It had been a cold winter, and a fast thaw. A corner of the barn roof had fallen in, and more shingles blew off with every gust from the east. So I rode into town and went to Porter’s General Store for a crate of shingles and a box of nails.
Caleb Porter fetched my purchases, set them down on the counter, and said, “That’ll be seventeen ounces, Mr. Deacon.” Just like that. No how are things at the farm or give my love to Hannah. When I handed him a couple of faded ten-ounce bills, he took them with his fingertips and added, “Lot of repairs to make, huh? Word of advice: sometimes it ain’t worth trying to fix something that was rotten to start with.”
“”And what’s that supposed to mean, Caleb?” I said.
We’d never been friends, me and Caleb Porter. But we’d been friendly enough, last couple of years. Now he looked at me, flinty dark eyes behind little round glasses, like I was a stranger. “Just an observation. East wind blew you into Red Rock County couple years back. Wouldn’t do any harm if it blew you onward one of these days. Hannah would cry for a bit, but then--well, you know how women are.”
“Sorry,” I said flatly. My hands curled into fists. I felt a thrum of power starting to build beneath my breastbone, even though it’d been years since I’d used magic for anything but propping up sagging roofs or jollying along a hen that wouldn’t lay. Listening to Caleb call me Mr. Deacon and make veiled threats was one thing. This was something else altogether. “Now I know I didn’t hear you say a word against Hannah.”
“‘Course not,” said Caleb. Unhurried, flinty-eyed, impassive. “Very sorry. Didn’t mean any harm by it, just letting my damn-fool mouth run away with me again.”
If he was in the habit of letting his damn-fool mouth run, it was news to me. Nothing else I could say to him, though, unless it was with fists, pistol, or hex. And Abimelech Deacon was known in Red Rock County as the meekest of men. I wanted to keep it that way. I tipped my hat, collected my change and my purchases, and left without another word.
By the time I got home, I’d almost forgotten what Caleb said. I left Copper in the paddock, my purchases in the barn, and my boots in the mudroom. The house was filled with the gentle sounds of a cauldron bubbling on the fire and soft feminine laughter, and warm, sweet-smelling steam: sage and bay and wild rose. I walked into the kitchen carefully, not wanting to smudge the patterns chalked on the floor. Hannah was cooking up potions.
She stood bent over her cauldron, stirring, her round cheeks flushed from the heat and a few strands of dark hair escaped from her bun clinging to her face. Her sleeves were rolled up past the elbow. My breath caught at the sight of her, same as it always did, same as it had five years back when I’d seen her for the first time picking herbs in her father’s garden. It was the sight that’d made me think Red Rock County might not be such a bad place to settle down, and I’d never regretted my choice.
Miss Rachel Justice, who kept the town’s tavern as well as the girls who worked in the rooms upstairs, was there too. It was her laughter I’d heard mixed with Hannah’s, but all the laughter was wiped from her face when she saw me. Her jaw clenched, and her hand twitched like she wanted to cross herself.
“Afternoon, Miss Rachel,” I said.
“Mr. Deacon,” she answered, chewing the words like they were as bitter as lemon pith. “I’ll just take my charms now and be going, if that’s all right with you, Hannah?”
Hannah handed her a paper bag with hexes drawn on in pencil, the contents rustling. “You and the girls take care now,” she said, squeezing Miss Rachel’s arm and pecking her on the cheek--a courtesy which Miss Rachel returned before giving me another murderous glare and striding out.
I stood watching her go. “Now what was all that about?” I asked.
Hannah paused in her work sweeping up all the chalked patterns on the floor to snake an arm around my waist and burrow her face into my shoulder, saying, “Rachel’s just sore because you’re the only married man in town she hasn’t managed to tempt upstairs for a tumble.”
I laughed and let myself be distracted for a while, leaning down to taste the sweetness of Hannah’s mouth and the salt-sweat tang at the hollow of her throat, to loosen her bun and let the soft clouds of her hair slip through my fingers. But when we broke apart to breathe, I guess she could see that I hadn’t forgotten, and her answer hadn’t convinced me. She lowered her eyes and bent to pick up her broom.
“Rachel’s first husband was killed fighting for the Stalwarts,” she said softly. “The war’s been over for years, but feelings still run high sometimes, I guess.”
That, I couldn’t argue with. Hell, I knew it better than Hannah, who’d still been in long braids and short skirts when Senator Reeve first called on all true sons to defend his claim to the scepter. A sweet soul like her could never understand some of the things that’d happened on the battlefields and in the backwoods. The widow of a Stalwart soldier would have good reason to spit in my footprints, and never mind that we were all one happy united homeland again.
But Caleb had fought for the Senator, same as I had. The things I’d done in the war wouldn’t faze him. The things I’d done afterwards, well--but nobody knew about those. Nobody still living, except for me.
The little skiff with my comrades aboard had gone down with all hands. I’d watched in a prophetic haze as the fetch I’d summoned, and who’d convinced the others to accept him as myself, sabotaged the engine of the steam freighter they were robbing. I'd seen the smuggled weapons and crates of currency carry the broken bodies to the bottom. When I surfaced a day and a night later from the biggest work of magic I’d ever done, I was weak as a baby, and free. All my sins were sunk deep in Lake Long-Tail, along with the bits of hair, blood and skin I’d used to create the fetch.
At least that’s what I thought. But as the days got longer, as thunderstorms lashed my patched barn roof then gave way to clear skies and heat like a furnace, as the cows dropped new calves and Hannah’s herb garden bloomed with a riot of flowers, I became convinced that someone else must have walked away after all. There were rumors of a stranger hanging around the edges of town, stealing vegetables from gardens and hens from coops. As for me, Caleb and Miss Rachel’s coldness were only the start of it. Folks snatched their kids out of my way when I walked the streets, and I heard the word “warlock” whispered. Once I came home to find Hannah trying to scrub off a hex mark that’d been painted onto the front door. When she heard me coming up behind her, she let her shoulders slump, the scrub-brush dangling loosely from her hand, and gave me an utterly defeated look over her shoulder. “I’m sorry,” she said.
The anger that’d been building in me for weeks melted into concern for Hannah, and I took her in my arms. She was so small, and sometimes I thought of her as fragile, but as I held her I felt her whipcord strength. “Leave it,” I said. “I’ll paint over it tomorrow.”
She let me lead her inside. Later, as we were getting ready for bed, and I was unwinding her hair and brushing it carefully out, I knew I’d have to tell her. At least part of it, I’d have to tell.
“There’s been talk in town,” I said. “Not just idle gossip--it must have been from someone who knew me.”
Her face was turned away from mine in the candlelight. She didn’t move her head as I pulled the brush through her hair. Her voice was as soft as ever when she said, “During the war.”
“During the war. And after. The boys and I used to run guns for the Senator. After, we ran guns for anyone who paid. Guns and other things. We started as partisans. We ended as pirates. I never meant to be a common criminal, Hannah. But they wouldn’t have let me walk away.”
“They died,” I said. I didn’t say, I killed them. But Hannah turned her head and her eyes flickered, sharp as steel, and I got the feeling she knew more than I was telling her.
“If the law’s on you and we have to leave, I’m with you, Abimelech, all the way,” she said. “But it doesn’t sit right with me, turning tail. I was born in Red Rock County. It’s my home. I’d rather stay.”
I ran my fingers through her hair, dividing it and starting to braid. “Then we’ll stay.”
The candle’s flame was still reflected in her eyes, an unsettling light. “You don’t always have to be so gentle. I know there’s darkness in you--I saw it from the first. Let it loose a little. I want to feel you.”
She couldn’t possibly know how dark--but I took her at her word. I wound the half-finished braid around my fist and yanked, forcing her face up towards mine. She laughed, and then I felt her teeth fasten on my lower lip. We made wild love that night, her half-bound hair flowing over both of us, and she found ways to make me shiver and gasp that I’d never guessed, like she knew my body better than I did myself.
Afterwards, she slept nestled against my chest, and I lay awake, staring at the roof-beam. If I wasn’t going to run, I’d have to fight. I slid out from under Hannah and crept down to her garden. A few leaves of sage, picked at midnight under a waning moon. I chewed them slowly, and the heaviness of a trance settled over me as I got out my old ammo box and started to scribe hexes on the bullets.
The next few nights I spent on spell-work, and the days tracking down my old comrade,and wondering who he was. Couldn’t have been Cook--I’d seen his head blown clear off his body, which would’ve killed him even if he’d been a vampire. Which he hadn’t, to the best of my knowledge. Ezekiel would have come for me first thing, fists swinging, and none of this skulking around, and Chowderface would’ve found some way to make his blackmail demands clear by now. If it was Little Davey, the townsfolks’ descriptions would’ve given him away--no one could mistake Little Davey.
Whoever it was, he’d spent one night in Caleb’s shed, plundered the Smiths’ vegetable garden the next day, and left a trail of trampled grain across the Coopers’ barley field day after that. He was circling my property, scoping the place out maybe, spiralling closer--which meant that he was getting further from where the townsfolks lived, or where they’d be able to hear gunshots. With the sun high, I loaded my pistol with spelled bullets, fetched a shovel, and saddled up Copper.
It was at the old water-mill--the one that’d been unused for years before I ever came to Red Rock County, ever since the river changed course during the earthquake of ‘46--that I caught up with him. There was a hex sign painted on one of the falling-in walls, the same one I’d found Hannah trying to scrub off our door. Not a threat or random ill-wishing; whoever had painted it there had meant to lead me here. It was a trap.
From a shadowed corner of the old mill building, I heard the gentle sounds of laughter. Hannah’s--and mine. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw them caught in an embrace. It was me, a few years younger, a few pounds thinner, without the scar across my left palm from the accident with the scythe last summer. My hair, my blood, my skin. My fetch.
I wanted to call out to Hannah, to tell her not to be fooled, it wasn’t me, but my voice stuck in my throat. I couldn’t move. And then I saw why--the patterns chalked on the floor in a careful, familiar hand.
Hannah turned around, still clasped in the fetch’s arms, still laughing. Her hair was half out of its braid and her hands bore traces of chalk-dust. My breath caught at her beauty, same as always. One steel-sharp look from her eyes and I saw there was nothing I could tell her that she didn’t already know.
“I saw from the first there was darkness in you, Abimelech,” she said. “Why should I settle for a shadow of it when I could have it all?”
I felt the thrum of power start to build beneath my breastbone, fueled by rage, betrayal, helplessness. I gathered it all, hugged it to myself, and, with an effort that made sweat stand out on my head, managed to slightly move one foot, and smudge one of the marks chalked on the floor.
It was enough. I was free. The fetch saw it, let Hannah loose and reached for his gun, but I was faster. He was all my darkness, all my sins--and I was the one who’d killed him before, so what did that make me? Before he could lift his hand, I shot him in the center of the forehead. Then I shot Hannah in the chest, three times.
After that I dug. I dug until the ache in my shoulders and the burn in my palms were strong enough to blot out both heartache and the sick thrill of murder. I dug until I hit water, and then I tumbled the bodies into the grave, Hannah’s half-bound hair flowing over them both. I covered them over and scraped the dirt over to make it look natural. I visited the house one last time, turned the animals out to pasture, cleaned the shovel and hung it in its place with all my other tools. Then I set off down the road, following the east wind.
All I’d wanted was a home, good honest work and a good sweet woman. At least that’s what I thought. But maybe I was like Hannah, drawn to darkness. Maybe the darkness in me called out to the darkness in others: my comrades, my wife. And the darkness I’d drawn out of me, that I’d tried to drown and tried to bury--maybe it was dogging my footsteps still.