Mkab tried to stammer something as he pointed at the fairy’s face. “Your...your eyes. They’re glowing like the mushrooms.”
The woman tilted her head at him and smiled. “Luz’i’na kray’im tatu,” she said. The cobalt glow of her eyes was both chilling and compelling. She pointed at his face. Mkab stood back up. He forgot to favour his good leg, but his feet felt numb and light as cotton. There was no pain.
Mkab wanted to kiss her again. He’d forgotten all about the trolls, his injuries, the dangers of the Laxtica. He couldn’t even hear the drums. He leaned forward and tried to grab her, but she danced away, laughing.
Her laughter was like music, and her eyes were white-hot coals. Behind and around her, the jungle was coming to life. The grey leaves of the trees became a vivid green. The mushrooms glowed like tiny torches on the ground, swaying with the laughter of the fairy’s music. The roots of the trees writhed like snakes, and Mkab started to dance away from them to protect his feet.
“What was in that mushroom?” he asked. Mkab didn’t realize that something he ate could hit him so quickly. He wondered why she had fed it to him.
The jungle glowed and pulsed to the music of the crickets and frogs. Oh. I can see in the dark.
DOOM, DOOM. The drums were deafening, beating like the pulse of a giant black-blooded heart, somewhere beyond the lights and sensations of the fairy’s ring of mushrooms. The wailing of the trolls came back to Mkab then. It sounded like demons shrieking in the night.
The fairy ran up to him and put a hand on his chest. “All’atz yatu,” she whispered. Her scent filled Mkab’s nostrils again and he shivered. Before he could take her in his arms, she grabbed his wrist and started pulling him away. Away from the mushrooms and into the livid, pulsing jungle.
DOOM, DOOM. Drumbeats pulsed and throbbed around Mkab as the wailing of the trolls became shrieking laughter. Branches became hands that grabbed at him as the fairy led him swiftly through narrow pathways between the trees, her hair trailing between them like a river of liquid obsidian.
“Where are we going?” Mkab asked. With his free hand he carefully slid his dagger back into his belt.
“Hass,” she whispered urgently.
DOOM, DOOM. The smaller drums and the wails of the trolls were receding, but the big bass throbs were getting so close that Mkab could feel them in his chest. He and the fairy reached a wall of rock with jagged edges like teeth. She knelt down and slunk along the wall and Mkab mimicked her.
Their progress was slow. The leaves whispered words in a susurration of unknown languages as Mkab’s footfalls made the moss sigh. The ridge behind Mkab was getting lower and lower as the pounding of the bad drums grew louder and louder.
Mkab saw an incandescent glow ahead. Tall, writhing shadows danced across the trees in silhouettes of amber and orange. Shit, he thought, I’ve found the village. I wish I had my radio. He watched as the fairy sunk down to the ground on her stomach and began to crawl forward. Not knowing what else to do, he did the same, hoping that he didn’t crawl over a deathfrog. It’s too late now to go back. Wherever she’s taking me, we have to get past the trolls.
As they crawled, the ridge sloped until it was a knee-high ledge. Mkab dared to look up. There in front of him was the troll village.
Sure enough, the drums were there, bigger than Mkab had imagined, as tall as the trees of the jungle. Aaman painted in red were beating the skins with huge, gnarled clubs. The low wooden huts were bathed in the glow of a great bonfire, its tendrils reaching up to the stars like fingers. Around the fire, trolls with the snarling faces of demon animals danced and chanted, shrieking at each other across the flames.
It’s no wonder they sent us in, he thought. Priyat is a fool. These savages are brutal. They might say it’s about the land, but no good ever came from giving trolls their freedom.
“Ay’ret,” the fairy whispered as she forced Mkab’s head down. I’m not being cautious, he realized. Is it because of the mushroom?
He heard the trolls approach before he saw them. His companion shrieked and started to flee. Mkab got to his feet, cursing himself for losing his rifle. The trolls never would have stood a chance, but all he had left was the knife. The trolls crashing through the trees toward him had spears. Mkab drew the knife and prepared to die.
He wasn’t expecting a rock. It was the size of a fist. It sailed through the air, too quickly for him to dodge, and struck him in the temple. His vision swam and he lost his footing as the trolls came out of the shadows. Unbidden, his grip on the knife loosened and he watched it slide away from him on a bed of dark blue moss. He was watching his hand reach for it as his vision faded to darkness.
When Mkab awoke, his head was pounding. Or is it the drums? Am I dead? The pain in his ribs and ankle had returned, and his left eye wouldn’t open. As his vision returned, he could see the stars above him, and the full moon staring down like an accusing, baleful eye. He looked down to find that he was bound by his wrists and ankles with rough rope, tied to stakes. The heat of the bonfire was nearly cooking his body, and the painted trolls were dancing around the flames right in front of him.
“Well, chap, looks like we’ve bought it.” Mkab looked over to find that Priyat had been tied up next to him. The professor appeared uninjured, and calm considering their predicament.
Mkab struggled with his bonds, but they held tight. “Talk to them,” he said. “Tell them to let us go.”
Priyat shook his head. “They won’t. Only the elder speaks with outsiders.”
Mkab craned his head about, looking for a troll who seemed more important than the others. The dancers were still circling the fire; most of them looked like women. They were naked but for loincloths, and their bodies had been painted to look like the night sky, dotted with stars. Each left breast was a milky white, like the moon. On the other side of Priyat, the drummers in red continued to pound away, as warriors painted like the wild animals of the Laxtica brought back their trophies and arranged them in rows between the giant drums. Each warrior would stand behind his kill, and Mkab noticed that every troll’s body paint matched the animal that they had hunted.
However, there was no elder to be seen. The women continued to dance and wail, and the warriors stood patiently behind their animal carcasses as they watched the other trolls circle the fire. More warriors were arriving, and they added their kills to the rows.
As Mkab watched, four warriors painted like sleek midnight panthers entered the circle of firelight, carrying a pair of bodies between them. Troll bodies, Mkab noted. I shouldn’t be surprised that they even hunt their own kind. Wait...
A panther-warrior shot Mkab an intense glare as he passed. The body that he was holding by the ankles was riddled with holes, too small to be made by a spear. Those are the trolls I killed. They’ll sacrifice me to their troll gods for what I’ve done. Mkab struggled against his ropes again, but the bonds held tight and his ankle was throbbing so much that his vision spotted for a moment. Even if he were to escape the stakes, Mkab knew that he was surrounded, wounded and without a weapon. The battlefields of his youth had never seemed as hopeless as the troll village in the Laxtica.
“Ah, two brave warriors have fallen to their intended prey,” Priyat said.
“They tried to kill me,” Mkab muttered. Let the idiot see them for what they really are.
“And you prevailed, proving yourself the stronger warrior. They will respect you more now.”
“Then why am I tied up?” Wait a minute. “You said they didn’t attack humans.”
Priyat did not reply. The drumming had ceased. The trolls were silent. The women formed a ring around the fire, and the men were arranged behind their kills. The trolls that Mkab had slain were laid out at his feet.
“What’s happening?” Mkab asked.
“Quiet,” Priyat whispered.
“Suck a troll dick.” Mkab struggled again, uselessly. As he pulled at the ropes, a chorus of wails rose up from the collected trolls, splitting into a polyphony of voices. From a hut, a huge, grey-haired troll emerged.
He was painted like no animal Mkab had ever seen. His torso and bare legs were painted in strange silver glyphs, and large bones had been tied into the braids of his hair. They rattled as he walked. His skin was wrinkled and sagging, but his arms and legs were still powerfully muscled, and although his posture was stooped like all trolls, he towered over the others in the village clearing.
The large troll stopped in front of Mkab and Priyat and took a deep breath. He did not speak so much as sing:
“Ooyam varoyaye aamang uchhh.” His voice was a penetrating bass, and when he sang and moved his arms, his painted glyphs seemed to dance.
Professor Priyat began to reply in a nasal, tenor tone. His hands twitched; Mkab figured that Priyat was supposed to use the same gestures as the trolls when he spoke. The response Priyat gave was incomprehensible to Mkab, but it sounded a lot like begging.
“Oobom,” the silver troll said as he waved his hand. Suddenly four warriors stepped forward and pried Priyat’s stakes loose. Nobody moved forward to assist Mkab, and he watched in anguish as Priyat was released from his bondage. The professor rubbed his wrists and looked down at Mkab.
“They have released me so that I can speak with the elder properly,” he explained. “I am certain that he will have questions for you when he is done with me. I will translate for you, if they decide to let me live that long.”
Mkab held his tongue. He watched as the elder and Priyat moaned and grunted and wailed and hummed at each other, their arms flailing nonsensically. Occasionally, the elder would gesture at Mkab, or at the dead trolls. As the conversation went on, the elder’s voice grew louder, and Priyat’s became meeker. Finally, Priyat turned to Mkab.
“The elder wants to know if you killed those Aaman there, beneath your feet.”
“What should I tell him?”
“The truth. He already knows it was you; cats generally don’t shoot their victims, and they tend to eat what they kill.”
“It could have been you.”
Priyat shot Mkab a withering look. “Things will go better for you if you tell the truth. They respect physical prowess. The elder will never believe that I slew two of his finest warriors.”
“Fine, do it. What choice do I have? Make sure to mention that those fucking savages attacked me first.”
“I’ll be sure and leave out the ‘fucking savages’ part.”
“Tell him whatever you want. I can’t stop you, and I don’t think they have a feast planned for us since they already tried to kill us and tied us to fucking stakes beside their giant bonfire!” Mkab wasn’t the praying sort, but he was seriously considering petitioning any god that would listen for help. If only I hadn’t left that transponder at the camp, he thought, the crew would come and rescue me, and show these beasts what hunted really means.
The elder said something to Priyat, and another small dialogue ensued. All the while, the bonfire crackled and the trolls were all ears.
“The elder wishes to know why we are here,” Priyat said.
“That’s between you and him. I’m just your guide.”
Priyat and the elder sang and flailed again.
“He doesn’t believe me. I’ve told him that I’m just here to learn more about their culture, but he says that he found some...human magic at our campsite.”
“Human magic? Even an inbred troll idiot should know that magic doesn’t exist.”
Mkab had no idea how accurately his words were being translated, but as Priyat spoke to the elder, a group of unpainted troll children began bringing items out of the elder’s hut. As he watched them pile his equipment at the feet of the elder, Mkab began to laugh. He found that he could not stop.
“What’s so funny?” Priyat demanded. “Our lives are at stake here, Mkab.”
Mkab wiped the smile off his face. “Then why were you so calm before? If the elder wants to know, that’s a radio, and my survival gear, and a...” A transponder. A little electronic beacon so my crew can come and rescue me. “Well, he’ll never understand what those things are for.”
“Why do you have a radio?” Priyat demanded.
“In case we got lost.”
“The elder doesn’t believe you. And neither do I. You’re not a guide, are you?” Priyat gestured to the elder, and he nodded. One of the red warriors stepped forward and smashed the radio to bits with a single swing of his club. Mkab winced as the warrior did the same to the small plastic box that transmitted his location back to the crew.
“Do you think I’m an idiot?” Priyat asked. “You’re afraid of the jungle, and even more afraid of the aaman. A Laxtica guide would at least be local. I know the government has been paying people like you to try and oust these innocent people so that they can deforest and make more farmland.”
Mkab writhed against his restraints. He didn’t care if the trolls killed him; he just wanted to strangle Priyat first. “You’re a bigger fool than I am if you think these people are innocent.”
“And you’re a fool to think that I was ever deceived by you.”