Edition 15: To Brave the Mountains by David Bowles
The night they took Saran’s little brother from the ranch was like many other nights on the High Plains: the thin, cold wind keened wildly over the meager yellow grass, herding dark storm clouds in a furious stampede westward across the sky to join the thick mist that shrouded the mountains of Chanor. Only a few fat drops of moisture spattered the stony soil of what Plainsmen called the Zuduls, the badlands, their promised country. In the thirty-five years since they had first settled on this vast altiplano, rain had never fallen. The clouds just streamed tantalizingly overhead, and the ceaseless wind moaned as if mocking the Plainsmen’s travails.
Saran had just been lulled to sleep by the banshee crying of that wind when a pounding at the door jerked her awake. Only tragedy could bring someone to our family’s parcel at this late hour, she reflected. And her heart ached with a sudden prescience. For there was a registered skinwalker in her family, one whose ability had just manifested as he reached his twelfth year.
Leaping to her feet, Saran crossed to her brother Mara’s bed. She took up his herding crook and stood ready to defend him. The muffled sounds of their mother’s distress and their father’s anger were soon drowned by the stomping of feet, and the leather curtain across the bedroom entrance was jerked aside unceremoniously by a Chanoripa warrior. He clutched a battle-axe, and the solar corona that swept across his brass helmet marked him as one of the Malyukiqu’s own honor guard. Two other, lower-ranking men entered with lanterns illuminating their heavily quilted robes, woven from the hair of the very animals Saran’s people were permitted to raise.
“Stand aside, girl,” the ranking warrior said surprisingly softly in Runaqu Chima, Chanor’s lingua franca. “We’ve been sent for the boy, and it’s useless to defy us.”
“You’re not taking him,” she said. “I won’t let you.” Her mouth was dry with fear, but she managed to add, “Your rulers won’t feast on his soul.” She gripped the staff more tightly. She was only fourteen, but she was a Plainsman, and her people had been hardened by five centuries of wandering, enslavement and oppression.
“Hashams Nurbujun Saran!” Her father’s voice rumbled with indignation and hints of remorse. As his bearded face appeared over the warrior’s shoulder, Mara yawned groggily from the bed behind Saran. She felt him stiffen suddenly as he took in the tableau.
“Father!” Saran begged in her native tongue. “Let them take me instead!”
His eyes red and his voice hoarse, her father shook his head. “No, Saran. You’re not this family’s nawa. And we agreed. All the clans agreed.”
Mara drew himself from the bed and touched his sister’s shoulder. “It’s alright, Saran.” In his dark grey eyes she saw a wisdom and resignation that shamed her. “For our family, for the clan, for all Plainsmen…I accept my destiny. The God of the Crook is waiting just beyond the horizon for me. It’s a blessing to join the Ancient Ones so early.”
Saran was strangely disturbed by his words. Perhaps this is not wisdom. He repeats the sayings of our people, the phrases we intone when tragedy hits us once again. But does he truly understand that he goes to his death? Have we simply trained him to resign himself?
But she lowered the staff and moved aside. And the warriors gestured to her brother. He took up his jacket, slipped into his boots, pulled a cap down around his ears, and allowed himself to be guided. She followed them into the room of fellowship, and then out the door into the merciless cold. Her mother and father were right behind her. A line of children, boys and girls from all nine clans, stood waiting in the darkness. Mara walked to them and took his place beside Bishirs Zubujun Balal, a girl Saran remembered from last year’s Shearing Day celebration. Mara nodded at Balal and then regarded his family with a faint smile.
“One eye on the herd,” he called.
His father’s voice cracked as he finished the refrain, “The other on the stars.”
Compelled by the wind, the line of children moved off into the darkness, toward the looming mountains of Chanor. Saran’s heart ached, but she did not weep. She was a Plainsman. Tears were superfluous.
Some little time later, the remaining family sat around a stone table, quietly sipping butter tea. Saran stared at her parents in silence, seething. Her mother’s eyes seemed empty. Her father, normally so imposing and robust, seemed sapped of all life.
“This is ridiculous. How could your forefathers agree to this insane practice?” Saran finally demanded.
“Oh, Saran,” her father whispered hoarsely. “You know perfectly well. When our people arrived here, five hundred years had passed since we’d left Bodols in hopes of finding a land less ravaged by drought and plagues. We’d spent more than a century as the slaves of the Moundbuilders, only escaping when their arrogant aping of the gods brought a flood that nearly destroyed us as well. Then there were the dark years, the endless trek through Nemeyan, harried and hunted by the Horsemen. Crossing the Great River and mounting this plateau…It was a miracle. Just as the God of the Crook promised. A cold, hard land, but one that we could call our own. Neither Chanor nor Saak really wanted it. The two empires were content, with their final pact of peace, to let us live here.”
“At a price,” Saran muttered.
“There is always a price,” her mother responded. “And it seemed a good one. Skinwalking wasn’t something we sought. It was a burden placed on us by the God of the Crook. Families celebrate when a generation goes by without a nawa being born.”
“Ah, so sacrificing them so the undead rulers of a tyrannical nation can continue their oppression was better than dealing with them? Than teaching them how to control their transformations, how to keep their inner beast from hurting others?”
“Of course not,” her father interjected. “But we had come to the end of our journey. Southward? Southward lie the Wastelands, and we could never hope to cross them. We could not turn back. So, our fathers made the hard choice. My oldest brother was one of the first to be sent to the mountains. Don’t think to lecture me, girl, about loss and injustice. I’ve seen more than you can imagine. We send our nawa children to Chanor, and they let us ranch here, buying up what wool, leather and meat we don’t ship over the falls to Saak. It is a truce we can live with.”
“Until the God of the Crook guides us to other pastures,” intoned her mother.
“Or takes into his flock the rest of the world,” her father whispered, completing the verse.
Or bares claws and fangs to rend the world to shreds, Saran bitterly thought as she bid her parents good night.
She lay awake in bed, her mind awhirl with plans. It will take them close to ten days to reach the city of Chanor, perhaps longer. I have time. But time for what? She was not, as her father had pointedly remarked, a nawa. She still remembered her brother’s first transformation: the rent clothing, the strange fatty sludge, his jaguar hide glistening in the moonlight as their father had looped a guidestick round the beast’s neck. She had been horrified, deeply afraid. And relieved. She hadn’t been cursed.
Now, she would give anything to have that power.
She kept turning the problem over and over in her mind. If only. Perhaps another family in her clan whose nawa had not yet been taken…but no, she couldn’t burden anyone else with saving her brother. It was a task that fell to her.
With a shudder, she discovered a way. She was not a nawa. But she knew of those who could make her become one. Insane. It’s insane. But the moment she considered the possibility, she knew she had to try.
When her father’s deep snoring added its rhythm to the wind’s moan, Saran slipped out of bed and into the accounts room. Leather scrolls, knotted strings and concertinaed wooden books were arranged across a table and along the wall. From a pigeonhole she extracted a relatively new scroll and spread it open.
A map. Of the Wastelands.
The sun rose red over broken hills as Saran descended the High Plains on her shabat, following the wending path of the meager, murky Slipsoul River. She napped beside a stunted juniper, but her urgency was too great for any real rest. Despite her mount’s complaints, she continued south.
By noon of her second day of travel she reached the desert’s edge; the river widened and slowed until it became a pestilent marsh, then stinking black mud, and finally cracked and sterile clay. Now the white sands of the Wastelands spread forbiddingly before her.
Pulling firmly on the long fur of the shabat’s hump, Saran dismounted and rested in the miserly shade of a dune while she studied the map and broke her fast with unleavened bread. I’ll reach it tomorrow. That leaves seven days. She thought briefly about possible pursuers, but once again she dismissed the possibility. Her father would see she had stolen the map, but he could hardly imagine that she had come south. Everyone would assume she had traveled toward Chanor.
She slept at the foot of the dune, rising at twilight to continue her journey. As dawn eased dark softly from the sky, the horizon seemed to gape, jagged teeth silhouetted against the pink.
She approached on foot, guiding her mount by its lead. The constructions loomed, dwarfing even in their ruinous state anything mankind had ever built. The ziggurats of Saak, the mountain strongholds of Chanor; neither came close to the overwhelming size and decaying majesty of these shattered monstrosities. Saran forced her eyes down off the bent towers and blasted spires, onto the broad, pitted boulevard. Zigzagging her way around impassable drifts of sand and unrecognizable mounds of time-rotted metal, she kept her senses sharp. The stories say that they remain. I must find one.
For hours she wandered the City’s labyrinthine roads, stopping to eat a little and rest for a time before resuming her quest. As afternoon lengthened vast shadows into virtual twilight, she finally saw movement. There. In the entrance to that smaller building. A flash of color. The click of claws on granite.
She flipped the reins around a rusted pole and slipped into the growing gloom. Through doors that had been wrenched free of their moorings she stepped into a vast hall. From the end came a glow, as if of candlelight. As quietly as possible, Saran made her way along the wall until she came to an illuminated room. Peering in, she noted the machinery, the books, the vials and accouterments of an alchemist. And there were other objects beyond her ken, indicating that she had, indeed, found one of them.
A voice hissed harsh clacking syllables, then more clearly pronounced words in Kit’än umaak, the language of Saak. She did not understand.
“Come in, if you must,” a raw voice offered in Runaqu Chima. “A human girl in the City. That is a tale that bears hearing.”
Saran stepped fully into the doorway just as a figure emerged from an unlit corner of the room. She bit her tongue so as not to gasp.
A large, feathered lizard stood before her, a gauzy robe draped over its rainbow quills. Unfathomable wisdom radiated from its black eyes, and taloned fingers gestured at her with grace and serenity.
“Enter, girl. Urgency is written on you, legible even to an old kurina’ who seldom sees a human face, beyond those villains who brave the desert to escape their crimes. It is a home to criminals, this wasteland.”
Saran, overcoming her initial awe, approached the kurina’. “So it’s true. The people of Saak worship you as Ququmetsh, but you are many.”
The creature’s tongue flicked at the air. Saran noticed that it did not blink. “And we are not gods. We once believed ourselves close to apotheosis, but we were fools.”
“I have heard of your great powers, and I come to make a request.” Saran felt foolish for blurting it out like this, but there were now only six days left before her brother’s soul would be devoured by the undead rulers of Chanor.
“Request? What is it that you think I can bequeath you? Did you not look about you as you wandered the City? There is no power here. If you only understood how many times the kaurina’a have risen from the ashes of their failure, rebuilt their cities, reached out toward the unknowable depths only to destroy it all, again and again. Is this power? Perhaps. But it is not a thing your people ought come in search of.”
“I don’t understand what you mean, but I definitely need your help. My brother is a skinwalker, and he’s been taken by the honor guard of the Malyukiqu.”
The kurnina’ gave an aspirated hiss that surely indicated a strong emotion. “The living dead rulers of Chanor will feast on his soul; is that it?”
“Not if I can stop them, they won’t.”
The alchemist cocked its head like a bird, rapid and inquisitive. “How?”
Saran steeled herself. “I want you to make me a skinwalker, too.”
“Why? So that you may attack these guards, rend them to pieces, rescue your kinsman? Is that your plan?”
“No.” She took a step toward the feathered lizard. “No, I plan to offer myself in his place.”
There was silence then. The large, liquid eyes of the alchemist seemed to bore deeply into Saran’s heart, staring frankly at what it discovered, dispassionate and calculating. Then it quickly crossed the rest of the space between them and curled its claws around her forearms.
“What is your name, child?”
“Saran. Hashams Nurbujun Saran.”
“One of the Plainsmen. Yes, the animal force is prominent in your souls. Hence the high incidence of skinwalkers among your kind.” It flicked its tongue toward her. “Indeed, I believe it can be done.”
Saran’s eyes suddenly filled with unwanted moisture. “You’ll help?”
“I will, child. There is goodness in you alloyed with unexpected mettle. This is less common than you know.”
“Thank you. What do I call you? What’s your name?”
The feathered lizard leaned in closer, its leathery snout nearly touching Saran’s nose. “The kaurina’a have abandoned names. Our arrogance abrogated any right to names long ago. But I am referred to as Tso Nilsi’a: She Who Hopes.”
Saran nodded curtly. It was a good title that augured well, even if Tso Nilsi’a refused to see it as her name. The human girl’s chest loosened finally, after days of anxiety. I can do this. I can save his life.
Strange machines hummed around Saran. Tso Nilsi’a sung haunting, eerie melodies as she obscurely manipulated dials and levers, poured acrid chemicals into hissing vials, sketched ancient runes in bowls full of colored sand. As she’d been warned, Saran’s entire body began to feel overly warm. Her skin itched unbearably, every inch of it crawling. Her breath came faster and faster as the hum became a whine and the chanting a series of shouts. Finally, at the center of Saran’s being, some hungry part of her pushed, and she fell to the tiled floor, clear of the machines. Clawing at her own flesh, she struggled to free herself, shed this wretched disguise that kept her from tasting the wind as she ran beneath the stars. Claw it! Claw it away! And her claws tore loose, and she peeled back the human form with shuddering, excited paws until she stood on all fours, panting hungrily in the darkling light of the saurian’s home.
“Do not forget!” Tso Nilsi’a yelled above the noise of the machines. “Your brother’s scent: follow it! You are ravenously hungry: eat, soon, and in great quantities. Hold on to this form. And remember: each form contains its opposite, interlocking, complementary, both yearning to be released. But you yourself, you are a whole. You decide which shape to wear. Now go!”
Saran exploded into the night air, her senses drowning in the sharp smells and moonlit contours. Her tawny paws pounded the sand-crusted streets as she rushed northward. She caught the odor of a beast, the shabat, the girl’s mount, not the jaguar’s. Saran the jaguar had no need of this of beast other than for sustenance.
It was a dumb animal, felled easily, and Saran sated the deep hunger her transformation had caused before tearing off across the silvered dunes toward the hills that led up the edge of the plateau into the mountains of Chanor.
Exhilarated past her human endurance, the jaguar ran for nearly 18 hours every day, stopping as she came across likely prey in order to feast and sleep and dream the violent dreams of her kind. By the third day she had reached the highland forests of the empire’s southern borders, and she caught her brother’s scent in a crosswind blowing from a nearby body of water. Dropping to a more cautious gait, Saran made her way along the tree line until she came across a human camp at the edge of what had to be Lake Tiwakara, on the other shore of which would be the priests who would travel the rest of the way with the honor guard and captives, preparing them for their doom.
It was nearing nightfall on the seventh day since Mara had been taken from their home. When she finally saw him, sitting beside Balal, warming himself near the fire, her human form began to push from within. But the jaguar held it back. The guards needed to see the transformation to be convinced.
A light snow had begun to fall when Saran padded into their midst. The Chanoripa warrior who had burst into her home saw her first. He leaped to his feet, drawing his battle-axe and dropping into a crouch. The other guards reacted nearly as fast, drawing weapons and protecting the children.
Saran leaned back on her haunches and let the human form surge forward. Frantically sloughing off the black-spotted pelt, the girl stood naked and steaming in the cold mountain air.
“You,” the chief warrior muttered, standing.
“Saran!” Mara rushed to her, pulling his cloak around her. “But you’re not a nawa.”
“I—I wasn’t. Before.” She found speaking difficult after so many days as a beast.
Two of the guards pulled them apart. Their leader slid his axe back into its loop and approached Saran.
“I won’t ask how your people managed to keep your nature from us. But, having successfully deceived the Malyukiqu and their honor guard, why would you risk our wrath by revealing yourself in this way?”
Saran had not anticipated this interpretation of the facts. Panicked, she rushed to explain. “No, my people haven’t lied to you. I wasn’t a skinwalker before. I was made one.”
Several of the guards made disgusted, dismissive sounds.
“Don’t insult me, wench. If skinwalkers could be made, the Empire would have no need of your inferior race. You’d all be dead. Or in prison, waiting to be transformed and your souls imbibed by the Mighty.”
“I swear to you. I went into the Wastelands, and…and a kurina’ used her alchemy to make me a nawa.”
The guards looked at each other with incredulous faces. Some of them laughed outright. The chief warrior spat his displeasure at the shallow snow.
“What rubbish. But let’s pretend for a moment, wench, that you’ve entered some fairytale world and been made a skinwalker: What is it you want? We are marching thirteen of your kind to the greatest honor mongrels like you can hope for. Is that it? You wish to sacrifice yourself for the glory of Chanor?”
“I want to exchange my life for Mara’s. Let him go. I will stay in his place.”
“No!” Mara pulled against the guards who held him. “Are you crazy? Go back to the ranch, Saran!”
“Shut up, boy.” The Chanoripa warrior shook his head as if unable to believe the situation. He turned to Saran. “Listen closely. I won’t be repeating this.
“No. I am not releasing your brother. What’s more, you’re not going anywhere, either. Something is fishy here, and you’re going to answer to the Malyukiqu. Once they’re done interrogating you, you’ll wish they’d just swallowed your soul.
“But first, you and I are going to have a little chat.” Hi eyes travelled down her wrapped body. “I need to have your…transformation transcribed and ready for your audience with the Malyukiqu.”
He leaned in close, so only she could hear him. “So unless you have a contingent of magic kaurina’a hiding in the woods there, you are screwed in more ways than one.”
The guards grunted their approval. Mara struggled to free himself. The other nawa children stood, aghast, some of them crying.
Saran was less afraid than deeply shamed and angry. I’m so sorry, Tso Nilsi’a. I didn’t want this power for this. I would have given my life for him. I swear I would have.
The alchemist’s words echoed in her memory: each form contains its opposite, interlocking, complementary, both yearning to be released. But you yourself, you are a whole. You decide which shape to wear.
Saran nodded to herself. I choose the jaguar. The girl can do nothing more.
“Okay,” she said aloud. “You’ll get your way. I won’t put up a struggle. Just, please, can I talk to my brother? In our tongue?”
The chief warrior considered a moment. “Quickly. Then into my tent.”
Saran dropped her eyes for a second, and then spoke softly in the coded ranch argot her people had used to befuddle enemies who knew their language, like the fierce Neme of the North. “Listen, all of you. You can shift at will. Our parents never tell us this. They are too afraid. But your animal self is waiting, hungry, wanting to pounce. Don’t let them kill you. We don’t have to be weak. We have power than none of them has. Why do you think their rulers eat our souls? We are strong. Now, close your eyes and release what longs for freedom!”
She hissed the last command and turned toward the tent. The sun had nearly plunged entirely into the distant sea, and its reddened, feeble light caused the opening to loom darkly. Come on, she pleaded inwardly as she began walking. The warrior was right behind her. He snatched her brother’s cloak away. His hand touched her bare flesh as she entered the black.
Screams shot through the twilight. Saran felt her captor tense and turn to leave.
The jaguar shoved its way out, bursting from the girl and sinking its jaws into the guard’s throat. When the man’s corpse hit the ground, the jaguar skittered out into the snow. Three of the children lay dead in their human forms. Ten cats of varying sizes and color were clawing and biting and batting the dying guards, whose screams faded with the last light of the sun.
One by one Saran’s pride abandoned their prey and came to stand before her. Looking at them, she could not fathom, neither with her human or animal mind, why anyone so beautiful and so powerful would ever cower in fear on sterile ranches, awaiting death.
We were meant to run free, she thought. To wander the world and take what we need, fearing nothing, obeying no one.
Wordlessly she looked toward the south and then turned her glimmering eyes back to the smaller jaguar, her littermate. Mara whisked his spotted tail, twitched his ears. The other nawa followed suit.
They all agreed. With a jubilant growl, Saran exploded into motion, thundering back into the woods, running southward.
Her pride followed.
A long-time native of deep south Texas, David Bowles divides his time between writing, editing, composing music and teaching at a local university. He is the author of several books, including The Blue-Spangled Blue, Creature Feature, Mexican Bestiary and Flower, Song, and Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry. His stories and poems have appeared in venues such as James Gunn’s Ad Astra, Translation Review, Eye to the Telescope, BorderSenses, Illya’s Honey and Red River Review.
You can find out more about David at his website, http://www.davidbowles.us, or on Twitter at @DavidOBowles.