Sun Born

Sneak Peek: Sun Born by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear

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Sun Born by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal GearA thousand years ago, the mighty Cahokian civilization dominated the North American continent from its capital near modern St. Louis. From Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico, settlers and priests carried word of the power of their gods. People who wouldn’t bow to that power were conquered or slaughtered. At the heart of the empire stood a vast city, teeming with tens of thousands. Power rested in one being, Morning Star, a god resurrected in the body of a living man.

With Sun Born, W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear take readers back to this amazing place with a tale of murder, magic . . . and the battle for a people’s very soul. An old enemy has returned to Cahokia, bringing with him emissaries from a civilization that rivals Cahokia. It becomes apparent to the gods-possessed Lady Night Shadow Star, human sister of Morning Star, that they could be conquered by this technologically advanced culture.

The fact that the living god, Morning Star, is unwilling–or unable–to play a role in the outcome is a conundrum with horrific possibilities.

Sun Born will become available October 18th. Please enjoy this excerpt.

One

A thousand fires lit the darkness; the great city of Cahokia pulsed and throbbed as if it were a bizarre and disparate organism—a sort of mindless being. Its avenues and arteries overflowed with celebrating people. So many people: from the exalted members of the ruling Four Winds Clan; the subordinate Earth clans with their chiefs and matrons; the myriads of priests, shamans, and Traders; and, of course, the tens of thousands of immigrants. Known as “dirt farmers,” they’d picked up entire towns and flocked to the burgeoning city.

Despite the numbers and vast diversity of Cahokia’s population, the burly man known as Seven Skull Shield considered himself to have few—if any—equals.

He glanced at the Anilco Trader who walked beside him. A case in point.

Like all river Traders, the man, whose name translated as “Water Bird,” was all shoulders and arms, and little else—though he dressed in finery. Of medium stature, he wore his hair up, had a thin straight nose, and fleshy lips. He spoke Trade pidgin and supplemented his words with sign language.

The Anilco—a Nation several weeks south of Cahokia by fast canoe—had established themselves in the eastern floodplain at the confluence of the great Western River where it flowed into the Father Water. Their swamp-surrounded town occupied a strategic position, controlling access to Western River and its upstream Nations, including the Caddo.

Two days back, at the canoe landing outside River Mounds City, Water Bird had Traded with Seven Skull Shield for his services as a guide. In return for two fabric bags of salt, Seven Skull Shield had committed to show Water Bird the highlights of Cahokia’s Green Corn celebration, or Busk as it was locally known.

As they strolled north along the dark, crowd-packed margins of Cahokia’s Great Plaza, Water Bird kept gasping his amazement. Within twenty paces he could hear a dozen languages, most of them incomprehensible. Every manner of dress, hairstyle, body adornment, and peculiar facial tattoos from a hundred different peoples were on display. Like a whirlpool, Cahokia had sucked in pilgrims from a half-year’s journey in all directions.

“Just how many people live in Cahokia?” the Anilco wondered. Hundreds of fires burned within sight of the plaza, and hundreds more covered the uplands in the distance. The orange glare was so bright only the largest stars could be seen in the night sky.

“Tens of tens of thousands,” Seven Skull Shield replied. “In the last two days, you’ve only seen a piece of the city stretching from the canoe landing and River Mounds City, to the Avenue of the Sun, and the Great Plaza. There’s just as much to the south, north, and east. It would take you weeks to see it all.”

“I’d heard … but never believed.” Wonder gleamed in Water Bird’s eyes.

Seven Skull Shield pointed to the high palace atop the magnificent mound on the plaza’s northern side. “That’s where the living god dwells.”

“Right there?” Awe filled his voice.

“Absolutely.”

Water Bird fingered his receding chin, eyes speculative. “Then … it is true? The storied hero from the Beginning Times, the Morning Star, has been resurrected into a living human body?” The Anilco shook his head. “It is so hard to believe. Some say that your Morning Star is not a living god but just a man playing a role.”

Seven Skull Shield shrugged. “I’ve been up there in that palace. Sat face-to-face with him. If that’s Chunkey Boy, the young man whose body was used as host for the resurrected god’s souls, he’s pretty convincing.”

“So … what do you believe?”

Seven Skull Shield rubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t believe in much, good Trader, but I’ve seen some pretty amazing things happen around the Morning Star. I might scoff at the priests and some of their sleights, but I’ve been in the center of Power. And let me tell you, by Piasa’s swinging balls, it’s scary.”

When it came to guile, craftiness, and the ability to lure adventurous young women into his bed—all the most pragmatic of skills—Seven Skull Shield considered himself a man without peer.

Power, however, was a whole different critter.

Hard experience had taught him that a wise man didn’t underestimate the living god. The resurrected hero was just as cunning and capable as Seven Skull Shield, though in a different sphere. After all, how hard did a living god have to work when it came to filling his bed with women? He just had to point, saying, “I want that one.”

On the other hand, the Morning Star had never had to steal so much as a loaf of bread, avoid a jealous husband, or hold his own in a knock-down, eye-gouging brawl down at the canoe landing.

Those kinds of skills weren’t just granted to everyone.

“Why are you scowling at the Morning Star’s high palace? Is it that you yourself really don’t believe he’s a reincarnated god?”

“No. Just wondering who’s the craftier. Him or me?” After all, Seven Skull Shield was still alive—clanless and unprotected by privilege as he was—which proved he was the consummate survivor in this great city.

Which, of course, meant the world.

“Come, Water Bird. I’ll show you where the high and mighty live. Let you stare up the great staircase to the Council Terrace Gate. Point out Lady Night Shadow Star’s palace. She’s something, she is. A real beauty—and possessed by your Piasa, too. Scoff all you like, but I’ve seen her under the beast’s spell.”

“Then she is a dangerous woman of great and unusual Power.” Water Bird gave him a disbelieving glance.

“Indeed, she is,” Seven Skull Shield replied as his stomach growled. “You hungry? Don’t move a step or you’ll get lost in this crowd and I’ll never find you. Be right back.”

He slipped sideways in the press and prowled the crowd. For some reason he couldn’t shake a sudden foreboding. The feeling that something was about to go wrong clung to his souls like a morning-spun cobweb.

This was the final night of the Busk ceremony. Tonight’s feast was the joyous celebration after four days of fasting, ritual prayer, cleansing and purging, and sexual abstention—the biggest, grandest festival in the Cahokian world. It celebrated the resurrection of Morning Star. This evening’s festival began when the first ears of this year’s green corn were consumed by the Morning Star.

Seven Skull Shield should have been as jovial as the ebbing and flowing crowd. And, pus and blood, Water Bird was certainly paying him enough. Instead, his thoughts, unaccountably, were plagued with notions of murder and mayhem.

Seven Skull Shield located his target: a Deer Clan Trader who stood behind a raised table on which roasted turkey legs were displayed. The stall beside him was manned by an old Panther Clan woman selling pigments and dyes, the colors filling assorted clay bowls on her blanket.

“How’s business?” Seven Skull Shield asked the old woman.

“Slow,” she told him as the crowd jostled past.

“You’ve got a good location.” He pointed at the white-clay-capped mound behind her where the frame of a huge new building loomed in the firelit night. “That’s the Four Winds Tonka’tzi’s new palace going up.”

“I thought it would give me a little more prestige,” she told him. “I’m only asking what’s reasonable. Look at these yellow clay dyes. Have you ever seen such bright colors?”

Which was when Seven Skull Shield’s opportunity came. Three little boys, giggling and pushing each other, ran behind the turkey vendor’s booth, squealing as they tore past.

“Hey! You boys!” Seven Skull Shield roared and pointed. “Bring that turkey leg back you little scoundrels!”

The boys stopped, blinking in surprise.

“How’d they do that?” Seven Skull Shield asked the Deer Clan man in wonder. “Grab that leg right out from under you, and you never saw?”

The turkey vendor swung around to stare at the boys, who, suddenly terrified—and accused of something they hadn’t done—whirled and ran for their lives. The Deer Clan turkey vendor let out a bellow of rage and pelted off after them.

“Vile little thieves,” Seven Skull Shield told the Panther Clan woman, and paused only long enough to snare two turkey legs before stepping into the crowd.

Stealing was simple. Killing other human beings, by contrast, was such a complicated thing. He considered it as he slipped through the throngs packing the plaza margins. In one set of circumstances men and women lauded each other, singing, feasting, and calling upon Spirit Power to aid their mutual quest to dispatch other human beings, often in the most hideous manner; clubbing, slicing, bashing, burning, suffocating and crushing among them. Doing so was not only justified, but encouraged in the pursuit of territory, loot, or as a remedy for some real or perceived insult.

At other times, the “good of society” required that a person sneak up behind a relative who had transgressed, stolen, or committed an outrage, and bash his or her unsuspecting brains out with a heavy club. Families were responsible for the actions of their own. Such elimination of a miscreant for the betterment and peace of mind for all was considered a distasteful but necessary duty. Again, it took place with the full sanction of the community.

Everyone understood that hanging a war captive or political prisoner in a wooden square and burning, cutting, and beating him for days until he finally succumbed was not only just, it was a measure of the victim’s courage—which provided his miserable afterlife soul with a path to redemption. More, it served as a religious observance, one that helped balance the red Power of chaos and blood with the white Power’s order and tranquility.

But change the circumstances, even a little, and what the community once gleefully sanctioned became taboo and evil. Should a kinsman goad his relative into a sudden rage and a lethal blow be delivered? Such a killing crossed the line into murder. It was all a matter of rules.

Picky little subtle rules.

Seven Skull Shield had always had trouble with rules.

Mostly because they were made by people who expected him to obey them.

Water Bird, true to his instructions, stood exactly where Seven Skull Shield had left him. The man was watching the Dancers in the stickball field and gratefully took his turkey leg.

As Seven Skull Shield sank his teeth into the juicy flesh, he wondered why these perplexing notions of murder and mayhem were popping into his head on this of all nights.

“Have you ever seen anything like this, Water Bird? They’re celebrating this most important of rituals—the renewal and rebirth of the entire world.”

“It is more than I can believe,” the Anilco replied with a full mouth.

Seven Skull Shield pointed with his turkey. “The sacred fire up there in the Morning Star’s temple was extinguished and relit by the Morning Star himself. That was the moment of rebirth.”

Water Bird shook his head, eyes still on the lines of Dancers out in the plaza. “For the last three days I thought you were all head-struck crazy. I can’t believe you strip your houses and temples down to the walls and replace perfectly good furnishings.”

“They call it ritual cleansing.” Yesterday in River Mounds City, he’d watched Water Bird’s awed expression as last year’s matting was committed to monstrous bonfires and new matting laid across the packed-dirt floors.

“Well, Water Bird, you can go back and tell your Anilco that you survived days of deprivation. That the purging, prayers, sacrifices, and acts of atonement didn’t kill you. You’ve seen miscreants pardoned for their deeds. Exiles, whose petitions were granted, will be allowed to return home to the embrace of families and friends. Happy times all around. Just like the Morning Star himself, the world is risen from death. Everything made whole. Even the new corn crop.”

“It’s so much grander than our First Fire celebrations held at the solstice and equinox,” Water Bird lamented.

The feasting going on around them included people gorging on new corn and roasting entire carcasses of deer, turkeys, ducks, geese, and swans. Basket-loads of fish, turtles, cattail roots, coontie-root bread, and nuts and berries of every kind were everywhere.

Yet here Seven Skull Shield was, chewing on a succulent turkey leg and unable to think of anything but murder as he led Water Bird through the smoke-filled night.

Crowds of brightly dressed people thronged around them, laughing, chattering happily, and clapping their hands in the warm summer air. An eerie illumination filled the night sky as tens of thousands of fires reflected orange over the sprawling city.

The sound of flutes and drums rose and fell, coupled with the rhythmic thumping of feet in the great plaza. Thousands Danced in honor of Corn Maiden, Old-Woman-Who-Never-Dies’ daughter, from whose vagina had come the gift of corn back in the Beginning Times.

Lines of men, their arms linked, shuffled and stomped as they faced similar lines of women. Bodies illuminated by leaping fires, the Dancers moved in a sinuous and beautiful unison, swaying and singing on grass trampled by four days of frantic stickball games.

The plaza margins, where Seven Skull Shield led his Anilco charge, were packed elbow-to-elbow with vendors. Food, pottery, textiles, carvings, and trinkets were laid out on blankets or offered from portable stands. Throngs of passersby looked on or stopped long enough to dicker for a necklace or feathered cloak.

Seven Skull Shield barely grabbed Water Bird out of the way as a flock of screaming children tore through the throng. A sudden break in the crowd gave him an unrestricted view of Morning’s Star mound.

“There, Water Bird. Look. This is the best view you can get.”

The massive mound dominated the northern side of the Great Plaza like some hulking monster. On the heights, the Morning Star’s soaring temple rose behind its palisade and seemed to glow in the fluttering orange gleam.

“The palace is huge!”

“As befits a living god. You see that terrace that juts out on the south? That’s the Council Terrace where the tonka’tzi receives embassies from every Nation, including the Anilco. And there, at the top of the stairs, do you see those people standing in the Council Terrace Gate? You wanted to see the Morning Star? There he is.”

Even over the distance the colorful and feathered costumes stood out, dominated by the Morning Star’s magnificent red feather cape.

“The people around him? Those are the high-born rulers of the Four Winds Clan and their retinues. Come on, let’s get closer and I’ll point them out.”

Like all things pertaining to the Morning Star, the spectacle was magnificently orchestrated. The living god of Cahokia and his servants were suitably displayed for the masses to see and marvel over.

The thunderstruck Water Bird appeared to be getting his value in Trade, his eyes wide, mouth hanging open to expose half-chewed turkey.

While the southern half of the Great Plaza hosted the thousands dancing in honor of Corn Maiden and her gift of the sacred plant, the northern half was dedicated to the noble born. Unlike the inclusive Corn Maiden Dance where anyone could participate, in the plaza below the great mound only elite individuals Danced in honor of the Morning Star.

Each of the Four Winds Clan “Houses” was represented, of course, but so, too, were the Earth Clans and the representatives of foreign Nations like the Pacaha, Casqui, Yuchi, Muskogee, Albaamaha, and Caddo.

With the exception of the long strips of manicured clay dedicated to the chunkey courts, the whole grassy area north of the World Tree pole was filled with costumed Dancers and their musicians.

To Seven Skull Shield, it appeared a chaos and cacophony as feathered and painted Dancers wheeled and leaped, each seeking to outdo his competition.

All that for the living god who stood above with his arms raised in blessing.

The Morning Star cut an imposing figure. His polished-copper headdress glinted in the gaudy light; exotic feathers rose from shoulder splays. His remarkable feathered cloak gave his spread arms the appearance of mighty crimson wings. A snowy white apron—a representation of a scalp lock—hung before his hips, its tip dangling between his knees.

“He looks like a Spirit Being from the Beginning Times,” Water Bird marveled.

“You can barely make it out from here, but the living god painted his face white with black forked-eye designs. The forked eye? That’s the sign of the Sky World. His soul was recalled from the sky during the resurrection.”

“And the costumed woman to his left?”

“That’s the tonka’tzi, which means the “Great Sky” in Cahokian. She’s the ruler of the Four Winds Clan. The Four Winds normally trace descent through the males, but upon her brother Red Warrior’s death last spring, Matron Wind ascended to the tonka’tzi’s position.”

“I heard that generated some animosity among the other Houses in the Four Winds Clan.”

Seven Skull Shield grinned. “The only people the Four Winds Clan love to scrap with more them themselves is anybody else. See to the tonka’tzi’s left? That’s my good friend Clan Keeper Blue Heron. She’s the one who sniffs out the plots against the Morning Star and cracks heads. Her spies have ears in every Four Winds House, every Earth Clan chief’s palace, and just about everywhere else.”

Water Bird gave him a sidelong glance. “Your good friend, huh? I heard you’re one of her spies.”

Seven Skull Shield grimaced. “Spy is an unkind term.”

To change the subject he said, “The people you see clustered behind the Morning Star are the lords and matrons of the other Houses that rule the city. My excellent friend, War Duck, he’s High Chief at River Mounds City. The fat guy? He’s Green Chunkey of Horned Serpent House down south. You can see the woman? That’s Columella, from Evening Star House. I was the man who pulled her children out of her burning temple last spring.”

He waved. “The rest are high-ranking chiefs from the subordinate Earth Clans who’ve been lucky enough to wrangle an invitation for this most august of nights.”

“Look at how they’re dressed!” Water Bird said through a worshipful smile.

“And there, to the right? That’s Lady Night Shadow Star, eldest daughter of the late tonka’tzi Red Warrior, sister to Chunkey Boy whose body the Morning Star now inhabits. You ask me, she’s the second most Powerful person in Cahokia after the living god.”

“And her souls are really possessed by Piasa?”

“No question about it. She often sends her souls to the Underworld.”

Water Bird tilted his head skeptically. “I’m not sure I believe it. Anyone possessed by the Underwater Panther’s Power would go mad. Humans aren’t meant to contain such Power.”

“You may be right, my friend.” Seven Skull Shield’s lips thinned. “She’s one scary woman when Piasa’s whispering in her souls. Eerie, dark, reeking of the watery smells and ways of the Underworld. And maybe more than a bit insane.”

“She’s beautiful!”

“Ah, yes. There’s that, too. Part of the lady’s charm. The moment she steps into a room, any normal man is going to start dreaming about ways to fit his body against hers. And just about the time he’s imagining himself slipping his hard shaft into her, Night Shadow Star’s eyes go vacant, her voice changes into Piasa’s, and horrifying revelations pass those full lips. Revelations that terrify a man’s souls and shrivel his rod into a nubbin.”

He tossed his gnawed turkey bone to a slinking cur—a bear-looking thing with odd blue-and-brown eyes. The dog studied him thoughtfully, then snapped up the treat and vanished into the crowd.

They rounded the plaza onto the Avenue of the Sun—the renowned east-west thoroughfare that passed below the Morning Star’s mound and transected Cahokia.

“You see that man kneeling behind Night Shadow Star? The one dressed in full armor? That’s Fire Cat.”

“No! Really? The famous war chief of Red Wing Town who defeated three Cahokian armies? That’s him? Why is he still alive?”

“Because after Cahokia finally conquered Red Wing Town last spring, they took him prisoner. Fire Cat was supposed to die in agony on a square, but Night Shadow Star, on Piasa’s orders, cut him down and bound him to her. For such supposed enemies, they have a curious friendship.”

Seven Skull Shield grinned as he turned his attention back to Clan Keeper Blue Heron. The old woman had a pinched look on her face; bits of shell and mica sewn to her skirt winked in the light. Her throat sported a wealth of shell-bead necklaces, no doubt hiding the scar that Seven Skull Shield knew so well. His life, and hers, had changed the night an assassin came within a whisker of severing her throat.

“And who are these Dancers?” Water Bird asked.

Seven Skull Shield turned his attention to the spectacle on the plaza. In the forefront were Dancers representing the Four Winds Clan Houses. Behind them Dancers from the Earth Clans whirled and leaped. And finally came the representatives from the other Nations.

“They Dance in honor of the Morning Star and seek his recognition. In the end, Morning Star will pick one for special honor based on the Dancer’s skill and costume.”

Among them Seven Skull Shield could pick out the Caddo, dressed in traditional Dance garb, and to the east, a whole contingent representing different Muskogee Nations. They Danced and whirled among a flurry of feathers and shell bells. The Pacaha—costumed to represent Piasa—held a position in the center rear.

But dominating the demonstration was the Quigualtam Dancer, a young man, brother to the Great Sun, or lord of the Natchez confederacy in the south. Dressed in a snake costume covered with reflective mica disks to represent scales, he whirled and pirouetted. Light from the bonfires glittered like a thousand eyes on his costume. Deer antlers were fixed to the headdress, and quartz-crystal eyes seemed to gleam with an inner light. Eagle wings sprouted from the serpent’s back, spread as if to bear the creature into the sky. Behind the man’s pattering feet, a rattlesnake’s tail with gourd rattles whipped back forth with remarkable similarity to a living snake’s. The young man looked out through the beast’s mouth, as if he were a soul devoured by the winged snake.

“It’s Horned Serpent!” Water Bird cried, pointing with delight.

Oral tradition was filled with stories of those who’d been devoured by Horned Serpent. The great winged snake spent its winters in the Underworld but flew into the southern night sky during the summer moons to guard the pathway of the dead.

“There you are,” a familiar voice said in Cahokian. “Been looking for you.”

Seven Skull Shield turned, crying, “Crazy Frog? You’re a bit far afield tonight. What brings you all the way from River Mounds City?”

Water Bird, unable to understand their language, smiled and nodded politely before turning his attention back to the Dancers.

If there were ever a nondescript Cahokian, it was Crazy Frog. Nothing about the man, including his smudged and unrecognizable tattoos, stood out. Average of height and body build, he wore a formless brown breechcloth; a simple hemp-fiber cloak hung from his shoulders. His hair was wound into a round bun and pinned with wooden skewers.

One would never guess he was one of the wealthiest and most influential men in Cahokia. Crazy Frog liked it that way. The less the Four Winds Clan knew about his activities, the better, though he had recently come to Clan Keeper Blue Heron’s attention. She, however, was smart enough to turn a blind eye to his more nefarious activities.

“I’m here on a hunch.” Crazy Frog glanced up at where Morning Star and his minions watched the Dancers performing in his honor. “You still tight with her?”

“The Clan Keeper? We, uh, get along.”

Crazy Frog kept his expression bland. “Her reputation is that she’s never had good taste in men.”

“We don’t have that sort of relations. It’s a … a sort of…”

“Working relationship?”

“Good choice of words.” Seven Skull Shield jammed his thumbs into his belt. “Which brings me back to my original question: What brings you here, on this, of all nights? You should be watching the celebrations in River Mounds City and fingering your winnings after four days of betting on chunkey matches.”

“Which is where I’d rather be,” Crazy Frog admitted. “I think someone important is going to be murdered tonight.”

Seven Skull Shield glanced sidelong at the clueless Water Bird and used a thumbnail to pick at a bit of turkey stuck in his teeth. “Who?” he mumbled past his thumb. “A Four Winds lord?”

“That, I don’t know. One of my people told me that he overheard two Traders who overhead something at the canoe landing. Something big and secret. Knowing that you and the Keeper like to know these things, I sent a man to learn more. When he got there, one of the Traders was dead, the other packing to leave and scared out of his wits. Said it wasn’t worth his life, or his future on the river, to say anything else. My man tried to pry more out of him, but all the Trader would say was that he depended on his Trade in the south.”

“The south?”

“Make what you will out of that. Those were the trader’s last words before he pushed his canoe out and headed downriver himself.”

“That’s not much.”

Crazy Frog gave him a sidelong glance. “Call it a gut feeling. The last time people were being murdered, it was Four Winds Clan nobles. The city almost came apart.” He indicated Clan Keeper Blue Heron where she stood next to the Morning Star. “If that sort of thing is about to break loose again, I want her to know that I took it seriously. Gave you everything I had. She rewards her friends well.”

“You think someone’s moving on the Four Winds Clan again? Maybe one of the other Houses? Some of them are resentful of Tonka’tzi Wind and how leadership is concentrated.”

“Maybe.” Crazy Frog made a face. “I don’t know. ‘Trade in the south’ takes in a lot of territory from the Caddo to the Muskogee and everyone in between.” He slapped Seven Skull Shield on the shoulder. “So, there it is. You’re warned. Now I’m having my litter carry me back to River Mounds City and my winnings. I’ll give my wife your love … since Otter will never give you any of hers back.”

“Oh, you never know. Eventually Mother Otter’s curiosity might get the better of her. I think every woman wonders what it would be like to have a real man bed her.”

Crazy Frog’s smile thinned in pity. “Well, I guess if you ever become a ‘real man,’ I’ll have to worry, won’t I?”

Crazy Frog chuckled, turned on his heel, and vanished into the crowd.

Seven Skull Shield shot a worried look at the Council Terrace landing above. The living god seemed oblivious, his gaze on the Dancers, but as if she sensed him, Blue Heron turned her eyes his way.

The last time a murderer had stalked important people in Cahokia, the city had barely survived. Only through patience and sense had calm prevailed in the days since the Morning Star’s one-time brother Walking Smoke had reportedly met his doom.

As Seven Skull Shield watched, the Morning Star raised his arms high, the feathered cloak spreading like a giant bird’s scarlet wings.

A sudden silence descended on the Dancers. The musicians stilled their instruments. The crowd around Seven Skull Shield went quiet.

A young warrior, his face painted, hips girdled in a red sash, emerged from the gate and bowed before the Morning Star. Seven Skull Shield could see the Morning Star speaking, though the sound didn’t carry.

The young warrior nodded, rose, and received the intricately feathered cloak as the Morning Star removed it from his shoulders.

Holding the cloak, the warrior almost skipped down the grand staircase, passed the guards who stood in ranks at the bottom, and trotted out among the Dancers.

As every eye followed, the warrior stopped before the Quigualtam Dancer in his Horned Serpent costume. The warrior dropped to one knee, and shouted, “It is the will of the Morning Star that this man, Nine Strikes, Little Sun of the Natchez Confederacy, brother to the Great Sun, or high chief, and nephew to the Natchez matron known as the White Woman, doing honor to both Horned Serpent and his people, receive this gift of appreciation in the name of the people of Cahokia, the Morning Star, and the Powers of the Sky World!”

A thunderous cry went up as the Quigualtam Dancer extended his arms from inside the costume and took the stunning feathered cloak. He dropped to his knees as he lifted his prize toward the Morning Star.

“Enough of Dancers and celebration,” Seven Skull Shield muttered to himself. All evening, his thoughts had been consumed with murder. And now Crazy Frog, of all people, comes to warn him?

He was turning to leave when he saw the man. Young, his face sported distinctive tattoos reminiscent of the Natchez. The fellow was well-muscled, maybe twenty-five summers, with a leather pack over his left shoulder. His hair was done in a unique style: split in the middle into braids that had been curled around separate buns as if to mimic horn buds. His only clothing consisted of a breechcloth that hung from his waist.

The problem was that if he were from the Natchez confederacy, he should have looked delighted. A representative of his people had just won the grandest of the Morning Star’s gifts and recognition. Instead, a cold rage seemed to brew behind the young man’s eyes, and his fist was so tight where it clutched the pack that his knuckles had gone white.

“Hey. Water Bird. You’re from the south. This man over here. He’s Natchez, right?”

“Sun Born,” Water Bird agreed. “Only those in the Great Sun’s lineage may wear their hair in that fashion.”

As Water Bird spoke, the Natchez ground his teeth and turned to a man on his right. Older, maybe fifty summers, and wearing a fine hemp war shirt, the older man listened carefully and nodded. In the light of the fires, Seven Skull Shield could just make out the man’s tattoos, smudged as they were with charcoal.

Four Winds Clan.

“Water Bird? Have you seen everything I promised?”

“Yes, and then some. I am most delighted.”

“Good, ’cause I’ve got to go. Something’s come up.”

And then the crowd began to jostle, the celebration over. By the time Seven Skull Shield shifted to catch another look, the Natchez and the furtive Four Winds man were gone.

Copyright © 2016 by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear

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