Authors: W. Michael Gear
Seething, Atotarho gripped his walking stick, longing to use it as a club. He glared at Negano and Nesi as they strode toward his camp on the hilltop. Both men kept coughing, their lungs struggling to get rid of the thick acrid smoke they'd inhaled at Yellowtail Village. The gaudy glare cast by the fires illuminated their tall, muscular bodies. Gray ash coated their shoulders and hair, and filled the lines in their faces, making both appear to be much older men.
Atotarho's jaw hurt from clenching his teeth. War Chief Negano hadn't looked at him yet. The man had seen thirty-two summers passâmany as the head of Atotarho's personal guards. He had little actual battlefield experience. Elevating him to his current position had, perhaps, been a grave error.
When the two men arrived at his fire, Nesi dipped his head respectfully to Atotarho, and split off from Negano, leaving the war chief to face Atotarho alone.
Negano stiffened his spine, and braced his feet. “My Chief, Iâ”
“How did it happen?” Atotarho asked in a chilling voice.
“No one knows yet. Tomorrow, we will question the survivors. All I can say is that Joondoh must have missed something.”
Atotarho repositioned his walking stick and gripped the antler head with both hands. His knees and hips throbbed in agony. “Is he dead?”
“I haven't seen him, so I assume he is.”
“Well, then, he's lucky, isn't he?”
Negano's eyes tightened. He did not look away, which demonstrated true braveryÂ â¦ or perhaps foolishness. He coughed again, then choked out the words, “Joondoh was a loud-mouthed fool. I should never have placed him in charge of the Yellowtail defense.”
“It's a little late to realize that.”
“Yes, my Chief.” Negano sounded truly apologetic, almost obsequious.
“How many did we lose?”
Negano started to answer, but bent forward suddenly, hacking and wheezing for several moments before he gained control again. A shiver ran through him.
“Forgive me.” He straightened to his full height, but his expression was that of a man fighting a sudden and consuming nausea. “The fires were so intense and the smoke so thick we couldn't count tonight. However, maybe around six hundred fifty. Perhaps a few more.”
“Six hundredâ¦!” Atotarho's veins seemed to be on fire. “
killed one-third of our forces?”
“My Chief, I hope you will take into account that I was not personally in charge of the Yellowtail defense. If I had beenâ”
“Do you think it makes me feel better that more than six hundred warriors would be alive if you'd had the good judgment to lead the defense yourself?”
Negano swallowed hard, but said nothing. Was he searching for a response?
Negano spread his arms in a gesture of helplessness. “In the future, I will not trust such situations to anyone else. I will assume the duty myself.”
Atotarho gritted his teeth and looked out over the camp. No one slept. Every warrior who could stand was on his feet talking. The drone of their voices had a low angry timbre. Their discontent had been growing. Every day his warriors seemed a little more surly and rebellious. As the scent of their friends' and relatives' rotting bodies strengthened, more and more people clamored to go home. Their truculence would be worse after tonight. Much worse.
Atotarho's eyes slid back to Negano. “I saw the hunting parties return today. How much food did they shoot?”
“Not much, my Chief. Bur Oak Village has been here a long time. All of the nearby game was hunted out long ago. Tomorrow I'll dispatch more hunting parties to go further a field, hopingâ”
“How much food did today's party shoot?” he repeated with lethal exactness.
Negano clenched his fists at his sides. “Enough to feed our army for two days.”
Atotarho's grip tightened on his walking stick, as though strangling the life from it. “And what do you think High Matron Kittle is doing right now?”
He appeared mystified by the shift in subjects. “IâI can't say.”
“Well, I can. She's a leader. She's out stripping the bodies of our dead for food and weapons. She's refilling every empty pot and bag with water.” His voice went hoarse with restrained emotion. “Now she has another three or four days that she did not have this morning. The spirits of her villagers are running high. My hopes of starving her out in less than one-quarter moon are gone.” He extended a finger that resembled a knobby twig and stabbed it at Negano's chest. “Because of you.”
In an unnaturally high voice, Negano said, “Chief, as I said, I know I am at fault. If possible, I would like to discuss our attack plan for tomorrow. We need to take our revenge quickly. To hearten our warriors. If we do not, I fearâ”
“Tell me your plan.” Atotarho lowered his hand to grip his walking stick again. “It had better be good, War Chief.”
As the garish halo of firelight swelled over Bur Oak Village, the longhouses turned burnt orange and seemed to slip in and out of existence, light then dark, as though tugged at by the winds of nothingness.
In the shifting smoke, Jigonsaseh found Sindak standing to the left of the Bear Clan longhouse porch, speaking with his warriors. He'd lost four in the battle, and another five had been wounded. Thirty-one crowded around him, their expressions somber. Distinctive clan symbols decorated their painted capes. She could make out the wings of the Hawk Clan, bear claws for the Bear Clan, and interlocking green-and-blue rectangles for the Snipe Clan. All had mourning hair. Sindak had not yet changed out of the clothes he'd worn in the marsh. His black shirt clung wetly to his body; wet clothing made a warrior's movements awkward, sluggish.
Jigonsaseh walked up behind him, gripped CorpseEye, and in one powerful swing, struck Sindak in the backs of the knees. He landed with a grunt that knocked the breath out of him. She didn't give him time to respond, but leaped on top of him, straddling him, with CorpseEye jammed down across his throat.
Shocked cries of outrage erupted from his men. Several jerked stilettos and clubs from their belts.
Sindak's eyes widened when he looked up at her, then widened even more at something over her shoulder. He choked out, “No! Lower your weapons!”
She allowed Sindak to push the club away from his throat enough that he could speak, and he casually asked, “Have I done something to offend you, Matron?”
“I gave you a direct order that anyone who fell behind was to be left behind. No trying to rescue friends. I told you I didn't need dead heroes, I needed living fighters. Yet you went back for Gonda.”
“I apologize. It was arrogant of me, not to mention dangerous and stupid. In this village, you give the orders.”
She paused with her eyes narrowed. “You practiced that, didn't you?”
“Well, I knew I was going to have to use it at some point.”
Jigonsaseh climbed off him and rose. Sindak's warriors' expressions were a combination of indignation, disbelief, and killing rage. She watched them from the corner of her eye. In a voice filled with deepest respect, the kind of respect she reserved only for her own war chiefs, she said, “Sindak you are one of the finest warriors I've ever known, but if you ever disobey my orders again, it will be the last time.” She tied CorpseEye to her belt, and extended a hand to him.
Sindak grabbed it and let her pull him to his feet. As he dusted away the old leaves and twigs that stuck to the wet leather, he said, “You're faster than I remember.”
“A fact you'd be wise to ponder.”
He rubbed his aching throat, and turned to his men. “Never disobey one of Matron Jigonsaseh's orders, or she willâwithout a shred of shameâpublicly humiliate you before your friends.”
Several of his men broke out in laughter, shook their heads, and slipped their war clubs and stilettos back into their belts.
Sindak gave her a sly look from the corner of his eye. Both of them smiled faintly, remembering times past when they'd had similar discussions. Men expelled breaths. Expressions relaxed.
Sindak spread his feet and turned back to face his warriors. “As I was saying before the arrival of the only war chief I respect more than myself”âmore laughterâ“Negano doesn't know which of our warriors pledged allegiance to our true high matron, Zateri. He doesn't know who has given up and gone home, or who has fled into the forest to fill his belly before he returns to duty. If we can get into position tonight, we can use that against him.”
“Sindak,” Saponi said abruptly. Burly, with a pockmarked face and a nose like a flattened beetle, he looked uneasily at the other warriors. He was Snipe Clan. Interlocking green-and-blue rectangles ran across the middle of his cape. He had a rocks-rubbing-together voice. “You can't go into that war camp. Negano may not know the identities of the men who joined you, but he does know for certain that you betrayed Atotarho. Every man saw you switch sides at the end of the battle and side with High Matron Zateri.”
“That's right Saponi. I'll remain in the forest, coordinatingâ”
“Respectfully, War Chief, you shouldn't go at all.”
Whispers passed between his warriors.
Sindak's expression tightened. “Why do you say that?”
When Saponi propped his hands on his hips in defiance, it caused his cape to flare and sway. He appeared hesitant to speak.
Jigonsaseh filled the uncomfortable silence. “I agree with Saponi. I know you wish to lead your warriors, Sindak, but it's too risky.”
“Too risky?” he objected. “You don't mind having me crawl around the base of Yellowtail Village while hundreds of Atotarho's warriors are staring over the edge of the palisade at me, but youâ”
“War Chief?” Saponi softly said. “May I speak with you alone?”
Sindak nodded, and the two men walked a short distance away. Sindak let Saponi talk while he listened for twenty heartbeats. Jigonsaseh caught the phrases “death would be devastating,” and “dishearten our men.”
Jigonsaseh strained to hear more. Saponi was right: Sindak was the one thing that held his men together. They fought for himânot for her, not for the alliance.
When Saponi stopped, Sindak's mouth tightened into a line, and he grudgingly nodded. Loud enough for everyone to hear, he said, “I don't like it, but I yield to your judgment.”
He started to walk back, but Saponi gripped his shoulder. “Now that we've settled that, I wish to volunteer for the duty. Allow me to lead our warriors. I'll make certain the task is accomplished.”
Their gazes held. “I know you will.”
As they walked back, Saponi added, “Once you tell us what the task is, of course.”
Sindak stopped at Jigonsaseh's side. When he shoved wet hair behind his ear, a black smear striped his cheek. Ash falling from the night sky blended with mist so that where it alighted on skin and clothing it ran like watery charcoal paint.
“Matron Jigonsaseh,” Sindak said, “tell us your goal tomorrow, and we will figure out how to accomplish it.”
She scanned the faces of his warriors, meeting each man's gaze. From their expressions they undoubtedly thought she considered them as more expendable than Standing Stone warriors.
“First, let me make a few things clear. We're fighting for more than the survival of the Standing Stone People, or the Hills People. We're struggling for something greater. Sky Messenger's vision of a Peace Alliance. We're fighting for a better future for our families.”
Saponi spread his hands. “Matron, don't worry. We'll attack with all of our hearts.”
She gave him a smile filled with appreciation. “Saponi, you are a brave man. But I don't want you to attack anyone unless you're forced to defend yourselves. If everything goes well, no oneâon either sideâwill die in this raid. If it goes wrong? Well, make your own decisions. Pretend you are Atotarho's loyal warriors, blend in with his army or head home and find your families. Do whatever is necessary to stay alive. Does everyone understand?”