One of the four of us shall die today. If all goes as intended, it will be me.
Die, here, today. I paint the words across the landscape of my mind and they evaporate, leaving not a trace behind.
“Could one of these be Hangman’s Tree?” asks Arrel.
I open my eyes. Arrel stands a distance away, shielding his face with one hand. Pale sepia sky, and earth the color of rot. My breath fans out in wisps of white mist, and my toes, cold as stones, ache inside my soft boots. There’s no marker at the boundary into Whistler’s Grove, but we knew when we crossed it all the same.
A few feet from Arrel, Tam grimaces at the seemingly endless sweep of black leafless trees, all sprouting from hillocks spaced a couple hundred feet apart. “Any of them would do for hanging, in a pinch.”
Celina turns a look of quiet reproach on him then moves to Arrel’s side, curling her hand around his. “The records say it’s the tallest tree in the grove. One branch crooks at a perfect angle.”
“As if beckoning,” quips Tam.
We resume our journey. The icy light pouring down from all reaches of the sky hurts my eyes. A layer of coarse, bleached stuff, like shards of broken seashells, covers the ground, crunching beneath the others’ tread. My own footfall is silent; my breathing, less so. Once, I have to stop, overwhelmed by a fit of coughing. Wiping my mouth, I examine the back of my wrist for flecks of blood.
I did not notice Celina drop back, but she’s here, at my side, her braids wound in a golden coronet about her head. “How are you holding up, Miro?” she asks. She smells of clean water and crushed grass. I envision reaching out and tracing the silken arch of her lower lip with the pad of my thumb. And what might happen then?
“Miro?” she repeats. Tam glances over his shoulder. His smile is meant to be encouraging, I believe. Arrel’s pace never slackens.
I do not reach, and the vision dissipates. Drawing a painful breath, I nod. Celina walks beside me a minute then squeezes my shoulder and quickens her step to rejoin Arrel.
The poison eating away at my innards laid me low some days ago. My companions broke off our journey to allow me to rest at an inn. I do have value. I cannot be allowed to expire before my life is used to purchase our lord’s victory.
I recall between periods of aching, bleary sleep Celina tending to me. She would come to my sickroom, tap-tap up the stairs, the floor creaking under her light step, to bathe my temples with cool water, hold spoonfuls of broth to my lips, open the shuttered windows to let in fresh air. She spent hours by my bedside, stroking my arm, smoothing my sheets, humming. My life is needed to purchase our lord’s victory. But this, I think, is called kindness.
Arrel came too, the same hour every morning. After inquiring about my health, he’d spend the remainder of the day practicing in the yard or standing on the small rise to the east, fingers clenched on his sword’s hilt. Tam also visited, twice, drunk on both occasions. He sang cheerful filthy songs and tried to get me to play cards, until Arrel barred him from my room.
I don’t know how to play cards.
Tam’s singing now. “I promised to love you then, my dear, And I’ll be loving you still, When all the seas pour out of the skies, and fishes walk out of the hills.” He has a fine voice, a baritone rich as warm wine. Martial stride; dark hair flowing over the shoulders of his deep blue uniform—it’s easy to see the soldier he once was, before excess drink spiderwebbed red lines across his nose and set off a faint trembling of his hands.
A glance from Arrel. “Quiet.”
I appreciate the singing, myself. It’s an act of defiance to the silence that hangs over the grove like a blade poised to fall. “There’s no harm in it,” says Celina, but Arrel’s gaze sharpens and Tam hushes. Right on the edge between song and silence, I hear a laugh, soft as a breath—I hear it, but there’s no one behind me, and I refuse to look. The back of my neck starts aching. Air hisses between my teeth when I rub it. One spot, easily covered with two fingertips, is hot; tender as if new-bruised.
We weave our way between the soft mounded hills, watched over by skeletal black trees. The shadows they cast are sharp enough to cut your finger on. Cold light flashes off the bits of armor my companions wear; useless here. Mere steel will not deter the Whistler if you are chosen. My own garb is in shades of dull green and charcoal gray, supple, barely whispering against me as I move. I’ve lost weight, and had little flesh to spare to begin with.
A round white knob—bone or stone; I do not care to examine it—turns under my foot. I recapture my balance easily. Once, I never would have lost it. The line of Arrel’s jaw tightens. Noble fellow; he can hardly bear my presence. He is the sunlit warrior; I, the knife in the darkness. I am an evil necessity. For our lord I have spied, I have lied, and I have killed. Since a poisoned dart pierced my side during the last raid, I have measured my life in breaths. The war—there has always been war—goes badly. I can be of one last use to him.
“There.” Arrel raises a finger and we halt, our eyes following its point to the shape outlined against the sky like a corpse in its shroud. It’s not height that distinguishes Hangman’s Tree so much as the one branch that juts out of its trunk, growing smooth and straight for maybe twenty feet before bending at a perfect right angle and ending in a cluster of smaller branches that clutch at the sky. A drowning man’s arm.
“We’ve reached the Whistler’s domain,” says Arrel, and there’s a tremor of excitement in his voice. I know it is excitement, not fear; his blue eyes brighten and the corners of his lips lift fractionally. “Keep alert,” he adds. “We might hear him any time now.” And he marches onwards, closing the distance between us and Hangman’s Tree and that long, straight branch that bends so abruptly.
Celina doesn’t follow at once. She lingers, eyes on me. Dark shadows hollow her cheeks. I don’t remember them being there three weeks ago. “How are you faring?” she asks. Inadequate, unnecessary, and she must realize it, for she drops her head, wincing. Better, however, than voicing the “you poor thing” I sense lurking behind her sad query.
I turn up my palms. What is there to say? It is time for me to make the final payment on the debt I owe my lord. How I accrued this debt, I cannot say. My mother—I recall her as a raised voice, the back of a hand, strands of sweat-damp hair falling over flushed cheeks—sold me to the Shadow Walkers two decades ago. They fed me, clothed me, trained me, and I suppose I owe them for that. When I turned seventeen, my lord purchased my services, and I have that price to repay as well. At least when the Whistler takes me, all the debts of my life will be cast off. The debts of living.
Celina attempts to smile and almost succeeds. Turning, she follows Arrel, her step heavy. Tam walks a little apart from them, a hot color burning his skin. I trail after. You poor thing, I mouth to myself.
The air grows thicker as we climb the hill to Hangman’s Tree, becoming the exact temperature of flesh, as if we are pushing through a crush of intangible bodies to reach it. An odor rises from the ground; dusty, like a room of old books, but also sour, organic. Beneath that a sweetness, akin to dried flowers preserved in a pot of oil. Taking a breath, I roll it around my mouth. The taste of stale honey coats my tongue.
Hangman’s Tree rises, without weeds or ceremony, straight up from the whitish shards littering the ground. If the four of us linked hands, we could encircle its trunk. Its deeply corrugated bark is black as scorched earth. The angled branch’s shadow soaks into me, and I gasp; for a second I’m drowning. Tam squats, running a finger over a smooth stone the size of a skull lying at the tree’s foot.
Then we hear it. A clear whistle, no tune you could remember or repeat, but light and cheerful. My heart clenches. No records say what the Whistler looks like. The rumors—always whispered—speak of demon horns, yellowed bones, a billowing cloak, and pits of fire where the eyes should be, but this is the whistle of a contented farmboy heading to market. Thatch-colored hair and apple cheeks. Perhaps carrying an axe.
Arrel lets out an exclamation; joy or surprise, this time I cannot tell. All the blood drains from Tam’s face, leaving him paler than the rubble littering the ground. Celina looks to the sky, and I tug at one of the gold hoops adorning my right ear. I drop my arm when I realize what I’m doing; I should not be nervous.
“He’s here,” says Arrel, taking Celina’s hand. Her fingers curl limply in his palm. I don’t think he notices. “Now, Celina, Tam, concentrate. Focus on the question. How may our lord achieve victory?”
I am not included in this exercise. The Whistler only answers the question of the person most determined to know the reply. If they all ask and I stand here with no questions, no desires at all, my life will be the one the Whistler takes in payment.
Their eyes close. Celina’s find my face before they close. Only then, when I can no longer see her fern-green irises, do I close mine as well. A good last vision, I tell myself, and it almost sounds true.
Die. Here, now. I paint the words across the landscape of my mind, and this time, instead of evaporating, and in spite of all the orders I’ve been given, they shape themselves into a question.
If my life was never my own... can I truly have lived?
A whistled note blows past my ear, shocking in its coldness. I shudder, expecting to—what? Be rent asunder? Swallowed? Ash and fire builds in my lungs, the herald of another coughing fit. But the note fades and I am whole. Disbelief pops open my eyes.
Celina is gone.
Celina is gone; the word is a stone, dropped into a well, gathering weight as it falls. She is gone; she should not, cannot, be gone. This is a fact so obvious that Arrel and Tam join me in wide-eyed search of our surroundings for her. I can almost see her; her image lingers in the air between us. We will her to be present. Still she does not appear.
She is gone. The word finally strikes bottom and I reel under the impact. That question—that stupid, insistent, nonsensical, useless question of mine—has it killed her?
“No,” says Arrel, an outburst, quickly stifled. His face tightens into a mask. A drop of red trickles down his chin; he’s bitten his lip. He scrubs a sleeve across it, smearing it over the corner of his mouth. “She was aware of the risks,” he says, although neither of us has protested. Tam sways on his feet, skin almost transparent. I suspect I am just as faint. Arrel’s empty hand folds about itself. Rubbing his fingers together, he adds, “Our lord will reimburse her family for her sacrifice.”
Despite the stone in my chest I wonder: if my mother were alive, would our lord offer her restitution had I been taken, as planned? Not likely, although I’m certain she would’ve accepted it, weeping greedy tears of joy.
Because we must, we turn back to Hangman’s Tree. Something has changed. A piece of yellow parchment flutters, pinned under the skull-sized rock. Arrel’s hand shakes only slightly as he moves it aside. The smell of desiccated skin rolls off the parchment. Shaking a little harder, Arrel’s hand plucks it up and lifts it to his eyes. Words flow across its surface, spidery and reddish-brown. Blood makes for poor ink. It separates and runs. Blots of watery serum blur some of the letters.
My stomach boils. I itch to snatch the parchment away. But—run, run, screams my brain. Once he begins to read, it’s done. Either you’re the one who killed Celina or you’ll never find out if what you’ve known as life is all there is. Which would you find harder to bear?
That life was all I was allowed. It is all I am. My palm presses the welt on my side, still hot and seeping beneath layers of soft gray cloth. Standing silent, I wait.
Arrel reads. His fingers slowly curl, digging into the parchment. Two burning spots of red appear, high on his cheeks. I’ve killed Celina. I throw back my shoulders and lift my chin. My heart thrums in my chest like a bird trapped between two cupped hands.
But it’s Tam he spins to confront. “What have you done?” Arrel demands, shaking the crumpled parchment at him.
Tam licks cracked lips. No living man should be so pale. “Give it to me,” he begs, reaching out. “It tells what happened to her, doesn’t it?”
To me, “her” is Celina. But of course that’s impossible, and Tam’s next words belie the thought.
“Bethany’s body was never found after the siege of Bellmar,” he says, attempting to seize the parchment that Arrel, taller, holds out of reach. “She may have escaped. She may have been taken captive. She may be alive. Please!” He’s almost sobbing. The hunger in his voice could starve a city.
I promised to love you then, my dear, and I’ll be loving you still... not just a song, then.
“Celina lost her life for this nonsense!” Arrel shouts. And there, over his head, he tears the parchment in half. Tam’s scream echoes the equally awful cry of the paper as it is rent, twin souls in agony. He dives at Arrel.
The heat and pressure building in my chest burst free. The washed-out sky and black indifferent trees blur as I cough out the fire within me. Sweat frosts my skin. An eternity of near-suffocation ends with a gasp that feels as if I’m drawing in a lungful of broken glass. I’m shivering on my hands and knees, a bitter salt taste in my mouth. Blood soaks the bleached earth. Only a few flecks come from my lungs. The rest well up between Tam’s fingers, clasped over his own throat. Arrel stands before him, panting, a knife held loosely in one hand. Its point drips red onto the earth.
A few feet from the skull-sized rock, the two halves of parchment lie crumpled and forgotten. Crawling over to them, I piece them together. The words are still legible.
Tam’s hands slowly fall away from his neck, revealing a gaping hole. A red bubble pushes out of it; swells, bursts. Then he sags to the ground, gently, as if he’s decided to nap.
Arrel runs his free hand down his face. “Damn,” he chokes.
I force my legs to carry me the short distance to where Tam lies. The grove sways. I place the torn parchment in Tam’s jacket and crouch beside him. “She lives,” I whisper.
His lips stretch in a smile. Then he too is gone.
Arrel glances left, right. The blood smear on his face grins. Absently, he wipes his knife on his trousers. “All is not lost,” he says.
I close Tam’s eyes, then let my head sink onto my knees.
“Come, Miro.” Arrel seizes my arm, shocking a yelp out of me. His talon-like grip hauls me upright.
Tam’s question was answered, not Arrel’s. Celina’s life was taken, not mine. A bargain can still be made with the Whistler. Only now do I realize that this was planned all along. Tam as a reserve, in case the first question went astray. A fine soldier once, discarded when he broke. Like me.
“He loved her,” I say. Arrel’s grip on my arm does not slacken. He hauls me across the slope, and I allow myself to be dragged, my ankles scraping over shards of bone. Yes, I can say they are bones now; knobby lumps of old vertebrae, scraps of ribs angled like knives. His footsteps crunch over the earth, kicking up ossified fragments that strike my face and collect in my hair.
“And you loved her,” I say, now meaning Celina, which he would know if he would only stop for a moment; think, do anything other than drag me around Hangman’s Tree like a lump of bait. We pass into its shadow. The right-angled branch thrusts towards the sky.
They loved. They lived. Kind Celina, and Bethany—a pretty name—whom Tam so adored. Gone now, both of them—for I lied when I whispered to Tam.
Arrel’s not listening. “Where are you, damn you?” he says, gaze flicking about the grove. The veins in my bicep throb against his clenched fingers.
Once, on our journey, we passed a bush covered in a million blue flowers shaped like stars. Their scent, lavender and honeysuckle mingled, soothed the tightness in my chest. First I, then Tam, then Celina, stopped to admire. We stroked the soap-soft petals and the fragrance clung to our skin.
Arrel strode ahead, never looking back. Leaving us all behind, as he will leave us all in Whistler’s Grove. And I may not understand cards or kindness, but this seems wrong. The man who did not look back should not be the one to go on.
He’s still scanning the horizon when the whistle reaches my ears. I have an instant before he hears it too. An instant before I’m gone as well, the debts of my owned life repaid.
The whistle comes again. A simple country tune, unmemorable but full of good cheer. This time Arrel hears it. His face clears. His lips part.
There’s blood in my mouth. Cinders in my lungs. And in my mind, a way to forfeit on my debt. Closing my eyes, I ask a question.
Perhaps a slight gust of wind ruffles my hair. The pressure on my bicep vanishes. I wait, counting to no particular number in my head. My fingertips prickle as blood flows back into my arm.
Finally I open my eyes. Arrel, of course, is gone. His disappearance leaves behind a smaller vacancy than Celina’s. A sense of her still remains, framed in the crooked shadow cast by the arm of Hangman’s Tree. Tam lies where he fell, still smiling, his deep blue uniform a note of defiance against the pallid earth. There’s no way to bury him. Time, I suppose, will gradually take him apart, fade him into the landscape.
Going to the tree, I take the new sheet of parchment from beneath the skull-sized rock. I read it once for the substance, a second to memorize, then fold it and tuck it into my sleeve. When I no longer need the information it contains, I shall burn it, and that must serve as Arrel’s funeral.
Still I linger, running the pad of my thumb over my lips. If I had reached out to her... what might have happened? But we never get back the chances we let slip by. They too fall into that well from which nothing rises. When I look up again, the sense of Celina’s presence has evaporated, leaving not a trace behind.
I turn my back on Hangman’s Tree. My footsteps flow silently over the bone-strewn ground, but my breath rasps in my chest. Once I stop to cough into a hand. No matter; if all goes as intended, the poison won’t trouble me much longer.
Inside my sleeve, the parchment rustles, as if laughing quietly to itself.
Pale sepia sky, and earth the color of rot. There’s no marker at the boundary out of Whistler’s Grove, but I know when I cross it just the same. I look to the west, where my lord waits, preparing his forces for news of our journey.
Then I face east.