Like a few of my other stories, this one clawed and scratched at the inside of my skull, getting in the way of other stories until I acquiesced to let it out. I’ve configured it as a Weird Pulp style for brevity’s sake. There is no graphic sex here. It just wouldn’t fit. Special thanks to Sbrooks for the editing and Crkcppr for Beta reading it for me. Any remaining errors are entirely mine -- probably added after their assistance.
The Song of Farwalker and Deadgirl: The Long Night of the Anasazi.
Just before 1300 CE, the Long Dark Night fell on an Ancient Pueblo culture commonly referred to as the Anasazi - the name the rival Navajo People bestowed on it, sometimes translated as “Ancient Enemy”. The magnificent pueblos of Chaco Canyon and other cliff dwellings were abandoned over time. Some blame a series of droughts, some blame religious upheaval. Some blame war. There is little certainty about what happened, but there is evidence of migration, of violence, of a horrific breakdown in the social fabric, and of cannibalism. In no way do I claim any historical validity for my story, but in my tale, the droughts gives rise to a singularly unpleasant death cult. A symptom of the collapse maybe, more than the cause...
Strides-to-Distant-Lands-and-Sees – Farwalker - stood on the rim of canyon at sunrise.
His long journey to the Dwelling Place had been in vain.
He knew from the smell. The sweet odor of burnt flesh.
He closed his eyes for a second, sending out a silent prayer.
The long handled axe seemed to shift in his hand and he breathed slowly out, feeling the weight of the massive ground stone head pulling. Feeling its anger and hunger.
Farwalker opened his eyes and looked out over the valley to watch the thin traces of smoke reaching feebly upward.
Souls escaping to the blue dome of the sky.
The odds had never been good, but he’d hoped for a chance, at least a bare chance, to convince the last few to follow, to head South, risk crossing the territory of the Braided People to escape the drought.
Escape the starvation.
Escape the Ravenous Ones.
He’d hoped to arrive before the death-cult with their ghoulish rites. Clearly they’d arrived first. Squinting, he could see scattered figures below starting to stir, the odd topknots of the death cultists clearly visible, even from this distance. Unlike Farwalker’s people, all the men and women alike wore the same simple breechclouts, and most carried weapons. Mostly short, wicked, spears; mostly used, he knew, on the helpless.
Soft crunching sounds behind him. Sandaled feet on loose rock. At least four men. Farwalker smiled, a grim carnivorous smile.
Without haste, he began to turn, feeling the axe come alive in his hands. Alive and rapacious, starving for this.
“It’d have been better for you, eaters-of-men, to have slept in.”
Leader-of-Death-on-the-North-Path cuffed Sea-of-Bitterness contemptuously away, watching her sprawl naked near the smoldering firepit with its pile of blackened, jaggedly split bones. “You bore me, wife.”
Bitter came to rest against The Basket, and she rolled hastily away from the venomous snake-filled container and shivered, hastily snatching up her breechclout. She dropped her eyes, terrified. Horror swept over her; she’d failed to please him.
She’d heard the words before, those exact words. With the same amused mockery.
She’d heard them when she’d been “chosen” to be his wife. When Northpath had ordered his previous wife killed and eaten in the degrading and agonizing Ritual of Pain.
She’d taken three horrible days to die.
Bitter heard his laugh, a low grinding chuckle, ugly and hateful. Just as he laughed before every “meal”. Nausea and terror washed over her as she waited for the words. Her eyes flickered around, seeking any escape; finding only the helpless stares of the heads of the tainted dead in return. She looked everywhere but at him – anything to avoid seeing the leering cruel smile she knew he would have.
He drew in his breath to speak the order that would spell out her cruel death.
Harsh yells broke out from the entrance of the defiled kiva that Northpath had chosen as his “home”.
Northpath cast her an ugly glare then pulled himself up and stepped angrily toward the door past his confused men.
An odd ululating call echoed from the canyon rim. Between Northpath and the doorway, Bitter could see a tall, lean warrior easily holding a struggling top-knotted figure above his head. Pausing, waiting for the cultists to look up, to see him highlighted by gold-red rays of the rising sun.
With a scornful, effortless, toss, the golden man sent the cult warrior plummeting, with an odd, almost featherlike laziness, to valley floor.
Northpath roared with fury, snatching his spear up and stormed from the kiva, his First Men following him.
The heavy, bear-like man bellowed, calling for the Followers to avenge the affront as they boiled out of the corrupted, stolen, dwellings in response.
Bitter cringed next to the firepit until he was gone, thankfully forgotten in the chaos.
One heartbeat. Two. Three.
She crept to the entrance and peered out to see the furious mob slowing as they picked their way up the steep paths of the valley wall. Nobody was looking.
Sparing a glance at The Basket, Bitter seized a water gourd and the only clean food she could find, a large bag of blue corn flour and squash seeds.
She paused, checking for stragglers at the cliff side, then looked around for a weapon, any weapon.
A small antler-handled knife with a glassy black stone blade went into her hair and she picked up the broken-tip, broken-haft spear that had been used to move food on the fire – the other spears had disappeared, no doubt taken by the First Men when Northpath had called on them.
She stopped and grabbed Northpath’s sleeping mat, tossing it out in front of the entrance to the kiva. The sign of a woman rejecting her husband. She’d never chosen the “marriage”, in fact, she’d never even been asked. But she knew the laws of her People before she’d been taken. He’d declared her his wife - a complete reversal of custom from her People. But whether she’d chosen it or not, to dissolve the union was simple; place the husband’s property outside the door. He’d have killed her if she had tried it before, and the dishonor would likely enrage him, but that hardly mattered now.
She slipped out the door, clinging as best she could to deep shadows on the western wall of the valley. The golden warrior had headed east, with the Followers in pursuit.
She would head South.
Probably to die of thirst or hunger. But even that was far, far better than dying in the Ritual of Pain that Northpath had planned for her. At least she could die with some dignity.
Farwalker began to jog slowly. The four Ravenous Ones he’d killed had been shocked as he smashed through their spears with his heavy axe. Despite their fanaticism, they’d stood no chance at all. He was easily the best fighter of his People, having even slain one of the giant brown bears of the mountain with his axe in single combat. Still, for all that, he recognized the insanity of trying to stand against the horde making its way up the valley wall toward him. He chided himself for his brazen challenge to them. Eventually he would be surrounded if he stood, there were simply too many of them. It would be a good death, a worthwhile death. But one he could not seek.
He chided himself, unsure if it was anger or hubris that had driven him to creating the spectacle. Either way, he knew, the Elders had reposed trust in him that he had not yet discharged. He had to return to them with the news of the fall of the Dwelling Place.
As he came down into a wide rock-covered arroyo he turned South and began to increase his speed. It would be best to open the distance as much as he could, just to be on the safe side.
She’d thought she was safe.
Three days. Bitter had walked and run for three days. Almost to exhaustion. She looked back from her perch on the butte and watched the tiny figures wending their way along the maze of rocks. They’d broken off their pursuit of the golden man to chase after her.
On reflection, maybe casting Northpath’s possessions out had been a step too far. She could almost feel his rage driving the Followers forward and now they looked to be only a day behind her.
She scrambled down the side of the butte until she reached the valley floor and began to trudge forward, hoping to find some way to evade them. She’d hoped to be further ahead of them, but she kept losing time; she didn’t know the way and kept finding blind turns and dead ends as she pushed South. Constantly having to backtrack and search out a new path. With over a hundred of his followers seeking her, Northpath wasn’t having the same problem.
She found herself turning back again. Another seemingly clear path turned into a sheer cliff face.
Then, a sound. Small rock shifting under a sandal from around the next turn. She tensed, readying her pathetic, broken spear.
A voice, low and firm, in a tone she hadn’t heard since she’d been taken.
“Come, dead man, I would hear your last song.”
No Follower would ever use those words.
She stepped around the turn.
The “golden man” from the cliff. He stared at her laconically. He gripped an axe whose length was over half her height.
She squared herself. “Dead girl, not dead man. I want no fight, I just seek to flee.”
“Deadgirl, then.” His face lit with dark humor. “Why flee your tainted family?”
“They are not my family. I am to be killed.”
“Have you run out of People to kill then that you turn on your own?”
“I am not one of them.”
He eyed her topknot and breechclout. “I find that difficult to believe, Deadgirl.”
“I am not of the First, the true Followers, I was taken from a village of the People years ago. I have been their slave and forced to act as wife. Prepare their food. To lay with them for their pleasure.”
The distaste in the man’s eyes was clear. A glimmer of sympathy. She pushed on. “I have never eaten of the flesh of men. It is only allowed for the First, those that come to them voluntarily. I was allowed grasshoppers and mice.”
He moved the axe in a slow arc, considering. Her thin, gaunt form was certainly a far cry from the well-fed Ravenous Ones he had killed. “Why would I believe a Ravenous One?”
She pulled the knife from her hair and offered it and her spear to him, handle and broken-butt first. “Why would a Follower ... a Ravenous One be alone? I can only offer these. My only defense from you.”
He waved the weapons back to her. “If that is your only defense from me, you have no defense at all.”
“My name is...”
“Your name is Deadgirl. I allow you to live to satisfy my curiosity. Nothing more.”
She looked into his eyes. “They hunt me relentlessly. I was made ‘wife’ to Leader-of-Death-on-the-North-Path, who is priest and chief. I put his possessions out the door when I left. He is petulant, insulted.”
Another flicker of humor in the man’s eyes. “Well, then Deadgirl, I am Strides-to-Distant-Lands-and-Sees, and we are headed in the same direction. We can keep each other company. Walk with me and tell me of the perversions of the Ravenous Ones.”
Bitter stared at him for a moment. Fighting him would be simply impossible. And running? She would end up running toward the Followers. And the horrific Ritual.
She tucked the knife back in her hair and lowered the broken spear. He turned and resumed walking South, obviously assuming she would follow. She stepped quickly to catch up.
“So, Deadgirl, how many of them are there?
“A hundred and ten.” She paused, remembering the plummeting body. “Less however many you have killed.”
“Four in the morning three days ago. Three more that afternoon. Good runners. Not-so-good fighters. How many do you think are following you?”
“All of them.”
“For how long?”
“Three days, I fled when you distracted them.”
“They left the Dwelling Place to chase you for three days? For putting his sandals out the door?”
“Yes. He is a prideful man who used to be of a People like ours. But I didn’t have his sandals, just his sleeping mat. So I put it outside.”
Farwalker halted and turned, staring at her incredulously. “How old were you when you were taken?”
“I was just past ten summers. I have been their slave for ten more.”
He began to laugh, a quiet laugh, but full and rich.
“So you have no idea.”
“No idea of what?”
“When a wife puts the sandals out, she sends the husband home to his mother for her own reasons. Shameful, but bearable. When she puts the mat out, it is because he does not satisfy her sexual needs. An open, blatant insult. If he is the prideful man as you say, he will hunt you to the end of days.”
She stared at him wide-eyed. Wordless.
He smiled, his dark smile. Then he turned his eyes to the path.
“Come, Deadgirl. He cannot hunt you too long, after all, this is the End of Days. We have much ground to cover. Storms come.”
It was almost ten days before runners caught up to them. Ten days in which they wound their way through the rock and mesa landscape. Ten days in which they remained mostly wary of each other. She curled up to sleep far from him, and he slept sitting with his axe in his lap.
They talked. She of what she remembered of her life with the People and of the nightmare existence with the Followers. He of his repeated journeys to take as many of the People to the South as possible. Those that would come. Even with the rumors of the Ravenous Ones and the endless drought, some refused to leave the Dwelling Place.
Despite his place with his tribe, he seemed very alone and she felt a lightness of soul that she couldn’t ever remember having. Maybe it was desperation on her own part, but despite his strength and self-assurance, she felt he was glad to have her there, by his side.
She was pondering her feelings about that when the runners closed on them.
Bitter heard them first, but even as she turned to look back, Farwalker caught her motion and followed her gaze.
She listened for a second.
“Three. I think. They must still think I am alone.”
Farwalker dropped his pack and shouldered his axe. “Then let us leave a sign that their leader cannot mistake.”
The three Ravenous Ones burst around the corner with voracious, twisted grins.
Grins that disappeared immediately as they fell on the tall form of Farwalker.
The axe lashed out, smashing two spears and an arm, then flickered out again, leaving two of the warriors with shattered shins on the ground.
The remaining Follower leapt over his companions with a shout of rage – and was almost casually smashed from the air with his chest caved in. As he twitched blindly, gasping out his last breaths, Farwalker brained the two crippled men.
“They certainly don’t lack courage.”
“They believe in following the North Road, the End of this Age.” She looked down contemplatively at the three men. “And Northpath shows his displeasure with failure in very ... dramatic ... ways.”
“We’ll need to keep going. This works in places like this, but if ten of them catch me in the open, they can just throw spears into me until I’m too weak to fight.”
She glanced back toward the North, listening. Nothing.
Watching her, Farwalker nodded once. “We need to be cautious, the land will level out some as we enter the territory of the Braided Ones. The People have a treaty with them to cross their land for now.”
He stopped looking thoughtfully at black clouds on the edge of the sky, then looked to the South. “The Braided would not thank us for leading this horde into their land, but we may not bring them all with us.”
Soon it was evident that they were making their way toward the base of a tall mesa jutting up from a steeply canyon-walled arroyo, a trip that would take most of the day. The mesa had an odd formation on its crest, like the feathers on the head some birds, standing up from the top.
Farwalker looked up. “We need to stop just below the top of the mesa and wait.”
“Wait for what?”
“For the Ravenous.”
They picked a path up the side of the rock, stopping at a ledge just below the top.
To Bitter’s shock, he’d built a small cooking fire – a fire that would serve as a beacon for the Followers – a beacon they could not miss. When she’d objected he’d simply said, “I want them to see us.”
As the darkness took hold, Bitter looked out and saw a scatter of small fires scattered through the maze of rock. “They’re about a half day behind us.”
“Good. We will wait here.”
“Wait for what?”
“For them, for the wind. The Ravenous are from well North of here, they don’t understand the dangers.”
Bitter looked at him in puzzlement. “Dangers?”
He started to say something, then stopped, ignoring her question. “They won’t attack at night.”
She nodded agreement. To die at night meant one’s spirit could be doomed to wander forever, unable to find its way. She checked her spear and knife.
In the dim firelight he studied her face. “They will not find it easy to climb – the only path near us is the one we guard. The other paths are several days journey down the canyon.”
“There are still almost a hundred of the Followers ... the Ravenous. They will eventually find the way up.”
Frustrated with his acceptance of death, Bitter changed subjects. “Why did you leave your family to do this?”
He didn’t answer immediately and she looked over at him, finding him staring darkly into the night. “I have no family. That is why I was chosen to make the journeys. No hearth, no home waits for me.”
For a moment Bitter felt a twinge of familiar pain.
“My family was destroyed by the Ravenous ones. Except for me.” She couldn’t bring herself to say more.
“The Ravenous Ones adopted you.’
“They kept me like a dog.” She could hear the edges of her black anger in her voice.
“Yet you have a spear.”
“I took it when I left. Those of us they call ‘sheep on two legs’ go unarmed. They feed us little, keeping us only for work, for pleasure, and for food.”
“You were wife...”
She cut him off with an angry glare. “A mockery in which I had no choice. A union of man and woman where the woman has no choice! A mockery with no love or faithfulness. A mockery that ends in the death of the wife by torture.”
He studied her for a second. “Another perversion of the Ravenous ones.”
Bitter fell silent and he didn’t push. But when they settled to sleep, he placed his axe against the wall and didn’t seek a far corner of the ledge for a change.
The Ravenous Ones moved like twisted scorpions as they crawled along the steep path up the wall, trying to find ways to the top. At least two had fallen, but the thirty more of the First moved up relentlessly, while many more yet stood at the base, surrounding the powerful figure of Northpath, who watched as the route was marked. A stiff wind blew dust from the west under a sullen ash-dark sky.
Bitter could see the sheep-on-two-legs herded together on the far side of the arroyo, kept up out of the way of Northpath and his men.
Farwalker stared down at the climbing figures impassively. He glanced again at the darkened sky and the corner of his mouth twitched upward involuntarily.
“Come Deadgirl, we have to finish our climb.”
The last bit of the path was far easier than the climb to the ledge had been. From there she could see the landscape in stark relief. But despite the pull of the view, she barely noticed it. An odd stone formation, a massive downward-pointed spire dominated the edge. The mass was unbelievably balanced on a tiny point, like a giant spear-tip. Poised insanely, ready to fall.
With one more glance over the edge, Farwalker gestured for her to move away from the spire.
“I found this on one of my journeys, I wondered why the gods had placed their spearhead here.”
He walked toward the pointed base, readying his axe. “It is here to destroy abominations.”
One. Two. The sound of the heavy stone axe slamming into the sandstone base of the tower was curiously soft, yet she could hear the weight of the heavens in it. Four more strikes and the wind shifted, suddenly rising harder and harder from the South.
Farwalker laughed softly at the growing wind. “The gods want this.”
A harsh grinding sound began to grow. Slowly. So slowly at first that it was almost imperceptible, the huge stone began to shift. The grinding grew to a roar as the huge mass toppled forward off the mesa, straight down the side, taking the ledge down in a huge wave of shattered, broken, rock.
Almost completely lost in the sound, were the cries of the Ravenous Ones on the wall as the surge of broken stone swept them away.
Bitter followed Farwalker as he strode up to the edge and looked down into the boiling mass of dust and rock. A small mob of the Ravenous Ones had fled partly up the side of the arroyo wall opposite the mesa.
As the dust slowly settled, Bitter watched the powerful figure of Northpath angrily shoving Followers back toward the Mesa wall, forcing them to scramble over the mass of rock and torn bodies, but they milled around helplessly, unable to find any usable path to even start upward.
Farwalker mulled the scene. “About forty left.”
“There were about fifteen sheep-on-two legs. Probably less now.” She let their probable fate hang unsaid, watching as a small group of the Ravenous Ones cut flesh from the victims of the rock fall.
They watched for nearly a half day more as small groups of Ravenous Ones searched up and down the arroyo for a way up the mesa, ranging further and further. The stiff wind and darkening sky seemed to draw a grim smile from Farwalker and he occasionally moved to the edge of the now-sheer cliff to watch the figures below.
An oddly fresh smell filled the wind and Bitter could dimly hear a sound like soft, rolling thunder. She saw Farwalker’s smile widened. “Not long now.” He pointed out to a dark line of mountains. “Like I said, they never ranged this far South. Dangers are different here.”
The roaring grew louder and she could see some of the Followers below looking around in confusion. A few seconds later a boiling torrent of water and rocks slammed down the arroyo.
Bitter stared at Farwalker in shock. “You knew.”
“We’ve been traveling through here for decades as we moved families South, we learned. Storms on those mountains means the water reaches here in three days, never more than three and a half. We just had to keep them here”
A small group of survivors pulled themselves weakly from the flood, she didn’t see Northpath anywhere among them.