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North Dark | Chapter 3 of 21
His father’s obsidian necklace, reflecting the low light of the fire in the hearth, rests in the cup of his throat above his breastbone.
Two Crows’ face has gone a bright ugly blue with the mutational swelling of his jaw. His eyes are as large as chicken eggs, moonbright, pained and humiliated. He cannot speak but for panicked blasts of hot, phlegmy breath.
Treesplitter drops the key ring in his hand and it lands with a metallic splash on the wooden floor. He sweeps down to his youngest son and unties the belt noosed around his throat and arms. Two Crows tumbles forward to his knees, gluey blood drools from his crumpled mouth to the floorboards. Treesplitter crouches at his son and speaks lowly, “Can you talk? What are your injuries?”
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Two Crows lies down on his side and points to his destroyed mouth. Treesplitter examines it without touching anything about his son’s head. The jawbone is clearly broken and maybe in more than one place. The shafts of bone are misaligned and loose beneath the skin of his jaw. “Stay put,” Treesplitter says, his voice quavering. “I’ll be back with the doctor.” Stumbling, he runs out the door.
Two Crows’ next hours are agonizing. The doctor—a local woman with flyaway gray hair and a crooked, running nose—lays him out on blankets on the squalid floor of her home and examines his injury. She binds his jaw shut with strips of whang that seem impossibly tight. She gives him a towel and a bucket of icy water. “Keep the injury very, very cold,” she says.
Two Crows tries to ask questions but he cannot speak at all. He wants to know when he will be able to speak or eat. He is very hungry and very thirsty.
“What now?” Treesplitter asks her.
“What do you mean ‘what now?’”
“What will you do for him?”
“His jaw is shattered. There is nothing to do for him.”
Two Crows falls into a painful sleep. He groans through his sealed mouth. His brain feels as though it is roasting within his skull. He is not sure he is going to survive the night. He cannot believe that two strikes from the hood have injured him so spectacularly.
The next afternoon, as he sits upright in his own bed in blind pain, Treesplitter hands him an old, moldering book and an inkpen. He taps the blank inside cover of the book and says, “Please write down what happened. Exactly.”
Two Crows looks at the book. It is a copy of something printed in some language he cannot read.
He writes very quickly:
after you left i fell asleep in your chair i woke up when i heard ropes breaking the prisoner had ripped out of his ropes and was walking toward me i stood up and reached for my knife but he elbowed me once in the jaw and punched me i blacked out and when i woke up i was tied up he left out the door and i blacked out again lets go get him RITE NOW
Treesplitter reads the note and shows a sour smile. “You just rest and heal.”
Two Crows taps the final word he has written and tries to express with his furious eyes how serious he is about this burning idea.
That night, while Treesplitter rests with his feet up on a chair beside him, Two Crows falls into another troubled sleep. He has hot, swollen dreams driven by the industrially fierce pain in his head. Cloaked in hair, the old woman doctor arrives in his hallucinations, telling him: You will not speak again. You will not ever heal. The hood, a man too strong for his thin frame, walks to him in long, quick steps and strikes him with his elbow and fist over and over again. Two Crows howls in pain and wakes to find himself on the floor, strangling Treesplitter with all of the strength in his body. Treesplitter, redfaced, fights back and pushes Two Crows off of him. Two Crows believes that he is still dreaming. He cries in pain, reaches into the burning hearth, seizes the fire iron and, kneeling, swings it across Treesplitter’s face. The barb slashes deeply into his temple, opening his skull. A volcanic fan of sparks sprays sideways across the room. Treesplitter drops heavily to the floor and never moves again.
Two Crows kneels there.
Wake from this dream right now.
He tries to rouse Treesplitter. He shakes his body and presses his forehead against his father’s bloodied face. He wants to say, “Dad, wake up.” He wants to say, “Dad, I’m sorry.” But no human sound comes from him at all.
Two Crows rewraps his injured jaw with an unwashed and soured bandana, wraps himself in a dirty snowbear cloak, black snow pants and leather boots and staggers out into the screaming night. He walks the half mile through the darkened village of snowcovered cabins to the chieftain’s office and opens the door with his own key. He takes a crossbow and a bandolier of bolts from the wall and slings it over his back. Another crossbow is missing from the wall. The hood. He thinks for a minute, walks back to his cabin, and finds his father’s body on the floor. He examines the wound in the side of his head and, sobbing quietly, checks again for any signs of life. None. His father’s obsidian necklace, reflecting the low light of the fire in the hearth, rests in the cup of his throat above his breastbone. Someone, Ramscoat or their mother, must have repaired the severed chain. He covers the body with a blanket and takes up the fire iron that killed his father. He holds the length of metal in his hand and looks at it. This is the weapon he will use to kill the hood that set these black events into motion.
He walks to the kennel, packs frozen salmon and camping equipment, and strings up a dog team. It occurs to him that he will not be able to call out commands to his dogs. He thinks on this for a short while, and then takes more rigging from the wall and separates out two long lines. He ties an additional line to each lead dog. Reins. He has no idea if this will work or not. A candlelight blooms in a window of his mother and father’s cabin. Her door opens. She calls a word out into the darkness but Two Crows turns his head away and the wind drives the word away regardless. He whips the air beside the dogs and they carry him out into the tundra.
Conning the dogsled has never been this difficult. Nearly unable to voice clear commands at all, he relies on whip and his improvised rigging to steer. After hours of confusion and frustration, the dogs settle into a cautious contract with their driver. Still, Two Crows tries to moan and howl clear command terms for his dogs, but the hood has nearly stolen his speech entirely. That is just one of the crimes for which he will make the man answer when he finds him.
The hood would not risk traveling through Paintwater again. Even though too much time has passed and the wind has blown, there are small indications that he has gone north. The faintest runnerlines sweep upward from Standing before they vanish entirely in the shifting, dirty canvas of the wilderness floor. Two Crows, head swimming in hallucinatory pain, is not discouraged. Men with tracking skills have a heroic sense of place and intuition. Two Crows has these abilities and they have been in deep and regular practice since he was a boy. North. The hood has gone north to dodge Paintwater where he is a wanted man and to avoid the steel mountain ridges where his stolen dogs would be so useless.
Two Crows rides off in pursuit. The pain in his jaw has spread into his skull and driven him delirious. He sees the world through a strange, swirling fog. When the sun rises over the tundra it flashes a brilliant red and it is all he can see for long minutes. He imagines red men crawling out of the earth, their fingers wriggling in the red dirt and snow and daylight. His pulse slams in his brain. The pain in his jaw is so severe it sometimes takes his vision. The dogs speed on, happy to run, unsure where they are going. It is rare that they venture into the northern wilds. At least two of the dogs on this team have never been in this land at all. He rides well into the night and when his body locks with exhaustion and his dogs grow too tired even to yap, he slows, stops and releases them from the rigging. He builds a small fire and feeds the dogs strips of salmon. He himself is starving. He does not know when it was that he last ate. He delicately unties the knot of cloth holding his broken jaw in place and tries to push fishmatter into his mouth with his fingers. There is no chewing and the pain is like an axeblow to both corners of his jaw. All of the nerves in his head explode in a white hot starburst. He screams and the dogs stare at him. He blacks out in the snow. The dogs do not know what to do.
He wakes to an animal licking his face. He pushes the dog away and sits up. The green and barnacled moon sags lower in the sky and his body shakes beyond all control. He has slept too long and left himself too exposed. Tears like small stones are frozen in his eyes. Wincing in pain, he reties the bloody kerchief around his head, stands and harnesses the dogs back into their traces, tightens their breastbands, steps onto the runners, throws out the whip. Mush on.
The sun seems never to rise. A fog gathers and cuts down the visibility to almost nothing. It matters to him but not to the dogs. They run with speed and confidence. Sight is not their primary sense. By midday they reach a frosty, wooden ruin of one of the old wilderness cults: the Arker. Two Crows recognizes it from his father’s stories. At one time, decades before he was born, the Arker was a tall and angular stronghold of timber built on the edge of a swollen, spumy river. Now it is a splintery shambles, half of it collapsed, smashed and warped by water and age. It is a home to scavenging animals and a shelter for passing nomads or fugitives. At the windy sound of the river, he kicks the drag, stops the sled, steps from the runners and draws his crossbow. He sets the bow on the ground, steps into the foot stirrup and cocks the weapon. He fits a bolt into the flight groove and skulks toward the broken house of wood and snow.
If the hood came this way, he would have stopped here.
He loops wide around the structure and skitters on a talus of rocks near the river. The water’s cold electric spray burns on his injured face. He raises the crossbow to his shoulder and steps in through an open, shattered doorway.
No smell of fire within. Perhaps the place really is empty. The air hangs frigid and musty. Great tiers of wood lay splintered and bashed about the chamber. Ribbons of wet fog quest into the Arker through gashes in the ceiling. Trickling water wends in from the riverbank. A wolf raises its ruffled head from an ashy pile of snow. It stares at Two Crows with gleaming yellow eyes—not angry, not hungry, just curious. Who are you?
Two Crow sights the wolf’s breast and pulls the trigger and the bolt flies, passes into the animal at the ribs. The wolf shudders once as though it has just absorbed a boot to the chest, then springs at Two Crows. He drops the bow and draws his knife in his left hand and the fire iron in his right. The soaring wolf drives him backward. The loose bones in his jaw knock in their sleeve of swollen muscle and fluid as he crashes to the ground. He raps himself in the nose with the butt of his knife and then plows the knifeblade upward into the creature’s ribcage. The animal chews on Two Crows’ forearm. Two Crows flings the wolf away, rises to his feet and squares his stance. The wolf, arrow standing in its bloodied chest, circles, sneers and growls. Two Crows feints, backs away, then steps forward and strikes it on the crown of the head with the barb of the fire iron. The barb sinks, sticks. The creature drops dead under the blow. Two Crows steps onto the wolf’s spine and wrenches out the rod. Outside, the dogs take to barking. He drops to the body and begins to field dress it. He groans as he works it. He jams his bloody fingers between his own stony lips and tries to suck them clean. He forces shreds of pink wolfmeat into his mouth but can eat none of it. He tilts his head backward, lifts the light carcass into the air and pours columns of hot blood into his crushed mouth.
Soon, he walks back through the snow to his dogs. They watch him. He carries the wolf corpse across his shoulders. Two Crows’ jaw is tied shut with strips of wolf fur and muscle. His face is entirely red with blood. The dogs step back cautiously. They do not know who he is.
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