Discover more from Lane Talbot
North Dark | Chapter 12 of 21
Two Crows leaps backward and all of the slaves begin hissing and cawing to themselves. They look at the whiteskinned man seizing on the ground and they shout to one another...
A half day of riding through the woods and they reenter the slaver’s camp. Two Crows is brought in chained and dazed to the center of a ring of tents. Men laugh and applaud his return. He is dropped to the ground near the other slaves. They look at him and nod respectfully. The metalsmith is thrown in with the slaves. He cries silently to himself. The guard that was supposed to watch the slaves all night is nowhere to be seen.
Camp is broken and all of the slavers and slaves move on. They pack up their burdenbeasts, mount their horses and tramp through the frozen woods for days until they arrive at a small arctic village lit by torches and starlight. The slaves are brought into an enormous yurt of timber and animal skins. The great chamber is lined with men and slaves standing silentfaced in a flamelit perimeter, watching the newcomers. A heaping dung fire burns in the center of the ring.
The white mustached slaver nods to a young, fat boy sitting crosslegged against the wall. The boy’s head is shaven but for gouts of black hair spilling from either temple. The boy seems to be in charge of this place in some way. An owner or master or young royal.
The slaver stands Two Crows, the metalsmith, and a Maunder slave in the center of the room and orders them to face the boy.
The boy never moves any part of his body save his eyes. He examines the slaves and pauses on Two Crows.
The boy utters something in a whispery, hissing language that Two Crows has never before heard spoken.
The slaver says, “None of his injuries are debilitating. He can still fight. He’ll be a warrior for you.”
The boy closes and opens his eyes once. Apparently, this means something. One of the slaves in the room rises and swings a sealed sack of jingling bullets to the slaver. The bag rotates in the air like a tomahawk as it travels across the room. The slaver catches the bag, opens it and roots around inside, inspecting the money. He nods and throws it over his shoulder. He hands a ring of keys to the slave and then leaves with his men. Two Crows and the others remain standing. They have again been sold.
In the morning, the slaves are brought out onto a circle of stone near an ice lake. The young boy, in a cloak of furs and a bearfur hat, watches crosslegged from the ground as Two Crows and the other slaves are stood up in the center of the ring. A vicious wind screams across the open tundra, penetrating the skin of Two Crows’ face, filling him with an empty howl. A baldheaded slave steps forward and touches the Maunder beside Two Crows on the shoulder. The young boy tilts his head once, telling Two Crows and the other slave to walk away.
The baldheaded man stands square to the Maunder and stares at him with burning white eyes.
Two Crows knows they are about to battle.
The Maunder, unsure, does not make the first move.
The baldheaded man runs at the Maunder and simultaneously knees him in the groin and elbows him in the face. Two Crows recalls Thrall’s elbow to the jaw. The Maunder soars backward as though ejected from a sling. He crashes to the ice and slides a length of three yards and makes no other move.
The young boy in the bearfur hat smiles and nods to another of his warriors, a whiteskinned and redeyed man with a swinging belly. The whiteskinned man stands and walks toward Two Crows. He touches him on the shoulder, selecting him, but Two Crows does not wait. He kicks the man square in the crotch and when he drops to his knees in pain, Two Crows plows his palm into the man’s nose, breaking it, and driving him backward. Two Crows piles atop the whiteskinned man and throttles him. He watches life boil in his eyes. Panic and mere danger fill the face of the slave he is putting to sleep with his hands. And then he notices more. The whiteskinned man wears a thin black network of veins printed on his skin. He is choking and coughing fluid onto Two Crows’ wrists. The whiteskinned man is not only about to be murdered. He also has the sickness.
Two Crows leaps backward and all of the slaves begin hissing and cawing to themselves. They look at the whiteskinned man seizing on the ground and they shout to one another, repeating the same word over and over. Whatever the word is, it means sickness.
They stare at Two Crows and at his hands. The boy in the bearfur hat shouts at him, waves his arms at him in a blind panic. Two Crows is contaminated now. They want him to leave here. Now. He is evicted.
He looks at the whiteskinned man convulsing and bending backward on the ground. Someone throws a rock at Two Crows. He looks at the remaining slave he arrived here with, the metalsmith, whose eyes are confused, envious, and deeply terrified.
Two Crows turns and runs over the ice while other men launch stones at him. The last sound he hears, save screaming, is the sobbing of the metalsmith, abandoned to bondage.
Exhausted, Two Crows trudges through kneeheight snow. His pulse thunders in his head, freezing air burns his lungs. He does not know if anyone is chasing him. If they are not now, he knows, they will be soon enough. Slavers, dogs, who knows. He runs and runs and runs through the daylight. He collapses within an arrangement of black boulders and tries to sleep but he soon hears dogs barking across the tundra and he forces his body to run on. Night falls. He runs into black woods until he sees torchlights swinging ahead. Dogs breathing, scrapping, pumping through snow.
Through the dark columns of trees, a single man on a dogsled. Pans and equipment rattle on his person and sled. A single green lantern swings at the man’s hip like some small captive star. Two Crows bursts onto the road and waves his hands. He has no idea what is about to happen. Recent history tells him nothing good. He waves his arms furiously. He needs this person to stop, to aid him. The sled driver passes by and in the swinging torchlight examines Two Crows with shining eyes. At first, Two Crows thinks that the sled driver is Obsidian. But it is not. It is someone else. The driver slows and stops his dogs, steps off the runners and stares at Two Crows. The driver is wrapped in hoods and scarves. Knives hang from belts across his shoulders and waist.
Two Crows takes a few cautious steps forward, looks out at the man. Help?
The driver lowers his scarf and throws back his hood. Does he do this to get a better look at Two Crows? The driver’s age is impossible to tell. He is a thin man covered in warped and crisped scar tissue. His eyes glow in his head like spotlights. This is a man long used to being a victim. He nods Two Crows closer. Come on. Let’s go.
Two Crows climbs atop the man’s sledpack, arranges himself among the hump of bundled belongings and holds on where he can. The driver steps onto the runners and cracks his whip. He himself makes no sound. He uses, Two Crows notices, reins like his.
The dogs yap and ride on. The sledbottom scrapes along with the new weight of this passenger.
The brisk air salves Two Crows’ exposed skin. A small wave of relief cascades down his shoulders, floods his chest. He watches the green stars in the sky as he, the driver, and the dog team pass beneath them. He never learned to read the groaning stars. Few men have. They are too complex, too swiftly changing. There are many men who say the Zodiac is itself flatly evil. Is that true? A Star Reader like Thrall would know. Thrall. How long since he has been able to fully devote his thinking to that mission? Has it slipped beyond him? Is it over? And if it is, then what now does that mean for him and his life now?
The icy wind scrapes along his face. He wraps his arms around his chest. The strange team rides on and, in very little time, Two Crows slips into a kind of nervous sleep.
The driver wakes him by shaking his shoulder. They have stopped.
The driver releases the dogs and walks ten feet out into the tundra where he begins to build a fire. Two Crows stands and walks over to the man.
After assembling a small campfire, the driver squats, unslings his backpack and digs out a tin can. He knifes open the lid, pushes his mittened hand within and scoops out a bolus of slopmeat. He palmfeeds his team, dog by dog.
Two Crows walks over to the man and stares at the fire. The man looks at him and hands Two Crows a can of meat and a timeworn knife.
He takes it and nods. Thank you.
The driver nods.
Two Crows pries open the can and scoops out wet handfuls of nameless meat for himself. He works the material into his mouth and, wincing, chews as softly as he can. The driver watches him and hands him a water skin from his pack.
Two Crows drinks the smallest amount of water. His teeth ring in pain. He scrapes up some snow in his hands and applies it to his lips.
Two Crows looks at the mute driver. You’re injured too, aren’t you?
The driver makes no answer.
Where are we?
The driver unwraps the scarf from around his neck and hands it to Two Crows.
Not knowing what else to do, Two Crows accepts the scarf. And, for no reason he can name, he begins to laugh. It is a horrendous, pumping wheeze.
The driver smiles and takes to hooting. He opens his mouth and Two Crows sees that the man has no teeth and no tongue. The two mutes sit there on the tundra floor and laugh.
The weather softens and daylight breaks through the icy shield of cloudcover. They ride on through slushy snow and past melting lakes. They camp near a swath of river trees and carry on in the morning. In the middle of the next day, the man pilots the dog team down into a sunken valley absorbed in a dome of trees. Two Crows has no idea why they are traveling to this place but the driver seems to know exactly where he is, and to where he is headed.
The trees thicken and the dogs slow down to maneuver. They have been here before and they know the land well. Then Two Crows sees it. A small cabin sits perched on stilts above the river and a millwheel. There seems to be no one around. The sled stops and Two Crows helps the driver remove the dogs from their traces. Loosed, they run up to the cabin. Two Crows follows the driver to the house. All of the doors and windows are locked with heavy chains. The driver twists a long black key into a rusty smokehouse lock and draws the chain through the clasp. He opens the door and a heated wave of must slaps by both men. Two Crows follows the man into the darkened cabin. He opens the windows one by one allowing lateral shafts of dirty light into the small room. Blankets hang from nails on the walls. The man looks at Two Crows and smiles dumbly. Two Crows smiles back, unsure why.
The man walks to a chained chest in the middle of the room, unlocks it with the same key and hauls open the lid. Stacks of canned food. He is well supplied. The man smiles and shows Two Crows his dusty commissary.
Two Crows makes a writing gesture with his hand.
Intelligence lights in the man’s face and he nods. He scuttles to the hearth and rubs his hand in the ashes. He writes on the wall with one finger. Burner. He touches his own forehead, marking himself with the same ashy finger.
Two Crows rubs a finger in the hearth and writes on the same wall. 2 crows
Burner looks at the name and nods.
Two Crows writes: inkpen
Burner shakes his head no.
Burner shakes his head no and points to Two Crows’ name on the wall. Not here alone.
i need to get to Dusk
Burner looks at the words, nods and turns away to draw blankets down from the wall. Dogs swirl by his feet in a storm of dust, hair and snow. He builds himself a pallet on the floor in the corner and lies down. Two Crows writes: do you know where Dusk is. Burner looks at the words and shakes his head no.
Two Crows sighs, walks down to the river, and sucks cold water from his cupped and dirty hand.