Fatigue overcame Naltu. He sat gathering his breath while the wind cooled his blood. He stood. The two women followed him in silence deep into the field where the party had stashed their packs and slept. Naltu carried his pack and Mellosin's, while one of the women carried Ychatl's. Sijhi's face was as he remembered, though marred by a blue weal that she did not complain about. He was glad for the presence, through the women strayed behind to speak.

"We'll run south to the Tlictal. We'll let the others scatter," the woman whispered.

"We can not cross the plains without being seen. We must move to the mountains and ensure our pursuers do not watch where we go," Sijhi replied.

"What does it matter if we are pursued? The Gods are with us. We don't need any of these, not even that one. I have prayed and seen it."

"The Gods were not with us when we were taken. Weaver, I listen to your words, and I hear truth, but I will go to the mountains and follow the trails home. I'll hunt the does and enter Tlictal fat and smiling."

The three returned to the fire to witness the line of tribesmen and green folk wandering south. Mellosin and Ychatl took their packs. The green man spoke to Naltu.

"My warriors will go north. I like your heart. We'll see this city made of kindling, and we'll raid. Soldiers will come to the mountains if we run. Who expects the men to go north? We'll surprise them and burn the village. Will you fight beside me?"

Naltu laughed loudly, not amused, but dismissing the idea. "You'll die if you go north. These slavers were caught by surprise and were only ten. There are hundreds of men in the north. I've heard stories that the tribes are larger than even the Ghislail, who have many villages and number more than most can count."

Ychatl sat and retrieved a whetstone from his pack. "Yes. But we can raid. We can run east into the swamps. They will not follow. We will strike fast. We will not kill a hundred men in a night, but perhaps five and lose none. You have the hand of the Gods. I did not believe in such things until tonight, when I saw you tear the flesh of that man. Can your Gods grant me a boon?"

Mellosin heard the words. "The Gods require a sacrifice. What boon do you wish?"

Ychatl laughed sadly and tossed a small pouch to Naltu. "My share of the dead's wealth, then. Will your Gods heal my shoulder for this sacrifice? Or do you want more? Flesh for flesh? Were the dead not enough?"

Naltu sighed and placed his hand over Ychatl's wound. He grit his teeth against the pain as his body withered, but the green man's wound knit cleanly. Ychatl tested his arm. "Truly, your Gods are great."

Mellosin nodded. "The grace of Ryusupo brings life."

"And yet I saw you fade as I became whole. What will you do with these dead slavers? I am told the pink-skinned Shamans eat the dead."

Mellosin turned to Naltu and winked. "There is such a ceremony, to respect brave warriors who fall in battle. Friend Ychatl, if you fell, Naltu might have tasted your flesh."

Naltu's lips drooped. "The Gods require a sacrifice. I'll pile the bodies onto the fire before we leave."

Ychatl shook his head, laughing in jest. "A shame, waste of good food."

Naltu knew the green men did not prefer the taste of meat, but Mellosin enjoyed the comment and tipped a clay flask of strong cider to his lips.

Ychatl offered his hand to the men in turn, first the senior. He whistled. The line of green men returned to Ychatl's side and moved east into the grass. Naltu understood: they would not travel the road. They would hide in the straw during the day, and then strike at night. That was the way of the green men. They were faster riders than the tribesman, as silent, though they lacked speed on foot. Ychatl's raid would wound the Northerners, Naltu was sure, but the green-skinned man would be dead when the full moon rose.

Mellosin sighed as Ychatl's men fell out of sight, then ordered Naltu to take the head of the line and march south. Sijhi and the other woman followed Naltu to the head of the line, and the group moved.

"Thank you, Shaman," Sijhi whispered.

"Not Shaman. I have not fulfilled my oath to the Gods yet. Call me by my name." He stepped close to her and inhaled, remembering her smell, and shut his mouth.

"You're Kertu's blood, are you not? Do you not favor the Tlictal? Or will you take us to your own, the Ghislail? Perhaps I would stay by your side, man who is not Shaman."

"What has happened to my brother's village? I'm concerned to see you here, and his wife, but none of the others."

The other woman coughed politely. "My husband is well. I'll tell you later. I'm tired. How far must we walk before we can rest?"

Naltu shrugged and spoke to Sijhi. "Tell my brother's wife I am not worthy to speak to her. Tell her that we must move through the night and through the day so that the men who are friends of those I have just slaughtered do not find us. Tell her that I am not enough to defend her should they send a hunting party. Tell her I am sorry I scared the horses away, but it could not be helped if she wished to be free."

The woman sniffed. "Naltu, you will address me directly. I am Yegha, wife to Kertu Chieftain and First Weaver of the Tlictal. Daughter of Nantin, chieftain of the Uhwrail, and Jahental, First Weaver. You do me respect by your deference, but I do not wish it."

Naltu chewed his lip for a moment. He had spent his adult life in polite trade, in solitary travel, and in contemplation. He knew the etiquette and felt unsure as to his place and his response.

"Yes, First Weaver."

The group fell to silence as they continued until the road became trampled straw abd tall grass. Mellosin lingered far behind, working his art to hide the path taken by the group. The sun rose overhead. Naltu and Mellosin watched carefully, no sign of pursuit materialized. The sun set, and the straw continued as the troupe passed into the foothills of the mountain. In the darkness, frozen flowers were crushed underfoot.

The rocky paths were slippery and Naltu ordered the band to stop. He peered around and wondered where Mellosin had vanished to. The women stomped through the tall grass, flattening it into a warm pad on top of the frozen soil. They grouped together, huddled into a fur-covered mass of faces and feet. Naltu was thankful the slavers had not taken their clothing. The pelts of the tribesman were worth much to the northmen who did not tolerate the winters well.

Yegha and Sijhi sat separate from the others, huddled together. Naltu approached the pair with his eyes bowed.

"Watch over the folk. I wish to speak with Naltu alone. He must be convinced. This will take some time, and I will not be disturbed."

"Yes, Weaver," Sijhi whispered, head low.

Naltu frowned as Yegha took his his hand and pulled him away. Yegha watched the others shrink in the distance and moved until she could not hear the sounds of the group, and then pushed aside the straw grass and sat.

"Will you do as I say? Will you obey the commands of your brother's wife?"

"I obey when I must," Naltu responded. "And I am bound by oath to follow Mellosin."

"Only the Gods. Convenient excuse. The festival of Chokinu was performed well. Kertu's tribe will swell with children come harvest season. All know the Gods have blessed the Tlictal."

"How was it that you and Sijhi came to be taken?"

"We were fools. Sijhi and I chase hares. We are not hunters, but our fathers once were, and that blood legacy makes my heart rush. The meat helps the old stay firm, and some of the hunters have left to spread the Tlictal. Kertu tolerates it. The hares move only in the dark, and far from Tlictal, and we came upon a campfire three nights ago, thinking the others friendly. We were taken."

"Three nights. He's searching for you, then."

Her hand reached towards Naltu's face. "Yes. He's well enough, I should think, warm next to a fire in his hut, and I am cold in the dark."

Naltu raised his eyes to her face. She was beautiful, with sharp features and gray eyes. Her skin was darker than his, made ashen under the new moon. She did not smell of the foxes, but rather of the tundra. Yegha took his hand and pulled the tips of his fingers under her jacket. He gently struggled to pull away, but she lifted the leather tunic underneath, and placed his palm against her breast. She was not cold.

"Won't you lay with me here? Let me thank you for saving us from those slavers."

"You abandon my brother, your chieftain? You introduce yourself as First Weaver."

"It is said told Shaman may not take a wife."

"This is the will of the Gods."

"Is this so? You brought us a strong sacrifice, but it burned in the fire. I do not see the ways of Chokimero. Only the bravery of Naltu to have killed such a thing. Would you not prefer the life of a hunter? You were weak when you returned to us with that monster. There is a toll of your solitary life, and it is not taken by the Gods. I've not seen their works."

"Preference is not at issue. You've seen the works of the Gods tonight. Do you argue this?"

"I've seen the works of powerful warriors who refuse the title. Could you best my husband in a fight?"

"Perhaps not as a child, but now that I am blessed, I could beat Kertu easily. This is why Shaman do not take wives!"

"You are the strongest hunter, Naltu, and the strongest warrior. You run from the discord of men and seek dominance over beasts. But why beasts?"

"Now you bid me challenge my brother? I'll not do such a thing."

Yegha blanched. "No! I only mean that you could have your own tribe and trade with us. It is best that you have my thanks and that we have your friendship."

"Not this way, my brother's wife. There are others who would have me. Send them if you wish to reward me."

"And they are not as beautiful as me. Not even Sijhi, though I know she would take you for a husband if she could. She has said as much before the sun fell tonight. You may give me warmth, Naltu, but this once only."

He pulled his hand back. She found the leather strap holding his trousers and pulled at the chain clasp. He pressed against her shoulder.

"Perhaps you prefer to lay beside that old man, Naltu? Am I not beautiful? Why do you not wish all the warmth any man wants?"

"I might join you," Naltu panted, "if only you were not my brother's wife! I can not betray him."

"How could he know, if you and I keep silent? Such things happen, and there will be no orphan. The women of Uhwrail may take many husbands as the Tlictal take many wives. Kertu lay with me at the festival, and I'll swell with his child."

Naltu touched the fur over her chest. "Ah," he blinked in understanding. "You are not with child. Not after the festival. My brother?"

Yegha stiffened. "Has seven wives, and I have made certain with cider and enticement that he lay with all of them. Seven wives and no children. You ask why I insist. Because I love him and I will be the one to bear his child. What shall I tell him of this encounter in the straw? Of what happened, or what did not? His blood is your blood, his seed is your seed, and so the First Weaver commands you to submit."

Naltu swallowed and let her hands work. She pushed him to the ground and straddled him, letting the furs tethered about her waist and legs fall open. She was beautiful against the cold wind, and Naltu let his mind grow empty. He was certain her belly would be swollen before two moons passed.

"It is best that only I return to the Tlictal, though I love Sijhi as a sister. You led us in Chokinu though you are not true Shaman. Consider that and leave the old man to rot in the mountains alone."

Yegha tightened her clothes and followed Naltu back to the group. Mellosin had returned as well, his face was red, his round pupils were small in the darkness.

"Naltu, where have you been?"

"The Weaver wished to speak with me of my brother."

Mellosin scoffed and surveyed the fur-clad forms littering the ground. "Well, we're sleeping here tonight? One of them tried to start a fire while you were away. I stamped it out."

"I should have instructed them, Shaman. We shall rest until the sun rises, and then where? Most of these folk are not from my brother's village. Only Sijhi and Yegha."

"Tlictal is close enough. I enjoy having Kertu as a friend, and we'll trade with the money we've taken for supplies. I have no desire to see these women returned home. You've grown strong, Naltu, stronger than I thought. Strong enough."

Naltu nodded. "I'll sleep, then."

[ <= Previous | Up | Next => ]