Gable was standing outside near the coral when Ohern returned leading the dead men’s horses. The men he had killed were on them. Gable was smoking a short pipe and it sat in his fist like a spell. Others Ohern could not make out were there standing around Gable, a covey in the failed light. Ohern had been a rider for the Bar and Cross Guards for three years and he still had not met all of Gables rostered men. Gables nod to him was somatic.
“Who’s that?” Gable asked him, his arms crossed, crutching his smoking fist.
“Ones I was after.”
“You know ‘em”
Gable walked towards him, the others pulled after as though they were leaves tied to his heels by less significant string. Ohern had not covered the bodies and they lay face down over their own horses like drunks led home.
“You should have let someone go with you.”
Ohern got down from Shimmer and led her and the others into a large corral that half circled the lodge ignoring his question. Shimmer moved to a trough of water, the other horses went with her, forgiven their affiliation without a word or a thought.
“That bays a good horse.”
“Probably isn’t theirs.”
It was well into the night now and a wordless reckoning passed between them. Brighton was a large hamlet but spread over many farms, trade houses, stables and homes. He was Bar and Cross. He was the good word of the king until the king decided he would be his own good word again. Gable had four lodges that Ohern knew of, not to include the spring camp near the yellow door. Theirs was the smallest. Gable ran it like the others, they were his buildings and his horses mostly. He loved the Light back when it was shining and now, well now he and a few others were all that was left who’d remember it if it showed up to shine again. They pulled their men mostly from the families that rode with them already. Some came from the south, the war, and were found before they lit on the greeds and hungers of the north. Ohern wondered if he too had been saved in this way, from drowning upon blood and egress.
“Get ‘em down, come on. Put ‘em over there, get some light on ‘em.”
Ohern watched them drag the men off the horses by their feet. They dropped heavy. They were drug onto a privy board then slanted up against the middle rail of the coral by two men he still could not remember or see clearly. Torches were brought and staked, their hot tall flames jerked to free themselves, distressing the men’s faces, hurrying their secrets. Ohern looked away. The bodies were cut about, not from sword play. Teague removed their shirts? They were pierced, many times and shallowly. Ohern knew, Ohern had done it. The group of them, even Ohern, looked the men upways and around. Their mouths were hurt, their faces untenanted, their forms straightened in a way death felt was natural, belying the violence and frustration of their last moments. All of the men looking on were quiet and still like a single witness to the disaster of those bodies.
Finally, “These them?”
“Yes.” Ohern answered.
“I see it. Are there others a part to the killin of Dane?”
“Nope.” Gable thought. “Well that’s it then. You’ve done right by his family Ohern. Light take and keep ‘em. You’re not held party to gain nor held in want for this deed. I see it full and done with. Burn ‘em.”
There was a pit for them, for the bodies. Ohern had looked at it once in the daylight, it was different then, like a story from a far corner of the war in the south. It looked like a nameless harrow, a ruin of some frontier keep all burned, half buried and empty of duty or life. Four men could byre in it. A stone wall circled it hip high and older than the lodge stones. It was a good three paces on each side. Inside that wall was ash and bone that Ohern hoped did not go down too deep. It looked full then in the light those months ago when he had seen it last, chambered away even then from the full gaze of that days light like a black sacked witness fallen in grief, veiled against such a ridiculous light, an empty light for what it could not clarify there. Now in the sundered torch glow of that lost evening it looked different. It was darker, in need of something as deceptive as the body that death makes out of a man. Wanting and if not wanting then worse, Ohern felt it waiting. He felt the men they placed there were being given back to something darker still, darker than the deeds that brought them all there. A progenitor perhaps, welcoming them back from the arms of their killers, back from his arms, Oherns arms. Ohern often wondered if burning them was helping the wrong people, spreading a different kind of that same darkness or healing as it were, the victory of his right and blade. The pit walls caught and threw the torchlight back at them. It settled on Ohern alone like a reflection off a lake and though he had been careful to avoid it’s shine on the torch he was helpless to avoid it’s recurve from the spell of the pit. It stuck to him like the truth. They called it the light of the dead. The others with him were as dark as ghosts. Still it was too dark to see their faces. Ohern burned brighter in that light than the bodies would when on fire. He did not stay for the ritual, he was not asked to and walked away from them like a witch.
Inside the loft he washed and changed his shirt. The light had gone scintillating off into mug handles, a buckle over there, the abraded head of a nail on the rough wood floor. He sat on his bunk and looked at the cut on his arm that he had bandaged. It needed sewing but he dreaded it. Instead he looked in the wound for poisons or a piece of blade or cloth. It was clean. He wrapped it back up, took up the sack with his dirties and his cleans and went back down the rope hole to find food. A rider was downstairs in the hall, shut out or hiding from an act of men. He could not tell if he was one of those that were with Gable when he rode in. He thought him an Aspect for a moment then cleared his mind from foolish devilry of the night come deep and he went down to him.
“Alright.” Ohern said, moving to the table and picking up a dirty wooden bowl that sat there. He drew up some of what settled and cooled in the small pot. He laid the cloth back over it when he was done and sat opposite the rider, putting his back to the small fire in the hearth that the rider looked into so vaguely.
“It’s good to see that you did it. I am not the kind to, but I would have done it right nice too. Dane was a friend of mine.” He said.
Ohern nodded. The stew was saltless and cooler than the pot he took it from. He sipped at it, leading chunks of root and horsemeat into his mouth with still shining hands.
“Were they hard asses?”
Ohern thought about it. He thought about how he went into the building and put his sword through the strongest one while he slept, right through the stomach. He thought about how drunk the other one had been, how slow to rouse even when his blood was brought forth.
“Well they look it. Two of ‘em. I’ve never done two. I’ve killed before, just not two at a time.”
Ohern thought that eating the cool meat of the stew would put him off but it didn’t.
“You in the war?” the rider continued.
Ohern nodded his head.
“Yep, that’s a mess.”
Ohern looked up at him. He took the man in. He was poorly dressed for a rider. He was Oherns age or nearly but he seemed younger, and not desirous to hold Oherns gaze. Ohern studied him none the less for it. This rider, this guard was not yet a man. It must have passed him up or he it. Ohern thought about the war in the south. He wondered at the rider’s fortune or lack of it and eventually he asked him, “Where you ride?”
“I don’t ride. I’m not a rider. They put me at a watch, Gable did. I do it all night, I should be there now but I missed my supper and couldn’t go on watching all hungry. Did those two say why they did it?”
“I didn’t ask.”
“It’s just as well.” he said rising. Ohern pitied him in a way that took and watched him leave. He finished his stew, rested and felt on his back the only gift of Peytah that he would take from her willingly; the warming and softening of him.
Gable came in alone.
“Well, they are no longer a part of the gift and that IS the truth.”
Ohern nodded, he was tired. He would not look at the shadow craft the fire made of him on the far wall.
“You get that tracker I told you about or did you sniff out those bastards yourself?”
“Tracker.” Ohern said back. He was done with the stew. He sat the bowl down knowing no one but he should clean it, but that it would get cleaned, by another man, a weak man like the rider that just left. Ohern felt that weak himself and more so. What did they all fear about him.
“They work quick, I will say it.” Gable offered to the silence that too easily grew around Ohern.
“It’s like they know.” Ohern offered.
“How’s that?” Gable asked him.
“Yep. You think it’s like they say?”
Ohern looked at Gable still tasting in his mouth what had to have tasted better warm.
“Do I need to send some men out that way to get at the place?”
“Probably. Don’t know whose place it is. It’s west a ways past that mill, the old one.”
“I know the place.” Gable said.
“On sraight west again there’s not but four places in sight, it’s the one on the ar left.”
“Alright, siply brothers ride there. They’ll be here near dawn, I’ll get ‘em on it.”
“I’m done Gable.”
“Yep.” He said not knowing what Ohern was referring to and so his eyes did not match the expression his mouth made.
“This is it. I don’t want it anymore.”
“Shimmers yours. I thought it right you have her. Not to ride but to keep. Two of you went back a fair bit. Do right by him and take the horse.”
“Alright.” Ohern said, hurting that already ruined part of him by saying yes. Everything he had was a gift, a hand out, a hand down, a loner from someone with more, with better. From someone who had more than they needed but still did not want to give away completely, knowing though it be worth nothing to them it would be worth something to someone else and in that way alone was salvaged from uselessness. Ohern thought for a moment how his need gave worth to something worthless and also kept it from him.
“You can keep her here till you get something figured.”
“I have something figured.” He didn’t.
“That gives you more spend Ohern. Things ought to look up sooner now. I know that boy is hard on you. I wish you’d let my wife take him.”
“It’s not the spend.” But it always was.
“I know, I just don’t want you leavin. I don’t have a man that can ride like you, straighten a way like you can. You’ll get on up out of that loaner and get some gear, get it done up and you’ll feel different about it, I say it.”
Ohern knew he was right but it was something else.
“I have to do something alone.”
“Yep?” Gable questioned and would talk again but Ohern tried to warn him against it with a look. Gable was not cowed.
“Yeah well, I saw it in you when you came up. You need the steel for it? You don’t have a rock to throw at a bastard.”
“I don’t need it.”
“Your a fool and an old fool Ohern. Them out there was easy. You just got that kid scratch. You go rollin in the dirt with a knife man and well be burnin you out there.”
Ohern rose and went back up into the loft and Gable left. He dressed his bed then laid his borrowed mail shirt and his borrowed steel upon it in the dead way. He had no stable of his own but his place had a yard that would do if he could keep Deal out of it. Deal would tear it up “playing” so he quit trying to grow things in it. The boy wrecked everything. He had a thought to make his place better but he found he rode more and more and was always out straightening a way as Gable put it. He was not ready to keep a horse yet and now one was being thrown at him but it was the boy that saddled him and he was sore with the desire to be rid of him. The boy was not even his. Ohern felt the right thing to do was to die. It should be his turn at least by now he thought.
Ohern felt his mood swing hateful. His ride was light for the lack of gear, Gables gear, that he left at the lodge on his cot. He stopped in a clearing and stretched in the saddle. There was a good place here between where the land got thick and where it emptied out again of people and their things. It had been a dairy. All the rock was now cannibalized by other growers and steaders, all the wood burned but this white pole on the path he rode towards his own place. He leaned out from the saddle and touched it. It was just a pole. In the ground were rumors of walls and rooms, picked clean and moved away by scavengers or builders to become parts of other homes.
He was tired. He had killed today and its repose in him was a stiffness mirroring the fatigue that dried the dead like mudbrick and broke them when they would not rot. He longed to be home and then heard it, a fast rider coming up from the same way he had ridden. He turned Shimmer and reached for a sword he did not have. The rider stopped fast.
“Who says it?”
“Vern, I ride for Gable, I’ve met you.”
“Gable sent me. A rider came in from Whaleslake, theres a witch.”
“They still at the stable?”
“Come on.” He said and kicked shimmer into flight east through the rubble of the dairy yard and then on north to Whaleslake. The ride was over quick as most rides at a gallop are. Out at the gate to the stead, a woman waited with four horses.
“There just on in a bit past this gate, they just went!” she said. She did not care who they were, they were help. Ohern felt at times like this, the great weakness, the great fragile throat of his kind; the trusting of strangers.
He leaped off Shimmer as tired as he was and for fate, landed right and soft. He took her to the rail some space from the other horses. Vern stood by him like a servant, a young man Ohern could now guess. They walked swiftly in and to the huddle of dark on the field that was Gable and the men that had come with him.
Ohern saw the men around him. How the comfort of another’s strength was carried by cowards. Not in the face, and not in this dark, but the way the bodies pointed to the one they would follow. He had already torn cloth from his shirt and was now trimming it with some difficulty using his teeth. He turned to the stead. “Who’s there.” He finished at Gable.
“A boy. Don’t know his name, doesn’t hear people. Got her in a room.” Gable told him, following Ohern towards the stead.
“Jakes, his wife Labell, not sure about the other kids, he has a few.”
“They moved past a stockyard and through luck or fate again he found a grass fork leaned against fodder and took it and broke the tines off with his boot leaving more or less a jagged ended pole.
The sound of their moving onto the woodened porch emboldened the younger ones, Vern and now Ohern guessed two others. Ohern sickened at the idea of their collective strength. He opened the doors that had been shut presumably and unreasonably by the old woman now with all of their horses. Inside a fire lit the room but halfheartedly, knowing they had come to take the witch away.
“Build that, light everything.” Ohern said and two moved to it quickly. He could see the boy they were told of, leaning against a narrow door. He moaned.
“Over there.” Vern called them to see a woman, dead on the floor past the fire near an open window, dead for the blood around her. Ohern stomped hard on the floor and the boy turned around, Ohern ready to push that pole haft clean through his head were he spelled. The boy moaned, his face wrecked from tears and whaling. He looked at them awkwardly, pushing still with both hands to keep the narrow door shut. What he said no one needed to understand. They rushed over and took his place, Ohern, Gable and another he knew only from the burning earlier at the Lodge.
“Get him to that old lady.” He said, his own voice as words underwater for the oil cloth in his ears. He leaned with his left shoulder, gable his right as they looked at each other’s old, sweaty faces. Ohern’s hand could not grab the bar well and so Gable took it. The others were near again now with torches lit and but for the mutiny of the flames Ohern could have seen well enough to mend his own shirt. He held the busted fork in both hands then stepped off from against the door and Gable having already unlatched it while braced, swung it outward.
They all had caught her eyes and she theirs as men and women do. Ohern lunged striking her mouth with the sheared haft of the fork, A strike that could not be blocked or avoided. It was only when he fell upon her that he realized he was the only one who had looked away quick enough. She swatted at him without strength as though they played then whined and fell under him. His hand on her throat pushed by his whole strength pinned her body and pushed out her tongue and all that filled his mind was to stop and enter her. Her legs wrapped around his waist as he choked her. He struck her mouth with his gloved fist then, until it was near torn free of her face and still without looking, he pushed her eyes out, a difficult thing for anyone, and then grabbed them from her face like new apples, arose, went to the fire and looking into its disgust, he fed it her eyes.
All stood as if watching the breaking of a horse while the witch wailed and contorted and kicked in the narrow room. There was no waking them now that they were spelled, they would wake on their own or not at all. He was thankful she had not succored them or surely he would have been dead now or broken and bound as she had clearly thought he would seed. He moved passed them into the narrow room where she agonized and pulled her by the hair out of the house and off of the porch and felt helpless as his loins began to gorge. He pulled her whaling and writhing towards the stockyard and when she tried to turn or bring up her legs he let go of her then stomped her still again. He reached into his pants repositioned himself. She was in too much pain to kneel and so lay with her wrecked face drinking at the sky.
He could not see the gate he had come in at nor the entry to the stead from where he stood now in front of the stockyard he was dragging her to. It would be hours till the others would unfold themselves. He kicked dirt onto her sticky face then went to her and picked her up by the hair again and pulled her into the stockyard and heaved her upon the second bar of the corral, pushing against her as he tied her hands to her feet with reins as she sobbed. He leaned over then lay on her back, the both of them on the rail she was tied to and he, tired, fumbled at his pants to undo them and pried at the back of her dressing to find a way into her sex then he slipped and rolled aside and having cleared in his mined crawled away from her for his very life. Rolling over and gasping he lay still, breathing, his face wet with shame for feeling more love for anything from her witching than he had ever felt.
He thought about going back to the stead but did not trust her being alone and yet did not trust himself with her.
He looked at her shape under the faded blue dress that no doubt belonged to the wife. When her sobbing slowed he stood and walking to her, brought the heel of his boot into the small of her curved back with as much force as he could afford, then took the pieces of his shirt out of his ears and dropped them.
Moving to a section to each side of the section of fencing where she hissed and sucked for life, he kicked out the beams of the fence to separate its wood from where she was lashed in case the fire they would make would catch the stockyard. He took the six freed rails and leaned them against her.
He looked back at the stead and the light that bleached the darkness at the front of the place to burn a single, still shadow of a man onto the dirt there. The one who took the mute should have been back but was no doubt afraid to return to the quiet of the stead now having been tricked to cowardice by his mind alone. Ohern kicked at the dirt then looked back at the witch.