Dead Man's Rain
Noon found me standing at the edge of a fresh-dug grave. Sunlight mocked and set the blue jays to singing, but couldn’t quite reach the Sarge’s casket, no matter how hard the sun shone.
I crumbled a damp clod of earth, let it fall.
We’d lived through the War, the Sarge and I. Lived through the three-month siege at Ghant. Lived through the fall of Little Illa. Lived through two years in the swamps. I’d once seen the Sarge snatch an arrow out of the air and shove it in a charging Troll’s eye, and now he was dead after slipping and falling in a public bath.
“Bye, Sarge,” I said. “You deserved better.”
I met an Orthodox priest as I walked away. He dipped his red mask in greeting and slowed to a traipse, but I fixed my eyes on a big old pin oak and marched past. I’d said all my words, and had no use for his.
I was halfway to the cemetery gates when Mama Hog stepped out of the shadow of a poor man’s headstone and planted herself squat and square in my path.
And that’s when it started. I knew before she spoke what she was going to say. And I knew that I should have just keep walking, ignoring her like I did the priest, ignoring everything and everybody except a bar-keep named One-Eyed Eddie and his endless supply of tall, cold glasses. The Sarge was dead and I turned forty with the sunrise and the Hell with everything else.
But I stopped. “What is it, Mama?” I said, gazing out over the neat, still ranks of sad-eyed angels and tall white grave-wards. “Come to pick out a spot?”
Mama grinned up at me with all three of her best teeth.
“Come to find you, boy,” she said. “Come to send you some business.”
“The only kind of business I need now is the kind Eddie runs,” I said. “Anything else can wait.”
Mama frowned. “This ain’t any old business,” she said, shaking a stubby finger at my navel. “This is Hill business.”
Behind us, the first spade of dirt hit the Sarge’s coffin with a muted, faraway thump.
“Hill business,” I said. “One of your rich ladies need a finder?”
Mama’s card-and-potion shop does a brisk business when sleek black carriages that hurry to her curb disgorge Hill ladies wrapped in more cloaks and veils than the weather truly demands. I don’t know how Mama attracts such well-heeled clients, but she does, and more than twice a week.
Mama Hog cackled. “Rich widow, boy. Rich widow.” She grinned and shook her head. “She needs more than a finder, I reckon, but you’re the best I can do.”
The thump-thumps of earth on coffin came faster now. I squinted toward the gate, not wanting the Sarge’s widow to catch me in the graveyard. Outsiders aren’t welcome at Orthodox funerals, and the service would begin as soon as the coffin lid was fully covered with earth.
I sighed. “Let’s walk, Mama,” I said. “You can tell me on the way.”
Thump-thump. Another shovel rose and fell.
“He was a good man, your Sergeant,” said Mama. She fell in step beside me. “No words taste more bitter than goodbye.”
“Tell me about my new client, Mama,” I said. “What’s her name, how high up the Hill is her house, and what does she want me to do about her dear sweet Nephew Pewsey and that awful conniving gypsy girl?”
Mama Hog chuckled. “Her name,” she said, “is Merlat.”
Behind us, after a while, I heard the Sarge’s widow start to cry.
The Widow Merlat sat across from me, breathed through her scented silk hanky, and did her best to make it plain she wasn’t one of those Hill snobs who think of us common folk as mere servant-fodder. No, I was all right in her book-not a human being like her, of course, but as long as I kept my eyes on the floor and knocked the horse flop off my boots, I’d be welcome at her servant’s entrance any day.
“You come highly recommended, goodman Markhat,” she said, daring Rannit’s unfashionable south-side air long enough to lower her hanky while she spoke. “The most capable, most experienced finder in all of Rannit. I’m told you are discreet, as well. I would not be here otherwise.”
I sighed. My head hurt and I still had cemetery dirt on my shoes. I did not need to have my face rubbed in my humble origins by a Hill widow who doubtlessly thought her son was the first rich boy to ever take a fancy to the half-elf parlor maid.
“I’m also told you are expensive,” said the widow. She plopped a fat black clutch purse down on my desk, and it tinkled, heavy with coin. “Good,” she added. “I’ve never trusted bargains, nor shopped for them. Money means nothing to me.”
“Funny you should say that, Lady Merlat,” I said. “Why, just the other day I was telling the Regent that money means twenty jerks a day, to me. Plus expenses. And that’s only if I decide to take the job.” I leaned back in my chair and clasped my hands behind my head. “And, despite your generous display of the money that means nothing to you, I haven’t said yes yet.”
The widow smiled a tight, small smile. “You will, finder,” she said. “I’ll pay thirty crowns a day. Forty. Fifty. Whatever it takes, I will pay.”
Outside, an ogre huffed and puffed as he pulled a manure wagon down the street, and all the silk in Hent wasn’t going to keep the stench out of the widow’s Hill-bred nostrils.
The widow shoved her purse my way. I shoved it back.
“Tell me what you want,” I said.
She nodded, once and quickly, and took a deep breath. A hint of color fought its way past the powder on her cheeks.
“My husband is dead,” she said.
She was wearing more black than a barge-load of undertakers. “No,” I said, straight-faced. “How long?”
“Two years,” she said. More color leaked through. “Two years. He caught fever.” The widow’s voice went thin. “He caught fever and he died and I buried him.” She took in a ragged breath. “But now he’s back, goodman. Returned.”
“Returned?” I lifted an eyebrow. “How? Rattling chains, wearing a bed-sheet?” I stood. “Nice talking to you, Lady.”
Her small bright eyes got smaller and brighter. “Sit,” she hissed. “I am neither senile nor insane. My husband has returned. He walks the grounds at night. He rattles the windows, pulls at all the doors. All but four of the staff left after his second visit.” The widow Merlat gave her hanky a savage twist. “I had to hire caterers for the Armistice Day Festival,” she said. “The canapes were spoiled, and two of my guests fell ill after sampling the stuffed mushrooms.”
“Tragic,” I said. “Shocking. And the wine?”
“Goodman Markhat,” she said. “Are you mocking me?”
I sighed, eyed the coin-purse, sat. “Lady Merlat,” I said, “this sounds like a matter for the Watch, or the Church, or both. Why me? What can I do that they can’t?”
She twisted her hanky and chose her words. “The Watch. The Church. Don’t you think I tried, goodman? Don’t you think I tried?”
“I don’t know, Lady,” I said. “Did you?”
She glared. “Sixty crowns a day,” she said.
“So your husband is a revenant,” I said, slowly. “And he’s tracking up the flower beds and scaring the neighbors and the coachman is also the butler and nobody can cook a decent meal.”
“Sixty-five crowns,” she said, her voice glacial, to match her eyes. “Seventy, if you vow to hold your tongue.”
I grinned. “Sixty-five it is,” I said. “And I need to make one thing perfectly clear, Lady Merlat. I saw a lot of folks get suddenly, tragically dead during the War. What I didn’t see was anybody walking around afterward complaining about it.”
“You doubt my word?”
“I believe you believe, but that doesn’t make it the truth,” I said. “Have you seen your husband, Lady Markhat? Really seen him?”
She shuddered, and went corpse-pale underneath the powder. “Once,” she said in a whisper. “The second time. I’d moved upstairs, kept the windows shuttered and bolted. But I heard the dogs barking and Harl, the footman, shouting and I peeked outside and there he was, standing there, looking up at me.” She shivered all over, fought it off. “It was him, goodman Markhat. Two years in the grave-but it was Ebed.”
She hesitated. And then she lowered the hanky and looked me in the eye. “Please,” she said, and the word stuck in her throat, so she repeated it. “Please.”
“All right, Lady,” I said. “All right.” I opened my desk, pulled out a pad of ragged pulp-paper and a pair of brass dipping-pens. “I’ll do this much. I’ll try to find out who or what you saw,” I said. “Give it three days. If I come up empty, you only owe me for two.”
“I saw my husband,” said the widow. “I saw him, and others have seen him, and I’ll pay you sixty-five crowns a day to find out why he has returned, and how I can put him to rest.”
I sighed. “I need to know a few things, Lady Merlat,” I said. “Names, dates, addresses. And the location of your husband’s tomb.”
She found a fresh hanky and took a big breath.
Revenants and funerals and aching in the head.
Happy birthday to me.
Rannit awoke around me. Ogres huffed and puffed as they passed, their dray-carts empty but not for long. Bakers and butchers and tailors yawned, pulled back their shutters, propped open their doors. Blue-suited Watchmen worked the alleys in pairs, kicking and poking and pulling at bits of garbage to see if the bodies beneath were sleeping off cheap wine or going stiff and still.
I passed a parked undertaker’s wagon, giving the tarp-covered, black bed of it wide berth. Those lumps under the tarp would be Curfew breakers, bound for the tall grey cinder-brick smokestacks of the crematoriums down by the river. The Watch is careful to find the bodies before dark, before they rise again.
The only vampires we tolerate in Rannit have tailor-made cloaks and big houses on the Hill.
The undertaker grinned and tipped his crooked stovepipe hat as I walked past. I crossed the street in a hurry, risked a trampling by the hurried ogres, took a shortcut through the Carnival just to watch the yawning clowns cuss and smoke and stomp around in their big red shoes.
I passed the ragged tents of the Carnival, kept walking. The streets began to slope down, toward the river. The air went thick with the stench of the slaughterhouses and the leather tanneries and the paper mills. Big sixteen-horse lumber wagons thundered past, their wheels striking sparks on the broken, rutted cobblestones.
There, in the shadow of the crematorium smokestacks, one of the widow’s coins bought me a rickshaw to Market Street, a cab to the good side of the Riverfront district, and a full-blown brass-and-velvet carriage with glass in the windows and cushions on the seats for the ride across the Brown River and onto the Hill.
My carriage clattered on to the New Bridge, nearly ran down the slowest of the traditional trio of clowns who capered and danced at each end. They scattered, cursing, as the driver snapped his reigns and the team’s hooves clop-clopped sharply on the fresh cobbles. The bridge arched up and Brown River fell away below, until we rose over the water so high it actually sparkled and the stench of the cattle-barges was lost in the wind.
I grinned and waved at strangers. Carriages and coins, like the song says-I was having wild fantasies about new shoes, and a haircut.
I wasn’t fooling the carriage driver, though. He kept his lips pinched and his shaggy grey eyebrows curled in a scowl and when he called me “Sir,” he let me know he’d rather be using more colorful honorifics. He had me made for a burglar or a pimp or a blackmailer, out for a lark in the Heights, pockets full of ill-gotten gain.
“Sir,” he said, using his special tone again. “Will you be entering the grounds of the Merlat estate, or should I pull to the tradesman’s entrance at the rear?”
“You are an amusing wight,” I said with a small laugh. “Tradesman’s entrance, indeed. Haw-haw.” I let him stew.
“Just drive past, won’t you?” I said. “I need a good look at the grounds. Especially things like doors, gates, dog kennels. A man in my line has to know these things before he goes to work.”
He shut up and drove.
Massive oaks lined the streets, wide green lawns flanked the sidewalks and huge old pre-War mansions loomed up like slate-roofed mountains against the cool blue sky. The air smelled of cut grass and honeysuckle. No potholes in the cobblestone streets, no filth choking the gutters, no bodies, sleeping or otherwise, sprawled on the sidewalks-my, what a gulf the Brown River spans.
I checked street-side ward-posts for brass-wrought house numbers. Three-forty-four was a four-storied behemoth with gingerbread trim and arrowhead turrets.
Three-forty-five looked like a wedding cake with doors.
Three-forty-six, three-forty-seven-and there it was, three-forty-eight.
House Merlat. I whistled and gawked.
The front lawn was ten acres, every inch of it lush and verdant. Flowerbeds and walking gardens lined the yard and the paved carriage track. Blue spallow and red highland roses and white ardenia waved in the breeze-all the colors of Rannit’s flag.
Lurking here and there amidst the shrubs and flowers was an assortment of pigeon-spotted ornamental statuary-knights of old with swords uplifted, ruined columns surrounding pools filled with water-lilies, the odd sad angel in flowing Old Kingdom robes. A squirrel fussed at me from atop a knight’s armored head.
A dozen blood-oaks and a lone gnarled madbark tree shaded the angels and the flowers. And though someone had mowed the lawn recently, oak leaves lay where they fell. Between the unraked leaves and the early signs of shagginess in the untrimmed hedges and the walking corpses in the yard after dark, I imagined that the widow’s neighbors were waxing quite peevish.
Above the flowers and the shrubs and the oaks, though, loomed House Merlat itself.
Five stories. Four towers. Doors the size of garrison gates, windows of leaded glass, again worked with the form of Rannit’s standard and a shield-and-gryphon design that I took to be the sigil of House Merlat. The gutters and roofs were copper, green with age; the walls soot-stained granite behind a growth of unkempt ivy.
I made a quick count, found twenty-two windows on the street-face of the bottom floor alone. Twenty-two windows, and all but one of them shuttered and barred.
“Cheerful little hut,” I said. My driver grunted.
We passed it by. I had the driver turn and pass again, ignoring his subtle commentary about prisons and the Watch.
“Well, well,” I muttered. “Look at that.”
Ward-walls. I’d missed both of them the first time, too bedazzled by visions of the good life to see the telltale signs of spiked iron behind the fireflowers that bordered the Merlat lawn. I squinted, counted spikes and saw that every fifth fence-spike sported a fist-sized ball of smoky glass. The glass would glow faintly after dark-and anyone walking too close would be treated to a fatal bolt of rich man’s lightning.
The ward-walls were new, I judged. The Merlat’s rows of fireflowers, obviously planted to hide the ranks of ugly iron spikes, were all white and blue, with none of the red petals that show up after the second season.
We were only barely past when a flat, open delivery wagon, its bed filled with thick wrought-iron door and window bars worked in intricate oak-leaf patterns, pulled into the drive of the Merlat’s southern neighbors. A gang of carpenters emerged from a hedge-maze, all wiping their hands on their pants and grabbing up their tools.
Ward-walls. Bars on the windows, bars on the doors-all done in a hurry, too. The Merlat’s neighbors weren’t happy. You’d think a family of sidhe had just moved in.
Or, perhaps, a well-heeled revenant.
“Driver,” I said, shaking my head. “Let’s head for Monument Hill. I think I’ll lay out flowers on dear old ‘Nuncle’ Tim.”
He snorted and snapped his reigns and didn’t even bother with a “Sir.”
Cost him his tip, that bit of cheek.
Curfew in Rannit falls with the sun. The night belongs to the half-dead, the Watch and anybody crazy enough to risk running afoul of the former or tripping over the recumbent, snoring forms of the latter.
Curfew fell, and the big old bells on the Square clanged nine times. Before the last notes had faded Mama Hog herself was yelling “Boy, wake up,” and banging on my door.
I swung my feet off my desk, put my sandwich down on a plate and hurried to the door.
Mama Hog looked up and grinned. “The Widow Merlat found you,” she said, not asking but reporting.
“She did indeed,” I said, opening the door. “What a chucklesome old dear. She’s coming by later for tea and a seance.”
Mama cackled and trundled inside. “The Widow Merlat’s got the fear, boy,” she said. “Got it bad.” Mama plopped down into my client’s chair and started eyeing my sandwich.
“You make that?”
“It’s from Eddie’s,” I said. “Tear off a hunk.”
She tore, bit, chewed.
“You sent me a lunatic, Mama,” I said, shaking my finger. “Shame on you.”
Bite, chew, swallow. Then Mama wiped her lips on her sleeve and grinned. “She ain’t crazy, boy,” Mama said. “She’s ec-cen-tric. Ain’t that the word for rich folks?”
“She thinks her dead husband spends his evening knock-knock-knocking at her door,” I said. “Eccentric doesn’t cover that, Mama, and you know it.”
Mama shrugged and chewed.
“I have no love for the idle rich,” I said. “But I’ve got no desire to fleece sad old widow women, either.” I went behind my desk, pulled back my chair and sat. “Why not send her to a doctor or a priest, Mama?” I said. “Why me? Why a finder?”
My sandwich-melted Lowridge cheese on smoked Pinford ham-was vanishing fast. I grabbed a hunk when Mama paused to speak.
“The widow ain’t crazy, boy,” she said. “Could be she ain’t seeing things, either.”
I shook my head and swallowed. “Your cards tell you that?”
Mama Hog nodded. “Cards say she’s got a hard rain coming, boy,” she said. “Turned up the Dead Man, and the Storm, and the Last Dancer, all in the same hand. Dead Man’s rain. That ain’t good.” Mama grabbed another morsel of sandwich, guffawed around it. “But I don’t need cards to see the sun. The Widow Merlat is headed for a bad time. She knows it. I know it. You’d best know it, too.”
“Dead is dead, Mama,” I said. “That’s what I know.”
Mama grinned. “There’s other things you need to know, boy. Things about the ones that come back.”
“First thing being that they don’t,” I said.
Mama pretended not to hear.
“Rev’nants only walk at night,” she said. “It’s got to be pitch dark.”
“You can’t catch ’em coming out of the ground,” said Mama. “It’s no good trying. They’re like haunts, that way. Solid as rock one minute, thin as fog the next.”
“Sounds handy,” I said. “Do their underbritches get all misty and ethereal too, or is that one of the things man was not meant to know?”
“Don’t look in his eyes, boy. Don’t look in his eyes, or breathe air he’s breathed.”
“I won’t even ask about borrowing his toothbrush,” I said.
Mama slapped my desktop with both her hands.
“You listen,” she hissed. “Believe or not, but you listen.”
“I’ve got all night.”
“His mouth will be open,” said Mama. “Wide open. He’s been saving a scream, all that time in the ground. Saving up a scream for the one that put him there.” Mama lifted a stubby finger and shook it in my face. “Don’t you listen when he screams. You put your hands over your ears and you yell loud as you can, but don’t you listen. Cause if you do, you’ll hear that scream for the rest of your days, and there ain’t nothing nobody nowhere can do for you then.”
Silence fell. Only after Curfew do we get any silence, in my neighborhood. I let it linger for a moment.
I leaned forward, put my eyes down even with Mama’s, motioned her closer, spoke.
Mama glared. “Don’t get in his way, boy,” she said. “He didn’t come back for you. But that won’t mean nothing if you get in the way.”
“Dead is dead, Mama,” I said.
Mama sighed. “Dead is dead,” she agreed. “Sometimes, though, good and dead ain’t dead enough.”
Mama rose, brushed crumbs of my sandwich off her chin, and headed for the door.
“When you going to the widow’s house, boy?” she asked, as she turned my bolt.
“First thing tomorrow,” I said. “Going to stay a few days, see what I can see. If Old Bones shows up, I’ll stuff my ears with cotton and give him your regards.”
Mama rolled her eyes. “You watch yourself,” she said. “And not just at night.”
I frowned. “Meaning?”
Mama shook her head. “Meaning them Merlat kids would as soon gut you as say hello,” she said. “Bad ’uns, the lot of ’em.”
“Whoa, Mama,” I said, rising. “You know something about the Merlat kids, sit back down. I’m a lot more likely to run into one of them than their dear departed daddy.”
Mama didn’t go out, but she didn’t back away from the door either. “Told you all I know. They bad. All of ’em.”
“How many would that be?” I asked. “Two? Four? Ten? Tell me something I can use, Mama. That was a good sandwich you gobbled.”
Mama made a snuffling noise. “Three of ’em,” she said. “Two men. One a gambler. One on weed. One woman. Not sure what she is, but I know it ain’t good.”
“Did one of them have anything to do with Papa Merlat’s plot on the Hill?”
“I reckon they all did,” said Mama. “But not in the way you mean. You be careful, boy. Real careful.”
Then she opened my door and was gone.
I thought about following her. I’ve broken Curfew before, just like everyone else, but I didn’t get up, and Mama’s footsteps were fast and then gone.
She’d said what she meant to say. I brushed crumbs off my desk, found a bottle of beer in a drawer and settled back to watch the dark.
“This will do,” I told my driver. “Pull over.”
The cab rolled to a halt. I opened the door and hauled out my Army-tan duffel bag.
The cabbie looked down at me and wrinkled his brow. “Look, pal,” he said. “I don’t mean to tell you your business, but this ain’t the place for the likes of us come sundown.”
I’d hauled a handful of coppers out of my pocket to count out for the fare, and I was so shocked I lost my place. “What do you mean?” I asked. “I’ve got a job. I’ll be indoors. The Merlats aren’t half-dead, and even if the neighbors are they don’t bother the help-do they?”
The cabbie’s eyes darted up and down the empty, tree-lined sidewalk. “It ain’t the half-dead you need to watch,” he said, and then he pointed with his chin at the Merlat house. “It’s them.”
I put out my hand, and he took the coins. Before I could ask him anything else he snapped his reigns and was gone.
I watched him go. I considered chasing him down and asking him if he’d like more coins, but rich people tend to look down on common folk running through their lawns, so I heaved my duffel bag over my shoulder and set off for House Merlat.
I think I even whistled. It was hard not to, that morning-the sun was up, the birds were singing, I had a sock stuffed with silver and a rich man’s bed to sleep in.
A wrought-iron swing gate worked with griffins and roses opened to the Merlat’s yard, and the walk that wound through it. I opened the waist-high gate and sauntered through, watching the house. A curtain moved in the big window to the right of the front doors, and I heard, faint but clear, the tinkling of a bell.
Behind the house, dogs began to bark and snarl. I switched my duffel to my other shoulder and kept my pace steady. Marble knights and silent angels looked on as I passed, their blank eyes moving to follow my every step.
The house was set dead center of the big square yard. Ward-walls, each erected by the Merlat’s neighbors, covered three sides. The street-side front fence was just painted iron, a little more than waist high. Mama Hog could have climbed it, so if Old Man Merlat was really taking long evening strolls, he was entering the grounds from the street.
The right-most front door opened, and the Widow Merlat herself stepped squinting into the sunlight.
“I’ve been expecting you,” she said, before I’d mounted the first of the dozen tall treads that led from the lawn to the house. “Come in.”
The widow wore black, of course. She did not smile, though she did nod her head in what I took to be greeting. I guessed that the widow was not accustomed to receiving her own guests.
“Thank you,” I said. I took the door, she backed up into the shadows of the house and I stepped inside and let the door shut behind me.
I blinked and lowered my duffel. My feet made crunching noises on the white marble tiles that led down the entry hall. I could see that the hall made a tee about ten paces in, and that going right or left would take you into big dark rooms that hadn’t seen direct sun or a good dusting since the Armistice. Straight ahead, past the tee, the hall opened into a big tile-floored ballroom, and wide, curving oak-railed stairs rose out of the ballroom and wound its way to parts unknown.
There were stained-glass windows, too, somewhere high out of sight from the ballroom. I couldn’t see them from where I stood, but I could see the splatter of rainbows they cast on the white marble floor.
“You have a beautiful home,” I said.
“It was, once,” said the widow. Then she frowned. “Jefrey should have been here to see to your luggage,” she said, keeping her eyes off my battered Army duffel bag.
“Don’t bother,” I said. “I’ll manage.”
The widow cocked her head, listening, I suppose, for Jefrey’s footfalls on the tiles. I listened too, but if Jefrey or anyone else was in the house they were sock-foot and tip-toe.
I picked up the bag. “If you’ll point me to my room,” I said, “I’ll go and stow my gear. We can catch up with Jefrey later.”
The widow sighed. “You’ll be on the second floor,” she said, turning and marching toward the staircase. “You’ll be sharing the floor with Jefrey, but you will of course have rooms to yourself.”
“That’s fine,” I said, trotting to catch up. The hall was wide enough to ride four abreast, so I had no trouble sidling up beside the widow. “Before the rest of the crew shows, though, we’d better have a talk,” I said. “For starters-are you sure you want it known what I’m here to do?”
The widow didn’t slow. “I will not engage in deceit in my own house,” she said. “Those who have seen Ebed know I am right. Those who have not soon will.” She gave me a hard sideways look, then turned away and shook her head.
“You tell them who you are and what you came to do,” she said. “And you ask them what you will. If they want to stay, they’ll answer, or I’ll see them gone by sundown.”
We’d reached the foot of the stairs. I put my right hand on the rail, and gazed out at the ballroom and its acres and acres of empty white tiles. The stained-glass windows were set high on the east and west walls; each bore scenes of knights and dragons, in which the knights seemed to usually have the upper hand. The room smelled faintly of lilacs.
“We had a dance here, about the time you were born,” said the widow. “Not since.”
“Pity,” I said.
A door banged shut, and hurried footsteps made clattering echoes in the hall.
“Lady Merlat,” said a breathless voice. “Pardon, but the dogs…”
A small, white-haired man in a too-large black butler’s coat trotted into the ballroom, saw me, and stopped. His eyes went narrow, and the set of his thin, wrinkled face turned clamp-jawed and frowning.
“You’re him,” he said without cheer.
“I’m him,” I agreed. “You must be Jefrey.”
The tails of his coat reached well past his knees, and he’d rolled up the sleeves so they wouldn’t leave the tips of his fingers poking out. Jefrey was slim, probably sixty or sixty-five. He wore his thin ashen hair in an Army straight-cut that reminded me instantly of the Sarge.
I held out my hand to shake his, but Jefrey grunted and turned his gaze toward the widow.
“Begging your pardon, ma’am, but I don’t like this.”
The widow blanched. “I did not ask your opinion,” she snapped.
“You didn’t,” said Jefrey. “But after twenty-eight years I reckon you’ll hear it anyway. That man is here to take your money, and if you get anything in return it’ll be heartache and missing jewelry, and that’s a fact.”
The widow bit back a reply, turned to me and then started back up the stairs without a word. I shrugged at Jefrey and followed, and after a moment he came stomping up behind us.
“What do you know about revenants, Lady?” I asked.
Jefrey made a strangled choking sound. The widow didn’t flinch.
“The Church claims revenants don’t exist,” she said. “And yet they offer exorcism, in what two priests described to me as ‘extreme circumstances’.”
Jefrey snorted. “What means they’ll do most anything if the price is right,” he said. I almost forgave him then and there for not taking my luggage.
“Our mutual acquaintance has another view of revenants,” I said. “She claims they come back to take revenge on their killers.”
I was half-turned and eyeing Jefrey when I said it. I wasn’t sure if he’d cuss or jump or swing; I was surprised when he just shook his head and glanced at the widow.
“Is that what you believe, goodman Markhat?” she said.
“I don’t believe at all,” I answered. “And I won’t, until I’ve seen.”
Jefrey looked back at me, and some of the hostility left his face. “Thought you was here to bag a spook,” he said. “Thought some old soothsayer from the Narrows sent you.”
“I’m just here to find out who’s been tramping around Lady Merlat’s yard,” I said. “That’s all. Who, and why.”
“For sixty-five jerks a day,” muttered Jefrey. The Lady Merlat spun her head around, and her eyes blazed.
“That is enough,” she said, and it echoed. “No more!”
We’d reached the top of the stairs. The house sprawled off in three directions-one lit by dusty windows, two as dark as tombs.
I put my bag down to take a breath, and Jefrey snatched it up. “I’ll take him to his rooms,” he said. “Then we’d better see to the kitchen, Lady,” he said. “Briss and Envey quit.”
The Lady closed her eyes and took a breath. “I’ll wait for you here,” she said. “Goodman Markhat. Settle in, then find us in the kitchen. Down the stairs, take the right-hand hall, follow the sounds.”
I nodded. “Gladly,” I said. I started to ask if House Merlat had entertained walking corpses in the yard last night, but I decided it could wait.
Jefrey sped off down one of the dark halls. I followed, leaving the widow to twist her hanky and stare down at the empty ballroom. I hoped she was remembering dances and not funerals, but I had my doubts.
Jefrey halted at a big black oak door. “In here,” he gruffed as he shoved the door open. My duffel hit the floor. He stepped aside, and I poked my head in and peeped around.
“Nice,” I said after a whistle. “But where’s the jewelry?”
I was wasting my breath. Jefrey was stomping away, his boot-heels loud on the polished oak-plank floor. I shoved my duffel inside and closed the door behind me.
The bed was big and soft, and the room, once all eight windows were open, was cool and bright and airy. I lay back on the bed for a full ten minutes, just soaking up the gentle sounds of birdsongs and wind and far-off carriage wheels.
“It’s good to be rich,” I said. And then I picked myself up and left to find the kitchen and see how many well-dressed skeletons House Merlat had hanging in its closets.
At the stairs, I heard voices, wafting down from above. Two men spoke, their voices hushed, their words fast and running over those of the other-brothers, no doubt, rehashing an old argument more by rote than passion.
And then came laughter-a woman’s laughter, loud and shrill and humorless. Up until that moment, I’d set foot upon the upward stairs, intending to stroll right up and introduce myself to the Merlat children. But something in that laugh made cat-paws down my spine, and I turned to the downward stairs instead and clambered toward the kitchen. I’d meet the children soon enough, I told myself, and it might be best if Mama was there to swat their behinds and keep them mindful of their manners.
I was halfway down the stairs when a commotion broke out below. I heard Jefrey bellowing, and another man shouting, and I charged off the stairs and onto the polished marble floor just in time to see Jefrey deliver a solid blow with a shiny black walking stick to someone standing outside.
More bellowing. Jefrey raised his stick again, but the door slammed into him so hard it took him back a pair of steps. He dropped his stick to put both hands on the door and push.
The door pushed back. Jefrey grunted and cussed and heaved, but went steadily back, his boots leaving long black marks on the tiles as they slid.
I charged at the door, right shoulder first, hit it hard and kept going. Jefrey scrambled for footing but found it, and between us we slammed the door shut. Jefrey threw the lock-bolt and sagged down on all fours on the tile.
“Didn’t think they came out in daylight,” I said, puffing a bit too, just out of friendly consideration.
“Ain’t no rev’nant,” gasped Jefrey.
Outside, a beefy fist began to pound, and then Jefrey and I heard the barking and snarling that meant the Merlat dogs were loosed at last.
The pounding stopped. Jefrey sprang to the thick leaded glass panel beside the door and squinted out into the yard. “Get ’em, boys!” he shouted. “Tear ’em up!”
I turned to my panel, squinted through it. Two men dashed through the lawn, half a dozen snarling Eastern wolf-hounds at their heels. The dogs took turns leaping and biting, though they could easily have taken both men down with a single rush.
“Temple missionaries?” I asked.
Jefrey laughed so hard he went into a fit of coughing. I slapped him on the back and waited for it to pass.
“Moneylenders,” he spat at last. “Come to see young master Abad, I suspect.”
“Jefrey!” snapped the widow. I hadn’t heard her approach, not even on the tiles, for Jefrey’s hacking and sputtering. “You have no right-”
“Who loosed the dogs?” I asked, interrupting the widow. “Are there members of the staff here that I haven’t met?”
The widow turned her glare on me. “I loosed the dogs,” she said. “When it became apparent that…person was not going to leave, even when told.”
“Good thinking,” I said. I offered Jefrey a hand, and he took it and stood. “If they’re moneylenders, though, they’ll be back.”
“No they won’t,” said Jefrey. He met the widow’s glare. “She’ll send word to the banking-house, and they’ll pay off whatever Master Abad lost at the Victory Round.”
Victory Round was a gambling den. Not one of the better ones, though-it was on my side of the Brown, for starters, and with a handful of the widow’s coins and bit of a wash, even I could probably walk right in. Victory Round and dives like it were one of two things-breeding grounds for gamblers on the rise, or last stops for those whose luck and credit were long gone. I didn’t have to flip a coin to see where Junior fit in.
“Jefrey,” said the Widow Merlat. “Be still.”
Jefrey shrugged, turned his gaze back toward the glass. “They’re gone,” he announced. “I’ll go fetch the dogs.”
“I’d better go with you,” I said. “They might decide to circle back and call again.”
Jefrey picked up his walking stick, unlocked the door and threw it open. “Suit yourself,” he said. “Mind the fireflowers.”
I followed Jefrey out into the yard, and shut the door behind me.
I made a few friends that afternoon. Horga and Surn and Vlaga and Thufe, to be precise; the other five of Jefrey’s dogs, aside from the occasional sidelong glare and low snarl, would have nothing to do with me.
But after Jefrey introduced me, the four females were all lapping tongues and wagging tails. Thufe, the biggest, hairiest, most ferocious of the females, actually rolled over on her back at my feet and let me rub her belly.
Jefrey looked on with something like awe. “Ain’t never seen ’em do that,” he said, as Thufe licked my knee and made happy-puppy noises. “They hate everybody.”
I grinned. “Always did like dogs,” I said. “Better company than most people, I say.”
Jefrey nodded in agreement.
We were halfway to the street, all gathered in the dappled shade cast by the tossing boughs of a century-old madbark tree. The grass was soft and cool. Flowers swayed, birds chased and sang, and the air was breezy and sweet. Had the dogs not been wild-eyed, shaggy wolfhounds bred for fatal maiming, we’d have looked like something out of a Pastoral Period oil painting.
The widow’s head popped out of the door.
“Jefrey!” she shouted. “Put the dogs up and get back to the kitchen!”
“Yes ma’am,” said Jefrey. He rose, stretched, yawned.
“I reckon I was wrong about you, earlier,” he said, not looking at me but up at the wide blue sky. “Reckon you ain’t what I thought.”
“Jefrey!” shrieked the widow.
“It’s hard to know who people are,” I said. I rose too, as did all my shaggy new friends. “Takes time. Take the Merlat kids, for instance. I don’t know them, won’t have time to know them. You do.” I brushed twigs off my pants. “Tell me who the kids are, Jefrey. Who they really are.”
Jefrey’s face darkened, took on its usual tight-lipped, pinched expression.
“I reckon they’re a right lot of useless, bloodsucking, backstabbing bastards,” he said softly. “Monsters, all, and don’t you tell the Lady I said so.”
“I won’t,” I said. “The girl too?”
“Her especially,” said Jefrey, and he began to stomp and grind his jaw. “You mind her, finder,” he said. “She’ll come on to you, first thing, all sweets and juices. I reckon you’ll like that.”
I remembered the laugh from upstairs. “No, I won’t,” I said. “Thufe here is my only girl. Right, Thufe?”
The dog barked. I swear it did, and Jefrey nearly stumbled, so much was he surprised.
“You ain’t doin’ some mojo, are you?” he asked. “I swear, if you are-”
“I’m not doing anything,” I said. “Relax. The dogs just like me because I like them.” I paused, edged around a fireflower bed, fell back into step with Jefrey. “We had dogs in the Army. I was a handler. That good enough for you?”
Jefrey turned. “A handler? You?”
“Fifth regiment, eight brigade, out of Fort Armistead,” I replied. “Six years, one after the Truce.”
Jefrey cocked his head. “Didn’t they use dogs to sniff out Troll tunnels?”
I nodded. “We did,” I said, and Thufe looked up and licked my hand. “Don’t ask.”
Jefrey shrugged. By then, we were close enough to get on the sidewalk. The widow shouted once more, something about meeting us at the back, and the big door shut.
“Abad’s a gambler,” said Jefrey. “Diced away his inheritance in two years flat.”
“What’s he playing with now?” I asked.
“The widow’s money,” he said, ruffing the big male Hort’s neck-mane. “He borrows against the Merlat name, pisses it all away and then they show up. She always pays,” said Jefrey. “Ought to let ’em gut the rat-faced little bastard.”
We neared the corner. “What about the other brother?” I asked. “Arthur, isn’t it?”
“Othur,” said Jefrey, and he spat after pronouncing the word. “Weed.”
I nodded. “How long?”
“Long as I can recall, it seems,” said Jefrey. He was looking about now, checking windows and doors to see if the widow’s shadow fell across any of them. “Took to it when the old master left for the War. Ain’t much left of Othur now, ’cept when he’s running low. Then he gets mean. He’s the reason I lock my door at night, Markhat. Them others is bad enough-but I reckon they’re too lazy to cut a poor man’s throat for a handful of copper jerks. Othur, though-he’d kill you just to wait a day and snatch the coppers off your eyes, you mark my words.”
I nodded, kept my mouth shut. Jefrey was getting nervous, and though I wanted to ask about the daughter again, I didn’t want to put Jefrey on the spot with the widow.
We neared the kennels, and the dogs yipped and trotted. Jefrey wrestled open the top of a barrel and began to scoop out pellets of dog food.
“Here you go, you monsters,” he said, moving toward the line of bowls just inside the fence. “You done good, you did. Eat it up!”
I put my hands in the dog food, savored the smell. It was the same dry feed I’d used in the Army, and I hadn’t seen it since.
Jefrey finished feeding, shut the kennel gate. “We’ll let ‘em out at dark,” he said. Then he wiped his hands on his pants, grinned crookedly at me and held out his hand to shake.
“I reckon any man that can rub Thufe’s belly has a hand worth shaking,” he said.
I shook. Then he turned away and stomped toward the kitchen, the dogs barked their goodbyes and I followed him out of the sunlight.
“We dress for dinner at this House,” said the Widow Merlat. She rose when she said it, and the glare she turned on Othur would have sent a normal man back at least a pair of steps.
But not Othur. He just slumped against the polished cherry door casing and turned a bleary half-smile back upon the widow.
“I am dressed, Mother,” he said. His voice was thick and wet, and he pronounced each word with the slow, elaborate care that makes weed-addicts think they’re speaking normally. “Dressed much better than him.” He’d raised a pale, thin hand and pointed at me.
Abad, seated across from me, snickered. Beside me, the daughter Elizabet pretended to be furious and used the occasion as an excuse to reach down and give my knee a friendly squeeze.
“You will sit down,” said the widow, still standing. “And if you disgrace your father’s table again tonight, you shall find yourself sleeping on the street.”
Othur shrugged, ambled toward a chair. The widow followed him with her eyes. “That goes for all of you,” she said. “This man will ask you questions, after we dine. You will answer them. Know that if you insult, if you lie, I shall cast you out. Out of this house, out of the will, out of the Merlat name. Is that clear?”
She waited for nods, got grudging ones and sat.
And so we dined.
The dining room-one of three I’d found, this being the smallest-had floors of Saraway marble, shot through with gold. The walls were paneled with cherry-one was hung with tapestries, one with weapons various Merlats had borne to battles diverse. One wall sported a mahogany and glass curio cabinet full of bric-a-brac and a door that led to a wine cellar.
The wall behind the widow, though, commanded my attention. Centered upon it was a portrait of Ebed Merlat himself. He was depicted as a tall, powerful man, dressed in cavalry officer’s blues, his helmet gone, his hair white and wild and flowing in a wind. He held up a sword at least a length and a half too long to have ever been real, and the horse he was mounted upon would have been a freak, were it truly that large.
But the effect worked. You didn’t see the soldiers in the background, or the fires, or the bulking forms of Trolls encircling them. All you saw was Ebed Merlat, his uplifted sword, his fierce blue eyes. I found it difficult to meet the painted man’s gaze.
He was probably four-foot-nine in real life, I decided. Four-foot-nine, balding, and the closest he ever got to a horse like that was watching the painter sketch it out.
The widow was seated at the head of the table, directly under the watchful glare of the painted Ebed. I assumed she did this intentionally, and applauded her attention to detail.
The table was polished blackwood, the chairs high-backed, cushioned with red velvet and still about as comfortable as a stump. Over the table hung a lead-glass chandelier from which three dozen candles shone. The light should have been brighter, but the ceiling was a dark red tile, and the room just seemed to suck up the light.
Even so, I was able to get good looks at each of the Merlat children. Abad, who had arrived first for dinner, was nearly thirty. He was clean, at any rate, and his clothes were new and well-kept. He had his mother’s small sharp eyes and coal black hair and his father’s tall straight frame, but he’d missed getting a chin of any sort from either of his parents. And while the Widow sat still and silent, Abad was a fidgeting, finger-drumming, fork-twirling mess of nervous habits. So far, though, the only attention he’d sent my way had been a glare that vanished as soon as I returned it.
The daughter, Elizabet, had shown up a few moments later. She’d dressed for dinner, too, though from the Widow’s sharp intake of breath and slight paling of features I’d known that the Widow Merlat and her daughter had different ideas about dressing.
So did I, for that matter. Elizabet’s bright red, over-the-shoulder, slit-up-the-thigh dress said loads about the wearer, and most of the messages had no place being sent in the presence of one’s mother. She had slinked in slow, stopped in the doorway to speak to her mother and turned as she spoke so I’d get the full view.
I’d gotten it. Long black hair done up in Old Empire curls that fell over her shoulders and cascaded down her back. Big brown eyes under lashes done up with just the right make-up for the room and the lighting. Legs in dark silk stockings treated with a powder that made them shimmer in the candlelight.
Her voice was low and husky, and when she repeated my name she smiled with her lips and let her eyes widen just a bit. Then she looked me over and kept smiling, as though she’d just found something she’d been looking for all day.
I let her think she had me hooked, even going so far as to pour her a glass of middling good wine. The widow watched, glaring and hawklike, and once just before Jefrey barged in with a serving cart, I saw Elizabet give Abad a quick look of triumph.
Jefrey served, moving from plate to plate and filling each with food from within his steaming pans. We had duck with bread stuffing, mashed potatoes and something Jefrey called jelad cafe oromead that turned out to be a three-bean salad and a slice of ham. It wasn’t bad, either; I made sure I asked Lady Merlat to compliment the cook, though we both knew that either she or Jefrey had cooked it all.
Abad choked his down and demanded seconds and thirds. Othur pushed his around without ever lifting his fork, drank five glasses of wine and slipped a solid-silver serving knife up his sleeve when he thought no one was watching. Elizabet, like Othur, merely toyed with her food, though she did manage to eat a few beans and most of the ham slice.
The widow’s plate sat untouched. The meal was quick, with the only conversation being of the pass-the-salt variety. Finally, the widow rang a tiny silver bell, and Jefrey rolled his cart back in and began collecting plates.
“Now we talk,” said the widow, as Jefrey scooped up my plate.
“Fine, Mother,” snapped Abad. “And what are we to talk to this gentleman about?”
He said “gentleman” with a sneer.
“Do you remember what I said, Abad? About insult?” said the widow.
Before he could answer, I spoke. “I’m here to find out who-or what-has been frightening your mother,” I said. “To that end, I need to ask some questions.”
“Go ahead,” purred Elizabet. “We all want to help Mother, I’m sure. Don’t we?”
The brothers Merlat issued a weak round of yeses. Elizabet beamed and turned toward me.
“Do me first,” she said.
Jefrey threw a handful of forks into a metal pan, but I ignored him.
“Fine,” I said. “Tell me, then. Have you seen your father’s shade?”
“Oh, yes,” she said, and she drew her arms across her breast and huddled closer to me. “More than once.”
“How many times?” I asked. “And when?”
She bit her lower lip. “The first time was-oh, three months ago,” she said. “I’d come home for a few days, to visit Mother, and the dogs began to bark, and the footmen were shouting. So I opened my window-I was in my room, on the fourth floor-and looked down, and there was Father, standing there, looking back up at me.”
“What was he wearing?” I asked.
She frowned. “Shrouds,” she said. “Grey, gauzy shrouds. He had grave-mold all over his face-oh, Mother, I’m so sorry, but he did.”
“And you’re sure it was your father?”
Elizabet shook her head. “It was him,” she said. “His ghost, I’m sure of it.”
“And you’ve seen him since.”
She counted on her fingers. “Three times,” she said.
“When?” I asked. “I need dates. If you can’t recall the exact day, that’s fine, but the nearer you can narrow it down, the better I can help your mother.”
She struggled, came up with four dates, one of which was a maybe, but close-within a couple of days.
“All right,” I said. “One more thing. You know the revenant stories, that they come back to take vengeance on their killers. Tell me, then-why is Ebed Merlat coming back here?”
At that, Elizabet shrugged. “They’re only silly old wives’ tales,” she said. “Surely you don’t believe such nonsense.”
“I don’t believe-or disbelieve-in anything yet,” I said. “I’m only asking you a question-why do you think your father would come back?”
She looked away. “I’m sure I have no idea,” she said. “That’s your job, isn’t it? To find that out?”
I shrugged. “If that’s what it takes, Miss Merlat, that’s what I’ll do.”
She drained her wineglass, and I’d moved on to question Othur and Abad.
Neither was helpful. Othur spent so much time “away”, as he called it, that he had neither seen nor heard anything. And Abad grudgingly admitted that he’d been home on two of the occasions the apparition was seen, though he wouldn’t claim it had been his father. He gave me dates for both days, said he didn’t know what might drive his father out of his grave and retired early, Othur at his heels.
Elizabet soon took her leave as well. “Good night,” she’d said to me, more in promise than farewell. Then she’d sauntered away, sure I was watching her go every languid step of the way.
Jefrey came banging back in. He held a covered plate in his hand, which he took to the widow. “I see you didn’t touch a bite,” he said, plunking the plate down and removing the cloth. “You got to eat, Lady Merlat.”
On the plate was a grilled cheese sandwich and a thick dark slice of chocolate cake.
The widow sighed. “Thank you, Jefrey,” she said. Jefrey stood there and watched until she picked up the grilled cheese and took a bite. Then he left, collecting a few wineglasses and pausing to look at me with a “Well, what?” expression.
I shrugged in return. I’d gotten nothing, except the firm conviction that everyone but Othur was lying.
Elizabet’s revenant wore shrouds. The widow’s wore a burial suit. Abad’s ghost had mad red eyes and a bloody white shirt, and it screamed out the widow’s name.
Othur wasn’t lying only because he probably saw legions of revenants every night, and forgot them all with his first puff of weed in the morning. We could parade dancing Trolls past his bed, and get nothing out of him the next day but pouts and slurred insults.
I looked up at Lord Merlat’s blood-and-thunder portrait and propped my chin on my hands. What about it, Old Bones? I thought. What are you up to, and why?
The widow put down her fork, tinkle of silver on china. “Well?” she said.
I sighed. Lord Merlat’s eyes, mere dabs of paint and shadow, bore into mine.
“About what I expected,” I said. “They’re claiming to have seen something they haven’t, unless your visitor has a more extensive wardrobe than the spooks in the stories usually have.” I lifted a hand when the widow puffed up.
“Ignore me, Lady,” I said. “I do have a few questions for you, though.”
I rose, stretched, pushed back my chair. “I’m going to take two angles on this, Lady,” I said. “First, I’m going to assume that someone is dressing up in grave-clothes and taking strolls in your yard.”
“Nonsense,” said the Lady.
“Maybe,” I replied. “I’ll also entertain the notion that your husband really has returned. I’m just telling you it’s a distant second.”
“It is the truth.”
I prowled about the ornate display cases, which seemed to favor china plates and silver teapots.
“Either way,” I said, “I’ve got to work backward from your visitor in the night to the root of the problem.” I turned to face the widow. “Why would someone want to frighten you, Lady?”
“I am not frightened,” she snapped.
“Why would someone want to make you think your husband needs vengeance before he can rest?” I said. The widow’s eyes went narrow and cold. A pair of blue veins popped out on her powdered forehead.
“I do not know,” she said, snapping out each word as though she could make it hurt me.
I met her eyes, held it. She blinked first, and looked away.
I sighed. “All right,” I said. “You’ve got trouble, never mind what kind. The best kind of trouble never comes cheap. So tell me this, Lady Merlat. Are you having money problems?”
She met my eyes, glared.
“House Merlat is hardly reduced to paupery,” she said.
I shrugged. “Fine,” I said. “Wonderful. Are you causing anyone money problems?”
She swallowed, closed her eyes briefly, spoke.
“My husband invested well,” she said. “Aside from our banked assets, we receive a quarterly sum from various investing firms.” She swallowed again. “The funds are generated by careful, discrete investing. We engage in nothing rapacious. I tell you, goodman, money is not the issue here.”
“What about your will, Lady?” I asked. “How do the kids figure into that?”
Pay dirt. I saw it on her face. Her face went red, her knuckles white, before she dropped her hands into her lap.
“You said I’d get answers,” I reminded her. “I need this one, too.”
“The children will be provided for,” she whispered, after sending a furtive glance around the room. I noticed she let her gaze linger at the bottom of both doors, just to see if feet might be lurking quietly beyond. “They will not have full access to the Merlat fortune. But they will not starve.”
I considered my words. “Do they know this?”
“They do not,” she whispered. “I will present the official revision at court next week.”
“Surely you do not think-”
“I don’t think anything yet,” I said, cutting her off when her voice threatened to rise above a whisper. “But I need to know these things, Lady. It may be relevant, it may not. But I still need to know.” I paused. Jefrey’s footfalls passed by the door, continued down the hall and were swallowed up by the dark empty House.
“You’re sure the kids don’t know?” I asked again. She flushed further, glared.
“I am not a fool,” she said. “Nor am I so blind that I cannot see what they have become. They will be able keep up a pretense of wealth after I am gone-but they shall have no access to the bulk of my husband’s fortune, nor the house, nor the investments. I will not see them loot what it took us a lifetime to amass.”
“And Jefrey?” I asked. “What does he get?”
The widow swallowed. “Half a million crowns,” she said. “A year.”
“He is impertinent, rude and uncultured,” said the Lady. “But he has remained. Through it all. I cannot say that for anyone else.”
I nodded. I tried to picture Jefrey in the role of scheming frightener of old women and failed. Thufe would smell it in his heart and bite his head off.
What I could see, though, was that secrets rarely stay secret. The widow might not tell-but someone drew up the new will, someone else witnessed it and someone else filed the appeal for revision with the Court in an act that would need to be witnessed by another half-dozen Court functionaries. A dozen people probably knew. It would only take one of them to talk.
How that would bring about a charade involving revenants, I couldn’t say. But I couldn’t get the idea out of my head, either. That much money, a gambler, a weed-addict-I didn’t need Mama’s cards to see something nasty was inevitable.
“You are wrong,” said Lady Merlat, reading my face. “Money has nothing to do with this. My husband did not come back from the dead to engage in a petty squabble over the terms of a will.”
“I’d hardly call it a petty squabble, Lady,” I said. “And you’ve got to consider my point of view-that your husband isn’t out there at all. But someone is, and we need to figure out who.”
“I saw Ebed,” she said. “I tell you it was him!”
“Then tell me why he came,” I said. “What brought him back? What is this vengeance he needs, and why has it brought him back to you?”
She stood, and the look in her eyes matched that of her husband in the portrait. “I don’t know!” Her voice rang off the tiles. “He died of a fever. What vengeance shall he take? Upon whom shall he visit it?” Her eyes flashed, but she bit her lip and I could tell she was glad she wasn’t facing her late husband’s portrait.
“I don’t know, Lady,” I said. “Not yet.”
The widow sat. “Find a way,” she said, her jaw clenched tight. “Mistress Hog said you could put him to rest. She said you would find a way.”
I stood, backed away from the table. “You really ought to eat something, Lady Merlat,” I said. “And get some sleep, too. I’ll be watching tonight.”
She shook her head. “Put him to rest,” she said. Her eyes were wet, and she clenched her jaw tighter to keep it from quivering. “Please.”
I backed out of there, Ebed Merlat glaring down at me every step of the way.
Jefrey and I took up residence in the Gold Room, so called because the wall and door trim was covered with a small fortune in gold leaf that had begun to peel at all the corners. We shoved furniture around until we wound up with a pair of chairs against the wall opposite the room’s three windows.
Jefrey sat. “Well,” he said. “I reckon you’ll see something tonight.”
I sat. “Why do you say that?”
“They’re all here,” he said. He lowered his voice. “The kids. I reckon it’s one-or all-of them the old Master has come back to get.”
I frowned. “I thought you didn’t believe,” I said.
“I never said that,” he said. “I never did. I just never said I believed in front of Lady Merlat.”
“So what have you seen, Jefrey?” I asked.
Jefrey shrugged. “Not a damn thing,” he said. “Not even when Harl and the widow and that fool butler Ichabod was pointin’ and wavin’. I can’t see it, Markhat.” Jefrey shook his head, and his voice fell to a whisper. “But that don’t mean he ain’t there.”
I stared out across the lawn. Even with dusk lingering, I could barely make out the shapes of the trees and the statues through the window-glass. Three-bolt glass, I think it was called, meaning it was so thick you’d need to shoot it three times with a crossbow before it shattered. Old Bones could be out there dancing with the angels, I thought, but unless he was carrying a pair of torches, I’d never see him.
“Why do you think it’s the kids he’s after?” I said.
“They’re always here when he comes,” said Jefrey. “Always, at least one of ’em.”
I turned in my chair, recalled the notes of dates I’d made. According to the widow, the revenant had walked several times when the kids were away.
“Hold on,” I said. “That’s not what I heard.”
“Don’t care what you heard,” said Jefrey. “They were here, every time. You think the widow always knows what that bunch is up to? You think they don’t come here to hide or stash weed or defile the Master’s house whenever they take a whim?” Jefrey snorted. “They come and go as they please,” he said. “But the dogs know. Oh yes, they do.” Jefrey snickered. “Dogs was trained not to raise ruckus at the kids, early on,” he said. “Bet I could train ’em to forget that. Love to see them bastards try to sweet-talk Thufe.”
I rose, started pacing. If someone walked the grounds only when the Merlat heirs were around, there was bound to be a reason.
“Tell me about Master Merlat’s last days,” I said.
“Ask the Lady,” said Jefrey.
“I’d rather hear it from you,” I said. “The Lady seems disinclined to discuss it.”
Jefrey shrugged. “I reckon she does,” he said. “He caught fever.”
“Something out of them swamps down south,” said Jefrey. “Turned his insides into sores. Open sores in his mouth. In his nose. Ruined his eyes. His ears, too, I reckon. Got all down his throat. He’d try to talk and cough up puss and blood.”
I’d heard of it. Wet fever, it was called. Rare, and not contagious, but so nasty a fear of it lingers to this day. I wasn’t surprised the widow hadn’t named it.
Jefrey nodded. “Worst thing I ever seen,” he said. “Tried to help out. The smell-god, the smell.” He shook his head. “She never left him, though. Never did.” His gaze went up to the ceiling. “Sickroom is right above us. Door’s locked now. I think she buried the key with him.”
An odd custom, the death-room key burial. But not an uncommon one, though I hadn’t figured the Merlats as Reformists. I nodded. “And the kids?”
Jefrey snorted. “Didn’t show ’til the funeral,” he said. “Othur fell out during the service. Abad asked his mother for a loan. The girl had a screaming fight with her man of the week.” He would’ve spat, but he eyed the polished oak floor, had to swallow instead. “Bastards.”
“You say she never left him.”
“Not once,” he said, and his wrinkled face softened. “She loved him, Markhat. You mark that. I don’t know nothing about vengeance or haints or what-not, but she loved that man and he loved her and if he’s come back looking for trouble it ain’t with the Lady.”
I knew when not to speak.
Instead, I watched the light fail. Jefrey rose, lit more lamps, then sat with his shiny black walking stick across his bony knees.
“So what’s the plan?” he said after a time. “You just gonna walk outside and grab him when he shows?”
I shrugged. That was my plan, all right-wait until Lord Merlat’s shade appeared, then take it by the collar and shake it and see who fell out of the shroud. It had seemed a good plan in the cheery light of day.
Jefrey whistled. “Well, I reckon anybody that cleared Troll tunnels during the War ain’t afraid of spooks in a yard,” he said.
I put on my best war-weary veteran face, nodded and watched the darkness gather.
By the time the sun turned the windows to haze and sparkles, Jefrey and I were drinking the Lady’s too-strong coffee and nibbling at biscuits Thufe couldn’t have bitten in half.
“We didn’t see nothing, Lady,” said Jefrey, bleary-eyed. “I hope you slept.”
“I did,” she said, though she didn’t look it, and her hands had been shaking when she poured us coffee. She turned her eyes upon me. “Have you any new impressions, goodman Markhat?”
“Only on my backside,” I muttered. None of the Lady’s chairs should ever really be sat on for any length of time.
Jefrey snickered. I sipped, put down my cup. “Sorry,” I said. “I do have a few ideas, though. None you’re going to like. And none we ought to discuss unless we’re alone.”
She sighed, pulled a chair around to face us, sat. “Jefrey,” she said. “I’m filing a new will. The children will get an allowance, but be barred from the bulk of the estate. You will receive half a million crowns every year for as long as you live. If you want the money so badly that you’d kill me to get it, ask for it now and you’ll have it tomorrow.”
Jefrey went pale, dropped his biscuit.
The widow gave me the eye. “Now talk to me.”
“Fine.” I took in a breath. “I think someone is making a play against your will, Lady,” I said. “You can’t file a revision, and make it stick, if someone contests it on the basis of your impaired mental state,” I said. “It’s called the Nutty Uncle defense, and the Court has historically favored the heirs.”
The widow took in a breath and set her jaw.
“Someone who looks like Lord Merlat has been paying you visits,” I said. “You’ve been to the Watch. You’ve been to the Church. You’ve taken counsel from a Narrows soothsayer. You’ve even hired me.”
“What of it?”
“It looks bad,” I said. “Say someone drags in everyone you’ve talked to, Church and Watch and all. Say they all shake their heads and shrug and say yes, you asked them about revenants, and no, they hadn’t seen any.” I let it sink in. “Picture Mama Hog downtown, Lady. Picture her in a witness box. How many judges are going to take your side?”
Her hands went tight on the arms of her chair. She hadn’t thought of that. It had never once occurred to her that her children would do anything more than slink quietly away after having the family fortune snatched away from them.
I sighed. “So maybe what you saw wasn’t your husband,” I said.
“Then why did the dogs let him go?” she said. “How did he escape the footmen, that first night? Why do Jefrey’s beasts hide and whimper when he walks, now? Why?”
“I don’t know all that, yet,” I said, as gently as I could. “I’m just pointing out an alternative to what you must admit is a far-fetched supposition. The dead don’t walk, Lady. I’m sorry, but they don’t.”
She rose. Rose and stalked out of the room, leaving Jefrey and I alone.
“Half a million crowns. Half a million,” said Jefrey. “Hell, if they knowed that, they’d have killed me already.” He rose. “Damn, they’ll kill me as soon as they hear.”
I rose, too. Jefrey looked scared, and with reason, since the widow’s generosity had indeed made him a target.
“Hold on,” I said. “Could be they don’t know yet.”
“Could be they do.” He gripped his stick tight. “What is she thinking?”
“She’s thinking you’ve stood by her,” I said. “She’s thinking you deserve what amounts to a title and a House. So calm down and let’s figure out a way around this.”
Jefrey fell back into his chair. “You think it’s them too,” he said. “You think it’s the kids.”
“I’m not sure who, or why, or how,” I said. “But it’s the only thing that makes sense, so far. Unless you believe that Lord Merlat really does rise up and return, seeking vengeance on those who slew him.” I paused a moment, let that sink in. “And as far as I know, wet fever slew Lord Merlat, not the Lady, not his kids, not you. That is right, isn’t it? Wet fever?”
Jefrey nodded, still distracted. “Fever,” he said. He looked up at me, and his eyes were hard and angry. “What are we going to do?” he said.
I yawned. Even the widow’s coffee wasn’t going to keep me up much longer. “Keep our doors locked and our wits about us,” I said. “And from now on, if Elizabet bakes you a cake, I’d handle it with tongs and bury it quick.”
“You got that right,” said Jefrey. He stooped and picked up his dropped biscuit and put it on his tray. “May sleep with the dogs, too.”
How many times had I done just that, during the War? I shook off the memory. “Good night,” I said. Jefrey rose with an old man’s groan, gathered up trays and cups, and we shuffled away, Jefrey toward the kitchen, I toward my bed.
Thunder rolled, faint and far away. I stepped out of the hall and onto the marble-floored ballroom. The daylight that streamed through the high stained glass was weak and lead-colored.
I mounted the stairs, scowled. Just what I needed. A torrential rainstorm, perfect for chasing spooks on the lawn.
I charged up to bed and locked my door behind me.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
I rolled over, fought bed sheets and blinked at the weak sunlight sneaking past the curtains. It couldn’t be much past noon.
“Master Markhat is not to be disturbed,” I yelled when the blows on my door subsided. “Leave a bag of money at the door and go away.”
Jefrey guffawed. “Beggin’ yer Lordship’s pardon,” he said, “but get your lazy ass out of your borrowed bed and come on down here. It’s after four. You’ve got a letter from your soothsayer friend.” He hit the door again, just for spite. “There’s coffee waiting.”
I groaned, threw off sheets, squinted at the windows. After four?
I dressed, dragged a comb through my hair, splashed water in my face.
Jefrey was waiting in the hall, a cloth-wrapped biscuit and ham in his hand. “Here,” he said in a whisper. “I baked these. You can chew ’em without a grind-stone and a chisel.”
I took it and gulped it down as we walked. “You said I had a letter,” I said between bites.
“You got one and the Lady got one,” said Jefrey. “I feel all left out.”
I guffawed. “Don’t,” I said. “It’ll just be more dire warnings about spooks and haints and things that go bump.” I swallowed. Give the man credit-he could bake a biscuit. “Load of back-country nonsense.”
“I reckon,” said Jefrey. “But whatever was in the Lady’s shook her up.”
I frowned. Stay out of this, Mama, I thought. You stick to card reading and let me wrestle the jilted heirs.
“The kids still here?”
“They’re here,” replied Jefrey. “Stayed up in their rooms all day. But they was all in Elizabet’s rooms when I took ’em up lunch. They’re up to something.” Jefrey slowed at an intersection of dark, silent halls and glared at the shadows. “Better be on the look-out for ’em, you had.”
“I plan on it,” I replied. We reached the stairs and clambered on down. Lightning made brief whirls of color on the ballroom floor as we descended, and rain began to beat against the window-glass and fall in a muted roar upon the far-away slate roofs.
The widow was waiting for us at the bottom of the stairs. A silver tray sat on a table beside her. The room smelled of too-strong coffee.
“Good afternoon, goodman,” she said to me. “Will you have coffee with us?”
“I will, thank you,” I said. A pair of envelopes was also on the tray, behind the trio of white china cups. One envelope had been opened. One had not.
“Jefrey told you we have letters from Mrs. Hog.”
I nodded. Jefrey poured. The widow picked up my envelope and handed it to me.
“Here is yours. Shall we retire to the front room?”
I shrugged, took the letter and the cup Jefrey stuck in my hand. The widow’s coffee was too hot and too strong, and she was saving money by eschewing cream or sugar, but I drank it anyway as we walked.
We wound up in the Gold Room again. Rain washed down over the windows, and a rising wind whipped occasional gusts of spray against them. The Lady lit a tall, skinny oil-lamp and bade us to sit.
I plopped down in the same chair I’d passed the night upon, put down my coffee, and ripped open Mama’s letter.
“Boy,” it read. I doubted the widow’s had been so informal. Mama’s spidery hand went on. “He’s coming. Coming back tonight. This won’t be like the other times. He was more shadow than substance, before. But not tonight. Tonight he’ll be as solid as a rock.”
I lifted an eyebrow, felt the widow’s gaze upon me and made my face relax. Jefrey guzzled coffee, his eyes closed, his thin frame spread limp over his chair.
I turned back to Mama’s letter. “This storm is his doing. Look outside at it, and you’ll know something of his rage. Take a good look, boy. If you’ve got any fool notions about running outside and grabbing him, you look at that sky and you think again.”
“I was hoping you’d have time to find the truth and bring it to light,” Mama wrote. “I was hoping you could lay Ebed Merlat to rest before he came like this. But there ain’t time. Not anymore. He’s coming, and you can’t stop it. So you stay with the widow. Stay and do what needs doing. Stay and do what she can’t, or won’t, do. You’ll know when the time comes.”
I turned the page. I was expecting more words, all done up in Mama’s best Wise Old Crone style. Instead, there was nothing on the paper but an intricate doodle, crooked and wandering in the middle of the page.
My eyes blurred, and a sudden sharp ache pounded in my temple, and I felt an instant of dizziness, as if the widow’s overstuffed sitting chair suddenly rose up and spun me twice about.
The doodle on the page writhed and blurred.
I tore my eyes away, covered the second page with the first and bit back a curse word, but it was too late. I felt cat-paws down my spine and knew the feeling, from my days in the Army. I’d been hexed, only this time it wasn’t for night-sight or bug-away, cast by a grumpy field sorcerer on our wide and shuffling ranks.
No, this time it was by Mama and her third-rate hex sign. I blinked and lowered the letter, felt the widow’s piercing gaze upon me and tried to soften my scowl but had no luck.
Mama, I thought, this time you’ve stepped over the line.
“What is it?” asked the widow. “Bad news?”
I shook my head. My vision was clearing, and the pounding in my head subsided, but I could still feel Mama’s hex tip-toeing across the skin on my neck.
“Mrs. Hog has her usual advice to me,” I said. I folded the letter. “And, as usual, I find that our opinions differ.”
The widow smiled, as though I’d just said something funny, or something Mama predicted I’d say in her letter to the widow.
Thunder rolled and I jumped, because in the blast I thought I heard a voice, almost heard a word.
Mama’s hex tweaked my nose, made it itch. I frowned and shoved the letter back in its envelope. Jefrey opened his eyes and turned them toward me.
“Bad storm a comin’,” he said idly. “Dead man’s rain.”
I glared at him, realized he hadn’t spoken a second time. Mama’s hex whirled and preened.
I thanked the widow for the coffee, claimed a need for a wash and made for the stairs, resisting the urge to stomp and mutter.
Thunder rolled, each peal more like a shout than the one before it. Shadows flew, scampering beside me down the dark halls, beckoning and inviting at each turn, crooking their fingers at each closed and quiet door. As I walked, I passed through places both warm and cold, heard snatches of music, jumped at a loud and broken sob.
“Thank you Mama,” I said aloud, upon entering the empty ballroom. “Just what I needed. A headful of things that aren’t there.”
I blinked, and the floor was full of dancers, all twirling and dipping in time to music drowned out by the thunder.
I charged up the stairs to splash water in my eyes and think of ways to repay Mama her thoughtful generosity.
I bathed in a cast-iron bathtub, changed clothes and paced around my room, hoping Mama’s hex would wear off before I had to go back downstairs, or that I could at least figure out what she’d done to me. Had no luck on either front. I could still see shadows leap at the edge of my vision after bathing, but I couldn’t see any obvious structure in the nature of the hex. Pinching the bridge of my nose didn’t help, either, which gave rise to the disturbing notion that Mama knew something about hex-signs that the Army sorcery corps didn’t.
I plopped down on my bed and opened my duffel. Thunder grumbled and coughed. I frowned, wondering if Mama’s hex was extending to my hearing as well, because I could almost make out voices in the thunder and the smash of rain.
I found my bag within the bag, opened it, pulled out the things I’d hoped I wouldn’t need. I had a lead-weighted knocking stick-easy to conceal under a jacket, yet quietly effective on hostile noggins; just the thing for strolls through my neighborhood just before Curfew. That, my Army knife, a pair of brass knuckles and a single unused Army-issue flash-spell wafer that might or might not light up when I broke it in half.
I sighed and shoved things in pockets. Mama’s hex showed me a glimpse of flames when I touched the flash-spell, and when I put my knife in its ankle-sheath I smelled the warm wet stench of a Troll tunnel again.
I jerked my hand away, rose, straightened my shirt. The rain smashed against my window, driven by a burst of wind that howled and blew and beat like a coastal gale. Lightning sent skeletal shadows snaking across the floor, and the hex made them linger.
I made for the door. I passed a window, and thought about what Mama had said-that this storm was Ebed Merlat’s, that to see his rage and fury, one need only look to the sky.
Mama’s hex showed me anguished faces in the windswept clouds. I walked away and shut the door fast behind me.
The storm grew worse. The daylight all but failed. Jefrey, the Widow Merlat, and I gathered in the Gold Room and watched the rain and the lightning and listened to a loud, old, silver goblin-clock tick off the moments.
There wasn’t much talk. Each of us seemed content to stare out at the storm, which had become as mesmerizing as any blazing campfire. I tried a few early prods and digs about the will and the children, but got nothing but glares and nods from the widow and grunts and sighs from Jefrey, so I let it drop.
The kids remained in their rooms, aside from Elizabet’s single foray downstairs for coffee and cold cuts from the kitchen. She even dressed for the occasion-high-slit skirt and cross-tied peasant blouse she hadn’t had time to finish lacing all the way-and hinted that she might need help with the tray. Jefrey ignored her, and Mama’s hex showed me skull and hollow eyes through the too-white skin of her face, so I affected a sudden interest in the window and she stalked off, glaring at my back.
The dogs raised doggy Hell once, just before dark. Jefrey groaned, rose and bade me sit.
“It’s only that fool grocer Vernon,” he said. “Right on time. Anybody with any sense would wait till tomorrow.” He sighed and rose. “Now I’ll have to unload it in this mess.”
I went with him, flash-paper concealed in my left hand. But it was only a wagon, a driver and a week’s worth of cabbages and carrots. I stood in the door while Jefrey and the driver hauled in crates, but no one and nothing entered the yard or the House but us and assorted green leafies.
The leaden sky grew darker. Jefrey and I made the rounds, checked every window, checked every door. I noted that of late, housecleaning at the Merlat estate meant gathering up piles of dirty laundry or dirty dishes and shoving them in stacks behind locked doors. I pretended not to notice and Jefrey pretended he didn’t care. And if either of us noticed that we were unconsciously preparing for trouble neither of us mentioned it.
The storm raged on, and Mama’s hex had me jumping at shadows. Jefrey had ghosts of his own, I suppose. I saw him turn quickly away from a mirror once, face ash pale, eyes wild.
“Nasty storm,” he said, shaking off whatever he’d seen. “Reckon it’ll blow itself out right soon.”
I didn’t think so, but I just nodded and lit a fresh candle.
The goblin-clock clicked and spun and gonged out the first hour of the night.
I sat and watched the lightening.
The storm raged and flailed and beat. There was scarce silence now, between the peals of thunder. The Merlat lawn was lit by lightening, showing blood-oaks bending and whipping and tossing. Paper-trash and bits of debris rode the wind, scampering across the grass in herds, tangling in the fireflower beds and thrashing, trapped and melting, in the face of the furious rain.
But Ebed Merlat did not walk. Sometimes I saw shadows fly, but they were just that-shadows, and rain and storm. I wondered why Mama’s pet hex wasn’t turning the lawn into a spook show.
Probably, I reflected, because it was too busy turning House Merlat into one. Seated in my chair in the Gold Room, I heard snatches of faraway music, heard laughter and footfalls and once even a baby’s cry from beyond the gold-gilt door. I smelled lilacs and a heady perfume and once the stench of meat rotting. Sounds and scents all faded when I turned my attention to them. Phantoms?
Some of the voices were familiar. Some of the music I knew.
Phantoms, perhaps-but whose?
This was Ebed Merlat’s storm, according to Mama. I listened to voices I knew weren’t there, and I began to wonder just what else had blown in with Lord Merlat’s angry tempest.
Voices joined the thunder. Mama’s hex stirred, and I almost made out the words.
“This is crazy,” I said, and I bounded out of my chair and stretched. Lightening struck right in the yard, rattling glass and ringing my ears, but Jefrey didn’t budge. In fact, he began to snore.
“Wake up,” I said, clapping my hands. “Wake up or I’m liable to start looking for jewelry to steal.”
I walked over to him, put my hands on his right shoulder, shook him. Shook him again, harder this time.
His head lolled, fell chin-down on his chest.
On the floor, on the far side of his chair, his coffee-cup lay where he’d dropped it. Something black and thick like tar had oozed out of it and pooled in a shiny black drop on the floor.
Even the widow’s coffee shouldn’t have done that.
I slapped Jefrey, hard. His head just flopped, but his eyelids never moved.
Thunder broke again, shook the House so hard lamp-flames flickered. I checked Jefrey’s pulse, found it and peeled back an eyelid to check his pupils.
While I did so, all the hair on the back of my neck stood on end, and though my back was to the window I knew in my bones that if I turned, if I looked, that Ebed Merlat was just beyond the three-bolt glass, waiting to meet my gaze.
“Two years in the grave,” came a whisper. “Dead mouth wide open.”
I bent and picked Jefrey up and heaved him over my shoulder. “Go,” said a voice, close by my ear. “Just go.”
The voice was that of the Sarge. The window at my back radiated cold, like a chunk of a Northland glacier shoved up tight against the House, white ice resting on the window-glass.
“Saving up a scream,” came a whisper.
A child’s hand slipped into mine. I looked to my feet, saw nothing, heard a soft giggle.
The hand in mine tugged me toward the door.
I went. I flung the gold door open, banged Jefrey’s head on the jamb lunging through and banged it again when I pulled the door shut.
The Hall went left and right. It was lit by two lines of new white candles, each standing in a brass dragon’s-claw set, eye-level along the walls.
One by one, starting at the left end of the Hall, the candles began to go out.
I turned and charged to my right.
“I cannot,” came a shout. I heard it, though it was faint and shrill and it sounded in the midst of an awful blast of thunder. It came from above. From the sick-room, locked and shut, the key buried with Ebed Merlat.
“I cannot,” it came again. “I love you.”
And this time, in the thunder, I heard the words “You must.”
Jefrey’s head struck a candle-holder. “Sorry,” I muttered. Then the Hall opened into the tile-floored foyer, and I stepped well away from the door and hid myself as best I could in the shadows at the edge of the candlelight.
Jefrey was as limp as a sack, but his breathing was steady and his pulse was strong. I thanked fate I’d only sipped the widow’s bitter coffee and hoped it had been laced with a sedative and not a poison.
Jefrey was getting heavy. I shifted him around, and I was deciding what to do next when I heard the sound of someone chopping wood.
I shook my head and pinched my nose. The sound of music from the ballroom faded, but the chopping sound continued.
Meaning it was real. Meaning that someone upstairs had an axe, and unless they were carving garden-gnomes, I figured they were chopping at a door.
The widow’s door.
All the servants gone. Jefrey and Markhat left insensate by drugged coffee. The widow alone in her room, too frightened to flee outside the House, too weak to fend off villains within.
Say you were a jilted heir. Say you decided the widow couldn’t file a new will if she, for instance, accidentally fell down three or four flights of hard granite stairs while fleeing from a revenant that everyone knows doesn’t exist. What if you told the Watch that Jefrey quit and left the country? What if you told them a finder named Markhat had departed the day before, after arguing with the widow and storming away, his pockets full of her money?
They’d shake their heads, make “there, there” sounds and quietly collect their inheritance tax and that, as they say, would be that.
“I cannot,” came the shout again. It was a woman’s voice. “You must,” spoke the voice in the thunder. “If you love me you must.”
And crash, came down the axe.
I lowered Jefrey to the floor, slipped off my shoes, picked him up again and padded across the dark ballroom. There was a cloak-closet just on the other side. I found it, got it open, and buried Jefrey beneath a pile of rugs I found in the back.
Music rose up when I turned, and in a flash-lit instant the room was full of dancers. They turned and they stepped and they twirled, and each face they lifted toward me was that of a grinning skull.
I blinked, and the floor was empty.
I reached down, took my knife from its ankle-sheath and closed the door on Jefrey’s muffled snores.
Footsteps sounded from down the darkened hall I’d just quit. They stopped at the Gold Room, and weak light filled the hall when someone opened the door to the lamp-lit room and stepped inside.
“Too late, kids,” I whispered. “Maybe another time.”
I darted across the ballroom floor. The air was chill in places, and once something cold stroked my neck, but I reached the foot of the stairs and charged up it sock-foot.
Halfway to the second floor, I heard toenails clack and scrape on the stones at my feet. Dog toenails. I pinched my nose, but the scritch and scrape continued, and were joined by panting.
Something warm and wet butted my right forearm and drew away. The dog-stink intensified, became at once familiar.
Petey had been my dog, in the Army. In the tunnels. In the dark.
I pinched my nose. Petey was dead.
I smelled wet dog. You can’t mistake the scent of a big dog just come in from the rain.
Petey butted my forearm again. Time to get to work, boss, that meant. He’d always done that, when he thought my attention was wavering.
“Damn you, Mama,” I said.
Petey butted me, yipped. No time to get wistful. Not here in the dark.
I sprang up the steps, two at a time, quiet as a ghost in my sock feet. It’s only Mama’s hex, I thought. It’s only Mama’s hex, and a storm, and three long sips of the widow’s drugged coffee. I’ll be seeing Regents and dragons next.
I could hear the axe bite oak clearly now, and I knew that it, at least, was real.
Petey, he of the brave heart and the warm tongue and the white ring around his good left eye, Petey who lay buried in a weed-choked ditch five hundred miles and a dozen long years away, raced ahead and showed me the way.
Drugs or hex or haunts or all, by the time I reached the fourth floor-the widow’s floor-the dark was alive about me.
Petey was a dark bundle of shadows trotting steady at my feet. Voices spoke out beside me, others sang, others whispered or cursed or wailed or cried. Faces formed in the flames of the few lit candles that lined the walls, their mouths open, imploring, silent and small and gone with a blink or a flicker.
I’d pinched my nose so many times it had begun to bleed. I’d not noticed until I saw blood on my hand, and it was only then that I realized my fingers were going numb.
I shook my head.
“I cannot,” said a voice that silenced all the others. “I cannot, do not ask that of me, oh God I cannot.”
Petey butted my arm, halted and made a low, soft growl.
We left the stairs. The axe-blows stopped. I followed Petey’s stiff-legged stalk to an intersection of halls, laid myself flat and careful against the wall. After making sure I wouldn’t dislodge any decorations-this was no time to knock down a portrait of old Aunt Hattie-I sidled up to the corner and pinched my nose hard one last time and listened.
“You idiot,” hissed Elizabet. “Why didn’t you just get the key?”
“She never let it out of her sight,” replied Othur. “How was I supposed to get it? Why didn’t you?”
“I’ll be through it in a minute,” spoke another voice, one I didn’t know. “Damned door must be two feet thick.”
Judging that they were sufficiently far away, and that the hall between us was dark, I peeped around the corner.
Othur and Elizabet stood together, an axe-swing’s distance from a bald behemoth of a man, who stood panting, leaning upon his axe.
I pulled my head back before anyone saw.
“Get back to work,” snapped Elizabet. “We don’t want them waking up before we’re done.”
The big man grunted, and an instant later the axe fell.
“Talo and Abda ought to be back by now,” said Othur. “Think they had any trouble?”
“With who? Jefrey, or that idiot from the Narrows?’ Elizabet snorted. “They’re both as dead as Daddy by now,” she said with that same laugh I’d heard that first day on the stairs. “Think they’ll come back to get you, too?”
Petey licked my hand. You might not believe now, I thought. But I bet you will before sunrise.
Petey whirled and growled, and I heard footsteps-booted, hurried footsteps from at least two men-sound down on the stairs.
We scooted out of there. Petey led the way, and I followed. Just like old times.
We wound and we wound and we wound, until the halls got narrow and the doors got smaller and the storm felt like it was just inches above our heads. The axe continued to fall, and I heard snatches of a brief argument, and then all the voices but those of the hex fell silent.
Petey led me to a door, stopped. And though he was nothing but hex and poison and memory, he wagged his tail, and I saw.
The door-latch turned, the door opened and there stood the widow, wide-eyed.
I raised a finger to my lips, and she bit back her words. I stepped inside, pushed the door shut. Lightning flared, and the widow’s eyes went wide, and I knew she was seeing the blood on my face.
“It’s nothing,” I whispered. “Good to see you. Why aren’t you in your room?”
“Mrs. Hog warned me to seek a secret place tonight,” she whispered. She bit her lip to stop its trembling. “Have you seen him? He’s out there. Can you hear him?”
I shook my head. Maybe she didn’t know. “I’m more concerned about your sons,” I said. “You know they’re at your door. With an axe, and at least two men.”
“I cannot,” came the cry again. “I cannot!”
The widow did not hear; instead, she nodded. “I know,” she said in reply to me. “I heard the sounds, went out. I saw.” She set her jaw, and did not cry. “What are we to do?”
“You must,” came a voice in the thunder. I pinched my nose and the widow winced.
“We’ve got to get downstairs,” I said. “They’ll be through the door shortly. When they find you gone, they’ll go room to room. We’d better not be here for that.”
“But-outside-Ebed is there, outside.”
“No, he isn’t,” I said. “He’s dead. He’s gone. The man with axe is very much alive.”
She shook her head. I heard the cry again ignored it.
“We’re going to go downstairs,” I said. “We’re going to get Jefrey. Then we’re going to a neighbor.”
She started to argue. I cut her off.
“What did Mama tell you?” I said. The axe blows fell faster now. Even House Merlat’s pre-War, solid oak doors weren’t going to hold them back much longer. “What did she say?”
The widow said nothing, but she looked me in the eye, nodded once.
“Let’s go,” I said. I stepped into the hall and let Petey lead the way into the dark.
We made it down the stairs. We hid once, at the top of the second floor landing, while Abad and a hireling-a man even bigger than the axe-man upstairs-trotted past, cussing and panting.
Abad’s friend had a crossbow. Not a big fat Army-issue Mauser, but a sleek black rig narrow enough to slip easily through doors and poke around corners. Probably had a killing range of only thirty feet, but that’s just fine for the odd bit of murder in our better stately homes.
We all held our breath. Mama’s hex showed me faces in the walls but was quiet while Abad and his crossbow-fancying friend passed.
We waited until the sound of their passage and the last faint glow from the lamp they carried was gone, and then I took the widow’s hand and we darted down the stairs. She moved well, and the soft-soled shoes she’d chosen were as quiet as my socks. And at least her customary black garb let her blend in well with the shadows.
At the foot of the stairs, I listened, heard only cries and moans. I led the widow to the shadowed alcove by the stairs and motioned for her to be still.
“Jefrey,” I whispered, and pointed toward the door to his closet. “Wait.”
I went, Petey at my side, ghostly dancers twirling about me. Blink they were there-blink again, gone. I put my ear to the door.
“I cannot, no, I cannot.”
“Quiet,” I hissed. Then I heard Jefrey snore, and I opened the door.
While I gathered him up, I pondered my next move. It seemed simple enough-just sneak out the front and wake the Watch. The storm would hide us. Once away, we’d be impossible to find. With luck, they’d not know we were gone until the Watch came and told them.
I slung Jefrey over my shoulder and stepped back out into the ballroom and blinked away the phantom dancers about the time a crossbow clicked and sent a bolt all the way through my left arm, just above the elbow.
The widow shrieked and thunder boomed, loud enough to rattle windows. I dropped Jefrey and went down on one knee, trying to find the man in the shadows so I’d know which way to run.
Lightning flared and I found him, crouched in the dark on the other side of the staircase, five steps from the widow.
He lowered the crossbow, grinned, pulled out a long knife. He shouted something to his friends, but it was lost in the thunder.
Petey snarled. I’d heard that same snarl only half a dozen times, down in the tunnels. It was pure wolf, pure rage, sudden promise of a torn throat, of a leap and a bite and a wet red gush of blood.
The man heard it too. He heard it and he whirled, seeking its source, and a sudden rush of shadows broke from my side and threw itself full upon him.
He fell. He flailed and kicked for a moment, long knife whipping and slashing and striking sparks off the tiles.
I rose. Blood ran down my arm, kept running, and I could feel it rush out new with each heartbeat. But I rose and stumbled toward the man, halfway there before I realized my own knife was gone, dropped, probably under Jefrey and too damned far away.
The widow stepped out of the shadows, a red-on-yellow Hang fish-urn in her hands. Without ceremony, she lifted it high above her head and hurled it down upon the man still wrestling emptiness on the floor at her feet.
He rolled. She missed. The urn shattered, and the man cursed and rolled and caught her right knee with his hand. The widow screamed and kicked him hard in the face.
I leaped. He hadn’t seen me coming. Lightning cracked and burned, just past the stained-glass windows set high up in the walls, turning the floor red and green and a dark royal blue. I had just enough light to land a punch hard in his throat and shove my right knee hard into his groin as I fell. He gasped and I hit him again and then the widow pressed a long thin knife in my right hand and I buried the narrow blade deep in his throat.
He gurgled and went still. The widow pulled me up. The sharp end of the bolt stuck out of my arm, flopping loose, but at least it hadn’t lodged in the bone. Then I saw the blood begin to pool at my feet, felt the giddiness that comes as harbinger to shock.
“Got to get this wrapped up,” I said. “Got to get out.”
The widow bit her lip. Then she reached out and snatched the bolt free from my flesh.
I nearly passed out. She propped me up and took off her scarf and tied it tight around the wound.
“Get up, boy,” said a voice. The widow heard it too.
“Get up. You ain’t done yet.”
Behind us, Jefrey groaned and stirred. I blinked back tears, began to hear music again-though this time, it was a funeral dirge.
“Got to get out,” I said. I rose, managed to step over the dead man and take up his blade. “Got to go.”
The widow rushed to Jefrey’s side. She had him sitting up when I got there, and he even tried to open his eyes. But he wasn’t walking, and I wasn’t carrying him.
Shouts sounded, up the stairs, and I saw the flash of a lamp.
We took Jefrey between us and stumbled away. I steered us toward House Merlat’s tall, wide doors, but then I heard a warning growl beneath the thunder and saw dark shapes mass in the shadows ahead.
The widow halted. “See!” she hissed.
I squinted, looked. There-was that light? Down the hall, past the doors?
“This way,” cried Elizabet. “Check the closets!”
I cursed. The door was that way. The door and the lawn and the Watch-but we’d never beat Elizabet there, and whoever might be with her.
The widow yanked us around. “This way,” she said, panting under the burden of Jefrey’s weight and my own growing weakness. “There’s a safe-room.”
“I cannot,” wailed the voice, through Mama’s hex. “I cannot, please, please, no.”
Footsteps sounded, behind the light.
We went. I tried to remember hallways, tried to place windows and turnings and ways. Was there a sitting room to the right, with windows that might be opened? Where was the hall that led to the pantry?
But Mama’s hex filled the darkness with faces, and as my arm began to throb in earnest, my head seemed to swell and grow light. I could smell Petey’s wet musk, feel his breath hot and moist at my knees. I heard mourners cry amid the music now, and as we passed down yet another hall, it seemed that we merely joined a line of weeping shades already bound for the faint, faint light at the end of a long, cold tunnel. They shuffled and they moaned as they walked, and just as I realized I was moaning softly with them, Petey reached up and bit my hand.
I jumped and pulled the sagging Jefrey up so that his knees no longer dragged on the floor.
“In here,” said the widow. She let Jefrey go, fumbled with the latch and key. And then the door opened with a groan, and Jefrey and I fell inside.
“What is this place?” I asked. “Is there another door?”
“There they are!” shouted Elizabet, from down the hall. Someone answered, though who it was and what they said was lost to the thunder. “Wait, Mother!” she shouted. “There’s someone here I want you to meet!”
The widow heaved the door shut. More clicks and throws sounded in the dark, and after a moment I heard a crossbar being dropped.
Blows sounded on the door. “Oh, do come out, Mother,” shouted Elizabet from the other side. “Don’t be an old bore! Isn’t Daddy waiting for you, just outside? Haven’t you seen him, calling for you?”
The widow didn’t reply. I heard her fumble in the dark, open a drawer and lit a match.
I looked about. The room was maybe ten-by-twenty, no windows, one door. The walls and floor were plain, smooth stone, bare and unadorned. The ceiling was of banded iron. The only door, the one the widow had just barred, was also fashioned of old banded iron.
Chairs lined one wall. A dusty cask sat in a corner. I was betting it was dry and empty.
“Safe,” chuckled the voices. I groaned and let myself sink to the floor.
The pounding on the door ceased. “I’ll be back soon with the others, Mother,” said Elizabet. “I’ll bet Roger has a chisel in his bag. You’ll like Roger, Mother. He’s such a dear. I doubt he’ll even hurt you much, before he breaks your neck.”
Then she laughed, and the room fell silent.
I gasped. My arm throbbed and I imagined it was swelling and wondered if it would soon burst. The widow helped me up, tried to move me toward a chair.
“Rest,” she said. “They’ll not be soon through that door.”
“They don’t have to be,” I said. I turned, put my hands upon the cold, rusty iron. “They can take their time, chisel away the hinges. Might take two days.” I licked my lips. My mouth was so dry I could barely speak. “How long can we stay here?” I said. “How long will we last?”
The widow opened her mouth and quickly shut it. I watched the realization sink in-the realization that we had neither escaped nor found safety.
My head reeled, but I stood. “We’ve got to go,” I said. “Before she gets back. Let them think we’re in here.” I reached for the latch.
The widow knocked my hand away. “No!” she cried, her voice loud in the small bare room. “No! We cannot. We cannot open the doors.”
“I cannot,” came an answering cry, and now I knew the voice. “Do not ask that of me.”
The widow whirled, and sobbed, and I knew she heard it too.
The room flickered in the widow’s shaky candlelight, and Mama’s hex and my blood loss and shock rose up and conspired to show me another room, and another time. I saw Lord Merlat on his deathbed, saw the Lady Merlat-not yet the widow-kneeling at his side. “I cannot,” she cried over and over. “Do not ask that of me.”
She clenched a dark bottle in her hand. Medicine. A certain amount brings ease. More than that-and perhaps the doctors even stressed this, as the wet fever raged-more than that brings peace.
“I love you,” she sobbed, and this time her mouth moved silently with the phantom words from the hall. “I love you, but I cannot take your life away.”
“My God,” I said. The room spun, and I was back with the widow and the doors of rusty iron. “You think that’s why he’s back? You think he came for you because you couldn’t kill him at the end?”
She couldn’t meet my eyes. She looked away, the matches fell from her hand and she sank to her knees.
“I cannot,” cried the phantom.
She let out a wracking, wordless sob that sounded louder than all the thunder, all the hex-cries still ringing in my ears. She sobbed and caught her breath, and her thin body shook.
“He begged me,” she said, after a moment. “So much pain. I wanted to. I tried to. But. God forgive me. I couldn’t kill my Ebed.”
I backed away, toward the door. The throbbing in my arm rose into my shoulder, crept toward my neck. Dark spots began to dance before my eyes. Poison, I thought, and heard laughter in the distant storm.
Something wet stroked my good hand. Petey tugged at me, scratched at the door.
Do what needs doing, boy.
You’ll know what that is, when the time comes.
I lifted the crossbar. The widow didn’t see what I was doing until she heard the latch click.
“No!” she cried, but I opened the door.
The hall was empty. Thunder grumbled. I stepped outside, turned.
“Lock it again,” I said. “Lock it. And cover your ears.”
“You can’t go out there!” she screamed. “You can’t!”
“I’m not,” I said. I hesitated. Words were getting hard to form.
“It isn’t vengeance,” I said. “It never was.” I licked my lips, panted a bit, forced it out. “The kids know about the will. Know you’ve got to have an accident before you make it legal.”
Jefrey moaned, pawed at the air.
“He only came back on the nights the kids had plans for you,” I said. “He came back to save you. Came back to rouse the house. It isn’t vengeance he’s after, Lady. And it isn’t you.”
She wept. If she heard, I couldn’t tell.
I reached, and pulled, and shut the door.
I turned. Petey took his place at my feet. The hall tilted and pitched and I had to put my hand on the wall just to stay upright. If Elizabet and her brothers and their friends showed up while I was in that hall, I’d be joining the phantoms. The line of mourners still walked, but I pushed past them and stumbled back the other way.
Toward the doors. Toward the big dark double doors. I reached the ballroom, slipped on my own blood where it smeared the tiles, crawled until I reached the stairs. Then Petey nipped at my butt, and I stumbled to my feet and followed the lightning-flashes to the door.
I hid once, when the Merlat children came racing down the stairs, spilled onto the tile floor and went scampering off down the hall. I counted five-three Merlats and two angry henchmen, probably brothers to the man I’d just killed.
I held my breath and prayed none of them had the sense to look down and realize what those smears on the floors meant. But they raced away, toward the pantry, not the widow’s safe-room. Fetching more tools, I decided. Chisels and hammers this time.
I crawled toward the doors. Voices rose up around me. Petey clawed at the latch and whined and urged me on with yips and barks.
I reached the door, rose up, took the latch, got blood all over it. The dark spots before my eyes swelled and spun.
“I loved you,” cried the widow, and somehow I heard.
“She did, you know,” I said. And then I pulled myself up, turned the latch and opened the right-hand door.
The storm spilled inside, rain pouring, wind whipping, cold blast rushing. It blew the door back wide, caught the left-hand door, flung it open too, knocked me back and down on my knees.
I let the cold rain spray my face. The voices and the shadows grew dim, Petey whined and I opened my eyes.
At first, I saw only darkness. But then lightning flashed, Petey growled and there, on the lawn, was Ebed Merlat.
Ten long strides away, grave clothes wet and whipping, face pale, eyes rotted away, mouth wide open in a frozen lipless scream.
He walked for the open doors. Each time his grave-boot fell, thunder wracked the tortured sky. He lifted his stiff yellow hands and the wind howled and roared anew-and in the thunder, I was sure I heard the beginnings of a long, loud scream.
“All them years in the ground, boy,” said the voices. “Savin’ up a scream.”
He turned his eyeless face upon me, and I am not ashamed to say I rose and ran stumbling away.
Petey herded me with nips and yelps toward the safe-room hall. Rain and wind blew in behind me. That, and that awful thunder that meant Eded Merlat was one step closer to coming home at last.
I bounced off the walls and left blood on every surface, but somehow I made it back to the door. I collapsed in front of it, heard the widow weeping and sobbing behind the iron.
“It’s nearly over,” I said. “Not much longer.”
I don’t know if she heard me. But she heard, as did I, the sound of heavy footsteps treading slowly down the hall.
I tried to rise but couldn’t, and failed to crawl as well. The footsteps sounded louder, sounded nearer, no more accompanied by thunder, but with the loud crunch of grave-dirt upon the polished tiles.
The voices about me rose up, then fell to whispers. Petey stood stiff beside me, wolf growling warning, dead man or no.
A shadow fell over me, and the air-the air grew as cold as the heart of winter, or the bottom of a grave. I closed my eyes and jammed my hands, even my numb left hand, over my ears. I felt the iron door buckle where the dead man laid his hand upon it, but I heard no scream.
Mama’s hex let me hear something else, though. Ebed Merlat stood above me, an iron door and a grave between him and his widow, but I was able to hear some of what passed between them.
“I could not,” she said. “Forgive me, I could not.”
“I know,” spoke the voice I’d heard earlier in the thunder. “It is I who must be forgiven, for asking such a thing.”
“I loved you,” said the widow, and she sobbed and beat the door. “I always loved you.”
“And I loved you,” said the voice. “Forgive me.”
The widow cried. And then the door latch squeaked as it began to turn, as she opened the door to let him in.
“No,” he said. He must have laid hold of the latch, because it groaned and broke. “Goodbye,” he said. And though the widow pushed against the door, it held fast and shut. “I will always love you.”
As he spoke, I felt him turn away. Caught the edge of a sorrow so deep and so vast, it had bridged the gap between life and death. Then he stepped away, and the sorrow turned to rage. And as he walked down the hall his footfalls turned again to peals of thunder.
Voices sounded, upon the stairs. The heirs had found the open doors. Did they hear the footfalls, too?
“Daddy’s home,” I croaked. Petey licked my face. I heard screams down the hall, and felt the thunder swell, and then, though my hands were jammed tight against my ears, I heard Ebed Merlat scream.
All that time in the ground, Mama had said. All that time watching his wife torture herself because she couldn’t kill the man she loved. Watching his sons and his daughter creep and plot and sharpen their blades against this night.
He opened that dead mouth wide, and he screamed, and soon I did too, just to keep the awful wracking sound of it out of my dreams forever. I screamed and I screamed until my voice was gone and the last candle-flame guttered out and then, without warning, so did I.
Noon found me standing at the Sarge’s grave. Sunlight shone and set the birds to singing, and it felt good on my face and arms.
I leaned with my back on a tall, sad marble angel and kept my eyes on the widow’s urn atop the Sarge’s stone. Orthodox tradition demanded that the Sarge’s widow pass each day for thirty days after the funeral. The Sarge’s friends and family were to keep the urn filled.
It had been empty when I came. I’d picked it up, poured out rainwater and filled it to the brim with the Lady Merlat’s gold.
And after, I stood and I watched. There were those who would rob widows urns, snatching coppers from the elderly, adding insult to grief and loss.
They would do no robbery today.
Twice a priest had passed, dipped his mask. I’d glared, and he’d gone away.
Wise man. I closed my eyes for a moment, let the sun warm my bones and ease my aches.
All about Rannit, hammers rose and fell. Lord Merlat’s storm had left shingles strewn on every street, had torn trees whole from the ground, had sent four barges wallowing up over the docks and onto the muddy banks of the Brown River. This time, for a change, the wealthy had suffered the most-the Hill and Heights had seen the brunt of the storm.
I snorted, opened my eyes. They just thought they’d seen the brunt. But they hadn’t been in House Merlat.
I shook my head, rubbed my left arm, winced when I recalled the widow reaching up and snatching a bloody crossbow bolt from my flesh. I was lucky the wound hadn’t gone septic.
We were all lucky Lord Merlat hadn’t been after the widow.
I’d awakened just after dawn, my head still spinning, weak as a kitten. The House had smelled of fresh air and rain, and bright sunlight shone, further down the hall. A pair of squirrels scampered and fussed in the ballroom. Outside, birds sang.
I’d risen, banged on the safe-room door, been glad to hear Jefrey bellow in reply. It had taken me nearly an hour, one-armed, to wrench the bent door-latch open to let the widow and Jefrey free.
The widow found a chair and sat, shaking and pale and wordless. Jefrey and I left her, crept upstairs. I told him what I’d seen, though not what I’d heard. I don’t think he believed a word of it until he saw the second floor.
Doors smashed, burst into splinters, some of them charred and crumbling, as though struck with a fist formed of lightning. Holes in the walls. Burnt spots on the floor. A long double-edged knife, half the blade melted in a puddle of bright steel just beyond a broken door.
But no bodies. Doors smashed, one after another, as though someone-three murderous children and their two surviving hirelings, for instance-ran from room to room, shutting and barricading each door behind them, watching as each door was shattered and broken. Running and hiding, until at last they passed into a room with no way out, with Ebed Merlat’s thunderous footfalls drawing nearer with each moment.
That last door, too, was shattered. A final shattered door, another empty room. We never found the Merlat children. Never found the men they’d hired. Even the man I’d stabbed in the ballroom was gone.
I never told the widow, but I think that their father gathered his children up and took them with him. I think that if we were to open Ebed Merlat’s grave we would find them all there, broken and bloated in his relentless embrace.
Despite the sun beaming down on me, I pulled my arms across my chest and shivered.
The widow had insisted on calling the Watch. We told everything. But since there were no bodies, we might as well have been putting on a clown-and-king puppet show. In the end, the Watchmen shrugged and scratched their heads and went away.
Jefrey and I decided the Merlat children’s special helpers snuck in somehow with the grocery wagon. The delivery kid went missing the next day, right after someone saw him buying a horse. I wish him luck, down south. He’ll need it.
I stomped my feet, pulled away from my angel, stretched my arms out and winced, but stretched them out anyway. Only an idiot stands in the sun and muses on the dark.
So I looked up. The sky blazed the dark, well-scrubbed blue that you see only after truly vicious storms. The close-cropped grass atop the rolling hills was thick and green, the air smelled cool and clean, and all around oak leaves whispered peacefully in a gentle breeze. “Peace,” said all the gravewards, in the tall plain script of the Church.
“I hope so,” I said aloud to the stones. “I hope so.”
I heard rapid footsteps behind me but did not turn.
“There you are, boy,” said Mama.
I feigned deafness. I wasn’t quite ready to forgive Mama her stunt with the hex, though my curiosity about where she got such a charm was beginning to wear down my need for silence.
Mama came, huffing and puffing, to stand beside me. “Thought you’d be here,” she said, rummaging in the huge, ancient canvas bag that hung at her knees. “Lady Merlat and Master Jefrey came by lookin’ for you.”
I stared ahead.
“The widow was wearin’ a grey dress,” said Mama. “Smilin’, too. Said she wants you to come around for supper, some evening. Jefrey wants to ask you something about a dog.”
I picked out a graveward and decided to count the carved angels that flew about its shaft.
“Thought you might be hungry, waitin’ for your Sergeant’s widow,” she said slyly. “Ham and cheese, ain’t that what you like?” Wax paper rustled. “Lowridge cheese and Pinford ham?”
The smell rose up, and my traitor stomach grumbled in reply.
I made her wait a handful of seconds. Then I reached down and took the sandwich, broke it in two, handed half to Mama.
“Thanks, Mama,” I said. Pride has its place, but so do Eddie’s sandwiches. Mama cackled victoriously.
“You’re welcome,” she replied. She wrapped her half, shoved it back in her bag. I bit and chewed. Mama was silent while I ate.
“You ain’t hearin’ his scream still, are you?” she said when I was done.
“Just in dreams,” I replied. “Not often, anymore.”
“That’s good,” said Mama. “Real good.” She looked out across the long, silent ranks of stones and shook her head. “I reckon you might be thinkin’ it ain’t fair,” she said, still not looking at me. “Poor men stay dead. But you just seen a rich man walk.”
I nodded. I had indeed.
“I saw his face, Mama,” I said. The sun didn’t seem so warm, while I remembered. “It wasn’t his money that brought him back.”
Mama nodded. “Guilt,” she said. “Guilt and rage. He found no peace, did Ebed Merlat. Like as not he never will.”
Then she looked up, patted me awkwardly on the shoulder. “I reckon your Sergeant is better off,” she said. “I reckon he’s at rest, knowing his friend is seein’ to his widow, seein’ to his daughters. He won’t walk, boy. He won’t walk because he don’t have to.”
I looked away from her. The Sarge and Petey and a host of others-were they really watching, looking down on us from somewhere? Was another, warmer sun beaming down on them, making all they’d suffered under this one seem long ago and far away?
“I hope so,” I said, again.
Mama didn’t answer. She just nodded and clasped her hands behind her back. We waited together in the bright and warming sun while distant hammers fell and the blue jays sang and flew.