The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

PART FIVE

A HARD WAY HOME

Chapter 41

 

          How they got there ,,, where they came from ,,, I don’t know. There had been no howling, none of that eerie ritual chanting that announced them the last time. They simply appeared, as though they had been there all along, unnoticed in the frazzle, throughout time—a circle of sculpted stones, assembled in perfect symmetry and ancient silence.

          By their presence alone, they brought the battle to an end. Roth stopped at the same time I did, and immediately after, Peter’s head came up. Ah-Teena had ceased her struggles and lay sniffing at the air. Her remaining ear quivered like an exposed muscle. Anna-Bar was the last to release her grip. She continued to burrow into Peter’s gut until Roth clucked to her.

          Roth stepped away, brittle and deliberate, his insanity flowing from him like heat from a blue flame. As he examined each Valk-Hund in turn, he performed every movement, every turn, with glacial care. Anna-Bar rolled away from Peter and joined him, back to back—all of creation their enemy—circling like a rabid devil with two heads and one, black soul. For a moment, before they died, I couldn’t help but respect the dedication they gave to one another, the unity they must have felt as their bloods joined together to melt the same snow.

          Peter and Ah-Teena would likely have died with the D’Buerr-Munns, had they been left with the strength to stand and resist. They were as eager to fight as Roth, but they were capable only of weak threats, dampened by blood that bubbled from their mouths and nostrils. The Wolven ignored them (and me) and directed full attention to Roth and his witch. For just short of an eternity, the twin-headed beast rotated in place, the muscles on their backs and shoulders rippled and bulged in unison.

          The twitch of a nostril, the slight flex of a knee, only these most minute of movements distinguished the Wolves from the mountain. The only sounds came from the ignorant puppers inside the cave, mewling with their endless hunger, and from Peter as he struggled to Ah-Teena’s side. He left a smear of gore in his wake. I envied the babies. Their blind little world consisted of nothing but hot milk and a soft belly, and I longed to join them. I would have traded all of my memories for some hot momma’s milk and a soft belly.

          The tension was more than I could stand. I tried to move and a high squeak came from my mouth, a mix of pain and anxiety. Kruk shifted slightly and clicked, a snap of a warning that sounded like frozen oak cracking. “Stay where you are, Daks. Don’t you move!” Then, with a softer tone, he whispered, “Let us try this on our own, Master Daks. If we need your help, I won’t hesitate to call on you.”

          Roth erupted. He twisted on hind legs and came down straddling me. When he shrieked, his voice was steel, bursting into lacerating shards. “I WILL FINISH THIS, AT LEAST!” His jaws came down over my head. His foul breath clouded my eyes. He would crush my skull as he had crushed my ribs ,,,

          . . . had his throat remained in his neck ,,,

          . . . had his bowels remained in his belly . . .

          . . . had his black heart remained in his black chest.

* * *

          They hit him from both sides with speed beyond understanding, ripping him ,,, no! shearing him ,,, into two pieces connected only by a broken spine. What was left remained standing for a moment, held erect by hate alone. He hissed. His hatred tried to speak, but nothing was left to speak with. His throat was gone. When he tipped and went down, I was left to stare into his maw. His tongue writhed with a reptilian agility, trying to enunciate one last thought, then relaxed onto the snow.

          Anna-Bar went under an avalanche of Kruk’s tribe. In a scramble to escape Roth’s corpse, I flopped into a forest of Wolven ankles. Two of the beasts whirled about, ready to slash, but Kruk dropped from his perch and warned them away. “NO! NOT HIM!” He took me by my loose skin and carried me to where Peter and Ah-Teena lay huddled together. Before the witch disappeared beneath a cloak of silver fur, I saw the flesh being peeled away from her bones like a fillet from a fish. Her good eye turned in its scarred socket and glared directly at me. Whether it was Wolven efficiency or Anna-Bar’s own decision, she didn’t utter a sound as they took her apart. She just stared at me with that terrible, lustful eye, blood pouring over it and veins trailing from it like severed worms.

          Her essence remained until the end, carnal and savage.

          The devils were swept away like insect husks in a high wind. With Peter on one side and Ah-Teena on the other, licking at my destroyed leg because she could find comfort only by giving comfort, my mind ceased to function, ceased to accept anymore of this carnage. Awareness blurred, then faded. But before it went, old Gruewen, with stature and command that would have made her a queen in any tribe, dropped a gory lump before us and said, “He might live. If you want enough for him to live, he just might.” It was a measurement of my confusion that I didn’t realize—and wouldn’t until I awoke late into the next day—that the gory lump was my favorite Rawl’Colmb.

          Gruewen was right. Since we wanted enough for him to live, he lived.

* * *

          We all lived ,,,

          . . . though until a change of season brought thaw and the first blue columbine, it wasn’t much of a life.

          And I miss-speak when I say we all lived, but it’s difficult for me to include those two puppers. They died with nothing memorable to distinguish their passing, as though they simply forgot to awake from their naps. Their eyes hadn’t yet opened. They hadn’t yet even been given names.

          Eventually, when most of the snow had melted down the mountain, they were given names, but only after they’d died and had been put to earth under a monumental shelf of sandstone that was streaked with silver and peppered with gold. “This is a good place,” said Peter. “As good a burial place as can be had without fire.”

          “We may have to leave them without fire, but we won’t leave them without names,” Ah-Teena sobbed. She thought for a bit. “The little fellow will be remembered as Meesh. And my baby girl will be Shah-Kah. That way, their names will never be forgotten.”

* * *

          Yet when their tiny bodies first stiffened and turned cold, not one of us could rise from the nest and carry their remains outside, let alone to a fitting place for burial. I was the only one well enough to get around, but I was far from being able to transport a dead pupper. We were all so horribly wounded, unable to take proper care of ourselves, that it’s a wonder any of the puppers survived to open their eyes.

          They nurtured themselves from Ah-Teena’s swollen teats while she swooned, shivering from fever and loss of blood. Peter was no help, himself so near death that he couldn’t rise even to shit. His belly had been devastated, Anna-Bar’s last accomplishment. As the only one not blessed with merciful unconsciousness, I wondered who would die first, my magnificent Peter, or Bandy.

          And as I was the only one capable of coming awake, it was my duty to feed the others, to nourish them through their healing. That first day after the horrid fight, I awoke to a cave heavy with the smells of blood and sickness. My own leg throbbed with pain so deep it reached into my guts and pulled up geysers of clear fluids. I retched over and over, the contractions so forceful that my broken ribs clawed at my every nerve, and that made me retch even more.

          When there was nothing left to throw up, I melted into my own stomach fluids, unable to lift my head from the smelly slime. My mind was fuzzy, my ears rang with a pitch so high even humming birds wouldn’t have heard it, but my eyes worked. And what a dismal picture I beheld.

          I was lying next to Ah-Teena, at her back, and I could hear the puppers on the other side of her body, slurping milk. She was in no condition to assist them. She was barely in shape to breathe, judging by the hoarse rasping from her lungs. Across her back, neck and shoulders was a patchwork of open wounds, dozens of raw craters where Anna-Bar had tortured her.

          Bandy and Peter were close to one another. In the fading light, they could have been one body, dead and putrefying. I had to squint and concentrate to see them move, their breath came so excruciatingly slow. Some black substance seeped from the wounds in Peter’s ravaged belly and the tear in his neck opened and closed with his breathing like the sucking mouth of a beached catfish.

          If it was possible to be in worse shape than Peter, it seemed Bandy had found the way. There wasn’t a place on his body the size of a beetle that didn’t show signs of Anna-Bar’s carving. There was very little about him that still resembled a Rawl’Colmb. As I watched the tiny life left in him flutter and fight for survival, I realized the full extent of Anna-Bar’s cruelty. She hadn’t meant him to die. She could have taken his throat and dropped his head miles from his neck. Instead, she meant him to live, but to live twisted and disfigured ,,, to be a reflection of her own disfigurement. What an insidious revenge to inflict upon one as proud as Bandy.

* * *

          As the sun disappeared behind an opposite ridge, the last of its light entered the low opening. Dirty, bronze blood glistened on the floor and the ice cave shimmered with a golden luminescence. The shelter seemed all the colder from that black-tinged light, for it brought with it only the memory of warmth.

          Some heat came off the others, but it was a sickly heat, and scarce at that. Steam formed over their wounds. I could have scooted closer to Ah-Teena and gathered in some of her warmth, but I would have felt like the worst sort of thief, stealing heat from her and her babies. Now and then, she moaned softly and gurgled with fluids in her throat. Bandy would shiver uncontrollably for a time. But that was as close to living as either of them came. There was nothing even this encouraging out of Peter.

          Despair is the only thing in the world that could have made me forget my own pains. But I swear, if given the choice ever again between despair and simple pain, I shall choose the pain. These three were all I had left to care about, and they were all dying in one tortured lump, within licking range, and I could do nothing to stop it. Nothing.

          I came to a decision. With no real intent—as though had I washed up on a strange shore after drifting through murky, deep waters—I reached a plan both alien and familiar. As I could do nothing to save my comrades, I resolved not to watch them die. I resolved to not be the last one left.

          I couldn’t rise. It was no longer a simple question of one broken leg. All four of them were next to useless. So with what strength remained, I wriggled myself along, to the entrance, outside into the last light. In this cold, by myself, I wouldn’t last long. A few more hours of pain, then a numbing stupor, then Daks would blink and be gone. Without having to suffer the death throes of his friends. Of all he had left to care about.

          Despair leads to those alien shores. Despair may even create those alien shores. But I wasn’t entirely without hope. I most fervently hoped to die as quickly as the elements would allow.

          Down the slope, towards the creek where my relics would join with the elk’s skull, crossing the stains in the snow that Roth and Anna-Bar had become, I crawled like a worm, only with less grace. My formless leg trailed flaccidly at my side, more like a fish fin than an Ogg’s limb. The ends of my crushed ribs gored my flesh, and I feared my lungs might be punctured—at least, until I realized a punctured lung was of no serious consequence to a frozen corpse. I left a wake in the snow that would melt away with the spring thaw or be buried under the next storm. The last trace of Daks. What an astoundingly feeble legacy.

          Halfway across the snow field, exhaustion took its due and I could go no further. My head couldn’t rise and I closed my eyes—for the last time I assumed—and listened to the wee sound of my chin whiskers freezing to the cold mountain’s icy surface.

* * *

          I didn’t hear Kruk approach. I would have doubted there was enough life left in me to be startled, but when the old king nuzzled me behind the ear, I came up on three legs so rapidly that I lost my balance and went right back down.

          “Easy there, fellow. If you keep flopping around like that, you’re going to do yourself serious harm.”

          “Kuh-kuh-ruk!”

          He smiled broadly, showing more teeth than a dozen jaws should hold. There were four or five Wolves gathered back at the ice cave. “We can’t fight anymore, Kruk,” I said. “The others ,,, they’re almost dead. I ,,, I can’t fight anymore. Eat me, if that’s what you have to do”

          “We didn’t come to fight, Daks. Or eat.” He sniffed at my ruined leg.

          “Just do it quickly. Please ,,, please. Don’t make them suffer anymore than they have already. And the puppers ,,, couldn’t you ,,, don’t you think you might ,,, well, could you let them live? Raise them, maybe. You could tell them they’re Wolven. You can’t kill something so innocent. You just can’t!” I began to sob and cry. It was humiliating, to break apart in front of such a warrior as Kruk. But I couldn’t help myself. The prospect of being eaten is not pleasant even when one feels well-rested and perky.

          “We didn’t come to fight and we didn’t come to eat.” He nodded his massive head to the others and a young male came trotting over. I recognized him as Driglum, the fellow who had led us down from the top of the mountains so long ago. Blood dripped from his jowls and it wasn’t until he was directly over me that I realized it wasn’t his own blood. Whatever he carried was still fresh.

          Kruk said, “We came to help, Daks. Eat as much of this as you can.”

          Without even a nod in recognition, Driglum dropped his load before me. It quivered in place and I backed away. It was so fresh I thought it still alive. “What ,,, eat that? You want me to eat that? What is it?”

          “It’s for strength. And through strength comes healing. There’s more for your friends. Take our help, Daks. It is not often we offer help outside our own, so take it.”

          It had been more than a day and a half since I’d thought about food. But the aroma from this lump of meat stirred my belly and brought water to my mouth. It wasn’t even a particularly pleasant smell—too musky, too ripe—but I wanted a nibble, in spite of my better judgment. I looked up into Kruk’s eyes, bewildered.

          “There’s more. All you need. Your friends won’t live on this remedy alone, but this is the start. Eat, my friend. I need your help as much as you need mine.”

          Could I trust Kruk? Was this a cruel trick he was playing on me? A ploy to put me at ease before the final blow?

          Did it matter? After all, moments earlier, I had been crawling to a self-inflicted oblivion. And besides, this Valk-Hund giant certainly didn’t have to resort to a ruse to fool me into dropping my guard.

          I bit away a small portion, rolled it over my tongue, then bolted down the whole gelid mass.

* * *

          Some sort of gland, I suppose, from some sort of beast I have yet to encounter.

          Over the next several days, the Wolves brought a wide variety of foods—a few of which I identified, most of which I couldn’t. Some came from animal, some were vegetable. Kruk insisted that all of it be taken in a proper sequence, as though to eat a certain white berry out of order—(say, as an example, before a certain fragrant portion of a female deer’s brain)—would kill us. Or give us diarrhea. Or something bad.

          I followed his instructions, ate every meal in the order he told me to, and fed my companions with the same exactitude. If ever I strayed from Kruk’s instructions—(if I put the berry before the brain, as it were)—they would wince and jerk away, or not respond at all. By following the diet myself, I knew what they were experiencing. By itself, the white berry smelled loathsome and possibly even toxic. But once a serving of the mushy brain had been swallowed, the berry smelled desirable. Natural. Even necessary.

          My friends weren’t even aware they were eating, much less what they were eating. But from within their comas, they sniffed at, then licked the exotic morsels with instinctual motions, as though they dreamt of food. Peter was the hardest to make eat. I had to chew small portions into a slushy paste and wipe it under his nose before he would respond and lap it in.

          We didn’t all follow exactly the same regimen. The Wolves came with some foods that were for Peter, alone (“For patching the intestines,” explained Kruk) and other foods were for Ah-Teena (“To give her milk vigor. The whelps will be strong.”)  For Bandy, Kruk supplied crayfish in a constant stream, and the grotesque little creatures were still alive. Bandy gobbled them up with relish. He couldn’t yet open his eyes or his mind, but he could open a crayfish as though his paws had never done anything else.

          Some things, though, we all ate. The quivering black glands from that mythical dream beast, the white berries, the black berries, the red berries (all fresh ,,, mysteriously so, given the time of year) the doe brains, the squirrel livers, the desiccated mushrooms and puff balls, the juniper bark, the willow root. The Wolves brought other remedies besides food: mouthfuls of the same grey mosses and black muds that Ah-Teena and Mish-Shka had used, plus substances that I was unacquainted with at the time, but have since noticed clinging to the underside of particular sorts of rotting deadfalls or smelled as certain slithering vipers passed on moonless nights. Either Kruk or Gruewen, his old mate, blended the ingredients while I watched, and I applied the balm to my friends’ wounds. When pain from my leg or my ribs became too intense, Kruk would daub on a poultice made from willow bark and bird excrement, and the pain would disappear. I asked him from which bird the poop came.

          “A small owl, Daks. But only the one with spots about its wings. It’s difficult dung to find anymore.”

          The Dahm-Ogg didn’t know of most of these healing things. Not then. They know more now only because I remembered as much as I could and took it back. But memories fade and distort. How often I have despaired that we have ,,, had ,,, no way to preserve knowledge and pass it from father to son, mother to daughter.

* * *

          Life returned first to Ah-Teena, five days after the great fight, then Bandy. The scourge Anna-Bar hadn’t ravaged his insides as much as his surface. Had she scarred his gooshy interior as she had scarred his skin, he would have never cracked open another crayfish.

          Pulling Peter away from death took much longer. It was eight days before his eyes so much as blinked. Anna-Bar had scarred his gooshy interior, and the insides are much harder to heal that any number of lacerations to the hide. By the time his mind reopened, two of his puppers were dead in spite of Kruk’s promise that the litter would be strong. Even much later, when we carried tiny Meesh and tinier Shah-Kah to that flat shelf of sandstone and put them into the ground, Peter was so weak and lame that Ah-Teena had to buttress him from one side and Bandy from the other to keep him from toppling over. He was groggy, his thinking confused and bleary. Ah-Teena had to lay her sad burden down a number of times to explain what we were doing. “Our babies died. Two of them, Peter. We can’t let them lie about.”

          As befuddled as he was, Peter still tried to assume a battle stance when he saw the Wolves. There were eight or nine of them standing abreast, silent and respectful, on a small rise bordering the path to the great slab of sandstone. We were within a few paces of Kruk himself when Peter finally spotted them, his vision being as confused as his thinking. He froze and tensed. A low rumble started in his throat and barely made it out of his mouth before he choked on mucous and went into a coughing fit.

          “Wol . . Wolves!”

          “It’s okay, Peter. Calm yourself.” Ah-Teena pushed her nose into his throat and licked. “They helped us. Remember? They killed Roth and Anna-Bar, and they’re helping us now. Helping us live.”

          I couldn’t know if the Wolven were there out of curiosity or if they had come to pay homage to Meesh and Shah-Kah, but I took comfort from their presence, no matter what the motive.

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