As Mkab scowled, Priyat stepped back and stood beside the elder troll. The two of them spoke quickly in hushed voices, humming and gesturing. It wouldn’t have mattered if they’d been shouting; Mkab couldn’t understand a word of the bizarre sing-and-flail troll language.
“If you’re going to kill me, just do it,” Mkab spat. “It won’t matter. One day the army will come and kill all of you.”
Priyat folded his arms. “The army will never find us. We move every season.”
“We? You traitor.”
“I’m not the one who abandoned all sense of human decency, Mkab.”
“They are savage, and not human.” Mkab gave one last attempt at struggling out of his bonds. It was as futile as it had been the first time. One of the trolls around the bonfire laughed. Mkab felt his fury ebbing away. He’d stared death in the face too many times; fear and rage were for the young. Mkab felt only disgust for the trolls and Priyat. “I’m done talking to you. Kill me, unless you don’t have the balls.”
“You’re more like them than you think, chap,” Priyat said. That brought the blood back to Mkab’s face. “Despite your backwards way of thinking, the aaman greatly respect a fearless warrior such as yourself. As such, they aren’t done with you yet.”
The elder troll raised his arms with a sweeping gesture, and the rest of the tribe made a deafening cry in harmonized voices. Priyat receded into the shadows, his eyes gleaming. The elder sang in a tremulous voice as the painted silver symbols on his body gleamed and danced in the glow of the bonfire. Mkab saw a shower of sparks reach up to the stars; they were giving more logs to the flames. The men switched places with the women around the circle of the fire, and the female trolls began gathering up the spoils of the hunt. Mkab couldn’t turn his head to see what they were doing, but they took the bodies of the warriors he’d killed, as well.
A heavily muscled troll painted like a jaguar approached Mkab, brandishing an obsidian knife. It could have been the one that Mkab had taken from the dead warrior.
“Go on, cut my throat, coward.” The troll didn’t seem to understand him, and approached without a hint of fear or caution. Mkab gritted his teeth but kept his eyes wide open, refusing to face death with fear.
The blade dug into his chest and painted a bright red slash, almost from shoulder to shoulder. It was a skin-deep wound, but the blood still seeped out freely and trickled down his stomach and onto the ground. Then the troll hooked a hand into Mkab’s belt and slashed down, cutting Mkab swiftly and methodically out of the rest of his clothes.
A wizened old troll woman, more flesh and wrinkle than substance, appeared from the shadows to stand beside the elder troll. Like all the trolls, she was naked but for a breechcloth and her torso had been painted much like the elder’s. She had a necklace made of various skulls; the largest one looked like it had belonged to a cat. It hung between her breasts, staring at Mkab through empty sockets.
Her voice was leathery, but it was shrill enough to be heard over the din of the flames. The warriors began to dance around the fire again, and Priyat translated from his seclusion in the shadows as the old woman waved her arms and sang:
“You are naked in the sight of the elder gods, the great hunters of the jungle: jaguar, tooth-lizard, eagle, and snake. We speak through our loyal vessel, the shamaness Avoye. In our eyes you have been judged worthy, for though you are not of the aaman, you have bested their warriors and borne your wounds with courage. You are not of the aaman, but your spirit, your seed, is strong. Your warrior’s blood will join with the blood of the aaman, and make them stronger.”
Mkab rocked back and forth, hoping to loosen a stake or two. Shouting and cursing would only waste his breath; he had little time left before they slit his throat and fed his blood to their cannibalistic warriors.
The burly jaguar-warrior returned, brandishing the same knife. Mkab pulled at his ropes, but the pain in his ankle and ribs were throbbing heavily, and his chest and face wounds were bleeding the fight out of him. The troll stood over him and held the knife against his own palm. In the firelight, the blood looked black. It seeped down from the troll’s hand, invisibly along the obsidian blade of the knife, to dribble onto the gash across Mkab’s chest. The jaguar troll returned to the circle of dancing warriors, and another troll took his place above Mkab. The shamaness continued to sing as each warrior came and let out a few drops of blood onto Mkab’s wound.
Now what? Mkab wondered. I’ll never join them.
Priyat began to translate for the shamaness again:
“The blood of the aaman’s mighty warriors has been given to this strong outsider, that he may draw from their strength and add his ferocity to the tribe. By the elder gods of the jungle, the gods of water and sky, earth and spirit, let the joining commence!”
The red warriors returned to their drums. Doom, doom. The women had returned from the huts, their arms slick with blood. They carried the skins of the slain animals, stretched tight across wooden frames, and others hefted stone slabs between them, piled high with meat. The slabs were placed amongst the coals as the men resumed their dance around the bonfire.
A small figure emerged from the shadows, wearing nothing but bright paint, reminiscent of a tropical bird. Her hips and breasts were small, but her lips were full and sensual, her eyes big, round and dark. In her hands was a clay jug.
She was one of the savages all along, Mkab thought. You fool, she led you right to them. Mkab had no idea why a fairy would be consorting with trolls, but he knew that nobody would bother to answer his question.
The fairy turned to the shamaness, who produced a carved wooden bowl filled with a glowing cobalt liquid. The young woman set down her jug and drank deeply of the thick substance. As she handed the bowl back to the shamaness, her eyes had begun to gleam as they had when she’d consumed the mushrooms in the jungle. She lifted the jug and approached Mkab.
Mkab kept his lips firmly sealed. The fairy knelt down beside him and stroked the wounded side of his face, gently. He wanted to scream at her, but he knew that as soon as he opened his mouth, whatever was in the jug would get poured down his throat. As her earthy scent filled his nostrils, he reminded himself firmly that she was a fairy, and she’d betrayed him. His body responded of its own accord; even it was betraying him. Mkab had never felt so exposed.
“Pa’ish’te lach dee’ann,” she whispered into his ear. A chill ran down Mkab’s spine. The fairy brought the jug to his lips, but he refused to drink.
“Oh’eel,” she said in an urgent tone. “Toh’eel.”
Mkab said nothing. The fairy lifted the jug to her own mouth and drank, then leaned down to kiss Mkab.
No, Mkab thought. It worked with the mushrooms; it’s not going to work this time.
He wasn’t expecting something to jab him in the ribs. Mkab’s cry of pain gave the fairy time to spit the contents of her mouth into his. As Mkab gurgled and choked on a bitter liquid, she dumped the remainder of the jug into his mouth. He tried to spit out as much as he could, but between coughs he had to gasp for air, and it felt as though a fire was going down his throat.
“You crazy fairy bitch!” He screamed, his voice hoarse. He wondered what the concoction was supposed to do. If they’d wanted to kill him they wouldn’t have bothered with poison.
Doom, doom. Doom, da-da doom doom boom. More drums were joining in the rhythm, and the singing had resumed. Warriors were forming a new circle; instead of dancing around the fire, they were twisting and swaying around Mkab and the fairy.
Mkab could feel the heat from the potion spreading throughout his entire body, down to his toes and the tips of his fingers. The fairy was playing with the blood on his chest, drawing swirling symbols on his stomach and arms. She smiled at him, and began to draw more symbols lower down. He struggled, tried not to be aroused, tried to think of the burned bodies of children he’d seen in the war, his father’s funeral, the fear he was supposed to be feeling, anything, but her hands were on him, and then her mouth...
The rhythm of the drums became quicker, a fever beat. The singing was breathy and full of grunts and moans. The women had traded places with the men again, and they were dancing around him, painted and naked. His head swam. All he could see, all he could think of, were thrusts and moans, painted breasts and swaying hips.
The fairy was atop him suddenly, and with no resistance at all he was inside her. No, he told himself, I am not aroused. Yet somehow he was wishing that the ropes were gone so that he could grab her by the waist, or ball his fists in her hair. As she moved atop him, the swirling bodies and crackling flames faded away, until all he could see was her. She was like a dark goddess, wild and free and alive, tossing her hair about as she screamed with abandon. All Mkab could hear were the drums, the song, and her voice high above it all, moaning in her strange language.
The rhythm grew faster, then faster still. She moved atop him to the beat, and her eyes seemed to be glowing brighter. The look she gave Mkab was a hungry one. As the voices peaked in a thunderous crescendo and the drums throbbed as quickly as Mkab’s heartbeats, she dug her nails into his chest, threw her head back and screamed.
It was enough to bring Mkab over the edge. As his entire body tensed and he spent himself inside her, he added his scream to hers. He shut his eyes tight, and the afterimage of the fairy’s body, aglow from the firelight, danced behind his eyes.
She collapsed atop him as a collective sigh went up from the trolls. Blood and paint mingled between their bodies. Mkab opened his eyes and stared at the stars, feeling empty.
The drums had ceased, save for a rapid thrumming rhythm that seemed to be coming from far away. As Mkab listened, it grew louder, and seemed to be coming from above the trees. Wait...
The village was suddenly awash in light, brighter than any bonfire. The circle of trolls broke as they ran in all different directions. Many warriors took up bows and began firing arrows at the metal bird that was coming down from the sky. The fairy woman was desperately pulling at the stakes that held Mkab to the ground.
Mkab saw Priyat approaching him from the shadows. In his hands was an assault rifle. That’s mine, Mkab thought. It looked heavy in Priyat’s spindly arms. There was a blur of dark hair, and the fairy was standing in front of Mkab with her arms outstretched.
“Move.” Priyat said.
“I said move. He’s doomed us all.” He raised the rifle. The woman didn’t step away, but she was shaking violently. Mkab wondered if Priyat would shoot. He didn’t think so, but he hadn’t been expecting the girl to take a bullet for him, either.
Something small and metallic was sticking out of Priyat’s neck, suddenly. He had a confused look on his face before he fell forward into the dirt, landing on top of the gun. Trolls were running to and fro in panic, and one stepped right on Priyat.
As the helicopter descended into the village clearing, Mkab started to laugh. He promised himself that it was the last time he’d ever take on a job in the jungle.
“We can’t let him go,” Marko said. He pushed his small round glasses up his nose. “He’ll run to every free press with the story.”
Mkab nodded his agreement as he puffed on a cigar. Priyat had proven himself to be too dangerous.
“That’s the government’s problem,” Chula said as she put her feet up on the kitchen table. “Not ours.”
“The government will make it our problem,” Mbwann replied as he wiped his eyes.
“Honestly, it’s hard to take you seriously when you’re cutting onions.” Wu was writing up the report.
“Somebody has to feed you.” Mbwann dumped the onions in a wooden mixing bowl. “Nobody can stomach your cooking, Wu. Back to the point, if we let Priyat go, it’ll come down on our heads at some point. Maybe not right away, but the last thing we want is a stain on our reputation or the Minaxan army coming after us.”
“They won’t send the army, they’ll send assassins,” Chula snapped as she lit a cigarette. “Hurry up, will you? I’m starved.”
“Yeah, shooting defenceless trolls is hard work, eh, Chu?” Wu looked up from his papers.
“They’re not defenceless,” Mkab said.
“Is someone still sore?” Chula said with a mock pout.
Mkab pointed at his eye. “You try fighting a wildcat without a gun.”
“Quit bitching.” Mbwann turned on the tap to wash the lettuce. “Bigger risk, bigger cut, we all agreed. You didn’t lose anything vital.”
“Just his pride,” Wu chuckled.
“Leave off it,” Taz said as he stood up from the table. He opened the fridge and poked his head around, and returned to his seat with a beer in hand.
“Can we get back to the point?” Marko was drumming his fingers on the table. “What are we supposed to do with Professor Priyat?”
“Just sell him with the trolls,” Wu suggested.
“We can’t,” Marko said. “The agreement was for just trolls.”
“The empire doesn’t care what we send them,” Wu said as he went back to his papers. “They’ll pay more for trolls, but sending Priyat to them is the only way to silence him...other than putting a bullet in his head. The sooner we get rid of him, the less likely his disappearance will be traced to us.”
“What about the girl?” Marko asked.
Mkab and Taz shared a glance. Taz was the only person he’d told. Mkab’s official report had omitted a few details.
“What about her?” Wu asked. “They’ll take her, too.”
“Better check with the boss,” Mbwann said as he tore leaves off the head of lettuce. “Other buyers will pay more for a fairy.”
Chula stood up. “So we’re slavers, now?”
“You didn’t gripe when Minaxa asked us to remove the trolls from the jungle,” Wu said reproachfully.
Chula tossed her cigarette butt at him. “I did, you just have a selective memory. Remove them from the jungle, fine. Sell them to the Empire, that’s a different story.”
“You can leave anytime you want to, Chu,” Marko said in a low voice.
As she stormed out of the room, Mkab stood up.
“What, you have a problem with this too?” Marko asked him. “They almost killed you.”
Mkab shrugged. “Do what you want with the trolls. I’ll be right back; too much hot air in here.”
Mkab didn’t go outside. He took the hallway from the kitchen to the basement stairs and went down. Farak was standing sentry.
“Come to gloat over them?” He asked.
“No. I just want to spit in Priyat’s face one last time.”
“Be my guest. Maybe it’ll shut him up; he’s been trying to convince me to set him free for hours.”
Mkab chuckled and walked past Farak to the cells. Priyat was at the far end, in a cell by himself so he couldn’t conspire with the trolls. Mkab would visit him in time, but there was somebody else he wanted to see first.
They’d given her clothing, but her face and arms were still caked in old blood and paint. Her hair was a tangled mess. In the cell was a dirty mattress, a pail, and a plate of untouched vegetables. She looked up at Mkab with hurt eyes.
“Ey’ach,” she spat.
“They want to sell you,” he said to her. “The boss will sell you to the sex slavers because they pay the most. This job was big. You don’t understand how badly everybody wanted the trolls off that land. We got paid big money to do it with no questions asked, and even bigger money to sell the trolls instead of killing them. If we didn’t do it somebody else would have, and they’re just savages. So are you, but you don’t belong in an Imperial quarry pit.”
“Oo’sch ulk.” She picked up the plate and threw it at the bars. The plate shattered, and soggy vegetables went everywhere. A piece of broccoli landed on Mkab’s forehead. He flicked it away.
“You’re angry. I would be too. But you’ll forgive me. I got the biggest cut from this job, and I’m going to buy you.”