Theodore wracked his brains trying to think of a way to stop the farmers from killing the Tall Man. A silver dagger was presented to Flip, who prepared to enchant it. Theodore fought to pull free of the men restraining him only to be pushed onto his knees. He watched, helpless.
Giselle swept through the crowd to look down on him.
“I hope they can’t cure you,” she said. “I hope they have to kill you.”
“Giselle, I need you to listen to me,” Theodore said. “The Tall Man is innocent. Flip is the one who killed Anthony”
She shook her head. “Has anyone got a muzzle for this idiot?” A rag was handed to her.
Theodore twisted his neck and spat to keep her from gagging him. Was it even possible to convince her? His eyes darted in panic and fell on the Tall Man.
“Wait,” Theodore said. “Anthony proposed to you on Harvest Eve, right?”
She froze. “Excuse me?”
“You went to the Fey Orchard together.” Theodore tried to remember every detail the Tall Man had shared. “To see the changing colors. Before you met, he wanted to become a sailor.”
Giselle stared. “How do you know all this?”
Theodore’s heart pounded. “Anthony told you he was friends with a ghast. They were friends since he was a child.” Theodore pointed his chin at the stage. “That’s the one he was talking about! The one you’re all about to kill! Do you really think this is what Anthony would’ve wanted?”
Confusion and suspicion fought for expression in Giselle’s face. She turned without saying a word and climbed onto the stage.
“Remove the gag!” She said, pointing at the Tall Man. “I want to speak to the creature.”
“Preposterous!” Flip said. “Are you listening to that fool? He’s been brain washed!”
“How do you know that?” Giselle said.
Flip pointed his cane at one of the men restraining Theodore. “You there! Show us his left hand!”
Theodore’s wrist was wrenched into the air.
“Do you see the ring on his finger?” Flip gestured. “It’s been enchanted by this ghast. Just try to remove it! It’s cursed!”
Giselle looked at her husband’s ring. Her eyes went wide.
“Alderman,” she said. “Let the Deputy go.”
“What?” Pearce did a double take. “Are you mad, woman?”
“He’s telling the truth.” Her voice was firm. “Anthony wore that ring long before I knew him. If it was made by this ghast, that means they really were friends.”
“Then… Wait!” Flip backed away. “That just means the creature plotted this for years. Yes. That must be it! He mind-controlled Anthony from the start!”
Giselle shoved Flip. “Then he was still the man I fell in love with!” She tore off her talisman and threw it in the witch’s face. “Alderman, Flip is the one who killed my husband!”
The crowd broke into whispers and chatter.
“Wait, the witch is the killer now?”
“The ghast is innocent?”
“You mean we were tricked?”
“I bought all this stuff from a murderer?”
“I want my money back! I demand a refund!”
“Yeah! A full refund!”
Flip stole a glance at the crowd as it turned against him. A trickle of sweat ran down his face at the utterance of the word refund. Pearce stepped toward him and he bolted before he could get ahold of him.
“Where do you think you’re going?!” Pearce yelled after Flip. “Get back here!”
Theodore was released as all the able-bodied men charged after Flip. Flip swooped into the onlookers and there was a shriek. The witch swung around with a hostage just as the men were about to pounce. It was Wendy, the mousey fiancé of the Alderman. Flip pressed the tip of the silver dagger against her throat and wrestled to keep her from squirming.
“Alright,” Flip said. “Jig’s up, but I’ve got one more deal to make. Refuse and the bride-to-be gets skewered. Capiche?”
“Help!” Wendy said.
“Let her go, you bastard!” Pearce said.
“All in good time, Alderman,” Flip said. “I’m just taking her for a walk. Just do exactly as I say and you get her back in one piece.”
Pearce got as close as he dared. “Fight me like a man!”
“What?” Flip looked offended. “No! Do you think I’m stupid? Look at yourself! You’re built like an ox!”
Theodore leapt onto the stage while everyone was distracted. The Tall Man swung through the air as Theodore yanked the knife from the beam and bent down to grab Giselle’s talisman.
Flip warned before that the enchantments should be kept apart. Theodore pressed them together. They grew white hot and burst in his hands in a flash of fiery light. Theodore screamed as the explosion hurled him from the stage.
Singed and bruised, Theodore forced his eyes open. The whole village gaped in horror. The Tall Man got to his feet. He was free. It took only a moment for his body to grow back to its full size but then it did not stop. He grew taller, and larger, doubling in size and then again.
“What’s happening?!” Theodore said, struggling to pull himself upright.
The Tall Man’s voice boomed like thunder. “They are afraid.”
Screams rang out as the Tall Man grew, and grew, until he towered over the village. He peered down, a massive, looming silhouette. The crowd scattered, fleeing and fighting for control of Flip’s talismans. The ghast took a great lumbering step past them toward the witch.
Flip swore and threw Wendy aside. He backed away, holding the silver dagger out to protect himself. The Tall Man gestured and the knife was knocked from Flip’s hand by unseen force. Helpless, he ran.
It was no use. The Tall Man reached out and closed his hand around the witch.
Wendy fell to her knees and covered her head. “Please! Don’t hurt us!”
The Tall Man spoke like wind and rain. “I would not dream of it.”
The farmers peeked out from their hiding spots as the Tall Man stepped into the center of the village.
“Deputy,” he said. “Do I have permission to place the culprit under a binding spell?”
“Yes,” Theodore said, groaning. “Do it!”
The Tall Man opened his palm. His fingers curled into arcane signs. Ethereal cords coiled around Flip and bound him tight.
“No!” Flip shouted. “He’ll kill us all! He’s dangerou–” The witch was silenced with a spell and placed gently on the ground.
Giselle stepped out from cover. Her neighbors cowered but she looked up to face the creature they all feared.
“Ghast,” she said. “You were friends with my husband?”
A nod. “Yes, Giselle. We are both less without him.”
Her lips tightened. “I’d… I want to talk. About him.”
“As would I.”
Whatever rampage the farmers expected did not come. Wendy joined Giselle, and then one by one the other manor workers mustered the courage to approach. The Tall Man shrank as it became clear there was no threat.
The quiet moment of reflection was broken as horses poured down the hillside. The city watch arrived in force. A dozen watchmen and two Mage Enforcers charged onto the scene on horseback. Theodore laughed at the sight of it. A cavalry too late to be of use. He let himself lie back and took comfort knowing it would all be reports and paperwork from here.