Headhunters of Argaron
by Slawomir Rapala
part 1 of 4
The men whose heads adorn this hut,
Their spirits bound, their eyes sewn shut,
Are forever slaves to you and me,
Forever ours and never free.
Their strength will course throughout our veins,
And never will they break these chains...
— a Shaori chant
The shaman’s hut, a small wooden structure raised on stilts, was located at the edge of the Shaori village, some distance away from other dwellings. Thin strands of smoke escaped through a hole in the thatched roof and rose to the dark sky. No cloud was seen over the Black Steppes since the end of the rain season and the night was clear and beautiful.
Thousands of glittering stars and amidst them all the silver face of the full moon, they all looked down upon the scattered huts of the village. They were to be the only witnesses to the macabre artwork performed by the powerful shaman on this night. It was a night of dark magic and powers that only an experienced wielder of the dark arts could overcome.
As soon as the sun set, the villagers locked themselves in their huts. The rhythmic beating of the tribal drum filled them with an ancient fear that they could not explain. Their shaman was a powerful sorcerer and a gifted artist, and if he had chosen this night to enslave the spirit of a dead enemy, they would not interfere. The huts were quiet and shrouded in a darkness that seldom visited this vibrant and lively village.
The shaman, in the meantime, continued his crazed dance to the hypnotic beat of the drum resting on the knees of his student, who crouched in the corner of the hut, barely visible in the semi-darkness. The black youth beat against the tightly stretched skin with great strength, lost in a trance and praying to his primitive gods. His eyes were rolled back; only their whites remained visible. His long skinny arms hit the drum furiously, beating out a magical rhythm meant to disorient the spirit visiting the hut on this night.
The aged sorcerer closed his eyes and flexed his slim body to the rhythms of the drum, his wrinkled face twisted by a savage grin. The small hut was filled with the intense smell of incense burning in the hearth. A large pot hung over the fire, its contents boiling and spilling over the edges and into in the flames with an evil hiss. Now and again one could see the fleeting features of a black man appear in the bubbling water. But the image was blurred and soon disappeared, overcome by the boiling water and drawn to the bottom of the pot again. The crazed beating of the tribal drum continued.
It was long into the night before the shaman decided that the spirit of the dead man was pleased with the offerings and the sacrifice. He then motioned to his acolyte to stop the drum beat and finally rested before the pot boiling over the fire. His face, painted white as a sign of war, was weary and streaked with sweat.
The deafening silence was now interrupted only by his heavy breath. The shaman’s slim chest, covered with ancient and mystical tattoos that protected their wearer against evil spirits, heaved up and down. Shutting his eyes, he reached with his long hands into the pot and he snatched a handful of hair floating on the surface of the boiling water.
The acolyte studied his master’s scarred forearms in divine silence. The Shaori shaman drew his hand back. The remaining bits of flesh and bone which the sorcerer could not scrape off with a knife have been removed by the hot water, and all that he held in his hand now was the surface skin drawn from the face of a man. The skin was hideously stretched, and black holes gaped back at the shaman from the places where the dead man’s eyes, mouth and nostrils had been.
The shaman grinned back at the deformed features of his enemy. The magic was powerful. He examined the terrible trophy with quiet approval. Everything was going well.
The magic would continue until the morning. The emptied head would be filled repeatedly with hot sand that was to be boiled by the shaman’s acolyte. After several such treatments, it would further shrink, perhaps to the size of a grown man’s fist. The horrible artist, a sorcerer like no other, would then fill the skin with straw and form the face of the dead man so that it resembled his original features, when he still breathed. Few could accomplish this deed as it was a terrible form of art that required not only a skilled hand, but cold blood as well.
Once the features were formed, the shaman would then sew the dead man’s lips and eyes together so as to prevent his spirit from escaping his earthly remains. This was the most delicate act in the process for if the proper spells were not used, the spirit of the man, though pleased for now, would eventually seek revenge on his murderers. If carefully sealed, however, he would have no means of escaping into the world and would be forever bound to his mortal remains. The shrunken head would be adorned with grass hair and bird feathers, then dried and finally hung in the chief’s hut for all the Shaori to draw power from and for all the visitors to admire.
Dark magic ruled the Shaori village on this night, more so than on any other. Ancient and tribal fears claimed the hearts of the savage head-hunters. Spirits ruled the dark sky and it was only through the power of the shaman and his keen acolyte that the dwellings were safeguarded against the vengeful plots of men whose heads were severed.
Revenge was an ever-present threat in the savage Realm of the Black Steppes, where the dead claimed equal rights to the living, where the gods and demons were flesh and blood, where civilization did not yet reach with its greedy arms, and where black men ruled the open prairies. The head-hunters of Argaron took all the necessary precautions because the men they killed and whose strength they stole along with their heads, would stop at nothing to win it back. Tribal drums often echoed throughout the steppes surrounding the Shaori village...
* * *
Aezubah stopped and glanced over his shoulder. The black line marking the horizon appeared unmoved before his eyes. He sighed with relief and then spat with anger. Though he had eluded the Tha-kian party one more time, he knew them to be nearby. Riding atop their muscular steeds, they moved just beyond the horizon, extending their crescent-shaped line to surround him out in the open steppes.
The night was clear and unless a miracle happened, the slave-traders would close the circle by morning and trap him. Then it would be over. They were too many for him to defeat, and he was too weary to outrun them one more time. He had eluded them for three days, ever since that fateful day at the border of Nekrya and Tha-ka when he stopped to spend the night in a small town.
Aezubah wiped the sweat off his forehead with anger. Cursed dogs!
He was on his way to Nekrya, where a band of rogues awaited his return and where he was to lead once more the careless life of a thief and cutthroat. Then the slave-traders came and sacked the village where he was spending the night. Though he managed to escape along with a few others, a party was sent after them. The Tha-kians did not want to run the risk of someone alerting Nekryan troops before they had the time to head back with the loot.
Aezubah and others separated as soon as it became clear that they were being pursued and each went his own way. Fate had it, however, that one of the slave-traders spotted him in the light of the fires and having recognized in him the hated Aezubah who roamed their kingdom some time ago freeing slaves and butchering traders, he called for aid. The slave-trader died immediately, pierced by Aezubah’s merciless arrow, but it was too late, because others recognized him as well. Once the refugees separated on the outskirts of the town, the Tha-kians made no mistake and followed Aezubah, abandoning other trophies.
The King of Tha-ka had placed a large bounty on his head for his exploits in the slave-trading Kingdom. The lives he took and the profit he caused the King to lose could not go unpunished. A rogue hero, they called him with a scoff. He freed slaves and secured their way to Nekrya. He routed dozens of caravans and killed many traders. Even among those who pursued him now, some had brothers or cousins who died by his sword. They would not make a mistake now. They would hunt him down, however long it took, and take his head.
He stretched his legs. It had been three days since the pursuit started and his body demanded rest. No longer was he a young man that could race the wind on the open prairies. Middle age crept quietly into his bones and softened his muscles. The fact that the Tha-kians had fresh horses did not help either. They tried routing him at the border several times, but Aezubah disappeared in the great forests of Nekrya. Hidden in the trees, he grit his teeth and watched the brown-skinned slave-traders patiently comb the woods in search of him.
Finally forced to leave his hiding place, he tried heading deeper into the Nekryan Kingdom, but the Tha-kian party skillfully forced him to turn east, towards the kingdom of Tha-ka. Having passed the border on the second day, Aezubah eluded the pursuit one more time by crossing several streams and staying clear of beaten tracks. But the black-haired, half-savage slavers were too skilled and too determined to lose their prey. They tracked him once more and ran him down on their swift steeds, a particularly tough breed.
He turned toward the Kingdom of Argaron then, hoping against all odds that the Tha-kians would stop the pursuit once they reached the Black Steppes, where they were in an even greater danger than he was if they met the ebony warriors who dwelt there. Having for a long time visited the steppes to round up slaves, the brown-skinned Tha-kians were hated and hunted down by the black tribes at every opportunity. Venturing into this region in a group less than two dozen men strong was not something they would usually do.
On that day, however, hatred proved stronger than reason or fear even, and the Tha-kians followed their prey across the border and into the uninviting regions of the Argaron Kingdom. Aezubah’s heart sank on the third day when he spotted the dark figures of his pursuers on the horizon. His hopes of carrying his head intact slowly faded, especially since he grew weary with each step he took.
Day slowly turned to night, the full face of the moon appeared on the clear sky, but he continued on, pushing his weary body to its very limits and swallowing leagues of empty steppes with his powerful legs. It was all in vain, however, he saw it now as he rested on the scorched and broken ground, carefully studying the horizon in search of the slave-traders. He had nowhere to hide in this vast and open world and unless a miracle happened the Tha-kians would rout him by morning.
Something he had not noticed before now caught Aezubah’s eyes and he suddenly stiffened. Quickly he pressed his naked body against the broken ground covered only by scarce clusters of short and dry grass. His hand slid down to the handle of his sword and he twisted the scabbard so that he could reach the weapon with one smooth motion.
His eyes narrowed as he scoured the nearby surroundings in search of the men who left the footprints barely visible in the silver light of the moon and which he had only now spotted. In his mind he cursed his carelessness, reminding himself once more that on the Black Steppes any such inattention could cost him his life.
The faint sets of tracks before him had been left by several or several dozen barefooted men. Having judged them with the experienced eyes of a warrior and a hunter, Aezubah realized that the men, black men as he suspected, could not have gone far. His forehead creased when he realized the danger he was in. They were surely still nearby, tightly pressing their dark-skinned bodies against the black earth, much as he was doing now. He dared not breathe as he studied the surroundings with his trained eyes.
There, finally, he saw them. Their black bodies blended with the scorched earth of the steppes, but they could not camouflage the whites of their eyes. They glittered on the black earth several dozen paces away, like a group of fading stars.
They watched him closely when he slowly rose to his feet, still clutching the onyx-bound hilt of his sword. Aezubah knew that his life now hung on a very thin thread and that each false move could cost him dearly. But he could not remain here, his instinct cautioned him. The Tha-kians were approaching. The fact that the black men have not yet killed him, that they did not even betray their hiding place, assured him that they stalked a larger prey.
Keeping his eyes locked with theirs, Aezubah rose to his feet and then slowly backed away. Nothing stirred. The moon continued to flood the steppes with its hauntingly silver light. A slight breeze blew over his naked body, drying the cold sweat that covered him.
Soon, when he thought he was at a safe distance, Aezubah turned his back to the glittering dots that littered the black earth and walked forward without looking back. He walked faster and faster, then finally broke into a run. Nothing moved behind him. He was still alone in the steppes. Having run for some time, he stopped to catch his breath and rest his legs. Only now did he sigh with relief and wiped the sweat away from his eyes, thinking that he came too close to death on this night. The thought of the black men and their savage ways curdled the blood in his veins. He would rather deal with the Tha-kian slave-traders.
Then a thought occurred to him and he turned back. A strange grin surfaced on his lips as he gazed over the empty steppes. Far, far on the horizon, he thought he saw a dot move, then another and another. The pursuit was closing in. For the first time in three days, Aezubah did not move when he saw the Tha-kians this close. Instead, he stood proud and tall, his tall frame clearly visible against the sky illuminated by thousands of stars.
Copyright © 2006 by Slawomir Rapala