The Last Fire
June walked far enough into the woods that the bonfire was just a spark through the darkness. One cricket’s slow beat was the only sound. She reached her hand forward in the darkness to find a tree, steadied herself, and squatted to do her business—it wasn’t much different from her outhouse in Hastings. A twig snapped. It was hard to tell which direction it came from.
“Who’s that?” She finished and pulled up her trousers. “Sheriff, you pervert.”
At first, it looked like glowing blue dust floated out from behind a tree. A black fawn with shining blue spots on its back browsed with its nose along the ground. She latched her belt quietly over her waist. The fawn lifted its head and fixed sparkling blue eyes on her. Its coat shined as it moved. She raised one hand off her belt and waved, for some reason. It hopped between the trees until its spots blended back into the darkness.
Back in the clearing, Kensington heaped loose timber into a pile. She pulled a fallen pine branch out of the bushes, the needles were half green and half colorless—not quite alive but not quite dead. Further down the clearing, the forest twisted up over the trail. Black tree trunks grew closer and closer together, some wrenching around each other like serpents, until she could see no further into the dark.
Kensington had dragged a fallen tree next to the fire and leaned against it, holding a bottle on his belly. His boots were beside him, and he stretched his legs wide out so the heels of his socks were in front of the fire. There was this awful odor he gave off when he sweat that was uniquely his. A wet glaze on his face suggested he was already pissed up to his ears in whiskey and he stared forward with yellow fire in his eyes.
“Sheriff, I just saw a baby fawn—”
“Get more firewood,” he said.
“…with blue spots,” she finished.
“Must have just been born,” the prisoner’s voice came through the caravan. “Things that can be seen in the Vesper darkness are prey, everything matures out of its shine.”
“So is this our last fire?” June asked.
“It is,” Sheriff said.
She dropped the pine branch on the fire and rubbed smoke from her eyes. The needles crackled as she got more branches. She returned to find the tips of the bonfire whipping in an odd lavender color—they must have been close to the Hollow. The flames sputtered out to an orange glow once the bark burned off the logs. The Sheriff sat with a hand disappearing into the front of his pants, he turned his head in her direction but kept his eyes glued to the fire. “Tend to the mules.”
She walked along the broadside of the caravan to the horse feed. Emerald eyes beamed through the bars as she pulled a burlap-wrapped brick of horse feed closer to her. She reached past it and pulled two cobs of corn and apples from the pantry.
“You’re feeding me corn?” the prisoner groaned, “That’s cattle feed.”
“I’ve eaten corn my whole life.” In a practiced and familiar motion, she hoisted the burlap sack of horse feed over her shoulder, letting its balanced weight sag in front and behind her.
The two mules stood in front of the carriage, noses dipped in empty feeding bags. Their long rabbit ears perked up when she dropped the sack in front of them—horses were better than people. She untied the sack and scooped them out a few handfuls of grain, then dropped an apple and cob into each bag and scratched at their chins. They nuzzled wet noses against her hands, breath warm from their nostrils against her palm. She smiled, then frowned—she’d forgotten to put down that damned horse Deceased. It was probably still up there on the roof wagging its tail. Welp, there goes another week worth of feed gone on a dying animal.
“I used to have a pony,” she whispered to them, looking over her shoulder to make sure the Sheriff couldn’t hear. The mules stared dumbly forward, the way men do when they aren’t listening. “Most girls had diaries—I had a pony that I told everything.”
She lugged the sack to the dark side of the carriage, where the prisoner was staring up through the bars to the sky between treetops. There were one or two stars out.
“You hungry?” she asked, tilting the bag forward so the horse grains rang into a tin bowl on the ground. She pushed it through the bars.
“Hang me now you unsympathetic wench,” the prisoner said.
She was going to enjoy this.
She walked around front and stepped into the cabin. The inside stunk like old cut wood. A daddy-long leg crawled along the lantern’s glass at the ceiling, dropping thin black shadows down the wall, as if some gigantic squid grappled the caravan from the outside. She stepped over a crate of pickled onions and ducked beneath the lantern, kneeling at one of the benches to pull out a small white chest. She rummaged through silverware and polished cups to find the Sheriff’s tea sugar. With the tiniest, most useless spoon she’d ever seen, she shoveled some sugar into the front pocket of her coat.
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” the prisoner said.
He held his bowl out through the bars.
“Not for you.”
He sulked down to a crouch that creaked the whole carriage on its axel. She hopped out of the cabin with a spark in her stride towards the mules, holding sugar in each hand under their snouts. Their scratchy tongues tickled her hand.
Kensington leaned against the fallen tree, one knee bent with an elbow resting on it. He flicked a piece of bark into the flames and stared at it. A jug of unlabeled liquor was half empty at his side.
“Public tar and featherings have been illegal Kingdom-wide for the last decade,” the Sheriff said, either to himself or her. “But look at towns like Furzelow, where there’s so much theft at the docks, they need to be able to tar and feather people to set examples.” June sat at the end of the tree and listened to the conversation he was having at her. Kensington swished the bottle around in his hand, listening to how little fluid remained. He carried on talking and she believed he would have anyways even if she wasn’t there. “Hand-to-God they had a tar and feathering in the Kingdom Square not three months ago,” he said. “It was a woman, for slander against King Gallant. She was a writer and questioned the King’s lineage, or suchlike, I don’t remember, but I’ll never forget the smell of hot tar as they poured it down her pretty blonde head. She screamed. I think a lot of people in the gallery screamed, too. The feathers give it a bit of comedic flare, really, without the feathers it’s cruel. Point being, there weren’t anymore town-criers questioning the King’s lineage after that. If you tar and feather one, maybe there’s ten you don’t have to hang. So whose to say what’s cruel and decent?” The Sheriff had sunken into worse posture against the tree—almost flat on his back with his head propped up on his chest. His gaze damned near turned to stone in the fire for a long time. Three tall sticks leaned on each other above the flame, with a tin kettle of simmering water. “Gallows, they say, has managed to grow his following into a legion as loyal as Kingsmen—men who would die for his cause.” He paused to hiccup into the back of his hand. “But I say stuff Gallows, stuff him with a halberd.” He pulled the bottle from his lips with a sour expression. “Say, you hear the fate of that old villain Spice Roscoe? Stabbed in the eye with his own dagger in a pub brawl.” He slid a pinky through the jug loop and lifted the bottle off the ground. She remembered the bottle of spirits she threw into the sea from her pasture; it looked mighty similar to the one on Kensington’s finger. If there was an occurrence of drunken conduct, odds are that her fiancé was within earshot. He stumbled through a slurred biography of a knife fight in a pub. “Think of all those people old Spice Roscoe stuck with that dagger, almost poetic he goes that way. Live by it, die by it—or suchlike.”
June bent her brow. Kensington was drunk out of his skull. If a highwayman arrived right now they’d be completely defenseless—well, he’d be.
“Should we be having a bonfire this close to the Vesper?” she asked.
“Woops,” Kensington said as he loosened his belt, the sabre sheathed at his hip fell to the dirt. Her eyes scanned the bottomless dark between trees. A drop of amber whiskey slipped down his chin like sap and into the wiry blonde hairs at his chin. He tilted his hat to the back of his head, letting untamed sweaty hair matte his forehead. “Care for a splash?” Kensington held the jug out to her.
She kept her arms crossed and didn’t meet his eyes. This was the man who told her the journey was too treacherous. The jug’s brown glass glowed and, from where she sat, it looked as though a bonfire whirled inside it. A few fingers of liquid sloshed at the bottom. She crossed her arms on her lap, her glare clashing with the glitz in his eyes.
“Spirits have been prohibited,” she reminded.
Kensington winked, brushing away the whiskey on his chin.
“We can turn a blind eye to these laws if they aren’t hurting anyone else. It’s going to be a long journey, lets enjoy this last night.”
“A blind eye you say?” She snatched the bottle out of his hand, wiped off the rim with her sleeve, then spiked it into the fire. The remaining alcohol burst in a red gasp. For a moment, the clearing shined bright as day. Flames calmed to embers, and the clearing dulled back to night. Vesper coals glowed turquoise in the ground.
“Turn a blind eye? Moonshine is what made you blind,” she said. Adrenaline filled her chest. “Sheriff, I read your papers back in the office, you were kicked out of the King’s Blackguard for your drinking. Law is the only buffer between us and the savages.” She stuck a finger at his badge. “I pray you must be proper drunk Sheriff, to believe there’s a gray area in the law, or between good and evil. There is vice and there is virtue, and right now I can’t tell the difference between my Sheriff and any other crook.”
She turned her back and walked off, letting fallen hair stay in front of her eyes. He would not see her cry, not even angry tears. It would only reinforce what he already thought. The horses craned their heads out towards her. She rubbed the sides of their faces.
“It’s not fair,” she whispered, blinking away the vinegar sting from her eyes. “He said I’m hardly fit for this escort, yet he shows no discipline himself.” The mules swooshed stringy tails behind them. “Can I tell you guys a secret?” she whispered as they licked her empty palms. She lowered her head between them, looking forward into the Vesper blackness. “I’m,” she paused and lowered her whisper even more, “I’m scared.”