The watcher stood on the hilltop. He hadn’t moved for more than two hours. Then he grunted and jerked a grimy thumb to the east. Everyone scattered for the trees, dragging the goats and ponies in their wake. A beautiful woman, with a red cord bound about her hair, pulled the watcher aside.
‘Can not say. Shiny. Armour maybe.’
‘Right. We hide. Pass the word.’
Deep beyond the tree line, the family hid. Waiting. It was more than two hours before the group of Imperial soldiers finished passing, dragging a cartload of prisoners in the middle of the column. The woman spat into the dirt; those in the cart were Blancos too. Not the concern of her people.
The watcher moved back to the hilltop: stealthily. This time, though, he didn’t stand up, slithering back into cover as swiftly as a snake.
‘Others come. Maybe of our people. But not family.’
‘We stay hidden.’
Again, the family waited in silence. This time those who passed were of much more danger to a group of women, children and old men. It was a raiding party from a family with whom their own men had blood feud. This group also had prisoners. Women, and young children, collared like dogs and forced to run alongside the sturdy short-legged ponies of their captors. The woman wondered how many would be alive at day’s end. ‘Wasteful’ she thought to herself.
As the last pony passed, she recognised the woman being dragged along almost faster than she could run. It was the sister of their own family chief, the family healer and midwife. And this posed a problem.
While she awaited the watcher’s report, the woman bit a thumb, lost in thought. The leathery old man reported nothing to be seen or heard. She sighed. It was beyond time for the men to return, but if they weren’t coming she had a dilemma. Was a rescue possible with the few fighters she had at her disposal? She gnawed her thumb some more before reaching a decision.
She called the family to her and told them who was being held captive.
‘Can we not wait and ransom her?’
‘Not at the rate they are running their prisoners. They must really be afraid of pursuit if they are so willing to kill slaves. No. We need to decide if a rescue is possible.’
The oldest woman looked at her in love and pity. ‘That depends on two things daughter. Are you willing to kill, and will you summon Eagle Eyes?’
‘Killing is easy. The other? Not so. But if it is necessary.’
‘If you would save the princess.’
Five hours later and the sun was just dropping behind the horizon. Temzacocl the Hunter called a halt for the night.
‘How many dead?’
‘Only four. These captives are fit.Though they will not stay so if we run them many more days.’
‘I know. But tomorrow we reach the river, then we will be safe enough to slow down.’
The raiding party made camp swiftly and set guards around its perimeter. There was the sound of a heavy slap and one of the female captives fell to the floor clutching her belly. Temzacocl stood up and his men made way for him.
‘What happens here?’
The young warrior spat on the writhing woman. ‘She thinks to refuse my seed.’
Temzacocl beat him to the ground with a judicious blow from his war club.
‘Did I not say to leave the women alone?’
The young hothead sprang to his feet and Temzacocl dropped him again.
‘Be still. Or shall I kill you?’
The young man bared his teeth and Temzacocl raised his war club before bringing it down on the miscreant’s skull. He died instantly.
‘See to the woman. It is enough that we are running them almost to death.’
The eyes in the tree watched emotionlessly. And carried on watching as the raiding party settled down for the night. As the last man rolled himself in his cloak, an owl hooted in the woods.
A woman in a clearing half a mile away threw off the feathered cloak she wore and her naked body gleamed in the moonlight. She took a small sharp knife and nicked herself inside the elbow. The blood that flowed looked as black as the night sky, and she drew a complex symbol on her breast with the dark fluid. As she threw back her head there came the sound of beating wings and a flaw in the light. A naked warrior with corded muscles and cold, cold eyes stood before the woman with a sardonic smile on his scared features.
‘Who calls Eagle Eyes?’
‘Amoxtli daughter of Chicahua.’
The warrior smiled, and laid a hand on her naked breast.
‘What boon do you seek daughter of Chicahua?’
‘A raiding party taking slaves has captured the sister of our chief. We would have them not take her.’
‘Why is one female so important?’
‘She is our medicine woman and midwife.’
The ghostly warrior laid his cold hands on her warm flesh once again, and she felt the sheer chill of him him burning her skin.
‘And what will you give me for my aid?’
‘The warmth of my body.’
‘Do you so swear?’
‘Then it is done.’
Temzacocl and his warriors breathed their last breaths and Amoxtli’s family moved in to care for the abused slaves.
In the morning, the oldest of the women went to where Amoxtli had stood to summon Eagle Eyes. She collected a feather cloak and a silver knife, but she left the desiccated corpse with the red cord bound about its hair under the linden tree where Amoxtli had given the warmth of her body to save her husband’s sister…