Bone-Cracker roused to darkness and pain. Disoriented, he tried to remember where he was and why, but shock clouded his thoughts and dirt clogged his mouth and nose, preventing him from thinking much at all. He gagged and choked, digging blindly at the musty earth that threatened to suffocate him.
Eventually, he cleared away enough to breathe freely again, but his sides ached terribly with each inhalation. To make matters worse, his mouth was too dry to allow him to clear the taste of rancid soil from his tongue simply by spitting and swallowing. He felt as though the ground had opened up and swallowed him, only to partially regurgitate him again.
“Hello! Can anyone hear me?!”
Bone-Cracker’s voice echoed around him, like a doppelganger hiding in the darkness and mocking his plight. He managed to lift his head a couple of inches and caught the barest hint of light from overhead. Apparently, he wasn’t entirely submerged in the dirt.
Fuzzy memories gradually began to return. He had been on a solo hunt, hoping for his first tattoo. He wanted to earn some status in his tribe, and he would never find any respect as long as he remained unmarked. They had just let loose a slave who had been deemed undesirable and Bone-Cracker had been hot on her trail, reaching her before any of the other hunters-in-training. He had been lifting his blowpipe to his lips, inching forward in the brush, when suddenly there had been only emptiness beneath his feet, and he had fallen. He couldn’t recall anything beyond that moment – until now.
His prey had no doubt escaped and that made Bone-Cracker angry. There would be no tattoo for him this time.
He couldn’t understand how he had fallen. He had taken that pathway through the forest and there had never been a hole there before. Somehow, it had miraculously just appeared there, an unexpected hazard where none had existed
Bone-Cracker called out several more times, as loudly as he could muster with a throat gratingly dry and hoarse, but he still received no response. Nobody necessarily would happen upon him. He had been all alone on the trail of the frail woman, an older slave who had been mistreated and malnourished – an easy win until his fall. She would be long gone, grateful for chance to get away. It wouldn’t last. Someone would catch up with her before she reached the border of Black Talon terrain and claim the mark that should have been his. He gritted his teeth and tensed his fingers at the idea.
Since no one was likely to come to his rescue, Bone-Cracker decided he would have to scale his way out of the darkness and back to the surface, not that far above him. But as soon as he made his first move to try to get to his feet, his body was wracked by the severest agony he had ever experienced in his life. His leg feeling like it was on fire, the darkness claimed his senses again.
Bone-Cracker was horribly dizzy when he came around the second time. His face was pressed into the dirt again and he was fairly certain he had both swallowed and inhaled some of the earth this time, the inside of his throat lined with gritty residue. His tongue lay swollen and dry within his mouth like an old piece of hardened leather, and his lips were beginning to crack and bleed.
His hole had grown frigid and when he lifted his head, he could no longer see any light above from where he shivered in the dank cool soil. Night had fallen. They might have already noticed him missing back at the village.
Two thoughts dominated all others, aside from just being grateful that he was still alive. He had to locate his water-skin and get some water back into his dehydrated system, and he had obviously injured his leg in a serious way as a result of his fall. He edged his fingers along in the blackness, down to his belt. A torrent of relief flood his shivering body when he found the cured-hide vessel was still where it was supposed to be, undamaged and two-thirds full. It took great effort for him to remove the cap without seeing what he was doing and lift the water-skin to his lips with trembling hands. It took even more effort for him to stop himself from gulping down the full contents all at once. He took a few wary sips instead. It could be several more hours or even days before anyone might find him, and he had to make the water in that skin last, rationing it carefully.
When the tremors had stilled a little and he had managed to return the cap to its place, Bone-Cracker decided reluctantly that he had to assess the damage to his leg. He knew it was bad – a simple sprain or a bad bruising would not have caused him that much pain. He still wanted to gauge exactly how bad. Since he couldn’t see his leg, he would have to feel it in order to figure that much out.
Reaching forward, Bone-Cracker carefully slid his fingertips along his thigh, brushing the skin there ever so gently. When they met with the wound, even though it was only the slightest of collisions, the pain was so jarring that the Black Talon man almost fainted yet again. The bone was clearly broken, the point of the break jutting up through his flesh. With his leg in that state, there was no hope that he would manage to escape his earthy prison on his own. If nobody came to his aid, he was doomed.
He didn’t bother trying to call out again. Nobody would be looking for him in the dark, if they would look for him at all, and he needed to preserve every iota of energy. He leaned forward to try to sniff at the wound. If it had already started to rot, he’d likely be dead before anyone reached him. Bone-Cracker could smell the sharp metallic tang of blood mingled with the musty odour of the dirt surrounding him, but nothing putrid – just the natural earthy scent of gradual decay. That suggested he at least had a couple of days to live, if thirst or the cold didn’t claim him first. He couldn’t even curl up into a ball to preserve heat and resist the latter. Any attempt to move his leg brought with it a wave of extreme pain and nausea.
He did his best to wrap his meager summer hides around him and with teeth chattering, he let sleep claim him.
Bone-Cracker awoke to a suffocating heat as opposed to the cold that had threatened him the night before. Once the sun had risen, summer’s warmth had turned his hole into a make-shift oven, baking him as much as it had chilled him during the evening hours. He was grateful that he had been unconscious for much of this time after his fall the prior day. It also explained why he had roused so parched.
His stomach groaned and gnawed at him as he greedily swigged rank and lukewarm water from his skin. He drank only a little at a time, but by the time the worst of the day’s heat had passed, he only had about a third of the water-skin left. He knew he could withstand the hunger pangs and associated weakness for quite a long time, but once he ran out of water, his thirst would claim his life quickly. If someone did not come to his rescue soon, he was a dead man.
Bone-Cracker could only hope his tribe had sent out trackers to find him. They might just assume him dead when he did not return with the others, or worse – they considered his retrieval not worth the effort. He had friends, but none of them exactly close. His father had died during an unsuccessful raid when Bone-Cracker was barely more than a boy. He had often wondered if the death had been truly accidental; his father old enough that a return without spoils meant he would be forced out of the tribe, to either perish or turn Rogue. Either path was considered shameful. Instead the aging man had died with some status still intact.
Upon his father’s death, Bone-Cracker’s mother had quickly arranged the mating of his two sisters to the first willing men she encountered, before finding a new mate for herself – becoming another man’s second. At that point she had discarded Bone-Cracker like yesterday’s bad meat. There wasn’t a man in the Black Talon who was willing to take on a dead man’s children unless, perhaps, they were family. Weak stock, they would claim, because of the parent’s premature death, even if that death was accidental.
So with no family to speak of, little status within the tribe and few friends who may or may not search for him, he had little hope to cling to. There was always the chance that someone might stumble upon his hole unintentionally, but the likelihood of that was even slimmer. He was as good as dead.
Bone-Cracker slept fitfully that night and he awoke feverish. He caught a whiff of rot as he roused that morning, sluggish and shivering. He was certain his leg, only achy and numb as long as he made no effort to move it, had become infected. He no longer noticed the emptiness in his stomach, but a desperate thirst plagued him constantly along with alternating bouts of sweats and chills and he could feel himself weakening from one moment to the next. By what he figured was mid-day, his water-skin was empty. Now it was just a matter of enduring his suffering until death released him from it. He allowed himself to doze a little, hoping it would come soon.
To his great surprise, Bone-Cracker woke again before night returned, this time to the sound of voices overhead. His heart surged with renewed hope; perhaps fate had decided to be merciful after all. He cried out as loud as he could manage to, the effort grating at his raw throat. A few seconds later, a silhouette moved to block out most of the meager light that spilled in above him.
“Is someone down there?”
It was one of Bone-Cracker’s tribe-mates, although he couldn’t tell which one. Someone had found him. He heard two others murmuring behind the man at the opening. With three saviours, they ought to be able to fetch him out of the hole fairly easily. Bone-Cracker’s excitement made him tremble, jarring his leg sufficiently to cause him pain, but he was thrilled enough that he could ignore it for the moment.
There was a heavy pause that made Bone-Cracker extremely uncomfortable.
“Why wait for anyone else to crawl out again, Bone-Cracker? I can see plenty of hand and footholds from here. Why not simply climb out again?”
“I – I couldn’t.” Bone-Cracker’s enthusiasm was deflating rapidly. “I broke my leg when I fell. My injury prevented me from climbing out on my own.”
More silence. Bone-Cracker’s mood shifted drastically from elation to dread. This wasn’t the reception he had been anticipating.
“Bone-Cracker…a hunter-in-training? Do you have any tattoos?”
Bone-Cracker’s heart sank. So this was the cause for hesitation. The only reason his potential saviour would ask if he was marked would be to check on his status. Even just one tattoo would have been motivation for rescue, ensuring the possibility of a reward on their return to the village. No marks meant Bone-Cracker would have nothing to offer. He wasn’t worth the trouble to whoever was perched above him, contemplating his fate. He could lie, he supposed, but as soon as this Black Talon individual could see the truth for himself, he would more than likely toss Bone-Cracker back down the hole again, if only to spite him. The injured man did not want to add that kind of agony to his already existing pain.
“No,” he confessed, the word barely more than a whisper.
“You’re already dead then,” the voice from above said. “We will carry word of your demise back to the village. The women will dance in your memory tonight, while those who knew you say their goodbyes.”
Bone-Cracker heard some quiet discussion from the surface before the three men left. He could have tried appealing to them, begged them to spare his life, but that would have been rather pointless. They more than likely would have just viewed that as opportunity to mock him for being weak. He couldn’t even offer himself up as a slave because an injured slave was a useless slave. If he kept quiet, at least his fairly uninspiring but clean reputation would remain intact. Instead, He fought back any desire to call out again as he heard them depart, squelching his despair as best he could.
In the moments that followed, where he teetered on the edge of insanity, Bone-Cracker cast aside everything he was that was Black Talon. Bone-Cracker might be dead, as far as they were concerned, but his animal essence, the part of him that was more beast than man, still wanted to live. His water-skin now empty, he sought moisture from the only remaining source. With a shuddering groan, he thrust his face into the damp earth beneath him, voluntarily this time, and tried to inhale whatever water could be found there. That was how The Old Man found him, trying to suck salvation from the soil.
Earth-Breather…that was what the Old Man had called him from the very start. A new name for him? Why not? Any name was fine with the man who had once been Bone-Cracker, as long as it was one that came with a second chance.
“They did not leave me here to die. As far as they are concerned, I am already dead. As far as I’m concerned, I’m dead, too.”
The Old Man chuckled softly.
“It’s only a matter of time. I can’t leave this hole because my leg is broken. My wound is infected. I haven’t eaten in days and I ran out of water mid-day. I suspect I’ll have breathed my last by morning,” Earth-Breather said.
“Hmmm – all that going against you, and yet you still live. Perhaps this was not meant to be your time. Perhaps nature and fate have other plans for you. All of that can be fixed you know.”
Earth-Breather shook his head, even though The Old Man was not likely to see the gesture in the darkness of the hole. “Maybe, with the right resources. I have nothing…I am nothing.”
“You are wrong there. Until nature is done with you, you will continue to be something, even if it is only food for the bugs and nourishment for the soil. But I think you have a lot more to offer than that. I see something of value in you. I can help you, if you will help me.”
Even in his totally helpless state, as was typical for the Black Talon, Earth-Breather couldn’t bring himself to trust this stranger. He had never met anyone not Black Talon who could speak their tongue, other than slaves. Was The Old Man a released slave who had actually survived, or even worse, a runaway who had succeeded in escaping?
“What do you want from me, Old Man? For that matter, maybe you can explain how you can speak our tongue and why you travel within our borders like you are free to wander as you wish.”
“I travel all over,” The Old Man replied. “And because of this, I insist on learning every language I can. I’m a medicine man, and I have leave to pass through your territory because I have done your chieftain many a favour. But…I can’t do all of the things I used to do when I was younger. I still have all the knowledge required for my skills but I just can’t properly apply it. That’s why I need someone like you. I’m willing to help get you out of that hole, but in exchange you have to serve me. Be my wary eyes, my steady hands and my strong back, since these things have otherwise left me. I’m not talking slavery like the way things work with your tribe. I’m talking learning new ways – student and mentor.”
That certainly appealed to Earth-Breather. He had already discarded his identity. Why not take on a new lifestyle along with a new name? Besides, his only other choice was death. This led to his next question. “No wary eyes, steady hands or strong back? If I take you up on your proposal, how exactly are you going to free me from this hole?”
“Agree to my terms and I’ll show you. I have nature working on my side.”
It sounded impossible to Earth-Breather, but what more did he have to lose?
“Fine…you get me out and I’ll do your bidding, whatever that happens to be.” He would do it too; it wasn’t idle talk in hopes of escape. He never offered any promises he could not keep. “Although I haven’t the slightest idea how you plan on freeing me.”
“In a few moments, I’m going to lower a rope down to you with a bundle on its end. Then I’ll give you instructions. Be ready for that – stay alert and as tempting as it might be, don’t nod off to sleep.”
The Old Man moved away from the opening and Earth-Breather could hear him shuffling around up above. The injured man was about to lose patience when true to his word, the stranger returned to the space above hole and began lowering down a braided-hide rope. The bundle at its end was a tangle of sticks and leather strapping. Earth-Breather couldn’t see how this was supposed to be useful.
“What do I do with this?”
“Untie it and set aside the sticks and strapping for now – those will be for your splint. There’s a small bundle of herbs and dried fungus at the centre. You need to chew that before we can proceed.”
He did as he was told, suspicious that this was just a trick. Perhaps the mixture was poison, a more humane way of sending Earth-Breather to his grave. He chewed it despite his inhibitions, hoping if it was poison it would be merciful, mostly painless and fast-acting.
Within a few moments of consuming the mixture, a sense of euphoria enveloped the fallen man. The darkness and all of its shadows shifted and swayed, strange colours dancing before his eyes. His entire body went numb. He knew the pain was still there, but it felt completely disconnected, as if it were someone else’s pain, and body for that matter, rather than his own. His thirst no longer bothered him nor did anything else. The Old Man spoke to him, but it sounded like he was underwater, his words muffled and slightly garbled.
“I can’t get down to you, so you had to take the drug. You’ll need it to dull the pain and reduce the shock when you set the bone and splint your leg. I can’t get down there to do it for you. When you’re done, you’ll have to force yourself to your feet and together we’ll drag you out of there. Your younger, sprier tribe-mates could have fetched you out easily. It’s a shame they thought so little of you that they couldn’t be bothered to spare you. Their loss, my gain.”
Highly suggestible because of the drug, Earth-Breather readily followed The Old Man’s instructions, jarring the pieces of bone back into place with one swift movement. Somewhere, the injured man’s leg screamed and he fainted again, briefly, even though the pain of the experience seemed like a separate entity. When he roused once more, Earth-Breather felt giddy, and he giggled continuously as he heeded The Old Man’s directions in order to put the splint in place. More disjointed agony accompanied his efforts, something Earth-Breather could easily ignore.
Once his leg was secure, it was then time for him to get to his feet. He wobbled and shook as he did so, the pain threatening to overwhelm him despite the drug. His limbs were barely willing to do what he asked of them, a constant tremor running through him. At the point where he was on his feet, the mouth of the hole was almost within arm’s reach. He tied the rope around his waist and his ascent began.
The effort to actually get Earth-Breather out of the hole was a terrible struggle, neither man in any position to offer much in the way of strength or endurance. The Old Man had secured the rope on his end and looped the rope around a small stump as they made progress. That way, if Earth-Breather lost his footing, or the grasp of their hands and arms failed them, the ailing man would not slip back into the hole. It took much longer than it should have, but eventually, Earth-Breather made it out. He collapsed into a dizzy, hurting heap at the top, unable to rise with any prompting. Relieved to be finally free of his earthy prison, he lost his hold on consciousness yet again, one of many times in the last three days.
When Earth- Breather returned to the world of the living it was dusk, with a gentle chill to the air. He could smell smoke and hear a fire crackling as his blurred eyes tried to focus on everything surrounding him. His head had been propped atop a bundle of soft brushed hides and a blanket had been draped over him. While his throat still ached from a lack of water, he no longer felt feverish or nauseous. Finally, he picked out the outline of The Old Man, sitting across from him beside the campfire.
Seeing that he was awake, the medicine man approached and passed Earth-Breather a cured-hide canister filled with cool water. With great urgency, he drank, drawing immense satisfaction from the liquid that both quenched his thirst and soothed his raw throat.
“Don’t hold back,” The Old Man said. “There’s plenty more where that came from. We need to get you rehydrated.” He paused, giving Earth-Breather a crooked, semi-toothless smile. “I treated your leg while you were unconscious. It was probably a good thing you weren’t aware of what I was doing – that was quite the mess you had there. But the infection is subsiding and I leeched the blood poisoning out of your system. I think you and your leg will make it, once it has finished healing.”
Earth-Breather’s drinking slowed after the first few initial gulps, and now he was swallowing carefully measured sips. He lowered the canister for a moment, brushing excess water from his cracked lips with the back of his hand.
“You spoke of spirits while I was in the hole. Are you a shaman?”
The Old Man shook his head. He chuckled.
“No – I know what you Black Talon think of shamans. I wouldn’t be here if I was one. I do believe in spirits, I’ve seen them for myself, but I don’t work with them. My magic’s strictly rooted in nature.”
This made Earth-Breather relax a little. The idea of travelling with this man and learning his ways was both intriguing and frightening, but less so if there would be no spirits involved. It wasn’t as though Earth-Breather had any ties left to his tribe. Far as they were considered, Bone-Cracker was dead. He wouldn’t even be considered Rogue.
“So I’m to be your student. I’m going to learn from you? In exchange for my assistance when you need it?”
The Old Man nodded, a calculated gleam in his warm brown eyes.
“You’re resilient and you look hale enough despite what you just endured. You’ll do fine. And you’ll learn. We’ll linger around these parts until your leg’s good to travel. Then we’ll set off. I think we’ll head east to visit the Reindeer People. I have friends there, but I could no longer make the trip all on my own.”
Returning to sipping his water again, Earth-Breather shivered. This time, it was not from fever or the cold, but from anticipation. The idea of leaving Black Talon territory, other than for a hunt or a raid, would have seemed ridiculous to him before now. Instead, he found the notion exhilarating as well as terrifying.
Then again, he was a new person. He had suffered from a fall that should have essentially spelled his end, but he had emerged from the hole with a new identity and a new life, a man reborn. It didn’t seem so horrible to be shrugging off the restraints of what it meant to be Black Talon. It hadn’t really offered him that much in the first place. The Old Man on the other hand was offering him the world, in all its natural glory.
And Earth-Breather was ready to embrace it.