The Summoning God (Anasazi Mysteries Series #2)by Kathleen O'Neal Gear, W. Michael Gear, W. Gear
The Summoning God is more than a superb murder mystery, it is a psych- ological thriller with blockbuster action, romance and suspense, and best of all a dynamic plot that will have you holding your breath waiting for the nest step down the dark labyrinth of their serial murderers mind. When world-renowned Canadian Physical Anthropologist, Dr. Maureen Cole, is… See more details below
The Summoning God is more than a superb murder mystery, it is a psych- ological thriller with blockbuster action, romance and suspense, and best of all a dynamic plot that will have you holding your breath waiting for the nest step down the dark labyrinth of their serial murderers mind. When world-renowned Canadian Physical Anthropologist, Dr. Maureen Cole, is called to the United States to analyze burials found in an ancient subterranean ceremonial chamber, she is stunned to discover the burned bodies of thirty-three children and two adults. The children were burned in the flesh, meaning they were alive when the fire started, but was the fire an accident or deliberately set? The scattered, mutilated remains of the adults give Maureen her first clue. In order to solve the mystery she must work with American archaeologist William Dusty Stewart. Theyve worked on two archaeological projects in the past and get along like a mongoose and a cobra. Now they must work together to discover the dark and terrible secret of an ancient people. The Gears seamlessly weave together modern archaeology and ancient history. Like all of their books, The Summoning God is based on real archaeological sitessites that tell a terrifying story of North America eight hundred years ago. Breathtaking descriptions evoke the harsh beauty of the desert, while the lucid, erudite historical perspectives are informed by the authors own extensive archeological experience.
Read an Excerpt
THE SUMMONING GOD
Sun Cycle of the Great Horned Owl The Falling River Moon
I WAKE WHEN A TWIG SNAPS, BUT I DO NOT MOVE.
I lie still in the brush, barely breathing, listening to their whispers. Pine needles crackle. Clothing rustles.
They each have their own way of walking, one a little faster, another very slow. The leader has wide shoulders that hiss against the brush. There are four of them. But the last in line, the female, is the most dangerous. She is as silent as mist.
I ease my head from the ground, and my nostrils tremble, smelling them. A growl tightens my throat, but I don't let it out. Scents of woodsmoke, urine, and old blood cling to their clothing.
After they pass, I raise myself on all fours and peer through the weave of brushthey resemble ghosts, gray and floating. Muscles bulge on their heavy bodies. A lot of meat.
I creep out of the brush and trot behind them for twenty breaths, until they stop to look out over the rugged canyon.
Then my fingers reach for a limb, and I climb at the speed of a pine marten, silently swinging from branch to branch, until I can crouch on a limb overlooking the warriors.
I lift my nose to the wind again, but I can't smell them; the scent of pine resin is too strong.
They hiss to each other, their voices like coiled snakes, then they spread out, hiding behind trees as they work their way toward the village.
I slip over the branch's edge and hang by one arm, watching, listening. Satisfied that there are no others coming, I let go and silently fall onto the trail. Pine duff rises beneath my feet.
I scamper forward into the closest shadows. And wait.
THE MOONLIT NIGHT BREATHED SILENCE.
Browser, War Chief of the Katsinas' People, braced his back against the dark smoke-colored trunk of an enormous pine and listened tothe faint echo of his warriors' footfalls. The scent of their sweat drifted through the trees, dank, filled with fear.
Browser got down on his belly and crawled the rest of the way to the canyon's edge. One thousand hands below, water splashed over rocks, and shafts of moonlight danced along the eroded cliffs like leaping ghosts. His fist tightened around his war club.
Silver owl eyes sparkled on the ledges of the massive sandstone cliff across the canyon, and he could hear their faraway hoots as the owls called to each other.
To his right, jumbled boulders stood like dark giants, their tops smoothed and rounded by a thousand summers of thunderstorms. Aspen village sat to his left, tucked into the cliff wall. Two stories tall, with forty chambers, the huge scooped-out hollow in the cliff dwarfed the village.
Freshly painted images covered the village walls. The katsinas had not been there three days ago when he and his war party left to scout the canyon rim. Now they appeared to be the only thing alive. The katsinas had human bodies but animal heads; unearthly smiles curled their fanged muzzles and jet black beaks.
Browser slid closer to the edge. Baskets of corn sat around the plaza. A deerhide lay staked out on the ground, drying. Two looms with half-finished blankets leaned against the wall. There were no dogs. No torches.
He rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand as he thought. Had Matron Eagle Hunter become frightened and ordered her people to abandon the village? The matron was the village decision maker, the leader of the clan. Perhaps she had seen or heard something and believed that they had no choice but to leave.
Five days ago, a Trader named Old Pigeontail had come to tell Browser that warriors calling themselves the Flute Player Believers had been seen massing in the forests near Aspen village. The Flute Player was a very old god, a Creator deity. The "Believers" said his music had conjured the world from black emptiness. Matron Eagle Hunter had feared her village was about to be attacked by the Flute Player warriors. Flame Carrier, the Matron of the Katsinas' People, had ordered Browser to help them. He and Catkin, his deputy, had run for two days straight to get here. They'd stumbled into Aspen village, exhausted and starving, and found most of the inhabitants in their beds, desperately ill with the coughing sickness.
But he heard no coughing tonight. No crying children.
Browser had left eight healthy warriors to guard the village and formed two scouting parties from the remainder. His own consisted of four warriors, and the other party, led by War Chief Running Elk, had five men.
Browser had seen nothing that would signal enemy camps, no fires sparkling along the rim, no shadows of men moving about in the moonlight.
His gut knotted.
Many villages had converted to the Katsina faith in the last sun cycle, including Aspen village. Browser looked down at the great kiva in the village plaza. The kiva, a circular ceremonial chamber dug into the ground about twenty hands deep, was not a place of this world. It existed outside of human time. The kiva was a womb of Beginning Timethe moments before the First People climbed up through the underworlds to reach this world of Father Sun's light. The architectural levels in the kivathe floor, the bench, the roofrepresented the three cave worlds through which the First People had climbed. Each time a person climbed up out of the kiva, he was reliving the sacred journey, moving from darkness to light, killing the child of darkness that lived inside him, and being reborn as a gleaming creature of brilliance.
Is that why Aspen village had been attacked?
Just last moon, Matron Eagle Hunter had ordered her people to replaster and repaint the great kiva. They had covered up the old images of the Flute Player and the gods of his time, and in their places painted enormous, magnificent katsinas.
The katsinas had always existed, but they'd first shown themselves to a human about one hundred sun cycles ago. The great priest, Sternlight, had seen the Wolf Katsina Dancing down from the clouds, using the raindrops as stepping stones. The Wolf Katsina's thunderous growl had called lightning from the clouds, and as the bolts flashed across the sky, the glorious faces of all the other katsinas had been revealed to Sternlight.
As the Katsina faith spread, the devotees of the old gods grew more and more angry. Three moons ago, Browser had heard a Flute Player Believer whisper that the Katsinas' People were witches. He said they changed themselves into animals by jumping through enchanted yucca hoops and loped through the darkness breathing evil,witching others to make them pledge themselves to their wicked half-animal gods. Every time something went wrong, if the rains didn't come or the spring was too cold for planting, the Flute Player Believers blamed the Katsinas' People for witchery.
Catkin, Walker, and Bole crawled up behind him. They kept their heads down, but their eyes flashed when they gazed at Browser.
Over his shoulder, he whispered, "Catkin?"
She slid forward. Moonlight gilded her beautiful oval face and turned-up nose. Her long black braid lay across her back like a glistening serpent. The fringes on her red leather shirt fluttered. When she looked at him, he could see the softness in her dark eyes. She had loved him for over a sun cyclethree hundred and sixty-five daysa love he had never been able to return the way she wished.
Catkin whispered, "How bad?"
"I don't see anyone."
He shook his head.
Catkin's face slackened. Very bad.
Walker and Bole muttered. They had wives, parents, children here. Their fears showed in the hard set of their jaws.
"Walker?" Browser called to the sixteen-summers-old youth lying next to Catkin. Shoulder-length black hair blew around his young face. A streak of soot cut a diagonal line across his right cheek.
He pulled himself forward on his elbows. "Yes, War Chief?"
"Catkin and I will go around to the eastern trail. Wait for my signal, then I want you and Bole to follow the western trail into the village. Take care. We know nothing yet. Your clan may have grown anxious and left, but that does not mean the village is empty. Do you understand?"
Walker wet his lips, and his eyes widened in fear. "Yes. I understand, War Chief."
Even if the villagers had fled, the people who'd frightened them might still be inside.
Browser nodded to Catkin and crawled away on his hands and knees. They rose in a small grove of junipers. The berry-laden branches filled the air with a sweet, tangy fragrance.
Browser examined the towering pines with painstaking care, making certain no one hid in the shadows. He'd thought he'd heard something earlier, a shishing, like fur brushing against branches.
His eyes narrowed. None of this made any sense. If the village had been attacked, they should already see evidence of it: belongings dropped when people tried to run, thrashed brush, overturned rocks, dead bodies. Warriors generally burned conquered villages. The scent of smoke should be acrid and strong.
Moonlight sheathed Catkin's large dark eyes and full lips. "I'm not sure that separating our forces was wise, Browser. If our enemies are inside"
"I doubt they are, Catkin. I just said that as a precaution. A warrior who secretes himself in a room is asking to be trapped there when the owners return. It is more likely we will find our enemies behind the trees and boulders on the trail. Or even up here in the forest. That is where I would hide."
Catkin did not blink. She gave him a stony look. "And I would be inside the village where I could shoot my bow from a protected position."
"Yes," Browser said with a nod, "but you are like Badger. Bold and confident that your claws are sharper than anyone else's. Most warriors, including me, are like Packrat. Always afraid. We have to know there is a back way out of our hole."
Catkin tilted her head and her dark eyes seemed to probe his souls. "Which type of warrior do you suppose is more dangerous, Browser?"
He shifted his weight to his other foot. They generally viewed the world differently, which made him value her opinions all the more. He was cautious, prudent, a War Chief. She thought like an assassin. Because of that, she had saved his life many times. And he hers.
"Let us hope that tonight I am right." Browser gestured for her to follow him through the forest.
A billowing flock of Cloud People gathered before the face of Sister Moon, and the night turned black and unnaturally silent. Browser's sandals crackled on the old pine and juniper needles that blanketed the forest floor. He stopped every three paces to listen. Wind Baby whistled in his ears, but Browser ignored him. The evil Spirit child often tricked people, blowing a warrior's scent to his enemy just before he could release his arrow, or singing through a bowstring at exactly the wrong instant.
Catkin stopped. Browser stopped.
Ten hands wide, the eastern trail to the village had been beaten to dust, but brush lined the way over the rim and down into the canyon.
He glanced up at Sister Moon. As the Cloud People drifted off to the south, the corner of her face appeared and silver light flooded the canyon. The trees and boulders gleamed.
At moments like this, cowardice always reared up and did a dance in his belly. What was he doing here?
Browser had joined the Katsinas' People four summers ago because his wife threatened to leave him and take their infant son away if he did not join. He hated the katsinas. They had been Ash Girl's gods, not his. But Ash Girl had been dead for nine moons, along with his precious son, Grass Moon. Why didn't he go home to his own people? Warfare raged across the country. Most of his clan had been driven out of the northern mountains and taken refuge with other clans in the desert regions to the south. They needed him.
Though I doubt they want me.
He had just passed his twenty-ninth summer, but he felt old. Old and afraid. The constant sun and wind had turned his skin as brown as old leather. White strands sparkled in his black hair. And by now his family would have heard that he'd killed his own wife.
Catkin eased up beside him and her face tensed. "Look." She pointed to a large boulder thirty paces ahead.
The painter had splashed white on the rock, then carefully filled the center with the black silhouette of a hunched beast.
"What is it?" he whispered.
"I can't tell."
Something about the image struck him as menacing. It didn't seem to be painted on the stone, but rather attached to it. Browser walked forward.
Behind him, he heard Catkin's steps, then she whispered, "Blessed Spirits."
Wisps of long gray hair clung to the mummy's desiccated scalp. She had been laid on her side at death, her knees lifted and elbows bent. She had dried in a fetal position with her skeletal hands curled beneath her chin. Long ago her eyes had rotted away, leaving dark empty sockets to stare up at them.
Catkin recoiled a step. "Look at her mouth." Stubby brown teeth filled her gaping jaws. "She must have screamed at the end."
Browser studied the rope that wrapped the mummy's waist and looped over the top of the boulder. "Someone hung her here for us to see."
"A warning not to take the trail down to the village?"
He looked out at the fallen trees and rocks that loomed in the darkness. "Perhaps, but a mummy is a poor substitute for freshly mutilated bodies."
Catkin glanced around, then stepped closer to look at the mummy. "Where do you think she came from?"
"Many of the dry caves in this region contain burials." He gestured to the dark hollows that pocked the cliffs on the opposite side of the canyon. "They could have stumbled upon her while sneaking up to get a better look at Aspen village."
"And carried her away?" Catkin scoffed. "I do not think so. War parties travel fast and light. She would have been a silly burden."
"Warriors are often silly, Catkin. They do unfathomable things when they are tired and hungry."
The quartzite cobble on the end of Catkin's war club lowered to the woman's right wrist. "Her arms were broken. It looks like she used them to block blows."
The bones had not mended correctly and stuck out like knobs on old limbs.
"But not blows from fists," he said. "Something that could snap bone. An ax or stone-headed club."
Catkin's war club moved to the mummy's head. "Her arms weren't the only things they struck."
The skull undulated like the surface of a rotten melon. The numerous small dents meant the woman's skull had been cracked by a master, a man who knew how to strike hard enough to injure, but not hard enough to kill.
"And look at this," Catkin said.
Browser knelt at Catkin's side and saw the tattoo. Black spirals decorated the mummy's chin. Three or maybe four. A cold sensation filtered through him. His grandmother and all of her people had proudly worn spirals on their chins. He did not know what the spirals stood for, but ... it seemed odd that this ancient corpse would carry the same symbol. Could she be one of his distant relatives?
Catkin whispered, "Isn't that the same"
"My great-uncle, Stone Ghost, has three black spirals on his chin. My grandmother had four. I don't know what it means."
His gaze landed on every human-shaped shadow on the trail below. Pine needles glimmered. Boulders wavered in the moonlight.Had someone expected him to be here? Perhaps known he would be here? No. Many people wore tattoos. Many tattoos included spirals. This was coincidence. Nothing more.
The sun-bleached shreds of cloth that hung from the mummified body fluttered in the wind. Browser looked at the darker splotches, brown with age. He used his club to push the cloth aside and saw the wide slit in the abdomen. "They cut her open."
Catkin shifted to look, and her eyes widened. "Gods. I wonder how long it took her to die?"
Browser shook his head tiredly. "A person can live for days with a belly wound. I remember once when I and four of my warriors were captured by the Fire Dogs. They sliced Mug's gut open and slowly pulled out his intestines. He screamed for three days."
Catkin reached for the dead woman's necklace, but halted when she noticed that skeletal fingers twined in the brightly beaded strip of rawhide. Alternating chevrons of turquoise, shell, and coral covered the hide. Magnificent work. Catkin backed away.
"Browser"her voice had gone tight"she deliberately grasped the necklace before she died. It must have been very important to her, like a Power bundle or sacred pendant."
Browser studied the delicate fingers that clutched the hide. "Are you sure it's a necklace? Or is it a collar?"
She gave him an incredulous look. "No one would waste such beauty on a slave."
Browser pulled the mummy out from the boulder to examine her back. "A necklace would have laces. The woman might wish to take it off. This is sewn together. And look here." He indicated the scar tissue beneath the necklace where the flesh had been rubbed raw and healed. "The rawhide must have been wet when they sewed the collar together. It shrunk tight to her throat. Too tight. She must have had trouble breathing." Browser met Catkin's gaze. "A slave, but a very highly prized one."
Catkin frowned for a long moment at the fingers in the collar. "Gods, Browser. She's not holding the hide. It's wrapped around her fingers, as though she used the collar to cut off her own air."
Browser touched the hide. It felt dry and as hard as rock. Despite the tightness of the collar, the woman had managed to slip two fingers beneath it and twist the hide into a loop. Her mummified fingersremained locked in the twist. She hadn't let go. Not even at the end, when panic must have set in.
"What a brave woman. I wonder who she was?" Catkin asked. "A clan matron?"
"Or maybe a great warrior."
Catkin got to her feet and looked at the woman's belly slit. She straightened and her mouth fell open. "Did you see this?"
Catkin held something up. It tinkled.
"A bell?" he said in surprise.
She held it up to the moonlight. The bell shimmered and twinkled. "A bell worth a village's ransom."
Catkin handed him the cast copper bell, and Browser turned it over and over in his palm, awed by the sight. They were rare and beautiful. The Feathered Serpent People who'd made them had died out long ago. They had lived far to the south, but had traded with the legendary First People of the Straight Path Nation.
During the Age of Emergence, the First People had bravely climbed through a series of dark underworlds to get to this world of light. On the second day, the Creator decided the First People were too few and needed help to build the world. He had turned a variety of animals into humans: badgers, buffaloes, tortoises, ants, wolves, and other creatures. Hence, they were "made" people. The First People had never liked the Made People. They had considered them inferior, and had enslaved and tortured them. Fortunately, First People only married other First People, and their blood weakened over time. When the Power began to dwindle, the Made People rose up and made war on them. The last of the First People had died more than a hundred summers ago, and the Made People had celebrated for a full sun cycle. Browser's people, and all people alive today, were Made People.
The bell might have been an offering, placed inside her wound by the people who'd buried her. In that case, they had either been very wealthy, or they'd sold everything they had to possess it.
He said, "Whoever buried her loved her very much. No one today would squander such wealth on the dead."
Browser put the copper bell into his belt pouch. His village, Longtail village, had been raided six times in the past nine moons. Theycould trade the bell for enough food to feed their children through the winter.
"No, Browser." As she turned, moonlight gilded the smooth dip in her nose and splashed her broad cheeks.
"What do you mean?"
"That bell was loose in her belly. If it had been placed there when she was buried, it would have melted into the drying flesh and become part of it. I would not have been able to just pick it up. Someone put it there tonight."
"But why?" he whispered, and slowly rose to his feet. "Whoever hung the mummy here must have known the first traveler who came by would take it."
Catkin pinned him with dark moon-glazed eyes. "I'm sure they did. They probably also figured they would get it back when they killed us."
Browser turned to search the trees and cliffs for any sign of an ambush. Wind Baby whimpered through the boulders on the slope below.
"Maybe, but I'm still going down. We have to know what has happened. I wish you to stay at the top of the trail where you can see the trees."
Catkin nodded, but her gaze remained on the mummy. The corpse's stubby teeth gleamed. Moments ago, she had seemed to be caught in a final scream. Now she looked like she was laughing, a great deep belly laugh.
Browser's skin prickled. Your shattered souls are playing tricks on you, you fool. The mummy hasn't changed.
"Shout to me if anyone comes out of the forest. I will return as soon as I know what's happened."
"Go. I will guard the trail."
Browser cupped a hand to his mouth and gave the melodious call of a raven in flight, kloo-kloc-kloo-kloc, to signal Walker and Bole to start down the western trail.
Then he headed down himself.
Aspens grew in the spaces between the boulders. The trembling autumn leaves appeared white in the pale light, but he remembered that in the daylight they glowed a brilliant luminous yellow.
Browser silently skirted a large boulder and navigated the first bend in the trail. He lost sight of Catkin. Wind Baby gusted acrossthe cliff, rattling the fringes on his knee-length shirt. As the trees blew, splotchy wind-spawned shadows danced over the slope.
He'd never had much love for solitary heroics. He preferred a large and conspicuous war party at his back. But he had no choice tonight.
He proceeded slowly, on the balls of his feet, until he came to a fallen tree where he crouched and gazed at the village no more than half a bow shot away. They'd built in a secure but difficult location. The huge rain-eaten hollow in the stone swallowed the small two-story village. Just a few body lengths beyond the plaza, the sheer cliff dropped seven hundred hands to the canyon bottom. If a person slipped, it meant his doom.
Where were Walker and Bole? Inside, searching from room to room? The faint trace of smoke clung to the air. Someone had lit a fire today, but he saw no glow of flames in any of the windows or doors. Aspen village appeared dead.
Browser turned when he heard a sound.
He whispered, "Walker?"
No, the soft scraping couldn't be an adult. A child's moccasins on gravel? Claws working at stone?
He could not identify it yet, but some other scent twined with that of the smoke, a tang that clung to the back of his throat like pine pitch.
Browser moved only his eyes.
There, on the ground two paces away, lay another copper bell.
He stared at it.
It had been polished until it glowed. Browser walked over and picked it up. The velvet feel reminded him of the skin of a young woman. Sensuous. Too smooth to be real. He tucked it into his belt pouch and re-gripped his war club. His palms had grown sweaty.
The quiet ate at his insides. The very emptiness of the village held threat. Every dark window and doorway seemed to watch him.
Another copper bell lay just ahead.
He could not believe his eyes. He grabbed it and shoved it into his pouch. Right here in front of him lay enough wealth to ...
Three more bells. In a line.
The trail led to the kiva, the circular chamber ten paces away.
Browser's gaze darted over every shadow. He had captured wolves this way, by dropping pieces of meat just far enough apart that the wolf could see the next one. The last piece of meat always rested on the disguised roof of the killing pit. By the time the wolf got there,his mouth dripped saliva, eager for the tasty bite. When the wolf leaped onto the roof to get it, the roof collapsed and sent him plummeting twenty hands straight down. Hunters with bows could walk up and shoot him with little effort.
A tingle moved from the base of Browser's skull, down his arms, and into his belly. They wanted him in the kiva. Why?
He turned in a slow circle, seeing nothing. No one.
The clawing continued.
They might have come down, found the village empty, and gone back up the trail to search for him and Catkin.
Browser walked to the edge of the kiva. The only way in or out was by ladder through the entryway cut into the middle of the roof. The ladder had been pulled out and the entry covered with thick-buffalo hides. The ladder rested on top of them. If someone was imprisoned in there, no one would ever hear his screams.
The owner of the bells wanted Browser to look into the kiva. He was betting that once Browser looked, he would have to climb down, and then ...
Browser backed away and turned to the village.
The katsinas had been lovingly painted. The teeth in the Wolf Katsina's muzzle gleamed. The white spots of stars on his black arms and legs fell in perfect rows. The spear in the Badger Katsina's right hand shimmered as though made from a fine glassy obsidian.
Perfectly rendered. Except that each katsina had a gaping white hole in the middle of its chest. A kill hole. The Fire Dogs did the same thing with Power pots. They believed that such pots had souls, and that by knocking a hole in the bottom they released the soul to travel to the afterlife with its dead owner.
Had the invaders sent the katsinas' souls to the afterlife with their dead followers?
Browser walked to the first doorway and pulled aside the leather curtain. "Matron?" He had been in this room three days ago. "Matron Eagle Hunter?"
All of her belongings lay as he remembered. Baskets stood stacked in the corner to his right. Black-and-white pots lined the wall to his left. Her bedding hides lay rolled in the rear of the chamber. If she had run away in fear, she would at least have taken her bedding.
Browser backed out. Moonlight flashed from the cliffs and the tattered Cloud People that drifted over the rim. The katsinas vanished, then reappeared in a sudden wash of light and wavered ... Dancing. He could see it. Awe swelled his heart. They slipped from light to dark, their white kirtles swaying as though they'd lifted their sacred feet to Dance the world out of existence. Browser could almost hear their animal voices calling to him, delicate and birdlike, tinged with a panic that echoed his own.
His thoughts leaped from one possibility to another. Perhaps the mummy had been left by the fleeing villagers, not by invaders. Maybe it hadn't been a warning, but an offering. The mummy had been precious to someone. Matron Eagle Hunter? One of the other villagers? If so, she'd given it up, left it for ... whom? Had the attackers threatened the village to obtain the mummy? Then why hadn't they taken it with them when they'd goneif they'd gone?
He trotted the length of the village, ducking into doorways, peering through windows. Everything appeared normal. If these people had left in a hurry, he could see no sign of it. The more chambers he searched, the more certain he became that they'd all packed up and left for a few days, perhaps to attend a nearby celebration, a marriage, or burial feast. Clearly, they had planned to return. Perhaps the people who'd painted and then desecrated the katsinas had come in after the villagers were gone.
When he reached the western edge of the village, Browser looked up the trail. Cloud People had covered Sister Moon's face again; he didn't have enough light to see tracks, but he searched for them anyway. He had ordered Walker and Bole to come down this trail. There should be some evidence of their descent. Overturned pebbles, scuffed soil, snapped twigs.
Browser walked halfway up the trail before he found the place where one of the men's moccasins had slid and grooved the soft dirt. He turned around.
The copper bells winked at him. Taunting. Calling to him.
Browser marched down the trail and across the plaza to the kiva. As he stepped onto the roof, the scent of smoke grew stronger. Smoke and something else.
Browser knelt beside the dark brown buffalo hides. He jerked off the ladder and dragged the hides away from the square hole. A waveof warm air bathed his face, and the sickening coppery tang struck him like a blow to the stomach.
"Matron Eagle Hunter?" he called, his voice frantic now. "It's Browser! I would speak with you. Are you down there?"
The kiva seemed to exhale suddenly. A gush of warmth blew over him. Had someone moved? Perhaps disturbed the air?
Browser reached for the ladder and almost missed the marks. Long dark streaks covered the roof. They might have been soot or mud, but they looked more like the claw marks made by bloody fingers.
He touched them, matching them with his own fingers, then jerked his hand away.
"Matron! I'm coming down."
He lowered the ladder through the entry and it hit the ground with a solid ordinary thump.
The dark pit reeked of rot and corruption. It took an act of will to convince himself to put his feet on the rungs. Every instant he expected an arrow in his back. His gaze searched the village again, then he took the rungs down two at a time.
He stepped off onto the kiva floor and blinked at the darkness. Ash puffed beneath his feet, and the stench almost gagged him. If someone wished to attack him, now was the time. He held his war club at the ready and fought to keep his breathing even.
When his eyes adjusted, he saw the fire hearth three paces in front of him and the woodpile stacked beside it. A faint crimson gleam lit the hearth's center. Browser went to the woodpile, pulled out a branch, and stirred the ashes until he found red coals. He broke his branch into pieces, placed them on the coals, and bent down to blow on the kindling.
The clawing again.
"Hello?" he called. "Is anyone in here?"
Something about the urgency of the clawing suggested human hands, someone trying to get to him.
Fighting his own sense of dread, Browser went back to blowing on the coals. A flame licked up. Then a branch popped in the fire, and sparks whirled toward the entry. Light flared.
Browser couldn't move.
The flickering images burned themselves into his souls.
The bodies had no heads.
The feral eyes of wood rats blazed as they scrambled from one bloody scrap of cloth to another. The rats must have gotten in through the kiva's ventilator shaft, a narrow opening in the wall designed to bring fresh air into the kiva.
Most of the bones had been stripped of flesh, then scattered, but a few still had tatters of clothing clinging to arms or legs. He saw an infant's head lying on the floor to his right. It looked as though it had been tossed. Was this a child he'd seen three days ago? One of the happy little boys playing in the plaza when he arrived? He looked to be about four summers old.
Claws. Behind him.
Browser turned and stepped into a pool of blood. "Oh, dear gods."
Walker and Bole slumped against the curving rear wall. They were so recently dead the rats feared to approach them. The little animals raced forward, bit a piece of cloth, and scurried backward, their feet scratching the floor for purchase.
"What happened?" Browser murmured.
The fools must have come down long before his signal. They must have disobeyed ...
Perhaps they'd been forced down.
"Right after Catkin and I left."
Walker's intestines had been pulled out onto the floor and his decapitated head stuffed into the gaping cavity. His wide eyes stared through the slit in his stomach, as though he'd been surprised by his killer.
Bolehe thought it was Boleleaned against Walker. His face had been mutilated, but the obsidian-studded war club stuffed down his throat had belonged to Bole.
Browser locked his knees. He had seen a great deal of warfare and raiding. This was neither. Raiders killed in haste and stole food and trinkets to take home to their families. Warriors slaughtered their enemies and burned their villages. But this was calm, methodical butchery.
Browser took a shaky step backward and forced himself to count the dead. He had to know if the entire village had been massacred or if some people had escaped before the murderers trapped them.
As he counted, he noticed the layer of soot that coated the ceiling and the black heaps of debris around the fire hearth. Blood covered the new katsinas on the walls, as though someone had filled pots andsplashed them with it. All of the babies had been decapitated, but some had not been stripped of flesh. The youngest infants hung from cradle boards. Thick soot furred their chubby arms and legs. The eyes in the babies' severed heads bulged.
"They must have forced the villagers into the kiva, tied them up, then dumped burning wood and bark inside"he looked up"and sealed the entryway."
The people had suffocated.
He picked his way across the slaughter ground to the ventilator shaft and looked inside. No wonder they couldn't get air. Someone outside had wedged a newborn in the opening, head-down. A narrow beam of moonlight penetrated around the child's head. The rats' pathway? Had the boy's parents heard him screaming before they died?
Browser forced himself to think. "What happened? Theytheyround the villagers up, force them into the kiva and suffocate them, then they come back and take time to strip the bones? That's insane!"
And the headswhere were the people's heads?
He gripped his club and his hand shook. What had they done with the flesh? It wasn't here. He scanned the floor. They must have gathered the piles of meat and taken it outside. Horrifying memories began to flit across his souls. He'd heard Traders talk ...
Footsteps creaked on the roof.
Browser jerked his leather shirt over his head and tossed it onto the fire to smother the light, then he backed into the black recesses of the kiva.
Is this what had happened to Walker and Bole?
A slender arm passed through the moonlight above the entry, and a copper bell bounced across the kiva floor.
Browser braced his legs. His enemy? Or a survivor?
"Hello?" he called.
Laughter, soft and sensuous. Then a woman whispered, "Who are you, War Chief? Are you one of us, or one of them?"
Delicate hands reached for the ladder, and he thought she planned to climb down.
With several quick jerks, the ladder disappeared through the entry, and buffalo hides flopped into place.
"Wait!" he screamed.
For three heartbeats, nothing, then ...
"Mother?" a little girl called.
They must have been standing right over the hides, probably arranging the ladder to keep them in place.
"Mother, I'm tired. Can we go now?"
Laughter again, almost shrill with delight. "I told you the brightness of the heart flows from bright veins. It was beautiful, wasn't it?"
The child skipped across the roof, and the woman's footsteps followed.
Browser cried, "Wait! Who are you? I'm War Chief Browser from Longtail village. Let me out!"
Silence. But only for a moment.
With the darkness, the rats grew frenzied. They scampered and squealed, fighting over the best nesting materials. The scratching of animal claws on human bone unnerved him.
Browser clenched his fists and shouted: "Catkin? Catkin!"
Copyright © 2000 by Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear Bone Walker excerpt copyright © 2001 by Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear
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