Mkab lay on the jungle floor, breathing shallowly to keep his broken rib from stabbing him too deeply. He could feel his ankle swelling up with blood from the sprain. If the trolls came after him, he would never be able to outrun them. It was dark, he was injured, and he was in their environment. Worst of all, he had no weapons and no radio.
Doom, doom. The drums were drawing closer, unmistakeably. Mkab could hear different sets of rhythms coming from separate parts of the jungle. They seemed to be calling out to one another as the big bass drums continued to command them to hunt. Above the crickets’ chirps and hunters’ drums, the wailing songs of the trolls lilted and fell in haunting waves.
Mkab sat up and looked at the corpse lying next to him. So ugly, he thought. He had to admit, though, that the body paint was intensely detailed. Even in the darkness, with only a sliver of moonlight slanting through the canopy, he could see the black-and-yellow jaguar spots covering the troll’s face, arms and naked, heavily muscled torso.
A gleam of reflected moonlight caught Mkab’s eye. Below the troll’s hip, a crude obsidian dagger was tied to its thigh by a leather thong. It was just a jagged piece of rock lashed to a wooden stick, but obsidian was supposed to be sharper than steel. Mkab silently praised his change in fortune and slid the dagger through his belt.
Doom, doom. The drums and wailing continued. Mkab decided that his first step was to get away from the dead body. He brought himself up so that he was standing on his uninjured foot. Slowly he put some of his weight on his right foot, grimacing as he felt the ache spread from his ankle up his whole leg. He didn’t dare check the swelling. If he took his boot off, he knew that it would never go back on. Mkab leaned on his right foot a little bit more and felt ill. It was going to hurt with every step, but he didn’t have a choice. He limped over to the nearest tree. He had to bite his lip until he drew blood to keep himself from screaming, but he reminded himself of the time he’d been shot through the abdomen and the pain abated slightly.
Mkab leaned against the trunk of the tree and checked his pockets with his free hand. Most of his important equipment was back on the ridge. He didn’t think he’d ever find his gun in the dark, but he could go back and get his itzla, his first aid kit, and his compass. He could radio for help, too. He didn’t care about the mission anymore; it was botched. It didn’t matter that Priyat could speak to the trolls. They’d attacked without provocation, just like Mkab had suspected they would. Priyat was probably dead, anyway. Where there were two trolls, there were likely to be more. The ones who’d climbed up the ridge hadn’t used drums. They hadn’t been singing. The thought made Mkab look over his shoulder.
Doom, doom. Every shape in the darkness seemed to be the shadow of a troll. Every tree branch looked like a snake about to drop down and strangle Mkab. He drew the obsidian dagger and waited, listening for a footstep or a breath. Time stretched and slowed between beats of the bass drums. Mkab’s whole world was a symphony in the dark – crickets chirped, drums pounded, trolls wailed, his breath hissed in and out of his teeth as he waited for a sound that did not belong.
Mkab looked over to where he assumed the ridge was. It was impossible to tell in the dark and without his compass, but as he thought about it he knew that he would never make it back up without proper light, especially given his twisted ankle. His only hope was to survive in the valley overnight. His wounds wouldn’t kill him that quickly, but he was likely to catch a fever or an infection. His more immediate concerns were the trolls and the wildcats. Either one of them could easily catch and kill him in his state. His only hope was to stay where he was and hope that no cats smelled his blood. The trolls would be easy to avoid; there was no way that they would hear him over their wild shrieking.
Mkab wanted to sit down, but he knew that it would make him too vulnerable. He listened to the hunters and tried to discern which groups were getting closer and which were moving further away.
Some leaves rustled nearby, but Mkab felt no wind. He turned toward the sound and crouched, dagger poised in front of him. There on a wide, low branch, a pair of reflective eyes were watching him. He waited.
It leapt at him. Mkab saw the sleek, black shape sail through the air and he raised the dagger. The paws landed on him first and he was knocked to the ground. He felt the dagger sink into the soft flesh above him as hot, rank breath filled his nostrils.
The panther yowled and raked Mkab’s face. Mkab cried out and withdrew the dagger. With his free arm he protected his throat. The cat bit down on the flesh of his forearm and he screamed again. Wildly, he stabbed at the beast’s face, hoping to pierce its eyes or skull. The panther shook his arm roughly. Mkab moaned and his vision swam. He slashed again, going for the throat. A stream of warm liquid poured over him, across his face and into his open mouth. He rolled over and retched.
Blood stung his left eye, but through his right he could see the body of the big cat. Its eyes were still open, staring at him as it lay on the roots of Mkab’s tree, soaking the soil with its blood. Mkab watched the life fade from those eyes as he panted, clutching his left arm. He couldn’t decide which injury hurt the most, but he needed to staunch the bleeding from his arm. He blinked and wiped the blood from his left eye, then squirmed out of his shirt and started cutting it into strips.
Doom, doom. Mkab had nearly forgotten about the drums. It took him some time to cut up his shirt in the dark, with a maimed arm. He wondered how long it would take the wound to fester. Cats did not have clean mouths.
As Mkab began to wind a length of canvas around the deep gouges in his arm, he heard soft footsteps padding toward him through the brush. What now? He wondered. The Laxtica seemed relentless in its attempts to kill him. He got to his feet as quietly as he could and clutched his dagger as though it was his last friend in the world.
A child stepped out of the trees, dressed in strips of jaguar pelt and carrying a tall spear. Mkab couldn’t believe his eyes. For a panicked moment, he wondered if he was hallucinating, or dead. The child looked like a girl, and she didn’t have the appearance of a troll at all. Her eyes were big and dark, her wild hair long and ebon. She had a high forehead and narrow chin. The girl tilted her heart-shaped face and looked at Mkab with an eyebrow raised.
“Ellay’atz tatu?” The child whispered. It sounded like a question. She took a hesitant step toward Mkab, her eyes flashing rapidly from his face to the dagger. Mkab wondered whether he was being lulled into a false sense of security. There was nothing to trust in the jungle, not even his eyes anymore, it seemed.
The girl stepped forward again, into a patch of moonlight. Mkab noticed her curves, and realized he was not looking at a child at all. Small, pale, lithe, big eyes, he thought. What the fuck is a fairy doing in the Laxtica, dressed like a savage? The trolls would never admit a fairy into their tribe, would they? Mkab suddenly wished Priyat was there. He would probably know how to speak the fairy language, whatever it was called. Is there a fairy tribe here, too?
“I don’t speak your tongue,” Mkab said in the Atz language. The fairy hadn’t taken another step and her spear wasn’t pointed at him, but Mkab didn’t dare lower his weapon. He tried phrases in all the smatterings of languages that he knew. To his surprise, she giggled.
When she pointed at the dead panther with her spear, Mkab flinched. “Merey’z pasz datu?”
“Yes, I killed it,” he said. “Are you going to try to kill me, too?”
The fairy pointed at Mkab’s wounded arm with her free hand. “Ghorz’tay tatu?” She seemed concerned, but Mkab reminded himself that fairies always had that innocent look on their faces. It was deceiving, he remembered. Mkab didn’t budge; he kept the blade pointed at the small woman. He didn’t find her too physically threatening, but he was already wounded and her spear had a long reach. Besides which, there were plenty of places to find poisons in the jungle. Even if he killed her, a wound from a poisoned spear would kill him in the end.
The fairy held a hand up in a passive gesture. “Aya pasz tu.” She slowly lowered her spear to the ground. “Aya pasz tu.” She pointed at Mkab’s arm. He still hadn’t wrapped the wound in cloth; the blood was leaking slowly out of the gouges that the panther’s fangs had left.
Doom, doom. The big bass drums sounded. The girl’s eyes widened to an impossible size and she cowered. ”Aaman pasz yatu,” she whispered. She looked around cautiously, and retrieved her spear from the ground. She ran over to Mkab and looked at him pleadingly. Her approach startled him, but the fear he could see in her eyes made him lower his guard. She wasn’t going to hurt him; she was shivering with fright.
Before Mkab could say or do anything, the fairy had grabbed his good arm and was dragging him through the trees. She seemed to know where she was going. Mkab decided that if she’d wanted to stab him, she would have done it already. He hoped that she was leading him to someplace safe where his wounds could be dressed.
Her touch was warm on his arm. As he followed her clumsily, the scent of her drifted back to him. It was a rich, earthy musk. Despite the fact that she was fae, Mkab could feel himself becoming aroused. Not now, he thought. There are too many dangers. There were wild fairy tales that spoke of fae women stealing men’s souls with a kiss, but Mkab was more concerned with trolls and the shooting pain coming from his ankle.
Mkab saw a glowing light up ahead. It seemed like artificial moonlight, a halogen glow. His tiny guide was drawing him toward the light. It slanted through the trees, paling his skin and making his blood look black. He shivered. Where the hell is that light coming from? He wondered.
As they approached, he discovered that it wasn’t a single source at all, but thousands of tiny glowing lights, dotting the jungle floor amongst a copse of twisted trees covered in vines. Moon mushrooms, of course. Mkab had never seen them at night before. They bathed him and the girl in a luminescent white glow.
Mkab could see the girl clearly thanks to the glowing mushrooms. She wasn’t all that physically attractive; her forehead was very high and too broad, her eyes were eerily large and she was thin and bony, but the slick sheen of sweat on the bare skin of her arms and stomach made Mkab think of sex. He was wondering what she looked like without the animal skins.
She knelt down. For a brief second, Mkab thought he was having a feverish wet dream, but the fairy was digging into the small leather satchel she carried at her waist. She brought out a small wooden bowl and a leather sack. Within the sack was a white powder; she tossed a pinch into the bowl and added her own spit. As she mixed it with her fingers, the powder turned into a paste.
The fairy woman stood up and smeared the paste onto mkab’s arm, rubbing it into the wounds almost sensuously. The white, frothy liquid burned for a brief moment before making his arm grow numb. His hand could barely move, but the pain had gone away. She prodded at his side, where an angry red splotch was growing underneath his earth-coloured skin, and applied more of the paste. Mkab could breathe easily again.
“What is that stuff?” Mkab asked. He’d never seen such a powerful surface analgesic. He wondered if it was similar to heroin. A part of him hoped not; it had taken him two years to fight off that addiction after his close brush with death.
In response, the fairy pointed to his feet. He wondered how she had known about that injury, but realized that he’d been limping.
“I can’t,” he said as he shook his head. “I’ll never get the boot back on.”
The woman gave him a reproachful look and knelt down. She hiked up his pant legs to find the swollen ankle, pulled down his woollen sock and smeared the last of the paste as far down the boot as her thin fingers would go. Mkab swallowed his pain, which was rapidly abating. To his astonishment, the swelling was going down as well.
Before she stood back up, the fairy picked a few small moon mushrooms. They continued to give off light even after being plucked from the ground. The fairy arched her back, leaned forward and looked up at Mkab with her big black eyes. She offered him a mushroom.
“I’m not eating that,” he said. He shook his head and waved his arms no to illustrate his point.
The fairy gave him a stubborn look and popped a mushroom into her own mouth. She chewed it slowly and swallowed, then began to eat another one. Her arm reached up and lightly touched the back of Mkab’s neck, and she pulled him in for a kiss.
He could have pushed her, or stabbed her, or run away. Instead Mkab let her part his lips with her tongue. She forced pieces of the half-chewed mushroom into his mouth. It was so bitter that it felt like it was burning, but the fairy continued to dart her tongue aggressively around Mkab’s mouth. He thought about fighting her, or spitting out the bitter fungus, but he was feeling soft from the strange painkiller, and drunk on her scent. His very arousal was making him dizzy. As the fairy’s lips parted from his, Mkab swallowed.
Mkab watched the strange woman lick her lips. His eyes travelled up to lock with hers, and he lost his footing in shock, squishing the soft moon mushrooms beneath him.
The fairy’s eyes were glowing.