Walking the Dust
33: Hall of the Mountain King
Wherever you go in this world — a big city, a small town, a travelling caravan, or a community of hunters living underneath a goat-damned mountain — seems there's always a leader who has the thickest blankets, the fattest belly, the most women.
This one was no exception, although “fattest belly” around here was a meagre achievement. The scouts, sure, they're always rangy and thin. But as those scouts walked me to the chieftain, I looked around and realised almost everyone in here was half-starving. Another dying community? Or just a really bad diet?
Two things suddenly occurred to me. First, I wondered if my father had ever been this far, maybe even met the same people. I didn't recall anything specific about it in the stories and notes he brought back, but there was a lot, and I might simply have forgotten. Second, I wondered if this confused, sweating woman being herded across the cavern towards the chieftain was the “bad diet”. It wasn't like they could farm down here.
I figured two answers. Either yes, they were cannibals, but my father never met them; or no, my father did meet them, but they weren't cannibals. I was so paranoid I didn't consider the possibility that neither might be true.
They called it The In Here, and they wanted to know what a woman from The Out There was doing snooping around their hunting grounds. Trying to explain was hard, as none of them had any concept of reading or writing, and they thought I must be out hunting. Maybe for them.
That seemed to worry them a lot. They didn't like The Out There. It was “wicked”, and if you stayed outside for too long, the sun and moon would corrupt your soul. They only ventured out because there was no food or water down here. But their hunting scouts always returned to The In Here within a couple hours. I was just unlucky to stumble into their territory as they were heading back home.
Where did that leave people like me? I'd lived my whole life Out There. I'd already showed them the only weapon I had was a hunting knife, and I wasn't a threat. But didn't it concern them that I was supposedly corrupt beyond help? That I might bring wickedness into their home with me? The chieftain — pretty much everyone, in fact — looked at me with sad eyes, and then it clicked.
These people didn't fear me, or anyone else from The Out There. They pitied us.
That didn't stop them from sneaking a thousand wary glances at me, like I was a Sand-Eater ready to pounce. It helped when I took off some layers, and they saw I was just the same as them, although certainly better-fed and darker-skinned. These people were as pale as they were thin. After the chieftain ordered food for us, some of the younger ones even got brave enough to come up and stare at my skin. I never wished I had tattoos more.
Turned out we were eating goat meat and roots, and it arrived steaming hot, as did the water to drink with it.
It was good, if a little strange, but halfway through I suddenly realised it all came within a couple minutes of being ordered.
Now, The In Here people clearly didn't have enough food for everyone to eat properly. So no way would they keep meat and roots cooking on the offchance a stranger came to town. And I could tell the scouts still didn't trust me — I didn't picture them running ahead to put the cook to work for my benefit.
I mulled over a decision as I ate. Sure, I'd been given food, but I was still a stranger down here, and at the mercy of these people to even find my way back outside. I didn't want to anger them.
On the other hand, that damn curiosity of mine wouldn't rest. I really needed to know how in the world they'd pulled this trick off.
Five minutes later, as the chieftain and two scouts led me down more narrow stone corridors, getting even deeper inside the mountain, I cursed myself and my big mouth.
But then we reached our destination, and suddenly I didn't regret a thing.