Chapter 9 (stranger)

The house is hidden, sort of, at least from where the trail through the frost orchards ends. I lead the way through half-melted snow, off the muddy road, across the tundra. Shrubs grow in patches, yellow blossoms peep from snow drifts, rocks form edges for dripping streams. From the corner of my eye I watch Rattle-bones look backward at the shimmering trees of red and green. He harrumphs, loudly. The sound is absorbed by the rolling hills and lazy fog.

Skeleton Cook passes me, holding the sack filled by food, a bone, brushes and ribbons. I still hold the egg, even though my arms are sore from the past two days. I don’t complain though. Plenty of things are worse than sore arms.

Rattle-bones uses his walking stick to push aside green leaves and moss-covered rocks, and gratefully he has stopped inspecting the ground for “discoveries.” I wonder if he is sore too, and if soreness after two hundred thirty years becomes worse.

The way to the house is between two hills always painted white, and left before the riverbed–trickling with melted snow–and either way around the cracked boulder. The house sits down a shallow slope, hardly visible until then. Whoever was rich enough to build it was also wise enough to know how to hide it.

Rattle-bones hobbles beside me. He is studying the house, I can tell, because his walking stick has stopped moving obstacles from his path. He harrumphs again when we get close enough that he can see it is made of plastered wood. But he doesn’t ask.

I have Skeleton Cook go inside first, leaving the sack outside in the snow. Skeleton Cook walks through the house, checks upstairs, opens the fridge that has always been fake. I only enter when Skeleton Cook returns to the open door.

“There’s a chair by the table,” I say, slither out of muddy boots to walk to the sitting room and nestle the mud-stained, magenta speckled egg in the pile of blankets still there. The chair grinds faintly on the floor behind me.

Skeleton Cook gives me the sack when I leave the sitting room and I take it upstairs. Leave it next to my bed, opposite the window. Whoever was rich enough to build this wasn’t wise enough to know windows are a nuisance in a land where the sun only sets and rises half the year.

I return to the main floor and discover Rattle-bones sitting in the chair, coat on his lap, walking stick leaning against his shoulder. He still has mottled black boots on, crusted with dirt, but there isn’t even a boot print between him and the door. I pretend to study Skeleton Cook, padding into the kitchen, but am really wondering how Rattle-bones learned to take up so little space.

“I think we need to talk,” Rattle-bones says, taking off his jacket. I realize he probably thinks it is warm in here.

I lean against the wall, staring into the kitchen. “About what in particular?” my stomach growls. I still need to unpack. Or re-pack, actually.

“Well.” He says nothing more, simply staring pointedly at the table. And then at the front door.

So this is how he asks about the house. “I have no idea,” I say.

He turns to me, eyebrows raised. “You have no idea about…”

“The house. The owner died on me.”

His eyes momentarily return to hooded reptiles. “You killed the owner.”

I don’t move from the wall. Feel the distance between us stretch taut. “Technically, yes. Intentionally, no.”

His eyes don’t know if they should still be reptiles or if they should be confused.

***

Dear stranger to my brain: “It was like this. I was so close to dead myself all the blood screamed at me. It wasn’t hard to pick the closest human, follow it, hope he could give me some sort of help from the poison. We were…down here. To study frozen remains. We were going to go further, but…

“Well, I ran to the house and he was already outside and started packing snow against the blood coming out of…well, everywhere. I passed out before I could say anything about the poison being on my skin.”

Rattle-bones’s first question is, “who is we? You said we were down here.”

My knees are shaking, again, so I sit on the floor. Cross-legged. “The other b…death mages.”

His eyes widen in surprise, his cheeks somehow become slightly less wrinkled. His next words are, “you sure left out a lot between coming down here and ending up on this doorstep.”

“Yeah,” I study the warped wall plaster. “Those deaths were intentional.”

Rattle-bones creaks as he adjusts the chair. The walking stick clatters to the floor. His second actual question is, “What do you mean, those deaths? You mean all this time the vanished death mages were vanished because they got killed? By another death mage? Wait,” his voice gets suspicious, “If you were an apprentice, how did you best a master? And every single other apprentice?”

My eyes shoot up to meet his. They look vaguely like a drowning fish. “I told you. Poison.”

He manages to chuckle. “Poison? Poison did away with the death mages?” But he sobers quickly, suspicious again. “I tried to poison Kolariq once. In his drink. He knew it was there. Told me so quite frankly. How–”

“It’s called widow’s thrill,” I cut him off. Neither of us blink. I am waiting for the master identifier to know what I am talking about.

He shakes his head, neck popping. “I…can’t say I’ve ever heard of it.”

“It’s got magical properties. It’s called widow’s thrill for a reason.”

Understanding dawns on his face. He grins. He frowns. He rubs both eyes. “Is that why you did it?”

I stand up, even though my knees are quivering like bobbing ice caps. “I’m going to unpack.”

I stalk up the stairs.

***

I return to the main floor, later, with only food left inside the sack. Rattle-bones is still sitting at the table, like he has turned into a carved rock. I stroll past him into the kitchen where Skeleton Cook is dancing on the counter. I peer behind me to see if Rattle-bones can see, but his back is turned.

My breath clouds in my face as I open the fake fridge and Skeleton Cook stops dancing. Rattle-bones chooses this moment to speak behind me. “You have a refrigerator?”

I step to the side so he can peer at the mouth of the cave carved in ice. “It’s fake,” I say, unnecessarily. “Also, you can’t go in. It’ll kill you.”

He stops in the kitchen doorway, between the wooden posts. “How do you keep this place warm?” he brushes a hand through the invisible barrier of the doorway. “And keep the cold in this room?”

I stare at him. “Magic,” I say. Have Skeleton Cook go inside the mouth of the cave in front, and I yank the fake fridge door shut behind me.

The cave is dark–naturally–and quiet. Skeleton Cook’s bones clap and echo down the throat and into the chest. I follow, to the belly of the cave, where the ice has frozen the mushrooms and the rocks and the mint with tiny crystals. I dig through the sack of food, uncertain. I don’t know how long traveling will take. Which means I don’t know how much food I need. I pull out the sacks of flour and beans, put them on the shelf above the food from the garden. I don’t know if any of this food is good to carry in a backpack. Travel rations. That’s what I mean. I didn’t buy travel rations.

I unpack all the vegetables, herbs, flour, and put them on the shelves. I pick up a fungus rock and carry it to Skeleton Cook, who is holding the backpack. He lifts the diamond knife out and gently pierces the rock’s surface.

***

I push the door of the fake fridge open, Skeleton Cook, hands empty, at my heels. Rattle-bones is again sitting at the table as we breeze out of the kitchen.

“You should probably go in there,” I tell him, pointing to the cold room. He rises, trods to the doorway. He puts one of the coats back on.

I try to pretend he is not there. I dig a hand into the knife-width gap in the rock’s brown skin. I pry the opening wider, stick my other hand inside as I bend over to place it on the ground. The brown blood comes spilling out and I inhale sharply. Rise. The fungus blood floats in a circle with my outstretched arms, rippling.

The house’s wooden posts awaken at the scent. Yearn for more. I refuse them. I shut my eyes and push this blood to the wooden corners, let the words etched there absorb it, syphon it, bleed the blood out in their own way, radiating heat.

I pick up the husk of the rock and carry it past Rattle-bones, whose eyes are like a terrified child’s at the dark. It reminds me I am good at dead things, poisonous things, killing things.

“So that’s how you keep this place warm,” he says, waving a hand through the invisible barrier. I break up the rock’s husk and toss it to the generous rock under the stove. It tumbles down the faint depression in the floor, resting in cracked shells beside the rock’s surface. “Anything else I should know before you suddenly move dead guts around with your eyes closed?”

I glance at him. I think he is joking because the whole thing scared him. “I think it’s your turn to tell me about you,” I say, heart leaping in my throat. I push it down; this is my home, this is my magic, I am allowed to be bold.

His hands are shaking. He’s not the only one. “Do you have a second chair?”

“No.”

He retreats to the table, and I follow, deciding to sit on the floor instead of on the table.

“You can be intimidating,” he says, holding his walking staff across his lap.

“I’m a death mage,” I respond.

“You reminded me,” he says.

I try to get my hands, my knees, to stop quivering, my heart to stop pounding as loud as Skeleton Cook’s bones on the tile. “So why did you come with me? You’ve got no stakes in this.”

He runs a hand through his cold-swept lengths of wild hair. “You cried. I knew there had to be some good in you.”

I wait. “Is that it?”

“Kolariq wasn’t good. Threatened me twice with ‘blood torture.’ Several other times with burning my house to the ground. That’s why I tried to poison him. After that I discovered what blood torture meant.” he shifts in the chair, shrinking in his coat and boots and long hair until he reminds me of a thin skeleton with skin. “Some things aren’t easy to talk about,” he says after a pause.

“But you stayed there,” I say. Think of the terrified look in his gaze when I ripped the rock apart barely an arm span from the table.

“He said he could hunt me down.”

I think of blood, calling. “But you left with me.”

“When you showed up, it’d been four years since another death mage stood on my front porch. That was not a mystery I wanted to pass by.”

“Yet you were going to, if you thought I was like Kolariq.” I think my knees have stopped shaking.

“Well…I don’t know.”

I eye him dubiously.

“Some things are worth the answers of finding out.”

I eye him dubiously. “How far does that go?”

He shrugs. “Do you…I’m assuming since there is only one chair, there aren’t any spare beds?”

I stand up. “There’s a couch.” I walk into the kitchen, where Skeleton Cook is huddled on the floor between the stove and the counter. I think he was eavesdropping. He’s got sharp ears. I open the fake fridge. “Do you want mushrooms, or beans to eat?”

He shrugs. Mushrooms it is then. And beans later, after they’ve soaked. Skeleton Cook stands up, reaches for the cupboard where the pots are, and I duck into the mouth of the cave.

***

My throat hurts. Sort of scratchy, sort of like a sore muscle. It does that, when I talk too much. It does that, because I try not to talk like my body.

I exit the mouth of the cave with an armload of frozen mushrooms. Skeleton Cook is at the sink filling a pot with water. I wait until he is finished so he can take the mushrooms from my arms and plop them in the water.

Rattle-bones is in the sitting room, boots banging on the floor, and I think he is turning the couch into a suitable bed. I doubt he knows the sea-cat is in there.

I go out to the garden in muddy boots. Ninety eight steps. I pluck two leaves of seal’s-fur, examine the rows of mushrooms and rocks and mint, decide I will have to come back later and straighten some of them back into rows. I look around briefly for snow witches, but decide I should do that later too. It’s not like the snow witches can run away with all the snow melting.

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