SPIDERWEBS, BLOWN FREE BY THE SPRING WIND, DRIFTED across Persimmon Lake and strung glittering filaments on the sunlit oaks that ringed the seven pyramid-shaped mounds of Blackbird Town, but the people who stood in the broad plaza barely noticed. They had their gazes on the field, watching the game play out.
As Chieftess Sora ran down the field after the chunkey stone, she didn't recognize War Chief Skinner, not at first. All she saw was a muscular man brushing webs from his long black hair as he walked through the shadows of the mounds. A massive chert war club hung from his belt, and he had a bow and quiver over his left shoulder. He used his spear as a walking stick.
Warriors unconsciously placed their hands on belted stilettos as Skinner passed by, while women turned to stare admiringly at the stranger dressed in a war chief's raiding garb. His knee-length buckskin shirt was plain, except for the shark's teeth sewn across the front and the red buffalo-wool sash that belted his trim waist.
As she neared the throwing line, Sora called, "Your cast or mine, Wink?"
Fifty paces ahead of her, the chunkey stone, round and about the width of her hand, rolled like the wind.
"My cast!" Matron Wink shouted from her right. When her foot hit the casting line, she launched her spear. Thirty-six winters had passed since Wink's birth. More gray than black shimmered in her long braid, and wrinkles incised laugh lines around her ample mouth. Her given name, the name bestowed upon her at her initiation in the woman's house, was Marsh Wren, but she'd had a bad habit of winking at people. The nickname had stuck like boiled pine pitch.
Wink's spear arced upward, and hundreds of onlookers made awed sounds. One of the opposing headmen reached the casting line and hurled his spear. For a deadly serious game, the rules of chunkey were relatively simple. Whoever hit the stone earned two points. Whoever's spear landed closest to the stone earned one point. They played three games, each to a score of six.
Sora slowed to watch the two spears sailing toward the rolling chunkey stone. Her white dress, made from combed palmetto threads, fluttered in the wind.
Wink stopped beside Sora, breathing hard. Though Sora was four winters younger, they'd been friends since childhood. While Sora had ascended to the chieftainship, Wink had become matron of their Shadow Rock Clan. They both wore elaborately incised copper breastplates that signified their status. Sometimes she thought she knew Wink better than she knew herself. The reverse was certainly true.
"That's Chief Short Tail's spear right behind yours," Sora said.
Wink glanced at Short Tail and Pocket Mouse. Both chiefs wore red knee-length shirts decorated with shells from the far western ocean. "I know. I saw the moron cast."
Sora suppressed a smile. Wink's candor was legendary--though few people appreciated it. In fact, most of the other matrons and chiefs heartily disliked her because of it.
Wink groaned when the heavy stone slowed and fell onto itsside just before the spears landed. Almost at the same time, her spear lodged in the ground a good pace from the stone. Chief Short Tail's spear landed ahead, but it looked to be about the same distance away.
"Oh, gods, what do you think?" Wink asked.
"I can't tell."
As the judges trotted out to see who had scored, Sora's heartbeat quickened and her head grew light. People shoved to the very edge of the field, trying to get a better look.
Sora whispered, "If you scored, we win, and it's over. If not ..."
"If not"--Wink inhaled a deep breath and let it out in a rush--"we have one more cast to stop a war that will surely destroy our people."
One of the judges, old Club-in-His-Hand, pulled a coil of twine from his belt. The other judge, the young warrior Far Eye, held the end of the cord against the stone while Club-in-His-Hand extended it out to Short Tail's spear point. They made an odd pair. Club-in-His-Hand was short, with a full head of gray hair, while Far Eye was tall and lean. Tattoos covered every part of his body. His long black hair hung to the middle of his back. Wink called him her nephew, though that wasn't technically true. Wink's brother had married a woman from the Water Hickory Clan, and since the Black Falcon Nation traced descent through the female, that meant Far Eye was really Water Hickory Clan, not Shadow Rock Clan. But Wink loved the youth as if he were her own nephew.
Hisses of disapproval went up from Sora's side as the judges lifted the twine for the audience to see the measurement. Short Tail's people remained silent, gazing wide-eyed at Wink's spear. They seemed to be holding their breaths. On the sidelines, warriors marched back and forth, eyes blazing.
As the judges moved to measure Wink's cast, Sora's gaze drifted around Blackbird Town.
Four of the great flat-topped mounds rose directly in front of her. The largest, upon which her magnificent pitched-roof homestood, was six times the height of a man and measured one hundred paces along each side of its square base. To her left, the crystal green water of Persimmon Lake glistened. In the winter, when everyone returned from their summer farming plots, the population of Blackbird Town swelled to almost one thousand. Two hundred small houses, the homes of commoners, ringed the shore. Animal bones covered the roofs like glistening white sticks. The bones of animals caught in snares or traps were never thrown away, but respectfully hung up or placed on the roof of the hunter's house. If this ceremony was not followed, the trap would become useless because the Spirits of the animals would be offended and their relatives would refuse to allow themselves to be caught.
"Please, Skyholder," Wink murmured to the Creator, "for the sake of everyone, let us win."
"What's taking so long?" Sora asked.
Wink shook her head. "The casts are too close; they're measuring each again."
Chunkey games were sacred contests where the players represented the primordial heroes of creation: the forces of Light and Dark, Peace and War, Female and Male. Villages routinely wagered everything they owned on the outcome of a game, but this was more. They played to decide a tie vote in the High Council. If Shadow Rock Clan won, there would be peace. If Water Hickory Clan won, they would be at war tomorrow. The Loon People, east of the Palmetto River, would fall like autumn leaves before the warriors of the Black Falcon Nation.
Wink made a small sound of dismay just before riotous cheers went up from Short Tail's side of the field. The judges held the two lengths of cord side by side, showing that Short Tail's cast had been closer, by a finger's length, to the chunkey stone.
"We're tied. The next point will determine the game."
Wink shook sweat-soaked strands of graying black hair away from her face. "If we're lucky Short Tail's manhood will wither and fall off before he can cast again."
Sora gave her a peeved look. "Don't you think it would be more practical to wish that his hand fell off so he couldn't throw accurately, or maybe his feet, so he couldn't run so fast?"
"Don't be ridiculous. He has the souls of a thirteen-winters-old boy. His manhood is his entire world. Crush it and you crush him." Wink calmly straightened her enormous engraved copper breastplate; it gleamed against her white dress. She gestured to Short Tail. "Look at him. Can you believe that man has seen thirty-eight winters?"
Chief Short Tail jumped up and down like an exultant child, slapping his teammate, Chief Pocket Mouse, on the shoulder and whooping, much to the delight of his kinspeople, who roared their approval.
Club-in-His-Hand trotted down the field with the chunkey stone and gave it to Sora.
"It's your roll, Chieftess," he whispered, and desperately glanced around. "Make it a good one."
Sora nodded. "I'd better."
She and Wink marched back to the starting line. While she waited for Short Tail and Pocket Mouse to finish their conversations, Sora's gaze moved down the field to where her husband, Rockfish, stood. He had been very handsome in his early days, tall and slender, with a triangular face and large dark eyes, but he'd started to show his sixty winters. His hair had gone completely gray, and his muscles had evaporated. Though he still carried out most of his husbandly duties--hunting, fishing, and advising her on clan matters--each was becoming more difficult for him. Their marriage had been one of convenience, an alliance of political advantage, but she genuinely cared for him. It worried her that his strength had begun to fail.
They'd married three winters ago, after her first husband, Flint, set her belongings outside the door and headed home to his mother's village. The divorce had disgraced Sora. Not only that, she'd loved Flint. She'd made a fool of herself, running after him,begging him to return. When he'd shoved her away, she'd been consumed by despair. The simplest daily tasks, getting dressed or making a pot of tea, had seemed overwhelming.
In response, her mother, High Chieftess Yellow Cypress, had selected Rockfish as her new husband. He came from a renowned family of Traders who lived far to the north. It had been a good choice--for both of them. Since her mother had no sons, and the chieftainship was a hereditary position destined for the eldest daughter, Sora had become chieftess after her mother's death two winters ago. What she gave Rockfish in prestige, he gave her in Trade goods. The day of their joining, a flotilla of canoes had appeared, filled to overflowing with rare cherts and mica, silver nuggets, pounded sheets of copper--and the Trade goods had never stopped coming. Every moon, another flotilla arrived. Rockfish was much older than she and knew things about people that she did not. Sora was often deeply grateful for his wisdom. He negotiated the Trade, making certain his people received things they needed: extraordinary seashells, dried holly leaves to make sacred Black Drink, fine fabrics, and exquisite pottery. He also made sure Sora's people received precious goods in abundance, which Sora generously distributed among the other Black Falcon villages. They loved her for it.
Rockfish was talking with a burly man who held a painted box clutched to his chest like a precious child.
She knew him, didn't she? From this distance, she wasn't certain.
Short Tail trotted up and grinned like a wolf with a rabbit in sight. His clan, the Water Hickory Clan, had a bloodthirsty reputation. Only last winter, they'd voted to make war upon the Conch Shell People to gain control of their oyster beds. The winter before, they'd wanted to kill the Red Owl People to capture their buffalo-hunting territory. Sora and Wink had blocked them by convincing the other clans it was far more profitable to work out Trade agreements than to lose their own warriors in a war over lands they could occupy but never fully possess.
"Are you ready, Chieftess?" Short Tail asked. His two front teeth had rotted out long ago, and the few remaining were well on their way.
He chuckled. "Good. Before you make your throw, I want you to know that tomorrow, when I lead our warriors east, yours will be out in front."
Sora gave him a suspicious look. "You will honor them by allowing them to lead the War Walk?"
"Of course." He grinned. "Why should my people die when your young men and women can block the first barrage of arrows?"
Wink's eyes narrowed. "I wish you'd try impersonating a dung beetle, Short Tail; it would take a lot less effort than pretending you're a chief."
His grin sagged. "Roll the stone, Sora, so we can settle this before I'm forced to strangle your matron."
In the shadows of the mounds, huge pots of stew bubbled on the cook fires. After dried venison was pounded up, it was dipped in salty moss that had been dissolved in water, then boiled in hickory nut milk. To make the milk, they mixed the nut meats with water and pounded until they became a delicious white liquid. The stew would be served with cornbread fried in bear grease and dipped in plum oil, which they obtained by boiling acorns, then skimming off the sweet oil and mixing it with dried plums. The rich scents mingled together and wafted across the playing field.
Sora took a deep breath and whispered, "Are you ready, Wink?"
"Yes. Let's see whom the gods favor."
Sora bowled the chunkey stone down the field. The four players broke after it, racing to the throw line. Cries rose from the crowd: some people cheering, others hissing.
As Sora ran, she caught the glances of the men standing at the edge of the field. She ran lightly for a woman who had seen thirty-two winters. Their gazes followed the curves of her tall body as though they could see through her thin white dress.
She gave Rockfish a worried smile as she raced past. He nodded his encouragement, silently telling her he didn't doubt for an instant that she would win. The burly man who stood beside him watched as though his very life depended upon the next cast ... . Grown Bear. That's War Chief Grown Bear from the Loon Nation.
Short Tail and Pocket Mouse reached the throw line first. Pocket Mouse cast.
The crowd roared and pointed as the spear arced heavenward with the white chert point glittering in the morning sunlight.
When they were five paces from the line, Wink called, "You or me?"
Sora mouthed a prayer and shouted, "Me!"
She quickly judged the speed and direction of the rolling stone, then, as her foot hit the line, cast her spear. Its flight was birdlike, sailing up into the cloud-strewn blue sky like a falcon.
Pocket Mouse's spear plunged down first. It landed ahead of the still-rolling stone.
"Oh, gods," Wink groaned. "The stone is headed for his spear. At this speed, the stone will fall right beside it."
Sora's heart hammered against her ribs. She slowed, waiting for the final moment ...
And felt eyes upon her--not the ordinary watchfulness of the crowd, but something more intense. She glanced down the field, past the multitude of onlookers, and directly at Skinner. His expression was calm, intimately knowing, as though her darkest secrets belonged to him.
Terror shot through her veins.
What's he doing here? I haven't seen him in three winters, and suddenly ...
Wild cheers went up from the crowd, and she jerked her gaze back in time to see her spear bounce off the chunkey stone and cartwheel away across the grass.
"You did it, Sora! You did it! We win! There will be peace!" Wink hugged her hard enough to drive the air from her lungs. Peoplerushed onto the field, shouting and embracing each other, the judges, the opposing villagers--anyone who didn't shove them away.
Rockfish trotted up and, in her ear, said, "You just saved lives. I'm proud of you."
"It was a lucky cast."
"Luck is the tool of the gods, my wife."
Shoulder-length gray hair fell around his wrinkled face as he bent to plant a gentle kiss on her mouth. At moments like this, when relief overpowered everything else, she felt genuinely contented.
"The Loon People secretly sent a representative to watch the game today," Rockfish whispered. "He wishes to speak with you."
"I thought that looked like War Chief Grown Bear. He's brave--I'll say that for him. Tell him I'll speak with him this evening."
Rockfish backed away to allow Short Tail and his clan matron, Wood Fern, to approach. Wood Fern, almost blind, held tight to her chief's arm. She had seen fifty-seven winters. A white fuzz of hair covered her old head. She wore a buckskin cape adorned with iridescent circlets of conch shell and had a buzzard feather prominently displayed in her hair. She was known to be a great Healer. Buzzard feathers were worn only by those who could Heal arrow wounds. Fox skins were worn by those who could Heal snake bites; and if a person wore an owl feather, it meant he or she could trail an enemy in the dark.
"You won today, Chieftess Sora." Wood Fern cocked her head in a birdlike fashion, not quite certain where Sora stood. "But our problem remains. The Loon People are holding eleven men, women, and children from Oak Leaf Village hostage, and Chief Blue Bow says he will kill them if we try to reach our root grounds again without paying him the ridiculous amount of rare Trade goods he demands."
Sora stared into the woman's white-filmed eyes for a long moment before saying, "I hear you, Wood Fern. Truly, I do. Chief BlueBow assured me only six days ago when I was in Eagle Flute Village that they genuinely want peace. He claims the hostages are being well treated. I promise I will work out an agreement that is fair to both sides. I just need more time."
"Time will not change the greedy nature of the Loon People. You'll see. In the end, your negotiations will fail. Killing the Loon People will be the only way we can rescue our hostages and maintain what is ours."
Sora mopped her sweating brow with her sleeve. "Your nephew, Walking Bird, died to save me from a Loon arrow, Wood Fern. I have not forgotten his sacrifice. If our negotiations fail, my warriors will proudly lead yours into battle."
Short Tail gave her a grim smile. "I would speak with you about that. I think it is wise to discuss a war plan now, in case your efforts fail and we must act quickly to defend ourselves."
"I will be happy to discuss it--providing you help me lay out a peace plan first."
He inclined his head. "Of course."
As more and more people crowded around her, asking questions, Sora felt as though she were being crushed. She glanced down the field and said, "Please excuse me. I must see to the feast preparations."
She trotted away with people slapping her back and calling congratulations.
"Excellent cast, Matron!" Wink's son, Long Fin, yelled.
"I'm fortunate, that's all," she responded.
"You mean we are fortunate! To have you as our chieftess!"
She smiled. To the north, in front of her, stood the seventh mound they'd built for War Chief Feather Dancer. Their newfound wealth had allowed them to undertake several mound-building projects, both here and elsewhere in Black Falcon country, that would have been impossible before her marriage to Rockfish. The effect had been stunning. As they raised mounds so that Grandmother Earth could touch fingertips with her daughter, MotherSun, their lives improved dramatically. It was as though the gods saw and approved. The bright fabrics, elaborate copper and silver jewelry, and glittering shell beads were testaments to a time of riches beyond anyone's belief.
Unfortunately, the other thing that came with wealth was power. She was always uncomfortable when people lifted their chins and got that superior glint in their eyes. It seemed that half her life was spent in the vain attempt to dampen the fires of conceit.
Her favorite slave, Iron Hawk, stirred the main stew pot with a long wooden paddle. The rich scents of venison and moss filled the air. "Is everything ready?" Sora asked.
Young, with a heart-shaped face, Iron Hawk nodded. "Yes, Chieftess, just as you requested. We may have to ladle out smaller portions, but I think we can feed everyone who came for the game."
"If you have any doubts, come to me immediately," Sora instructed. "I will order the storerooms opened. We cannot afford to offend any of our honored guests."
"I will, Chieftess."
People had gathered in knots around the plaza, talking, laughing, and complaining. A few foul glances were cast her way. Most of them came from warriors who'd been looking forward to killing Loon People. Sora shook her head. The cool flower-scented air invited breathing. The redbud trees were in full bloom. She took deep breaths and let them out slowly. For a brief time, there would be peace. But who could say how long it would last? Wood Fern was right about the Loon People; as the wealth of the Black Falcon Nation increased, the Loon Council demanded more and more for crossing what they considered to be "their lands," despite the fact that those gathering grounds had belonged to the Black Falcon People for generations. Negotiations would be neither easy, nor swift.
When she turned to head back to Rockfish, she saw War Chief Skinner walking purposefully to Wink, and blood surged so powerfully in her veins, it left her feeling shaky.
Skinner bowed and pulled Wink aside to speak with her alone. As he talked, Wink's expression grew increasingly more severe.
Sora had known Skinner for more than half her life. His gestures, the way he stood, told her he brought dire news.
The edges of her vision suddenly went gray and sparkling, and an irrational fear possessed her.
"No," she whispered, "not now ..."
As she had a thousand times, she spread her legs to brace herself and forced deep breaths into her lungs. All of her life an evil Spirit had tormented her. As her vision went black, it came like a hot glittering torrent, and before she knew it she was lying flat on the ground with her limbs jerking and her teeth gnashing.
She'd been seven winters old when the first attack came. She didn't remember it. She never remembered them. She just awoke in a sea of people with a mouthful of blood, feeling exhausted.
Throughout her childhood, her mother had forced her to see one Healer after another. She'd eaten so many Spirit Plants even the smell of them now sickened her. Nothing had worked. As she aged, the Spirit seemed to come less often, but she still felt him watching her. He was always there, right behind her eyes, ready to leap for her throat when she least suspected it. Stress seemed to bring on his attacks.
During her tenth winter, she'd named him: the Midnight Fox.
Sora hurried toward the Chieftess' Mound.
As she started up the steps, she couldn't help it. She looked back.
Skinner studied her with a predator's unwavering attention. He'd been her first husband's best friend--and a good friend to her. She hadn't seen him in three winters. He wouldn't be here if it weren't absolutely necessary.
Obviously trying to make certain she didn't miss it, he stepped several paces away from Wink, out into the open, and placed two fingers beneath his nostrils in an eerie gesture of respect. Then he tipped his head slightly to the left. His smile turned seductive, as though they shared something she'd forgotten.
Sora hesitated, startled. Deep inside her, long-dead fear fluttered its wings.
She rushed up the steps. Every time her foot landed, she had the overwhelming urge to run. She made it to the top of the mound before her knees started to tremble.
Torches burned on either side of her doorway, the flames waffling in the cool breeze that swept the lake. Made of logs set into a rectangular wall trench, the house measured fifty paces wide by seventy long. The roof soared four times the height of a man. On the very peak, an enormous wooden carving of Black Falcon perched. His seashell eyes glistened in the morning light.
"Sora?" Rockfish called as he trotted up the steps behind her. "Are you all right?"
She sucked in a breath. "Yes, fine."
The polished mica birds encircling the collar of his blue shirt flashed as he walked toward her. "I saw you run up the steps. You didn't look well."
She made an airy gesture. "It's the upcoming negotiations with the Loon People."
"We'll work it out," he assured her. "We always do. It does no good to worry."
She forced a smile. "You are, of course, right."
Rockfish tenderly pushed away the sweat-soaked ends of black hair that stuck to her forehead. He looked like he wanted to say something, but didn't know how.
Sora said, "What's wrong?"
"I don't know. Something. Matron Wink asked me to tell you that she'll be up as soon as she can get away. She's talking with the Loon People's representative, but she needs to speak with you immediately."
As though Sora's souls knew something her heart couldn't stand to believe, she stiffened. "What did War Chief Skinner want?"
"I couldn't hear. He spoke with Wink in private."
"A man I haven't seen in three winters walks into our town andgoes straight to the high matron? Something terrible has happened, hasn't it?"
Rockfish put his hands on her shoulders and looked into her eyes. "He is the war chief of Oak Leaf Village, Sora. Perhaps he came at Chief Fireberry's request, to offer his warriors. It is their people who are being held hostage by Blue Bow. They stand to lose more than we do from a war with the Loon People."
She gently pushed away from him. "Fireberry would never offer us his warriors. Skinner would vote against it."
"Why do you say that? Do you know him so well?"
Rockfish folded his arms defensively, and Sora knew she'd just swung out over a precipice on a very thin rope.
"No," she lied, "not really. He was a friend to my first husband. But I hear things, Rockfish. He is reputed to hate us. Not only that, Oak Leaf Village is Water Hickory Clan. If he did come to offer warriors, he should have gone to his own clan matron, Wood Fern, first. Instead, he went directly to Wink."
Rockfish gave her a look like he suspected she'd been Skinner's lover. He wouldn't ask, of course. If she'd slept with Skinner while married to Flint, it would have been a crime worthy of banishment. Commoners could dally with each other's spouses and people just glared and hissed behind their hands. If adultery occurred among the elite clans, it was dealt with swiftly and harshly. Because leadership was hereditary, matrons had to know a child's parentage.
Rockfish turned away and gazed out over Blackbird Town. As Mother Sun rose into the bright blue sky, her light streamed through the trees like shafts of honey. A dappled patchwork of shadow and light played over the mounds.
"Well, it's probably nothing. War chiefs visit other towns and villages routinely, just to keep up with what's happening."
Relieved that he'd let it drop, she said, "Yes, I'm sure he ..."
Her words died when Wink trotted to the top of the steps and marched forward with a dark expression. She took Sora's arm in astrong grip and pulled her toward the door to the house. "Please come with me."
When Rockfish started to follow, Wink called, "I must speak with her alone, Rockfish."
Sora glanced over her shoulder before she ducked beneath the door curtain. Her husband stood quietly. The slant of sunlight cast shadows over every wrinkle in his elderly face. It made him look a thousand winters old.