By Will Millar
There were beds at the Inn, and he had plenty of coins in his pocket. Red was leaving, nevertheless. The whiskey had fortified him to an agreeable state, and Home was not far off.
“It’s cold out,” said Molly. “Watch you don’t stand still while you’re pissing, lest somebody find you in the morning, frozen to the spot.”
Red grunted. “Mind your business, cooze.” But he said it with a smile, and Molly laughed back and bid him goodnight.
It was colder than he’d expected, but the whiskey and the exercise were good for Red, and he’d known his fair share of cold nights. A fog had settled over the moors, and he cinched his scarf tight around his neck and moved faster than usual, wishing to keep the damp air from winding ‘round his bones.
At Shepherd’s Crossing, he heard boots echoing behind him, and he picked up his pace. A tight heavy band had gripped his chest. The footsteps grew louder. Red was old, but raw-boned and roughly hewn. He stopped to see who followed.
The mist parted for a tall, gaunt man in a black hooded shroud.
“I know you,” said Red.
“Aye,” said the Pale Man.
“I ain’t coming quietly,” he said. “Ye shan’t have me easy.”
The Pale Man’s mouth split into a thin, cruel smile. “If it’s a fight you want then you’ll have it.” He darted forward, and his cloak flapped like the beating of great wings.
Red feinted and threw an overhand right that smashed into the Pale Man’s face with a satisfying crunch. Hot blood slicked Red’s knuckles.
The Pale Man stumbled, and fell on his ass. He was shaking his head and grinning ruefully. He spat. “I haven’t been hit that hard since I don’t know when,” he said.
Red was still circling, when he saw the dead man on the ground. The Pale Man took a knee and stood, dusting himself off. Red lowered his fists. His chest didn’t hurt anymore.
The Pale Man offered Red his hand. Red took it.
___ ___ ___
The elders had long shunned Shepherds Crossing for a ha’ant. Children were warned away, which naturally drew them in greater numbers, and from broader reaches. Abel and May had heard such tales, but it was too bright a day. Sunshine and birdsong polished the trees to a high gloss, and even the leaves in the muck bore a certain delicate grace. May hopped from puddle to puddle and saw what looked like a pearl in the mud.
Her chubby little hand plucked it from ground and May felt a sudden lightness as she heard what sounded like a snowdrift collapsing in the first light of spring. Her brother was already disappearing over the hill, but May didn’t care. There was nothing in Shepherd’s Crossing for her to fear. She was interested in what she had found in the ground; not a pearl but a long, white tooth.
When the Pale Man stepped out of the woods, May held it up to him like a prize. He asked her if she knew how long he’d been searching for that very tooth.
“A long time?” she asked.
“Longer than long.” He took the tooth from her outstretched hand, screwed it into his mouth and grinned for the little girl. She giggled.
Now her mother flew down the hill at a dead run, frightening May with banshee sounds. Her once beautiful face was contorted into a witch-mask of pain and grief.
May instinctively shrank into the man’s black robes, away from her mother and Abel.
“Would you like to come with me?” asked the Pale Man.
May found that she very much did. She took his hand and let him lead her away from the strange screaming hag, the little lost boy, and the tangled pile of spun gold that already, she didn’t recognize.