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Part One: A Conspiracy of Ravens
Fort Lookout, Mesa Top
Nate Tucker was kissing the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She was the Raven Priestess, worshiped by her people. A crowd of onlookers surrounded them, which apparently didn't bother her one bit. He could hear Gonzalo's soft laughter nearby. As might be expected, his friend was greatly amused by the unexpected show. Yes indeed, it was turning out to be quite a day! Nate was no longer sure what day that was, or what month, or even what year, except that it was millions and millions of years before any of them would be born. All of that might once have made him doubt his sanity, but now it was just another day in the Cretaceous.
The only thing that mattered at the moment was the woman in his arms, the veritable living goddess he had dreamed of every night since they had met. After a long, blissful time, their lips parted, and the Raven Priestess laughed in her odd, musical, way. Her smoky, amber eyes locked on his, a silent promise that this was nowhere near over. She stroked his stubbled cheek gently before breaking their embrace.
Now that the kiss had ended, Nate looked around at a sea of smiling faces, his adopted people and their visitors from the City of the Pyramids, all enjoying the spectacle. Coming to his senses, he began to blush. Gonzalo walked up to clap him affectionately on the back.
"Ah, Nate, what is your secret?" he asked teasingly, much amused by his friend's discomfiture, "Everywhere we go, it seems some lovely woman is kissing you, while I, poor Gonzalo, once a man much sought after by the fair maidens of sunny Seville, am forced to watch your amorous adventures while standing alone and unwanted. The aching of my broken heart is more than I can bear, I am beyond consolation." The twinkle in his brown eyes belied any real suffering.
"Well then, maybe it's time you joined the priesthood," Nate growled at him, now embarrassed by all the attention, and supremely unamused by Gonzalo's teasing.
"You cut me to the quick! Yes, while it is true that I am God's humble servant, I have also been a terrible sinner. I fear the holy fathers would reject my request to join their ranks, alas! Or would, that is, if I could find any holy fathers in these devil-infested realms."
Gonzalo's eyes narrowed then, focusing on something behind Nate, and his smile soured into a frown. "Ah, speaking of devils, here comes one now!"
Ninak-Mkateewa, self-appointed wise man of the Mesa People and general irritant, had arrived in all his savage glory. The venerable and ancient madman had applied a fresh coat of pigment to his body, his trademark blue-black dotted with white stars. Today he had added a formidable-looking piece of ceremonial headgear to his regalia, fashioned from the head of the lizard-demon T'cumu had killed. The lower jaws were slung around the wise man's neck, while the upper jaws jutted out over his forehead.
“He looks like a man swallowed by a snake!” Gonzalo whispered to Nate.
“Wouldn't that be nice? Perhaps it could be arranged,” Nate replied, and they shared a conspiratorial smile at the thought of the crazy old witch-doctor meeting such a fate. Ninak-Mkateewa rarely missed an opportunity to harass them with his caustic wit, and took a great deal of perverse pleasure in making a nuisance of himself.
The wise man shook his rattle fiercely to draw attention to himself, which wasn't really necessary since all eyes were upon him, some in wonder, some in terror. His beady, black eyes squinted at the Raven Priestess from their wrinkled nests, studying her in an exceptionally rude fashion. He began a sideways, high-stepping dance toward her, growling and muttering all the while in menacing tones. Her guard began to move forward to block his approach, but she held them back with an almost imperceptible shake of her head. She smiled at the bizarre old man as he closed in on her, unruffled by his challenge. Nate thought she resembled a hawk studying a field mouse.
"I think our madman has met his match this time," Gonzalo said as he watched, fascinated by the proceedings.
"I'm thinking he has no idea what he's getting into. If he tries anything funny she'll tear his fool head off!"
"Oh, I do so hope so, may the Lord God forgive me!" Gonzalo crossed himself for good measure. They watched the unfolding drama with eagerness, wondering how this test of wills would play out.
Ninak-Mkateewa came in brazenly close, testing her composure. If anything, she was beginning to look a bit bored with the so-called wise man's performance. He began to dance a slow circle around her, rudely sniffing the air, rattles shaking like an enraged diamondback. The Raven Priestess remained undaunted, not bothering to turn as he passed behind her, an aloof smile on her face.
The crowd was silent, barely breathing as the confrontation went on. Gonzalo almost found himself pitying the irascible old fellow. . . almost. He had seen the Raven Priestess fight; if she chose to unleash her wrath on the impertinent wise man, it would be the end of him.
Ninak-Mkateewa completed his circle. The rattling ceased as he came to a stop directly in front of her, eyes locking with hers in a staring contest, neither of them moving or blinking. The Raven Priestess was no longer smiling. After what seemed like a very long time to those gathered, the old man began to laugh. After a moment, the Raven Priestess began to laugh, too, and then, to everyone's amazement, they took each other's hands and started to walk together like old friends out for a stroll, the wise man leading her forward with chivalrous aplomb. Her guard fell in step behind, then the entire gathering. Nate and Gonzalo just stood there for a while, digesting what had happened.
"Well, that was a bit disappointing," Nate said, scratching the back of his neck.
"I must confess, I was hoping she would put the imp in his place," Gonzalo agreed.
"I was hoping she would wring his scrawny neck, and it would serve him right."
"Alas, one cannot have everything. Come now, my friend, the day is still young, and I am sure more drama and wonder awaits us."
"Oh, how wonderful!" Nate replied without meaning it at all. “I bet there's going to be a big hootenanny tonight. That ought to be interesting."
“Do you mean a celebration? That should be fun, don't you think?” Gonzalo's face filled with excitement.
“I'll stick with interesting for now.”
They took the reins of their horses from the braves they had entrusted them to, thanking them. The young men looked pleased to have been of service to their new great chiefs, the dragon-slayers who had led them all to safety. As they returned to duty at the bridge, their faces grew long. Nate knew all too well what it was like to be stuck on guard duty when everyone else was off having a good time, and determined that these two would be relieved that evening, so they could attend whatever Saturnalia was bound to take place. Of course, that would make two young other fellows miserable, but that's just how things go when you're a grunt.
Nate and Gonzalo trailed along behind the rest, leading their horses at a comfortable amble. The procession had traveled about a quarter of a mile when a runner came back to find them.
"Great Chiefs! Ninak-Mkateewa asks that you come with your horses!"
Gonzalo and Nate shared a long-suffering look, then mounted up.
When they reached the head of the procession Ninak-Mkateewa was impatiently tapping his toe.
"The Raven Priestess and I grow weary! We will ride with you!" he announced imperiously,
Nate and Gonzalo rolled their eyes in unison.
"I will take the old scoundrel, and you the fair maiden," Gonzalo said, resigned to his fate. "The Lord continues to punish me for my many sins, and I must bear it all with humility."
"I heard that, Gonzalo! I have learned more of your foreign tongues than you think!" Ninak-Mkateewa told him in a greatly offended tone, but smiling despite himself. He knew damn well he was annoying, and enjoyed every minute of it. Nate and Gonzalo had figured out that if they fought back it only encouraged him, so most of the time they bore his abuse in silence, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of a reaction.
Nate brought Poppy over to the waiting Raven Priestess, where she stood in her indigo robes and gold and silver ornaments. Tresses of jet-black hair fell all the way to her slender waist, shifting gently in the breeze. He had been so flummoxed earlier he hadn't even noticed she wasn't wearing her usual midnight-blue body paint; her light-bronze skin glowed in the sunlight. To Nate's eyes she was a sylph from ancient myth stepped out of an enchanted grove, ready to work her charms on him. She favored him with a radiant smile, and he feared all that was left of his brains would melt into butter.
Nate reached his hand down to her, doing his best to stop its nervous shaking. Her touch sent an electric charge up his arm. Damnation! No woman had ever made him feel this way. He was way out of his element, treading into strange new territory, wonderful and terrifying at the same time. He really needed to get a grip on himself before he turned into a smitten fool. The Raven Priestess's ever-attentive guards made a step for her with their hands, and she fairly flew up onto his mare's wide back. She folded her lithe arms around Nate's waist, the warmth of her supple form a delicious pressure against his back. He thought he might pass out for a moment, but took a deep breath and found enough presence of mind to signal Poppy into a gentle walk.
Barely a mile had passed by, when two riders approached from ahead. These were the other newly minted great chiefs of the conglomeration of tribes that had become the Mesa People, Ni-T'o and T'cumu, who had been brought word of their esteemed visitor's arrival.
Ni-T'o, being the eldest, lifted his hand in greeting.