by Jennie Jarvis
The dead man’s name was Zachariah Jones. Even if someone knew him well, it was hard to recognize him anymore. The noose around his neck caused the lump that once was his head to swell. Even his eyes bulged in his skull, making it impossible for the lids to close down upon them. His skin was no longer the tanned brown it once was either. A layer of chalky orange desert sand painted his exposed skin, glued to his flesh by the lingering moisture created by the steam engines powering the town. Even the biting air tattered his clothes, giving them the appearance of being less expensive than they were. No one knew what happened to his hat.
His body was left hanging on the hanging post set up in the town square, swinging in the afternoon breeze, to teach others to make up for where he went wrong: Killing your wife isn’t allowed, even if you have a reason to do it. His bulging eyes stared down at anyone who passed. Several people were convinced the foggy glare followed them as they hurried passed. Zachariah’s dead eyes looked through their suits and dresses, finding the sin in their souls, passing silent judgment on their every step. Several townsfolk planned on avoiding the town square for a few days to avoid his reckoning.
“Whore mutt! Whore mutt!”
“I’m gonna kill you Mitty Thomas!”
Winifred Jones threw her body into him. As she hoped, the weight of her tiny frame was just enough to knock him off balance, and they toppled to the ground together. Only vaguely aware of the thud his head made as it hit the hard, packed earth below, she balled her fist and struck him as hard as she could. He reached up, trying to protect his face, causing the goggles on his forehead to slide up over his hair.
“Ow! Get ‘er off me! Get ‘ er off me!”
Several pairs of arms wrapped around her and tugged hard. She kicked and pulled, but she couldn’t stop them from yanking her off Mitty Thomas. They were all bigger than her – they were always bigger than her.
“Lemme go, you filthy curs,” she shouted, kicking the nearest boy holding her. She felt the satisfying pressure of coming in contact with his shin. He wore tall boots that reached up to his knee, but the steel toe of her boot was stronger than the thin leather.
Winifred felt the arms holding her push hard, and before she could stop herself, she toppled forward. Her cheek hit the hard
earth, and for a moment, she couldn’t breathe. Finally, she coughed, a smattering of sand puffing into a cloud before her.
“What do you expect from the mutt of a murderer and a whore?” Mitty said to his friends, bending down to pick up his goggles.
There were four of them all together, each wearing long black coats over their finely tailored vests beneath. Standing over her, the suns backlighting their heads, they all looked the same.
Only Mitty stood out, his hair now lopsided and his lip bloody.
“Stop making up stories! My momma was not a whore!”
Winifred tried to jump back up, but one of the long coats kicked forward, knocking her back to the ground. She surveyed her attackers carefully. She was out numbered, and she knew it, but she wasn’t going to go down without a fight. She readied herself to launch forward once more.
“Winifred Jones,” a familiar voice called out. The boys instantly stepped away, straightening their vests and checking their hair was in place.
“Howdy, Ms. Maybelle,” Mitty said, and the others murmured the same.
“Why, Mitty Thomas, what are you doing with my sister?” Maybelle asked, sauntering to the center of the street.
Winifred cursed to herself. She didn’t need Maybelle to show up. She could fight her own battles without the help of little Ms. Perfect. Even in the dusty desert air, she looked like she just stepped out of a tailor’s salon. Her soft velvet pants were perfectly buckled behind her spotless black boots, and her pressed white blouse opened at just the right place to show she was feminine but not without valor. Her dark, curled hair, kept in place by her small, feminine black goggles, framed her pale face, giving it an appearance of angelic grace.
“We was just playing with her, Maybelle.”
“That’s an awful rough kind of play you got there.”
“We could play with you instead if you want. As rough as you want.” The boys giggled, elbowing each other and murmuring.
“Thanks but I’ve overgrown schoolyard wrestling. I’m sure you won’t mind I take Winny on home, now, will you?”
Before the boys could respond, Winifred climbed to her feet and pushed through them. She debated whether or not to knock into Maybelle as she went, but decided against it. She already knew she’d get a talking to, and she didn’t want to hear more than she already would. Maybelle was only a few years older than Winifred, but somehow that gap felt so much bigger than it really was. Maybelle always acted like a princess on a throne, talking down to her little sister.
Winifred quickened her pace, not paying attention to the pleasantries of Maybelle saying good-bye. Why bother being polite to those animals? Giving a snake a compliment won’t keep it from biting.
Winifred couldn’t help but gasp a bit when the clean, wet rag pressed against the frayed skin on the meat of her arm. She knew she needed to clean the cut, but the mix of water, alcohol and aloe stung badly.
“That really hurts,” she moaned.
“Well, what were you doing picking a fight with Mitty and his gang?”
“They called Momma a whore. I couldn’t let that kinda insult rest.”
“You need to act like a lady, Winny. It’s not right you going around and acting like a man.”
Winifred yanked her arm away and turned to her sister. “Did you hear me, Maybelle? They called Momma a whore. Just because Daddy done killed her, now the whole town thinks they can go making up stories about us.”
Maybelle dunk the rag into the bowl of healing solution, the blood seeping into the clear liquid like a storm cloud on the horizon. She stared at the water for a moment, deep thought wrinkled on her brow. “Well, maybe they did, but there’s nothing you can do about that.”
Winifred fought the urge to strike her sister. If it wasn’t for the sore numbness in her hand from hitting Mitty, she would have done it.
“Are you saying it’s okay for them to be spreading lies about Momma? They can call Daddy a murderer – that’s fine because it’s true. But you’re gonna let them shame Momma’s memory, too?”
Maybelle’s silence confused Winifred. Why wasn’t she saying anything? Why wasn’t she angry these boys were saying such terrible things about their mother?
“Say something, Maybelle.”
But her sister just seemed to shrink a little in her perfection, and a new emotion bubbled inside Winifred. Maybelle twisted the rag in her hand, allowing the extra healing solution to drip
back into the bowl. She placed the rag on Winifred’s arm once more, but this time, the sting didn’t hurt quite as much.
“Winny, we need to be extra good now. If we ever plan on being married, we have to separate ourselves and our behaviors from our parents.” Maybelle reached forward with her free hand and rubbed a bit of dirt from her sister’s hair. “Do you know why Daddy killed our Ma?”
“He went nuts,” Winny said, knowing it sounded weak as soon as the words left her mouth. “I don’t know. But she wasn’t no whore.”
“He took her to the Reckoning, Winny.”
Winifred turned to face her sister so quickly, the rag slipped off her arm. Their father had taken her to the Reckoning? Why? How had she not heard about this? And if they went then…
Maybelle couldn’t quite meet her eye. “She failed, Winny. Our Ma failed.”
“That can’t be.” Winifred jumped to her feet and grabbed her coat.
“I’m sorry, Winny, but it is. The Elders sent her themselves. Our Pa should have known not to react the way he did. He was wronged. He would have had his retribution, but… where are you going?’
The door slammed shut, closing off Maybelle from her sister.
The Elder Council’s seats were situated high above the Council Room floor. In the past, the Elders were on even keel with their subjects, but too many of them were shot down by those accused of wrong doings. So their seats were raised higher and higher until they reached 30 feet above the ground and encircling the room. Only the best marksman would be able to aim correctly at that angle, but even if he did, the Elders behind him could sweep in and take him down before much damage was done.
Winifred arched her back slightly so she could see them properly. The twelve men and one woman circled above her were all dressed in their most elegant suits. Their top hats made them all look even more ominous than they were. Except, of course, the one woman sitting to her left. Instead of an impressively tall hat, a necklace of shining gold gears hung around her neck, making her look more like a queen than a judge. Winifred didn’t bother to spend much time looking at her though. Everyone in town knew the only reason she was there was to fill some stupid quota. The twelve men, those were the ones with power. They ruled the city, controlling its every action and trade, with severity and judgment.
“I come to speak to the Elder Council of Hukom,” Winifred said, trying to hide the waver in her voice.
“We understand you have a question about a verdict?” one of the Elders asked in his deep grovel of a voice. Winifred couldn’t quite make out which person spoke to her, so she wasn’t sure who to look at when she answered.
“You are Zachariah’s little girl, are you not?”
She hated being called a little girl, but she knew better than to backtalk one of the Elders. She was nearly sixteen, but she knew her short hair and her small frame made her look younger than her age. She wished she had changed into something other than her stable clothes – simple brown pants and a riding shirt over boots – so she could have tried to look older. She hated wearing dresses though. Those made her look weak.
“I’m here to ask about my mother, Tally Jones. I heard she was taken to the Reckoning. That true?”
There was a mumble as the Elders conversed. Winifred fidgeted, trying to remain patient. All she wanted was a yes or a no. What was taking so long? Finally, a voice spoke up from somewhere on the right.
“We don’t share information with children.”
Winifred pushed back the sense of injustice. “My Pa’s dead and my sister ain’t eighteen yet, so I got a right to know as much as anyone. Was my Momma Reckoned?”
After a buzz of hushed discussion, one of the men replied. “Yes.”
“That can’t be,” Winifred said before she could stop herself. “My momma would never cheat on my father. She just wouldn’t.”
“Are you questioning the judgment of the Elders, girl?”
The voice boomed in the circular space in which she stood. Her heart shook slightly in the threat it contained.
“I don’t mean to,” Winifred said. “But there must have been a mistake.”
“We do not make mistakes.”
“Well how is someone Reckoned?”
“You need to watch yourself, little woman. Questioning men will only get you in trouble.”
“I don’t mean no disrespect…”
A loud shuffle of chairs and the exiting figures of the Elders above announced their meeting was over. Winifred wouldn’t get any more answers from them.
The light of the sun faded on the horizon, backlighting the airships taking deliveries to the far kingdoms. Winifred always wondered what excitements lay beyond the boundaries of her small settlement. She’d heard about the Great Oceanic Colonies to the South, the Mountainous Villages to the East, and the Kingdom of Mettara to the North West. But these were all just fairy tales in a book to her. None of it was real because she hadn’t seen it with her own eyes.
Her mother promised to take her on a journey one day. They would pack their bags and take one of the air ships to some far off place. She didn’t really care where although she hoped it would be a place where people would stop looking at her funny, like a strange thing out of place in the world. She wanted to know what it would be like to fly away.
Hukom always felt too small: The Clock Tower that powered the steam generators, a simple main street of shops, the Council Room, the Airship terminal, the stables and houses. That’s all there was. Even their water came from somewhere else. If it weren’t for the nickel mines, the town wouldn’t exist at all. And now, Winifred was stuck there. Without her mother and father to help her raise the money to leave, she’d have to get married. Then she’d never leave.
Winifred leaned against the side of the Council Room building, trying to ignore the thick lump developing in her throat. She hadn’t cried since her mother’s death, and she certainly had no intention to cry now. Crying was a girly thing to do.
“Ms. Jones.” The velvety voice roused her from her thoughts. Standing in the shadows a few feet away, the woman glanced cautiously around as she beckoned. “I can help you but we need to talk fast.”
Winifred climbed to her feet and followed the woman behind the back of the building. While it wasn’t completely sheltered from view – the road to the mine stretched under their feet – it was late in the day, so not many people would see them.
As Winifred approached the woman, she recognized the thick necklace of gears around her neck. “You’re one of the Elders?”
The woman nodded, her finger unconsciously tracing the embroidery of her corset. Winifred noticed it frayed a bit in places, and the red hue to her necklace told Winifred it was actually brass and not gold. “You want to know what happened to your mother?”
“Are you sure? Once you know, you can’t ever unknow.”
“Please tell me.”
“Go to the Clock Maker’s assistant.”
“Jessup?” Winifred knew little about the strange boy other than the fact everyone in town avoided him and his strange ways.
“He can tell you what you need to know.”
The woman turned and sauntered off without saying another word.
The Clock Tower was a place everyone looked at from the outside but none ever ventured to enter. There were too many horror stories about the children who fell into the gears, losing their limbs or their lives to the Great Clock. Its face stretched the height of a mountain, and it’s workings helped power the town as its tick-tick-tick pushed steam into the generators.
The Clock Maker was in charge of making sure the Clock kept running so the town could survive the harsh desert lifestyle, and few people ever laid eyes on him. Some said he was over a hundred years old and powered the generators himself with his magical steam breath. Some said he was a demon who fed on little children. The rational ones in town said he’s just an old man doing a great job, but those people weren’t the fun ones to listen to.
Whenever the town inherited a new orphan, the young child would be sent to the Tower in the hopes he or she might be able to learn the art of running the Clock. But more often than not, the body of the orphan would appear on the Clock Tower steps early in the morning, missing an arm or having been torn to shreds. Only one orphan never reemerged dead or mangled, and that was Jessup.
The town knew Jessup well by sight but few people ever spoke to him directly. He was often seen in the General Store, purchasing food supplies for himself and the Clock Maker. While all the girls in town agreed his sharp features and wavy blonde hair made him extremely attractive, none of them ever considered him as a possible suitor. Something about his very air felt a little off.
When he opened the door to the Clock Tower, Winifred recognized him at once despite the strange contraption covering most of his face. She had to stare at it a moment before she could make it out – multiple layers of magnifying bottle lenses, stacked one on one in front of each other and held together with a bulging wire frame.
“Did you want something?” Jessup asked, his voice breaking slightly as he spoke. Winifred assumed it was because he probably didn’t use it much.
“You’re Jessup, right?” she asked, not really sure how to proceed.
He had to think for a moment before answering. “Yes, sorry, forgot. What?”
“Someone said you could help me.”
Jessup pulled the contraption from his face, and she was surprised at how young he looked beneath it. She always saw him from a distance, but up close, she could see he couldn’t be more than twenty. Even in the darkness of twilight, she could see how his smooth face hadn’t yet wrinkled with age or desert air. She forced herself to remember why she was there.
“My Momma… Her name was Tilly Jones.”
“Nice woman, shame about the thing.”
Winifred couldn’t speak for a moment. “You knew her?”
“For a day,” he nodded. “Drove her to the Reckoning. Shame. Big shame. Bloody shame.”
“You drove her to the Reckoning? Can you help me?”
Winifred was surprised by how peaceful the desert roads were at night. She grew up hearing stories about how monsters lurked in the sand, waiting to eat any wayward travelers. But she hadn’t even needed to pull her goggles down to protect her eyes, the night was so calm. She saw nothing more than rolling hills of sand and an occasion dried weed in the bobbling headlamps of the horseless carriage. The vibrations of the machine around her lulled her into a daze, and she fought to keep her eyes open.
“First time in a trekker?” Jessup asked after an hour of driving in silence. “Twas Tilly’s so I’d imagine it’s your too, ya?”
“Are you Maybelle or Winny?”
“Winifred,” she corrected him. “I hate being called Winny.”
“Your momma told me, but I thought it would start a conversation. Being insulted or irritated often tends to have that effect. I’m not good at it, but I would like to converse with you if you would be amenable.”
His directness made her smile. “Okay, sure.”
For a few awkward moments, neither of them said a thing. The purring and spurting motor of the trekker was the only thing to break the silence of the desert night. When Winifred decided Jessup wasn’t going to start their conversation, she did.
“So, why is it you that drives folks to the Reckoning?”
“Ah, a solid question to start a solid conversation, good, yes.” He nodded, bouncing a bit in his seat, and Winifred couldn’t help but smile to see him so happy. “You see, the Reckoning is meant to be a private judgment. Keep it a secret and then it becomes more powerful than it is. No one ever talks to me, so secrets are familiar friends to me. Not because I don’t want to tell them but because there is never a soul to tell them to.”
“What kinda secrets?” Winifred turned slight in the plush leather seat to face him. She leaned back on the door and pulled her knee onto the seat. The fabric of her pants tugged beneath her thigh, and a small rip in the fabric opened to expose her bare flesh.
Jessup’s eyes fell to the place and then turned away, a slight panic to his glance. “Your pants are broken. I could fix that for you. It’s what I do. I fix things, like gears and compressors and people.”
Winifred cupped her hand over the rip, and Jessup relaxed a bit, but he still doubled his grip on the steering wheel before him. “You fix people? What’s that mean?”
“I make sure the truth is known so they can stop living lies.”
Winifred paused, not sure if she wanted to know much more. “You mean, by taking them to the Reckoning?”
“Yes, yes, yup, yeah, that’s it. I take them to the truth.”
Out the front windshield of the trekker, Winifred couldn’t see the changing terrain under the glow of the headlamps. The smooth sand was turning into rocky gravel, and the deep red earth was turning a deep brown.
The truth. Once known, she would never unknow it. But she needed to know what really happened with her parents.
“So, how does it work? When we get there? Will I just know the truth or what?” she asked.
“I’m so very glad you asked,” Jessup replied, bouncing in his seat once more. “That’s a secret I never get to share. No one asks, you see, which I find very strange. They know they are going to the Reckoning, but they act like they already know what it is, but they never do.”
“Well, we kind of know.”
Winifred was surprised to see Jessup shake his head furiously.
“No, we do. The Elders told us. The accused walks up to a big ravine, like a great big, ditch in the desert, and then the voice of the Gods comes down and says Guilty or Not Guilty. And then the husbands are usually so upset, they throw themselves into the ravine before – stop laughing!”
Winifred leaned forward and punched Jessup in the arm. The trekker swerved, veering off the side of the road. The wheel hit a patch of soft sand, and the trekker lurched to a stop. Winifred flew forward, her injured arm slamming into the dashboard.
She felt dizzy and slightly sick. She placed her hands on the seat and tried to steady herself, feeling for the weight of gravity to tell her which way was up. But it didn’t help. The world around her was slowing sinking into the earth. She leaned forward and retched, the meager contents of her supper splattering the floorboards below her.
“We have to get out!” Jessup cried, his hands suddenly on her arms and pulling her towards the door.
She let him tug her forward and out of the cab of the trekker like a rag doll, and fell heavily to the ground outside. Jessup’s shuffling feet dashed back towards the trekker, and a blinding light shone briefly in her eye. She winced tightly, but soft, glowing echoes of light burned on her retinas.
“Are you injured or hurt or otherwise physically or mentally unwell?”
“I’m already, Jessup. What happened?”
Jessup’s hands were on her once more, pulling her upright into a seated position. The darkness around her sank into her vision, and her eyes adjusted to its gloom. In the sand ahead of her, she could just see the top of the cab of the trekker as it sank deeper and deeper into the earth.
Winifred’s brain jolted to attention, and she was wide awake and focused once more. “Is that sinkingsand?”
“Aye, aye, sinkingsand, aye. I drove the car into it, not knowing it was sinkingsand of course, but I got this, I did get this.” Jessup held up one of the headlamps from the front of the car. Its light burned with a bright, bluish hue that lit up the desert for about ten feet in front of it. “I’m a sorry, Winifred not Winny Jones. I didn’t mean to crash us.”
Winifred’s guilt crept past what was left of her nausea. “No, I’m sorry I hit you. I just don’t like being laughed at. What do we do from here?”
“It’s only another half a league. We can walk it without fail and then walk back by day. Unless you want to head back now, though that’s three leagues – as in nine miles – and that might be a bit much without light.”
She stood up, but her knees still felt a bit wobbly, so Jessup stepped forward to assist her.
“Does it bother you, me helping you to stand?”
Winifred considered his question. Normally, she would have said yes. She hated people who thought she needed help. Usually, because she was a girl, other folks always thought she had to be weak She did everything to prove she was as good as – or better than – the boys around her. But somehow, Jessup’s help didn’t feel quite so condescending.
“Let’s keep moving,” Winifred said, taking their first step together.
“I didn’t mean to laugh at you.” Jessup said. “I mean, I meant to laugh, but it wasn’t at you. I laugh because the Elders are such lying scum.”
Startled to hear someone speak out so openly against the Elders, Winifred couldn’t help but laugh herself. “That comment could get ya hung along with my pa. Not that I’m gonna tell anyone.”
“Well, I only speak the truth. The Reckoning isn’t no big ditch in the desert, that makes no sense at all. And it’s not the voice of the Gods who make any decisions.”
“Then what is it?”
Winifred winced as the road beneath their feet began to ascend. She looked up to see a large mountain of rock and sand on the horizon ahead of them eliminated in the light of the moon.
“They’re up there,” Jessup nodded to the mountain ahead of them.
“Aye, the Reckoning. They’re in a cave up on the mountainside.”
A deep, mournful moan echoed in the air, vibrating the grains of sand lying on the road. Winifred stopped, an icy dread sinking into her stomach. “What was that?”
“That was them,” Jessup smiled, pointing up the mountainside. “Well, him more than them. She never says much.”
“Jessup, stop talking nothing and tell me this second what that noise is.”
“It’s the Reckoning.”
Once upon a time, in the early days of Hukom, the town Elders discovered the twin creatures living in the Great Mountain of Nickelshiv. One male, one female: they both consisted of a bovine body with the face of a human being. At first, the town Elders thought these creatures were just mutated or disfigured livestock, but as time went by, they realized the powerful magic these creatures contained.
The female, called Chichevache, only consumed human females who were virtuous and true. The unfaithful or unvirtuous women smelled deeply disgusting to this creature, and so she had no desire to eat them. The faithful, however, were delectable treats that filled their bellies with warm, savory nourishment. Thin and frail, Chichevache found herself ever on the verge of starving due to the lack of good women in the town of Hukom.
The Bicorn was her male counterpart, and he ate only the most virtuous and faithful of the human man. As a result, the Elders discovered their men disappearing, one by one, as the creature filled its stomach with the best specimens of human beings.
Knowing they could not live the good life they wanted while such creature roamed their land, the Elders sent a hunting expedition to destroy them both. Only one poor soul returned. The creatures were immortal and unable to be destroyed, but the young man had been able to capture them both inside a cave in a mountain three and a half leagues outside the Hukom city limits
Knowing the creatures must be sent by the Gods, the Elders decided to use these mystical creatures to help them seek out the unfaithful men and woman of the land. In those harsh times, procreation was mankind’s single most important goal, and anyone who was not faithful to their spouses – having sex for pleasure instead of procreation – needed to be punished.
The great witch hunt of the unfaithful began. Dozens of unhappy stepped forward, mostly men, to accuse their spouses of infidelity. One by one, the accused were sent up the mountain. If the Chichevache or the Bicorn ate the accused, then the spouse would know their deceased lover died a saint’s death. However, if the Chichevache or the Bicorn refused to feed on the accused, then she or he would be put to death for their infidelity.
Some spoke out against the system, saying it was flawed and that an accused would be sentenced to death regardless of whether they were guilty or innocent. Those few brave souls found themselves accused and were either eaten or hung. In time, the unfairness of the system was lost to legend and only the Elders and the Clock Maker’s Assistant knew the truth.
“Why are you lying to me?” Winifred demanded when Jessup finished telling her his story.
“What? I’m not lying. Which part did you think was a lie because I’m the servant of truth–”
Winifred stormed past him, trying to stay upright despite the dizziness which still threatened to overturn her. He was laughing at her again, saying some creatures were judging people. Creatures like those, with magical abilities to tell who was faithful and who wasn’t, they didn’t exist.
But she kept climbing, moving closer and closer to the moaning sounds above. Jessup’s steps slowed and then stopped behind her, and the light from the headlamp he carried grew dim.
“Don’t get too close, Winifred not Winny Jones. I’d like to see you again.”
Winifred reached the cave just as the morning sun edged its head above the horizon. While a few clouds hung low in the air, she knew they would burn off by 8th bell, and it would be another hot day. Beads of sweat already clung to her skin, and her breathing was shallow in her lungs.
The cave’s entrance didn’t look in any way ominous or threatening, and she couldn’t imagine it being the home of some flesh eating monster.
Her voice echoed a bit, bouncing in the walls of the rocky terrain. It seemed to go on and on, but then the sound changed. It was no longer her voice. It was the mournful moan once more.
Winifred gasped as Chichevache stepped into sight. As Jessup described, the creature was a thin, bony mass on four legs. Her skin hung limp on her frame, and her udders sagged on the dusty earth below. She looked up at her visitor. Laden with wrinkles, Chichevache’s face could have been beautiful once. Her eyes seemed almost like painted almonds on her pale cheek, and her lips were fine and delicate. But the years had been harsh, and her skin was as rough and tanned as her hide.
Chichevache turned to Winifred and breathed deeply. The strength of the sucking air pulled her off her feet, and Winifred cried out as she tumbled closer and closer to the large creature.
She finally came to a rest only a foot away from the cloven hooves of the old cow.
“Get away from me!” she screamed, digging her heels into the earth to push herself away.
But Chichevache did not pursue her. Her shoulders sagged, and she moaned her wail once more. She was hungry, so hungry. And Winifred wasn’t the kind of food she wanted.
“Winifred!” Jessup darted around the corner, shaking the headlamp at Chichevache. The creature mooed in alarm and backed away, terrified of the new light.
“No, Jessup, stop!”
Jessup threw himself on the ground before her, and Winifred couldn’t help but feel the compliment of his trying to protect her.
“Jessup, it’s okay.”
“I heard you cry out.”
“No, it’s okay. Look.”
Chichevache tried to escape down the path from which Jessup appeared, but with a clink of thick chains, she stopped. Her hind leg was tethered to a spot within the cave, and she couldn’t leave. She moaned once more and then slouched back towards the cave door.
“She doesn’t want to eat me.”
“Why, Winifred not Winny Jones, how have you been unvirtuous?”
Before Winifred could answer, the earth beneath them began to shake, and a thunder rumble erupted from the cave. With a terrifying speed, Bicorn dashed from the mouth of the cave and stampeded towards them.
“Jessup, get back!”
Jessup had no time to run, and the Bicorn was on him before he could move. The creature stomped on his chest, pinning him to the ground. Winifred reached forward, grabbing at his hoof, trying to free her friend.
“Get off ‘im!”
Bicorn slammed his head into her body, knocking her onto her back. She turned over, ready to pounce on him once more, but the sight surprised her. Bicorn now had that same disappointed air Chichevache wore after she smelled Winifred. He stepped back, his heavy bulk shaking a bit as he did so, and returned to the cave. Jessup rolled on his side, clutching his ribs.
“Jessup, are you okay?”
Winifred crawled to him, and touched his side. She could feel the tough bone beneath. It didn’t seem like they were broken.
“Why didn’t he eat me?” Jessup seemed almost disappointed. “I’ve never been with a woman at all, let alone been unfaithful to one.
The solution came to Winifred at once. “Don’t you see, Jessup? Neither of us has ever been unfaithful to anyone, and they didn’t eat us. The Elders were wrong. I knew my momma couldn’t be guilty. And if this cow didn’t eat her, then she probably wasn’t.”
“But then who do they eat?”
Tilly Jones had discovered the truth about the Reckoning: It wasn’t really used to scare people into being faithful – it was a way they Elders could get rid of their enemies. Zachariah Jones refused to believe his wife cheated on him, but the Elders told him they had proof. When he was told she failed her Reckoning, the jealousy drove him mad. It was a shame really. The Elders had no quarrel with him.
In the Council Room, no one had really noticed that the thirteenth member of their group was missing. The twelve men argued amongst themselves, all of them convinced they decided the best way to silence Winifred Jones. The thirteenth member had already been warned – leave town.
“I come to speak to the Elder Council of Hukom.”
The twelve men all turned and looked down the long wall to circle chamber below where Winifred Jones stood looking up at them, her back arched slightly. None of them noticed the thirteenth member of their Council – the inconsequential woman – wasn’t present.
“Winifred Jones,” one of them said. Winifred didn’t bother to try to discover who had spoken. “You were instructed not to question your mother’s judgment. What is this we hear about your visiting the Reckoning?”
“Well, sai, I was never very good at listening.” Winifred smiled as the men buzzed amongst themselves. “But I learned something quite interesting.”
The men silenced again.
“You know those creatures you have judging folks? They don’t eat the unfaithful.”
The doors behind Winifred opened, and the two hulking forms sauntered in on either side of her. The Bicorn sniffed excitedly, his ears twitching.
“Get those beasts out of here!”
A heavy thundering of chairs accompanied the men’s frantic attempt at escape.
“They eat the people who cheat and lie.”
As if on cue, the Bicorn sniffed deeply, and the Elders were caught in his breath. They toppled backwards, over the edge of the raised chairs and down into the circular chamber below. Winifred jumped out of the way as the first body crashed to the marbled floor beside her.
“That’s for saying my momma’s a whore!” she spat and then left them to die.
The frantic exodus from Hukom took three days. Airship after airship arrived, taking as many people as they could safely load before Chichevache or Bicorn rounded the corner. Both gluttonous creatures fed generously, taking down the liars and the cheaters, the bullies and the beaters. In the end, Winifred felt overwhelmed and guilty by the bloodshed.
She and her sister took the last airship out of Hukom with Jessup. As the ship pulled up into the air, Winifred glanced down at the town square as it grew smaller in size. She watched as her father’s body, still swinging from the hanging post, shrank to the size of an ant.
Jessup watched the Clock Tower with the same nostalgic silence as it faded from view. When the ship pulled off and Hukom disappeared beyond the horizon, Winifred looked up at the landscape ahead. It was a new view she never saw before.
“I’m off, Momma,” she whispered to the world awaiting her. “I’m off.”
Jennie Jarvis is an award winning author and screenwriter. She has appeared in Writer’s Digest Magazine and The Florida Writer. Jennie co-owns the blog 5writers.com and regularly conducts writing workshops. She teaches writing at Full Sail University, and received an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte.