a vast mountain, in the last human city, a son was troubling his
aging father. Virgil, the savior of the mountain people, was a very
old man at seventy. Living just a short walk from the fogline, most
men didn't live to see seventy, and those who did were weathered
when they reached it. The radiation hadn't sterilized him, and this
was no small fortune. At the age of fifty-six, he had fathered Ink
with a beautiful young clanswoman named Margaret, his eleventh wife,
who herself was young enough to be his daughter.
was joyous for a time in the city on the mountain. The savior had
an heir. A male heir, who would be strong and respected. His was
an unbroken bloodline leading all the way back to Holy Jack who
had brought them to the mountain and out of darkness. It seemed
a flight of blessings had been bestowed upon Virgil, but Margaret
fell ill soon after, and died of fever when the boy was still just
he had loved all of his wives in turn, even after they had died
or he moved to the next in search of another more fertile, Margaret
had been his special favorite. She had loved him the way a wild
thing loves its mate, with playfulness and a deep, mortal devotion.
In his grief, Virgil had sworn never to marry another, and mourned
who knew nothing of the ways of rearing children, enlisted the help
of the priests and priestesses of the New Way. It was through the
clergy of the New Way that the sick and weak of heart were ministered
to in the city on the mountain, and he felt safe in leaving the
boy's tutelage to them. Theirs was the home of all that was patient
and sympathetic, and forgiving among the people of the mountain.
Above all, Virgil wanted for Ink that he be a good man, with a good
heart. There was no other heir to the savior's mantle, and if the
clansmen did not love him, Ink would be worse than no heir at all.
Virgil watched, and waited, and stood by while the toddler grew
into a bold youngster, and then into a markedly quiet child. His
education was thorough, as heir to the savior it could not have
been otherwise, and quiet little Ink absorbed the knowledge that
his teachers could provide. For what seemed like twenty years, the
boy grew very slowly. Virgil and his councilor Morrow would check
in on Ink periodically to find him still studying, still learning
under the tutelage of Proctor, the high mother of the New Way. And
still, like a watched pot, very much a boy. Virgil forced patience
upon himself, and swallowed his desires for a virile young man to
be his protégé.
he thought, Ink will be a man, and then I will teach him myself.
it wasn't twenty years that passed during this time, or even fifteen.
Virgil's impatience and hope for his son made it seem longer. Like
an eternity, almost. In the time of the suns, it was only ten years
that passed with Ink living and learning in the temple of the New
Way. During this time, Virgil was preoccupied with binding together
and making peace with the contentious mountain clans.
all of a sudden and all at once, Ink grew up. At fourteen summers,
Ink was a strong boy and broad across the chest. Virgil was delighted,
and surprised at the suddenness of Ink's coming of age. He once
again became intensely interested in all things surrounding the
boy's life and education. Whenever permitted, he would audit the
you know what the meaning of life is?" the Proctor would ask.
to your clan first, faith to your sisters second, faith to yourself
last," Ink would reply with a steely tone.
The Proctor would smile sidelong at Virgil and say, "He will
Virgil would reply.
day, it occurred to Virgil that there were a number of things that
he simply did not know about the boy. Could he hunt? Did he know
the ways of debate in the halls of not just books, but men? Was
there a man's confidence inside of this new man's body? He decided
one afternoon to ask.
he bring down an eagle?"
Proctor looked uncertain.
stoned a pheasant only three days ago, father."
boy looked back at the Proctor.
has the best hawks in the city in his cage," the Proctor said,
in a placating tone. "His skill with them is progressing."
pheasant is not an eagle, and a slingshot is not a brace of hawks."
this, the Proctor only smiled.
has no hope of life if he cannot hunt," Virgil said.
Virgil's friend and councilor of twenty years, nodded his head in
can he know the New Way and not be a hunter? Does he not know that
the Blood Brothers and the Western Arrows will not recognize him
as their savior without eagle's blood on his hands? Not to mention
the other clansmen
looked Morrow in the eyes. The savior's face was grave, and this
troubled his friend. The two old men stood on the battlement of
the citadel and looked out upon the city on the mountain.
will not respect him," Morrow agreed.
Virgil snorted."They will challenge him openly. They will call
him out to the avenue and dash his brains out."
savior ran a knobby, wart covered hand through his patchy hair.
the round stone citadel and the temple of the New Way were several
clumped "neighborhoods" of three to five structures each.
At the center of these neighborhoods was inevitably a long-building
that had served as a communal house for the city's original inhabitants.
The wanderers that had settled on the mountain lived in clans, often
sharing mates to find combinations that could produce offspring.
Virgil's own father had sequentially "tried" four mates
before one provided him with a child. The fires of the clansmen
long-houses glowed in the approaching dusk. Over the fires turned
steel spits with vegetables and small birds on them.
was the fifth savior of the mountain people. He had inherited the
title from his father Irving, who had inherited it in turn from
Fenton the Drawl. Fenton, it was rumored, was a baby when the first
group of wanderers took the mountain and hewed from the trees the
vast, winding avenues of the last city of mankind.
Litany of the Faithful told the story each Thursday at sundown as
the oily, red star set over the horizon in the thin high-altitude
Canto: See the sun set on us
Chanted reply: We are here, Lord.
See the air that poisons
Chanted reply: We are here, Lord.
See the grey lowlands of death
Chanted reply: We are here above them, Lord.
Hear our voices still drawing breath
Chanted reply: We are still here, Lord.
was Virgil's right to call the Canto on Thursday afternoons, but
he rarely did so. The Proctor, a woman whose name had once been
Cerese, had taken over this duty for him. Age was not a friend to
Virgil, and his health had begun the steady, inevitable decline
of those who dwelt in the city-on-the-mountain. His joints ached
every morning and evening, and his voice had begun to waver and
crack when he raised it.
the city on the mountain, there existed a loose hierarchy. At the
top was the line of the saviors, the hereditary stewards of the
mountain, who had brought the sick and poisoned wanderers out of
the lowlands. The first had been Holy Jack, with his gun that said
COLT .45 and hat with the word "Texaco" on the front.
Holy Jack had seen how the poison settled across the land and infected
the fruit and grass with living bile. The thousand that followed
him carried their livestock on their shoulders so that the animals
wouldn't root in the warm, lethal mud. Their feet were covered with
boils and lesions from marching through the valley of death.
it were, their efforts at saving their livestock were in vain. The
swine and cattle eventually became so highly inbred that their lines
produced only bottomless bellies and tough, bitter meat. They began
to hunt the skies with bows and arrows, slingshots, or most often
with other birds themselves. Osprey were raised from the egg to
hunt the sweet, untainted meat of the sky.
the savior family were the Proctor and her ilk, clerics and religious
zealots who held tightly to the teachings of Holy Jack and the New
Way. His hat and pistol were kept in the top floor of their temple,
along with his diaries and other books that people had saved or
remembered and written down. Then came the common man and woman,
living in the wood and stone long-buildings lining the avenues of
all of the clans and men toiled the Groans. Great empty-headed colossuses
that the poisonous air and ground had addled. They were not sterile,
but neither could they produce healthy offspring of their own. Instead,
they bred progressively more stunted and brutal progeny. Five generations
of labor and living out of doors had made them mute, bent, and huge
of body. They sweat and ached under the leather harnesses that they
used to till the rough mountain soil. Their hands were wrapped with
rags so the awl wouldn't slip. Theirs were the backs that broke
to turn the grind-wheel and auger. They were not allowed within
the outer wind-wall, as much to protect them from the clansmen and
women as the other way around. They slept huddled against the base
of the stone wall that they themselves had built.
" Morrow nodded toward the Groan encampments.
need only to be handled with care," Virgil said at length.
"Tact is something that I'm quite sure Ink is learning, at
could kill the Proctor, or separate them somehow." Morrow suggested.
would help nothing. Without her, he has no reliable teacher. I cannot
Morrow protested. "I'm sure you could."
not flatter me. I am too old." Virgil looked at him darkly.
both of us together?"
thought about this for a while, and both men watched the sun become
yellow, then orange, then red.
I am nearly finished reading the Works, Father. Why must I come
is good that you have read Holy Jack's words, Ink, but it is time
that you learn a few more things you will need in order to be the
boy turned his face downward in an unhappy but typical sulk. He
seemed to think about it for a bit, and brightened again a moment
later with inner hope.
they help me go back to the world someday?"
stared at him sharply, his eyes narrowing. He took Ink by the elbow
and turned him to look at the land beyond the fogline. There were
other mountain peaks in the distance, but they were all empty save
for beasts and birds.
is the world, Ink. All that is left of it."
eyes shifted toward the horizon and the grey-misted valleys beyond.
way is death," Virgil said, abruptly.
did Holy Jack get through?" Ink asked.
leaving a trail of corpses behind him," Virgil snapped.
this, Ink had no reply. Morrow interjected a suggestion.
not start with some hunting?"
brightened. Ink did not.
said you have brought pheasants down?" Virgil asked, changing
Ink said, cautiously. "Slinging them."
it's not glorious, but it's a start. Let's see you bring one down
for our supper tonight."
so the rest of that day, and for many days afterward, Ink took his
sling out onto the hillside and flung stones skyward at the healthy
flocks of birds above. He brought down a fair number, which would
have been perfectly satisfactory to the two men if Ink had been
nine or even ten years old instead of fourteen. The boy became frustrated
quickly at the older men's disdain, and often sulked.
get back out there and try again," Morrow and Virgil would
two older men hoped that with time Ink would see the error of hunting
pheasants and sparrows with stones. The throw was difficult, the
technique imprecise, and there was always the danger of a random
stone going wild and striking someone on the downward arc. There
was never any danger of running out of stone; whenever they needed
more for building or sling-shot, they would simply send a Groan
down to the loose quarry a few paces below the fogline.
watching Ink struggle with the slingshot for a while, Virgil decided
it was time to show the boy how to hunt like a man.
may look feeble," said Virgil, "but I can bring down more
birds in an afternoon than you can."
did not doubt the challenge, but his father seemed determined to
prove it to him nonetheless. The two of them hunted a large down-slope
on the leeward side of the mountain on a bright, chilly afternoon.
Virgil took his beloved falcons Bertram and Lexus and Ink took a
bag of stones. Virgil pulled the birds' straps and flung them at
the sky with a great smile on his old face. Ink scowled into the
air and tried to follow the birds with his eyes.
they trudged home hours later, Ink carried a small sparrow on his
belt that he had winged, and three fat pheasants that Lexus and
Bertram had brought down. Virgil clearly loved his birds, but Ink
noticed that his father did not coo at the birds the way that the
Proctor and her acolytes did to Ink's hawk. That particular bird,
which had done no hunting since it was given fully-trained to Ink,
was named Bob Seger. Ink's teachers and the Proctor treated Bob
Seger like a house-pet.
following day, Virgil demanded that Ink bring Bob Seger out to the
field. The bird looked slightly stunned when Ink pulled its hood.
It had been a long time since the creature was allowed to fly off
of a leash. When Ink tried to loft the hawk, it clung to the glove
and fluttered around his face.
the boy shouted at the uncooperative bird. Bob Seger held fast and
you!" shouted Ink, enraged. "Fly!"
stepped in quickly and hooded the bird. He took the animal and placed
it on his own glove, feeding it a tiny strip of meat. With a speed
that was alarming, Virgil grabbed Bob Seger's head and neck with
his opposite hand and twisted sharply. The bird went limp instantly
and fell off of Virgil's hand, hanging from his thin leather leash.
Virgil untied it carefully and lay the bird down on the ground by
Lexus and Bertram's perch. The other two birds watched without so
much as blinking. Ink was horrified.
did you do that!?" he cried.
bird was not fit for you, or for the world of birds. Had I let it
go, the eagles would have eaten it alive or it would have starved
to death. In either case, there is a hunter who needs to learn to
hunt with the falcon and that," he gestured to Bob Seger's
corpse, "is not and never would have been a suitable bird for
walked over to the perch where his own two falcons were perched
and he put a second glove on to Ink's free hand. The boy, who was
strong even for his age, had difficulty holding still for the two
seasoned hunting hawks.
you fear them, you must conquer it," cautioned Virgil. It was
clear to him, though, that Ink was afraid from head to toe of the
a few days afterward, Virgil let Ink struggle with the birds. Ink
managed to learn the method of hunting one of them at a time. Lexus,
it usually was, that would fly aloft almost of her own volition,
and tear a fat pheasant or goose out of the air with sharp claws.
Ink realized after a while, as Virgil had suspected almost immediately,
that the birds were just hunting because that's what they did. There
was no art in it for Ink, and the birds themselves were making the
decisions. This seemed to frustrate Ink endlessly, especially when
Lexus or Bertram simply flew around a bit and returned not to Ink's
hand but directly to the wrapped wooden perch.
saw that the boy was trying, however, and took some comfort in the
hope that perhaps, just perhaps, he might be a suitable hunter
someday. More time passed, and the birds hunted still only when
they felt like it. Virgil watched this in frustration and consulted
Morrow about it.
hasn't the feel for it at all," Virgil said, forlornly.
him more time. He started late, and didn't hatch the birds himself
they way you and I did."
on earth not?"
shrugged. "Maybe he didn't want to?"
on earth does that have to do with anything?" Virgil roared.
Proctor spent much time with him learning the ways of Holy Jack,
and not enough of learning our ways."
Virgil frowned, "he had better learn quickly. He will be a
man soon, whether he wants to or not."
is time for you to learn to hunt the eagle," Virgil said to
Ink one day.
looked at him, doubtfully.
will show you how it is done," Virgil warned, gravely, "but
if you cannot do this, you will never be the next savior, no matter
how many pheasants you sling."
took both Lexus and Bertram in the air and extended his arms, putting
the birds close together for a moment. The falcons regarded each
other with dark, emotionless eyes. Ink was smart enough to realize
that there was some sort of signal here between his father and the
birds, but he could not fathom it. With a guttural 'rrrrrrraaaaahhhh!'
Virgil threw the birds upward with both arms. They climbed the air
with their beating wings, spiraling upward rapidly. They shot off
toward another mountaintop in a straight line, never far from each
watched for a moment, puzzled that the birds had abandoned them.
Virgil hissed at him."Wait!"
and Virgil stood silently on the hillside with only the sound of
the creaking flourmills in the distance, turned by lurching, sweaty
Groans. After a moment that seemed like forever to Ink, the piercing
scream of an eagle in the distance could be heard.
whispered Virgil, pointing at the sky. Despite his age, the old
man's eyes were still sharp, and he could see the eagle long before
Ink. The great silver and black bird was striving across the mountain
sky with Lexus and Bertram not far behind and gaining ground.
see," whispered Virgil, "the eagle is our great enemy.
It steals the food from our mouths. If we cannot kill it, it will
kill us with starvation."
watched on in wonder as Bertram and Lexus allowed the eagle to drop
slightly below them. In tandem, they dove at the bigger bird's wings,
and tore into it. The three birds fell in a feathered mass toward
the ground, and Bertram and Lexus hurtled away at the last moment.
The eagle was dead.
it was then Ink's turn to try hunting eagles. At first, the boy
approached the task with swagger and confidence. This encouraged
Virgil slightly. At least, he thought, the boy is making
an effort. Within a short time, however, it was clear to him
that Ink's confidence was an act.
he would yell, after Bertram or Lexus came back from an eagle hunt
with a sparrow for itself to eat, or nothing at all. "Miserable
could appreciate his anger, but tried to correct the boy whenever
must exert your will over them," Virgil instructed, "or
they will never respect you. If they do not respect you, neither
will the clansmen."
the clansmen!" Ink shouted at Virgil, kicking over the hawk's
perch. Lexus and Bertram fluttered indignantly out of the way. "And
damn these stupid birds!"
listen to me," Virgil shouted at Ink, pointing his finger.
Lexus reflexively lit on Virgil's arm, "you will do this or
you cannot ever hope to be the savior!"
stalked off toward the citadel and left Virgil alone on the hillside
with the upset perch.
must come with me tomorrow," Virgil told Morrow that afternoon
as he sat at the end of a long wooden table in the citadel arbitrating
disagreements between rival clanspeople.
hasn't had any luck?" Morrow asked, sympathetically.
Virgil bit out. "Either that or he's just not trying."
see if I can help."
it was the following day that Morrow came with Virgil to the hillside
and taught Ink something new. For the first hour of their hunt,
Morrow told Ink to let the birds fly freely without hunting and
to focus on watching how they moved. Ink had difficulty with this
at first, but soon he could pick out the dark feathered arrows among
the clouds with ease. This encouraged all of them, particularly
Virgil who realized that perhaps it had been his fault to
not approach the training this way to begin with. The time came
for Ink to try taking an eagle, and Morrow handed Lexus and Bertram
over to the boy. Some time had passed since they had begun teaching
Ink to hunt, and now Ink's arms were stronger and didn't sag under
the weight of the gloves and birds.
is no special trick to getting the hawks to hunt the eagle,"
said Morrow. "You can only will them to do what you want, and
they will decide whether or not to hunt for you."
regarded the hawks for a moment side by side. They stared back at
him with cold black eyes. He thought to himself: Hunt, you hawks.
I am the savior. Hunt the eagle for me.
he could feel a surge of power rush up into his heart and he flung
them into the air with a yell. Lexus and Bertram flew off into the
distance, slowly becoming tiny specks in the distance. Ink stood
on the hillside with his heart beating loudly in his ears. Virgil
and Morrow waited hopefully for the birds to return.
took a very long time, but eventually Lexus and Bertram re-appeared,
driving ahead of them a large, fierce-looking eagle. Ink was overcome
with elation. He wanted to cry out with joy, but knew that he had
to remain silent until the hawks had made their kill. The three
men on the ground watched in silent expectation.
the eagle passed overhead, however, something inexplicable happened.
The hawks did not move into position to strike. They held back,
Bertram behind and Lexus above. Ink's heart sank, the hawks had
judged him unworthy and there was no denying their ambivalence to
him. Before he could stop himself, Ink's hand dipped into his pocket
for the slingshot. A small rock the size of a marble lay in it.
He slid it out, and followed the eagle with his eyes.
don't need a damned bird to do my hunting for me, he thought.
shouted Virgil, but it was too late. Ink slung the stone into air
with a speed like the bullets of old. It arced toward the oncoming
as he let the shot fly, however, Lexus darted in for the kill. It
was a different kind of strike than any Virgil or Ink had ever seen.
Lexus clawed straight for the throat of the huge bird, and as she
did, Ink's stone struck her squarely. The eagle and Bertram veered
away as Lexus fell to the earth, dead.
stared dumbly at the sky for a moment before Virgil grabbed the
boy by both shoulders and knocked him off his feet.
Ink sputtered, "I'm sorry"
fool!" Virgil shouted furiously. "That hawk was more of
a hunter than you will ever be!"
old man grabbed Ink's shirt and dragged him to the edge of a rocky
drop-off on the mountain. He held Ink there, suspended in mid-air.
Ink was amazed at how strong his old father was.
why?" Ink pleaded.
do not understand, boy!" Virgil roared at him, "The hawk
is nothing compared to man. The clansmen will destroy you and take
this city away from the saviors if you show them an instant of weakness!
If they do not respect you, they will fight each other and there
will be war! If there is war, we are finished."
dragged Ink back from the precipice and tossed him roughly to the
you do not have the blood of an eagle on your hands, I cannot leave
you the mantle of savior. To do so would be certain destruction
not just for you, but for all of us. I am too old to have more sons,
and soon I will be gone as well. If I leave this city to you, I
leave it to the buzzards!"
stormed off to retrieve Bertram, who was still tracking the eagle
overhead despite Morrow's efforts to recall him. Ink slunk up the
hill toward the New Way temple.
that same day, Virgil and Morrow were once more on the battlement
of the citadel.
have failed, I think," Virgil said, gravely.
you were right," Morrow replied. "He should have been
doing this five years ago, not now. Now he is too headstrong, too
impatient. He doesn't have the heart for it."
shook his head.
what do we do?"
a loud crash was heard throughout the city. The clansmen and their
wives stopped their daily routine and looked toward the citadel.
No one had heard a sound like this in decades. It had been many
years since all the gunpowder in the city had been used or ruined
by rain and dampness.
from the temple's top floor ran Ink, Holy Jack's hat on his head
and the ancient smoking pistol in his hand.
are you doing?" Morrow called to him. Virgil stood blinking,
not believing his eyes. On the wooden streets between the temple
and the citadel, a medium-sized eagle with black-tipped feathers
lay dead on the avenue. Ink walked up to it and seized the twitching
the boy shrieked at Virgil. "Here is your ever-fucking eagle!
Are you happy?"
no, Ink," Morrow stammered. "You mustn't"
your mustn't!" Ink shouted. He raised the pistol and it crashed
in his hand, spitting fire. Morrow pitched over the side of the
battlement, dead. Ink mounted the steps and took them three at a
time, rushing up to where his father stood, stunned. He threw the
eagle at Virgil's feet.
am the savior," Ink shouted at him at only arm's length.
are nothing," Virgil whispered, at last. "You know nothing.
You endanger us all."
let out a cry and shot Virgil dead against the battlement.
am the savior!" Ink shouted, as he walked down the steps of
the citadel. Clansmen and the Proctor's folk were running everywhere.
out of the street!" someone yelled at him. "The Groans
Groans?" said Ink. He picked one clansman at random and pointed
the pistol at him. The man froze, frantic.
are the Groans coming?"
man said nothing. Ink pointed the gun at the ground and fired it.
People all around shrieked in terror. The clansman jumped at the
gunshot. Slowly, the petrified man pointed at Holy Jack's pistol.
noise," the clansman said. Before Ink could stop him, the man
broke and ran up the avenue toward higher ground.
ground beneath Ink began to shake. He looked down the mountain toward
the wind-wall and saw the Groans, male and female, ripping down
the walls piece by piece. There were hundreds of them and they spilled
onto the streets of the mountain city and destroyed everything in
their path. Chains that had been used for restraining them became
deadly flails. The moaning which gave them their name could be heard
all the way up the mountain. The clansmen and their families fled
before them like frightened screaming children.
raised the pistol into the air and screamed at the top of his lungs.
AM THE SAVIOR!"
pulled the trigger and the gunshot rang out above the clamor. There
was a brief pause, and then the Groans fell back to their destruction.
AM THE SAVIOR!" Ink screamed himself hoarse.
looked around himself for help, for an army to rally, but there
was no one. Small groups had taken the top floors of the citadel
and were closing the great wooden gates. Below, the Groans smashed
everything in their path. Wood, stone, or human.
am the savior, he thought.
ran down the mountain toward the melee. Some clansmen were trying
to fight the Groans with arrows and flaming torches, but it was
no use. The Groans were huge and powerful, and swept the men aside
stopped and pointed Holy Jack's pistol at a nearby Groan.
he shouted. The Groan looked up at him and roared in its simpleton
fired. The gun barked in his hand and the Groan shrugged slightly.
It looked at its arm, which a thin red line of blood was running
down, and then back at Ink.
fired a second time, then a third, then a fourth. But with the fourth
pull there was no crash. The gun had no more bullets. The Groan
brushed off the small wounds and bore down on Ink. The boy threw
the pistol at the Groan and screamed one final time.
AM THE SAVIOR!"
Groan seized Ink and flung him down the mountain. By the time he
skidded to a stop at the place where the wind-wall had been, his
body was broken and bleeding and he was dead.
Groans, not stopping even to appreciate this development, continued
up the mountain and tore the city and the clansmen apart. Brick
by brick, and bone by bone.
the aftermath of this terrible destruction, the Clansmen and the
New Way folk were driven before the Groans and dashed to bloody
rags against the mountain crags in which they hid, or they were
forced to flee into the poisonous grey fog to die. When the agonized
guttural moaning of the Groans finally ceased, it was because they
had torn down everything that they had made for their clansman masters.
There would be no more hewing of stone or logging of trees for them.
Their crude tools lay at the edge of the fogline, never to be picked
up again. No more would they sleep in the shadow of the clansmen
with the cool wind of the blighted earth below them on their necks.
once great city on the mountain was now just a litter of wood and
stone at the ceiling of the earth. Buzzards picked the carcasses
of dead men, women and children clean and their grinning skulls
were all that remained of them.
for the Groans, once the city was destroyed they sat around for
a while in grunting satisfaction at their handiwork, and then set
off down the mountain in search of something to eat. They passed
the fogline without fear, and waded into the poisonous fallout from
the ancient war. They wandered like shadows in the thick misty death
until their eyes ran blood and their throats closed. Their skins
split like roasted swine, and their miserable existence ended crawling
along blindly in the poisonous darkness.
Atop the mountain flew the hawks and the eagles, left forever to
judge the peculiar creature that was man, and to stare blankly at
the strewn ruins of the last human city.