MoboReader> Literature > Captives of the Flame

   Chapter 8 No.8

Captives of the Flame By Samuel R. Delany Characters: 30478

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

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.

Then he heard a mewing sound away to his left. Looking off he saw slug-like Tloto coming towards his tree. A sudden urge to sound pushed him closer to speech (Stay away! Stay Back!) than he had been since his arrival in the woods. But Tloto could not see. Tloto could not hear. His hands tightened until the bark burned his palm.

Suddenly the animal turned from the tree and took off after Tloto. Instantly the slug-man turned and was gone.

The boy dropped from the tree and ran after the sound of the pig's crashing in the underbrush. Twenty feet later after tearing through a net of thick foliage, he burst onto a clearing and stopped.

In the middle of the clearing, the pig was struggling half above ground and half under. Only it wasn't ground. It was some sort of muckpool covered by a floating layer of leaves and twigs. The pig was going under fast.

Then the boy saw Tloto on the other side of the clearing, his nostrils quivering, his blind head turning back and forth. Somehow the slug-man must have maneuvered the animal into the trap. He wasn't sure how, but that must have been what had happened.

The urge that welled in him now came too fast to be stopped. It had too much to do with the recognition of luck, and the general impossibility of the whole situation. The boy laughed.

He startled himself with the sound, and after a few seconds stopped. Then he turned. Quorl stood behind him.

(Squeeeee ... Squeeee ... raaaaaaa! Then a gurgle, then nothing.)

Quorl was smiling too, a puzzled smile.

"Why did you-?" (The last word was new. He thought it meant laugh, but he said nothing.)

The boy turned back now. Tloto and the pig were gone.

Quorl walked the boy back to their camp. As they were nearing the stream Quorl saw the boy's footprints in the soft earth and frowned. "To leave your footprints in wet earth is dangerous. The vicious animals come to drink and they will smell you, and they will follow you, to eat. Suppose that pig had smelled them and been chasing you, instead of running into the pool? What then? If you must leave your footprints, leave them in dry dust. Better not to leave them at all."

The boy listened, and remembered. But that night, he saved a large piece of meat from his food. When Tloto came into the circle of firelight, he gave it to him.

Quorl gave a shrug of disgust and flung a pebble at the retreating shadow. "He is useless," Quorl said. "Why do you waste good food on him? To throw away good food is a-." (Unintelligible word.) "You do not understand-." (Another unintelligible word.)

The boy felt something start up inside him again. But he would not let it move his tongue; so he laughed. Quorl looked puzzled. The boy laughed again. Then Quorl laughed too. "You will learn. You will learn at last." Then the giant became serious. "You know, that is the first-sound I have heard you make since coming here."

The boy frowned, and the giant repeated the sentence. The boy's face showed which word baffled him.

The giant thought a minute, and then said, "You, me, even Tloto, are malika." That was the word. Now Quorl looked around him. "The trees, the rocks, the animals, they are not malika. But the laughing sound, that was a malika sound."

The boy thought about it until perhaps he understood. Then he slept.

He laughed a lot during the days now. Survival had come as close to routine as it could here in the jungle, and he could turn his attention to more malika concerns. He watched Quorl when they came on other forest people. With single men and women there was usually only an exchange of ten or twelve friendly words. If it were a couple, especially with children, he would give them food. But if they passed anyone with scars, Quorl would freeze until the person was by.

Once the boy wandered to the temple on the arena of rock. There were carvings on much of the stone. The sun was high. The carvings represented creatures somewhere between fish and human. When he looked up from the rock, he saw that the priest had come from the temple and was staring at him. The priest stared until he went away.

Now the boy tried to climb the mountain. That was hard because the footing was slippery and the rocks kept giving. At last he stopped on a jutting rock that looked down the side of the mountain. He was far from any place he knew. He was very high. He stood with hand against the leaning trunk of a near rotten tree, breathing deep and squinting at the sky. (Three or four times Quorl and he had taken long hunting trips: one had taken them to the edge of a deserted meadow across which was a crazily sagging farmhouse. There were no people there. Another had taken them to the edge of the jungle, beyond which the ground was gray and broken, and row after row of unsteady shacks sat among clumps of slithering ferns. Many of the forest people living there had scars and spent more time in larger groups.) The boy wondered if he could see to the deserted meadow from here, or to the deadly rows of prison shacks. A river, a snake of light, coiled through the valley toward the sea. The sky was very blue.

He heard it first, and then he felt it start. He scrambled back toward firmer ground but didn't scramble fast enough. The rock tilted, tore loose, and he was falling. (It pierced through his memory like a white fire-blade hidden under canvas: "... knees up, chin down, and roll quick," the girl had said a long time ago.) It was perhaps twenty feet to the next level. Tree branches broke his fall and he hit the ground spinning, and rolled away. Something else, the rock or a rotten log, bit the ground a moment later where he had been. He uncurled too soon, reaching out to catch hold of the mountain as it tore by him. Then he hit something hard; then something hit him back, and he sailed off into darkness in a web of pain.

Much later he shook his head, opened his eyes, then chomped his jaws on the pain. But the pain was in his leg, so chomping didn't help. He moved his face across crumbling dirt. The whole left side of his body ached, the type of ache that comes when the muscles are tensed to exhaustion but will not relax.

He tried to crawl forward, and went flat down onto the earth, biting up a mouthful of dirt. He nearly tore his leg off.

He had to be still, calm, find out exactly what was wrong. He couldn't tear himself to pieces like the wildcat who had gotten caught in the sprung trap and who had bled to death after gnawing off both hind legs. He was too malika.

But each movement he made, each thought he had, happened in the blurring green haze of pain. He raised himself up and looked back. Then he lay down again and closed his eyes. A log the thickness of his body lay across his left leg. Once he tried to push it away but only bruised his palm against the bark, and at last went unconscious with the effort.

When he woke up, the pain was very far away. The air was darkening. No, he wasn't quite awake. He was dreaming about something, something soft, a little garden, with shadows blowing in at the edge of his vision swift and cool, a little garden behind the-

Suddenly, very suddenly, it struck him what was happening, the slowing down of thoughts, his breathing, maybe even his heart. Then he was struggling again, struggling hard enough that had he still the strength, he would have torn himself in half, knowing while he struggled that perhaps the wildcat had been malika after all, or not caring if he were less, only fighting to pull himself away from the pain, realizing that blood had begun to seep from beneath the log again, just a tiny trickle.

Then the shadows overtook him, the dreams, the wisps of forgetfulness gauzing his eyes.

* * *

Tloto nearly had to drag Quorl halfway up the mountain before the giant got the idea. When he did, he began to run. Quorl found the boy; just before sunset. He was breathing in short gasps, his fists clenched, his eyes closed. The blood on the dirt had dried black.

The great brown hands went around the log, locked, and started to shift it; the boy let out a high sound from between his teeth.

The hands, roped with vein and ridged with ligament, strained the log upward; the sound became a howl.

The giant's feet braced against the dirt, slid into the dirt, and the hands that had snapped tiny necks and bound sticks together with gut string, pulled; the howl turned into a scream. He screamed again. Then again.

The log coming loose tore away nearly a square foot of flesh from the boy's leg. Then, Quorl went over and picked him up.

This is the best dream, the boy thought, from that dark place he had retreated to behind the pain, because Quorl is here. The hands were lifting him now, he was held close, warm, somehow safe. His cheek was against the hard shoulder muscle, and he could smell Quorl too. So he stopped screaming and turned his head a little to make the pain go away. But it wouldn't go. It wouldn't. Then the boy cried.

The first tears through all that pain came salty in his eyes, and he cried until he went to sleep.

* * *

Quorl had medicine for him the next day ("From the priest," he said.) which helped the pain and made the healing start. Quorl also had made the boy a pair of wooden crutches that morning. Although muscle and ligament had been bruised and crushed and the skin torn away, no bone had broken.

That evening there was a drizzle and they ate under the canopy. Tloto did not come, and this time it was Quorl who saved the extra meat and kept looking off into the wet gray trees. Quorl had told the boy how Tloto had led him to him; when they finished eating, Quorl took the meat and ducked into the drizzle.

The boy lay down to sleep. He thought the meat was a reward for Tloto. Only Quorl had seemed that night full of more than usual gravity. The last thing he wondered before sleep flooded his eyes and ears was how blind, deaf Tloto had known where he was anyway.

* * *

When he woke it had stopped raining. The air was damp and chill. Quorl had not come back.

The sound of the blown shell came again. The boy sat up and flinched at the twinge in his leg. To his left the moon was flickering through the trees. The sound came a third time, distant, sharp, yet clear and marine. The boy reached for his crutches and hoisted himself to his feet. He waited till the count of ten, hoping that Quorl might suddenly return to go with him.

A last he took a deep breath and started haltingly forward. The faint moonlight made the last hundred yards easy going. Finally he reached a vantage where he could look down through the wet leaves onto the arena of stone.

The sky was sheeted with mist and the moon was an indistinct pearl in the haze. The sea was misty. People were already gathered at the edge. The boy looked at the priest and then ran his eye around the circle of people. One of them was Quorl!

He leaned forward as far as he could. The priest sounded the shell again and the prisoners came out of the temple: first three boys, then an older girl, then a man. The next one ... Tloto! It was marble-white under the blurred moon. Its clubbed feet shuffled on the rock. Its blind head ducked right and left with bewilderment.

As the priest raised the long three-pronged knife, the boy's hands went tight around the crutches. He passed from one prisoner to the next. Tloto cringed, and the boy sucked in a breath as the knife went down, feeling his own flesh part under the blades. Then the murmur died, the prisoners were unbound, and the people filed from the rock back into the forest.

The boy waited to see which way Quorl headed before he started through moon-dusted bushes as fast as his crutches would let him. There were many people on the webbing of paths that came from the temple rock. There was Quorl!

When he caught up, Quorl saw him and slowed down. Quorl didn't look at him, though. Finally the giant said, "You don't understand. I had to catch him. I had to give him to the old one to be marked. But you don't understand." The boy hardly looked at all where they were going, but stared up at the giant.

"You don't understand," Quorl said again. Then he looked at the boy and was quiet for a minute. "No, you don't," he repeated. "Come." They turned off the main path now, going slower. "It's a ... custom. An important custom. Yes, I know it hurt him. I know he was afraid. But it had to be. Tloto is one of those who-." (The word was some inflection of the verb to know.) Quorl was silent for a moment. "Let me try to tell you why I had to hurt your friend. Yes, I know he is your friend, now. But once I said that Tloto was malika. I was wrong. Tloto is more than malika-he and the others that were marked. Somehow these people know things. That was how Tloto survived. That's how he knew where you were, when you were hurt. He knew inside your head, he heard inside your head. Many are born like that, more of them each year. As soon as we find out, we mark them. Many try to hide it, and some succeed for a long time. Can you understand? Do you? When Tloto showed me where you were, he knew that I would know, that he would be caught and marked. Do you understand?"

Again he paused and looked at the boy. The eyes still showed puzzled hurt. "You want to know why. I ... we.... Long ago we killed them when we found out. We don't any more. The mark reminds them that they are different, and yet the same as we. Perhaps it is wrong. It doesn't hurt that much, and it heals. Anyway, we don't kill them any more. We know they're important...." Suddenly, having gone all through it with this strange boy, it seemed twisted to the giant, incorrect. Then he gave the boy what the boy had been sent to the forest to get, what the Duchess had found and knew was necessary. "I was wrong," Quorl said. "I'm sorry. I will speak to the priest tomorrow."

They walked until the dawn lightened the sky behind the trees. Once Quorl looked around and said, "I want to show you something. We are very near, and the weather is right."

They walked a few minutes more till Quorl pointed to a wall of leaves, and said, "Go through there."

As they pressed through the dripping foliage, bright light burnished their faces. They were standing on a small cliff that looked down the mountain. Fog the color of pale gold, the same gold the boy had seen so rarely in the sunset, rolled across the entire sky. The center flamed with the misty sun, and way below them through the fog was the shattered traces of water, the color of magnesium flame on copper foil, without edge or definition.

"That's a lake that lies between this mountain and the next," Quorl said, pointing to the water.

"I thought...." the boy started softly, his tongue rough against the new language. "I thought it was the sea."

Beside them appeared the crouching figure of Tloto. Drops from the wet leaves burned on his neck and back, over the drying blood. He turned his blank face left and right in the golden light, and with all his knowing could communicate no awe.

* * *

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