The journey home took the Skullsinger, as it always did, through the small hamlet of Muros. It was populated by the residents of only a handful of houses, and its location on this distant peninsula meant that through-traffic was forever at a minimum. Only those travelling on to the next village, Louro—where the Skullsinger took residence—would ever journey this way.
Pilar was already standing outside her house as the Skullsinger approached. He slowly Dusty to a halt, dismounted her, and then tied her to the woman’s fence. His steed neighed gently in Pilar’s direction, and he supposed it was in greeting.
‘You heard me coming,’ the Skullsinger said—not as a question, purely as an observation.
Pilar looked up in his general direction, her white eyes staring blankly over his shoulder. ‘So few travel this way,’ she said. ‘Fewer still on horseback. And—’
The old woman shuffled over to Dusty, holding her frail arms out in front of her as she reached for the horse. Dusty bowed her head into Pilar’s hands.
‘—I would recognise this one’s sounds anywhere.’
While the Skullsinger didn’t deem a response was necessary, Dusty did, neighing once more as Pilar scratched at her face.
‘I brought coin,’ the Skullsinger said.
The woman sighed. ‘Straight to business, as ever, Rider. Won’t you stay, sit with me? I’ve made soup. Carrot. It’s in season.’
‘I must get home,’ he replied.
Pilar stopped brushing Dusty, turned, and looked over in the Skullsinger’s direction once more. ‘And if I insist?’ she asked. ‘If I wouldn’t sell to you unless you did?’
The Skullsinger looked this elderly woman up and down. ‘Are those your terms?’ he asked.
Pilar shook her head. ‘No! No. If you must go, you must go. We can complete this transaction here and now. But you would make an old woman happy. There’s value there, isn’t there?’
The Skullsinger licked his lips as he spoke, weighing up this decision. ‘Suppose there is,’ he said. ‘But I ain’t staying long. Got a farm to get back to.’
Pilar had already turned and began waving him inside. ‘Not long!’ she called out, her voice shrill in a sing-song kinda way. ‘A quick dinner, that’s all.’
She turned to call out to a local child sitting on her hence.
‘Off!’ she shouted. ‘And feed that horses, while you’re at it.’
The child shot the Skullsinger an insolent smile and then ran off into the fields.
‘He’s not doing it, is he?’ Pilar asked.
The Skullsinger moved to shake his head and then remembered he’d need to vocalise this thought. ‘No.’
Pilar sighed, shook her head. ‘I’ll give Dusty a carrot before you go.’
The woman waved the gratitude away. ‘That’s what I do for beasts I like.’ She pointed at a rickety wooden table placed against the far wall. ‘Sit,’ she said. ‘I’ll serve.’
The Skullsinger did as he was told. He would disobey the orders of bandits, and of sheriffs, but he knew better than to disobey the instruction of a gentle old woman.
Pilar picked a bowl up from the kitchen’s wooden counter, and then a ladle. The Skullsinger watched her move towards the cast-iron pot that sat atop the coal burner.
‘I can—’ he began.
‘And so can I, Rider,’ Pilar replied, her voice merry.
The Skullsinger supposed she must have been sick of people offering their help. He couldn’t say he would have dealt with it so politely.
‘As I have done my entire life,’ the woman finished. And, indeed, she spooned the soup out without spilling a drop—into the first bowl, and then into the second.
Slowly, Pilar shuffled over to the table, a bowl in each hand, and placed them gently down. ‘Eat,’ she said as she sat. ‘It’s good.’
The Skullsinger took a hesitant sip. The food was light, yet salty, and spiced with a flavour he hadn’t bothered with in many, many decades. Pilar hadn’t been lying—it was good.
‘Paprika,’ the woman added. ‘And lots of it. Keeps me young at heart. Not that you have that problem.’
The Skullsinger smiled to himself. ‘No, ain’t been a problem for me so far.’
‘And, Dusty?’ Pilar asked between spoonfuls of soup. ‘Is she holding up fine?’
‘She is,’ the Skullsinger replied, answering also with a nod that the woman couldn’t see.
They ate in silence, Pilar apparently taking pleasure in the simple notion of human company—with no conversation required. When she heard the spoon knock against the bottom of the empty wooden bowl, Pilar looked up at the Skullsinger.
‘I suppose you’ll be wanting to give me the coin now,’ she said.
The Skullsinger nodded again, conscious of how much of his communication was rooted in gesture alone, and then pulled the coin sack from his belt. ‘Forty,’ he said, throwing it down on the table in front of Pilar. ‘You wanna count it?’
Pilar smiled. ‘No, Rider, I think we’ve been doing this long enough that I can trust you.’
‘Alright,’ the Skullsinger said instead of a nod.
He stood from the table and began to pace out of the building. ‘Thanks for the—’
‘Before you go, Rider,’ Pilar interrupted. ‘There’s something I’ve wanted to ask you.’
The Skullsinger stopped where he stood, then turned, his boots landing heavy on the floor.
Pilar took this as an invitation to continue. ‘Why do you do it?’ she asked. ‘Why buy food for them?’
The Skullsinger said nothing, so the woman pressed on with her interrogation.
‘They come through here sometimes, you know. I know what your fellow villagers think of you. They treat you like an outcast, Rider. So, why? Why should I have this food delivered to them?’
‘Because they’re human,’ the Skullsinger replied. ‘And if I were that, I might fear the Skullsinger too.’
‘You know I don’t like that name,’ Pilar replied.
‘That’s because you can’t see what I am.’
‘Fair enough, Rider,’ the woman replied. In her seat, she pulled a carrot from her pocket and waved it in the Skullsinger’s direction. ‘Here,’ she said, ‘For Dusty. Tell her it’s from me.’
The Skullsinger stepped forwards and placed his hand gently around the orange vegetable. ‘I will,’ he said.
On horseback, the journey from Muros to Louro was short—only a couple of miles along the coastal road—but it was made shorter still by the Skullsinger’s chosen travel speed. Dusty trod along at her own pace, and her rider took advantage of the time to watch the sun set over the rocks ahead of him. After all, there was nowhere he needed to be, much less anywhere he wanted to be.
Rider and steed trotted through the small town of Louro, both apparently aware of the cautious eyes upon them. The townspeople scattered as they moved through, fearful and ever-quiet. If the Skullsinger had told them they had nothing to fear, they wouldn’t have believed him—and so he’d never bothered.
They were good people, though, as much as they hated him. They were civil, did no harm. They didn’t deserve the poverty that fate had seen fit to thrust upon them. Perhaps the Skullsinger would have a word with the fates if he lived long enough to meet them, supposing they were real.
Pilar’s food package would arrive in a few days. The residents of Louro had been ecstatic when the first shipment had arrived. They’d asked around to try to unearth their mysterious benefactor—but none had ever thought to check whether it was the great and terrible Skullsinger.
With each shipment that followed, he’d expected the townspeople to grow less cheerful, for the food to bring them less joy. But every time, without fail, the people were grateful. With their benefactor still unknown, they had nobody to thank, and so they thanked instead their idols. The Skullsinger would watch the scene unfold from atop the hill, and found that it gave him the slightest glimpse of contentment. There was still in a heart beating in his chest, after all.
It was this very same heart that lurched when he saw what awaited him at his farm on the hill.
Soldiers—dozens of them—surrounded the Skullsinger’s home, their weapons in their hands, pointed squarely at the door. They were dressed in their formal whites and blues, each member of the regiment in perfect uniform. At their head, their lieutenant pounded on the heavy wooden door.
With all eyes fixed squarely on his property, the Skullsinger dismounted and moved to the cover of the shadows.
He paused, awaiting signs of movement. Awaiting signs that one of the soldiers had spotted him.
But there was nothing.
Slowly, quietly, he led Dusty around to the rear of the nearest building, shielding her from sight, and then crept back to poke his head around the corner. His hand slid to his holster.
‘Skullsinger!’ the lieutenant roared as he pounded on the farmhouse door. ‘Come out! We have you surrounded.’
It was strange that they’d come.
That they were here meant that they’d known where he was. But they hadn’t come sooner. Which could only mean… they needed something from him.
The Skullsinger was under no illusions. He had diplomatic abilities. He harbored no great knowledge. His only real use was on the battlefield—and not as a strategist, but as a weapon.
He watched on for a few minutes longer as the soldiers grew impatient. Their weapons didn’t lower. Their steeled expressions didn’t soften.
Only when they prepared to kick the door in—and when the Skullsinger’s curiosity grew too great—did he move.
His body faded to smoke, and he sent himself billowing over the heads of the soldiers in the direction of the farmhouse’s chimney. The soldiers didn’t move, didn’t flinch. Whoever had sent them this way had failed to explain to them the extent of the Skullsinger’s powers.
As the soldiers’ feet came powering towards the wooden door, the resident reformed from smoke and called out, simply, ‘What is it?’
The door burst open, two soldiers spilling in, and then stepping aside to make room for their lieutenant. As their leader began to enter, the Skullsinger added, ‘I didn’t invite you in.’
The officer looked at him with a peculiar expression, then held up his hands and stepped backwards across the threshold. ‘Then we talk on your doorstep,’ he said.
The Skullsinger stepped forwards slowly, staring the man down as intimidating as he could manage, but still the lieutenant held firm on his spot. ‘Is there something you… need?’ the resident eventually said.
Just six feet away, his eyes making pointed contact with the Skullsinger’s, the lieutenant pulled a piece of parchment from his coat pocket, and then cleared his throat. ‘By order of the king,’ he said, his voice raised, ‘You are to accompany us to—’
‘No,’ the Skullsinger said.
The officer faltered. ‘No?’
‘No. I am done with kings.’
The lieutenant narrowed his eyes, and then continued, ‘You are to accompany us to Madrid, to discuss the—’
‘No,’ the Skullsinger said again.
‘You are being commanded by the king, sir,’ the officer replied. ‘“No” is not an option.’
‘Yet I don’t think thirty men is going to be enough to force me to do anything. Do you?’
The lieutenant’s hardened expression faltered.
‘How much did they tell you about me? When they sent you out this way? Not enough, I don’t think.’
At the officer’s side, two of his men shared a glance, their eyes wide.
‘Why have you come?’ the Skullsinger asked.
‘The king will explain that himself, when you travel to the—’
The Skullsinger took a deep breath. ‘As I said, I won’t be going anywhere. And your men aren’t going to be enough to—’
‘We know we can’t kill you, Skullsinger,’ the officer interrupted. ‘But do you think you can kill all of us before we destroy everything you have?’
The lieutenant glanced over his shoulder at his men and shot them a quick nod. Twenty feet behind him, soldiers prepared to light oil-soaked torches.
‘You see, Skullsinger? We—’
‘What does he want?’ the Skullsinger asked. And when the officer looked back at him with a furrowed brow, he added, ‘The king. What does he want?’
‘I’ve been told that he must explain himself,’ came the reply. ‘I am under strict—’
‘If there is gonna be any chance of me coming with you,’ the Skullsinger replied. ‘Then you’re gonna need to explain yourself. Now. Why are you here?’
The officer bit his lip as he weighed up this decision. With flared nostrils, he turned to his men and waved them away. They hesitated—just for a moment—before leaving their commander alone with a man of untold danger.
‘They don’t know?’ the Skullsinger asked.
This only made the Skullsinger’s curiosity grow stronger. ‘Why? What is it? Why are you here?’
It was the lieutenant’s turn, this time, to draw in a long breath. He opened his mouth to speak, but it took a few more seconds for him to force the words out. ‘It’s the dark gods,’ the man eventually spoke. ‘The whispers say they’re returning. Your old master upon them.’
‘Hades,’ the Skullsinger said—more for his own benefit than the lieutenant’s.
The officer nodded. ‘Others too.’
‘Seth, for one. Perhaps more.’
The Skullsinger nodded, his eyes narrowing as he pictured facing Hades again. The one who’d infested the Skullsinger’s soul with His own darkness. The one who’d given him such abilities, but at such a price. The one who’d granted him his immortality.
It would be good to crush him again.
‘So you’ll come?’ the officer asked.
The Skullsinger spat on the ground in front of him. ‘What have armies and kings ever done for me?’
With that, he turned to smoke once more, and billowed back out the chimney.
He heard shouting behind him as he reformed at Dusty’s side—the lieutenant bellowing for his men to search the area, ordering them to lay waste to the property.
The Skullsinger felt his stomach twist into a knot—but there was little to do about it. The lieutenant had been right; he couldn’t take them all on. Not quickly enough to save his land, at least.
He pulled Dusty close and heaved himself onto her saddle. With a gentle tap at her side, she trotted forwards. They drifted through the town of Louro, and the Skullsinger wondered—just for a moment—if he might see it or its people ever again. It hadn’t been friendly to him, but it had—for just a few decades—been a home.
‘Mr Skullsinger!’ a small voice called out behind him as he reached the edge of town.
He turned to look over his shoulder.
Running down the road at his rear was the young butcher boy. Sammy.
‘Mr Skullsinger!’ he called out again.
The rider, with a hesitant glanced at the soldiers on the hill, pulled to a stop. ‘Sammy,’ he said. ‘What is it?’
The boy smiled and reached forward a small arm. In his hand, he clutched a small statue of an ox. One of Gefjun’s. ‘You forgot this,’ he said, his voice shaky.
The Skullsinger reached down, took the statue, and nodded his thanks.
‘Are you coming back?’ Sammy asked.
‘Doesn’t look that way.’
The boy pursed his lips in an apparent attempt to disguise his sadness.
‘Grow strong, boy,’ the Skullsinger said. ‘Work hard. Your family will need you to. Understand?’
Sammy nodded, his eyes glazing over.
The Skullsinger looked down at him once more and offered him a small smile. This wasn’t something he’d done in a long, long time.
The boy smiled back at him. ‘The soldiers,’ he said. ‘They told me your name is Emlyn. Is that right?’
It took the Skullsinger a moment was respond, his memory as hazy as it was. ‘Yes,’ he finally said, ‘I suppose it is.’
‘Goodbye, Emlyn,’ Sammy said.
The Skullsinger—Emlyn, although that name still sounded strange to him—moved to urge Dusty back into action, but then one last thought crossed his mind. He looked back at Sammy. ‘The grave,’ he said, ‘Grace’s.’
‘I’ll put a flower on it,’ the butcher boy replied. ‘Once a week. Just like you do.’
Emlyn moved to speak, but found the words lost in his throat. Instead, he simply nodded.
Sammy nodded back.
As he rode out of town, Emlyn could hear his estate becoming enveloped in fire—the crackling of the flames as they laid waste to his plants, to his home, to the tree under which Grace was buried.
With all that gone, there was nothing to keep him here. With all that gone, there was only the road ahead of him.
And if Hades was rising once more, then it would take an acolyte to stop him.