The man didn’t come home. The sun crept closer to the horizon, and Ros got more and more twitchy. She would stop what she was doing and walk a few steps toward the hills, as if those few steps could clear her vision, let her see through the earth.
Anselm helped her bring in the chickens, holding them as they squawked and flapped and pecked at his arms. He fed the pigs, did other almost familiar kinds of work he hadn’t done in years. His muscles screamed from it. He could feel the land, pulling on his thinned skin like a fever. When the rain started to fall he took down the laundry armed with a long pole and determination.
Darkness snuck in under the thick clouds. Ros retreated to the house, a warrior falling back reluctantly to her prepared position. They ate dinner in silence. Around them the storm gathered strength.
Finally, she said, “He must have taken shelter somewhere. He sometimes goes out too far to get back before dark.”
Anselm could hear the lie in her voice. But he said nothing.
She was fixing a short stool. Her porridge and bread sat, untouched, by her knees.
Anselm shoveled porridge into his mouth. It was more then he’d earned, but he’d burned himself out over the last few days. The storm was growing louder, dancing on the roof. The shutters were solid. They did not click or rattle in the heavy wind. The fire occasionally hissed and spat, but burned bright. A picture of security with a maggot in its heart.
There was a knock on the door.
Anselm could feel apprehension, leaking through the wood. It rippled over his skin like cold and sunk into his shoulders, trying to latch on to something that wasn’t there. Anselm shook it off.
The fire flickered and dimmed. The door rattled, as if the wind had grabbed it. Anselm had left his sword by the door, out of respect. He rose, but Ros said-
Anselm paused, waiting.
The wind picked up. The shutters rattled. The knock came again, louder.
“Please.” A child moaned. “Please, let me in. It’s so cold.”
“It’ll go away.” Ros said, in a voice so low Anselm hardly heard it. “It’ll go.”
Anselm sat, inching down despite his still aching muscles. The wraith was young, powerful certainly, but not difficult to capture. But the girl seemed so frightened. “I can take care of it.” He said, keeping his voice, like hers, dim.
She shook her head, pale. “Take care of it?”
She was cut off by a scream from up the hill. Deep, low, agonized.
She lept to her feet, dress flying like wings, and was at the window. Anselm moved after her, slamming his hand down on the shutters before she could open them.
“That was father!” She shouted. Then, “That sounded like father.” As quiet as before.
“Come out.” The child’s voice said, from the other side of the door, still shaking with cold and exhaustion. “Come out. He’s dying.”
Perhaps not so young then.
Anselm crossed the room. His muscles, now awake, did as he demanded without complaining. He picked up the sword and put his hand on the door.
He felt the cold on his palm, growing stronger as the wraith approached. The door began to rattle again. “He’s dyi-”
Anselm put his sword through the door. The wood parted with a splintering crunch. The wraith screamed as the iron bit into it. Anselm pulled the sword out while his other hand flung back the latch. He kicked the door open and swung.
The wraith parted like mist before the iron, a child’s long face billowing into pieces. It blew back and reformed, screaming. The scream rattled up his bones, making even the clouds shiver. Faint fear brushed across his chest, lingering like the smell of the sea.
Behind him, Ros collapsed against the wall, her breath stolen by fear.
Anselm stepped forward, out of the pool of firelight that was pouring from the door. The wraith lunged for him. It smelled sharp, almost dusty. Like falling snow, or old ice melting on the tongue. Anselm raised his blade and thrust. It slid into the child’s form, glittering as if the stars were out. Misting hands, almost invisible in the rain, grabbed helplessly at the blade. Anselm could feel the beat of the iron seal in his chest. He called the fire from it. It burned out of his chest, pouring through the dark lines of ink etched into his chest and down his arms. The shirt he was wearing burst into blue flame.
The wraith snarled, teeth startlingly white and solid in the grey night. It tried to pull away, and couldn’t.
“Wraith.” He said, “I am a King’s rider, on the King’s land.” He could feel the fire burning holes in his skin where the land touched it.
The wraith screamed, a different sort of scream. It tugged on the sword, but it was no more effective then night mist. Thunder rolled, pounding across the sky like horses. Emotions came in a flood, the burning pressure of anger, fear with her writhing fingers, sorrow’s heavy weight, overwhelming joy bubbling from his chest at the striking thunder.
Anselm let them pass through like the strangers they were. “In his name, and with his power, I bind thee to my skin!” The fire flared down his sword. The land yanked on his shoulders, on the thirteen points scattered across his chest like a map of the kingdom. His skin held the weight. The wraith thrashed, ranking at him with claws made of terror and cold. But it was tearing at the land. Blue fire poured into it, filled it-
Anselm slammed the wraith and the sword into the sweet, wet earth.
The scream turned into a child’s wail. The body of mist shrunk, and the fire dimmed. For a moment, he felt the iron under his ribs, burning hot. And then it cooled.
One last scream, echoing off the hills.
The world went dark.
Ros shook with fear, holding the door frame.
“Fire.” The rider said in an impossibly calm voice.
A deep red glow. Her eyes flashed to it. A ball of flame, flickering and writhing in his curled hand. The shirt he’d borrowed was in tatters, charred remains of it still hanging to his wrists and his waist. The light was flickering, making the tattoos that spanned his chest and shoulders like a cloak look like they were twitching.
Ros moved out into the rain, scanning the ground. She caught sight of her father. He was laying with his back to them on the other side of the circle of burned earth that surrounded the sword. Ros ran toward him, taking a wide circle around that sword. It looked normal now, no strange lights, no ghost screaming on the end of it.
But you never could tell.
She slid in on her knees, the muddy grass ripping easily under her. “Papa!” She said, and she laid her hand gently on his shoulder. The thunder was dying back into silence.
He shivered, and jerked away. Ros pulled her hand back, startled. He sat up, rubbing his eyes.
“Ros?” He said, voice as blurry as she had ever heard it. He was shaking. Ros scooted next to him.
“Yes Papa. It’s me. How are you feeling?” She had expected to be afraid, but the fear had drained away. Right now, only nothing filled its place.
“Bad.” Papa blinked at her, his eyes unfocused. “Bad.”
Ros stood up. “I’ll be right back.” She bolted to the house, found a water skin, and brought it back. Now she could feel the fear, nipping at her heels, her thoughts starting to dance in tight, unhappy circles. Ros knelt next to her father and reached under his back.
He flinched away again, and then leaned into her arm. Ros helped him sit up, and then handed him the water skin. “Here Papa. Have a drink.” His hair was plastered to his face by the rain.
He took it, still shivering, and drank. He began to cough. Water came back up, spilling down his front and around the sides of his beard.
“You need to drink it.” Ros said, quietly, insistently. She could feel the presence of the rider behind her. The light he was carrying did not hiss or flicker in the rain the way a torch would.
Her father looked at her. He lifted the water again, but again it spilled out the sides of his cheeks, as if he couldn’t hold it in.
The rider stepped beside her. He’d picked up his sword. He held it at his side. Gently. On his arm, the tattoos thrashed. Ros tried not to look at them.
“Sir.” He said, voice devoid of person-hood. Not quite empty, but not full of anything she recognized.
Papa didn’t even respond to his voice. He pulled his knees up to his chest, keeping his balance, leaning forward a bit. Then he coughed up the rest of the water.
“Papa, please.” Ros said, her voice steady. Her heart quailed. “I need you to drink it.”
Papa finished coughing. “In a bit. In a bit.” He said, grumpiness crawling in to his voice. “I can’t keep it down right now. Nausea.”
Ros didn’t look at the rider. That was normal. Nausea, after being knocked out? Surely that was normal. Of course he was having trouble keeping it down. Look, he was still shaking like the grass was. Maybe more.
Ros knew she was lying. But now, at this moment, she couldn’t do anything else.
“Alright.” She cooed. “Alright. Let’s get you inside and get you warm, okay?” She slipped carefully under his arm, taking the water skin from him. The rider was watching. His gaze was like a physical thing, a weight on her shoulders. As she lifted her father off the ground, he was still shaking and could do very little of the work, she met the rider’s eyes.
They had been brown that afternoon, and blue the night before. In the light of the fire he held in his hand, they seemed to burn gold.
“Please, rider.” She found herself saying. “Please.”
He kept her gaze, for a just a moment longer.
Then he sheathed the sword.
“Of course.” He said. He came around and held her father from the other side, like she’d been asking for help instead of mercy.
They stopped at the door. Ros slipped out from under her father’s arm and opened it. The fire was dim, the house cold. She turned, and watched. Part of her, the lying part, told her she should get the fire to wake up, get a blanket for her father, and dry clothes. Put on something hot.
She ignored it.
The rider stepped away from her father, closing his hand.
The light went out.
Her father stood, in the doorway, lit only by the dim embers of their hearth fire. His face cast in shadows, his form and bulk hidden in the dark. Ros closed her eyes, and breathed in. It still smelled like father.
“Are you going to go inside, sir?” The rider asked. Just a question. Nothing more.
There was silence.
Ros opened her eyes, blurred as they were by tears, and watched as her father sat on the door step. Unable to go forward.
“Have some water, father.” She said, quietly, aware of the desperate hope in her voice. “It will give you strength.”
But Papa just shook his head.
“Your father and I will go for a walk.” The rider said, in that same not-exactly-empty voice.
Ros shook her head, in echo. Then she spoke. “I’ll come.” She looked up, and met the rider’s eyes. He nodded.
Ros knelt, and lifted what remained of her Papa off of the ground. They walked three steps away from the house, before she stumbled, and they fell to their knees.
“Ros.” Papa said, grabbing her hand. There was fear in his voice.
Ros faced him, taking his hands. “I’m here Papa.” She said, quietly. “I’m here.” His eyes were full of fear, blank, and tears spilled around the edges of them, visible even through the rain. “I’m here Papa. Nothing is going to hurt you.” She lied.
She could no longer see the rider’s shadow, through the rain.
“Nothing is going to hurt you. I’m here Papa. I’m here.”