We’re really excited to bring you the an excerpt from John R. Fultz’s newest novel, The Testament of Tall Eagle. Without any further ado, I hope you enjoy Chapter 4: On the Blood Trail. It’s an excellent little stand-alone piece we know you’ll enjoy.
A young warrior’s vision-quest unveils an alien city full of magic and mystery. As a tribal rift threatens to destroy Tall Eagle’s people, night-crawling devils stalk and devour them, so he seeks the wisdom of the high-flying Myktu. These fantastic beings offer him hope, a chance for rebirth and prosperity, as two separate realities converge. Yet first Tall Eagle must find White Fawn – the girl he was born to love – and steal her back from the camp of his savage enemies. His best friend has become his deadliest rival, and now he must outwit an invading army of conquerors to lead his people into the Land Beyond the Sun.
The Testament of Tall Eagle is the epic saga of The People, as told in the words of their greatest hero.
The Testament of Tall Eagle
Chapter 4: On the Blood Trail
On our third week in the new Winter Village, Bear Killer came down from a highland hunt and called together a group of men. All who were in the village at that time gathered about him and my cousin. Two Elks and I had just returned with a fresh deer carcass, and we were drawn to my uncle’s powerful voice.
“Men of the People!” said Bear Killer. “Warriors of my heart! The Bear Spirit has sent me a powerful vision. With my son Rides the Wind I hunted the highland bear this day. I sought to kill another of these mighty beasts and take his strength into my limbs to make vengeance on our enemies. Look now, all of you, on what I found when I walked the trail of the great bear!”
He lifted a sack of buffalo hide and poured its contents clattering onto the ground. Men drew in their breaths and made sacred symbols above their heads. Before the feet of Bear Killer lay a bear’s entire skeleton, white bones picked clean by some unknown predator. He picked up the great bear skull and raised it high.
“The bear was already dead and his flesh worn away before I even raised musket or spear!” He placed the bear skull onto his head like a white hood. His eyes looked out from between the yellowed fangs. “The Bear Spirit tells me that the time has come for us to make war on our ancient enemies! The Urkis will fall like these brittle bones beneath the roar of our guns and the edges of our axes! We will take scalps and avenge our brothers who died on the plains! Now is the time, while our teepes are stocked with good meat, and the mountains still free of snow. Now is the time to walk the warpath! Who will follow me?”
This was the moment my cousin and I had been awaiting. We were the first to step forward, shouting our war cries into the air. Laughs at Death came forward as well, hoisting his war axe with its gleaming metal head. Sharp Tongue’s shoulder wound had mostly healed, and he stepped forward to join our howling. Then came Little Hawk, Black Feather, Wolf Eyes, and Storm Caller. Broken Knife and Red Hawk were the last to step forward, but their voices were loud and strong. They saw the wisdom of Bear Killer’s magic. By stepping forward, we had made Bear Killer our war chief. We would walk the Blood Trail this night.
“Let the word go out,” said Bear Killer. “Go and work your magics, call your omens, sacrifice to your guardian spirits. Tonight comes the war ceremony. I go to light the big fire.”
I climbed alone to the promontory in the glow of early evening and burned a sacred herb. I sang my song to the Eagle Spirit and offered a drop of my blood to the flames. In the ruddy light of sunset, I saw a great bird sail across the horizon and dip into the forest that filled a distant valley. I knew it was an eagle swooping to take its last prey of the day. So would we prey upon the Urkis in the coming battle. Filled with the exultation of the Eagle Spirit’s blessing, I climbed down into the valley and joined the war ceremony.
All the hard work of the past weeks was forgotten as the village gathered about the sacred fire. Bear Killer stood proudly in his bear-skull bonnet, which now trailed many feathers, charms, and beads of copper and glass. Warriors stomped the earth to show the power of their feet and legs, they tossed chants into the leaping flames to announce their strength of spirit, and they leapt into the air, returning to the earth with mock blows upon their imagined enemy. I joined my war brothers and we howled at Mother Moon, stirring ourselves into a frenzy. So many years I had watched the warriors prepare themselves for the Blood Trail, but now I was a part of it.
About the circle of dancing, shrieking warriors stood every woman of the camp, yowling and singing to honor their men. I knew White Fawn was there somewhere, adding her beautiful voice to the big noise of the females, and I knew my mother and sister were there too. My father watched the ceremony from the door of his lodge. He was too old for the warpath, or so he confided in me. It was not my place to talk him into it. Each man of the People must follow his own heart. This has always been our way in war and all other things.
Of all the men who had pledged to follow Bear Killer, only Black Feather changed his mind. His magic had showed a bad omen, so we respected his decision to withdraw. Runs Fast, Young Bear, Gray Wolf, Big Rain, and Snake Catcher were all hunting when Bear Killer made his call, but they joined the war band as soon as they returned. That brought our number to fifteen…a good number to stalk the Blood Trail.
We painted our faces death-black, with two red lines on forehead and chin representing the spilled blood of our enemies. We consecrated our shields, arrows, bows, axes, and spears while the women urged us on with the high song of their screaming. In the cool wind of midnight, we left the Winter Village and followed Bear Killer into the mountains, moving quiet as snakes through mounds of fallen leaves. The glow of the village fires faded as we marched toward the mountainous country of the Urkis.
The Land of the Urkis was many days away, so we slept at dawn beneath the wild oaks, rose at midday and traveled well into the night. The violent colors of fall were spread across the mountain vales. We drank from a bubbling stream carrying leaves toward the lowlands. We camped near a waterfall and hunted small game as hunger came to us. We followed winding ravines thick with ivy and moss, climbed flinty ridges, and rested in high meadows on beds of yellow blossoms. It was much like a hunt, but there was less talking, for each man held the seriousness of war in his heart. Rides the Wind and I did not speak much, but I knew he was thinking of Night Wind, left to the care of his mother, just as I thought of White Fawn. Then I forced myself to think only of the Urkis and all the ancestors they had killed or enslaved.
On the third day we came upon the skeleton of an elk. It lay on a hillside and not a stitch of sinew or muscle was left on its pristine bones. Bear Killer called this another good omen, and we marched ever westward. As we came to the borderland of our enemies, we grew ever more quiet and made no fires. The nights were cold, but we endured with the fire of war coursing in our veins.
On the fifth day we found the skeleton of a man lying at the bottom of a broad ravine. It lay in a tumbled clutter, and just like the skeletons of bear and elk, it had not a shred of flesh left upon it. Sharp Tongue found the axe of an Urki lying nearby, while Snake Catcher found a broken shield.
“You see?” whispered Bear Killer to his warriors. “What better omen could we ask for? The bones of our enemy lie at our feet like the bear and the elk before them. Our victory is certain…”
Sharp Tongue looked carefully at the axe he had pulled from the gravel. “This axe is newly made,” he said. “It has no signs of weather on it. It has lain here no more than three days, I am sure of it.”
“So?” asked Rides the Wind. “It means nothing.”
“It means this Urki cannot have died before then,” said Sharp Tongue. “Yet here his bones lie naked. What beast is it that strips a corpse of its flesh so quickly?”
The war band fell into silence. No man had an answer to Sharp Tongue’s question.
“It is a sign from the Bear Spirit,” said Laughs at Death, giving a low chuckle. “Who are we to question the ways of the spirits? Let us move forward.”
“Yes,” said Bear Killer. “We have seen the signs. We are close now. Come!”
That night we saw the smokes of an Urki village, and we crept to the top of a ridge overlooking the settlement. It looked much like our own Winter Village: a collection of teepees large and small gathered about the banks of a winding river. Mother Moon’s glowing face turned the river to silver. The smokes from the Urki lodges bore a sickly smell.
“That is the smell of evil,” said Bear Killer. “The stink of those who would destroy us.”
He sent Little Hawk and Runs Fast ahead as scouts. We lay quiet beneath the flickering stars until they returned with news.
“The village is awake,” said Little Hawk. “Their medicine man leads them in some kind of ceremony. Their men’s faces are painted for war.”
“Perhaps they are ready to walk the warpath themselves,” said Runs Fast.
“That is good,” said Bear Killer. “They will not expect a raid this night.”
“How many sentinels?” asked Sharp Tongue.
“They stand in a ring about the village…these Urkis are wary,” said Runs Fast. “I count three on the eastern end where we must pass.”
Bear Killer explained his war plan to us until each man knew his part.
We crept close to the edge of the encampment, following the line of the river where a row of trees gave us cover. We stalked and crawled until we saw the three sentinels standing before the first line of smoking lodges, their painted faces staring out into the night, searching for enemies like us. At Bear Killer’s signal Rides the Wind, Storm Caller, and I nocked our bows and took aim at the sentinels. We were accounted the best bowmen of the group. Our eyes were young and sharp. It was our job to slay these men. We would get only a single shot each, and they must be killing shots.
From behind a scraggly bush I pointed a shaft at the heart of the nearest sentinel. Some distance to my left and right, Rides the Wind and Storm Caller did the same. A hissed signal from Bear Killer met my ears, and I let the arrow fly. It entered the Urki’s left eye, the arrowhead of Aldoneq metal sinking deep into his skull. He fell and died with hardly a sound. I looked and saw the other shafts had struck true as well.
“Go!” whispered Wolf Eyes at my side. “Take his scalp!”
The war band crept forward on our bellies, and we three who had drawn first blood approached our kills. In the village firelight danced across the walls of the teepees. Voices chanted obscure pleas to the spirits. But the spirits were not with the Urkis this night… they were with the People.
I drew my knife and pulled back the dead Urki’s head, digging my fingers into his hair. First I removed the bloody arrow and tucked it into my quiver. Then I slid my knife’s edge across the forehead in a curving arc, and it took all the strength of my young arm to separate the scalp from the skull beneath. I had not know it was so difficult to strip a man’s head bare. Sharp Tongue had made it look so easy with the fallen Eenu. While I did this, my cousin took the scalp of the man he had killed.
Now we crouched at the limit of the firelight, fifteen warriors with ready axes, knives, and guns. Most of us stalked bravely into the camp while only a few lingered behind with ready bows. A man of the Urkis spread the flap of a lodge and walked out to join the ceremony. He saw us moving among the shadows. His eyes grew big and his mouth opened to scream, but Gray Wolf’s hurled axe caught him in the forehead. He fell gurgling and twitching as his scalp was claimed. The rest of us crept deeper into the village, searching between the teepees and pulling back their flaps to find whatever trace of the enemy lay within. I pulled back the flap of a teepee and saw a young Urki girl. She lay on her side among thin furs and cradled an infant.
I froze at the threshold. She looked so much like White Fawn for an instant. I could not move. Perhaps she thought me one of her own people at first. The bloody scalp dripped where I had tied it to the foot of my bow. Suddenly I did not know what to do. I was too young to carry her away… she looked heavy enough to slow me down and fetch me an arrow in the back. I had no wish to kill her, although she was my enemy. I did not want to snatch the infant…and my heart was not hardened enough to kill it.
My instant of weakness was shattered by a squeal from a nearby teepee. A woman’s scream, followed by a man’s yelping filled the night air. “Enemy! Enemy!” I understood that word clearly enough. Although the language of the Urkis was not that of the People, it shared enough common terms.
I closed the flap and ran toward the center of the village. I thought my indecision was cowardice, and I longed to prove myself by spilling the blood of more Urki men. Two warriors rushed at me with spear and axe. My nocked arrow flew quicker than the spear, piercing the Urki’s heart before he cast his weapon. The second man charged me with his axe and an ear-splitting war cry. All about me rang similar howls as my war brothers engaged the Urkis.
I raised my shield and the Urki’s axe bit into its hard surface. I dropped the bow and pulled my knife from its sheathe. It was still wet with the sentinel’s blood as I drove it into the Urki’s belly. He bellowed and brought his axe down again, but I leaped backward, leaving my knife in his gut. He writhed on the ground as I took up the war spear of his dead brother and impaled him through the chest. Somewhere the musket of Wolf Eyes thundered, followed by that of Red Hawk. I heard no return fire; the Urkis had no guns on this day.
A cluster of Urkis rushed toward me, their eyes blazing red like wolves in the darkness. The village was fully alert now. I would have no chance to take my two foes’ scalps. I took the Urki spear instead, and picked up my fallen bow with the fresh scalp attached.
Snake Catcher rushed by me, flinging blood from his arm. In his fist he held a bloody scalp. “Run, Tall Eagle, run!”
I heard Bear Killer’s shouted signal now. Time to flee with our prizes. Leaving my knife behind, I ran back the way we had come. All about me, my brother warriors sprinted towards the shelter of the woods. The arrows of our enemy sang past our ears and necks. I had no chance to pause and look behind me, but I saw Rides the Wind running a short distance away. An arrow struck Laughs at Death in the back and he fell. I channeled all the might of my body into my legs, running from the shrieking pack of Urkis who wanted my blood. Behind me the Urkis fell upon Laughs at Death with axes and boots, beating him mercilessly. I heard him laughing between the meaty sounds of his punishment. They would not slay him now. No, they would carry his beaten and bleeding body back to their fire for long torture. I knew he would be laughing as they slowly tore the life from his body.
Now the thick trees of the slope enclosed us. An arrow took Big Rain in the arm. To my amazement, he ignored the shaft and did not slow his pace. He raced up the hill, heedless of his wound. He would tear it from his flesh when we had found safety, but not before that moment.
We ran like deer through the woods and over the ridge, and our pursuers grew less and less. Some decided to return and join the torture of their captive. Others feared for the safety of their wives and daughters, and so went back to check on them. Yet a few younger and more hearty Urkis continued the chase, following us deep into the mountains. We gathered into an ambush and sent arrows at them by the light of the moon. There were only six men following us by that time. When one took an arrow in the belly, the rest of them lost heart and ran back to their village. Sharp Tongue leapt down to capture the wounded Urki, binding his limbs with buffalo sinew and dragging him behind us until we found a clearing in which to rest. We remained vigilant, but we sat at ease upon the dewy ground and lay our backs against mossy rocks.
Bear Killer was bleeding from a spear wound near his heart, but he would let no man look at his wound or tend him. “It is nothing,” he said. “I will be fine. The Bear Spirit is with me.”
“Laughs at Death will die with honor,” said Little Hawk. “He was a mighty warrior.”
Every man agreed, nodding.
“How shall we torture this one?” asked Sharp Tongue. He kicked the fallen Urki.
The bound man bled onto the grass and cursed us in his own language. “Snakes…snakes!” This was the only word I understood.
Wolf Eyes came toward him with his bare knife and carved a piece of the man’s skin from shoulder to shoulder, stripping it from his back like pulling off a great scalp. The Urki screamed his agony to the stars.
“You die like a squealing she-coyote! Not like a man!” spat Wolf Eyes. I knew he was thinking of his stolen son and murdered mother, victims of the Eenu. This Urki would pay for the deeds of the rat-tails.
I did not wish to watch the torture. Rides the Wind grabbed my shoulder when I turned away. “Be strong,” he said. “You are a man now.”
It did not last much longer. In the end, Sharp Tongue claimed the scalp and removed the Urki’s eyes. Wolf Eyes tied the mangled body to a tree so the Urkis would find it in the days to come. Then Bear Killer pulled himself to his feet and urged us to keep moving. We must not stop until we left the hunting ground of our enemies.
We walked until midday, then rested by a stream to count our kills and our prizes. I had taken a single scalp and the spear of a warrior. The two men I killed by hand were also counted as coup with Snake Catcher as my witness. Rides the Wind took two scalps and a single coup. Sharp Tongue counted five coup, three scalps. Between our whole band, we took nine Urki scalps and counted many coup. Two men were wounded, Bear Killer and Big Rain, and one man lost. Overall it was a successful raid, especially for my cousin and I. The two youngest warriors were boys no more. Now we could build our own lodges, take wives, and have families.
We entered the borderlands again that night, where we stopped to fully rest for the first time since the raid. The Urki camp lay far behind us, and we felt secure enough to build a fire. We shared a roasted hare and took our sleep. Rides the Wind clapped my shoulder and smiled at me. I could not help but return his grin.
We were glad to be alive… glad to be men of the People at last. We lay down on a pallet of leaves, warmed by the glow of Mother Moon, and slept like stones.
Continued in The Testament of Tall Eagle
– June 2015 –