How do you say no to a god?
The god incarnate, Morning Star, sets his human sister Night Shadow Star and her slave Fire Cat on a dangerous journey to the edge of their world. For their brother, Walking Smoke, still lives…and is a madman who is convinced that he is the true deity destined to rule Cahokia.
Night Shadow Star has her own agenda; the Underworld Lord Piasa has promised that if she and Fire Cat succeed with his agenda, they might become nameless, clanless, and worthless. And thus free.
But the treacherous Tenasee River that they must travel holds its own perils. And at the end of the journey, Walking Smoke prepares to spring his trap.
Star Path, the fourth book in the Gears’ People of Cahokia series, provides us with a rare look into the mystical underpinnings of Native American culture and the founding of Mississippian civilization.
About the Author
Kathleen O'Neal Gear is a former state historian and archaeologist for Wyoming, Kansas, and Nebraska for the U.S. Department of the Interior. She has twice received the federal government's Special Achievement Award for "outstanding management" of America's cultural heritage.
The Gears's North America's Forgotten Past novels include Star Path, Moon Hunt, Sun Born, and People of the Songtrail.
Read an Excerpt
"He is waiting for you." Piasa's words sounded so crystal clear in the night. They snapped Night Shadow Star out of a deep sleep. The Spirit Beast's mouth might have been but a finger's width from her ear.
She blinked in the darkness, her thoughts unusually sharp after being roused from such a deep slumber.
Images flashed. The memories like second sight. Given the intensity and clarity of their details, she might have just stepped from Matron Columella's burning palace in Evening Star Town. What she'd seen inside the blazing inferno haunted her: blood everywhere — a scarlet intensity as it soaked into the woven mat covering the floor.
And there, laid out in a bizarre pattern, were pieces of Lace's body. The tiny bits of arm, leg, head, and torso had been hacked from the fetus Lace had carried inside her. Each of the parts had been placed just so to create a partial circle — the beginnings of a portal that her brother believed would have allowed the Powers of the Underworld to flow upward into the Sky World.
In the middle of the carnage, staring at her with gleaming and predatory eyes, a smile of anticipation on his bloody lips, stood her brother, Walking Smoke. Blood smeared his naked skin, partially obscuring where it had been painted in magical designs. The long chipped-stone ceremonial knife was held as if to mimic his straining and erect penis.
Walking Smoke had indicated that partial circle of body parts on the floor. "The sacred opening, like that wonderful sheath of yours, Sister. The passage of life through which Piasa's souls will emerge in order to consume my body."
He had believed that. Thought that through ritual he could call Piasa's Spirit from the Underworld, that he could trap the Underwater Panther's essence inside his own flesh as Black Tail had first done with the Morning Star.
Memories. Just memories.
Night Shadow Star stared up at the dark ceiling above her bed and replayed the events of that terrible day. She'd managed to defeat Walking Smoke. At Piasa's whispered command, she had accompanied her brother as he fled the burning palace. Lured Walking Smoke out onto the river and distracted him. She had loathed every moment of it. The first time her brother had raped her had been so hideous, so terrible, that she'd denied herself the memory — buried it so deeply down between her souls it had taken Piasa and Horned Serpent's Underworld Power to make her recall. Had that day started it all? Her violation, first by the newly reincarnated Morning Star, and then, within mere hands of time, by a jealous Walking Smoke? Was that the moment that forever set the three of them on this path that would end in the destruction of one or more of them?
That day on the river she'd sought to end it all, stripped, offered herself to Walking Smoke once their canoe was well out in the Father Water's current. She could almost feel her brother's chilled body as he crawled on top of her. Rain was beating down in a hard and pounding cadence. She had heaved violently at his touch. In the last instant before he had driven himself into her, she had capsized the canoe.
In the icy river's depths, Night Shadow Star had struggled, his hands clasped tight on her throat ...
"He knows you are coming."
Piasa flickered at the edge of Night Shadow Star's vision, a flash of glowing blue light in the darkness of her room. It no longer bothered her that no one else saw the Spirit Beast or heard its voice when it spoke to her. Most of her family and associates had taken for granted that she was possessed. That the creature owned her souls and used her for its own purposes.
"It's up to me to destroy him," she said aloud as she stared at the darkness of her sleeping quarters. "The three of us, Morning Star, me, and Walking Smoke, we're caught in a terrible triangle. Brothers and sister, torn between Sky and Underworld Power, locked in a combat of possession, jealousy, and incest."
Piasa hissed his agreement. She caught flickers of his movement among the shadows as he darted between her storage boxes.
"Lady?" Fire Cat's voice asked from her doorway. "Did you say something?"
"Piasa says that Walking Smoke knows I'm coming."
Fire Cat stepped in, seated himself at the foot of her bed. Bound to her by oath, he was in his early thirties, muscular. In the dark she couldn't see his pink, healing scars.
"How can he? Some agent of his? A spy who sent word? Even then, he's half a world away."
"He can feel the Power. Can feel me."
"Your family line is tangled in Power like a flock of birds in a net." He paused, and she could imagine his smile. Then he said, "That or madness."
"Is there a difference?"
"Lady, I no longer know. I have trouble accepting that your other brother, Chunkey Boy, really plays host to the souls of the Morning Star. After our journey to the Underworld, he taunted me. Told me outright that he was manipulating me for his own ends."
"Is it really so hard for you to believe that Morning Star is the resurrected god?"
"I don't waste my time questioning. I have other more pressing concerns."
"The journey to Cofitachequi? The knowledge that Walking Smoke knows I'm coming?"
"That's for later. My immediate concern, along with the preparations for the journey, is that you turned away two runners yesterday. One from Clan Matron Rising Flame, and the other from your betrothed."
"Don't call Spotted Wrist my betrothed."
"Your clan matron has ordered you to marry him."
She felt the tightening in her chest, the fear that Fire Cat might be right. That somehow, some way, Rising Flame and Spotted Wrist would manage to force her to marry before she could escape downriver. It would be done through trickery, some threat. A manipulation that made her choose between two intolerable situations.
"There are whispers." She reached out in the darkness, laid her fingers on his knee. Felt his instant reaction, as if a charge had run through his muscles. Her own body quickened at the contact, brief as it was. This small intimacy was all that she would allow herself.
"Whispers?" he asked somewhat hoarsely.
"That we spend every spare moment with our loins locked together. That their spies can't prove it? I think that drives them half mad."
He was silent for a time, thinking — no doubt as she was — about the bargain she'd struck with Piasa. Saving her world had come at a price. She might love this former enemy and slave of hers more than life itself, but the choice had been Fire Cat, or her city. Trained to rule, she'd chosen her people over the man she loved.
"Lady, we have mere days before the canoes, provisions, and warriors will be assembled to take us east. Rising Flame and Spotted Wrist will have to move quickly. Spotted Wrist needs your name and standing to solidify his position. If he marries you, he joins the most powerful family in the city. That you have spurned him for so long has become an affront. People are talking about it. Makes him look weak, undesirable. For the Hero of the North, that must burn like cactus thorns in an open wound."
"He is placing as many of his people as he can in our expedition. Fire Claw has been replaced by Squadron First Blood Talon and his picked men. All veterans from the Red Wing campaign. I would hope that you won't let them provoke you."
"I have made my peace with what happened at Red Wing Town. How they dealt with my family. Power was at work. Shaping me. I shall not let them use my weaknesses against you."
And people wonder why I love this man?
"Once again, Fire Cat, we are being tested. I have dreamed of you and me, alone in the forest, on a small farmstead. Just the two of us and our children. Living by ourselves, growing our own food." A pause. "We are so happy."
"I know that dream."
"If we do this, if we destroy Walking Smoke, Piasa says there may be a way for us. A chance that the dream might become a reality."
She saw his head lower, as if considering very carefully. "You would do that? Leave your life here? Become nameless, a dirt farmer without fine dresses, without servants and porters?"
"Are you happy, Fire Cat?"
"Only to serve you, Lady."
"As long as I am Lady Night Shadow Star, they will be trying to marry me off to someone I cannot abide. As long as I am that woman, I remain a tool that Piasa can use for his purposes. Maybe if I were nameless, clanless, and worthless to them, they would let me be free."
"It is a wonderful dream, isn't it?"
She heard Piasa's mocking laughter coming from the corner of the room.
The Spirit Beast's sibilant whisper carried in the night: "The most insidious deceit comes from the lies you tell yourself." A pause. "In the meantime, be careful. They will try to use the Red Wing against you."
"What?" Fire Cat asked, recognizing the way she tensed.
"Piasa. He says they will try to use you against me. It's something they are plotting. Whatever happens, you must promise me that you won't play into their hands."CHAPTER 2
The new Clan Keeper, Spotted Wrist, appeared like an avenging eagle as he strode through the palisade gate that opened onto the Morning Star's high mound-top courtyard. Hard to think of him otherwise given the splays of feathers radiating from each shoulder, the feathered cape hanging down past his knees.
The first thought in Blue Heron's head was: This ought to be fun!
Blue Heron had spent most of that morning socializing with the various nobles and ambassadors who'd gathered in the high courtyard before the Morning Star's towering palace. All had dressed in their best, their faces painted, and they had outfitted themselves in finery. She might have been "demoted" from her position as Clan Keeper, but Blue Heron had prudently maintained her spy network. People still feared and respected her.
The way Spotted Wrist made his entry and strode through the crowded courtyard you'd have thought he was the living god. In his early fifties, the Hero of the North was a solid man. Muscular. In addition to the gaudy eagle-wing splays at his shoulders, a bloodred apron hung to a point between his knees. The long cloak — crafted out of a thousand painted bunting breasts — swung behind him with every step. His blocky face was filled with purpose, a tension in the set of his wide mouth and hard eyes.
At his heels followed ten of his handpicked warriors under the able command of Blood Talon — the legendary squadron first and Spotted Wrist's most trusted friend. Each of the warriors was dressed in wood-and-leather armor, every surface polished so that it shone in the morning sun. Hardened leather helmets capped their heads, and beaded forelocks swung on their foreheads. As they marched, they clasped their feather-studded arm guards against their chests; grim expressions gave them a ferocious look.
When Clan Keeper Spotted Wrist passed the massive World Tree pole that thrust up into the morning sky, he let his fingers slip across the lightning-riven wood, carved as it was with scenes from the Morning Star's life in the Beginning Times. The towering post was crafted from a giant bald cypress trunk floated up from the south.
Where she sat, her back to the Morning Star's palace wall, old Blue Heron bit her tongue — not that she had a lot of teeth left to give the action much emphasis. In her fifties now, she wore her gray hair in a tight bun at the back of her head. Until four months ago, she had been the Four Winds Clan Keeper, a position she'd held for ten more years than she had fingers and toes to count. To be supplanted by a swaggering, over-feathered spoonbill of a man like Spotted Wrist grated with the same irritating intensity that wet sand did when lodged in the delicate folds of one's private parts.
As the new Keeper approached, War Leader Five Fists emerged from Morning Star's palace, taking his place before the beautifully carved double doors.
The lop-jawed and gnarled warrior remained in charge of the living god's security — a position to which he was particularly suited given he had the same disposition as an old boar grizzly with a toothache. Morning sunlight slanted across the palisade walls to illuminate the man's weather-beaten face with its dislocated jaw. His skin, aged to dark walnut and deeply lined, made his clan tattoos illegible.
Blue Heron growled to herself as she forced her tired bones to stand. After all, she was an elder in the Morning Star House, of the Sky Moiety, of the Four Winds Clan. Sister to the Lady Wind — who served as the "great sky," or tonka'tzi, the ruler of secular Cahokia. Blue Heron's nephew, Chunkey Boy, had surrendered his body as a host for the Morning Star's reincarnated spirit.
Just because Blue Heron had been deposed from her position as Clan Keeper was no reason she shouldn't act like the noble she was.
Around her, the Earth Clans chiefs and matrons paused. All lowered their heads, placed fingers to their foreheads in a gesture of respect.
Spotted Wrist nodded in reply, his sharp eyes catching on Blue Heron's as she stood, back stiff, arms crossed, her gaze burning into his like obsidian fire.
Something flickered behind his eyes; she thought it the sort of look the renowned war leader would have given his enemies across a battlefield. He had to resent her. Of all the humans in Cahokia she knew the extent of his failures.
Blue Heron baited the man with a mocking grin and tapped her forehead in a flouting gesture that smacked of disrespect.
Spotted Wrist glared daggers at her.
Before the palace doors, Five Fists bowed and gestured that the Keeper precede him. Notably, however, Five Fists stepped between Spotted Wrist and his honor guard as they entered the great palace. An affront that turned Squadron First Blood Talon's expression black and angry. She could see the warriors, bristling, shuffling, controlling their anger as they filed through the double doors.
Following them inside the palace, Blue Heron blinked, then shuttled her way along the wall to the right, passing the opulently furnished sleeping benches, covered as they were with the finest of textiles, furs, and blankets. Packed beneath were magnificently carved and inlaid wooden storage boxes, large jars, intricately woven baskets, and the greatest concentration of accumulated wealth in the known world.
Well, at least north of the Gulf. Who knew about the Maya and those other people down south?
Blue Heron, by virtue of her rank, displaced old Kills Four, chief of the Snapping Turtle Clan of the Earth Moiety. She smiled as she indicated his place. Kills Four graciously rose and retreated to the second rank of seated people where he in turn displaced a lower-ranked chief from one of the Deer Clan lineages. That chain would follow its links down to some lesser noble who'd be forced outside.
Blue Heron seated herself, nodding to old friends, acquaintances, and enemies. She could see the curiosity in their eyes as they gazed back and forth between her and Spotted Wrist.
The new Clan Keeper had stopped just short of the great central fire. It shot flames and occasional sparks toward the high roof and illuminated the great room filled with painted and ornately attired occupants.
Young Rising Flame — high clan matron of the Four Winds Clan — stood to one side and gave Spotted Wrist a nod to acknowledge the new Keeper's arrival. Rising Flame, young, athletic, and in her twenties, remained a controversial figure as the recently appointed Four Winds Clan matron. She'd gained the position through Morning Star's intercession — a fact that still rankled in each and every one of the Four Winds ruling Houses.
No one, however, denied the living god.
One of the boys who guarded the eternal fire tossed another log onto the flames. Bright tongues of fire cast light that leaped and flickered on the ornamented walls, glinted off polished copper reliefs, caressed brightly colored wood carvings and statuary. It bathed the faces of the nobles and foreign dignitaries who were all seated, awaiting the Morning Star's entry.
And he came. Emerging from his rooms in the palace's rear as if from a cocoon. An eagle-wing splay spread wide behind his shoulders, and a quetzal-feather cloak — gift of the distant Itza — hung from his shoulders. The spotless white apron at his waist dropped to a point between his legs; scalp bundles decorated its front flap. Layers of beaded necklaces surrounded his throat, and a polished arrow-split-cloud headpiece with a soul bundle was pinned to his tightly wound hair. His face had been carefully painted black with a white forked-eye design around each eye. Shell masks covered his ears.
Here was the reincarnated god, walking among them in human form. People immediately knelt or prostrated themselves, depending on their rank.
Blue Heron merely bowed until her forehead touched the intricately woven matting upon which she sat.
The Morning Star — born of First Man and Old-Woman-Who-Never-Dies — along with his twin brother, the Wild One, had helped to destroy the monsters and establish the laws of Creation in the Beginning Times. Then his Spirit rose to join Hunga Ahuito, the two-headed eagle who ruled the realms of the Sky World.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Star Path"
Copyright © 2019 W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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