The Spring Clearing
by James Edward O’Brien
Spring conjured mixed emotions in Seraphim Heel. Runoff from the snowcaps signaled the mills’ productivity would double in the coming months and the impenetrable drifts that clogged Matchstick Gorge began to melt, freeing up the Old Salt Road to merchants from the south. But spring’s awakening also reawakened the wraiths. Thawed from their icy tombs, they chased off any travelers thick enough to traverse the gorge alone.
All this mattered little to me and the other occupants of Seraphim Jail. Our days were the same regardless of the season: dark, dank, and inhospitable.
The warden lined ten of us up in the exercise yard––me the only woman. The town chamberlain was there––a starved, wax bean of a man––and beside him, a swine-guard corporal in his boar’s head helm. It was a swine-guard bastard who’d landed me here––the municipal soldiery that policed the city and its outskirts. He’d caught me nicking tin off a roof. I gave the bastard a good comeuppance, but coppers always manage to win in the end.
The warden chided us to stand at attention. The corporal removed his helm and propped it under his arm. “We’ll need a score…maybe more,” he said.
The chamberlain passed a coin through his boney fingers. He regarded us icily. “Six,” he scowled. “That’s all we’ve budgeted for.”
The corporal’s eyes froze on me. They were close-set, like he was a badger or his parents were kin. “Dryad’s drapes,” he snarled, “this some kind of joke, parading a gash out for this detail?”
The warden waved him off. “Tin Marie’s worth two of the others. First week in the bog she gelded a jailer who tried to have a go at her. Bought herself an extra ten years. Fierce.”
“But I need soldiers,” insisted the corporal.
“Soldiers?” sneered the chamberlain. He stared down the line of prisoners. “Soldiers march for coin. These laggards have something much more valuable to earn––their freedom.”
The warden swung his truncheon by its strap. “You heard the man,” he barked. “Any prisoner selected for this detail will be granted amnesty once the clearing’s completed.
Thick Ansel stepped forward: hairy as a bugbear and twice as stupid. “Clearing, sir?”
“A bit of spring cleaning,” sneered the chamberlain. “The six of you who prove most fit will be nominated to Corporal Ardashir’s detail.
“Detail, sir?” croaked Thick Ansel.
“Spring. Can’t you smell it in the air, boyos?” the warden bellowed.
All I could smell was the stink off the men on either side of me.
“Spring has sprung. Wraiths infest the Matchstick Gorge. It’s wraith-hunting season.”
They’d culled the unruliest from the initial ten. The last thing this Corporal Ardashir wanted was to have to sleep with one eye open the entire time we were in the field. I made the cut. Nicking tin off roofs was no easy business.
They picked Thick Ansel. He’d crippled the wrong man in a bar brawl, but he was a kitten when whisky didn’t enter the mix. Zogby had been a sentry in the Royal Mountaineers, court marshaled for a tryst with his commanding officer’s wife.
The ginger twins Gaber and Deeb made the cut too––twins in name only, on account of their auburn hair. Their personalities couldn’t be more different. Gaber was a woodsman in for near hanging some rich feller he caught poaching hill cats. Guess he’d never learnt that the rich play by different rules round Seraphim Heel. Deeb had been caught running a fighting pit in a speakeasy basement. It wasn’t the brawling the authorities took issue with––it was the licensing fees he’d been skirting.
Napper Tandy was the last of the bunch, and the candidate who made least sense. The rest of us could handle ourselves physically, more or less. Tandy was an anemic, knock-kneed sort. There were whispers round the prison that he was in for witchery, but no one knew for sure. Silly superstitions, but I reckon Ardashir wanted every angle covered.
Ardashir briefed us at dawn. Our mission straightforward: sniff out the wraith infestation in the gorge and eliminate them to the last. They stood us two-by-two and shackled us in pairs, each by an ankle with a good six meters of chain between us: the ginger twins, Zogby and Ansel, and me and Tandy. The chains would make escape almost as difficult as traversing down the densely wooded gorge.
The corporal slung a harquebus across his back. Two hatchets hung at his belt. We were armed with the shoddy, weighted clubs that swine-guard used for drilling––simple iron shafts with bulbous spheres at one end. Nothing bladed that’d suit any potential cutthroats. Nothing stealthy we could conceal on the sly. If we opted for mutiny, Ardashir would see us coming.
Tandy could barely get the thing above his head, so they switched his out for a blackthorn cudgel with a knotty craw at the end. Thick Ansel, being the biggest, got stuck lugging the canteens, tinder, tent pegs, and canvas.
Tandy was allowed a linen satchel. ‘Witching stuff,’ Deeb speculated.
It’d been close to a year since I’d walked the streets. Our chains rattled against cobblestone, earning side eyes from the early morning streetwalkers. We took the Old Salt Road out of town and followed its crooked trail into the gorge.
The descent was all clouds, birdsong, and petrichor, a dizzying freedom that made what lay ahead seem worth it. We hoisted up our chains and hooked them at our hips so they wouldn’t snag on roots or rocks. The damp wind bit right through our ill-fitting prison grays and our moccasins, barely fit for traipsing the yard, proved lousy for hiking. I donned my hijab to keep my head warm, a luxury the men were not permitted. We reached the bottom with several hours of daylight to spare.
Gaber spotted a clearing amidst a ring of naked trees off the road.
“We’ll camp here and get a fresh start come morning,” the corporal informed us.
Zogby gazed skyward. “Still got a good couple hours of daylight left, Corporal. I mean, if you want to get a jump on the bastards. Sir.”
Most enlisted men were quick to correct you if you called them “sir”––abhorring the officer’s honorific, a title for stuffed shirts with soft hands tasked with sending other men to die. Corporal Ardashir seemed to get off on it.
“The last thing we want is to stumble upon a burrow punch-drunk and blind,” Ardashir warned us.
Ardashir gave Thick Ansel leave to unload the equipment. “Gaber…Deeb…” the corporal ordered. “Get to pitching the tents.”
Deeb snickered. “I wouldn’t know the first thing about pitching tents, Corporal Ardashir, sir.”
“That’s why you’re paired with the woodsman, Deeb. Follow Gaber’s lead. Zogby––Ansel––” Ardashir continued, “comb the wood for branches, twigs––anything dry enough to burn.”
Deeb reckoned Ardashir had been an officer once. “I’ve seen my share of pompous peacocks to know when I see one,” he grumbled. “Bars tacked to his collar or no.”
Ardashir walked the perimeter of the clearing, marking a circle in the damp earth with his boot heel. He rounded toward Tandy and me, reeling in the prison chain connecting the witcher and myself.
He spoke in a low voice: almost inaudible. “I want every consecration rite––every ward you’ve got in your bag of tricks––cast over this grove tonight. Tin Marie, I want you to watch and learn. There’s no brand of witchery I ever seen a man do that a woman can’t do better.”
The mere suggestion of sorcery made my skin crawl. “But Corporal,” I insisted, “Witchery, it’s…”
“A necessary precaution,” he hissed. “And only forbidden within city limits, I remind you.”
But I knew better. Witchery was bad mojo. And bad mojo was universal.
Tandy’s satchel overflowed with dried weeds, salt, and fruit pits. His first act as a practitioner of the dark arts was popping a squat in strategic spots round the circle Ardashir had drawn in the soil. Napper prompted me to do the same.
If prison was good for anything, it eradicated any self-consciousness one might have about relieving oneself in front of others. Even with my drawers hiked down, my sarong obscured my privates anyways.
Tandy had me chuck salt round the ring while he jigged behind at chain’s length muttering incantations.
“What’s he doing?” fretted Deeb.
“No matter what he’s doing,” scolded Gaber. “Just make sure that line is taut before you drive the tent peg in.”
“It’s devilry, in’it?” peeped Deeb.
“Says the man who earns his keep braining drunkards,” barked Ardashir. “Shut up and get back to work.”
Zogby and Thick Ansel returned with a modest parcel of branches just as the sun disappeared behind the western crest of the gorge.
“There’s things moving out there,” shuddered Zogby.
“Course there are,” said Gaber. “Deer graze at dusk. Owls, bats, possums––a whole slew of critters are just getting started come sundown. Thought you were a mountaineer.”
“I was a sentry,” Zogby clarified. “Didn’t see much proper time afield.”
“That fire’s not gonna start itself,” growled Ardashir. He mounted his harquebus atop its rickety tripod.
Gaber had the fire going in no time. Ardashir doled out our ration of hardtack. He allotted us each a swig of brandy to brace us against the evening chill. The corporal needed some shuteye. He had Zogby round up our clubs to ensure there’d be no funny business. He let Tandy keep his blackthorn cudgel. Ardashir must’ve reckoned there was only so much damage Napper was capable of.
I reckoned there was a greater chance of Ardashir’s snoring warding off wraiths than Tandy’s incantations.
We settled in. All seemed right with the world. Then Deeb started in on Thick Ansel. What limited mental powers Thick Ansel possessed were thrall to superstition and suggestion. He made an easy target.
“‘Fraid of the dark, isn’t you Ansel? I’ve heard you in your cell at night. Wailing. There’s terrors that come to you in dreams, isn’t there? Big man like you should be ashamed.”
Deeb gestured toward Tandy. “Now, that little imp and his devilry––that’s something to keep you up at night. You can’t fend off witchery with them murderous mitts of yours.”
The chatter roused Corporal Ardashir. He choked on a snore. “Shut your pie holes, all of yuz.”
Deeb taunted Ansel with a whisper. “I heard tell demons can harvest your soul if you’re thick enough to doze off in a witch’s snare.”
“A pinch of salt and bit of piss is all it is,” I tried convincing Thick Ansel. “Peppered with washerwoman’s rhymes.” I yanked my chain to rouse Tandy. “Go on and tell him.”
The hedge wizard remained tightlipped. Magicians had little once they gave up their secrets. That bastard Deeb had planted the seeds of paranoia in fertile soil. He had Thick Ansel convinced Tandy’s witchery was a greater threat than anything lurking beyond the dwindling campfire.
Thick Ansel fret and sobbed until Zogby conceded to move his bedroll to the edge of the ring so that Ansel could sleep just outside Napper’s snare.
Zogby curled up with the half-dozen training clubs and positioned his legs in a wishbone sprawl to accommodate Thick Ansel’s distance. The brandy braced us against the spring chill but did little for our nerves.
I laid my bedroll beside my tent; Tandy wriggled around inside. Our chain stretched taut. I could’ve handled Napper if he’d tried any funny business; I just wanted to see what was coming should anything come.
Ink-black clouds swept over the budding branches. Corporal Ardashir nodded in-and-out, propped upright against a stump, harquebus poised between his legs. Shadows cast by the dying fire made the forest tremble. There were bird cries, hoot owls, the trill of frogs––but what bothered me most was when it all went quiet, when the wind stopped.
I scrabbled toward Zogby––toward the clubs––stopped by the length of chain that anchored me to Tandy. The momentum jolted the witch from his slumber. I dragged the hedge mage leg-first out the tent in the height of my paranoia. He yelped.
The cry roused Corporal Ardashir. He had the harquebus aimed at me before he could wipe the sleep from his eyes.
“First one who so much as breathes––”
“Shut up and listen!” I hissed.
“I give the orders––”
“Shush,” I urged him.
No bird cries or bug chatter. No breeze. No nothing. I motioned toward the clubs. Ardashir nodded. I reached for one of the shafts, my chain too short.
Rattling shattered the silence. Zogby batted his eyes. I strained for the clubs. Zogby peered at Ardashir. The corporal waved his permission. Zogby shouldered one of the shaft-ends within reach.
The rattling got louder. It was coming from Zogby, from his leg––the trembling chain at his ankle. “Ansel,” he hissed. “Back in the ring.”
Thick Ansel, in the throes of one of his night terrors presumably, tugged hard at his end of the line. I couldn’t really tell––it’d gotten so dark there was no line-of-sight beyond the circle. Zogby tripped. He hooked an arm around the pile of clubs to prevent being dragged out of the witch’s snare. The commotion brought Gaber and Deeb from their tent.
I’d spent time in the prison hotbox. The coppice felt just as still, just as cramped, just as suffocating––the ring of naked trees encircling the grove a claustrophobic sheath.
I glanced skyward, thinking the heavens were collapsing around us. The stars had gone out. Then, the darkness groaned.
Zogby’s moccasins dredged up turf as he tried to rein in Thick Ansel. The chain trembled beneath his white-knuckled fists. Gaber sprang to his aid, a groggy, despondent Deeb in tow.
Corporal Ardashir cocked his harquebus. “This is your first warning,” he crowed. “Back in the ring on the double––the lot of you––or I’ll take the appropriate steps.”
The dark spat back a guttural growl: metal grating against metal. Iron links rending, shattering, brittle as glass. Deeb pricked up his ears. He moved for a club.
“Anyone with an aversion to being dead needs to clear out in three…two…” Ardashir counted.
Everyone hit the ground. Gaber quickened to drag Zogby out of the corporal’s line-of-fire, but with six meters of chain binding Zogby to Thick Ansel, there was only so much the woodsman could do. If escape were his intent, this plan was too thick even for the likes of Ansel.
“One!” roared Ardashir. The harquebus sparked. There was a short, sharp pop. A flash of light lit up the whole copse. There were faces glimpsed for only a moment––knotty, bloodless faces housing empty sockets, all fixed upon us, a mosaic of disapproving scowls––gone just as fast as they’d come in a wash of harquebus smoke.
Zogby flew back, tumbling right through the embers of our campfire––the far end of his chain a fractured, rusted braid with no Thick Ansel attached.
“You hit anything, corporal?” squealed Tandy.
“En garde,” cried Ardashir, “en garde!” he shouted, fumbling for the hatchets at his waist.
The others scrabbled for the pile of clubs. We slowed toward the center of the ring beside the smoldering fire, back-to-back, bulbous training club-ends extended blindly––and that’s how we stayed, frozen to a person, unspeaking, until the first gray whisper of morning.
Thick Ansel was out there, strewn between a break in the tree line. At first I’d taken his body for a farmer’s round-bale. I was the first to set foot outside the circle.
I tugged my chain, prompting Tandy to follow. Dog that he was. Thick Ansel’s foot was gone below the ankle––right where he’d been shackled: a gelatinous mess of splintered bone and tatters remained. I nudged him with my toe.
He moved fast, snatching at my moccasin with hooked, blue fingers. Tandy screeched and lunged back toward the circle, almost taking me with him. I pinned Ansel’s hand with the head of my club. Thick Ansel scrunched his nose and flared his nostrils as if he smelt something sour on the wind.
There were footsteps behind me. Ardashir barreled past, knocking me to the ground. By the time I got my bearings, he’d opened Ansel’s windpipe with a hatchet.
“What’d ya go an’ do that for? He was alive.”
“Might’ve cauterized that leg. I seen folk survive worse,” chimed Gaber coolly.
The corporal planted a boot on Thick Ansel’s chest and dislodged his hatchet from the man’s vertebrae. “When wraiths claim a victim, they leave strangers in their wake,” scolded Ardashir. “There’s no surviving that. Thick bastard was dead the moment he set foot outside the ring.”
“He was breathing…reaching out…you saw him plain as I did,” I snarled.
“We’re nothing but tailor’s dummies to them wraiths. They pick and choose the pieces they want. As a rule, they never leave the inside,” snapped Ardashir.
“If they took his insides how come he was breathing…moving?”
“You have it all wrong,” mumbled Tandy. “Our insides.”
“Not our guts,” barked the corporal. “Our souls. Our wits.”
“Must have been slim pickings from that oaf,” mumbled Deeb.
“Shut up,” Ardashir ordered. “That wasn’t Ansel––just a side of meat with some muscle memory. Fodder for jackals. Let’s pack up and make some headway––maybe sniff out their burrow.”
Not far from where we’d camped, we heard the roar of water: we were closing in on the river that cut through the gorge. The woodland trail off the Old Salt Road dropped to an incline. The trees grew sparse, deposed by a steep slope of white rock and parched vines.
All the gear Thick Ansel had been lugging was distributed among the rest of us. Ardashir manacled himself to Zogby. He trusted him, but trust only went so far when dealing with Seraphim inmates. Zogby was tasked with lugging the harquebus.
Last night’s attack left the corporal antsy. He held both his hatchets in hand, using them to brace his descent down the steep incline.
The rest of us had no such convenience. Our weighty clubs made poor walking sticks, and by the time we’d scrabbled to the bottom of the slope, we all had a generous collection of scrapes, sprains, and abrasions. Not one of us complained though, not even Deeb. We’d survived the night, and that was enough for now.
We broke at the river’s edge to fill our canteens. Melting snowcaps turned the lazy river to whitewater this time of year. “We’ll follow the bend and rejoin the Old Salt Road,” ordered Ardashir. “There’s a bridge there we can get across.”
“What is it we’re looking for exactly, Corporal, sir?” asked Deeb.
“Burrows,” snapped Ardashir.
“No different than an animals’,” Gaber explained. “Only bigger.”
Wraiths weren’t born into the world the way living things are. Holy rollers professed wraiths were byproducts of humans engaging in the dark arts, while hedge wizards claimed they slipped through rifts where the fabric of reality wore thin. Why Matchstick Gorge was an epicenter for the things was anybody’s guess.
Gaber thought he’d spied a burrow by the river crossing, but it turned out to be a derelict beavers’ dam.
The far side of the gorge housed the Summer Quarry. Crackpot prospectors had sold the lie that the area was teaming with precious metals to a disreputable mining conglomerate. The conglomerate spent years blowing that stretch of gorge to kingdom until folding beneath the futility of their endeavor.
It left no shortage of nooks and crannies in which bugbears could hide. Little to no human traffic. Prime real estate for a wraith burrow.
Gaber soon unearthed a rusted line––a rail once laid for mining carts. The line wound upward, then down, through a series of manmade pits where prospectors had decimated the gorge with black powder.
Gaber took point with Deeb close behind. Tandy and me followed, with Zogby and Corporal Ardashir at the rear to make sure the rest of us didn’t get any bright ideas. Ardashir and Zogby lagged a bit on account of them having to lug the harquebus tripod and the rest of the corporal’s accoutrements.
That’s when Deeb started buzzing in our ears. It began with his typical kvetching and turned increasingly sour the further Ardashir lagged behind. Whining became whispers: mutinous intimations.
“Any of you seen a wraith? Ever? Old wives’ tales to jack up the price of goods, I’m guessing. This…this is just a cost-free way for the jailers to have less mouths to feed is how I reckon it,” he hissed.
“Piss off,” hissed Gaber. “Seraphim Prison’s just death without the restful parts anyways. I’ll take my chances out here.”
“And spare them the expense of a headsman,” sneered Deeb.
“What’s this you’re on about?” barked Ardashir from the rear. “Light steps and tight lips,” he ordered.
“Aye, Corporal, sir,” growled Deeb.
“Take ’em out. Him and Zogby if Zogby puts up a fuss,” Deeb muttered. “Head south. The four of us. We’d have faded into the countryside before they catch wind of us.”
“You heard the Corporal––hush up, then,” squeaked Tandy. Something must’ve irked him to assert himself so.
Deeb went for him, but only succeeded to trip himself up when his ankle chain stretched taut. Tandy got fidgety. He plunged his left hand deep into his linen satchel.
Corporal Ardashir had seen enough. He would not suffer his charges acting this unruly. He ordered Zogby to double-time it, and once they caught up with us, he greeted Deeb’s jaw with the butt end of his hatchet.
Then Gaber loosed a whistle that gave everyone pause. He motioned toward the mouth of a mineshaft carved into the incline. Collapsed support beams lay across the entrance, but there was enough space for someone dumb enough to squeeze through.
“I need a volunteer,” bellowed Ardashir.
“I don’t see you itching to get your hands dirty, Corporal, sir,” sulked Deeb. “Bet you could earn yourself some extra chevrons pulling a job like this.”
“I think Deeb should go, sir,” squeaked Tandy. “He was just saying how he don’t reckon wraiths is real anyhow.”
I cringed. None of us liked Deeb any, but ratting him out to a screw was low, even for a hedge wizard. Deeb seethed. He’d brain Tandy first chance he got. I figured I’d try and diffuse the situation.
“I’ll go,” I said.
“It bothers none of you to send a woman down there?” tsked Ardashir. “Gaber?”
The woodsman stared at his moccasins. “I’m useless when I don’t got sky above me, Corporal,” he said. “Tight spots get me sick-like. Tunnels. Corridors. I’d be as much use as a hatful of busted arseholes down there.”
“Alright then,” grumbled the corporal. He made for the key ring beneath his mail shirt. He unlatched my ankle. He twined the chain that held Napper tightly round his forearm once I’d been loosed.
Zogby arranged the tripod at the mouth of the mineshaft. Corporal Ardashir loaded the harquebus. He emptied the weapon into the shaft. An echo of cascading shale answered the roar of cannon fire as the shaft spat back dust.
Zogby fired the hooded lantern that hung from his pack and shoved it at me. The club took two hands to wield properly, so it was either stumbling blind or stumbling defenseless into whatever lurked down there.
“You head straight out if you catch wind of any wraiths,” ordered Ardashir. “We’ll smoke them out properly if they’re in there––as a group––do not engage, got it?”
Ardashir was not what I’d call a strategist. I could’ve run for the hills right then and there. I was the only one not shackled down, himself included. But amnesty was too big a carrot to forsake for a life on the lam.
“Got it,” I nodded. “Just one question, corporal––once we find them, how will we know once we got them all?”
Ardashir’s eyes dimmed. “When they stop coming,” he frowned.
I prodded the hole with the bulbous iron head of my club and wriggled through a gap in the collapsed beams. Splinters pricked my ribs. The tunnel stunk.
Napper handed me back the lantern once I’d squeezed through. I hooked it through the shaft of my weapon. I must have looked like a hobo on fire.
The walls were pruned from years of chipping and blasting––rugged and red. Old mining tracks through footprint-laden silt: there had been no shortage of traffic in these tunnels and no telling how recently the tracks had been left. The woodsman would’ve been able to tell––but Gaber was up with the rest of the frightened boys, shuddering in sunlight.
The tunnel fast became too tight for my makeshift lantern pole. I didn’t want to chance smashing the globe and succumb to total darkness, so I slid the lantern off the shaft and opted to carry it while dragging my club one-handed behind me.
The dark did not irk me. It cast a shroud over the tricks light plays on the eye. It was the silence that proved bothersome––that same quiet that came across the wood before Thick Ansel was––well, I still wasn’t sure what had happened back there.
I crept through the tunnel. The shaft branched off in two directions.
I veered left and riled a colony of bats overhead. Their chatter provided cold comfort, but any comfort would do. The tunnel came to an abrupt dead end––a mining cart eaten through by ages-old standing water. I doubled back to the fork and tried the other corridor.
Again. Silence––the head of my club raking shale was the only sound. The lantern stirred shadows that played against the imperfections of the chiseled walls: a mural of disapproving, stony faces quivering in dancing light.
The passage grew even narrower as it snaked beneath the underpinnings of the gorge. The speckled walls went from red to pink to gray, until all color seemed blanched out of them. I despised labyrinths––the way they inspired directionlessness––their sameness, the frustrating monotony of traversing them. Puzzles bullying you into solving them.
I’d always preferred the rooftops and trellises, the rain catchers and clotheslines, the moon overhead. The fact that Ardashir’s shitty lantern only cast a few yards ahead of me made the whole endeavor all the more tedious: quite literally, there was no end in sight.
I heard footsteps. I’d taken to stopping every few steps to wind the lantern around and check behind me. Nothing. A touch of nerves. Echoes, maybe.
The walls shimmered. Mineral deposits––the mining tracks ended abruptly; just where one would think the prospectors had finally found their fortunes in the rock.
There were only footprints––all right feet, all barefoot. This was a queer, magical place: glimmering, quiet, and cold. I quickened my pace. Lantern light revealed a corroded sconce jutting out of the wall, a cobwebbed niche just out of eyeshot.
I dimmed the lantern to a firefly glow and hung it from the sconce. I found a foothold for my moccasin and hoisted myself into the niche one-handed. I squeezed myself in as far as I could fit, a contorted, frightened gargoyle, weighted club in hand.
I listened for footsteps. Again, nothing––only silence. I hadn’t realized how tired I’d become until I gave myself that chance to rest––all that mineral-laden rock shimmering and blinking around me. Despite the sudden absence of light. Watching walls winked luminescent eyes.
A draught passed through the tunnel from up ahead, frigid and dry. Another way out––maybe a shortcut to the far side of the quarry.
All I had to do now was ensure the route was clear, and then straight back to Corporal Ardashir. My willingness to play gopher would buy my way out of Seraphim Prison, wraiths or no.
Then I saw Thick Ansel’s foot traipsing down the passage.
The apparition wore the dead man’s foot like a wet stocking. It was a creature of sinewy shadow, its eyes fractures of glacial ice. The hairs pricked up on the back of my neck once I realized it’d been scores of eyes––not mineral deposits at all––blinking at me through the darkness.
I crouched frozen in my cubbyhole. The wraith hobbled toward me. I clutched my club with sweat-slick fingers. Pairs of cataract eyes emerged from the wavering darkness: contorted shadows stretched thin across frameworks of brittle bone.
My head said jump. My head said run. My legs would not obey. A choppy tide of shadow began to engulf the corridor. The nightmare teetering on a dead man’s foot drew closer. I struggled to raise my club, the niche too cramped, the heft of the weapon insurmountable.
I thrashed like a drowning woman. I leapt down and swung. I caught the wraith square where its ribs should have been. It was like slapping the surface of a pond with a broom.
The blow drove the thing against the wall. This caught the attention of the others. Those scores of eyes quit blinking and zeroed in on me.
Thick Ansel’s disembodied foot dragged itself into the darkness like a wounded animal. My legs decided not to work again. It was as if the wraiths had stolen my feet right from under me––just as they had Thick Ansel’s.
Wraiths poured down the tunnel. They moved with the steady cadence of pickers in the field on a midsummer’s day. The time had come for harvest.
An icy hand clutched my shoulder.
“Make haste,” crowed Tandy.
His fingers shocked me to life. His entire being was trembling. He fumbled through his satchel. Produced a fruit pit. Plugged it into the craw of his blackthorn cudgel.
“Wyvern gland,” he explained. “Blow.”
I swung my club and shuffled backward, facing down the mob.
“Blow!” Napper shrieked. He tilted the craw of his cane so that the fruit pit caught my breath. The alien seed ignited.
I blew. Tongues of flame lapped tunnel walls. A white-hot spiral of azure and emerald flensed the wraiths’ shadowy overcoats. Half-articulated skeletons collapsed beneath phantasmal fire.
We tucked tail and ran from Napper’s unfurling green hell. The witch chimed as he galloped along, the chain that once bound us kicking up rocks at his heels.
I could barely see or breathe with the thick black smoke emanating from the craw of his cudgel. Tandy shook the smoldering fruit pit free and pitched it behind us.
We tripped our way, choking and half-blind, toward the dissected skeins of daylight at the entrance. As Napper wriggled through the entryway, the chain at his ankle caught a collapsed beam. He leapt for the light.
The entire world groaned. Pebbles. Loam. Tandy writhed like a jackal in a lion’s jaws. He’d bring the whole entrance down.
The moaning of buckling support beams––the deafening whisper of whatever had evaded Napper’s phantasmal flame––obscured the shouting of our comrades from the surface. The rafters split like celery stalks. The ceiling came down.
I dug the cumbersome head of my club into the earth and vaulted toward the light. Child’s play––I’d leapt through enough awning windows with nothing but cobblestone three stories down. I was exhausted, though––as if the very presence of the wraiths had wrung me like a rag. I scraped through the splintering entryway frame just as its jaws collapsed shut.
Hands reached out through the smog of pulverized shale. Silhouettes obscured in blinding sunlight. Tandy yelped––his foot still bound to the length of chain swallowed in the collapse.
“Deeb was wrong,” I gagged. “Seen them with my own two eyes. A whole pack.”
Ardashir handed me a canteen. He watched Napper flail like a hooked fish. A crooked smirk betrayed his usual stoicism. It was only when he realized Zogby and Gaber were having too good a laugh over Tandy’s misfortune that he unshackled the witch. The corporal wasted no cuffing Tandy to the fresh length of chain he’d had readied for us.
“You two make quite a pair,” said Ardashir, securing my ankle next. “You’re not half the coward I figured you for, Tandy.”
Corporal Ardashir surveyed the collapsed entryway. He gnawed his lower lip. “What exactly have you been toting in that satchel that could wreak such havoc?”
“Courage,” quipped Napper.
“Wyvern gland, he called it,” I said.
“You’ll have us believing in dragons, Marie? Now that you’ve seen a wraith?”
“It’s just a name,” coughed Tandy. “Just a stone from a poisonous fruit. Nothing special ‘less it’s treated with certain elixirs…’less the right cantrips are said.”
The corporal snatched Napper’s satchel. “Can’t have you ‘accidentally’ blowing us all to kingdom come, can I?” Ardashir tossed the satchel to Zogby.
“What do you mean there might be another entrance?” scowled Ardashir. “There either is or there isn’t.”
“Well, that’s the thing, Corporal,” I explained. “There was a breeze from the far end of the tunnel just as I got set on by wraiths.”
The corporal surveyed the field of rocky hillocks ahead. They sloped and dipped for close to a league, ending abruptly where the gorge arched up into blue heaven.
“Gonna be a slow go that-away,” he fretted. “We’ll need all the daylight we can get to scour for burrows properly. We’ll double-time it. Bed down at the first whiff of dusk.”
“I ain’t sleeping on anymore rocks,” growled Deeb.
“You’ll sleep where I tell you,” snarled the corporal. “Shut up and keep your eyes peeled.”
Ardashir urged Zogby forward with a tug of the chain. Napper and I fell in behind them––the witch still winded from our narrow escape.
Deeb and Gaber fell back. I shot Deeb the stink eye. He wagged a finger at Ardashir’s back. “Bastard’s due for a long sleep himself,” he muttered.
Beyond the first hillock, we stumbled across a second cave-in––presumably the second shaft entrance. Thorny vines enveloped crumbling patina-encrusted girders.
“Ancient history,” affirmed Gaber. “Only something shy of a hill cat could manage to squeeze its way in or outta there.”
The terrain left our feet so blistered that even Deeb didn’t whinge when the corporal ordered us to prep camp early. We’d come across a petrified sassafras tree––its limbs and trunk impossibly buoyant for something that’d once sprung up from such infertile ground.
Tandy had the corporal convinced it was some sort of omen. Omen or no, my intent was to find a comfy branch and get a decent night’s sleep outside the reach of any wraiths that might come calling.
Ardashir initiated the same ritual as the night prior: he marked a wide circle with his boot heel with the sassafras at the center. Napper retraced the corporal’s footsteps with the charred craw of his blackthorn cudgel.
The corporal returned Tandy’s satchel. Napper wagged sheaves and muttered cantrips and danced. He sprinkled clumps of weeds around the radius of the circle and lit others aflame. He and I then rounded the circle and popped squats in strategic locations to the alternate delight and dismay of the ginger twins.
The men unfurled their bedrolls, each with their backs to the tree trunk. There was only rock as far as the eye could see. We waited for dusk fireless, shoving hardtack down our gullets.
Deeb fiddled with what looked like a pinch of pipe weed––god knows where he’d been hiding it.
“Mind if I partake, corporal, sir?” he asked Ardashir.
“Be my guest, should you find a pipe to smoke it with littering the quarry.”
Deeb could’ve chewed it just as easily, but he just huffed and tucked the pinch into his dirty palm. Reading Deeb’s sourness, Ardashir produced the brandy flask. It made the ways around the tree; the corporal sure to offer Deeb the first hit.
I passed. A ceremonial swig would do little to drown out what I’d seen down that shaft.
“Think your brandy’s turned, corporal,” spat Napper, once the flask finally made it to him. “Tastes a bit off…all medicinal like.”
“Man up and shut up,” growled Deeb. “It’ll put hair on your chest––why do you think Tin Marie don’t touch the stuff?”
For the meager amount afforded each man, the brandy took hold quick.
Zogby started to nod in the midst of prepping the corporal’s harquebus. The corporal snored away beside him, not even bothering to collect the training clubs for the night. He’d given me Thick Ansel’s to replace the one I’d jettisoned back in the mine. An unarmed convict was a dead convict from here on in.
Even Gaber was out for the count. I’d convinced Tandy to lie below a sturdy fork I’d found in the sassafras. I swung myself up, leaving enough give on the chain so that Napper could lay prone comfortably.
There was no shortage of starlight, and from my perch I watched my compatriots shiver and shift upon their beds of jagged rock while the world faded to silhouette and shadow.
Deeb stirred. I knew there’d been something up after watching the way the normally greedy cur only half-swigged that brandy. And that pipe weed––I’d never seen him so much as toke a pipe in the yard––and in the pokey there’s fuck else to do.
Whether he’d pinched those herbs from Tandy’s satchel or picked them along the way, I reckoned he’d spiked that flask with enough whatever-it-was to dose the lot of us. He crept around the base of the tree trunk until his chain pulled taut; leaving Gaber sprawled out like a narcoleptic wishbone.
Deeb knocked over the harquebus tripod and cursed, but still no one woke. He made his way toward Ardashir. He prodded Zogby to ensure he was out. Deeb seized the slack length of chain between the corporal and Zogby’s ankle and wound it round Ardashir’s throat.
I suppose this was for the best. We were bound to die anyway if we chanced upon more wraiths. Deeb was probably right––this had all just been a clever way for the municipality to trim expenditures. Get rid of us without paying an executioner and cull some wraiths in the meantime.
A hangman’s noose was favorable to death at the hands of those things I’d seen back in that shaft. But to hear that chain, link against link, as it tightened around Ardashir’s throat––and to hear the corporal’s abhorrent snore reduced to a gargle––what was left of my conscience got the best of me.
I dove from my perch. My shackle chaffed shin. My chain caught the branch and seesawed Napper up the base of the trunk foot-first. The twig of a magician slept right through it.
I kicked a leg through Deeb’s armpit and wrangled the other around his neck just as my chain jerked taut. I constricted my thighs.
I’d learnt the move from a cat burglar who’d made a living hijacking drunks from the rooftops. The “auld triangle” she’d called it.
Deeb dropped the chain at Ardashir’s neck to sort me out. He clawed like a drunken polecat. He tore at my prison grays. He hissed and he spit.
He hadn’t seen me coming, though––and was in no position to do much of anything. But he was strong. Brutally so. A fist grazed my ribs.
It was hard to stay upright with my chain enmeshed around the branch. The shackle bit right to my anklebone. Deeb bastard just wouldn’t go down. He toed at the harquebus, just out of reach.
I squeezed and kept squeezing until finally, Deeb slackened. He collapsed among the mangled, petrified roots that mingled with the bedrock. I dropped just beside him, suspended upside down from the ticking branch above, like a swine left to bleed out. My foot felt like it might tear clear off. The wraiths might get their ten toes to prowl around on yet.
I choked back the pain and swung, unsure if the snapping sound was my foot or the branch––it was a blinding, maddening, numbing sensation. I swung back and forth, back and forth, all pins-and-needles, leveraging my wait until I was able to arch back up toward my roost among the branches.
There were no hurrahs, no thanks, no one to bear witness to my deed––good or bad. I scrabbled back over the branch, dropping right down on Tandy. Landing on top of that slumbering sleeve of bones did little to buffer my injured foot; my entire leg from the knee down throbbed hotly. Daggers shot up my thigh. The laggard was still out cold.
I needed to ensure Deeb was out of commission. If not, we’d be facing off on even ground––and him the veteran pit fighter. I approached with caution. He moaned. I gave him a swift one in the temple with my good foot.
“Corporal, sir,” I hissed, “wake up.”
Ardashir choked a snore. Zogby shuddered.
Zogby was the biggest of us barring Deeb––and not much of a tippler. His soldier’s constitution must’ve spared him the brunt of Deeb’s mickey––one of those rare instances when teetotalism paid dividends.
“Zogby, you thick prick––wake up,” I seethed.
Zogby wiped the sleep from his eyes. He fumbled for his club once he registered me looming over him. He palmed his club by its weighted sphere and jabbed my ribs with the shaft end. I winced.
“Wha z’all this ‘en, Marie?” he slurred. He rocked himself upright, bracing against the tree trunk.
“Deeb dosed the brandy. He tried to off the Corporal when we was out,” I explained.
“Where he’d go?” panicked Zogby.
“He’s just beside you.” I kicked Deeb in the gut to illuminate the pit wrangler’s whereabouts.
“Where’s the harquebus?”
I shrugged. Zogby swept his club across the jagged earth, tapping it like a blind man until he tripped across the tripod.
He tugged his chain in hopes it might rouse the corporal. Nothing. I helped him prop Ardashir against the tree. Zogby gnawed the cork from his canteen.
He doused Ardashir. Ardashir gasped.
“Corporal Ardashir, sir,” said Zogby, “we’ve got a situation.”
Ardashir teetered to attention. He squinted, trying to scan the jagged black beyond the witch’s snare.
“Not wraiths, Corporal, sir,” I explained. “I think Deeb spiked the brandy. Tried to make you when we were all out.”
“Marie clocked him, Corporal, sir,” Zogby affirmed.
“And you out of everybody proved immune to this philter, Marie? Convenient,” huffed Ardashir.
“I didn’t drink, sir,” I explained, “on account of what I saw down that shaft. On account of wanting to have all my faculties should we be set upon again.”
“Interesting story,” hiccupped Ardashir. He wrangled his harquebus from its tripod and hobbled toward Deeb. “The pressing question, Mister Zogby,” said the corporal, “is which convict’s word do I take at face value?”
Ardashir raised the harquebus. He lowered it in my direction.
“Marie could’ve done you in just as easy,” gulped Zogby. “She could’ve done the both of us…if she’d wanted to. But she didn’t, corporal, sir!”
“Alright, then.” Ardashir crouched beside Deeb. He fumbled in the dark until his fingers found the pit wrangler’s mouth. “The tripod,” ordered Ardashir, “arrange it just so.”
He pried open Deeb’s jaw and plugged Deeb’s maw with the tip of the harquebus barrel. Iron chipped teeth. Years of taking beatings had deviated Deeb’s septum well and good. His nostrils produced a queer whistling sound as they shouldered the brunt of his breathing.
“Now you’ve almost convinced me you’re not half the scoundrel these crooks are,” Ardashir growled at me. “Or maybe you’re just twice the grifter.”
The fuse on the harquebus glowed. The corporal squeezed the trigger. There was a flash, and the stink of black powder. A warm brume of gristle splattered our prison grays. The darkness spared us the sight of what the corporal had done.
The roar of the harquebus shook the others from their opiate trances. Half awake, Gaber clasped his ears. He made for the perimeter of the witch’s snare to put as much distance between himself and the dead man as he could.
Corporal Ardashir dug for the shackle key in his waistcoat pocket. He stabbed it around the corpse until the key teethed the latch at Deeb’s ankle.
Zogby helped Ardashir rein Gaber in. Ardashir popped the latch on his own shackle. He cuffed Gaber to Zogby.
“Let’s not lose our heads over this,” warned the corporal. “Everybody take a breath, grab a club and keep your eyes peeled. We’ve got a ways to go between us and daybreak.”
He balanced himself against the tree and massaged out his boot where his own shackle had chaffed the leather. “I was starting to feel like one you yobs, tied to the hip like that.”
He unwound Napper’s satchel from around his shoulder and tossed it at him. The witch hadn’t moved since he’d opened his eyes. We were all afraid of death, but for Napper it was paralytic. We were all from the alleys one way or another, barring Tandy. Death was a frequent visitor there: blunt and brutal. In Napper’s world, death was more fleet-footed, couched in incantations, pacts written in shadow. A suggestion.
“You’re to pull out all stops from here on in,” Ardashir instructed him. “You’ve all Tin Marie to thank that your faithful corporal’s still standing.”
He recovered his harquebus. He stabbed the butt-end toward Tandy. “Let Deeb serve as a reminder of what can happen if any hexes fly in the wrong direction. The enemy’s out there,” he reminded us. “Not in this circle.” He slapped his sleeve. “Not these chevrons on my arm. Not flesh and bone.”
I’m sure he’d intended to put some fear of god in each of us, but our wits were too far-gone already.
Deeb’s warning lingered long after the rifle smoke cleared––one less mouth for the jailers to feed. Right or wrong, he’d gotten himself blown clear of the chamberlain’s budgetary concerns.
Whatever the truth might have been, it didn’t matter. Truth or lies, right or wrong, whatever had gotten those wheels spinning in the first place could not be stopped; at this juncture we were all just along for the ride. All any of us could do was hang on.
I managed to nod off. Exhaustion was one of those things that took priority over all else once it took hold. Like a bout of the runs.
The sun nudged me awake. It was the only gentle thing at this hour––not the jagged ground or the petrified tree or the dead man with his head half open opposite me. My ankle throbbed. It had gone purple in the night.
“We’ll scour what’s left of the quarry and rejoin the trail on the opposite side of the gorge,” said Ardashir. He pointed toward the sheer red wall rising out of the rubble, indicating a footpath that zigzagged up its jagged face.
“T-then w-we’re d-done?” squeaked Napper. The witch worked a mealy, weed-woven press between my manacle and chewed-up ankle. It stung.
“What’d I tell Tin Marie?” growled the corporal.
“That we’re done when they stop coming?” volunteered Gaber.
“Aye,” he nodded.
“That’s not what I asked, Corporal, sir,” I clarified. “Not exactly. I’d asked when we’d know once we’ve gotten them all.”
Corporal Ardashir threw the harquebus over his shoulder. “How’s that not one and the same?” he seethed. “If any of you walk away from this shit show with anything, it’s that too much precision can wind you up tight as a drum skin. It can kill you as quick as being sloppy. These chevrons, this uniform––it’s not about precision. It’s about the illusion of precision. And that is our job if any of us care to see another morning.”
Zogby was perplexed. “But the chamberlain’s promise of leniency will only come with a wholesale purging. He said it himself.”
“Did soldiery leave you so tame that you take what your so-called superiors say at face value?” frowned Ardashir. “It’s a good thing you were court-martialed––you’d have made a lousy enlisted man. The last thing the chamberlain expects is for any of us to make it out of this gorge alive.”
My heart sunk. Deeb had been right after all.
“But what about you?” fret Zogby.
“Even me. I did what was right once or twice too often, discovering too late that wasn’t what I’d been recruited to do. That’s when they swapped out my bars for chevrons and started handpicking me for details like this.”
“But the wraiths,” I reminded him.
“It’s enough that they’ve sent us––enough to ease any reservations of the merchant caravans along the Old Salt Road. Once they taste coin, there’ll be no stopping them––until the attacks start up again––more fear to drum up support for next spring’s clearing.”
It was too big a paradigm shift for a pea-brained gallant like Zogby to handle. “But…”
The corporal shut him down. “I’m only being frank with you on account of Tin Marie putting her neck out to save me,” he foamed. “As far as I’m concerned, Deeb was the only one of you lot that needed killing. I figure whatever it is you all deserve for what you did, an anonymous death in these wilds isn’t it.”
“I’ll take the wilds over where you plucked us from,” muttered Gaber.
“I have a plan,” growled Ardashir. “And if you keep your mouths shut and follow my lead, you’ll all survive long enough to walk out of here dead men.”
On the hike up, we stumbled across a final collapsed shaft. We marked the site with stakes and a signpost to warn off trespassers. Napper leant his scrawl, seeing as I had some letters but the rest of us barring the corporal couldn’t write all that well. The witch spit in the dirt and threw a few hexes and we were off.
The far lip of the gorge was not all that different from where we’d started. We followed a tattered tree line to where the Old Salt Road horseshoed out of the gorge and snaked southward.
My wounded ankle made each step a chore. The witch’s press was enough to ease the swelling and stave off infection, but Napper was far from miracle worker.
Naked branches canopied over the rut-worn byway. You could imagine how, in spring’s full bloom, a lone traveler might be hesitant to traverse blind through that tunnel of foliage. Wraiths aside, it seemed a prime spot for highwaymen.
Ardashir studied the tree line. He turned toward Gaber. “I suppose you should give the area a cursory sweep before we consider your debt fully paid.”
The woodsman hoisted his manacles and bound for the briar patch, Zogby hot on his heels. The pair faded into a litter of gray reeds and crooked trunks.
Corporal Ardashir produced the key from his waistcoat. “And you two,” he addressed us, “pretend to look less glum if you can muster it. This is a ceremonial measure. The last thing any of us need is to stumble across an infestation once we’ve gone our separate ways, agreed?”
We nodded. “Hands and knees, Tandy,” ordered Ardashir.
The witch dropped.
“Prop your foot on his back,” the corporal then ordered me.
Ardashir was an officer to the end, even in his goodwill––too precious to kneel down and sully the knees of his own fatigues. The corporal stabbed the lock at my ankle. My cuff gave way. The cool air nipped at my abrasions.
I egged Napper back up to his feet. I dropped to extend the witch the same courtesy he had me. Ardashir freed him.
The corporal gathered up the chain. The ends dangled and chimed in the dirt. Ardashir wound it above his head and flung it into the gorge below.
“It’s a shame to have lost the simpleton––brutish ox of a thing,” he whispered. “The witch, well, I reckon the dark arts catch up with you. Suppose he had it coming.” Ardashir pantomimed the epitaphs he planned to recite to his superiors. Seeing which lies rang most true. “But the tin thief––can you blame her for nicking shingles here and there to fill an empty belly? Less desperate women have been known to do worse.”
I’m not sure why, but I saluted the bastard.
“This detail should earn me an extra chevron,” he spit. “Sergeant. But in their eyes, no amount of obedience will ever merit tacking bars back on my collar.” He snarled as if we were just inconvenient embodiments of all the world’s slights and injustices.
“What of Gaber?” I asked. “And Zogby?”
“You’ve all earned your pardons, far as I’m concerned. Once they’ve returned from their ranging, they’ll be free to go too. The woodsman, he’ll do what woodsman do: disappear in the brush. Live off the fat of the land. Zogby, though––he’s the sort who’s not much use beyond the regimented life. Some men are shiftless without a head full of orders. I’ll see if he wants to come back with me. Petition to make him my steward. He killed any future as a Royal Mountaineer when he buggering that officer’s wife––but we swine-guard don’t answer to that lot. Steward’s as far up the ladder as he’ll ever go now, but at least it’s a rung.”
Perhaps the corporal wasn’t as shrewd as I’d painted him. He’d given us futures, carefully thought out, apparently––futures that’d been leeched right from our hides in those dark, dank cells. Futures obscured beneath the rusty tin rooftops of Seraphim Heel.
I heard screams from the woods and the sound of reeds snapping, and the present came crashing down all around us.
Gaber was the first to emerge from the tree line. He moved like a grizzled, gray fox caught in a leg hold, his eyes wide as saucers. He battered through saplings with the weighted head of his club.
It was no bum leg encumbering him, though––it was what was left of Zogby at the far end of his chain. A leg. A cleft hip. Half a torso.
“Run!” croaked the woodsman.
We could have, but Napper and I held our ground. Gaber limped toward the road; Zogby’s remains writhed in a trench at the roadside. Ardashir tossed the shackle key to Gaber.
Shaky, the woodsman dumped his club. He coaxed the key into the lock at his ankle.
Something caught Ardashir’s eye. He went for his harquebus. He cocked it toward the tree line.
Two feet hobbled through the brush––one Zogby’s, one Ansel’s––the latter flensed, ashen with shale dust. An assemblage of splintered bones were poised atop the phantom limbs––a crudely human approximation ribbed in shifting shadow.
The forest betrayed us. The skeins of shadow cast by the foliage in the late morning sun wriggled free from their litter of trunks and reeds. Timber rippled as the legion of waiting wraiths shed their camouflage.
Tandy etched a line along the Old Salt Road with his cudgel. He spit in the divot.
Ardashir fired his harquebus. The shot tore right down the middle of the interlopers and smote bone to chalk. There were just too many; the jigsaw gang of shadow and errant miners’ limbs pressed onward.
In a last-ditch effort, the corporal hurled his harquebus straight at the mob. The weapon collapsed dumbly among the reeds. He made for his hatchets.
Napper muttered some cantrip as he peppered the line he’d carved out with the remaining contents of his satchel. The spot erupted with a luminescent green lattice, a whispering dryad fire. It caught the wraiths’ attention.
“Run!” barked Gaber, the woodsman already yards ahead.
I white knuckled my club, frozen where I stood. The light of the dryad fire danced across Tandy’s face, a radiant green. Napper clasped my arm, his palm clammy, cold through my prisoner’s grays.
We were free folk now, dead either way in the eyes of the state. Napper and Gaber ran, and I limped behind them. There were no heroes among the dead, not today. Any casualties were robbed of that final dignity, reclaimed as vessels for those wraiths, caught in some panicked, winding wheel between living and dying.
Behind us, a xylophone of bone collapsed against Napper’s dryad fire. I turned and saw what was left of Zogby rise from the trench, as one of the fallen shadows assumed his hollowed husk.
Ardashir lagged behind. He lunged with both hatchets at the haunt draped in Zogby’s remains. He’d been stripped of his officer’s bars for doing what was right; we’d never learned the specifics. But now, he did what every good enlisted man does: someone else’s dirty work. He took a stand and fought.
I raised my club and turned to run back, but Gaber tripped me up. “It’s suicide,” he squawked.
Ardashir’s arms windmilled wildly, hatchets cleaving shadow, as the mob overtook him––a fluttering moth swept up in the brume of a campfire. I picked myself up and set off behind Gaber and Tandy.
There were no screams, no ringing steel, no birdsong––nothing but deathly quiet at our heels. Rubber legs carried us down the Old Salt Road, animated by the promise of freedom that lay ahead and the fear we might never outrun.