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THE URGE TO HUNT LURKS DEEP IN THE BONES. IT PULSES WITH each beat of our hearts and jets with our blood. To hunt—be it for food, for sport, or as an act of war—causes body and souls to thrive at the height of existence.
We are not the only ones enchanted by the hunt. So, too, are the invaders. And on that cold and rainy day, I watched them from a vantage point high in a live oak. I am Black Shell, of the Chief Clan, of the Hickory Moiety—an outcast from the Chicaza Nation. I am akeohoosa, or “dead to my relatives.”
The Kristianos had come to collect wood; they’d chopped it the day before with their hierro axes. The distinctive sound had carried across the forest and betrayed their location.
Kristianos needed a lot of wood, and not only for fires. They were busy fortifying the captured Apalachee city of Anhaica.
Their leader, Adelantado Hernando de Soto, had reason to add to the city’s defenses. They’d forced the Apalachee people—to whom it rightly belonged—out into the forests. Predictably, the Apalachee considered such behavior to be intolerable. The monster and his invading army had been under constant harassing attack since. And the Apalachee had fought Kristianos before, having defeated another invader called Narváez but eleven summers past.
Where Kristianos went, they went in force, knowing that every thicket, swamp, and patch of timber harbored Apalachee warriors—all of whom were thinking up creative ways to kill them.
The woodcutting party I watched had come in strength and armed for combat. Having run out of daylight the day before, they were back, seeking to collect the remainder of what they’d cut and drag it back to Anhaica.
Thirty of them—accompanied by twenty slaves and ten cabayos—entered the clearing just north of my high perch. “Cabayo” is their name for the great animals they ride. Larger than an elk, the cabayo has rounded hooves, a hornless head, and a long-haired tail.
We try to kill them at every opportunity.
The slaves were a mixed lot of Timucuans, some from the south, others having been but recently captured in the Uzachile lands. The Uzachile captives looked the healthiest, having only starved and camped in the open for three moons. The others, those enslaved most of the year, looked like walking death. Their flesh wasted by hunger, they were hollow bellied, their ribs protruding. Their eyes, now deep set, stared dully out of skin-wrapped skulls. Two were staggering and would no doubt be killed before the day was out.
Alert for an ambush, the Kristianos inspected their stacked wood, anxious to see if it had been tampered with. Talking in low voices, they stared suspiciously at the surrounding brush, crossbows at the ready, while their slaves began tying up bundles of wood for the cabayos to drag away.
Several of the soldados—Kristianos who fought on foot—edged toward the brush, hands on sword handles, searching for any sign of ambush. I eased behind the thick bole of the live oak. Having been raised as a forest warrior, I knew how to merge with my high perch to avoid detection.
Then the hunt began.
The woman appeared on a trail just back from the clearing. She seemed oblivious to the sounds of the working men, and her path would screen her from the majority of the wood party. A thick tumpline ran down from her forehead to the bulky pack resting on her hips. A tumpline doesn’t allow free movement of the neck, but restricts vision to straight ahead, so she didn’t see the soldados off to the side.
The Kristianos, however, definitely saw her as she stepped negligently past an opening in the brush. One immediately raised a knotted fist; at the same time he placed a finger to his lips: the signal for silence. Men placed hands over the noses of the cabayos, others grabbed metal chains to keep them from clanking or threatened the slaves into stillness.
Hunters—though delighted by the chase itself—relish taking a trophy as the ultimate measure of their worth. And the woman was a trophy indeed. Long-legged, tall, and muscular, she was young, with glossy black hair hanging down past her buttocks. A fabric skirt had been belted at her thin waist, her breasts bare despite the chill.
As she approached my hiding place, I admired her triangular face, the thin and straight nose, and the fire that flashed behind her dark eyes. Oh, yes, a beauty in any man’s eyes—especially a Kristiano’s.
I watched five soldados take up the woman’s trail. In single file—like two-legged wolves—they hurried forward, slipping through the band of brush separating the trail from the clearing. They kept hands on their weapons, bearded faces lean, eyes intent. The ones in the clearing settled down to wait, watching the spot where their companions had disappeared.
I hunkered down against the bark, curious as to how their pursuit would play out. Had they the wiles and skill to sneak up on and overtake the unsuspecting woman? Or would their foreign clumsiness betray their presence?
The invaders were not of our world, but alien, coming from a terrible land beyond the seas, the likes of which I couldn’t even conceive. I’d followed the Kristianos since they first landed down south in the Uzita lands. I’d tracked them, studied them, even captured one once. For the most part they had limited forest skills, though they fought and killed with vicious ferocity.
The five I now watched didn’t make the usual mistakes. They didn’t clump along in their heavy boots and were careful to keep branches from rasping on their shirtsleeves or their thick, cotton-and-metal batted vests. Those with swords kept a hand to the hilt to keep them from rattling in the scabbards. The man in front—a burly and grizzled fellow with a gray-streaked beard and close-set blue eyes—held his loaded crossbow sideways so the staves didn’t knock against the leaves and stems he eased through.
Three moons ago, before Napetuca, these five would have just charged after their quarry, seeking to run her to earth like a rabbit. Oh yes, grand sport that. But the Kristianos were changing. At Napetuca they had kicked the beating heart out of the Uzachile Nation and destroyed the best Timucua warriors in the world. Then they’d marched west through the thicket country that separated the Uzachile from the Apalachee—and smack into a different kind of war.
Adelantado de Soto might have taken the Apalachee capital, Anhaica, his invincible soldados and the cabayeros on their terrible mounts driving the Apalachee High Mikko Cafakke—the divine ruler—into exile. Capturing the capital was one thing. Controlling the country? That, my friend, was something entirely different.
Kristianos never traveled out from Anhaica alone and rarely in groups as small as the one I now watched. Had the gray-bearded leader not caught sight of the woman, he would never have left the security of his woodcutting party.
But the hunt is bred into our very blood and bones. In the presence of prey our muscles tighten, the pulse quickens, and our senses narrow and sharpen.
The woman continued striding down the trail toward my tree. Not thirty paces behind, the five slipped along, eyes gleaming. As much as they feared ambush, the hunt proved irresistible. Risk only added to the thrill and the value of the prize.
My curiosity was piqued. Could the Kristianos close the gap without betraying themselves? I judged the shrinking distance and craned my neck to see the woman’s goal: a small, thatch-roofed house. It lay no more than two bow-shots to the south. Surrounded by trees, thick sumac, honeysuckle, and vines of greenbrier and grape, the clearing was little bigger than the house itself.
Will she make it before they catch up?
The woman passed directly below my high vantage point, her hips swinging to the stride of those long legs. I couldn’t help but wonder how she could look so unconcerned, oblivious to the closing threat.
My urge was to hiss, call a sibilant warning. I desisted; she mastered her own fate. My duty was to watch, to study.
I eased behind the live oak’s curved trunk, making myself small lest one of the Kristianos look up. Heedless, they passed in single file, trotting as though to a silent cadence.
The woman was almost to the clearing, the Kristianos no more than ten paces back. The grizzled leader evidently caught sight of her, for he ducked down, scuttling forward in a crouch. The others mimicked his bent-backed scurry.
With firm strides the woman walked into the clearing. Stopping before the doorway, she swung the big pack from her hips, rolling her neck at relief from the strain. She turned her head as a mockingbird landed on one of the grape stems off to the right—and immediately launched itself skyward with a panicked chirp.
“I’m home,” she called in Mos’kogee, no hint of alarm in her voice.
The Kristianos had frozen, still screened by the brush at the end of the trail. The grizzled leader hunched like a porcupine and peered through a screen of yaupon leaves, the crossbow held low before him.
When no one answered the woman’s call, she shrugged and ducked through the low doorway.
The Kristiano gestured for his men to fan out, surrounding the house. He darted forward—still in a crouch—to take a position beside the door. His ear was pressed to the wall, listening. He raised an index finger—perhaps indicating a single occupant? The surrounding men looked at each other, grinning.
Ah, the hunt!
The graybeard laid his crossbow carefully on the ground; working his fingers, he spread his arms for the capture. He took a small step . . . and charged headfirst through the door.
I tensed, heart hammering. This, after all, was the essence of the hunt: that moment when the prey has nowhere to go, that split instant of realization, the widening eyes, the sensation of disbelief and panic.
The woman’s scream—muffled by the house—mingled with a blunt male bellow. I shot a glance back at the distant wood party. Evidently they heard nothing; the rest of the soldados were alternately watching the brush—alert for the return of their companions—or keeping an eye on the working slaves.
In the house clearing, the four Kristianos were grinning, eyes flashing with delight. In his imagination, each was sliding his shaft into her, pumping his loins empty.
I saw an arrow flash from the honeysuckle and grape where the mockingbird had fled. One of the Kristianos whirled, his arm pierced by Walking Thunder’s arrow. Terrified, the man yanked it free, blood spurting.
A Kristiano in a faded red shirt staggered sideways, head cocked, an arrow striking at an angle below his jaw. He grasped the shaft with both hands, a stunned expression on his face. He had to be Corn Thrower’s victim, given where the latter had secreted himself beneath the sumac.
I watched a third man drop to his knees, hands to his belly where a crossbow arrow had miraculously missed the metal plates sewn into his batted jacket and driven deep into his gut. Wide Antler—a warrior from Ahocalaquen town—liked using captured crossbows in ambushes where he could pick his target and aim carefully.
The fourth man jumped as a war arrow thudded just below the collar of his shirt. The armor stopped it cold. Frantically, he jerked the shaft free, throwing it angrily to the side. His armor stopped yet another, coming from the side. I could hear a third clang off the man’s helmet. Then he was running, charging straight for the trail.
Oh, the hunt! I lived for it. As I reached for my bow I caught a glimpse of the woman. She emerged from the doorway of the little house, black hair swaying, a long Kristiano sword in her hand. Across the distance, I could barely make out the bloody sheen on the blade. She would have struck just as the grizzled man stuck his head through the door.
I had my own work to do and clambered down through the branches. This time there was no doubt that a Kristiano was on the trail. I could hear the thudding of his boots and the whipping of vegetation as he burst through.
I settled myself on the lowest branch, grinning as I nocked a war arrow and drew it to my ear. I shifted my aim as he emerged from the brush, arms pumping, panic in his eyes.
“Alto!” I shouted. “En el nombre de dios!”
Stop! In the name of god! That last bit about god always did the trick.
He slowed, pulling up. I waited until his searching gaze met mine. The eyes were an odd mix of green and brown. Remarkable—like so many Kristiano traits.
My souls thrilled at that final instant, echoing sensations that go back to the Beginning Times, to when the drives and emotions that make us human were instilled. Then I watched my arrow flash across space.
It happened so quickly that his curious green-brown eyes had only begun to widen, his lungs to draw that final breath. His hands had barely started to rise when my hardwood arrow drove into the hollow at the base of his throat.
I’d made spine shots before. This was another. As if an invisible cord had been cut his body crumpled, limp as fabric. The man’s metal helmet popped off his head and bounced hollowly across the damp soil.
I dropped to the ground, nocked another arrow, slipped to the side of the trail, and waited.
Any other fleeing survivors would stop at my victim’s body. In that instant, I’d have my shot. Or so I hoped. Hunting Kristianos—with their impenetrable armor—took skill, patience, and perfect aim. An arrow had to be placed under the armpit, at the face or neck, in an arm or leg or other vulnerable spot.
The tweeting of a warbler carried on the air. I whistled back, imitating the winter call of a robin.
I glanced up as the woman appeared on the trail, her long legs imparting a sensual sway to her hips. I grinned as her flashing eyes met mine, then followed her gaze to the dying Kristiano, facedown on the trail.
She stopped short, the long metal sword in her hand. Over the death rattle issuing from the Kristiano’s pierced throat, she asked, “Did the others hear?”
I glanced in the direction of the distant wood party. “No. But they’ll be on the way as soon as they decide these fools are overdue.”
Pearl Hand gave me a grin, flipping back a wealth of gleaming hair before she bent down and ripped the sword from my victim’s sheath. “He didn’t even draw his weapon.”
“He was preoccupied. Running for your life will do that.” I rolled him over, wondering if we could salvage his padded armor shirt, but gave it up. My arrow had sliced clear through him and stuck in the armor behind. Stripping it would take too long given that the rest of the Kristianos were just a couple of bow-shots away.
I watched Pearl Hand’s quick fingers as she searched the man’s body, finding a sack of the little round metal pieces they all seemed to carry. It jingled as she tossed it to me. From the dead man’s belt she drew a long dagger made of the metal Kristianos call hierro. Her delicate hand clenched a fistful of his hair, and she tugged, skillfully running the knife around his scalp, separating the connective tissues, and with a jerk, popped it free.
My wife’s dark eyes flashed as they met mine, and a crafty smile curved her full red lips. She whirled the scalp—what we call ihola’ka—to sling the blood off. “You planned it perfectly.”
“It wouldn’t have worked without you. Nothing even hinted that you knew they were following.” I paused. “Have any trouble with the graybeard?”
She grinned saucily and tossed me the Kristiano’s sword. Then she inspected the scalp dangling from her delicate fingers. “The graybeard? I screamed as soon as his head poked in. He froze like a gopher, the back of his neck exposed. He never knew what hit him.”
“Let’s get out of here.” I trotted past her, heading down the trail. “I doubt the Kristianos will pursue once they figure out what happened. Losing five . . . all at once? They’ll be spooked, convinced it was a large party of Apalachee.”
Pearl Hand gave me a thoughtful glance as we walked into the house clearing. True to form, my Orphans had stripped the dead and taken their ihola’ka. Since the Beginning Times, ihola’ka had been taken from the vanquished. Beliefs differed among peoples, but most thought that different parts of a person’s spirit, or souls, occupied different parts of the body. The head, being the highest and filled with the most senses, was believed to hold the Life and Dream souls. The top of the head was closest to the Sky World. Higher was better, and even our chiefs built their palaces on raised ground.
By taking a vanquished enemy’s ihola’ka, a warrior took a part of the dead man’s soul—a piece of him that he could possess and control or offer to the Spirit World, sacred ancestors, the sun, red Power, or even white Power.
But to take ihola’ka from Kristianos? To do so was rapidly becoming the greatest of honors, ripe with Power. Not only that, but so many of them had interesting hair colors, ranging from brown, to yellow, to black, and even red. They’d become the most valuable of trade goods.
Back in the clearing, the dead Kristianos had been stripped of clothing, armor, weapons, and jewelry. This the Orphans had bagged in fabric sacks and would be given—along with the ihola’ka—to the Apalachee high mikko, Cafakke. Or whoever succeeded him, since he’d been captured by the Kristianos.
Call it tribute if you like. Neither I nor my Orphans cared. Why were we called Orphans? We were survivors of the massacre at Napetuca. Our purpose was to hunt Kristianos. As to Cafakke, his problems were his own. He’d given permission for us to hunt in his territory a couple of days before de Soto snatched him for a hostage.
The Orphans were waiting, grins on their faces. We didn’t always have a day like this. Ambushes had a habit of going wrong—which is how Long Arrow had been killed less than a moon earlier. The Kristianos—with their deadly mixed weaponry—weren’t always as obliging as they had been today.
For those of you who have never fought Kristianos, mixed weaponry means that thunder-stick shooters, crossbowmen, and pole-ax spearmen provide protection for each other, like a woven defense. And finally, should the soldados actually be threatened, a single trumpet call would bring the cabayeros on their armored beasts to shatter any formation of Apalachee warriors, no matter how well disciplined.
I grew up as a Chicaza noble, literally suckled on the art of war; but until the arrival of the Kristianos . . . Well, I never would have believed anyone could be so deadly. They brought a kind of combat beyond our comprehension. Even the mighty Apalachee—who would have been a serious threat to my own native Chicaza—were smart enough to avoid an open fight.
“Black Shell?” Blood Thorn asked.
I turned to where my friend lifted a clanking sack of armor looted from the dead. Among his Timucua people he had been an iniha, or ranked noble, if you will. Of medium height and muscular, he had a square face, and his upper body was tattooed with stars on the breasts and zigzag lines on the shoulders. White scars ringed his neck, compliments of a Kristiano slave collar. At Napetuca the Kristianos had murdered his betrothed, his family, his friends, and his community—and most of his reasons for living.
He asked, “Which trail do we take?”
“The one to the southwest.” I pointed. “We need to be out of this area as fast as possible. It will take them a while to figure out what happened. Then they will proceed cautiously, but quickly, back to Anhaica. After that the Adelantado de Soto will send cabayos out to sweep this entire area.”
Blood Thorn squinted his right eye and jerked a nod. He gestured to the rest of my little band of Orphans and took the lead. Pearl Hand and I followed as Blood Thorn pushed through the honeysuckle and onto a narrow trail that led through long-abandoned fields, now surrendering to forest.
Past that we emerged under old-growth canopy, the trail vanishing under last fall’s thick brown leaf mat. Our way led beneath spreading oaks, hickories, sweet gums, and occasional maples. High overhead the winter branches were interlaced, roofing the world a bow-shot above. I could see the first buds beginning to swell on those high tips, the promise of spring to come.
Once I’d had a soul-deep fondness for the dim openness under the great trees. To walk under the high canopy gave one a sense of ancient peace—a place where the white Power of tranquility pervaded. For the moment, however, the open forest floor set all of us on edge. While the massive tree trunks provided some cover, Kristiano cabayeros could charge, wheel their mounts, turn, and strike. Anyone fleeing would be run down and lanced from behind.
Blood Thorn broke into a distance-eating trot, his feet thrashing through the leaf mat. I followed behind, watching the fabric sack full of booty bounce on Blood Thorn’s wide back. His thick-muscled legs weren’t those of a runner, but Blood Thorn was a driven man.
So were we all.
© 2011 W. Michael Gear