Through more aeons than the People could remember, the mountain had towered over their villages, frowning over them from one side while the cold and hostile desert rolled to the distant horizon on the other.
The mountain had had many names in the ages the People had dwelt at its foot. Once they had called it the Father of Fire, for it had worn a crown of flames on its head, but that era was as long gone as the sea that had once washed beaches that were now eroded rock. Then, when the fires had died, they had called it the Sleeping Father, who must not be disturbed. And later they called it other names, which were as forgotten as the languages from which they had sprung. Now they called it simply Anakonata, the Mountain of Eternity, for the People believed that until the world ended, the mountain would stay in endless slumber. After all, the other and lesser hills which had stood around and behind it had all vanished, eroded and ground down by time, but the mountain still endured. In the mythology of the People, as long as Anakonata slept, those who dwelt at its foot would be all right, though these were the latter years, and the world had grown weary and old.
Anakonata was more than a god to the People, for the gods were capricious and prone to show their anger by inflicting pestilence on top of the endless drought, and to provoke raids from the marauding pirate tribes who dwelt out on the desert plain. Anakonata simply was, and as long as it slept, the People would be all right.
But after aeons beyond counting, Anakonata was beginning to wake up.
The freezing cold of winter had long since split the rock beside the path that led to the village, and left it cloven like a broken tooth, and here it was that the hermit chose as his home when he came down from the mountain.
The hermit was half-crazed, filthy, and dressed in the skin of the mountain goats he had hunted for food over the years. His weathered face was covered with matted hair and beard, and he stank so abominably that the guards of the village priesthood would have never tolerated his presence in normal times. But these were not normal times.
The villagers came in droves to hear the hermit. First there were only a few, drawn more by curiosity than anything more, slipping through the gates in the sandstone walls. Then the others came, and still more, and by the time the priests had recognised the danger it was too late already to do away with the madman from the hill.
“Listen,” he said in his harsh voice, arid as the mountainside. “Listen,” he shouted, standing atop the cloven rock, raising one dirt-encrusted finger skywards. The throng at the foot of the rock fell silent, and clearly they heard the distant rumble from beneath the ground. “Do you hear the voice of Anakonata?”
The men and women in the crowd glanced uneasily at each other. The rumble came again, and the ground shook slightly, as though a giant far beneath their feet was stirring. The hermit watched them keenly.
“The priests,” he said, pointing to the walls, atop which the men he referred to were standing watching, “will tell you not to listen to the voice of Anakonata. They will tell you that things will be as they were, as long as you listen to them and make offerings at the temple. They will order you not to listen to me. But the Father of Fire is awakening, and you can hear him stir.”
As if to underline what he said, there was a louder rumble, and far up on the mountainside rock crumbled down in a cloud of dust.
“The end of the world is nigh,” the hermit shouted, his voice cracking with unconcealed glee. “The end of the world is coming, for Anakonata wakes, and the time of suffering is coming. The end is at hand, People! Prepare yourself for the earth to vomit forth the cleansing fire, as the prophecies tell!” He capered with excitement. “The mouth of hell will open, the end of the world will come with fire. Oh yes. Just you wait and see!”
The ground shook again in reply.
“We have to do something about that man,” the High Priest said.
He stood staring through the window of his office, as if from here he could see the hermit on the cloven rock, still declaiming to the People. The office was on an upper floor of the Temple, which was the biggest edifice in the village, and belonged to a much earlier era, when men still had the ability to build big, and normally the High Priest enjoyed standing here at the window and gazing out on the world from an elevated position. Not today, though. All his pleasure seemed to have disappeared.
“We have to do something about him,” he repeated.
The Archpriest, who was actually second in the hierarchy of the Temple, nodded. “I see what you mean,” he said. “He’s dangerous. He plants seeds in the Peoples’ minds which will bring forth a bitter harvest. Shall we send the guards tonight? They could easily slit his throat for him, and nobody would know.”
The High Priest shook his head. “The People would know,” he said. “They are already calling him a prophet, and they will most certainly camp in numbers around his rock tonight. Whatever we do, we must not cause the People to turn against us by exterminating him. There might,” and he shuddered at the thought, “be an insurrection.”
“So? We have the guards and the weapons. They don’t.”
“Think, man.” The High Priest turned sharply back from the window to glare at his subordinate. “The priesthood depends on the goodwill of the People. We could massacre them, of course, if we chose to – but then what? Where would we find the tithes to maintain the Temple, the Priesthood, and equip and pay the guards? We would be left helpless and bereft.”
There was a long silence, ended at last by a low rumbling noise. The walls of the building trembled slightly, and objects on the High Priest’s table rattled.
“And then there’s that.” The Archpriest looked relieved at the interruption. “The mountain is waking up.”
“Yes.” The High Priest regarded the other man sourly. “The source of the wild man’s popularity amongst the People is his insistence that the mountain’s waking presages the end of the world. The only way out is to discredit him.”
“How should we do that?” The Archpriest looked up at his superior with apprehension. “He is dirty and obstreperous, but then he makes no effort to hide that. He possesses nothing, so can’t be accused of corruption. He makes statements that we can’t accept, but they are grounded in our religious mythology, and the People can hear Anakonata’s rumblings for themselves. In order to discredit him, we should have to return Anakonata to his eternal sleep.”
“Exactly,” the High Priest said. “We will have to send someone out to the summit, to find out more about what is going on, and then we can formulate some kind of plan.” He picked up a goblet from the table and turned it over and over in his hands. “It will have to be someone rather special, someone who can be trusted to get the job done – yet someone who can keep his mouth shut.”
The Archpriest ran his fingers through his thinning hair. “Who?”
The High Priest gave a broad but mirthless grin.
“I have just the man,” he said.
They called him the Desert Jackal, and they trusted him just as little as they would have one of those opportunistic beasts from the drifting sands.
As a boy, the Jackal had once been a pirate. He had been captured on a raid into one of the villages of the People, when a counterattack by temple guards had driven the pirates back. They had discovered him afterwards amongst the corpses left behind, unconscious and dreadfully injured. The guards had been inclined to finish him off, but the priest in charge of the detachment had ordered that he should be taken prisoner, so as to be interrogated when possible for further information about his fellow pirates. They could always execute him afterwards.
To that end, the boy, who had been then perhaps ten years old – the pirates began training their sons early in the craft – had been handed over to the healer women of the village, with orders to return him sufficiently to health that he might be able to withstand all the interrogation that might be necessary to squeeze from him all he knew. The healers had listened, looked at the boy, and taken him in with the intention of saving his life, as they had vowed to do when they had become healers.
This meant that they also determined to save him from execution at the hands of the priests.
The boy who would later become the Desert Jackal had lain for many weeks in a muttering delirium, as the juices and potions administered by the women had taken effect. They had healed his body, but had made sure to wipe clean most of the memories from his mind. And they made sure that his recovery was so prolonged that by the time he might be questioned, any information he might be able to divulge would clearly be obsolete.
And so, there being nothing better to do with him, he was allowed to stay, and over time he’d become part of the People. But they had never forgotten what he had been, nor did they ever quite trust him, and so he had grown up self-reliant and a loner. Now, in his early thirties, he was lean and brown as the desert animal after which he was named, and as wily and resourceful as one.
The Jackal had been on a scouting trip out into the desert, at the head of a small group sent to check for possible pirate raids, and had returned only the previous evening, having seen nothing of the robber bands. Now he stood before the High Priest and the Archpriest, still clad in his brown scout’s robe, his head and face wrapped around by the scarf he used to protect himself from the sandstorms out on the plain.
“You,” the High Priest said, “are to go up the mountain, to see what is going on at the summit.”
“We need to know if Anakonata is indeed waking,” the Archpriest supplied. “Then we can plan what to do.”
“You understand that the information is of tremendous importance to the People,” the High Priest said. “The People have taken you in and made you one of them, and you owe it to...” He broke off as a prolonged rumble and shudder shook the building, grabbing on to the table until his knuckles shone white. “Anyway,” he said hurriedly, “just go on up there and see what there is to see.”
The Jackal spoke for the first time. “What about them?” he said, jerking his thumb in the general direction of the hermit and his congregation. “They have already made up their minds that Anakonata’s sleep is ending, haven’t they?”
The Archpriest and High Priest exchanged glances. “They’re no concern of yours,” the former said. “Go up and find out all you can, and leave the rest to us.”
“You are to set out at once,” the High Priest ordered. “There’s not a moment to waste.”
The Jackal nodded once, his expression unreadable through the facecloth, and turned to leave.
“Wait!” the Archpriest called. The Jackal paused, without turning.
“You are to disclose nothing of what you find to anyone else,” he said. “The information is for us alone.” He turned to the High Priest. “Is there anything else to say?”
“I don’t think so,” the High Priest responded. “Except that nobody should know of your mission but ourselves. Do you understand?”
But the Jackal was already gone.
Two hours out of the village the Desert Jackal paused, looking up at the mountain. From here, in the gathering dusk, the summit was hidden behind the bulk of the slope, but there was a reddish glow staining the sky above it. Rumbles like distant thunder shook the ground occasionally, and sent pebbles rolling down the slope.
The Jackal was alone, and still dressed in his scout’s robe, long boots and headcloth. He had paused long enough at his small hut to sling a bag of dried food and a bottle of water over his shoulder, and to buckle on the short curved sword which now hung at his belt. He never carried anything more, knowing by experience that extra weight was dangerous. He had taken what he needed, and left. There was nobody to detain him, no one to whom to explain things. He lived alone, and no one called him friend, and slowly, over the years, he had come to prefer it that way.
He had left the village through one of the lesser gates, which was always kept open, and slipped past the guards watching the throng around the hermit, who was still declaiming from his rock. The guards had tried to forbid anyone to go and listen to the wild man, but people had leaked so steadily and persistently through the cordon they had set up that they had long since thrown up their hands in despair. Now they merely watched the crowd and waited for something to happen which would justify violence.
So far, nothing had, but they kept their pikes handy, and waited hopefully for orders from the priests.
The Jackal had never been all the way to the summit of Anakonata, but the slopes of the mountain were not unknown to him. He had climbed up them many times, to vantage points where he could watch the desert for the movement of robber gangs, or simply when he wanted to be alone, and the tracks and paths at these lower elevations were familiar even in the darkness. Besides, he had the red glow in the sky, which threw a ruddy glow down on the stones.
The Jackal himself did not believe in the tales told about Anakonata any more than he believed in anything else. That he could rely on his own abilities was enough for him at most times, but he had no idea what he would find at the top of the mountain, and he had grown to distrust that which he did not know. His distrust had saved his life more than once, out on the plain.
For a moment he turned to look down at the village, a few dim lights showing where it lay. Beyond lay the desert, a deep pool of black. There would be eyes out there on the plain watching the mountain, and they would probably be able to see more than he could from here. But they could not see the summit. When he reached it, he would be able to.
The rumbles from Anakonata, which had grown almost continuous, fell suddenly silent, and in the distance he could hear the hermit’s voice raised shrilly in declamation. He cocked his head, listening, but the words did not carry clearly enough to understand.
No matter. He knew what the man was probably saying, anyway.
Shaking his head, he turned back up the mountain.
It was a bowl of molten fire.
From the shelter of a mound of rock, the Jackal stood looking down at the scene before him. Even from this distance, the heat licked at him, and the air stung his nose and eyes so much so that he knew he would not be able to remain there much longer.
Over his head, the dawn had begun to lighten the sky, but the glare from what lay in the depression in the top of the mountain was so great that the Jackal could hardly see the sky. The liquid fire bubbled and frothed, and strange groans and muffled grinding noises came from the earth. Even as he watched, a huge chunk of rock broke away and disappeared into the chasm. With a hissing noise, a huge spout of flame rose from the bubbling mass of fire and began licking through the crack.
The Jackal had seen enough. Turning, he stumbled off down the mountain the way he had come. There was more light now, but his eyes were watering so much that he could barely see. In the end he wet his headcloth with the remnants of his water, wrapped it round his face, and felt his way down mostly by touch until the air cleared enough for him to be able to see again.
And then it seemed to him that the dawn had turned to night again, and winter had begun to return to the world.
The sky above him was black with smoke, so thick that it shrouded the sun, and all around him the stones were white. It took a few moments for him to decide that the powdery white substance was ash, not snow.
He was hurrying now, desperately, knowing something terrible was coming, something against which he would have to warn the People. Running over the rock, it was only his sure-footedness that saved him from a bad fall more than once. Even so, it was almost noon before he arrived at the village.
It did not look like noon. The sky was black like the sky of midnight, and the ash lay white over the roofs and walls of the village, and even more drifted down in flakes and eddies. And still the madman on the cloven rock capered and yelled, and the People stood uneasily listening and staring fearfully up the mountain.
The Jackal paid them, for the moment, no heed. Hurrying past, he entered through the same small gate by which he had left the village, and hurrying through the narrow, near-deserted streets, he went to the Temple.
The High Priest and Archpriest were conferring with a couple of lesser priests. They looked up impatiently as the Desert Jackal entered. “Well?”
“Anakonata is about to shake itself to pieces, and dissolve in fire and rock,” the Jackal said without preamble. Quickly, he told them what he had seen. They listened, their faces expressionless.
“And is that all?” the Archpriest asked when the Jackal paused for breath. “You didn’t see anything more?”
“No,” the Jackal said. “But isn’t that enough? We have to warn the People, and get them away at once.”
“H’m.” The High Priest walked to the window and stared out at the drizzle of ash. “I think you’re exaggerating a mite, aren’t you?” He pointed up at the huge bulk of the mountain. “How can that fall to pieces?”
“It is,” the Jackal insisted. “I’ve seen it myself. What do you think is causing the darkness and the ash?”
“The gods do strange and incomprehensible things,” the High Priest said. “It’s not important what their motives are. What is important is that the People understand that there’s nothing to fear, so they stop listening to that dotard on the rock and return to their homes.”
“But they can’t do that!” The Jackal’s voice rose with excitement. “They must save themselves, and leave the villages at once. We have no time to lose.”
The High Priest turned and smiled grimly. “Just suppose they were to leave the villages,” he said, “where would you advise the People to go? After all, we can scarcely stay on the mountain, if it is going to fall apart as you describe. So where should the People seek safety?”
“Out on the plain, of course.” Too late the Jackal saw the trap that had been set for him, but there was no drawing back now. “There is nowhere else to go.”
The High Priest gave a small hiss of satisfaction through his teeth. “So...the People should seek safety out on the plain, where your own people, the pirates of the sand, can cut their throats for them? I think not.” He glared around triumphantly at the others. “Gentlemen, I think we can safely dispose of this...creature.”
The two assistant priests already had daggers in their hands, and they rushed the Jackal from either side, blades swinging. The Jackal ducked and leaned back, feeling the catch of blade on cloth, hearing the rip as knife cut through sleeve, and then he lashed out with his boot, catching one of the priests in the stomach. The man went down with a clatter, the Jackal leaped over him, and raced down the stairs.
He hit the street running. The priests must have summoned help somehow, because guards were running back from the walls. But the Jackal knew how to hide himself in the shadows, and in the near-darkness they didn’t see him. Stumbling in the ash, the guards rushed by and into the building.
The Jackal ran for the throng gathered around the hermit. He was still exhorting and shouting, and though he was coughing and gasping as the acrid air caught at his throat, his energy seemed undiminished. “The time of destruction is at hand,” he shouted. “Yes!”
The Jackal ignored him. With a quick jump, he pulled himself up to the top of the cloven rock. “We must get out of here,” he shouted. “The mountain is about to explode!”
“So?” The hermit turned to glare up at him with eyes like stones. “And so what? The end of the world is coming, so we should repent and wait for it gladly.”
“Listen to me,” the Jackal shouted even louder. “This is not the end of the world, or anything similar. Anakonata is being torn up by forces inside it, forces which come from the inside of the earth. That’s all.”
“But the hermit is a holy man,” someone shouted back. “And he says that the end of the world is nigh, while you are a mere...”
“I may be a mere son of a desert robber,” the Jackal yelled back, “but I have been up the mountain, and am only a short while returned. I have seen the earth crack and pour out fire and smoke. Look around you, at the smoke and ash.” He paused for a moment to let them look. “We’ve got to leave this place, now-“
“Blasphemy,” the hermit screamed, spittle flying from his lips. “You are blaspheming against ordained fate!”
The crowd was muttering and looking around at each other. The Jackal spread his arms in appeal. “Look,” he said, “if the world is going to end anyway, it doesn’t matter whether you’re here or out on the plain, does it? But if it’s not going to end, you’ll be a lot safer out there than here.”
“And your relatives will come for us,” someone shouted. A piece of stone came sailing through the air and narrowly missed the Jackal. “Think we don’t know why you’re doing this?”
“All right,” the Jackal said. He jumped off the rock just as a series of tremendous detonations sounded from overhead. “I’m going,” he said, when the noise subsided enough for everyone to hear again. “Do as you wish, or...” turning, he pointed at the village, from which a party of priests and guards were approaching, “...as they want you to do.”
Turning, he loped away towards the plain.
She came to him in the desert as the night fell on the land. He watched her come, faintly outlined in the glow from the rivers of molten rock pouring down the flanks of the mountain. She glanced at him uncertainly, out of the corner of her eye, while the ash drifted out of the sky and settled on their shoulders.
“Well,” he said eventually. “Let’s go, shall we?”
“Where?” she asked him. “Out there? Or will you come back? There are people, you know, who need you.” She looked up at him, defiantly. “They need you to save them from the hermit, and from the priests.”
There was a long moment of silence. The Jackal looked up at the mountain and the flowing rivers of molten rock.
Trudging through the ash and smoke, they started back towards the village.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012