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Authors: Peadar O. Guilin

The Inferior

BOOK: The Inferior
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In memory of my father, James Golden

In that people the most natural and honest of virtues and abilities are alive and vigorous; those same virtues that we have warped and adapted to our own twisted tastes.

—Michel de Montaigne:
On Cannibals

And they said: “Father, it would hurt less if you would eat us: you dressed us in this miserable flesh, take it off.”

—Dante Alighieri,
Inferno
, Canto xxxiii, 60

1.

BROTHERS

T
he rule was to keep running–
Don’t stop, don’t die
. The Tribe needed its strongest to survive. So Stopmouth fled for his life through the streets of Hairbeast territory, while its non-human inhabitants looked on with indifference. Already the cries of his brother were fading behind him.

‘Please, Stopmouth!’

The Armourbacks preferred living prey. When they caught Wallbreaker, they’d drive him home with spears to feed their young. The screams of such captives lasted for days, echoing down streets and over rooftops.

Stopmouth tried not to think about it. ‘K-keep running,’ he told himself. He leaped barrels of flesh and sprinted into an alley narrow enough to give the pursuers some trouble if they were still on his tail.

Stopmouth realized he couldn’t hear his brother any more. He skidded to a halt. The hot air of mid-afternoon stank of blood and rang with the booming howls of fighting or mating Hairbeasts. He could feel his heart battering against his ribs and he leaned his tall frame for support against a crumbling wall.
Don’t stop. Don’t think. Keep running
. He wiped his stinging eyes and whispered the name, ‘Wallbreaker.’ Humanity might survive without his brother, but Stopmouth knew he could not. Wallbreaker had always been the darling of the Tribe. He’d been a sweet child, grown up to be a great hunter, and people would forgive him anything, even a half-idiot brother. And they had forgiven always, smiling indulgently through the younger boy’s stammers in order to please his handsome sibling.

And yet, if Wallbreaker failed to make it back, Mossheart would have to marry somebody else and that would mean…Stopmouth pushed the thought away with a shiver of self-disgust. He forced himself to turn round. He tried to spot his brother, but crowds of burly Hairbeasts blocked his way. The creatures filled the market place with the sharp stink of their fur. They bartered for flesh in high gabbling voices and sometimes the larger males would push against each other, chest to chest, until one gave way.

He shoved sweaty brown hair out of his eyes and marched back the way he’d come. The councillors would be angry if they knew what he was doing. ‘Suicide!’ they’d cry. ‘Waste!’ He didn’t even have a spear to defend himself, having abandoned it in his flight.

He reached the last place he’d heard his brother’s voice: an alley flanked by tall buildings where light from the great Roof struggled to penetrate. He found some traces of blood here, but they were old. Stopmouth tiptoed to the far end, his muscles trembling with exhaustion, his body and loincloth dripping with sweat. Here at last he heard the tones of human speech: a whimpering, pleading voice so unlike that of the great hunter Wallbreaker was becoming.

This can’t be my brother, Stopmouth thought.

The alley opened onto a small square, where incomprehensible murals covered the walls with swirls of dried blood. A few Hairbeasts watched curiously as Wallbreaker, his fair hair streaked with filth, retreated before the spears of the Armourbacks. He made no effort to take one of his attackers into death with him. Instead, tears flowed freely down his handsome face, shaming him and his family.

Even as his heart swelled with pity, Stopmouth began having second thoughts about a rescue. How could two humans hope to defeat five Armourbacks? The adults reached chest height on a man, but they were broader, and a rock-hard shell made them tough to kill.

Stopmouth gritted his teeth. He wasn’t ready to die, but he refused to let these beasts keep his brother. And he still had time–they preferred live prisoners to quick kills.

He swallowed his fear and jogged back to the mouth of the alley. Then he took a quiet lane running parallel to the one the Armourbacks would probably follow to their territory. He’d need to find a place where he could come out ahead of them. And a plan–he’d need one of those too. He’d have to think one up as he ran.

He passed open doorways where lonely Hairbeast females boomed with song. He leaped old drains and clattered over wider stretches of water on metal bridges. All around him the ancient buildings of the city echoed his footfalls or muffled them in carpets of ragged moss.

Far enough, he thought.

A shaky tower stood nearby with a grey-furred Hairbeast snoozing in its doorway. The creatures were larger than humans and he clipped this one slightly as he jumped over it. He pounded up the stairs, ignoring its bellows. He had no idea what it was saying. All he knew was that the creature was unlikely to break treaty to hunt him.

Three floors later he reached the roof. The surface creaked underfoot and cracks snaked all over it. The whole building looked ready to collapse. Maybe that was a good thing–he might be able to turn the bricks and loose lumps of concrete to his advantage.

Stopmouth walked over the rattling roof to the waist-high wall that bordered it and looked down. Almost immediately he saw his brother’s blond head. The Armourbacks pushed him in front of them with jabs of their spears. Humans would have surrounded their prey, but Armourbacks preferred to drive theirs. Perhaps they feared to leave a desperate enemy within striking distance of their backs.

As the pack moved up the street towards his position, Stopmouth carefully pried rocks away from the wall of the tower. He heaved and strained until a few of the larger ones were balanced on the edge. He wiped sweat from his eyes and tried to ignore the thumping of his heart, which had started up again at the sight of the enemy.

‘Come on! Come on!’ he whispered. He rarely stuttered when talking to himself.

Wallbreaker passed beneath him. Stopmouth held his breath, waiting for the first Armourback. The moments stretched, measured in beads of sweat and a frantic hammering in his ribcage.

Suddenly a flash of light blazed in the sky above him. Heartbeats later a boom followed that shook Stopmouth’s tower and rattled the roof beneath his feet.

The Armourbacks lowered their spears and stared up in what might have been astonishment. But they weren’t watching Stopmouth–their eyes, and even the eyes of their prisoner, were fixed on the great Roof above. Stopmouth didn’t dare follow their gaze. Whatever was happening up there, he wouldn’t let it cost him his brother.

He leaned against the largest of his rocks and sent it plummeting towards the Armourbacks. Before it reached its target he grabbed another and flung it after the first. Just as well: the early attempt missed, but the second smashed an Armourback to the ground and snapped the hind legs of another.

‘R-run, Wallbreaker!’ he shouted. ‘R-r-run!’ And Wallbreaker did, finding the energy somewhere. Stopmouth had expected the remaining Armourbacks to pursue his brother or tend to their injured. Instead, he saw them dart into an alley flanking his tower. He knew that they were heading for the ground-floor entrance and that they’d reach it before he did. He paced around the roof, looking for a way down, for another building to jump to. Too far! At best he’d end up in an alley with a broken leg, and treaty or no treaty, any Hairbeast would be well within its rights to claim him for the pot. No, he’d have to make a last stand right here. He grabbed stones for his sling while something clattered up the stairwell towards him. Death was coming. He backed away from the doorway, knowing he couldn’t hold them there without a spear.

Moments later the creatures burst onto the roof of the tower. They didn’t shout as men might have: if the Armourbacks had speech, the human ear couldn’t hear it. They advanced through a hail of slingstones with no apparent discomfort and spread out. Stopmouth had never seen living Armourbacks so close. They had flat faces, mostly made of earth-brown shell with gaps for a pair of red eyes.

‘C-come on!’ he shouted at them, terrified now. ‘W-what are you af-fraid of?’ He flung another stone and unsheathed his bone knife. If he could get past one of their spears, he might be able to cut an Armourback between the plates of its shell before they killed him.

One of the creatures charged. The spear-tip tore through Stopmouth’s loincloth as he dodged to one side. Another spear flew towards his ribcage and drew a red line there before clattering into the wall. Stopmouth lunged after the weapon, but two Armourbacks herded him off as the third retrieved it.

He backed away until he felt the parapet behind him. He could throw himself over: better a Hairbeast should have him than the Armourbacks.

Suddenly a roaring sound filled the air. Something huge and blazing flew over the heads of the combatants and streaked through the sky to crash into some distant part of the city. The ground shook. The wall behind Stopmouth’s back groaned and a hole opened in the tower’s roof. Two of his opponents disappeared into it, leaving only a rising cloud of dust to show they’d ever existed. Stopmouth and the last Armourback shared a moment of shock and silence. The human recovered first. He screamed and charged his enemy. The creature dropped its spear and ran back the way it had come.

Stopmouth gave chase. Rubble covered the stairs, and rocks large enough to kill hurtled past with every step. He charged into daylight and found his enemy already dead beneath fallen masonry.

In the distance a column of flame and dust was rising into the air. Stopmouth looked up. There was nothing to be seen but the Roof of the world and the fading light.

2.

THE VOLUNTEERS

S
topmouth reached human territory just as Roofglow faded to the weaker light of evening. ‘Hey!’ Rockface was on guard in the tower, a big hunter with a bigger voice. ‘Heard you were dead! Wallbreaker says he saw them get you!’

The young hunter’s spirits lifted with the thought that his brother had made it. But why had Wallbreaker said that he was dead? Had he seen the Armourbacks heading for the tower and kept running instead of attempting a rescue?

‘That can’t be true,’ Stopmouth said to himself. ‘It can’t.’

He was too tired to think about it now. So he hefted the limbs he’d cut from his kill onto his shoulders and stumbled into friendly territory.

But Rockface hadn’t finished with him yet: ‘You know, Armourback flesh is a lot lighter if you take the shell off.’ Stopmouth felt stupid as the older man laughed, but at least he could use the armour as a plate. Nothing would be wasted.

People murmured greetings as he passed into the many criss-crossing streets that made up his home. ‘Man-Ways’, it was called; or more often just ‘the Ways’. Everyone looked surprised to see him, except for a small boy too young to know better and eager to help with the kill. Gratefully Stopmouth passed over an arm crusted at one end with dried blood, and the pair trudged together to Centre Square, where fires burned and voices rose in song.

The wedding, of course. He’d forgotten. The singing died at his approach. Most of the crowd knew Stopmouth and an excited whispering rose among them. However, no one addressed him until his mother burst from their midst and ran towards him.

‘Dearest Stopmouth!’ she cried. ‘Oh, my Stopmouth!’

He dropped the Armourback flesh and put his arms around her thin frame. He pressed his face into her hair as he’d done as a child and felt warm tears against his neck.

‘Wallbreaker said they’d killed you,’ she said. ‘He himself got three of them. Says he crushed them with rocks, but then the others trapped you in a house and he couldn’t get to you.’

Uncles and aunties and cousins now felt able to approach. He tried to smile at them, but his eyes caught on Wallbreaker emerging from the crowd. He broke away from his mother. He’d never felt so betrayed in all his life.

‘Y-y-you…’ he said. His tongue refused to co-operate and Wallbreaker had all the time in the world to step up to him and hug him close as their mother had done. He whispered directly into Stopmouth’s ear. ‘Later,’ he said. ‘Please, brother. I told them what I had to.’

Then Wallbreaker turned to the crowd. His blond hair had been cleaned and threaded with carved bones for the wedding. ‘My brother is alive! He’s alive!’

The celebrations must have been muted until then, but now everybody cheered. Wallbreaker showed the crowd his fine teeth and a pair of dimples. ‘Tonight I marry!’ He held up one finger to forestall another cheer. He’d always been good at winning hearts. Many thought he’d be chief someday. But to Stopmouth’s eyes, he was sweating more than usual. He saw a slight shake in his brother’s arms that had never been there before. Wallbreaker kept talking. ‘You won’t be seeing me or my wife tomorrow’–laughter–‘or the day after, or the day after that! But from the fourth day on, I will devote what little energy I have left’–more laughter–‘to finding a bride price for dear Stopmouth!’

The cheers were deafening this time, and now everybody surged forward to hug Stopmouth and kiss him. Even Chief Speareye approached and threw heavily tattooed arms around the young hunter. ‘Glad you made it,’ he said. ‘We can’t afford to lose the likes of you! Now, for the love of the ancestors, do as your brother says and find a woman to count your days for you!’

His mother took over and sat him down by a fire. She brought him steaming broth in a Flim-skull bowl.

‘Your favourite,’ she said.

The smell made his head spin and his mouth fill with saliva. He found his strength barely sufficient to lift the bowl high enough to drink, but the first slurp was delicious and he buried himself in it. Afterwards, when his belly was full and warm, his mother came and took his head onto her lap and the whole world seemed to darken around him.

He woke hours later to the sound of drums. Here and there, little drops of Roofsweat plinked onto the ground or fell hissing into the fires. Nobody noticed; it happened every night when the air grew cooler. He felt a frigid droplet rolling off his face and realized it must have woken him. He’d slept through most of the wedding ceremony.

Delicious smells filled the air. Men from nearby streets were dancing and leaping over cook fires and he knew he should have been with them. Beside him, Uncle Flimnose alternated between rubbing his joints and licking Stopmouth’s empty bowl. Flimnose’s dancing days were over, the scratches on his Tally–one for every day since his naming–almost beyond counting. The younger man shuddered and looked away. Instead, his eyes wandered over to another fire where his new sister-in-law, Mossheart, held court for the last time among the unmarried girls. Their eyes met and she smiled. He smiled back, his heart a stone in his chest.

‘How did you get out of the tower?’ asked Flimnose.

‘The w-w-walls f-f-f—’

‘The walls fell,’ said Flimnose.

‘The fl-fl—’

‘Ah! The flash? You saw that? And something crashed to earth! The Tribe talks of nothing else. Somebody said it was a Globe that fell out of the sky.’

Stopmouth stared at his uncle in astonishment, but the old man grinned, as if to say he didn’t believe it either.

The drum beat came to an end and men wandered back from the dance, laughing and wiping sweat from their brows. High above, the Roof lay in darkness except for lines of tiny lights that covered it and allowed a man to see maybe fifty steps around him without a torch.

Uncle Flimnose pointed up at them. ‘That’s where the spirits have their streets,’ he said, ‘until room is made for them to come down again as a new species.’

Stopmouth nodded politely and clenched his jaw against the stink of his uncle’s rotting teeth. Flimnose had helped teach him and Wallbreaker to be men, but lately hunting parties were reluctant to take him on lest he slow them up. Stopmouth felt sorry for him. There was no fate more cruel than to live beyond usefulness without even realizing it. The younger man remembered all those stories of the Traveller’s adventurers they used to share after Father had died. Nobody told them like Uncle Flimnose, and who knew how many tales would be lost when he left to join his ancestors? Stopmouth found he had to turn away. He looked over to where married women toured fires with baskets of sizzling flesh. They chanted in time to the music about how the bride would provide many children, how the groom would feed them, how the children would live. Stopmouth buried his face in a hank of Hairbeast pup so he wouldn’t have to look at his uncle and think about the man’s fate. But Flimnose wouldn’t leave him alone. ‘Will you chew some of that flesh for me, young man?’ he asked. ‘Otherwise I’ll be sticking to broth and Roofsweat at my own nephew’s wedding!’ Stopmouth obliged, feeling ashamed for not offering.

When everyone had eaten their fill, the drums took up again. This time it was the turn of the unmarried women to dance. A murmur of anticipation ran through the men, but Stopmouth turned away. He knew his eyes would only be drawn to his new sister-in-law and he didn’t want the others to catch him staring.

Instead, he lay back to watch the lights glittering on the Roof. He imagined the lonely spirits there looking back at him, eager to take his place among the living. As he watched, a Globe floated by overhead, its metal shell glittering with lights of its own. Stopmouth wondered idly if it was a living creature and what its flesh might taste like if he could get close enough to crack it open. Men had harboured such vain hopes for all the generations. And yet, if the rumours were true, at least one of them
had
fallen today. If it hadn’t…He shivered. The miracle had saved his life–balance for the betrayal of a brother who’d not only abandoned him, but had even claimed Stopmouth’s kills as his own. He ground his teeth. He’d expected sorrow for the day of Mossheart and Wallbreaker’s wedding. He hadn’t expected to be so angry.

‘Keep it to yourself, son,’ said Mother from where she sat nearby, although he hadn’t said a word.

He nodded to reassure her. He was nothing without Wallbreaker. Who else would take him seriously with his lazy tongue? No, he’d find his brother soon after the wedding and tell him he wasn’t angry, even if it still burned. And so for the rest of the feast he did his best to join in the laughter and the dancing, clapping to the songs he couldn’t sing.

At the end of the night Mother handed Wallbreaker’s Tally stick over to Mossheart, who would count his days from now on. Then Wallbreaker took his bride’s other hand and led her off to bed in the Wedding Tower. Stopmouth tried to cheer with all the rest and forced a smile when other men slapped him on the back and said, ‘Your turn next, boy!’

Mother understood. After the festivities she took him home and put him to bed as if he were still a babe.

         

Stopmouth shielded his eyes and stared out towards the horizon. There was little to see beyond the human streets as morning mists still rose from the trees in the no-man’s-land beyond. Then his gaze was drawn to the Roof as eight Globes swept past, for all the world like a hunting party. He heard shouts from others who were watching too. Old-timers couldn’t remember such behaviour from their youth, nor from any legend of the Tribe. Globes were supposed to hang in the sky, or to drift slowly by. Their new speed stirred fear into people’s hearts like an augury of disaster.

On the ground, life went on much as it always had. Beasts of various kinds who kept treaty with humans walked the streets. Sometimes they hunted each other or traded for flesh and weapons. Wallbreaker said these creatures should be observed, even the friendly ones.

‘S-so m-m-many kinds,’ Stopmouth had said the first time they’d talked about it. Back then he’d been barely old enough to have a name.

‘Yes, little brother, and I can see it’s confusing. But you can never know them well enough. Father would have told you that. Friend or foe, their smells, their strengths, their habits. Study them right and they’ll all meet your spear in the end.’

So now Stopmouth watched a pod of Clawfolk skitter down the road on bunches of skinny legs while a multi-coloured Flyer surveyed them greedily from a tower, chewing on flaps of its own dry skin.

Human children played at stalking in the bright light of noon. Their mothers looked on, some anxious, some smiling, while others scolded any child too close to supposedly friendly beasts. Women only carried knives, but their ululations of alarm could pass from street to street over the flat roofs of the buildings until hunters came running from every direction.

Stopmouth was relaxing on the roof of his house while Mother scraped moss away from the parapet with an old shoulder-blade.
Scratch, scratch, scratch
. ‘It grows so quickly,’ she muttered.
Scratch, scratch
. And nobody liked the way it smelled when the juice hadn’t been pounded out of it. ‘What a nuisance.’ She stopped abruptly at the sight of Uncle Flimnose limping by below.

‘I heard he hasn’t h-hunted in f-fifty days,’ said Stopmouth.

‘No,’ said Mother, her face formed into that mix of affection and sadness she mostly saved for her younger son. ‘Even then, he went with a large party and his spear stayed dry. It won’t be long now for him.’

As Flimnose’s only surviving female relative and marker of his Tally, Mother alone knew exactly how old he was. She rested a hand on Stopmouth’s waist. ‘When his time comes, I want you to go with him. For the family. Will you do that?’

‘W-what about W-Wallbreaker?’

‘Wallbreaker won’t go.’

‘B-but—’

‘Hush,’ she said.

Stopmouth hadn’t seen his brother in a few days. As promised, Wallbreaker had been spending all his time with his new bride. Stopmouth passed his own nights staring at the ceiling, trying his best not to think about that. During the day he distracted himself with foolish efforts to make spear-points from the Armourback shell he’d brought home with him. Mother’s visitors laughed at him for this–bone was so plentiful, so easy to shape, that none could understand why he bothered. ‘If it’s such good material for a spear,’ scoffed Uncle Flimnose, ‘why don’t the Armourbacks themselves make weapons of it?’

Stopmouth had no answer to this. After an entire quarter day he’d succeeded in rubbing a dent no bigger than a finger-joint into a piece of shell. The rock he’d been using came off worse. Still he worked at it, using the rhythm to send himself into a painless trance where Mossheart and Wallbreaker had never married and his brother hadn’t abandoned him.

Mother took her gaze from the street and sighed. ‘You’ll have to speak to him sooner or later,’ she said, and Stopmouth knew she didn’t mean Uncle Flimnose.

He looked into her pale eyes and saw how the skin crinkled with worry at the corners. She must have hated to see her sons at odds. How old was she now? How long before he and Wallbreaker must lose her for ever? He could deny her nothing.

He nodded and left her alone on the roof. He collected a spear and his old bone knife and set out for the rooms Wallbreaker and his bride had taken after they’d left the Wedding Tower. On his way across Centre Square he smelled the sharp stink of Hairbeasts, like a mix of metal and human sweat. Five of the creatures strode by, dressed in what might have passed for finery among them: coloured shells, necklaces of human bones (in honour of their visit?) and their clawed hands dyed red. He knew what it meant and felt a moment’s fear for his mother, although she still had many days left, being useful and healthy.

Chief Speareye had turned up to meet the Hairbeast delegation. In spite of the heat radiating from the Roof he wore a fur mantle made from a patchwork of the hides of every creature humans hunted. Four wives accompanied him.
See what a provider I am!
he seemed to say.
I can feed them all and their children too!

BOOK: The Inferior
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