Naltu sucked on the clay pipe and set it aside. His skin was pale and smooth, roughening just so after twenty-three winters under the subtle southern sun. He had plucked all the hairs from his face and head with threads as they grew, and now few dared. His chin was square with a subtle dimple, his lips were thin and hard, curved into a perpetual smile. His nose was sharp and tall, with a dent in the bridge where his brother had beat him as a child. His neck was nearly as wide as his jaw, and the skin was tight against muscle and bone. He had been pudgy when Mellosin and Kertu bid him to find the lizard, and so Mellosin knew that the Gods had aided him, but did not ask.
Mellosin was content with the flasks of cider that Kertu would not miss. The supply had lasted weeks and would last longer. Mellosin was content with the women who lay with him during the festival, unaware that he was Shaman until he smiled, flashing the points of his teeth. The two waited in the mountains by the fire as the winter faded.
He watched, face sullen, as the thin green man struggled over the rocks beyond the mouth of the cave. The sun fell over his shoulder. He struggled for balance as the wind moved through the mountain. The fire flickered, and Mellosin gestured to the man at last.
"Come no closer, green man," Mellosin said, using the tongue of the mountains.
The man stopped. "I am Ychatl. I saw your fire," he shouted in response.
Mellosin's head bobbed. "You are alone?"
Naltu stepped out of the cave. Only shadows shifted in the distance as Ychatl responded, and Naltu waved him in. The green men did not pillage in the mountains that cradled their tribes. They were skilled raiders and riders of small horses, but preferred the settlements on the northern shore. Agreements had been reached with the pink-skinned tribesmen long ago. Still, harvest does not come in the winter, and men grow desperate when the bellies of their kin stir angrily.
Ychatl came and sat by the fire. He pulled a pin and dropped his cloak to the clean-swept stone floor. These pink men were large, he thought, each strong enough to best him in a fight. He wondered of what he might face soon. Ychatl unstrapped the curved blade at his waist and set this aside. "I am alone, but is this only the two of you? I saw your fire last night, and I saw your fire this night, and so I hoped to find another tribe."
Ychatl's blue eyes wrapped square pupils. He glanced at the packs in along the rear wall of the cave, and searched the shadows for weapons. The green men had unusual sight and could see better than the foxes and the feral goats.
"It would seem you are travelers?"
Mellosin laughed. "No. We are our own tribe, each of us. I am Shaman, and Naltu is an orphan and my servant and student."
Ychatl's lips, fat and the color of fresh grass, parted into a smile. His clean black teeth shone with contrast against the dull autumn tones of his face. He was short, but Mellosin said that Ychatl was tall among the green men, and strong. The green men, in feast, grow with muscle and sinew in place of fat, and while pink men become slow and lazy, the green men gain strength and speed. Only the need for a peculiar diet kept them content ruling the mountains.
"Shaman. What can the Gods do against slavers with carbines?"
"Enough," Naltu responded quickly.
He knew of the northern slavers - pink-skinned men who raided the tribes indiscriminately. The tribesmen tolerated the raids of the green men against the gawking northerners in search of food because those in the north were considered slavers and soldiers.
Ychatl pulled a small pouch from his belt and dumped a pile of coins onto the floor. The tokens clattered and shone against the rocks. Naltu lifted one into his fingers and inspected it carefully. He found flat disks of tin with scars crossing both faces, gouged in the metal with the dull point of some blade.
"They drop these coins as 'payment' for what they take. Who they take. I was hunting for furs when they came, and I returned to the hills and found only these coins surrounded by the ash of our village. They beat and scattered the children and frail. The strong were taken away, or killed, and I am shamed I did not stay to burn the bones."
Naltu did not know where the slavers took their cull, except north. "And so you tracked them?"
"Yes. I hoped to find strong warriors to ally myself with. There were tribesmen with the green men tied in bondage. If we kill the slavers, those behind them will be free. They will follow us."
Mellosin shouted loudly. "Shaman can not be chieftain, if that is what you think. What can three men do against slavers enough to take twenty?"
"Twenty green men. Twenty pink men, too. There are only ten slavers."
"Only ten," Mellosin scolded, "and with carbines? You ask what the Gods can do, and Naltu is right. But the Gods are not inclined to help."
Naltu's head swayed. "No, Mellosin. Jihintasula scratches me."
The Shaman's bald head rose and faced Naltu across the fire. "The Mother of War summons you? Perhaps she wishes you by her side. That is a call you shall be wise to leave unheeded. Ychatl, your bravery is pure, but I suspect you mean only to redeem your honor. Do so alone."
Ychatl stood. "Thank you for sharing your fire. I must wander now in the hope to find brave men. There is little time."
Naltu moved to his feet and took the green man's hand. The green man's head came only to Naltu's chest. Naltu stooped to speak.
"Where are these slavers?"
"I could find them by morning if I ran tonight, north until the grasses give way to a fragment of trampled dirt. They shall gain sight of the shore in four days. They travel with horses and cages, so they move slowly."
Naltu understood. "If they reach the shore before we strike, others may come to aid them. Shaman - Mellosin, will you lend me your poisons? We have three nights to hunt. Time enough to make prey of ten predators."
Mellosin sighed and rolled to his feet and moved to the back of the cave. He lingered, thinking to himself. Naltu was stubborn and aching to test himself. The old man knew the young man's blood would cool with time, and they would be safe enough while Ychatl found his honor.
Naltu followed. Both men dressed in furs. They stripped their packs to contain only poisonous poultices wrapped in sticky leaves, weapons, blankets, and a bit of food. Mellosin tied a thong to his waist and slipped an iron rod through the hanging loop. Naltu buckled a small sword curved in the way of Ychatl's across his hip. Naltu smothered the fire with dust and the men followed Ychatl down the mountain.
Ychatl clambered through the rocks without faltering. The men lived among the rocky hills, and so progress was rapid. They reached the frozen grass and trampled reeds. Ychatl panted as he ran, and the men loped casually to keep up. Bushes dotted the landscape, and tall grass tugged at their pelts, but men had cut all the trees this far north.
Halfway through the night, Ychatl insisted that he could see the slavers in the distance. The three ran until the sun hovered in the horizon, threatening to rise, and Mellosin argued with Ychatl. As the sun gained height, the men squatted and could see the slavers breaking camp. Their quarry was bound with rope. The green men were tethered in two small cages made of bent iron bars, while women and children were tied about the neck with chains and led like sheep. Mellosin said that the women and children would not fight. He said the green men wouldn't either.
Mellosin, Ychatl, and Naltu broke east and then north until the sun passed overhead and beyond, then west until they could see the trampled soil and ruts that led to the northern port town. The sun was falling. The three continued off the road ahead of the slavers, watching them in the distance and matching pace. Mellosin predicted when the sun would vanish and where they would camp when the darkness came, and the three ran ahead and waited.
Two men came ahead of the slavers and left the road. They cut through the tall grass with wide blades, crushing the reeds and straw and preparing the site for camping. Naltu wondered if the slavers had seen signs and were preparing for an ambush. Still, the men were careful, and were far enough away that they would not be discovered.
"Jihintasula itches, Naltu. Now you scratch. We sleep for three hours here. The dark moon favors us."
Naltu watched the men through the grass. They cleaned the wooden-and-iron carbines, built a fire, and erected a canopy of oiled cloth for themselves, but left the women and children of the tribes against the cold wind. The green men sat in a circle and sang a low, sorrowful song.
The fire was bright. Naltu wondered how he could move close. Mellosin sensed the young man's tension and restrained his shoulder.
"You've never killed a man, Naltu. Do you want that taint on your spirit? I know this. It is not easy to bear."
Naltu nodded. "No. But these are beasts. After they bleed on the earth, I will still be unsullied."
"Beasts with guns, Naltu. Here," Mellosin offered, handing two fist-sized pouches to Naltu. "Go only close enough to throw these into the fire, one after the other. Do not inhale the choking smoke of Myristoyla. The slavers will run out, and my darts will find their throats. When the smoke clears, Naltu, make your offerings to Jihintasula with the blade at your side, then run, and quickly, or we will beg forgiveness in the huts of the Gods."
Mellosin hefted the iron rod.
Ychatl loosened his blade in the leather scabbard, ready. "I'll cut the throats of these pink men. Myristoyla? Will this smoke hurt the prisoners?"
Mellosin grinned, wicked teeth filed to points flashing, and waited for the sun to set fully. The three slept until Ychatl stirred, ready. The night was black, lit only by the fire, and they slid towards the camp. Grass swayed as wind howled across the plain, masking sound and sight.
Naltu crept close until he could make out the strange words spoken by the two watchmen. He stood and felt the warmth of the fire on his face. He tossed the first pouch. One of the men startled as white smoke erupted from the fire. They began to shout, then choked and fell to their knees, vomiting and scrambling away. The horses startled and bolted in separate directions until the leather straps tethering them came taught and snapped.
Naltu turned his head to his shoulder and watched Mellosin calmly lift a bone dart to his rod. Mellosin placed the butt of the dart, as thick as his finger, into a divot in the rod, and tossed the end of the rod overhead, and threw it toward the target in an arc. The dart left the rod at the right moment and sailed through the air, heavy and slow. Mellosin readied another.
Both watchmen yelped in pained surprise as they plucked the darts from their skin and slumped to the ground. The prisoners wailed. Four men charged through the smoke towards the three. The wind blew hard, and the smoke lifted, and the slavers dropped to knees and fired carbines. Ychatl fell to the ground, shouting in pain and clutching his shoulder, but Naltu pressed forward, hoping to reach the men before they could jam another charge into their weapons. A dart pierced the throat of one, and two others dropped the guns and tugged at swords. The blades were made of bright steel, wide and straight. Naltu's blade flashed out, not quickly enough to parry two strikes at once, and the second glanced off his side, cutting into his furs and drawing a fresh line of blood.
Ychatl was there, drawing the hate of the third man still living, and then another of Mellosin's darts fell home. The slaver's breath stank of alcohol, and Naltu pressed harder, swinging his blade in short, quick strokes, knocking the man back. The man was foul, with a stained beard, skin marked by red sores.
Mellosin shouted something, that Naltu should throw the rest of the poison onto the fire, that the three should run and regroup. Naltu understood, but he tasted blood and victory on his tongue, and knew the slavers would not be drunk in the morning. He pressed.
The northern swords were heavy and lethal if given space to swing. In close, the southern blades were more nimble, though the wounds were shallow and not always lethal at first strike. Naltu denied his opponent the benefit of the longer blade's reach. He found his knife in his free hand and drove the point into the man's chest. The slaver staggered back, coughing, and swung wildly. Naltu parried, spinning the hilt of his curved sword in his hand, and disarmed the slaver with a blow to his wrist. He drove the point of his knife into the man's neck.
Ychatl fared likewise. The tiny green man held his ground against the taller slaver, but the wiry muscles and desperate heart prevailed. Ychatl jumped into the arms of the warrior, teeth reaching and finding the flesh of the man's shoulder. Naltu placed the point of his knife through the second slaver's spine, and the blade snapped as the man died. The prisoners were all awake now. The men screamed. The women crouched, cowering and hiding the children.
Mellosin was there, iron rod twirling, threatening to crush bone. Ychatl fell, struck by the blunt staff of a slaver who had crept from behind. The green man rolled away, tumbling to his feet, and met steel with steel. Mellosin's rod arced out, smashing the nose of one man, while two others rushed at Naltu. The curved blade sung and Naltu knocked a stroke aside. He reached out his left hand, grabbing the man's shoulder, and felt the greasy warmth of blood and fat as he commanded the man's flesh to part and fall away. The man screamed, and the other jumped back, horrified by the sudden appearance of green light and melting bone. Ychatl cut the man's stomach open. Mellosin stepped behind the man with the broken face and strangled him with the iron rod.
Naltu was surprised to see Ychatl so successful. The small man had been shot, and had lost the use of his arm. Thick blood soaked the green man's leather clothing, painting him black against the fire. Still, he fought well enough against the pink-skinned slavers. The tribesmen had staged mock raids with the green men, practice for youth with wooden blades, and he knew they fought well enough against larger men. Ychatl was exceptional, and Naltu assumed the green man intended to take place as chieftain over the green-skinned prisoners when they were freed.
Ychatl panted and moved among the bodies, slitting necks and taking small pouches. The green man, hands still warm with his own blood, moved to the cages and freed the prisoners. Naltu considered stamping out the fire, and decided to leave it. Mellosin untied the women and organized the group into a single line, directing them away from the fire, along the road south.
"The Northerners can move fast if they must. They will come from the shore in a day," Mellosin barked. "These rats won't arrive and more will come looking. We must return to the mountains and hide where we can't be tracked."
Naltu grimaced. "Why not move north and rout the vermin who feast on the tribesmen? Find my brother, take his warriors and bring back skin for the women to weave."
Ychatl stretched his back. Green men surrounded him. The pink-skinned prisoners fell around Naltu and Mellosin. Naltu recognized the face of a woman who found his side. The green men searched the bodies of the fallen further, and took the weapons from the dead. Ychatl passed pouches to Naltu and Mellosin. Naltu poured the contents of his into the palm of his hand, and found dozens of coins, some tiny, the size of a kernel of maize, and others larger than summer cherries. Most were silver, reflecting red in the fire, and few were gold. Naltu returned the money to the pouch before placing it inside his jacket.
Naltu walked away from the group while Mellosin and Ychatl argued about a destination. He sat and focused, spending a hundred heartbeats willing the skin at his side to knit. His eyes opened as he heard straw grass cracking behind him. Sijhi was there, and the other woman. Naltu bowed his head and they took seats beside him. He wondered at the intent of the slavers. Tribesmen were hard to break for work, harder than the women who might be content with food and comfort, and harder than the green men who did not serve the Gods.[ <= Previous | Up | Next => ]