The Great Chiefs’ Lodge, Mesa Top
Ni-T’o stood before those gathered around the central fire pit in the cavernous Great Chiefs’ Lodge. The various sub-chieftains, elders, and wise-persons from the many so-called ‘Pre-Mounds’ tribes that made up the recently formed ‘Mesa People’ were all there. In addition were their rather surprising descendants by a thousand or so odd years, the ‘Mound Builders,’ represented by the esteemed Raven Priestess and her captains, allies who had become much more. The Raven Priestess had married one of the Mesa’s Great Chiefs, Nate, and they intended to stay and build her a temple on the mesa, effectively joining the Mesa People as so many other of the scattered, time-lost tribes had done. In addition to himself and his cousin T’cumu, two of the Mesa’s four great chiefs came from those enigmatic peoples of an even farther future, a time in which the City of the Pyramids was long forgotten. Nate and Gonzalo, despite their exotic origins, were very much one of them now, brothers with a bond of love and friendship that remained firm through the most difficult of travails. Ni-T’o smiled; from all this diversity came strength, strength they would need to survive the trials to come. For now, they faced a foe far more deadly than any of the terrible monsters that roamed these lands: Other people.
The survivors of the ill-fated party from the city they had rescued from a deadly attack by ‘air demons’ were included in their circle, faces drawn and exhausted from their ordeal. Five of their number had been lost, and their pain was deep. Their beloved leader, The Raven Priestess, sat among them, giving them what comfort she could. The great chiefs of the Mesa People would have liked to have given them more time to recover, but the travelers had brought ill news, and they had to learn all they could right away.
As was so often the case, serene, perceptive Ni-T’o had been elected by his brother chiefs to lead the meeting. It was time to begin, so he raised his arms, stretched out wide in greeting.
“Friends from the City of the Pyramids, know that we all grieve with you. We are sorry to call you here now, but we must know all that you can tell us of the attack on Stone Wall Village.”
The group nodded in unison, then their elected spokesperson stood, giving a polite bow to all gathered.
“I am Hakáyu’ U’ush (White Owl), a senior acolyte of the glorious Raven Priestess. We were coming to the Mesa to aid in the construction of Her temple here. We arrived at Stone Wall Village expecting to rest and acquire guides across the Drained Sea, but instead we found the village under siege! And so, we took our chances and fled, making our own way to you.”
“Under siege by who?” Ni-T’o’s voice was as calm as ever, but there was a low, ominous tone of outrage underneath it. Whoever these invaders were, they would most certainly pay.
“The men we saw were from several tribes and villages near the city, and once ruled by the city. They have gone renegade, and have taken some of the newly adopted villages from past times with them. The surviving Rattlesnake priests and their followers fled to them when they were banished, and convinced them that the leadership in the city has grown weak, and that now was their chance to rise up and conquer these new lands for themselves!”
“The Rattlesnakes!” Nate said, as if merely uttering the phrase left an unpleasant taste in his mouth. “No surprise there.”
The crowd murmured, and all four of the great chiefs looked disgusted at the thought of their most hated foes finding power again. He who would have been their fifth great chief, F’vni, had been gruesomely murdered by the cruel Rattlesnake priests.
The Raven captain motioned for permission to speak, which Ni-T’o gladly granted. The esteemed old soldier rose. He was not wearing his usual warpaint and the scars of many battles were now visible, vivid, pale streaks across his deep bronze face and hands. With a polite bow to the gathering, he began.
“Although we defeated the Rattlesnake priests, and drove them from the city, their fangs sink deep, and have poisoned the hearts of many. They still have followers, particularly among the outlying villages, regrettably the home of no few savage-minded folk who relish the grisly entertainments these evil men provide. Many of these villagers have served as warriors for the city; they are fierce, and should not be underestimated.” His warning given, he sat carefully back down. The man was probably stronger and fiercer than any in attendance, but the years were taking their toll.
The Raven Priestess remained silent, as was her way, usually allowing her close confidants to speak for her. She nodded her head in support of her captain’s words.
T’cumu now stood, with a nod to Ni-T’o. The four great chiefs being equals, he was free to speak at any time, but still gave his elder cousin the courtesy. Ni-T’o nodded back and sat down, glad to take a rest. T’cumu turned to Hakáayu’ U’ush, who still stood, waiting politely for further questions.
“Esteemed elder, Hakáayu’ U’ush, please tell us how many men you saw in total. Also, we wish to know of those other types of people you saw among the invaders.”
“Overall, I would say there were around four hundred men. As for the strangers, we saw them in the distance from our hiding place, but there were some who stood out. One must apologize to the great chiefs from distant times, but there were those among them who somewhat resembled you. Some had very pale complexions.” he said, motioning toward Nate. “But there was one who was much darker, as if his skin had been burnt black by the sun. They all wore clothing of a strange cut. We can’t be sure, but we believe they may be from the future people’s village of Boomtown, who have recently sent emissaries to our city. Also among them was one who wore garments of metal, and bore weapons like yours, Sir,” he said, motioning toward Gonzalo as politely as he could.
The Spaniard stood, his powerful swordsman’s hands clenched in shame and rage.
“There would be no mistaking that one. A Spanish conquistador to be sure,” Gonzalo growled. “So, one of those villains still draws breath and has not repented as I have done. It seems fitting, an adder finding common cause with the vipers. Perhaps my God will forgive some of the blood I shed when I rode with their legion of the damned, if I send this one to Hell for Him. Truth told, it would be a pleasure.”
Nate rose, and reached over to clasp his upset friend on the shoulder in quiet support. Gonzalo still struggled mightily with the ghosts and demons of his past, but managed a wan smile and sank back down to the floor.
“Boomtown was settled by men who were once prisoners of Schullerville,” Nate explained to the gathering. “That time was over a hundred years after my own, but I will tell you what I have learned of it. Schullerville was originally a fortified village where they kept men who committed crimes against their own people; thieves, cheats, and murderers. It was a prison, a place of no escape, where they were punished for their crimes by having their freedom taken away. I heard that the worst of these criminals killed each other off in some kind of a big fight after they arrived in this time, but still, these are men who were once kept apart from innocent folk, locked up in a place where they could do no further harm. Those of Schullerville who had been their keepers said that their remaining prisoners had served their time, and so were pardoned and set free, after which many went to found Boomtown. Even so, I wouldn’t trust any of them, not one bit. Perhaps most of them truly have reformed, but there’s always a few bad apples in the bunch bound to slip back into evil ways. These men will be particularly dangerous. I’ve met their ilk in my own time. They will be without honor.”
Nate’s skill in the tribal dialects had greatly improved over the months proceeding, but T’cumu took a moment to clarify a few of the concepts to make sure all in the gathering understood what their great chief had said. A murmur filled the room again, the sound of worry edging into fear for their besieged friends and relatives who had chosen not to follow them to the mesa’s greater safety.
T’cumu raised his hands, motioning for calm.
“Please, there is, as yet, no need for such grave concern! Yes, the threat is great, and the enemy cunning, but not as cunning as our own Gonzalo and Nate, who have time and again taught us useful ways from the future, helping us all to survive in this dangerous world!”
Nate and Gonzalo shared a quiet glance with each other, a flush of red coming to their deeply tanned cheeks. They were both modest men who had come to their newfound high positions very much by accident. They could only hope the confidence their brave new friends had in them would continue to be justified.
T’cumu saw that glance, and knew his friends were embarrassed by the praise so often heaped upon them. He would have to discuss that with wise Ni-T’o when he next had a chance. Whether they were sure of it, or not, Nate and Gonzalo were in fact critical to everything they were trying to accomplish here, and he hoped that both men would come to accept, and thrive in their new roles as leaders of a new people. He gave his two brothers from other times and lands an encouraging smile and continued.
“These men, both experienced soldiers, knew that we might one day need to go to war, and heeding their wisdom we have prepared a force that is faster and more deadly than any other people in this time can muster! A cavalry of horses!” The last phrase was in English, but those gathered knew the foreign words well.
The murmur returned at the mention of these strange, new animals that had recently become so prized. Most wholeheartedly supported the cavalry, but there were some who distrusted the outlandish, perhaps even scandalous notion of men riding on the backs of beasts.
Ninak-Mkateewa, the self-proclaimed wise-man of the Mesa People, had been uncharacteristically quiet so far. He now took this inopportune moment to rise to his feet, uninvited of course, to motion for silence and address the gathering. Whether out of respect or curiosity, the people paused to listen. The great chiefs all sighed and rolled their eyes in unison. At times he could be amazingly helpful, but the cantankerous old meddler was always a caution.
“People of the Mesa and honored guests! It is true that our esteemed great chiefs hailing from distant times and lands have taught us much. They are indeed the dragonslayers, and we owe them a debt of gratitude for their many contributions to our existence here in this unfathomably ancient and bizarre world we have been swept away to. But would it not be foolish to turn our backs on our own ways at such a difficult time as this? We have fought many battles in our times, and know well the ways of war. Now we are asked to send our best young men into the fray on the backs of these creatures, a tactic that is completely untested!”
T’cumu, who held a large portion of the responsibility for the training of their horses and horsemen, scowled mightily at the wizened little old man, and rose to speak out in a righteous tone that hovered just above a rumble of thunder.
“‘Untested’ you say? Absolutely not! Our men have been riding their horses for months now, drilling with them daily in tests that simulate the battlefield. They are using techniques that rise from centuries of experience, brought to us by our brother chiefs Nate and Gonzalo, both of whom were trained as horsemen since childhood, both soldiers by profession in their former times! Would you question their tactics?”
“It is my duty to question men’s words, young chief, sometimes even to question the words of the gods themselves!” The last was said with a glance at the Raven Priestess. It was quite plain that she noticed the implied challenge, and a frown appeared, a dark cloud forming on her radiant face.
“Horsemen, soldiers! So they say!” The old man continued, his voice taking on a shrill tone as the blood began to rise in him. “How should we know the truth of their tales from the future, we who have not ourselves lived in those distant times? All we know is that which they have told us! The world is filled with many tales of great deeds, some few of which are true!”
The Raven Priestess rose as far as her knees and affixed Ninak-Mkateewa, whose tone had now become quite rude, with a glare, a clear warning that this time he had gone too far. Her captain began to rise, scowling dangerously, but she stopped him with a slight brush of her lithe fingers on his arm.
T’cumu took two steps forward despite himself, looking as if he was about to pounce on the surly old fellow, just as his namesake, the bobcat, would an offending rodent.
Ni-T’o stepped between them, and brought his face in close to Ninak-Mkateewa’s wrinkled visage, capturing his narrow, darkly glinting eyes in an unshakable, piercing gaze.
“The men you speak of in such unfair and disparaging tones are beyond question, even from you, ancient one! They have proven their worth and skill, over and over, before our very eyes, as you well know, as you have seen for yourself! If it was not for these men I fear for what might have become of us, we would most likely still be many tribes divided, cooped up in Stone Wall village watching the siege from within, and helpless to do anything about it! Now we are a force united, borne upon the backs of these powerful creatures, standing a head taller than any enemy, and moving ten times as fast! They will melt before us like snow in the spring’s first rains!”
“Perhaps, perhaps! Still, it is too much to put all our trust in these men who so recently were strangers to us! How can we be sure they will be right this time? Can we believe all their claims? We have grown weak, and rely on them and their foreign ways too much!”
This caused a clamor to erupt in the room. Some might hold some reservations about the newfangled methods Nate and Gonzalo had brought to them, but very few doubted their integrity. They were revered as heroes, the dragonslayers in name and deeds, and rightly so. The much vaulted office of great chief was not bestowed lightly by these stout-hearted, canny people. Ninak-Mkateewa opened his mouth to speak again, but then seeing the sour, and even, perhaps, dangerous looks being cast his way from various quarters of the room, fell silent, glowering at all assembled with his deep-set, pitch-black eyes, perhaps beginning to realize that yes, maybe this time he had said too much.
The two great chiefs in question had watched in stunned silence as this all played out, dismayed at the sudden lack of faith displayed by the elderly wise-man who, despite his sometimes fractious ways, they had felt was an ally, if not a friend. Nate scratched his stubbled chin in consternation, and felt the soft, supportive touch of his wife upon his shoulder. For her part, she was otherwise busy regarding her fellow spiritual leader with a look that suggested a hawk trying to decide which end of the lizard to eat first. Nate placed his hand gently on her arm, quietly signaling to her that reason should prevail. He was trying to think of what he could say and was coming up blank. Somewhat to his surprise, Gonzalo cleared his throat and motioned that he would like to take the floor. Ni-T’o and T’cumu gladly welcomed him to do so, going so far as to pull him to his feet. Following a sweeping bow, he spread his hands out to the gathering, imploring them to hear his words.
“My esteemed friends and fellows, T’cumu and Ni-T’o have flattered us greatly. Yes, Nate and I have brought new ways to the many tribes that have joined together to become the Mesa People, things that the men and women we are descended from learned over long, hard centuries of war and suffering. So far yes, our suggestions have worked, but we by no means take sole credit for that. All our methods would have been useless if the people of the tribes were not as clever and courageous as you are! It is with your great creativity and craftsmanship that you took the ideas we brought from our own times, and not only implemented them, but improved on them, wielding the results with incredible skill! We never could have accomplished any of this without your wisdom and strength! Without you we would still just be two lonely strangers riding hopelessly through the unknown, beset by demons and dragons on all sides until we eventually succumbed to some inevitable and most certainly awful fate.” Gonzalo paused to see that all eyes were held rapt upon him, the crowd scarcely even breathing. He gave them a grateful smile and continued.
“To our good fortune we found you, or rather, you found us, and brought us into your care! We are still alive only because of your good will, and we strive to share whatever we have to help all of us survive here in these godforsaken hells. We are all one tribe now, we are The Mesa People, and we do the most good when we work together as we have, bringing all our individual strengths to bear! We shall ride out to Stone Wall Village on our wonderful horses like a terrible wind from the heavens, the first cavalry this New New World has ever seen, and we will beat these craven invaders back down into the holes they crawled out from! They shall feel our righteous wrath as they fall beneath the thundering hooves of our bold mounts, and the deadly sting of the arrows and blades of our unstoppable warriors! We shall have victory, we, The Mesa People, united, mighty, and brave! Let us go forth together and triumph!”
Gonzalo, face flushed from the emotion he had poured into his impromptu speech, looked around to see his friends and fellow great chiefs, Nate, Ni-T’o and T’cumu, grinning broadly at him and clapping. They were soon joined by the Raven Priestess and her officers, then the room erupted into cheers, and the wild, hair-raising yodel of war-cries. Gonzalo noticed Ninak-Mkateewa melting away into the shadows, hopefully off to reconsider his opinions in the safety of his secret lair. No one paid the fellow any further notice, and the four friends, brothers in heart and soul, all independently came to the conclusion that the old malcontent’s bid to drive them apart had only served to strengthen their bonds. Once the celebration died down, the work of planning their next move began, a process that went long into the night.
Nate’s Cabin’s front porch
Nathan Tucker and his wife, the Raven Priestess, stood with their arms crossed, glaring at each other in a test of wills.
“Look, I know you want to go, but it’s just too damn dangerous,” Nate told her, trying to remain calm despite his new bride’s extreme stubbornness. He knew she was used to getting her way, but this time . . .
“I have proven myself in battle many times, Nathan Theseus Tucker, and before your very eyes! How can you doubt me?” Her voice was as even and cool as the calm before a looming storm.
“Of course you have, I ain’t calling none of that into question! It’s just that this time there’s gonna be a whole bunch of bad men out there, and we are going into battle with a half-trained force, and I am one of the people responsible for them! I am going to have my hands full, and I don’t know if I will be able to protect you!” It was quickly plain that this line of reasoning was only making things worse, as he could see a dangerous fire kindling in her bright, amber eyes.
“Ha! It will be I who will be protecting you, just like the last time!”
Nate sighed, and wiped the sweat from his brow with his ragged old handkerchief.
“Yes, you sure did save my butt from the big, bad bird, it’s true. But fighting people and monsters is different.”
“Oh, is it? Then what of the battle with the Rattlesnake priests, in which I also saved your butt? I have slain man and beast, many times! Why don’t you believe in me now?”
She was on the verge of getting really upset now, and Nate paused to take a deep breath. She was right of course, she was meaner than a razorback hog when she faced an enemy, and twice as fearless. Why was he so set against her joining the mission to liberate Stone Wall, anyway? He knew the answer deep down, and finally allowed himself to say it.
“I do believe in you. It’s just that I’m scared to lose you. If anything happened to you out there, I don’t know what I would do.” His hands fell to his side in a gesture of hopelessness. He gazed at her there, leaning against the rail, dressed in a billowy, soft white blouse instead of the usual dark tones she preferred. She was a goddess of the night come to visit the day, and her beauty and grace moved him like no other woman had ever done. The thought of life without her almost made his heart stop, but he knew that she was a kind of wild thing and could not be caged, even if the bars were made of safety and love..
A smile came swiftly to her ever-enchanting face, and she reached out and took his hands.
“Of course! Now I understand, my love, and love you all the more for it. But, there is something that you must understand about me. To you I am your wife, and it seems that your people’s customs are not that different from mine. Hvishi will not be joining Ni-T’o on the battlefield, she will stay home and tend the fire, and fear for him as she anxiously awaits his return. Was that not also so in the land of Texas?”
Nate managed a small smile, and nodded.
“Yes, it was so in Texas. Just so.”
“Nate, you know that while I am your wife, and you have all my love, I also have a duty to my people. I am not like Hvishi and the others. I am The Raven Priestess, it is my calling, my blessing, and at times, perhaps, my curse, but it is who I am! I am expected to go into battle with my warriors, I have been trained for that since I was but a small girl! I know the custom seems strange to you, are there no women warriors at all in your future country?”
Nate scratched his stubbled chin. “Well not very dang many, but yeah, there have been some, like Joan of Arc, I guess. Not so much in my time, but throughout history.”
“Throughout history . . . the preserved memory of times before your own, yes? And is not that where I come from, many, many years back in history?”
Nate laughed then, despite himself. “Darlin’, you are positively prehistoric! There’s also something called myth, the old tales passed down from generation to generation about the great deeds of gods and heroes from long before history began. I would say that’s more where you fit in.”
They shared a brief laugh at that, the concept of myth definitely being something their disparate cultures shared.
“Alright my love, so you are the queen of the Amazons, and it’s your duty to lead them into battle. I get it, but I have done a lot of things for duty’s sake that I came to regret later.”
“All whose duty it is to serve others are bound to put their own needs and desires aside. It is a solemn charge, and I cannot forsake my people. The Raven Priestess must be seen at the front her warriors, in all her painted glory!”
Seeing her stand there, hands confidently on her hips, her eyes ablaze with righteous fire, almost made Nate tremble, and wonder not for the first time if he was up to the challenge of being the swain of a genuine injun princess.
“All right, fine, I couldn’t stop you, anyway!” Nate raised his hands in defeat. “Just be careful, and don’t let all that painted glory get herself killed!”
She kissed him then, one of the long, luscious kinds of kisses that still set his head to spinning. When they eventually broke the spell, she was all business again.
“Let us go and pick out my horse now!” she announced.
Nate laughed, and folded his arm across his chest. Here was a battle he could win.
“Uh-uh. Not this time, sweetheart of mine. There are barely enough for the men who trained on them. Oh sure, I know you could probably ride better than most of them already, but I want as many of those men in the saddle as I can get, they’ve earned their place there! You, my little crow, can ride along behind me, and don’t get all bossy about that, because I am a bonafide general now, and it’s generals who give the orders to the warriors, and that will include you!” He tried to keep a straight face. He had never had much respect for the generals he had served under, but now that he had appointed himself as one, the concept rather pleased him—especially if it lent any aid at all to reining in a wife for whom the term ‘headstrong’ didn’t even begin to suffice.
She looked at him for a long moment trying to decide if she could also win this argument, then let out a carefree laugh, stood up bolt-straight, and gave him a snappy salute.
“Yes, Sir!” she shouted gleefully.
“Oh, for the love of Mike, who taught you that?”
“Oh, I know lots of people from the future, and I’m fascinated by the all the strange things they say and do! You must recall that you and Gonzalo were not the only ones to visit my city. I have had many teachers, and so I can speak your languages as I do. Now, General Tucker, may we please go visit the troops?”
“Indeed we can. Milady?” He offered her his arm, trying to decide if she was the cutest darn thing he had ever seen or just the scariest.
She took his arm as ladylike as could be, and they walked regally across the meadow to the paddock, proud of each other and their accomplishments. Nate thought of the holy terror he would be unleashing on the thugs who were holding Stone Wall Village hostage, and allowed himself a grim smile. He had to admit it wasn’t just his charmingly bloodthirsty wife who relished the prospect of action. He would have preferred peace, but the enemy had moved on him and his first. They would pay for that, and it would be Nate Tucker handing them the bill.
The Paddocks, Mesa Top
T’cumu nudged his stout young mare Oklilinchi to the left, motioning to the men galloping behind him to follow. She was the first of the wild ‘mesa cayuses’ to be trained to the saddle, and now she led more of her kin, exuding a kind of fierce pride that the other animals seemed to catch. Nate and Gonzalo had often said that humans and horses were meant for each other, and T’cumu was a true believer. Turning to watch, he saw the group turn with him, albeit more slowly, the line growing ragged, then reforming as they returned to a straight course. They had a long way to go before they could achieve the precision that Nate and Gonzalo, both highly experienced horsemen, had taught him, but they had improved.
They were approaching the targets now, and T’cumu made the hand signal to prepare to fire. Pulling his own longbow out, a weapon unfamiliar to him until just a few days ago, he notched an arrow and aimed at the first of the twenty man-shaped, straw-and-wood dummies grouped along the fence line still some thirty strides away. Breathing out, he let loose the long, flint-tipped arrow. It whizzed across the distance in a flash to embed itself deep in the first dummy’s head. Turning back again, he watched each man take his turn; some missed their targets completely, but most scored a hit, if not a kill shot. One or two struck the head just as T’cumu had done, and he marked their names in his memory, intending to make them his captains, and set them to helping train the men in smaller groups.
The concept of military ranks was new to the young warrior from Stone Wall Village, another idea that had come from some odd thousand years in the future. Like so many things that the cavalry man and the conquistador had taught their people, it made sense and worked just as well as they said it would, that crazy old wise-man be damned! The newly minted General T’cumu had been to war before, having in fact fought against some of the very men who followed him, allied now against a much greater threat: the world of the Cretaceous.
The battles among the tribes he had participated in had been messy, disorganized, with many of the young men losing control and taking foolish risks against the wishes of their war-chiefs, usually ending badly for everyone. No more! He had chosen his men carefully, and had made his intentions clear: They would fight as one and win! T’cumu was utterly convinced that what they practiced today was truly a better way, the difference between a wild, half-aimed shot made in a rush and liable to fly astray and a careful, precision shot almost guaranteed to hit its target with deadly force. He was honing these men and their mounts into a weapon the likes of which his people had never seen and hoped it would be enough to free his former home from the invaders. If only he had more time, but they would ride out with the dawn, and ready or not, his men would put their new skills to the ultimate test. Despite the danger ahead, T’cumu grinned his bright, sunny grin, his heart leaping in his chest with joy. He was meant for this.
The Tilted Meadow, Mesa Bottom
They had assembled their force at the Tilted Meadow the night before, in order to leave in the relative cool before sunrise without having to navigate the treacherous switchbacks that wound steeply up the slide to the bridge. The four great chiefs stood together, watching the proceedings with confident smiles. Today Nate and Gonzalo had shed the comfortable buckskins their people had gifted them with in favor of the clothes they had first arrived in. Nate wore his dark-blue, wool US Army scout’s uniform, but with the jacket unbuttoned and open in anticipation of the coming heat. His broad-brimmed hat was tilted at a jaunty angle, now sporting a long, jet-black raven feather. Gonzalo had donned his complete set of armor for the occasion, breastplate, grieves, and all, topped by his shining, gracefully-curved, crescent-brimmed helmet. The Spaniard looked to Nate as if he had stepped right out of the history books, which in fact, he had. Both men had made a point of wearing their dragon fang necklaces, the sight of which made their makers, Ni-T’o, and T’cumu, swell with pride. The two of them were almost unrecognizable beneath a thick coat of their traditional war paint, with feathers and beads woven through their long, dark hair, all lending them a demeanor of untamed ferocity. Both Gonzalo and Nate had seen men like these before, too often on the opposite side of the battle, and were damned pleased these magnificent warriors were on their side!
Their newly-minted army, nearly three hundred in number, were all in good spirits, feeling confident and eager to use the tactics they had learned. The enemy force might be larger, but these men still had the advantage thanks to their horses and improved weapons—at least that was their hope. It was an all-volunteer force, and the proud young braves boasted and jested as to who would bring home the most glory to their people.
Gonzalo smiled outwardly, but inwardly he wished he shared their enthusiasm. Whatever righteous zeal had filled him in the chief’s lodge had dissipated into a sour dread for the carnage that was to come. He had seen much more of war than these young men had and knew that what they were embarking on was no game and that some of these brave souls were doomed to fall. He scanned their handsome, bronzed faces wondering who would return to the mesa and who would not. Crossing himself for entertaining such dire thoughts, he whispered a prayer on behalf of their fresh, new army, beseeching the Lord that they return victorious, with all unscathed. He knew the last was really too much to ask, even God in all His mercy would not stand between an unlucky soldier and the Angel of Death. He quietly took leave of his companions then, slipping off by himself into the deep darkness before dawn so as not to infect them with his even darker mood.
Gonzalo, a man once tortured by his chequered past, had at last found peace among the Mesa People, and now, too soon, he felt that it was slipping away. Was it not enough for men be cast into a land of demons and be fortunate enough to survive as well as they had? Oh no, even here, surrounded by monstrous foes beyond comprehension, humanity must start up their stupid squabbles again, spilling the blood of their brothers and sisters on unspoiled ground, and over what? Territory? There was more than enough of that in the New New World, an entire continent, most likely an entire planet, empty save for the fell beasts, just waiting for man to go forth and tame this younger, more savage Earth’s vast wilds! But no, that would be hard, it would mean work and sacrifice. Better to simply take the good things your neighbor has! It had been so ever since Adam and Eve had been cast out from Eden, and it was so here and now. Thus, weary Gonzalo found himself going to war again, and could only take solace in the thought that the Lord God was not yet finished testing him, and there were still sins remaining on his tally for which he must pay. This, at last, brought a faint smile to his face. He was a soldier again yes, but now he was truly a soldier of God, because this time he fought for something worthwhile, the future of his friends and adopted people. He would make sure to give them his very best today, and if he were to fall in the struggle he would at long last be able to face his maker with no stain of guilt on his conscience.
It was still well over an hour before sunrise when Ninak-Mkateewa and the Raven Priestess stood up along with their various acolytes and followers and came together, their arms raising in unison, a signal for all to attend them. The falling out they had suffered previously seemed to be mended. For his part, the cantankerous old wise-man looked more sober and serious than anyone had ever seen him. All those gathered fell into a hush. A soft, slow drumming began, and the two luminaries began to dance together. Their movements were small and precise, unlike their usual exuberant gesticulations. A chant began, which was taken up by all gathered. Even Gonzalo, despite his gloomy mood, soon found himself humming along. Ni-T’o appeared beside him, and gently took his arm, leading him to where Nate and T’cumu waited with the horses. It was time. The four of them mounted up. The Raven Priestess, with a kind of curtsy to the rather subdued and solemn witch-doctor, moved away from the dance to take Nate’s hand and leaped effortlessly up onto Poppy’s wide, orange-spotted back behind him.
They began to ride slowly away from the mesa, their forces falling in behind them; cavalry and foot soldier, horse and pike, and the deadly axes and blades of the Raven Warriors. After a while, they all looked back to see the now small figures of Ninak-Mkateewa and the remaining acolytes painted purple by the first brushes of dawn, still dancing, their drumming fading with the distance.
Gonzalo rode at the head of the pikemen, a force that he had had the major hand in creating and training. He was now considered to be their general. He never used the term when referring to himself, he was a modest man, and leading these men into battle was simply a duty that he was most fit to perform. He had originally formed the group to defend the tribe from the great dragons that roamed these lands, and having to extend the lessons to facing an enemy army had not been to his liking; a necessity, yes, but he could already taste blood in his mouth, and it was as bitter as always.
The men marched and rode in near-silence, at the request of their leaders. The area of Stone Wall Village was barely visible above the eastern horizon. It lay just beyond the top of a sheer cliff created by the displacement of a low range of hills by the brief occupation of a tumultuous deep that was doomed to wash away, leaving behind the Drained Sea. It was too far for their column to be seen from there, but sound tended to travel much farther than one might expect, especially across open flats such as these, so it was best not to chance alerting anyone of their coming.
And so, it was all quiet across the wide, empty expanse, except the rustle of the breeze through the grass that had taken root there, covering the desiccated remains of stranded sea creatures, and the parched sands of the former sea bottom with ever-spreading patches of vibrant green. Bushes sprouted as well along the path, and some young saplings. Gonzalo smiled to see that some of these were fruit trees grown from the seeds Nate had cast about during their travels. What had once been an antediluvian sea teeming with strange life now knew life again, and it made the melancholy Spaniard smile a bit. Was that not what they were fighting for? The survival of their kind of life here in this eon of demons and damnation? He shook his head sadly. The men who had come here had brought along demons of their own.
Nate could see that Gonzalo was troubled that morning, and knew his friend well enough to figure he knew why. There wasn’t much to be done for it but to continue to encourage him and help him leave his self-imposed penance behind. Despite the drums and the camaraderie, there was nothing to be glad about in going to war, and no doubt this was part of the Spaniard’s grim demeanor. He had always found a little levity was the best way to deal with pre-combat nerves, so he determined to try to cheer Gonzalo up. His wife had dismounted to walk with her warriors for a while, so Nate dropped back to where Gonzalo rode silently at the head of his pikemen. He brought Poppy in close to her beloved Flavio, the father of the foal that grew in her, and let them share an affectionate nuzzle while he jokingly knocked on Gonzalo’s armored shoulder as if it were a door, a wide grin on his face.
Gonzalo couldn’t help but chuckle at his friend’s antics and nodded.
“Yes, come in, Sir.” he said just above a whisper. They had ordered quiet from the men so it would not be good for them to be too boisterous.
Nate grinned some more and pointed at the trees growing along the way.
“Ah, yes, so I have the pleasure of Johnny Appleseed’s company this fine morning. Your plan is proceeding nicely. I had been admiring your handiwork well before you arrived,” Gonzalo told him.
“This is just the start!” Nate replied in a hushed but excited tone, “Look, there’s already grass growing as far as the eye can see! This here sorry mudflat is on its way to becoming a real prairie!”
“Indeed it is. Alas that you had no orange seeds in your pockets, then this might indeed one day be a paradise on Earth, much like my long-lost Seville was.” Gonzalo smiled sadly, in danger of slipping back into his depression.
“Gonzalo, we have barely scratched the surface of this world, this time. I will bet you that there are oranges growing somewhere out there, and we will find them! You will have your orchard yet, my friend!”
Gonzalo couldn’t help but smile at Nate’s boyish enthusiasm, and realized that the Texan had probably twigged to his dark mood quite a while ago. He grew a bit embarrassed then at exposing his troubles and blew out a long gush of air, intending to send them away with it. He forced a hopeful tone into his voice, and said, “I do believe you are right, Nate, we will find oranges someday, and other wonderful things we have lost. And even if we don’t, this world will have other, new delights for us to discover.”
“Indeed it will! I never thought I would cotton to those pine nuts the women gather from the big native trees, but now I find I can’t get enough of the dang things! We’ve only just gotten started here. Hell, there’s still a good third of the mesa left that we haven’t had time to explore yet!”
Just then a flock of birds flew by, low and in tight formation. They dodged and swooped and then climbed into the sky again.
“Swallows!” Nate exclaimed a bit loudly, then clapped a hand over his mouth before continuing in a hoarse, almost-whisper. “Look, the critters that came through with us during the big shake-up are already spreading. This world is going to become more and more like what we are used to as time goes by. Which brings me to another thing I’ve been a-pondering.”
Gonzalo’s bushy raised eyebrows asked the question, and so Nate went on, his voice filled with breathless eagerness.
“Well, we have a lot of game animals up on the mesa. Some of them are a bit odd-looking, but they make fine eating, and I definitely prefer them to the taste of these big lizard critters down here! The thing is, there are a lot of people up on that mesa now, and it’s a limited space. I’m getting concerned that we are going to eat up all that nice game until there aren’t any left!”
“Yes, much like Ninak-Mkateewa remembered horses when he was a boy, yet they were all gone by the time my people arrived on these shores. He claimed they were good eating . . .” Both men made a sour face at the thought of it. “Now I see why you and T’cumu took that hunting trip down here looking for four-footed geese and the like. You wanted to take the pressure off the mesa’s hunting grounds.”
“Exactly. We did pretty well, too—the game was plentiful. A bunch of fresh water is running across the Drained Sea, coming out of the native woods to the north and northeast. There are scads of streams, and some will join up to form rivers eventually, as well as the lakes and watering holes forming in depressions that were already here on the former sea bottom. The native critters are following the water, and we brought back enough meat to feed the village for a whole month. But, there is still a better way . . .”
Gonzalo’s face brightened for real now, talk of the future was succeeding in driving away the day’s cares, at least for a little while. “I think I can guess what your idea is, Nate. You want to bring game animals from up on the mesa down here!”
“Bingo!” Nate nearly shouted, then clapped his hand over his mouth again and gave the men walking along just behind them an apologetic grin. They just grinned back at him; the chiefs were usually the first to break their own rules! He leaned in close to Gonzalo again and continued, “I figure we should start with a small herd of those one-horned antelopes. They’re small and fast, and I bet they could run away from the big nasties down here without breaking a sweat.”
“But how do we get them down here, We can’t very well lead them down the bridge trail like a herd of sheep.”
“I’ve been thinking on that, too. You remember how you first met me, right?
“When I had to cut you down from that tree? Ah, I see . . .”
“Yeah, our friends are mighty handy with a snare, and I bet they could rig up something that could catch those antelope without hurting them none. Then we just carry them down here and cut ’em loose! Next thing ya know they’ll be running all up and down this here prairie! And we won’t stop with them!”
“Those bison we found! Magnificent creatures!”
“And, the next best thing to beef we have! Pretty soon we will be able to do all our hunting down here.”
“What about the mesa cayuses? Should we bring some of those down? You know what they say about all the eggs in one basket.”
“Well, I think we best keep those close to us for now, they are a resource no one but us has. But yes, someday I would like to see them running across the world, free as they should be. My grandpappy was a rancher and a horse breeder, but he always made sure to keep a good-sized portion of his land in a natural state, and there was always a wild herd of mustangs out there. Every now and then he would go catch some of the best of them to put some fresh blood into his stock. As far as he was concerned nature was the best horse breeder around.”
They both fell silent then, thinking of all the bright possibilities that awaited them, and forgetting for just a little while the unpleasant task at hand. That would come soon enough, by the morrow blood would be shed. For now though, there was just the tuneless music of the wind and the grass accompanied by the slow, steady drumbeats of men and horses walking the path to war.
To be continued . . .