The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

PART THREE

KRUK

Chapter 22

 

          Kruk not only spared us from the digestive juices of his tribe, he also saw to it that we survived the terrible cold. He ordered the young wolf, the same fellow who had called me a half-witted mongrel and got his foot crushed for it, to escort us out of the ice fields by the shortest route. Before we left, our pilot—Driglum was his name—was given a stern warning. “Meet us above the high falls by midday tomorrow, Driglum,” Kruk told him. “And if you think your paw hurts now, don’t let me smell either Ogg or Rawl’Colmb on your breath when you return.”

          Driglum took him seriously. He spoke barely a word, and when he did, he was timid and respectful, submitting to Bandy and me with the same sort of deference he showed Mish-Shka. Bandy was not above taking unfair advantage. While we descended into the thick trees, he teased the hobbling wolf unmercifully, confident there was no danger of retaliation. “Daksie, you probably don’t know this, but wolves are basically a cross between badgers and large stones.”

          Driglum bristled, but held his tongue.

    “That’s right, that’s right. Badgers and rocks. They have inherited the badger’s disposition and the rock’s intelligence.”

          “Bandy,” I whispered to him, “leave well enough alone before this Driglum forgets what Kruk told him. He’s mad. I can tell. His tail’s all fluffed up.”

          The wolf’s neck was so stiff there might have been stone blood in him, indeed. Still, he kept silent and dutifully led us off the mountaintop. Mish-Shka didn’t have much to say either. I suspect it was partially because of a continuing distrust that went back to the dawn of his family line. Mish-Shka was a Wolf-Hound, after all.

          But Mish-Shka’s silence went beyond genetics, and beyond exhaustion. Mish-Shka had killed. Not just once, but three times, and I knew enough of his fiber to realize that, as proficient as he was at it, killing was anathema to him. Before we slept, I asked him why he seemed so depressed.

          “Ah, Daks … ,” he answered. “We are so far from Lah-Tsee. So far, and in so many ways.”

* * *

          We slept in a nest under a fallen fir, protected from the wind and warmed by rotting vegetation, and the wolf slept with us, reluctantly adding his heat to ours. I was the last to awaken and when I did, Driglum was gone. Bandy had already gathered a pair of fish and Mish-Shka was stripping the flesh from the spine of a large trout.

          “Where is he? The wolf?” I asked.

          “You just missed him, Daks,” Mish-Shka said. He had a sour expression on his face that I had seen many times before. “Wolves aren’t much for eating fish, to their credit. He said he would rather eat tree bark for breakfast, and I was tempted to join him.”

          I ran after his tracks and caught up with him in a meadow vibrating with sunlight through trees hung heavy with ice. “Mister Driglum. Wait. I just wanted to thank you for bringing us here. And tell Mister Kruk … uh, tell him that I didn’t mean those things I said about him. He’s not a coward. Not really.”

          Driglum eyed me with a mixture of contempt and doubt. He opened his mouth to speak a number of times without actually saying anything. Finally, he spoke. “I’ll tell him. Now, go back to your soft bed and friends, little thing, and don’t think that if we ever meet again, I’ll be as easy on you as Kruk was.”

* * *

          We spent that day and another night under the deadfall. Mish-Shka thought it best that we rest and gather our wits, while Bandy argued that our wits would be best gathered while traveling. I admit I would have felt better on the move, but Mish-Shka insisted. So we stayed. We ate fish, napped, ate more fish, napped some more, and talked about wolves.

          We talked about nothing but wolves …

           … about how they could appear from the night as though they’d been there all along, hiding behind the shadows …

           … about the way they hunted like they were one animal, one mind, that traveled on many legs and enveloped a prey like a blanket of snow …

          … and about why Kruk let us go—a mystery that even his own tribe didn’t understand …

          … and I told of Driglum’s threat.

          “Don’t be hurt, Daks,” said Mish-Shka. “Driglum is young, and youngsters are driven to show the world how ferocious they are. No matter what the clan, the young are all the same.”

          Bandy added, “And the old are all the same, too. Daks my boy, that old brigand Kruk let us go simply to be perverse. The same reason Meesha here led us up that infernal rock to begin with. Just to be perverse.”

          When they were done arguing themselves through that point, I dared a question to Mish-Shka, who had continued to demonstrate a morose streak throughout the day. “Is that why it bothers you so much that you killed those three, Mish-Shka? Because they’re the same as us?”

          He thought for a long time before he answered. “Daks, remember how you felt? How you wanted to join in the mayhem, even if it was for only a brief moment? And even if it meant attacking me? I know that feeling well. Only too well, as much as I regret it. After all my years and all of my words and posturing, I still … I still enjoyed killing those wolves.”

* * *

          As we descended, the snow lost its tone, became slushy and even disappeared in spots, exposing the mud and brown foliage beneath. The land looked like it had a massive dose of mange. Even when the snow fell fresh from the clouds, as it did every other day or so, it was often mixed with simple rainwater. During the nights, everything froze up anew, and for the first few morning hours, I slipped and skidded as much as walked. I went down some particularly steep slopes on my belly, and my tribulations seemed to provide a constant amusement for my companions. “Daks, sometimes I think you would have been better off had you found a human lap on which to spend your days,” said Mish-Shka. “You don’t seem to be constructed for anything outside of life on a manicured lawn. Or a soft rug.”

          That hurt me, even more so that he was giggling like a demented chipmunk when he said it. I had just slipped off a rock and into the tiny creek we had been following downhill. As I stood up, the thin ice beneath me cracked and gave way. The water turned out to be barely deep enough to cover my knees, but I sputtered and flopped and floundered about for some time until I discovered that fact. It was uncomfortable in the extreme, standing there with the frigid water swishing my testicles about, but I was mad enough to ignore it. “Mish-Shka … I think … I think it’s beneath you to make fun of my physical deficiencies.”

          Bandy was perched on a branch over Mish-Shka’s head. “Excellent point, Daksie. As malformed as the geez is, he has no business teasing others about their looks.”

          That stopped Mish-Shka’s giggling. “Thank you, Bandy,” I said.

          “And beyond that, any Ogg who teases any other Ogg about appearances is like one stack of dung accusing another of smelling bad.”

          “Uhhh … thank you, Bandy.”

          “Your very welcome, Daks. Now, come on out of that water. If your legs shrink and get any shorter, someone will mistake you for a snake with floppy ears.”

          They laughed so hard that Mish-Shka tipped over and Bandy fell off of his branch. I left them there, stewing in their own good humor.

* * *

          So went our days—a lot of walking, a lot of harmless bickering, and a lot of fish. Even Mish-Shka stopped complaining about our fishy diet. We were surrounded by other creatures: mink and marten skulking about after white rabbits, eagles and owls diving down on the mink, the marten and the rabbits, and lots of nervous deer and elk. Mish-Shka made a halfhearted attempt at chasing down one of those white hares, but he gave up after the hare darted in and around his legs like a feather in a whirlwind, so rapidly I could barely follow him with my eyes. “It wasn’t so long ago that I could catch those rascals,” Mish-Shka grumbled. “I guess I’ll have to be satisfied with fish.”

          I asked him why he didn’t take down one of the deer if he was so sick of fish. “You did it before, Mish-Shka. The night before Roth attacked us, remember?”

          “Too much food, Daks. With just you and I eating, we would waste half the carcass. There is etiquette to be considered.”

          “Be polite to the forest and the forest will be polite to you,” Bandy said in a high-pitched, singsong manner. “That’s what we Rawl’Colmb youngsters learn. ‘Be polite to the forest and the forest will be polite to you’.”

          I almost believe Mish-Shka was afraid to try for a deer, lest he find that venison, too, was now out of his reach. Of course, it’s also possible that he was beginning to like the fish, but wasn’t about to admit it.

          The deers’ behavior was most perplexing. Deer are always apprehensive and shy. At their most relaxed, they act as though they expect something horrid. But these deer—and we encountered many—went beyond any normal quickness. These deer seemed afraid even of each other. They stayed hidden in the thickest brush and jumped out only when we came near to tripping over them. The most astounding thing was that they showed more fear of something unseen and unsensed than they did for Mish-Shka. The elk were the same. We came upon one magnificent stag who, if he noticed us at all, treated us with almost complete indifference. He stood with his nose high in the air, his eyes glassy, and we passed by him close enough that Mish-Shka might have taken his throat with hardly a step out of our way. It was as though he saw some terrible apparition before him that was beyond our vision.

          It was starting to rub off on me, this edginess. “It’s more wolves. isn’t it, Mish-Shka? He smells wolves?”

          “If he smelled wolves, Daks, then we’d smell wolves. No, this isn’t wolves. I’ve seen this before.”

          “Every autumn, right, Meesh?” said Bandy. “A couple of years ago, there was a bunch of them in my neighborhood, drinking all day out of shiny cans and shitting behind every bush and rock in my kingdom. They got so mad there were no deer around, they shot up all of their shiny cans, a hornet’s nest and three of my cousins.”

          Mish-Shka nodded. “I know what you’re talking about, Fawrlingswad. Why, I’ve even seen them shoot each other in a drunken stupor.”

          “Who are you talking about, you guys? There are men around, aren’t there?”

          “Hunters, Daks. A subspecies, and probably the most vicious of the lot. Especially when they drink their beer from shiny cans.”

          Hunters … hunters.

          Somehow, the word didn’t stir one’s blood like wolves.

* * *

          Had I been choosing, I would never have chosen a man-made path on which to travel, but Mish-Shka had his own reasons for doing things.

          We came upon this road the day after I learned about hunters. It was rough, covered with mounds of blown snow standing side by side with pits of mud. It was better walking than the slopes and gullies that had served us for days, but being so close to even the traces of men made my heart hiccup. I thought it stupid. To put ourselves in the proximity of men seemed very foolish and I told him so. “Any second, one of them could come down this road in a grunting machine, and here we are, as exposed as three warts on one nose. Honestly, Mish-Shka, I think we’d be a lot safer down there, in that brush.”

          “Daks, you haven’t fallen off anything, or slipped or stumbled since we got onto this road. Doesn’t that mean anything to you? That you can keep up without having to use your belly quite so much?”

          Bandy snickered but I ignored him. “Every time I get around men, they shoot at me. I’m sick of it. I don’t want to be around men any more. Ever.”

          “We’ll hear if they come. There will be time to hide. Don’t worry so much, Daks.”

* * *

          But when they did come, neither Mish-Shka nor Bandy heard them. And if I hadn’t been worrying so much, I wouldn’t have heard them either.

          It was near the end of a day. The road was already in shadows and the mud was icing over. Mish-Shka and Bandy were engaged in conversation and for the first time since they’d met, it wasn’t an argument.

          “What? You’ve never eaten crayfish? Oh, foolish fellow. Meesh old chum, once you’ve tried crayfish, you’ll never leave them. They’re an aphrodisiac, you know. They work, believe me. They’ve helped me through many a strenuous interlude, if you follow my meaning.”

          Mish-Shka perked up and showed an inordinate degree of interest in what Bandy had to say. “Aphrodisiac? Really? Not that it matters much anymore. I’m afraid my days for strenuous interludes are past.”

          “It’s been a long while, has it? You can tell me. Just a little secret between gracious fellows.”

          Mish-Shka rolled his eyes and whistled. “Oh dear. It’s has truly been a long while … and I miss it. There’s this little mix-breed. Ah-Teena by name. Aaaahhhh-Teena. And what a prize she would make. I would give up meat permanently for just one strenuous interlude … just once …”

          Bandy laughed in a knowing way. “You don’t have to tell me, Meesh. I’ve had my eye on a delicious belle … a third cousin of mine, actually … who can swell my head and drive me dizzy just passing by. Every time I see her, I would swear I was mistakenly given the foreskin of a much smaller fellow, if you know what I mean.”

          They both snorted and giggled and guffawed. I thought it all disgusting and unseemly. And to hear Mish-Shka talk about Ah-Teena in that way made my stomach churn. I didn’t want to hear anymore, so as licentiousness slowed their pace, anger speeded mine. I went ahead, far ahead. I could still hear them snickering like randy swine, their words blended into a gentle mumble. They didn’t even know I had left their company, and that made me even more mad, realizing they either didn’t know or didn’t care.

          The road curved sharply around the hillside. Had they been watching (which I’m certain they weren’t, but I have no way of knowing because I wasn’t about to look back to see) they would have lost sight of me. The solitude was calming, to be away from them, even their eyes. Away and on my own with only a righteous rage to accompany me. It was comforting, relaxing, and I freely let my anger control my thoughts. The few birds who still stayed in these woods had settled in for the coming night and the only sound was the low drone of my companions’ nasty conversation … somewhere behind me …

          … somewhere back there, where (when I was ready, when my words were well picked for a more coherent onslaught) I would spin on my heels and tell Mish-Shka what I thought of the disrespectful tone with which he spoke of Ah-Teena. How she didn’t deserve to be thought of in that manner. How it was demeaning to both of them for him to think of her like that. A powerful case, with powerful words, and Mish-Shka would blush and thank me for setting him straight. The prediction was very near complete. Even Bandy would shuffle his feet and apologize (“Daks, with your powerful, sweeping wisdom, you have helped me realize our behavior was morally shameful, and I bless you for pointing it out to me.”) and if my vision hadn’t been so dominated, so caught up in how powerful and wise I could be when my ruff was up, I wouldn’t have bonked my head on that elk’s shins.

* * *

          It didn’t hurt.

          It was a shock and rather embarrassing, to be troddling along with my nose buried in the ground and not even see an elk in my path—which is a lot of creature to miss. But it didn’t hurt. She looked down at me in a lazy and lethargic way, like a milk cow would. Only instead of banal density in her eyes, there was an ironic sadness.

          “Ma’am, I’m very sorry. I … I didn’t see …”

          “There is no escape, I’m afraid,” she said, and offered a tragic smile.

          “What?” I backed away a step or two.

          “If you aren’t careful all of the time, they’ve got you. I didn’t think. Just for a moment, I didn’t think. Now there’s no hope.”

          Her sadness overwhelmed me. I couldn’t move. My mind was so clogged with questions I couldn’t speak. I wanted so much to say something that would inject even the smallest trace of joy into her life, but my jaw flopped like a withered sparrow on a wire fence. Her eyes teared. From someplace not too distant, from some cluster of bushes or from behind some tree, a tiny ping—metallic and cold—broke the silence like a steel tooth snapping shut. She leaned over until her broad nose touched my ear, and said very softly, “I don’t want anyone to see. Close your eyes.”

          I meant to do that, to honor her wish, but they didn’t give me enough time.

          Just behind her head, at the peak of the graceful arc her neck defined, a bouquet of blood, bone and hair blossomed from one side and spewed onto a drift of wet snow. A nerve-crushing explosion followed and continued to echo from slope to slope even after she dropped heavily to the roadbed. It was then clear why she wanted this particular spectacle to pass unseen. All poise gave way to clumsy gravity. There was no grace, no symmetry, no warmth in her falling. The message was slow in reaching some of her parts. Legs flopped spastically and her body struggled to rise again. Muscles twitched as though her life had been fragmented into small pieces and the pieces were trying to escape through her hide by different routes. Spittle ran from her mouth and her eyes turned upward, so that for a moment she was looking directly into me. They continued to turn until they disappeared inside of her.

          I waited for one more word, something to tell me she had discovered an early and violent death had certain benefits I couldn’t possibly know about. But whatever final illumination she might have had went straight to her secret soul, and there will stay forever.

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