The Broken Land
Darkness is coming.
I halt at the edge of the birches and steady myself by placing a hand against a massive granite boulder, concentrating on the bright yellow leaves that whirl through the cold air. The scent of snow suffuses Wind Mother's breath. While my fingers gouge the rock, I gaze up at the deep blue thunderheads standing like fortresses above the chestnuts and sycamores that ring the meadow. Dusk's purple halo has faded to nothingness, leaving the white tree trunks steel gray, the dry grasses silver.
The old wolf who always strides at my side lifts his gray muzzle and scents the air, returning me to the acrid odor of burning longhouses. The scent is strong, mixing eerily with the cries of the wounded who scatter the battlefield. I sink against the boulder, hoping that, for the moment, shadows hide me from my warriors.
The other members of the war party have retreated to the nearby meadow to cook supper and tell stories, each tryingas I amto forget the horror that surrounds him. My thoughts drift and, as always, return to her.
... long naked legs whispering through the spring grass ... pearl-colored Cloud People scudding overhead. Struggling for air, for more of her. Floating weightlessly through the deep wildflower-scented afternoons, her lips upon my body like fire.
I'm shaking. I cast a glance over my shoulder to make certain no one iswatching me. I am a deputy war chief. I cannot afford weakness. Dozens of campfires glitter. Here and there, men laugh, and their breath condenses in the cold air and glides across the fire-dyed meadow.
Beyond the warriors, near the river, the captives sit roped together, shivering, gazing around with wide, stunned eyes. Four women and eleven children. I have counted the children over and over. In the morning they will be marched off to alien villages, adopted into strange new clans, or killed, as suits the whims of the matrons. The sight always sickens me. As a boy, my village was attacked and I was captured. I know from the inside what it feels like ... and the utter despair still haunts me. To this day, I refuse to take captives, which does not endear me to the clan matrons of the Standing Stone People. Many times my warriors have voted me war chief, but the matrons refuse to allow it. They say I am not ready.
They are right.
I clench my fists and turn my gaze to the burning village, where flames still leap through the charred husks of twelve longhouses. We arrived this afternoon. Well thought out, every possible permutation calculated and planned for by War Chief Deru, our victory required only three hands of time. Most of the villagers were still in their bedding hides, sick with the unknown fever that ravages the land. They barely put up a fight.
On the canvas of my souls I see it all again: the assault, pouring the pine pitch at the base of the palisade, setting the fires, people fleeing in all directions, arrows cutting them down like blades of grass beneath finely flaked chert scythes.
This is a Flint People village. Blessed gods, if they ever find out I was among the war partyif she ever finds outmy life will not be worth the price of a wooden bead. Even if the Flint matrons do not believe hunting me down is worth the lives it would costfor I am a formidable warriorshe will be coming. She can't let me live, not after his. Not after the promises I made.
... I requicken in you the great soul of Dekanawida ... .
The dread emptiness that often assaults warriors when the battle is done filters through me. I lean more heavily against the boulder and concentrate on breathing, just breathing. Empty cadences of the river babbling over rocks penetrate the night.
Only three moons ago, the Flint People were our allies. We fought together, lived together, protected each other's villages from the marauding Mountain People who sought to kill us all and take our lands. When the matrons ordered this attack, I was stunned, as were many, including War Chief Deru. Our people have suffered many losses in the ongoing war, and each has to be replaced. Every warrior understands that this is accomplishedthrough adoption. Captives are taken and marched home, the best selected, and put in line for the Requickening Ceremony. During the ritual, the souls of lost loved ones are raised up and transferred to the living body of the captive, along with the name of the deceased. When relatives have their families back, it eases their grief, and restores the spiritual strength of the clan.
I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. When I lower it, I stop to stare at the blood that cakes my fingers. Some of the people who lived in this village were her relatives. Her clan.
... Sunlight filtered through the scent of her hair. Flesh coming alive, the open lips that touch mine like an unslaked summer, the heart-wrenching safety of her arms enough to convince me to forsake my own people.
"Blessed gods, stop it," I murmur with hushed violence.
When the war ends, perhaps ... But, no, that will never happen. Not after tonight. And the war isn't going to end. Great Grandmother Earth has been growing progressively colder and drier for longer than I have been alive, at least twenty-three summers, which means our corn, beans, and squash crops rarely mature. As a result we are forced to hunt and fish harder. After many summers of desperation, most of the deer are gone, the lakes fished out. The only solution is to take what we need from our enemies.
Or so the matrons tell us.
When I refused to obey the order to accompany this war party, High Matron Kittle called a special council meeting of the allied villages. What the council decided was law. "Alliances are quicksand, always shifting. You know that, Sky Messenger. We must all do our duties, including you. Don't you care about your people?"
" ... You're the only man I've ever trusted. From this time forward, you are one of my people. Her sudden embrace like wind ransacking the forest ... ears roar. Later, pawpaws baked in hot ashes ... happier than at any other time in my life ..."
Two men rise from their cook fire and stretch their tired muscles. Deerbone stilettos, war axes, and clubs bristle on their belts. Every man carries in his bosom the idea of the knife and axe. How can he even think of peace when the thrill of victory beckons?
Someone makes a joke. Laughter erupts, but it is uneasy, filled with nerves and exhaustion.
When a low growl rumbles in Gitchi's throat, I reach down and pat the old wolf's grey head. He is staring out at the battlefield, his yellow eyes bright, fixed on something I do not see. "It's all right, Gitchi. Everything is"
The words die in my throat. There, at the edge of the burning village, wreathed in blowing smoke, stands a dark wraith, his black buckskin cape flapping around his tall body. The ancient, tarnished copper beads that ring his collar flash blue in the firelight. He turns to gaze directly at me, and the hair at the nape of my neck prickles. His hood is pulled up. Inside, where his face should be, it is blacker than black, like a bottomless chasm.
The figure looks one last time at the destroyed village, then turns away so gracefully I swear it is not tethered to the ground. It glides northward, toward the worst part of the battlefield.
My gaze tracks it.
The figure stops at the edge of the clearing where the cries of the wounded are unbearable. Soon, after my warriors have had suppers and drunk their fill of water, they will return here to dispatch those still alive and strip their corpses of valuables. For now, the field appears to be alive with gigantic beetles. Humped shapes crawl, topple, struggle up again. Probably trying to reach injured loved ones.
The figure turns to stare at me expectantly. What is it he wants me to ...?
Flashes catch my eye. Curious, I walk away from the fires to see better.
When I stand alone in the blackness, the blood seems to drain out of my body, leaving me ice cold and staring fixedly at the battlefield littered with dead. Lights rise from the corpses, hundreds of them. Some shoot away into the heavens and blend with the Path of Souls, the star road that the Flint People call the Road of Light. That shining path leads to the Land of the Dead. Others bounce around as though not sure where they are or what has happened.
For a timeless moment, I cannot move.
Exhausted men who've been living horror for moons often see things that are not there. I back away and shake myself. It's the exhaustion, war fatigue.
Four bucks appear at the far edge of the clearing. As though they've absorbed the firelight, their thick coats flicker and their antler tips shine like points of flame.
When the bucks trot out onto the battlefield and begin tossing their heads as they chase the lights, everything in me longs to cry out.
The People of the Standing Stone believe that the souls of the dead must travel the sky road to reach the afterlife, but sometimes, especially after a long illness, souls become lost. The Spirit lights roam about in confusion, weeping. When the deer hear them, they run at them, catch them in their antlers, and throw them up into the heavens where the Spirits can see the Path of Souls and begin their journey to the Land of the Dead.
A child sobs, jerking my attention back to the captives. I glance from them to the wandering souls of the dead and back. My veins are on fire.
My Spirit Helper once told me that before a man crosses the bridge to the afterlife, he must discover what he's running from and why. My gaze rivets on a boy of perhaps eleven summers. His face is terror. It might as well be my own facetwelve summers ago. I know that's what I'm running from, and have been for more than half my life. I've never truly been able to come to terms with what happened to me. The only one who ever understood was Baji. She stood guard over my pain like Hadui, Wind Woman's angry son who controls the violent winds. Any man who dared to criticize me had to face her wrath, and few were brave enough.
My feet begin to walk of their own accord. Without realizing it, I find myself loping through the trees with Spirit lights bobbing around me. Are they following me? When the two guards in front of the captives see me coming, they tip their heads.
I lift a hand and casually kneel by the oldest woman to test her ropes. A moan escapes her lips. She has a wrinkled oval face with graying black hair and the hateful eyes of a caged she-wolf.
Barely audible, I say, "Every man here is dead tired."
This is a dream. I'm not really betraying my people.
She stares at me with her jaw clenched.
I pull a hafted chert knife from my belt and slip it into her fingers. "Wait for the right moment."
My clan will hunt me down and kill me for this.
A soft gleam swells in the darkness around me, and I realize the Spirit lights have gathered like fireflies to watch me. They blink and twinkle.
Am I dead? Was I killed in the battle, and I am actually one of them, but do not yet realize it?
The elder's expression slackens as her hand goes tight around the knife. "Is this some trick?"
I do not answer, but rise and walk over to the two guards. "Utz, Hannock, you must both be starving. Why don't you go eat? I'll take this watch."
A grin crosses Utz's face. His two front teeth rotted out long ago, leaving ugly gaps. As he ties his war club to his belt, his blue knee-length cape sways around his stumpy legs. "It's about time. I was thinking about fainting to get someone's attention."
Hannock chuckles. "One of these days, your stomach is going to be your doom."
Utz replies, "Only if it's empty, and I strive never to allow that tohappen." He slaps me on the shoulder. "Thank you, Deputy. We'll return as soon as we can."
I wave an unconcerned hand. "Take your time. After you eat, you might want to scavenge the battlefield before anyone else has a chance to make off with the best items."
Hannock, a youth of seventeen summers with long black hair, gives me a conspiratorial smile. "We appreciate that. Shall we bring you something?"
"Only if you happen upon a nice pair of seashell earrings for my little sister."
Hannock laughs. "We'll see what we can find."
They head straight for the closest cook pot. As they kneel in the circle of warriors and begin filling wooden bowls, the rich scent of cornmeal mush flavored with dried plums and hickory nuts wafts on the breeze. Utz must have said something amusing; the men throw back their heads and laugh.
I turn to the woman. She is staring fixedly at me, as though she suddenly thinks she knows me. In a whisper, she asks, "Aren't you Dekanawida? The man who was to marry Chief Cord's adopted daughter, Baji?" Perhaps forty summers old, she must be a clan leader. Of course she knows me. All gazes are focused on her, as though awaiting instructions. My Flint name moves through the women.
"Dekanawida ... It's Dekanawida ..."
I say only, "Be patient."
The boy glances between us. The soot that coats his oval face is tear-streaked. All of the children looked starved, their faces gaunt. Several are sick. Coughs puncture the night. The boy leans toward the woman and whispers, "Mother? What's happening? Who is he?"
She swiftly saws through her ropes and shifts to work on the boy's. When he's free, she gives him the knife and says, "Cut the ropes of the person next to you, then keep passing the knife down the line. No one is to make a sound or move until I say so." She glares sternly. "Do you understand, my son?"
The boy swallows hard. "Mother, we can't run! There are too many of them. They'll slaughter us!"
She lifts her eyes to me, and for a long time our gazes hold. Of course she doesn't trust me. How can she? But I am her only hope, and she knows it. I can see that truth clearly on her face. Perhaps, she is also praying that I still have a sense of loyalty to her people.
"What will you give to save these children?" I ask.
"Whatever I have to. Just tell me what to do, Cousin."
She has just called in family obligations. As I rise to my feet, the world takes on a gauzy dreamlike appearance. The firelight blurs. Whatever I do in the next few moments will determine my fate forever. I can no longer see her clearly. Her wrinkled face is nothing more than an indistinct splotch in the night. I have experienced this strange blindness and disorientation before, after being struck in the head by a war club. Is that what happened? At this very instant I'm lying on the ground, struggling to wake? "Someone must be sacrificed. Probably two of you. Decide now which of you is willing to die."
The elder turns to the woman next to her. She does not have to ask. The woman swallows hard and whispers, "Of course."
The elder turns back and gives me a barely discernible nod.
Copyright © 2011 by Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear