The Drained Sea
The First Cavalry of the Cretaceous and their accompanying foot soldiers made good time across the wide flats of the former sea bottom, pausing at the usual rest stops to water the horses, then pressing quickly on. Occasionally they saw the large, reptile-like beasts of the present age roaming in the distance, but none came their way; even the most voracious of dragons would pause at a show of force such as they presented. By late afternoon they arrived at the region where the razor-straight, impassable cliffs separating them from their goal diminished to level ground near the Western Sea, fading into the seaside dunes.
They made their camp on the shore, well above the tideline, but not too close to the primeval forest that rose at their backs. The trees here were twisted and stunted by the ocean winds, an eerie-looking scene made more unsettling by the fact that monsters really did haunt those woods. From this point, it was about a half-dozen miles to the village if one went through the dreaded forest as the crow flies; the well-beaten path that bypassed it added a half-dozen more. They still had some daylight left, and it was decided that T’cumu and Nate would go on reconnaissance. Nate was chosen for his sharp eyes and experience as a cavalry scout, T’cumu for his tremendous wilderness skills and insights into the ways of the enemy tribesmen they would face.
They decided to take their chances with the forest, as the path along the cliffside would undoubtedly be watched. Their horses would have to be left behind; they couldn’t be risked in the tangle of the native woodlands. Nate hadn’t liked bringing Poppy to battle while carrying a foal in the first place, but there had been no time to ready another horse for him from the mesa cayuse population, something he would have to see to after the current situation was settled. Going on foot was always a risk, if they were targeted by one of the big dragons they would just have to make a run for it on their own two legs. They went well-armed, of course, carrying their hand weapons, a handful each of sharp spears, some torches, and their bows and arrows. Nate still had a few shots left for his prized pistol, but if he fired it the sound would give them away beyond all doubt. Still, he carried it anyway, for he knew there would inevitably come a moment when its deadly power must once again be called upon.
Before they set off Nate’s wife, the ever-remarkable Raven Priestess, gave him a kiss for luck and a caress on the cheek, which he returned with a soft smile. Gonzalo and Ni-T’o clapped T’cumu companionably on the back and urged him to use utmost caution. There was no time for more than that, and the two men entered the forest without looking back.
T’cumu went first, choosing a path between the enormous trunks of the primordial woodlands that lay between them and the southern edge of the village. The forest afforded them some advantages. It was unlikely the invaders would stray very far past its outer edges, and the vegetation would provide ample concealment. Did these outweigh the dangers? They hoped so. The going was fairly easy; the undergrowth was not very thick due to the eternal shade of the overhead canopy. Eerie whoops and calls echoing through the verdant gloom made them pause from time to time, but they continued on, resolute. Some of the surrounding plants were unusual-looking, but a fern was still a fern, and the majestic conifers still smelled pleasantly of pine pitch. It was not really so unlike home; it was still Earth, just a younger and deadlier version.
About halfway to their destination a thundering presence could be heard approaching through the nearby trees, and they hunkered down in the brush, waiting to see if whatever it was had caught their scent before they decided to flee or not. Heavy footsteps shook the ground as the thing crashed through the sparse undergrowth not more than a few yards away. They caught a glimpse of its massive form looming through the branches—one of the really big dragons, like some fell beast of nightmare stalking the forest’s ever-shadowed floor. It was coming toward them, and they braced themselves to begin their desperate run. A distant cry caught its attention and it mercifully changed course away from the two anxious men, crashing through the undergrowth in search of prey, without realizing a possible meal had been just within a claw’s reach.
“That was too close,” Nate whispered just above a breath.
“Much too close,” T’cumu agreed wholeheartedly. They took a moment to quiet their jumping nerves before continuing on their way.
A short time later their hearts nearly stopped as a creature suddenly leaped out of the bushes and fled past them at high speed. It was brown-furred and ran on four legs, a flash of white tail being the last thing they saw as it vanished into the forest.
Both men started to chuckle softly. The thing that had startled them was nothing but a common white-tailed deer doe, an animal native to their own times that had surprised them as much as they had it.
“Now we are the monsters stalking the forest!” Nate said.
“It is good to see a familiar face in this place. If anything could outrun a dragon, a deer could!” T’cumu said, smiling at the thought.
At long last they drew near the village’s surrounding fields, as the evening light filtered through the trees in nearly horizontal beams, casting the world in an orange glow. They were careful to stay well hidden among the brush and brambles at the forest’s edge, shade-loving plants like huckleberry and witch hazel from the village’s time that had quickly found their way to a perfect, sparsely occupied niche, and were thriving there. Crawling on their stomachs now, T’cumu and Nate braved the thorns to reach a good vantage point, well hidden beneath the leafy wall.
Stone Wall Village was, indeed, under siege. Over six hundred armed tribesmen were gathered below the village that lay perched high in a wide, flat spot within a massive rock outcropping, protected on nearly all sides by the natural stone walls that lent it its name. Where the stone walls stopped, massive timber palisades had been erected to finish the job, fortifications that had rather fortunately been in place long before the village had made its journey back through time. Fortifications that had been designed to do exactly what they did this day—repel an invading enemy.
Around two hundred of the enemy warriors were stationed on the rocky slopes leading up to the village’s towering timber gate, just outside of arrow range. Occasionally a short volley would be exchanged, but the distance had been well-established and it was a stalemate. Groups of tipis had been set up in two areas, one near the sea path, the other near the path which led to the City of the Pyramids, with wide fields of various useful crops separating them. The rest of the invading force was taking it easy. Everyone seemed quite relaxed, as if they were on a holiday camp-out, such was their confidence in their eventual victory. Many of the invading warriors were covered head to toe in war paint, but the details were too fine to be made out from this distance.
Nate and T’cumu gave each other a brief, worried look. They would be greatly outnumbered, and it would truly be up to their tactical advantages and the element of surprise to win the day. Nate was surprised to see that although some of the fields had been trampled, the majority lay untouched and were still in production. The people working the fields were mostly women who had been caught outside during the initial attack. They continued their labors under the watchful eyes of guardsmen. A prison camp had been erected in the fields at the bottom of the hill, a wooden stockade. T’cumu swore under his breath, and Nate did the same. The invaders tactic was simple; starve out the already overcrowded village while enjoying the bounty of their fields for themselves. A well-fed army could afford to wait, lounging around sunning themselves until the villagers behind the walls got hungry enough to come out.
At the far end of the fields to the east, but not too close to the surrounding forest’s edge, there were a group of open-walled tents designed to let the air flow through while keeping the sun and rain off. In one of them they could see a group of men dressed differently from the common warriors. Undoubtedly these were the invasion’s leaders. The shade of the canopy and distance made it difficult to make out much detail, and Nate’s eyes began to tear up as he forgot to blink while squinting as hard as he could to see more.
Not for the first time, Nate cursed the absence of his spyglass, vowing once again to get it back from the Cherokees and their US Army escort. The tables had changed there, the soldiers who once were guarding the Cherokee during their forced banishment from their traditional lands had quickly resigned from that onerous and now meaningless duty and were perhaps even considered friends and allies by now. When last he saw them, the Cherokee were surviving quite nicely and had settled comfortably enough in their new home, considering there was no longer a USA for them to go back to or be sent away from. In any case, his former comrades in arms were no friends of his, they were all foreign mercenaries really, just as he had been, with little loyalty to the American flag or each other. When that chief had sent his young thugs after him they had simply stayed out of the way. It would be a great pleasure to come back for a visit leading his own considerable new forces, far more powerful than any they could muster, and take back what was rightfully his. Nate smiled at the thought, then shook his head to clear it. That was all business for another day.
T’cumu quietly tapped Nate’s arm, and motioned for him to have a look at something that had caught his eye: Horses! Much to their surprise, a short distance away on the field’s right side was a small brush paddock, lying a little too close to the forest’s edge for Nate and T’cumu’s comfort. Apparently, the invaders underestimated the danger that lay within, something they both noted to remember. The paddock held twelve horses. Nate thought that one or two of them might have come through with the conquistadors, but the rest were easily recognizable as breeds used by the Cherokees. He wondered how these men had ended up with those? It was possible they had been traded for, but more likely stolen. Were some of the invaders Cherokee? Despite their rather savage attitudes toward an unauthorized liaison with a chief’s daughter, the Cherokee were mostly peace-loving farmers and craftsmen, not really warriors, and definitely not bandits. Still, every barrel held a wormy apple or two.
Nate started to smile, and turned to whisper to T’cumu. “At some point tomorrow I trust that someone will steal those horses.”
“Indeed, someone will, most gladly!” T’cumu flashed Nate his most sparkling grin, and they shared a quiet chuckle.
T’cumu frowned, and asked Nate, “Why would they keep the horses so far away from the leader’s camp?”
Nate considered it. “First I think these fellows are overconfident. They figure they have plenty of time to mount up in the unlikely event trouble should happen along. We will make them regret that! Secondly, I figure they just don’t like the smell of manure!”
T’cumu laughed. “I like the smell of manure!”
“So do I, T’cumu, so do I.”
They returned to watching for a bit, then something occurred to Nate. “Say, T’cumu, what about the other allied tribes? Why haven’t they sent their warriors here?”
T’cumu’s face grew very thoughtful. After a moment, he answered “I think they probably have, Nate. If I were them I would be waiting for we men of the Mesa to arrive, they know we have the largest force of all of us, and I’m sure they know we won’t stand idly by. Of course, I can’t promise, but my heart tells me they are near, probably laying low somewhere to the east along the trail to the city.”
“I think you’re right. I sure hope so anyway, we can use all the help we can get.”
Despite their ongoing descent into dusk, they spied on the proceedings a little longer, taking ample stock of the situation while considering their battle plan.
After some deliberation, Nate turned to T’cumu, who had been playing his new role as a general with great aplomb and considerable natural talent.
“Well, what do you think, T’cumu? When should we begin the attack?” he asked his younger friend.
“I think I would prefer the enemy to be fighting on an empty stomach with the sands of sleep still sticking to their eyes.” T’cumu answered, obviously relishing the challenge that lay ahead.
“The hour before dawn it is then. The early bird shall have her worm.”
Wishing to avoid another trip through the forest, especially in the dark of night, T’cumu and Nate worked their way south just inside its western edge, marking the location of enemy scouts stationed along the path they would be riding up in just a few short hours. Once they were sure they had passed by any remaining watchmen, they walked easily guided by soft starlight along the wide trail, enjoying the occasional cool sea breeze that led them toward the coast. They would reach camp in a much shorter time than their trip through the woods had taken and felt somewhat refreshed by the quiet beauty of their midnight stroll, interrupted only by the occasional unearthly moans of the great beasts emanating from the forest’s primeval depths.
Seaside Camp, Western Sea
No one was getting much sleep as they awaited the return of the scouts.
Ni-T’o stood at the edge of the ocean watching the waves wash in and out with a sound like some massive creature’s breathing. The water was illuminated by a wide sky brimming with stars. He thought of his wife, and the sad look on her face as he had taken his leave, wondering if she would lose a husband again. She hadn’t wept or begged him to stay. She knew well the requirements of the tribe came before one’s personal happiness, just as she had known when F’vni had left home never to return, it was as it must be. For Ni-T’o ‘s part he very much intended to return, vowing that he would not make Hvishi a widow for a second time!
As he brooded, someone came up behind him with a very light step, and he knew immediately that it was the Raven Priestess. Such was her skill that if she had not wished him to hear her approach he would not have, but she did not wish to startle him.
As she came up beside him he gave her a polite bow, which she graciously acknowledged and returned with a kindly smile.
“Ni-T’o?” the Raven Priestess said his name in a soft voice, and he couldn’t help but twitch slightly. She rarely spoke to any but her closest advisers and, of course, her husband, Nate, and hardly ever in public.
“Yes, Raven Priestess?” he answered in an equally quiet tone, just audible above the ceaseless heaving of the waves.
“If I may, I have a question. Our languages, though related, are sometimes quite different. One knows that T’cumu is ‘The Bobcat,’ but one wonders what the meaning of your name is?”
“In your tongue, my name is pronounced Kukuuh Bánushah, ‘Water Blue.’ ”
“Ah, a most elegant name, indeed! And what do you think of this great blue water before us? Never had I seen such before.”
“In the former world, I had not seen a body of water larger than a three-mile-long lake. The first time I saw this ‘ocean’ as Nate calls it, it was almost frightening, that much water spread out over so much world. Now I find I have come to love it. I hope someday we can cross its gulf to see what lies beyond.”
“I believe that day will come, wise Kukuuh Bánushah. The courage and foresight I see in men like you and your kin, in men like Gonzalo and my dearest Nate, leads me to believe we will prosper in this world. Our people will grow strong, and we shall one day be found in every land, on every shore.”
“I am the witness to a prophecy I think.” Ni-T’o smiled, and bowed his head briefly to honor her wisdom.
“Call it a prophecy if you will dear friend, but I think it is just the simple truth. Destiny has brought us here, and will see us rule this ‘New New World.’ ”
“I also believe it to be true, great Raven Priestess, as I feel it in my own heart. Your words shall come to pass.”
Behind them they heard a commotion rise in the camp, and rose to investigate. Upon seeing Nate and T’cumu coming down the path they both broke into a run, relieved to see them safe. Feeling as if it had been long days, not hours since their departure, Ni-T’o and the other great chiefs shared a brotherly embrace while the Raven Priestess launched herself into her husband’s arms with her usual wild abandon. He let out a happy laugh which was quickly drowned in one of her deep, dizzying kisses.
The scouts gave their report and plans were made. With that accomplished, an exhausted Nate and T’cumu were able to lie down for a couple of hours to get whatever sleep they could before they broke camp in the hour after midnight. For Nate’s part, it wasn’t much; he couldn’t stop thinking that young men and their horses were going to die today, and he could only take solace in the fact that the cause was just.
It was time to go. The Raven Priestess leaned over him, awakening him with a kiss as soft as rose petals and a gentle shake of his shoulders. He was still groggy when he opened his eyes and gasped in surprise, which made her utter one of her strange bird-like laughs and grin like a madwoman. His lovely, bronze-skinned bride was gone, replaced by the startling warrior-queen he had first laid eyes upon atop the Sun Temple’s pyramid. She was painted indigo from head to toe, raven feathers were woven through her hair, and her eyes glittered bright amber in the black raven wing mask drawn over her lovely face. Nate wasn’t sure if he found her appearance arousing or frightening, or possibly a bit of both.
Still laughing at his discomfiture, she pulled her husband to his feet with her always surprising strength and led him to where Poppy waited. The doughty mare was chewing contentedly on the coarse grass that had spread along the strand, but paused to eye the Raven Priestess with a bit of suspicion.
“It’s just me, Poppy.” she whispered as she drew in closer to the horse, and after a cautious sniffing received an affectionate nuzzling from her four-footed friend, despite her outlandish appearance.
Nate climbed up and reached for his wife, who took his hand and vaulted up behind him as effortlessly as ever. They took a moment to check their weapons. Both carried their latest invention, the English longbows they had recreated. Despite being a bit cumbersome due to their length, they had greater power and range than anything the enemy had, providing an important advantage. As always, Nate had his trusty cavalry saber, and his treasured pistol– just in case, while the Raven Priestess bore her long, razor-sharp stone dagger and a wicked-looking spear.
There was one more weapon in their arsenal, the flame arrows that had proven so efficacious in dissuading hungry dragons from dining on passing humans. Nate had remembered that idea from the history books he used to enjoy reading. History was one of the few things during his attempt at a college education that he thought might prove useful, and so it had. Flame arrows had been used several times over the course of history, most famously by the Greeks. Pitch from the great conifer trees was highly flammable. After some experimentation, they learned to wrap long, stone arrowheads in woven grass soaked in the pitch. The question then was, how to light them quickly while on the move?
That answer had come from the tribesmen, who produced small clay pots wrapped in leather. These were filled with burning coals that maintained their heat for hours. The addition of wood shavings or dried grass and a puff of air produced flames quickly, the arrowhead was dipped in the pot and fire away! They were somewhat unwieldy and had a reduced range, but Nate thought they could be used to good effect. Around twenty cavalrymen were equipped with them and had instructions to shoot them at the tipis. He wasn’t sure how fast a tipi would burn, but a field full of the things on fire would definitely make an impression on the enemy.
Nate gazed about the camp as his cavalry mounted up, and the pikemen moved into marching formation. The striping on the legs, flanks, and necks of the mesa ‘cayuses’ lent the animals an exotic mien, and many of their riders had painted themselves to match their mounts so that they seemed to merge into one very intimidating-looking creature. The new horses had been tamed, yes, but still retained a wildness of spirit that Nate wasn’t sure whether he should be concerned about or admire.
That demeanor certainly matched their riders. The men of the Mesa were proving to harbor a level of ferocity that Nate hadn’t expected. They had seen war in their own time, and the prospect of it held little fear for them—in fact, they seemed to relish it. By no choice of his own, Nate had faced the braves of several tribes in combat during his time with the US Army and had more than once come close to an early finish to his career at their deadly hands. He knew all too well they could be a force to be reckoned with, and he was damned glad that today he rode into battle with a tribe of his own, and that these fearsome warriors were very much on his side.
Woe be to the foe that faces this outfit! Nate concluded to himself, grinning darkly.
When all appeared in readiness, the four great chiefs came together at the head of the column. They all looked at each other for a moment, smiling at each friend in turn, silently offering encouragement and good fortune to each other in the struggle to come. With a last, determined nod at his faithful comrades, Nate let out a loud, long whistle and urged Poppy forward in a ground-eating walk—fast, but not too fast for the men on foot. The column fell into step and the final march to Stone Wall Village began. They moved as quietly as possible along the wide, starlit path, hoping to retain as much of the element of surprise as they could get.
They found the sentries all foolishly dozing off at their posts along the path, the first sign of an overconfidence that the invaders would soon come to regret. The arrows through their skulls at close range ensured they would never wake again. Ahead of them the enemy camp stretched across the meadows and fields, barely illuminated by the dim, gray glow of earliest dawn. The tipis, filled with their slumbering occupants, were surrounded by many more men roughing it on blankets under the stars through the warm night.
Nate called the column to a halt with a simple raised hand, then signaled those that had them to light their flaming arrows by starting one of his own. The Raven Priestess mounted behind him had already blown their firepot into readiness, and he carefully stuck the tip of his arrow into it. There was a bright, hot flare and he pulled the now flaming arrow out, which he then used to light his wife’s arrow. Flames flickered to life in rapid succession, burning bright in the deep gloom. Nate raised his arrow high for all to see then brought it down quickly to point at the sleeping enemy.
“Charge!” he shouted boldly as he nudged Poppy into a gallop.
Upon his word, the warriors of the mesa surged forward, led by the cavalry, the only sound the rumble of hooves and the nervous snorting and whickering of the horses.
Nate and Ni-T’o led the charge, heading into bow range as the enemy began to stir. Astride swift and sure-footed Poppy, Nate and the Raven Priestess moved almost as one, each firing their flame arrows into the nearest tipis with deadly precision. Ni-T’o rode close behind on jet-black Bella, who had once belonged to a conquistador and was a mount well-seasoned to battle. His marksmanship was second to none, and he managed to light three arrows in surprisingly rapid succession, sinking each into an unfortunate tipi. The hide covering was slow to catch, but the high heat of the burning pitch ensured that their flames began to spread.
A half dozen men stirring nearby died as Ni-T’o switched to the regular arrows and shot again and again, his arms almost a blur as they went through their well-practiced motions. Following their leaders’ impressive examples, each horseman in succession fired as quickly and surely as he. Those who had them sent a flaming arrow into a tipi followed by a regular arrow into a man on the ground. With their first round away, the cavalry turned to follow the broad, wheeling circle Nate was creating, making way for those coming behind to have clear shots as they wound their inexorable way deeper and deeper into the camp.
Terrible screams could be heard as the unsuspecting enemy died, their sleeping furs becoming their final resting places. Warriors spilled out of the now gleefully burning tipis, coughing and confused only to be felled by a passing horseman. Of the few surviving the initial onslaught, most became overwhelmed and fled, gibbering in terror about the terrible striped demons that had come out of the night to slaughter them.
It seemed cruel perhaps, Nate thought coldly, but this was a battle they must win against unfavorable odds, and no quarter could be shown to the invaders who had started the conflict by assaulting the peaceful existence of the Mesa People’s allies and kin here.
As he turned Poppy back in another turn of their lethal wheel, Nate licked a sticky layer of dust from his lips; it tasted of smoke and the iron tang of dried blood. The ground they covered as they made their way back to the front was mostly still and silent, the dreadful scene of a very successful massacre.
“Payback’s a bitch, huh?” he told the dead in a stony tone as he briefly surveyed the incredible destruction the first charge of the First Cavalry had wrought. “There’s more to come buckos. We are just getting started!” He clicked at Poppy to move faster, his gray eyes glinting like cold steel, a predator moving through the dawn in search of his next prey.
Ni-T’o, still riding in formation behind Nate and the Raven Priestess, shook his head sadly at the awful destruction, the ghastly sight of which filled him with remorse. Unable to stop himself, he looked down at the dead and dying they blithely rode over, his mount’s hooves sometimes cracking bone and crushing the flesh of the fallen as she carried him across the carnage. To his further horror, he saw that Bella’s flying legs were stained a bright scarlet. Another innocent creature soaked in the blood of men spilled by men. Must it always be so? Must we go through every century since the gods made the world to her fiery end, killing each other? He grimaced at the hopelessness of the thought and vowed that one day, he, Ni-T’o of the Mesa People, would find a way to stop that hideous cycle. He spoke aloud, making it an oath, but his voice went unheard beneath the cacophony of battle. “We scattered orphans spirited away to this lost and terrible time will be the first of Earth’s children to know true peace! I will see to it!”
Ni-T’o looked up to see that Nate had pulled ahead of him, ready to start the next round, and shook himself, focusing again on the bloody task at hand. He took a deep breath and steeled himself for what was still to come. “I wish so for peace, but today I am a Great Chief and a general in my people’s army, and I have a duty to protect them. Today I must kill and kill again, and so I will, and I will do it well.” With a frosty, grim resolve moving across his mourning heart like a glacier gliding over a troubled sea, Ni-T’o urged Bella to catch up with a gentle nudge of his knees and notched another arrow.
Gonzalo’s pikemen, accompanied by a contingent of the mysterious and deadly Raven Warriors, followed along behind the cavalry’s path of destruction, moving ever closer to their goal, the stockade at the bottom of the hill. Gonzalo rode his golden stallion, Flavio, another equine veteran of many battles, with a small group of six cavalry accompanying him. The timbered building was guarded by less than twenty men, an example of how confident the invaders had been. They weren’t expecting any opposition! They will pay for that arrogance! Gonzalo thought with a grim smile. Now that the battle had been joined the remorse that had filled him the day before had vanished, replaced with the steely resolve of the seasoned soldier.
To their credit, the guards held their ground and screamed threats at them as they drew nearer. A clamor could be heard rising from the enemy stationed on the heavily fortified rocky hillside above. The force that was holding the villagers within their gates had taken notice of their approach. Gonzalo let out a fierce battle cry as he urged his stallion into a thundering gallop. He and his horsemen followed Nate and Ni-T’o’s tactic on a smaller scale, riding in close, letting off a volley of arrows at the men stationed at the stockade, then circling back around to do the same again.
They had greater range than the enemy, and the guards who still lived after the first turn of the wheel soon realized that trying to return fire at that distance was futile. Gonzalo’s group danced just out of their range, bringing down yet more of their men with each pass. Now thoroughly cowed by the horsemen and their deadly rain of arrows, not to mention the phalanx of pikemen advancing inexorably toward them, the few survivors fled their posts, falling back up the hillside behind the lines of palisades their comrades held, completely surrendering their ground to the liberators.
The pikemen quickly established a perimeter around the stockade, and prepared to face the retribution that would eventually come down from the enemy stationed on the hillside, once they had gathered their wits and courage to organize a counter-attack. The men of the Mesa would be outnumbered by two-thirds, but each warrior vowed he would not yield as they proudly raised their pikes up to form a fearsome spiked wall that would be very difficult to penetrate.
Gonzalo dismounted and walked quickly over to the stockade’s timbered side. With a grunt, he pulled the heavy door open himself, and called out in the local dialect that he was a friend, a reassuring greeting echoed by the men with him. It was dark, and a foul-smell emanated from within, the press of too many bodies with no chance to bathe for God knew how long? A warrior handed him a burning flame arrow and he entered, accompanied by two of his lieutenants. The bright, flaring light of the burning pitch revealed a wretched scene. Around thirty women, a handful of children, and a few shriveled-looking old men huddled pathetically against the back wall, completely terrified. Gonzalo nearly choked, not from the stench, but from the profound pity he felt for the misery he beheld. Many of the prisoners began to cry, too exhausted and hungry to understand what was happening, simply fearing more torment.
Gonzalo cleared his throat, and pushed back the terrible wrath he felt swelling in his heart for the evil curs who had begat such suffering—that would have its time later. He made himself smile, and called out to them in the most encouraging tones he could muster, “People of Stone Wall, do not be afraid! We are here to free you! We are the warriors of the Mesa, your kin and allies! Do you not know us?”
The crying abated somewhat, and a furtive whispering could be heard; “Mesa?” “Free?” “Allies?” “Kin?”
After some deliberation, a sturdy-looking woman in her late fifties moved forward, several of her younger friends nervously following in her wake. Her face was dirty and lined with more cares than most could bear, but it was a strong face, obviously belonging to a woman who had lived through much and to whom fear was usually a stranger. She advanced slowly toward Gonzalo, who was plainly the newcomer’s leader, despite his unusual looks. He obligingly brought his torch up closer to his face so that she could see him better.
“I know you!” She exclaimed in a voice that was remembering it had once been bold, “You are one of the dragon-slayers! You saved my kinsmen from that terrible beast!” Her hand trembling, she reached toward the fiendishly long ‘dragon’ fang that hung from his leather necklace, twin to the one Nate wore, gifts from those grateful kinsmen who were now more than brothers to them. Gonzalo smiled and nodded for her to touch it, which she did, rubbing it gently as if for luck.
“I am Gonzalo Xoan de Alcantara, at your service good lady! I, along with your kinsmen, am now one of the four great chiefs of the Mesa People, and very much your friends! My warriors and I are here to rescue you and your village from the foul invaders that have brought so much torment here! You are free again, and safe in our care!”
With that the woman burst into joyous tears and threw herself into Gonzalo’s arms. Gonzalo stiffened for just a moment, still unaccustomed to such close physical contact after his long, terrible years on the road as a conquistador, but he smiled and gently embraced her back, then widened his arms to include the women and children who rushed in behind her. Gonzalo and his lieutenants were soon engulfed by the crowd, all of whom were weeping from relief and gratitude. Gonzalo, a very sensitive soul to his core, was crying a little himself, and he and his men mumbled consolation and encouragement as they gently worked to extract themselves from their thankful admirers and get back to the battle.
As the initial onslaught got into full swing, T’cumu led eight riders along the edge of the forest, where they were nearly invisible against the massive darkness behind. Once the confusion created by the fracas was in full effect they rode quickly toward the brush paddock that contained the enemy’s small herd of horses, cutting down any foes brave or foolish enough try to slow their progress.
Most of the enemy warriors were still groggy from a very rudely interrupted sleep and were rightfully terrified of the wildly painted mounted men who had suddenly appeared among them. They gave way, running about willy-nilly trying to escape the pounding hooves and sharp lances. By the time they reached the enclosure, it was nearly empty of resistance. Only four men remained on guard, and were beginning to regret their decision to stay. They shouted for help, but were filled with arrows before they could garner any attention over the surrounding ruckus.
T’cumu rode up to the makeshift gate and opened it, calling out to the horses within in gentle tones. What worked on the mesa cayuse also worked on these animals, and soon he was able to secure a lead on the largest animal, a big, red chestnut stallion, who was most likely to be the natural leader of the herd. His own mount, scrappy little Oklilinchi, was already batting her eyes at him, and giving him a sweet nuzzling, her distractions would make leading the nervous animal away all that much easier. Taking a moment to admire their prizes, T’cumu frowned. When he and Nate had come spying there had been twelve horses, now there were only eight. Someone had taken four horses elsewhere during the night. There was nothing to be done for it now, and those they had captured still comprised a great boon to their fledgling breeding program.
Soon all the horses had lines on them, and the riders led them quietly and calmly back along the forest wall, safely away from the battle. T’cumu sent the group back down the path to the shore camp, from where they were ordered to continue onto the mesa at best speed; the captured animals were too valuable to risk losing if somehow the battle went badly. Having seen them safely away, the young brave turned his tough little mare around and galloped off to join his comrades in combat with a joyous whoop, his heart singing the ancient song of battle of his ancestors. This was T’cumu’s time; time to show his courage, time to vanquish his foes, time to bring glory to his people!
Nate grinned a bit ruthlessly at the mayhem his cavalry was sowing. So far, his tactics were working exactly as he had hoped they would, even better. They had so far succeeded in killing over a hundred of the enemy without a single loss of their own, which certainly helped even up the odds. Still, there were around five hundred foes left to go, and they would no longer have the element of surprise with them. Yes, they, too, would take losses this day; it was inevitable.
A group of the braver foes stood their ground, staring in awe at the wheeling line of riders. They were confused at the sight of men sitting high on the backs of animals and moving at such amazing speed. In the growing light of the dawn and the flicker of the blazing tipis, the Mesa warriors could see that the men still facing them had painted themselves as rattlesnakes, their bodies a dull gray with black bands, their lips scaled, and long white fangs sketched down their cheeks to their jaws. It was a grisly and unsettling effect, and one could almost admire the artistry. With a mad cry of defiance, the Rattlesnake warriors made a brief charge of their own, bringing the cavalry into range of their shortbows. They shot into the horsemen’s ranks, killing several men and downing one unfortunate mount, who crashed to the ground with an arrow through her neck, while her rider leaped free. The steely-nerved enemy succeeded in getting just the one volley off before they fell back to the ground they had risen up from, filled with arrows by the line of mounted men.
With the last shrieks and moans of the doomed filling the air, and no enemy capable of fighting back nearby, Nate and Ni-T’o called for a pause while they went to see what had become of their fallen warriors. They had lost three men, two were too wounded to continue fighting, and the fallen horse lay gasping and wheezing on the ground, its rider holding its head as if it were a child, speaking softly and petting its blood-soaked fur, giving what comfort he could.
Nate and the Raven Priestess came quickly, and gently checked the animal’s wound. It was fatal, the arrow’s feathered tip jutted from the hole it had carved through the unfortunate animal’s neck, blood spurting out with each beat of the heart. While his wife knelt down beside them and did what she could to soothe both horse and rider, whispering softly and gently stroking the head of each, the warrior looked up at Nate, tears streaming from his eyes and asked, “Can she be saved?”
Nate, tears threatening to gather in his own eyes, shook his head and answered “No friend, I am sorry. She cannot be saved. You must say your farewells to her now.”
The warrior nodded solemnly and bent down to whisper in his fallen horse’s ear one last time. She convulsed and gasped, her lungs filling up with blood. Her rider then swiftly pulled his stone knife from his belt, and with a last caress to her cheek, drove the blade straight and deep into her forehead, the razor-sharp stone easily piercing the skull. The thrust killed her instantly, sparing her any further suffering. Nate offered his hand and pulled the sad young brave to his feet, and they both took a moment to steady each other and collect themselves while the Raven Priestess went to gather up Poppy, who was quite sensibly using the opportunity to help herself to the local grass. The stout-hearted mare had seen war before, and took it in stride, whereas many of the younger, less well-trained mesa cayuses were beginning to spook at the smell of blood from one of their own, their riders doing their utmost to keep them calm.
Another warrior rode over to the two grieving men, leading a horse who had lost his rider. Nate took the reins from him and turned to his companion.
“What is your name, brave warrior?” Nate asked him, loud enough for all those gathered to hear.
“I am called Masheli, formerly of the Standing Pines, now a man of the Mesa!”
“Masheli.” Nate repeated, careful to pronounce it correctly. He thought it most likely meant ‘fair skies.‘
Nate held the reins out to the young warrior, offering them to him. “Ride with me again brave Masheli of the Mesa People! Ride with me, and we shall have our revenge!”
Masheli’s face now held a stony resolve. He took the proffered reins, gently stroking the wary and confused animal’s forehead to calm him. His new horse licked his hand, a union already forming.
“I will ride with you, General Nate. Lead us to glory, Oh Great Chief, we are yours!” This brought up a cheer from the gathered ranks.
Nate gave him a savage smile and an encouraging clap on the arm. He turned to his men, now all waiting quietly for his orders. Ni-T’o regarded him with a look of admiration and pride in the fine leadership his friend was demonstrating in a very difficult situation. That sent a wave of confidence coursing through Nate, but there was something else etched in Ni-T’o’s face as well, a deep sadness he had not seen before, and it troubled him. It would have to wait for later though; there was much more to do at the dawn of this deadly day.
“Mount up!” Nate shouted in his boldest, most exultant tones. “First blood is ours, a victory our fallen comrades have paid dearly for. Make their sacrifice worthwhile! The greater battle lies ahead. Let us drive these villains from our lands! Let us make them pay for the evil they have done to us and our kin!”
The men all let out whooping battle cries, the kind which would turn the blood of their waiting foes to ice. The Raven Priestess gave her husband a quick kiss on the cheek and Nate nudged Poppy into a gallop. The sun had now clawed its way up over the horizon, casting the fields in an eerie crimson glow. Nate thought that it looked like all the world was soaked in blood, and although he was not a superstitious nor a religious man, he knew an omen when he saw one.
“Gonzalo! Come quick!” The warrior’s face was worried. He pulled his general free from the adoration of the recently liberated villagers, and out the door. Flavio was tied there, happily chomping on fresh grass, and gave him a questioning look, but his master remained on foot for now. They ran around to the side of the stockade facing Stone Wall Village’s airy perch. The enemy force stationed on the palisades covering the steep, rocky slope had turned their attention to Gonzalo and his men and were beginning to filter downward, brandishing their weapons with angry cries. They outnumbered Gonzalo’s men by over half, and held the advantage of the heights and fortifications.
Gonzalo turned to his lieutenant and spoke loud enough for all his men to hear, “Get ten of our best bowmen up on the roof of the stockade to give us some height, shoot any of them who come into range! The rest of you, stand your ground, defend this stockade with all your might! We can take these sons of serpents. Have no fear! Let them come!”
His men nodded eagerly at his orders and started up a rousing battle hymn, their faces confident, eyes glittering with a wild joy. They stood strong and firm in their positions, adjusting their grips on their weapons in expectation of the challenge to come. Gonzalo pulled on his bushy beard with one hand and unsheathed his steel longsword with the other as he whispered a fervent prayer that his promise to these brave men would prove to be true . . .
To be continued . . .