Welcome to the final post for this story! (another plug for beta readers, if you want to read the rest of the story you can be a beta reader:)
I leave Skeleton Cook in the building I slept in. The bird I trapped in the corner, propping a table diagonally against the wall and covering that with a chair. I pretend like I don’t know she can escape. I walk into the street, breath foggy, wrapped in the cloak, shivering as the sun rises. My shadow slowly shrinks.
Dear brain: Kolariq called it the greatest field trip he’d ever undertaken. Dear brain: the boys were actually excited about it; a trip to the southernmost reaches of the continent. It took a week to pack everything; eight days of collecting food, washing clothes, bundling tents, taking everything from the sitting room to lock it behind doors so all the caves were was a cave with a solid, wood door at the end.
Four days before. At night, you snuck Aukai’s bones out of the skeleton room. The room where you ate everyday. The room where you stood with Tulimaq putting taffy to yellowed bones. His bones were in a cupboard in the corner, jumbled together in a heap. Kolariq and some of the boys had washed them, making them shimmery white. You blocked out the part where they ripped Aukai’s body apart.
Three days before. On top of the bones in your backpack you put all the bone knives, so nobody would be suspicious of sensing bones in your backpack. Then you put in your sleeping bag, a change of clothes, soap, boots. You were grateful you were one of the smallest, because that meant Kolariq expected you to carry less.
Two days before. What got you out of bed was the thought that Aukai deserved better. He deserved better than his blood in a jar, to be studied, his skin and organs burned in the kitchen stove, his bones jumbled in a heap in the cupboard below the drawer full of kitchen knives. You helped roll the giant rug from the sitting room, carried it through the kitchen, down the hall, to the empty bedroom. Nobody had removed Aukai’s sheets from the bed. His boots were still by the door, dirt crusting the soles. Black ribbons were still in the drawer in the table, skewed from the wall. As everyone else left, you yanked the drawer open and took them, caressing the silk with your fingers. Plucked up the face paint, half-empty jars of cream in brown and black. But, you hesitated. Put them back. Quietly slid the drawer shut. You promised you would never come here again. And your backpack was nearly full.
The night before. You ran to the widow’s thrill, with a bone knife. You dug for the roots, because those senses were alight with poison and the deadliest toxin was under the soil. Coiled in the soil, waiting. Take me, girl who has witnessed desecration.
The night before. You tested it on your skin, sitting in the patch of dying blue flowers. You squashed a cut-up root as long as your fingernail between the side of the knife and the dirt, squeezed the dribbling liquid onto your palm. You winced, because all it did was faintly tickle, and no poison had ever faintly tickled before.
The night before. You gathered more roots, hoping you weren’t damaging the plant, but also not really caring because you weren’t coming back. And it was a deadly plant anyway. You clutched the bundle of white roots to your chest like they were ribbons, running down the hill, walking across bare stone silently, pulling open a thick wooden door, fearing somebody would see you. You tiptoed to your bedroom, the nearly full backpack leaning on your bed, and you stuffed the roots in the side pocket. Shoved the bone knife between your cloak and a pair of thick socks. Slid quietly into bed and tried to fall asleep with your eyes wide open.
The palace grinds open, jolting me back to the present, and I pull my cloak tightly against the morning chill as the queen approaches. She has a different parka, cleaner, and carries several burlap sacks over her shoulder. One is obviously larger than the others. It is also empty.
“Aqtilik and I have to switch later today,” she says, lowering the sacks to the ground. “There’s an official dinner with the king, and she’s better at getting other servants to talk.” She sighs. “And I’m not better at getting the king to talk.”
“Is leaving really the best thing to do?” I ask. “Seems like you need help.”
She glares at me, but distantly, like the mountains are meant for someone else, it’s just that I’m the only one here. “The palace guards saw you, and saw the bird, and saw him,” she points at Rattle-bones’s body, still where it fell from the building. The building now stained with streaks of rust-red blood. “We already told them it was a dispute between the two of you over a hunting bird.”
I turn to stare at the collapsed building front. “Did they notice that?” I ask.
She waves a hand. “Crazy things can happen in disputes.”
I’m not sure I believe her. I poke one of the filled sacks with my boot. “Are these all for me?”
“Yep,” she says. “Three days of food and water for you and the bird,” she gazes straight into my eyes. “Good luck with that.”
“I’ll help you with him before I leave,” I say. I hope that is enough of a thank you.
She waves a hand. “He’s not the only dead body I’ve seen.”
I pick up the sack anyway. “I can hold this while you push him in.”
“Okay,” she smiles, quickly, pulls a pair of black mittens from her parka and walks to Rattle-bones.
I try to remember if I felt his heart still beating when I saw the bird on the roof. I don’t think I did. Which I suppose might be a good thing, so I don’t blame myself for him falling off the building.
The queen grunts as she lifts his body. He is indeed completely frozen. Frozen as stiff as a rock. One arm is wrenched behind his back. I look away before seeing anything else. But I still help the queen get his boots inside the burlap sack and hold it in place as she pushes the rest of him in.
“So this is it?” I ask as she ties it shut.
She slowly rises. “I guess.”
I lift the three sacks of food in my two hands. One for each day, so that’s easy enough. “I guess I better go then,” I whisper. I trod back to the building, for the bird and Skeleton Cook.
“I will still be here when you return,” she calls. It feels like a promise, but I can’t say for sure.
We walk. You, me, moments blur together in this permafrost tundra-scape. I hold the three sacks of food, one in my right hand, two in my left. Skeleton Cook holds the bird as a small lump under his cloak, and she is unmoving in his arms. Her blood is like a calm day, snowflakes melting in the sun. I try not to think about what Rattle-bones did to turn her pale sky into dark thunderclouds.
You knew exactly what turned your blood to dark thunderclouds. You carried the evidence at the bottom of your large backpack. You tried to walk at the end of the line, staring at the bundled tent bouncing on Night-sky’s back. At night you slept in that tent, squished between two bodies, seven of you breathing, hearts beating, alive.
I look back, often, watch the city on the flattened hilltop steadily shrink. The trail I follow shoots straight across the tundra, trending up and down whenever there are hills. There aren’t many hills. I go west, instead of south, because I can’t return to that house. Not now. Not with the frost orchards, and the village, and the memories of a magenta egg.
You accidentally killed Night-sky the first morning. It was an accident, brain. It was. You used the same knife to chop ice to melt into drinking water, without realizing it was the same knife you used to cut roots of widow’s thrill. You hacked at glacial ice, carried chips back to camp handfuls at a time, put them in a pot above the firepit Bone-builder was building.
Night-sky drank a cup when there were only two handfuls. You came back with the third handful of ice chips to discover him writhing on the ground, hands to his neck, Bone-builder wasn’t there and the firepit was barely flickering with flames.
You gasped. Dropped the ice. Had no idea what was going on. “Help!” you shouted, bending to your knees. You put a hand to his chest and his heart was hammering violently. “Help!”
Bone-builder stumbled up behind you, something woody thudded to the ground, he was pressing into your side, trying to pull Night-sky’s hands free, like maybe that would stop the choking. Night-sky’s eyes were wild, darting, his face was fading into blue.
“What’s going on?” the boy with the scarred ear stumbled from the tent, feet bare.
“Wake Kolariq!” you shouted. Your hands were still trembling on Night-sky’s chest, you couldn’t focus on his blood, maybe if you caught the sense of his blood you could have kept his heart pumping.
The moment he died, Scarred-ear was stumbling back into the tent, Bone-builder was still holding Night-sky’s hands away from his neck, his face was blue, his night sky eyes were bulging and his heart stopped.
You and Bone-builder stared at each other.
“What happened?” Kolariq shouted.
“I–I don’t–” you stopped, because you suddenly did know what happened. The bone knife next to your knee. “I was getting ice for water and he was here–”
I stop at midday on the side of a hill, trying to follow the trail with my eyes. It is obscured by snowbanks and jutting boulders and growing plants. I untie the mouth of one sack as Skeleton Cook sits on the moss with the bird in his arms. I try to ignore the way the jet bird’s jet black eyes follow my every move.
There is a bottle of water. I shake the clay container, furrow my brow at its lightness, unplug the cap and peer inside. It just looks like water, sloshing, bouncing red sunlight. I’m not sure what I expected. Ice, maybe.
I drink until I am filled, the coolness floating in my stomach, stare into the bottle again and discover it is nearly empty. I hunt around for a curved rock until I see that the queen has packed mushrooms. The same red type from yesterday. I crouch, hold the bottle between my knees as I fish around for the smallest one and pluck the mushroom’s insides out. I eat them slowly. Then I carefully pour the rest of the water into the hollow cap. I hold it out for the bird. The jet bird. The royal avian. She eyes it cautiously. Eyes me cautiously. She flaps her wings, beating Skeleton Cook’s ribs, which is how I discover the wound is gone. The wound I made yesterday by launching Skeleton Cook’s radius bone through it.
You left Night-sky’s body. Kolariq muttered about scavengers, and you tried really hard not to picture that. Wheeling birds, plucking out his skin. You pictured it.
You stayed at the end of the line, watching the bouncing tent strapped to the side of Scarred-ear’s backpack. Night-sky had carried some of the food. Half of that went into your backpack. The other half went into Blond-boy’s. You didn’t think that was what weighed you down.
I continue walking, following the trail as it winds through a patch of boulders, and then a meadow of violet flowers, so dark they are nearly black. The royal avian squawks at them, when they sway in the breeze. Her blood shifts jagged, like thunder. Like the clouds obscuring the sky. I start having Skeleton Cook walk in front of me, to escape the picture of those jet eyes peering into the back of me, like her storm could delve beneath my skin. I focus on the bouncing pebbles sent scattering under Skeleton Cook’s feet. The flapping of the cloak.
The next night, the tent was emptier. It had more space for the echoes of your thoughts. You couldn’t sleep, because Night-sky’s eyes were behind your eyelids, haunting you, darting, reflecting. You crept out of the tent, shivering cold, dragging your backpack behind you, reminding yourself Aukai didn’t even get scavengers. He deserved the ocean, or the pool hidden in the caves. He deserved better.
The sun began rising, drowning out the stars, when you started squashing the widow’s thrill roots between your fingers. You dribbled it down your legs, rubbed it on your neck, coated it over your arms. You bathed yourself in its impenetrable armor. You shut your eyes and pressed the roots to your cheeks, rubbed them over your eyelids, around your forehead. It smelled sweet, almost like taffy; bitter, like green vegetables, rich, like steamed mushrooms. Anything but salt.
An insect landed near your elbow and instantly plummeted to the ground. You lost the sight of their curled wings in the brilliant patches of moss.
You returned to camp, and no one was awake. There was no ring of stones for the nonexistent fire, no chips of ice to melt in a metal pot. There was just you, feeling like nobody could hurt you, Aukai deserved better.
The bird erupts in a storm of feathers, squawking. I stumble back. I stare up as she soars, ready to pull her back by her blood vessels. Skeleton Cook stares up too, and I pretend it’s because he is motherly. One of us should be.
The bird wheels in circles, and I glance around, unsure of what has startled her. There is just more moss, hills, boulders. There’s a patch of something wavering and yellow in the shade of a pointed rock.
I sit cross-legged on the ground, sigh in relief because my arms are tired of carrying three sacks. I should switch them, put two in my right hand and one in my left. I decide to eat, because the bird is clearly not interested in coming back. Yet. Distantly, her blood is shifting between gray clouds and a sky full of drifting snow. I dig through the burlap sack, fingers discovering something smooth and oblong. I lift the object free and discover a deep red vegetable. I have never seen its like before. I sniff it, but it only smells like soil.
You clambered into the tent. One of the boys was snoring. The boy who liked to paint, when there was paint. Kolariq hardly ever let him buy paint from the village.
You killed the oldest boy first. Because he was the closest. You put a hand to his nose and when he inhaled he inhaled poison. He was dead moments later. You pushed away the thought that this was the quickest poison you’d ever met.
You killed the boy with the missing tooth second by putting a knee to the gash on his hand from making blood circles. That one was an accident; you were just climbing over him to reach the blond-boy.
You killed the blond-boy with a hand to his nose. The most boring way possible. Because the blond-boy didn’t deserve better. It wasn’t petty, it was for Aukai.
You killed the snoring boy with a foot to the face. Hoping he dreamt about the most beautiful paintings before he was snuffed out.
Bone-builder was the hardest. His eyes actually opened as you sat above him, trying to make yourself do it. You couldn’t do it. Until his eyes opened, and you remembered him staring at you crying in the corner, walking from the skeleton room holding the jar of Aukai’s blood. And you knew it was Aukai’s blood because you could control his before your own.
You punched him in the nose. He yelped, so you kneed him in the mouth. And then he died. And then you went to the other tent.
I’m not sure how I’m supposed to eat the deep red vegetable, so I put it back. Also, there is dried tuktu meat. I nearly throw it out, but hesitate because I’m not sure what the bird eats. I look up, spot her wheeling high above us, a small black dot against the pale orange sky. The dot is growing larger. I shield my face as she screeches, diving towards us, and rocks shatter at her landing.
The second tent. You stopped outside it to the sound of rustling, heart skipping as you realized Bone-builder’s yelps probably woke them. But then you jumped through the flap because that way they couldn’t run away. You slammed into the boy with pointed teeth.
He fell over dead.
Kolariq, the boy with the silver eye, and the tallest boy leapt to their feet, staring at you. You stared back. “What–he’s–what?” the boy with the silver eye’s face was blank, jaw working.
“I could feel them dying,” the tallest boy said, face ashen. “How?”
“Poison,” your voice whispered.
I cough in a cloud of dust. Skeleton Cook stands, hands to his hips, disapproving stare aimed at the ground’s brand new crater. “What was that for?” I exclaim, dropping the tuktu meat inside the bag of food, tying it shut.
The bird flutters from the crater twice her size. She peers at me with one jet black eye. She caws.
One boulder on the crater’s border is cut clean through, edge as smooth as a glassy pond. It slowly tips, tumbling down the hillside. “What was that for?” I repeat when the rock comes to a halt. She caws again, now staring at the bag of food.
I sigh, but unknot it. I fish out the deep red vegetable and the dried tuktu meat, holding one in each hand. The meat leaves salty prickles on my skin.
Kolariq laughed. “Poison? Have I taught you nothing, boy?”
You leaped at the tallest boy, wrapping your legs around his torso and stuffing both hands in his face. His eyes went wide and you wondered why, but you could also feel the poison from his inhale shoot through his lungs and stop his heart. You didn’t know poison could move like that through a body. He collapsed. You ended up on his chest. Kolariq stopped laughing.
The bird shoots towards my hand and I recoil by instinct, dropping the tuktu meat. She snatches it before it touches the ground, and behind me another rock cracks open. Skeleton Cook darts past me to lift the bird from the crater, because he is the motherly one. I slowly turn to watch, clutching the red vegetable with both hands because it’s something to make them stop shaking. This hand was nearly sheared off by a bird the size of my torso.
A weight of words crescendoed in Kolariq’s mouth so you ran at him, but the boy with the silver eye tackled you to the floor of the tent. He was dead before you hit the floor of the tent. It rustled, tarp of animal skin that it was. You groaned and pushed him off, began rising to your feet until the gravity of Kolariq’s curse hit you. Pressed into you, like a thousand needles. You screamed, you shut your eyes so you didn’t see the blood being squeezed from you, like a sponge, you ran at Kolariq again and other silent, collapsing words collided with you, and you didn’t know what was happening to your blood but suddenly it was sticky, it was sticky and salty and spreading everywhere out of your body and you thought you were dying but still you stumbled forward.
Skeleton Cook scoops the bird into his arms, and she is tearing at the tuktu meat with her talons. I shiver and look away because I can’t get the image of scavengers at a body from my head.
You fell to your knees, the tent spinning; Kolariq’s boots were walking to the tent door, avoiding you, the blood on your skin was bright red but that was horribly wrong, maybe red blood was supposed to be sticky, it was sticky on your poison coated skin, you groaned as the world spun. “You are not the weakest student I’ve ever had,” Kolariq hissed. “But I still didn’t expect you to survive longer than a year.” The tent flap opened, revealing the dawn. You groaned, arms shaking. You could kill like the dawn.
I pick up the three sacks, one slightly lighter, remember I should be holding two in my right hand so I put them back down. I shiver as dry meat tears and a beak clacks. I pick the sacks back up and start walking, circling the crater’s edge. I kick a rock on the hill to see if it’s been sheared through. It tumbles away from me, and I still don’t know. What is it about sheared rocks that reminds me of a still ocean? A quiet storm? Mounds of thousands of snowflakes?
You cupped a hand under your chin where you could feel blood streaming down. Streaming from your poison coated skin. You shut your eyes because you didn’t trust your spinning gaze. “Goodbye,” Kolariq announced, and a boot crunched in gravel.
You flung a handful of sticky, red blood towards the sound of his voice. You did it again, and again, and again, even when a body thumped to the dirt, “Aukai deserved better!” you screamed, still flinging blood away from your body because it was all sticky and red and wrong. “AUKAI DESERVED BETTER!” but that didn’t change the melting, violent storm of lava and ice collapsing the planet inside of you.
Heart. You were a planet of ice and lava in the violent storm of you. And you could not prop up a planet with stones of rage forever. Can you cry while leaking blood from your skin? Heart, I do not know. That was one of the longest moments of your life. My life. You stumbled from the tent over his body and ran, ran, blood was singing out to you and you were not going to die