BY WAY OF THE EASTERN ROAD



BY WAY OF THE EASTERN ROAD, by Jesse Knifely:

Ren Terrowin skidded on the grimy kitchen floor and the tray of baked apples he held tottered. He slowed his steps as he picked his way across the flour sacks and potato peels littering the stones. A day of celebratory feasting left its debris. Ren delivered the tray to a black-clad attendant and took a steadying breath as it left for the Duke’s table. It was the last of three desert courses, and for Ren the cook his night was over. But for Ren the scullery boy — his position when his help wasn’t needed cooking — there was still much to accomplish.

He held a stiff-bristled brush over his head and commanded, “By the Duke’s honor, my baked apples are so delicious his lordship will take to hunting the Midnight Light more often just so he’ll have the pleasure of tasting them again.”

While he was nowhere near as elegant as the noble family he served, bedecked as they so often were in splendid silks, Ren was handsome in his way. His arms were taut from hauling buckets of water, and his close-cropped brown hair suited his narrow face. He had little reason to smile, but when he did it was enough to make the serving girls giggle into their hands.

Otho dragged a bubbling cauldron of water from the fire. His pudgy cheeks glistened with sweat. “If rooting out three of the Midnight Light is what it takes to give us this much work, I hope he never finds another.”

By the dwindling coals of the great cooking hearth Ren could make out piles of greasy roasting spits, stacks of blood-crusted butcher blocks, and mounds of serving platters that would need scrubbing. The soot-blackened walls deserved a hearty wash down as well. In his four years of service to the Duke, Ren had never seen the kitchen in such a state. Luckily they had ample time to clean. The next morning began a day of fasting and penance in honor of the Duke’s justice since those devils in the Midnight Light, who snatched child and man alike to fuel their blood-oaths and vicious appetites, swung from the gallows outside the castle walls. Those three had been waylaying travelers and dragging them back to a cottage hidden in the woods for a goodly time. When the guards discovered the place while chasing an escapee from a debtor’s prison there was a knee-high pile of bones out back bearing the marks where the flesh had been scraped away. It was all the kitchen staff could speak of until they’d made their own gruesome discovery regarding how much work awaited them in preparing the feast.

Ren sighed and began helping Otho. They were elbow-deep in sudsy water, scrubbing like mad, when the kitchen master burst in, a baked apple squished in each meaty hand.

“The Duke sends them back,” the kitchen master said, throwing them at Ren. They plopped to the filthy floor. A man of wild tempers, Gauntford had been drinking great flagons of dark beer since the last of the savory courses went out and he dismissed most of the staff. “You are the cause of his distemper.”

“What’s wrong with them?” Ren asked. “They were perfect.”

“They were slop,” Gauntford said. “The guests have left their places at table and retired without trying so much as a bite.”

Ren had been yelled at every day since his brother had sold him into the Duke’s service at age eleven, and the abuse would continue until he either became the kitchen master or he died. He shouldn’t say anything, but between chopping vegetables and running across the courtyard with buckets of well water to replenish the kitchen cistern he’d had the additional work of a confectioner’s apprentice that had fallen ill. He’d been so careful in his preparation of the apples, making sure the caramel sauce drizzled in just the right way. And now the kitchen master was berating him for it.

“Perhaps the Duke’s appetite was appeased,” Ren said, grinning. “Twenty courses have been known to do that.”

Gauntford smiled as well–a wicked-looking twist of the lips. He punched Ren in the stomach. Ren gasped, desperate to breathe through the fire blooming in his guts. Besides a kind word from the Duke, “correcting” his underlings was what gave Gauntford the most pleasure in life.

“This kitchen shall be spotless by morning, or you’ll have worse than that,” Gauntford said. He poured another flagon from a large cask and sauntered through the back door and into the courtyard whistling a merry tune, cold wind whipping past him into the stuffy kitchen as he left.

Ren coughed, gathering his breath. There hadn’t been much joy in his years at the castle, but there had been even less at the farm where he’d grown up. Both his parents had died of a withering disease, and all it took was one failed season when the wheat lay stunted in the fields for his older brother to indenture Ren to keep the creditors away. Even after years in the castle he still felt like an outsider since most of the staff had been born into their positions. He’d often wondered what his life would have been like if he could have stayed on the farm, but then word reached him that his brother had been stabbed to death in a brawl after secreting a pair of loaded dice into a gambling hall. Their family land now belonged to a moneylender.

Ren reminded himself that fifteen was a good age to be, that he was lucky to work in the kitchen. He had regular meals and though he was bound to it for life the castle afforded protection. All manner of brigand, bandit, robber, and thief wondered the wilder parts of the countryside, and then there were the cultists like the Midnight Light. Yes, his servitude was about the best he could hope for, but his encounter with Gauntford made him ponder.

“Do you think it strange, Otho,” Ren asked, “that the best we can hope for is to become the master of this kitchen?”

“You mean how we’d get to look pompous and order everyone around?” A wistful look came to Otho. “The dreams you give me, Ren.”

“Clear your head a moment. Say you do become the kitchen master. You’d be thought highly of by chamber maid and nobleman alike if your food was pleasant.” Ren knocked his scrub brush against the cauldron to punctuate his words. “Yet that amounts to nothing if his lordship finds displeasure in the way you cut his carrots.”

Otho shrugged. “At least I’d be as close to the top as I’d ever be, maybe slip a few pastries to the finer chamber maids . . . amongst other things. That would make me giddy.”

“Do you think Gauntford takes any pleasure from his position? One small rebuff sours his disposition. No one will ever feast in his honor, that’s a certainty.” Ren shook his head. “Or ours.”

“I see what you’re on about,” Otho said. “Want to be a hero, do you? Maybe chase a few of the Midnight Light, hear the cheering of the grateful townsfolk?”

“Not a hero, no,” Ren said. He dropped the brush. “I thought I wanted to rule this kitchen one day, but now . . .” he trailed off. “That seems a hollow dream. Now I just want to see something beyond these greasy stones.”

Otho tutted at him the way one might a disagreeable child. “That talk’s no good, Ren.” He held up his arm, soapy water dripping to his elbow. Otho’s pinky and ring fingers had been severed below the second knuckle and there were long scars trailing his forearm where the hounds’ teeth had caught him. “Two days gone, two fingers missing. It would be the same for you. They’re not quick with the knife, either.”

“I do worry about that,” Ren said. A clammy sweat clung to him as he turned the possibility over.

“It was my forgetfulness that did me in,” Otho said. “I’d taken everything with me I could carry, but I’d tossed my extra tunic in with the washing. They dug it out to let the hounds get my scent.” When Otho saw the intent way Ren listened to his story his brow wrinkled. “You’re not thinking of running, are you?”

“Course not,” Ren said, sounding as pleasant as he could. He didn’t like lying to Otho, but he told himself that it had to be done. “It’s just that the stories of the western mountains get stuck in my head, and I foolishly dream I could see them myself.”

They worked late into the night, but even with both of them struggling against the tide of filth there was little progress.

“Let’s leave it,” Ren said. “The master will sober and his inclination to strike will lessen. With the fast tomorrow I doubt he’ll even look in on the place.”

“I don’t want you in trouble with him,” Otho said. “He singled you out, and he’s not one to forget such things, even taken with drink the way he was. We’ll do our best, no matter if it takes greeting the dawn.”

It broke Ren’s heart to hear such words. Otho would lose any amount of sleep to keep him from the kitchen master’s wrath. “What will he do, whip me? A little rest now would make a beating worthwhile.”

Otho kneaded the small of his back. They’d been at it since dawn, and that had been on top of a late night helping to pluck and gut the fatty ducks for roasting. Otho looked as though the prospect of getting off his feet sounded sweeter than a barrel of honeyed wine.

“Let us retire,” Ren said. “The morning will bring more work, but for now we rest.”

Otho consented and they crept into the dormitory they shared with the other kitchen staff. It smelled of stale sweat, alcohol, and flatulence. Many slept where they’d fallen, their straw mats empty. A shattered beer cask lay upon the floor. Everyone was snoring, and as soon as Otho hit his mat he joined their chorus.

Ren’s mat looked as inviting as it ever had. He longed for a good rest. But tomorrow would be the fast and the penance taken as an observance of the Duke’s grand execution of the three members of the Midnight Light. As the law demanded, any blood punishment must be repaid in suffering on part of the executioner and his people. It would be well past dawn before anyone besides Otho realized he was missing, and unless they broke their penance they would have to wait until nightfall to give chase.

That sliver of time was the best he could hope for.

He gathered what little he could to take with him, bundling his spare set of clothing and a tinderbox into his blanket which, when he twisted it and tied the ends together, he could wear like a baldric across his chest and back. Some things from the kitchen’s pantry and he’d be on his way.

In the courtyard crisp air stung his cheeks. There was a bounce to his steps, a lightness coming to him in the knowledge he would get away from there. Nothing could . . .

A thought stopped him. He’d forgotten the mat he slept on. He slipped back into the sleeping quarters and folded the thin pallet of woven straw upon itself so he could carry it to the kitchen’s hearth. The flames would ensure no hound would gather a scent from it.

Ren banked the glowing embers and tossed the flimsy mattress upon them before gathering what he could from the pantry. After such a feast their larder was nearly empty, but there were some carrots and red potatoes and a fine hunk of smoked salt pork as big as both his fists. He breathed the heady scent of the meat and his stomach grumbled.

When he strolled from the panty, once more feeling content with his cleverness, a sight greeted him that he had not prepared for.

The mattress had managed to ignite the grease drippings accumulated in front of the hearth. Part of what he’d smelled when he sniffed the smoky pork was the kitchen catching fire. Fed by the pool of rendered fat the discarded flour sacks burned like candle wicks. The flames trailed along the rubbish-strewn floor and climbed the massive legs of the preparation table, a slab of oak that would burn like a funeral pyre.

He ran to the cistern. He’d let the grease burn off the stone floor since water would only spread the flames. But the table? It would set the exposed rafters ablaze, and from there the blaze would move on to gut the entire castle. He would have to soak the wood to keep the building safe.

The cistern was empty.

Ren gazed upon the bucket at the bottom of the stone pit. There was a scant inch of water left. It was his duty to fill it from the well, only this night he hadn’t, being so consumed with making his getaway. He went to the washing basin and splashed what was left of the brackish water into the bucket, but when he made it back to the hearth a wall of heat assaulted him. Flames leapt from the table to the rafters. He’d started a conflagration.

Ren stumbled into the courtyard, smoke roiling after him. A couple of missing fingers for trying to run was one thing, but the fire was another. If they caught him now they’d hang him for sure.

* * *

As he ran for the castle wall Ren shouted, “Fire in the kitchen!” A guard walking the parapet raised the alarm and soon a bell was ringing, drawing people to combat the flames.

Ren turned a crank, raising the portcullis so he could slip beneath. No worries about being seen leaving with everyone’s attention taken by the fire. Outside the walls the gallows creaked, but Ren refused to look upon the bodies rocking in the wind. He followed the rutted road only long enough to reach the cover of the woods beyond the long, treeless slope surrounding the castle. He drew upon his trips gathering mushroom as best he could, what with things looking so strange and forlorn in the moonlight, and trekked through the underbrush until gurgling water greeted his ears.

Miller’s Creek rolled with slow determination over rounded stones. Ren hesitated before the shallow water. The cold air would seem pleasant compared to what the water must feel like. The memory of Otho’s pale scars buttressed his courage. He stepped in and after a few sloshing strides his feet went numb.

Whatever it takes, he told himself. No hound will follow my scent.

He followed the water east. He felt a twinge of regret remembering the lie he’d told Otho about how he dreamed of the western mountains. He loved his friend more than he had his own brother, but that closeness begat knowledge. The guards might think he’d died in the fire, but Otho would ruin that by blurting out how they’d left the kitchen before the fire erupted. At least if they began searching for him the west he would have more time to escape.

His numb feet slipped on the slick stones. The longer he stayed in, the harder the dogs’ job would be, but that thought didn’t keep his toes warm.

After a time the numbness became too much to take and he stomped onto the bank, telling himself it was only until the feeling returned. He plodded along the muddy creekside, and in the trees overhead a night bird called, one lonesome cry to break the quiet. It was hard not to think of the castle guards after him. The hangings that morning had put him on edge.

He tried to turn his thoughts to what lay ahead. He was free of his service to the Duke. He could do whatever he wished . . . a trade where he could get some respect. A cooper, perhaps. Did people respect barrel makers? Possibly a mummer or a lutenist. Maybe he’d take in the sights of one of the great cities he’d heard about, like Spirdral’s ivory spires or the cavern-dwellers of Tumlunkin. Yes. He’d make it to a city and figure out . . .

Only he was having trouble figuring things at the moment, what with his feet leaden weights. He thought he could walk the frigid feeling from them. The excitement of running away had clouded his judgment.

As he passed a glade the grass glistened with frost in the moonlight. He didn’t know where he was, and he had no way of knowing if the safety of a kindly farmer or woodcutter’s homestead was nearby. It had been years since he’d left the farm, and in that time he’d never ventured farther from the castle than what the kitchen master would allow for foraging.

At the edge of the glade Ren pulled fallen branches from the undergrowth. He took the tinderbox from his bundle, but he couldn’t strike the spark. He’d heard enough tales to beware bandits and cultists. The Midnight Light could be looking for retribution for their lost members. It didn’t do to draw attention with a fire, but it was either that or lose his feet, and he couldn’t escape without them. When the brush crackled with flames he pulled off his thin leather shoes, setting them aside to dry.

Ren unrolled his blanket, careful to keep his supplies together so he wouldn’t miss anything in the morning, and draped the cover over himself. The fire was the only comfort that mattered. That, and sleep. A few hours of rest and his mind would be sharper and he’d be able to make sense of the predicament he was in.

Fitful dreams followed, plagued with creaking gallows. Ren came awake with a stiffness that would take a long while to walk away. The moon had gone behind the clouds and the fire had burned down to coals. All was dark and quiet. Why had he awakened?

A rustling came from the tree line. Ren strained to hear above the thudding of his heart in his ears. Something moved — yes, a shifting of shadows. Ren propped himself on his elbows and as if drawn out by his movement a figure loomed from behind a trunk. One and then two and then three more dark shapes joined the first.

Ren was up, stumbling as he came to his feet. He flailed for his shoes but missed. He needed them and his supplies if he was to survive, but at what cost? If these were bandits perhaps leaving behind a meager haul would sate them, keep them from giving chase. But if it were the Midnight Light there would be no saving him, shoes or not.

So he ran, not daring to look back.

He splashed across the creek and plunged into the cover of trees, dodging as branches loomed out at him like grasping hands. His mind was a skittering jumble and he kept thinking I’m a fool, I’m a fool, I’m a fool.

He ducked behind a tall oak and gasped for breath. He could hear no sound of pursuers. Perhaps he’d imagined the figures. He’d known one of the castle’s gardeners that often sprang awake grasping at the spiders he’d dreamed were crawling on him. Was this the same? Had he let his dreams seep into waking and allowed them to frighten him?

A call went up from the clearing he’d camped in, a high, keening yip that was joined by other voices. His skin chilled as though he’d taken a plunge into the creek, so he ran on, mindful of all he’d lost. He was without shoes or food and he didn’t have a single copper coin to warm his pocket. He didn’t know where he was. He feared the Duke’s men were already after him. Until he crossed into the next duchy they would hunt him.

Despair settled upon him like a dark shroud. The simplest thing to do would be to wait for the people in the clearing to come for him. It would be nice to have a decent rest until a bandit slit his throat or the Midnight Light gnawed on his bones. But he’d made it farther than Otho had — perhaps farther than any runaway before him had. He wondered how far he could go, and that thought carried him on.

By the time the sun rose he’d found the packed earth of a road which he followed all that morning, only leaving it to hide when he heard the clopity-clop of approaching hoofs. He saw a few passing wagons and one fancy coach adorned with fine woodwork and gold leaf, but none of the Duke’s men.

By midday the few holdfasts and farms he passed began to grow closer together until he stumbled into a proper village. A painted sign gave its name, but he could not read the letters. What he could discern were the two stripes of crimson and azure — the Duke’s colors — painted upon its border. He was still too close to the castle to be safe, and he’d have a ways to go before reaching the next duchy. This place amounted to a few thatched-roofed shops and houses built at the meeting of two roads. A group of travelers on horseback stopped at an inn.

The Lucky Siren boiled over with travelers and coachmen. A passing man dressed in finery pushed him out of the way. “Be gone, scamp,” he said.

Ren’s feet were dirt-crusted to the ankles and bramble-stickers clung to his clothes. There had been beggars that had come to the castle that looked better than he did now. Even if he had the copper they probably wouldn’t serve him. But he couldn’t leave the window.

Inside were tables filled with people spooning through wooden bowls of stew — it was always stew with the country folk — and there was a hearth crackling with thick logs. People lined the bar, mugs and tankards for each of them. Behind it was an old man, his long hair thin and grey. A great many lines showed on his face. But he was quick with his pours and it seemed every time he spoke the crowd erupted in laughter. When the door opened scents of wonderful things — yeasty bread and bubbling broth — made his empty stomach rumble.

There were more than travelers there, too. Milk maids shared a loaf and a wedge of cheese with thick-limbed men, in for a late morning meal before heading back to their work. Their apparent ease with each other made Ren long to be a part of something like that. Never in his life had he felt such a sense of community, of fellowship, not even in the hazy memories of his own family.

Ren trotted to the back of the inn where a woodpile eclipsed a narrow door. He knocked and waited, and when no one answered he knocked again. Past a feed lot there was a barn where a stable boy tended to horses and coaches. The door finally opened. A woman matched in age to the old man behind the bar took one look at Ren and spat at his feet.

“Please,” Ren said. “I know I look like I’ve spent some time amongst the hedges, and I have, but I’m looking for work. I’m more than capable of — ”

“Don’t care,” the old woman said. Her face was impassive. “Be gone or I’ll call the constable.”

“Really, mam. I can work around the stables.”

“We’ve got one of them already.”

“Chop wood?”

She motioned to the perfectly ricked cord wood.

Ren was losing what little patience she’d shown him. “I can cook and do the washing up. I . . . was apprenticed to that profession.”

“Were you, now?”

She hadn’t closed the door on him, so that was something. But if he was too free with his explanation she’d know he was a runaway and might try to wrangle him in for a reward.

“I was,” Ren said, hoping that would be enough to keep her satisfied.

She nodded. “I knew you were awfully plump to be your average vagabond, and you’ve not got the thick shoulders of a field hand.”

The old man from the front room loomed behind her. “What’s this, now?” he asked.

The woman motioned to Ren. “This one here says he was a kitchen apprentice and he’s looking for work.”

“I am,” Ren said. Despite his empty stomach and chilled bones he felt like he was taking a step back by offering himself for kitchen work again. But it was what he knew, and if it could eventually move him forward on his journey then so be it. “Anything for a meal.”

“Don’t see many fancy kitchen apprentices around here,” the man said. “Where do you hail from?”

Ren stammered. He couldn’t say he’d been with the Duke because no one leaves that service. He kept returning to the members of the Midnight Light swinging outside the castle and how he’d join them if he wasn’t quick enough. For simple country folk these two had an air of alertness about them and his tale needed to be a good one.

“From the south,” Ren said. “It was just awful. Not the kitchen work, mind you, but what happened after that. You see, I loved cooking for the good man . . . Otho, who was a moneylender. I was the house boy, you know. Did the cooking and all of that. Until the Midnight Light came, that is.”

He let the silence settle before he continued, and his words took an elegiac tone.

“Otho was good to me, and I did my best to cook for him, but one evening the Midnight Light broke in and ate him right there in the foyer, him still alive and screaming — for a while, anyway. I hid in the cellar until one of them found me, but I was able to run off. And since I don’t have any living relations I haven’t stopped until now.”

“The Midnight Light, wouldn’t you know,” the old woman said, shaking her head. “Hearing that story is just terribly off-putting. Isn’t it, Elgin?”

“It is, Aurora,” the old man called Elgin said. “But hearing it gives me a mind to take you in, let you stay a bit.”

“It does.” The old woman called Aurora nodded.

“Call me . . . Renalt.” Ren ducked inside before they could change their minds.

* * *

They let him have a bowl of stew, and it tasted like they were trying to pass off old pork by masking it with a heavy spicing. Nonetheless Ren sopped it up with the end pieces of a country loaf, its crumb course from rough-milled grains. They gave him a pair of overlarge riding boots some traveler had left beneath a bed, the leather cracked with dry rot but still serviceable. They showed him his work.

He scrubbed tankards, plates, and bowls before leaving them on a wooden rack to dry. The kitchen was small and the little hearth, filled with cauldrons of bubbling stew and his wash water, made it almost unbearably hot. After he caught up on the washing Ren hung his head out of the window and let the cool air dry his sweat-soaked head. It was the same work he’d done for the Duke, yet now that he was free it didn’t seem so awful.

Ren offered the old woman Aurora his cooking services when it came time to prepare dinner for the overnight guests. She waved him away, saying he should keep to the washing, and disappeared into the cellar, unlocking the door only long enough to grab a few ingredients. She gave Ren a suspicious look when she emerged.

He’d fully expected them to be wary of him, and it was true he’d paid attention to how she went about the cellar because if they decided to skimp him on their agreed payment of food he wanted to take what was due him. The lock would make that harder. He hoped it wouldn’t come to that, stealing from them after the kindness they’d shown, but to be safe he held back any scraps of bread that came his way when a traveler finished a meal. He felt a bit of his old cleverness returning.

The old man Elgin called from the front room for him to clear a table. Ren twirled his cleaning rag as he entered the dining room. The door opened and two riders entered. Their tunics bore the crest of the Duke, a hammer overlaying a gallows pole encircled with crimson and azure stitching. Their faces were stern as they regarded the room. With them was the local constable, a man of middle years with a fleeting relationship with his remaining hair. He had a round belly and looked like he’d spent more time napping in the shade than patrolling the village.

Ren turned, his motion fluid, looking as though he’d simply forgotten something in the back room. Once he pushed through the swinging door dividing the common room from the kitchen he tried to gather the scraps of bread he’d horded. His hands shook and crumbs tumbled to the floor.

Elgin pushed through the swinging door, a questioning look on his wrinkled face. “Need to get those tables cleared up, Renalt.”

If he bolted now, Elgin would alert the guards and they’d be on him. He wouldn’t make it beyond the feed lot.

“Out in a moment,” Ren said. “Just let me finish up here.”

Elgin’s eyes narrowed. He’d been holding the door, but he let it slip from his fingers and swing shut. “Strange sign, those riders showing up and you acting this way.”

Ren tried to laugh, but it sounded like he was choking.

Elgin’s wrinkles twisted into a grin. “I’ll get those tables since we don’t have a washer boy about our place.” He dropped his voice low, conspiratorial. “Everyone hides from something.”

Elgin went back to the common room. So he’d figured out Ren wasn’t a wanderer but a runaway, and the old man didn’t care. Ren watched from the crack in the door as the old man chatted with the Duke’s men and the constable. He poured mugs and placed them on the bar, but the guards waved them away. The constable downed his tankard and started in on the others. After a few questions the men were off again.

* * *

Ren fell atop the heap of hay. It was cold outside, but hunkered in the barn loft things felt mighty fine. While talking with the old man and woman he’d figured out he was within two days’ walk of the next duchy. They seemed like good folks and were happy to give him the information. His new employers had even fixed him a cup of mulled wine to ease him to sleep. It was far better accommodations than the hard ground he’d slept on the night before.

After the incident with the riders Elgin had spoken to Ren about staying on for a while, enough time to let the searchers think him escaped. And, if Ren was still keeping up with things around the inn, he’d have some copper coins to go along with the food he could take when he did leave.

He’d meant to kick his boots off, but Ren fell asleep thinking about how he’d really made it and how, once he was on his way again, he would . . .

. . . Air. He need to breath. As he came out of sleep his mind was a fog. Something pressed into his back and twisted his wrists. He tried to shout but his mouth was full of cloth. There was the flickering of a candle and he could see the rough-cut flooring of the hay loft looming before him.

“Come now, hurry up,” Aurora said. “This shawl isn’t warm enough for the weather.”

“I told you to wear the coat,” Elgin said.

Elgin rolled Ren over. He’d bound Ren’s feet and hands, and the rag stuffed in his mouth tasted of dishwater.

Elgin knelt and his knees cracked. “Gets harder on these old joints every time.” He let out a muffled grunt as he settled on his haunches. “If you knew better, you’d know the Midnight Light doesn’t eat people raw. We’re not barbarians, you know.”

“I hate that,” Aurora said. She shivered and pulled a midnight blue shawl tighter around her shoulders. “People think we don’t have any civility. But when waiting for a meal to come, you can’t complain about its manners.” She sighed. “A dwindling larder makes you pick over the scraps.”

Elgin slipped on a midnight blue cowl and hood before taking up a cleaver. “To consuming those weaker than us, so that they add to our strength.”

“No law guiding us but our own,” Aurora said.

Ren tried to slow his thoughts but they careened around his skull, muddying anything useful that might have come to him. He wished he was in the Duke’s kitchen. He’d take a dozen beatings now to be there again.

With his mind back in the kitchen he focused. He’d risked the Duke’s justice so he could take part in a world he’d only heard of, and here his life was about to be carved up and served in a stew before he’d made it anywhere.

Ren waited, forcing every bit of his attention to what he needed to do—survive. Elgin leaned in, the cleaver wavering in the air.

Ren reared back and kicked his bound legs into Elgin’s stomach. The old man doubled over, too winded to cry out. Ren gave silent thanks to his kitchen master, wherever that cruel man might be.

Aurora was upon him, slapping and clawing. Ren tried to knock her off, but being bound limited his movement. His feet drug across the floorboards and the heel of one of his boots caught in a crack, tugging the worn leather down his ankle. Ren dragged his feet until the boots came free and with them went the rope binding his legs together. Ren put all his weight into rolling and it knocked Aurora off. She hit the planks with a muffled cry. Elgin was getting his feet under him again. Ren sprang up and shouldered the old man out of his way. Elgin toppled from the loft, his arms flailing as he flew through the air and hit the packed earth below.

Ren leapt, aiming for a haystack. It hardly slowed him, but the straw was enough to keep his legs from shattering. He ran from the barn, his hands tied behind his back and the dirty dishcloth still stuffed in his mouth.

* * *

Ren plunged through a thicket, limbs slapping his face. Brambles tore at his arms and his bare feet fumbled over the dark ground.

When it came to the risks he faced, fleeing into the unknown certainly seemed better than what lay back at the inn. He couldn’t speak to what shape Elgin was in, but Aurora was just as spry and crafty as ever. She was sure to call for the constable and get a search going for that awful young man they’d hired that had tried to rob them and who’d knocked poor Elgin out of the barn to get away. Part of him knew he should flee, take the advantage of time he was given and make it as far away from there as possible. Yet the other part of him . . .

He circled back to the village.

Ren might have been the first to escape Elgin and Aurora’s clutches, and to waste that opportunity would be worse than a shame. If he didn’t do something about them who knew how many more people just like him, the lost or fleeing without anyone to rely upon, the Midnight Light would prey upon.

He couldn’t offer the Duke’s justice, but he could at least stop these two.

It took Ren banging his head against the shutters of the constable’s home to roust the man from his slumber. He came to the window in a billowing nightshirt, his few remaining hairs standing tall and sleep-tossed atop his head.

“What’s this about, lad?” the constable asked. He had to pull the dishrag free from Ren’s mouth before he could reply.

“Midnight Light. Here in the village.”

The constable clutched his nightshirt as his eyes darted about, trying to plumb the darkness around his home as if cannibals hung from the eves. “Where?” he asked. “Surely they’re not amassing in the town proper.”

“At the inn,” Ren said. “Elgin and Aurora, they — ”

The constable’s sharp laugh cut him off. “Go on about your games and let a man rest.”

Ren turned to show him his bound hands. “But they just tried to sacrifice me in the barn loft.”

“Those two are old enough to practically be in the crypt themselves. What harm could they do?”

It took much cajoling on Ren’s part to get the constable dressed and out of his home, and as they went about gathering two other men from the village to join them they spoke.

“Midnight Light, my word, lad.” For all his unbelieving bluster while in the safe confines of his home, the constable’s grip on the short sword strapped to his belt left his knuckles white. He gasped at every moon shadow that crossed their path as they walked to the inn. “We could call on more help. There are a couple of the Duke’s men at the — ”

“No need for them.” Ren heart was hammering. “They’re just two old people. You said so yourself.”

The constable shook his head. “Them two up to such as that. Know them all my life, I have. I can hardly believe . . .” His eyes narrowed. “Tell me again of how you came to find all this out, lad.” The constable grew wary as Ren told him the whole of his day at the inn, how he’d come begging, lost amongst the hedges. As they entered the barn’s feed lot the constable grasped Ren’s arm above the elbow, his grip firm. “We’ll just see,” he said. “We’ll just see.”

Ren’s blood ran cold.

Aurora knelt above Elgin, who sprawled in the dirt. His hip and leg shot out at an unnatural angle. “The runaway stole from us,” Aurora said, patting Elgin’s head. Ren noticed she’d stashed their midnight blue regalia somewhere. “And he nearly killed poor Elgin when he tried to apprehend him by binding his hands.”

The constable nodded along with her. “I suspected as much. But in fairness I listened to the lad’s story, and while it is a wild one it is my duty to the laws of this fair land to uphold an investigation. Are you, Elgin and Aurora, in league with the Midnight Light?”

“Of course not.” A tear slipped from her eye as she looked upon Elgin’s twisted body.

The constable’s fingernails dug into Ren’s flesh. He gave Aurora a pitying look before saying, “Enough, then. The irons await you, lad.”

The constable had seemed lazy, but the outright dismissal of his claim shocked Ren. He pulled back against the hand clutching him, his bare feet set in the dirt.

“I’m no one to this village, just another scamp along the road. But I’ve seen justice carried out and I know the price it exacts from criminal and constable alike. I want what’s due me. You’ve heard our words and now you’ll look for the truth.”

Elgin raised his head, a lock of grey hair tumbling across his face. He sneered. Aurora gave Ren the suspicious look he’d seen in the kitchen earlier that day.

“Enough of this,” the constable said. “Off to the — ”

“The cellar,” Ren said. “That’s all the proof I need. If you find nothing I’ll go along without a word.”

He knew he placed his life on a hunch, but that was all he had. He’d seen the way Aurora had tried to hide what was in the cellar, but he’d also heard her say the larder was thin. He hoped there was something to find.

The constable left one of the men with Elgin and Aurora, and after they’d unlocked the cellar door he left the other to watch over Ren. Each thudding step the constable took down the stairs sounded like a coffin nail being pounded in. From the open doorway Ren could see the flickering of the candle the constable had taken with him. Musty smells of mold and damp soil rose from the opening in the earth. A long moment of silence passed, the longest Ren could ever remember.

Crockery shattered. The constable ran up the stairs, taking two with each step. His face was ashen. He refused to look Ren in the eye.

“He’s free to go,” he told the man holding Ren. “Run and fetch two sets of shackles and a litter to carry Elgin.”

Ren’s hands were shaking. He nearly collapsed against the constable.

“I did it,” Ren said. “I am a hero.”

“You did nothing,” the constable said.

“But the Midnight Light,” Ren said. A flush rose to his cheeks. “Who knows how many poor travelers met their end down there, and how many more they would have gotten to if I hadn’t found them out.”

The constable spat and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “They weren’t townsfolk, at least. Those two,” he motioned toward Elgin and Aurora, “they were townsfolk. My people . . .”

“Does that make their lives greater than mine?”

“The law says not. But I’ve seen enough gutter rats wandering through, setting fire to the fields and robbing the farmers, to know better.”

“You’re wrong,” Ren said. “I did what was right by stopping them.”

“Did you? Right peaceful, this village has been of late. I had no trouble until now.” He gave Ren an appraising look. “I carry out the word of the law. Now, you haven’t broken that word somewhere along the way, have you?”

“Course not.” Ren couldn’t even sound like he convinced himself.

“I don’t care for this. It’s like you’re kicking around grave dirt I have to work to clear up.” The constable shook his head. “Best be gone by morning or you’ll be waiting along with Elgin and Aurora for the Duke’s justice.”

Ren set his jaw. Hero of the day and he’d already overstayed his welcome.

After the men carried Elgin and Aurora away Ren went inside the inn. The dining room was dark except for a bit of moonlight coming through the cracked shutters. Was this what his life was going to be like on his own? Always the outsider, the loner, the untrustworthy?

Ren didn’t care. He was still breathing. His life was still worth something. He poured a tall mug of brown ale and toasted himself in the empty room. A celebratory feast it was not, but it would do. He tried to toss it back in one gulp but he choked. Beer sputtered across the counter and dribbled down his chin. Tomorrow he’d fast in honor of his own justice. From what he’d seen of the traveling life it wouldn’t be a hard vow to uphold. He left the inn and the village by way of the eastern road. He had many miles left in him.

He would just need to find a new pair of boots somewhere along the way.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Jesse Knifley lives in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where he works for the public library. His work has appeared in Electric Spec, Every Day Fiction, and Hills of Fire: Bare Knuckle Yarns of Appalachia. You can find him online at jessereadspaperbacks.wordpress.com.

 


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