He ate the carcass in the small dank cave. Outside, the desert baked the dry mountains into slabs of grey, rotting meat, casting shadows, dry, but not cool, thick with darkness. From here he could see down the slope to the cracked dirt and his eyes traced lines across the sand and rock to the traders’ ragged caravan.
The wind blew the encampment about like a pile of little hats. They had stopped where there once was a river, but now there was only dirt. He watched the traders dig their pointed sticks into the ground and pour water inside the hole. They lifted their woven dresses, kneeled beside the mud and hammered the sticks with their fists. The women, a huddled mass swaddled in crimson blankets, buried the dead away from the camp. The ashen hills surrounded their tents like a sunken ribcage.
The barbarian gripped the animal’s calf in his mouth and pulled the skin off. Salty blood ran down his torn, thick and musty beard. He sucked the tendons from between his canines and spit. The meat slapped the ground like a wet rag. With his big toe, he pushed the rubbery string into the dirt until it was dry while he chewed on the gristle.
He had seen the woman coming two days prior but had done nothing to stop her. He had not known it was a woman, had not known a woman at all in years and seeing her now, he was surprised. She must have seen the smoke. He thought he kept the fire hidden enough, far back in the deep cave where only he and his god went. His eyes no longer watered and the smoke did not bother him. She had seen it though. Had known someone would be there.
He tossed the bones outside the cave and watched them fall. The desert swallowed the sound whole and gave nothing back. He sat on a thin stack of animal skins. The pile stained the ground beneath them because he had not tanned or cleaned them. Next to the small circle of stone, which housed the fire, laid his sword and because there was time, the barbarian slept.
In the dream a tangled worm swam inside a dark and vast ocean. Everywhere dark. The sky rained and then hailed as he clung to the raft, kicking against the creature’s thick slippery hide. He could feel the giant scales across his bare feet and it scared him. Several of the boards snapped against the waves and he could see the worm everywhere.
He smelled her coming the last half-mile and woke. He started the fire again and went to the animal’s corpse. It stunk now, its bowels were leaking, and maggots crawled between the organs. He stuck his sword into the shoulder, grasping the creature’s ankle in one hand and pulled. It snapped off and he tossed it on the fire. Ash blew from underneath where the last fire had died. He skinned the leg, tossing each strip into his sleeping pile, while the meat slowly burned. And he waited for the woman.
It was dark when she arrived, panting and dry. He did not stand; instead he struggled with the tough meat on the floor.
Come in, he said.
The woman carried a small jug, which she set down and a leather satchel, which she clung to. She looked at him, sitting naked on the ground, his hair falling into twists and tangles matted with rocks, bone and dirt. Blood stained his skin. Deep grooves ran across his back and large chunks of his flesh had been ripped from his bones, leaving him unshapely distorted.
I could take you, he said, crouching over the fire. Behind him, the woman felt her way towards the cave wall. When her hand found it, she leaned into the cold stone and slid to the ground. She grasped the corner of a nearby animal coat and clutched it. As she pulled the brittle fur towards her, the barbarian grabbed the far end and pinned it. She crumbled. Her head dangled from her body like a coin purse from a belt and it made a dull clunk when it hit the ground. He left her there and she slept.
When he had eaten his fill, the barbarian grabbed the woman’s tiny wrists and ravaged her. She was weak and dry and when he was spent he tossed her on the mats. She curled up, wrapping her thin arms around her like sandal straps, hiding the small sagging heft in her belly. He scratched his chest as he walked to the entrance. He listened to the hooves and looked at the glowing embers.
You must, she said.
I must nothing, he said. He spit on the ground. Go.
I will not, she said.
I will not.
I will rape you again tonight. Then I will kill you and I will eat you and I will not care that your family has died.
My family has died already.
The woman stripped the rest of her rags. Her skin was dark and thick oiled tendrils of hair crawled across her shoulders. He could see her skull through her smooth tight skin. She threw the rags into the fire, picked up her jug and left. He listened to the water slosh in the jug as she stood at the cave entrance and then watched her walk through the night, the desert swallowing her with every step, he saw all of this and then he slept.