Spear-Thrower was being a little careless as he walked the perimeter of his tribe’s terrain. The Black Talon had not dared venture into the Snowy Barrens territory for the last couple of years, their attention redirected elsewhere.
Why they had stopped attacking didn’t appear to matter to most anymore. The longer the lack of raids extended, the more the better part of the tribe took that feeling of security for granted. Spear-Thrower, young and inexperienced, was amongst them.
While most people were grateful for the peace, the warriors had mixed feelings about it. Their necessity was put into question – would they not serve their village better by hunting, fishing, crafting or foraging, instead of scouting and training for a threat that no longer seemed to exist? The elders weren’t convinced. These lulls had occurred before, but they were only calms in a ceaseless Black Talon storm. Their aggressors were merely regrouping. They had saturated their own tribe with as many slaves as they could manage, but there would come a point, as their tribe members increased through natural population growth and their slave numbers declined through attrition from use and abuse, when they would start raiding again. If the warriors did not maintain their training, if they did not continue to keep watch, where would the people of the Snowy Barrens be when that happened?
Spear-Thrower raised his face to the sky, shielding his brown eyes with one hand. He rolled his shoulders trying to shake away the itch that came from wearing newly tanned leathers. It had been a beautiful sunny day when he had started out on his patrol, but dark clouds were now rolling in, suggesting bad times to come. He was so absorbed in contemplating the weather that he almost missed the indentation in the ground, an imprint of a single foot. His toe caught the edge of it as he passed, causing him to glance down.
One distinct difference between the members of the Snowy Barren tribe and the Black Talon tribe was their footwear. The shoes and boots of Spear-Thrower’s people were carefully crafted, their soles thick, ridged and sturdy, the soft leather attached, expertly tanned. The Black Talon wore crudely fashioned coverings that were barely functional, the work of inexperienced slaves rather than master craftspeople. The rough edges to the imprint had not come from the foot of one of the Snowy Barren tribe and the print was quite fresh.
The young warrior tensed and crouched, following the ragged outline with his fingertips. He drew in a hissing breath and the adrenaline began to pump through his veins. His tribe would need to know about this find and their peace of mind, their state of calm, would likely yield once more to fear. Did this mean that the Black Talon were on the prowl again?
Before he had a chance to stand and return to the village with news of his find, an abrupt sound from the brush ahead of him caused him to start and brace his weapon defensively. Various scenarios flashed through his mind in the seconds that followed. No predatory animal would charge their target so noisily, and that included the Black Talon. One of their raid scouts would fire silently upon him first with one of their blow darts and once he was disabled, they would fall upon him and kill him with deft blows from one of their horn or bone knives. They would never take a warrior as a slave. A warrior would fight their attempts at dominance and cause too much trouble. A warrior would never be tamed to the expected level of subservience.
Despite instincts that screamed at him to attack whatever emerged from the brush, Spear-Thrower held back. He was glad his forethought overrode those inclinations, when one of his tribe members, Nectar, stumbled out of the brush before him. The woman, normally a vivacious dark-haired creature with a sharp wit, looked like she had just been through hell. She staggered from the foliage, barely maintaining her footing and clutching the form of her small daughter, Clover to her chest. Her clothing was torn, her face and arms scratched and bloodied, and her expression etched with exhaustion. She wavered for a moment and then, with a sound somewhere between a whimper of relief and a sigh of resignation, she fell.
Fortunately, Spear-Thrower had not attacked, nor was he so bent on some sort of combat that he was not able to cast his weapon aside and grab for her as she toppled. Had she dropped to the ground without his support, she likely would have crushed the limp body of her child beneath her. Catching and cradling the woman from the awkward position of his crouched stance, the young warrior lowered the woman gently to the ground onto her side, protecting the girl from harm.
Spear-Thrower’s heart thrummed in his chest, unsure what to do next. He needed to get Nectar back to a healer, that much was clear, and he was unsure if the motionless child loosely tangled in her arms was even alive. The pair had gone out to fetch honey with Nectar’s mate, Flint, but the woman did not carry with her the specially made satchels she used to gather the honeycomb, and the man with whom she had left the village was nowhere in sight. He would have never left his mate and child unprotected. He cherished the pair. They were his world. His absence did not bode well.
Before Spear-Thrower could contemplate the situation further, the child began to stir. She lifted her head shakily and looked about, emitting a slightly panicked mewling sound. Spear-Thrower dropped to his knees and crawled closer to her. She glanced his way, a wide pair of hurt and haunted eyes staring out from a face haloed by wild black hair. Spear-Thrower reached out a hand towards her, an offering of comfort. He did not catch the glazed look of shock in her unblinking stare, or the lack of recognition there. When his fingers were too close for comfort, the little girl snarled at him with more ferocity than he would have expected from a four-year-old, and bit down hard enough to draw blood on the area of skin extending between his thumb and index finger.
Spear-Thrower yelped and drew back his hand quickly. Then with a reflexive burst of anger, he grabbed Clover by the shoulders and gave her a few jarring little shakes.
“Stop it, you silly brat! I’m trying to help you!” he bellowed with each jolt.
When the small, frightened girl burst into tears, the warrior felt immediately ashamed for losing his temper with her and hugged her to him, with whispered soothing sounds and relaxed gestures. She did not try to bite him a second time, thankfully.
“I’m sorry, Clover. I didn’t mean to startle you, but your mother is not well, and we can’t waste time. I need to get her back to the village, to the healers. Where is your father?”
Instead of answering him, Clover withdrew into herself, choking back her sobs and turning her face away from him. Perhaps, Spear-Thrower thought, that had been the wrong question to ask.
“What happened then? We will need to know in order to find him, and to best help your mother.” He took her wrist gently but firmly as he supplicated her.
The little girl’s reaction was even more dramatic and she tried to pull free from him, shaking her head frantically and issuing soft, plaintive whimpers. She had already distanced herself mentally from this time and place, and from the events she and her mother had recently experienced. It would take great effort and incentive to draw her back again. Spear-Thrower sighed. He would be getting no answers from the girl, it would seem. Not immediately, anyway.
“Can you walk then? I will have to carry your mother, and I can’t manage the both of you. Can you follow me?”
Clover didn’t answer this question either, her breathing laboured and her face devoid of spirit. That worried Spear-Thrower greatly. Little Clover had always been a lively and spirited child, full of mirth and positive energy. All that was left of the girl was animal instinct, including a fierce will to survive. She did manage to yank her hand away from him this time and struggled to her feet without his help, her features set with a harsh and determined look that seemed inappropriate for a child of her few years. She looked tired, but she could walk independently and she would follow.
The warrior did not bother to try and soothe the child or enliven her any further. There was no time for that, and he doubted he would have much success even if there had been. He gathered up the still form of Nectar very carefully, and began what would be a very difficult trek back to the village.
* * *
“Ermine! Help – fetch Ermine!”
Spear-Thrower slid to his knees at the central clearing of the village, as he roared for help, his limbs numb from fatigue and barely able to hold onto his charge. He wanted to get Nectar into the care of the healers so he could return to retrieve Clover. The girl had fared much better than he would have ever expected, and had stumbled along stubbornly after him for almost the entire length of the trip. She had finally dropped from exhaustion much like her mother had, on the outskirts of the village. They were close enough to their tribe that the warrior had only hesitated a second before leaving her there, but he had promised himself he would go back for her as quickly as possible.
The pretty face of Ermine’s most recent apprentice was the first that Spear-Thrower caught sight of, as his tribe-mates began to gather at the sound of his cries. She paused only briefly to take in the view of him and his circumstances before scampering off to fetch her mentor, in a flurry of bright auburn hair and silvery-blue feathers. Spear-Thrower was quickly surrounded and relieved of the burden of Nectar by others, as they came to his aid. Truetrail, one of the tribe’s hunters and one of the stronger personalities amongst his people, helped the warrior back to his feet.
“What happened?” Truetrail demanded.
Spear-Thrower shook his head, still mostly breathless from his demanding travail.
“I have to go back, for Clover. She couldn’t tell me anything, and they returned without Flint.” He gave Truetrail a fretful look. “And I found a fresh Black Talon print.”
The two men retrieved Nectar’s child and brought her to the home of the girl’s closest playmate to recover from her ordeal. They hoped that awakening to the presence of her friend might bring Clover a little solace and restore some of her senses. Spear-Thrower had seen children react poorly to the loss of a parent, especially if they had witnessed it, and he was suspecting that might be the case here.
Truetrail and Spear-Thrower then started out for Ermine’s hut, to check on Nectar, but they were intercepted mid-route by one of the elders, Quill-Curl.
“Thank you, Spear-Thrower, for all you have done here,” the older woman said. “Ermine is treating Nectar as we speak and has sedated her while he tends to her. She revived in a terrible state of panic initially, and could not tell him anything that made any sense. She pleaded for Flint and Clover, wringing her hands and wailing. Did she or her daughter say anything to you when you found them?”
“No – Nectar was unconscious within seconds of appearing before me and Clover refused to speak. I think whatever happened to them was quite traumatic, and I pray the spirits allow them to recover properly. I’m worried that it may have been the Black Talon; I found one of their prints. What I didn’t find was any sign of Flint. I’m concerned that he may not have survived whatever frightened Nectar and Clover so violently.”
“The Black Talon? That wouldn’t make any sense,” Truetrail disputed. He had always been the naysayer type, unwilling to accept anything that might disrupt the comfortable life that they were living – not without solid proof. He was not the only tribe member who was change averse. The majority of the people of Snowy Barren preferred to turn a blind eye to anything that might add adversity to their complacent ways. “They wouldn’t have taken Flint and allowed Nectar and Clover to go free. He was a fighter. They would have killed him and the girl, and taken Nectar as a slave. It was more likely an animal – a bear or a puma, perhaps. If you spotted a Black Talon print, it was probably a Rogue and not a raider. You know they occasionally stray into our territory. There’s no point in stirring up a bee’s nest over nothing.”
Spear-Thrower was not as quick to dismiss the notion. He had a bad feeling about this, and he preferred to trust his instincts. He wouldn’t be satisfied that the Black Talon were not responsible for whatever had happened to Nectar, Clover and Flint until he could confirm it for himself. If the Black Talon was on the warpath again, the tribe would have to make themselves ready. His faced reddened.
“Fine – I’ll find out for myself. If I bring back solid evidence, then we can warn the tribe. Besides, someone needs to look for Flint. If he’s still alive, he may be stranded out there, hoping help is coming.”
“Ermine will consult the spirits on this as soon as he is done with Nectar,” Quill-Curl advised him, as the warrior started to walk away. He was going despite the fact that his limbs were weary and his back and shoulders ached from the strain of carrying Nectar all of the way back to the village. “Perhaps she’ll be able to offer us some insight as well, once she is properly settled and healed.”
Spear-Thrower, driven now by frustration, shrugged and continued walking.
“I’ll accompany you too,” Truetrail insisted. “I’d like to see this print you spoke of. Besides, you’ll do best finding Flint if you have a proper tracker with you. I can trace Nectar’s steps back to where she had come from. It’s the most likely place where we’ll find him.”
Spear-Thrower knew that as much as Truetrail was claiming that it was for the missing man’s benefit, he was much more motivated by personal interest. The chieftain-hopeful was planning on disproving Spear-Thrower’s theory regarding the Black Talon, if the option were there.
Drawing in a deep, ragged breath, the warrior ignored the cockier man’s words and presence and set off to find what he both dreaded and felt he needed to verify for the sake of his tribe.
* * *
Truetrail crouched by the print and frowned. Spear-Thrower wasn’t one to gloat, but it was clear that he had been correct about the source. The tracker grunted in displeasure.
“It’s Black Talon – but it could just as easily be a Rogue. This doesn’t prove that the raids have begun again.”
Spear-Thrower crossed his arms over his chest and scowled as well. Truetrail’s resistance to the idea wouldn’t be easily conquered.
“Let’s find Flint then. Nectar came through there.” The warrior pointed at the area of brush through which the woman had come crashing, but Truetrail was already headed in that direction, the disturbance in that spot quite obvious to a knowledgeable tracker. He drew in a loud breath.
“She certainly wasn’t trying to hide her path. I’ve seen a stampeding herd of deer do less damage.”
“She was panicking, and barely able to keep her footing. She was running with Clover in her arms,” Spear-Thrower said in her defence, but Truetrail wasn’t interested in excuses. He sprang ahead, following the very obvious trail at a good clip. A very tired Spear-Thrower trudged along behind him, barely able to keep up.
They had been travelling this way for several minutes when Truetrail came to an abrupt halt, staring dead ahead. His face paled drastically. Before Spear-Thrower could reach him, the man lunged ahead, dashing over to the bloodied form of Flint. There was no chance, with the number of grievous wounds that scored his flesh, that he was still alive. But what made the bile churn in the pit of Spear-Thrower’s stomach was the fact that the craftsman had been scalped, a war token that the Black Talon took to claim the right to a new facial tattoo, a mark of an enemy kill. Nectar would be without a mate and Clover was now fatherless. Both would be devastated by the man’s loss. This was the work of raiders.
Truetrail dropped to his knees, gagging a little at the sight of his fallen tribe-mate.
“He must have sacrificed himself protecting them,” the tracker choked, his eyes glued to the corpse. “That’s how they managed to escape.”
All of this happened as Spear-Thrower readied his weapon and ducked behind some bushes, but before he could give warning that the area had not been secured and that they should make ready for more trouble, what he had been trying to avoid had already been set into motion. The raiders had not succeeded in getting what they had come for, and were lurking close to the body, hoping that Nectar might return for her mate. The first dart missed Truetrail, but the second flew true to its mark. It lodged firmly in the back of the tracker’s neck. He clapped a hand over the offending spot as he felt the dart’s sting, but before he could even stand, his muscles tensed and his body went rigid. He slumped to one side, twitching and gurgling before unconsciousness claimed him.
Spear-Thrower held his breath and waited, hoping that the raiders did not realize he was there. Eventually, two of the cowardly tattooed Black Talon scouts, dressed in their standard brown and green leathers, crept out of the brush, one of them wielding a horn knife with the clear intent of doing to Truetrail what they had already done to Flint. Praying to the spirits that his training would not fail him, Spear-Thrower rose to his feet and launched his weapon at one of the raiders, grabbing his secondary weapon before his first had even struck its target. The warrior’s aim had been flawless and the spear tip pierced the raider’s breast as if a bull’s eye had been painted there to guide Spear-Thrower’s hand. The Black Talon man did not even get the chance to cry out before he dropped to the ground like a stone, still and dead. His cohort took one look at the first man’s lifeless and unblinking stare, as well as the blood spilling from around the spear that protruded from his chest, and then turned to run. The raider was well behind cover before Spear-Thrower could let loose his second missile, and the warrior was far too exhausted to try to pursue him.
When he was certain that the second Black Talon man was well out of range, Spear-Thrower stumbled out to where the three men lay, side-by-side, two dead and one far beyond caring. The warrior braced against the body of his victim with one foot, and wrenched his spear free from bloodied flesh and bone. Then he slipped down into a seated position to rest, too fatigued to do much more. He did spare the time and effort to lean over and retrieve the blow gun and bandolier of darts from the fallen Black Talon man that would be sufficient proof that the raiders had returned. Once he had managed that, all he could do was wait. After all that he had already done that day, he would never be able to carry one immobile and dead-weight fully-grown man back to the village, let alone two. He would have to be patient and remain where he was until the effects of the blow dart drug started to wear off of Truetrail. Then, hopefully, the pair, one groggy and the other exhausted, could return Flint to where he belonged, where his body and spirit could rest.
Spear-Thrower noticed the special satchel that belonged to Nectar and reached for it. She had already gathered a fair amount of honeycomb when they had been attacked, but she had abandoned it all when forced to run. The warrior reached into the bag, drawing out one of the waxy segments. He leaned back against a tree trunk, licking at the sweet golden liquid that had already begun to ooze down his fingers.
Under other circumstances, resting in the shade of the leaves and enjoying the peacefully pleasurable moment of sucking honey from his fingers while serenaded by songbirds, would have been a memory to treasure. The bodies lying before him, however, killed whatever serenity could have been drawn from the experience. They assured him that it was a false tranquility, one upon which his tribe never should have become dependent, and it was up to him, now, to carry home the sad news.
Snowy Barren Trilogy, The Blood Is Strong in ebook format
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