The Man in the Hanging Tree: Redeye

He told her he knew her deepest desire. He told her he could read dreams in her eyes that she did not even dare whisper to the night. He told her he could make them all come true.

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6. Double or quits

What are you doing here?”

“Hush! Do you want your whole family to know?”

He laughed at my sheepish expression.

“Don’t worry, princess. I only came to steal you from your castle.”

“To go where?”

“Do you really want to have that conversation again?”

I looked down. The sight of Redeye, here, in a room I had known all my life, stirred emotions I could not identify, let alone justify. He seemed so out of place in the familiar surroundings – though whether it was he or the library that was intruded upon by the other’s presence, I could not say. 

“How did you even get in?”

“I turned into mist and seeped through the wall, of course. Oh, don’t look at me like that. Your little lady friend had forgotten to lock the kitchen door. It was too easy, really.”

I smiled.

“You’re mad.”

“And impatient,” he said. “I have no intention of spending my night among dusty old books.”

My mind turned immediately to the one dusty old book I did not want him to see under any circumstances. It was still lying open on the desk in front of me. I wanted to close it discreetly; pretend like I was just tidying up – but his eyes flew to it before I had even finished the thought.

“You’ve done your homework.”

I tried to say something. Apologies and explanations swirled around in my head, but every time I reached for them, they dissolved again. I stared at him, hoping he could somehow read the right message in my eyes.

Suddenly he was standing very close to me.  His body pressed against mine and one hand grabbed my hair, forcing my head back.

“Maryann,” he said. His voice was dangerously low. “You will never go behind my back. If there is anything you want to know, you will ask me. I can answer all your questions. But you will never go behind my back.”

He held eye contact for a long moment. I could feel my insides crumple under his gaze, and I shuddered involuntarily.

“Promise me.”

“I promise.”

Redeye caressed my cheek, tracing a tear I did not know I had shed.

“Let’s go.”

 

It was Tim who greeted us at the cottage door. Behind him we could hear the shouts and laughter of the usual crowd. Someone had brought a violin. Its happy chirps and trills filled the air, telling stories of the emerald isle.

“Redeye! Maryann! Come in, come in. George’s cousin is here, he brought whiskey. Whaddya say? A drink?”

We both said yes and thank you and Tim went to get cups. But I saw the look he sent over his shoulder. Confusion, maybe even worry. I straightened myself. I would feel nothing but pride for arriving with Redeye. What was it to him, anyway?

George was sitting at the table. He was in the middle of a card game, but upon seeing us, he took the time to smile and wave. We sat down and were soon joined by Tim and the whiskey.

“So, what’ve you two been up to?”

Tim poured us drinks, and as I accepted mine, Redeye replied:

“Nothing much. Attempting to create a new plague, crushing empires, corrupting young maidens – the usual, you know. Oh, and I just got a new pair of socks.”

He pulled off his boot and wiggled one sock-covered foot in our direction. I recognized the embroidered hem that Lucy had spent evenings trying to get just right. I did not know much about knitting, but it sure looked pretty.

“Wearing women’s clothes again, are we?” I remarked, and laughed at his mock-dismay.

“Well, I never! And this from the woman who was so kind as to provide me with knickers.”

The whole table was laughing now. I felt my cheeks heat up, and, self-consciously, studied the mug in front of me. Redeye squeezed my arm reassuringly.

“What’s the lark, eh?”

The voice came from behind us. I turned to the speaker to reply, but as I looked at his blackened cheek and the stumps of teeth, all words dried away.

“My, my – ain’t that the little lady again. What’ll it be this time? ‘Nother stroke to the head? You still owe me money, you know.”

“She knows.”

Redeye turned his head with a wry smile. I saw how the man’s eyes widened in shock as he recognized his attacker. He took half a step backwards.

“No, now, don’t be scared,” Redeye said. He slowly and deliberately put his boot back on, letting the man wait until he had tied the last knot, before continuing: “I have already made art of your face. I wouldn’t want to ruin a masterpiece.”

The man snorted, but he was scared. I could see it clearly. As could Redeye and everyone else in the room. The tension strained against the walls.

“I’ll make you an offer,” Redeye said. “One game of Trickster for the money she owes you. Double or quits.”

Everyone held their breath as the man struggled to form a reply. There was only one answer, really. Redeye had offered no alternative. Defeat was clear in the man’s stance even before he hung his head and consented.

The table was cleared quickly. The men took seats opposite each other, and the cards were dealt. George took on the role of caller, turning first to the brute.

“Confess.”

“Nine of Spades.”

“Redeye?”

“Pair of Tens.”

Cards were flipped, shuffled and exchanged.  Once more, George asked for confession.

“Three knights,” the man said confidently.

“Trickster.”

Redeye’s voice was softer than silk, barely audible over the hushed silence. He did not even look up.

The man was asked to show his hand. He did, and his three mismatched cards stared at us pitifully. From that point on, the game went without any let-ups. Every time the man confessed, we all waited for Redeye to pass his judgment. If he called trickster, and he did, in the same quiet matter-of-fact way every time, the man would be asked to expose – though we quickly learned that Redeye made no mistakes. After a while, the man didn’t even bother showing us his cards. He just threw them on the table and waited for George to deal new ones.

I do not know how long they played. At some point I stopped following the game; I merely listened to Redeye’s voice, so calmly asserting his superiority. When he finally claimed to hold the Household of Hearts, not one in the room would have questioned it, not even those who could clearly see the Three of Diamonds in his hand.

“And now,” he said after having received his prize from the defeated. “I think I will bring Rapunzel back to her tower. A good night to you all.”

I was still contemplating his victory. The unobtrusive accusations of trickery, the self-assured manner of his final blow. My mind was so preoccupied, I did not even bother with indignation as he herded me from the cottage.

He followed me home. We walked in silence, both absorbed in our own thoughts. Even though he mystified me, I still found a sort of comfort in Redeye’s presence. I was not at all sure how I felt about his silent show of power in the cottage. Still – he had done it for me. It was my tormentor he had beaten. Again.

When we reached the gate, he stopped.

“Thank you for tonight,” I began. “I really had a –“

“Ask.”

“What?”

“Just ask.”

I bit my lip. The butterflies that seemed a constant companion around him fought a small war in my stomach. I forced myself to look into his eyes, purposely finding the fiend in them.

“What is wrong with you?” I finally said.

Redeye laughed.

“I’d have preferred a different phrasing, but I guess it’ll have to do. I will tell you what is wrong with me. But not yet.”

“When, then?”

“When you learn to let go.”

“I don’t understand…”

“You will.”

And with that, he pulled me to him. He kissed me under the cloudy London night sky, then bid me farewell. He was gone before I even reached the door.

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