It took Edeko all morning to crawl up the hill, each cautious movement carefully weighed, considered, and examined before he inched forward in perfect silence. He’d spent an hour delicately lifting a branch of elk weed out of the way, straining to keep his hand steady and the desiccated seeds from rattling in their dried pods. He was sweating with the effort of his caution. He’d been on many raids before; his name was spoken around the council fires for his breathless daring, but this hill was a battle like none he’d ever fought before, requiring all his concentration and muscular coordination. Silently, invisibly, he planned his ascent up the scrubby wooded hill with all the caution of a War Chief orchestrating a summer’s campaign.
He severed a thorny vine with his teeth, spit the bitter sap out, and continued forward. A breeze rattled the dry leaves still clinging to the branches overhead, and he felt the thin rays of the sun breaking through the clouds to shine on his broad back. He sank his fingers into the soil and crawled a foot to the left, into the shadows made by a holly patch.
His abundance of caution was due to two factors. Firstly, he was in the heart of the Pnimphalian frontier, fifty miles deep into the pioneer settlements and military forts that stabbed like a spear into the flank of his Tribe’s hunting grounds in the foothills. The Pnimphalian’s kept heavy patrols in this country, and the settlers had learned the value of keeping huge, savage dogs with delicate noses and twitching ears.
Secondly, Edeko was completely alone. He had only his own eyes and ears as scouts, and only his own brain to consult for advice.
Which, he reflected ruefully as he prodded a huge stinging ant out of his way with a twig, was how he’d gotten into this mess in the first place.
A combination of too many cups of beer and far too much bravado had led to an increasingly heated boasting match between Halka and himself. Their attempt to settle which was the mightier warrior through contests in the four manly arts (wrestling, spear throwing, jumping, and more beer drinking) ended in a tie, and so Edeko had proposed a final test: a race up the steep face of Grandfather Mountain.
Even in the warm, dry summer, Grandfather Mountain was a treacherous peak, but to try it in the Fall, slick with late-season rain, dark with the sun’s early shrouding, and howling with hungry wolves, was madness. Edeko had only made it half-way up when he’d gotten completely lost. He’d spent the night high in the last pine on Grandfather’s shoulder, the glittering eyes of wolves and worse peering up at him from below.
But in the morning, when he’d finally made his way back to the village, he felt true fear. There, waiting for him, laid out on a birch byre and surrounded by the howls of mourning women and the weeping of warriors, was the broken body of Halka. He’d made it to Grandfather’s Teeth and had foolishly braved the cliff, only to fall to the rocks far, far below.
Tsarak, War Leader of the village and Halka’s uncle, had laid the blame squarely on Edeko’s shoulders – he had made Halka drunk, he had boasted and goaded all night, and then he had insisted on the mad race up the mountain of death. Edeko had robbed his mother of a son, Tsarak of a nephew, and the Tribe of a Warrior. Three futures were laid before him: the shame and sorrow of exile, death, or payment of a blood price.
Tsarak had rated Halka’s value high indeed, for even those sobbing on the sidelines had gasped when he’d made the grim demand: three Pnimphalian hens.
It was a Chief’s ransom and, more to the point, a suicide mission. The Pnimphalian settlers had moved their flocks down into the fortified towns for the season, far from the hills. There would be no lightning strike across the border – he’d have to pierce deep into enemy territory to find his prizes. It was Edeko’s only chance, so he took it.
Pnimphalian birds! How quickly they had come into the hill country, changing forever life for Edeko and his Tribe – their way of travelling, hunting, and most importantly, of waging war. Edeko’s grandfather still remembered the times before the birds, could still tell stories of the terror they’d inspired when first the Tribe had encountered the Settlers and their Cavalry, mounted atop the grim, fierce animals. That was the name Edeko’s people gave the new animal: Terror bird, though the Pnimphalians named them “Titanis.”
They had fled then, but soon learned that it was not magic that let men ride the terror birds, but skill. So they had attacked the ranches and villages of the Pnimphalians, raiding for the sturdy, reliable hens that could be trained, and the mad, murderous cocks that were good only for making more birds, and soon they had their own flocks high in the meadows. They learned to ride on birdback, hunt on birdback, fight and kill and die on birdback. Life changed, but Edeko’s Tribe grew strong and deadly again, and they no longer feared the invaders.
He paused, listening to the bleating of a nuthatch overhead, a squawk of territoriality rather than a warning call that could give him away. The Pnimphalians had learned to value all the arts of woodcraft in their long war with Edeko’s people. The crack of branch, the tumble of stone, the shrill alarm call of a bird, all of these the Pnimphalians had learned to fear. And now he was approaching one of the settlers’ main roads, a raw wound in the countryside bleeding more invaders into the border lands, where patrols rode and men were watchful.
The fallen leaves were cool and damp against his bare arms, and the wind bit him even through his deerhide leggings and vest. Winter would come early to the Hills this year, he thought. He reached behind him and adjusted the spear he’d tied to his back; he’d killed a soldier last summer and claimed his heavy war lance as his own, cutting down the thick oak shaft to a more reasonable size. That and the heavy bronze axe strapped to his waist were his only weapons, though he also carried a lasso, the art of which he was particularly skilled in. He hadn’t brought much else, drinking stream water and eating off the land as he’d moved through settler territory, hoping to find a ranch that hadn’t sent their birds back down country yet. He’d tried five farms already, two with the flocks longs gone, the others with theirs already under heavy guard, preparing for the migration. Behind the hill was the last farm in this stretch – if they didn’t have any birds, he’d have to go fifteen miles westward, bringing him perilously close to Fort Urabraunt and its heavy patrols.
He paused just below the crest of the long hill, listening for the jingle of spurs or the harsh, barking gutturals of the Pnimphalian tongue, so alien when compared with his Tribe’s rich, song-like speech. He heard only the nuthatch, the wind, and a distant howling dog. He lifted his head slowly over a low flinty outcrop and scanned the scene below.
The road beneath the hill stretched north to south, and on the other side of its flanking ditch was a tall thorny hedge of fast growing and viciously spiked hawthorn, the only fence that could keep the powerful terror birds from wandering. The yard itself was a big one, mostly bare earth exposed by the scratching feet and writhing dust baths of the great birds. A barn at the far edge and a watering trough, its windmill spinning lazily in the breeze, completed the bucolic scene, though closer inspection would have shown the heavy shutters that could lock over the widows, and the sturdy iron-backed planks of the door; in an emergency, the structure could quickly and easily be fortified against the spears and arrows of a raging war party.
But Edeko had eyes only for the three terror birds in the center of the yard, preening and with their throats pulsing as they enjoyed the sunlight and the open air. Two of the hens were common Keleken Reds, a hearty breed much in favor among the settlers, seven feet tall with deep grey body plumage and a bright scarlet crest of long display feathers on their heads. But the other bird was of a breed he didn’t recognize. It was even larger, eight feet tall at least and almost entirely coal-black, except for a magnificent yellow eyering that shone like a sunburst on its savage face. That was a bird fit for a Chief, he thought, a marvelous animal that, more than simply paying the blood debt owed, would actually bring him honor among the Tribe. If he could bring it back. The hawthorn meant he’d have to sneak around the side of the hill and enter through the barn. He could crawl along the stony ridgeline and wait for night perhaps, or better yet –
His strategizing came to an abrupt end. As one, the birds had turned to face the barn, clacking their heavy, axe-like beaks together as three men strolled into the yard. One was clearly the farmer, a stocky bearded fellow in leather work pants and a woolen coat, but the pair of men who followed him were of a different type altogether. Edeko narrowed his eyes and felt his arm instinctively reach for his spear.
They were adventurers, mercenaries who travelled and fought for coin and plunder. The Pnimphalian Army was stretched thin across their expanding eastern border, and to fill out their ranks they often hired mercenaries. But no meager soldier’s pay would have satisfied professional reavers like them, so instead the Pnimphalians paid bounties on scalps, a practice the cruel mercenaries had happily embraced.
That these two below him had been successful in their trade was evident from their finely made and expensive equipment. Steel hauberks glittered coldly on their chests and from beneath rich scarlet cloaks, and gold glowed on the scabbards of their long swords. No enlisted man could afford to equip themselves like that; few officers could. These two were experts in their lucrative trade, and had reaped riches from their bloody harvests.
The farmer was gesturing to the animals in the yard, and the two adventurers strolled in a wide circle around the huge, predatory birds. The taller man was nodding as the shorter mercenary pointed out the various features of the animals, their heavy powerful talons, their strong well-scaled legs, their rich shining feathers. They approached, stroking the terror birds’ necks, lifting their tiny useless wings to check for parasites. Satisfied, they turned to the farmer and nodded. The short mercenary reached under his cloak and removed a heavy leather pouch. He extracted six heavy coins, bright as sin, and dropped them into the farmer’s outstretched hand. Then, looping harnesses over the animals’ beaks, the farmer led them all into the barn.
Edeko cursed silently. Just as he finds three hens, beautiful ones at that, a pair of damned adventurers shows up and buys them. He ground his teeth in frustration. Was he being punished by Halka’s ghost?
He heard more noises, and looked back towards the barn. The two mercenaries appeared, coming around a corner mounted on the backs of the two Keleken Reds, who had been saddled after the usual Pnimphalian fashion. Led along behind them, a long strap of leather connecting its beak strap to the saddle of the shorter man, was the tall black terror bird. Rather than a saddle, this third bird had been harnessed to a two-wheeled wooden cart that was heaped high with tarps, sacks, poles, and a jumble of mattocks, picks, and shovels. Stranger still, these men did not turn south, the route that would have taken them towards the interior and winter barracks, but rather north, jogging into the wilderness, their cart rattling loudly behind them as they went.
Edeko watched them go, hope kindling inside him for the first time since he’d begun his journey. These mercenaries weren’t heading towards the fort – they were striking out on their own, into a stretch of country that the Pnimphalians had, for the time being, abandoned after a brutal series of battles ten summers ago. The road they were on led nowhere now, except into a rapidly returning wilderness of scrub forest and wild grasslands.
His kind of country.
He slipped away down the hill, trusting the sound of the cart to cover any noise his rapid descent might have made. The nuthatch scolded him for his carelessness, but he didn’t care. He needed speed now – the north road meandered its way for ten more miles before hitting an old crossroad in a flat bit of prairie that had been the site of a ranch, before Edeko’s people had burned it to the ground. But the stone well remained, and it had become a spot where the Pnimphalian patrols that dared the northern wastes would camp. Edeko needed to get there before them if he wanted to be in a good spot for an ambush. His way was shorter as the nuthatch would have travelled, but he would be running over much rougher ground, hills and rocks and a patch of boggy lowland where rain-swollen creeks lost their way for a while. Another race, he grinned to himself. He turned north and, breathing deep, ran hard beneath the shadows of trees.
The prairie was a tangle of weeds and grasses, with thin locust saplings growing in the disturbed ground where the old ranch had stood. A blackberry patch had gone feral near the back edge of the cleared land, its thorny tendrils spreading wildly over the open ground. The only human structure left was the low ring of stones that marked the well, and it was here that Edeko hoped to center his ambush. A shock of bluestem, as tall as a man, grew thickly along the edge of a mostly filled-in ditch, ten yards off from the well. He would crouch, invisible behind the grass, and wait. They would make camp, securing their mounts to stakes in the ground, and then one or both would go to the well for water. He smiled grimly, thumbing the point of his spear. A sudden leap and throw, and one of them would be dead, a steel point fixed in their throat. A bit of lasso-work and axe-butchery, and the terror birds, safely staked, would be his.
As he waited, laying back to watch the clouds ponderously sail across an empty gray sky, he wondered what the adventurers were after in the north. He had seen the gear in their cart, but what were they hoping to dig up? The crossroad offered two options, one northeast, towards the skeleton of an old Pnimphalian fort, rotting like carrion where Edeko’s Tribe had butchered it. They had looted it pretty thoroughly then of course but, it was true, only above ground. Maybe they thought there were treasures buried there? Pnimphalians, like all outlanders, were gold-mad, so it wouldn’t be out of the question for them to spend their time picking through ruins for a missed cache. The other road rambled southwest, leading back the long way to ranches and farms of the more settled interior. Really, the fort was the only option for treasure hunters.
Not that it mattered much, he thought, dozing lightly, since they’d never get where they were going anyway.
The sun was a handspan above the horizon and sinking fast when he heard the creak of wooden wheels. He rolled over onto his belly and peered through the grass. The two men were crossing the boundary between forested hills and the long lonely prairie that marched for hundreds of miles to the distant northern mountains. They paused for a minute in the middle of the crossroad, the shorter man standing tall in his saddle and peering out into the field of grass while the taller man consulted a roll of parchment. Edeko held his breath. The shorter man pointed towards the well, and the taller man nodded. They kicked their heels into the flanks of the terror birds and left the road, riding towards him. Edeko gripped his spear.
But instead of stopping and setting up camp, they rode right to the edge of the well. The taller of the two handed the reins of his bird to his comrade and then, clicking his tongue, had the bird lower itself down onto the ground. He hopped off and stood on the stone lip of the well, staring down. Edeko heard the murmer of their voices, speaking the Pnimphalian tongue in thick accents.
“Tis the well indeed, as the map did promise,” he nodded.
“Fuckin’ all right,” drawled the shorter man. “Guess that rag was worth droppin’ a couple of coins on after all.” He spat and then looked around. “Scrubby little shithole, innit?”
“Aye, twas razed by savages, and the crofters driven hence.” The tall man turned and went to the cart, rummaging under a tarp.
“Hey, before you get the bucket, gimme one a them bolt-throwers, will ya?” The short man reached into a saddle bag and pulled out a tobacco pouch and rolling papers.
“What have you seen?” asked the tall man, tensing. His hand drifted to the heavy sword strapped at his side.
“Eh, nothin’ really,” said the short man, rolling a cigarette. He licked the paper and stuck it in his mouth. “Jus’ a feelin’ ya know? Like we’re bein’ watched,” he said, mumbling the words around the cigarette. He struck a match and puffed. “But better safe than sorry, as me ol’ Dad used to say.” The tall man reached deep into the cart and withdrew a compact but very deadly looking crossbow. Edeko, in the grass, scowled. A crossbow complicated his ambush plans a bit.
“Aye, wisest to be prepared in this howling wilderness,” he said, handing the weapon up to the man in the saddle. He nodded and cranked the lever, drawing the string taut. He selected a cruel, barbed quarrel from a small quiver at his side, and loaded the weapon. Then, puffing placidly, he scanned the prairie, his eyes lingering longest on the thick grass where Edeko lay, flattened against the ground.
The tall man tossed a leather bucket on a long rope down the well. Edeko heard it splash, and then the grunts of the man as he hauled it back up. He carefully shifted to the right to give himself a better view – the man with the crossbow was scanning the distance, the other man was watering the birds, their heads bobbing as they threw their heavy beaks up and back to drink. He was laying downwind of them, and he could smell the sharp stinging scent of bird bodies, stronger even than the earthy tobacco smoke floating in the breeze. They were so close, cursed Edeko, but there was no sign that this was more than a watering stop. Did they plan to keep riding? Where would they set up camp? He weighed the option of trying for them right then and there, but it seemed unwise – he could aim for the crossbowman, but he was on the other side of the cart, and the taller bird was standing in the way of a clear throw. He could kill the other man, no problem, but even if the crossbow then somehow missed him, he’d still be fighting on foot against a mounted man. And the birds were unsecured; he couldn’t be sure that a bloody melee wouldn’t send them off and running.
“Shall I feed them?” asked the tall man, stroking the neck of his bird.
“Nah,” said the short man, flicking the stub of his cigarette down the well hole. “They ride better hungry. We’ll give ‘em some chow tonight. C’mon, let’s get underway, huh?”
Edeko grimaced. Then they were planning on travelling. He’d have to trail them. Maybe an ambush in the night? He tried to recall the northeastern route, towards the burned fort. There were some rocky outcrops around a bend in the road, a good spot if he could get there before them.
But the duo didn’t return to the road. Rather, with Edeko staring incredulously at them from his blind, the two men and their cart went straight across the prairie, heading neither east nor west, but directly north.
Edeko shook his head. Where were they going? When his Tribe had wrecked the fort and burned the ranches, they’d destroyed the northernmost of the Pnimphalian settlements. There was nothing to the north, except –
Edeko hissed a curse between his clenched teeth. The adventurers were heading to the Mounds.
Older than his Tribe were the Mounds, great earthworks in the shape of animals real and imagined, built by an ancient people who had, once, lived in the prairie. The elders told tales of them, how when the first of the Tribe had come from the south fleeing disaster, they had found them, overgrown and long abandoned. But strange shadows still dwelt there, and the voices of the spirits of Land and Air told them to stay away, that they were cursed and must be left alone. His people had heeded the warnings, but not before the Mounds and their mysterious builders had entered into their legends, stories of terrible nightmare places raised by alien hands, magical and dangerous.
Of course that’s where they were heading, he sighed. Every old firepit or cat hole in the prairie held hidden gold, or so the insane outlanders seemed to believe. They’d excavate any spot that stuck a couple inches off the ground, convinced that the ancient Kings of the Hill People had been buried with all their treasures out there, just waiting to be dug up. Why should haunted mounds older than the memory of men be any different to them?
It wasn’t the legends of ghost-haunted piles of dirt that made Edeko scowl. They were heading into the prairie proper, wide open space stretching all the way to the horizon, a rolling land of timeless distance made for the steady high-stepping gait of the great terror birds. They’d outdistance him easily – no chance of an ambush on the trail. He’d have to hold off on the idea of an ambush, at least for a while. It was tracker work, now. He watched them until they had receded into tiny dots on the edge of sight, then, strapping the spear to his back, he jogged after them with the dogged perseverance of a Hill man.
For two nights and two days Edeko shadowed the men across the sea of grass, and on the morning of the third day, munching succulent bison turnips he’d dug up for breakfast, he came across their camp from the night before.
He sank to the ground and rubbed a crumb of soil between his fingers as he read the ground. Ants were already at work on the stale rind of bread they’d tossed aside. He found a strip of oil cloth hanging from a stalk of grass and lifted it to his nose, where he caught the hint of dried meat, food for the birds. A little farther on, in a patch of broken and bent stems, he found the cold stub of a cigarette. Tracking them was no great difficulty – between the two men and the birds, they were leaving spoor that a child could read.
But he hadn’t expected to run across their camp so soon. He had, in fact, been gaining on them. The day before he had watched them stop several times, presumably to consult their map and compass. They must have been getting close to the edge of the Mound country, thought Edeko, and were looking for something specific. He’d have to be more cautious now. He needed them safely at work, digging away, when he struck.
He stood and stretched. Their trail knifed ahead, north as always, through the grass. He yawned, felt the sun warm him, and then began following at a much more leisurely pace.
He was a man and, more to the point, a warrior with three summers of raids were under his belt. He’d killed a plumed Pnimphalian knight when he was only fifteen! But even Edeko couldn’t suppress a shiver when he came across the first Mound, a silent sentinel raised by unknown hands in an unguessed age.
The ground had been changing all day, the gentle rolling countryside giving way to gullies that would appear suddenly as you crested a rise, and there were low bluffs here and there, raw clay exposed where the rains carved through the landscape. He knew from the tales that he was approaching the Mounds, but even so, it was a surprise to see one up close, especially after a childhood full of hair-raising tales that had more than once sent him running into his mother’s arms.
This one wasn’t very large – a dozen yards wide and barely a yard tall, but the plants seemed to know the difference. The rich grass gave way to scrubby, thorny weeds, a species he didn’t recognize, brittle and brown, the difference making the mound rise up like an old scar on the skin of the prairie. He walked around it, recognizing that it had been raised in the shape of a huge hawk, sharp edged wings wide against the earth, its pointed beak facing a little off of due east.
The men had seen it too – they’d stopped and played at digging, though the shallow pit they’d begun showed just more dirt. Had they expected it to bleed gold for them? Edeko kicked the loose earth back into the hole, patting it down with his sandaled foot. This land was so old and the people so forgotten that he doubted any ghosts were left, but still, no reason to court disaster.
As he walked, he saw more Mounds rising up from the grass on his left and right, long wriggly shapes or squat round blobs, their raised flanks stark against the flat country. They grew larger as he went, but he couldn’t make out what they represented without walking them himself, and the trail of the men didn’t drift away towards any of them. Maybe their map was taking them to a specific Mound?
Clouds rolled in, and the sky grayed as a wind out of the north rippled the plains. For lunch he ate a pair of prairie plums he’d found, tart and sweet and juicy, the time of year perfect for them. Thank the ancestors, he thought, that it wasn’t high summer, the prairie baking under a bright sun, nothing but thistles to eat.
In the far distance he saw what he at first assumed was another bluff, though as he walked up a gentle swell in the land and drew closer, he realized it was far too regularly shaped to be the product of erosion. It had a broad, square base, and half way up there was a shelf or platform, with a smaller pyramid shape on top. It was a Mound, the biggest he’d seen, a hundred feet high at least, and each side was four hundred feet long at the base, forming a squat, two-tiered pyramid in the middle of the plain. He gawked at it, then dropped to the ground.
Below him, camped at the base of the Mound, were the two men, their three birds scratching away at the ground, bored.
They had been busy – several holes had been made in the pyramid, test pits sunk into the sides of the Mound. One of these pits had been a success; they’d excavated a little porch-like area, digging wider and deeper into the earthen mantle of the Mound to expose an archway. A stone slab lay on the ground in front of this, shattered into three pieces on the grass. They had pried it open and sent it tumbling to break on the ground, exposing the Mound’s black interior to daylight for the first time in ten thousand years. Edeko, from the edge of the bluff, found himself scowling down into the door. The shadows seemed to have an almost solid quality to them, spilling out to stain the surrounding grass.
The men were taking a break for supper, the shattered slab of the door serving as a makeshift table for their unusual picnic. They’d made camp directly to the left of the entrance. The birds were staked together and the cart had been overturned, all its contents spilled out on the ground. The men were eating and talking as they watched evening fall into dusk around them. Another hour, and the stars would be out.
They ate while Edeko chewed grass, looking over the country and planning his next move. Approaching their camp across the open plain in the night wouldn’t be easy. Even if they didn’t keep a watch, the birds were keen-eyed and alert to any furtive noises nearby. Did he dare go around the back of the pyramid and come at them from above? Lamps were lit below, the two men in sharp relief against the gloom. He snorted in derision – had they no fear at all? Lights on the plains at night! Anyone within ten miles and with one good eye knew there were outlanders wandering the plains now.
But rather than settling in for the night, the two men stood and, lamps in one hand and tools in the other, walked into the darkness of the Mound. Edeko watched as the glow dimmed, until it was the merest whisper of brightness in the doorway, the light ebbing as they sank deeper inside the structure. He grinned, and felt like dancing. Their fever for gold was so great that these idiots were going to work through the night! He could just walk down there, grab their animals, and go.
He waited, letting night settle more deeply over the prairie, then sprang up and, keeping his body low, jogged down the back of the rise and to the west towards a steep wash that debouched into the plain below. After a quiet, careful climb down, he paused at the mouth of the gully and listened. Hearing nothing but the sawing of crickets, he poked his head out and scanned the open ground in front of the pyramid. At the foot of the bluff overlooking the Mound there was a shallow creek, dry now, and just deep enough that he could crawl unseen to a point straight across from the birds. Maybe his Tribe had had it all wrong, he thought, as he crept across the pebbly bed of the creek. Maybe these Mound spirits are friendly to his people, and bring good luck!
Approaching the birds had to be done correctly. He raised himself up out of the creek and started, calmly towards them, hands out at his sides, clucking his tongue softly. The three animals were already awake, their heads snapping sharply around to look at him, turning away from the empty cart and the heap of its contents. They trilled at him curiously, tilting their heads and clacking their beaks in hope that he had some food for them. He got closer, and could almost feel the wind in his hair and hear the pounding of their heavy talons as they tore up the prairie in a mad dash homeward. He was ten feet from them when a cold knot tied itself around his guts.
He smelled tobacco smoke.
“Well, how do you like that? Bird rustler, all the way out here!” said the shorter adventurer as he stepped out from behind the cart. He was a darker shadow against the night, invisible save for the red glow of his cigarette and the glint of moonlight on the steel bolt of the crossbow, pointing directly at Edeko’s heart. He tensed, his hand twitching towards the axe on his belt. “Move and die, savage,” said the man, gesturing with the crossbow, “savvy?” Edeko lifted his hands, slowly, showing the mercenary his empty palms. The glowing cigarette bobbed as he spoke. “You do savvy, huh? Speak Pnimphalian?”
“I speak your language,” said Edeko, the fury evident in his voice.
“Ain’t mine,” said the man, looking around. “I’m from Ymarra, myself. Any more of you creepin’ around out here?”
“I’m alone,” answered Edeko, quietly.
“Brave boy,” said the short man, nodding. “Well, thief, how about you drop your weapons there, right on the ground, nice and slow like. Don’t try nothin’ either, or I’ll pin yer hide to the earth.” Edeko did as he was told, dropping the axe, the spear, and the lasso on the ground. “How long you been trackin’ us?” he asked.
“Since the crossroad,” he answered.
“God’s Horns, I’m good!” laughed the man. “I knew I felt somethin’ back there! Barzi will be pissed that I was right. Okay boy, nice and slow, and keep them mitts in the air, let’s take us a stroll into this here heap. Nothin’ tricky, or you get stuck, got it?”
Despite his casual, sneering tone, the short man kept his distance. He had spent too long on the border not to have a healthy respect for the devilish quickness of a warrior from the hills. Edeko knew that, so long as the crossbow was pointed at him, he could do nothing but wait for a chance that might never come.
The walls and ceiling of the tunnel were lined with stone slabs, pale pink granite from the distant mountains, though the floor was earthen. At the far end glowed a door, and as they drew nearer he heard the dry rattle of stone and the grunting of a man hard at work.
“Hey Barzi!” shouted the short man as he waved Edeko through the door. “Lookit here!”
“I asked you to smoke outside,” said the tall mercenary, turning. His eyes widened. “Goddess! Whence comes this heathen?”
“Said he’s been trackin’ us since the burned down ranch,” said the shorter man. “Told ya, didn’t I?”
“A raiding party?” said Barzi, drawing his sword.
“Nah, man, lookit ‘im. No paint. He’s solo on this one, told me himself.”
As Barzi looked their prisoner over, Edeko was looking around the room. The two oil lamps burned brightly, filling the tall dome-like chamber with flickering light that made the strange carven images on the stone walls dance weirdly. They were like nothing Edeko had seen before – deeply incised shapes, long-limbed, rangy men and women with the heads of antelopes or bison or hawks, arms wide and legs kicking in a wild procession around the entire chamber. Their great round eyes were all fixed on the central feature of the room, a huge stone cairn that rose ten feet into the air. The tall man had been engaged in removing, piece by piece, the rocks of this cairn, tossing them into the far shadowy corners of the room.
“Came here to steal our birds,” the short man was saying.
“Scoundrel and a thief, like all the Hill folks,” said Barzi, shaking his head. “Why did you bring him in here?”
“Well, I figure you and I could use a break, and this fine fella looks to have a strong back. Plus, you know, might be traps an’ such.” He turned and gestured with the crossbow. “How about it, kid? Wanna help out two down-on-their-luck treasure hunters, or should I just kill you right here and now?” Edeko turned and looked at the men, hard-bitten and cruel mercenaries. He had no illusions about his fate, but he shrugged his compliance.
“What are you digging for?” he asked.
“Among the many sins of the Heathenish races,” said Barzi, intoning the words like a sermon, “is their stubborn and blasphemous belief that gold and the treasures of the Earth enrich the honored dead in the afterlife. In truth, gold, silver, gems, and monies of all kind must be freely circulated here, among the living, so that wealth and prosperity may flourish.”
“See, there’s a theology I can get behind,” laughed the shorter man.
“There’s no gold here,” said Edeko, shaking his head.
“Lies and perfidy! You would protect the graves of your dead kings, which is admirable, but the gold must be brought to light!”
“We don’t have kings,” said Edeko, “and we didn’t build these Mounds. They were here long before my people were. We stay away from them; they’re haunted.”
“Your kings, other peoples’ kings,” said the tall man, waving his hand dismissively. “It’s all the same. It falls as always to us, civilized people, to correct your childish mistakes, sometimes with sword strokes, and sometimes with spade and pick and the sweat of our brow,” said Barzi.
“Well, your sweat now,” said the short man. “Hop to, kid, or else!”
The two men lounged by the doorway and watched him work. He started at the top of the cairn and slowly reduced its height, stone by stone, grunting and sweating as he tossed the heavy rocks aside. The animal-headed figures along the wall seemed to watch him too, the deep wells of their eyes flashing an eldritch warning that the two outlanders were unable or unwilling to heed. And as he worked, all the nameless terrors of the fireside stories came back to haunt him – the dead that walked, the screaming skull, the devils that rose up out of the mounds to replace your shadow and whisper madness in your ears. He didn’t know what waited at the base of this carefully constructed cairn, but he knew it wouldn’t be gold.
His limbs ached and his eyes were red with stone dust when he finally uncovered what it was the cairn had been heaped over. He stepped back, nearly tripping over one of the last few stones, and the two mercenaries hurried forward.
“What is it?” asked the short one, glancing down then up in rapid succession, the crossbow still cocked and aimed at Edeko’s stomach.
“Some kind of stone slab,” said Barzi, running his hand over the pale rock. It was round, and as big across as a man, and was sunk right into the earth. It had a carved figure on it as well, though this one was very different from the silent watching figures along the wall. It had an insect like body, heavily armored and covered in spikes and nodules, the overlapping plates of its carapace encasing it like an armored knight. But its head was that of a woman, eyes wide and staring and the mouth twisted into a hideous grin. The carving of the insect thing writhed across the stone, and in each of its clawed feet it held various objects – a sheaf of wild rice, an egg, the moon disc, an oak branch loaded with acorns, all the holy symbols of fecundity so familiar to Edeko. How many times had he watched the shamans scrawl the same symbols in their own blood on the stretched hide of a mountain goat as a marriage gift? To see them here, gripped by the horrible, leering monster on the face of the stone, made him shudder, and with that disgust came a name that rose in his memory like a dead thing floating to the surface of a black bog.
“Teotzlitchi Inach,” he stammered, the name sticking in his suddenly dry throat. The two mercenaries looked at him, uncomprehending. “Earth Mother,” he said, translating the name into Pnimphalian.
“There is only the One Mother, savage,” spat Barzi with sudden vehemence. “And she dwells not on Earth, but in the Sky above.”
“Save it for the temple, boys,” said the short man, his eyes glittering in the lantern light. “This looks much more promising!”
“Tis true,” nodded the tall man, “heathens often hide their treasures beneath some sign or sigil of fearsome countenance believing, in their simple-minded naiveté, that such images are enough to frighten away all comers.”
“Looks heavy,” asked the short man. “How do we open it?” He kicked hard against the stone, and it rang out hollowly.
“Pry bar,” said the tall man, handing one of the long iron poles to Edeko. “Drive it into the edge, savage, and lift.” Edeko felt the weight of the heavy bar, surreptitiously gauging the distance between him and the crossbow.
“And no funny business,” added the short man with a wave of the weapon.
Shaking his head at the staggering greed of the two outlanders, he lifted the pry bar and drove its chisel edge into the narrow gap between earth and stone. Again and again he pounded it into the ground until, finally, it seemed to gouge deeply enough to have found purchase against the rocky circle. He hauled, straining, but the stone would not budge.
“Put your back into it!” shouted Barzi, his eyes wide with hunger.
“Or else,” added the shorter man, the steel tip of the crossbow red in the lamplight. Edeko struggled, wrenching the bar back and forth, trying to sink it deeper when, suddenly, the whole stone circle jumped and rattled. The sudden absence of resistance sent Edeko tumbling back.
“He’s stronger than he looks!” laughed the short man.
“Get up, damn you,” growled Barzi. “Back at it!”
But there was no need; again, the stone lid shook, as if it were being struck from the other side, from beneath the earth. The two mercenaries stared dumbly at it while Edeko scrambled back. Then, with a final shattering blow, the circle of rock split and was tossed aside as the thing, long denied its freedom, erupted out of the pit and into the chamber.
Edeko knew immediately what it was. An Earth Mother, one of the horrors of the ancient world that still haunted his Tribe’s folklore. But even his grimmest nightmare could never have prepared him for its reality, nor did the crude carving on its seal do it justice.
Its body was dull brown in color, knobby and covered by spiked plates that ground against one another as it moved. Its six jointed limbs were huge and powerful, with foot-long digging claws that could rend rock as easily as soft loam. These it wriggled furiously until, finally finding purchase against the earth floor, it heaved its entire body up and out of the hole, exposing a long, fleshy, pulsating abdomen studded with odd, rounded nodules running its entire length.
But worse than all was the travesty of a head that goggled at them from beneath the broad armored back – it was vaguely human-like, though a yard across, and beneath the mad tangle of black hair were a pair of enormous bulging insect eyes, a thousand lenses sparkling with hate. Horribly, the thing had a mouth full of human teeth and a fat pink tongue that lolled out to lick its lips, but emerging from the corners of the thing’s stretched maw were two huge clashing mandibles, the jaws of an enormous beetle wedded to the mouth of human being. And from its abominable maw there burbled a constant stream of soft titters and cooing gurgles, a burbling murmur of meaningless sounds, like one would use in speaking to an infant.
The crossbow twanged pathetically, and the bolt bounced harmlessly off the Earth Mother’s armor. Grinning madly, the thing reached out with its powerful front limbs and grabbed the short man, dragging him forward. His screamed were muffled as the thing stuffed his head into its terrible mouth and bit down, crushing his skull like a grape. It released him, and his headless body slumped to the ground.
Barzi drew his sword, and the ring of steel made the monster swing its awful head in his direction. It wriggled towards the tall mercenary, his sword crashing down uselessly against its invulnerable body. It lifted itself ponderously high over the man, and then dropped down onto him, crushing him beneath its enormous bulk. Then, still babbling happily, the thing backed up, exposing a red, pulverized smear where once there had been a man.
It turned towards Edeko.
He had not been idle. Seeing the uselessness of steel, he fell back on humanity’s oldest and surest weapon against the dark. Planting his feet wide, he hurled first one, then the second, oil lamp directly into the hideous grinning face of the monster, the clay shattering on impact, splashing its whole head and the front of its body with burning oil.
The muttering and cooing rose in pitch as the Earth Mother thrashed in agony, its limbs flailing. It rose high in the air, twisting and screaming, and its huge claws raked the walls, ripping stone and earth out in enormous pieces. Edeko dove to the ground to avoid its death throws. The flames burned hot and bright, and finally, with a shuddering shriek, the thing crashed to the ground, smoldering and dead.
Coughing, Edeko rose to his feet. He felt weak and dizzy, and the terrible smell of the thing’s burning flesh made his nauseous. He leaned against the doorway and looked over the dead Earth Mother.
And then he learned why they are called “Earth Mothers,” and the knowledge of it made him shout in equal parts horror and disgust.
With its head still smoking, the soft, knobby abdomen at the rear of the thing’s body began to twitch and shiver. At first, he thought it was some sort of nervous action, a death tremor perhaps, but then he saw one of the strange nodules detach itself and land heavily against the floor. It rocked in place for a moment and then unfurled itself, revealing a foot-long miniaturized version of the now dead Earth Mother. Then another dropped. And another. Soon the Earth Mother’s whole abdomen was writhing as dozens of small monsters dropped from their dead parent’s body.
They were her children.
His scream of revulsion made them all turn to face him, and then with terrible speed they surged towards him, a wriggling carpet of chirping monsters. He ran down the tunnel and burst out into the night air. His axe shone in the moonlight, and he ran towards it. Armed, he turned just in time to see the writhing horde of babies spill out of the Mound and into the wider world, their tiny eyes glittering with the same cruel mirth as their mother. He hurled the spear, transfixing one to the ground. They ran towards him, chittering, and he swung left and right, bursting their still soft bodies with his bronze axe.
But there were too many of them. He stumbled backwards. They swarmed around him and charged in from either side, clashing their jaws together hungrily. He saw one darting in below a poorly timed stroke of his axe, watched as it ran, slavering, towards his exposed calf.
And then, in a blinding flash of feathers and beak, the fat, grub-like monster was gone, sliding down the hungry gullet of a terror bird. They cawed happily at him, straining at their leather restraints, eager to get at the treats he had brought them.
He dove towards the stake, his axe flashing as it cut the leather thongs. The three birds charged forward, crushing baby Earth Mothers beneath their feet, spearing them with their beaks, swallowing them screaming and alive. In short order the three huge terror birds had devoured every one of them.
Edeko lay on the ground, panting. The three birds scratched in the dirt, checking to make sure they hadn’t missed any, then, contented and full, they began preening, cleaning their beaks and chest feathers of the pale white ichor that the things had spurted as they died.
They waited for him to stop laughing, watching him with bright, clear eyes as he finally picked himself up and retrieved his spear. The large black terror bird happily let him climb onto its back, and the other two eagerly followed him as he started riding east into the dawn. After all, they hadn’t eaten that well since they’d hatched.