On the first day of the summer after the year when the plague had finally burned itself out, my father took me by the hand and led me up the mountain.
My mother watched, standing in the doorway of our hut, her face pale, as we left the village. The plague had reduced the tribe from a healthy six hundred to just seventy-six people, and she had hoped that my father would consider my Ordeal unnecessary in these circumstances.
I could have told her that her hopes would be in vain. My father was not that sort of man.
I had been up the mountain before, of course, but never so dressed and never so high. Under my new and uncomfortable leather sandals, pebbles went scattering down the path, and the rough cloth of my Manhood Robe chafed my skin. The spear I’d barely learned how to use was heavy in the hand my father wasn’t holding. It was not actually necessary to lead me by the hand, but it was the custom, and there was nothing to my father if not blind obedience to tradition.
He’d told me only last night that today would be the Day of my Ordeal. It had robbed me of sleep, which was precisely what he’d intended, because the tradition said the Ordeal required adequate mental preparation. He’d also impressed upon me the extreme importance of my Ordeal, since it might well be the last any boy of the tribe might ever undergo on this mountain. The surviving priests had declared that the plague meant that the gods were unhappy with the tribe, and it would probably mean that we would all soon have to move. The Elder Priest was only waiting for the sign.
The morning was already far advanced when we reached the White Rock, beyond which no woman might venture, and no boy who had not undergone his Ordeal. I had seen it many times, glittering in the sunshine like a great white jewel high on the mountain, and my playmates and I had wondered what it would be like, close to. We’d imagined it would look like a great faceted gem, such as the Elder Priest wore on a chain round his neck. But it was only a white sheet of stone with tiny sparkling points in it, like the pebbles we so often found down by the river. It was only the way the sun shone on it that made it look like a gem.
Just above the White Rock, the Elder Priests had long ago carved a platform in the mountain, which was crusted black with the blood of sacrifices. My father led me to the platform, turned me around, and bade me look upon the world.
“You are about to be a Man,” my father said in the language that had been passed on through the ages to be used only for this one ritual. “Therefore, you must know why you are to be a Man, and what will be your reward. All this,” he said, sweeping his arm expansively, “will be yours.”
At that moment, it seemed little enough reward to me. Far below us, the village looked tiny. I had, of course, never beheld it from such a height, and it suddenly seemed to me as though the lanes and fields in which I’d spent my life up till this moment were of no more significance than an ant’s nest. I could see the tribe’s lands, pitifully small, and, beyond, the barren wastes that, we children had been told, stretched as far as the End of the World. But, far away, the land rose again in a humped line of low hills, so the End of the World might be a bit further away than we’d thought.
My mind was brought back to my present situation by a jab of my father’s fingers in my side. “I...” I stammered, trying frantically to recall the rehearsed phrases in the stilted ceremonial language, “I will endeavour to prove myself worthy of so rich a benediction, in the eyes of the gods and the tribe entire.”
My father nodded once, and led me further up the mountain.
All day we travelled up the slope, the leather sandals cutting my feet, the robe chafing a welt in my skin, and hunger and thirst tormenting me. My father had with him food and drink, and did not scruple to partake of them; but to me he afforded not a sip of water or a bite of bread. That, too, was tradition. The Ordeal must be undergone with nothing that might serve to ease one’s passage to Manhood.
At last, when the sun was a dying red ball in the orange sky, my father let go of my hand. “Up there,” he notified me formally, “you see the Red Rock, beyond which you must go alone.” I could see it, a hump of stone painted russet red by the sunset. “Do you find your way beyond it to the crest of the mountain, there to find one of the sacred Black Stones; and bring you it down to the village, and present it to the Elder Priest, no matter how long it takes you. Do not fail, for if you do, your place in the tribe is forever forfeit.”
He glanced interrogatively at me, and I realised he was waiting for the second part of the catechism. “In the name of the gods of the tribe, and in your name and the names of your ancestors, my father, I undertake to do the deed,” I recited, hoping I’d got it right.
He favoured me with one of his rare and wintry smiles. “You have your spear to guard you against the beasts of the mountain,” he told me, “and the Manhood Robe to protect you against the elements. Go now, and come back a Man.”
He watched me go up the mountain until I was past the Red Rock and committed, in the names of the gods, to my mission. In the very last light of the day, I saw him settling down to make camp for the night, spreading out the blankets he’d brought, and gathering brushwood to make a fire. He’d stay there until morning and go down to the village. Not even a man like my father would risk travelling the slopes at night. That sort of thing was left to boys on their Ordeal, like me.
For a long time afterwards, I kept wandering up the mountain, shivering. The Manhood Robe might be meant to protect me from the elements, but it was far colder and less comfortable than the rude rough furs we wore down in the village in the winter months. The sandals, too, were so troublesome that I soon took them off and threw them away. The stones of the mountain were less painful to my feet than they.
Not too far in the distance, I heard a strange giggling cry. Often had we heard them down in the village at night, and felt warm and snug in our huts, for we knew that this was the call of the cave hyena, who had come down the mountain to sniff and prowl around the livestock pens and the huts in hopes of picking up a lamb or a child. We’d sometimes found the spoor, and tufts of brownish-yellow fur, and though we had never seen a live hyena we’d heard of what they looked like, and shivered with delighted terror at the description. But here I was on the mountain, armed with nothing more than a spear I could barely use, and my imagination filled with jaws like tooth-studded axes and eyes like the fires of hell. I could almost see the immense humped shoulders and broad, evil head as the creature stalked me, just out of sight.
I shook my head and tried to dispel the image, but it would not go. Something, for certain, was shadowing me. When I stopped suddenly, I could still hear the sudden click of a dislodged pebble, and the crack of a dried twig. Swiftly, I turned in a circle, my spear held awkwardly in both hands, but I could see nothing in the darkness.
“Put that down,” a gruff voice ordered, just behind me. “Or we’ll split you in half.”
Astonished, I turned, but too late. Hands seized me, threw me down without effort, and pulled the spear from my hands. I felt myself rolled on my front, and my hands and feet were rapidly secured with rope. In quicker than it takes to tell of it, I was hoisted up again, slung over a pole, and borne up the mountain.
They carried me, hanging from the pole like a hunted animal, into a cave. Some hanging skins were pulled aside, and I found myself in a rough rock tunnel, filled with fireglow and smoke. The men, who had not spoken a word after the first warning, dropped me without ceremony on a pile of twigs, and removed the pole. One of them rolled me over with his foot so I lay with my face to the rock wall. I could hear them moving around, and the mutter of voices.
Even in my terror, I knew who these men must be. Without a doubt, they were of the Night People, the outcasts of tribes bygone, and our own tribe, too, who had been driven out of their villages for crimes too great for the tribal code to bear. They were the stuff of legend and hoary children’s tales, in whose continued existence nobody believed, but who were placed on a par with the cave hyena for the village to abhor and fear.
I almost passed out with sheer fright when I thought of what probably lay in store for me. For these Night Men were cannibals, and they would carve me to pieces while I still lived, roast slices of my quivering flesh over their fires, and make me watch while they feasted. Desperately, I struggled to free myself, but my bonds were far too tight for me to break free. All I managed to do was roll myself over on to my back, so that I was looking up at the rock ceiling.
“Stop wriggling, boy.” It was the same voice that had warned me before. “Here, drink this.” Someone pulled my head up by the hair, so hard that I closed my eyes with pain. I felt something hard being pushed into my mouth, and rough sour wine burned my throat.
“Careful,” someone else said. “Don’t choke him.”
“I’m not.” The hand released my hair so suddenly that my head fell back hard on the branches on which I lay. For the first time, I saw one of my captors clearly. He had a face so broad that it looked wider than it was high, and tiny eyes that were almost hidden under his jutting brows. When he turned his head I could see a scar down one cheek, a reddish crinkled stripe that reached from his shaggy hair down to his heavy jaw.
“Eat this.” He thrust something at my mouth. I managed to look down far enough to see that he was holding a strip of dried and smoked meat.
Despite my hunger, I remembered what I knew of these people, and my stomach revolted. “I do not eat manflesh,” I said through my clenched teeth.
“Manflesh?” The broad face seemed faintly surprised. “It’s wild goat.” He looked at the others, who were out of my field of vision. “Manflesh, he says!”
The laughter that followed was interrupted suddenly.
“Who have you brought here?” an old, old voice asked, the tones cracked and trembling.
“A boy from one of the foothill tribes, Old Mother,” I heard someone say, respectfully. “We caught him wandering on the mountain, probably as part of an initiation ritual. He was coming right towards the cave, so we had to catch him.”
“Let me see.” I heard shuffling footsteps, and the broad-faced man stood aside. Another face looked down on me, framed in wispy white hair, a face so seamed and wrinkled that I could at first scarcely make out features. But there was a pair of black eyes in the middle of the wrinkles, looking down at me with keen intelligence.
“Who are you, boy? What is your name?”
I told her. There was no point keeping that back. It was a name I would have abandoned after the Ordeal, in any case, and been given a proper, adult one, by the Elder Priest. I never would be completing the Ordeal, I realised, but there was little point thinking about that now.
The old woman nodded. “Barron, son of Gorton, what do you know of us, among whom you have fallen?” Without waiting for me to answer, she stepped back, gesturing to the men. “Raise him up and unbind him. He’s just a terrified boy, and won’t do any of you any harm.”
When I had stopped writhing from the pain of sensation returning to my hands and feet, I finally got to look around. I was in a low round chamber in the rock, on the far side of which a small fire was burning. At three or four points there were openings as of tunnel mouths, and I’d no idea which I had come in by.
All around the cavern, men sat on piles of brush like the one I’d been thrown on, some looking at me, others talking to each other or eating, and a few of them cleaning and polishing weapons. I saw someone on the far side, near the fire, rubbing at my spear. He handled it far more capably than I.
These men were of all shapes and sizes, and some of them had such strange features that I found myself blinking in astonishment. For the first time I realised where the name, Night Men, came, for many of them had skins the colour of a starless, moonless night. Others looked very much like the men of my tribe, and yet others, quite different, with pink faces and hair like honey. All of them were dressed in fur coats and breeches, and most had leather boots and hide caps.
Hearing a cough, I turned to where the old woman stood, supported by the broad-faced man I’d seen first. She was quite small and shrivelled-up, but I had the feeling that once she must have been an imposing beauty. “Well, Barron?” she repeated. “What do you know of us, then?”
I told her.
For a moment, as her face went completely blank, I thought she was incensed and I would die now for my temerity. But in the next moment she threw her head back and crowed with laughter, shaking so hard with mirth that it seemed that she was about to fall. Certainly the broad man thought so, for he stepped forward and wrapped her in his arms, glaring at me out of his tiny eyes.
“Oh my.” At last, the old woman stopped laughing, but still sputtered and shook. “The tales they tell!”
“He didn’t want to eat the meat we gave him,” the broad man told her. “He said he didn’t eat manflesh.”
“No wonder, if that’s the kind of stories they tell about us.” The old woman smiled at me with almost toothless gums. “We won’t eat you, dear,” she said. “We don’t eat people. We never have.”
“Still,” the broad man said, “what do we do with him? We can’t just let him go, can we?”
“No...” The old woman beckoned to me with a withered hand. “Come with me, dear,” she said. “I have to think over a few things.”
Silently, my limbs still unsteady, I followed.
“You see, dear,” the old lady said, “you’ve presented us with a problem.”
We sat together in a small side cave, the walls of which were hung with furs. Along with us there were several other women, who, like the men in the outer cave, were of all types. They watched me with curiosity, listening to us in complete silence.
“The fact is,” the old woman continued, “that for all these years we’ve managed to keep ourselves isolated from all the tribes of the foothills. Only the outcasts from the tribes, the dissidents and those of adventurous spirit, were...you want to ask me something. What?”
“You said ‘tribes’, Old Mother,” I said, for that was how she had instructed me to address her, “but there is only the one.”
“Oh my,” Old Mother sighed. “I see this is going to be a problem.
“There are tribes all around the mountain, and even on the lower slopes, Barron. Each of them keeps itself isolated from the others, so completely that I’m not that surprised that yours seems to have forgotten the existence of the others. But the other tribes do exist.
“I have, of course, no direct knowledge of your tribe’s customs, but I imagine you were being initiated into manhood? Can you tell me something of your tribe?”
Looking into her seamed face, I found myself telling all I knew about our tribe, of the Elder Priest, my parents, and of how my family was marked with some suspicion because it was almost the only one not to have felt the deadly touch of the plague. “My father wished that my Ordeal would seal my family’s place again within the regard of the tribe,” I ended.
“And when you do not return, what will the reaction be? Will they send out a search party?”
“I do not know,” I said truthfully. “Sometimes boys do not return from their Ordeals, and the tribe simply holds a Mourning to set their souls to rest. But I am the only boy in the tribe to have survived the plague, so it may be that I will be considered important enough to seek.”
Old Mother nodded. “I will be thinking of this. How long before your village becomes agitated enough at your absence to come seeking you?”
“Not before the morning of the day after tomorrow or the day after that. It is common to spend up to three days on the mountain alone during one’s Ordeal.”
“We’ll call a council at the earliest practicable moment, and together we shall decide what is to be done with you. In the meantime,” Old Mother waved a hand at one of her women, who disappeared down a passage, “my great granddaughter shall take care of you.”
“Your great granddaughter?”
“That would be me,” said a voice.
“Come on, Barron,” Daktula mocked. “I thought you boys of the tribes were supposed to be tough. And I’m only a girl.”
I looked up at her, silhouetted against the sky. She was tall, taller than I, and wirily muscular. Her hair, worked into many long narrow braids, flapped around her head like snakes.
“You coming up or aren’t you?” she mocked, bouncing up and down on her toes. The coloured beads around her ankles glinted red and green and white in the sunlight.
“I’m not used to this,” I protested, clambering up the slope towards her.
“Oh, poor thing.” Her hand flew to her mouth in mock-sympathy. “You need to take a breather, do you? Go ahead, I’ll just take a walk around and come back.”
“Never mind.” I’d finally reached her. She’d been mocking me from the moment we’d first met, but in such a way that I couldn’t actually find a reason to get angry at her. “What do you want me to do?”
“Nothing.” She arched her eyebrows. “I thought we were just taking a walk up the mountain. Of course, if you want to go down to the cave again...”
“No,” I muttered. “I’ll go up.”
“I knew you would,” she said, a genuine smile on her face. “Let’s go. I won’t walk too fast. You’ll be able to keep up.”
Of course she forgot, and went scrambling up the slope like one of the wild goats of the hills, leaving me panting in her wake. Several times, I stopped to catch my breath, and on each occasion she’d stop and look down at me pityingly. The fourth time I stopped, she came sliding down the slope to me.
“Look,” she said, seriously, “let’s go back down to the cave. You really aren’t fit enough for this.”
“I’ll go up,” I repeated, a mad determination not to be outdone by this tall thin mountain girl taking hold of me. “You can come with me or not, as you want.”
She laughed, her teeth flashing in her dark face. “You know Old Mother told me to stick to you like glue.” Her long fingers wrapped themselves round my wrist. “Come on. If we’re going up, we’ve a long way to go.”
We walked uphill for the rest of the morning. Daktula held on to my wrist, but not hard like my father had done. It was more of a way to stay in contact, and she didn’t go too quickly for me any longer. When the sun was directly overhead, we stopped in the shade of a scrubby tree growing from under a leaning rock, and ate and drank the food and water she’d brought along.
“It’s not too far now,” she said, when we started up again. “I’ve been up here several times. I know the way. See that broken rock up there, like a cliff? The top’s only a little way beyond it.”
“Is it true,” I asked, “what they say, that the mountain was once burning, when the gods cursed the world?”
“Who are they?”
“Well...the Elder Priest. He says the mountain opened a mouth and vomited out fire.”
She shook her head. “I can’t say anything about vomiting fire, either way. But about the mouth, well.”
We had almost come up to the great split rock, and for a few moments I feared that we’d have to climb its sheer side. But Daktula pulled me to a narrow space by the side of it, and we were soon inside a passage so narrow that it was like a tunnel through the mountain. It was so dark that I almost had to feel my way, but the girl moved with complete assurance, as if she knew where every pebble was, and every hole in the rock.
We came out of the tunnel with such suddenness that I gasped with surprise. It was as though someone had scooped the top off the mountain away, leaving a depression for all the world like a bowl at our feet.
It was like a cobweb made by the largest spider that ever had lived, made entirely of metal. It spanned the hollow, held up on the branches of metal trees, as though ready to trap some unimaginably large insect. I stared down at it, my mouth hanging open in awe.
And below it, glittering in the sunlight, was a collection of buildings. I could see what must surely have once been huge houses, large enough to hold our entire village with room left over and other, less easily identifiable things, twisted and bizarre.
“Do you know what that place is?” Daktula asked, already scrambling down a narrow trail. Tiny pebbles rattled and bounced away from her feet, but she didn’t seem to notice.
“I’ve heard of it.” I swallowed. “It is the Forbidden City. The Elder Priest says it is what made the gods angry and the mountain vomited fire. If anyone ever comes here again, the gods will send the fire.”
Daktula snorted. “Forbidden City, indeed. Our people come up here all the time and nothing’s happened, has it? Come on.”
Close to, the buildings were even larger than I’d thought, so tall that it made me dizzy to look up at them. We walked through a dusty street between them, rows of windows like blind eyes looking down at us, and under the metal mesh of the cobwebs. Several of the buildings were broken and desolate, dust blowing in through the open doors. Daktula passed these without a glance, walking purposefully as though she knew precisely where she was going.
“Look,” she said, pointing up.
We were standing under the metal cobweb we’d seen from the ridge. From here it looked even stranger and more unnatural, as though some evil giant out of a nightmare had cast a net to trap the souls of men. We were near one of the metal trees that held it up, and I could see rungs climbing the metal. This thing had been made by men.
“What is it?” I asked, my voice a whisper.
“Our people say,” Daktula told me, “that once there were people who could sail up to the stars.”
“That’s rubbish,” I snapped angrily. “People can’t even fly – like the birds. I know, because I’ve wanted to fly since I was a child.”
“Well, they could, once, in metal birds they made. It was all a long time ago. Nobody knows how long.”
“And then they found out how to sail to the stars?” I asked. “The stars are just lights in the sky, the Elder Priest says. “To believe anything else is blasphemy.”
“After all you’ve seen, do you still believe what the priests say?” Daktula grabbed me by the hand and pulled me towards one of the buildings. “Look here – I’ll show you something.”
The building was old, the floor thick with dust in which our feet left tracks. Daktula knew her way about, though, and led me unhesitatingly along corridors and down staircases lit only by high narrow windows near the ceiling. At the bottom of the last and steepest of these staircases was a metal door, partly open. She squeezed through it, pulling me in behind her.
It was a room so large that for the moment I couldn’t say how big it was. It was thick with shadows, lit only by narrow slits far up near the ceiling. All around the walls were seats facing boxes with windows in them, and buttons and knobs. It was wondrous and frightening, for all that the air was musty with age. There was no live menace here; the place had been dead a long time.
“What is it for?” I whispered. I can’t say why I whispered – it seemed to be necessary in a place like that.
“Back in the days when men went to the stars,” Daktula said, also almost whispering, “perhaps they sat at those boxes and talked to them. Those windows may have shown the ships themselves, and the stars.”
“How can the windows show anything?” I objected. “They’re dark.”
“Yes, now they are. This place hasn’t been used in thousands of years, Barron. Thousands and thousands of years. Who knows what the people of that time could do?”
“And that spider-thing up there?” I waved my hand at the ceiling.
“That was supposed to be a machine, by which they could speak to the people in the stars.” Daktula’s grin had fallen away, and she was no longer mocking. “You don’t believe me, do you?”
“I don’t know,” I confessed. “It seems hard to believe.”
“Come with me,” she said. “I’ll show you something else, and then maybe you’ll believe.”
Back we went up the stairs and corridors, the ancient dust coating our bare toes. Outside the sunlight seemed painfully bright, but Daktual didn’t let me wait to allow my eyes to adjust.
“Come on,” she said. “It’s only two buildings over.”
Back we went along the street, her had gripping my wrist so tightly I was powerless to break away. This building was immensely tall, even larger than the other one, and built in a peculiar shape, as though someone had thought of making it a sculpture more than a mere building. The top looked almost like a bird trying to lift away from the earth.
“”What is this place?” I asked.
We didn’t have to walk down long corridors and climb down staircases this time. Daktula pulled me through the entrance, round a turning, through another door, and we were there.
This was a chamber so huge it made the earlier one seemed tiny, and well-lit by huge windows up around the walls and ceiling. All around it were strange machines, so bizarre to look upon that I could not even begin to guess at their purpose. In the centre of the room was a spire of metal, so tall that its tip seemed almost to touch the roof, far above.
“This is one of the things men used to fly to the stars,” Daktula whispered. “It’s one of the early ones. They kept it to remember by.”
I looked up, craning my head backwards. The thing was huge, and so tall it hurt my neck to look at it. And all around there were other things, strange and spiny or bulbous, almost recognisable or utterly incomprehensible. I saw something, too, that looked like a man, but thick and heavy around, with a window for a face.
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing.
Daktula shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe the people of that time wore clothes like that?”
“What do you think happened to the people who lived here?” I asked, touching the side of the immense spire that reached up to the ceiling. “Why aren’t they here any longer?”
“Some people think they all died of the plague,” Daktula said. “Others say they all went away to the stars. And some day, they say, the people might come down from the stars again.”
We walked down the mountain in the light of the declining sun. Neither of us said anything much, both being lost in our own thoughts. Behind us, the strange cobweb still lay, waiting to speak to the stars.
Old Mother was waiting for me. She smiled at Daktula, and indicated that we were both to sit beside her. “How did your day go?” she asked.
“I took him up to the top,” Daktula said. “His people call it the Forbidden City. He didn’t even know that once men sailed to the stars.”
“Yes,” Old Mother said thoughtfully. “All this must have been rather a shock to you, Barron.”
“I don’t know what to think,” I replied. “It seems to be against everything the Elder Priests tell us we ought to believe.”
“That’s right. The tribal chiefs and priests all want to suppress knowledge, because that’s how they maintain their power.”
“I have a question,” I asked. “Do your people wish to start the old people’s machines up again? Is that what you want?”
“If we could, I can tell you, we would. There was knowledge that shouldn’t have been forgotten. But it’s all done with, too far past our understanding. Still, we try and understand what we can, and there’s a surprising lot of it we have managed to figure out. If the people ever come down again from the stars, why, they might not be totally displeased with us. Well, Barron...”
“We have been talking about you, and we have a problem. Can you guess what it is?”
I could. “Your people say they can’t risk letting me go, because I might lead the tribe to your doorstep. And you can’t keep me here, in case they come searching and find this place. Even if they don’t, I might escape and go down to them – and lead them to your door.”
Old Mother nodded. “It’s not as though we can’t defend ourselves against your tribe,” she said, “but violence doesn’t help anyone. Of course, some of the men demanded that you be killed and left on the mountain, to put an end to the danger in the most direct way.”
“And?” My throat was dry.
“Don’t tell me they’re going to kill him!” Daktula exclaimed.
“No, don’t worry. I put an end to the killing talk. But what should we do with you?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know what to say.”
“I have a suggestion.” Old Mother leaned towards me, tiny and wrinkled and bright-eyed. “Just how badly do you want to go back down, Barron?”
I thought about it. “All my life, I’ve been told that my duty is to the Tribe. But, now...”
“Let me guess. After seeing all this, you’re having second thoughts.”
“But my mother is down there,” I said. “My father doesn’t care about a thing except he rituals of the Elder Priest, but my mother would be devastated without me.”
“So.” Old Mother sighed. “I thought you could join our people,” she said. “But, I see your duty lies with your mother, of course. All right, you can go.”
“I can?” I was astonished. “You just said that...”
“I can’t hold you against your will,” Old Mother said. “I can only hope for your goodwill, that you don’t give us away. If you do, of course, we shall have to fight.”
“I shall not give you away. When do I leave?”
“No time like the present. Go quietly, without anyone knowing. Dakktula will show you the way.”
I rose to leave, but remembered something. “I haven’t brought down one of the sacred black stones,” I said. “I can’t return to the Tribe without it.”
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that.” Old Mother handed me a piece of the shiny stone. “You had told me about it earlier, so I kept it ready for you.”
I took it. “Old Mother...”
“Sh. Don’t say anything. Go quickly and quietly. None but the three of us must know you’ve gone.”
“Here you are.” I placed the piece of stone in my father’s hand.
He looked at me narrowly. “Where are your sandals? Where is your spear?”
I shrugged. “On the mountain. I had to leave them.”
He stared at me for a moment longer. “We shall go to the Elder Priest,” he said, “and there we shall go through your ceremony.”
My mother looked up from where she was dressing the nicks and scratches on my feet. “Can’t it wait till later?”
“No, the tradition calls for it to be held at once, as you well know. Come, son.”
As I went, I looked back up at the mountain. High above, I could see the White Rock, and, above that, the rocks of the mountain. Somewhere, high above, Daktula would be talking, perhaps, with Old Mother. Maybe she was looking down at me at this moment, and wondering what I was doing. I remembered her suddenly with a pang; her sarcastic, mocking voice, her long braided hair, the beaded anklets on her narrow feet.
Once again, I felt the kiss she had planted on my lips before I had started down the mountain. “I wish you’d stayed,” she had told me. “I don’t really dislike you, you know. Actually, I like you a lot. I wish you’d stayed.”
“I’ll come back,” I’d promised, feeling foolish. “However long it takes, I’ll come back.”
But now, looking up at the mountain, the promise doesn’t sound foolish at all. I’m the only boy of the Tribe, and soon enough, I will be the only man of my age. There will still be a Tribe, but it will be for me to do as I want. Nobody, not even the Elder Priest, can stop me then.
I’ll take my mother, and go up and join the Night Men. And I’ll find Daktula, if she’s still waiting – as she promised me. And we can together try and find out the secrets of the people who had sailed to the stars, so that if and when they return, they may not think us too stupid.
I sit out a lot at night now, and watch the stars.
I wonder what the people are doing, up there.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011