HUNGER’S END



HUNGER’S END, by Scott Shank

 

For nine days they had tasted no bread. For five days they had tasted no flesh. The last of their arrows they had lost to the sun-eating canopy, for the little blackcaps that flitted among the branches were too swift. Of other game, there was no trace. No creature was foolish enough to tread the root-heaved floor of dark Kuthao.

None save man, thought Angkoshi. He stumbled forward, refusing to peer through the webs and clouds of gnats, into the silent forest, training his eyes instead upon the broad back of his captain, Bazitur.

Angkoshi longed to believe in that rigid posture, in that steady stride and in the knight’s words when he growled, “We will find the path.” He had faith in his captain. Bazitur would overcome. But Angkoshi flagged. The two of them had abandoned the outpost a week after their comrades had deserted, when the supply run had failed for a second month.

For too long hunger had fretted Angkoshi’s strength. He did not march, he staggered. He could not keep pace, especially now that the land had begun to rise. Ahead, the captain attacked an escarp, hauling himself up by stem and stone, as Angkoshi lost his footing and slipped.

Above the captain hissed for quiet. Angkoshi rose, expecting another sharp cuff, of which he had suffered several these last desperate days, but instead the captain pressed his finger to his lips. He mouthed the word, “Smoke.”

Smoke.

A fire, perhaps a hearth . . .

The captain slid out his knife. Angkoshi’s own blade had never felt right in his hand, so he left it sheathed as Bazitur led the way, parting the undergrowth with an edge. Within steps the shadows ahead became solid. A stone wall.

They looked long at one another. Their people had fled this land a century past, withdrawing before the inexorable advance of the Forest of Kuthao. Back at the outpost, the soldiers had often mused about finding an island of their stranded countrymen on their timid forays. Maybe they would come across a settlement. One of the great towns that had been lost to the forest before men retreated to the king’s city, Kuzithaparu.

Angkoshi could see hope skim across Bazitur’s face, his effort to practice restraint. The captain quickened his pace.

Moss and grit creased the mortar lines. Full grown trees erupted from the wall’s base. Had they come across an isolated ruin, a gentleman’s overgrown manor? Or had they come upon a lost jewel, a great name on one of the old maps? The answer became clear as they rounded the corner and the forest gave way.

Ahead stretched a sun-splashed plaza of pitched and broken flagstones. At the yard’s center tilted a column. Three lichen-speckled faces gazed wearily from the capital. Beyond this, a weedy arcade. The granite walls of a few buildings rose past that, punctured by hollow windows, crowned by cracked cupolas. Naked lines sagged between the eaves, only a few shreds remaining of the prayer flags that had once festooned their lengths.

One of the lost abbeys. A decrepit twin of the convent in which Angkoshi had spent the first twenty years of life.

Captain Bazitur grasped his shoulder roughly. “Where are we, Godson?”

Godson–even now the captain slighted Angkoshi’s former life as a monk, his cosseted youth of prayer and contemplation. How far he had wandered from the Order of Kirkangis, how far from His path of hope.

“I cannot say. Ittako, perhaps. Or Ngengalae.”

“Twice wrong.”

The soldiers started at the voice. At the edge of the plaza wavered an old man, his body tacking to the bucket that sloshed in his hand. His hair was white and wild, like a half-blown dandelion. His face was as wrinkled as a misplaced plum. Angkoshi barely recognized the tatty vestments that drooped from the limbs as those of an abbot.

“This is proud Yusulae,” the man said as he tottered forth. “I suppose you have come to save me. After all this time. You may stow that blade.”

“We have come to beg shelter,” Bazitur said, sheathing his knife and bowing precisely. “And to praise Kirkangis at your altar for this delivery.”

The old monk stopped short. The smile faded. Understanding took root, and a full season of emotion blew across his face. He raised an age-spattered hand to conceal his eyes. “You are lost?”

“Yes, Father. We are lost.”

The abbot struggled to rid the grimace from his lips. He rubbed his eyes as plaintive murmurings escaped his grinding teeth. Finally, the old man’s mouth settled into a flat line, and with an aloofness at odds with his shabby countenance, he said. “In His Triple Voice, I bid you welcome. You are hungry, I think.”

The abbot led the men through a thin archway into a garden of thistles and withered vines. Pillared corridors ran about the cloister’s circumference, strewn with leaves disintegrating to dirt, puddled and untrod. No monks walked in meditation. In this stone abbey, silence reigned.

They entered a low refectory that smelled like mold and animal nests. Broken furniture rose against a wall. The lone table at the center was cluttered with weeks of dirty crockery.

“Guests,” the abbot said. “It has been so long since I had guests.”

“How long?” Bazitur asked.

“I would not know.” Their guide placed the bucket on the table. “Drink,” he said, before stacking a tower of bowls against his chest. The men watched wordlessly as he doddered off through another doorway.

Despite the decay, despite the travesty of the monk’s isolation, Angkoshi should have grinned. Had they not found respite? Salvation against all odds? How could it be an accident they had come upon Yusulae, one of the lost abbeys? These last months of exile from his order, the worsening ordeal in this hellish forest–perhaps the Three-Faced Lord had shepherded him all this time. Perhaps the hurtling, frightening course his life had taken since leaving the monastery held some obscure purpose after all.

He should have grinned. He should have clapped and laughed for joy. He did not, for the very survival of this abbey challenged his deepest and most treacherous belief.

Bazitur did not smile either. The captain studied him, and Angkoshi realized the knight took his measure afresh. They had come upon new circumstances. The value of things need be reassessed.

“You suppose your prayers have been answered,” Bazitur said.

Angkoshi knew better than to respond.

“I will wash.” The captain dipped his fingers into the bucket and let the water trickle through them to judge its purity. Satisfied, he proceeded to scrub the length of each knuckle.

Angkoshi was long accustomed to the captain’s devotion to cleanliness, but these latter evenings about their fire he had watched Bazitur with renewed awe. Even starving, the knight remained true to the rituals of his caste. Each night he combed and re-plaited his hair. Each night he scoured even the minutest fleck from his nails with the tip of his wicked knife. Bazitur completed these rites of purity as faithfully as Angkoshi had once performed his daily ablutions before Kirkangis.

The old man returned with a tray of bowls and a steaming pot. Angkoshi fiddled with his spoon as the abbot shook a rattle above the tray in blessing. When the monk lowered his hand, all etiquette was lost. The soldiers quaffed the brown slurry in moments, slammed the bowls down and looked to the monk for more. The abbot watched with a mixture of bemusement and disgust.

The porridge left sharp grit on the tongue. Chaff from some grain Angkoshi did not recognize. The flavor was tannic, recalling to mind acorns, though meatier. But no flesh he knew, nothing hoofed.

After the second bowl, Bazitur wiped his mouth on his kerchief. “Father, why have none of your brethren come to greet us?”

“My brothers sleep beneath the Lord’s feet.”

“You are the last one,” Bazitur said, nodding slowly. “How long have you been alone?”

The monk scratched his ear. “I have never been one for counting winters.”

“How have you survived all these years?”

“Meekly.”

“Do you raise stock? Have you fields?”

“Those failed when my voice was yet sweet.”

Bazitur frowned at Angkoshi. “Then what is it you eat?”

The monk spread his hands. “That which the Three-Faced Lord provides.”

“And what does He provide?” Bazitur asked.

“The life which has sustained me. Now answer my question. From which town do you hail?”

“From the home city,” Bazitur said. “Kuzithaparu. There are no others.”

“No others?” The monk’s mouth hung open as he looked between the men. “All of our great nation is lost?” The soldiers’ silence affirmed. The abbot scowled. “Kuzithaparu. I have heard of it. My superior named it the den of whores. A bastion of thieves and bastard-born. What have we come to if only Kuzithaparu remains? It stands to reason, I suppose. But no others?”

Angkoshi knew well enough the captain’s temperament that he did not miss the muscles of his jaw bunch, the slight but deadly narrowing of his eyes. Bazitur was descended from one of Kuzithaparu’s oldest families, not one of the refugee houses or parvenus that had thrown the city into such discord these last decades.

“Why have you come here?” the abbot asked.

Bazitur did not answer. Only when the silence became unbearable did Angkoshi presume to speak in the knight’s stead. “The king would take back the land. He has established rings of outposts about the city. The captain and I were stationed in the outermost ring.”

The abbot ran a finger inside the pot as he pondered this. “A foolish plan. Useless. I take it by your presence I am correct. The forest never yields.”

Bazitur straightened, and even the abbot could not help but notice the menace in his posture. The captain’s father was one of the king’s most zealous allies.

The monk stood abruptly and bowed as he backed out of the room. “You are tired,” he muttered. “I am tired. It is time to rest.”

The old man left. Bazitur sat without expression, but his indignation was plain. He spoke without turning, “We leave at dawn.”

“Yes, Captain. But on the old maps, in the library in the convent–we fled in the wrong direction. Yusulae lies even further from Kuzithaparu than the outpost.”

The captain lowered his eyes a fraction, but only just. “We leave.”

“But we will starve,” Angkoshi protested.

The captain shook his head. “No. We will take what we must.”

“We will plunder the abbey’s larder?”

“All our travails, all that we have suffered, we have borne that we might fulfil the will of our king. All must sacrifice.”

“But–.”

The captain looked up. Angkoshi saw the iron glint in Bazitur’s eye, the brutality. He remembered the knuckles and hard boot. Another word and the captain would have him by the scruff.

Angkoshi bowed his head.

They ate the rest of the soup in silence.

The captain had no interest in seeking out the abbot’s salon. Instead he broke the discarded furniture over his knee and started a fire on the refectory floor. He boiled water for the last of his tea leaves as he combed and re-braided his hair. Then he laid beneath his blanket and fell asleep.

Angkoshi sat on his stool as the sun set. When the hum of crickets and katydids filled the air, he pulled a brand from the fire and ventured from the refectory. He walked across the wild garden, past the recitation hall and the bathhouse that reeked of pond scum. He followed a path through the rotting leaves, the abbot’s daily circuit, past the dilapidated guest house and the kitchen, whose hearth still glowed. So many empty places. He climbed the wall and saw bats and other night-fliers swoop over the moon-touched trees, saw the great Forest of Kuthao stretch towards the horizon unseen.

He came to the door of the abbot’s apartments and knocked as his fire sputtered out.

The old man bid him enter. The salon was lit by a brazier. A rough pile of sticks leaned against one wall, a heap of splayed and warped books against another beneath a soot-smeared map. The abbot sat on a cot and gestured for Angkoshi to take the knot of blankets at his feet. Moths flew from the cloth even as he folded his legs.

“You have taken the vows,” the abbot said.

Angkoshi blushed. “Yes, Father. But I have left the Order. I could no longer live under its rule.”

The monk nodded. “My old superior used to threaten us with expulsion when we were young. For napping in the sun, for letting pigs loose in the melon patch. I remember as a small boy I used to dream that it may be so. That I might be driven out and wander the forest to one of the lost towns. If I had been born in the world, as you were, I cannot say I would have kept my vows either. By the time I was your age, the desire had left me. Have you ever wondered why only the basest creatures abide the forest?”

Angkoshi searched the old man’s face. This question was at the heart of the disease of their age, the great uncertainty. Within the Order and without, all debated it. Only the question of why the forest advanced was more essential.

“Yes, Father.”

“The little creatures,” the monk said. “Lizards, birds. Mice. Insects, always insects. These are the creatures whose lives have least value.”

“Yes, Father. But what does it mean?”

“That is all it means. Their life has no value. And they live. You look at me as though I speak common knowledge, but I do not. I understood this one day after another of my brothers died, just wasted away. We all knew the cause. Despair. It was killing us all. The Abbey of Ittako is only five days east of here, and yet not one of my brothers who set out to find it returned. We who remained were the last of men. But what kind of men? I understood that to persist one must be as the little creatures. One must lead a life of no value. My life has no value. I know this, and I persist.

“I entombed my brothers as they fell, and over my long life I have been resigned to the silence. But your arrival. Strangers, shattering that peace. You have disturbed me.” He raised his hand and frowned at its trembling. “For a moment I felt it. Hope.”

“The scriptures teach that hope is our guide in the darkness,” Angkoshi said. “That our Lord keeps one face turned to the night in anticipation of our arrival.”

“I speak the new scripture, the scripture of the faceless forest.” The monk gestured at the pile of rotting books. “That hope is evil.”

“That is a terrible thing to say, Father.”

“The truth is terrible. Yet not as terrible as hope. Hope is the great deceiver. The great lie, that if we toil honestly, if we act with righteousness, that our works will have merit, that through this merit we will be saved. But this is false. Manifestly so. Hope killed my brothers.”

Angkoshi watched the old man’s lips. The thread of spittle and yellow teeth. “You say one must lead a life of no value, but how can such a life have purpose?”

“It cannot.”

“And our works–”

“No purpose.”

“Our sorrows–”

“No purpose.”

Angkoshi could scarce speak. The abbot’s words sounded too alike those he dared utter to his own superior, the words that saw him exiled.

“It is all for naught!” Angkoshi blurted. “Though we continue for a few generations more, the world has already ended.”

The monk smiled and reached out to pat the young man’s head. “Yes. You understand.” He nodded towards the map. “There is nothing outside this abbey.”

Angkoshi studied the time-pitted face. “I have come to warn you,” he said. “The captain means to raid your larder.”

“That is not possible.”

“Father, you must do as he says. He is a violent man. You must surrender whatever he claims.”

The old monk shook his head. “Kirkangis’ gift is not mine to give. Would you like to pray with me, Son?”

“What purpose would that serve, Father?”

“None. It is only habit. We do as we are shaped to do. Come now. Pray with me.”

Angkoshi took the old man’s hand, so fragile in his own. They knelt before the brazier.

“Off the floor, you old loon.”

Angkoshi cried out upon hearing the captain’s voice. He leapt to his feet even as the old man was still turning to the door.

“Captain, he has no–.”

Bazitur took a fistful of the abbot’s habit. “Take me to your larder.”

“There is nothing in the larder,” the old man wheezed.

Bazitur shoved him through the door. “No deceptions!”

Angkoshi ached to pull the abbot free, but he dared not. The captain would brook no intervention.

“It is this way,” the abbot said. They descended the steps, down empty corridors, huddling in the small pool of the captain’s firebrand. The abbot brought them to the wide doors of the sanctum.

“Here?” the captain asked.

“Enter, my Son.”

The air within was chill. It smelled of damp stone and the must of old temples. Their flame limned the three stern faces of Kirkangis above the altar, and the tumorous nests of swallows in the murky alcoves.

“There is nothing here,” Bazitur said.

“Here the Three-Faced Lord provides.”

“Provides? What?” Bazitur stepped forward and asked no more as he felt the crunch beneath his soles. All eyes fell to the moist floor and the dark shapes that filled the cracks between the tiles. The backs of beetles marching in the thousands.

Angkoshi understood immediately.

“What are they?” the knight asked, his outrage throttled by revulsion.

“Kirkangis’ gift,” said the abbot.

“Captain,” Angkoshi said. “Let us–.”

“From whence do they rise?” Bazitur asked.

“From the graves below. For a thousand years my order has buried our brothers and our greatest patrons in the chambers beneath this sanctum. Their numbers are inexhaustible.”

Angkoshi watched the knight’s face drain of color. He watched as the captain remembered how he had savored the soup, how he had welcomed the filth across his tongue. Now polluting him from within.

The captain swayed. His eyes glazed.

“Rejoice, my Son,” the abbot said. He stepped forward, whether guileless or incensed at the captain’s presumption, Angkoshi did not know. “What greater sustenance could you ask of your god?”

A flick of Bazitur’s pupils and a murderous glare appeared.

Angkoshi raised his arms as he tried to intercede. “Captain–!”

The knight’s punch landed with a crack. Angkoshi collapsed, his head a jar of stones flung at the floor. He blinked away stars as the captain tossed his torch aside. In the mad spin of light and shadow, Angkoshi saw Bazitur grip the abbot’s hair in one fist and the flash of steel in the other. Then he heard the old monk grunt as Bazitur slid his knife hilt-deep.

The abbot’s body dropped next to Angkoshi. The captain did not watch it fall. Instead he gazed towards the obscure altar. The torch had come to rest in an alcove, shedding only enough light to reveal the barest outline of the Three-Faced Lord in the dark.

“He was a ghost in abbot’s clothing,” Bazitur said. “I have committed no sin. This is nowhere and he was no one. But I,” the captain looked down at Angkoshi, “I am a soldier. I answer not to prayer.”

Angkoshi rose slowly, gingerly probing his cheek, and tore his eyes from the captain’s to meet the dead man’s. They grew dull already. The abbot’s life had no value. No more than theirs.

Bazitur turned towards the door. “We leave. Now.”

“We will not make Kuzithaparu,” Angkoshi said.

He had no chance to ward himself. The captain shoved him so hard he took three step backwards before falling onto a swath of creeping beetles near the altar.

“The little mouse protests, does he? Did that snake fill your head with doubt?”

“Ittako is only five days away,” Angkoshi said, rising again to his feet. The captain glowered as if he spoke in tongues. “The lost Abbey of Ittako. We may find other survivors. There is a map in the abbot’s salon.”

“Let it be one hundred days off, for all I care. My lady awaits me not at Ittako. My daughters pine not for their father at Ittako.”

“Look around you!” Angkoshi cried, waving to the unsighing shadows. “Look where you have arrived! Your mission has failed. You will never see your wife and daughters again.”

Angkoshi bolted the instant Bazitur lowered his head to charge. He scrambled back into the alcove where he knew he would find a door, for the plan of this abbey plan was alike every other. He fumbled with the latch and tore it open a moment before Bazitur’s had a chance to crush him against the wall.

The stench of fetid water and disintegrating bones almost brought Angkoshi to his knees, but he surged through and stumbled down steps, into lightlessness. Above, Bazitur hesitated on the threshold, breathing through his nose like a bull. Members of his high-born caste were not allowed to touch the dead, let alone enter the tombs of those who were not kin.

That mournful vault was far from silent. From the black echoed the plink of dripping water, the scritch of mice’s feet, and the low susurrus of the beetles’ shells as they teemed across each other’s backs, so alike the sound of pouring grain. Angkoshi stepped into an ankle-deep pool and shuddered at the cold.

Above he heard Bazitur’s foot scuff as he stepped back into the sanctum. What this signified, Angkoshi did not know, but he knew it could not be forgiveness. If the captain were governed by sense, he would abandon Angkoshi here, to rot in isolation. But Bazitur was governed not by sense, only remorseless principle.

He crept forward holding his breath, less against the stink of the ancient dead than against the stifling dark. He guided himself by touch, the vermin so thick upon the walls it was like passing his hand across a sticky box hedge. Dozens, if not hundreds became dislodged and began to crawl up his arm or to launch on buzzing wings at his face. Angkoshi screwed tight his eyes and lips and carried on, and soon he found what he sought–a space where his hand touched air. A grave niche–a place he might cower and perhaps be overlooked should the captain venture down.

He squatted, the trim of his tunic dunking into the water, and reached into the unseen void. His hands came to rest upon the moldering linen of a shroud. He recited a pointless prayer that the body not burst through the brittle winding sheet as he pushed the corpse to the back of the niche.

Working towards the top of the body, his fingers came to rest against cold metal. He stroked the surface and felt the filigree and points of a ringlet that had been set atop the corpse’s head. A crown.

He had no time to consider this, for the captain’s footfall echoed from the stairs. Bazitur had retreated to fetch the torch, and the first inklings of light revealed that pillars ran down the center of the hall. Angkoshi deserted his position at the grave niche and darted behind a column. The captain emerged, his braids trailing dust-clotted webs. Bazitur held the torch in one hand, in the other, his knife, still red from the abbot’s murder.

Bazitur rumbled when his foot touched the water. Angkoshi straightened on his side of the pillar to thin himself, and with astonishment found that he gripped the crown, its emerald-encrusted teeth jutting between his knuckles.

The captain advanced slowly, water rippling with every step. The torch revealed the shrouded dead, and in the cineraria, urns with lids sculpted into the blank-eyed busts of saints. It was only when the captain drew within a yard that Angkoshi heard him speaking in a hushed voice, as to himself, as to his ancestors, “Here you fall, here you fall.”

The tip of the knife appeared–another step and Bazitur would see him. There the bloody blade hung, torchlight reflected along its length, as Angkoshi forbade himself to blink. After an endless moment, the knife moved again and Bazitur’s arm came into view.

Angkoshi swung the crown down like a hatchet. Bazitur roared as its points scored the back of his hand. The knife flew from his grasp and landed with a thud in the water, but the knight did not recoil. He stepped round the column, his eyes alight, and seized Angkoshi by the throat.

The air caught in Angkoshi’s lungs like fire. He pawed frantically at the knight’s arm, until Bazitur dropped the torch, which died in the water, and wrapped a second hand around his throat.

Angkoshi felt himself swoon, his flesh dissolving like wet sand. His strength was no match for Bazitur’s, but in his grasping, he chanced upon a braid.

He tugged so hard Bazitur’s head snapped sideways.

Angkoshi reeled, his throat released, but he had not won his freedom, for the captain managed to clutch a twist of his shirt. Angkoshi thrashed like a piglet torn from its mother as Bazitur groped his face in the darkness, seeking purchase, until finally the captain hooked his fingers behind his jaw. Bazitur hauled Angkoshi forward and pounded his head against the pillar as though he drove a wedge.

Angkoshi slid down the fluted stone and tipped over. The earth-cold water laved his neck.

Bazitur crouched at his side. “You think I misjudge my chances?” he whispered. “That I imagine I will see them again? I am no fool. I only do what must be done, for I am a soldier and I march crosswise to hope.”

“I am a soldier, too,” Angkoshi groaned.

The captain viced his temples between thumb and forefinger. “No,” Bazitur said in a gentle voice. “You are not.”

“Then this is not mutiny.”

Angkoshi’s knife did not feel right in his hand, but in this, the world’s gloaming, means had become almost as few as ends. The blade did not feel right, but it pierced the captain’s kidney all the same.

Angkoshi lay in the dark long after the gushing wound had cooled, until daylight daubed the steps and illuminated the slow tide of beetles drifting across the ceiling. He stumbled back to his bedroll, to sit out the morning in the folds of his blanket. In the afternoon, he returned to the sanctum where he filled three sacks with those little creatures streaming up through the cracks, leaving untouched those which swarmed over the old monk. He took the map from the abbot’s salon and a musty book on navigating by the night sky, and also the crown, for it seemed wrong to leave it. Then he set off eastwards to find Ittako, or failing that, a quiet place beneath the endless boughs.

____________________________________________

Scott Shank’s work has appeared in AE, Plasma Frequency, and MYTHIC.  He lives in Toronto and online at scottshank.com.


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