Big Ung felt the cry more than he heard it, through the soles of his feet and the hilt of the Sword-and-a-half resting against his shoulder. Even the feeling was so faint that he wondered if it was imagination. He shuffled about, his broad feet crunching on the snow, and faced north, the direction he fancied the cry might have come from. He dug the blunt tip of the Sword-and-a-half’s blade into the snow, to be closer to the rock, and tilted his head to better listen.
A shout closer at hand disrupted his concentration. “Look at me, Big Ung!”
“Well done, Little Ung,” he said, not turning around to look.
The next peak to the north was Marnnonttok. Big Ung wondered if the cry had been so faint because it was more distant than that, or because it was weak. Or if it had even been real at all. Perhaps it was just the snow playing tricks.
“I’m jumping now Big Ung!”
“Well done, Little… hmm?” Big Ung spun in time to see Little Ung launch herself from a tree branch about the height of Big Ung’s head. She landed heavily, but on her feet, the impact cushioned by the snow. Seeing Big Ung watching, Little Ung threw herself forward and rolled dramatically. She came to a halt just short of Big Ung’s toes. Big Ung peered down at her.
“Why didn’t you catch me?” Little Ung said.
Leaning on the Sword-and-a-half, Big Ung bent down to set her on her feet. “Because you didn’t need me to,” he said. “And because if you want to be caught, then you first need to be sure that I am watching.”
“I did say look at me!”
Big Ung brushed the snow off Little Ung’s back and patted her flat little skull. “Let us be going home now, Little Ung.”
“My legs are tired.”
Little Ung’s teeth were chattering, although Big Ung doubted the child was aware yet that she was cold. Little Ung’s fur was thick and she had a good layer of fat, but she lacked the body mass to keep her warm for long.
Big Ung relaxed the muscles around the mouth of his pouch. “Come and be carried, then,” he said.
Little Ung scrambled inside. Big Ung winced as she wriggled about to get herself comfortable. He reached down to shift Little Ung’s foot away from his groin, and then set out for home.
His feet spread his weight across the snow, sinking in only a little, despite his size. He used the Sword-and-a-half as a notched and blunt-edged black iron staff. The mountain was peaceful. Through the trees, Unggubudh’s peak was jagged white against the blue sky, its lopsided faces as much a part of Big Ung as his own heart and hands. He could feel what it was like up there, in the thin cold of the wind.
The half-heard cry nagged at him, although he had nearly decided that it had been his imagination or a trick of the snow, or in any case too far distant for him to be of any assistance. Still, he thought that after he had got home and fed Little Ung he might climb up and call back to Marnnonttok, just to be sure.
He passed the shrine built by the Darjee and Hupuante villagers who lived at Unggubudh’s foot. There were fresh offerings in its sheltered nook, a modest basket of dried fruits and cured meat.
Big Ung smiled to himself. It pleased him that the villagers thought enough of the aid and protection he provided to bring tribute, even in these leanest months when they had little to spare. Taking the basket in his free hand, Big Ung continued on.
Little Ung kicked him painfully in the bladder, then wriggled her head out of the pouch and said, “I want to run now.”
Big Ung let her out and Little Ung scampered off up the trail. She went only a short way, though, before she stopped and posed in an attitude of listening hard.
“What’s that?” she said.
“Just the treetops bending in the breeze, Little Ung,” Big Ung said, still plodding along.
“Not that,” said Little Ung. “There’s a stranger on the mountain.”
Big Ung paused, and frowned. Little Ung wasn’t old enough yet to distinguish clearly between what her ears and nose and skin told her and what the mountain said through her feet. Big Ung reached his awareness down through the Sword-and-a-half, into the snow and the frozen earth beneath.
Little Ung was right. There was another presence on Unggubudh’s slopes. One that could conceal itself well, but not entirely. A presence that Big Ung knew.
Anger stirred in him. The cry he had heard had been real, and it had been Marnnonttok, although he did not see how her killer could have so quickly traversed the distance between. Unless Marnnonttok had managed her feeble cry only after she had been left behind for dead.
Big Ung felt himself growing hot. It was conceivable that Marnnonttok could have been overcome by a foe such as the one who approached now. She was young, had only recently claimed her own mountain and name. Not so very long ago, she had been the Little Ung he nursed in his pouch. He called out to the current occupant, Marnnonttok’s little sister.
“Little Ung, come, up the tree.” When the child flinched, Big Ung recognised the snap that anger had put in his voice. He patted his belly and managed a gentler tone. “Come. Well done, Little Ung. You listened well to the voice of the mountain.”
Little Ung scurried over and climbed quickly up the front of Big Ung’s torso, using his thick fur for hand- and footholds. Big Ung scooped her up under the backside and pushed her up into the overhanging branches of a fir tree.
“Climb,” he said. “Then be still. Make no sound, no matter what transpires.”
Big Ung stepped away from the tree, back down to the edge of the clearing where the villagers had built their shrine. The intruder was coming this way, had crossed their trail now. Big Ung nurtured his anger, focused it and let it grow to the point where it would fuel his strength but not blind him. The old leather bindings around the Sword-and-a-half’s hilt creaked in his grip.
Presently, the intruder emerged from the trees on the far side of the clearing. She stopped when she saw Big Ung and they regarded each other in silence.
The Godbreaker was much like those Big Ung remembered. Her sharp muzzle, clawed fingers and long naked tail resembled those of the Czua who had come to dominate the lands to the west in the wake of the Godbreakers’ razings. She was taller and leaner than any Czua, though, and dressed in the brown hooded cassock that her cult affected underneath a battered leather coat, rather than the darker robes and veils of a Czua female. In one hand she clutched a metal staff. Her other arm, the Godbreaker held tight against her side.
An injury, Big Ung thought. Marnnonttok had given a good account of herself then. The Godbreaker smelled strongly of fear. And well she should.
Big Ung let a growl bubble up from his chest. He lifted the Sword-and-a-half and planted it away from his body, ready to flip it and take it in both hands. “Godbreaker, I am Cilinggil Unggubudh.”
The Godbreaker’s attention followed the weapon, ugly thing that it was, as much club as it was sword. “I understood that was the name of this mountain, that is worshipped hereabouts.”
“It is one and the same.”
There was a click, and long blades appeared from the ends of the Godbreaker’s staff. The Godbreaker drew herself up and recited, “Truth is eternal. God is truth. A god that dies is a false god.”
“Murderer!” Big Ung roared. He swung the Sword-and-a-half up, launching himself at the Godbreaker in the same motion.
The Godbreaker danced aside, her bladed staff whirling. There was a catch in her gait, though, and the snow slowed her further. The weapons clashed and Big Ung was gratified by the Godbreaker’s expression of surprise when the Sword-and-a-half did not break. He shouldered into his smaller opponent and dug a punch at the Godbreaker’s injured side. The Godbreaker took advantage of the lessened pressure bearing down on her weapon and twisted the staff. Big Ung swayed aside from the bladed end and the Godbreaker skipped clear.
Big Ung whirled the Sword-and-a-half around his head. The Godbreaker tried a stab at his exposed torso, but the Sword-and-a-half came down quicker than she had anticipated. Big Ung batted the staff aside and whirled the Sword-and-a-half again, putting all his might into a blow that would have knocked the Godbreaker into two pieces if she hadn’t got her staff back in the way.
The impact put the Godbreaker on her back. The staff cartwheeled across the clearing. Big Ung placed his foot on the Godbreaker’s injured ribs and pressed. The Godbreaker hissed in pain.
Big Ung leaned over her. “It was upon these mountains that the Godbreakers were broken. My people are not gods, and many died, but we are greater than you.” He drew back and raised the Sword-and-a-half. “Now, Godbreaker, you will pay for the murder of Cilinggil Marnnonttok.”
He tensed to swing, rising up on the balls of his feet.
The Godbreaker bared her teeth. “You are mistaken,” she gasped. “I have done no killing in these mountains.”
The Sword-and-a-half was already moving. With a grunt of effort, Big Ung arrested the blow before it struck. A muscle pinged in his back. He stared at the Godbreaker, his anger collapsing in confusion.
The Godbreaker’s eyes rolled up and her head fell back.
“Are we going to eat it?” said Little Ung, veering in front of Big Ung and almost tripping him.
Big Ung adjusted the Godbreaker’s limp weight in his arms. “No.”
Little Ung stopped, forcing Big Ung to step around her. “My legs are tired. I want to ride in the pouch.”
“My arms are tired. You carry the basket. “
“My arms are full, Little Ung.”
Little Ung pattered past him again. “Are we going to make it our slave?”
“Enough!” Big Ung boomed.
The glacier above them creaked in response. Little Ung’s ears went flat against her skull. Big Ung glanced up at the steeply sloping ice.
“Sorry,” he murmured. He calmed himself, let the feeling flow down through his feet into the mountain. “Be quiet, Little Ung. I need to think.”
Little Ung’s ears came up again. She scampered ahead of Big Ung up the winding path between the rocks, dragging and banging the basket as she went. Big Ung returned to worrying away at this unexpected turn of events.
He had looked briefly at the injury in the Godbreaker’s side. The extent and colour of the bruising visible through her sparse fur suggested cracked ribs from a blunt impact – a fall, perhaps, rather than a weapon. She had a number of other, minor wounds that were from weapons. Had the Godbreaker fallen while being pursued? In hindsight, it seemed likely that her fear had not been of Big Ung.
But from what would a Godbreaker run? What was coming behind her? Big Ung’s thoughts went to Marnnonttok and the villagers at Unggubudh’s foot.
Little Ung disappeared beneath the outcrop that sheltered the mouth of their cave.
Inside, Big Ung laid the Godbreaker on the straw sitting mat near the entrance. He pulled aside the Godbreaker’s coat and shucked up her cassock and undershirt.
Little Ung hovered at his shoulder. “Is it a Czua?” she asked.
“She is a Godbreaker,” said Big Ung. “What the proper name of her race is, I do not know.” The Godbreaker stirred when Big Ung rolled her onto her uninjured side. Big Ung found the pressure point in her neck and applied a gentle force. The Godbreaker subsided back into unconsciousness.
“What is a Godbreaker?”
A wound on the Godbreaker’s back caught Big Ung’s eye. A large, deep gash, neatly stitched. “She did not do that for herself,” Big Ung murmured. He leaned closer. The suture was silk, rather than catgut. “Darjee work.” So, the Godbreaker had been to the village, then. Which meant that if something was pursuing her, the villagers could be at risk.
“Damn her.” Big Ung clenched his fist to punch he wasn’t sure what. He considered just tossing the Godbreaker off the cliff and being done with her. He noticed Little Ung with her ears flat again. “Do you remember the healing herbs for bruises and broken bones?”
Little Ung nodded.
“Go, then, and I will tell you about the Godbreakers.”
Big Ung lit a small fire in the hearth, watching with half an eye while Little Ung clambered about the shelves gathering ingredients. “A long time ago, the Godbreakers came from the hot lands to the north, around the earth’s waist. They went in all directions, and wherever they went, they cast down all those they found who claimed a divine right to rule over others, or who made others worship them as gods.
“They came to these mountains and saw that the little folk in the valleys – the Hupuante and the Darjee – venerated we of the mountains. They made war on the mountains, and we defeated them. More came, and we destroyed those as well.”
Little Ung scuttled over and dropped her collection in the pot Big Ung held out. Big Ung ladled in some water and set the pot over the fire. “Well done, Little Ung.”
“Was it a long time ago, Big Ung?”
“Yes,” he said. “A very long time, back when I was only newly Unggubudh, with a name and a mountain of my own.” He nodded towards the Godbreaker. “I have not heard tell of the Godbreakers in many years. This one must be among the last of them.”
“What will happen when she wakes up?” asked Little Ung.
“If she will see reason, then perhaps we will send her on her way,” said Big Ung. “If she will not…”
He stopped, then laid both palms on the stone floor. Little Ung’s eyes were wide. “Tell me what you feel, Little Ung.”
“More strangers on the mountain.”
Big Ung nodded. “Strangers with ill intent.” He grabbed rope from a hook. Quickly he bound the Godbreaker’s wrists behind her back, and then to her ankles. Big Ung rose, scooping up the Sword-and-a-half and, after a moment’s consideration, the Godbreaker’s staff. “Take the pot off the heat after it has boiled a few minutes, Little Ung, and put a dressing in to soak. Can you do that?”
Little Ung nodded, staring at the bound figure on the straw mat.
“Little Ung?” The child looked up at him. “If she begins to stir, you hide in your best spot.”
Little Ung grinned. “My best spot.”
“Good. If you are hungry, eat from the basket the villagers left. I will call for aid before I go.”
Big Ung half expected to see smoke rising from the village at Unggubudh’s foot. To his relief, the sky was clear. Of course, that didn’t mean for certain that the villagers had remained untroubled. As he barrelled down the mountainside, he thought he sensed half a dozen intruders. There was something odd about them that made his count unsure. Few enough to deal with himself, anyway, if they wanted to fight.
He had climbed up to the rock spur above the cave, before he left, to send out the deep, deep call for help that would travel for miles through ice and stone. He had little hope of Aggradhadh, immediately to the east, as they had been feuding since before either of them claimed their mountains. Cannkullu was beyond Aggradhadh, though, who was mother to Little Ung. But Cannkullu was a day away, even if she set out immediately. Until then, he was on his own.
He came upon them inside the tree line, three hump-shouldered Czua males, loping through the snow, and four smaller, nimbler Darjee, running on skinny piston legs, their tailfeathers rigid behind them. It was an unusual combination – Czua and Darjee together. Big Ung was more surprised because their presences through the mountain had the feel of neither.
Two of the Czua were armed with axes and shields, the one in the centre with a blunderbuss in his hands and a sword on his back. Three of the Darjee had crossbows and the fourth a long-barrelled musket. They all wore the same headgear, Darjee and Czua, stylised dull grey helmets that covered only the backs of their skulls.
These would not have been enough to make a Godbreaker run, he thought.
Big Ung slowed, prepared to talk, but they fanned out as soon as they saw him. The Czua came straight ahead, the axemen stepping wider of the one with the blunderbuss, the Darjee accelerating wide to catch him in a crossfire, ratcheting their crossbows as they ran.
“So,” Big Ung said, finding the catch in the Godbreaker’s staff to pop out its blades, “we will ask questions afterwards, then.”
The crossbows twanged, the musket boomed. Big Ung whirled his weapons. He cut two of the crossbow bolts out of the air. The third caught him on the side of the jaw, piercing his hide but not penetrating the bone beneath. Big Ung shook his head to dislodge the bolt from his face.
The musket ball hit him in the chest, lodging in the layer of fat over his pectoral muscle. .
The Czua charged. Big Ung lifted his hands, catching the blast of the blunderbuss on his forearms. Most of the shot stuck in his fur. Some stung the skin beneath.
He hefted the Godbreaker’s staff above his shoulder and flung it like a javelin at one of the axemen. The Czua tried to deflect it with his shield, but the staff punched through, pinning the shield to his chest.
Big Ung blocked a blow from the second axeman with the Sword-and-a-half, twisted the axe and broke its blade, then barged the Czua’s shield with his hip and shoulder, felling him.
The third Czua had dropped his blunderbuss and was swinging a two-handed bastard sword almost as big as the Sword-and-a-half. Off balance, Big Ung rode the first attack then countered with a swipe that sent the Czua stumbling backwards.
The Darjee all hit him at once, leaping onto his back and shoulders and stabbing with their shortswords. Big Ung plucked one off and used her to block the next attack from the Czua swordsman. He stabbed the splintered arm bone that remained in his grasp into the neck of a second Darjee.
The second axeman was up, running behind the swordsman for their skewered comrade’s axe.
He charged the swordsman, who stepped into the path of the other Czua, bumping both off balance. Big Ung beat aside his opponent’s sword and knocked the Czua’s head from his shoulders. It bounced off a tree trunk as Big Ung brought the Sword-and-a-half crashing down through the axeman’s shoulder and chest.
The two surviving Darjee fled. Big Ung flung the Sword-and-a-half to bring one of them down in an explosion of blood and feathers. He bounded over to retrieve the Godbreaker’s staff to throw after the second. The fallen Czua snarled when Big Ung pulled the bladepoint free. By the time he had raised the staff to throw, the fleeing Darjee was almost lost from sight between the trees.
Big Ung lowered the staff.
Breathing heavily, he reached up to pluck free a Darjee shortsword that had stuck behind his collarbone. He looked down at the Czua. “Now, my fine fellow: questions.”
The Czua’s eyes bulged, his tongue flapped between his teeth. His helmet was moving, growing legs and trying to wriggle free from beneath his head. The Czua’s heels kicked in the snow.
Something landed on Big Ung’s neck, grabbing skin. Needle-sharp points pricked his hide at the base of his skull. He felt a pressure inside his head, a presence frantically scrabbling at his mind, looking for a way inside. Big Ung wrenched his attacker off. The helmet-thing thrashed in his grip, a trio of chitinous needles stabbing out from the mess of exposed underparts that had nestled snug against the back of a Czua or Darjee skull. Revolted, Big Ung squeezed the thing until its carapace popped and it hung limp.
Others were hopping through the snow towards him, emitting a static of mental shrieks that lanced through Big Ung’s head. When they launched themselves, he chopped them out of the air with the Godbreaker’s staff.
The mental assault diminished, but did not cease. Big Ung returned to the one still struggling clear of the now dead Czua axeman. With careful deliberation, he squashed it under his foot.
Blessed peace. Big Ung massaged his temples, considering the dead parasites. Their mental attacks would likely have incapacitated a less robust mind than his own.
A Darjee or Hupuante mind, for instance.
He cut the path of the villagers’ flight before he came in sight of the village, a wide trail of churned snow leading away from the course that had brought the Godbreaker to Big Ung. The villagers looked to be skirting the mountain, heading for the defensible ravines and grottos on the lower south-west slopes, or perhaps aiming to climb up to his own cave from further west.
Big Ung sent out his awareness through the mountain. He found the villagers at the grottos already. He searched the other way, and found the rest of the intruders down near the village. A lot of them. They were following the villagers’ trail. He tossed six of the seven dead parasites onto the snow in front of him, slung the Sword-and-a-half onto his back and leaned on the Godbreaker’s staff to wait.
They approached quickly, all with the same jumbled, unfamiliar feel to their minds as the scouts he had killed. Soon he saw them through the trees. He counted more than forty, Czua in the main, and a number of Darjee. He spied a couple of Kneshi among their ranks, on their four pillar-legs and with their weapons grasped before them in twin trunks. There were a handful of others, too, whose races he did not recognise.
The intruders slowed, spreading out in a wide arc a respectful distance from Big Ung.
Questions first, this time, he thought.
There was a shuffling in the centre of their ranks, and a cloaked and hooded figure stalked forward to meet him. Now Big Ung understood the Godbreaker’s fear.
This figure was as tall and lean as the one bound and unconscious in Big Ung’s cave, and had the same narrow muzzle and long tail. The fur of this one’s snout, though, was whitened by age, his clawed hands gnarled with arthritis. He stooped, his shoulders unusually humped. A parasite under that hooded robe, Big Ung deduced: a larger beast than those he saw clutching the skulls of the rest of the company.
The figure stopped a few paces from Big Ung. He felt the parasite probing at his thoughts, a stronger, more complex awareness than those of its underlings. But, still, unable to pierce his mind.
“You have killed some of us,” it said through its host’s mouth.
“They attacked me,” said Big Ung. “You have been to Cilinggil Marnnonttok, and done murder there.”
The muzzle lifted, and Big Ung glimpsed bright eyes sparkling under the fringe of the hood. “The mountain to the north,” it said. “She would not yield.”
Big Ung kept his manner calm. “The villagers are under my protection. They are to be left in peace.”
He ran a glance over its underlings, disturbingly still while they watched.
“We have overcome one of your kind.”
“I am stronger than Marnnonttok.”
He waited, while the other considered. It gestured to the Godbreaker’s staff. “You have that which we seek,” it said.
Big Ung shook his head. “The Godbreaker is defeated.”
“But you have not killed him.” It was a statement, not a question.
Ah, he thought, it cannot see inside my head, but it can glean the thoughts behind my words. He said, “There is no profit in conflict between us.”
“Give us what we seek and there is no conflict,” it said.
“And you will leave.”
“And we will leave.”
“Come no higher on the mountain,” Big Ung said. “Cease your pursuit of the villagers. And I will return tomorrow.”
“We will wait.”
The Godbreaker was awake when Big Ung returned to the cave, and had propped herself into an awkward sitting position. Little Ung was nowhere to be seen.
Big Ung tossed the last of the parasites he had killed onto the Godbreaker’s lap and was satisfied to see her flinch.
“Little Ung, you can come out now.”
“She is on top of those shelves,” said the Godbreaker.
“You weren’t supposed to see,” came Little Ung’s voice from near the roof of the cave.
Big Ung squatted beside the Godbreaker. He reached over for the pot that Little Ung had left standing beside the fire and peered in at the soaked dressing. “Fetch a bandage on your way down, Little Ung.” He turned to the Godbreaker. “So, can I untie you, or are you going to start all that ‘god is truth’ rubbish again?”
“It is not rubbish.”
“It is not relevant here,” Big Ung countered. He selected a paring knife from the low bench against the wall and held the blade in the flames. “There are no gods – true or false – in these mountains, except what you brought with you.”
“You accept the veneration of the villagers.”
Big Ung grunted. He reversed the knife and, with a grimace, used the point to lever out the musket ball lodged beneath the skin of his chest. He raised his forearm and started to pick out the blunderbuss pellets that had gotten through his fur.
“Matsa-czuczua. Isn’t that what those who worship your kind call you?” he said. He barked a laugh at the Godbreaker’s constipated expression. “You will need to chop down the mountain to stop the villagers from their venerations.” He sobered, holding the Godbreaker’s gaze. “They are grateful for the practical protection I offer them. You have brought danger upon them.”
“I did not intend that. I was barely conscious when they found me. I told them to flee.”
Little Ung pressed a rolled bandage into Big Ung’s palm, then retreated to peer at the Godbreaker from behind his arm. “Well done, Little Ung,” said Big Ung. “Could you get me some salve? So, Godbreaker, can I untie you?”
The other regarded him gravely, her face drawn. “You can.” She shifted around for Big Ung to get at the knots that bound her. “Caraiss, is my name.”
The dead parasite slipped from her lap. Big Ung reached over and flicked it out of the cave. “Caraiss, then. I have seen what hunts you. And I have seen why you are afraid.”
An expression of deep pain passed across the Godbreaker’s face. “You have seen him, then.”
“Lift up your robe and shirt.” Caraiss did so. Big Ung fished the soaked dressing from the pot, squeezed out the excess fluid and pressed it against her cracked ribs, then began to bind the bandage around the Godbreaker’s chest. “I have seen him. I have never encountered parasites such as these. What are they?”
“They,” said Caraiss, “are a Mournreng. It is a hive creature, like ants or bees. That one you killed is a drone. The queen controls the drones.” She winced as Big Ung tied off the end of the bandage. “The Mournreng were the first of the false gods that my people cast down.”
Big Ung sat back, gathering Little Ung onto his lap. He untied the paper cover from the pot of salve, and started dabbing it onto his wounds. “It has an appreciation of irony, then.”
Caraiss re-ordered her clothes. “Of revenge,” she said. “We were their slaves.”
Big Ung grunted. “You did not expect to see one again,” he said. “This queen’s host is old, and it wants you for a replacement.”
“It wants me to hand you over,” Big Ung said. “If it had not killed Marnnonttok, who was Little Ung before this one, I might have done so already.”
Little Ung gasped and Big Ung realised his mistake. Little Ung’s face screwed up. “Marn is dead?”
Big Ung stroked her back. “Marn is dead. The intruders who are on our mountain murdered her.”
Little Ung gulped air, then wailed. She pushed her face against Big Ung’s belly and began to grizzle. Big Ung’s own grief, held in check until now, rose up in a wave. Little Ung shrugged off his hands and nosed at the mouth of his pouch. Big Ung relaxed his muscles for her to crawl inside.
He cast out his awareness into the mountain, seeking assurance. The mountain was disturbed, though, and ill at ease with the Mournreng camped where he had left them. Others were approaching up the south-west slopes.
“I am not susceptible to it,” he said, softly, patting Little Ung through the skin of his pouch. “Cilinggil are not. Otherwise it would have taken Marnnonttok and would have no need of you.”
Caraiss shook her head. “Even if it had taken Marnnonttok, it would still hunt me.” She met Big Ung’s frown. “For a daughter queen.” She gestured at Little Ung in the pouch. “You might not be susceptible. But what of your child?”
Little Ung had gone still. An alert silence radiated from the pouch. And if not Little Ung, then some other who is yet to find a mountain of their own, Big Ung thought.
He glanced towards the cave entrance. The sun was lowering, turning the sky above the horizon a vivid red. A fine day tomorrow.
He sensed the villagers approaching. “We have visitors, Godbreaker,” he said.
They appeared then, five Darjee and a Hupuante. The Darjee were garbed and armed for war, two males and two females, all young, led by their older headwoman, Tehtoo. They were fierce people, Darjee, Big Ung reflected, for all their smallness of stature. The two young males supported the Hupuante headman, Quepac’ca, between them. The Hupuante looked ready to fall. The little lizard should have been hibernating.
The Darjee stepped delicately over and around the dead parasite just outside. Their sharp beaks rendered their facial expressions almost non-existent, but Big Ung was accustomed enough to them to read curiosity and anxiety in the bobbing of their heads and the stiffness of their feathered tails.
“Unggubudh…” Tehtoo began, crouching low.
“Bowing and scraping does not become you, Tehtoo,” Big Ung said, more irritably than he should have, embarrassed by it with the Godbreaker watching. He softened his tone. “Bring that poor fellow to the fire.”
Tehtoo’s eyes flickered to Caraiss as she rose. Quepac’ca smiled gratefully as he was settled by the flames, opening his furs to receive the heat directly onto his chest and belly. Little Ung wriggled her head and arms out of the pouch to see.
Tehtoo remained at the entrance, poised between Big Ung and Caraiss, holding herself tall now. “Unggubudh, the Godbreaker told us flee, that grave danger followed him. We have retreated to the grottos, but we do not know this danger, nor if our children are safe.”
“I have seen what hunts her,” said Big Ung.
Tehtoo glanced down at the dead parasite.
Big Ung nodded. He recounted briefly his encounters with the Mournreng, watching six pairs of eyes – five black and bright, one slit-irised and orange – widen as he spoke.
“Foul, foul thing,” said Quepac’ca, when he had done.
“Even if you let it have this Godbreaker, it would not leave us in peace,” said Tehtoo.
“Even if it would, such an act would sit ill with me, Unggubudh,” said Quepac’ca, not looking up from the fire.
Big Ung met Caraiss’s gaze. He felt movement down the mountain, on the way to the village.
“As with me,” he said. He lifted Little Ung out of the pouch and set her beside the Hupuante. “The Mournreng does not hold to its agreement. It comes.”
Little Ung looked up at him, her eyes huge, as Big Ung stood. She sniffled. Big Ung reached down to pat the flat little skull. “Cannkullu will be here soon, Little Ung. You mind Tehtoo and Quepac’ca until she arrives.” He straightened. “Caraiss, this other Godbreaker – was he known to you?”
Caraiss nodded, her pain evident in her expression. “He was.”
“Can he be saved?”
The Godbreaker bowed her head. “No.”
Tehtoo said, “Unggubudh, we can fight…”
He held up a hand to forestall her. “No. It can only kill me. For you the consequence of defeat would be far worse.”
She stood her ground a moment then, reluctantly, stepped aside. Big Ung put a hand on her shoulder. “Little Ung will know if I fall. Should that happen, flee to Cannkullu. She and the other Cilinggil will deal with this enslaver.”
He waited for her to nod before striding past her and out onto the snow.
“Unggubudh,” Caraiss called after him. “The Mournreng fears fire above all else.”
Caraiss watched the huge, shaggy figure weave his way down the snowy slope between the rocks, his wide head jutting forward from massive shoulders, the monstrous black iron sword strapped across his back. The Cilinggil moved with surprising agility with his too-short legs and overlong body, his speed deceptive.
“Can he defeat it?” asked Tehtoo.
“He might,” Caraiss said.
She watched the headwoman, standing proud and alert. She was as Darjee should be. Caraiss had seen the spark of it in others of her kind, even those cowed by Czua invaders in the ruins of their broken kingdoms. Broken by her people, she thought, with a pang, their queens cast down by the Godbreakers for their claims of divine right. Were we in error? she wondered. Were we too rigorous, too uncompromising?
“He does not need to go alone,” Tehtoo said. “We can fight, though it may cost us.”
The pain in her ribs when she inhaled was nauseating. Caraiss nodded. “As can I.”
“It fears fire, you say?” said Quepac’ca, his wide, lipless mouth stretched in a grin. “Then fire is doubly our friend. Give us fire to warm us, and we Hupuante will fight as well.”
Caraiss looked at Little Ung. “Will you know when Cannkullu draws near?”
The child nodded.
“I fear she will not be soon enough,” said Tehtoo.
“No,” said Caraiss. Wincing, she stood. “But we must hurry.”
Big Ung crouched a short distance back from the lip of the embankment. He could hear the Mournreng’s slave warriors moving below, the rasping of their breaths in the cold air, the occasional soft clink of metal on metal. Their confused presence blended into a single mass in the awareness that came to him through the mountain.
The fading dusk was still light enough to see by, although the trees were rapidly becoming black silhouettes.
Big Ung lifted the Sword-and-a-half off the ground. He uncovered the tiny fire he had lit. It flared to life. Already rising, he thrust the brand he had made, wrapped with brittle dry grasses, into the flames.
The instant the brand sparked he was running, launching himself over the edge of the bank. In the air, he had time to think that the Mournreng’s warriors seemed fewer than he remembered.
Then he was down, crashing feet first onto the open-mouthed face of a Czua. The Sword-and-a-half whirled, breaking bones. Big Ung thrust the brand into fur and feathers and cloth, heard the parasites shrieking all around his thoughts as their slaves were set alight.
Just the queen, he thought. Just need to kill the queen and it is done.
He spied the tall, robed figure and waded that way. The warrior slaves fell back. The robed figure turned and Big Ung pulled up short in surprise. The face confronting him was not the narrow, furred muzzle of a Godbreaker, but a square, hairless saurian snout.
The saurian hissed, baring snaggle teeth. Big Ung bashed its head in on general principles. Damn, he thought. It hadn’t occurred to him that the Mournreng could hide itself from him.
The other slaves were still falling back. A gap split in their ranks.
Beyond it, Big Ung made out Darjee silhouettes crouched over squat, wheeled shapes. Damn, he thought again. Where did those cannons come from?
They had ambushed his ambush.
He flung his brand into the midst of one gun crew, forcing them to duck. The second cannon boomed.
He deflected the ball over his palm and along his forearm, leaving a track of sizzled flesh from his fingers to his elbow.
Big Ung charged at the same instant the other cannon fired into the space where he had been. He was upon the gun crew before the Mournreng could respond. He had swatted two of them by the time the warriors closed in again, coming out of the darkened woods as well as from behind him.
They were smaller than him, their skills lesser, reflexes slower, few of them able to withstand the impacts of the Sword-and-a-half. But their coordination was the equal of the highest trained troops, attacking as a single creature. Czua and Kneshi were strong enough to prick his hide. Darjee muskets and crossbows, fired point-blank, penetrated.
They pushed him away from the guns, herding him. Big Ung roared. He let a Kneshi’s swinging halberd pass his guard and strike his flank above the hip. He brought the Sword-and-a-half down on the Kneshi’s thick skull, cracking its parasite rider’s carapace and driving it to its knees. Another volley of crossbow bolts hit his back. Big Ung lifted a foot onto the collapsing Kneshi and sprang.
Only once he was clear did he realise his mistake.
The cannonball hit him low in the chest. He felt his sternum snap, felt a sudden crushing pain behind it. His broken ribs parted sharply when he hit the ground. The crossbow bolts in his back splintered and drove into his right lung.
He could hear his own breath, gargling, choking. Hear nothing but his breath in the sudden quiet. The Sword-and-a-half was no longer in his hand. He reached out, searching.
Dark figures loomed at the edges of his vision.
One arose nearer. It leaned down. He saw white-flecked fur on the sides of the muzzle.
“We will come back for you,” it said. “And show you what we have done before you die.”
Caraiss was still running when she heard the cannons fire. She saw the muzzle flashes through the trees. Tehtoo and three of her Darjee loped along beside her, their footsteps barely denting the surface of the snow. Caraiss had put aside the pain of her ribs as much as she could, but still she had slowed them.
“Now,” she gasped.
The Darjee peeled off to the left, nocking arrows to their bows. Caraiss continued straight ahead. She was almost on them when a cannon boomed again. She saw Unggubudh fall.
The Mournreng still hadn’t seen her, its attention entirely on its vanquished foe. Caraiss adjusted the angle of her run to slice through the rear ranks. She held her staff crosswise, the blades extended like the scythes on a war chariot’s wheels.
She was halfway through them before the Mournreng even realised what was happening. Out the other side before it could organise its response. The silent shriek of its mental assault hammered the inside of her skull.
Then she was clear, pelting down the slope, spraying snow. Every impact of her feet sent pain shooting through her chest. Her left arm throbbed, her fingers numb. A crossbow bolt bounced off a tree trunk, flicking her ear.
She saw the four Darjee villagers rise up ahead, had a whispered impression of a volley of arrows going past, then a second. They were already loosing a third volley when she barrelled between them.
Moments later they overtook her, quickly pulling ahead. She could hear the Mournreng coming behind, eerily absent of any cries of pursuit. Its mental presence was a rising pressure in the back of her thoughts. The Czua and other larger slave warriors were closing the gap slowly, but the Darjee slaves were pulling ahead.
At the last instant Caraiss pirouetted, slicing a leaping Darjee slave in two. A second she caught on the bladed end of her staff, piercing its brain and the Mournreng drone on the back of its skull.
Then she was running again.
Her lungs burned, her whole left side a screaming agony.
She smelled the tar and black powder an instant before she passed through the line of waiting Darjee and Hupuante, and tripped to a halt against the bole of a fir tree, clutching at her side.
Bright flames sparked in front of the Mournreng, spreading quickly in a wide circle. The Mournreng retreated towards the open gap behind them. A rain of burning arrows drove them back again and the ring was closed.
Caraiss pushed herself away from the tree.
“Keep shooting!” she cried. The Mournreng’s silent attack pounded at her brain, but fear robbed it of its power.
“Keep shooting!” her shout was relayed by Tehtoo and Quepac’ca.
It wouldn’t be enough. The Mournreng would not be defeated so easily. It would sacrifice its drones, if need be, to escape the flames. Sure enough, the Czua slaves started tossing their Darjee counterparts over the ring of fire. They sliced into the Hupuante, who were still sluggish in the cold. The Darjee villagers came to their aid. Caraiss saw Tehtoo fall, rallying her troops.
Czua slaves flung themselves across the flames, making a bridge of their backs for their fellows. Caraiss raced into the breach. For a few moments she held them, then inevitably the weight of numbers and the Mournreng’s sheer desperation told, and they began to force her back.
She slashed an opponent’s legs, causing the slave to fall and tangle the legs of those following it.
“Retreat!” she cried. They had hurt it, badly, between Unggubudh and the villagers. But they could press the battle no further. “Retreat!”
Pain stabbed into her thoughts like a javelin lancing through her head. She heard cries from the villagers, saw them clutching at their skulls. A dozen or so small shapes skittered out from under the feet of the warrior slaves. Mournreng drones that had abandoned their dead or injured hosts. There would be more coming from the site of Unggubudh’s battle.
Caraiss stabbed at the drones, puncturing carapaces like a heron striking at fish.
The villagers were pulling back in relatively good order, those further away providing cover fire for the rest still battling free of the drones and warrior slaves. Caraiss moved in the opposite direction, hoping to draw the Mournreng after her instead.
Something lobbed past her face, spindle-limbs flailing. Caraiss looked beyond the flames, where the Mournreng queen still stood. She felt again the stab of anguish that came with the sight of that familiar figure. Two Czua stood at the queen’s side, stooping and then pulling back their arms to throw. More drones! The queen had been carrying more drones!
The villagers broke, scattering. The Mournreng surged in pursuit. Another wave of warriors and drones sprang towards Caraiss. She braced for their assault.
There was a roar. More than one voice, bellowing in unison. Two immense figures crashed into the battlefield, laying about them.
Big Ung opened his eyes slowly. He found himself looking up at the roof of his cave. He was in his sleeping alcove, he realised. Breathing hurt. He tried to move and immediately wished he hadn’t.
Little Ung peered down at him from the shelves beside the alcove, her face scrunched in concern. “You have to stay still, Big Ung,” she said.
A larger figure appeared beside Little Ung.
“Be still,” she said. “If you move you will break your ribs all over again.”
Big Ung let his head fall back. He remembered the cannonball, the Mournreng’s sudden departure…
Cannkullu half-smiled. “The Godbreaker and your villagers decided to save your moth-eaten hide. They fought better than I think you gave them credit for. A lot of them died, the Darjee headwoman among them.”
“Ah.” Big Ung’s mouth felt gluey. “Water?”
Cannkullu knelt beside him to dribble some from a jug onto his tongue.
“They killed the Mournreng?”
She shook her head. “Aggradhadh and I arrived just in time to avert disaster. Little Ung showed us the way to the battle.”
“Well done, Little Ung,” Big Ung murmured.
“They were brave, your villagers,” Cannkullu went on, “but not much less reckless than you.”
Big Ung frowned. “Aggradhadh?”
She gave him a pitying look. “Do you really think he would be so petty as to ignore your call for help? Yes, I was with Aggradhadh when we heard you and we came together.”
“With Aggradhadh?” he exclaimed.
“Yes.” Cannkullu rapped him between the eyes with her knuckle. “And I hope that Little Ung and Little Aggri get along better than the two of you.”
Big Ung subsided, unsure whether to be affronted or cowed. “And Caraiss?” he asked.
“The Godbreaker? She left this morning.”
“Already?” Big Ung felt a peculiar disappointment at that.
“You have been insensible for three days,” she said. “You are lucky this mountain is not Little Ung’s now.” Cannkullu paused, her eyes roving over his face. “The Godbreaker said to tell you that there are no false gods in these mountains.”
Big Ung started to laugh, then groaned.
“Rest,” said Cannkullu. She rose and extracted Little Ung from the shelves.
“Well done, Little Ung,” Big Ung said.
“Well done, Big Ung,” Little Ung replied over her mother’s shoulder.
Big Ung closed his eyes. He let his thoughts flow out into the mountain. Cannkullu and Little Ung were bright, solid presences close at hand. Down at the fringes of his awareness, he touched the lesser sparks of the villagers, back in their homes and fields. Gathering their herds, rebuilding.
There was no-one else, just the clean, cold quiet of the mountain.