Chapter 1: Penance and Permafrost CHAPTER 1 Penance and Permafrost
The answer to what freezes first is the eyes.
That ain’t something most people would guess. Most folk would say it was the fingers or toes. Or maybe even the guts, if they were out. Once, I’d even heard a man say it was the tongue that froze first. But I know better.
Lowering the ruddy fur lining of my scarf, I let the blistering cold curl in around me, tilting my head at the ice-covered body by my feet. Guess he knew that now too. I scuffed my boot across the side of the dead man’s bear-hide coat, sending small swirls of snow, fine as any dust, out into the raw dawn. And just like everything else round here, the wind whipped past and stole ’em away.
Only idiots tried to cross the Ice Flats. The only thing out this way was the cold. And hunger. And death. Way I figured, anyone desperate or dumb enough to think otherwise had it coming. Ain’t like they couldn’t see all them grave markers out cross the ice. Little gray stone warnings in the permafrost along the outskirts of town, they made a jagged line of snowy teeth. A boundary between life and death. Between the Flats and the whole rest of the world.
I gazed down. The man’s ears and head were more than half buried in the remnants of last night’s storm. Heavy flakes of snow, thick as any summer cream, clotted at the corners of his face. Above cracked lips, a fine layer of ice coated his gray flesh like a second skin, slinking upward till it crashed against the ragged fur of his hood. His face was a nightmarish web of cold and loss. A spider’s kiss of ice.
In the harsh light that marked the birth of yet another miserable day, I reached my hand down to the body.
“Marjorie!” A girl’s cry came from over my shoulder.
With a jolt, I snapped my arm back to the beating warmth of my chest. Stars above, can’t she just leave me be for three seconds?
“I’m moving fast as I can,” I called back. Ain’t like I got any more pressing stuff to do.
The holler came again and I stuck out my tongue—and a finger or two—in the vague direction of home. Too bad no one but me and the dead man could see it. Not that it mattered much. Not out here.
Slow as a bull to market, I pulled out my retrieval cord and wrapped it round the dead man’s wrist, securing the leather. Making sure to cinch tight enough to crack his brittle gray skin. Only good thing about the frozen dead, far as I can figure, is they don’t bleed.
Hiking my scarf back up against the wind, I slung the thick retrieval cord up and over my shoulders. The quiet morning light, like molten glass, was just tipping over the horizon, igniting the empty vastness of the Flats around me.
It took a few deep grunts to get started, but I managed to get movin. I always did. Under foot, flashes of light, deep reds and blues, hummed up through the thick layers of ice, snagging in my prints. Brightening echoes from the cavernous waters below.
I lumbered the last few yards past the house. Not that the place were much to talk about, scrapped together as it was by a thousand rusty nails. And even rustier prayers.
Under my gloves, the door to the shed squealed open in hopeless protest. I let it slam behind me. My sister shouting like a drowning bear. Or three. And she could keep up her hollering; after sixteen years, I were more than used to it. Like as not Brenna were pissed I was late for breakfast. A fault as like to get me a lecture on mindin how much time I spent out on the Flats, as well as a longer one ’bout listening. To her.
Still, even if we couldn’t bury them right and proper till spring, this would be the fifth body I pulled in this week, and more bodies meant more money. More money meant more food. And we sure as stars needed that. Especially after last month. And the one before that.
I hoped he’d have something I could sell. Not all of ’em did. I drug the man into the corner, hefting him right next to the others. Knocking the crusts of snow off the thick soles of my leather boots, I ran my eyes over the lot of ’em.
So many bodies. Even for this time of year it weren’t right. A pang of something dangerous close to worry caught in my gut. Cause, irresponsible as they’d been, they’d still been people. People that, if you didn’t look right at ’em, if ya let them linger at the edge of your eyes, might’ve only been sleeping. I blinked down at them for longer than I would’ve liked.
You, I told myself, won’t never be so stupid, Jorie. Their choices aren’t your choices. Running a hand over my face, I scrubbed at my skin for a warmth I did not feel.
Kneeling at the newest body’s side, I rifled through his pockets. Weren’t much. An antler-handled knife with a broken blade long as my hand and a hide-bound notebook with near all its pages torn were about the only things of worth in the outer pockets. I set them on the lowest shelf and turned the man over.
He couldn’t have been more than mid-thirties. Mainly cause he still had all his teeth. But it were the man’s deep red hair and blue eyes that made me suck back a breath. He weren’t just a stranger then, but an Inlander. A Southerner in particular. People who, when winter had destroyed our crops, our livelihoods froze and our people starved, when we’d needed help most, had simply refused. Said no. Shakin my head, I flipped open the dead man’s coat.
Underneath his dirty bearskins, the man wore naught but a single layer of clothes. Fine clothes. A pair of thin fine-spun cotton pants and a high-collared blue silk shirt. That was it. I frowned. Man had no business out here, dressed like that. No wonder the idiot had froze.
Better men died with more.
The Southerner’s pockets gave only two more things: a broken-faced compass with glittering silver lettering in a language I didn’t recognize, which were only maybe worth something, and a half-burned whale-fat candle. Squat and fat and yellow, the candle weren’t worth much. Still, I tossed it into my pocket. At least we could use it for a little while. Some were always better than none.
Then there was his coat. I pulled it off and held it up. Little circles of light shined through the mud- and frost-caked furs. I ran a finger round the biggest of ’em. Huh. Gunpowder. I tossed the coat onto the floor.
Cause even with the bullet holes, two in the back and another grazing the fur of the collar, the coat might still fetch a fair price at market. If we ever had one again. There weren’t much left to kill round here that people ain’t shot yet. What with the winter we’d just had—were still having—even the heartiest of animals had run ’way or starved. It weren’t natural the way the ice stayed, the way the winters crept longer and longer each year, the snows drowning out the sun. But town weren’t called Shadow Springs for nothing. An echo of a place that once were, that’s all it was. Caribou and all the rest were mighty smart to avoid it.
I placed the broken-faced compass on the table with the other rummaged items, pocketing the knife. I picked up the leather-bound notebook, running my hand over the cover. Pressed into the hide were a series of bare silver stars. I studied the constellation, trying to place it. Weren’t one I knew.
I flicked open the cover. Inside were nothing legible. Not that I read all that well. Words and numbers were everywhere. I turned the page, tilting my head. If they were even words. Flipping through the book, slick paper fluttering soft under my fingers, I tried to tell what it was, if there were a pattern to it. Only if there were, it was beyond me.
At the back, some loose pages slipped down. I turned to them. Thick lines of green ink ran everywhere. Just nonsense, muddled drawings that overflowed into the text so that you couldn’t right read it. Here too were more of those same words. The ones as like on the silver compass’s face.
Frowning, I flipped to the end. But here it were even worse. Page after page torn or missing. One even burned. And if the spine were anything to go by, near half the book were just clear gone. If you angled it and squinted—I tilted the pages—you could maybe make a sketch of something… useless. I tossed it onto the pile in the shed with the rest of the goods.
There had to be something else, some reason the man had been out alone. Perhaps—at my back the door from the breezeway flew open. The sudden change in pressure swelling the cramped space, sending soft tendrils of snow in under the door across from me. Unhurried, I finished putting away my gear, stripping off the last three bulky layers of my clothes, until only a fine-spun wool layer remained against my skin. I changed my boots, worn laces cracking under my fingers, for a pair of soft fur-lined slippers. The warmth of them pricking against my toes. I let out a little hiss at the sensation.
“Jorie, ain’t you been hearing me?” Brenna’s words smashed into my back with ’bout the same warmth as the wind outside.
“Alright, alright, just give me a second will ya.” I could practically feel her glare. She reminded me of Ma. A lot.
“A second? I’ve been calling you for an hour straight. Something’s happened,” Brenna said, feet shuffling, worry pricking in her voice. “Something bad.”
“What’s that?” I asked unfazed. Last time she’d gotten so worked up this early, it were cause she thought we’d run out of beans. Still, to be fair, she did seem a right more agitated than usual. And we had been out of beans.
“Up at the house,” she said, glancing over her shoulder.
“The house?” That brought me up short. “Did one of them boys from town come and break another window? Are they bothering you again?” A flicker of unease twisted in my gut. Bren weren’t foolin. Not this time.
Bren’s mouth pressed thin, hedging.
“Jor, hold on—”
“If they think they can just come here… I swear we ain’t got the time for this,” I sputtered, and without stopping, strode past Brenna and toward the house.
“Jorie!” Brenna stumbled after me, trying and failing to keep pace. “Would you just, for once in your life, listen, you bullheaded, stubborn…”
Quirkin my lips at the compliments, I strode quick through the covered passageway. Passing the ice-covered rockery, a thin strip of neglected soil that served as our pitiful garden, I opened the heavy door to the main house.
The candlelit room were surprisingly warm; Bren must’ve been feedin the fire. It were little darker in the corners than usual, but nothing seemed broken.
Along the far side of the dim-lit space, Bren’s nest of blankets and furs lay under a high, shuttered window. A mix of half-opened leather books, bindings that’d seen far better days, sticks of charcoal and drawings littered atop. A smaller book caught my eye. All faded gold lettering leaking along the spine—it had been our Ma’s. Once. I were pretty sure I’d hidden that one. I let out a deep sigh. Weren’t Bren the only one who remembered. Weren’t only her who cared.
From behind me, an icy draft of air eddied my long black hair about my neck. With it came Brenna, panting in my wake. Her disapproval, near as palpable as the cold. She let out a little flare of a growl. Sighing, I fixed my sister with a look.
“What is it then, Bren? Out with it,” I asked, before rifling through a stack of pullovers. I picked the fraying one. Made of fox, it still smelled of the wild. I inhaled deeply as I slipped it down over my head. I never could get tired of that smell.
When I looked up, Bren were clutching the pendant round her neck, eyes unnatural wide. ’Bout the size of a shark’s eye and near as lustrous, the ice-stone were held in place by three talons of tarnished silver. Beautiful as they were, ice-stones weren’t usually nothing to get excited about. But this one were different. This one had been our Ma’s. And her Ma’s before her. Generations of Harlow women had held it. It were the only thing Ma had ever told us about her past.
Like a drop of midnight, Bren slipped the stone back under her sweater, setting her feet square to facing me. I opened my mouth, but Bren cut me off. As stubborn a line across her lips as ever I’d seen settlin in fast. We weren’t sisters and still alive out here for nothing.
“Jor, this ain’t good.” Brenna’s voice dropped to a hushed whisper. I shot her a crooked look; she was clasping and unclasping her hands like a seal, her face still odd blanched from the cold. She’d already said that.
“What is?” I said, sudden more cross than I’d any right to be. Regrettin my tone near at once, I relented and pushed open the door to the kitchen. That spark of worry flared hot in my gut. “Sorry, Bren, it’s just that I—”
“Don’t go in there, there’s—” Brenna’s sharp cry cut off.
“A visitor,” a deep male voice finished for her.
I spun, nerves as tight as steel. In front of me, the man sat at the kitchen table. His long straight back turned to the low-burning fireplace behind him. With a grunt, he stood up, smoothing his hands against rawhide pants, flames licking at his shadow.
Standin, I saw him better. The stranger looked about as happy as the body I’d just stacked in the shed. And if his too-straight bearing and the shock of white hair weren’t enough to name him as a stranger, his red-rimmed goggles, etched with a single wolf’s fang across the side, certainly were.
Rovers. Particular pestilence of the North. Men that popped up like rats wherever there were people desperate enough or poor enough for them to swindle and steal from. Last time one of ’em had been in town, one of Della’s goats had gone missing. And her husband to boot.
Not that Della were likely to miss the beast much. Or the goat.
I shot Bren a look.
“I tried to tell ya, Jorie, but you never listen to me,” Brenna whispered. She turned her face from mine. Long red welts on the side of her neck. My unease roared instant to anger.
But Bren caught my eye, shaking her head gently. She were alright. I rounded on the Rover. We’d certain see what he had to say for himself.
I cracked my knuckles, popping each bone in turn and eyeing the man in front of me. Like all vermin, best be rid of him fast. I took a deep breath, steadying my shaking hands. Ain’t no good ever come from showing fear to no man.
“You ain’t got business here.” I sneered, feeling the familiar sharp tug from the long scar that ran from eye to lip. Out on the Flats, it wasn’t always you that won. Sometimes, the beasts did.
The stranger smirked. His gaze snagged in mine. It felt like ice down my back. A trembling began building down deep in my arms, my chest, my legs. Ain’t no good ever come of showing fear. I repeated the mantra in my head.
“You witless as you are unwanted?” I waved my hand round our poorly furnished room. “Can’t ya tell we ain’t got nothing for you here?”
The man angled his head. I followed his gaze. Brenna had gone still as ice.
“Think again,” I snarled. Heat rose in my cheeks. I took a rushing step toward him but stopped short. His smile widened into a leer. I couldn’t take him and he knew it. Certain not one on one. I ground my teeth and fixed the Rover with a feral stare.
“If you even reckon—” I began.
“Shhh, Jorie.” Bren pulled urgently at my sleeve. “He ain’t all that’s here.…” She gave the most imperceptible of gestures toward the back hall. Toward the tiny bedroom we shared. A low rumble, like leather over stone, purred down the hallway. My breathing hitched. I stood straighter.
But before I could take a step, let alone a stone’s breath worth of air, a shape covered in heavy fur and an even heavier darkness exploded out of the hall, sending us sprawling to our knees.