Hinges squeal with foreboding as the three Walkers step into the inn.
Tilda looks on with dire eyes from behind the bar in the corner. The lantern hanging above captures her foul mood. No greeting is extended. No drinks are offered. In this moment, camaraderie is of no importance to her—only the completing of this ill task and nothing more. She folds her arms and nods her head toward the table by the hearth.
Wynn sees two familiar faces and one new. Fergus regards him with haggard eyes. Not even his thick beard can conceal his frown. Hawk sits beside him with elbows on the table, holding his head in his hands. His fingers lightly pass over the thick scar traversing the side of his shaved head. Closest to the fire, Clarence Pickens stares at low-burning flames with empty eyes. Before him sits a modest plate of food that looks untouched.
The Walkers move with delicate steps, as if approaching a funeral. Wynn sits across the table from Clarence with Anna beside him. Hemmett stands behind them with folded arms and his long coat tucked behind his revolver, its handle revealed and ready.
“This is the man?” Wynn asks. Fergus and Hawk both nod. Wynn gives Clarence a long look and sees abject despair. Dark circles rest under eyes lost in embers and red with weariness. The skin on his face is tight, and his cheekbones hint at his malnourished state. Dirt smears his face save for the space under his eyes. There, the wiping of tears has stripped the dirt clean.
“Mr. Pickens?” Wynn asks. There’s no response. Wynn leans forward and asks again, but the silence from Clarence remains. The broken man before him is oblivious to the world. Wynn turns to Tilda. “Has he eaten?”
With arms still folded, Tilda shakes her head in stern movements. Anger ravages her face.
“When did he come?” Wynn asks.
“Perhaps an hour ago,” Fergus says. “He walked in like a cold wind. Not a word or a look to us all. You’ve heard the saying ‘to look as though someone’s walked over your grave,’ hey?”
Fergus gives Clarence a long look. “When Pickens came in, was like the grave walked over us.”
Tilda’s eyes fume with the talk, but her mouth stays pressed closed. She tightens her arms around herself.
“Mr. Pickens,” Wynn says again, searching his eyes. “Clarence!” he shouts, loud enough to make all but Hemmett jump. Pale blue eyes slowly shift in their sockets. Moving from flames to hearth to tableside, they stumble upon Wynn. Looking into those eyes, Wynn sees a nothingness so deep that chills climb up his body. “Clarence, where is your wife?”
The empty eyes blink. “Lost,” he says. “Gone.”
“Lost where?” Wynn asks. “Is she still within the cave?”
“Gone,” Clarence says no louder than a whisper.
“Mr. Pickens, we want to help,” Wynn presses. “We need to find your wife. We’ve been told she’s both pregnant and severely ill. Is this true?” Wynn stares into the empty eyes across from him and waits. Frustrated by the hanging silence, he asks again. “Where is your wife?”
Clarence shifts his eyes back to the fire. “She is gone. Mar cannot be saved.” The words are muttered with disturbing finality.
“Has she passed?” Wynn asks while leaning forward. He presses his palms flat onto the old wood of the table. “Clarence. Has your wife died?”
Clarence Pickens does not respond, neither in word or motion. His eyes do not blink, and he makes no effort to eat the food his starved body needs. With an arm propped on the table, he simply sits and stares into the flames. Small crackles and pops from the fire interject into the silence of the inn.
Wynn leans back with a heavy sigh. “He’s been like this the whole time?” he asks to Fergus and Hawk. Both nod in response. He turns to his colleagues. “Well then? Thoughts?”
“I’m surprised this guy’s still alive,” Hemmett says, speaking as if Clarence weren’t in the room. “Did he have anything on him? Supplies? Anything?”
Fergus shakes his head.
“Just his lantern and rifle,” Hawk says. “His clothes, but those are near tatters. Just the skin and bones you see now.”
“I want to say he’s traumatized,” Anna says with caution, “but that isn’t even close to being the right word. It’s like… like—”
“Like his mind is broken,” Hemmett says.
“Yeah,” Anna agrees, despite not wanting to. She hesitates before continuing. “We have to believe him, right? I mean, it takes something severe to make a person act like this. Right?”
A quiet moment passes as the room considers her question.
“Belief has no part in it,” Tilda says from behind the bar. Her aging fingers cling to the wood as if it were a life raft. “The truth in his eyes is plain enough for all to see. Evil has come, and this poor man has come face to face with its cruelty. And lost his dear wife in the mix of it.”
Seated beside Wynn, Anna lets her eyes linger over the thin frame of Clarence Pickens. His clothes are worn and dirty and far too thin for the cold waiting outside. His nails are long and thick and dirty. To Anna, his withered body looks like a sitting corpse. Her young mind tries to imagine what the man in front of her has been forced to endure, what kind of decisions and sacrifices have been made, but she can only stumble upon a general concept of what he’s seen. She wonders how his experience compares to the horror stories coming from Man’s soldiers and the front. Feeling a sudden sense of sorrow and sympathy, she leans forward. Reaching across the table, the pads of her fingers touch the top of Clarence’s hand and—
Clarence bolts from his seat, the wooden bench chirping beneath has leaping legs, his thin body barely a shadow crossing in front of the firelight.
The inn jumps in response. Anna snaps her hand back as Hemmett’s hand flies to the large revolver on his hip, bringing the barrel up and to the ready. Fergus and Hawk skitter away. Even Wynn flinches at the sudden movement, somewhat rising from his seat.
Clarence scans the room with wild eyes while he rubs his recently touched hand with nervous scrubs.
“Death of man,” Anna says, her startled voice barely escaping her mouth.
Clarence gives panicked nods. “Tis, tis! Tis the death of man. The death of us all!”
“Calm down,” growls Hemmett, his hand still aiming, his eyes running the length of the hefty barrel.
“But it comes,” Clarence says in a panic. “The death that comes grows in her belly this very moment.”
“Easy,” Wynn says, raising a hand and retaking his place at the table. “Just take it easy.”
“It deceived me,” Clarence says in a broken sob. “The deviling deceived me so.”
“Deviling?” Hemmett asks with a raised eyebrow and creeping trigger finger.
“Aye, a deviling, a deviling,” Clarence says with trembling lips. His hands rub faster and faster as if desperate to cleanse the touch of Anna’s fingers from his skin. “It took my love and used it against me. I—I couldn’t—I didn’t know what to—it was those bones.” Struggling to speak, veins streak his face. Tears stream from his eyes. “It grows itself from my seed!”
“What?” Wynn gasps.
Uncertain, Anna slowly steps back from the table to stand behind Hemmett.
Clarence’s nervous hands begin grinding his eyes. “It deceives, it does. I was so fraught with worry when she touched the bones and reacted so, her body shaking, trembling in my arms. I thought she was dying there and then, but she came back to me, and I should have known. I should have known it was only the evil coming alive to take its place inside her, but I was so overjoyed. Her raging body calmed and she spoke my name in her sweet voice, and I was overjoyed.” He buries his face in his hands. “She loved me then, and I loved her, right there next to those bones. Oh, I shouldn’t have,” he weeps, “I shouldn’t have, but I didn’t know. I was so overjoyed at her life restored, at the sound of her voice. She said it was time for our family to find purpose, to become whole and find its way out of the cold. She was so warm, so alive. Oh, Marissa!” He attempts to scream, but his weakened body can only wheeze as he crumbles into the corner.
Hawk and Fergus retreat from their seats with great tact, doing all they can to not be seen by the raving man. With quiet steps, they move across the room. Anna glances and sees Tilda pressed into her corner behind the bar, one hand already griping the door leading out.
“What bones, Clarence,” Wynn asks, trying to calm the ruined man. “What are you talking about?”
“Used me,” Clarence squeaks from the corner. “It used me, us, from the very beginning. Twas never her, never her…” He buries his face into his dirty hands and cries.
For a moment, the inn stares in shock. Not a move is made. As Clarence slides further into the corner, his sobs growing quieter, Wynn stands and backs away from the table. “I doubt there’s much more we can learn from him,” he says with a heavy sigh. “Honestly, I’ve never seen a man in such a state.” He looks at Fergus. “You’re certain of the cave? You know where they were mining?”
Glad to pry his eyes from Clarence, Fergus looks back at Wynn and nods. “Aye. I know the one.”
“Does anyone know for certain if she was—is pregnant?” Wynn asks.
“Daniels was convinced enough to go north,” Hawk says from across the room. He has one foot on the stairs leading up, as if ready to abandon the first floor at a moment’s notice. “But he’s not returned.”
“She carries a child,” Tilda says with certainty.
Wynn stares at the small woman behind the bar. Despite his thick beard, his face seems to harden. “Then we find her,” he says. “We go further north.”
“You’ll not find her,” Clarence groans. “Don’t you understand? She’s with the darkness now. Only the deviling lurks within.”
“Enough of this,” Tilda says with sudden command. “Fergus. Hawk. Take the poor man upstairs. He needs rest. Get him in bed and leave his plate on the table beside him.”
The two men share a nervous glance and then do as their told. Together, they lift Clarence from the floor and carry him upstairs.
As Clarence ascends, Hemmett holsters his revolver and allows himself to relax. “Did you want to ask him about the line?”
“I don’t see much point,” Wynn says. “Even if he were to admit his guilt, then what? Prosecute? What sense is there to punish someone in such agony?” Wynn gives one last look at the broken man being carried away and turns toward Tilda. His boots clunk on the floorboards as he crosses the room, stopping at the bar. “We’ll need an escort in the morning,” he says. “Someone who can lead us to the cave.”
“Wait a minute,” Hemmett says. “To the cave?”
“Kurtis,” she says in a cold voice, “you’ll not be involving my ilk in this madness. No. Did you not see that man? Terrible things have happened. Terrible things. And now you’re to disregard it all to serve your own call to honor? Absolutely not.”
“Hold on,” Hemmett says, raising a hand as he joins them beside the bar. “When was it decided we’re going to the cave at all? I don’t recall a discussion on this.”
Wynn gives them both long stares. “That woman needs our help.”
“Who says there’s a woman left to help?” Hemmett asks. “And forget all this nonsense about a deviling. I’m talking about her being alive. He’s barely breathing as it is, and he’s utterly convinced she’s in far worse shape. What makes you think there’s anyone left to save?”
Wynn gives Tilda a piercing look. “Isn’t she?”
Tilda scowls. “You meddle in evil, Kurtis,” she says, causing Hemmett to roll his eyes. “And it’s irrelevant what you believe, Leonard Hemmett,” she scolds. “Your closed mind makes not a lick of difference on reality.” She points her finger at both of them. “You’ve not seen what I’ve seen.”
“And what have you seen?” presses Wynn. “Is that man’s wife alive or not?”
Tilda shakes her head and seethes. “No game, Kurtis. This is no game. You’ll not throw your lives away on a fool’s errand.”
“But aren’t we supposed to help her?” Anna asks. The three stop their exchange and look at the young woman standing in the corner. Slowly, Anna crosses the inn. She folds her arms across her chest and stops a few paces shy of the bar. “Isn’t that why we’re here? To help these people?”
Wynn nods and Hemmett sighs. Unanswered, the question seems to fall on Tilda.
“Sweet girl,” Tilda says, “there’s no helping that which has been lost.”
“But we don’t know for certain, right?” Anna asks. “We don’t know if she died.”
“Tisn’t death I speak of,” Tilda says with dark eyes.
“I’m going,” Wynn says, his voice loud with decision. “I’m leaving in the morning and traveling north to find Marissa Pickens.” He glances at Hemmett. “I understand if others choose not to come, but my actions are not up for discussion. Those that wish to travel with me are welcome. Those choosing otherwise are free to stay.”
Hemmett lets out a long, disgruntled sigh and curses under his breath.
“Leave well enough alone, Mr. Wynn,” Tilda says in anger. “Let this tragedy pass. What you propose will only serve to stir it up again. Let this darkness starve and fade away. You’ve no regard for the evil you meddle in.”
“I regard it entirely,” Wynn says. He leans closer and looks into her seething eyes. “This is not a pursuance born from disrespect. No, Tilda. No.” His voice softens. “This is a choice born from absolute respect. Respect toward my duty. Respect for my kind. If you think I face this without fear, you’re gravely mistaken. You’re correct in saying I know not what I face, but there’s a greater fear that drives me.”
Tilda’s eyes narrow. “That being, Mr. Wynn?”
“The fear of allowing another to suffer horribly when I had chance to intervene.” Wynn reaches out and takes Tilda’s hand in delicate embrace. “I cannot abandon that poor woman. I will not. You know in your heart I cannot.”
Acceptance, laden with sorrow and remorse and absolute bitterness, fills the aging lines on Tilda’s face. Her sternness breaks. “Heed every ounce of instinct in your body, Kurtis. Far to the north you’ll face the shadows themselves. Listen to your soul. It will guide you proper if you listen.”
Wynn leans in close to her cheek. “Mum,” he says with a whisper, “it already has.”
Tilda’s face breaks into a sob, and she turns away in embarrassment, pulling her hand free. In a flurry of emotion, she escapes through the door behind the bar.
Wynn glances at Hemmett and Anna.
“You already know I’m not letting you go alone,” says Hemmett, “so don’t even bother asking.”
Anna fidgets with her fingers and tugs the rifle on her shoulder tighter. “I don’t know,” she says with hesitation. “I don’t know. I know what I should say, but…”
“But?” Hemmett asks.
She looks at him, and for a moment she envies his rude demeanor, his bold disrespect for the situation. In that brief moment, she sees the strength of her father. “But I’m afraid,” she finally says.
Wynn’s bearded face, dark and tired, shifts into a soft smile. “Ms. Holt, we’re all afraid. Even Mr. Hemmett here, though he’s not likely to admit it. That’s a secret most won’t share. We never know what’s coming next, what tomorrow brings. We only do our best when it arrives.”
Silently, Anna nods.
From above, footsteps clunk across wooden boards and descend down the stairs. Fergus rounds the corner and stops a few steps shy. He scans the inn. “Where’s Mum?”
As Wynn struggles to answer, Hemmett chimes in. “She left. What do you need?”
Fergus shrugs and scratches at his thick beard. “So you’re going then?”
“We are,” Wynn says, “though we’re still in need of a guide. Any suggestions?”
“I’ll escort ya,” Fergus says. “Would be an honor to walk with the likes of thee.”
“Aye. I’ll go as well,” Hawks says from upstairs. His shaved head peaks out from over the railing.
Fergus gives Hawk a sideways look. “With your leg as bum as it is? Best not. I can manage, and Mum will need you here to help with… that,” he says, motioning toward Clarence’s room.
“Thank you,” says Wynn.
“Thanks unto you,” replies Fergus. “You’ve done us right, hey? Fixed the line and saw through the troubles blinding us. I’ve never met such a respectable fellow. Death of man delayed.” Fergus extends a hand, and Wynn gives it a firm shake.
Anna approaches the stairs. “What will you do with Clarence?”
“Nothing fer now,” says Hawk from the second floor. “He’s tucked away in bed. Like Fergus says, I’ll tend to him myself. More than ever, we have occupancy. I hope Mum doesn’t give me too much of a thrashing over it.”
“She won’t,” Wynn says. He looks at the other Walkers and lets out a heavy sigh. “We should return to camp. We’ll need as much sleep as we can get.”
* * *
Sleep does not come to Tilda.
Alone in her room, she waits for shrieking hinges to announce the departure of her beloved friend. Feeling in her heart that he has gone forever, she weeps as quietly as she can. In time, she regains control and slides her body into her soft bed. Outside her window, the world is the dimmest blue of wintry night, and snow continues to fall. She stares at nothing and listens to the sounds of her inn finally settling for the night.
Hobbling footsteps moving down the hall tell her which room Hawk leaves Clarence in. The mumble of a one-sided conversation tells her what she already knows. Clarence is a man devastated beyond recovery. Foolishly, Hawk leaves him alone, and spitefully, to confirm her own convictions, Tilda allows it.
Hawk hobbles his way down the hall, and moments slowly slip by. Silence fills the inn.
The single gunshot that comes a short time later is of no surprise. She waits for it and doesn’t startle when it finally cracks through the building, punctuating and distinct. Hawk’s awkward footsteps scramble to the room where Clarence so recently drew breath. She hears him bump into the wall. A door opens, and the sound in his voice announces the ending to a sad story. When Hawk later opens her door and asks to speak with her urgently, his voice overflowing with apology, she gives him all the patience and kindness he needs. She tells him it wasn’t his fault. This is all very unexpected. They’ve all been handed a terrible burden. It wasn’t for him to see what was coming.
Not like she did.
Hawk spares her the details and assures her; in the morning, the room will be clean. Not a spot to find, Mum. Tilda sighs, and rolls over. One tragic story has ended, and just outside her window, a new one is underway. She can feel the approaching evil fill her bones with dread. She can still smell the horror in the wind.
With certainty, death approaches.
As she closes her eyes, she sees it again and again.