Exile’s Heart by Nicola Kapron
A man lay in the river, a cloud of deep red haloed around his still face. Hanna took a minute to realize that it was hair, not blood, drifting under the freezing water. Only the center of the river was moving—all around the jagged hole, broken ice gleamed in the winter sun. Snow stretched out in all directions, and the trees were bare, skeletal. The riverbank was a gentle downward slope free of rocky outcrops or deceptive snowdrifts. She’d been picking her way through the stumpy forest for hours, searching for lichens, slumbering animals, or buried roots, keeping one eye on the water for fish. She should’ve heard the ice breaking. Should’ve seen him falling through.
He’d be dead by now. The water was cold enough to stop a heart, and his clothes were thin. She bowed her head for a moment, considering, then began climbing down the bank. Leaving him in the water would be cruel. She had a hook on her and a good stick; she could pull him out and at least get started on a cairn. Whoever he was, he deserved that much. Odd, though. The current here was swift and brutal, but the body had barely shifted at all.
A flicker of red. Beneath the surface, his eyes opened. They burned.
The corpse lurched to his feet like a man possessed, limbs out of order, weight positioned all wrong. His legs were a hideous mess of sharp angles. His arms twisted back on themselves. White bone peeked out through black cloth and burnt skin. He shouldn’t have been able to stand like that, but he did, agonized and dripping. As soon as he was upright, he lurched forward, doubled over, and vomited a stream of blood into the water.
Hot air hit Hanna’s face. The river hissed and bubbled, soup in a pot. Huge pillars of steam rose up as the water boiled away. She could just make out a burning shape through the clouds. The man in the river coughed up fire, threw his head back, and screamed.
She was a second-generation exile—born in the north, far away from her parents’ homeland. The sounds of anguish, pain, and betrayal were familiar to her. So were quiet sobs of grief and helpless wails of yearning for something you’d never known. She had never heard anything like this before. Ice crunched under her boots as she fled, whatever force that had held her frozen lifted by sheer terror. Nothing mattered but the need to get away. The fog dwindled in the distance, held back by the treeline, but that hellish shrieking remained. When she finally stumbled back to a spooked camp, she could still hear it. The screams of a dying man.
No. The screams of a man already dead.
Hanna shared what she could remember—fire, screaming, blood in the water—and then asked if anyone had seen something like this before. The answer came back as an overwhelming no. A scout headed out the following day and found rolling fog and bare, scorched earth at the riverbank and a trail of icy footprints. Not everyone believed her story, but they all agreed to steer clear until whatever it was moved on. It was over a week before she dared to venture out into the forest again. What drove her out wasn’t bravery, but hunger. Winter was bad this year. More exiles were coming up from the south with freshly scarred faces, tears frozen to their cheeks, all their worldly possessions clutched in numb hands. She stayed close to the tents for as long as possible, helping this summer’s batch of newcomers get settled and passing out dried meat and tubers, but supplies were running low.
She had no desire to see the dead man again, but hunting and scavenging had been part of her life since she was old enough to walk, and she was out of excuses. She strapped on her snowshoes and headed out to check the traplines. Her mother roused from depressed torpor as she left.
Hanna nodded. “Gonna check the traps.”
“There won’t be enough,” her mother rasped. “Not for us and the new ones.”
“If we forget kindness, the cold will take us all.” Hanna smiled, her dry lips cracked beneath her hood, and walked out into the storm.
Time was a vague, blurry thing. She could track it well enough in the moment, but distance tore it from her grasp. How old had she been when their little family first stumbled into the camp? Not very—she’d felt so tall, looking down at the world from her mother’s back. She had memories of the three of them struggling on their own, but none so clear as the warm hands which had taken her from the wrapped bundle and lowered her gently to the ground. Trampled snow, campfire smoke, and caribou-hide shelters made up her young world. Her life had begun here, in the north.
And yet she’d spent hours praying to the gods of the south. She’d clasped her hands and knelt until her knees ached, holding wheat, cows, and kind, sun-browned faces in her imagination, repeating the names of strangers over and over until they stopped sounding like words.
Please, she’d begged, don’t leave us up here. Mama and Papa will die. Let us go home.
She’d built herself an image of a home she’d never seen: golden fields and tall buildings and bright skies. Conjured up family and friends she’d never met. A perfect fit for the empty spaces in her life. The very shape of hope. For years, she’d haunted herself with visions of the warm life she could have been born into if her parents had been a bit luckier. A bit less outspoken about their politics. A bit more content to let things be. But all children had to grow up. What haunted her now were eyes made of fire and a scream to shred the soul.
The tundra was quiet. Powdered snow crunched softly under her feet. Beneath that, thick white ice dug all the way down to the permafrost. Summer wouldn’t melt it. She kept her wits about her as she walked into the stunted forest. The snares weren’t quite empty, but a few small, scrawny rabbits wouldn’t be enough to feed everyone. She clapped her mittens together in thanks regardless and tucked the little bodies into her bag. After resetting the traps, she headed further north. If she was lucky, something would have died of cold. Caribou ran this way. The occasional moose. Bears and wolves, too. Not a good place to wander through, but the idea of going near the river turned her bones to water. She had rope, a simple sled, and a few sharp blades on her. It would have to be enough.
The sharp crack of snapping bone stopped her in her tracks. Her nose filled with the scent of smoke and cooking meat. Up ahead, something screamed, then went silent.
An animal noise. Hanna let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. She should turn back. Instead, she inhaled deeply and stepped forward, toward the heavenly smell of life. Her snowshoes scuffed on something as she moved. She glanced down as she passed the spot. The impression of a bare foot had been melted into the ice.
Cold fingers moved to the handle of her bone knife. She pictured her parents. Frozen tears clinging to her mother’s eyelashes. Her father’s strong hands shaking around hers. Whispered promises that things would get better. That they would surely be forgiven. That someone would come to bring them home.
A light flickered through the trees. Hanna stopped walking and squinted at it. Fire, licking hungrily at a huge, dark shape, and behind it, movement. She edged a bit closer, clinging to the skeletal trunks.
Splashes of red and long black legs stood out sharply against the snow. A moose. Something had taken down a moose. It crouched over the body, back hunched, head and one arm buried in the creature’s stomach. The exposed hand, clawed and bloody, was sunk deep into the moose’s shoulder. Tongues of flame licked over skin the color of ashes. Where he touched the flesh, it cooked instantly. Her world narrowed down to that hand, a faint sizzling sound, and the wet rip of meat being torn.
Finally, the dead man from the river looked up from his kill. Blood dribbled down his chin and fell hissing into the snow. His eyes seared streaks of impossible brightness into her vision. She flinched away from his hate-filled gaze and squeezed her own eyes shut. He was still visible, burning crimson through her eyelids. It was too late to run.
After a moment, the radiance hammering at her vision dimmed. A loud, sickening crack nearly drowned out the soft huff that preceded it. The next breath she drew in was warmer. It slid smoothly down her throat rather than bite at her nose. The mouth-watering smell grew closer.
Carefully, Hanna cracked her eyes open. The dead man was no longer looking at her. Leaning away, he busied himself with the lower half of the moose. His collar had slipped open, exposing a deep swathe of pale skin. Brown smears painted the flesh of his chest. Below them lay a deep gash. Someone, or something, had tried to dig out his heart and very nearly succeeded. Yet he lived, or at least moved, and tore into the remaining meat with the ravenous fury of a wounded beast.
For the moment, the monster had dismissed her. If she backed away, slowly, she might survive a retreat. But when she lowered her eyes, she found the front half of the moose had been shoved toward her. Its dead eyes were already clouding over.
“For me?” she rasped.
He gave her a sidelong glance, his pupils little more than embers, and nudged it half a little closer. Unfamiliar syllables flowed from behind his red teeth. She didn’t understand a word of it, but the tone—the tone needed no translation.
Stop making a fuss and eat.
“I—” Her eyes prickled. “Thank you.”
He laughed at her, a tired, rusty sound, and went back to his meal.
Dragging the moose back took hours. It was a quiet walk. All the birds had made themselves scarce, and though the air was filled with blood, not a single predator stirred as she made her way back to camp.
When she told the others what had happened, the story was met with unease, but hunger made it more palatable. Still, her mother bowed her head before eating, hiding behind a veil of white hair. “A fallen god,” she murmured in a quavering voice. “Forsaken.”
“Is he an exile? Like us?” Hanna asked. She hadn’t known gods could be exiled. It made sense, though. Why wouldn’t the deities who turned their backs on loyal worshippers go on to forsake each other?
“Don’t even think about it, Hanna,” her mother said sharply. “The gods are not kind to the likes of us.”
Hanna thought of bright eyes and a red-stained smile, and took another bite. “Then he must not be a god.”
The third time Hanna encountered the dead man, she sought him out deliberately. It was almost spring now. Winter never quite lost its grasp on the north, but the ice was damper, shinier. Wet snow clung to her boots. Weak, watery sunlight poured down from above and was refracted until the warmth had been leached out. Beneath the tundra, hungry earth swallowed it whole. Things should have been getting easier, but they had too many people. Game was scarce. The plants weren’t big enough. They needed help.
Fire licking through the trees had become… not a common sight, but not an uncommon one, either. A simple code of conduct had developed: if sparks flew up in the distance, you watched until they died down. If the flames flared up instead, hunters and foragers stopped what they were doing and left the area. If you heard screams in the night and tasted a stranger’s boiling blood on your tongue, you curled up in your caribou-hide tent and waited for morning. An approach based on avoidance. By all accounts, it was a success, but it rubbed her nerves raw.
Screaming in the skeletal woods wasn’t uncommon, either. Sometimes, his shrieks dripped with a bottomless, inhuman hatred. Other times, they held only pain. Hanna stared out into the forest around camp and thought. She told the chief and her mother when she’d made her decision, but she headed out alone. Ice sheets groaned under her feet. Brittle branches clawed at her furs. The forest tugged her closer. Deeper. Toward the specter which dwelled in its heart.
She didn’t so much spot him as stumble across him in the shadow of a scorched trunk, eyes closed, curled on his side like a wounded animal. The ground around him was bare and baked solid. The open wound in his chest glistened wetly by firelight, its edges deep and ragged. It looked wider than before. Asleep, he looked peaceful. Like he had in the river, before he’d started moving. For one long moment, she was frozen, hesitation binding her in place. The next step she took sent up sparks.
His head snapped toward her at an awful angle, eyes unbearably bright and blisteringly hot. A familiar wrath burned within them. The bitter taste of it lay heavy on her tongue. Raw, overflowing, desperate. A mirror to the hopeless seething that rested thick like fat beneath her skin.
Hanna had been born among the snows with second-hand scars cutting ragged holes in her heart. She was one of the lucky ones. Her parents’ hearts were little more than frozen shards. If you looked into their eyes, you could see it: the glittering broken things that remained. Fragments of kindness, of determination, of yearning, and behind them, things less recognizable. Pieces of two human beings who had once been safe and happy, and were now only shadows. For all the dead man’s terrible brightness, he was the same.
The skin of her face felt raw and tender. It hurt when she opened her mouth. “You’re dying out here, aren’t you? You’re alone and hurt and freezing, and it’s going to kill you.”
No answer. No sign of comprehension in his narrowed eyes. Jagged claws dug restlessly into the earth, but he held still as she edged closer, and the sparks licked harmlessly at her boots. His exposed heart lay still in his chest. She stopped a few feet away from him and reached into her bag.
A wall of fresh heat slammed into her, scorching her hair, burning her throat. She forced herself to move slowly while she struggled not to cough. The insides of her mittens were slippery with sweat. Unless she wanted to drop something, she had to take them off.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I want to help.”
The air cooled to the level of a comforting bonfire. After a second, she risked looking up. His red-stained face was slack with confusion. Wide eyes peered down at her bone needle and roll of sinew, then back up at her. She smiled, stiff, awkward, and too genuine for comfort, and held them out.
Nicola Kapron has previously been published by Portal Magazine, Neo-opsis Science Fiction Magazine, and in anthologies from Nocturnal Sirens Publishing, Rebel Mountain Press, Soteira Press, All Worlds Wayfarer, and Mannison Press. Nicola lives in Nanaimo, British Columbia, with a hoard of books—mostly fantasy and horror—and an extremely fluffy cat.