In the deepening dusk of the 23rd day of the Moon of First Cutting, Isis Two Feathers sat her steel gray stallion quietly, studying the forbidding forest wall that slashed dark and deadly across her army’s line of advance, no more than two long bowshots distant. Ground bows, not the shorter horse bows. Save for the forward scouts, bellied low in the tall prairie grasses, none would be allowed closer until shooting light in the hour before dawn. The accursed Rimlanders had proven their ability to reach out and touch their enemies with sharp steel broadheads twenty years ago; the scar across the outer side of her right arm reminded her of that fact every day.
Seventeen years of age she had been then, aide de camp to her mother, the renowned Skye Two Feathers. The young Isis’s injury had gotten infected, relegating her to the rear of the column for medical attention on that final day. She could not release herself from the shame of it, the shame of failing to be at her commander’s side. Had she been, she would have died as well, cut down in some of the fiercest hand to hand fighting either Blakto or Rimlander had ever seen. She should have died; it was a stain on her on her honor that she lived.
Not that any of this showed on the surface. A leader of the greatest people ever to walk the Land could not afford to let her emotions be seen by her followers. Even showing weakness to her enemies would be better than that. A little better. Maybe.
Inwardly, though, she sighed as she turned Steel to ride back a few hundred paces. Her personal camp slaves, their tongues removed and the males neutered in accordance with tradition, had finished setting up the headquarters tent in a small hollow that hid them from the sight of their enemies. Hid them, that is, from everything except the observers she knew watched from Wing Peak, and even the Peak’s magic glass would not be able to see them once full dark had fallen. At least, she didn’t think it would. Wing Holder’s magic was strong; he had continually surprised her people in ugly ways for a long time now. But the half moon would not be up for hours yet. She would assume they still had a bit of invisibility on their side until disabused of the notion.
Her wrangler, his left forearm marked with the three star brand of his profession, took the reins of her fiery mount without comment. That was also as it should be; he was employed to care for her horses, not make conversation. Except with the horses; the three star man spoke softly and often with them.
Inside the great tent, the fires were lit, smoke holes drawing flame and fumes alike upward. Her war cabinet members rose to their feet as one, inclining their heads fractionally in acknowledgement of her superiority. She nodded more deeply in return–tacit recognition that she served at their pleasure, though none of them would have cared to see her supplanted. Thus far at least, she had continued the tradition of her ancestors, bringing ever greater honor and power to her tribe. Any of the Secretaries might be willing, even eager, to plunge a knife into the back of a failing Chieftess, but she hadn’t failed yet. Lack of success in conquering the hated Rimlanders did not count; no Blakto leader had ever penetrated to the soft center of the Bowl where riches beyond imagining lay around for the taking.
She intended to change that, and soon.
“Creech report first,” she nodded to the burly man seated three spots to her left. Eleven female cabinet members out of seventeen total, but never a woman in charge of the hated bugs. The creech were anathema to women; a bug rider experiencing her menses triggered an insane feeding frenzy in the alien monsters. Bite me, Jonna One Crow had told her mount when it showed signs of being restive, and the creech had done just that. It had also torn her apart and swallowed her, piece by bloody piece. They’d had to destroy the damn bug after that, of course; once the pseudo-mantids tasted human blood, all bets were off. Which made them doubly tricky to handle in the sound and fury of combat, though their miniscule brains did seem capable of discerning between enemies they’d killed and friendly wounded.
Usually, they did. There was no guarantee, even of that.
The Creechmaster–no one knew any other name for the fellow who’d come with the war bugs in the trade she’d made with the Atlaa people–spoke calmly, his manner dry as dust. “Ninety-three mounts remain capable of fighting in the morning,” he said, not bothering to mention that the long march had killed twenty-seven. Creech were formidable in combat, but they were never designed for long distance travel, day in and day out. “Their riders are all functional as well, the only question marks being two who are beginning to show signs of dementia. Early signs; not enough to keep them from combat.” Observers felt the telepathic link between creech and rider caused that early failure of the human mind. The bugs were certainly not from the Land in the beginning. Their brain structures were different–very different–and the strain of connection wore their human counterparts down, some sooner than others.
“Better than I had dared hope,” Isis nodded, accepting the man’s report. What she really hoped, of course, was that Wing Holder somehow found a way to kill all of the blasted things. She didn’t like having to use the monsters, but her cabinet had been outrageously enthused about the possibility of throwing a weapon at Wing Peak that could not be countered. They might have mutinied, or at least thought about it, which was nearly as bad. Better to concede graciously, acknowledge the possible advantages of trading for these things, then plant seeds that–if the bugs failed–would sprout and grow rapidly.
She’d done all that. Hopefully, it would be enough.
“Troopmaster, you’re up next.”
The TM would have been a surprise in any other war based society. Trim, fit, a dark eyed beauty who’d be worth a thousand horse bride price if she ever put herself on the market, Coral Waving Grass had an unbelievable amount of responsibility for a girl who’d passed her eighteenth bornday on the march from the home prairies. Among the River Eyes band of the Blakto Nation, though, she was simply acknowledged for her skills. A dream reader, that one, with an eye for battle formations and the ability to organize and outfit fighting people–men and women alike–with an apparent ease that entirely belied the difficulty of the task.
“Nineteen thousand and change–”
“Precisely, Coral. Please.”
“Aye, Chieftess. My apologies. There are 19,473 fighting men and women–that’s not counting support personnel–available for combat. Three thousand of those are highly trained She Bears, led by twenty-eight Ladies of the Last, veterans of the last attempt to take the mountain passes. Six thousand initial shock troops. Seven thousand, four hundred and nine cavalry, four thousand of those being throwaways if you choose to use them in that manner.”
She went on, detailing numbers and formations, until Isis raised a hand. “Enough. The hour is early, but I suggest we turn in for the night. We shall sing our night songs, for tomorrow we may die. Angel of the Path, will you lead the closing prayer?”
A short, stocky, brown haired woman at the far side of the circle rose to her feet, lifting her hands in supplication as she began the chant. Everyone else remained seated but joined her in the recital, eighteen voices in all, their dedication lifted on the smoke of the fires to soar through the smoke holes and into the night sky, reverently seeking the ears of the Land God.
O ye who watch what mortals do, yet do not interfere
Lend us now your seeing eye, your sharp discerning ear
We seek redress for ancient wrong, the Holder name of Wing
Whose deep and evil cunning mind would seek to make him king
Our Saint Berea, she of old, whose beauty blessed the Land
Offered half of all she had to one mere mortal man
Yet half was not enough for him, and thus he stole the Light
That kept Berea ever young; she aged into the night
To this day that demon blood still walks in seeming health
Stolen time he did not earn, thus falsifying wealth
Wing must die, the Light return, River Eyes rejoice
We speak it then, we speak it now, one comprehensive voice
That was it. By custom, Isis left first, her bodyguards flanking her as she sought her own personal tent, her soft blankets. No heavy robes this night; the season was too far along for the night to be unduly cool.
Inside the tent, not even her guards were allowed; only her favorite attendant accompanied her here. “I used to believe every word of that prayer,” she muttered. “Took it on faith. Felt the truth of it in my bones. Now I begin to wonder. Blasphemy no doubt, thoughts like that. Blasphemy. Some magical technology Wing Holder stole from my great great grandmother? Some device that keeps him young while everyone else dies around him? Bah! Perfumed rubbish. I’m sure you agree, eh, Ranel?”
The attendant, a boy–well, a eunuch–some twelve years of age…he nodded in agreement, having nothing to say. He never did, having lost his tongue at the same time he lost his cojones. A pretty little thing, this Ranel. He knelt obediently to help her remove her riding boots, and she ruffled his curly brown hair affectionately. “Yes, of course you agree. You’re a wise one, you are. Wiser than our people, I’d say. Wiser by far. You wouldn’t be fool enough to believe that a man could live for more than a hundred years, magical technology or no magical technology. Bet you a perfectly broiled goose breast to a pile of pigeon poop, it’s a matter of body doubles. One Wing Holder starts to get too old, the next one takes over. A son or nephew or some such, somebody who can–perhaps with a bit of makeup–pass for the older, dying man. Wing Holder is a title only, my sweet Ranel, not a man. There can be no such man.”
Musing, she added, “The title alone is trouble enough, though. That, and his accursed Wing Peak observatory. All we have to do is take the Peak, Ranel, and we throw everyone into a state of confusion. With that, we’ll punch through Fear Pass Gap like an arrow through deerhide, and the Bowl will be ours. The Bowl, and the destruction of a myth, the myth of an immortal. Immortal!” She spat on the bearskin rug covering the floor. The boy eunuch would clean it up later; her spittle was no concern of hers.
“Turn out the light, Ranel,” she ordered, “and curl up near the foot of my cot as usual. I may need you to fetch me the chamber pot before daylight, or perhaps a slice of roast pork. There are still some of those left, I think.” With that, she drifted off, sleeping the sleep of the just as only a woman who knows herself to be in the right can do.
With the lamp turned down so that the wick barely glowed–the young slave would not care to risk his owner’s wrath should it take him too long to bring light later, should she awaken before reveille as she usually did–there was no one to see the eyes of the juvenile eunuch, eyes that bored into the back of Isis Two Feathers as she slept unaware. He had no tongue. He had no balls. He had no memory of his family, he had been taken so young. He had no weapon, at least nothing that could kill a trained warrior woman silently. He did not even have any education, no ability to read or write or do numbers.
But he had hate, and he had patience. Hard learned at such a young age, that latter, but he had it, and that was what mattered. His chance would come.
The undisputed Chieftess of the River Eyes Blakto knew nothing of this. It was beneath her to even notice the emotions of a mere slave, and a child at that. She remained ignorant…yet after a time, she shivered in her sleep, as if the night had turned out cooler than she’d expected.
An hour before reveille, she was up, dressed, and had dismissed her slave attendant. No one, other than immediate family, could be allowed to witness her daily contemplation of the Book Heart.
Every free warrior of the River Eyes carried one such on her person at all times, of course. A woman of unimaginative mind, she knew, often settled on a single book, finding a passage that spoke deeply to her during adolescence when such habits were formed and never deviating for the rest of her life. Men, of course, being closer to the animals of the prairies, were neither required nor expected to choose a Heart, a series of key pages that spoke to them, carefully copied in their own hands to provide anchor points throughout their lives. For that matter, many men of the River Eyes never learned how to read at all, following the practice of far too many male dominated Blakto peoples. But it was the heart of the book, the Book Heart, that centered the clear minds of her River Eyes. No leader among them would remain leader for long without that centering, that strength.
Isis was not one to remain stuck at a single level of consciousness, a certain way of thinking. More than most, she changed Book Hearts from time to time as the need struck her. This slim volume had been with her for more than a year, though.
She settled in the camp chair, at peace with herself and the Universe, reading silently.
I stumbled, my strength giving way at last, and fell face first in the snow. It was warmer than the air this subzero winter day, but the weather was not my concern. My fight with the mountain lion had left me raked in any number of places, but especially across my left thigh, and the blood trail from that was what would now usher me to the Great Elsewhere. I did not think I had killed the big cat. Most likely, I had not even severely wounded it, but it had turned away from me at the end, more interested in the carcass of my horse than in the woman who screamed and bit back with her own long tooth.
My weapons and provisions were with Dancer, the flashy little palomino mare who would dance no more, save only if they had horses in the Great Elswehere. I chose to believe they did, and that I would be seeing her soon, once the wolves were done with me.
Raising my head–a task unto itself–I could see I was not going to make it. The tree line, the edge of the forest filled with lodge pole pine trees and any number of deadfalls…had I managed to reach those, I could have made it tougher for the pack. Found a tangle of downed forest giants to guard my back, perhaps even a broken branch to poke in the faces of the wolves as they charged. That I could have killed even one of them was a foolish dream, but it would have been my dream, could I but have reached the trees.
It was not to be. Even alone and unmolested, there was no strength left in me to reach the timber. There was barely enough left to keep the grip on my belt knife, but keep it I did. They had followed the blood trail, the wolf people had, easy as falling off a log for them. I might as well have kept on screaming as I had in my fight with the cougar, shouting invitation. Come eat me! I am down, there is little blood left in me for you to drink, but the meat should be fresh and sweet! I am but fifteen years of age, old and tough for one of you, yet young and succulent for a two legged! Come! Come taste my flesh!
They circled me in the dusk, still keeping their distance. Not for long would they do that, but their leader was a huge gray male, neither white nor black as the subjects of the tales seemed ever to be, a giant among wolves whose shoulder would have stood level with my waist, at least. I did not think even one of the wolfhounds of the far eastern lands could have taken this one. He was old and wise, not yet fading, in his full prime. A king of wolves such as this one did not rise to such prominence by accident; he would make no mistakes.
Frankly, I should have seen it as an honor to die by the fangs of such a one, but then, did the fawn consider it an honor? The jack rabbit or cottontail or even the careless elk, did they feel honored? I thought not–though with the blood loss and my heaving breath from the effort of running, it was not easy to think at all.
The wolves circled, and I waited in the snow, unable to rise even to my knees, propped up on one elbow. They would try to keep my attention focused one way while a member of the pack slipped in from behind to strike my neck. Had I been able to stand erect, they would have worked to hamstring me, but I was already down, food on the table, ready to serve.
Deep in my throat, I growled, and proud of myself for it. The growl had come of its own accord; I had not whimpered; I was a warrior woman of the River Eyes Blakto, daughter to the great Cloud Spinner Two Feathers, and I would not go gently into the fierce night.
And in that moment, that very instant, I found myself hallucinating. The wolves ceased their pacing. Their eyes followed something they’d not seen before, something that startled them. I heard a soft crunch in the snow, a sound never made by the relatively small feet of a timber wolf, a sound made only by man. Or woman, yet I was somehow certain this new presence was male. How he had walked through the wolf circle, I could not comprehend, yet he had. I felt him looming over me and realized with sheer disbelief that he now stood astride my prone body. I should have slashed upward, perhaps, unmanned him; a strange man on the prairies was likely to represent little better in the way of fate than a pack of hungry wolves.
To my shame, I did nothing at all–and yet, looking back, I believe that was exactly the right thing to do.
His voice broke the silence. A strong voice, neither fierce nor commanding, simply calm and sure; he might have been commenting on the weather. “Ho, brothers,” he said, and I knew he addressed the wolves. Risking a quick glance upward–I had yet strength enough to turn my head that much–I saw the converging pillars of two strong, buckskin-clad legs and a pair of gloved hands gripping what appeared to be a stout quarterstaff. I wondered to myself, that this man thought his staff could defeat a dozen of the wolf people in hunt mode. If so, he must be a wizard with that stick.
And then I heard a double -snick!- sound, first one and then another. The staff was twirling slowly, almost lazily, in his hands–and it was no longer a mere quarterstaff. From each end projected a blade, appearing to be slim yet strong steel, double edged and perhaps eighteen inches in length. These blades passed at an angle in front of me, and up a bit, as the fearsome weapon spun its orbit.
“Brother,” the man said again, this time clearly speaking to the wolf king rather than to the entire pack, “I would rather not kill you, or your mate, or any of your family. I know you have followed this one’s trail. But this one is mine. Know me, know that if we must contest the prize, there will be much blood on the snow, and some of it belonging to wolves.”
Then he paused, his weapon slowly spinning in his hands, simply waiting, waiting as if he believed the wolf people could look into his own reality, waiting as if he had all the time in the world for them to decide.
I have always thought it was close, closer than two lovers in the night, the decision that great gray wolf finally made. Dusk was deepening; he could simply wait, and the human with his sharp stick would not be able to see the pack as they closed for the kill. Or he could choose to ignore the man’s warning; it was not like the two legged held bow and arrow in his hands, capable of killing at a distance, and he could not possibly cover his own back while protecting the fallen girl. Yet in the end, as darkness deepened and made it more difficult to observe, the giant among wolves simply nodded–I swear to any who read this, yes, he nodded his head–and then, tongue lolling in a wolfie grin, he led his people away to hunt other game in the night, game that did not present the likelihood of harm to his people. That wolf was a great leader.
The last animal’s hindquarters were just disappearing from view when consciousness left me, and I knew no more.
When I came to, it was with a scream that must have been heard for miles. The pain in my leg was unbelievable. My eyes flew open, and I struggled to move but could not. I was tied down, secured to a wooden framework of some sort, except for my left leg, which the cougar had torn and which the man was now holding firmly.
“It was broken,” he said simply. “I’ve set the bone. You must remain absolutely still while I splint it. Can you do that?”
My heart thudded back into my chest, and I managed a weak “yes”, which seemed to please him. I could see we were in a tiny hut of some sort. A debris hut, backed up against one of the deadfalls I’d been trying to reach before…. There was a fire, too, a small one so as not to set our survival shelter ablaze, with a smoke hole at the top of the shelter. How had he done all that, and so quickly? I was mystified.
“How….” My voice croaked. “How long?”
“It’s somewhere around the second hour past deepnight, I think,” he replied. “Hard to be certain. The storm hit. We’re pretty well snowed in for now.”
“I feel–wait. You say my leg is broken?”
“Yep. I heard your fight with the mountain cat. Heck, half the territory probably heard that. You made it more than a mile, to within thirty yards of deep cover, on a busted bone and bleeding like a stuck pig. I didn’t expect to find you alive,” he shrugged, a realist about the ways of nature, “but you’re one tough cookie.”
“Tough cookie,” I murmered, tasting the unfamiliar term. Judging by the firelight, this man was old, as old as my grandfather perhaps, but his voice and carriage, the surety of his movements, were those of a much younger person. I could not categorize him.
Even this much conversation had weakened me, though, and I fell silent. His accent was strange, perhaps that of the mountain people, though I’d not had much to do with them. My mother traded there, sometimes. He’d cut away my buckskins from the damaged area on that left leg. The splints he rigged were not unlike those used by our people, padded with strips cut from my own pants leg, wrapped and strapped with more, narrower strips. When he was done, he untied me from the sleeping platform, helped me sit upright, and gently urged a bowl of strong broth–venison, I thought–down my throat.
And then I was gone again, wondering. Our people do not trust strangers easily if at all, yet I could not find it in me to fear this man. In truth, I felt safer than I had since first embarking on my rite of passage, alone on the prairie for however long it took. Seventeen days ago, that had been, or seventeen lifetimes, depending on your perspective….
The three-toned whistle of reveille sounded. Isis Two Feathers came out of her reverie; she had been entirely lost in the Book Heart as usual. She had been there. Every time she read the passage, and the passages that followed, she experienced the Heart through the eyes of Cloud Spinner’s daughter. Written by a River Eyes named Ground Water, it was one of dozens of fiction tomes out there, each of them an author’s flight of fancy, each claiming to be the authoritative account of the first meeting between young Berea Two Feathers and the ancient Wing Holder. In her heart, Isis suspected this was the real account–and that she herself was Berea reincarnated.
Tucking the Book Heart away in its pouch, she stretched and prepared to go eat breakfast, picking up her guard escort as she left the tent. There would be red meat on the menu this day as the Blakto prepared to assault Fear Pass Gap for the first time in twenty years, and for the first time with Isis herself in overall command of the attacking forces.
Fraud or not, she thought, staring toward the tree line that had turned her people back time and again, you and I, Wing Holder, have unfinished business.