Faith Allington, “Absentee Landlord” WINNER for fiction

With sharp bolts of pain fracturing her skull, Hazel listened to the night sounds of the field. The myriad chirping of crickets magnified the darkness and made the whispering columns of ripening barley seem endless. The wind blowing into her face smelled like the farmland she’d grown up on.

Ahead of them, the dirt road extended only as far as the headlights, as if beyond them there was only inky night that they’d tumble into. Neither she nor Diana spoke as the ancient engine sputtered and then caught again, like a flame about to go out.

If they broke down now… but Hazel banished the thought as a form of bad luck and glanced sideways at Diana. Her best friend was as tall and broad-shouldered as the goddess she shared a name with, though Hazel doubted her parents had thought of the virgin huntress when they named her. Her profile was fierce, her dark eyes fixed unswervingly on the road and what would come after.

Hazel doubted she would ever be able to repay the debt. Her hands were still trembling and she reached for her bag, tightening her grip until the strap dug into her palm and distracted her from the pain in her chest. She knew what she had to do, but the thought of it made her feel sick. What had she been thinking, calling so late?

“Di, I’m sorry,” she began, regret overflowing in her lungs. She should call it off. She shouldn’t drag Diana into the disaster she was embarking on. It wasn’t going to work, why had she thought it would?

“Don’t,” Diana said curtly. She pulled the motor over suddenly but left it running.

She and Hazel got out of the car and went round to the back. Diana opened the boot and the two of them looked down at the bundle that had come undone. The carpet spilled half open from its roll, the stain spreading darkly across the fine wool.

“I’m sorry about the carpet,” Diana said.

Hazel had bought it with Charles last year. In a rare moment, she’d insisted on the 100% silk and wool blend with its intricate pattern of flowers and vines. She’d loved the carpet so much. Now, she could hardly face it, her stomach churning.

The bruise on her chest would be visible tomorrow. She should’ve expected the sleeping pills crushed in his cider wouldn’t be strong enough. But tomorrow would bring bigger problems than a fractured rib.

Diana squeezed Hazel’s arm. “Come on.”

“I don’t know,” Hazel whispered, as the lump inside the carpet jerked. Now that they were out in the darkness, she couldn’t help remembering Charles as a loving husband. “Do we really have to do this?”

Diana said nothing, but the chill in the air reminded Hazel that it was up to her to stop Charles from raising the rents. People had died, unable to afford food or heat in their disintegrating cottages. With another winter coming on, she couldn’t live with any more deaths.

What does it matter to you, he’s not your kin, Charles had said. You live on this money just like me. The thought of it shamed her, hot and slick as the blood of the deer that he liked to hunt.

“If you think this is funny, you’re dead wrong,” Charles snarled, his voice muffled by folds of wool and silk. “Both of you.”

Diana took one end of the squirming bundle and Hazel took the other. The rows of barley yielded and rustled as they passed, and from the headland came the salt smell of the sea. They carried him some distance into the field until Diana dropped his feet unceremoniously. Hazel lowered her husband’s head down gently. The rope strained and creaked with his efforts to break loose.

“They’ll find me,” Charles said, quietly but with grim satisfaction. “That’s even supposing you two have the balls to leave me here.”

“Your mates finding you is sort of the plan.” Diana gathered stalks of barley into one hand and cut them free with her shears.

“Hazel, you’d better let me go right now,” Charles growled, and his voice rose up from the carpet like something monstrous, a half-forgotten nightmare. “Or I swear–”

Diana’s boot shot out, quick as a serpent’s tongue. “We ask Cernunnos and the Morrigan for aid.”

Hazel pulled out a bundle of holly and yarrow tied and dipped in wild heather honey. She opened her hands to let the foliage fall onto his face–blotting out his eyes, catching in his hair. The smell of the yarrow was bitter and jolting, underlaid with the earthy sweetness of the honey and barley.

“Let the sentence be rendered,” Hazel whispered.

She scrambled away as he thrashed free. His eyes were silver coins or full moons, edged with madness. He opened his mouth to laugh, blood speckling his teeth, spilling from his tongue.

“You should’ve hit me harder, you stupid hags,” he said, rising in the dark. He flexed his hands, knuckles cracking like old bones. “Wait till you see–”

He collapsed to his knees with a wailing cry that carried across the landscape. His shoulders jutted upward as if someone were pulling his bones out. His fists seemed to harden as his arms scrambled for purchase. His throat turned to russet. From his forehead, a V-shape of two horns dug through the skin.

And then a pair of large, inky eyes stared at Hazel, his muzzle a blaze of white in the dark. The roe deer barked at her, a low harsh cry that scraped the night. He pawed at the barley, tossing his head, hate spilling out in waves.

“You’d best get moving, Charles. It’s nearly October and you know what that means,” Hazel said. “Hunting season.”

Faith Allington is a writer, gardener and lover of mystery parties who resides in Seattle. Her work is forthcoming or has previously appeared in various literary journals, including Honeyguide Literary Magazine, Hearth & Coffin, Crow & Cross Keys, The Fantastic Other and FERAL.