“He is coming now.” The boy child’s words were softly uttered, hardly a whisper in her ear, but she felt the impact all the way down her spine and into her toes. She hardened her face appropriately until it felt like the red jasper blade curled in her palm. She would be relentless now. “Must we play the game again?” he asked, a note of dismay creeping into his rasping and breathy voice. Within her, something twisted at his tone. Although he was a child, he could not be such. Ever. The soft part of her that remained knew regret. The malignant hardness in her knew necessity. And because of this, her heart knew a thick, black rage. With two fingers, she reached out and touched the back of his neck. The skin was warm and smooth, and she felt his life pulse firmly there. She breathed in his child scent and let it fill her with needed strength. “Muata,” she said softly, smearing the white paint upon him. He looked at her with eyes that were large, brown, and worshipping. He trusted her. “Yes?” “You know that it is the only way to stop them.” “With the game?” “I am the hunter of men. I am the eater of souls.” The boy nodded. “You are the Nuchihewe.” “Yes, Muata.” His name meant Yellow Jackets in a Nest. She had bestowed it upon him. Tonight it would again ring true. “Call the others together. It is time to begin. This time there can be no mercy.”
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ “She is a Soul Eater.” Softly whispered, the words trickled into his ears and ran down his neck like the cold fingers of a dead ancestor. Were he less of a man, the foreboding taunt might have swayed him from the path he walked. But it was just a taunt. And Spear Fisher was a warrior. Only minutes before, Ahanu had loudly praised him for his cunning and his strength. He had even clapped Spear Fisher proudly on the shoulder for accepting this challenge. But then, lightening swift, his friend’s dark eyes had turned malicious, and sudden sly words had slipped from his mouth. The big talk had all been a ruse. In truth, his childhood “friend” wished for Spear Fisher to fail in this mission, and fail quite terribly. Now, the brave glanced up at the waning sun that shimmered through the thinning autumn branches. All around him, the soft pitter of spent and dropping leaves lent a feeling of impending loss as they whiskered down into the undergrowth. He warded off a shiver, and adjusted his weapons. The heavy and familiar weight of them across his back bolstered his confidence, and his scowl dropped away. He was a warrior, practiced, deadly, and in his prime at eighteen winters of age. The medicine bundle encircling his neck gave evidence to his many physical accomplishments. His hair was greased upward into a fierce Mohawk and his face was streaked sharply with the red paint of war. He had seen the female appreciation that sparkled in Nikiti’s brown eyes when she looked upon him dressed for battle. But, it had become obvious that Ahanu wanted Nikiti for himself as well, and wished to capture her undivided attention. In the Susquehannock language, Nikiti’s name meant Round and Smooth. It fit her adequately and reminded Spear Fisher of the full curve of her lush, young buttocks. He could not keep his thoughts from returning to her fertile body, again and again. His hand curled around the flint knife that he had carefully sharpened just for the task ahead. He would bring back a lock of hair from the dark witch his people feared so much, and present it proudly to Nikiti. He would prove his true manhood, and diminish Ahanu’s reputation by doing so. Ahanu had big words in his mouth, always at the ready, yet he never backed them up with bigger action. The trees around him had grown shorter. They seemed both bent and wizened, as if by magic. A very dark magic. The winding trail that he crept along was barely visible now. Spear Fisher knew that it had not been traveled by any of his people in many moons. The cursed tale of Nuchihewe had grown so malignantly among those of his tribe that no one even spoke her name aloud, especially the elders. But other, younger men had been spreading the story of her blight and treachery. The pull of thick laurel brush that crowded the narrow trail scraped across the buckskin of his leggings in an attempt to slow his progress. The loud rustle of creeping vines sucked away the stealth of his previously sure stride. Could it be Nuchihewe’s powers? He heard something now, he was sure of it. Spear Fisher paused and drew in a slow, steadying breath. The sound was both familiar and dreadful. When he was only six, he had snuck away from his mother and climbed up over a jumble of large, white rocks that had fallen away from the edge of the mountain ridge. He knew that she would not be pleased, but Spear Fisher had stayed on his scrambling course out and up into the bright sun and clean, azure heavens. That first taste of freedom had been very sweet. He had then discovered a small cave. Delighted, he had ducked into the dim crevasse, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the sudden absence of light. Spear Fisher heard a sound, then, much like locusts, a mounting buzz that drew his brows together in confusion. Around his bare ankles, snakes coiled in the dry dust. The noise had been the warning rattle of vipers. Now, the sound came again, through the trees ahead, only it was faded and jostled about by the cool, fall wind. It was a dry sound, and not as pregnant with warning, but it brought the same hard jolt of thudding fear to his gut as it had that day when he was a mere boy of six winters. The nest of snakes had not struck his bare and shaking calves that day. But his hatred of the scaled creatures had never lessened. He swallowed and resolutely continued forward. The power of the sun was diminishing like river water through his sister’s cupped fingers. Spear Fisher had fully intended for the cover of dusk to mask his approach and thus work to his advantage. He had not expected to dread the approaching dark so intensely. What if Nuchihewe could see in the night, with the slitted yellow eyes of a pit viper? Spear Fisher had heard many whisperings about her magic. From the very day of her arrival in their village, their people had come to know both despair and decay. A White priest with sly, French words had delivered the girl, silent and wide-eyed, into their unsuspecting midst. The priest was greeted cautiously, but courteously, as was tradition. Sixty-four Susquehannock men, women, and children had died as a result…and in sheer agony. The elders had decreed that the Jesuit men were surely evil creatures, demons, even though they were often welcomed among the neighboring Lenape and the Iroquois people. These White priests brought strange charms and worshipped eerie paintings, and even ate bread made with the flesh of the son of their God. It was an abomination. This particular priest had sprinkled his poisoned waters from a shining silver cask all over the Susquehannock village, claiming it to be holy and good. But the waters brought fevers, terrible welts and pocks, and a long and painful death to those it touched upon. Nuchihewe should have died when the priest did. She should have been sentenced for such deceit, just as the Jesuit had been. But the Elders of the tribe had spared her, as she was only a child of ten and of a mixed Native bloodline. Many years later, that decision had proved disastrous. Even though no Jesuits had been granted entrance to their village in years, the plague struck yet again. By that time, Nuchihewe was too powerful to kill. But she had been exiled by the Elder council into the mountain range beyond their valley. Maybe Spear Fisher would be the warrior to kill the Soul Eater tonight. If he succeeded in such a feat, his name would be uttered in song and legend for generations to come. He gritted his teeth and loosened the long spear strapped to his back, so it was now at the ready. With his namesake weapon in one hand and the flint knife in the left, he felt much braver. Spear Fisher forged ahead into the deepening night.
Grey Wolf was a broken man. A year ago, he would have sworn there was no obstacle the Creator could place in his way that would give him cause to utter those very words. Looking down at the slivers of jasper that littered the ground by his feet, he drew a breath. As he turned the beautiful shard of glazed red stone in his hands, Grey Wolf realized that his work-piece was now ruined by his efforts to shape it into the functional head of a fine weapon. He felt shamed by his carelessness and sudden lack of ability. The stone was a rare piece and took many days of travel and the bartering of fine mink pelts to obtain from the great mines dug into the earth far to the south, near the Swamp of the Bear. Sun Road Woman had traveled with him on that journey. She had been full of smiles and so sweetly supple in his bedroll. Healthy. Loving. His. Then, his new wife of less than one winter’s time had quietly and swiftly died. The sickness that overtook the Minsi village was wrought of some unnatural force his tribe of Lenni Lenape had never before seen. His sister and his mother, both esteemed healers of great talent, had not been able to halt its fatal progress. Seven had died, including his young and vibrant bride. And she had just given birth to his only son. The feeble wail of an infant brought his head up sharply. Grey Wolf resisted the urge to rise and enter the dwelling from where it came. It would be pointless. He ground his jaw and turned the jasper in his hand, over and over, running his thumb over the sharp edge that had just begun to emerge during the flaking process. Now, a crack ran starkly down its smooth middle, marring its sheen and potential. It was a shame, for the valuable stone was known for both its beauty and utility as the sharpest of weapons a man could hone. Blessedly, the crying softened after a few moments, and then fell away all together. Grey Wolf raised his eyes at the soft whisking sound as the door-flap was lifted. Katari, his twin sister, emerged, blinking, from the gloom. The lodges of the ill were kept as dim as possible, as the sun seemed only to intensify the painful symptoms. Her wan but determined face gave him the strength to pull forth a feeble smile from somewhere deep within. The love he held for his twin was like no other bond he had forged in his life, and was only rivaled by the way his own newborn child’s large brown eyes gripped and held him with some unnamable emotion. The hand Katari placed on his bare shoulder was warm and comforting. “He sleeps now, brother,” she murmured. “And the fever?” “Still there, but perhaps lessened a shade by my spring water baths and the willow tree tincture that our mother prepared. We are trying so hard, my brother. I would give my own life for him, I swear it.” He looked up at her sharply. “Do not say such things, Katari. You risk your own babe’s life just by caring for mine.” Grey Wolf dropped his gaze to the swollen curve of his sister’s belly that bespoke of her impending motherhood. If anyone laid down a life for a child, it would be him alone. Katari’s lovely face was wreathed with stress and worry. She nibbled at her lower lip in response, as she had done since childhood. Grey Wolf felt that it had always been his duty to relieve her of such burdens. From boyhood on, he could never stand to see her suffer in any way, for any reason. And so he smiled resolutely at her once again. “The Creator will not take this babe from our family. He will survive for the arrival of his new cousin.” The words rang false to his own ears. Two other Minsi children had fallen beneath the dark path of this devastating illness over the last week. Grey Wolf was certain their parents had uttered the same simple plea, and had clung to the same foolish hopes. Katari’s hand continued to send its loving warmth into the warm flesh of his shoulder that now beaded with moisture as the warming rays of the autumn sun rose higher aloft. He had been alternately cold, and then sweated as if he’d run for miles, throughout the entire morning’s length. He prayed it was not the onset of the fever. In all honesty, it felt more like the cold sweat of a dank fear that enveloped his entire soul. “Your babe rests now, brother. He is asleep in our mother’s lap. You should go to the stream and lay on its banks. Perhaps even take a swim.” Grey Wolf rolled his eyes. “What are you saying, Katari? That I stink like an angry skunk?” She managed a laugh. “Perhaps, just a bit. Much like the old days.” Once, many years ago Grey Wolf had taken the spray of an angered animal in Katari’s stead, and he smiled at the memory. He gathered himself, and rose, if only for his sister’s benefit. He did not wish to walk anywhere. He did not wish to feel the soothing rays of the sun on his back or feel the clean and swirling touch of crystal waters. Not while his son’s life hung in an uncertain balance. In the darkest part of his heart, he knew that death would likely win this battle. “Go,” Katari urged. “I will rest now as well.” Grey Wolf squared his shoulders and pretended that he was not slowly dying along with his infant son.