“That boy is cold as bodies in the ground,” Kensington said beside her. He’d been gripping her around the wrist to the point where her hand became white. They stood bunched together in the low purple light inside the tree, all wearing the same disgusted sight at what they’d just witnessed below. June swallowed a stone of vomit, tasting corn beef rations for an unwelcomed second time.
In the clearing, Chambers stood over the last hunter. He held a burning coal in the palm of his hand as if he couldn’t feel a thing. Twenty men lay in the grass around him. Kensington’s fingers slid along the brown hairs on her forearm, until weaving into hers. She pulled her hand out of his.
“Tell me, right bastard now, exactly what kind of monster this Chambers boy is,” she demanded, hearing how breathless her voice was.
The Sheriff’s other hand had been over his mouth and didn’t seem like it was going to start a career anywhere else.
“I don’t think Chambers knows who Chambers is,” Hemlock responded.
She jammed her saber into the tree wall with both hands and left it wedged there. Then, unsure of what to do next, slung her rucksack over her shoulder and left, shaking her hands in pain from the hard stab. She could hear them follow her down the staircase.
The lobby was in disarray. A stray arrow slumped vertically by its tip in the door tapestry. The wall was scarred from where a lantern had been pulled from the wood and a small flame inched its way down peeling wallpaper in the hall. The transom above the front door had been chaffed from the grinding of his chain—even now his movements sent flakes of sawdust sprinkling down to the stairwell. Through the falling sawdust, Chambers stood between her and the fire. He tried to shrug back into his white shirt, but, noticing an arrow three fingers deep into his elbow, pulled it from his flesh with an annoyed look. He then buttoned his shirt back down his abdomen and continued pacing casually to and fro. The first couple of flies started buzzing.
“Don’t get too close to him,” Kensington warned.
“I can see that,” she said.
The front steps creaked over open air beneath her feet. She walked about three-quarters down the plank, steadied the rucksack strap over her shoulder, and hopped the bannister, landing with imprinted heels in the muck. Water filled the squelch marks of each stride, glowing blue in the mud. She trudged well around the left flank of Chambers to ensure she was out of reach, trailing blue footprints around the shore’s crown.
“The past is always following, Chambers,” Boyd said, sagging on the ground against a nearby tree. His face looked beaten to shit and his left eye was swollen to a brown wink. “Eventually there will be nowhere that isn’t burning.” Boyd laughed. “Then where will you run? To the ocean?”
“That was the plan,” Chambers said.
Sheriff reached his flintlock pistol forward as though it towed him down the plank—she wondered if he even had a bullet. Stepping off the plank, Kensington tossed her father’s saber into the grass near her. Chambers was occupied, dragging limp men by the ankles and piling them onto the fire. One body by one, he’d lost himself in the task, dropping sleepers onto the flame like it were some tedious chore.
Hemlock emerged from the shack holding a sharpened screw driver at his side, gripping it between his fingers like a pen. Oscar Fenwick held a shovel carefully in the air. They formed a cautious perimeter around the prisoner—well beyond the length of what his chain permitted. Chambers watched her raise the saber out of the grass with both hands.
“Oh, there are my friends,” Chambers said with a scrawny body lolling in his arms. The frayed rope of a severed noose hung forgotten round his neck like a dress tie. “Let your swords gather dust while I did all the fighting, did we? Is that the honor you speak of that separates heroes from villains?” He looked so straightly into her eyes that she felt he was inside her mind. There was something troubling about his face without that wide smile on it. “You’re the coward of your own story,” he said to her, dropping the last body onto the fire. Flame spikes rose between the gaps of their limbs, pluming up pine branches and clothing to mask their bodies altogether. Chambers yelled to Boyd over the crackling pine.
“When Gallows returns to this scene, I want you to tell him that these flames do not discriminate between the innocent and the wicked.”
Chambers lifted the lone bottle of spirits from the grass and lowered a torn piece of cloth into its narrow mouth. He dipped the end of the cloth over the flames, until a spit of fire shined at the edge. In one thrust of the arm, he slung it at the roof of the tavern. Glass shattered against the crooked brick chimney and a carpet of flame surfed over black shingles. He’d just set fire to something he was chained to.
Boyd laughed at the sight, raving with the expected lunacy of a broken man—she’d seen her fair share in Hastings.
“Even when destiny tells you this world has no place for you, you slip from death’s grip once again. For what? To keep living? What you live is not a life. It is a purgatory. So tell me, boy, what the hell are you?”
“Shut it!” Kensington said, and for some reason his eyes looked to her.
Boyd ignored the command.
Chambers grabbed Boyd by the shoulders of his uniform. The prisoner wore an angry smile that seemed to add years to his face, a lot of years.
“I’m destiny’s sense of humor,” Chamber smiled.
“What were you then, as an orphan, when you were entrusted with the simple task of—”
A percussion burst through the valley. June ducked. She watched a family of horned owls scatter over the bog. Boyd slouched back, as though his head were tacked against the tree. A beady hole began to drizzle black just above his left eyebrow. Kensington tossed his pistol into the swamp with a blue plunk.
Chambers kept the smile starched across his face, but squinted his green eyes to razorblades.
“Sheriff, you had one of the last copper bullets on the whole continent, and you used it to silence a dying man?”