Sun Cycle of the Great Horned Owl The Falling River Moon
I WAKE WHEN A TWIG SNAPS, BUT I DO NOT MOVE.
I lie still in the brush, barely breathing, listening to their whispers. Pine needles crackle. Clothing rustles.
They each have their own way of walking, one a little faster, another very slow. The leader has wide shoulders that hiss against the brush. There are four of them. But the last in line, the female, is the most dangerous. She is as silent as mist.
I ease my head from the ground, and my nostrils tremble, smelling them. A growl tightens my throat, but I don't let it out. Scents of woodsmoke, urine, and old blood cling to their clothing.
After they pass, I raise myself on all fours and peer through the weave of brush--they resemble ghosts, gray and floating. Muscles bulge on their heavy bodies. A lot of meat.
I creep out of the brush and trot behind them for twenty breaths, until they stop to look out over the rugged canyon.
Then my fingers reach for a limb, and I climb at the speed of a pine marten, silently swinging from branch to branch, until I can crouch on a limb overlooking the warriors.
I lift my nose to the wind again, but I can't smell them; the scent of pine resin is too strong.
They hiss to each other, their voices like coiled snakes, then they spread out, hiding behind trees as they work their way toward the village.
I slip over the branch's edge and hang by one arm, watching, listening. Satisfied that there are no others coming, I let go and silently fall onto the trail. Pine duff rises beneath my feet.
I scamper forward into the closest shadows. And wait.
THE MOONLIT NIGHT BREATHED SILENCE.
Browser, War Chief of the Katsinas' People, braced his back against the dark smoke-colored trunk of an enormous pine and listened tothe faint echo of his warriors' footfalls. The scent of their sweat drifted through the trees, dank, filled with fear.
Browser got down on his belly and crawled the rest of the way to the canyon's edge. One thousand hands below, water splashed over rocks, and shafts of moonlight danced along the eroded cliffs like leaping ghosts. His fist tightened around his war club.
Silver owl eyes sparkled on the ledges of the massive sandstone cliff across the canyon, and he could hear their faraway hoots as the owls called to each other.
To his right, jumbled boulders stood like dark giants, their tops smoothed and rounded by a thousand summers of thunderstorms. Aspen village sat to his left, tucked into the cliff wall. Two stories tall, with forty chambers, the huge scooped-out hollow in the cliff dwarfed the village.
Freshly painted images covered the village walls. The katsinas had not been there three days ago when he and his war party left to scout the canyon rim. Now they appeared to be the only thing alive. The katsinas had human bodies but animal heads; unearthly smiles curled their fanged muzzles and jet black beaks.
Browser slid closer to the edge. Baskets of corn sat around the plaza. A deerhide lay staked out on the ground, drying. Two looms with half-finished blankets leaned against the wall. There were no dogs. No torches.
He rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand as he thought. Had Matron Eagle Hunter become frightened and ordered her people to abandon the village? The matron was the village decision maker, the leader of the clan. Perhaps she had seen or heard something and believed that they had no choice but to leave.
Five days ago, a Trader named Old Pigeontail had come to tell Browser that warriors calling themselves the Flute Player Believers had been seen massing in the forests near Aspen village. The Flute Player was a very old god, a Creator deity. The "Believers" said his music had conjured the world from black emptiness. Matron Eagle Hunter had feared her village was about to be attacked by the Flute Player warriors. Flame Carrier, the Matron of the Katsinas' People, had ordered Browser to help them. He and Catkin, his deputy, had run for two days straight to get here. They'd stumbled into Aspen village, exhausted and starving, and found most of the inhabitants in their beds, desperately ill with the coughing sickness.
But he heard no coughing tonight. No crying children.
Browser had left eight healthy warriors to guard the village and formed two scouting parties from the remainder. His own consisted of four warriors, and the other party, led by War Chief Running Elk, had five men.
Browser had seen nothing that would signal enemy camps, no fires sparkling along the rim, no shadows of men moving about in the moonlight.
His gut knotted.
Many villages had converted to the Katsina faith in the last sun cycle, including Aspen village. Browser looked down at the great kiva in the village plaza. The kiva, a circular ceremonial chamber dug into the ground about twenty hands deep, was not a place of this world. It existed outside of human time. The kiva was a womb of Beginning Time--the moments before the First People climbed up through the underworlds to reach this world of Father Sun's light. The architectural levels in the kiva--the floor, the bench, the roof--represented the three cave worlds through which the First People had climbed. Each time a person climbed up out of the kiva, he was reliving the sacred journey, moving from darkness to light, killing the child of darkness that lived inside him, and being reborn as a gleaming creature of brilliance.
Is that why Aspen village had been attacked?
Just last moon, Matron Eagle Hunter had ordered her people to replaster and repaint the great kiva. They had covered up the old images of the Flute Player and the gods of his time, and in their places painted enormous, magnificent katsinas.
The katsinas had always existed, but they'd first shown themselves to a human about one hundred sun cycles ago. The great priest, Sternlight, had seen the Wolf Katsina Dancing down from the clouds, using the raindrops as stepping stones. The Wolf Katsina's thunderous growl had called lightning from the clouds, and as the bolts flashed across the sky, the glorious faces of all the other katsinas had been revealed to Sternlight.
As the Katsina faith spread, the devotees of the old gods grew more and more angry. Three moons ago, Browser had heard a Flute Player Believer whisper that the Katsinas' People were witches. He said they changed themselves into animals by jumping through enchanted yucca hoops and loped through the darkness breathing evil,witching others to make them pledge themselves to their wicked half-animal gods. Every time something went wrong, if the rains didn't come or the spring was too cold for planting, the Flute Player Believers blamed the Katsinas' People for witchery.
Catkin, Walker, and Bole crawled up behind him. They kept their heads down, but their eyes flashed when they gazed at Browser.
Over his shoulder, he whispered, "Catkin?"
She slid forward. Moonlight gilded her beautiful oval face and turned-up nose. Her long black braid lay across her back like a glistening serpent. The fringes on her red leather shirt fluttered. When she looked at him, he could see the softness in her dark eyes. She had loved him for over a sun cycle--three hundred and sixty-five days--a love he had never been able to return the way she wished.
Catkin whispered, "How bad?"
"I don't see anyone."
He shook his head.
Catkin's face slackened. Very bad.
Walker and Bole muttered. They had wives, parents, children here. Their fears showed in the hard set of their jaws.
"Walker?" Browser called to the sixteen-summers-old youth lying next to Catkin. Shoulder-length black hair blew around his young face. A streak of soot cut a diagonal line across his right cheek.
He pulled himself forward on his elbows. "Yes, War Chief?"
"Catkin and I will go around to the eastern trail. Wait for my signal, then I want you and Bole to follow the western trail into the village. Take care. We know nothing yet. Your clan may have grown anxious and left, but that does not mean the village is empty. Do you understand?"
Walker wet his lips, and his eyes widened in fear. "Yes. I understand, War Chief."
Even if the villagers had fled, the people who'd frightened them might still be inside.
Browser nodded to Catkin and crawled away on his hands and knees. They rose in a small grove of junipers. The berry-laden branches filled the air with a sweet, tangy fragrance.
Browser examined the towering pines with painstaking care, making certain no one hid in the shadows. He'd thought he'd heard something earlier, a shishing, like fur brushing against branches.
His eyes narrowed. None of this made any sense. If the village had been attacked, they should already see evidence of it: belongings dropped when people tried to run, thrashed brush, overturned rocks, dead bodies. Warriors generally burned conquered villages. The scent of smoke should be acrid and strong.
Moonlight sheathed Catkin's large dark eyes and full lips. "I'm not sure that separating our forces was wise, Browser. If our enemies are inside--"
"I doubt they are, Catkin. I just said that as a precaution. A warrior who secretes himself in a room is asking to be trapped there when the owners return. It is more likely we will find our enemies behind the trees and boulders on the trail. Or even up here in the forest. That is where I would hide."
Catkin did not blink. She gave him a stony look. "And I would be inside the village where I could shoot my bow from a protected position."
"Yes," Browser said with a nod, "but you are like Badger. Bold an...