Junya had one hell of a
stomach ache. He didn't think it was the food, since it was hard to
get stew wrong and there weren't any funny ingredients in it, nor
their simple porridge breakfast this morning. Maybe he was just
dreading another day on that horse so much that his stomach was
trying to escape through his... well, you know. He felt pretty lousy
“Maybe it's the curse.” Mijinga suggested, walking alongside the horse holding its reins to give Zuberi's arm a rest.
“That's hardly helpful.” the king grumbled at him, stood on the horses other side.
“It's true, though.” the soldier figured “We don't know exactly what curse it was, do we? It might be doing something to her guts. Like maybe there's a giant grub growing in her or something.”
Mpendwa smacked him on the back of the head with her shield, making him stumble.
“Behave.” she ordered.
“Don't go smacking me!” he shrieked, rubbing the back of his head incredulously “How will we raise the children if you keep smacking me all the time?”
“Our kids will know you're an idiot.” she guaranteed.
“Yeah, but I'm the best idiot.”
“Shut up, Mijinga.”
Junya moaned, feeling his stomach go sqiffy again. It was too low down to be his stomach really, and the jerky up-and-down motions of the horse weren't exactly helping. He almost curled over double as something deep inside him shook and pinched, making his legs feel funny too.
“You okay?” Mpendwa asked “You want some bread?”
“Ugh, no, thank you.” he replied “I just need to take my mind off it.”
“How about a story or something?” she suggested.
“I'm not in the mood for stories.”
“Then how about some information?” she went on “Now's as good a time as any to tell you about the clan you've become queen of. What do you want to know? Ask me anything.”
He didn't want to know anything about the gorillas. The pain in his stomach was putting him in such a bad mood that he didn't care about being fair to them. However, he was never going to be in too much pain for self-preservation, so kept his mouth closed. His head was starting to get woozy, and for some reason the light felt particularly harsh.
He closed his eyes, hoping it would stop the pain, but it only dulled it a little, his odd tiredness making it hard to open them again. He wasn't getting sick, was he? This would be the worst possible time for that. His symptoms weren't like anything he had ever experienced before, even when he had had food poisoning as a kid. What if it was part of the curse? Was it a curse to annoy him to death?
“Tell me about the Insect King.” Junya requested.
Everyone within earshot flinched a little, perhaps surprised by his request. They looked between each other as if sharing some secret, which pissed him off.
“He's nothing but a story back home.” he elaborated, hoping to solicit a response “The priest would tell the children that if they were disobedient, all the little bugs would form one big one and drag them into the forest to eat them. That was the Insect King to us.”
“You're not far off.” Mpendwa admitted “For a long time we thought that too. Back when the previous king was alive, there were plenty of wolves around – so many that they were a significant threat to us, territory wise. Over the years, little by little, they started dying out. First it was outlying clans, then the larger towns – we started seeing less and less of them, and they couldn't sustain themselves. We figured out pretty quickly that it was their women going missing, considering how quiet they got all of a sudden.”
“Why's that?” Junya asked.
“Wolves are one of those species where the female rules the roost.” she explained “They were the warriors, the hunters, the decision makers. They had an alpha male at the top of the clan, but he was mostly for show – it was the alpha female that had all the power. With the females all dying out, the men found themselves essentially useless.”
“Of course they were.” Junya agreed “What's the point of men all by themselves?”
“Exactly the problem.” she said “Pretty soon the only females left were too young or old to breed – when the young ones did get old enough, they died too. The previous king insisted they must be having some kind of civil war – he didn't believe in the Insect King either. Even when the wolves came and told us the horde would be coming for us next, he didn't believe them. None of us did.”
“But why you?” Junya wondered “We passed through goat territory to get here, didn't we? Why ignore them and go straight to you?”
“We don't know.” Zuberi answered, making Junya jump a little “We think it has to do with our breeding cycles – female gorillas typically never have more than three children, and they'll be many years between them – that's just how we gorillas are. Goats, on the other hand, have one or two children year after year, sometimes more than once a year.”
“Why eat bread when you can have cake?” Junya summarised.
“Exactly.” Zuberi grumbled.
“The wolves were similar.” Mpendwa told him “Much like foxes, it was supposed to be hard to tell when she-wolves were expecting, so catching a pregnant one would have been pretty rare.”
“The wolves never found the hive.” Zuberi added “So the insects exhausted their food supply. That must have been... 20 years ago?”
“Sounds about right.” Mpendwa supposed.
“So the king moved the hive in order to find more food.”
“How would he move it?” Junya asked “If it's full of bugs like that monster I saw, the hive would be enormous!”
“You saw that giant one?!” Mpendwa gasped “I've never seen that monster up close!”
“It's the kings younger brother.” Zuberi informed them “God only knows what it ate to get that big.”
“You think the rumours are true?” Mijinga interjected “About there being a queen?”
“It's possible.” Zuberi admitted “More than that, it makes sense – the king moves the queen, and the hive follows her.”
“Ugh,” Junya groaned “Queens are usually the big ones, right? I don't even want to think about what she'd look like!”
“You and me both.” Mijinga agreed.
“If there is a queen,” Mpendwa thought “She won't be the same one as during the wolves time.”
“Oh?” Zuberi asked, examining her seriously “Why do you think that?”
“Insects have short life spans.” she figured “You remember when the insects started appearing in our territory? They had a different king back then, an older one. And think about it – how easy would it be to move the entire hive? A horde that covers the entire city when it attacks wouldn't be easy to relocate. I think that, instead of moving the queen, the old king found a new one and set up another hive. That would explain why we've never seen one: she's too big or too immobile to actually move.”
Zuberi snarled a little, clearly displeased.
“The idea that there's more than one hive is harrowing.” he admitted “Once we've found the one we're looking for, we'll be able to ascertain if there really is a queen, let alone more than one hive. I'll be counting on you.”
“Should I tell the others to keep their eyes peeled too?” Mijinga asked.
“No.” Zuberi ordered “I don't want to panic anyone – let them focus on the task at hand.”
“So, long story short,” Junya summarised “It's a nightmarish creature of horror that we know little about.”
Zuberi and his generals stood at the head of the path, deep in conversation. The going through the woods had been slow, but steady, the well-trodden path providing no obstacles for the horse or the company of gorillas. However, as often happens in the forest, the further they travelled along the dirt path, the less of a path there actually was. The trees got older, bigger, more gnarled, more overgrown with vines and entangled in the branches of other trees. The ancient looking canopy let almost no light through, so the grasses and flowers started to disappear, replaced by ferns and great thorny bushes.
The path had almost entirely disappeared. Junya could just about make it out through the frame of ancient grey trunks, but it was badly overgrown, and some of those thorns looked as long and thick as his fingers: you certainly couldn't get a horse through it. The company took the opportunity to have a sit down, resting their freakish hand-feet, while the higher-ups discussed what to do. While Junya thought it was probably best to go back and try to find away around the forest, Zuberi rejected the idea, since it 'came from his head, not his gut.' That sounded kinda stupid to him, but he wasn't the king...
Since it was already past noon, the higher-ups decided to cut their losses and set up camp for the night: it would be a struggle for the gorillas to get through all those thorns – the ones who carried swords would have to spend a long time hacking them away before any progress could be made, so they got an early start for tomorrow, the rest clearing away the less dense area to set up camp.
Junya felt somewhat impotent as even the smallest women hauled away great big logs, tore trees from the ground and pounded the tent pegs into the compacted earth. His manly pride was pretty much shattered when everyone said they didn't need his help. Within a couple of hours, an entire area had been cleared of trees and brush, the camp set up and even a few lean-to's made from the cleared wood to protect the tents from the elements.
“You gorillas sure are efficient.” Junya noted “And devastating.”
“There are drawbacks to being this big.” Mpendwa admitted as she finished tying up the rope to the tent peg “Why do you think we live in the grasslands?”
“I see your point.”
The two looked around as another soldier approached, waving like she was an old friend.
“There's a river nearby.” she told them “It's pretty wide, too. Fast flowing, shallow...”
“Have they specified the drinking collection point?” Mpendwa asked excitedly.
“They have~!” the soldier sung “Which means~!”
“Bath time! Yes!”
Mpendwa practically threw her sandals into the fire, she took them off so quickly, discarding her weapons and armour with Mijinga.
“Can I-” he started.
“No.” she barked at him.
“Women only.” the other soldier agreed “You men can bathe later.”
“Oh, shut up.” his fiancée sighed, too used to his ways to even be enthusiastic about it “Are you coming with us, Junya?”
What?! Oh yes, he's a woman right now.
“I'll take one later.” he answered “You've all been working hard, you don't want to babysit me.”
“You don't need to worry about that.” she insisted.
“Leave her be.” Zuberi suggested, plodding over as he was finally done discussing plans with his generals “She's an only child, and not a solider – she's probably not used to bathing with other women.”
“I'll take her place.” Mijinga joked.
Zuberi just growled at him.
“Your loss.” Mpendwa told Junya “Nothing cures what ails ya like a good bath with the girls.”
He was sure.
“Maybe another time.”
With a wave, the two left, tapping the shoulders of the other women they passed to let them know it was bath time. Junya admired their sense of camaraderie.
“In all seriousness.” Zuberi told him as he watched them go “The water's going to get cold before the sun sets – don't leave your bath too late.”
Junya dipped his toes in the water – damn, it was getting cold already. Between the ladies bath, the men's bath and dinner, it was sunset before the river was clear enough that he felt it was okay to take the risk. He really wanted to take a bath, despite the fact it may not be the best idea (he only looked like a woman with his clothes on, afterall).
The thick forest canopy didn't stretch over the low, wide river, so the rich orange light of the sunset was able to get to it, warming the water. Junya's sandy coloured fur looked more orange in this light – not nearly as deep red as the fancy man's, but still pretty orange. The river was far enough away from the camp that it afforded him some privacy, but close enough that he could still hear the soldiers joking, telling stories and yelling at each other.
Taking a final look back towards the camp to make sure he wasn't being observed, Junya slipped off his clothes and waded into the river, gasping and swearing a little as it got colder in the deep water further away from the bank. He waded in until the water hit his waist – it didn't get too much deeper in the middle, but as he couldn't swim it seemed wise to stay where the current wasn't as strong.
The water felt good, just warm enough and fast enough to massage his sore muscles and wash the dirt from his fur – he could finally wash away the smell of that horse! He was sure he smelled like gorilla too, but since he was surrounded by them it was hard to tell. A little time alone was nice as well – he hadn't realised how much he had appreciated his time alone in the cold room until he literally didn't have a second to himself.
He wouldn't like to be in the army. It wouldn't suit him at all.
He ducked his head under the water, giving it a good scratch and getting behind his ears. With his head under the current, he didn't notice someone leaving the camp, coming to check on him since it starting to get dark. He didn't hear the great silverback stomp through the undergrowth toward the river, grumbling and muttering when he saw Junyas clothes left in a heap.
Zuberi continued to mutter to himself as he picked the clothes up, folding them neatly before placing them on a dry log. He went silent, flinching in surprise as Junya popped back up from under the water, taking in a great breath of air. The fox still had his back to the bank, shaking the river water from his ears. The gorilla looked puzzled a moment, turning his head to the side and taking a good, long look at Junya.
A look of realisation crept across the kings face, followed by disappointment and a flash of anger. He bared his teeth and clenches his fists, but seemed to think better of himself in a second, shaking his head. With a seep sigh he looked back at Junya, as if hoping he would be proven wrong, only to have his conclusions confirmed.
When Junya finally turned back to the bank, it was vacant. The water was getting pretty bloody cold, so this seemed like a good time to get out. He waded back to the bank where he had left his clothes, only to find them folded and placed up on a log above the ground. He didn't recall having left them that way, but he hadn't heard anything or seen anyone – it must have been him.
He thought nothing more of it as he got dressed.
Things were a little tense in the morning, but Junya wasn't sure why: Zuberi had been in an absolutely foul mood all night, and it seemed to be taking its toll on the troops morale. They tip-toed around him, avoiding looking him in the eye as they packed up the camp, subtly taking any sharp objects out of his reach. Junya's instinct for self-preservation told him not to go near the surly king, even though he was curious about his sudden change in mood.
“Do you know what happened?” Mpendwa asked him in hushed tones as she finished packing away her tent.
“I wish I did.” he admitted “Was it something someone said?”
“Junya!” Zuberi barked at him from across the site, causing every last one of the soldiers to flinch “Come here!”
Junya and Mpendwa shared a worried look before he did as ordered, the soldiers clearing a path for him without a word. Zuberi was a giant ball of seething irritation, grimacing at every single thing that happened into his eye line. Was the reality of what they were doing finally getting to him? A little late for that now, and he seemed perfectly fine yesterday.
“Everything okay?” Junya asked cautiously, staying just out of arms reach.
“The horse will never get through the forest.” he barked at him “You'll have to walk.”
“Oh... great. I'm sure I'll manage.”
“I'm sure you will.” he growled, storming off.
Rude. Don't take it out on me because you're having a bad day.
The sword-bearing team last night had managed to clear the first few hundred yards of the old forest path, only to find thicker vines bearing even more thorns lying ahead of them. The night guards had been kind enough to sharpen their swords for them as they slept, allowing them to carry on at the earliest opportunity, hacking and slashing away again as the other soldiers packed up the camp.
They tied the horse to a tree close to the river, leaving its food within its reach before starting on their way again. Even an able-bodied fox would have difficulty traversing this forest, climbing over the centuries old tree roots, avoiding the dagger-like thorns and the footfalls where the ground, hollow beneath them, just gave way without warning, and Junya was not able-bodied. It wasn't long at all before his leg started to pinch and pull from the effort.
He was glad the tapestry of thorny vines prevented the gorillas from making their usual progress – he didn't feel like he was slowing them down as he trod carefully over the large trees roots and hacked vines thrown aside by the clearing team. A chorus of thwack, thwack, slice filled the air from the front of the company, occasionally joined by the barked orders of one of the higher-ups, but thanks to the kings bad mood there was little in the way of banter today.
Mpendwa stayed by Junya's side, even when others passed them by, to make sure he didn't hurt himself too badly when he fell on his face. By the third time he caught his foot and went careening to the ground, his poor leg felt like it was ready to pop, pulling and burning from the effort. Oh, for a nice simple hill, or better yet a paved road. He sighed, picked himself up again, and carried on, not getting any sympathy from anyone.
As they made their slow progress through the ancient woods, Junya examined the gnarled old trees. They looked very steady and solid, and Junya was struck with an idea.
“Say, can gorillas climb trees?” he asked Mpendwa, taking a good look up the massive twisting trunk closest to them.
“Typically, no.” she admitted “They'd need to be bloody big to hold our weight.”
She looked up the tree herself, seeming to see what he was getting at.
“Not a chance.” she decided “Branches are too thin and close together up there. Can foxes climb trees?”
“Typically no.” he echoed “If the branches were lower to the ground then sure, I might've be able to get up. The children always try, of course, but you know how children are... oh, uh, sorry...”
“It's alright.” she replied, not even looking at him “I'll know soon enough. You reckon you could get up that tree if I gave you a boost?”
“What are you two doing?”
They looked around at the intruding voice – Zuberi stood with his arms crossed, examining them incredulously. The other soldiers glanced at them as they passed by, but didn't stop, still wary of his mood. Mpendwa stood away from the tree, straightening her armour self-consciously, but didn't answer.
“I'm thinking of climbing this tree.” Junya told him when Mpendwa didn't “Just to make sure we're not hacking all these vines down for no reason, or that there's not a cliff in 100 yards.”
Zuberi's nostrils flared as he thought, blowing air out through them roughly. He looked up at the tree, uncrossing his arms as he came over to really inspect the branches. The Gorilla King gave the tree a good shake, but it stayed in place, too old and stubborn to be bothered by him. He looked up it again, huffing before turning back to Junya.
“You can't even handle climbing over the roots competently, there's no way you'll get through the branches without falling and breaking your fool head.” he pointed out.
“Don't be a jerk.” Junya chastised “I'm aware of the risks, thank you very much. It's something no-one else here can do, so what's the point in grumbling about it?”
Zuberi looked at him, brown eyes examining him closely. Something was going through his head, but Junya would be damned if he knew what. The fox put his hands on his hips and looked at him disapprovingly, the way his mother used to do to him, hoping he looked as stern as she had.
“Are you going to give me a boost up, or are we going to stand here and argue about it for an hour first?”
The gorilla blew air out his nose again. He scratched his head and sighed, looking back up the tree.
“Fine.” he grumbled.
He didn't look at Junya as he held his hand out to him. What was wrong with him today? Moody git. Junya gave him his hand, and he was momentarily scooped up, a little more roughly than he expected from Zuberi, and lifted above the gorillas head.
“The only positive to come out of this fiasco is that we're finally going to be rid of those damn insects.” he muttered.
“Keep being moody and I'm putting this whole company down for a nap.” Junya warned “A little higher.”
Zuberi had no problem taking Junyas weight in one hand, using the other to steady himself against the tree and stand up on his tip-toes to lift him higher. Junya reached for the closest branch, just catching it and hoisting himself up.
Being in a tree was weird – even as a child he had never tried to climb one (his mother would have gone ballistic), but if squirrels could do it then how hard could it be? It felt like he was in an attic, only the roof was full of holes and there were only a few beams. Like a derelict house, perhaps. He could only imagine what the priest would say to see him up here: 'get down, you moron' probably.
Once on the first branch, it wasn't too difficult to get around – the tree was old, its branches wide and sturdy. Glancing below, he saw the gorillas watching him, Zuberi's arms posed like he was ready to catch him if he fell. Idiot. Relying on the strength of his arms and the support of his good leg, he managed to struggle up the tree, spluttering when he found himself with a face full of leaves or spiders web.
After a few minutes climb through the clouds of leaves he broke through the canopy, a frigid wind startling him and sending a shiver right down his spine. It was suddenly very bright, so he jammed his eyes closed, opening them slowly. Maybe he'd just been in the forest too long, but it seemed to be far brighter and colder up here than down on the ground, and it took a couple of cautious tries before he could take a good look around the area.
Forest, in every direction, for miles around. Lots and lots of it. Small mountains poked out of the lumpy carpet of green some way away, a whole range too far away for him to tell what, if anything, was behind them. There was a far closer one on the other side of him, all on its own and not that far away: they were probably a mile or so from its base, but the forest was so thick that they hadn't seen it.
He looked in the direction the gorillas were forging their path. Good news: no cliffs. Bad news: not much else either. Unless you like trees. And probably thorns. Hang on, what was that? There was a gulf in the forest, similar to a clearing but not quite, since it was still full of trees. He could tell from the size and colour that they were younger trees than the ones that surrounded them, like they had grown into a previously clear area, but there was something else that he could only just make out. He squinted, shielding his eyes from the sun with his hand. It looked like... a roof? It was too smooth and flat to be natural.
Now that he had noticed it, he saw other places like that, hidden in the gulfs of trees here and there. Roofs, varying in height, scattered all about in the trees. There was a spire over there. Was that a lookout? A raised storehouse? Abandoned villages, he thought, left to rot and return to the forest. Whose villages were they? Certainly not the goat's. Squirrels wouldn't live where there were so many thorns. There was nothing creepier than abandoned towns.
Was this the right way? Junya tried to ask his 'instincts', see which way felt right. It made him feel kind of dumb, like he was trying to find the ocean by feeling which way the wind was blowing. Speaking of dumb, why was that mountain all on its own? That's not really how mountains work, just sat on its own like a pimple on the landscape. At least the other mountains had the good courtesy to have trees growing on them and be in a nice neat line.
His stomach started to hurt again – just what he needed while he was up a tree. Which way should they go? The sun was pretty high – was it noon already? Perhaps he should direct them to one of the old villages for the night, see if they couldn't come up with something better. Who goes to war following 'instinct' anyway? Stupid gorillas.
What was that noise? It was something like a fly in his ear, only it was quite far away. Hadn't he heard that before?
Yes. Yes he had, and his whole body went cold when he remembered where. He looked back at that weird mountain – something was coming out of the side of it, like a hundred columns of thick black smoke only... not. They pulsed too and fro like starlings in the roosting season, pouring out into the sky with a dark, ominous buzz. A swarm of bugs! Was the mountain the hive?! His instincts had been right?! Something shot out of the mountain, something big, flying up into the air and around like a lightning bolt. It was coming towards him!
Junya wasn't sticking around to watch it, catching himself just before falling off the branch as he spun around. That giant thing was quick, there was no time to be careful.
“Incoming!” he yelled as loud as he could.
Dear God, please let someone catch him! He'd break his back for sure if they didn't... Spying the most direct route to the ground, he jumped, preying he was skinny enough to slip through the old branches. The wind rushed past, leaves and twigs catching against his skin as he fell. God had been listening to his prayers: Zuberi stumbled as the fox fell into his ready arms, a declaration of 'oof!' leaving his mouth.
“What do you think you're doing?!” he demanded “That was dangerous!”
“The mountain!” Junya yelled at him “It's not a mountain!”
“Mountain?” he echoed.
There was a great crash in the canopy above them, sending leaves and branches cascading down. That horrible hiss! The entire forest quaked at it, the canopy trembling as if caught in hurricane winds.
The company leapt to, drawing their shields and weapons. Zuberi, with Junya still in his arms, ran back out of the way of the soldiers, depositing him on the ground before drawing his own sword, rounding back. Shit, where was his axe? Had he left it on the horse?! No, it was on his belt. God, he wasn't used to having weapons.
The trees that resisted the weight of the Gorilla King pushing on them snapped like dry kindling as that great monster cicada barrelled down the trunk. Even against the soldiers, the thing was massive, hissing and bearing its wings menacingly as it reached the ground, legs clacking like hollow reeds against the old trees, its eyes swivelling around in all directions. With a roar of orders, the gorillas leapt at it.
It threw them aside like nuisances, heading straight for Junya. His heart stopped dead in his chest – he couldn't run. Those horrible wide-set eyes, fixed right on him... He fumbled with the pouch on his belt, blind with panic to get the damn thing out, fingers a jumbled mess of movement. The monster was quicker than he, upon him in an instant, letting out that skin crawling hiss.
Junya screamed, covering his face with his arms in a vain attempt to do something, to do anything! He couldn't fight – he didn't know how! He felt himself be grabbed, taken roughly in those many quivering mandibles, the monster breathing putrid wind over him as he did so. He prepared himself to be snapped in half, to be eaten alive, for any amount of horrible painful deaths.
He heard his name screamed in the chaos, but could hear nothing more over the buzzing, the hissing, the yelling and the stomping of dozens of gorilla feet. His heart leapt horridly in his chest as the monster lifted him clear off the ground, felt his centre being pulled down sharply. Up – they were going up! Back up through the trees, crashing through the canopy, back into the clear sky in an instant!
No! No, not that way! He couldn't let this thing take him away! He grabbed for his axe, but the fabric slipped clear of his belt, falling back to the forest below. Shit! What was the point of that?! He pounded the creature on the head desperately, uncivil cries leaving his throat, but nothing fazed it.
It flew away.