by Sean Hower
Nikul emerged from the village longhouse trying to come to terms with all that the Elders had told him. Everyone was watching him. Normally at this time of year, the forty-one inhabitants of the Theehan village would be busy with spring chores, the men tending the walnut groves and the tall-grass deer fields his people had encouraged for generations, and the women making the baskets and other tools needed for the coming months. But with the rumors that were going around, people were too worried to work and they were looking to Nikul for hope.
The attention was too much for him and he hurried to the men’s lodge to escape it. He had only recently left behind his childhood to become a man, and though Nikul was the fastest of the runners — men and women who took important news to other villages — there was no reason for so much responsibility to be laid upon him. The idea that his people would depend on him for their survival made him queasy. When he reached the men’s lodge, he was overcome with tears and disgusted with himself for it. He set his jaw in an attempt to hide his fear and went in.
The men’s lodge, like the women’s and children’s lodges, was a rectangular structure about thirty paces long and twenty wide. Its oak frame, covered in bundles of grass, rose up to a point where a smoke hole let in light and fresh air. The hard-packed dirt floor was set into the earth as deep as Nikul’s knees.
Naad and Gruna, close friends of Nikul’s, were inside. They watched Nikul as he went to where he slept and laid out his deerskin pack.
“So it’s true, then,” Naad said. His deep voice crushed the silence.
Nikul nodded. “The Kyuwai have crossed the river intent on wiping us out.” He put a set of firestones and tinder into the pack. “I’ve been ordered to go to the Hammanu for help.”
“Then there’s hope?”
Nikul nodded warily. The old alliance with the Hammanu was their only hope. “If I get there soon enough and if they agree to help.” He placed his leggings, a waterskin, a pouch of herbs, and a pouch of dried fruits and meats into the pack.
“Then take this,” Naad said. He untied a claw necklace he was wearing and slid it around Nikul’s neck. “Its magic will protect you as it has me.”
“And take my knife,” Gruna said. He handed Nikul a chert blade set into an antler and wrapped in a deerskin sheath. “It will cut through the hide of any beast, especially those that pretend to walk on two legs.”
“Thank you.” Nikul was honored. The gifts were the most precious items these men had and he felt unworthy of their generosity. With a heavy sigh, he slipped on a pair of moccasins he wore when running and slung the pack over his shoulder.
“Go with speed,” Naad said. He formed a loose fist, kissed his knuckles, then laid his hand, with fingers spread, on Nikul’s head.
Gruna did the same.
Nikul gazed at the men. He couldn’t shake the thought that he might never see them, or any of his people, again. He started off at a full run, out of the lodge, through the village, past the palisade, and onto the hunting trail that he would follow until he reached the Spineback Buttes outside of Theehan territory.
Nikul ran at a steady pace for most of the day. By early evening he was getting winded and he slowed to a fast walk until he reached the edge of his homeland. Very few people other than runners ever traveled here. There was no reason to. Jagged hills broke through the well-tended land offering little more than falling rock and mountain lions.
The Spineback Buttes were about half a day’s journey away. The Hammanu village was another day beyond that. It was getting late, so he found a comfortable place to rest, ate some of the dried meat, and bedded down for the night.
* * *
Nikul woke into an acute sense of vulnerability. He fumbled with Gruna’s knife with little faith in his ability to actually use it. He had always relied on his speed and quick thinking to get him out of a jam and was wholly unaccustomed to the weapon. After a moment, he decided that it was best to keep with his strengths and he started to gather his things in order to escape the hidden threat.
Something charged through the tall grasses towards Nikul. Before he could turn to face it, the weight of a man’s body slammed him to the ground and a strong grip pinned down his knife hand. He craned his head and found himself looking into the blue eyes of a Kyuwai man.
He was unlike any other Nikul had seen; paler with yellowish, almost white hair. The Kyuwai must have understood Nikul’s surprise for his own countenance turned vengeful.
Nikul squirmed under the man’s hold while he cast about with his free hand for another weapon. The glint of a chert knife danced in his peripheral vision. As it came closer to Nikul, the weight that pinned him shifted slightly. He freed one of his legs, slid out from under the Kyuwai, and rolled away. The knife skipped down his ribs like a tiny fire and dug into his thigh.
Nikul tried to run, howling from the pain of a stinging heat that spread through his leg like thorny vines. But the Kyuwai still had hold of him and yanked him back.
Nikul fell to his knees and threw all his strength into a punch that landed in the Kyuwai’s groin. The grip released. Nikul slashed out with a quickness that shocked him. The Kyuwai stumbled, red seeping from a pair of gashes across his stomach.
Nikul scurried to his feet, grabbed his waterskin and bolted. After a very short time he felt his strength draining away. Voices from behind him were barking out to each other in the Kyuwai tongue. Answering voices came from up ahead and Nikul realized he was heading into a trap.
The bushes in front of him shuddered. An arrow whizzed by his head and thunked into the ground behind him. He changed direction, running away from the voices and away from the trail that led to the Spineback Buttes and into an area about which he knew very little.
His pursuers followed.
The sparse stands of walnut, oak, and elm that dotted the area formed into sporadic clusters that grew thicker and closer together. Soon the solid canopy of a forest closed in around him and blocked out the morning sun. The air turned stale and settled awkwardly in his lungs.
He stopped, uncertain. He didn’t know this forest and it was unlike any he had seen. The trees were gnarled and bent in uncomfortable angles. Roots bubbled up from the ground like scattered bones. Prickly vines spread everywhere and crept up the trees as though the plants were silently strangling them.
He looked back. Three Kyuwai, including the one who had attacked him, were still pursuing him. One let loose an arrow that planted itself in a tree a few paces from Nikul. When another arrow hissed by, Nikul’s doubts vanished and he continued his flight.
The Kyuwai followed. With the forest looming tall over their heads, they seemed like children playing a game of chase. Their voices, so threatening in the open, fell away like nervous whispers.
Nikul’s muscles ached, his breath was short, and his wounds burned. He collapsed, tumbled through the undergrowth, and smashed into a tree. The world turned white under a searing pain. Nausea swept through him. Then something like wet skin caressed his leg. The air turned acrid and moist, pulsing in a steady rhythm.
“I haven’t had a visitor in some time,” a low voice crackled.
Copyright © 2012 by Sean Hower