Authors: W. Michael Gear
“I'm going to kill you, Hehaka.”
Ohsinoh's laugh was a little too high pitched. “Have you become a miracle worker, too? Like your demented friend Sky Messenger?”
“He just showed you kindness, and you call him demented?”
“He's just feeling magnanimous. After all, everyone is whispering his name with reverence. He has become a Spirit creature.”
Hiyawento boldly walked to stand less than three paces from Ohsinoh.
Hiyawento towered over him.
“You gave my daughters the poisoned cornhusk doll, didn't you?”
Ohsinoh's chest vibrated with a soundless chuckle. “It wasn't my idea, you know.”
“Dear gods! They had only seen three and five summers. You coward! Why didn't you kill me?”
“Were it a personal matter, I would have, Wrass. Unfortunately, it was just a hired task. My instructions were to kill your heart, to take the fire from your words. I did.”
“Was it your father's idea?” Hiyawento's grief filled his taut voice.
“Of course. Chief Atotarho fears you. I don't know why. You're a pathetic excuse for a war chief. Always sniveling, always voting for peace. Do you know your own warriors despise you?”
Hiyawento's feet crunched frost as he took another step toward Ohsinoh. “After I kill you, I'm going to kill your father.”
Ohsinoh laughed out loud. “But he has thousands of warriors to protect him, and he's coming back, you know. You don't really believe he ran away today, do you?”
“He and his entire army ran off like scared rabbits. I saw him being carried away on a litter.”
Ohsinoh casually propped his fists on his hips. The shell eyes of the charm flashed in the moonlight. “Well, I'm sure Father needed to regroup, to take stock of how many of his forces had survived the battle and to plan his next move. You and your friends are overwhelmingly outnumbered. By the way, how many warriors did you leave at Coldspring Village?”
Hiyawento seemed to freeze.
“My guess is that you left only perhaps one hundred men and women to defend the walls. After all, you had little to fear. At the time, you and your wife, Zateri, were fighting on my father's side. He's going to punish you, you know. Treasonâ”
“We'll be home soon.”
“Not soon enough.”
Hiyawento shifted his weight to his other foot. “Why would you care?”
Ohsinoh's teeth flashed. He shook the tortoiseshell charm. As it uttered its menacing snakelike rattle, he glimpsed a shadow emerge from behind a broad sycamore trunk, only three paces from Hiyawento. The soft sound of a skillfully placed moccasin carried.
Hiyawento's shoulder muscles suddenly tensed. But he did not turn.
A contemptuous laugh escaped Ohsinoh's lips. “You should have killed me when you had the chance, Wrass. Now, it's tooâ¦”
Hiyawento leaped and swung. His war club cut the air like lightning, crushing Ohsinoh's ribcage. Before Ohsinoh had even fallen to the ground, Hiyawento spun on his toes and lunged for the Flint warrior behind him. The rapidity of Hiyawento's response had momentarily shocked the tall gangly man. He had his war club up, but he was off-balance, in the process of stepping forward. Hiyawento's club slammed into his enemy's, knocking him backward a step, leaving an opening. Hiyawento sprang forward, broke the man's neck, and danced away. When he was sure it had been a killing blow, he took a deep breath, searched the forest for other foes, and again turned to look at Ohsinoh. His eyes gleamed.
Pain like lightning blasted through Ohsinoh's chest. He lay curled on his side in the frost-sheathed ferns, his arms wrapped around his crushed chest, groaning. Frothy blood leaked from the corner of his mouth. Gannajero's hideous charm lay at his side, within reach, but he hadn't the strength to reach for it. Shock possessed his senses. He could only cough in agony and stare. With each breath, his broken ribs grated against one another.
Hiyawento walked to stand over Ohsinoh like a dark avenging Earth Spirit.
As Hiyawento lifted his war club to finish the job, Ohsinoh gasped, “Sky Messenger's visionÂ â¦ is falseÂ â¦ the storm wasÂ â¦ a coincidence.”
Hiyawento's face betrayed no emotion. He regripped his war club, tightening his hands; it hung in the darkness, stationary, the polished wood gleaming with an edge of moonlit fire.
Ohsinoh chuckled. “You know itÂ â¦ don't you?”
After what seemed forever, Hiyawento's deep voice punctured the quiet. “This is for my daughters, witch.”
Hiyawento brought his club down with all the strength in his muscular arms.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Ohsinoh's skull cracked open like a ripe melon dashed upon a rock. Hiyawento hit him again, and again, until the soulless witch's face was unrecognizable. When he finally stumbled back, his fists ached so badly that he had to pry the fingers of his right hand loose from the club's shaft.
He slipped the club into his weapon's belt and rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand. His gaze immediately sought Sky Messenger's position. His friend had made it unharmed across the battlefield and stood talking with the guards at the gates of Bur Oak Village. The firelight seeping from the village reflected from his round face, giving it a sunlike glow.
Hiyawento nodded in relief.
After the ferocious events of the day, he'd feared someone would wish to kill Sky Messenger. Especially given the whisperings that he was no longer human, but an immortal Spirit. Such claims tempted small men with delusions of grandeur.
It would have never occurred to him that he'd be fortunate enough to find Ohsinoh, his daughters' murderer, dogging Sky Messenger's path. The Faces of the Forest must have heard his prayers.
Hiyawento waited until Sky Messenger disappeared inside the Bur Oak gates, then he turned.
On the far southern hilltop, campfires gleamed. His wife, Zateri, the Matron of Coldspring Village, would still be awake, worried, wondering where he was. She'd be holding their last daughter, eight-summers-old Kahn-Tineta, in her arms, grieving, as he was, for all they had lost in the past few daysâand no doubt terrified of what the future would bring.
Hiyawento bent down, used the dead witch's feathered cape to wipe the blood off his war club, and took one last hard look at the body. How strange that he had to reassure himself the man was, indeed, dead.
The white eyes in the middle of the tortoiseshell charm glinted in the grass beside the witch. They seemed to be filled with deadly promise and staring right at Hiyawento.
A chill went through him. He shook it off, and glared at the charm. “Before this night is through, I will have cut your master's body to pieces and scattered them far and wide. None of his followers will ever be able to recognize him and Requicken his soul in another body.”
Hiyawento lifted his club, and paused, studying the gigantic sycamores that dotted the forest. Each was a lost warrior. They would be watching him now, judging his worthiness.
He bashed the charm to splinters. Chunks of tortoiseshell cartwheeled away, clacking as they struck frozen rocks.
When he straightened up, somewhere out on the battlefield a foot began to tap. Rhythmic. Haunting. A percussion backdrop to the eerie symphony created by the other stiffening bodies.
Though the night was filled with sound, a silence too great to be born lived inside him. His daughters were gone. The spaces their voices had carved in his souls boomed like finely crafted drums, hollow, empty, filled with faint circling echoes.
Grief and rage were twins, forever linked, both born in a wounded heart. Where one ended and the other began, he no longer knew.
He was certain of only one thing. Destroying Ohsinoh had not even dimmed his need to kill.
Ohsinoh had just been a hired murderer. The real culprit was the evil cannibal-sorcerer, Chief Atotarho.
Hiyawento unlaced and removed a chert knife from his belt pouch, then bent down, and began cutting Hehaka's body apart, condemning his afterlife soul to wander the earth alone forever. He would not even dignify the corpse by thinking of its witch's name.
Chief Atotarho drew his black cape more tightly around him and scowled out at the old leaves gusting by. Wind Woman's breath scoured the highlands, sucking away any warmth his fire radiated, and leaving his twisted body in agony. Every joint in his body ached, and each time he shifted position, sharp pains lanced down his arms and legs. They made a powerful accompaniment to the sheer rage that ate at him.
My forces ran away today!
He glowered out across the land. They'd made camp on a high rocky ridge three hands run to the north of Bur Oak Village. Slabs of rock made stair-step patterns around them, descending into valleys on either side of the ridge. From this height, Atotarho could see all the way across the rolling hills of the Standing Stone nation and to lands of the People of the Hills, his home.
He shoved another branch in his fire, and waited for the leader of his personal guards, Negano, to return from speaking with the other deputy war chiefs who stood talking twenty paces away in a grove of wind-whipped pines.
“I asked a simple question. What's taking so long?”
Could it be that without War Chief Sindak, none of his deputy war chiefs knew how to lead? Or maybe Sindak's treachery had caused irreparable rifts among his warriors? The dominance struggles, warriors seeking opportunities to climb in the ranks, had already begun. He'd had to put down three fights tonight.
Given the day's events, he wondered what was happening back in his village? Was High Matron Kelek adjusting to her new position? He prayed the runner he'd sent, the fastest man in the Hills nation, would reach her tomorrow afternoon.
Gods! His own daughter, the matron of Coldspring Village, had turned against him today. Worse, she'd taken two other Hills People matrons with her. He tried to imagine how it had happened. Had Zateri spent days or weeks convincing matrons Kwahseti and Gwinodje to betray him? Their disloyalty might have even gone on for moons without his knowledge.
She had ruined his plans.
He had intended to destroy the Standing Stone nation, and immediately proceed westward with his army to wipe out the Landing People. He'd even hoped that the weather would hold out long enough for him to attack the starving villages of the People of the Mountain.
Now, none of that will happenÂ â¦
He roughly massaged the fingers of his left hand. Like knobby sticks, he could no longer fully straighten them. They remained slightly clenched in hawklike talons.
One man, he couldn't identify the voice, shouted, “I saw it, Negano! He called the storm. Don't tell me what I did or did not see today!”
It irked him that this same discussion must be going on all over his camp. His warriors must be whispering about the events of the day with awe in their voices, even longing.
The ten deputy war chiefs quieted. He glared at them. Were they casting their voices to decide who would be the new war chief? Well, they could do all the voice counts they wished. When out on the war trail, it was his decision to make.
Another powerful gust blasted the ridge top, and his fire sputtered wildly. One instant he was smothered in warm smoke and the next submerged in icy air.
Finally, Negano broke away from the gathering and walked toward Atotarho through the firelit darkness. A tall man who'd seen thirty-two summers pass, Negano had long black hair. He'd tied it back with a cord, but it still whipped around his oval face. He had his brown eyes squinted against the onslaught.
When he stood on the opposite side of the fire, he bowed deeply. “My Chief, we are divided in our assessments as to the best route to track down our enemies. It will be difficult, given that we must carry litters filled with the wounded and dead from today's battle, and we cannot take the main trails. That's the point of contention. Most of our warriors wish to go home first to care for their relatives before we engage in any other attacks.”
“Did you cast your voices for a new war chief?”
Negano seemed slightly confused by the change of topic. “No, we decided that our warriors need the night to calm down and be able to consider their choice.”
“Since we are on the war trail, it is within my rights as Chief to appoint that position, is it not?”
“Of course.” Negano nodded. “Your warriors may not be happy about that, butâ”
“I could care less what makes them happy. They are warriors. It's their duty to obey me. How many wounded and dead do we have to slow us down?”
Negano braced his hands on his hips and seemed to be thinking about it. “We don't have an exact number yet, but I would say around two hundred wounded, and we're carrying around one hundred dead. At your order, we left the rest of our dead relatives on the battlefield to become homeless ghosts.”
The resentment in Negano's voice was clear. Atotarho ignored it and tucked his hands beneath his cape to keep them warm. “What is your personal opinion of the trail we should take to hunt down our enemies?”