Naltu woke naked in the warm hut. A green-skinned man was there, sitting on a pile of his furs. He startled and scrambled to the side, kicking dust into the small fire in the center. The man laughed at him. He let out a glad shout, letting those outside know he had awoken. Naltu scrambled to cover his nakedness and tugged the furs from under the woman.
The leather curtain in the entrance parted, and Ychatl entered.
"The fumes in the swamp are toxin, Shaman," he chittered.
Naltu sat on his haunches and crossed his legs, covered in fabric breeches. The woman refused to give him the rest of the clothing, piling the furs high again, and returning to her perch. Ychatl and Naltu watched each other.
"I sought the witches."
"Did you find them?"
Naltu turned his head to the woman. "Where are my things? My pack?"
Ychatl laughed. "No pack with you, Naltu, I swear. Only this, and your furs, and your blades."
The green man handed a leather roll to Naltu. The pink-skinned man inspected the contents and found the harvest of his journey was intact in the flower buds and small mushroom. The stones he had bartered from the Ghislail were there, too. Naltu closed the roll and bowed low before Ychatl. Another green man entered carrying bowls of broth in his arms. These were distributed, and others entered, sitting around Naltu.
He drank the broth, and more was offered, along with chunks of sour black flat-bread made from fermented mushroom paste. All the green men ate, and Naltu devoured the food placed in front of him till his stomach ached.
"What came of the northern raids?" Naltu asked.
"Ha! The pink men make such a barrier from sharpened trees. We covered it with tar from the swamps and set it alight. They shot at us with their carbines, but we learned from you. The smoke from the tar covered our escape. Even now, we harry them so that they do not sleep. Only fifty of us, and we lay siege to six hundred."
"Fifty? There were less than half that with you before."
Ychatl nodded, face filling with a proud grin. "Yes. More have come to join us. We ally with the Radatil who were taken by the pink-skinned cowards. The Tlictal refuse us, though the Radatil have no love for those pink men."
Naltu smirked. His people had no quarrel with the Radatil when the two were younger, and Naltu wondered what his brash brother had done.
"Where will you go? We'll smash the northerners between our boots like the stone grinds the sprout. Will you join us, or do you wish to see the green men driven before the slavers?"
Naltu laughed and clasped Ychatl's hand. "You have saved my life. We are brothers, green man."
Ychatl flashed his black teeth. "Brothers, then, Naltu."
"I owe a sacrifice to the Gods before I am Shaman. I will take a spirit journey that I may not survive. I shall sleep for days, brother."
The green-skinned man released Naltu's hand. "You have already slept for days. I see your bones, tribesman, showing through your skin. Prepare the poison your master used to mask us from the slavers, and then I swear I shall guard you during your sleep."
Naltu bowed low. The recipe was simple and the swamp close enough to collect the ingredients. Naltu ate again, and then Ychatl sent ten men to prepare the mud and the purple leaves. Naltu mashed the leaves and mixed the mud with manure. He bound the offensive poultice in fresh grass and let the stuff dry. Last, he tested a sample, ordering Ychatl's green men to start a fire far from the camp, and tossed one of the poisonous lumps in. Though far enough away, the smoke drifted and stung the eyes of all in Ychatl's camp.
Ychatl was well pleased and sent five green men with Naltu to a depression near the swamp. The men erected a leather hut and Naltu sat inside. He ground the buds and made a thick tea. He sipped the tea and swallowed the debris and fell asleep. The green men built a fire, tending it while Naltu rolled. They poured cool broth down his throat while he slept, and three times the sun set and rose.
Mellosin slapped a reed cane across Naltu's legs, waking him from the trance. The old man sat across from Naltu. Others rested cross-legged around the room.
Hisimtu stood. "You are no man."
His mother screamed as he emerged from her. She screamed and ripped and blood poured from her legs. Hisimtu spat, his thin gray hair brilliantly lit by the small logs in the brass braziers heating the hut.
"The first time you stole life was not from a slaver, child. You slew your own mother."
The infant's skin was covered in thorns. She cried, torn, and blood poured from the shadow between her legs, though she held the infant close. Her skin grew flush and her eyes fluttered to close.
Hisimtu spat again, this time into Naltu's face. "You are no son of mine." Naltu's father left the hut.
Naltu remembered the pink-skinned trader. The man wore fancy clothes, leather embroidered with fine copper stitching. The man shivered, and Naltu, ten summers old, piled logs onto the fire. Naltu would be cold in the weeks to come, wasting the thawed wood so, but the man told stories, and Naltu listened. The opulence of the north consumed his fantasy, tales of wine and brave knights with carbines and horses and women who languished in sweet oil. The trader looped soft wool around Naltu's neck.
Mellosin grabbed the boy's arm and tore the fancy scarf away, tossing the fabric into the fire, where it faded in a flash. Mellosin held Naltu's gloved arm and hand in the fire.
"See, boy? We are tribesmen. We are hardy. We do not burn so easily, and we do not wear what fades so quickly."
Mellosin released the boy's hand and Naltu rubbed his tender arm. The magic came unbidden. The childhood fat shrunk from Naltu's face as the burns vanished. The gloves hid the light, but Mellosin knew.
"You'll come with me, orphan. You wish to be a warrior? A hunter?"
"Chieftain, or..." the boy replied. "I wish to be a knight."
Mellosin slapped the boy's cheek, and again. The rough stitches in the leather glove tore his skin and brought blood. The fire dimmed. A serpent slithered close. The scales were bright but marred by sores. A black liquid oozed from the serpent's belly.
"You are no servant of mine, that is certain," the snake promised. "A shaman is not made by flowers and old men. A shaman is born differently. A shaman is born whole. Were you? No. But what are you?"
A wolf growled.
"A knight," the wolf mocked. "That metal skin is loud, and you can not stalk. The gun cracks like thunder and the animals scatter. The sword rusts and the false bow draws heavy and slow. No hunter will you be, boy, nor a knight."
The wolf bit Naltu's hand. Naltu howled in pain. The wolf spoke through bloodied teeth fixed in the flesh of Naltu's palm. "You taste like fear, boy. You smell like prey, full of horror. That scent will follow you!"
A bear rolled to the side. One paw swiped at Naltu, knocking the boy to his knees. He screamed again, eyes full of tears, as the wolf's teeth held. The bear stood over Naltu and fell, dropping onto his chest, and Naltu could not breathe. The bear placed one paw on Naltu's elbow, pinning him fully to the ground. Sharp claws traced Naltu's neck, and the bear's wind stank of fresh meat.
"No warrior either. A coward you are," the bear mocked.
Yegha, his brother's wife, came. She crawled on top of the boy, mounting, and he cried as his body betrayed him. Naltu's face burned with shame, redder than the flames. She grasped the long braid from his head and yanked. The bear held his neck, and the hair and flesh came loose. She tossed the bundle into the fire.
"This is not how a warrior loves," the bear grunted. "Taken like a whore, still and lamenting. Will you go to the north and sell the seed of the tribesmen? Better you should die here."
An eagle's wings flapped furiously. The snake hissed and struck at air. Talons pierced the snake's flesh and the eagle flung the snake across the room. The beak screeched, and Kertu was there, surrounded by his wives, all flat-stomached.
"Your brother is no man," the eagle cackled, "and he is greater than you."
Naltu felt his wrist-bones crack under the bear's weight. Kertu pulled his furs open and pissed. The liquid pooled next to Naltu's head. The boy screamed as the stinking liquid moved close. Green light flashed hatefully behind Naltu's eyes. The bear howled as the flesh of his paw rotted into dirt, leaving behind a stump. The wolf's teeth decayed and fractured against the soft bones of Naltu's hands, and the muscles grew old and limp. Naltu shoved the wolf's face away, and bright canine eyes were blinded by a gray haze.
The eagle screamed. "Not worthy! Tainted! Your Gods stand before you in judgment and you mock us!"
The boy raised his good hand, throwing dirt at the eagle, and sat. The bird's feathers filled the air, but the bird was heavy and bloated, and the wings struggled to gain loft. Naltu hefted a stick and swatted the old bird. The serpent, bleeding and bruised, laughed. "No chieftain are you, boy. No warrior, no hunter. But you were not born a shaman, so what will you do?"
Naltu spun. "I'll go north. I'll become a knight. I'll bed the pretty girls scented of flowers."
The serpent's transparent lids flicked over the eyes. "I see. Then you are no tribesman. You fade, and your people with you. There are no true Shaman anymore."
"Not since Riyadh," Naltu whispered.
"Not since Riyadh. Better you should die." the serpent agreed.
Naltu fell to the ground. The flesh of his hands was gray and taut, and sand ran through his veins. His heart struggled, skipping and hesitating, and Naltu clutched his chest.
"I won't die," Naltu shouted.
He felt the rough hand of a green man under his arms, holding him as he shook. He stunk of urine and sweat, and the three men held Naltu to the ground gently until he calmed. One of the men returned with a leather skin full of sweet vinegar. Naltu let the liquid wet his lips and the others released him. He coughed as the water burned his parched throat.
"Don't struggle," a green man whispered. "You've been asleep for a week. You shook. Your arm is broken."
Naltu looked down and saw his hand hanging awkwardly from his forearm. The skin was purple and swollen. Naltu reached inside, searching for his spirit. He found the broken bone and felt the texture, like the wet sea-foam, and the sickness and swelling of the skin. His stomach heaved and he spat the vinegar onto the ground. The power refused to come.
The sun passed overhead and beyond before Naltu woke again. His heart slowed in his chest, and he watched the clouds move overhead.
"He lives yet," a green man said.
"Ah. I'll give him more water. He'll pass soon. If he can't drink, we'll make his passing easier."
Naltu accepted the fluid and felt more solid. He stretched and his joints ached. He raised his good hand. The flesh was tight over bones, and he did not have the strength to hold himself up.
"Food," Naltu begged. "I'm hungry."
Another man nodded and brought warm broth from a clay pot. Naltu swallowed the broth and demanded more. He filled his belly.
"I won't die," Naltu promised.
"A pity," the green man responded. "We were going to split your things. The wolf-fur collected by the tribesmen is warm. We were going to give your clothing to our wives and trade your stones for Opal flowers."
Naltu laughed. Another man built a fire and dumped a bag of powdered mushrooms into the clay pot. Naltu emptied the skins of sweetened vinegar and felt reason return to his mind. He remembered the dream and shivered.
"You are Shaman, now?"
Naltu shook his head. "I don't think so. Something is wrong."
"Pig men are bad at everything. Even dying," the green man mocked. "We'll feed you, but Ychatl calls us back, and we'll march with him. You'll die alone, tribesman."
Another man approached and knelt. "You were not thick with meat when we came, but I watched the strength drain from your bones in the moments before you woke. The Gods called and you did not go. They are silent now?"
Naltu agreed and tried to sit. He could not find the will. The broth boiled, and the men fed Naltu. They hunted and left a fat piglet roasting on the fire, and erected a small tent for him, and sharpened his knife and machete. They filled his waterskins and then left to return to Ychatl.
He ate the meat as it cooled. He drank the water that should have lasted him a week in the time the sun took to set. He lay and stared at the stars and thought about his failure. The Gods had rejected him, as he knew they would. He searched inside his heart for the courage, and held the knife to his breast.
The courage did not come, but the water filled his veins and the food thickened his blood. He felt the spark of the Gods in his throat. Not bright enough to heal, but he was not powerless. Naltu crawled into his tent and slept.
The sun rose and he was strong enough to stand. He rubbed his broken wrist, enjoying the pain that came, the shout in his mind that he still lived. His breath came easier, and he walked. He grew hungry again, unable to hunt, and found locusts among the tall grasses. They turned his stomach and cut his lips as he chewed, but they were enough.
Naltu remembered the mushroom broth of the green men with envy. The scent of roasting meat filled his nostrils, and he walked through the night as the moon rose and set. The stars were bright and shot across the sky. The frost gave way to flowering grass, blue under the rising sun. The God's fire settled overhead, and beads of sweat rolled across Naltu's face, and he pulled back his hood and opened the bone clasps closing the furs over his chest. He sniffed and knew he stank.
[ <= Previous | Up | Next => ]