Headhunters of Argaron
by Slawomir Rapala
Part 1 and part 2|
appeared in issue 192.
|Part 3 of 4|
The fire was dying, but N’Cton did not move to fuel it further. Shadows gathered inside the hut and the two men sat in darkness. Aezubah’s eyes burnt like two coals. The chief’s whites reflected the dying flames.
“Sorcerers and healers could not help me. They told me it’s someone I wronged and that I must make amends.” Aezubah turned his face toward his ebony friend with a bitter laugh. “Someone I wronged!” he repeated. “Haven’t I wronged many?
“Perhaps they’re right.”
“No,” the white warrior shook his head. “They’re too hateful, too hungry. There’s too much blind fury behind them, too much. It’s more than revenge, my friend, trust me. I’ve exacted many and I’ve been the subject of many myself, enough to know that there’s more behind these... ghosts,” Aezubah spat the last word into the darkness.
“Why here, then?”
“Their whispers are stronger, I can hear the words. They speak Tha-kian.”
“Go to Tha-ka, you’ve killed many there.”
“I would, but for one thing,” Aezubah looked at N’Cton. “I remembered your stories from the time when we served together in Bandikoy. Your stories of dead men who cannot cross the threshold, held back by their mortal remains. Your stories of severed and shrunken heads that bind the dead to this realm.”
“Head-shrinkers?” N’Cton’s eyes widened.
“Yes, they shrink the heads of those they kill. But if the process is flawed, you said, the spirits escape and roam the earth.”
“Who is it, then?”
“Two dozen Tha-kians a year ago,” Aezubah replied grimly. “They followed me from Nekrya and I led them here. They found their deaths on the Black Steppes. Now they’ve come back for me.”
“No,” Aezubah shook his head again. “More than that. Hatred.”
The two men sat in silence and the growing darkness. N’Cton weighed his friend’s words in his mind.
“I must know which tribe it was,” the white man interrupted his thoughts.
“How can I know? It happened a year ago, you said.”
The response came too quickly and Aezubah knew N’Cton was lying.
“Two dozen Tha-kian heads were hung in a village,” he scoffed. “Someone must have bragged. I know the ways of black men. It must have been known.”
The Murrundee chief swallowed the rest of makena, as if gathering courage. “The Shaori,” he replied and then immediately sighed, as if having thrown a heavy burden off his broad chest.
Aezubah studied him for a moment. “Why not tell me?”
“The Shaori are dangerous,” N’Cton said. He seemed more relaxed now. Reaching to his belt he brought forth a pipe and a pinch of tobacco. Pleasant smoke soon filled the hut. “They’re head-shrinkers,” he added after a while.
“How dangerous?” Aezubah’s voice came from the darkness.
“They kill men for their heads, isn’t that enough?”
“I kill men for gold. Is there a difference?”
“Gold only buys you wine and women. Heads give you power.”
“The strength of those killed?”
“If the spirits are bound.”
“And if not?”
“They’re free to roam.”
“Can they do harm?”
N’Cton drew on the pipe and held the sweet smoke in his lungs for a moment before releasing it and watching it rise to the roof in the dark. “From what you tell me, yes.”
Aezubah sighed and rested his forehead against his fist. His free hand slid over the scabbard shielding his weapon, as if looking for assurance. “Can all this be possible?” he hesitated.
“Why not?” N’Cton continued to smoke. “This is not Bandikoy, the heart of civilization, where men have the luxury of challenging gods. Gods don’t disappear here because philosophers proclaim them to be dead. This is the land of the savage. Gods and demons are very much real in the Black Steppes. Powerful, too.”
“What do I do?”
“Whatever you do, you must do it quickly. The spirits are strong here. They won’t come as nightmares and shadows groping in the dark. Here, close to their earthly remains, they will be powerful.”
“I must destroy the heads then,” Aezubah raised his eyes.
“I can’t help you with that,” N’Cton shook his head
“You can leave after the deed. I must stay here. The Shaori will want blood. The heads of Tha-kians are valuable, a source of magic and strength.”
“Will the Shaori sell the heads, maybe?”
“I don’t know,” N’Cton shook his head again. “I doubt it. The heads of two dozen Tha-kians are too valuable in the Black Steppes. A great source of strength.”
“Can we ask them?”
The Murrundee chief smoked his pipe in silence. He studied his friend’s weary face. “The Shaori are a dangerous breed,” he said after some time. “Three days’ travel, far away from any other tribe. You are a white man. They will kill you and shrink your head.”
“Will you help me then?”
“You are my friend, Aezubah. I will help you.”
The white man nodded his head and sighed quietly.
N’Cton smiled. “I remember you merry,” he said and reached to touch his arm. “Eat, drink, and smoke. Chase the ghosts away. You are with friends tonight.”
Aezubah gave a small smile and put the sword away. He reached for the bowl of bitter makena and raised it to his lips. A pleasant wave of warmth soon coursed through his veins. N’Cton passed him the pipe and the white man drew on it with pleasure.
* * *
The sun slowly faded, but the moon and the stars failed to appear from behind the horizon. The sky was drawn over with heavy clouds. A night darker than most claimed the steppes and covered the earth with a thick blanket. The scorched plains blended with the black heavens and not even the keenest eyes could tonight locate the thin line separating the dwellings of men from the home of the gods.
It was on a night like this that spirits appeared and dead men rose from the battlefields where they lay, bound by a lock of hair or a prized possession left behind. A night like this seldom came, but when it did, most ebony warriors, as valiant and fearless as they were in combat and war, listened to the ancient wisdom of the elders and did not venture outside of their huts. Fires were put out so as not to attract the dead, tribal drums were silent, song and dance was abandoned for the evening, and conversation, if carried at all, was short and hushed. It was the Night of the Dead and they alone would rule the Black Steppes until morning mists seeped into the darkness and dispersed the fleeing images
At the edge of the Shaori village, a shadow stirred. If one could penetrate the darkness, he would see the figure of a slim man crouched by the wall of a small hut, the last in a long line of dwellings that adorned the beaten path leading through the centre of the settlement.
He was naked except for a loincloth and carried no weapons save for a long hunting knife which he had secured to his calf with a string. If a need arose, he could reach it and cut through the binding rope with its razor-sharp blade with one swift motion. The only other object he kept with him was a small pouch which he carried around his neck. He reached for it from time to time as he crept forward, making sure it was still there.
He stole along the walls of the simple dwellings, feeling his way in the darkness with his hands. A keen observer would note that his frame hardly resembled the bodies of black men. They were much more muscular, broad-chested and long-legged, while this night shadow was tall and slim.
Further, a skilled eye would easily see that the colour of this man’s skin was far removed from the polished ebony that characterized those who dwelled on the Black Steppes. His was white, pale almost, and the only way for him to remain invisible in this blackest of all nights was to rub ash all over his body, which he had done prior to venturing into the village of the dangerous head-shrinkers.
Having reached the center of the Shaori settlement, Aezubah, for he was the shadow, halted and pressed his body against the earth, becoming indistinguishable from it. Only the whites of his eyes could betray him now. He closed them, therefore, as they were useless in the governing darkness and he attempted to recreate the layout of the settlement as he had remembered it.
Only two days have passed since he had come here with N’Cton exchanging tobacco with the distrustful head-shrinkers and bartering for the shrunken heads of two dozen Tha-kian soldiers. Despite the great wealth they had offered in exchange, goods that were greatly sought after in the steppes, the Shaori sent them away with nothing. They eyed him with suspicion the entire time and Aezubah had a distinct feeling that was it not for N’Cton, a respected chief of the powerful Murrundee tribe, perhaps he would not have carried his head out of the village intact.
Several times the Shaori chief, a broad-chested black warrior two heads taller than he, assured him that the heads of Northerners were too great a source of power to abandon. His voice was friendly, but the grim faces of the savage head-shrinkers and the hidden threat in the statement was enough for Aezubah to stop pressing.
N’Cton later told him he was sure they would die, especially when he saw women and children ushered away from the settlement, a clear sign of trouble brewing. But the Shaori made no hostile signs and did nothing except firmly reject their request. They formed a solid wall behind their great chief, each warrior wielding a spear and a long machete, each man painted in honour of ancient spirits and each presenting a particularly savage sight.
Having realized that the proud tribe would never part with the heads, Aezubah and N’Cton instead asked to be shown to the hut where they were hung. This the Shaori obliged to with gleeful eagerness, obviously taking great pride in their trophies.
They led the two visitors to the chief’s hut, central in the settlement, and studied their features with great curiosity when the two strangers gazed upon the hundreds of fist-sized heads hanging from the ceiling, tied to its beams by their long grass hair. The opening of the hut was left uncovered for other Shaori to watch the visitors’ reaction and a slight breeze passed through from time to time.
The heads swayed as if rocked by an invisible hand. Aezubah and N’Cton, though both used to the unpleasantries of war, shuddered at the grisly sight. The heads were very well preserved and incredibly well prepared, their features formed by the skilled hands of terrible artists to resemble the victims when they were still alive. Such skill the artists possessed that the heads looked alive. Their eyes were sewn together and they appeared sleeping, rocked by the steady hand of the wind. Most of them were taken from black foes, but Aezubah glimpsed a few pale faces as well and recognized in them the chiselled features of grim Argaronian soldiers.
Feeling the stares of the Shaori on his back, he shrugged and looked questioningly at the chief. The black man led them to the corner of the dwelling. The heads swayed as they passed, brushing against their naked shoulders. N’Cton shuddered at the touch of the their dry skin, but Aezubah showed no more emotion, remembering all the time that they were being watched and their reaction judged by the head-shrinkers.
Here, on a separate wooden beam, there hung the heads of Tha-kian soldiers butchered by the Shaori on the Black Steppes more than a year ago. Aezubah gazed into their sewn eyes, mesmerized by the skill of the artist who had formed their features so well that, even after such a long time, the white man could recognize his individual pursuers.
Copyright © 2006 by Slawomir Rapala