It was dark and everyone was screaming. June sat up in her cot. She could smell fire. Smoky gauze dulled the shine of lanterns in the tunnel.
“June Foster!” Kensington yelled from the hallway. He was a tall, waving shadow in the shadows. “These tunnels are gonna cave in!”
Out in the main concourse, everyone seemed to run in different directions. Mason jars rolled amok on the floor, upending people and shattering beneath the stampede. Crates burned like red mountains around the still. A rattlesnake weaved between her boots and forward into the crowd, slithering in the same direction as everyone else. Even the workers forced themselves into the one tunnel out. She tucked an elbow in front of her face to avoid breathing in the smoke. A few men ran back and forth from an unseen tunnel, splashing buckets of water to keep the flames at bay. Fergus lifted a pair of round goggles off his eyes to look at them.
“We’ll keep the fire away from the still, I need everyone else to get out of here!” he said, then disappeared down the tunnel. She drifted along the panicked flow of people, up the wooden stairs and into the chapel above. All of the pews had been heaped into a pile and burned. The stone and brick walls were up in flames around her—they were wooden, she realized, only painted like bricks. Half of the marble dome had collapsed inwards. A ring of flames burned along the roof panels and tree branches above glowed orange from the fire, but they were still surrounded in by three standing walls. Her eyes found Sheriff perched atop an overturned beam. He was yelling something in her direction.
“JUNE!” Sheriff screamed to get her attention. He was lunging on a knee behind him, two sabers drawn at his side. Her eyes met his. “I said draw your weapon! And stay behind me!”
She crawled up the fallen stone column and joined him on the wall. Through the front door, the silhouettes of Gallows and his horrid crew waited at the exit. Below, she watched the crowd clog into the doorway like an hour glass, with one person leaving at a time.
One man, wearing a meaty stag’s skull as a headdress stood with his lash hanging to the ground. In his other hand, he clenched a rope that tied the hands of a small boy at his side.
“Is this Sheriff Kensington?” the man asked.
The boy shook his head. A man was allowed to leave. The next civilian walked through the door. The boy shook his head again. One by one, everyone who wasn’t Sheriff Kensington left the burning chapel and ran off into the night.
“They’re waiting for us,” June said. Her hand reached to her hip but found nothing. She’d left her father’s saber down in the tunnel.
“Where’s your weapon?” Kensington hissed back at her.
“Let me have one of yours.”
“You walk out, they won’t recognize you.”
“Sheriff, there’s four of them,” she yelled in his ear with a chin practically on his shoulder. “Give me one of your sabers to at least give us a chance.”
He turned his blue eyes to her.
“Those unlucky bastards have found me on a sober day, I’ll handle all four of them—but I need you to leave, right now. I love you.” He leaned forward and kissed her exactly the way any cross eyed farmer’s daughter dreamed of being kissed.
“What they hell are you doing, you idiot?” she said when he pulled away. “Give me one of your swords.”
He was serious.
She crawled back down the beam and stepped over a burning pew. The crowd had thinned inside the chapel walls. Her heart beat into her fingertips. Gallows was a long black shadow through the archway. She stepped forward and felt the four men’s eyes on her. Antlers and headdresses seemed to lean over the top of her head.
“Is this Sheriff Kensington?” a man’s voice came through the open mouth of the dead stag head. There was a long pause. The boy stood there, shaking, both hands tied together in front of him. A brown bruise curled around the boy’s temple and had swollen his eye to a red slit where the blood vessels had broken. A tear cleaned a line through dirt on the boy’s face. He had freckles.
“No,” Cabbage said, “That’s not Sheriff Kensington.”
She stood there.
“You may go,” the stag said to her.
She stood there.
“Go,” the stag said again.
Her feet carried her body between the two men and out into the clearing. More civilians came through the door and ran past her down the trail—if they had tails they’d be tucked between their legs. She continued walking forward, knowing she couldn’t turn around. She walked past the burning caravan and into the dark trail; she could either go left into the darkness or right into the darkness. The Kingdom was to the right.
And then she was running back at them, bare handed, with a hundred and something pounds of Hastings at the end of her fist smashing into the stag’s Adam’s apple. Her front foot skid atop the leaves and she fell to the ground with him. Her chin landed with a thud in the dirt. She pressed her palms down and pushed up to her feet. Motes of lilac pollen streaked like dizzy lines in her vision. The man staggered up, one hand on his throat, the other gripping the lash. She held both fists out in front of her. The Sheriff was in the doorway. All she could hear was quiet clangs of metal behind her. She feigned to the left and shrugged right, dodging the lash as it whooshed past her ear and shoulders, the spikes sunk into the dirt. She craned her head around just in time to see his other hand, clenched into a hairy knuckled fist, slam directly into the side of her face. White lights exploded behind her eyes. She rolled over wet leaves on the ground, both hands over the side of her face. Both her eyes watered. Legs shuffled around her.
A monster stood over her, in the bloody pink light of spores—half beast, half something else. It looked twenty feet tall from down on her back. Ribbed abs notched its torso below the fur on its shoulders. It raised a lash over its two horns and ripped it down at her. June rolled out of the way, feeling the lash whoosh past her ear. She scrambled to her feet—her eight-year-old self hoisting her stubbornly up by the shoulders. With a wet leaf from the ground still clinging to her face, she lifted heavy hands. The stag began laughing. The creature’s actual mouth was moving. She shook her head but nothing changed.
Was she hallucinating? Orange fire shined through the pink mist of spores. She waved the thick dust out of her face.
Yes, she told herself, I am hallucinating.
But so is he.
They cat stalked around each other. The stag didn’t look twenty feet tall when she was standing—it was just another boy in the schoolyard that was about to get his ass beat. She clenched fingertips into her palms, tucked her chin into her chest, and lunged forward. The lash came down hard once more, shredding the side of her calf on the way down. She stomped on its jagged end with the heel of her boot, pinning it there. He swung another fist, just as she punted her boot, toes first, up between his legs.
His blow landed plush on her cheek, knocking her to the ground with the metallic taste of blood between her cheek and teeth. But she also felt the sweet, sweet certainty of the toe of her boot spearing into his groin at full force. She hit the dirt. He hit the dirt.
She clawed on her hands and knees towards him, ripping a flurry of leaves loose from the ground. He rolled into the fetal position on his side, both hands tucked between his legs. The mouth of the stag howled a mewling cry with dark eyes grimacing in the firelight. She tackled him onto his back and grappled with his hands. With one final effort he pushed her off him.
The leather handle of the lash reached at her from the ground. She lifted it and stepped towards him; the barbed tendril dragging over the dirt behind her. He pushed himself off the ground—the animal’s headdress crooked and ridiculous on his shoulders. With a two-handed swing she dealt a sidelong blow that it dodged.
It stumbled to a knee as it ran. She chased the creature, like a moth through the forest, swinging again and again with overhead cuts through the pink mist, blowing clusters of motes away in all directions.
The stag ran up into the black chariot, slamming the door shut behind it. She banged the black panel of wood with her fist, feeling a line of saliva stick down her chin. She wanted to bust in the door, drag those cowardly nightmares out into the grass, and beat their mother’s love out of them.
The wheels of the chariot started moving. She brought the lash down against the door, leaving its barbed end hemorrhaged into the wood as the cart drew away, dragging the handle down the trail. Gallows and his men looked at her from the back of the cabin.
“I’m a Hastings girl, BITCH!” she screamed, pinching corners of her pants and curtseying.
Someone yanked her away by the back of her collar. It was Sheriff, he’d lost his hat. A cut slashed across his forehead just at his blonde hairline. Behind him, the bulk of shoulders that was big Oscar Fenwick stood over two bodies.
“Ms. Foster,” Oscar said, his voice in incredulous delight. “I pity the feebleminded man who breaks your heart one day. For he is certainly aligned for a most eccentric hysteria.”
“They’re gone,” Sheriff said just as a marble pillar collapsed into the grove, carrying lazy tails of flame to the ground with it. Kensington was walking away from the caravan with a scroll in his hands: her marriage contract. Through the oranged mist, she could see the silhouettes of their mules bearing up on their hind legs. Fire rose from the tarpaulin of the caravan, belching a sickly black smoke into the air. The horses struggled, dipping their heads low and pawing against the dirt. The carriage was stuck. She’d always had a soft spot for animals and refused to let one die because she bound it in place.
She watched herself run through Kensington’s arms, a mere spectator to her own movements. Charred front steps to the caravan snapped off the siding and dropped her back to the ground. She jumped up, squirming on her chest and palms to get into the front perch, tipping her body face first inside.
Smoked filled the cabin, clogging her lungs with the first breath she took. Flames entrenched her on both sides as she crawled. Chambers lay on the floor of the cage. She gulped a half clean breath of air and stood, clutching the bars then pulling away with freshly burned hands.
A loose brick fell from above, just missing her shoulder and smashing through the bench. Stained-glass shards dropped from a melting window above, shattering like fat raindrops on the floor of the caravan.
She unzipped her rucksack and looked for something to protect her hands, taking her father’s jacket and using it like an oven mitt to grip the scalding bars. The alcove of burned wood snapped under the pressure, slamming the cage horizontally to the floor. She unlocked the door and flung open the lid.
He lay there, ashen and hopeless, as if he were just some boy. She gripped the suspenders around his chest and pulled him up to a sitting position. His eyelids opened to hazy emerald slits.
“Move your ass!” she yelled into his face. His head lolled back in her arm, hair dangling to the floor. She tucked her head beneath one of his arms and propped him up. He toppled backwards onto the floor of the caravan. She dragged him by his belt loops to the front bay.
Back in the cabin, she saw her rucksack going up in flames. She left it. She didn’t need the photograph. Mom and Pops’ legacy walked in her boots.
She climbed over the front of the carriage and pulled Chambers into her outstretched arms. She set him in the grass and undid the top three buttons of his shirt, pressing her hand to his chest. His skin was scalding hot. There was no heartbeat. But he’d opened his eyes. She’d seen a half-drown boy pulled out of the harbor once back in Hastings—a man pressed his lips to the boy’s mouth and blew air to save the victim. She looked down at Chambers. He lay with an unchecked face of innocence that she’d never seen in his guarded consciousness. He looked younger than he normally did. Just a kid like her, caught up in everything.
She backhanded him across the face with a loud clap. He broke into a coughing fit, curling on the ground.
“You awake? Let’s get out of here!” The caravan’s axel hitch snapped, dropping the carriage to the ground from the wheels. She gripped his shackles and pulled him to his feet, running into the grove. “Gallows will be here any minute let’s go!”
Sheriff was nowhere to be seen. A single cutlass stuck blade first into the dirt, she gripped it as they rushed to the riverbank.
“I…know of a place…to hide,” Chambers said between coughs as they ran. “Go straight along the riverbed. It’s a straight shot if the water’s running low.”