Chapter I: THE CABIN

 

 

The cabin looked like it was from before.  Before the cold was ever this long lasting.  Before men became beasts again and had to relearn what human meant.  Before the better off forgotten. 

Fitz sat in the tree line, staring at the remnant of a time given to dust and wind. He didn’t know much about before the better off, but he knew that the buildings were stacked smooth with unbroken bricks and that too much effort was wasted on what Uncle Digg called pointless, pretty things.  The bricks here, which made up the chimney of the cabin, were chipped and cracked and mostly fucked up, sure, but it was clear that when the place was built they were flat and red and their edges were sharp. But it wasn’t the bricks that kept him crouched in the snow. It was the window. Warped and fogged and framed with frost, it glowed a flickering orange that somehow made him colder. There was fire inside, and where there was fire there was warmth, maybe even meat. 

That being said, where there was fire there was also man.

People grew sparse and dangerous, the further out he ventured.  The last time he’d safely seen another someone was in a roadside hostlery, and how long ago was that? He couldn’t say for sure, but the sunsets at least doubled his fingers and toes. For a while, he’d tried to keep track of how long he’d been wandering the aimlessness in his journal, but at forty-seven tallies he lost his pencil. He wasted a whole day retracing his steps, searching though frozen, dead leaves until the sun left. Ultimately, he came up with hands as empty as they began, only much colder.  His fingers had cold’s kiss so bad, it would take half a week to stop the tingling burn.  He cried that entire night through and moved on in the morning.

Great.  He was sad again, now.  Fitz hated thinking about losing his pencil, because it always made him sad and he really hated being sad.  He beat himself in the head with the butt of his hand; maybe the sad would shake loose.  His mother always said that knocking at a head in search of feels was like knocking at a rock in search of rain, but his mother wasn’t right about everything. For one, she always called Fitz an optimist, and just look at him now. Depressed about a wayward pencil. The only upside to thinking about sad things was it got his mind off of how unbearably freezing it was, and he hated how unbearably freezing it was even more than he hated being sad.  

He’d grown accustomed to the cold, sure, but just because you’re accustomed to something doesn’t make that something any less awful. His hands shook so often, he felt like something was wrong on the rare occasions when they were still.  He didn’t mind much seeing his breath; it reminded him of how much life was left in him.  He hated the cold’s kiss, but at least he still felt it, which meant it was never that severe, so he figured that feeling it enough to hate it was actually a good thing. Plus, they never turned black like the Widowman boy’s were when Fitz found him in the gulch, so there was another thankful thing.  Fitz shrugged to himself; maybe his mother was right and he is an optimist. Then he realized his mind had shook off its distraction and wandered away from his pencil, back to the miserable cold and he found himself in doldrums again. Easy come, easy go. His mother said that too.

He liked his mother.  She’s the one who taught him to read, and if there was one thing he loved, it was reading.  The only books he hated reading were antiquated love stories, but even those he didn’t burn.  He never quite got cold enough to set fire to precious books, though some nights he was tempted.  Along his journey, he found layers of warm enough clothes.  The latest addition was a heavy black coat that hung down to his knees.  It dusted the powder where the snow was deep with a calming sound. He liked that.  He hated stripping it from the dead man’s back, but that was ephemeral hate and his likes outweighed it.  He liked how warm it was, which goes without saying, but he also liked that it didn’t make him feel quite so skinny.  It reminded him of the capes that the knights and adventurers of his favorite books would wear, and he liked that too.

Just as Fitz was getting lost in his likes and his hates and  how often the two over-lapped, he heard the click. He instantly forgot all about clothes and the cold and looked to the heavy wooden cabin door as it creaked open.

“You stay warm and quiet, loves, hear it?” The man spoke through a thick black briar of a beard, talking towards the warm glow inside. “You rest now, peepless and shush, hmm? Don’t never know who’s lurkin’, hear?  We don’t never know it.” The man began closing the door but was stopped, “Hmm?”

Fitz couldn’t hear the insider, but was shook by the full-bellied roar of a laugh from the outside man. Apparently whatever the insider said was fucking hilarious.

“Oh I love you too! All of yous, I do! Be back in a wink, so shush ‘til then.”

The Outsider turned so Fitz could see him straight on.  He was bigger than Fitz.  Not fat of course — fat was rare as bullets out in the Struggle — just bigger.  He was padded with layers of ragged clothing, and his long, wild hair covered his ears and neck. There was nothing remarkable about this man, nothing Fitz hadn’t seen on the dozens of transients along his journey that kept a safe distance from him and to whom he paid the same courtesy.  The one thing Fitz noted was the hatchet that gleamed silver in the man's gloved hand.

Fitz took a deep, sharp breath and grabbed his spear tighter with both of his hands. He called it a spear. Really, it was just a long, straight branch with a sharp piece of twisted metal tethered to the end, but it made him feel much more gallant calling it a spear, so he did. As he grasped it now, he could feel his heartbeat pounding in his temples.

He’d been patient. This whole time he sat waiting, and as the pale sun dropped to the western tree line — and the temperature with it — he had seriously considered trying his luck with waltzing over and knocking at the door.  But Fitz knew that patience, Mother said, was a virtue and that most door knockers left houses with their guts in their hands, if they left at all.  So he waited, and patience, it seems, really is a virtue because he’d been patient and now a man had come out of the cabin and he knew about the man and the man didn’t know about him and that was just swell for Fitz.

The Outsider made his way over to a fallen tree and dragged it through crisp snow.  He began to chop it up into segments for firewood. Fitz stood for the first time in over an hour and his knees marked the change with a loud pop.

The Outsider stopped just before bringing the hatchet down and looked around. Fitz fell onto his belly in the underbrush and held his breath.

“Lo?”

Fitz bit down hard on his breath.

“Someone there?”  The Outsider’s voice was ragged, his black eyes frantic. “Come out an’ speak up!”

The silence was delicate.  Not even wind was stirring, so Fitz would breathe no sooner than he’d scream.  After a long, choking quiet, the Outsider turned back to his firewood.

Fitz tried his best to only move when the man grunted or the hatchet echoed out.  Each thwack was a footstep.  Here and there the Outsider would turn back and look in suspicion, see nothing and return to work.  Fitz tediously made his way to a large tree a few yards from the man, the last point of cover between the two.  There was no making it the rest of the way without the Outsider noticing, so Fitz reached down and packed a snowball.  As the man brought the hatchet down, Fitz stepped out from behind the tree and closed in. The crunching snow made the man turn, and as he did, the snowball flew.  It exploded in the black briar beard and sent the Outsider stumbling back, tripping over the pile of firewood.  Before he could brush the cold off of his face, Fitz stood above him, the spear at his throat.

“Mercy! Mercy, sir!” The Outsider begged and held his hands up.

Fitz silenced him with whispered sharpness, “Quiet! Not a word more, right?”

The man did as he was told.

“Well. Who’s inside?”

“Who’s--?” The Outsider’s eyes flickered and stared.  “Who are you?”

The question flustered Fitz. “Me?  I’m an adventurer.  Why’s that matter?  Stop asking.  I’m asking, you’re not asking.”

“An adventurer, say?”

“Yes.  An adventurer.  I go on adventures.”

“So why’s you here?”

“What about adventurer don’t you understand?”

“This is an adventure, then?”

“Of course it’s an adventure.” Fitz lifted his weapon from the man’s throat and presented it to him, as clearly he must not have noticed it, “I’ve got a spear. See?”

“That’s a spear?”

Fitz reminded the man what he'd just said about who's doing the asking and the man said okay, but he had one more question so could he ask it, and Fitz said okay.

“Can I sits up?  It’s fierce cold down here.  Let me sits up and you can do all the asking.  I hate the cold, I do.”

Fitz nodded and withdrew his spear a bit. After all, he hated the cold too.

The Outsider rose up and dusted the snow off.  Fitz held the spear with one hand and dug the hatchet out of the snow with the other and tucked it into his belt.  Another windless silence drew out as the two studied each other.

The Outsider broke the quiet, “Well then, you’re asking now, yes?”

“Yes, I’m asking now. I just… I’m thinking of what to say. Don’t rush me.”

“You’s shaking, sir.” Both men looked at the trembling tip of the spear.

“It is fucking cold out, isn’t it? I’ve been out here hours waiting for you to come out.”

“Why you here?”

“I smelled smoke.  Smoke means fire and fire means I get to feel my limbs again.”

“So you’s not…” The bush of a beard cut off the words, and his eyes narrowed, “You’s been here before?”

That was a confusing question, so Fitz paid it a rightly confused look. “No.  Do I look familiar to you?  Why would I have been here before?”

A coy smile broke through the black bramble, “We just got so many what pass through, can’t keep ‘em straight. These and those and those and these. I forget faces, see…” the Outsider laughed once then grew serious again, “Are you gon kill us, sir?”

“I’d really rather not.” Fitz felt suddenly wicked and guilty.  He lowered the spear, “Who’re the insiders?”

The Outsider looked to the cabin, telling Fitz of his wife and two children inside.

“Hmm. Maybe I’ll finish asking inside? It is fucking cold out.”

“With all respect and much due thanks, sir, can we don’t?  Our family is my loves and all I got in this rotten world, see?  You seem a bright-hearted adventurer, sure, but, I can’t have you in there with the family, hear?  I thank you, but I don’t trust you.  You did just have a spear to my throat.”

“That’s a good point.” Fitz nodded, “That’s fair.” The guilt waxed again, “I had to though, didn’t I? Otherwise you would have hatcheted my head, probably.”

“A good point too.  Probably I would have.  How’s about this for a plan?  You stay here and I go in and--”

“That’s a terrible plan already.” Fitz interrupted.  “Why would I like that plan?”

“Shush and hear it, will yuh?  I go in and tell my loves that all’s well out here.  I tell them not to worry, because they worry too much as it is, the sweets, so I’m sure they’re worried, shaky and wide-eyed, hear?  I tell them you’re a good man.  An adventurer, I’ll say!  Wow, they’ll say!  My girls will want to meet you but my wife won’t hear of it, because, y’know, she worries.  So then I come out and we’ll build you a fire.  I have blankets and food to spare.  You’ll be warm and full, and you can sleep here, safe.”

Fitz thought about this plan.  It was an alright plan.  Not a great plan, but an alright one and he could understand where the Outsider was coming from.  Even so, it was fucking cold out. “Can’t I just sleep inside? I promise I won’t kill you and your family.”

“I’m drawn to believin’ you.  But I’m a notoriously bad judge of character, so believin’ don’t mean jack much.  I can give food and fire, but you can’t come in.” 

There was just no dealing with the man.  There was no dealing with him aside from murder, of course, but Fitz was not a murderer.  He was an adventurer who goes on adventures, and this adventure had already hinted at enough murder for one night.

“Alright. But you have to promise you won’t just lock the door and leave me out here to freeze.”

“I promise it.”

“I’ll be really cross off if you lock the door.”

“I promise.”

“And I’m keeping your hatchet.”

The Outsider nodded, "That’s fair.”

 

* * *

 

When the Outsider brought out a slab of marbled meat and set it sizzling on a flat piece of heated iron, Fitz cried.

“Are you crying?”

Fitz was a horribly ugly crier.  He knew it.  The Outsider knew it.  He knew the Outsider knew it and the Outsider knew he did.

“It happens to me when I feel too much sometimes.”

The Outsider nodded in a way that said he understood while not understanding at all.  He then went back in to calm his family and fetch some blankets as the meat cooked.  Fitz had found his own calm and fetched his trunk.  

He called it a trunk because that’s what it once was, but calling it that now was a bit like calling a ghost a man.  Fitz had cut and pried and bound and bolted the old wooden box, adding straps and pads so he could wear it on his back.  When he first saw it, Uncle Digg had almost complimented him until he learned that it was made for books, so Digg called him a worm with a waste of a brain instead.  Fitz opened the lid and stowed the hatchet next to Uncle Digg’s rusty old revolver -- smiling at the fact that his uncle was probably still tearing through bedding and bales of hay in search of the sparkspitter -- then closed the lid and sat on it.  He wiped his wet cheeks and dripping nose off on one of his plenty of shirts and smoothed down his wild orange hair.  By the time the Outsider returned, the meat was well done. He cut it up, put half onto a plate and handed it to Fitz.

“Thank you.” Fitz wasn’t sure what kind of meat it was, but knew most likely it was vermin of this kind or that — a muskrat or a regular rat or a possum — so it was best to not even ask. It didn’t have the grey green marbling of most mutant meat and it smelled of iron and knowing that was knowing enough.

It’d been weeks at least since he’d had fresh meat, maybe even months.  After leaving Moss, he’d quickly come to realize that he was more scavenger than hunter.  Before long, he began waiting for wild dogs and or other small predators to make a kill, after which he would scare off the killer by running at it full force, flailing his arms and yelling.  Most of the time the animal would startle and run, leaving whatever malnourished, pitiful thing it hunted behind, but on occasion a dog would stand ground and bare it’s teeth. In these instances Fitz would horseshoe around and run in the direction he just came from.  Lately, though, predators and prey alike had become universally scarce in the chilling wilderness.

The two men ate in a strange silence that made Fitz’s toes fidget.  He would rest here and again to breathe between bites, and look at the Outsider.  Whenever he did this, the Outsider was already staring at Fitz.  This made Fitz uncomfortable, and for some reason when Fitz was uncomfortable, he smiled.  When Fitz smiled, the Outsider smiled and the Outsider had a very kind smile that should have made Fitz feel less uncomfortable, but there was something strange in the way the man never blinked.  He just, sort of… looked.  Whether it was at or through Fitz he could hardly tell.  To break eye contact, Fitz would nod and say “mmm!” and return to his meat.  And so he mmm’d as much as he could mmm, until he realized that no normal person mmms twice a minute and that now, in spite of all the Outsider’s blinkless staring, Fitz was undeniably the odder of the two.

“What’s your name, Adventurer?”  The Outsider took small bites and ate slowly.

“Fitz.”  He swallowed his last bite and set the plate down.  “Fitzgerald.”

“Fitz Fitzgerald?  It’s a redundant name.”

“Just Fitzgerald, but people say Fitz.”

“Ahh I un’erstand now, Fitz is halved of Fitzgerald.  I un’erstand now.  Have you a second name?”

“Dogtooth.”

“Fitz Dogtooth.  It’s a good adventurer’s name.”

A smile.  It was a good adventurer’s name.  Fitz had always thought so, anyway.  As a boy he'd pretend he was a gallant knight like there’d been long before the better off.  He’d decided then that he had a very good knight name.  He’d made his mother call him Sir Fitz of the Dogtooth until Uncle Digg told him he was an embarrassment to the family and started gossiping to all of Moss about how he was puddle-brained prone to pissing himself.  He didn’t much like his Uncle Digg, which is why there was really no guilt about stealing his revolver.  The Outsider, however, clearly knew a good name when he heard one and had heard the name Fitz Dogtooth and said it was, indeed, a good name. Between that and the meat and the fire and hatchet and the not locking him outside when he very easily could have, Fitz decided he liked the Outsider.

"I like you, Outsider."

"Well, here's a new name. Why Outsider?”

“You’re not inside.” Fitz shrugged, “And that’s about all I had to go off of.”

The Outsider held a look before nodding. “Makes sense, I s’pose.”

Fitz asked the man's real name and regretted the question immediately.  He got caught up in the moment, in the warmth of this man and the food in his belly, and he forgot the way of the world.  He did this much too often.

“I’m not sure...”

“You don’t know your own name?”

“I know what people call me, just not sure which to pick.  I’ve been named this and that enough to forget which came first.”

“What does your family call you?”

“Daddy.”

“Hmm.” He could have stopped there, but Fitz was never good at knowing when to stop.  It was probably too late to turn back, anyhow.  He felt he had to learn the man’s name now.  It’d be rude not to and his mother always taught Fitz not to be rude.  “Well, a name’s a name.  Doesn’t need to be right, so long as it’s you.”

The Outsider paused for a moment, thinking back.  Fitz leaned in, trying to read the memory as it flashed across the flinty irises, like how his grandfather claimed to do.  That big old man was a big old liar, so Fitz was always hesitant when it came to believing his grandfather, but right here, now, he swore he saw a memory spark.

“Timm.”  The Outsider let loose a sort of smile.  “A man in Foxglayde knew me, ‘Timm’.  Think I liked time most in Foxglayde.  I was best in Foxglayde.   My eyes still had some lightning in ‘em.”

Timm was a half-decent name, but for all his kindness, he was still the Outsider in Fitz’ head.  When he thought of him as Timm, the man became too human.  Too easy to trust.  If it came down to doing what must be done and no ways around it, what must be done would be too hard to do to a man with a name like Timm.  

Fitz had the terrible habit of falling in love with people.  He’d made friends too easily and was always heartbroken when they left him just the same.  He incessantly forgot the world in which he was born a beast with a too human heart.  He’d made this mistake enough to finally learn from it though… or at least he looked to prove it to himself now.

“Foxglayde. That’s up north, yes?  In the Disputed Lands?”

“Dunno much ‘bout what you said, but it’s right about the Nortdisland, s’where.’

“Right. The Nortdisland.”  Common vernacular, another thing Fitz often forgot himself with.  “That’s what it means, though.  The Northern Disputed Lands. The Nortdisland.”

“Heh?”

“Nothing.  Nevermind.”

“Dunno ‘bout all that muck.  I’ll stick with what I know, ‘stead of that mouthful, if it please yeh.”  The Outsider finished off his meat and licked the bloody juice from the plate. “You do talk in a funny way, little adventurer.  Very strange, the way you go on with words.  Never heard no one talk like that way.  Whereabout you from?”

“A little town called Moss.  Nearer the Heart.”

“Hmm...”  The plate was clean but his beard wasn’t, so he picked around it for bits of meat.  “Never heard of Moss.”

“Don’t expect you would. Moss isn’t much to hear of.”

 

* * *

 

It was dark now, but Timm the Outsider kept the fire fed and Fitz thanked him for that.

“They been peepless, Gods grace their hearts.”  The Outsider looked over his shoulder at the cabin, “I should be getting back in.”

“Just a moment longer?”  The words billowed out before the thought.  Fitz knew he was starved for company, but the lonesome way his eyes pleaded bordered on pathetic.  He was a desperate dog begging for a scratch.

 Timm — No, Fitz thought.  Not Timm.  The Outsider — lingered a moment. “Alright.  We can do us a moment longer,”  he said, then threw another piece of split pine onto the fire.

One moment gave way to many and the two stayed up talking until the stars came out in full.  Fitz told the Outsider of his journey so far.  He talked about the dead, the frozen, and the desolate nights.  About his mother and his uncle Digg and the day he knew he had to leave, omitting details here and there like the rusty old revolver and what happened to the last of its bullets.  The Outsider mostly listened, but when he opened his mouth, there was an oddness Fitz couldn’t ignore. The man only seemed to speak in shadows — more opaque outlines of stories than stories themselves.

“Spent some time in a city on the coast. I loved a girl there, once.  A doe with velvet lips.  It could be said she charged more than a slit’s well worth, but she sang me to sleep so I was happy to pay it. I never forgets the way she did sing.  Still rocks me to sleep the best nights, that endless echo in the middle o'my ears.”   Then he closed his eyes and let the memory spill out in a haunting hymn.

 

O, sweet River, don’t still like leaves go

When Wind’s love’s lost and ceases to blow.

O, wild River, carry long past the bend

For I’ve just ‘gun to drift and don’t soon mean to end.

 

Fitz waited for Timm to say something after that, but Timm didn’t seem anywhere near saying anything and the quiet had gone from beautiful to unbearable.  

“What happened to her?  The girl who sang?”

There was the forethought of tears when the Outsider opened his eyes.  He looked at Fitz as if he’d forgotten he wasn't alone.  “We don’t tell that story...” he said with sadness masquerading as a smile.

“Right, sorry.  It was just a very lovely song.”  Fitz fingered the latch on his trunk and swallowed dryly. His mind raced for a change of subject, but Timm the Outsider beat him to it. 

“What it’s got in that big box, hmm?  Looks an awful heavy burden.”

“It’s lighter than it looks.  Keeps the books within dry and safe" Fitz slapped the trunk fondly.  "Also makes a decent seat when I need one.”

Those onyx eyes caught fire.  “You got books in there?”

Fitz chuckled as he always did at the mention of books.  “A dozen or so, yeah.  Histories, fairytales, books about back when the world was young and others about heroes in the stars and sky.”

The Outsider’s jaw fell crooked. “You…” he swallowed hard.  “You can read? Scrawlings, I mean, you can read ‘em?”

Fitz nodded.  The man jumped up so abruptly Fitz let out a small frighten squeal, but it seemed to go unnoticed.

“You’s a librarian, then! I never met a librarian, I hasn’t!  Always wanted to but—“ The man’s spasm stopped all at once.  His neck turned slowly, carefully.  “Are you makin’ a fool of me, boy?  Slinging thick Timm a sludge of lies?”

“No, I can read, really!”  He wasn’t sure about the librarian bit; it was a term Fitz wasn’t too familiar with, but he figured if he confessed as much, Timm would think him remarkably less smart than he currently thought him to be.  “Would you like me to read you a story, Timm?”

For the first time, Timm the Outsider seemed lost for words.  All he could do was nod and drool some.  He sat back down and leaned as close as he could as Fitz opened up his trunk and pulled out an old, clothbound book.

 

* * *

 

“Where’d you learn it, little Fit?” Timm’s hand ran back and forth along the cloth-stitched hardcover.  His fingers traced the gilded imprint of a sword and shield.

“My mother taught me.”

“True gift, that.  Don’t go a day without thanking the stars for it... but a great gift’s a dangerous one.  It’s no Moss out here, mind.”  The Outsider looked up into the twilight.  “The moon’s well past.  I needs be getting back in, I’m ‘fraid.”  He grunted as he stood.  “And you’ll be needin’ some stony rest, little Fit.  In the morn, we’ll head to town, where you'll find a bed and fine enough folk.  Take you ourselves, in the morn we will.  Til then, rest them readin’ eyes.  I'll fetch you some dreamleaf, to help with driftin' out.”

Fitz gave him the old thanks-but-no-thanks.  “I think the only trouble with sleep I’ll have is getting myself up in the morning.”

With that, Timm the Outsider went back inside his cabin, and Fitz was asleep before he knew his eyes had closed.

*      *      *

In his dream, the sky churned and swirled. Clouds danced in metamorphosis, telling stories simultaneously strange and familiar.  Fitz was running, but he couldn’t help looking up.  He never stumbled and that was all he needed to know this was a dream.  In the waking world he tripped over things people really shouldn’t trip over, like grass and nothing, so he knew this couldn’t be reality because he was running and without tripping at all.  In the colorless and blurry bottom of his vision, he could make out forms and shapes, which he bounded from like stone steps in a river. He was terrified by the figures that moaned in bleeding harmony, though he never brought his gaze down. What terrified him most was the awesome, shifting sky.  Clouds spun themselves into magnificent, fearsome tornados and soon the tornados weaved themselves into pillars and those pillars began to look an awful lot like fingers shooting out from great, cumulous palms and before Fitz’s eyes the sky was reaching down on him and the wind kicked up from every direction all at once and he ran and he ran but the sky hardly seemed to notice and he ran and the sky reached and he ran and he didn’t stumble but that didn’t matter and the sky consumed him and he ran but he didn’t move even though his legs kicked and he panicked and he told himself not to panic and he told himself to breathe to breathe but he couldn’t breathe he couldn’t run even though his legs were kicking and he couldn’t breathe even though he told himself to gasp to wheeze to anything he could but he couldn’t he didn’t breathe in and the sky did reach out and he couldn’t—

*       *       *

The panicked awareness of waking from a dream brought the dream home with it.  He kicked his legs but he wasn’t running. Fitz tried to breathe but he couldn’t breathe.  It took several breathless seconds for him to realize that it wasn’t the sky reaching down and choking him.

It was the Outsider.  Through a black briar beard, rotting teeth seethed spittle and stench down on Fitz’s face. Fitz scratched at the hands winding around his throat.

Shush, brave little Fit.  Go quiet to the black.”  Timm the Outsider whispered coarsely through tears.  Even in the midst of fighting off death, Fitz found this an odd time for his would-be murderer to cry.  He managed to get one thrashing leg free and brought it up into Timm’s danglebits.  The Outsider yelped and loosened his grip just enough for Fitz to grab his attacker’s right index finger and, with all the desperation of a man who’s not ready to die, snap it backwards.  The Outsider wailed and rolled away, scrambling to his feet in the ash and snow.

Fitz screamed through his ragged throat.  “The fuck is wrong with you!?”  Every breath was agony and relief at once.  “Are you crying?”

“A man’s allowed a cry, s’no big to do!”

“What the hell is happening?!”

“What?  Crying?  You did it earlier!”

“No, you goddamn animal! You were choking me!”

“Oh, you mean the throttlin’.”

“Different words, same meaning!  What were you doing?!”

The Outsider gave Fitz a patronizing look. “I was throttlin’ ya, little Fit.  I feel that’s fairly clear.”

Why the hell were you throttling me, you sweating aurochs?”

Confused, the man narrowed his flinty eyes and paused, “…Because I means to kill ya?  I feel this is all fairly clear.”

“You mean to kill me?”

“Yes.”

“But you’re crying.”

“Yes.”

“So you mean to kill me but you’re sad about it?”

“Well you’re not so bad a person, know it?  We are friends after all.”

Dumbfounded. There were no words to articulate how much sense this man was not making. Fitz wondered if he was still dreaming, but the pain in his throat proved it was all too real.  What Timm needed was a rational lecture about the meaning of friendship, but clearly Timm was not the type to be rationally lectured.  That fucker, he thought, his name probably isn’t even Timm.

The Outsider named Timm-Whose-Name-Was-Probably-Not-Timm looked around, “Where’s my hatchet, now?”

“What?”

“My hatchet! I looked for it but you hid it away. If yadn’t hid it away, this all would have been quick and clean.” The Outsider raised his wrecked finger as if to wag it, “But you hid it so I had to use my hands and just look how that got us!”

Without fully thinking Fitz responded, “What about my spear, you dunce?”

The Outsider slightly squinted, “Shit. I forgot about the spear... It’s not really a spear though, is it?  It’s more of a stick with a nasty side.”

“What else is a spear but a stick with a nasty side?!”  Sidetracked, Fitz shook his head, “The point is, you’re an idiot and you forgot the spear and I’m happy that you’re so thick, because it means you had to use your thick, stupid hands and you stupidly botched it.”

Mean!”  The Outsider looked genuinely offended.  “There’s no need to be so mean!”

“No need?  You were trying to choke me to death in my own sleep, you pickled nob!”

“Fucks you!  There’s no need for nasty names!”

“Fuck me?  No, fuck you Timm, you sour clam!  Your name’s probably not even Timm!”

“Fucks you! You... you... Fucks!”

With that, Fitz howled a war cry and tackled the Outsider.  The two scrambled, throwing punches at whatever patch of punchable bits of body they could.  The big man most definitely had the advantage over Fitz, and each hit proved the point, but in a desperate effort to scramble free, Fitz thrashed his heel into the Outsiders jaw, sending him backward with the sound of cracking teeth. 

Fitz scrambled to his feet and saw the man spit out blood and flecks of stained ivory.  Those flinty black eyes filled with rage as the Outsider dug his heels in, but before he charged his attention was pulled away.  He turned his head as if he heard something.  The only thing Fitz could hear was his heartbeat pounding in his ears, but he used the distraction to fetch his spear near the ghost of their campfire.  He brought up the nasty side only to find the Outsider running off into the darkness of the forest.  

It was then that Fitz thought about the cabin and the family inside.  With the spear clutched tightly, he crept up to the heavy door.  It creaked as he opened it. 

The smell made him gag. The sight made him vomit.

At first, the way the firelight flickered and cast shadows made the sunken faces look alive.  There were three of them sitting at the table.  The skin had been flayed from their arms and their backs and their breasts.  The flesh beneath had been cut to the bone.  Only those haunting faces were left untouched, all but the eyes.  The empty sockets that remained left the woman and two children with a petrified look of hollow surprise that would haunt Fitz for the rest of his life.  He thought of the meat that the Outsider had brought out to him — beautifully marbled and cooked just right — and he retched again.  Between breaths, he heard what he hadn't before.

Hoofbeats.  Fitz rebuked himself for not paying attention when he should have, but then he remembered that he hardly ever pays attention when he should so he why expect so much from himself.  That’s when the hoofbeats ceased and he heard the rider dismount.

"Ollie?"  The voice was callously feminine and muffled through the thick door. "Oleanne? What's--"

As the door opened, the woman caught eyes with Fitz as she took off her mangy fur coat.  She was tall and gaunt, with sinewy arms that wordlessly summed up her life story; underfed and overworked.  Her face was stretched smooth across a tightening jaw.  She looked like she was about to ask who this strange man vomiting on the floor was, until she smelled the stench and looked to the table.

The air was pulled from her lungs.  Her knees buckled.  The woman did not weep the way most people did — the way Fitz did — ugly and spastic and bubbling and wet.  In fact, her face hardly changed at all.  Fitz wouldn’t have been able to even tell that she was crying, if not for the tears that freely abandoned the gloss of her eyes and broke out down her cheeks.  But tears are tears and tears meant crying, Fitz was pretty sure about that, even if the rest of the face gave nothing away.  As the woman stared at the three bodies propped upright at the dinner table, she reached a hand out as if to touch them, then pulled it back as if the air around them alone was unbearable; hot as molten iron, or cold as lonesome winter nights.  With surprising grace she rose back to her feet and circled the table.  She had the look of someone who couldn’t tell dream from day as she took in the scene.

This was probably the best time to escape, but as Fitz crawled quietly toward the door, the floorboards creaked and Fitz’s eyes met the woman’s. They were no longer dreamlike.  The turmoil has shifted from shock to strife.

“No! No no no, Listen!” Fitz tried to explain as the woman rushed upon him, grabbing the iron poker from the fireplace on her way. “It wasn’t—“

Fitz was silenced by iron before he could finish.  He felt the first swing meet his forearm and the warm rush of blood that followed.  He felt the second strike bite into the back of his head.  After that he felt the numb of blackness and the cold void of nothing at all.