A soft, gentle creaking gave us hope that we had come close to some sort of boundary with my Cross.
Instead, the sound ushered us into an open glade in which we found only death.
Dozens of large, rough wooden tripods stood on a wide swath of land, and from each tripod hung a man. The men were dead, perhaps no more than a few hours, but dead they were. They were dressed as Turks, but the placards around their necks were written in the King’s English.
“To Aid Duncan Blood is to Court Death.”
My mother, of course.
What had these men done to help me? Had they fed some version of me? Had they given me clothes, or perhaps a place to sleep? Had they merely given me directions to some other reality or another when?
Their deaths had been brutal. These men had been strangled to death by their own weight. No quick drop and a broken neck. They had suffered, as my mother had intended them to suffer.
I looked at those around me and saw the unspoken question on their lips. Was death what awaited them as well? Since we had left their camp, the Akatuyians had been pared down. There was scarcely more than a score of them left and I saw the fear growing in their eyes.
To die was a part of life, this they knew. But the dead men before us had been tortured, and they had suffered.
All because of me.
I turned and faced the Akatuyians.
A man named Sergei stepped forward, his eyes flicking toward the bodies. “We can go no further, Duncan. We few wish to live.”
I nodded and smiled at them. “My home is open to you, should you change your minds and find a way out of the Hollow.”
No more words were spoken. I crossed through the glade of hanged men, listening to the creaking of the bodies. I did not look back.
Instead, I focused on the path ahead and tried not to think of my son and those who had died.
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