The soldier raised his torch and leaned forward, leathers creaking. His eyes were narrow in their examination. The light of his flame sent shadows waltzing through the orchard, twisting and morphing through the brush like dark appendages slithering in retreat of the starlight. Above him, the wind—stiff and unseasonably chilly for early autumn—wrestled through the canopy of leaves and branches, ushering all seven of the corpses into a lazy sway from their nooses.
He lingered for several minutes at the bloodied feet of the old man, hanging heavily from a short oak tree. The glow of the torch's flame darkened the contours of the carcass's frail frame and accentuated its skeletal fragility; between tears in the clothing, the light found liver spots, open sores, jagged veins, and something odd behind the ribbons of fabric fluttering against the cadaver's sunken chest. The soldier craned his neck. Cautiously he lifted a gauntleted hand, squinting through the firelight as he pinched the fabric between two fingers. He brought the torch closer and tilted his head as he gently tugged downward on the loose flap of cloth, following the series of intricate red creases that split the skin of the old man's breast and trailed down the sternum, over the belly, and—
"Harringer," a man barked from the tree line. "Stop undressing the corpses."
The soldier spun, torch extended, splashing light onto the dark path between trees. The newcomer grinned, hands on his hips, his black armor nearly camouflaging him against the shadowy brush. He sashayed forward from behind that smile—two rows of perfect white teeth set against an austere landscape of deep wrinkles and heavy stubble—and took his place beside the young soldier.
Harringer turned back toward the carcass swinging from its rope. "Stretvanger's lost his mind," he said, stretching again to scrutinize the scratches on the old man's torso. "Have you seen what he's done to this fellow?"
The man in dark armor shook his head. "I haven't. And neither should you. Hands off, remember? We're not supposed to touch these things."
"Why not, you figure?"
"Not my area." He chewed his lower lip, looking up thoughtfully at the old body. "Stretvanger wants them to bleed out. We're not to touch them till the big man gives the order, you understand?"
Harringer gave an absent nod, eyes passing over the corpse's moist, milky flesh. "He's carved symbols into this poor man's chest and stomach." He moved the torch to the opposite hand and continued his probing.
"He's drip-drying the blood out of them. Stretvanger was adamant. Wants them dry as raisins."
"That's odd, don't you think? To cut in patterns?"
The newcomer shrugged. "No odder than storming Middlewick and ordering the execution of four farmers, two barmaids, and a midwife without discernible reason or cause."
Harringer followed the trail of cuts down the cadaver's stomach and started yanking at his waistband. "This one wasn't a farmer. He was the florist, I think." He unfastened the drawstring belt with one hand, lowered the shredded pants, and traced the gashes down both gaunt thighs. The noose groaned against the bough.
"For all that's righteous, Harringer, there's a whorehouse in Southfield. Finish your patrol and I'll treat you to a go-around, but for whatever goodness is left in your heart, button the poor farmer's trousers."
"Florist," Harringer corrected, hoisting the tattered britches and retying the belt. "You think Stretvanger carved the other bodies too?"
The man hawked a wad of spit into the trees. "Couldn't tell you. That man is a mountain of secrets. It's been four days; we've killed seven people, and he hasn't uttered a word of explanation."
Harringer paused briefly, eyebrows drawn in deep thought. He turned suddenly and sped off farther into the orchard.
"Harrin—" The man in the dark armor shook his head and sighed, then pursued the soldier into the heart of the trees. "Damn it, Harringer, hands off, remember?"
When their footsteps faded and the light from Harringer's torch was only a glimmer through the brush, two children stumbled from the darkness. Dalya and Istanten lingered in the path, listening to the soldiers' voices, measuring their distance. And then, pruning shears tucked into her waistband, Dalya scurried toward the bony old carcass swinging from the oak.
"Keep a lookout," she told Istanten. "I'll get him down." The boy pressed two fingers to his throat and offered a croaky grunt of acknowledgment.
Dalya drew the shears and secured them between her teeth. Ducking under the corpse, she moved to the tree and probed the trunk for handholds. Istanten's eyes bounced between Harringer's faraway flame and Dalya's nimble scurry to the top of the oak tree, watching as she navigated the branches and shimmied along the bough toward the rope's knotted end.
Down the path, the orchard echoed with the newcomer's husky cackle.
With one arm wrapped around the branch, Dalya grabbed the shears from her mouth and stretched toward the length of rope. She sawed patiently, jerking the blades back and forth, rope swaying and bough creaking under stress of weight and movement. The first strands of fiber popped and frayed under the shears; she persisted, gaining speed as the rope unraveled and the corpse below sagged lopsidedly.
Istanten pressed two fingers to the apple of his throat and emitted a low growl. Dalya froze. A tense gurgle spewed from his lips, and the boy scampered from the road and ducked into the shadows. She heard Harringer's voice, a ways down the path but growing nearer.
"Istanten!" she whispered, holding tight to the branch. The boy offered no answer from the darkness. She growled, gritted her teeth, and continued sawing at the rope. The light of the torch caught the corner of her eye as spears of it pierced the underbrush and splashed out onto the path. She hacked more fiercely, the muscles of her arm igniting, her breath trapped in her throat. The rope tattered under the blade, its grip on the corpse slackening. Harringer's footsteps were close now; she heard the leaves and rocks crunching under his boots, the gentle clink of his buckles as he walked. She fought angrily with the rope, paring strand after strand with the cold steel of the shears, until Harringer's voice rang through the quiet darkness.
"You there," he called, waving his torch.
Dalya turned her head cautiously, squinting through the firelight at the soldier's silhouette. Her heart thrashed against her ribcage. She made to respond but the words never came, and she held silently to the branch for several seconds. Harringer shuffled forward, his left hand resting on his sword hilt. Dalya swallowed hard and steadied her nerves with a deep breath.
The trees were too dense on this side of the path. However, if she dropped from the branch, found her feet, and sprinted for the brush across the way, she and Istanten might disappear before the soldier even considered pursuit. But if she landed wrong—if she lost her balance or twisted an ankle...
She ran through options in her head as Harringer's silhouette approached. Frozen by indecision, she held tight to the branch and watched the soldier grow closer and closer until he neared the base of her tree. Her fist squeezed the shears and her arm strangled the branch. She tensed and prepared to make her leap, but Harringer kept walking. Dalya felt the heat of his torch as he passed nearby, and spotted the small man forty yards down the path as Harringer's light found him in the gloom of the orchard.
"Sir!" the soldier hollered. "You can't be here."
The diminutive man had no answer. He just shook his head absently, hands kneaded in front of him, and stared up at the young woman dangling from her noose. Harringer repeated himself, slightly increasing his pace. The man pointed at the body and smiled sadly. "My wife," he said. Harringer advanced warily and patted the man's shoulder. Gently he ushered him from the orchard and into the darkness.
Dalya expelled a shaky breath. She pried her fingernails from the bough and held to her perch, wind tousling her hair and clothes. The hanging corpse rotated with the breeze, and the rope gave a dry groan. Istanten wobbled from the brush, waved to Dalya, then pointed at the corpse.
"What is it?" she whispered.
The rope twisted, whined, and gave a final pop, and the body thudded to the earth. The branch shook viciously and tossed Dalya, and she landed hard atop the carcass. Istanten helped her to her feet and allowed her a moment to find her breath before he seized the body by the armpits and dragged it toward the brush.
Dalya tucked the shears into her waistband, swiped the dirt from her clothes, and grabbed the old man's feet. "Careful with his head," she said, and together the children carried the corpse into the trees and toward Middlewick. Neither made a sound as they trundled through the fields; the rush of the river and the squawking of crows were their only company in the middle of the night.