Wolfgang’s body was frigid the next time Salem awoke, more than enough proof to scream her wretched nightmare was a horrid reality. Her eyes were red and raw, and she scarcely remembered what happened after she found her friends, although the blur implied crying, the irritation each breathe caused her declared yelling, and the splitting headache seeming to break her in two shouted heavy drinking.
Groaning, she sat up, shielding her eyes from the tortuous sunlight with one hand while the other remained on Wolfgang’s wrist, begging reality to bend and give him a pulse again. It shouldn’t have happened. Not that, not to him, and not there. Shatter Woods was a nest of thieves, but they’d always kept their home safe. It was where scofflaws went to celebrate and lick wounds. It was where hooligans were recruited and jobs were offered. It was where spoils were sold, tales were traded, and no one was fool enough to fuck that up. Wincing as her brain gave an especially harsh throb, her left hand left her friend, finding her forehead beside the other.
Gritting her teeth, her eyes clamped shut, but the focus on the task dragged her back to reality, confronting her with the fact she’d left the brothel some time in the night. The operator there had long practiced boiling cinnamon to mask the scent of sweat and other stenches, but the air that surrounded her was stale and the commotion outside was too distant for her to be at the inn… so that put her at… Peeking between spread fingers, Salem instantly regretted the burn, and even though she still couldn’t quite see, the man she’d taken Green to finally noticed her movement.
“You need to bury him.”
Redwood’s skin froze and her body shook. She’d been patched up by Dr. Hemingway enough to recognize his voice, and that was the last piece of medical advice she wanted to hear.
“A corpse shouldn’t be the first thing your friend sees when he awakes.”
Blinking as new implications came to light, Salem’s eyes quickly came into focus, narrowing harshly as anger flashed in her blood. “A corpse?” She rose to quaking legs, marching past the bed Mason rested in and towards the middle aged doctor. “His name is Wolfgang. Wolfgang Jasper Peoples, born the eldest of two and savior of Storm Hill. He was a damn fine farmer, a great thief, a loving husband, amazing friend, and all around wonderful person.” Her index finger slammed into Hemingway’s chest. “You do not get to just call him ‘a corpse’.”
“I meant no disrespect,” The older man gradually pushed Salem’s digit off his body, “Although I do appreciate that you cleaned him.”
Glancing over her shoulder, the girl noticed that at some point last night she must’ve changed Wolfgang’s clothes. Instead of the rags he’d arrived in, he was dressed in his best leathers and furs, but with a cloth wrapped around his head, covering his haunting, gray, dead eyes. She shuddered as their memory became all she could see.
“I do have news for you, however,” Stepping around Salem, the doctor gradually made his way to the bed Mason rested in. “Although I’m not sure how you’ll take it.”
“Is…” Crossing her arms, Salem cocked her neck, “Is Green somewhere between good and bad?”
The man let out a sigh. “There’s nothing wrong with him.” Redwood opened her mouth in protest, but Hemingway quickly continued. “Physically. He’s breathing how he should, his heart is beating as it should, he’s devoid of rash and discoloration, there are no pricks on his body where a substance could’ve been injected, and there’s no damage to his lips or the back of his throat.” He motioned to the faint bruising on his neck and the white lines that could barely be described as a scratch. “Discounting some old scarring, that’s the only damage anywhere on him, and since he was conscious when his jaw was dislocated last year,” He motioned to one of the aforementioned injuries on his cheek, “I don’t believe someone having a weak grip on his throat would do this to him, let alone one he seems to have broken free of.”
“Then… what could?”
The doctor shrugged. “If you go North, they’ll say witchcraft. South: The Gods damned him. I’ve never ventured past The Central City, but I doubt the West would hazard a better guess.” Bending over, Hemingway checked again for a fever, but Mason’s temperature remained normal. “It isn’t even like he’s asleep, because if he was, his eyes would be moving under their lids. His body is behaving like he’s awake, but resting his eyes.”
“...So you think he can hear us?”
“If I haven’t made it clear, I’ve never dealt with this before.” Crossing his arms, his eyes fell back on Wolfgang, the man’s body laying on the floor beside the bed. “Reed-” Salem cast the man a quizzical look, having never caught the first name of the Inn’s bartender, “Gallows helped you write letters to your friends, but mentioned you had intentions in Oakcliffe as well. Visiting a certain…” His wrist rolled as he considered an exact quote. “Well, you were very vulgar at the time.”
Salem took a moment as well. “A certain cunt?”
A long sigh left Hemingway before he ultimately nodded, prompting Salem to glance back at Wolfgang and cross her arms. Sure, Marsha should know what happened to her husband, but… a letter would suffice, especially if they were what she was using to summon everyone else. Her mind tuned out the gossip outside, and in a quiet, ponderous moment, her gaze fell downward to her tapping foot, only to realize she’d never changed out of yesterday’s garbs when they came into view. Her hands and forearms were clean, so she did shower, but there was still blood on the edge of her sleeves… and a splotch on her chest made it look like she ran into a freshly painted wal-
She ran into someone on the way to the brothel.
At the time, she’d thought she was a worker fleeing the incident, but… if they were soaked enough to transfer that much blood onto her…
Then she wasn’t just there, she was there.
And Salem saw her fucking face.
It was a hard sell, but Salem was eventually able to negotiate a warm bed back at the inn for Wolfgang’s body. The girl would’ve paid any price, but knew it was best not to advertise that fact, and within an hour, she was saddled on her white horse, Blue. He wasn’t the fastest mare, but he could go the distance, which was key for a six hour round trip, the bulk of which Salem spent trying to figure out what to say when she saw Marsha.
It was something she’d given a lot of thought into over the past year, albeit mostly haphazard. A few days after Marsha’s complete abandonment of the vows she shared with Wolfgang, someone in some bar they were getting sick in suggested they write out their feelings. They didn’t take it seriously, but after a few more ales it became a game to write the best string of curses in what later became known as the “Hey Cunt” letters. Salem specifically found it more entertaining than anything else, and decided they did make her feel better in a small, amusing sort of way. More notes led to actual enjoyment, until eventually she’d write a new one after every rough job or whenever she got too board on the road. She’d push them out of a crevice in the wagon and pray to the ghosts Marsha would get one, but Green would often joke they’d just end up in the hands of some poor, soon stunned maiden, before writing one himself. Being in a position she needed Marsha’s help, however, made it difficult to justify such a greeting, as cathartic as it’d be.
She was still weighing out her options when the Oakcliffe gates greeted her, dragging her mind back to the day they’d met. It was in a different gated city in the deep south, nearly six years ago. Adam was still a merchant sailor at the time, but the rest were still in the Crows of Summer, Fiona joining a couple weeks before Wolfgang made contact from Storm Hill. On the ride back from his recruitment, they’d caught word of a traveling band of performers, among them “a bad knife thrower and his beautiful assistant”. The pair were the Dancing Blades’ biggest draw, filling their seats with the skeptics, the anxious, and those with a morbid curiosity. It was different for Wolfgang, however, who having so recently left the employ of a dangerous psychopath, was looking for guidance on how to fake a death or two. The other three agreed for the promise of a good time, and upon arrival, swiftly found themselves won over by a team of acrobats, portraying a battle only Fiona was educated enough to recognize.
It was the beginning of a jovial night, full of jesters and jugglers, but finally the time came when the knife thrower entered center stage alongside Marsha. He made a powerful speech about the sharpness of his blades while Wolfgang’s wife to be was tied to a wheel with fear in her eyes and spun. Fast. After taking a moment to prepare himself, the performer snapped his wrist and a crowd of nearly one hundred watched in horror as the blade flew. There was a thunk in the wood and a scream from the girl as red welled from her side, staining her dress. As dread tensed the crowd and the man desperately tried assuring his audience, Salem’s terrified eyes searched for any sign of how the act could’ve been faked. The blade was barely embedded in her garb, but the way she continued to bleed made it clear that it was real.
Beside her, Wolfgang came to the same conclusion, lurching to his feet when the then shaking man on stage requested silence so he could focus. He didn’t get it. What he got, was a very loud, very colorful threat, and while Salem couldn’t quote it all, “You’ll die shitting blood and steel” stuck with her. There weren’t many men who would march on someone wielding a knife, but Wolfgang was one of them, advancing like a soldier and causing the performer to flee offstage like a scared child. Once he climbed the steps however, rather than continuing his pursuit, the woman became his only concern, slowing her wheel and carefully unbinding her.
Love at first sight was a few minutes off, but they both claimed that was the moment they knew they’d spend their lives together. Lacking a better idea, the future Ravens took Marsha to a bar, but when Fiona went to stitch her up, she saw another eight slices in varying stages of healing. Her thrower could hit a spider a dozen yards away, but there was never a crowd until there was blood. “People come to be afraid,” Masha had explained, “Every city we go to, the first blade always hits.”
None hit her again after that. It was a situation she’d initially agreed to to keep her troupe working, but when a stranger risked his life to keep her friends from bleeding her, it became clear she had to adjust her relationships, working and otherwise. She never became a Crow, or Raven when The Kindness splintered off, but Marsha explored Hesperia alongside them, painting the great sights and creating portraits of people they met in camp. She was fearless with a true eye for beauty, oftentimes standing at the edge of a cliff or climbing high in a tree to commit a view for memory. She was courageous and loyal, gentle and loving, and loved all things nature and natural. Her favorite place was at Wolfgang’s side, but a close second was the hot springs by the house they’d built, simmering in the water with Salem and Fiona while the men prepared dinner.
The six of them were closer than blood, and the only time Marsha didn’t travel with them was when she broke her leg on a hike. A stone she grabbed wasn’t secure enough for her weight, and when it suddenly gave way, she stumbled back before ultimately falling head over heels and rolling down a steep incline before a tree broke her fall in one of the worst ways. As steady as they could, the Ravens carried her down the hill and brought her home, Wolfgang being her legs while she couldn’t walk, crutch when she could only stagger, and shoulder when she limped. The rest began taking jobs after the first couple weeks, but her husband didn’t leave until Marsha was able to not just walk, but sprint on her own. He couldn’t have been prouder when the day finally came, and the next offer the Ravens were given, Marsha urged him to go as well. She said she’d stay home for that adventure, electing the bask in the springs and paint the woods instead of risk pushing herself too hard before bidding him farewell with a kiss.
She was gone by the time he returned.
“Fucking bitch.” Salem took a right off memory lane when The Pouring Spirits finally came into view. A sizable, wooden heater shield swayed beneath the bar that hung it perpendicular to the road, baring the title and design of the establishment. The bottom quarter of the upside down defense was left unpainted to illustrate a bar, behind which a ghost, looking more blanket than corpse, was pouring a pint. It was simple, maybe even cute with the cartoonishness of the specter, but recent events had caused depictions of the dead to knot her stomach. Tying her horse to a post, the woman took a few deep breaths to prepare herself before pushing through the double doors leading inside.
The interior rivaled any bar in the capital, it’s oak tables waxed with care and walls mounted with murals taller than Wolfgang and longer than Blue, each of a different environment at twilight, all brightly lit, optimistically vibrant, and allegedly hiding a phantom. A glance upward showed a second story with stairs leading to it to her left, but the bulk was void, tracing the edge for a few yards before a railing prevented anyone from falling down onto the vacant area bellow, which Salem assumed was a dance floor. Still in the early afternoon, only a few alcoholics were present, laughing with the bartender and only half paying attention to the bard and his lute in the corner, who appeared to be playing more for the waitress anyway.
There was no talent in the way she moved, but there was clearly joy in her step, swaying giddily as the performer picked up the pace so she’d quicken her jig. Judging by the color of the barman’s cloth shirt and bard’s tunic, ‘white’ was the extent of her uniform, which took the form of a long, sleeveless dress for the woman, which lifted a few inches off the ground when she twirled. Her blonde pixie cut was disheveled by the momentum, but when her twirl revealed her blissful face to Salem, the knot in her stomach constricted and her fists clenched. Marsha shouldn’t be this fucking happy the morrow of her husband’s death.
‘But she doesn’t know.’ Salem took a moment to steady herself before she moved forward. It took several paces before people began noticing her and the crimson staining her body, but only the best thieves retired to Oakcliffe, and they’d seen worse. That didn’t make it a welcome sight, however, as the bartender straightened his posture, his hand seeming to find something under the bar. Salem’s raw eyes shot fire before returning to their target, who finally noticed her on her third spin, merriment fading from the married woman’s face as a quizzical gaze replaced it.
“We need to talk.”
“You’re fucking sorry?” Redwood’s voice cracked thunder, killing the music and every conversation in the establishment. A glint of worry appeared in the bartender’s eye, thinking selling his waitress out may have been a mistake. The silence held like a death grip for almost a minute until Masha’s meek voice finally broke it.
“I mean, about what?”
Salem’s eye twitched. There wasn’t a doubt in her mind who she was talking to. She knew the grass irises she glared into, recognized the dimples before the smile faded and was familiar with the small splash of freckles that spread from her nose to her cheeks. Marsha began shying away as fury became harder for Salem to hide, her voice an animalistic growl when it finally vibrated off her vocal cords. “About your husband, Marsha.”
“My what?” It took a full second before she remembered being married. “Oh! Uh-” Her eyes frantically searched for some distant memory while Redwood’s knuckles whitened. “H-how is…?”
“Did, did you forget his name?”
“N-no! Of c-course not!” She took a small step back and the bard took a smaller one forward. “But I-I think you have the wrong girl.”
“Nine scars line your left side, a tattoo of a monarch butterfly spans your back shoulder blade to blade, and your left foot has a fucking extra toe. I know exactly who I’m talking to.”
The girl quivered, fretting eyes darting throughout the establishment before weakly landing back on Salem. “...Please don’t let him hurt me again.”
Again? Again? Salem never wanted to punch someone so hard in her life. Wolfgang never hurt a man who didn’t need hurting and never in his life laid a hand on a woman. Not hurting her and keeping her safe were even in his wedding vows considering what her last ‘friends’ let happen, and there wasn’t a promise he made that he broke. And if he had, Salem would’ve noticed. Marsha loved the water as much as she hated wet clothes, so she’d remove them from the equation whenever she went for a swim, and never swam alone. Wolfgang was never necessarily thrilled how often his lesbian friend saw his wife naked, but he trusted them both too much to object, and Salem knew better than to joke about it. She also knew what bruises looked like, and over the years, learned how long it took certain things to heal, and there was never a mark anywhere on her body that concerned her, and she’d taken a lot of good looks at it. More than she was proud of, in fact.
“Shit on his memory, and I’ll hurt you.”
“On his--” The girl blinked. “Is he…?”
Closing her eyes, Salem nodded. “He passed away last night.”
The Raven was stunned. “‘Oh’? Three years of marriage and ‘Oh’ is the best you can do?”
Marsha found the wall the next backpedal she took. “I only ran because he tried to kill me!”
“The night I left!”
“The night you left, he was with me, as he had been, that whole fucking week! You waved us off when we left for Rune, and it broke his heart like glass when he got home and you were gone, so don’t you dare lie to me about shit I was there for!”
Salem was seething so hard that she didn’t notice the genuine surprise in Marsha’s eyes until she was already done yelling, but by then, they were flooded with fear and welling with water. She still wanted to hit Marsha in her lying fucking face, but at that point, it would’ve felt like beating a child despite both of them being in their mid twenties.
“Look Marsha, I don’t give a shit about you.” Marsha flinched. It wasn’t the strongest lead. “But I need you now. I need you for one thing, and then you’ll never see me again.”
Hesitantly, Marsha straightened herself out. “W-what thing?”
“I need you to draw someone.”
“And i-if I do, can you do something for me?”
“Don’t push--” Salem bit her tongue for a moment, and then cleared her throat. “What?”
“Can you please call me Zoie?”
“Fine. Zoie. Find some ink.”