There was risk, even in darkness. Someone tomorrow would recall seeing a figure outside the cabin late at night. The rain was thick, but the lightning burned enough sky to outline the stranger, lurking long enough to lay a curse on the home. The figure was small enough, ragged enough, someone might make the connection with the huntress who’d climbed into Fréasburg days before. But she could not move.
Hæneth had seen gold on the brow of the king, on the hilt of a reeve, even, once, on her own calloused finger. She had never seen it nailed to a fisherman’s door, a coffin for the tongue of the man who lay inside.
The body would be found in the morning light by neighbors. Suspicions would first rise when Hadric would not show up to his boat for the morning catch. They would be confirmed when a neighbor noticed the door ajar. Some unlucky soul would find the body lying on the mattress, not a mark on him, no sign of struggle, a cloth draped over the face as if to keep the light out of his eyes. The blood would soak through the linen, spreading a wide, blotchy grin where underneath had been a jaw. The cloth was her addition—a courtesy the killer had not considered. No one should have to see the same sight she had stumbled into—a man with half a face.
Now, fingers shivered as they reached from under her cloak. The metal was cold, which surprised her. She half thought it would still be warm, molten, tapered and twisted as it was. The harder iron pierced through it was so deep in the door she had to pry it with the hilt of her hunting blade. It was heavier than she expected when it fell into her hand. No expense had been spared. This was no leaf-work, no soft, gold-brushed vellum.
“Oh my dear, if you aren’t afraid of me, it’s only because you know what real monsters are.”
Remembered words crept up the back of her neck, plucking each follicle from her frozen skin—words first whispered through glinting lips.
Closing her eyes, his gold ones peered back at her, framed by the iron lattice of a black cell door, still fresh after fifteen years. She’d sat with him, gently begged him to run, to never return. She prayed for him to disappear and spare herself the kill. Not you. Not Holliwen all over again. She’d thought him dangerous, but he was only thunder, and thunder does not make the storm. She’d been running herself ever since, but she never believed she’d outrun them. She’d never outrun his phantom.
Too many nights had been spent telling stories in the open air. Too many miles had been tread together. Too many stars reminded of him.
“What monster out there is worse than you?”
He’d known she could name half a dozen nightmares, ghosts whose legends had grown long after their deaths—the kind of Men who promise danger from the grave by the telling of their stories. How many of them had she put in the ground? Not enough. Not all.
The golden tongue glinted up at her from her hand. She could almost see the sneer above it. A childhood game—nah nah. can’t catch me. When would they learn to grow up?
She dropped the talisman in her pouch and pressed her hand against the cabin door. She left it open just far enough for a passer-by to take notice and come searching. She would climb the hillside and watch from a niche in the rock, wrapped in grey and green, a hood over her silver-gold hair. She knew enough bird calls to distract stray children if they should wander too close to the cabin. No one should have to see the same sight—to peel back the grinning cloth and find white, gaping eyes and a chasm where a mouth should be. Someone, though, would have to find the body.
Someone else, she decided, must go after the monster who left it.