“Arlo!” Arlo!” called the birds, soaring over the surf. Reflections of their white wings rushed across the mirrors of the beach, the shining low-tide sand. Wing-shadows flicked over Arlo where he lay at the sea’s edge, the fine lacework of the breaking waves washing around him and over him, sand in his hair and his open mouth. Each wave heaped more sand over him, then washed it away, rushing back to deeper water where the bigger breakers played with spars and barrels and the pale shattered planks that had been his cutter, the Jenny Haniver.
“Arlo!” called the white birds. “Arlo!”
Some had landed on the sand, a little further up the beach, where tide-wrack lay strewn in long lines like turned swath. They pecked at the sand, unearthing shells and insects, eating thoughtfully, trying to see if the snacks in this new land tasted as good as the snacks they’d left behind. Arlo was their friend, but they were hungry. If he did not wake soon they would feel no guilt about snacking on him, too.
A few hopped closer, eyeing up Arlo’s eyes. The tide had retreated now. The little worn-out fans of surf which made it far enough up the beach to reach Arlo were no longer powerful enough to stir his limbs and give him the semblance of life. One of the birds perched on his face and pecked at his earlobe, and still he did not stir.
Before it could peck again a noise arose out of the line of dark trees behind the beach. A jabbering and cackling that the birds had never heard before. Panicked, they scrambled back into the sky, the beat of their big wings sounding like scattered applause above the steady thunder of the surf. Arlo opened his eyes to see white feathers falling all around him.
He peeled his head out of the wet sand, raised one hand to finger his pecked ear. For a little while he could not remember anything. Then, in a rush, the memory of the storm returned; the three-day blow he had struggled against while sails ripped and white water foamed across the deck, cursing his own folly at setting out to cross an ocean all alone in his small cutter. When the mast went by the board and that last great wave broke over him he had assumed that he was dead, and had been too tired to care much. But it seemed he had been closer to land by that time than he’d thought. Unless he was a ghost and this the Sunless Country, he had survived - and this was not the Sunless Country, for the sun itself came up at that moment, rising out of the sea that he had crossed. The noise from the treeline swelled to greet it; a chorus of parakeets and monkeys and the Mae Abaixo knew what else. They were all hooting and squawking and jibbering to welcome the new day as it dawned upon the shores of Nuevo Maya.
It was the birds, not Arlo, that drew the beachcombers down past the tideline that morning. They had not seen birds like those before; ungainly birds with raggedy wings and too-big heads, whose cries sounded almost like words as they swooped and circled above that thing upon the sand. Arlo, lying half asleep there, heard the voices drawing closer. He felt their shadows fall across him. The beachcombers spoke a language that he did not know, but that was close enough to the language of his home for him to understand.
“It is driftwood, that’s all.”
“It’s not! It’s a man!”
“It’s a dead man!’
Arlo turned his head and opened his eyes. “Ai!” cried the beachcombers, skittering backwards, semaphoring complex signs to ward off evil. They were mostly children; half naked, copper coloured. There was one older than the rest; a short, stocky young woman, who seemed to be in charge. Arlo did his best to smile at her, salt and sand flaking from the creases of his face. He did his best to rise, but he was too weak; too battered; he could barely move.
The young woman was called Ixchel, and she was as frightened as the children, although for their sake she was determined not to let it show. The birds unnerved her, swooping and circling with their strange, half-human cries. The low sun made rainbows on the spray that was blowing across the beach, and Ixchel remembered how, in the stories, there was a paradise in the eastern sea where the sun god Kinich Ahua lived as a beautiful young man, with magical birds as his messengers. For a trembly moment she imagined that this was Him, cast ashore by last night’s storm. Then she shook herself, and told herself not to be so foolish; Kinich Ahua would not let himself get shipwrecked; he could just ask the storm-god Hu’raqun to calm the winds and waves. Anyway, Ixchel lived among boatbuilders, and she knew that the wreckage strewn along the beach that morning had been some old ship, not the sun god’s magical canoe.
“He is not driftwood, and he is not dead,” she said, speaking to the children behind her without taking her eyes from the young castaway’s. “He is nothing to be afraid of. We must help him.”
The children made a game of it. They scrambled up the beach to fetch big branches from the tideline, tough green leaves the size of coffin lids from the trees beyond. They laughed and chattered as they worked, making a sort of stretcher, and when it was finished they argued about who was to have the honour of carrying the driftwood man.
In the end they all did, rolling him onto the stretcher and lifting him onto their small shoulders, up the beach and along paths which snaked between the enormous, brooding trees. Arlo’s home island had no forests, so he was not sure what to make of this one. With its green light and towering trunks it reminded him of nothing so much as the Temple of the Mae Abaixo back in Mayda. Slipping into uneasy sleeps, he half imagined that he was under the sea: he had drowned after all, and this was the Garden of the Mother Below. But the girl Ixchel was too plain and sturdy to be a sea-nymph, and she kept waking him, holding his hand and talking loudly to him, sometimes in the language he half-understood which sounded so much like Old Maydan, and sometimes in another that he did not know, all hard cracking ‘k’s and strange shushing noises; dry twigs in a stream.
They climbed a hill, and came out of the tree-shadow into hot morning sun. Fields of maize, summer gold against the brooding darkness of the forests. Houses perched on stilts, painted in gaudy colours: red, pink, blue, gold. Pigs were grubbing in wattle pens. Parrots perched on the roof-beams. Wayside shrines were carved with the fearsome faces of strange gods and spirits. The gods had long noses and big mouths and almond eyes, the same features as Ixchel and the children and the people who left off their work in the fields and came hurrying to stare at him as he was carried past; to stare, and then to ask questions and offer advice, a rising babble of voices, with Ixchel’s in the midst of it repeating, “Maa! Maa!”
Ahead, above the painted houses, white against the trees , a pyramid rose in three high steps, with a stairway leading up it, and on its summit stains and streaks of something rusty, and the squabbling of carrion birds. Arlo thought, I am in the empire of the Nuevo Maya, and they are going to cut out my heart and gift it to their gods. And he did not feel afraid, but disappointed, because it seemed an awfully long to have come just for that.
The Nuevo Maya had arisen many centuries before, when the world lay wrapped in night and winter after the dreadful happenings which people in Europa called The Downsizing and people on this continent thought of as The Day The Sky Collapsed. Realising that the ways of the Ancients, with their cars and flying machines, had called down the anger of the gods upon poor humankind, the ancestors of the Nuevo Maya had looked back deeper into their past, to the old empires of the Aztec and the Inca, the Toltecs, Mixtecs and Maya. Many of the lands which those empires had ruled were gone - the isthmus which had once joined North and South America had been obliterated when the sky fell - but, from the fragments of history and memory which survived, the Nuevo Maya were able to cobble together a new civilization, powerful enough that, by Arlo’s time, it had spread from the shores of the Caribbean all the way to the snows of Paraguay. The old gods they worshipped had been good to them, which seemed like clear proof that they’d been right to resurrect them. At first, it was true, the gods had demanded human sacrifice. Thousands of captives from the wars which broke out along the empire’s ever-lengthening borders had been brought in chains to Nuevo Teoticuahuan to have their beating hearts cut out by priests with blast glass knives.
But times change, and religions mellow. Now only the Maize King went to meet the gods up the long stairway of the great ziggurat in Neo-Teo; a symbolic victim whose blood would keep the fields and mothers of the Nuevo Maya fertile for another year. The people of Chiqana del Mar, the little harbour where Arlo Thursday had been cast ashore, did not welcome him into their town to become a sacrifice. They welcomed him because they were sailors and fisherfolk, and sailors and fisherfolk the world over look kindly on castaways.
After all, they might become castaways themselves one day.
I am officially in the Jaekyung Jaguar Lee Mortal Engines fanart fanclub
look over your hills and be still;
the sky above us shoots to kill
Airhaven was a flying town at which airships from all over the world could dock to trade, provision and refuel. It inhabited a curious middle-ground in the long feud between Traction and Anti-Traction, enjoying friendly relations with all both the League and the major towns and cities of the Hunting Ground; although very definitely a mobile city, it was not technically a Traction City and caused no damage; its existence was thus not an affront to Anti-Tractionists.It began as one of many caravanserais built among the high passes of the Shatterlands to cater to airships making the journey from the Middle Sea to the Hunting Ground. As the air-trade developed, these competing caravanserais moved further and further up the mountainsides (air-traders always preferred to anchor at the highest ones rather than waste gas, fuel and time descending to those at lower levels). This stepping-stone contest of climbing hill-towns went on for many decades, and did not stop when the caravanserais eventually ran out of mountain; they attached gas-balloons and large tethers so that their establishments could actually hang in the sky above their mountaintops, to be hauled down to safety in poor weather. Airhaven was the first to take this process to its logical conclusion by attaching engines and cutting its tethers, becoming, in effect, a gigantic, slow-moving airship. A number of other towns followed its lead, including Kipperhawk and Stratosphereham, but by 1000 TE Airhaven was the only one left, the others having variously drifted into volcanic ash-clouds, crashed or found themselves undone by the unfortunate combination of flammable gasbags and drunken Tractionist-versus-Anti-Tractionist gunfights.
(Art by Jaguar Lee)