Discover more from Lane Talbot
North Dark | Chapter 13 of 21
He takes up the knife and throws open the tent flap. A humpbacked crone, wrapped in a hooded cloak, huddles near his campfire. A matted cape of white hair falls from within her hood.
In the morning, Burner cooks a plucked and spitted owl over a low fire. He sets two dirty dishes in the snow. He rotates the bird with his mittened hands and slices off scraps of burnt muscle for himself and his house guest. The slavering dogs line up and wait for food that never comes. Two Crows eats as Burner does, by working a small shred of blisteringly hot gristle into his injured mouth and sucking dryly on it for a long, long time. He swallows and looks at Burner. Burner’s grotesque head smiles back.
Two Crows writes on the wall: tell me where Dusk is
Burner reads it in passing and shakes his head to say that he does not know.
While fishing at the river, Two Crows hears the sound of someone walking through the trees. Ahead, a dwarf woman covered in plates of green armor leads a single dog on a rope along a game trail. Two Crows splashes across the icy water and the dwarf stops, draws her brass knife, and looks at the crazed and injured man rushing toward her. Her dog takes to barking.
Two Crows stops himself and holds up his hands to show that he means no harm.
The dwarf narrows her cautious eyes and says, “Hallo.”
Two Crows drops to his knees and writes MAP in the snow.
She looks at the word and reads it. “Map,” she says. “No. I haven’t any. Where are you trying to get to?”
Burner comes sweeping down from the cabin. Eyes deranged, hands flying, he roars his tongueless nonsense. The dwarf and her dog disappear into the trees and Two Crows walks back toward the cabin. Burner stops him and tries to ask some kind of question but cannot for the absence of a tongue in his mouth. Two Crows brushes past him and walks into the cabin.
Indoors, Burner writes furiously on the wall: What was that? Who?
Two Crows ignores him, takes up a blanket and begins filling it with cans of food. Burner grabs him by the shoulders and moans something. Two Crows shakes him off and slings the bundle of food over his shoulder and walks out the door.
He loads the sled and begins tying up the yapping dogs.
Burner wails and draws a knife. He stumbles about, slamming his fist into his own head as if he is wrestling with some great decision. Two Crows looks at him and if he could speak he would say to him: Stay here and cause no violence.
Burner kneels in the snow and sobs.
Two Crows leaves with Burner’s team of dogs.
His dogs erupt in shatteringly loud barking, waking him from darkling dreams. He takes up the knife and throws open the tent flap. A humpbacked crone, wrapped in a hooded cloak, huddles near his campfire. A matted cape of white hair falls from within her hood. The hag warms herself at his fire, ignores the bark and snarl of the dogs.
Two Crows stands, moves toward her, motions with the knife. Get away.
She does not move, does not look at him. Is she dumb? Can she not sense that he is here, about to remove her, if she will not do so herself?
He stabs the knife into the snow and takes her up by her surprisingly meaty shoulders. She stands and he turns her around to face him, but he senses that she is deliberately hiding her face from him. He throws back her hood and her white wig falls away. In a flash of firelight and movement, he sees that the woman is really a young man in disguise. Some roughened bandit—another hood passing through the world—within the witch’s guise. As his mind completes this thought, the young bandit slashes across Two Crows’ face with an unseen knife. Two Crows staggers backward in shock and a little pain. His vision is starry and half gone. He brings his hand to his burst eyeball. Opened like an egg, the slime of his eye runs down the side of his face.
He looks up at the bandit in disbelief. The hood springs at him again, swinging the blade with bestial abandon. Two Crows runs at him but his feet tangle. Red pain floods his skull as he swings down hard, banking his head on a rock.
Two Crows’ dogs, sled, and everything of value are stolen. His little camp is ripped up, tent trampled, and the fire kicked out. And he has lost his right eye to a knife wound. The pain in his face is horrifying.
He packs this new wound with snow. He rips strips of material from the tent and ties it around his head. He wraps himself in the rest of the tent and wanders about the camp, gasping for breath, trying to read the tracks stamped into the snow and grass of the forest floor. The runner lines head north.
Stumbling in pain, he walks on.
It is difficult to walk in a straight line. The crippling pain and the loss of his eye muffle and snarl all his senses. He walks like a drunken man, looping back on his own wheeling line of footprints.
It is as though a bar of steel is being driven through his eye socket and out the back of his head. He can feel phantom metal scraping and chipping the interior of his skull, grinding away at his cheekbones. Waves of sheer pain ripple through the skin and musculature of his face. He falls to his knees and vomits down the front of his cloak. He kneels here for a long time. A splash of red blood steams in the snow before him. A bird calls from somewhere.
Struggling, he walks over the hills of the tundra. He passes a small frozen pond, yellow bones stacked atop its center in a small ugly pyramid. The sky is gauzy, the sun difficult to locate with any accuracy. The world is totally empty. The only sounds he can hear are the powerful absences of life.
In the body of a beached canoe, he finds a single empty bullet shell. He puts it in his pocket and then turns the canoe over upon himself. He sleeps within, shuddering in the cold, sobbing in pain. He wakes to find himself sucking on his raw fingers. He strikes himself in the face three times, spits and gurgles, presses his nose into the hollow of his elbow and screams. He kicks out, rattling the craft.
The wind whips snow over the trail of runner lines.
He follows a series of deep and snowy grooves in the earth to the mouth of a mineshaft. Groaning, he walks a few steps into the darkness but stops at the hazy sight of a clan of upright, hairy creatures stepping toward him. Their blinking eyes glimmer in the darkness, their breathing wet and labored. He walks backward, out of the mine, and leaves the place.
Great circles of dogs wander outside the black city gates. They howl and yip in frustration and confusion. Overturned sleds stand in piles among the dogs. They won’t let the dogs into the city. Two Crows passes among the animals. They ignore him, bark at the sky, roll in piles of one another. He glances at the dogs, wondering once if his are in their number but that is the only thought he spares them. He walks beneath the snapping red banners into the stone aisles of the city of Dusk.
It is noon now and the flat, worn streets are emptied of men and women. Torches are lit on the walls and even though a snarl of footprints has been stamped into the cold dust at his feet, he sees no other sign of activity or commerce in this city. The dull sea tide roars in the distance.
Someone shutters a window overhead. Two Crows walks along the bemired street listening to the babble and moan of the dogs on the other side of the wall. Some Maunder women run along ahead of him. A boy leans out an upper window in a building ahead, points at him, and shouts something Two Crows does not understand. He looks up at the boy and the boy stops calling, withdraws into the window, shuts it.
He staggers into an inn and finds the counterway unmanned. Long iron keys hang from wooden fobs on a series of hooks on the walls. Drunks speak in low voices to one another in the lobby. A little boy wearing a bony headdress watches with little interest as Two Crows draws a key from the wall and walks up the stairs.
In this stolen room, he lies on a dirty bed of straw and paper but does no real sleeping. He waits until night has fully fallen, then quits the inn to wander the streets. Cloaked men and women come out and walk the city. He enters a noisy market where people buy, sell, trade furs, weapons, and food. Two Crows receives quick glances and people step away from him. A man selling sackcloth pouches of tobacco from an unfurled blanket glances up at him and says, “Deersmoke?” Two Crows nods and the man hands him a rolled twist of paper. The man’s hand is gloved. Two Crows takes the smoke and lowers his scarf and the man gasps when he sees his face. Two Crows puts the cigarette between his swollen lips, and lowers his hand again. The man places in his fingertips a burning briquette of charcoal. Two Crows applies the coal to the tip of his cigarette and tries to inhale. The smoke scrapes along the inside of his ruined mouth. He does not taste deersmoke; all he tastes is rust, metal, blood, and anger.
Just before dawn, he returns to his room at the inn. His Obsidian is in the room waiting for him. He squats on the pallet holding his long hands between his knees. In the gray light of the window, his wolfskins glow blue, his eyes glow hot.
“What did you see out there?”
People. They come out at night here.
“It’s the sickness. It has to do with the sickness.”
They think it can’t be caught at night?
“You aren’t becoming distracted, are you?”
“From your goal.”
“You remember your goal?”
I’m looking for Thrall.
“And when you find him?”
I’ll kill him when I find him.
“Don’t lose sight.”
Don’t lose sight. Two Crows points to his lost eye.
Something hard falls against the wall in the room next door. Two Crows looks up at the wall and it trembles again. A man’s head bursts through the wooden slats. His face is bloodied and confused. Someone’s hand is cupped onto the back of his head. The attacker looks at Two Crows and Two Crows looks at the attacker. It is the young bandit that took his eye.
Two Crows leaves his room, walks to his neighbor’s door and boots it open. Two men are wrestling in the room. Each is bloody. The young bandit holds Two Crows’ former knife in his small hand. He plunges the knife into the beaten man’s back and runs toward Two Crows, pushes him out of the way and, holding a bag at his side, escapes from the room. Two Crows was not recognized at all. He looks at the room and the bloodied victim within. A robbery has just occurred.
Two Crows turns, runs after the bandit, reaches him in four long strides and tackles him at the stairwell. As they roll down the stair together, Two Crows sees flashes of the boy’s face passing in the shadows and dim candlelight of the inn. The young bandit is on the verge of tears. He is panicked, confused, and seems only to be a little aware that Two Crows has turned the knife on him and planted it to the hilt in his belly. The young man is dead by the time they crash at the bottom landing. A shocking pain spreads from Two Crows’ kidney to his spine. He has landed on the bag of stolen items. He rolls over and opens the bag. Shards of broken jewelry, black stone. Obsidian.
The drunks playing at tiles in the lobby stare at him.
With much difficulty, he climbs to his feet, walks out the front door, and into the cold street. Dawnlight colors the deep and wounded sky. He walks quickly, as though he has a purpose, but he does not know his destination. A low commotion burbles behind him in the doorway of the inn. Some people shout. Some call out words he does not know.
He runs on, limping from the pain in his side.
Robed and helmeted lawmen overtake him in very little time.