The Wicked High Mountains loomed around Dennis and his men as they skirted house-sized, reddish slabs of rock jutting from the soil, avoided deep, echoing chasms, and paused at a tiny stream to fill their canteens.
Above the tree line the air cooled enough that Dennis could see his own breath. Yesterday he would have been amused. Today his huffing betrayed how fast he moved over the crumbling ground.
Dennis looked around at his men. Mongoose-men. Nanagada’s best bush warriors. They hopped from rock to rock with grunts. Some had long dreadlocks down their backs and full beards. Others had short, cropped hair. They came from all over Nanagada, and despite being smeared with mud and colored chalk to help them blend into the shadows, they had skin ranging from mountainside and Capitol City soft brown to south-coast dark black.
Each man dressed in gray: heavy canvas trousers, long-sleeved shirts, and floppy wide-brimmed hats. All over this dull uniform sticks and leaves jutted out, glued on in random patterns.
Out of the jungle and on the rock they stood out like shaggy gray-and-green creatures.
Still, this was the quickest way to Mafolie Pass.
The second moon rose. A dim double-lit darkness would be far better than the blatant daylight they’d been running in. Dennis glanced at the sky. They’d be less likely to get spotted by an Azteca airship at night.
Earlier, many miles downrange of Mafolie Pass, they’d captured an Azteca scout. Much to their surprise, the Aztecan knew several code phrases. The mongoose-men had few spies among the Azteca. It was a rare encounter.
Most Azteca who came over the mountains fled for Capitol City: Nanagada’s farthermost northeastern point. As far from their past as they could get.
This Aztecan said his name was Oaxyctl. O-ash-k-tul. His teeth chattered. He had barely made it over the mountains. Shivering, hungry, and hardly understandable, he told them Mafolie Pass was under attack.
“That happen sometimes,” the mongoose-men replied. Azteca threw various-sized attack parties at the pass randomly to test the thick walls and Mafolie’s perfectly placed guns, but the pass remained impenetrable. The mongoose-men based Nanagada’s defense from Mafolie Pass.
“Not from the pass,” the spy hissed, his back against the rough bark of a turis tree, his legs in the mud.
“Mafolie Pass the only place any big army able to cross,” Dennis objected.
The spy wiped his face with a dirty sleeve. “They dug a tunnel,” he spat. “You understand?”
They blinked. “A tunnel? Under the whole mountain? We would know about that.”
“Nopuluca,” the spy cursed at them. “Azteca dug for a hundred years now. They fooled you into thinking they were still testing the pass while always digging. But they’re here. Believe me. We are dead men.”
He’d begged water and food off them. They’d told him where the next low-mountain station was. Then the strange spy scrambled off down the mountainside.
“If we all done dead,” they called after him as he clambered down into the thick greenery, “why you come here? Where you think you going?”
But he had already disappeared into the bush.
Dennis and his mongoose-men broke their camp after a minute’s consultation, leaving anything they couldn’t carry where it sat, and started the run for Mafolie Pass.
The heavy morning mist made it impossible for Dennis to see more than a few trees ahead. Small animals skittered around them, noises amplified in the dimness. The mongoose-men relaxed a bit, back in the jungle now. They were still three hours from Mafolie Pass. Better they relax now and not fray their nerves before getting closer.
A twig snapped. Dennis signaled stop by flicking his wrist.
The group’s rifle barrels rose in quiet unison.
“Pddeeett?” chirped a voice from deep in the mist. It sounded birdlike enough to fool any townie.
“Pass?” Dennis called out.
“Plain porridge,” came the answer. “No sugar.”
Everyone lowered their rifles. Their best runner, Allen, had dropped his packs and gone ahead yesterday to scout. Now he pushed through a pricker bush, sweat dripping from his forehead, and grabbed an offered canteen. He splashed water on his face.
“Come follow me.” Allen wiped his face on his sleeve, smearing dirt over his cheeks and breaking a leaf off his hat.
“Azteca?” Dennis asked.
No one slung their rifles.
Allen led them down through a ravine, then back up the other side. They followed him, leaning into the sharply angled ground, arms loose, zigzagging up. A small dirt road cut through the bush at the top. Next to it a stone sentry-house perched on the ravine’s edge. Thick moss clung to the cracks in the wall and dripped with condensation.
“You had see anything?” Dennis asked.
Allen shook his head. His baggy canvas shirt was stained with sweat over the chest and armpits. “It real quiet now,” he said. “Come.”
Together they walked forward. Allen pointed at a dead animal beside the sentry-house. Flies buzzed around it. Dennis walked over; saw a pair of hands bound with rope. “Look upon that.” He pushed the flayed body with his boot. He managed to roll it over, breathing through his mouth to avoid the smell. He pulled his machete free from its scabbard strapped to his lower leg. “See that?” He pointed at the ragged hole between the corpse’s second and third ribs.
“Them cut through for him heart,” a mongoose-man said.
“Warrior-priest in a hurry, don’t want cut through no breastbone,” Allen added.
Dennis didn’t see an eagle-stone imprint. Some passing Azteca warrior did this in a hurry without the usual Azteca equipment. Typical of a small hunting party come over the almost impassable Wicked Highs . . . but this was here in the heart of the mongoose-men’s world.
Allen pointed to the sides of the dirt road. “See that crush-up leaf and footprint? I guess a thousand come through. At least.”
A thousand. No small hunting party. A full invasion swing toward Mafolie Pass, but on this side of the mountain. Just as the spy had said.
Dennis glanced down the road, imagining the tightly packed throng of bright feathers and padded armor marching down the mountains and into Nanagada. If they destroyed Mafolie Pass, Azteca could come over the mountains with ease. With enough time and supplies they could march anywhere in Nanagada. The Azteca would rule everything if no longer held back by the mountains.
“Got some decisions for we make.” Dennis squatted by the road. He leaned forward on the machete’s handle for balance. The dark blade dug into the dirt. “You all ready for some heavy reasoning?”
The mongoose-men stood in a loose circle around him. Two stood up on either side of the road, looking around the curve for any surprises.
“Mafolie Pass probably already run over,” Dennis said. “We late. So what next?”
Allen shuffled in the dirt. “No wheel imprint here.” He looked up at everyone. “These Azteca all moving on foot, seen?”
“Make sense, wheel don’t do you much good in the mountain.”
“They have no supplies with them. They moving light, moving quick. But they go have to get supply coming behind them if they want eat.”
Dennis thought about the hungry, tired spy. How much food could these Azteca carry? A few days’ worth at the most.
There had to be supplies on the way.
“Yeah. More Azteca go be coming down the mountain,” Dennis agreed. “We could choose to run down the mountain to warn people, or we can slow down Azteca supply.”
“Could do both, if we split up,” Allen said.
Dennis cleared his throat and looked around, an unspoken question in the air. Who stayed to face more Azteca, and who got to run down the mountain to do the warning?
They drew straws. Four men would split with Allen to run down the mountains and find the nearest station with a working telegraph. If all the wires were already cut, they would do their best to make it through the jungle to warn any towns they came across.
Dennis looked up. One of the men doing watch down the road. “Yeah?”
“Supply or warrior? How many?”
“Jaguar warrior party, no supply-men,” the lookout yelled back. Dennis’s stomach churned. A supply group would have been easy to ambush. “A hundred. They got clubs and packs and guns. A bunch of regular-looking warrior coming behind as well.”
Allen looked at Dennis and unslung his rifle. Dennis shook his head. “Leave. Now. We go hold them down a bit. You run. Get the word out. Hear?”
Allen nodded and shook Dennis’s hand. Then Dennis pushed Allen away and picked up his rifle. He jogged toward the bend as Allen grabbed his pack, strapped it on, and disappeared down the ravine with four mongoose-men following him.
Dennis slowed and inched his way up the roadside, using the heavy bush as cover. The lookout scrabbled his way over on his elbows and carefully parted a pricker bush for Dennis to look through.
Azteca feathers and standards flapped animal likenesses in the wind. The first scouts appeared down the road. Then the first row of regular Azteca marched out, a dust cloud rising around them.
“Some say a cornered mongoose the most vicious,” Dennis said. “We go be even more ferocious.”
The rest of his handful of men crawled into the bush near him. They dug around for the best hiding positions. One mongoose-man monkeyed up a tree, his feet kicking off loose bark.
Dennis raised his gun and sighted the lead banner carrier. “When you ready.”
A rifle cracked from up in the tree. The Azteca line slowed. The mongoose-men opened fire and the first row of Azteca dropped to the road. Dennis fired. The gun bucked into his shoulder. He blinked his eyes clear and reloaded, levering the still-steaming spent cartridge out with a practiced flick.
The Azteca return fire ripped through the bush around him. Pain exploded down Dennis’s arm. He grabbed his shoulder, trying to stop the blood spurting into the leaves around him. Feet pounded the ground as Azteca slashed through the branches at them.
Dennis heard more shots from his men, branches snapping, grunts, gasps, and screams as Azteca and mongoose-men fought hand to hand.
A light-skinned warrior jumped past Dennis, smacking him in the head with a club.
He struggled to raise his rifle with one hand, but it was knocked free. Two Jaguar scouts grabbed his legs and pulled him out onto the road. They aimed their weapons down at him.
Dennis lay there and looked up into the sky.
The mist had cleared away. Between the blotchy green leaves and branches he saw that a strong wind was pushing clouds rapidly through the sky, far above him.
Against the sound of the pitched jungle battle, the two rifles above him fired, one just after another.
Copyright © 2006 by Tobias S. Buckell