Dancing Barefoot on Obsidian
I am a lord of Cahokia, carried like one, born upon a panther hide–covered litter on the shoulders of eight blooded warriors. The trail we follow winds its way through the shadowed depths of the woods, beneath the towering trees and among endless vines as we make our way down the riverside trail. This is an ancient war and Trade route, a path trodden for countless generations as it descends from the high mountain divide. Hardly a path in the Cahokian sense, it is more of a rut, the bottom a mass of interlaced roots almost hidden in the leaf-covered black soil.
Up ahead, High Chief Fire Light and his squadron first, their weapons in hand, shields hung over their shoulders, walk in the lead. Fire Light thinks he’s headed home, so he’s more than happy to force his warriors to make good time on our way down to the banks of the Upper Tenasee. There we can obtain canoes for the trip downriver. Fire Light is an exile, but I have promised him clemency when we finally reach distant Cahokia.
More than once the warriors carrying me trip, cursing under their breaths as they struggle for footing on the root-thick trail. They do not look up, dare not meet my eyes.
They fear me.
And rightly so.
These days I am known as Lightning Shell, the witch of Cofitachequi. Perhaps the most feared witch in the entire world. I look as terrible as my reputation. The left side of my face is hideous—a mass of scar tissue, as if the skin had been scorched from cheek to brow. Must have been horribly painful, but I don’t remember.
Out in public I wear a whelk-shell mask to hide the disfigurement. It keeps people from screaming and running away. The mask was carved from a large shell traded inland from the coast; in addition to a prominent nose, it has eye and mouth holes that allow me to see and speak. The forked-eye design emphasizes my allegiance to Sky Power, as do the lightning zigzags running down the cheeks.
The mask is but a part of my Power. You see, I was reincarnated, turned from the Wild One—the essence of “Thrown Away Boy”—into someone else. And yes, I know who I was before my rebirth: Walking Smoke, of the Morning Star House of the Four Winds Clan. My father was Tonka’tzi Red Warrior. Tonka’tzi translates as Great Sky, the honorific given to the secular ruler of the mighty city of Cahokia. But I am not the only one in my family to host a reincarnated Spirit.
So, too, does my brother. He was once known as Chunkey Boy. Chosen for the honor of hosting the spiritual essence of the Morning Star. When, during the reincarnation ritual, the living god took possession of my brother’s body, Chunkey Boy’s souls were consumed. His flesh, bones, and body became the host for the resurrected Spirit of the hero from the Beginning Times.
Years ago Cahokia consisted of a series of warring villages and clans. And then my grandfather, Black Tail, defeated and captured Chief Petaga in a bloody battle. The very day he defeated Petaga, a great star began to burn brightly in the daytime sky. Black Tail knew it had to be the Spirit of the Morning Star, beaming his approval. The moment Black Tail saw that star burning so bright in the middle of the day, he had his vision.
Through a complicated ritual—driven by the sacrifice of Petaga and most of his family and kin—Black Tail summoned the Spiritual essence of the mythical hero Morning Star down from the sky. When he did, Morning Star’s Spirit took possession of my grandfather’s body. The ritual was performed again, a generation later, when Black Tail’s body wore out and he died of old age. That’s when the living god’s Spirit took possession of Chunkey Boy.
Power, you see, runs in my family.
Not that it seems to be doing me much good. I only need look back over my shoulder—though twisting my body strains the wound in my genitals and forces me to wince from the pain.
When I do, I can see my sister, Night Shadow Star, where she rides on the litter being borne down the trail behind me. She is carried by six muscular Cahokian warriors, their heads bobbing, sweat beading on their tattooed and sun-bronzed skin. I think my sister is the most beautiful and provocative woman alive. As she meets my gaze, something electric charges the air, a crackle of Power. My lust and her hatred, flashing, twisting, locked in desperate combat.
A faint smile curls her lips, one filled with promise and resolution. Her dark eyes seem to expand in her delicate face—looming and depthless portals that lead to her soul, and down, deep into the Underworld Power that is hers and her lord’s.
Whereas I am possessed by the Thunderbirds, and was reborn through lightning, Night Shadow Star belongs to Piasa, the terrible Underwater Panther who stalks the dark and root-filled warrens in the bowels of the earth. Subservient only to Old-Woman-Who-Never-Dies, Piasa devoured my sister’s souls. Made her a creature of the depths, of moss-filled tunnels, the homeless dead, serpents, and darkness.
“Which is why I will have you,” I promise. It will be a conjoining of Sky and Underworld. The sexual union of brother and sister in a sacred abomination. A reconciliation of opposites that will mix her Power with mine and make me the most Powerful man alive.
Even more Powerful than the reincarnated Morning Star atop his earthen pyramid in far-off Cahokia.
Though we’re no more than ten paces apart, her voice carries as if across a vast distance. “I will stand over your lifeless body.”
The words send a chill down my spine. She has tried to kill me before. Back in Cahokia. In the river. As I was preparing to join with her in unholy copulation, she capsized the canoe we were in. Underwater, twisting in the current’s depths, we battled. I was trying to choke the life out of her.
Cunning woman, my sister. She had lured me into the Piasa’s lair.
But as the Spirit Beast rose from the depths to devour me, the Thunderbirds blasted the river with lightning. I remember the flashes of blinding white, the scream torn from Piasa as he fled the killing bolts cast down by the Sky World.
… And it was the last thing I remembered until I emerged from a lightning-blasted and burning temple nearly a year later and half a world away in Cofitachequi. As mysterious as the scar on my face, I have no clue how I got there, or where I might have been in those intervening months. That part of my life is blank, missing.
Night Shadow Star, however, was not finished with me. She traveled all that way from Cahokia, down the Father Water and up the Tenasee, just to kill me. But for Chief Fire Light’s warriors, she would have succeeded. She struck me right between the legs, caught my stones and shaft square with the flat of her war ax. Would have crushed my head with the next blow had Fire Light’s warriors not tackled her. She came that close!
Meanwhile, until my aching and weeping genitals heal, I will wait. Plan for the glorious occasion when I lower myself onto her ripe body.
One of the warriors stumbles, almost dropping me.
“Clumsy idiot,” I growl. The sudden shift of the litter aggravates my wounded groin and bends me double with pain.
He starts to glance up, his instinctive response being to anger. Catches himself and makes a face as he avoids my eyes. Turns his attention back to the rutted forest path.
As I recover from the pain, I hear laughter, musically feminine and mocking. My sister revels in my agony. She should be cowed, worried, and terrified at what I’m going to do to her when my manhood heals. Though I love her and ache to drive myself into her, I will relish the moment she finally understands just how much my triumph means. I want to see the depths of defeat and the despair in her eyes. I want to break her and her Power so completely that all she can do is weep and plead for my touch.
Only then will she know the soaring extent of my victory.
From where we now wind our way down to the Tenasee River’s headwaters, we are still months of travel and half a world away from Cahokia. I have plenty of time to heal and plan that mystical joining. I want it to be epic. Like the mating of Moon and Sun, or Earth and Sea.
And to think that some people say family relationships are complicated.
It all comes down to time and the inevitable.
I throw a glance back. Night Shadow Star’s gaze is filled with resolve.
In the end, I will see tears streaming from those dark orbs.
On that summer afternoon, Spotted Wrist stood on the subterranean floor of a modest house bordering Cahokia’s East Plaza. The dwelling lay perhaps three bowshots east of the Morning Star’s great mound and palace. The room was foul with flies, the insects swarming the dead woman’s corpse.
Willow Blossom had been Spotted Wrist’s agent and part-time lover. Now her body sprawled beside the cold ashes of her hearth. Blood had soaked into the clay floor and dried into a black crust. Despite the circling flies, he could see the telltale froth where bubbly lung-blood had blown out of a wicked puncture wound in the woman’s side.
Taking distant towns in the far north might have been child’s play compared to navigating the politics of great Cahokia with its five rival ruling Houses, let alone governing the subordinated Earth Clans, who in turn kept a lid on the ethnically diverse, often antagonistic, dirt farmers with their generations-long vendettas and hatreds. The entire city was like a sealed pot boiling on the fire. One never knew when the pressure of the steam would build until the whole thing exploded into a thousand shards.
So, is this political? Did someone murder Willow Blossom because she was my agent? Is this a message? Some warning?
Cahokian politics were like a venomous spider’s web of intrigue, plotting, and—as Willow Blossom had learned—murder.
And then, at the pinnacle of it all—up there in his five-story-tall palace atop the most prominent earthen pyramid in the world—lived the reincarnated god known as the Morning Star. The living miracle that had drawn entire peoples to pick up their belongings and journey to Cahokia, where they could share in the wonder of a living Spirit Being who walked among them.
It was one thing to revel in the miraculous, and another to deal with a living god on a daily basis.
As Spotted Wrist studied the woman’s corpse, a shadow darkened the door. He glanced up as Clan Matron Rising Flame—a slim woman in her late twenties—lowered herself to the stepping post set in the floor. The clan matron wore a fantastic blue-, green-, and red-painted bunting cape; a fine dogbane skirt was belted at her narrow waist and displayed the muscular legs that betrayed her obsession with stickball. Her hair was pulled tight in a bun and held with polished copper pins crafted in the shape of eagle feathers. Her brow was furrowed, sharp eyes fixing on the corpse.
She waved at the flies, and said, “Your squadron first said you’d be here. Willow Blossom?”
“The very same, Matron. Been dead for a couple of days. These sunken-floor houses, the dirt is dug out, the trench walls put up, and the earth is piled against the house sides for insulation. Despite being midsummer, on that cool dirt floor, she’s only now starting to bloat. A litter bearer found her this morning. Came to my palace since it was the last place he and his team had carried her from.”
“Think she was killed that night?”
“Probably. She’s wearing the same shawl and skirt she had on when I last saw her. That timing would be about right given the size of the maggots in her wound, mouth, and eyes.”
“Who do you think did this?”
“I was asking myself that same question when you arrived. So, was Willow Blossom’s murder political? Or just a random event? As if, perhaps, she had returned home to find an opportunistic thief in her house? Thinking of a thief, Seven Skull Shield would want her dead. Or was she a poor victim of circumstance? In the wrong place at the wrong time?”
“None of her things have been taken.” Rising Flame took note of the fancy bedding and the fine cookware Willow Blossom had absconded with when she moved from Night Shadow Star’s palace.
“Might be a crime of passion. Her husband, that rope maker, Robin Feather? He might have finally caught up with her. Stuck her in the side with something sharp to repay her for running off with that foul Seven Skull Shield. Old Robin Feather’s got a reputation for killing women who betray him.”
“Shouldn’t be too hard to run Robin Feather down. He’s well known on the canoe landing.” Rising Flame bent close, studied the roiling ball of maggots wiggling in Willow Blossom’s wound.
Spotted Wrist narrowed an eye. “My best guess is still Seven Skull Shield. Willow Blossom played him, used him to get into Night Shadow Star’s palace. Then she betrayed him to me. I ever tell you the story behind that?”
He gestured dismissively at Willow Blossom’s fly-crawling corpse. “The only thing she ever wanted was wealth, status, and luxury. And she knew that I’d give anything to get my hands on Seven Skull Shield. The man’s nothing more than a foul bit of walking human trash. Clanless! And that night up at Morning Star’s palace, he humiliated me … and you … in front of half of Cahokia.”
“As if I’m ever going to forget.” Rising Flame straightened, studying Spotted Wrist with emotionless eyes.
He hated it when she looked at him that way. What, in the name of pus, was she thinking?
Spotted Wrist batted his irritation at the column of buzzing flies. “I’ll never forget the thief’s words: ‘What’s wrong? Can’t find a woman who wants you?’ They burn like fire in my memory. Like a slap to my face. And then Willow Blossom shows up, and guess what? The thief is in love with her. Better yet, she is bedding him when my warriors charge in. Wraps herself around him like a cocoon. He can’t even pull out of her while my men grab him.” He chuckled. “How sweet revenge can be.”
“You put Seven Skull Shield in a bear cage and beat him half to death. I’d call that sweet.” That emotionless look turned even more distant. “But then you lost him. Let his friends slip in and rescue him. Whisked him right out from under your nose. They played you like a fool.”
Spotted Wrist ground his teeth, slashed at the flies. “Blue Heron was behind that.”
“So you torched her palace, and her inside it. Except when the ashes were searched, no one could find her charred remains. We know that she sent her household staff out to warn her allies. She might have fled, too. For all we know, your men burned an empty building.”
“It wasn’t empty!” Spotted Wrist roared. “My squadron second barricaded her inside. He was talking to her through the door until the fire got too hot. The only way she could have escaped that death trap was through the front door when it finally burned to ashes. And no old woman came staggering out through that flame and smoke.”
Rising Flame had no give in her eyes. “Why couldn’t you find her corpse? Or the body of her berdache, Smooth Pebble? Remember her? The woman who runs Blue Heron’s household? The only corpse was that guard your men murdered. He was found half-burned on the veranda. Blue Heron’s and Smooth Pebble’s bodies were not among the ashes.”
“It’s obvious,” he scoffed. “Like a cremation. The fire was hot enough, it rendered them down to fine ash. Maybe so fine they were kicked apart as my warriors searched the scorched wreckage.”
Rising Flame paused for effect. “I think they escaped.”
“If she escaped, why has no one seen her? This is Blue Heron we’re talking about. One of the most vain, arrogant, and recognizable nobles in the city. She is a lady. She has standards. Not the sort to vanish into the crowd. A woman of her rank would be talked about, especially if she went to ground among one of the Earth Clans. I have eyes in the few warrens where she might have taken refuge. I even know for a fact she’s not hiding in Columella’s palace.”
He smiled grimly. “If Blue Heron were alive, she couldn’t resist the temptation. Like a moth to a flickering flame, she couldn’t help but take a hand, make a move in the game. The moment she tried to meddle, to stir the political pot, we’d hear. You’d hear. But cock my ears all I might, the silence is unambiguous.”
Rising Flame’s lips twitched. “Assuming we’re not standing over her handiwork right here.”
Spotted Wrist rubbed a hand over his face, glanced down at the corpse. “Next thing, you’ll be telling me that maybe Blue Heron killed Willow Blossom to get even with me?”
“Unlikely,” Rising Flame told him in that monotonous voice that was driving him half-insane. “Look at her. Willow Blossom didn’t fight. Her clothing isn’t disheveled; the shawl is still draped around her shoulders. Look at her hands. No sign she scratched at anyone, or even put up a fight. She didn’t think that whoever killed her was a threat. Which, if you ask me, excludes Blue Heron, Seven Skull Shield, her old husband Robin Feather, and even your random robber that she might have walked in on.”
Spotted Wrist felt his heart begin to pound. “Are you forgetting whose side you’re on?”
The way she held his gaze wasn’t reassuring. “My side is all about winning, Keeper. For the moment, your squadrons control the city. But this thing is still a long way from decided. Lady Columella has all of Evening Star House’s squadrons called up. They’re in defensive positions atop the bluffs on the other side of the river.”
“Not for long.” Spotted Wrist gave her a knowing grin. “Another couple of days, and I’ll have bartered for enough big Trade canoes to paddle my squadrons across. Some upriver, some down. Columella will have to split her forces, following along the bank in hopes her squadrons can be in position in time to stop my landing. You know the western shore, tree-lined, cut by ravines where creeks empty into the Father Water. No way they can defend the entire western bank. In the end, I’m going to flank her.”
“You talk as if this deed is already done,” she replied, leaning her head back as she stared past the occasional buzzing fly at the roof poles and ceiling.
“I’m the Hero of the North,” he told her easily. “Compared to the hard nut of Red Wing Town and the Upper River, Matron Columella’s Evening Star House is like a soft plum. Rich, juicy, and easy to squash.”
“Then I hope you don’t choke on the hard pit.” Her expression remained stoic, the tattooed stars on her cheeks barely visible in the dim light. She seemed unconcerned at the flies all around her. “You had better be right”—with her toe, she indicated Willow Blossom’s dead body—“because your competence in political matters has me concerned.”
“What’s to concern you?” He slitted his eyes, the old call to battle coming to a boil around his heart. “Within the week, Evening Star Town will be mine. The tonka’tzi, old Wind, is my prisoner, which paralyzes the Morning Star House. Blue Heron is dead, and her allies in River House are in hiding. North Star House and Horned Serpent House are allied for the first time in a decade. I’ve got Cahokia by the balls.”
“Really?” A faint smile bent her lips. “Aren’t you forgetting something? Got the Morning Star by the balls, too, have you?”
“The living god?” Spotted Wrist shrugged it away. “What does he care? He’s up there, sitting in his palace, bedding gullible young women and enjoying his feasts while embassies from half the world shower him with gifts and fawn at his feet. As long as we keep a lid on the city, keep the peace, and don’t rile his enjoyment of godhood, what does he care?”
The frown deepened on Rising Flame’s forehead. “It’s always been said: ‘The Morning Star plays a deep game.’ You have to ask, why has he been silent? Not a single summons. Why did he allow us to go as far as we have? What’s his stake in this latest shuffling of the Houses? What does he want?”
“I already told you: feasts, women, adulation, and luxury. He’s a reincarnated god. The only thing he’s complained about are those copper plates stolen from that Koroa embassy, and he replaced them with better pieces. With time, he’ll forget about them, too.”
“Something’s not right,” Rising Flame insisted, her gaze now fixed on the dead woman on the floor. “I’m missing a critical piece. And it’s not just the Koroa copper.”
Copyright © 2022 by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear