With interest in Hennald’s wayward chicken waning — it had wandered back to Hennald’s farm, seemingly none the worse for its travels, and a chicken at home is nowhere near as fascinating as a chicken on a roof — the residents of Gracker’s Fen took to speculation on the nature of Tooks’ mysterious house guests with lusty vigor.
“Married two diff’rent women,” Old Bodder said at the trading post one evening, “ran ‘way from both of ’em, both of ’em found him.” Aged heads nodded in solemn commiseration with Tooks’ plight.
“It’s his two daughters,” Willena said over wash down by the river, “come to plead for him to return to their mother down south.” Kerchiefed brows furrowed in disapproval over Tooks’ heartlessness.
“He’s starting a secret brothel,” Tormen said his fellow hunters, “brought these lasses in from Baycloak special.” Booted feet walked a little lighter at the prospect of Tooks’ benevolence.
For his part, Tooks offered no answers. He already had enough unannounced visitors to deal with every day, sniffing about for clues; anything he said would only invite closer scrutiny to prove his story true. He kept the door locked and the shutters drawn, and left a fire burning to mask the ever more dire aroma of two dead old ladies hanging about his home.
“At least they don’t eat,” he kept telling himself, but that brought small comfort. Widow Mabben, being the fresher of the two, smelled more of freshly turned earth, but the slightest hint of decay was beginning to creep up about her. Tooks’ mother, however, was a morass of rotting flesh and crusted blood and mud that no amount of dousing with buckets of river water could freshen. And which only left puddles of dank water all over the floor that threatened to slip up the two doddering corpses. Tooks once tried to help his mother up from the floor after a minor spill and very nearly pulled her arm clean off at the shoulder. It now hung a disconcerting bit lower than its counterpart, giving his mother a perpetual shrug that caused Widow Mabben no end of amusement. Tooks felt no such amusement, and the only solace he took was that things could not possibly get worse.
Until he met the reason Widow Mabben was Widow Mabben.
The knock came shortly after dusk one particularly taxing evening that saw an especially unpleasant discharge of … something from Tooks’ mother’s stomach. Tooks, hunched over the dark spot on the floor desperately scrubbing, froze, hoping whoever it was would just go away. But the knocking grew more insistent, and the last thing Tooks needed was the noise drawing nosy neighbors. With a sigh, he rose and opened the door, and there stood a dirt-covered figure carrying a bunch of wildflowers. “Might I call on Hedga?” it said through a rictus grin.
“Oswood!” Widow Mabben squealed, shuffling over to greet her husband, Tooks scrambling to step out of the way of the grisly reunion. He looked to his mother, whose eyes were moist, with tears or oozing ichor Tooks couldn’t be sure. She was already setting out a teacup for him. Tooks hung his head, dropped his brush where he’d been scrubbing, and went to bed.
And so Oswood Mabben joined their little household, which threw all sorts of confusion into the gossip in Gracker’s Fen.
“Hired some bounder to nix the two wives,” Old Bodder said.
“It’s his daughters’ mother’s new husband come to teach him a lesson,” Willena offered.
“I guess that brothel will cater to all kinds,” Tormen joked.
Tooks still offered no answers. He didn’t have the energy for conversation. Oswood and Hedga had lost little time in rekindling what had obviously been a very loving marriage, and the sight of her constantly kissing his non-existent lips drove Tooks to sleeping in a makeshift shed he’d built a short distance from the house. He found little rest in the drafty shack — although the various wild animals who’d occasionally share it with him seemed to find it quite to their liking — but he’d gladly trade some comfort for distance from the Mabbens’ gruesome reunion. As his mother’s eyes had recently fallen out — over dinner, no less — she was spared the spectacle. But lying there with tree roots digging into his back, Tooks convinced himself that now, most definitely, things absolutely could not get any worse.
His grandmother arrived the next night, followed by his grandfather two nights after that. His uncle hopped up on one leg later the same evening, asking if he had anything to drink as he leaned against the door frame. Jedro turned up that week too, lighting into Tooks for leaving him behind for a Crown Company to find, his voice a ragged hiss thanks to the hangman’s noose that had left a dark burn around his neck. The knocking never seemed to stop, first his cousin Ballister bloated from his time at the bottom of the Ralladan, then his brother Holden, all askew from where the horse had trampled him. Once Tooks opened the door to see no one standing there, only to feel a small nudge at his feet as his old pet House crawled in, the turtle’s shell cracked from the accidental fall from Tooks’ arms as a boy. The shed never looked so good.
Then, late one evening, as Tooks huddled in a corner of the house as the various corpses shambled about laughing, dancing, drinking tea, playing dice with his mother’s eyes, a pounding came from the door that sounded far too strong to be one of his newfound companions. He tried to hush everyone, but he couldn’t make himself heard over the slurred voices and groaning, and still the pounding came from without. He’d made up his mind to light out a back window when Widow Mabben wobbled towards the door.
“Mustn’t be a poor host,” she said, opening the door wide as every pair of dead eyes — save his mother’s, of course — turned to look at their visitor.
In stepped a tall hooded figure in the deep blue armor of Baycloak, a gold crown embossed on the breastplate. The figure pulled back the hood, to reveal a fall of curly, bright red hair. A pair of piercing blue eyes searched the room and fixed on Tooks.
“Tooks Denholt, I am Brylla Valhau of the Seventh Crown Company, and I do hereby place you under arrest for … well, many, many more counts of murder than I was lead to believe.”