Devil spawn, that’s what they called it…
Buziba had watched as Udo danced her way into the castle’s embrace like she was performing at one of the people’s gatherings. Those were the special times when the old gods that kept the plains green for the buffalo and made sure the seasons turned were worshipped. She had danced and he had stayed rooted to the spot even when the castle gate had opened with a crash and spewed forth the broken bodies of the birds that had brought it down as its engines started up.
Buziba had watched and there’d been tear tracks on his face as his wife, the woman he loved more than anything in the world, was taken from him. But there was part of him that was grateful, because Buziba was afraid. In the cold harsh light coming from the castle that shone through rather than around you he’d seen something curled in Udo’s belly that hadn’t come from him. No warrior of the savannah produced offspring that looked like that, and Udo had been imprisoned in the cold months long before. So how had it happened?
At first Buziba had tried to stop her from entering the invader’s fortress and she’d fought back, kicking, and screaming, and tearing with her nails until Buziba’s skin was tattered, and frayed, and slick with blood. In the end he’d grabbed her ankles and hung on for both their lives as what hid behind its walls sucked at the landscape like a sponge. That was when that sharp white light had started and he’d seen what lay in her belly, silhouetted against the glare with its tail tucked up tight. Buziba remembered the glitter in the skull faced man’s eyes then when he’d said, ’The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ Buziba just hadn’t realised how good a friend that meant or whose enemy the Adversary must really be.
Now the castle had left, although he could still see it in the distance – a hard unfriendly silver speck that glittered as it moved. He wondered how long it would be before it came close again, but at least behind him the wall was broken and the people were stepping amongst the crystals that had tumbled from its ramparts gathering their loved ones into their embrace.
As Buziba sat cross legged and brooding the vulture appeared.
‘Thank you for breaking the wall. I’m no spring chicken these days and it was getting tiresome flying over it.
The vulture mocked looking to the four corners of the earth. ‘The castle has fled too I see but your wife? Where is she?’
Buziba gestured sadly in the direction of the silver speck glittering like a star on the horizon, ‘Gone to the enemy, but not as far as I would like. She’s no longer like I remember her; all she can think about is what’s inside its walls. I don’t understand. I thought we’d won. We marshalled the entire dead of the plains and brought it down.’ Buziba’s eyes lit up, ‘It was glorious.’
‘It was,’ agreed the vulture, ‘but short lived. The castle will repair itself as it always does while there are people it can prey upon. Soon the crystals will return like salt forming in a rock pool when the sun dries it out. Then all the castle need do is place prisoners inside once more.’
‘Then what’s the answer? We’ve tried to fight it.’
‘Well, I would have told you before, but you seemed determined to go on your stupid quest.’
‘Please, I beg you.’
Buziba stared at the vulture until it shifted uneasily.
‘There’s no need to look at me like that, maybe it wasn’t so stupid. I’ve never had a lot of time for marriage. Anyway, there’s a land the castle hasn’t found yet. I’m not sure how long it will stay that way, but you could go there. It would give you time to prepare if nothing else. Your wife’s bound to tell the Adversaries son about you.’
‘Ah, yes,’ the vulture shuffled its feet and examined something on the horizon. ‘There was maybe one or two trips to the waterhole extra back in the day. Don’t tell me you didn’t get a glimpse of him sniffing around your girl? And what’s in her belly should be pretty obvious by now.
Buziba felt the warmth drain out of him to be replaced by a single thought – he’d make them pay.
‘Good Buziba, that’s it, the vulture was looking at him with its head on one side. The world needs a champion in the war against the castle and its false heaven. Of course, once the war is won there will be the re-distributing, and some will be more elevated than others no doubt,’ said the vulture preening its rancid feathers. ‘I intend to be on the side of history Buziba, and that side is you.’
Buziba’s fist shot out and there was a squawk as he gripped the vulture round its neck.
‘You will help us because I will kill you if you don’t. I will make it my life’s mission,’ said Buziba. ‘Now where’s this land where we can be free? If there’s any fighting to be done it will be after I’ve seen my people to safety.’
‘Actually, it’s an island, but you might have a few problems at first. The locals don’t like visitors.’
Warm wet blood spattered across Buziba’s face as he finished climbing the ship’s gunwale. The rain of cannon shot pouring down on them was proving to be lethal to the men in the canoes. But the enemy fleet was trapped in the harbour half asleep and groggy after carousing all night. He doubted there was a man on board their boats that hadn’t lost most of the contents of their stomachs once already today. It was Buziba and the people’s job to ensure they lost the rest, and what had contained it into the bargain. The pirate’s Queen was bound to surrender if they could stay alive long enough to rest control of her subject’s vessels. Another crash shivered through the wood beneath Buziba’s feet and he spied the enemy captain bawling unheeded commands at the figures rushing hither and thither on the deck.
‘Mine,’ said Buziba and with a savage grin he brained a pirate that was trying to block his path.
‘Don’t kill him Buziba, not yet. We can use him as a bargaining chip,’ answered Chakinde.
Buziba frowned he’d never heard the term and he resolved to ask his friend about it later, but right now it was time to fight.
The pirate captain never stood a chance. Three times Buziba’s war club bounced off his chest until he realised the savage snarling at him on his deck was only toying with him, and it was three times the club snapped bone when Buziba was done. The captain slumped to his knees with blood leaking from his head, neck, and shoulder as the warrior stepped back and let the buccaneer finish his collapse.
‘There,’ said Buziba cleaning his club. ‘She’ll have to talk to us now.’
Chakinde appeared at his side with a face that was a mask of gore, and his friend looked at him out of the corner of his eyes. Although Buziba was dangerous when riled he often thought the smaller warrior took far too much enjoyment in the sport of killing.
‘Oh, she will, look.’
He pointed at the shore. A woman born on the backs of twenty slaves had begun to wind her way to the beach.
‘She’s brave,’ said the warrior, ‘but she needs to learn respect. That’s not how a wife of mine should act. No man should be a slave, no woman either.’
The Queen of their new home didn’t know it yet but she was Buziba’s future betrothed. Because he could see that the vulture gobbling an eyeball on the boat’s prow had been right. The pirate’s island was a green and fertile land and its jungles looked full of animals as diverse as the life he’d seen on the plains before the castle had come and taken it all away. He just hoped the women were the same.
‘This will be our home.’ He stepped over the pirate captain’s body and headed for his canoe where the rest of the people were gathered. ‘Take us ashore. There’s a woman I want to meet.’
Buziba and the people had lived for three score and twenty years amongst the pirates when the castle came.
‘It’s here, father.’
Buziba got to his feet with a wince, sometimes he felt that the only thing mighty about him in his twilight years was his beard although that was truly mighty indeed. Even the aches in his joints ached, but none the less he held himself steady. He hadn’t forgotten the love the castle had stolen from him, although he was happy with his pirate Queen, or the promise that had resided in Udo’s belly with its tail curled up. Something had to be done about the invader.
‘About time. How far son?’
‘Farther than the farthest fishing boats go and behind it the sky is filled with smoke like there has been a great burning.’
‘That will be the land. The castle destroys what it uses, but it’s good that it’s a long way off. Let’s see if we can put an end to it forever this time. Are you ready?’
Buziba’s eldest was first among many and the young man with the animal bones tied round his biceps grinned and nodded happily.
‘I will call the others.’
‘Don’t forget the vulture.’
‘Already here great warrior.’
A shadow detached itself from the rafters and landed on the ground in front of Buziba.
‘Tsk, waiting for me to drop off is it? I may have placed my last skull in the Graveyard Tree but I’ll send you to the next world before I let you feed on me. How have you not died? You were old when I first met you.’
Buziba frowned and tried to focus on the carrion eater’s shrouded figure through rheumy eyes.
‘It is not my time, not while I have a purpose to serve,’ the bird chuckled, ‘and that’s unlikely to run out soon. There are always the dead and dying that need clearing away, always battlegrounds and bones to pick. Do you wish me to announce you to the invader? Every hero should have a herald.’
The old warrior’s frown deepened.
‘Has the fleet launched?’
‘Not yet,’ said his eldest.
‘Then run and get them in the water. The castle travels fast when it wants to.’ He turned to the vulture. ‘As for you, you will stick to the plan like we agreed.’
‘Of course, great warrior, after this they will tell stories of you to their children. I promise,’ said the bird.
Buziba grimaced, they already did that and all that meant was he could hardly go to the latrine pit without being followed by a gang of brats.
‘Are you ready?’
The vulture nodded its head so vigorously it disappeared between its shoulders.
‘Then fly. Go tell them who is waiting for them here and make sure you get them properly riled up.’
With a hop the carrion eater lumbered into the air and before long it had vanished in the direction of the rapidly growing speck on the horizon.
‘Better make sure they’re doing it properly,’ grumbled Buziba and headed for the door. But he hadn’t gone far before a woman’s voice called out behind him.
‘Where do you think you’re going, husband?’
The look that passed over Buziba’s face then would have been unrecognisable to anyone that knew him, but a stranger might have thought it similar to fear.
‘What’s that my love? I have a little business to attend to down at the beach.’
‘Don’t lie to me. Your hussy of an ex-wife has come calling, hasn’t she?’
‘Perhaps, at least I recognise where she lives these days.’
‘That woman’s got a nerve. Tell her if she sets one foot on my island or parks that monstrosity she calls home round here and I’ll be coming down to see her myself.’
‘Of course, my Queen. I’ll just go and make sure she gets the message, shall I?’
There was a snort from behind the bead curtain separating the sleeping quarters from the rest of the hut, and Buziba crept out.
Down by the beach the first boats were already in the water and it was clearly not a moment too soon. The castle was near enough they could see the shape of the vulture flying about its ramparts. It must have been doing its job well because whoever was inside the walls was lobbing missile after missile at the illusive scavenger.
‘Go, my sons and daughters. You know what to do.’
Buziba looked over the massed ranks of his progeny. Many a night he’d listened to the vulture explain how to defeat the castle and what lay inside it and he’d made sure to drum the answer into his kid’s heads.
Soon the boats with the crystals lashed amidships were heading out to where the castle’s shadow skipped across the waves and the first beams from the enemy were flashing down like lightning. At first Buziba’s heart was in his chest because moan all he liked secretly he cared deeply for each and every one of the fruit of his loins. The last thing he wanted to see was them killed. But he needn’t have worried because as the weapons homed in on the armada, they began to hit the crystal’s sides and something strange began to happen. These weren’t the same sort of rocks the castle had ripped from the earth in Buziba’s far away homeland. Instead, they’d been fished from the depths of the azure blue seas around the pirate Queens island and polished and buffed until they sparkled brighter than the sun until you couldn’t see the animals inside. Wherever the beams hit they flashed and sizzled and bounced back off in a million different fragments.
Buziba’s smile was hidden by his beard but those who’d gathered near him on the shore to watch the battle’s result stepped back when they saw the look in his eyes.
‘It’s working, I knew it would.’
That wasn’t strictly true because as his warriors had hauled and manhandled the finest beasts, they could find on the island into their crystal prisons Buziba’s voice had been amongst the loudest to complain. It had been his counsellor the vulture, a bird who knew all about prey, that had persuaded him to continue.
‘The castle can’t use the dreams of animals to keep it afloat. It’s something humans have forgotten,’ the vulture had said and Buziba had grunted and kept his grumbles so that only the closest could hear from then on. No one wanted rid of the castle more than he, and he was prepared to try any hair brained scheme if it held the possibility that it might work.
Buziba’s grin grew ever wider as he pointed at where the reflected beams were bouncing back at their senders because where they hit the castle’s shine stuttered and died. What was left in their wake was as grey and shabby as the meanest hut in the shanty town where the pirates lived.
‘That’s what it really looks like.’
The massed ranks of Buziba’s sons and daughters held their weapons aloft and howled their defiance as the massive craft lurched, but they didn’t approach, not yet. They trusted their father and when he’d told him the fate of the people who’d scaled its ramparts before it gave them cause for concern. Instead, they waited and as they kept pace with it on the beach, they could see that Buziba had been right. Beam after beam lanced down but the warriors were fast, they ducked and weaved and ran across the sand and only one or two were lifted into the air to feed the castles appetite. But it was clear no matter what it did the castle was weakening. At last, with a sound like a thousand trumpets blaring, the gate slammed wide and figures began to appear. But it wasn’t just the noise that caused Buziba’s progeny to stick their fingers in their ears and cover their eyes. The light that escaped the fortress was so bright you could see the ribs in your companion’s backs. Little by little the glare died down and the enemy was revealed standing in a huddle where the waves met the shore like they didn’t want to get their feet wet.
‘Well?’ said Buziba and his fingers itched for the feel of his club. ‘What are you waiting for?’
For a moment the two sides stared at each other and then the first shots from the wrinkled stoop shouldered creatures at the sea’s edge sizzled into the crowd. After that it was a free for all. Warriors tumbled and leapt over each other in their haste to get at the enemy, and the women were the worst. They’d all heard what the castle did to the females it took and none of them fancied spending their lives playing second fiddle to a man.
The vulture saw it all and in between snacks it reported on the battle’s progress to Buziba who was trying not to flinch too much every time he saw one of his son’s fall.
‘Let this be the battle to end all battles,’ said the old warrior to the carrion eater because out of the two of them only one was truly happy, and it certainly wasn’t Buziba. But life had taught the old warrior that sometimes unpleasant jobs needed to be done and he was lucky he and his pirate Queen had kept themselves busy on their island. Because for every casualty there were two to take their place. Finally, everything was quiet. The castle had sunk half into the waves and its inhabitants were scattered across the dunes missing important parts of themselves that they were very unlikely to get back. As for Buziba’s kids, they were celebrating. The old man sat down with his back to the shore and felt the sun warm overhead.
‘It is,’ agreed the vulture hopping off a spine.
‘Will they have to do it again?’
The vulture eye’d one of the rowdier groups of victors. They were hoisting one of the boys onto their shoulders and draped around his temples was what looked like a crown made of seaweed.
‘Although if it happens it’ll be sooner rather than later,’ muttered the vulture when it was sure Buziba couldn’t hear.
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