Headhunters of Argaron
by Slawomir Rapala
Part 3 appears|
in this issue.
He leaned in to study the heads, and for a moment he had a fleeing feeling that the men would open their eyes. Then he felt an invisible hand gnawing hatefully at his throat and he backed away quickly, almost stumbling into N’Cton.
When the Shaori chief looked at them questioningly, the Murrundee told him of Aezubah’s suspicions. The Shaori listened carefully, then he led them outside of the hut in silence and, followed by the rest of the tribe, towards the village outskirts. Here he confessed grimly that the artist who prepared the Tha-kian heads did not perform the proper dance when he sewed the lips.
Though the mistake was quickly corrected, the spirits, driven by a hatred that only the dead know, escaped. The Shaori were all surprised that they never visited the village to seek revenge. Now he knew why, he said. They left to follow the white man. And he brought them back, the chief barked, eyeing Aezubah with anger.
They must leave immediately, he said, and his warriors again formed a solid wall behind him. Dozens of spears were raised and the sun reflected off their polished bone tips. The two visitors needed no further incentive and they quickly retraced their steps back to their horses, followed by the grim stares of the savage head-shrinkers and the rhythmic beating of the tribal drum.
Aezubah recalled all this as he lay in the middle of the Shaori settlement, perhaps a dozen paces away from the chief’s hut and as he continued to steal slowly towards it. Nothing stirred in the darkness that claimed the village on this night. No fires were lit, no voices were heard. No sentries were posted.
N’Cton was right, the white man thought and his lips stretched in a wide grin. They spent two days out in the steppes waiting for the Night of the Dead, as the Murrundee called it. It would come, N’Cton assured him after he gazed into the sky for a long time. Aezubah trusted his friend’s instincts and they waited.
When on the second day dusk came, N’Cton bid farewell to his white friend and rode off in the direction of his village, making sure to leave behind visible tracks. The Shaori would come looking for blood, he said, and he wanted them to see he took no part in Aezubah’s doings.
The white man watched his friend disappear behind the horizon as the sun set. Then he stripped off all clothes and weapons, fixed his belongings to the steed’s saddle and let it loose on the prairie, confident that the intelligent creature would not venture far. When the last rays of the sun disappeared, he rubbed ash into his body and blended into the night.
He was now perhaps six paces away from the chief’s hut and already he heard the wind rustle between the heads. Closing his eyes, Aezubah pictured them swaying in the breeze and brushing against one another, their eyes closed and mouths sewn shut. So many men bound to these fist-sized trophies, so many spirits chained. He would free them all tonight, he thought.
The Night of the Dead seldom came, he recalled N’Cton’s words, but when it did, boundaries were blurred between the realm of the living and that of the dead. Spirits left the plateaus where they roamed for eternity and crossed over with ease. Just the same, though, those bound to earth would find it easier to reach the outlying realms. Two dozen slaughtered soldiers traversed the world for a year, chained by the magic of the Shaori shaman, their strength fueled by their hatred for Aezubah, and tonight they would find peace.
The white man was already by the opening to the chief’s hut. He slowly lifted the hides and peered inside the pitch-black dwelling. Nothing stirred. The Shaori hid in their huts, cowering in fear. The shaman was locked in his wooden dwelling raised on stilts, smoking the pipe and waiting for the night to be over. His power meant nothing on the Night of the Dead. Any man who ventured outside was lost, for only the lost claimed the Black Steppes until morning.
Aezubah crept inside and lowered the hides behind him. He crouched in complete darkness and with his hand, he searched for the pouch that hung on his neck. A flint, some dried dung, and a few scrapes of leather soaked in animal fat. He held his breath and peered into the silent darkness.
A stir? A gust passed over his head and the gruesome trophies, invisible to his eyes, rustled again. He felt a shiver running dow n his back when in his mind he saw the tiny heads gathering above him like a swarm of insects. Swaying in the wind the dead men looked down on him with their unseeing eyes, forever sewn and bound by the spells of the Shaori sorcerer.
Aezubah shook his head and took a deep breath to clear his mind and chase the images away and. He struck the flint once and then again, but the spark failed to appear. Another stir over his head, another frantic look thrown over his shoulder, though the darkness was all-encompassing. Nothing. He hesitated before striking again because the silence was so terrible that he thought any sound would be heard for leagues.
But then he pushed his fears aside and struck hard, decisively. A faint light appeared and soon the hungry flames eagerly bit into the oil-soaked bit of leather. He raised the flame and studied the tiny heads looming over him, rocked by the steady breeze. Their cheeks brushed against one another, their long grass hair rustled. They watched him from beneath their half-closed eyes. Hundreds of them, unnaturally small but so well resembling the grim features of the dead warriors.
Aezbuah watched them mesmerized, until the flame burnt his fingers. He dropped it with a quiet oath and the hut was plunged into semi-darkness. He bent down to pick up the still burning piece, when he suddenly came face to face with his nemesis. Appearing out of the shadows before him it rushed forth with a terrible shriek.
He raised his arms instinctively to shield himself from the screaming face, its gaping eye-sockets and rows of sharp teeth, but the image passed through him without harm. Aezubah stumbled back and fell to the ground. Above him the shadows dispersed and a cloud of bluish mist appeared.
His hand frantically searched for the knife as he crept back, unable to tear his eyes away from the image. Within the mist faces appeared, blurry at first as if bound by the cloud like a veil. They slithered beneath, unable to cross over. Mouths opened to scream again, noses pressed against the terrible canvas and it reached down to him.
Another great shriek came and Aezubah cursed again, unable to find his weapon. Beads of cold sweat appeared on his forehead. He scrambled back in frantic fear until his back pressed against the wall of the hut and he had nowhere else to go. The terrible blue canvas now covered the whole ceiling and it looked as if it boiled, so much movement was beneath it, so many faces tried to penetrate through. The howling and the screaming grew. Hundreds of shrunken heads danced beneath the bluish appearance, swayed by the savage gusts of wind that now visited the hut.
Aezubah threw a quick glance at the piece of leather still burning some dozen paces away. He stretched his body forward in an attempt to reach it but fell too short. Scrambling forward, he almost clutched it, but then felt something pull him back with great strength. Twisting his body he glanced back and his eyes locked with a bluish apparition, a face twisted with rage.
Smoke trailed behind its transparent hair as it gnawed hatefully at his leg, its teeth locked over his ankle. Aezubah watched with horror as the head snarled and spat with rage, grunting in an effort to pierce its teeth through his skin. He shook it off instinctively, but it came back quickly.
Another one broke through the terrible canvas that now seemed to fill the whole hut. Howling and screaming they raced towards the white man who turned and desperately reached for the burning piece. Clutching it despite the pain, he sprang to his feet. Blindly he waved his free hand and felt it sink into a substance that was not yet flesh, but quickly turning solid. It pulled his arm hard and he had to jerk it away.
The flames burnt his hand as he ran toward the corner of the hut where he remembered the Tha-kian heads to be hung. More faces appeared. They passed him like large bluish insects, snarling hatefully and snapping their useless teeth. Even in death they hunted him. Hundreds of shrunken heads blocked his path, their sewn mouths stretched into sickening grins. He ran blindly through them, chased by apparitions and their terrible, hungry howls.
Quickly they were gathering strength, dressing themselves in flesh. They screamed his name. He waved his arms desperately when several passed him and cut deep gashes in his naked body. The wild swing tore one of the shrunken heads away from the ceiling and it grinned at him from the palm of his hand. The eyes were sewn shut but something moved beneath them, a spirit trying to break free.
Screaming in pain, Aezubah shoved the burning piece straight into its face. The flames swallowed it hungrily. Cries reached him from beneath the blue canvas. In its faint light he spotted the familiar faces of the Tha-kians, two dozen shrunken heads, of men seemingly sleeping peacefully.
“Curse you, devils!” he screamed and hurled the burning head towards them. It raced forward like a ball of fire, brushing aside other heads and leaving behind a trail of flames that quickly started devouring the macabre trophies. It hit the wall with a thud and at the same time, the images behind Aezubah howled in unison. Their cries were deafening and forced the man to his knees, clutching his ears. Pain, they screamed hatefully as they raced toward the growing wall of flames.
Aezubah scrambled beneath the howling faces toward the hut’s opening, out of the growing inferno. Smoke started filling his lungs and he felt the fire chasing him. He crept forward on all fours, without looking back. Behind him the flames quickly consumed the Tha-kian heads and others along with them.
The howling images raced through the fire, furiously throwing their unfleshed faces against the flames. They faded one by one, as did the blue canvas that stretched over the ceiling. It shrank quickly before the fire. By the time Aezubah reached the hut’s opening and hurled his body out of the inferno behind him, it was all but gone.
The white man crept forward, away from the burning hut, away from the flames. He halted a dozen paces away, breathing hard and glancing up towards the black sky. He bled from the gashes in his sides, his hand was covered in blisters from the fire, and his whole body was soaked in sweat. The ash he had rubbed into his skin had smeared all over his body. Glancing back toward the chief’s hut, he watched it burn and, along with it, the hundreds of the Shaori trophies, the two dozen Tha-kian heads amidst them.
Aezubah’s lips curled into a triumphant smile. He did not move until nothing was left of the hut but a pile of ash. Only then did he rise to his feet. Looking around, he saw dozens of Shaori warriors gathered behind him, weapons in hand. The darkness was slowly disappearing with the coming of the sun and he watched as they emerged out of the fading shadows, their giant chief in the midst of them.
They made no gesture and their features betrayed no emotion, though they had just watched all of their trophies burn. Their strength and source of magic was gone. The heads that had passed into their hands from generation to generation, a source of pride and power were destroyed. A white man stood naked and helpless in the middle of their village.
Aezubah’s legs swayed beneath him from fatigue. His hand reached for the sword instinctively, but no weapon hung on his waist. He sighed. Behind him, a pile of ash was all that remained of the head-shrinkers’ prized possessions. He studied them, but saw nothing behind their blank stares. They held weapons, but the spears and machetes pointed down, and the bows were not drawn.
The white man took a step in the direction of the steppes. The Shaori did not move. Their eyes followed him as he slowly made his way to the outskirts of their village, all the time keeping his eyes on them. But not one of the ebony warriors moved to strike. Only the chief followed him at a distance. When Aezubah passed the last of the huts, he called after him: “White man!”
Aezubah hesitated. Before him, the steppes opened up in all of their glory. Sun was just rising over the horizon and spreading its light over the scorched earth of the savage realm. He halted and turned to face the Shaori. “If you’re not looking to kill me, what do you want?” he asked wearily.
The Shaori chief stopped a few paces away from the white man. “You leave alive, stranger, because we don’t want to stain our weapons,” his voice was grim when he spoke. “Our weapons are pure. Your head will never adorn our huts.”
“What do you want from me?” Aezubah shook his head with impatience.
“Only to tell you never to return. You are not welcome here, white man. You reek of evil. You bring death.”
“The spirits are gone, can’t you see? I sent them back.”
“Yes, the spirits are gone. And our heads, too,” the Shaori nodded. “But you are here. And you are cursed.”
“No such thing,” Aezubah scoffed.
“I sensed it when you first came with the black man, the Murrundee, but I did not believe it then. Now I see it to be true.”
He slowly approached Aezubah until his broad chest almost touched his. “You are cursed,” he repeated. “Men hate you even from beyond the grave. You must leave.”
Aezubah shrugged and pushed the chief away with anger. Turning towards the open steppes, he started north, where he hoped to find his steed and belongings.
The chief’s haunting words reached him once more when he was already some distance away from the village: “You are cursed, white man. You are not welcome here.”
Aezbuah did not turn his head this time. The sun rose before him and climbed the sky, sending pleasant waves of warmth throughout his hurting body. The tall ebony warrior soon disappeared behind the horizon. Only his words remained.
Copyright © 2006 by Slawomir Rapala