The smell of sweat and burnt grass filled Chakinde and Buziba’s nostrils as they listened to the hooves stampeding into the distance. When the plain was empty Chakinde lowered his arm. There was still a spear in his fist.
‘Go after them?’
‘No point, we’ve enough, look.’
The lion was still trying to fight them; its paws paddling through the dirt as it struggled for breath.
Buziba made sure Chakinde could see his eyes as he grabbed his spear and tore it from the dying animal, ‘it was a good kill.’ He grinned, his teeth as ragged as a thorn bush and dodged a last feeble blow from the lion as flies swarmed over it’s eyes.
Sometimes Buziba expected the whole plain to erupt. There were more corpses than animals on the plain since the castle had arrived. The insects crawling over the dead that dropped at the tribes feet were the only things doing well. Chakinde bent down to examine the kill for signs of infection, ‘Think it’ll get worse?’
‘It’s already worse, five died in the night. Let’s cut another piece off the head man. I want to hear him squeal.’
‘Is he still tied to the Acacia tree?’ Chakinde fingered the ears round his neck. ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have taken his tongue away; you could hear him all the way to the water hole.’
‘If he is it won’t be for long.’
Buziba pointed into the distance. The ploughshares that had slid through the sky like they were made of grease and their pets could wait, a beam had shot from the castles ramparts and hit one of the crystals that had sprung from the ground. There was a sound like you got when lightning hit a tree and it was lifted into the air along with its prisoner.
‘What are they doing this side of the wall?’ They watched another beam shoot from the castle’s ramparts and lift the corpse of a wilderbeest into the sky. Chakinde saw the expression on Buziba’s face. ‘There’s nothing you can do. You know that, don’t you? We’ve already tried climbing it.’
The castle had brought with it more than just rot. The wall that had sprung up as it tore what was hidden under the soil into the light could have cut diamonds from sun light.
‘Its worse at night; I can hear them crying.’
It was rare to hear Chakinde sound unhappy but he did then. Buziba wasn’t surprised, his wife was in one of the crystals.
‘So can I.’
There wasn’t a man or woman in the tribe that didn’t have a loved one writhing in one of the castle’s prisons. Buziba watched air smear as it battled the crosswinds with its engines.
‘We have to get them back.’
The more adventurous of the tribe had gone exploring before they’d realised what the things nestled in the plains dirt like eggs in unwashed fur did to the unwary. Half of them were still down there trying to find what had happened to the rest; at least they when they weren’t jumping and drooling at shadows. The closer you got to the castle and its defences the worse it got.
‘There might be something.’
It was Wakesa, they hadn’t noticed him arrive but out of the tall dead grass the rest of the family were slipping into the trampled patch around the dead lion. He was was quiet at the best of times anyway, but he went the colour of ash as the rest of the tribe turned to face him. Chakinde was the first to speak.
‘Don’t tell me you’ve been talking to the women again.’
‘You’d be better off talking to us if you want help.’
Buziba sounded less than impressed, and Chakinde spat as he said, ‘Bah, you know most of what they say is garbage.’
‘You haven’t heard what it was they said yet. The miners have uncovered something.’
‘See? I told you garbage,’ Chakinde rolled his eyes. He looked dead already, thought Buziba: like the rot that lay round their feet had gotten inside him. His fingers itched, the back of his neck too. They’d had to put down those who’d been stupid enough to eat the meat from the castles kills already. He tried to pay attention to what his friend was saying. ‘Those mud scratchers never uncover anything more than rocks. I don’t care what they say the castle employed them to do.’
‘Its different, this time. They say they’ve found one of the first.’
‘Those things were the size of mountains Wakesa. We’d know.’
Wakesa pointed toward the horizon, ‘That’s where they’ve been digging.’
By the time the lion was gristle and scraps the families bellies were so close to the ground they felt like they dragged.
‘That’s what the women were talking about?’ It was Buziba who’d spoken, but they could all see the peaks scraping at the sky. They looked like ribs now they’d been shorn of scree and they could have torn the sun from its spot.
‘Like the view?’
The last of the sunlight leaking through the storm clouds had hit the top of a Baobab tree and the shape trailing feathers to the floor.
‘Who are you?’
‘What does it look like?’
It spread its wings.
‘You come from there?’
Buziba nodded in the mountain’s direction.
‘Of course, mighty warrior.’ The bird sounded like it wanted to be sick and it pecked the bark near its head viscously like it wanted to catch something hidden there.
‘Shall I kill it?’ Chakinde sounded excited. ‘They say feathers keep you safe.’
‘Let’s hear what it has to say first.’
‘Wait, did you see that?’
Chakinde jabbed his elbow in Buziba’s side.
‘There it is again.’
This time Buziba did, the feathers wrapped round it were tighter than a shroud, but they’d slipped a little as it shuffled into a better position. He caught a glimpse of teeth, and spit, and old wizened flesh before it pulled them back into place.
‘What are you?’
‘None of your business, but I can tell what you are just by looking at you; you need help, and, and you’re not going to find it out here.’ One wing swept over the carcasses littering the plain. ‘The rot’s already taken the best of them.’
Chakinde knocked an arrow into his bow, but Buziba brushed it aside as the bird lumbered down the branch hopping from foot to foot like it was being pulled on a hook before it launched itself into the air.
‘Let’s go, there’s a storm coming.’
Lightning was pushing its way down the mountains toward the plains, and what it showed between the flashes made Buziba’s heart beat faster than his wife’s feet when she danced round their fire.
‘What do you think they’re made of?’
He pointed at the arches scraping at the sky.
‘It looks like bone, but it can’t be nothing can be that big.’
‘Maybe it’s from one of them,’ said Chakinde, ‘we should go have a look.’
It was weeks before they arrived at the first of the ribs climbing into the sky, and when they did their stomachs were so empty the lion was a distant memory.
Chakinde spat the stone he’d been sucking into the palm of his hand and cocked an ear to the sky listening. The air was thumping like a bull elephant was stamping nearby.
‘That can’t be what I think it is.’
Buziba felt a little uneasy, because his friend had a good nose for trouble. When you saw what had been strung between the ribs, he could see why.
‘It’s a heart isn’t it?’
Wakesa’s voice was so small it could have come from the kid he’d known before they’d drunk blood and milk together and become men.
‘How big do you think it is?’
Leather that looked like it had been torn from the back of dozens of different beasts billowed and wheezed and Buziba saw something twitch in the corner of his eye.
‘What are you doing here. This is a mine, we don’t need yokels here.’
Buziba stamped the end of his spear into the ground and answered the man who’d appeared from behind a stump.
‘You’re one of the deep downers? How did you find this?’ He nodded at the vast skeleton lying sprawled across the landscape.
‘One of our men thought he’d found where the castle’s been burying all its tusks, but when we got digging we knew what it was straight away.’
‘And that is?’
‘It’s a Corvus Capensis.’ The miner saw the look on their faces, ‘A crow; its just a bit bigger than usual. Who are you anyway? Come anywhere near our claim, and we’ll string you up along with the rest of them.’
The man pointed at the heart over their heads and Buziba noticed the needlework where different skins had been sewn together. ‘We’re, “The Not Going Too Far’s”. We need a way to get to the castle. Can that thing fly?’
‘Not yet, it’s been dead generations. The crows were one of the first things the castle took out when it got here, but we have high hopes for it. We’ve only got as far as the heart so far and a lot of it’s still buried. But it’s not ready, not yet.’
The man’s eyes flicked over Buziba and his friends taking in the rot spreading over their skin. You didn’t have to eat the meat anymore, the castles sickness was in the air, the ground too, and nobody liked to talk about the water, but they knew it was in that as well.
‘You’re not going anywhere, and you wouldn’t be any good against that anyway.’ He nodded over his shoulder at where the castles was just visible glittering on the horizon. ‘They’ll wipe you off the map.’
The miner was closer to the truth than he thought. The men weren’t even allowed back at camp now, not since they’d started to cough their lungs up, and scare the kids.
‘Look at us, how much longer do you think we’ve got? They gave us this when they took our animals for themselves. Now, there’s nothing but old ivory and worthless pelts out there. If it carries on, we’ll die, and it’ll spread to you soon.’
For a man who’d just been told he was likely to end his life as the living dead, the miner managed to look pretty happy.
‘Come on; you better talk to the man. He’s got the answers, believe me.’ The miner beckoned them to follow as he crept into the ribcage. ‘You don’t know how lucky you are that you came along when you did. It’s dead of course, but it’s twitched more than since we brought it into the air, follow me.’
Buziba ducked and followed the miner under the Corvus Capensis’ spine as the miner beckoned them further in with a smile on his face. Whatever it was they were trying to bring to life Buziba was glad there was only one. As they came to the end of the ribs, he saw what they’d been hiding.
They’d reached a campfire where a couple were playing cards. The woman was redder than Chinese lacquer, and she was picking her teeth with a sliver of bone. Her eyes flicked like a lizards as she ran them over the family. The man at her side was even blacker than the miner.
Their guide bowed low enough Buziba could hear his back crack.
It was the black man, Mr Sharp, that had spoken. He shifted the stick he was holding over the fire letting flames lick the balls strung along its length.
They’re the ‘The Not Going Too Far’s’ said the miner. ‘They want to go to the castle.’
The man’s face had been painted red like a skull that hadn’t been cleaned properly, right down to the smile shaved into his skin. He shifted so he could get a better look at his companion. ‘They friends of yours?’
‘Not really, I just met them. They’re from the plains.’
Buziba was watching the woman’s eyes. They looked the same as the one’s that crowded round the fire when he woke in the middle of the night and saw the moon was full.
‘Their loss.’ The man returned his attention to his visitors. ‘I’m surprised you’re alive; although judging by your condition it won’t be for long. What happened? You run out of balls?’
Both the ‘Not Going Too Far’s’ hosts nearly fell off their seats when he said that, but after a bit, they managed to control their laughter, and the woman put her cards down.
‘What do you want?’
‘I want a word with what’s inside that castle.’
‘Welcome then, if you’re going to war with it you’re a friend of mine.’ The man grinned with teeth like metal. ‘I’m called me the Adversary.’
‘… and I’m Mrs Sharp.’
The lacquer woman blew Buziba a kiss before turning to her companion. ‘If I win this round we keep them, lover.’
The Adversary’s grin stretched a little further.
‘Deal, or no deal?’
It was only by the time dawn was creeping over the horizon and Buziba was in danger of nodding off that the Adversary slammed down his hand with a shout of disgust. Buziba kicked Chakinde to his feet.
‘Whah? What’s going on?’
The fire had guttered low, and there wasn’t much light to see by, but the triumph on Mrs Sharps face was clearly visible, even if it was the Adversary who spoke first.
‘I suppose at least we’ve got some more cannon fodder.’
‘Just don’t use them up all at once again, honey.’
‘I won’t waste them, I promise, not like last time. They’re our friends.’
The red skinned woman scowled and began to clean herself like a cat, licking and preening until her skin shone. When she finished she smiled and said, ‘come here.’
Buziba stepped close.
Night was falling by the time Buziba and the rest of the ‘Not Going Too Far’s’ were finished with the task Mrs Sharp had given them. His hands felt bigger than yams and full of shattered bone as he put the pestle down.
‘You think it’s going to work?’
He was talking to the Adversary who’d been overseeing operations from where he sat.
‘Of course, another millennia or two and all the goodness in our friend here would have dried up, but it should be fine now. Corvus Capensi are tough customers.’
Buziba thought of the crow who’s body they’d gone through to get here they were plenty tough.
He chopped out a few lines and tapped a thighbone on its side so the what was left of the marrow fell out, and got to work on the next part of the operation.
It felt like someone had shoved the blunt end of a nail up his nose as he snorted what they’d been working on during the night. Buziba was a bit worried he’d taken too much, particularly when the skeleton opened one eye and looked at him like it was hungry.
‘That’s not going to help.’
‘You shouldn’t be able to talk. I just ground some of you up.’
The bird rolled its eyes, ‘Happens all the time. You think you’re the first band of brothers to start nicking my ribs? I’ve had all sorts wander through here.’
It raised it’s beak as Buziba’s vision started to fade. The powder was working its way through his veins like a tidal wave. Soon he was back on the plain, except he wasn’t so sure who was hunting who this time.
‘The castle will have been watching this you know.’ The Corvus Capensis’ voice echoed in his head. ‘Look out for them; they’ve got your number; just like they did mine. At the end of the day, you’re going to have to get technical if you want them off you’re back.’
‘What does that matter? They never see anything from up there.’
Buziba waited for an answer but none came even though the night wasn’t quiet anymore: it had come alight with eyes.
When Buziba woke, his head was banging so hard he could barely tell if he was alive, or dead. He’d remembered dancing with something during the night, and it had been sharp enough to cut. The rest of the tribe were rolling and coughing too, checking different parts of themselves because all of them were covered in nicks and slices as if whatever it was had been very interested in their anatomy during the night.
Buziba listened to the chorus of voices for a minute until the miner’s voice broke in.
‘The castles representatives visited while you were out of it; they say there are mistakes in the contract they sold us. They want us to give the mine back.’
‘What do you mean? Where did you come from?’
The miner coughed and spat, and grinned white as a lion in the early morning light. ‘We’ve left a few presents behind. Now we’re coming with you. There’s not going to be much of this place left soon. There’s no point thinking the castle’s going to let us off for good behaviour like last time they were here.’
Buziba scrambled to his feet, but as he raised his foot the miners eyes nearly popped from his head.
‘Wait, don’t move. You might break it.’
‘What do you mean?’
On the floor by the scuff marks and hoof prints around Buziba’s bed was a tiny stirrup-shaped bone, so small and fragile you could see the dawn shining through it.
‘I don’t know, I think it came from the bird.’
Chakinde had appeared at Buziba’s shoulder, ‘That’s a stapes.’
‘How’d you know that?’
Chakinde gave Buziba the look he wore when he was hunting.
‘Why wouldn’t I?’
When he’d finished telling them all about it Buziba sat back, ‘I know what to do with something like that.’
‘First, we have to get it over the wall.’
More of the miners had appeared from the holes all around them, and the look in their eyes spelt nothing but trouble for the castle and its occupants. Buziba hadn’t told his companions what the few ‘Not Going Too Far’s’ that had come back from their search had said. He’d spent hours listening to what they’d spat into the night, and learnt a thing or two for his troubles.
‘We don’t know what’s on the other side,’ said Chakinde.
‘Doesn’t matter, there’s enough of us to make a difference now.’
By the time they left the miners camp the wind had whipped up something fierce. Soon even the bones of the animals sounded like they were singing as they got closer to their objectice and heard the screams.
‘You hear that?’
Buziba wished the crystals weren’t so clear; some of them were silent and fogged, but they were in the minority, and the air was alive with the sound of screaming. He watched a shard tumble to the ground and shatter into more pieces than a snow storm tearing the occupant inside to bits. But, it was when they reached the top he really got a shock because the wind tearing its way across the ramparts had a lot more than just dust in it. He could hear the sound of his wife.
‘Aanis? That you? Where are you?’
Her voice sounded like it was coming from inside the wall, and he peered over the edge where it fell away clear, and hard, and steeper than a waterfall. At first, Buziba thought it had gone smokey too, but as he put his ear to the surface and listened he heard her clear enough. His fingers crept across the sides, looking for a crack, a fissure, anything he could get so much as a fingernail in before a light snapped on and caught him in its midst.
‘Hold on Aanis.’
The castle was stalking up the wall on legs made like an insect with legs of lightning. Soon its guns started up, and Wakende was torn apart before he’d even gotten a third of the way up. After that the wall began shedding corpses faster than fleas off a dog. When Buziba thought it was all over and the wall had been shaved free of his family he heard the noise over his shoulder start. At first it sounded like cicadas, but soon the echoes bouncing off the rocks were louder than an earthquake.
The woman with the lacquered skin had crept up behind him, and her tongue kissed his ear soft, and faster than a lizard as she leant over to see if he was injured.
‘Is that your wife?’
‘How would I know? I can’t see her.’
Buziba splayed his hands and brought his face closer to the crystal. There was something moving in it that might be Aanis, but he couldn’t be sure. He’d have gladly let himself be captured and stuck inside one of the crystals if that’s what it took to be close to her.
Mrs Sharp pointed at the castle, and the Adversary who’d appeared behind her opened his mouth wide enough Buziba could see right down his throat to what was making the noise. There were so many locusts in there he had to be made of them.
‘That’s better,’ the man wiped his lips, ignoring the odd straggler hopping its way to freedom, ‘watch.’
Where the locusts landed in the dirt, they rubbed their legs together making a noise like the tribes elders when they wanted something. Something stirred in the dirt far below them and Buziba’s feet took a step back.
At first he thought the disturbance was just near the wall. But, as he watched animals began crawling from the soils sloughing mud and rock from pelts that looked like they’d been buried since the first hunter had killed the first Springbok. There were even more than a few humans when he looked close.
‘Your ancestors have a score to settle.’
Soon the plains looked like they were boiling as more and more of the shapes rose above the earth. The birds were the best: they headed straight toward the castles vents until Buziba and his friends could hear the clunk of failing machinery as showers of old feathers rained on their heads.
‘That’ll give them something to think about.’
Buziba could hear the smile in the Adversary’s voice as sparks shot from the castles motors.
‘We better hurry, it won’t be long before they go back.’ The skull faced man leapt from his perch shouting for Buziba to call the miners over his shoulder.
It would have been easier if the wall wasn’t juddering and swaying now like it was made of leaves not crystals that could crush a man to the thickness of a palm leaf. The first of the blocks calved from its side with a sound like women screaming.
‘You staying here? Come on.’
Chakinde had appeared at Buziba’s shoulder before he jumped into space, and when Buziba stuck his head over the parapet he could see him balancing on the biggest block he’d seen yet as it spun toward the valley floor.
‘I’m not going anywhere; not without Aanis.’
Buziba sat down folding his legs underneath him so he could watch the view as a fissure raced toward him and there was a crack as they began their descent to the floor. Pretty soon it was him that was sounding like a woman as he howled and yammered on the way down. When they landed Buziba thought every bone in his body would shatter. But, the only thing that broke was the crystal itself. Shards span away in every direction, and the blast bucked him off like he’d been kicked by an elephant. Afterwards he lay on his back watching dust filter through the air.
He knelt down and stretched a hand to touch his wife’s cheek, because she was lying right beside him.
‘Aanis? Are you alright?’
They lay like that together until a shadow passed overhead, the castle was back; although now it flew like a hyena with its feet burnt.
‘What do we do now?’
Buziba looked around as the miners streamed past faster than zebra’s losing their stripes, and felt the stapes in his pocket.
‘They’re going to need this.’
Buziba opened his hand and showed his wife the bone he’d found.
‘Where did you get that from?’
‘It was a present.’
The castle was lowering itself toward them now, and Aanis was looking nervous ‘Throw it away husband.’
Buziba shrugged, he supposed now was as good at time as ever as he flung the bone at the ramparts and watched it skid along them like a razor. But it was what was happening underneath that was really interesting becuase the gound underneath it was falling away like water. Soon their was a pit that looked lik it reached to the centre of the earth. For a second the little stirrup shaped thing stopped and caught the light before it plunged into the earths guts pulling the castle with it. Pretty soon the fortress was sat right in front of them.
Buziba’s wife didn’t answer straight away. He felt a chill pass through him as the castles door slammed wide. But it was when she turned towards him and he saw the crystals in her smile that he got really worried.
Aaanis’ eyes were greener than a gemstone’s.
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