Not Without a Fight
It was day when Junya
awoke, the bright white light of morning rousing him from the
deepest, darkest sleep he had ever had. His head was hazy, vision
blurry, and it took a moment for the sound to kick in. It took him a
while to remember – the young Lady, Zuberi the Gorilla King, last
nights attack... What a horrible nightmare. If only he could have
He lay in a large, comfortable bed, adorned with cotton sheets and a canopy high above. Even though is waking brain knew it wasn't his bed, it took his unready heart a while to admit it. He was still here. Still alive, but so very far from home. The smell of gorilla hit him next, then of summer flowers, and the chill of a morning breeze through the open window cooling his face.
He didn't want to wake up. He didn't want to still be here. The bright white light wouldn't let him keep his eyes closed, piercing through his closed lids like daggers, and ignoring how weighed down the rest of him felt. Even breathing was difficult, like his nose wasn't big enough to get all the air through. Nonetheless, he reluctantly greeted the day.
This room was neat and simple – definitely not the ruined kings chamber – but it was clinical looking, un-lived-in and sterile, like a newly built house before the family moved in, only fancier. The clear sky through the window betrayed the fact that the room wasn't on the ground floor, the breeze blowing through the open panes icy and fresh.
“Your highness?” a voice called softly.
Junya looked around – the woman from last night, the one who defended him, got up from a nearby chair, cradling her stomach carefully. She sat on the side of the bed, checking his temperature by laying a concerned hand on his waking brow.
“I'm so glad you're awake.” she sobbed, placing her hand on his shoulder “We were so worried.”
She flinched a little, grabbing her stomach again.
“Little devil's been kicking like a storm since last night.” she told him.
“Are you okay?”
Junya's voice was hoarse, and it made his head swim to talk. There was an odd ringing in his ears, to boot. The gorilla looked surprised at his question, then smiled, carefully wiping the hair from his eyes.
“I'm fine.” she said “Thanks to you.”
“The other women?”
“Also fine.” she went on, shoulders heavy “We're some of the few that are...”
She looked away from him, wringing her hands.
“The swarm descended on the city so fast.” she told him, barely above a whisper “No-one had any time to hide... with all the celebrations going on, no-one was inside... we thought that even that giant beast wouldn't go into a silverbacks chamber, but...”
She sighed like the weight of the world was on her back, rubbing her belly distractedly. She managed to force a smile on as she looked back at him, but her eyes were still full of sorrow.
“You saved us.” she told him “Thank you.”
“What will you do?” he asked, facts starting to come back to his mind “You can't stay here with those things around. Won't you leave?”
“And go where?” she replied “Where can a pregnant gorilla go that's safe? Once our babies are born they're safe from the Insect King, but there are so many other dangers in the world.”
She rubbed her belly again, eyes far away.
“Motherhood has many dangers.” she thought aloud “But it's all worth it. A couple more months and it will all be worth it.”
Although his back felt fused to the sheets, Junya struggled to sit up. She assisted him, not seeming to mind at all when he laid a hand on her stomach.
“You're right.” he said after a moment “This one's really going for it. Feels healthy.”
She smiled again.
“From you, my queen, I'll take that as a good omen.”
Queen? Oh yes... awkward.
The door flew open to a cacophony of angry voices, startling them both. Zuberi stomped in, still armoured and bloody from last night, and looked all around before finding the bed. The maid struggled up to her feet, bowing as much as she reasonably could. With a bark from the king she left, closing the door quietly, shutting out the chorus of yelling as they clicked shut (thick doors...). He stomped over, panting gruffly, and sat heavily on the bed.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
Despite his gentle words, he sounded exhausted and pissed off, brow furrowed unhappily. His brown eyes examined Junya, looking for signs of injury, and seemed relieved to find none. He stunk even worse than before, bur considering he had smears of bright red blood across this armour, that was probably the least of his concerns at the moment. He reached up to Junya's face, not as carefully as he really should have, but the fox put his hand in the way.
“Why weren't they armed?” he challenged.
“Who?” Zuberi replied, clearly surprised at his sudden question.
“The pregnant women!” Junya nearly yelled at him “Literally everyone else was! Why not them, the ones who were really in danger?!”
Zuberi grimaced. He lowered his hand, looking away in shame and guilt.
“There have been some... incidents.” he admitted “When the swarm comes, some women think it's better for their unborn to die by their own hands then to allow them to be eaten. It's safer not to arm them.”
“That's why there are no children.” Junya clarified “They've all been eaten!”
The king was very still a moment, complete dismay in his eyes, before he nodded grimly.
“With each attack, we not only have fewer babies, but fewer women too.” he elaborated “That's how the wolves died out – spring after spring, the insects ate them up.”
The insects ate them... To think that something as massive as a gorilla could be killed, eaten by something as small as an insect. Or were they all as big as that monster that Junya had seen? But the little ones... how many little ones would have to swarm over a gorilla to kill it? How many would it take, how long would it take for a gorilla to be eaten to death? Eaten to death... eaten alive...
“That's horrific.” Junya breathed, the full force of the disgust running down his spine.
“Right now there's seven men to every woman in our clan. That's why I needed a wife who wasn't a gorilla – so the people would have hope for a new generation. Gorillas almost never have more than one baby at a time, it will take us generations to regain what we've lost.”
“Why don't you move?” Junya asked “Find new territory away from the insects?”
“Do you have any idea how much land our clan needs to sustain itself?” the king pointed out “The farmland, the towns, the forges, it all takes up space, and the low grassland is the best place for us. Who would come here, knowing what we were running from? If we start a war looking for new land it will just kill more of us, and we'll be even worse off. This is the only place for us.”
For the first time, Junya felt sorry for him: the gorillas were trapped in this horrible circumstance, every last one of them. This wasn't a war so much as a slow, calculated massacre, and the gorilla clan was losing.
“And when all the women and children are gone?” he dared ask “What then?”
“Then the Insect King moves the hive.” Zuberi explained “And the men left behind just wait to die, the same as the wolves.”
The king sighed in aggravation, shaking his head as if to loosen some hidden information, just sighing again when it didn't work.
“If we could find that hive, burn it from the inside out, this whole sorry mess would be over.” he said “But our scouts have turned up nothing. Nothing, for 50 miles in every direction! Where do you hide all those insects? How do they get here so quickly? And just disappear?!”
Feeling sick, Junya hugged his knees. The breeze through the open window cleared his woozy head, but this horrid information just stuffed it back up again. What a way to live... Zuberi examined him closely.
“How do you feel?” he asked again.
“Like I want you to stop talking.”
Junya looked back at him. Despite being tired, he was clearly concerned. Junya sighed, putting his head on his knees.
“I hurt.” he admitted “My head's all fuzzy and I need water.”
“You're hung over.” Zuberi figured “You did have a bit to drink last night. Anything else?”
“There something in particular you're looking for?” Junya challenged.
The king continued to examine him, looking like he wasn't sure what to say. His lips twitched as he found the words, looking around awkwardly a moment.
“Do you feel like you want to leave?” he asked carefully “Like you need to go in a certain direction?”
Junya examined Zuberi right back, trying to figure out what he was after, but the king gave nothing away. His desire to leave was nothing new, he didn't give a thought to which direction (other than 'home', but which direction even was that?). What a strange thing to ask anyway: he wasn't just going to let him go after going through with that big fancy wedding yesterday. Junya's gaze wasn't lost on the king, who rubbed the back of his neck.
“The Insect King.” he began slowly “He did something. To you. A curse of some kind.”
Junya's heart stopped. His skin went cold. He recalled last night, the feeling of something entering him – that had been a curse? He was cursed? He was cursed?! Zuberi was suddenly alarmed, grabbing Junya's shoulder and pulling him into his arms. He realised he was shaking, almost uncontrollably, his mouth dry, heart pounding erratically.
How could he be cursed? What kind of curse?! Why?! What was going to happen to him now?! As if this situation weren't bad enough! Zuberi held him tightly, shushing him as he started to hyperventilate.
“Don't panic!” he urged “There's still hope!”
“What kind of hope?!” Junya yelled at him “Do you even know what kind of curse it is?!”
“It doesn't matter!” Zuberi insisted “We can break it! All you need to do is drink the Insect Kings blood, and you'll be free of it!”
“And how do you recommend I do that?!” he cried “Wait until he attacks again and just hope I come across him?! I cut off his hand and he didn't bleed for more than a minute!”
The king released him, holding him by the shoulders so he could look him in the eye.
“We'll kill him with his own hubris.” he declared “Now that he's cursed you, you and he are linked: we'll use that link to track him down! With you, we can finally find that godforsaken hive and burn it down from the inside! We can finally be rid of it!”
“T-track him?” Junya stammered “Track him how? I don't know how to track anything! I was an ice seller! I worked in the temple! I can hardly read, how am I supposed to track something even your flipping soldiers couldn't?!”
There was a knock on the door, breaking the tension like shattering a mirror. It opened reverently, creaking on its hinges, the old retainer Staarabu poking his head inside.
“Sir, you're needed.” was all he said.
Zuberi nodded. He took a deep breath before releasing Junya's shoulders, turning back to him before he left the bed.
“We'll figure it out.” he said “The company is leaving in an hour. Please be ready: you're coming with us even if you aren't.”
“I'm sorry if these clothes aren't to your liking, your highness.” the woman apologised “I'm sure they won't be what you're used to, but you foxes are so slim our seamstress wasn't sure what to do: they're a little slapdash.”
“I'm sure they're fine.” Junya assured “And please stop calling me 'your highness', it makes me uncomfortable. Just 'Junya' is fine.”
“Then you must call me Hodari.” she insisted in return “Do you need me to help you dress?”
“I can handle it.”
He took the offered clothes and disappeared behind the dressing screen, limping a little where he was still stiff and hung over. He heard Hodari sit down on the bed, causing the springs to squeak, but considering her heavily pregnant state he didn't mind.
He peeled off the absurd white garment from last night, which stuck to his back from sweat and panic, relieved that his underwear was still where it should be – the doctors hadn't undressed him to examine him, so he hadn't been discovered. It was small comfort that he got to live another day – a cursed day, but a day nonetheless. He felt grody, wishing he could take another bath, but there was no time now.
He examined his body in the mirror, twisting around to see his back – there was nothing obviously wrong with him, no black marks or strange symbols or unexplainable wounds. He still had two ears, two eyes, one tail, none of them discoloured. Was he really cursed? How could anyone tell? Couldn't a priest help him? Was this really the only course of action? Remembering himself as he started to get upset, he hastily pulled on the pastel coloured clothes.
Despite Hodori's claims, the clothes were perfectly fine. They had clearly been altered from something much bigger, and were the kind of rough, sturdy material that he was used to. At least it wasn't another stuffy dress, even if there were an unnecessary number of ribbons and half cut off embroidery patterns. The pinks and lilacs weren't his style, but he was in no position to be complaining about that right now.
“So it's true what my father said about you.” Hodori said suddenly.
“What's that?” Junya asked.
“That you're the maid the Fox Lord tried to trick the king into marrying instead of his daughter.”
Junya couldn't answer honestly – either way it was a lie. How did she know anyway? When he didn't respond, Hodori laughed.
“A real 'Lady' probably wouldn't know how to get dressed on her own.” she explained, as if reading his mind “Foxes are sly, so some trickery was to be expected. Once the hive has been destroyed, we'll need a strong queen to give birth to strong heirs. I doubt a 'Lady' is up to the challenge of rebuilding.”
Neither am I, Junya thought, but kept it to himself. These gorillas sure didn't have a high opinion of 'Ladies', did they? Maybe they had a bad experience. All of them. At the same time.
Hodori stayed with Junya until the convoy was ready to go, packing a bag of hastily sewn clothes and basic toiletries: ivory-set hairbrush, plush cotton towel, silver toothbrush. 'Basics.' He was taking more than he had actually bought with him, but a wedding dress probably the best attire to go hunting in. Funny image, though. Provided he didn't have to wear the shoes.
The troops were gathered in front of the castle, laden down with battered armour and heavy looking canvas bags. They were intimidating to look at, all grizzled and chipped and battle weary – they made old Zuberi look positively gentile in comparison. Junya didn't know the amount of different weapons he could see even existed, but they were all packed and ready, the whole company just waiting on the order to depart.
The king had shed his fancy golden armour, replaced with a far more practical iron kind, although it was still bronze in its detailing. He was dressed much the same as his soldiers, in simple rough fabric and muted colours, which made it difficult to pick him out from the crowd. He spotted Junya and Hodori first, taking off his helmet as he started towards them.
“Father, why is there no carriage?” Hodori demanded as the king as his retainers came to the castle steps “Surely you don't expect the queen to walk? She's already limping after the attack!”
Junya could have laughed – gorilla women and fox women weren't so different.
“Don't make a scene, daughter.” Staarabu grumbled “We're preparing a horse.”
“As well you should be!”
Zuberi stopped before Junya, running a hand through his thatch hair. He had had time to clean the blood off, but smelled like he hadn't bathed. Junya supposed he didn't have time. Gross.
“You ready?” Zuberi asked.
“As I'll ever be.” Junya confirmed.
He made that huffing grunt noise again. With a twitch of his nose, he pulled a long cloth bag from his belt.
“Here,” he said, handing it to Junya “Consider this a late wedding present.”
Junya took the item. Was now really the time for such a thing? Wedding presents were usually for the expecting mother, right? Definitely wrong. It was heavy and solid, whatever it was, certainly not suitable for children (although considering what he saw yesterday...). He slipped the cloth off, revealing the long curved handle and sharp, serrated pick.
“An ice axe?”
“We export them.” Zuberi explained “To the goats. They're quite popular. It's made for women, so it's lighter, but it's sharp as anything. I just thought it was something you might be familiar with.”
“But why an ice axe?” Staarabu asked “Surely the queen would be better served with a dagger or rapier – something small and sharp.”
“Private joke.” was all the king would say.
“Joke?” the retainer echoed, like he didn't quite believe what he heard.
Zuberi just smirked. Bastard. At least he had been paying attention earlier, which somehow made him feel a little better. Junya put the axe back in its bag, tying it to his belt: it sat there impotently, knowing full well it wasn't a weapon and Junya didn't know how to use that way anyway, but if he came across that giant bug again it would be better than being unarmed.
The horse arrived, led by the reins, and Junya was relieved that it wasn't one of those giant, hairy beasts that were pulling the carriage the other day. Zuberi took it from the stable hand, examining the simple leather straps and fixings before turning back to Junya.
“You say you've never ridden a horse?” he recalled.
“Never really needed to.”
“Can you get up?”
Junya took a good look at the horse – it was smaller than the others, but still pretty big. No way he could hoist himself up on that saddle with his bad leg. Zuberi seemed to come to this conclusion as well, as he leaned down, taking Junya by the waist, and lifted him up onto the leather saddle, taking the reins again as the fox adjusted himself. Junya didn't mention that being lifted like that made him feel particularly incompetent (a feeling he really wasn't used to), especially in front of all these hardened soldiers, and hoped they weren't too judgemental. But then again, they were all enormous compared to him: he must have looked like a child in comparison. He cast his eyes over the soldiers, considering how weird that idea felt as the stable hand fixed Junya's bag to the back of the saddle.
“All the arrangements are complete.” Staarabu informed the king “The priests have finished their blessings – the company is ready to go on the order.”
“Then we're wasting daylight.” the king concluded “Let's move out.”
“Your highness, please take care of my boys!” Hodori bid.
“Of course.” he promised with a bow of his head, leading the horse away.
Hodori laid a cautious hand on her belly, her father putting his arm around her shoulders as the king turned his back on them. The company filed after him, lining itself up in neat rows as they walked across the castle gardens.
“You're not riding?” Junya asked the king “I can understand not taking a carriage, but you're just gonna walk?”
“You can't expect a single horse to carry a silverback.” he explained “You're only riding because of your lame leg. Lady or not, you'd be walking too otherwise.”
They stopped at the gates of the castle, where the road soon branched out in several directions. Was this it already? Was he going to have to tell them which way to go right from the off? He honestly had no idea how to track – if they were counting on him then they were in trouble from stage one.
Zuberi turned to him, clearly expecting exactly that. He patted the horses head as it grumbled.
“I understand you've never tracked prey before.” he assured “I would expect few women know how, even fewer housemaids. This won't be the same as tracking some animal to eat: the priests say you and the Insect King are connected, and it's that connection we'll use. I'm sorry if it frightens you, but I must ask you to concentrate: concentrate on the Insect King. Remember what he looked like, what he smelled like, how he made you feel. Concentrate on the sound of his voice. You have to want to find him.”
He really didn't. He thought it in his best interest to stay as far away from a baby-eating insect monster as physically possible. He considered leading the gorillas back towards his town, along that near-forgotten path – he could just remember the way and he might be able to escape in familiar terrain – but even if he did get home, he'd still be cursed, and who's to say the angry gorillas wouldn't know exactly where he went?
The Insect King had said that the foxes lived too far away for him and his swarm to feast on them, so the hive must be even further away from town than the gorillas city. Remembering those unnatural gold eyes made him feel queasy, but he tried to concentrate. He tried to want to know where he was.
Zuberi waited, watching him deliberate. The company stood to attention, looking over each others shoulders. Finally, and very unhappily, Junya came to a decision.