39.1: the Charred ring – Spilt wine
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A ring charred neatly in the floor about the sword, thrust in the middle of it, upright, short and straight the blade, and of the width of two fingers from those cinders up and up to the quillions heavy and plain, the hilt wrapped about in overlapping straps of white leather worn yellow with hard use, up and up to the plainly beaten round of the pommel, as heavy, and as solid. Otherwise, the room is empty. The hearth there, dark and cold, swept clean, the windows blankly dark against the dark without, and only dim lamps lit in elaborately fronded sconces. From somewhere deeper in the house, below, perhaps, a basement, a confidently off-tempo guitar, a piercing soprano, gonna put on the stereo, as loud as we can make it go, and then turn the record over, over and over again.

The first of them steps from the kitchen, a brighter room off that way, walls the color of toothpaste. His rich red hair flops from a high widow’s peak, his baggy ivory shirt open at the throat, his red check vest tightly buttoned, and his hands are warily empty. He starts at a creak above, but it’s the second of them, making her way down the stairs, tall enough she needs to stoop, white tank top and a heavy leather kilt, her fine long hair a watery green. She nods as the third of them steps from the hall beneath the stairs, shabby velvet frock coat over orange coveralls, he’s shrugging at them both, and applause smatters up from somewhere below.

The front door cracks open. The fourth of them tips in a grey-epauletted shoulder, followed by a quizzical scowl on a beefy face. The first of them nods, the third shrugs again, and the second steps off the stairs to yank the front door from his grasp, swinging it open to allow the last of them into the room, Chillicoathe, the Harper, who strides to the middle of it, his bulky sweater, his cargo shorts, his big yellow beard and his wide-eyed gaze, fixed only on that upthrust sword.

“Hey,” says the third of them, the Cinquedea Pwyll, but Chilli waves him off.

“Now or never,” says the second of them, Meg Greentooth, but the Kern Gradasso, the fourth, snaps up a hand, wsht!

“They’re finishing up down there,” says the first of them, the Stirrup Gaveston, but Chilli’s already shaking out his hands, clapping them together, pop! to reach out for that yellowed hilt.

“Do you really,” says someone, not any one of them, “want,” a small and slender man, all in black, “to do that,” there by the cold and empty hearth, delicate tulip of a cocktail coupe in his hand.

Chilli steps back from the sword as if stung, “Where,” Gradasso blusters, as Pwyll insists “I didn’t,” and Meg squeezes her enormous scale-knuckled hands into fists, opens them up again, pah! “Your pardon, Goodfellow,” says Gaveston, over the others, “we’d no intention of disrupting your revels.”

“I fear I’ve no pardon to give,” says Goodfellow, eyeing his glass, “for there’s none to be asked. This is a free house, Stirrup;” he lifts it for a sip, and then a gesture, liquor glinting in the light, “do what you will.”

Chilli’s eyes twitch, to this side, to the sword, to that. “And your will’s not to stop me?”

“I’d only suggest, Harper:” says Goodfellow, “take a moment to consider whether you’d want this role, in that tale. If so,” but Chilli’s taken hold of the hilt, and a shriek of wood, a thrum of steel, he draws the blade from the floor.

“Well,” says Goodfellow. “It’ll be nice to have the room again, for dancing.”

It’s a complicated intersection, and the truck idles there a moment, under a red stoplight. A Balanced Life Healthcare, says the sign on the wall of the building to the left. Vicente’s Pizza, over a florid red V, the sign on the corner of the building to the right. The main thoroughfare crosses before, and heads on down the hill, but here, here it’s opened out a bit, something of a plaza for the lanes of traffic limned in paint that needs some touching up. Ahead to the right the low blank wall of a convenience store, 7-Eleven, says the sign that’s bolted there, the brightest light about, and off to the left the dark bulk of an apartment building rises three storeys, four, The 20 on Hawthorne, says the unlit sign that swaddles the corner of it, Now Leasing, Units Available. Between them two more streets open up, one a dogleg off ahead, along the side of that apartment building, the other, there, cornering the convenience store, angled a diagonal rightward and down, into trees, among houses well-appointed. In the sharp slice of corner between them, the narrowed prow of an older building, painted a brown and darker brown gone almost black in the shadows, and not a window lit.

That truck idles through a full cycle of lights, green shone that way, then this, red lights this way, and that, and yellow switched on, then off, clicks of the switches audible over the muffled chug of the truck’s engine. A car passes, quick along the thoroughfare, ignoring options left and right, engine snarling as it races to beat a yellow. Red becomes green, and that’s when the truck lurches into motion, but a blaring horn, a van there to the right, hooking about the convenience store, and the truck wrenches to avoid it, brakes screeching and rear wheels humping the curb as the van accelerates away. The truck wobbles on across the angled street to mount the lozenge of sidewalk lopped before the older brown building, coming to a gentle stop by a small young freshly planted tree, engine still a-rumble.

The driver’s door pops open, and a cantering beat spills out under whirling, twirling guitars, a low voice chanting a beach for the waves of the world to crash on, you are the spilt wine, you are the spilt wine at the table of the gods, and a clap of drums. She slips from the seat, clings to the armrest on the door, and finding solid ground with her feet essays a step, but what she’s stood upon’s the curb of the low ramp from street to sidewalk, and the step she takes too heavy, too far down, and overbalancing, swung about, she topples to sit against the truck. What light there is gleams the blood that soaks the shoulder of her hoodie, blood slathered up her neck to the corner of her jaw, her cheek. There is a shining something, the voice is chanting, there is a shining something. Her head bobs with the effort of her breath, quick, quite shallow. Ellen Oh closes her eyes.

It’s quiet.

It’s quiet, and still, the music’s gone, and the engine’s chug. She opens her eyes to see a figure, bulky coat and wild white hair, stooped to squat beside her. “You’re a mess,” says Marfisa.

Ellen’s lips part, her brow creases, but Marfisa’s craning up, looking inside the cab of the truck, seat of it marred by a dark slick of blood. “Someone else will get this off the street,” she says. “You need to get yourself inside.” Lifting Ellen’s arm, ducking her white head beneath it, heedless of the bloodied hand she grips with her own. “Can you stand?”

“I,” says Ellen, gathering herself with a grimace, “I almost died.”

“You may yet,” says Marfisa, bracing herself. “Come.”

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