People of the Morning Star
A Novel of North America's Forgotten Past
By W. Michael Gear, Kathleen O'Neal Gear
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2014 W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear
All rights reserved.
The acclaimed high chief of the Deer Clan, Right Hand, fingered his prominent and scarred chin as he looked westward across the sprawl of Cahokia. The Whisperer was coming. Right Hand had received word but two days past.
Plotting the murder of a living god is a dangerous business. We have no way of knowing how Power will react.
The thought sent a flutter of unease through him.
According to the latest of the Whisperer's messengers, the time to act had arrived. All Right Hand needed was the "token," the weapon with which to strike. If the Whisperer's messenger was correct, it would be delivered today or tomorrow at the latest.
Looking down at his mangled right hand, he wondered how the Whisperer had known. Memories of that day, the screams, the pain, returned as fresh as if it were yesterday. Chunkey Boy's brother Walking Smoke and a couple of Four Winds warriors had held him down as Chunkey Boy used Right Hand's own chunkey stone to crush the bones in his hand and fingers.
Chunkey Boy's vicious expression remained so clearly imprinted: his lips bared, his eyes slitted with rage. His arm rose and fell, hammering the stone down. Each impact made a wet smacking and snapping as blood spattered and bone crushed.
You took so much away from me that day, Chunkey Boy. But you couldn't take my birthright. And now I shall repay you with long smoldering rage.
Below his bluff-top vantage, the great city of Cahokia stretched across the floodplain in a confused pattern. Clusters of dwellings concentrated around mound-top temples and palaces, only to give way to interspersed fields before merging with the next batch of closely packed houses around their lofty temples and palaces. At night—as if thousands of stars had fallen to earth—even the distant Evening Star bluffs on the other side of the river were pinpricked with tiny dots of firelight.
Right Hand wore a high chief's white apron decorated with the image of two heavily antlered deer, their front legs raised. The bucks faced each other on either side of a pole decorated with severed human heads.
The high chief's broad shoulders narrowed to a slender waist, his body that of a longtime athlete. He wore his gray-streaked hair pulled back in a severe bun and held in place by two flaring copper pins. Though his right hand appeared mutilated, it functioned well enough to clutch a tall staff wrapped with strips of raccoon fur; Raccoon, Spirit messenger of the dead, had special meaning for Right Hand. Several of the characteristic ringed-tails dangled from the top.
So much humanity, he thought, wondering if the entire world's population had crowded together here. His tattooed face mimicked a raccoon's black eyes, lines down the cheeks like laid-back whiskers. For the moment it reflected extreme distaste.
As he expressed his displeasure, his sister—an older woman, and the Deer Clan Matron—stepped up beside him. "You worry about Power?" she asked. "You shouldn't. Since the Beginning Times, the Spirit creatures who dominate the Underworld have always fought in opposition to the Powers of the sky. Morning Star's soul was called down during the daytime, making him not only a creature of the sky, but of light as well."
She absently fingered the finely woven blue skirt that clung to her hips. A bright-pink spoonbill-feathered cape graced her shoulders. Her hair had been pulled back in a matron's bun, and polished shell columellas—imported from the distant gulf to the south—hung from her ears. The skin of her shoulders, back, and chest bore tattoos rendered in an intricate and endless knot of intertwined Tie Snakes—a tribute that marked her as a devotee of First Woman.
First Woman, the Old-Woman-Who-Never-Dies, the ruler of the Underworld, lived in her cave down below the World Tree's deepest roots. There she dreamed the patterns and Powers of the Underworld. Her realm was portrayed by the color red, indicative of fertility, creativity, war, and chaos. She had dominion over the waters and plants. The Spirit creatures of the Underworld including the Water Panther known as Piasa; the flying snake called Horned Serpent; Snapping Turtle, fish, and frogs answered to First Woman. So, too, did the Tie Snakes who guarded springs, lurked in the depths of the rivers, and invoked the rains; even though doing so infuriated the Thunderbirds, who unleashed lightning bolts in their constant battle with the Powers of the Underworld.
Right Hand narrowed his eyes as he studied the distant high mound. In a husky voice he said, "It is said in the old stories that at the Creation, First Being, Hunga Ahuito, took the form of a mottled, two-headed eagle. Capable of seeing in all directions at once with its four eyes, and being male and female, it orchestrated all things, ruling even the sun, rainbows, and thunderers. Now Morning Star claims he rules the sky."
"But is he a god?" Matron Corn Seed paused. "Really? Or has the lie been told so often that it now lives on its own?" She let her gaze fix on the distant pimple-like prominence; even through the haze of a thousand smoking fires, Morning Star's tall temple atop its great mound couldn't be missed. And that, from where she stood, was still a hard day's walk. Between her bluff-top vantage point and the Morning Star's palace, lived perhaps ten thousand people; their houses, temples, mounds, and fields spread like a poorly woven blanket across the wide floodplain with its curving lakes.
The chief extended his good left hand in a grand gesture to include the vast and irregular accumulation of humanity. "They believe it. All these simpletons who've flocked here to revel in the god's presence." He said it bitterly; a smile barely curled his thin lips. "And as long as they do, whatever we believe ... the truth, if you will, is meaningless."
"It's not Power, or him, that I fear," the woman admitted softly. "Even if his Spirit really belongs to the hero god and is reincarnated in that young fool's body. It's the Four Winds Clan and that Keeper of theirs who troubles me. Old Blue Heron is like a spider with her bits of web spun everywhere. Make the slightest misstep and an unknown tendril will vibrate just enough to draw her attention."
"She's merely a woman."
"You fear Power. I've found people are so much more deadly." She gave him a sidelong appraisal. "Do not underestimate her. Others have. Hung in a square, people scream the voices right out of their throats when strips of skin are peeled slowly from their bodies."
"I don't intend on hanging from a Four Winds Clan square," he replied, referring to the vertical, open pole frame into which a man's naked body was tied for torture. "Myself, I've taken a lesson from the chickadee."
"Oh? Learned to chirp melodically, or just flit about in panicked terror when the sharp-shinned hawk comes diving?"
His expression soured at her caustic tone. "When a chickadee is hungry, it carefully plucks at a single strand of silk. Spiders can't help themselves. It's in their nature to dash out of their holes toward whatever creature is stuck in their web."
"You've given the problem some thought?"
He barely lifted a scarred eyebrow. The action shifted the beaded forelock that hung down over his forehead. "When the time comes, the Whisperer will draw the spider into striking distance ... play her web like a child's string game. It's the Morning Star I'm worried about." He hesitated before adding, "And whatever agreements he has with the Sky World."
She glanced sidelong at him, suspicion in her eyes. "For all you know, our mysterious 'Whisperer' might just be the Morning Star himself! I don't trust him, whoever he is. Never have."
Right Hand fixed his eyes on the distant palace, now in shadow from one of the fluffy white clouds that drifted across the spring sky. "The token could come at any time. And when it does, it will be the signal to strike."
"My chief, no place on earth is more heavily guarded or monitored than Morning Star's high palace." She fingered her prominent nose, eyes on the distant palace where it rose above a thousand peaked roofs. "And that's a weakness all its own. I have a candidate in mind."
"One of ours?"
She smiled grimly. "Of course not. My agent has been in touch with a man from the Evening Star House, someone who is vulnerable to persuasion. And, well, he happens to have an incestuous relationship with his daughter. A fact he wouldn't like to have known lest his cousins sneak up and bash his brains out some fine day. He, in turn, has a nephew called Cut String, a proud and vain man who sincerely believed he had earned honors that were not bestowed."
"They can't be traced back to us?"
She chuckled hoarsely. "Do you think I'm an idiot? Of course not! The nephew, along with being vain, has a brother in Spotted Wrist's squadron. He's been sent north to try, yet again, to bring Red Wing town and its heretics to heel. If the past is any guide to the future, that young war chief up there, Fire Cat Twelvekiller, he'll rip Spotted Wrist's squadrons to pieces. If the Four Winds Clan catches my assassin, it will look like vengeance and lead them down a false trail ... right to the Evening Star House." Another pause. "Blue Heron and High Dance can tear themselves apart over it. And, who knows? High Dance has never had the subtlety to hide his aspirations. Maybe Blue Heron will find something smoldering there."
"You can get this assassin of yours into the palace?"
"If the Whisperer's messengers have told us the truth." She nodded absently, eyes half squinted as she stared at the Morning Star's distant palace. "Having made a careful study of the palace, I have just the place for Cut String to hide. He's already been given the instructions."
The high chief drew a deep breath. "The Whisperer is ready. We need but to receive the token, and we are free to strike. Once we kill the Morning Star, the Whisperer will slowly but surely pluck Blue Heron's web in a way that draws her into his reach."
"Be careful, brother. If this should go awry ..." She laid a cautious hand on his shoulder.
"The believers would unleash a blood bath as they sought to snuff out even the faintest whiff of heresy." His smile bent the long scar on his chin. "The Whisperer is right. Everything must be traced back to the Four Winds Clan."
"If we do this thing—succeed in killing the Morning Star—we must act quickly. The Houses of the Four Winds Clan must be incited to turn on one another. If the dirt-farmers and immigrants panic and riot, chaos will be unleashed. Our world will consume itself. What will remain will be soot, ashes, rotting corpses, and ruin."
He nodded grimly. "Our duty is to ensure it never gets that far. But then, the Four Winds Clan has shown us all how to be gods. And ... well, what's a little risk compared to those benefits?"
"Nothing that can't be bought by a little blood and suffering," she whispered. "Like the Whisperer, I just want the Four Winds Clan destroyed."
"Then, perhaps, we can resurrect the life-soul of Petaga, place it in a young man's body. Reunify the Earth Clans and place the worship of First Woman where it belongs. We can restore the heritage of the great priestess Lichen and the legendary Nightshade."
She pointed to a tall man who emerged from between the houses that crowded behind the base of the small, conical burial mound on which they stood. The runner bore a red-fabric-wrapped bundle in his arms. He slowed, chest rising and falling from his long journey. He looked around cautiously, and nodded as the high chief waved. Then he started up the grass-sided mound.
Reaching the top, he dropped to one knee, head down, asking in a thick and guttural accent, "For which hand?"
"The right," the high chief replied, glancing down at his maimed hand.
The runner, a foreign barbarian, fit-looking and in his mid-twenties, touched his chin in a sign of respect. Oddly, his face bore no tattoos to identify his nation or clan. Reverently, he offered up the red-cloth bundle. No sooner did the high chief lay hold of it than the man rose, spun, and trotted back down the mound. Within a matter of heartbeats, he'd disappeared back into the maze of houses.
"What man gains adulthood without tattoos?" Right Hand wondered. "Unless he's a slave."
"No slave has eyes that arrogant and proud. He was all warrior, that one." She gestured at the bundle. "That's it?"
Cradling the wrapping, his raccoon staff in the crook of his right arm, the high chief unwound the red cloth just enough to expose the tip of a long stone blade. Sunlight glistened in parallel rows of rippling flake scars. A master had carefully chipped the slim blade from a beautiful translucent brown chert; the edge sharp enough to split a hair.
"The Whisperer is as good as his word. Now all we have to do is get this to your assassin, Matron." He paused watching the light play on the deadly blade. "And hope it drinks deeply of the Morning Star's blood."
But for the intrusion of a single dark knot, the inboard-side of the canoe's sanded and waxed hull exhibited straight and uniform wood grain. The reddish color, combined with the wood's faint pungent perfume, told Fire Cat Twelvekiller that the big war canoe had been hewn from a huge bald cypress—one felled far to the south. The workmanship was exquisite, the walls of the hull thin and light, its beam wide enough that parallel ranks of warriors manned the paddles.
That lovingly polished wood had become the boundary of War Chief Fire Cat's universe. Life, hope, Power—everything he'd ever dreamed of or aspired to—all had collapsed into what little space lay between his blurry vision and the wood's absolute reality.
A boundary beyond which he dared not contemplate.
He could have raised his head, looked beyond the gunwales to the broad river—its cool green surface swirling, welling, and sucking. Beyond the living water he would have seen the western bank as it ghosted past in a tree-lined glory of cottonwoods, elms, and willows.
Desolation made even that effort unworthy. What point would be served by watching the last of his world slip away? Misery and humiliation, pain, and ultimately ignominious death awaited him; and though he knew the river's Power bore him no malice, it seemed to be rushing him south to Cahokia.
Once there, after his hanging body endured the brutality, the thirst, the slicing and searing of his flesh, they'd chop him apart. His leg bones would be stripped of meat and sinew, cleaned, painted or engraved, and given away as gifts.
His arm bones would hang from some wall. His head would be carefully skinned, the skull polished to a sheen before being painted. Thereafter his gaping eye sockets would vacantly stare out at some Cahokian Men's House. Or perhaps it would grace the wall of the Morning Star himself.
Pustule of an imposter that he is!
Fire Cat winced and tried to shift his aching arms. They'd been bound behind him; the tight cord ate into his wrists. But what was that compared to the dull agony in his legs? Or the pain that burned through his wrenched back, shoulders, and arms. No sensation remained in his hands.
I was once the man known as Fire Cat Twelvekiller, high war chief of the Red Wing Nation. Now I am a dead man.
For whatever capricious reason, Power had abandoned him, his family, and his nation.
He dared not glance over his shoulder where what remained of his family crowded in the canoe bottom. He could feel his sister White Rain's body where it pressed against the back of his thighs. On White Rain's other side, his youngest sister, Soft Moon, huddled in misery, her head down. And, back to them all, Fire Cat's mother, Matron Red Wing, sat disconsolately, hands bound behind her. Her agonized stare remained fixed on the north as it vanished behind the river's forest-lined loops. Everything they had lived, dreamed, and hoped now receded as the current and the strong paddlers rushed them inevitably toward the south. Toward Cahokia ... and death.
Fire Cat had only a foggy memory of the days since the Morning Star's warriors had taken them by complete surprise. Dazed by the impossible, his memory was a confusion of sunrises, shivering and endless nights, disconnected events, and half-remembered images. (Continues...)
Excerpted from People of the Morning Star by W. Michael Gear, Kathleen O'Neal Gear. Copyright © 2014 W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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