She lost track of time, after that. A small, stubborn voice kept reminding her that getting rid of Despernot had been the only sensible thing to do; he would have killed her, eventually. At least now she would have the chance to die of natural causes. Even so, a part of her wanted to curl up in a ball of perpetual horror at what she had done. It wasn’t a fair thought, considering that technically she hadn’t killed anyone. But it ate at her as she lay on the deck, freezing and wet but afraid to go below again for fear of the bloated bodies and the broken muse.
Eventually, she slept. Somewhere in her dreams there was a cacophony of frantic shouting and chaos. She saw herself back on English docks, back with Foxe who was calling her stupid in dozens of inventive ways. Then she saw her father, a mass of burnt flesh that moved haltingly like a stop-motion film. He raised an arm, skin dangling off his bones, and said,
“Who cooks for you?”
Even to her dream-self, this made little sense. Lori began to move towards him. She tried to ask what he meant, but she couldn’t speak. Her mouth worked, but no sound came out.
“Who cooks for you?” he repeated. She reached for him, and at that moment she woke.
Wide, solemn eyes loomed out of a feathered face, inches from her own. “Who cooks for you?” said the largest owl she had ever seen. It was grey, massive, and sitting on her chest. Its eyes were deep and dark, with no light in them at all. “Who cooks for you?” it hooted again.
At any other point, Lori would have found the sudden presence of an owl vastly awesome. She had always thought they were interesting birds. But now all she could do was wheeze at it helplessly. Her words were stolen from her, just like in her dream, and she felt weak and empty all over. “This is it,” she thought in a panic, “I’m dying.”
The owl hopped off of her and flew a few feet to perch in the rigging. It seemed to be looking at something in the ocean, but Lori couldn’t even raise her head a single inch to see what it was. She wasn’t cold any more, which most likely was not a good sign. She watched as the owl hopped back and forth on the ropes, darting its black gaze from the ocean to her. It seemed frustrated, as if it wanted her to hurry up and come with it somewhere. She tried to explain that she couldn’t, that she was finished, but her chest ached and she gave up, a single stream of tears bleeding from her eyes.
But then came the sound of bells.
She thought she was going mad. She was lost at sea and there were bells chiming in her head—tiny, delicate Christmas bells. Madness or sleep brought the sound closer and closer, until at last she could distinguish its soft, persistent tinkling: ice. Somewhere nearby, ice was cracking.
A dark shape loomed over her, and for a moment she wanted to scream, convinced it was Despernot back from the depths. But then the stranger knelt into her broken field of vision, and she knew it was not. His face was darker, his skin the color of chestnuts, although you could hardly tell beneath stains of frost-bite. They marred his entire body, from his bare chest to his feet, and icicles grew from his tangle of black hair in elaborate spikes. He wore little at all around his waist—just a simple gold cloth that reached down to his knees and a belt made of bones and green jewels.
“…w…why….?” Lori croaked. The man tilted his head to one side in a curious manner. He reached out with one frost-bitten finger and touched her throat. Air rushed through her struggling lungs and she gasped, coughing on her delirious question. “Why’re you…w-wearing a s-skirt?”
She thought he smiled, but she couldn’t be sure; her vision was fading again. She had just enough sense left to feel herself being lifted into a deathly cold embrace, and then there was nothing.
(Just a small bit tonight! Join us next Monday for the continuation, and in the meantime follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @companyofsouls.com )