The Golden City
A Lost Son
The young man staggered, inhaling wildly. Stumbling over an exposed root,— he fell,— catching himself on a low branch but dropped his spear. Blood flowed from a gaping wound,— laid open across the side of his abdomen to his backbone:— painting his lower extremities, and staining the heavy woven-wool garment belted to his waist.
Panicking, the man looked over his shoulder. The top, left side of his face was laid open from above the eye and across his hairline to below the ear. The skin hung,— torn free of the skull;— the bone standing out in stark contrast to the dirty flap of loose hide on the man’s cheek. His unfractured cranium almost glowed in the soft light filtering through the upper terraces of the forest. With each racing pulse of the man’s heart, his life’s fluid dribbled from his still attached scalp and streaked down the white expanse, mixing with sweat and grease, draining into his eyes. He dropped to his knees blindly feeling for his javelin,— hurriedly raking the soil with both hands until his right made contact with the smooth shaft. Clutching it to his chest he used the blunt end as a crutch and staggered to his feet.
A heavy thud hit the ground behind and the man turned presenting his spear in defense. Void of pursuit he scanned the trail. Madly he tried to wipe the excessive moisture from his blurred vision,— then froze. A massive form stepped from behind the large conifer, lifting a broad bladed war axe.
* * *
Tawque stepped in close behind Haiwi, wrapping his right arm around her small waist and placing his left on her hip, turning her body slightly. Nudging her ankle with his foot he whispered softly, “Spread your legs about shoulder width apart.”
She stepped out lightly with his touch and raised her left arm.— While firmly holding the center grip,— she extended it full as she drew the bowstring back with her right hand.
“Draw the arrow complete to the first painted ring, resting the knuckle of your thumb just under your eye.”
The wood creaked as its shapely contours bent under the strain of tension exerted on the sinew cable. The fletching brushed by Haiwi’s lashes as she positioned for sight.
“Look down the shaft, but do not focus on the tip. Rather, focus on one specific point on the target. With time you will know right where the arrow will strike.”
Haiwi’s field of vision tunneled down the feathered rod to a distant mound of piled dirt. Spent arrows riddled the area, half a dozen holding a nice pattern in the small hill.
“Your whole body is the instrument and you must repeat the exact same form each time you draw. If you must turn,— your whole upper body must pivot. No change to the extension in your arm, no difference to the point where you extend the bow.”
Haiwi felt his warm breath caressing her cheek,— the soft restraint of his hand and gentle touch.
“Focus,——allow nothing to distract you. Take a deep breath.——And as you exhale slowly;—when you feel the target,—— release.”
Like a feathered missile, the flint tipped point cut the air, striking the pile center of the grouping.
“Very good,” Tawque said as he stepped back from Haiwi.
She looked over her shoulder and smiled at her instructor.
“Gather the arrows that are close together in your quiver. The rest we bundle. Those that went right give to Bobby. Those that flew left give to the others.”
Haiwi almost skipped down to the hill grabbing the shafts holding the pattern and placed them in her quiver. Turning around she noticed Tawque had stopped short of following her and was examining the ground. “What is the matter? I don’t think one landed over there.”
Tawque was silent and kneeled, touching the earth.
Haiwi approached, leaving the excess arrows that were scattered about. “What is it?” she asked, more emphatically.
“It’s a blood trail.” Tawque stood, totally focused on the area before him.
“Perhaps an animal was hurt.”
Tawque shook his head, “This was left by a man and he’s cut up pretty bad.”
“There is no one here. Could one of our people been hurt?” Haiwi paused, spotting an elephant leaf, heavily covered in blood.
“The moccasin isn’t right.” His expression was one of deep concern as he met Haiwi’s eyes. “We have company.”
Haiwi fidgeted and pulling an arrow from her quiver she stood ready scanning the jungle, “We must leave now! All,— are enemies to us.” She notched the arrow to the sinew and flexed it slightly and eased off, reading the weapon in front of her. “Even my people are a danger to us.” Her eyes turned pleading, “Let’s warn the others and break camp. We can push west.”
Tawque whispered, placing one finger over his mouth for her to lower her voice, “One does not run blindly from an enemy. You might walk right into his camp.” He moved silently to a new point on the trail.
Haiwi stepped up beside him,— weapon ready, “What should we do?”
“We follow the trail.”
“Could we walk right into a trap? Would it not be better just to leave?”
“We need to know if there are more.” And placing his hand into a new print, he carefully examined the instep, “Where their camp is. If they pose a threat.” He made eye contact with Haiwi, “This track was made by a different man.”
“There’s more than one?”
Tawque spent a few minutes studying the trail and surrounding area while Haiwi nervously kept watch. After a thorough search, he came back, “There’s at least three. They’re injured and ran that way,” pointing.
“Well,— let’s go that way,” Haiwi motioned the opposite direction with her right thumb.
“Just because they went that way doesn’t mean they won’t circle back.” Tawque’s attention was suddenly focused a short distance away. He spotted an anomaly about thirty feet from the trail on the break of a small ridge and left the path.
“What is it?”
“Our men are being followed,” and ducking low he worked his way over to a couple skid marks. The displaced pine needles revealed a scar of bare earth. Something had stepped on the loose debris, lost its footing and slid down the short incline. Tawque moved quietly to the ravine below the scuffs with Haiwi at his heels. At the landing point he found in the damp soil of the wash several footprints. They looked human, but huge. By the trunk of a tree next to the ravine he found more. Wedged in the bark of a branch, he pulled free a tuft of hair: stiff and coarse, about 3 inches long and quite pungent.
“Is it cats?” Haiwi asked, putting a hand on Tawque’s back, trying to look around him.
“No, it’s something worse.”
Haiwi stepped around and saw the print. It looked human, but it was massive. She saw the dark fur in Tawque’s hand and shrunk back at the revelation. “Nephraceetan! We must go. Death is walking in this forest.”
“A few men we can handle,” Tawque replied with a grim smile, “even if they are big.”
“Not the Nephraceetan,—— no man has ever survived an encounter,— and no woman would want to survive if caught. They’re devils.— Children of the gods and they usually hunt in packs.”
“That would explain the blood on the trail, but we still need to follow. I don’t want to be wandering around this forest and not know where my enemy is. Following their trail gives us the advantage. Besides, if a whole tribe has moved in, we’re in trouble.”
“Please, I really want to leave.”
Tawque placed a hand gently on Haiwi’s cheek and spoke soothingly, “Trust me, I would never let anything happen to you, but we must do this.” His hand slipped down to her shoulder as he turned, looking up the ravine. “Better to face a few than a whole tribe,” and with a nod of the head started up the trail.
Haiwi followed cautiously ever alert. An arrow resting notched and ready. Her muscles tense.
Tawque picked up speed. How swift and silent he can move, she thought to herself as she slipped behind. She knew if she tried to keep up the enemy would hear them both approaching. Better for the Hand-of-the-Great-One to come upon them with surprise.
Within minutes Tawque disappeared in a denser mass of the tangled forest, leaving Haiwi in the shallow ravine far behind.
In a small clearing Tawque came upon two dead men,— one headless. Dressed in woven wool skirts and an array of arm bands and chokers,— jewelry of ivory and gold; their bodies were brutalized and bloody from numerous mortal wounds from battle. Tawque’s careful eye was scanning every detail to determine the weapons used, when a war-cry echoed over a narrow ridge ahead. The clashing of wood and grunts of battle carried through the woven maze of trees and brush.
Stealth and speed are the gifts granted the hunter. To the Blackfoot they were necessary attributes in life. Tawque was raised in a world fraught with danger. Tactics and warfare were taught from infancy. This day the gifts served him well. Within seconds he hit the top of the next ridge as silently as a shadow. From the cover of a large pine he watched the drama below.
Another man dressed in a woven wool skirt was battling with a massive figure. The hairy brute was accompanied by two other muscular foes. No taller than the man, but their hulk cast them as giants. The spectators, virtual colossi, seemed intent on just watching their comrade toy with his victim.
“Nephraceetan,” Tawque whispered as he thought of Haiwi’s words. Were these huge creatures of myth,— or men?
The engaged monster was hefting a double bladed war axe which the smaller man was fending off with only a spear. The weapon of the giant denoted intelligence, but the devilish ghoul looked more animal. Friend or foe to Tawque, the smaller man was going to die if the Blackfoot did nothing. According to Haiwi, the huge adversary was an enemy held in common. As swift as a·ah·rah,— lightning itself,— Tawque fitted a shaft and let it fly. The feathered missile struck deep, buried to the fletching, through the heart. The giant stiffened and turned when the smaller man drove his spear into the creature’s throat.
The man-beast backhanded the warrior, wrenching the lance from its neck as the gold and ivory clad soldier fell backwards, almost unconscious.
Tawque unleashed a second messenger of death as the flint punched through the base of the skull,— as the once spectators charged the Blackfoot’s position.
For the first time in Tawque’s life doubt and disbelief gripped him. He had pumped two arrows into one of the beasts and a war lance had severed part of the creature’s throat and still it turned with a fierce battle cry ready to attack. Two other demons were almost on him, but he stood his ground. With unflinching precision he buried another feathered shaft in the forehead of a new attacker. The wound slowed the beast but a moment. Then, from his right Tawque saw an arrow strike the other in the chest. He turned to see Haiwi fitting another in her bow. “Run!” he screamed, but Haiwi let a second flint point fly.
The creature turned on Haiwi as Tawque’s own assailant regained its footing. Without pause, Tawque, ignoring the danger to himself, unleashed a fletched missile at Haiwi’s antagonist, striking it in the groin.
The beast went down.
The arc of a double bladed war-axe grazed Tawque’s scalp as the warrior ducked the blow and turned, shifting his bow in his grip. With a mighty swing, Tawque severed the Nephraceetan’s leg just above the calf. Purple blood spewed forth as the creature fell, catching itself with its left hand; but the demon still tried to bury the axe in Tawque’s side.
The warrior pivoted, dodging the steel and spinning, took off the demon’s hand at the wrist. The big blade dropped to the forest floor as Tawque jumped and turned with a powerful swing. The ghoul’s head flopped forward, then rolled free as the body dropped, shaking uncontrollably, prone on the earth.
With a quick glance Tawque saw Haiwi, dancing around the injured devil, pummeling its body with arrows. The groin shot had apparently disabled the swifter movements of the thing, but the beast was still waving his axe in an attempt to kill its tormenter. Tawque approached, burying two more arrows into the creature’s back, through its heart. The Nephraceetan turned and Tawque took its head with a swing of his bow.
Looking down from the ridge, the man clad in gold and ivory was standing over the inert body of the last Nephraceetan. Haiwi saw the injured man and ran to Tawque, “We must go.”
“He’s hurt bad, he’s no threat. Do you know where he’s from?”
“He’s a free clansman of my city,— a hunter and trader. He mustn’t see me.” Haiwi tugged at Tawque’s arm. “Let us run from here, NOW!”
“If he’s from your city, isn’t he a friend?” Tawque watched the man collapse. Pulling his arm free he stared, distressed and disappointed at Haiwi, “In a dangerous place friends are hard to come by. This man will be a friend now.”
Haiwi bowed her head, “You are right,” she mumbled. Lifting her head, almost pleading, she looked deep into Tawque’s eyes, “But he poses great danger to us.”
* * *