s family.
“Please go to all ends of this Hollow. I promise unimaginable luxury to the man who brings me Chambers dead.”
The men filed in and out of the shack with weapons. Wesley rolled beneath the bench and pulled a sleeping bag over himself.
A heavy stream of footsteps trudged up the hill, forking around the caravan on both sides. Curious heads peaked inside—one man reached in and nicked a jar of pickled onions. Wesley laid still, holding the sleeping bag up to his eyes. A skinny man in a top hat stepped up the ramp and through the curtains.
“Let’s get on, Lou!” a voice called from outside.
“Just one sticky moment,” said the voice inside the carriage. Wesley watched the boots step right in front of his nose. There was a knife at his throat. The man crouched down on his knees and smiled with black gums, removing his sunglasses and chewing on one of the arms; he kept the blade sharp against the bulge of Wesley’s throat. Tiny black eyes looked straight into Wesley’s. “Tell me what Wesley Chambers looks like,” Lou whispered.
“Bald,” Wesley whispered. “He’s got a lazy eye.”
“How do I know you ain’t lying?”
“Cause I’m drunk,” Wesley lied.
“Cheers,” Lou said under his breath, folding the switchblade back into the handle. Wesley watched the man put his sunglasses back on and waltz back down the ramp, tucking the knife into the back pocket of his pants. “If we bring that kid back to Gallows, we’ll eat like proper Kings!”
“Won’t be easy,” Pete responded. “All those who ran ahead think they’ll catch him tonight. One doesn’t just arrest Wesley Chambers. The boy’s clever. Shackles to him are like a wicker basket holding water. I’ve heard things about Chambers that I’d be hard stricken to repeat—on account of you’d say I’m a fool for believing ’em.”
“I already think you’re a fool so repeat ’em,” Lou said.
“Wesley Chambers is a spooky bloke I’ll leave it at that.”
Wesley listened to be sure he was alone, then peeked his head out of the front carriage. Antlers, coming up the hill. He tiptoed back into the cabin, around loose bottles, and tossed a blanket over the cage.
“Why didn’t you kill the footmen after the men left?”
“There was nobody around to see,” Gallows answered.
“Then why burn all those homes to the ground in Hastings?”
Their shadows slipped past the curtain.
“There was something in Hastings I didn’t want people to see.”
A drop of sweat hung off Wesley’s eyelash. He was squished under the bench with forearms pinned against the wood.
“This doesn’t look like the regular trolley Fergus and Freya send for my moonshine supply,” Gallows said, prying one of the curtains open with the tip of his sword. The striped tail of a skunk hung from his cufflink.
Wesley’s letter opener remained in his boot, but should have been continents away; he’d be cloven in half before grabbing it from the boot. A heavy sea chest was an arm’s length across the floor. The padlock hung unlocked from the front. He was half-certain that there were weapons inside.
He might have just enough time to lift some kind of blade out of the chest and defend himself.
“The orderly sense of this caravan suggests to me that it’s from a Kingdom settlement,” Gallows said, stepping up the side of the ramp and standing just on the other side of the divider. A horned shadow rested on the floor beside Wesley’s face. He would have one chance to find something and strike Gallows with it.
Bottles upon bottles of alcohol rolled down the ramp. Wesley felt himself twitch forward towards the chest, but caught himself and stayed put.
“I was mistaken, there is nobody civilized traveling in this vehicle.” Gallows said with certainty. The chariot outside creaked with men stepping aboard. “Hemlock estimates Chambers is a day and a half ahead of us. I want that monster dead tonight.”
The chariot rumbled off. Eight heavy paws trampled the ground, beating the wooden floor against Wesley’s face. He could feel their strides pounding in his skull long after they were silent. Only when a shaking bottle stilled beside his face did he move.
The chest remained closed. He lifted the lock from the pegs and raised the lid. Scrolls, quills, and a corked inkwell were all that was inside. It was junk. He stared at a golden cufflink rolling around on a marriage document with the Foster girl’s signature at the bottom. He thought of himself lunging out from the bench, placing faith into useless paper for salvation against Gallows. If he had lunged for the chest then, his heart would not be beating now.
He removed the Foster family photo from his back pocket. A typical Hastings family; proud but poor. He’d seen Gallows raze towns like Hastings before, burning structures to ashes. They weren’t just purged from the surface of the world; all documentation of their memory was obliterated, and by all rights willfully forgotten as real things that never existed. There was a little boy in the picture. It may have been the Foster girl’s little brother. Whomever the little freckled boy was in the picture—as a physical person and not ink on a photograph—was very, very dead.