The Hot Country
by Gemma Files

First off, he arrives with both eyes intact and his knife-belt still full; second, it ain't actually hot, as such. Third, Monk McGinn's there already, a half-finished leg of lamb tucked under one arm, grinning like the loon Bill the Butcher always held he was from the longhouse door: Hey, Mr. "Community Leader" Cutting, what took yez so long? Found the Draft a bit more strong than you thought, that last day or so?

But then, for fourth, there's the snowy ground in front, and Priest Vallon waiting for him--tall as a tree, cross and sword in hand. So perhaps it's a sort of Heaven, after all.

They fight for all day and all night for some long time, with breaks between for drink and carousal 'round the fire. And Jenny ain't there, no more is the Priest's wife (which might begin to strike Bill odd, if he ever allowed himself to think much on it), or the Priest's ingratitudinous whelp Amsterdam neither, so Bill takes it there ain't been much time passed back below.

Yet it's not like there's ever much space to muse in after the last battle or before the next, even were Bill inclined to; not like he's led a life which points him towards introspection, in any event.

Besides all which, it's so good--so right, and good, and perfect in all ways--Bill can barely contain himself, mostwise: The best hour of his entire life, stretched out into infinity. Nothing but cut and slice, dodge and dart, and no matter what wound you give or get, it's healed up by nightfall or sunrise. There's a raft of other gladiators here, none of 'em from anywhere civilized; most made the mistake--at least once--of telling him they didn't know where "America" was, 'till his cleaver taught 'em better.

But they're nothing but time-fillers, anyways. Just meat for Bill to whet himself on, when they're fool enough to throw themselves between him and his rightful prey.

And: "You met my son," the Priest says, one night or morning. "My Amsterdam...he came to you, eventually?"

"Yeah, I gathered him in. Good kid. Got sand. Takes instruction well, too."

"Where do you think he is now?"

"Upside, I'm guessin', for a few more years yet." Bill grins, wide enough to show where those grey teeth on one side used to be, adding: "Though I'll look to see him here, eventually, that's for sure--he owes me that much, minding he give me my death-blow."

The Priest sighs, looking into the fire, where the logs spit and crackle. Asks: "Does this all not start to pall for you yet, Bill?"


"Not even a bit?"

"Well, I ain't too fond of the company, considering this place is full to the gills with Micks like you and McGinn, not to mention those other foreign types. But it goes without sayin' how I can't fault the menu."

Nevertheless, from that moment on, things start to crack. Like some damn joke played on him by larger forces--so's the Priest's had fifteen more years of this than he has; does that mean he got the right to piss on Bill's parade?

"I'm for no more of this," the Priest says, eventually--throws his damn sword down and turns away from Bill like Bill's nothing more than another long-bearded mail-coat what can't even speak English. Like there ain't sixteen full years of history between 'em, with milennia yet to live out here on the Devil's grill.

"Fight, damn you!" Bill snarls, and puts a knife in the Priest's back, twisted deep, just for the hurt of it. But the Priest barely halts to pull it free, as he heads back for the longhouse door.

"I've fought enough," he throws back. "Ye can do what you like, if ye even know what that is--"

"I want what I want, is all--what I'm owed. I paid fair enough for it. Lived and died for it, one way or another. And if you claim you ain't had no part in that, you're a liar just like that bog-trotting son of yours!"

The Priest turns, and they glare at each other--Bill coiled in on himself with anger, lean and lithe as a spring; the Priest trunk-rooted, implaccable, his head like a halo. Pronouncing, in that preacher's voice, from that great, God-stroking height:

"You're a selfish, willful, ravening man, William Cutting. Let me alone to worship my God in peace, and wait for my son to join me!"

"Don't be daft! Ain't no peace for such as you and me--"

After which--for punctuation--Bill throws himself full-scale up against the Priest one more time, so hard they both shake and almost fall, together. And oh, the savage joy of it, to finally push and be pushed back against by someone's got the sand and muscle to do it hard enough to hurt...

But: "You'll get no more sport from me," the Priest says, pulling himself away. And goes back inside, leaving Bill to steam.

So more time passes, in its timeless way: Summer's coming on now, with the scent of fresh flowers in the air, and the battlefield green with new growth. The food is good in the longhouse, the booze even better, and the women are shield-maidens all, fierce and ready to tussle as any Satan's Circus ever played host to.

But none of 'em are Jenny, not even near--and if the Priest won't never fight no more, then maybe this place is some form of Hell, after all.

"Knowin' you never had much schooling," Monk begins of one particular morning, plopping himself down next to Bill just as the trays of roast meat and mead are handed 'round, "at least in the ways of the True Church, I thought I'd tell ya something Father Hugo told me once--"

"Father who?"

"The one-armed priest at the Old Brewery, Bill; don't interrupt me again, if you truly want to hear the whole of what I've got to say."

"Jesus Christ crucified, you've grown nice in your afterlife, McGinn. But what the hell--say on, potato-peeler. Enlighten me."

"Father Hugo once told me the only difference between Hell and Purgatory was, Purgatory's the one you can eventually make it out of."

And sure, Monk's just the same overfed blabbermouth mooncalf he always was...but now Bill finds he has a cold new fear to swallow on, freezing him clear through the centre of where he's always been told his soul should be: The growing fear of waking up one morning or night to find the Priest simply gone, and him left alone--with Monk, with his fists, with his knives, with his rage.

With himself.

So maybe it's that makes him follow the Priest around for the next (month?) or so, in full battle regalia, scowling and taunting and berating the Priest at every turn: Questioning his piety, his courage, his lineage. Doing whatever he can to transfer some of this terrible fever inside him to the Priest, before it eats him away altogether from the inside-out...

Until one evening, when the Priest catches him fuming at him across the table, beating an impatient tattoo on the boards with the sole of his boot--then leans over faster and farther than Bill ever thought he could to collar him by the back of the head, one huge palm cupping Bill's leather-slicked skull--


--and pulls him in, muzzles him deep with a hot mash of lips and teeth; makes him twist in surprise, a hooked fish jerking, and still holds him there, effortless, with the Priest's clever Mick tongue sunk like a sword to its hilt in Bill's throat.

"Should've tried this manner of attack years ago," the Priest remarks, when they break apart at last, "seein' how well it's finally stopped all your bloody stupid talk."

To which Bill first gapes, then takes a long, harsh breath. And finds himself saying, at last:

" got Amsterdam. Got your wife, somewheres. Jenny, she's free of me now, but what've I got, Priest--what did I ever have, but you? Don't never leave me..."

And Lord God Almighty, King of Hosts, but that unsaid "please" at the tail of it's a fresh weakness to end all weaknesses; it cracks his chest wide up under the breastbone just like Amsterdam's knife, leaving Bill utterly defenseless, splayed in his own shame. He'd gladly cut out both eyes if he thought it'd help, though he knows--from bitter experience, on that unholy battlefield outside--that they'd just grow back in, soon enough.


"Oh, I think I'll be here some time yet," the Priest tells him, softly. And presses him back against the longhouse wall with all that terrible Irish strength of his, so's they tangle like two vines--sharp and rough as steel on steel, fitting always together like they was made for it. So's when their mouths find each other again in the flickering dark, it's with a clash, like two swords crossing: Sweet as stolen honey, terrible as an army with banners.

So in the end, whether it's Heaven or Hell ain't for Bill to decide, no more than anyone else. It's the Hot Country, is all. Where he is, and will be, and should be. Must be.

And the Priest seems to agree. Which might be why he next pulls Bill upstairs, in full sight of everybody, where they can find a bed big enough to let them fight the endless bettle between 'em out some more.


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