Spring performed its ritual poetry. Flowers budded and bloomed. Eggs hatched in hidden nests. Togura Poulaan, in the manner of the young, lusted hopelessly after a certain set of thighs; rebuffed and forced to retreat - at knifepoint - he celebrated the allure of that flesh by secret acts of onanism in musty corners of the darkness.
He was very lonely.
Once, Togura caught a duck-billed fledgeling with webbed feet. It had been running on the loose, skittering through the undergrowth with an urgent peep-peep-peep. Once in his hands, it struggled at first, then lay still. He stroked its yellow-brown plumage. He wished that he could keep it to be his friend, but he did not know what he could feed it on. Besides, other people would probably think of it as food, and act accordingly.
He kissed the little bird and then released it. The earnest little creature ran off, once more going peep-peep-peep; he watched it until it was out of sight, hopling it knew where it was going. For days afterwards, he wondered just what had become of it.
The flowers aged, curled into senescence, withered and died. The birds, growing to maturity, left their nests. The swamps hummed with a delirium of insects. Togura Poulaan cut a wisdom tooth, which made a slow painful passage through the gum. He invented fantasies in which he saved Day Suet from the odex, and lived with her in splendour. With great care, he designed her undressing and conjured her in heat.
As day followed day, his fantasies became more and more elaborate, dulling the reality of the world he lived in. He still thought he was diligently planning his escape, but in face he was doing nothing of the sort. Stealing away in the evenings, after work, he would make tentative little forays into the wilderness, but would always retreat when he got muddy, or when some insect stung him, or when he found the way barred by open water or poison ivy, or by impenetrable screed-growths of swamp-plants reminiscent of bulrushes but much taller.
Thwarted by the swamp, he concentrated on the preliminaries necessary for escape. He would need a store of food. He explored as many of the city's buildings as he could, finding spiderweb passages and darkened stairs which led him to the silent chambers within, and, sometimes, to the roof tops. He found places where he could cache food, but there was never any food to cache; on the rare occasions when he had a surplus, he ate it regardless, finding himself unwilling to leave good food in the dark, where scavenging rats might claim it.
Escape, then, was no more than a hobby which complemented his idle fantasies. Settling into the routines of his working days, he had become slow, idle, lethargic, complacent. His diet, which was poor, undermined his ambitions; he had no conspirators to support and encourage his hopes of escape; he was not entirely certain that the outside world existed to escape to. It would have taken a real shock to his system to overcome his inertia and finally force him to decamp.
At the height of summer, he got such a shock when the community tortured a child to death.
Togura Poulaan was so appalled that he refused to believe what he was seeing. Because he did not believe it was happening, he watched from start to finish. It ook from dawn to dusk; it was a regular holiday. Belief finally came to him in a dream. He woke from nightmares, screaming, and knew that he had to flee. Immediately.
In fact, it was three days before he departed. He left at twilight, stealing a punt and pooling it away through the swamps. He had no certain idea of where he was going. He had hoped to be helped by the moon, which should have been almost full, but he had no such luck. The stars were soon bedimmed by clouds; by the time moonrise was due, the clouds had ceiled the sky. The night was warm, but black.
He went on through a darkness that was alive with singing insects. Progress became difficult; the punt was slowed, delayed and then halted by a shoal of water lilies. He was not surprised to find that he was lost. Maybe it would have been better to run away in the daytime. But, somehow, he doubted that he would have had the nerve to slip away in broad daylight.
He curled up as best he could on the bottom of the punt and tried to sleep. He was not very successful. Inquisitive insects tasted him, and, finding his flesh acceptable, they spread the word. Something bumped into the punt from underneath, spent some time gnawing at it, then, disheartened, left. An animal went flipperty-flopperty through the blacked-out swamps with a blood-curdling chuckling scream.
Togura several times considered punting on, but, knowing that he would only succeed in getting himself more lost than he was, he stayed put. Dreams claimed him briefly, then nightmares woke him; he found it was early morning.
Sunlight slouched through the swamp. A dawdling insect lumbered through the air amidst nearby osiers, lulling him with its dull, lethargic drone. Though it was still the cool of the early morning, his limbs were heavy with a siesta-sun weariness. He wanted to lie down and sleep. Now that it was daylight, he thought he would sleep quite well.
Resisting temptation, Togura poled his way through the waters, habitat of eel and ewt. Slowly, he negotiated the hazards of the swamp. Occasionally, bubbles stirring on the surface hinted at the direction of a current which might lead him to an outlet from the swamp. He followed one hint after another, only to find that the current dispersed and disappeared, or that the way ahead was an impossible acreage of sedge, or a morass of oozing mud where his punting pole could not find the bottom.
Often the punt ran aground on a slop, a stinking mudflat riddled with wormholes. Then he had to back it off and try some other avenue. He wished - though there was no use wishing - that he had tried to escape in spring, when the water level would have been higher. He was now more tired than ever. He passed a low-hanging tree, the largest he had ever seen in the swamp; he was sorely tempted to make camp, and let one of its ergonomically-designed branches nurse him to sleep.
He forced himself onward, driving the punt over a splodge-shaped fresh-water nettle-fish. The day was now alive with the steady hum and blur of insects. The sun had ascended to the heights. High, willowy swamp-trees arched overhead; sunlight, warm and heavy, settled down through a fantasia of branches and foliage. Little scraps of blue sky were mixed into that dense green soup of bough and leaf. In the wake of the punt, which left scarcely a ripple on the waters, tipsy reflections wavered momentarily, then composed themselves. It was now a long time since Togura had seen any hint of a current.
He blinked against the heavy lull of the sun. He tried to convince himself that he was a hunted fugitive, running for his life. But it was impossible. Everything was slow, heavy, lazy. The leisurely rhythms of punting refused to support his claims to urgency.
As he eased the punt down hidden channels between overhanging trees, he slapped away an overhanging branch. Irritated, it retreated: it was a snake. He felt no sense of alarm. Everything was too lazy to consider hurting him. Violence was impossible.
He halted, for water weed and water lilies barred the way ahead. He could go no further. The gnarled voices of frogs, in concord with the droning insects, were persuading him toward sleep. Then, excited, he saw signs of a current in the water. Looking closer, he saw it was a rat swimming, nosing its way between intolerably bright sun-dapple reflections. The waters congealed behind it.
A gaudy dragonfly, child of the sun's pleroma, hovered above the humid waters. As Togura watched, a free-floating rainbow cascaded away from its colours. He blinked, and the hallucination was gone. He decided he had better rest, at least for a few moments. There were trees around him and branches overhead; he was well concealed. A little sleep would do no harm. He curled up in the bottom of the punt, heedless of its discomforts, and was soon lost in slumber.
Togura slept, dreaming of Day Suet asleep in a bed of turquoise, jacinth and ligure. She woke, a sultry melon-light glimmering in her eyes. Giff-gaff, said an insect, eating her nose. He tested her jymolds. She was hot. He was swollen. A sheep pushed him to one side. He plucked mint and ate it, gnawning the sheep. He watched his mother, now perissodactyl, walk across the water lilies. I raped her, said Cromarty. Not so, said Togura, you're just saying that because this is a dream. He closed with Cromarty. His swelling spat. Hot. As birdsong sang.
Togura woke and heard the birdsong. There was something wrong with it. True birdsong should not be like that. He was hearing people talking. They were hunting him. Hunting me, said Togura. His words took flight, becoming shovels of goldleaf; with relief, he realised he was still dreaming. Sleep on, said Togura to Togura. He did, but his dream soon became a nightmare.
Togura Poulaan dreamt of the gaping mouth of a child, which sweated blood. He heard the heavyweight thud of a waterlogged club. White bone splintered through ruptured skin. A woman pulled out a tooth, licked the bloody stump, then swallowed it. The sun licked down, licking his face, stripping away the skin as it did so.
Then something shaded out the sun.
Togura woke for real, and opened his eyes.
In the trees above him, something lurched and giggled. And moved. Sunlight stabbed downwards. He flinched, blinked, and shaded his eyes. He saw bright eyes staring down at him. He leapt to his feet, almost strangling himself. Clawing at his throat, he fell back to the floor of the punt. Someone had looped a noose round his throat as he slept.
They attacked him then, swarming down out of the trees. It was the young women who had hunted him and found him. They beat him, punched him, pinched him, scratched him. The punt, of course, got swamped in the process. They ducked him, forced him underwater and held him there until he almost drowned.
He cried out, his words gashing the air with incoherent fear. The noose was still round his neck. As he floundered in the water, the other end of it was passed up to someone in the trees, who held it while the punt was bailed out.
Then they started off for the city.
Some of the women waded through the swamp on long, high stilts, which he had never seen before. Others rode in punts. Togura was dragged the whole distance behind one of the punts. As his clothes caught on underwater obstacles, the bark was slowly torn to pieces; he left a train of waterlogged moss and lichen behind him. He had already lost his clogs. By the end of their journey, he was cold, muddy, exhausted and entirely naked.
They imprisoned him in a wickerwork cage hung in a half-submerged hall on the outskirts of the inhabited area of the city. They left him there overnight, without food or water. In his misery, he thought they were going to starve him to death, so he was most relieved when a woman came early in the morning, opened a hatch which was too small for him to escape through, and passed him a gourd filled with potable water, and a wooden bowl with a steaming potpourri of turtle meat, snake meat, bird meat, boiled vegetables, steamed herbs and caterpillars.
She watched while he ate the lot, then she took back the bowl, gestured for him to drink, took back the gourd, and then, to his surprise, slipped him a tiny ornamental knife. She slashed a finger across the side of her neck in a swift, emphatic gesture. He understood. She was counselling him to commit suicide. That was what the knife was for.
He contemplated the knife, which was scarcely the length of his little finger. The diminutive handle was of nacreous mother-of-pearl; the blade, catching a gleam of light in that gloomy place, was of a kind of steel which was brittle yet would take a keen edge.
"I will not die," said Togura, slowly.
He refused to kill himself. There were so many things he had to do! He heard voices; people were coming into the hall. He had to hide the knife. But how? He had no clothes and no clogs. The blade was razor sharp - he could hardly secrete it in a body orifice. Deciding swiftly, he knotted it into his thick, straggling hair, which had not been cut for more than half a year.
He barely had time to finish the job before his handlers were upon him. They took him from the cage and soon brought him before the stone beehive. Out in the open air, the old men of the community were sitting in state on ornately carved benches which must have been brought out especially for the occasion.
Togura, naked, stood facing the old men. He was aware that the rest of the community, perhaps three hundred people in all, was gathered behind him, keeping at a cautious distance. He was cold. The sun, withdrawing from the scene, consoled itself with its celsitude. Togura coughed. He wondered if he was coming down with a chill. He coughed again. The old men glared at him.
"I can't help coughing," he mumbled.
Someone screamed at him.
He tried to hold himself rigid, as if that would suppress his coughing. His fingers made small, meaningless, involuntary movements. The old men sat like statues, saying nothing. There was not a sound from the crowd gathered behind him. He felt unearthly, unreal. Dizzy. The light staggered. He swayed. Then the light ebbed away entirely, and he fainted.
When Togura came to, he found himself lying in a crumpled heap on the ground. One of his elbows was hurting badly, but, rising to a half-sitting position, he found the joint was still functional. A long and entirely unintelligible speech was in progress. It was being given by a wart-faced little man, an undershapen gnomish figure who clapped his hands repeatedly to emphasise the points he was making. Somewhere, a drum was beating.
Togura, sitting up properly, tried to work out what was going on. He nursed his elbow, which made it a little more comfortable, which in turn made him realise just how much of the rest of his body was sore and aching. He felt a little bit feverish. The dwarf, an old, old man whom Togura had never seen before, continued his speech, assaulting the air with his high, harsh, glittering voice. On and one he went, evidently tireless, incapable of being bored by his own words. In the background, the monotonous thung-thung-thung of the drum continued relentlessly.
"Shabana loy, zerd-nek," muttered Togura, thus giving voice to the worst obscenities available to him in his native patois.
A scream menaced him. He doubted that anyone understood what he had just said - if they had, they would have torn him to pieces - but they were giving clear warning that they were not prepared to tolerate any noise from him at all.
"Well up yours," said Togura, hauling himself to his feet. "You can't push me about forever," he said. His voice, half anger, half anguish, rose to a shout. "I am Togura Poulaan!" His voice hurt his throat. The rusty sound it made was so strange that it almost frightened him to silence. But he kept going. "You hear me? I! I am Togura Poulaan. I! I am the son of Baron Chan Pouaan! I! I! I!"
The dwarf, enraged, screamed at him. Togura continued regardless.
"You have brought me here without my consent. You hold me here now against my will. I demand - I demand! - to be returned to my own home immediately. Failing that - "
He was taken from behind by two strong women. As the dwarf capered, dancing out his anger, gesticulating wildly as he shrieked and shrilled in his high-pitched voice, Togura was marched toward the beehive. He struggled all the way.
When they reached the doorway, Togura's resistance intensified. The two women responded by lifting him off the ground and ramming his head into the stone roof. Stunned, with thick blood trickling down from a cut on his scalp, he stopped fighting. He made himself a limp deadweight, pinning his hopes on passive resistance. It was useless. They womanhandled him down the hallway without any trouble at all. His feet, bumping him over the stone floor, were getting hurt. He had just decided it would be better to cooperate when, without any warning, they let him go. He fell face first to the stone floor.
He was in a hot, close room which stank of rot, filth, slime and decay. A roaring fire was cackling-clakling in the centre of the room. The old men came crowding into the room; the women, as if dismissed, departed. A door was thrown open on the far side of the room. A strange door, for it was small and circular. Half a dozen of the old men grabbed burning brands from the fire and menaced Togura. Warily, he eased himself round the room, forced toward the circular door by the threatening flames. The old men shouted to each other in high, excited voices. Their eyes gleamed with unhallowed joy.
Togura knew there was something terrible beyond the circular door. It was the source of the stench which filled the room. Reaching the door, he glanced inside. He saw a circular room with a stone ledge running round the wall and -
With a shout, the old men came hustling forward, jabbing at him with their burning brands. Togura leapt through the door and almost went hurtling into the pit which lay beyond. He scrabbled for balance on the narrow stone ledge, slipped, saved himself, was jabbed by a burning brand, crawled along the stone ledge circling the room, then, when out of reach of the old men, stopped to take stock of his situation.
Some of the old men came crowding in through the circular door to watch. One or two of them threw their burning brands into the pit; something in the pit creaked or groaned with a noise half owl, half pig. Togura looked down.
On looking down, Togura saw a stinking confusion of rubbish crowding the pit below. The reek was appalling; it stormed his senses and laid siege to his sanity, slapping his naked body in hot, putrid waves, cramming his nostrils with its intolerable unclean insinuations, clambering into his lungs and making him want to vomit. He screamed at the smell, but it it not go away.
The old men bellowed and cheered. Another threw his burning brand into the pit, stirring up more noise down there. Quite apart from the burning brands, the pit was lit, toward the bottom, by its own clear, harsh, unwavering light; despite the illumination, Togura could not make much sense of its jumbled contents.
Togura looked around, examining the massive stone-block walls, which had been built without mortar. The circular walls rose sheer toward the sky. Peering upwards, he saw that the room was open to the sky. If he had to, he should be able to climb the wall, if these old men would go away and leave him in peace.
As Togura was so thinking, he looked down again, and saw what seemed to be a snake. It was in amongst the rubbish. It was weaving slowly. But it was too hard and bright to be a snake. And too long. It seemed to be some kind of tentacle. And it seemed to be made of metal. A metal tentacle?
Having made sense of that detail, he slowly began to make sense of the others. And began to realise what he was looking at.
Down in the pit, those dark-stained filthy bubbling things, crusted with scabs and writhing with degenerating fluids ... they were not random assemblages of rubbish. They were bodies. Human bodies. Gleaming, convoluted metal penetrated their flesh. The metal hummed softly.
As Togura watched, one of the slowly-weaving metal tentacles kissed a body and tasted it. The body flinched. Somewhere in the degenerating mass, an eye closed. Then opened.
"They're still alive!" screamed Togura.
Hearing his scream, the old men began to laugh. They cackled with unconcealed glee, jeered at him and at their victims, who endured a slow, agonised death of endless torment, decaying while still alive.
Then they left, scrambling out through the circular door. They closed it behind them. Togura crept along the stone ledge, reached the door, and hammered against its unyielding timbers, crying for mercy.
It did no good.
He was on his own.
Shuddering, he yielded to urgent necessity and voided his bowels, adding marginally to the stench which pervaded the room. He moved to a cleaner spot and sat down to think. One last drop of blood fell from his bleeding scalp to the stones, which were scalloped and sculpted in a most peculiar way.
What now? He decided he should think, and rest, then try to escape. Rest! It was easy to say, but almost impossible to do. His body was trembling uncontrollably. He could not keep himself from looking down into the pit. Remembering how he had almost fallen into it on first entering the room, he could not keep himself from imagining his own body already pierced to a scream and beyond by hard metal shafting into his armpit, his omphalos, his ... his ...
Overcome by his fear, by the stench, by the pitiless horror, he vomited. And felt better, as if he had purged his body of some kind of poison. He felt calmer. He could deliberate, analyse and plan. He wished he knew how all those people had got into the pit. Had they been thrown in? Or had they chosen to consign themselves to the pit rather than die of thirst and hunger? And, quite apart from all that, how had the pit come into existence in the first place?
Looking down into the pit with a cold, clinical eye, Togura decided it must be an ancient device for torture and punishment dating back to the ages before the Days of Wrath. As he studied it, one steel tentacle slowly reared upward and started questing in his direction. It searched toward him, slowly but surely. It knew he was here! And it wanted him!
He could not break the door down. The walls were solid, as far as he knew. There was only one way out: straight up to the open sky. But that was too easy. Too obvious. Peering upward, he caught a glimpse of something sharp. There were blades or knives embedded in the walls. That, then, was part of the torment: to see a way of escape, to climb with a growing sense of triumph, and then to be slashed, gouged and mutilated by the waiting blades, and finally to fall screaming to the waiting pit.
The metal tentacles drew nearer. He edged away. It tasted the blood which had spilt to the stone, then, with a corrosive thrust, it skewered its way into the rock, seeking the source of the blood. Finding nothing, it withdrew, leaving a fresh scar in the stone. It started hunting again. Out of the corner of his eye, Togura saw another tentacle rising from the pit.
They were hunting him, and him alone. If only there had been someone else! Some other source of hot blood! If the tentacles had been forced to hunt two people simultaneously, he might have had at least the shadow of a chance. But there was nobody else. No other source of blood. Just him.
Blood!that was it! The answer! As the tentacle swerved toward him, Togura skipped sideways and tore away the knife which was knotted in his hair. It came free, together with a hunk of hair. He slashed his arm.
A bright pulse of arterial blood pumped from Togura's wound. He let it splatter across the wall, directing it deep into the cracks between the mortar-free blocks of stone. Slowly, he walked along the wall, wounding the architecture with his blood. Then, feeling light-headed, he crushed the bleeding down to nothing with the heel of his hand.
By now, a dozen tentacles were in pursuit of him. They savaged their way into the cracks between the masonry, striving for the source of the blood. Huge blocks of stone shifted, grated and cracked. A trickle of rubble went clobber-sklabber-klop as it rattled down into the pit.
Then one massive block of solid rock, attacked by half a dozen tentacles at once, splintered, burst and collapsed. The whole wall shifted. It began to fall. With a roar, an avalanche of stone pounded down into the pit. Steel screamed in agony. A fine yellow spray hissed from ruptured tubing. The light from the pit blinked, wavered, then abruptly died.
Togura, trembling, realised he was still alive. A block of stone nudged him, hinting. He scampered away, gaining a position on the rubble-slide. The bit of wall he had been crouching by promptly collapsed; if he had stayed where he was, he would have been killed.
The air was heavy with rock dust. Togura coughed, then coughed again, then spat. He could hear confused shouting. High, over-excited voices squalled in fear and panic.
Something came questing up out of the rubble.
A metal tentacle!
Togura went scampering up the new-born scree slope, and found himself in the room with the fire burning in the center. A lot of rock had spilt into the room, crushing some of the old men; he could hear someone moaning under the rubble. All the survivors had fled, but for one - the speechmaking dwarf, who, incoherent with rage, grappled with him.
Togura smashed him.
Then picked him up and threw him in the fire.
The dwarf writhed and screamed, his agony rising to a frenzy as the brisk flames licked away his skin. Togura picked up chunks of rock and hurled them at his victim, shouting with unholy joy. Then, as the dwarf subsided, unconscious or dead, Togura snatched up a burning brand and strode down the corridor to the outer world.
Outside, to his astonishment, he found a revolution in progress. The sight of the old men panicking out of the wrecked beehive, many of them cut, bruised and bleeding, had been enough to trigger off an uprising. The balance of power had changed more swiftly than the weather.
Togura, who had no experience of revolutionary politics, was amazed at the transformation of the people. He knew them only as sullen but reliable servants of the ruling regime. Now they had gone beserk. Before his very eyes, the young women who had so diligently hunted him down in the swamps were mobbing the old men to death. Children of both sexes, giving vent to high, hysterical, manic laughter, were helping with the slaughter. The community's handful of young men, no longer sleep walking, had crippled one greybeard and were now kicking him to pulp.
"This is excessive," said Togura. "This is insane."
He was rapidly becoming experienced in the more bloodthirsty aspects of revolution. Despite hunger, fatigue, shock and terror, his mind was still acute enough the realise that there might be a lot to said for the idea of getting out of town - and fast. The crowd would soon run out of old men to murder, but their bloodlust would still be running high and hot, and there was no telling what they might do then.
Togura padded through a mixture of blood and brains to the nearest doorway, which led to female quarters he had never entered. They were empty, as everyone had joined the slaughter. He bound up his self-inflicted wounds with a bit of bark and some cordage, found a set of clothes and clogs and dressed himself, then exited the building through a door on the far side, well away from the administration of revolutionary justice.
As the screams of hate and agony faded away behind him, he walked click-clock through deserted streets to the swamp. There he stole a punt and poled away.
As Togura poled through the swamp, his wound started bleeding again, despite his attempt to bandage it. He tore away his makeshift dressing, salvaged some spiderweb from some swamp vegetation, and used that on the wound. It stopped the bleeding. When he halted toward evening, he felt very weak, perhaps as a consequence of losing so much blood. But he knew he would live.