Far to the North (Chapter 6)

Tis a curse, he thinks to himself. A terrible, bitter curse. And they warned ye, didn’t they, Clarence? Those folk warned ye. “A poisoned hole. The death of man. Darkness hangs over that cave and dwells within. Stay away.” Clarence digs at his dirty nails as the warning echoes in his mind. Stay away.

But they didn’t.

They couldn’t.

Marissa had finally come to her end. Though unspoken, they both knew. Her love was still true, without question, but her patience was becoming buried like so much of the snow-covered land they suffered. Love only feeds so many needs. It doesn’t settle the pangs of an empty stomach. It doesn’t produce heat in place of fire. It doesn’t soothe aching bones or restore strength to failing muscles after yet another day of finding not even a fleck of gold. The strain was becoming too great. Their failings too often. With the mining in the north becoming so feverish to fuel the war in the south, few options remained. Only the most challenging regions remained unclaimed. So they risked what little they had and went where no one else would.

It was a fool’s errand. All paths to Nil are only dead-ends.

They heard the warnings but left them unheeded. There was no other option. The townsfolk of Nil, well-intentioned and sincere, did what they could to convince them of their error. No matter the subject, all conversations were the same.

Stay away.

Clarence stares from the mouth of the cave into a still night. Pale, blue light from a crescent moon pierces thin clouds and bathes the snow in an azure glow. Snow sparkles with the pulsing stars. A stunning silence leaves him with only his thoughts—stay away—and one, terrible sound.

From within the darkness of the cave, a low growling can be heard.

“Tis only her snoring,” Clarence whispers to himself. “The snore of an innocent woman beset by illness.” He nods to himself while talking to the night. Meanwhile, his dirty nails dig and dig and dig. He squats down on his haunches and wraps his arms around meager legs. Behind an unruly beard, his face is gaunt and his eyes sunken. Food has become an issue. Marissa’s hunger is ever-increasing.

Pregnancy does that.

Tis your child you must care for, too. She’s brewing a son for you, a son you’ve always wanted. It wasn’t supposed to be possible. Mayhaps taking on one curse brings the end to another? But how can it happen so quickly? Why does her belly already swell? How can it be after… how long has it been? Two weeks? Three? And her fever and vicious revulsion to light whenever I bring the lantern…

Another long growl rolls to his ears like the thunder of an inevitable storm, and Clarence shudders. The sound crawls under his skin and wraps his bones with bitter trembles. The shudder invokes one, quick sob, and Clarence snaps a hand over his mouth to silence his own fear. Looking into the snowy wilderness, he wants to run. A primitive urge to simply flee the cave in exchange for a frozen death floods him, but his feet stay in their place.

Tis only a sickness, Clarence. Be true to your love, she who’s always been so true to you. She trusted you. She set her life to your path. Tis you that’s led her astray. It’s to you to correct these wrongs now. Help this poor woman.

He grinds his knuckles into his eyes. Much like wiping the tarnish from a jewel, the act uncovers his extreme state of exhaustion. Three weeks prior, a span that now feels a lifetime away, he’d have curled next to his wife and joined her warmth and slept soundly. Now, the idea invokes only terror.

She’ll soon be hungry again, he thinks. She’ll call on me. “Meat,” she’ll say. “More meat, Clarence.” And it’ll be her voice and her words and her body, but it isn’t her. Death of man, I know it isn’t her.

He cups a hand over his mouth to silence another sob.

Tis just a sickness, Clarence, he swears to himself again. A sickness and nothing more. Stay true to your love.

Deep within the cave, a guttural growl spills through the darkness.

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