“You and the girls are all I have left. Now that Jack is gone. I had one chance to be happy and it was taken from me. I will not be left alone, Beth! No. Wherever we are going, I will walk with you."
The plague had arrived that summer on the cart of a potion-seller from the city, or so they said. It had first become a scourge there, where people lived too close and rubbed cheek and jowl with fleas and lice. No doubt it was a punishment for sinful couplings. You did not have to live long to know that healthy lives had hardly any pleasure in them. This plague began with rashes, and for most of them it was no worse than that. A few days of fever and itching before good health returned. They all began with that hope, only for some to lie cold and staring after a week of misery and pain. It was a cruel thing that year, and it knew no favourites.
When the proctors of the village met that autumn, they were not surprised to see Elias’ seat standing empty. They murmured the name of Elias Post in sorrow and pity then. They had all heard. Wyburn was a small place.
His son Jack had gone in just a week, a little boy of black hair and laughter who’d been struck down and snatched from life, leaving a piece of river ice in his father’s heart. The hunter had aged as many years as the boy had lived in that last night, sitting with him. Towards the end, Elias had walked a mile to pray at the temple outside Wyburn, that stood alone on the road leading to the city. He’d made his offering – a wisp of golden hay from the harvest. The Goddess of the reaping had turned her face from him, spinning on her iron chain. By the time he’d trudged back across the fields to his house near the village square, the boy was cold and still. Elias had sat with him for a time, just looking.
When the sun rose, his wife and daughters were weeping and trying not to scratch the welts that had risen on their skin, dumb with fear, pale as plucked flesh. Elias had kissed them all, tasting the salt of bright sweat. He’d hoped for the plague to take him, and when he slept for a while and woke again, it was almost a relief to discover his own welts swelling, his forehead damp. His wife had wailed to see him sick, but he’d gathered her in with their two daughters, a knot of arms and tears and grief.
“And what would I do on my own, my love? You and the girls are all I have left. Now that Jack is gone. I had one chance to be happy and it was taken from me. I will not be left alone, Beth! No. Wherever we are going, I will walk with you. What does it matter now, love? We’ll go after Jack. We’ll catch him up. We’ll fall into step beside him, wherever he is. He’ll be pleased to see us, you know he will. Why, I can see his face now.”
As darkness came, Elias found he could not bear to sit and listen to breaths crackling in the silence. He rose from his chair and stood for a time at the window, looking out on a moonlit road. It was an early dark then and he knew the tavern would be open. Yet it was not ale he wanted, nor clear spirits. He had no coin to waste on those and no taste for it. There were other things to be found in the light and the noise of a crowd.
He knew he would be thrown out or even killed by frightened men if they saw the raised patches on his arms and stomach. He grimaced, uncaring, driven wild by the itching. Perhaps it was murder he was considering, though he did not think it was. Some men were taken, others were spared. That was just the way of it then. They knew it was spread by touch; no one really understood the manner of it. There had been plagues before. They rose in summers and burned out in the cold months that followed. In some ways, it was as ordinary as the seasons, though that was no comfort to him.
Elias shrugged. An old shirt and a long coat would hide the marks. There was a patch of swelling under his hair and another at the crook of his throat, where hair curled. In the mirror, it looked like a map of islands, white in a pink sea. He shook his head, then buttoned the shirt up high.
Hunting was clean, especially in the dark and the cold. He went out and he used his knack and he caught deer with his hands. It was a thing he had not shared with anyone, though he had hoped his son would learn the craft of it when he was older. That thought brought such a wave of grief that he could not bear to remain in the house. He pulled thick clothes from a reeking pile and yanked them on, adding a felt hat with a broken brim that would hide his face. He could not just lie down and die. That had always been a weakness in him.
There was medicine in the city, everyone knew that. There were doctors who could make the dead stand up and dance, so they said. Yet such miracles required more coins than a village hunter had ever seen. In the autumn, Elias butchered hogs on local homesteads and took away some chops and kidneys for his labour. Or he cut wood in exchange for a pot or two of honey. When he caught white or red foxes in his traps, he saved the skins and sold them all at once to a fellow a few miles downriver, for real silver bits. Elias had never been to the city himself, but he knew they had all sorts of learned men there, who could do just about anything. For money, anyway, not for kindness or for love. That was understood and he could accept it. The world owed nothing to anyone. He had made a living from it even so.
He could not just lie down and die. That had always been a weakness in him.
Elias kept his precious coins in a pot on the mantel, saved for the years ahead when he would not be able to hunt in the snow, when his fingers would not grip the knife too well, and perhaps even for when his knack would surely wither in him, like a man’s sight or hearing. He touched the pouch in his pocket, its contents taken down and counted out on the kitchen table earlier that day. Perhaps he’d intended this thing all along, he did not know. The mind was a strangely complex beast, slow and deep, layer upon layer. His father had said he felt like a boy riding a great ox at times, without very much idea of what the ox was thinking.
The fruit of a dozen years of fur and meat trading could be held in one hand. Yet even his precious pieces of silver would never be enough, Elias knew that. Doctors were rich men. Rich men expected gold, with the heads of other rich men pressed into the soft metal. Elias had never seen a gold coin but he knew there were twenty silver to one noble – and they were somehow worth just the same. It was a little like the captains of the troops of soldiers who came through sometimes in the spring, looking for young men to recruit. Each captain lorded it over twenty men, telling them what to do and where to step. Elias wondered as he walked how many captains a general would command. A dozen? A score? Was there a metal they valued more than gold? If so, he had never known its name.
He considered this and other things as he made his way down the road towards the inn, his mind whirling in grief and anger and recklessness. He had worked hard and raised four. One had gone into the ground after just a few days in the world. Back then, he and his wife had been younger, more able to put it behind and try again. He’d told Beth they’d given one back, comforting his wife in that way. He said they’d paid the tithe of their lives in that grief.
It had not been part of the bargain for his son Jack to follow, nor for the itching plague to touch his daughters. Elias had known that most of those who grew sick survived it. He’d been calm and utterly certain it would pass at first, denying what was happening right to the moment when he’d felt his son’s hand had somehow grown cool. The flesh had kept its colour, but it always had been warm before. He’d known then.
He’d been teaching the boy how to read, letter by letter. It just wasn’t possible that the lessons would stop, that he wouldn’t hear one more halting word or feel the boy’s laughing weight as he leaped on his father from a doorpost. Perhaps it was a kind of madness, but Elias felt no check or curb on him that evening, as if he’d seen his life through glass and understood at last that nothing mattered, but those he loved and those who loved him.
He knew that night was one of two in the year when farmers sold their wool. The great Harvest Eve was coming and that would be a day of celebration, where hams were cut thick and for one day the villagers drank one another’s health and ate until they could hardly move. First came the wool sale, at the end of summer. There were men with real silver in the tavern that evening, pleased with themselves and drinking jug after jug of the rich brown ale.
Elias wet his lips with his tongue, feeling the cold air dry and tighten them once again. He had never used his knack amongst men before. That secret heart of him was for the deep silences, for the dark hills and the frosts. The thought of using it with eyes on him was akin to walking in with his buttocks hanging out of his breeches. He found he was sweating and began to scratch himself once again. No, not that night. He would just have to keep his hands still, no matter how much it was a torment. The whole countryside was alive with warnings of plague and they all knew his son had been failing.
He remembered then that the Goddess had turned her face away from him when he asked about his boy, Jack. Elias had to bite his lip for a time at that thought, until the pain made him shiver, anything rather than curse her. She might be deaf to those who needed her help, but she heard every word spoken ill. It was hard to pull his mind back from the furious words that simmered and seethed in him. He stumbled along to the light that spilled onto the street, drawn by the sound of laughter and the clink of brown pots.
Elias slipped in amongst the drinkers and talkers without his presence being noticed at all. He had never been a large man and he wore his beard short, with patches of grey. He had lived forty-four years in that town and if that was to be his last, there had been more good times than bad. He nodded to one or two he knew and swept past while they were still widening their eyes. No one had seen Elias in the inn before, not in all the years he had hunted. He was just not a sociable man. He would never be a proctor of Wyburn, though he might help choose the man who was.
At the far end of the room were the gaming tables Elias wanted, filled with the farmers he hoped to see. Despite his serious intent, his mouth twitched when he remembered his mother’s words of warning about this very tavern and the vices it contained. She had been in the ground for a long time, in a hole dug by his own hands. He had packed up the earth twice to leave a mound in the years since, when it sank down. Still, her words remained in him.
Already there were piles of silver coins in front of the men at the tables. Elias dug in his pocket, gathering up the dozen he owned. He held them out as proof he had the right to stand there, looking for the leader, whoever it was. They were not men he knew, on the whole, though he had seen a few of them around the village stores. One of them had a harder stare than the others – and they were men used to wrestling a sheep out of thorns or a muddy ditch. Elias looked away when he felt the stranger’s gaze crawl over his face, convinced there would be a cry of disgust and a shout of plague. The man looked more suited to being a whorehouse guard. Younger than the others there, he wore a smart yellow waistcoat over a white shirt that marked him out all on its own. White shirts were usually kept for funerals and marriages, if they were owned at all. The rest of the men wore the sort of colours that showed dirt only as a shine on hard- wearing cloth. The yellow and the white was a challenge in itself. Whoever he was, the fellow did not work the land.
Elias found his gaze trapped by the man’s interest in him. Wide-shouldered, the stranger lacked the sheer bulk of the farmers at that table. He was more sheepdog than mastiff, Elias decided, more speed than brawn. Yet there was still a threat in the man’s eyes that stopped Elias cold.
If he could win enough, he might just borrow the Widow Joan’s horse and ride to the city for medicine ... he could be back in a few days with whatever his wife and daughters needed
He held out his coins even so, tight between black-nailed fingers. He had not used his knack before in such a way and he felt his hand shake, uncertain until that moment that it would even work.
The young man shrugged and nodded to an empty chair. As Elias stepped towards it, he saw one of the new guns they made in the city was on the fellow’s hip, a thing of black metal that looked sleek and oiled in its holster. It was said to make a great noise and to punch a hole through a side of beef. Elias looked at the thing in awe and fear and the weapon’s owner caught his interest and smiled widely.
“You’ve seen my toy, my war-maker? Don’t be afraid, meneer. My name is Vic Deeds. If you’ve heard of me, you’ll know I do not draw it in this sort of company.”
“I am not afraid,” Elias said.
He spoke with such transparent truth that the man looked at him oddly. Before the gunman could ask any more questions, the cards were dealt and Elias seated himself and pushed his first coin into the middle. Beyond a few games at his kitchen table with his wife and son, he had never played in public. He sat with his back to the crowd and knew enough to clutch the squares of card very closely to his chest. He’d heard of men placing their friends behind other players to signal good or bad hands.
The game began with a bet, then a chance to improve the draw, then a final round of betting. There did not appear to be any limit for a given hand, so Elias knew he could lose everything he had in a single round. His first cards were worth nothing, so he placed them face down and waited for the rest of them to bring it to an end, struggling to find the calm he needed.
There. There it was. The knack was just as strong as it had always been. Even surrounded by people, with talk and laughter and men’s backs knocking against his chair, it was there to be called upon. He felt a surge of confidence and smiled as each card was turned. When he looked up, it was to find the gunman’s eyes on him once again, watching with a concentration that was unnerving, as if this Vic Deeds could see even the knack that had brought Elias to that godforsaken place, with all his hopes being slowly drawn out of the world a few streets away.
Mindful of his blisters, Elias dropped his gaze once more, grateful for the hat and the length of his hair as it fell forward over his face. He watched as a silver coin that had been his became part of another man’s pile of winnings. It represented a week or so of trapping, just about. Still, Elias had called every card. When the second hand was dealt, he used his knack again, but frowned, reaching as far as he could ahead. This hand would be slow as men hemmed and hawed and hesitated over bets. He could not look as far as he needed. Ruefully, Elias realised he would have to be in every round, then stretch his knack to the very utmost to see the results.
Two more passed before he won one, giving him back all he had lost and four more pieces of silver. The gunman grunted in irritation, having bet most of his own pile on a weak and losing hand. Elias gathered in the coins and wondered if he might faint from the pounding of his heart. If he could win enough, he might just borrow the Widow Joan’s horse and ride to the city for medicine. If he spared neither the horse nor his own strength, he could be back in a few days with whatever his wife and daughters needed. He could.
It was in his grasp.
As the next hand was dealt, he sensed it all crash around him. The man sitting on his right had been munching his yellow beard and watching Elias with a sour expression ever since he’d sat down. Without warning, the farmer put out his hand to touch Elias’ coat. His fingers closed on air as Elias leaned back, his excitement fading into dismay as his dream broke into sharp pieces.
“What are you hiding up that sleeve, son?” the man said.
Half the table seemed to freeze and the gunman perked up, showing sharp white teeth. The old farmer didn’t even seem to realise it sounded like an accusation of cheating. He pointed a bony hand at Elias.
“You’re sweating hard and yet your coat is still on. That old hat of yours has dust on the brim. It’s not one you wear every day, is it? Show me your arms, son! If you’re clean, I’ll take your hand and beg your pardon. Hell, I’ll buy you a drink even. But show me you ain’t a plague-carrier first.”
Elias stood, touching a hand to the brim of his old hat.
“I don’t want any trouble, sir. I just wanted to play cards.”
He winced at the voice from behind him before it called out, but the press was too great and his mind was fogged with weakness and fever. One of the men had lost all his season’s profits that evening. As he shouted, he began to stand, his hands holding the edge of the table, about to tip it over in his anger and greed.
Elias knew it had been a mistake then, a wild fantasy that might yet cost him his life. So he reached, as the fight began all around him.
Vic Deeds sat back in his chair and watched a man not get killed. He had never seen anything like it in his life, and for most of his twenty-six years he had ridden with either thieves or armies – and sometimes with so little difference between them that he could not remember which it had been. Even with the spittle-flecked rage of the farmers taking swings at each other, none of them dared attack Deeds as he sat still, his hand resting lightly on a long pistol across his thigh. One of them even stumbled over his outstretched legs and tipped his hat in apology, but that was not what surprised the gunman. Most of the farmers sensed he was a killer, just as sheep would crowd together in the presence of a dog that would enjoy nothing more than tearing out their throats.
What had his eyes straining wide in disbelief was the small fellow who had bet hard on a risky hand and won a neat pile before they called him out on his plague. At least that part wasn’t a worry. Deeds had watched some sort of medicine painted on his arm a few months before – and drunk a bitter glass of the stuff when he’d been told to. The army that had trusted him with new pistols had insisted. The syrup cost a fortune, that was the problem. It would probably never find its way to shit-kicking villages where they bought and sold damp wool.
As far as Deeds was concerned, it wouldn’t hurt anyone to thin the herd, especially of the old and weak. That was only common sense and it wasn’t his concern what the Twelve Families in Darien chose to spend their money on – or not. Still, his night had been ruined. He’d expected to make enough from the table to keep him in style for a month or two. Farmers who could not calculate odds were just about his favourite sort.
Deeds stared as the stranger moved around and through the crowd at the bar, as if he walked a path they had all agreed before. The hunter in his long coat took each step with care, pausing for a fist to pass before his face or a club to complete its swing. Delicately, like a cat, Elias turned aside from a spinning table, guiding it slightly with a palm against the polished wood so that it did not crash into a fallen man. It was like a dance to watch, but Deeds thought no one else had even noticed. They were all so busy with their settling of grudges and gleeful knockabout that they missed a dozen moments that broke every rule he understood about the world.
Deeds had not been a soft child and he was not a soft man. He made a lightning decision and raised his pistol when Elias was still two paces from escaping through the door to the road outside. Without hesitation, Deeds fired twice, the concussions enormous in the enclosed space, so that his ears rang with a high-pitched tone. The gunman’s mouth dropped open as his mind caught up with what he had seen down the length of his barrel.
Elias had looked at him through the crowd before the first shot, turning just a fraction so that when it came, it passed him by. The second shot had compensated, Deeds relying on his instincts to aim and adjust at a speed to make an older man weep. He had seen it pass under the fellow’s arm, between his body and the crook of his elbow. Behind Elias, the bullet had punched another brawler from his feet and Deeds could only look on in astonishment. They were no more than twelve feet apart. He had never missed at that range before.
At the door, Elias looked back through a cloud of gun smoke with a mixture of anger and sadness. In the sudden silence, he flung the door back with a crash and disappeared into the night.