Last Rites for a Vagabond

Issue #126

Wraiths, like dark whispers—

And Beryl danced with them in the abandoned house, alder-wood sword in hand. Steady then. Masterful in deed and action. Not what he was, but something more: an exorcist.

Feint. Dodge. Riposte. Wooden sword pressed against palm. Beryl invoked banishment, and the ectenic fluid sublimated from him, cold as glaciers.

The deed done, the shakes began and the alder-wood trembled. Ten and I braved that cold to his side, running up the stairs into the house and letting the old man collapse upon our shoulders. We got to him before the crowd outside could move. They idled still in the road.

Beryl was less now than he had been. Diminished. Mastery gone. A slave again though none of those gawkers in the street knew it.

“Do you have it, boy?” Beryl’s fingers gripped my shoulder like talons. My chest hurt from the cold, and maybe from something more. I wanted to believe there was a time once when he wasn’t like this. When his gift wasn’t bound to what he put in his pipe, and dying a piece at a time wasn’t so much a part of his life.

“Yes, I have it,” I said, teeth rattling. “Everything’s fine. Let’s go.”

Ten glared at the crowd gathering about the door. Beryl sagged against me. He’d been reduced down to bones and angles now. 

“Come on.” Ten was tugging him. “The shakes will be on him if we don’t hurry. Keep him steady while I clear this bunch. Let’s go. Make way. Make way.”

“It’s gone. The ghost’s gone.” That was the house’s owner. He was stepping through the door as Ten shoved him back out. The man tumbled down the steps, landing on his ass in the mud. We stepped over him, not bothering to look back.

The trick’s to stay away so long no one remembers the hurt from how you left. 

That year everyone had trouble with specters, and you knew you were near an old battlefield by the way the ghost-lights flickered above them. Unable to compete with the black-coated exorcists banishing whole battalions of the deceased, Beryl worked the backwater provinces. We could hardly come to town and rent a room without someone telling us about their departed yet lingering kin.

“He was a good son. Never hurt anyone. But they’d been drinking right before the soldiers came...”

The stories all blurred together.

Ten did the heavy work, since they raised them big on the plains where he came from. My job was different. I came from a place a long way behind us, a place of forests where every child learnt the power of leaf and flower. I made sure Beryl always had his medicine.

“Who’s the boy?” The master spoke to the clerk, indicating me with a thrust of his reed pen.

The dispensary was so organized it made my skin creep. Give me a hovel little better than a roofed-over hole and a crone with teeth as black as night. She’d hardly care what you bought or why; might even give you more if you spoke straight to her.

I’d cleaned myself up a bit and was wearing an acolyte’s robe swiped from a line behind the rectory.

“He’s an apprentice from the temple,” the clerk said. “They need some deadwort.”

“Don’t they have their own supply?”

“Burned,” I said. “We had a fire a few days back, half the herbarium’s stock gone. We only need a small amount to hold us until next week when the wort should blossom again.” 

The master’s face darkened. I’d caught him just as he sat down to settle accounts. “Give him what he wants and get him out of here.”

I took the small packet, hurrying out. No one likes a liar, but life forces you to it. 

Ten guarded the shoddy inn’s hearth fire like it was his property, drinking from the skin and shooing everyone away. “Don’t worry. The food’ll be done soon.” He was reciting a poem about twin giants who attacked hell to find their lost herd of oxen. He could pin you down with his voice, but you needed to get used to scraping burnt bits off your dinner.

“Ten’s eloquent,” Beryl said, pushing aside a blackened end of meat. “He likely trained to it. Long ago. Long before.”

Long before. The way Beryl said it made you lose your breath. “Long before when?” I asked.

“Everything,” he said, shrugging his thin shoulders and encompassing the inn’s tired common room, its patrons, Ten, himself, and me—all of our tired histories bundled up and dismissed in that one gesture.

He eased himself upright on his thin legs. I stood after him, following him from the room and up the inn’s rickety stairs. The leather pouch hung from a cord about my neck, warm and sticky against my skin.

There’s always that one ghost you can never escape. Some nights we sat holding Beryl’s hand, covering his mouth whenever he started screaming.

Huddled in the back of a peddler’s wagon—

Pots and pans swung from the ceiling, and the dingy wall planks stank of old pork fat. Ten and I played cards, having to shout whenever the wagon shook and the pots jangled. Beryl hardly cared. He lay curled up on some old fabrics, gone again down in death where he was happiest. He clutched the alder-wood sword close, like how a man keeps hold of flotsam after the ship sinks beneath him.

“Yab,” he muttered, calling out for his long-dead brother.

He flailed about until I took his hand and rubbed the hardened palm of it. Beryl died a bit every time, and then he came back and went on living, hating every minute of it I suspected. It’s what likely made him so good of an exorcist, but one day there’d be nothing left inside for him to kill, and then what? Would he finally be dead—or would he be stuck on this side, the side of life, living on but lost? Beryl sighed, released me, and rolled over, sleeping the whole time.

“There you go, Zose,” Ten said, chuckling. “Yab. Yab. Yab. He hardly knows you.”

“At least he knows I’m here,” I said. “Which is more than can be said about you. When Beryl goes, he forgets you exist all together.”

Ten swung at me, wide and lazy. I ducked to the hatch and skipped down to run alongside the wagon.

The peddler gave me a nod when I hopped up beside him and eased myself onto the leather-padded plankseat. “How’s your bossman? Still sick is he?”

I nodded, hugging my thin coat about my shoulders. Behind us the crows hovered, calling one to the other, beneath a sky as gray as granite.

There’s a way to it.

Too many stories fill your head with other places, other people, until the ones around you cease to matter. It’s a lie, of course. The same one every wanderer hears: your life can only be lived if you get away from here.

So, the road—

And when you start you have an intention. A destination. I will do this. Except you misjudge the terrain, and a veil creeps across your dreams and hides them.

That’s when I met Beryl. To hear him tell of the ghosts he fought. A savant’s baton wasn’t worth nearly as much.

Besides, you could always steal one. 

It wasn’t a bad hovel as far as hovels went. I’d plugged the worst gaps in the walls with odd bits of rags and dusted away the larger cobwebs from the rafters. Ten spent most nights away, drinking and gambling. Beryl and I kept our beds close beside the firebricks and did our best to ignore the wind.

“Weren’t you going to the capital?” Beryl said suddenly one night. “When we met? You wanted to be one of those wretched chronicleers. Tell history’s truth and all that nonsense.”

I laughed. “That was long ago. You and Ten showed me the errors of my ways.”

Beryl made a sound, a snort or a sigh, derision or regret, too brief for me to catch and decide which. He shifted the blanket about his shoulders and drew the pipe from where he kept it. I threw the pouch to him, but he couldn’t open it for his hand’s trembling.

“Hells.” He tossed the bag back to me in disgust.

The pulp was warm and tacky. I rolled his dosage and Beryl passed me the pipe. I drew a taper from the fire and lit the pulp, exhaling the mossy smoke quick, so as not to taint my own perceptions.

Beryl grabbed the pipe from my hands before the last of the smoke had left my lips. He sucked upon the stem as greedy as a starved child, his eyes wet and glassy. He expelled smoke, falling back onto his blankets. The hovel filled with the scent of wet dirt and rotten leaves, a crypt now save for its living occupants.

“There’s an old house,” the village headman said. “It belonged to my family. I’d tear it down if I could. But would that make a difference?”

“Hardly,” Beryl said.

We sat in the headman’s parlor around an oak table. He had a head like a cragged old stone fringed by wilted ivy. The walls of the room were freshly plastered. Candles on the table gave off a sweet waxen smell.

The headman was doing well. Good money here.

“People claim to hear noises. Cries. There’s a pale shape. One of my people spent the night there. He said something attacked him. I’ve seen the scars.”

Beryl nodded. “We’ll take care of it.”

The headman counted out coins, each one making a pleasant sound as it brushed against its brother. He passed them to Beryl. Beryl passed them to Ten. I sat to one side. Ten opened his coat to place the coins within. 

“We’ll need more chalk,” Beryl said, scratching his beard with a thin finger.

Ten nodded and passed some coins to me. I pocketed them, Beryl speaking as I did.

“Zose knows exactly what I’ll need.”

At least the village had a witch. I doubted if she’d ask any questions. She refilled the pouch humming a tune. Halfway to the door I paused.

She gave me her attention from where she stood retying her bundles of herbs, her visible eye roving from behind her dirty hair and slouched bonnet cap. Her brief smile startled me.

“I knew as soon as I saw you,” she said. “That’s one that comes from home.”

“Home?”

“Do you think you’re the first to go and see the world?”

I had to smile at that. It’d been too long. The song had been an old one but common enough that everyone back home knew it. In the end it turned out we hadn’t been born but two days ride from each other.

“Though I’ll say I got put there first.” A forgotten warmth filled me when I heard her laughter. She frowned at the pouch I’d yet to pocket. “For you?”

“For my master,” I said, instantly regretting it. I stammered on, “He’s sick.”

Her eye narrowed. She went back to her herbs, hanging them from pegs.

“Get out and don’t come back.”

The night shook, buffeted by ice and wind. Beryl was back, not the greedy parcel of bones from the shed, but the master. To see him then—

Blue fire crackled, reflected on the high dome of his forehead. The air ripened with camphor, and the chalked marks on the walls tumbled in the flicker. The alder wood steamed with hoarfrost at its tip. The ghost attenuated between this world and nonexistence. Beryl’s hair danced—caught within the kinesthetic maelstrom. The wraith gave a last shudder. It flared and disintegrated.

Ten and I moved forward. Beryl swung about, waving the sword.

“Shades, be gone.”

Ten leapt back as if he’d startled an adder. Beryl turned upon me, the sword whirling, his eyes wide with madness.

“You’re dead, Yab. Dead. We chose. The ferry had only one seat left. It could have been me. Why do you haunt me still? You have no business here.”

The alder-wood struck me on the brow. My vision filled with stars. I swore, stumbling backwards.

Beryl raised the weapon to strike again. Ten moved in and hugged him. Beryl kicked his thin legs even as he was lifted clear off the ground.

“It could have been me.” He cursed the gods and swore by all the devils in hell.

Ten kept holding him until finally Beryl sagged, the fit gone, his eyes wide now only with the night’s emptiness.

“He’s losing it.”

Ten punched his own thigh, making the bench shake. We sat in an alewife’s cellar. A dog crouched near us amid the rushes, begging by its presence. “Best meal-ticket I’ve ever had and it’s coming to an end.”

“It’s not over yet,” I said. My head still ached where I had been hit. “Maybe there’s something we can do. Maybe we can get him to quit.” 

“Quit?” Ten jabbed me in the chest. “Don’t let kindness replace good sense. You keep getting him what he needs. As long as he needs it, he needs to work, and as long as he works, we eat. We’re on this road until they throw dirt over him.”

My appetite disappeared. I set my plate upon the floor, and the dog came forward greedily.

“By the devils, he’s a hunger for it.”

Ten spoke as he entered the shed. Beryl lay curled within his piled blankets, his breath passing hoarsely across his lips.

“Zose—” Ten fanned beneath his nose— “No one’s going to want him like this. Here’s some more coin. Get him a bath.”

Ten didn’t stay long after that. I sat there with the coins. Beryl’s breath grew even more shallow.

“Yab,” he murmured.

I blocked my ears.

“You have that look,” Beryl said.

He sat in the wooden tub I’d dragged into the hovel with his knees bent up near his chin. Soapy water dripped from his pale skin.

“What look?”

“Your honest one.”

“That’s good isn’t it?” I paused, holding the wet cloth in my hand.

“I know you, Zose. You only look honest when you’re trying to hide something.”

I moved around behind him, scrubbing his back so he couldn’t see my face.

Ten smiled, clapping his hands before the fire as he squatted his bulk down. The sound echoed in the shed’s dim interior.

“There’s business,” he said.

Beryl clutched a blanket about his shoulders as I spoon-fed him warm broth from a bowl. Ten may well not have even seen us for he simply kept on, “A ghost. A few days journey from here. We could leave the morning after next.” 

Beryl nodded. “Yab and I are ready.”

Ten clapped again. “Good. It’s settled then.”

Ten left, and Beryl sat, and the soup bowl cooled in my hand as I wondered when exactly each had lost their senses.

“I told you. No more.” The old woman hobbled about, a teeter-tottering storm amid her herbs. 

“You don’t understand,” I said. “My master’s sick. He needs it.”

She snorted and stopped her circuit.

“Oh, I understand,” she said. “I understand more than you ken. The great master and his assistants.” She waved a dark gnarled fist at me. “’Assisting’ is certainly one word for it.”

“But, he’s sick,” I answered feebly.

“Sick?” She caught herself before she shouted, shaking her head.

“I promise. This is the last time.”

Her laughter could have cut the hair from a man’s chin. But, her shoulders sagged. She must have run aground on some old memory of her own. She turned away to gather the herbs.

Home was a long way behind us, a place where every child learnt the power of leaf and flower. The witch had more than deadwort here. Worse things. My heart pounded near to panic.

By the time she came back with the pouch, I had tucked away what else I needed.

“My hands, they won’t stay steady.”

Beryl fumbled with the clasps near his collar. He stood before a broken glass I’d hung from the wall, the cheap tallow candlelight flickering around us. He made fists to steady himself, but this only made his whole arm tremble.

“Here,” I said. “Let me.”

I went to him and buttoned his collar, my fingers brushing against the pulse in his wrinkled neck. For an instant, there he was: Beryl, the Master. His eyebrow hooked upward.  “You have your honest look again.”

“Beryl, I—“ Suddenly I noticed something missing. “Your sword.” The alder-wood lay amid his blankets.

He went to it, but instead of taking up the wooden sword, he drew out his pipe. He sat and passed me the sword.

“Hold on to it. I’m too tired. There’s no peace in this world.” He passed me the pipe so I might prepare his dose for him. I did it without thinking. Beryl sat waiting with his eyes closed like he was sleeping.

“You’re taking your time with it,” he said. “Finished?”

I passed the pipe back. “Finished.”

The road once more, only now alone for I fled that very night. Ten’s wrath wasn’t worth the risking, and besides, he could keep Beryl’s purse. I counted that fair.

The alder-wood sword was all I kept. There’s always that one ghost you can never escape, the one that dogs your every step. The one you can never forget.


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Justin Howe is the product of late 20th century New England. He lives in South Korea, tweets as @justinhowe, and blogs about books at 10badhabits.com. He has appeared multiple times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Check out his other stories in the archives.

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“Sate My Thirst with Ink and Blood” by Adam Callaway
“Playing for Amarante” by A.B. Treadwell

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Comments & Scrivenings
6 Comments on “Last Rites for a Vagabond”

6 Responses to “Last Rites for a Vagabond”

  1. Ahimsa says:

    Great title and even better story. This was really fun to read.

  2. E. Catherine Tobler says:

    So fantastic.

  3. Ken says:

    Really loved this story, great sense of a big world outside of the small tale.

  4. A touching story told in a strong voice. You wonder what will happen to Zose–although you fear that you know. Well done.

  5. Atsiko Ureni says:

    Very interesting story. You can see how the story is such a tiny part of the world it takes place in.

  6. […] had one story published, Last Rites For A Vagabond. I like that story quite a bit and am pleased with it in so much as one can be pleased with these […]

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