Chakinde lowered his arm and the two black men listened to the hooves stampeding into the distance.
‘Go after them?’ said the tall wiry man to his comrade, Buziba.
‘No point, you did it, look.’
The Impala’s hooves still paddled through the dirt but it was having to do it around a spear pinioning it through the chest.
Chakinde grabbed the haft and tore it free. ‘It was a good kill.’ He grinned, his teeth as ragged as a thorn bush and dodged a last feeble blow.
Buziba bent low to check the Impala’s skin. Since the castle’s arrival they’d begun to examine the kills for signs of infection.
‘Think it’ll get worse?’ said the warrior named after the water the plains so rarely saw.
‘It’s already worse, five died in the night. Let’s cut another piece off the head man. I want to hear him squeal,’ said Chakinde.
‘Is he still tied to the Acacia tree?’ Buziba 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 then.’
‘If he is it won’t be for long, look.’
Chakinde pointed at where the silver ploughshare that had slid through the sky at the start of the destruction was visible. The castle had crossed the range it had torn from the soil on arrival and a beam shot from the ramparts hitting one of the crystals that had sprung from the ground at its feet. There was a sound like when lightning hit a tree then it was lifted into the air. The next found what was left of their prisoner.
‘What are they doing this side of the wall?’ said Chakinde as it slid closer and another beam lifted the corpse of a wilderbeest into the sky. He saw the expression on Buziba’s face. ‘There’s nothing you can do. You know that, don’t you? We’ve already tried climbing up to it.’
The wall that had been hidden in the earth was higher than the dead on the plains, but it was still not enough to allow a toe hold on the castle’s surface.
‘Its worse now; I can hear them crying,’ said Buziba.
It was rare to hear him sound so unhappy, but he did then. Chakinde wasn’t surprised, his wife was in one of the crystals that made up the wall.
‘So can I,’ answered his friend.
There wasn’t a man or woman in the tribe that didn’t have a loved one writhing in one of the crystal prisons. Buziba watched air smear as the castle battled the crosswinds with its engines.
‘We have to get them back. I don’t care what’s happened to the others,’ said the warrior.
The more adventurous of the tribe had gone exploring before they’d realised what the crystals that had appeared on the plains did to the unwary. Half of them were still amongst the rocks trying to find what had happened to the rest; at least they were when they weren’t jumping and drooling at shadows. The closer you got to the castle the worse the madness got.
‘There might be something.’
It was Wakesa who’d spoken, they hadn’t noticed him arrive but out of the tall grass the rest of the family were slipping onto the trampled patch around the Impala. He was was quiet at the best of times, but he went the colour of ash when 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,’ said Buziba sounding less than impressed.
Chakinde spat and said, ‘Bah, you know most of what they say is garbage.’
‘You haven’t heard what it was they said yet,’ replied Wakesa. ‘The miners have uncovered something.’
‘See? I told you garbage,’ Chakinde rolled his eyes. He looked dead already, thought Buziba – like the sickness in the dead animals had gotten inside him. They’d had to put down those who’d been stupid enough to eat the meat from the castle’s kills.
He tried to pay attention to what his friend was saying.
‘Those mud scratchers never uncover anything more than rocks,’ said Chakinde. ‘I don’t care what they say the castle employed them to do.’
‘It’s different this time. They say they’ve found one of the first,’ said Wakesa and he turned a few shades paler.
‘Those things were the size of mountains Wakesa.’ Buziba’s arm took in the distant peaks ‘We’d know.’
But Wakesa was pointing toward the horizon too.
‘That’s where they’ve been digging,’ he said.
‘Enjoying the view?’ said the shape trailing feathers to the floor in the top of a Baobab tree .
‘Who are you?’ said Buziba with a look on his face like he’d tasted something sour.
‘What does it look like?’
The vulture let the last of the sunlight hits its jet black wings.
‘You come from there?’
Buziba nodded in the mountain’s direction.
‘No, mighty warrior. But I know them well.’
‘Shall I kill it?’ said Chakinde sounding excited. ‘They say feathers are good for protection.’
‘Not those feathers,’ said Buziba, ‘but 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 the bird 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 really?’ said Buziba.
‘None of your business, but I can tell what you are just by looking at you; you need help, and you’re not going to find it here.’ One wing swept over the carcasses littering the plain. ‘It’s lucky you bumped into me.’
Chakinde knocked an arrow into his bow. But Buziba brushed it aside as the bird lumbered down the branch hopping from foot to foot before it launched itself into the air.
‘Follow,’ said the vulture.
Lightning had begun tp push 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 at night.
‘What do you think they’re made of?’ he said pointing at the arches scraping at the sky. ‘It looks like bone, but it can’t be. No animal’s that big.’
‘Maybe it’s from one of the first,’ said Chakinde, ‘we should go have a look.’
They spent days following the vulture before they arrived at the ribs climbing into the sky, and when they did their stomachs were so empty the Impala was a distant memory.
‘Listen,’ said Chakinde cocking an ear to the sky because the air was thumping like a bull elephant was stamping nearby.
‘That can’t be what I think it is,’ answered Buziba but he felt a little uneasy, because his friend had a good nose for trouble. When he saw what had been strung between the ribs he could see why.
‘It’s a heart isn’t it?’ said Wakesa and his voice was so small it could have come from the kid he’d been before they’d drunk blood and milk mixed together and become men.
‘How big do you think it is?’ asked Chakinde.
‘Big enough,’ said Buziba.
Leather tightened and stretched 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,’ said a squat man who’d appeared from behind a rock.
Buziba drove the end of his spear into the ground and snarled.
‘You’re one of the deep downers? How did you find this?’ Buziba nodded at the skeleton and the heart yoked between its bones.
‘One of our men thought he’d found where the castle’s been burying all its tusks, but when we got digging we found this. 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 unusual, and it’s been dead a long time. Who are you anyway? Come anywhere near our claim, and we’ll string you up along with the rest of the thieves.’
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, not with no feathers. 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 we’ll get there, you’ll see.’
The man’s eyes flicked over Buziba and his friends but the tribe was still healthy. Although sometimes Buziba wondered how long for. 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,’ said the miner, ‘and you wouldn’t be any good against that anyway.’ He nodded over his shoulder at where the castle 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?’ said Buziba gesturing at him and the men. ‘They’ll give us the sickness now they’ve taken our animals for themselves. 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.
‘Not likely. 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 crows 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 once 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.
When they came to the end of its ribs they saw what they’d been hiding.
A man and a woman were playing cards by a campfire. The woman was redder than Chinese lacquer, and she was picking her teeth with a sliver of bone. But the man at her side was even blacker than the miner and he had eyes like a goat.
Their guide bowed low and said, ‘Forgive the intrusion.’
‘Whose this?’ said the black man shifting the stick he’d been holding over the fire so flames could 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 white like a skull, right down to the smile shaved into his skin. He shifted so he could get a better look at the miner. ‘They friends of yours?’
‘Not really, I just met them. They’re from the plains,’ said the miner.
But Buziba was watching the woman. Her eyes reminded him of the one’s that crowded round the fire when he woke in the middle of the night and saw the moon was full.
‘I’m surprised you’re alive,’ said the skull faced man. ‘Although judging by your situation it won’t be for long. What happened? You run out of balls?’
Both of the ‘Not Going Too Far’s’ hosts nearly fell off their seats laughing when he said that, but after a bit, they managed to control themselves.
‘What do you want?’ said the woman.
‘I want a word with what’s in that castle,’ said Buziba.
‘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 Nightime.’
The red lacquered 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?’ she said.
‘Deal,’ said the black man.
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 last hand with a shout of disgust. Buziba kicked Chakinde to his feet.
‘Get up,’ said Buziba.
‘Whah? What’s going on?’
The fire had guttered low, and there wasn’t much light to see by. But the triumph on Mrs Nightime’s 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 beckoned to Buziba, smiled, and said, ‘come here. I’ve got a job for you.’
Buziba stepped close.
It was getting dark by the time Buziba and the rest of the ‘Not Going Too Far’s’ were finished with the task Mrs Nightime had given them.
‘You think it’s going to work?’ said Buziba to the Adversary who’d been overseeing operations from his seat. ‘That was a lot of pounding.’
Buziba’s hands felt bigger than yams as he put the pestle down.
‘Of course, another millennia or two and all the goodness in our Corvus Capensis here would have dried up, but it should be fine now.’
Buziba thought of the crow who’s body they’d gone through to get here and chopped out a few lines of powdered bone. He tapped a femur on its side so that what was left of the marrow fell out and snorted the powder he’d made from the corpse.
‘Aaaaagh,’ howled Buziba because it felt like someone had shoved the blunt end of a nail up his nose. He 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,’ said the Corvus Capensi.
‘You shouldn’t be able to talk. I just snorted some of you,’ answered Buziba.
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 now. 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 anyway.’
Buziba waited for an answer but none came even though the night wasn’t quiet anymore. It had become filled with eyes.
When Buziba woke, his head was banging so hard he could barely tell if he was alive, or dead. He remembered dancing with something during the night, something that had been soft as leather and twice as hot and the rest of the tribe were rolling and clutching their heads too.
‘Everyone alright?’ said Buziba and listened to the chorus of voices for a minute until the miner’s voice silenced them.
‘The castles representatives visited,’ said the miner. ‘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, spat, and grinned like a hyena 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.’
Buziba scrambled to his feet, but as he raised his foot the miner’s eyes nearly popped from his head.
‘Wait, don’t move. You might break it,’ said the miner.
‘What do you mean?’
On the floor by the scuff marks and hoof prints around Buziba’s bed was a stirrup-shaped bone, so small and fragile you could see the dawn shining through it.
‘What’s that?’ said Buziba.
‘I don’t know, I think it came from the bird.’
Chakinde appeared at Buziba’s shoulder. ‘That’s a stapes,’ said the hunter.
‘How’d you know that?’
Chakinde gave Buziba the look he wore when he was having an argument with his wife.
‘Why wouldn’t I?’ I hunt everything said the wiry man.
When he’d finished telling them all about it Buziba sat back, ‘I know what to do with something like that.’
‘Tell us,’ said Chakinde.
‘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 before he’d slept, 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,’ said the warrior.
By the time they left the miner’s 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 objective and heard the screams from the prisoners trapped inside the wall’s crystals.
‘You hear that?’ said Buziba and he wished the crystals weren’t so clear; some of them were silent and cloudy. But they were in the minority, and the air was alive with the sound of the prisoners protests. He watched a shard tumble to the ground and shatter into more pieces than a snow storm as the occupant inside tore to bits. But it was when they reached the top of the wall made from the translucent blocks that 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.
‘Ntombi? 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 Ntombi.’
The castle was stalking up the wall on legs made of lightning and it reminded him of the praying mantis’ that lived in the jungles. Soon its guns started up and 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 red lacquered skin 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?’ she said looking at the woman entombed below them.
‘Yes, I hope so.’
Buziba splayed his hands and brought his face closer to the crystal. There was something moving in it that might be Ntombi, but he couldn’t be sure. He’d have gladly let himself be captured and stuck inside too if that’s what it took to be close to her.
Mrs Nightime 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. All the way down his mouth were locusts and there were so many he had to be made of them.
‘That’s better,’ said the Adversary wiping his lips as he spat some free, ignoring the odd straggler hopping its way up the wall, ‘watch.’
Where the locusts landed they rubbed their legs together making a noise like the tribes elders when they wanted something. Buziba watched as far below them the dirt stirred.
At first he thought the disturbance was just near the wall. But, as he watched animals began crawling from the soil 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 a few humans when he looked close.
‘Your ancestors have a score to settle,’ said the Adversary.
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 castle’s vents until Buziba and his friends could hear the clunk of failing machinery as showers of feathers rained on their heads.
Buziba could hear the smile in the Adversary’s voice as sparks shot from the castles motors and he said, ‘‘That’ll give them something to think about.
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 hadn’t begun to judder and sway like it was made of straw not crystals that could crush a man to the thickness of a palm leaf.
‘You staying here? Come on,’ said Chakinde appearing at Buziba’s shoulder before he jumped into space. When Buziba stuck his head over the parapet he could see him balancing on the biggest crystal he’d seen yet as it spun toward the valley floor.
‘I’m not following you; not without Ntombi.’
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 before they began their descent to the floor. Pretty soon he was yowling and yammering same as the rest 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 he felt 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.
‘Ntombi? Are you alright?’
They lay like that together until a shadow passed overhead, the castle was back; although now it flew like a jackal with its feet burnt.
‘What do we do now?’ said Ntombi and at first Buziba didn’t know. He looked around as the miners streamed past faster than zebra’s losing their stripes, and felt the stapes in his pocket.
‘I’m going to give them this,’ said Buziba opening his hand and showing his wife the bone he’d found.
‘Where did you get that from?’
‘I found it.’
The castle was lowering itself toward them now, and Ntombi was looking nervous ‘Throw it away husband.’
Buziba shrugged, he supposed now was as good at time as ever. So he flung the bone as far as he could and watched it skid along the ramparts like a razor. But it was what was happening underneath that was really interesting because the ground was falling away like water. Soon there was a pit that looked like it reached to the centre of the earth. For a second the little stirrup shaped bone stopped and caught the light before it plunged into the earth’s guts pulling the castle with it.
Pretty soon the castle was sat right in front of them.
Buziba’s wife didn’t answer straight away and he felt a chill pass through him as the castle’s door slammed wide. But it was when she turned towards him and he saw how green her eyes had gotten that he became really worried.
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