It was the morning after the big party, and Nate’s head was still swimming from the crazy locoweed he had been smoking. He stumbled, bleary-eyed, out onto his front porch and looked at the colorful tipis dotting his meadow. Tipis . . . why are there tipis dotting my meadow? He was pretty sure they hadn’t been there the night before. A few yards away a young man tending a cook fire waved and called out to him in the city folk dialect. Nate was pretty sure he was asking if he wanted breakfast, which he was quite sure he did not, at least not while his head was still performing a slow spin. He managed to wave back and say what he thought was, “No thank you.”
“Well, it looks like I have company,” he grumbled to himself and went back into his cabin to wash his face and find a shirt. He emerged again a bit later, still pretty dizzy, but slightly more presentable. Walking very carefully to prevent himself from tipping over, he arrived at the horse paddock, where he saw Ni-T’o and T’cumu watching the Raven Priestess ride Oklilinchi around in a circle at a canter. He stopped in his tracks, rubbed his eyes, and looked again to be sure. Yes, it was indeed the Raven Priestess riding Oklilinchi around in a circle at a canter. She was grinning like a kid on Christmas morning, waving merrily to him as she went around for another loop.
“This just keeps getting better.” He took a deep breath before continuing on, trying to control his growing irritation.
Arriving at the gate, Ni-T’o and T’cumu both gave him looks that would make the most sheepish of sheep look as bold as a lion. Nate shook his head at them in mild disgust.
“What happened to keeping the horses secret, fellas?” he asked in an icy tone that sent shivers down his friend’s spines even in the morning’s growing heat.
Ni-T’o and T’cumu looked at each other, their bronze faces taking on a subtle shade of red. T’cumu shook his head, too embarrassed to speak, his pleading eyes asking his older cousin to do the talking. Ni-T’o nodded resignedly and took a deep breath.
“This morning in the village,” he said in his ever-improving English, “the Raven Priestess came to us and asked us where you live.” He paused, suffering under his friend’s withering gaze.
“We tried to put her off, but she was very . . .” he searched for the word.
T’cumu chimed in to help, “Persistent!”
“Very!” T’cumu concluded.
Nate had never seen these proud braves look so meek. He had to stop himself from chuckling as his initial anger turned to pity for his usually indomitable friends. He certainly understood what they had been up against; the Raven Priestess had a real talent for getting her way, and he was sure it was just as much brains as beauty behind it. He took a deep breath and said, “And so you led her, and all her people, here, where they have set up camp in my meadow.”
The two of them nodded slowly like a couple of school kids getting a scolding from their teacher.
“You really couldn’t just say no, could you?”
Ni-T’o spread his hands wide in an imploring gesture. “We tried to, but Nate, she is The Raven Priestess!”
Now Nate did start laughing, much to the relief of his friends. “Yes, she certainly is, and then some! And look, here she comes now, out for a Sunday ride on T’cumu’s little cayuse! Isn’t that nice?”
T’cumu and Ni-T’o were still embarrassed at having lost a test of wills to the strange and beautiful woman, who Nate was beginning to be sure possessed some kind of magical power over men, especially himself. Even so, they began laughing, too.
“T’cumu, how in Sam Hill did you get her up on that little beast, anyway? No one can come within a yard of her without taking a beating!” Nate asked, already knowing the answer as the Raven Priestess brought her mount to a halt in front of them just as if she’d been raised in the saddle. She tousled Oklilinchi’s stiff mane while the formerly wild horse snuffled contentedly.
“I tried to warn her, but she walked right up to Oklilinchi and started to pet her! Oklilinchi loves her!” T’cumu told him, as he looked on with amazement.
“Of course it does. After all, she is The Raven Priestess!” Nate said, managing a smile for his new best girl as he helped her down. He had never seen her so happy. The grin on her face just about stopped his heart.
“Well, the cat’s out of the bag,” Nate said, “now a city folk leader knows how to ride. What other surprises do you have for me this morning?”
T’cumu and Ni-T’o glanced at each other again, a look he had seen before . . . when was it? Just last night at the party. Memories of the event began to coalesce in the smoky haze still drifting through his brain.
Just then, the Raven Priestess launched herself into his arms and planted one of her delicious kisses on his lips. There was no point in struggling, and he was pretty sure he didn’t want to. Still, there was something niggling at the back of his brain, and out of the corner of his eye he saw his friends conferring in whispered tones. Nate’s comprehension of their tribe’s tongue had improved a great deal in the months they had been together, and he thought he caught T’cumu saying something to the effect of, “He doesn’t know, does he?”
Nate gently broke off the kiss, shifting his paramour over to his side where she stuck to him like glue, head resting on his chest, her long, lush hair smelling sweetly of pine and wildflowers.
“Doesn’t know what? Just what is it he doesn’t know?” he demanded, his general irritation with events returning. This was followed by a long silence. “You fellas better start spilling it! Something’s up, and I am beginning to get a bit ornery.”
This time it was T’cumu’s turn to do the talking, as his cousin gave him an insistent shove forward.
“Well, something happened last night.” he said in Spanish, which he was still more comfortable with, and Nate fluent in. Another long pause followed.
“And what was that?” Nate prodded him, working hard to keep his tone level. His head had stopped swimming, but now it was flying around the plaza, cavorting with the Raven Priestess. He remembered her asking him to join her in that dance, and a mighty hush from the crowd as he took her hand . . . .
“Well, something happened last night, and it happened to you.”
“It happened to me.” Nate said, his voice hollow and dry.
“Yes, it did. And not just to you. It also happened to someone else.”
“I see. And who else did it happen to?
“To her.” T’cumu said, pointing at the radiantly beaming Raven Priestess with his chin in the way of his people.
Nate looked down at her exquisite face, her amber eyes shining. His head had started swimming again and spinning and dancing and flying, all at the same time, and little purple spots were beginning to form in the edge of his vision. He could barely find his voice to ask “Just what was it that happened to us?”
T’cumu stood frozen. His mouth was open, but unable to move to form words. Ni-T’o was the same, his eyes twitching sporadically.
Nate turned back to the Raven Priestess, who looked up at him and said in perfect Spanish, “We got married!”
Nate nodded, and smiled at her as the purple spots closed in and turned to black. The last thing he saw were her luminous eyes before it all went dark and he dropped to the ground like a stone, out cold.
“Nate! Wake up!” Nate really didn’t want to do that, but the voice was very insistent, so he opened one bleary gray eye to see Gonzalo’s worried countenance hovering over him.
“All right already, I’m awake.”
“Oh, we were most worried! We sent someone to fetch the wise man, who it is said has healing powers.”
“You wouldn’t let that witch-doctor anywhere near me, would you?”
Gonzalo laughed, relieved to see that his friend was coming to his senses.
Nate got up with Gonzalo and Ni-T’o’s help and looked around.
“Where is she?”
“She said she needed to commune with the raven spirit.” Ni-T’o told him, his face drawn with concern. “She was surprised by your reaction. It is difficult to say this, but I think she was a bit upset. ”
“Yeah, well swooning over a woman is a new one on me. So is being married. I had way too much of that damn locoweed last night. I’m not myself this morning.”
“We are so sorry about the wedding. We weren’t sure ourselves if you knew what you were doing. You know so much about our ways, but it seems you didn’t know about that.” Ni-To’ said, his face full of regret.
T’cumu stepped forward and said, “Nate, I must tell you I do not think it was the Raven Priestess’s intention to trick you. She would not choose a husband lightly and would do so only if she felt strongly about you.”
“Yeah, I know, she’s a great girl, and I can’t deny I have some pretty strong feelings for her. I just wasn’t expecting to get hitched so soon. She’s a real catch, but I don’t know what she sees in a dusty old cowhand like me. I guess I’d best go after her. Which way did she go?”
Ni-T’o pointed toward the northwest.
“Well, she can’t get too far ahead of me on foot. Give me until noon, then come out looking for us.”
“Perhaps we should come with you now?” Gonzalo asked, eager to help.
“No thanks, friend, some things a man has got to do on his own, and patching things up with his woman is one of them.”
Ni-T’o fetched Poppy for him, then he and T’cumu put her tackle on, shooing off their still peaked-looking friend as he protested the help. Gonzalo dashed over to the nearby camp, returning a few minutes with some kind of lunch wrapped in corn husks and a water skin, which Nate was most grateful for. Nate climbed on and set off at a trot in the direction Ni-T’o had pointed.
An hour had passed by and she was still ahead of him, although he was sure he was on the right track. The signs of her passing were easy enough to read for a former cavalry scout raised in the wilds of Texas. He wanted to move at a quicker pace but was afraid to lose her trail.
“Damn, that woman moves as fast as a pronghorn! I should have caught up to her by now!”
It wasn’t too surprising. She had amply demonstrated that she was an athlete without peer, both on the battlefield and the dance floor.
Nate slowed Poppy down to a walk so he could study the landscape. There was a low wall of earth ahead of them. He had learned that abrupt changes of terrain like this were evidence of the strange forces that had brought chunks of land here from different times. The familiar rolling hills and meadows dotted with copses of trees ended at a flat, shiny wall of of razor-straight dirt just like the mesa’s, but only a few feet high, except where a hillside had been sliced through. The land beyond was more level, drier, and with sparser trees. The Raven Priestess’s trail lead through a coarse, yellowish grass he hadn’t seen before, so Nate followed. This was unexplored territory, and he began to worry. There was no telling what kind of creatures inhabited these flats; the New New World was always full of surprises.
“Well, there’s something you don’t see everyday.” Nate stopped Poppy to stare at a troop of creatures roughly the size and shape of elephants, but with four tusks each and a trunk that was wider and shorter than that of the animals he had seen in picture books. They were busy using their lower tusks to root through the bottom of a stagnant pond, in search of whatever delicacies were hidden beneath the greenish muck. Much to his relief, the Raven Priestess’s tracks gave them a wide berth. At least she had some sense in her. Even so, he had an uneasy feeling. This country was a lot less friendly-looking than what they had found on the mesa so far.
Finally, he set eyes on his new wife, standing on a lone boulder with her arms stretched up to the heavens, chanting loudly. Having shed her robe she was practically naked, clad in only some very scant undergarments and jewelry. Normally the sight would have been a pleasant one, but Nate knew things weren’t right between them now. He had clearly hurt her feelings and felt terrible about it, hoping he could make amends with the strangely fascinating woman who had blown into his life like a warm wind in the night from a far-away realm.
Not wanting to disturb her too abruptly, he circled her once at a distance, checking the bleak plain for critters. He was sure he had caught her eye, but she continued her chanting, so he climbed off Poppy, who promptly started to sniff around for anything worth eating. The local breed of grass didn’t look all that appetizing, but Poppy helped herself to some anyway. Nate walked slowly toward the Raven Priestess, hands out in a signal of contrition and wearing the best ‘I’m sorry’ face he could muster.
The Raven Priestess, not missing a beat of her lamentations, regarded him coldly for a few minutes as she continued, letting him suffer under her baleful glare. Nate took off his hat and bowed his head, waiting for her to give him a chance to speak his piece. After a while her voice began to take on a warmer tone, and finally her singing turned to laughter.
“You look terrible!” she told him in Spanish.
“I feel terrible,” he answered in kind. “I never meant to hurt your feelings. I smoked way too much of that loco-weed and was about half out of my mind and didn’t feel well at all this morning.”
“I could tell.”
“So, when did you learn to speak Spanish?”
“Since I first met Many-Mouths all those months ago. I made him teach me every word he knew. Then, when the Schullerville people came on their visits, one of them spoke Spanish, and she taught me more, along with English.” Her Spanish sounded clear and fluent, with a pleasant accent that echoed her own musical tongue.
“Really? English, too?”
“Yup. How about that, pardner?” she answered in a fair imitation of his Texas twang.
Nate, started to feel a bit better since things looked to be on the mend. He smiled and said “You speak it right purty, too, ma’am. I guess you’ve been listening to me and Gonzalo all along.”
“From the first time I saw you at the Sun Temple. I knew you fancied me then. Do you still now?”
“Yup, I sure do. I’m sorry about what happened in the paddock. Like I said, all that smoke last night made me woozy.”
“I, too, am sorry. I did not mean to trick you! I have never before dealt with foreigners such as yourself. It seemed that you had learned so much of our ways I thought you knew what I asked of you!”
“Well, I am a dang fool, and there’s no cure for that, but no, I just didn’t know.”
She fixed him with an intense stare, studying him from behind the curtain of her long, ebony hair for what seemed like a rather long time. Nate squirmed a bit under the scrutiny, but held his ground.
“And, if you had understood what I offered, would you have still taken my hand?” she asked, her voice pensive.
Nate paused, knowing he didn’t have long to make his answer. It only took him a second or two.
“Why yes, I do believe I would have. I always figured I would get married someday, and I sure didn’t think it would be to someone as beautiful and clever as you!”
She smiled, but her expression was still unsure. “Even so, it is not too late for me to release you from your vow. I will give you one last chance to regain that freedom some men crave so. Do you really want to be my husband, Nate?”
Before Nate could answer, Poppy gave a loud snort. Nate knew that sound meant his faithful mare was nervous about something, and it usually wasn’t anything good. Poppy trotted over to him, then pointed her snout to the west. Her ears perked up and her muzzle tightened, signs of distress Nate had learned to take most seriously. Nate and the Raven Priestess followed her stare to something coming their way out of the far distance.
“Is that one of those lizard demons like T’cumu killed?” Nate asked, his keen eyes straining to make it out.
“No, I think not. It’s . . . it’s some kind of a bird!”
“Sure enough! That ain’t no road runner—it’s bigger than a man. Look at the size of it!
“Nate, it has the beak of an eagle!” she told him, a tone of warning coming into her voice.
“Get up on Poppy with me, now!” Nate climbed onto Poppy’s back as fast as he could and stretched a hand out to help her up, but she had already leaped on behind him as nimbly as a sparrow hops from branch to branch. With her safely mounted, he gave Poppy the kind of nudge that meant move fast, now, and cried out, “Yah!”
Poppy took off like a shot, not needing her rider’s command to tell her what her instincts were already screaming at her. She let Nate point her in the direction he wanted her to go in, trusting his judgment, and then went like the wind.
“Nate, it is catching up to us!” A shrill note sounded in her usually musical voice, the crow call of alarm.
Nate turned his head to see that this was indeed the case—it was only twenty yards behind them now, and Nate had been chased by enough critters to know it was gunning for them. Now that he could get a better look at it, he realized that it was more monster than bird. Its head was bigger than a horse’s, most of it taken up by a massive, curved, bright-orange beak with a sharp, predatory tip at the end. It was covered in gray feathers dotted with turquoise, and stood at least eight feet tall. It ran upright on muscular, pebbled, orange-skinned legs, each foot ending in three heavy claws. Every inch of the thing was powerful and made to kill. Nate’s stomach took a leap as he realized it was faster than Poppy and would catch up with them soon. He gave Poppy another nudge, but she was already going all out in a headlong gallop. This was as fast as she could carry them, and it wasn’t going to be enough. Nate drew his saber, readying himself for the inevitable.
He felt the ever-resourceful Raven Priestess release his bow and quiver from his back. She was limber enough to turn in her seat and take a shot at the thing. It was coming so fast she only had one chance. The arrow flew true, but the creature’s eyes were as sharp as the eagle it in some ways resembled, and it dodged at the last second, the razor-sharp flint arrowhead only grazing its oddly diminutive wing. It wasn’t a serious injury, but just enough to make it cry out in an angry, shrieking squawk, a resounding tone of menace that sent shivers down their backs.
“Nate, it’s coming up on your right!” Now, in a moment of dire distress, the Raven Priestess’s voice was strangely calm, which made Nate love her all the more.
The thing had caught up to them now and was trying to take a chunk out of Poppy’s flank. Nate reined the mare over hard in the opposite direction, and they drew apart, the killer bird shooting a few yards ahead and away from them, unable to slow down. It made a course correction quickly enough, and this time headed straight at their side, its head down like a battering ram. Nate tried to take a swing at it, but the monstrous predator was too fast. It rammed into Nate’s ribs hard enough to knock him off Poppy. As he left his horse’s back he caught a glimpse of the creature pausing, looking surprised as Nate went one way and the horse another. It must have thought them all to be one big animal! This confusion gave Poppy a much-needed head start as she surged forward, lightened by the loss of her load. The rapacious hunter ignored Nate and went after Poppy, the larger game.
He had been unhorsed a few times in his life, and he knew how to roll, but it was a hard landing in the rough, yellow grass. His body took a jarring hit, flooding him with pain. His entire right side throbbed with agony, but he sprang to his feet anyway, saber ready.
Poppy continued her desperate flight, her pursuer closing fast, beak clacking eagerly in anticipation of sinking into her succulent-looking flesh. The Raven Priestess had jumped off Poppy when Nate went down, landing nimbly on her feet, of course, and stood several yards away cocking another arrow. She let fly, and this time it sank deep into the monster’s upper thigh, causing it to lurch in pain, and turn its attention toward her. She let fly with another, hitting it in the side, but only deep enough to enrage it. The bird made a skidding turn, then, to Nate’s utter horror, charged its tormenter, who stood her ground, notching yet another arrow. It was sure to reach her before she could shoot, so Nate started shouting at the top of his lungs, waving his saber and running straight at it. I shall die a fool, but at least I shall die a brave fool. He hoped he could buy his new bride a little time. Maybe she could get off a shot that would finish it if she were lucky.
Nate’s ploy worked. The creature accepted his challenge, shifting its course toward him. He stood firm in a warrior’s stance, saber at the ready. There was no escaping a beast of such power and speed, he just hoped he could get a good slice in before the thing tore him to shreds. He braced himself.
The Raven Priestess watched the thing approach her husband with the keen eyes of a hunter. The monstrous bird was well distracted, so at just the right moment she lunged with lightning reflexes, making one of her incredible dancer’s leaps right onto the thing’s back. One slender, but deceptively strong, arm circled its neck while she used the other to plunge one of Nate’s arrows deep into its feather-covered ear, pushing it in so deeply the bloodied tip emerged from the opposite side. With a last, surprised squawk, the thing fell dead at Nate’s feet with an earth-shaking thump, as the Raven Priestess jumped clear, landing gracefully nearby. Grinning fiercely, she went over to it and gave it a nudge with her foot to make sure it was dead. There was no life left in it, and she began to stroke the feathers of its massive head with a strange kind of affection, chanting softly in the way he had seen Ni-T’o and T’cumu do after making a kill.
When she was finished, she turned to Nate, her face flushed with excitement.
“Nate, we are so fortunate!”
“Yes, we are! I thought I was a goner for sure, but you saved my skin, and I am mighty obliged! You are the, bravest, toughest, and craziest woman I have ever seen!”
She smiled, but shrugged the compliment off as if it were all just in a day’s work for the Raven Priestess.
“Yes, I am glad we are safe, but there is more than that. When I came to this place my mind was full of shadows, and I sought clarity. I asked the Raven Spirit for a sign, and here it is! He sent the Great Running Eagle to test us, and we have passed! Now I know for sure that I made the right choice in coming here and choosing you, who would willingly sacrifice yourself to protect me!” She stood before him, breathing a little hard from all the exertion and excitement, her mostly bare, supple body glistening with sweat, eyes bright, like twin suns shining on a bronze sea. Nate found it hard to catch his breath, and just stood staring at her, captivated and unable to speak.
The Raven Priestess laughed at his sudden loss of words, then cocked her head at him. “I believe you have yet to answer my question, Nate.”
Nate came to and chuckled. Now that he knew things were all right between them, he paused and rubbed his stubbled chin for a moment in contemplation.
“Oh yes, that, well, let’s see,” he stalled coyly.
That earned him a quick poke in the stomach, not too hard considering he had just taken a painful fall, but enough to get his attention.
“Okay, okay! Yes! In English, the words we say are ‘I do’, and yes, I do! Now, are you sure you want to be married to a scruffy old scoundrel like me?”
“Yes! ‘I do!’ I have felt it since I first lay eyes on you, and then became sure as we faced the Rattlesnake Priests together. At last, a man who could stir my heart! A courageous warrior, who also knew compassion! I want you very, very much, my husband!” And with that she flung herself into his arms and straddled him as she kissed him.
After a long blissful time the kiss ended, and Nate began to laugh softly.
“What is so funny?” she asked with a shy expression on her face that nearly stopped his heart.
“Well, when I first got to this here time and place I was talking with the soldiers I used to serve with, and the question came up as to what kind of women might be available for brides. Back in my time, different kinds of people didn’t mix much, but some did, and I said that I wouldn’t mind being the swain of an injun princess. And now, here I am, married to the closest thing to one you could find anywhere, or any time, for that matter! I figure I am a pretty darn lucky fella!”
“Indeed you are! I am not sure exactly what an ‘injun princess’ is, but it must be something special if I am one!”
“The word ‘special’ doesn’t even begin to describe you.” Nate paused, and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I just realized, I don’t even know your real name! I can’t very well call my own wife ‘The Raven Priestess’ all the time, can I?”
She smiled, and took his hands in hers.
“I have many names, some so secret that I must not tell even you, Nate, although one day I most likely will. And there are also some I am not sure you would be able to pronounce yet, although your use of our tongue has improved greatly.”
She pondered for a moment.
“I know! It has been so long since I’ve heard it, I almost forgot! It was my name when I was but a child, not really my real name, but one used by those who loved me best. Do you understand?
“Sure, a nickname! My mother used to call me ‘Natty’ when I was just a wee tyke, and you sure had better not tell the fellas that!”
“Natty? I like it, perhaps I should call you that?” she teased, eliciting a mournful grimace from him. “Very well, only when we are alone together. As for me, please call me Fala.”
“Fala! Why that sure is pretty! What does it mean? I’ll bet it means ‘raven’!”
“It means ‘crow’, actually. I was not yet big enough to be a raven.”
They both laughed and went back to kissing. This was just starting to progress into something more when Poppy nudged them both urgently, having determined it was safe to return to their sides. They broke off their embrace to comfort the still-frightened horse, petting her until she was calm and content enough to return to sampling the coarse local grass.
“I suppose it’s best we get moving.” Nate said, his voice holding some regret that whatever had been happening had been interrupted. “There could be more of those things, so let’s beat it on home.”
Fala took his hand and squeezed it tightly for a moment, a mysterious smile on her lips that held the promise of many joys to come.
“Yes, let’s go home.” She paused for a moment to relish that last word, then said “But first, we have a bit of work to do.” She turned to the dead creature lying nearby.
“Dinner?” Nate asked, reaching for the long, skinning knife he kept on his belt.
“Indeed! There is much good meat here, we shall enjoy it as we celebrate tonight!” she took out a knife of her own, made of flint, but even sharper than Nate’s steel edge, and began sawing away at the thing’s neck. Nate watched, fascinated. When she reached the neck bone she severed it with surgical precision. Nate groaned, realizing now what she probably had in mind.
“Please tell me you aren’t going to have that crazy old Ninak-Mkateewa make you a hat out of that thing’s head!”
Fala, every bit still The Raven Priestess, rolled her eyes and shook her head in amusement at her new husband’s lack of understanding of the finer things.
“Why of course I am! There is great power in this head, it is a gift from the gods! We faced The Eagle That Runs, and lived!”
When they arrived back at Nate’s cabin, a sea of relieved faces met them. All had been worried, but none had dared intrude upon Great Chief Nate and the Raven Priestess’s personal affairs. T’cumu, Ni-T’o and Gonzalo gave Nate a good tousling, overjoyed that he had returned safely and that things had been repaired between their friend and his paramour.
“So, are you . . . ?” Gonzalo asked, but trailed off shyly.
“Yes, we are married. Who would have ever thought that Nathan Theseus Tucker would win himself a bona fide injun princess? How about that, huh?”
“Congratulations!” Gonzalo told him, then hugged him tightly until Nate had to pry the effusive Spaniard off.
Ni-T’o and T’cumu gave their congratulations, exceedingly relieved to be off the hook for not warning Nate that he was about to enter into matrimony. Then they noticed the massive bird strapped to a woven-branch travois.
“What is that?” they asked, admiring the pretty gray and turquoise feathers.
“That is dinner. It was almost the other way around, but my lovely bride saved my skin. It was a pretty close shave. Please see that it gets cooked up nice, and we’ll all share a drumstick. Anyway, I’ll tell you the whole tale later, but right now I ache all over and need to go get cleaned up.” His bride took that cue to join him at his side, grinning from ear to ear. They walked arm in arm to Nate’s cabin, went inside, closed the door, and then the shutters. No one was too surprised when they didn’t emerge for dinner, and the Raven Priestess’s cook set aside a generous portion of the delicious roasted bird for them to have for their breakfast.