The village had enough problems to deal with before the one-armed skeleton walked into town. The winters were too cold, and the summers were too hot. The ground was inhospitable. The taxes were too high, and there was no way to avoid paying them since the baron’s castle sat on a hill only a few miles away. But the people made do the best way they could. Mostly, by ignoring things.
They ignored the unnamable stink always in the air. They ignored the crows, hundreds of them, always everywhere, always crapping on everything. They ignored the baron most of the time. They ignored their gods, and their gods were kind enough to return the favor.
And they ignored the skeleton.
He’d come in the middle of the night. No one had seen him arrive, but he was difficult to miss, standing in the town square. Not much of a town square. Just a few stones arranged in a half built circle around a well that had dried up long before anyone alive now had been born. The skeleton wore a loincloth, some boots. He carried a blood red sword in his one hand.
Angela had the best view of him. Her home looked out onto the square, and every time the door opened, she saw him, standing there. Her door opened a lot because as the village’s best seamstress, she spent much of her time mending clothes torn by the many sharp branches of the ridiculously sharp branched trees surrounding the village.
She handed Harold’s trousers and cloak to him. He handed her a few eggs in return.
“What do you suppose it’s up to?” Harold nodded to the skeleton.
Angela shrugged. “Who knows? Doesn’t appear to be up to anything.”
“It’s a skeleton with a cursed sword. It’s up to something.”
“You don’t know that,” she said.
“Has a walking skeleton ever been up to any good?” asked Harold.
She didn’t approve of judging someone simply for being undead. She endeavored to be an open-minded sort.
“And that sword. It’s evil magic, I tell you,” he said.
“He’s been there for days. If he was up to no good, I would think it would be obvious by now.”
Harold grumbled. “Maybe, but somebody should do something about it before it’s too late.”
Carmen entered. She dropped a pile of torn clothes onto Angela’s table.
“Anyone else think that boney fellow is up to no good?” asked Carmen.
“That’s what I was just saying,” replied Harold.
“Someone should do something.”
Angela nodded politely.
Most everyone agreed something should be done. Nobody knew what to do, and nobody would’ve cared enough to do it if they did. The skeleton was something to talk about. That was about it, but it was fun to talk.
“I say we kill it,” suggested Carmen.
“He’s already dead,” said Angela. “How would you kill him?”
“A stake through the heart should do it,” said Harold.
“He doesn’t have a heart.”
Harold scowled. “Fire then.”
“Do bones burn?”
“Hold it down and smash it to pieces.”
Angela and Carmen chuckled.
“If you want to be the one to get near that thing, be our guest,” said Carmen.
“He’s harmless,” said Angela. “There’s nothing to be gained by antagonizing him.”
“Why do you keep calling it him?” asked Harold.
“Seems like a him. He’s wearing a loincloth and has a bare chest. I bet he was quite dashing while alive. Barrel-chested. Long, dark hair. Steely gray eyes.”
Harold and Carmen eyed her suspiciously.
“Just an impression I have,” said Angela. She did have a lot of time to think about him while mending.
Harold and Carmen left, and in a quiet moment between customers, Angela threw on her cloak and took a closer look at the skeleton. An icy wind swept from the north, and several crows perched on his shoulders. She shooed them away.
The skeleton didn’t react to her. He stood silently, staring straight ahead, his jaws slightly parted as if he might be about to say something. A tin tube hung around his neck.
“Well, look at you.” She clicked her tongue. “Someone should clean that crap off of you.”
She spit on her cloak and cautiously reached toward his skull. He made no move as she rubbed off the bird shit.
“There. Isn’t that better?”
The skeleton turned his head in her direction. Not quite all the way, but closer toward looking at her than he had been. And his jaw rattled, either from his own will or because of the strong gust cutting across the square.
“You’re welcome,” she said. “Do you mind if I take a look at this?”
She unscrewed the tube and found a small piece of parchment within. She unfurled it.
This is Ernie, it read. He’s here to help.
She tucked the parchment back into the tube. “Well, Ernie, it’s nice to meet you.”
Angela fetched an old cloak, too frazzled and worn to be of much use, and tied it around Ernie’s shoulders. It wouldn’t keep him warm, but it’d keep the crows from shitting directly on his bones.
She liked him. She’d always had a fondness for the strong, silent type, even if he was thinner than she preferred.
“Stay as long as you like. We don’t mind.”
He was always smiling, in a manner of speaking, but she liked to believe he was smiling at her just then.
By week’s end, everyone had become used to Ernie. People remarked upon him in the way they might remark upon the cruel weather, crueler baron, or an ache in their back. “Looks like more damnable rain.” “My best pig up and died on me.” “Someone should do something about that skeleton.”
Ernie started coming to Angela in her dreams in the form of a strapping, tanned barbarian hero. She dreamed of being swept up in his arms. “It was your kindness that freed me from my curse,” he’d say. And then they’d make passionate love.
They were only dreams, but every morning, she’d check on him. She hoped to see a spot of flesh appearing somewhere on his bones. It was a childish flight of fancy, but she looked anyway.
“I wish I could offer you something,” she told him. “Some warm food. A nice place to sleep. But you don’t need those things, I suppose.”
She would’ve been thrilled to wake up one day with him standing outside her door. Something, anything, to indicate he knew she was there. Once, when she walked by, his skull turned in her direction, but it kept turning, like he was looking at something else.
If Ernie kept his feelings hidden within his skeletal frame, at least he didn’t get in the way. The villagers would whisper behind Angela’s back about her unhealthy fascination with the undead thing, but they didn’t understand. They didn’t know Ernie the way she knew Ernie.
One cold morning, while chasing away the crows as she did every morning, the unwelcome sound of hooves came from the broken road leading to the baron’s castle. Noble envoys were never a good thing. A round man flanked by a royal guard rode into the square. He looked down his nose at her.
“Old woman, where is your mayor?”
She wasn’t that old, but the years, like everything in this village, were harsh. She pushed aside the insult and lowered her head. “We don’t have a mayor.”
“Who is in charge then?”
“Nobody,” she said.
The envoy shook his head. “Distasteful way to run things. No wonder you’re so miserable.”
“Miserable is a relative term, sir,” she said.
He snorted. “Regardless, we have come to collect the baron’s taxes.”
“Beg your pardon, but taxes aren’t due for another six months.”
“Yes, yes. But there’s been a budget shortfall. The baron has taken to throwing banquets, and someone has to pay for them.” He tossed a burlap sack at her. “Fill this up with whatever valuables you can scrape together. Your lordship isn’t picky. He understands you haven’t much. His expectations are not high.”
Angela picked up the sack. Others had come out of their homes. They accepted their defeat with as much grace as they could manage. They were used to it.
“Put that wretched scarecrow’s sword in the sack while you’re at it,” said the envoy.
She gazed into Ernie’s empty sockets and finally saw something to offer him.
The envoy gasped. “Are you mad, old woman? That appears to be the only thing of value in this entire village and you’ve given it to a pile of old bones. While your lordship respects your right to worship whatever strange gods you think give a shit about you, it’s unreasonable to leave it to rust in the rain.”
Angela tossed her sack at his horse’s hooves. “No. You will not take that sword.”
He dabbed at his forehead with a silk handkerchief. “Captain, if you would be so kind.”
One of the guard dismounted and marched toward her. She stood defiant before the armored warrior. “It’s not yours to take.”
He backhanded her, and she fell in the mud. The baron’s men laughed as the captain stepped over her and reached for Ernie’s crimson sword. They stopped laughing when Ernie decapitated the captain with one clean stroke.
Ernie sprang into action. With a single bound, he was upon the envoy, who was slain with a single stab. He joined Angela in the mud, never to rise again on his own.
Several of the guard rushed Ernie. He dispatched them with effortless strikes. His red blade shattered their steel like dry reeds. Most of them died with barely a cry, though one did make enough of a showing of himself to take two strikes to slay. The rest of the guard hurried their horses back up the road.
Harold helped Angela up. “That was a stupid thing to do.”
“It wasn’t our sword to give,” she said.
“This’ll only make things worse, you know. The baron will send more men.”
“Will he?” she asked.
Ernie marched silently up the road toward the castle. She imagined the baron wouldn’t be a problem much longer.
She ran after the skeleton. He didn’t break stride as she caught up to him.
“Thank you,” she said.
He turned his skull toward her, and it was probably only the bob of his stride that made it seem like he was nodding at her.
“You know, after you’re through, you can always come back. If you want.”
But he wouldn’t. He was Ernie. He was here to help, and there would be others who needed his help out there. It was his calling. Some might think he slew the guard for daring to take his sword, but she knew better.
She stopped. He kept going, disappearing into the darkened woods, the greatest hero this miserable village had ever known. She would never see him again.
But then again, she might.
Even skeletons might need their cloaks mended now and then.