Captives of the Flame
There was a roaring in the air. Let cried out and ran forward. Then shadow. Then water. His feet were slipping on the deck as the rail swung by. Then thunder. Then screaming. Something was breaking in half.
Jon and Arkor got him out. They had to jump overboard with the unconscious Prince, swim, climb, and carry. There were sirens at the dock when they laid him on the dried leaves of the forest clearing.
“We’ll leave him here,” Arkor said.
“Here? Are you sure?” Jon asked.
“They will come for him. You must go on,” he said softly. “We’ll leave the Prince now, and you can tell me of your plan.”
“My plan...” Jon said. They walked off through the trees.
Dried leaves tickled one cheek, a breeze cooled the other. Something touched him on the side, and he stretched his arms, scrunched his eyelids, then curled himself into the comfortable dark. He was napping in the little park behind the palace. He would go in for supper soon. The leaf smell was fresher than it had ever ... Something touched him on the side again.
He opened his eyes, and bit off a scream. Because he wasn’t in the park, he wasn’t going in to supper, and there was a giant standing over him.
The giant touched the boy with his foot once more.
Suddenly the boy scrambled away, then stopped, crouching, across the clearing. A breeze shook the leaves like admonishing fingers before he heard the giant speak. The giant was silent. Then the giant spoke again.
The word the boy recognized in both sentences was, “ ... Quorl...”
The third time he spoke, he merely pointed to himself and repeated, “Quorl.”
Then he pointed to the boy and smiled questioningly.
The boy was silent.
Again the giant slapped his hand against his naked chest and said, “Quorl.” Again he extended his hand toward the boy, waiting for sound. It did not come. Finally the giant shrugged, and motioned for the boy to come with him.
The boy rose slowly, and then followed. Soon they were walking briskly through the woods.
As they walked, the boy remembered: the shadow of the plane out of control above them, the plane striking the water, water becoming a mountain of water, like shattered glass rushing at them across the sea. And he remembered the fire.
Hadn’t it really started in his room at the palace, when he pressed the first of the concealed micro-switches with his heel? The cameras were probably working, but there had been no bells, no sirens, no rush of guards. It had tautened when he pushed the second switch in the jeweled dolphin on his bedpost. It nearly snapped with metallic panic when he had to maneuver the girl into position for the retina photograph. Nothing had happened. He was taken away, and his mother stayed quietly in her room. What was supposed to happen was pulling further and further away from the reality. How could anybody kidnap the Prince?
His treatment by the boy who told him about the sea and the girl who taught him to fall pulled it even tighter. If the Prince were kidnaped, certainly his jailors should not tell him stories of beautiful mornings and sunsets, or teach him to do impossible things with his body.
He was sure that the girl had meant him to die when she had told him to leap from the roof. But he had to do what he was told. He always had. (He was following the giant through the dull leaves because the giant had told him to.) When he had leapt from the roof, then rolled over and sprung to his feet alive, the shock had turned the rack another notch and he could feel the threads parting.
Perhaps if he had stayed there, talked more to the boy and girl, he could have loosened the traction, pulled the fabric of reality back into the shape of expectation. But then the man with the black hair and the scarred giant had come to take him away. He’d made one last volitional effort to bring “is” and “suppose” together. He’d told the man the story of the mine prisoners, the one cogent, connected thing he remembered from his immediate past, a real good “suppose” story. But the man turned on him and said that “suppose” wasn’t “suppose” at all, but “is.” A thread snapped here, another there.
(Over the deck of the boat there was roaring in the air. He had cried out. Then shadow. Then water. His feet were slipping and the rail swung by. Then thunder. Then screaming, his screaming: I can’t die! I’m not supposed to die! Something tore in half.)
The leaves were shaking, the whole earth trembled with his tired, unsteady legs. As they walked through the forest, the last filament went, like a thread of glass under a blow-torch flame. The last thing to flicker out, like the fading end of the white hot strand, was the memory of someone, somewhere, entreating him not to forget something, not to forget it no matter what ... but what it was, he wasn’t sure.
Quorl, with the boy beside him, kept a straight path through the forest. The ground sloped up now. Boulders lipped with moss pushed out here and there. Once Quorl stopped short; his arm shot in front of the boy to keep him from going further.
Yards before them the leaves parted, and two great women walked forward. Everything about them was identical, their blue-black eyes, flat noses, broad cheek ridges. Twin sisters, the boy thought. Both women also bore a triplex of scars down the left sides of their faces. They paid no attention to either Quorl or the boy, but walked across into the trees again. The moment they were gone, Quorl started again.
Much later they turned onto a small cliff that looked across a great drop to another mountain. Near a thick tree trunk was a pile of brush and twigs. The boy watched Quorl drop to his knees and being to move the brush away. The boy crouched to see better.
The great brown fingers tipped with bronze-colored nails gently revealed a cage made of sticks tied together with dried vines. Something squeaked in the cage, and the boy jumped.
Quorl in a single motion got the trap door opened and his hand inside. The next protracted squeak suddenly turned into a scream. Then there was silence. Quorl removed a furry weasel and handed it to the boy.
The pelt was feather soft and still warm. The head hung crazily to the side where the neck had been broken. The boy looked at the giant’s hands again.
Veins roped across the ligaments’ taut ridges. The hair on the joints of the fingers grew up to edge of the broad, furrowed knuckles. Now the finders were pulling the brush back over the trap. They crossed the clearing and Quorl uncovered a second trap. When the hand went into the trap and the knot of muscle jumped on the brown forearm (Squeeeeeeraaaaa!), the boy looked away, out across the great drop.
The sky was smoke gray to the horizon where a sudden streak of orange marked the sunset. The burning copper disk hung low in the purple gap of the mountains. A fan of lavender drifted above the orange, and then white, faint green ... The gray wasn’t really gray, it was blue-gray. He began to count colors, and there were twelve distinct ones (not a thousand). The last one was a pale gold that tipped the edges of the few low clouds that clustered near the burning circle.
A touch on the shoulder made the boy turn back. Quorl handed him the second animal, and they went back into the woods. Later, they had built a small fire and had skinned and quartered the animals on the scimitar-like blade that the giant wore. They sat in the diminishing shell of light with the meat on forked sticks, turning it over the flame. The boy watched the gray-maroon fibers go first shiny with juice, and then darken, turn crisp and brown. When the meat was done, Quorl took a piece of folded skin from his pouch and shook some white powder onto it. Then he passed the leather envelope to the boy.
The boy poured a scattering of white powder into his palm, then carefully put his tongue to it. It was salt.
When they had nearly finished eating the forest had grown cooler and still. Fire made the leaves around them into flickering shingles on the darkness. Quorl was cleaning the last, tiny bone with big, yellow teeth when there was a sound. They both turned.
Another branch broke to their left. “Tloto,” Quorl called harshly, followed by some sort of invective.
It moved closer, the boy could hear it moving, closer until the boy saw the tall shadow at the edge of the ring of light.
With disgust--but without fear, the boy could see--Quorl picked up a stick and flung it. The shadow dodged and made a small mewing sound.
“Di ta klee, Tloto,” Quorl said. “Di ta klee.”
Only Tloto didn’t di ta klee, but came forward instead, into the light.
Perhaps it had been born of human parents, but to call it human now ... It was bone naked, hairless, shell white. It had no eyes, no ears, only a lipless mouth and slitted nostril flaps. It sniffed toward the fire.
Now the boy saw that both the feet were clubbed and gnarled. Only two fingers on each hand were neither misshapen or stiffly paralyzed. It reached for Quorl’s pile of bones, making the mewing sound with its mouth.
With a sudden sweep of his hand, Quorl knocked the paraplegic claw away and shouted another scattering of indifferent curses. Tloto backed away, turned to the boy, and came forward, its nostril slits widening and contracting.
The boy had eaten all he could and had a quarter of his meat still left. It’s only a head or two taller than I am, he thought. If it’s from this race of giants, perhaps it’s still a child. Maybe it’s my age. He stared at the blank face. It doesn’t know what’s going on, the boy thought. It doesn’t know what’s supposed to be happening.
Perhaps it was just the sound of the word in his head that triggered off the sudden panic. (Or was it something else that caught in his chest?) Anyway, he took the unfinished meat and extended it toward Tloto.
The claw jumped forward, grabbed, and snatched back. The boy tried to make his mouth go into a smile. But Tloto couldn’t see, so it didn’t matter. He turned back to the fire, and when he looked up again, Tloto was gone.
As Quorl began to kick dirt onto the coals, he lectured the boy, apparently on Tloto and perhaps a few other philosophical concepts. The boy listened carefully, and understood at least that Tloto was not worth his concern. Then they lay down beside the little cyst of embers, the glowing scab of light on the darkness, and slept.
When the giant’s hand came down and shook his shoulder, it was still dark. He didn’t jump this time but blinked against the night and pulled his feet under him. It had grown colder, and dark wind brushed his neck and fingered his hair. Then a high sound cut above the trees and fell away. Quorl took the boy’s arm and they started through the dark trees quickly.
Gray light filtered from the left. Was it morning? No. The boy saw it was the rising moon. The light became white, then silver white. They reached a cliff at last, beyond which was the dark sea. Broken rock spilled to ledges below. Fifty feet down, but still a hundred feet above the water, was the largest table of rock. The moon was high enough to light the entire lithic arena as well as the small temple at its edge.
In front of the temple stood a man in black robes who blew on a huge curved shell. The piercing wail sliced high over the sea and the forest. People were gathering around the edge of the arena. Some came in couples, some with children, but most were single men and women.
The boy started to go down, but Quorl held him back. They waited. From sounds about them, the boy realized there were others observing from the height also. On the water, waves began to glitter with broken images of the moon. The sky was speckled with stars.
Suddenly a group of people were led from the temple onto the platform. Most of them were children. One was an old man whose beard twitched in the light breeze. Another was a tall stately women. All of them were bound, all of them were near naked, and all except the woman shifted their feet and looked nervously about.
The priest in the black robe disappeared into the temple, and emerged again with something that looked to the boy from this distance for all the world like a back-scratcher. The priest raised it in the moonlight, and a murmur rose and quieted about the ring of people. The boy saw that there were three close prongs on the handle, each snagging on the luminous beams of the moon, betraying their metallic keenness.
The priest walked to the first child and caught the side of her head in his hand. Then he quickly drew the triple blade down the left side of her face. She made an indefinite noise, but it was drowned in the rising whisper of the crowd. He did the same to the next child who began to cry, and to the next. The woman stood completely still and did not flinch when the blades opened her cheek. The old man was afraid. The boy could tell because he whimpered and backed away.
A man and a woman stepped from the ring of people and held him for the priest. As the blade raked the side of his face, his high senile whine turned into a scream. The boy thought for a moment of the trapped animals. The old man staggered away from his captors and no one paid him any more attention. The priest raised the shell to his mouth once more, and the high, brilliant sound flooded the arena.
Then, as they had come, silently the people disappeared into the woods. Quorl touched the boy’s shoulder and they too went into the woods. The boy looked at the giant with a puzzled expression, but there was no explanation. Once the boy caught sight of a white figure darting at their left as a shaft of moonlight slipped across a naked shoulder. Tloto was following them.
The boy spent his days learning. Quorl taught him to pull the gut of animals to make string. It had to be stretched a long time and then greased with hunks of fat. Once learned it became his job; as did changing the bait in the traps; as did cutting willow boughs to make sleeping pallets; as did sorting the firewood into piles of variously sized wood; as did holding together the sticks while Quorl tied them together and made a canopy for them, the night it rained.
He learned words, too. At least he learned to understand them. Tike--trap, Di’tika--a sprung trap, Tikan--two traps. One afternoon Quorl spent a whole six hours teaching words to the boy. There were lots of them. Even Quorl, who did not speak much, was surprised how many had to be learned. The boy did not speak at all. But soon he understood.
“There is a porcupine,” Quorl would say, pointing.
The boy would turn his eyes quickly, following the finger, and then look back, blinking quietly in comprehension.
They were walking through the forest that evening, and Quorl said, “You walk as loud as a tapir.” The boy had been moving over dry leaves. Obediently he moved his bare feet to where the leaves were damp and did not crackle.
Sometimes the boy went alone by the edge of the stream. Once a wild pig chased him and he had to climb a tree. The pig tried to climb after him and he sat in the crotch of the branch looking quietly down into the squealing mouth, the warty gray face; he could see each separate bristle stand up and lie down as the narrow jaw opened and closed beneath the skin. One yellow tusk was broken.