At first Mkab didn’t know what he was hearing. Doom, doom, came the sound from down in the valley. Despite the thick cover of trees, it thrummed and carried all the way up to Mkab’s ridge. For a panicked moment he wondered if it was an earthquake. A part of him was reminded of the sound of scatterguns. But the ground wasn’t shaking, and scatterguns were useless in the jungle.
The savages are beating their hunting drums, he told himself. He imagined the size of the things, great big sewn-together skins stretched over a wooden frame as big as a house. Priyat had told him earlier that day how the Aaman would beat the drums with great wooden clubs, driving out a pounding and complex rhythm on skins of all shapes and sizes, to whip the warriors into a hunting frenzy.
At the top of the ridge, though, Mkab could only hear the big bass ones. Theirs was a steady beat. Doom, doom.
Mkab heard Priyat stirring in his tent. He sighed and prepared for another lesson in barbarian culture from the young professor. “Is that the m’pai I hear?” Came a muffled voice from priyat’s tent.
“I don’t know what that means.”
“The drums.” There was the sound of a zipper between beats of the drums, and Priyat emerged into the firelight. “We could find them tonight if we follow that sound.”
“No. One of us will break a leg climbing down the ridge in darkness.”
“The Aaman won’t harm you, Mkab,” Priyat said. “They hunt for jaguar and panther.”
“I am not afraid of savages,” Mkab insisted. Doom, doom, the drums seemed to reply. Mkab wondered if they were getting closer, or if it was just his imagination. “The jungle is very dangerous, especially at night.”
Priyat sat by the fire and hugged his knees. Not for the first time, Mkab thought about how childlike the professor seemed. “Is that how you view them? As simple savages? They have a rich culture.”
Mkab grunted and threw his thin braids out of his eyes with a toss of his head. “They live in the jungle and use bows and arrows. What else would you call them?”
Mkab gave a throaty laugh. “On that we agree.”
Priyat said nothing. He poked at the fire with a branch as the drums sounded between each crackle of the flames. The faraway rhythm was beginning to lull Mkab. Doom, doom. Doom, doom.
He shook his head to stay alert. “You should sleep now so you don’t fall asleep on watch,” he told Priyat.
“Quite right,” he said sullenly. “I just...I wish I wasn’t missing this.” He retreated to his tent. Mkab wondered if Priyat’s view of the Aaman would change once he saw their savagery up close.
Doom, doom. Mkab could tell that Priyat wasn’t sleeping. His breath was shallow. It was so quiet between drum beats that Mkab could hear a snake slithering through a tree nearby. He held his rifle close and drew his itzla, laying it on the ground beside him in case he needed to cut himself free from the choking grasp of a soutal snake.
Doom, doom. As the fire mellowed, Mkab noticed his sight and hearing growing sharper. He could make out the spaces between the trees around them, and a gentle hum accompanied the drums, filling in the space between each beat. The frogs and crickets were singing along to the Aaman’s rhythm.
Mkab watched the snake slither by the campsite. It looked like a black, twisting log. The creature wouldn’t dare come too close to the fire – snakes sensed heat better than they could see, Mkab knew. He was more worried about a jungle cat, but even though they were stealthy predators, their reflective eyes could be a dead giveaway. Even so, Mkab kept a finger on the trigger of his rifle. It was designed for combat, not for hunting, but a single bullet would easily kill anything the Laxtica could throw at him.
Doom, doom. As Mkab watched the snake slink away, he could hear another sound underneath the hum of the crickets, between beats of the drums. It was another rhythm, more complex. Da-da doom da-da doo-da-doom, doom da-da doo-da-doom. Mkab’s pulse quickened. There were more drums, and they were getting closer.
“Professor,” he whispered. “There are more drums.”
“They are hunting,” Priyat said from his tent. Doom, doom. “They will roam in groups all around the valley, searching for their spirit animals. Tooth lizards, jaguars, panthers, soutal snakes, lightning snakes, even biterfish.”
“Won’t the drums scare their prey away?”
“Not if they are vigilant. Besides, you must remember that they are being hunted in return, especially by the cats. They will not face a group, but one or two noisy hunters can be caught unawares.”
“Why would they hunt at night?”
“It is the true test of a warrior’s skill.” Mkab heard Priyat sit up. “You were never interested in all of this earlier.”
“It could be important now. What if they come upon us?”
“They do not hunt humans.” Doom, doom.
“But will they fight me?”
Priyat yawned. “I speak their language. We will be fine. Shouldn’t I get some rest, if I am taking second watch?”
Mkab heard Priyat lie down on his sleeping bag. He added more wood to the fire and repositioned his rifle across his legs. The drums continued, but Mkab could no longer pick out a rhythm. They seemed to be coming from several places at once, though they were still being driven by the great big bass ones. Doom, doom.
Haunting ululations rose up from the jungle valley, and Mkab shivered. It was a cacophony of high-pitched wails and moans. Mkab was reminded of the hei’!a’na of his homeland, the laughing dogs. They really are savages, he thought.
A branch snapped behind Mkab and he stood up, wheeling around. His finger was on the trigger, but the barrel of his gun pointed at the twisted trunk of a tree. His eyes darted to and fro, but the spaces between the trees seemed empty. He stopped breathing and tried to listen for movements.
The blur of movement caught his eye just in time, and he threw himself against the trunk of the tree as a figure came out of the jungle, painted all in black. It cried a piercing, musical scream and threw a spear at Mkab. The shaft missed Mkab’s guts by mere inches and sailed past him into the gloom.
Mkab did not scream in reply, but his rifle did. Light and din ripped through the darkness, and Mkab saw the black figure tumble into the fire. Incredulous, he stared at the body.
The bullets had ripped through its back and its chest and face were quickly being consumed by the campfire, but it was unmistakeably troll-like in appearance. Hama, the professor calls them, Mkab thought as he tried to slow his breathing. Or Aaman, the local name for them. The body was bow-legged and squat, with wide shoulders and coarse body hair. Mkab couldn’t see the face, but he could imagine that ape-like, insipid look. And Priyat had me nearly convinced that the trolls were harmless. He threw a spear at me. Savage. It’s no wonder they used to be slaves. They’re not good for much else, other than fighting.
Doom, doom. Mkab looked at his rifle, the great equalizer. Without it, the troll could easily have bested him physically. He looked back at the body and wondered if it would be prudent to pull it out of the fire.
As he took a step forward, wondering why Priyat hadn’t said anything about the screaming or the gunshots, something slammed into him from the side.
He slid across the moss and roots of the jungle floor. His rifle flew from his hands and into the blackness. Something was on top of him, something big and hairy. A cat? He wondered. It was heavy. Mkab gripped his foe and continued to roll.
For a moment, Mkab felt weightless. He nearly screamed when he realized that he was falling off the ridge. He landed on soft, slippery soil and the wind was knocked from his lungs. The creature, whether beast or troll, rolled with him, across sharp rocks and thick shrubs as they gained momentum. Mkab couldn’t slow himself down, try as he might. His ribs struck something big and hard in the darkness, probably a tree, and he felt something break. Even that didn’t stop him.
Doom, doom. He tried to get to his feet but his ankle turned the wrong way and he fell again, eating dirt and chipping teeth. Finally he stopped fighting gravity and let the jagged descent carry him where it would.
He landed on something soft.
“Unghhh,” he managed.
A pair of eyes were staring at him. They were white and wide, the only things that Mkab could see in the gloom. The pupils didn’t move.
Doom, doom. He had landed on a troll. Mkab screamed and punched it in the face. He heard a wet snapping sound at the head lolled back and forth. As Mkab knelt on the savage’s chest, he realized that it had died in the fall.
Mkab’s training took over and he checked his wounds. He didn’t bother to count the bruises and scratches, which he couldn’t see in the darkness, but he could tell right away that his ankle was sprained and a rib had been cracked. Sitting up made him feel dizzy, so he added concussion to the mental list.
“Fuck,” Mkab said. It hurt to say anything. It hurt to breathe. He lay back and waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. After waiting for several drum beats, it didn’t seem to be improving. Mkab wanted to scream obscenities until he was hoarse, but he knew it wouldn’t be good for the blood leaking inside his skin.
He tried to think of a time he’d been in a worse situation. War was less scary than this, he thought. At least then I could see my enemy.
Doom, doom. Mkab could hear more drums. They seemed to be surrounding him. The jungle was a murky thing that he could hear more than he could see – leaves rustled and crickets chirped between the frantic beats of the hunting drums.
Doom, doom. The drums sounded as though they were getting closer. With a sinking feeling, Mkab realized that he’d lost both of his weapons.