Toru ran with rhythmic breaths, eyes searching for any movement in the moonlight, ears categorizing startled bird alarms and the muffled footfalls of his friends.
They had done it. Had penetrated the Sands people’s village and taken one of their sacred totems. Now he and his three friends had the right to petition the Elders for full warrior rights.
A flicker of movement. His running pace slipped into a stationary crouch in a heartbeat. The following footfalls ceasing by the second beat.
A bush to the right exploded into the frightened flight of a young buck.
“Closer home, and we could also have brought our own celebratory feast,” a voice spoke in Toru’s ear.
“Quiet Nist,” Toru said. “We’re not out of danger yet.” His friend was good-natured but careless. But Toru didn’t regret keeping his friend out of trouble.
“It’ll be morning before they realize that their sacred totem is missing.”
“Always be ready,” Toru ended the discussion by moving back into a run.
* * *
At the first light of day, they crested the ridge over their valley. They had been gone a week, and the village lay peaceful and welcoming in the dim light.
Whistling softly, Toru notified the sentry of their presence.
Instead of an answering whistle, a dozen or so warriors separated from the shadows and matched the pace of the still running youths.
Toru’s arm moved to fit a dart to his atl-atl, then relaxed as he recognized the village’s men.
But something was wrong. While their successful raid was cause for celebration, it didn’t warrant their silent escort. And the village could not have heard of their success.
Toru kept running. The following footfalls less muffled and more numerous.
* * *
The sun had completely crested the low hills when the escorted youth reach the village’s outer palisade.
“What’s happening,” Nist asked, moving up to Toru’s side as the group slowed and approached the waiting knot of Elders at the palistrade gate.
“No idea,” Tour said in a low whisper.
“Greeting, Elders,” Toru said in a louder voice, as the four youth stopped before the older men.
“We are successful,” Toru said to Batu, the highest ranking of the village’s Elders. Toru detached his slung pouch from his back and removed the ceremonial rattle taken from the Sands people’s village.
“Nist, take the totem,” Batu said. “Then you, Riso and Tuva go to your huts.”
The four youth exchanged glances. Then the named three left. The warriors who had accompanied the youth to the village moved in closer around Toru.
“Bring him,” Batu said. He turned and, with the other Elders, walked into the village.
Surrounded by men he had known all his life, Toru followed.
Entering the village, his bewilderment turned to apprehension. All was familiar: the huts of his friends, the communal buildings and, rising above the entire village, the Sacred Burial Mound. But now, the usually smiling faces of the inhabitants were blank. Something was wrong.
Weaving through the village, Batu lead the strange procession to the foot of the Great Mound. At its base was the judgment circle, where the Elders ruled on village and spiritual matters. And next to the circle, figures were tied to the prisoner poles.
Then, through the milling crowd of onlookers, Toru got a clear view of the prisoners. His breath stopped as he recognized his parents. He choked a cry and started to run to their aid, but strong hands grabbed him. The sharp edge of an obsidian blade at his throat quelled thoughts of struggle.
His father must have been causing trouble again. Toru’s eyes flickered around, desperately looking for help or support. All faces avoided his eyes or looked at him in anger.
All during his short three hands of life, he had listened to his father’s claims of being the rightful leader of the Tall Trees peoples. While his father did have some justifiable claims to the leadership position, Batu had similar claims as well as the support of the People’s major clans.
Toru was dragged forward to the poles. His mother looked up, anguish clearly visible on her pallid face. His father was motionless.
“Mother,” Toru cried out.
She mouthed his name in a wheezing breath.
“Why have you done this?” Toru said to Batu.
Batu didn’t answer, just gestured to the men holding Toru.
Hands forced Toru to an adjacent pole, his hands forced upwards over his head and tied.
“Why?” he asked again, a blow to his head the only answer.
The Elders left. Soon, the crowd of villagers dissipated.
“Mother,” Toru asked, “can you hear me? Are you hurt?” Although unable to move his arms, Toru could turn his body and head enough to face his mother.
“Tork,” she said in a low raspy voice, using her nickname for him. It was the name of the local squirrel; whose scampering and chattering she claimed reminded her of her son.
“You father challenged Batu,” she said after a pause. “He had us both beaten. I think your father’s dead. I’m sorry Tork.” Only low sobs continued.
Toru couldn’t think of anything to say. His father had been obsessed with his lineage. His father’s parents and grandparents were entombed in the top layers of the Sacred Mound. But, unfortunately, others, including Batu, also had ancestors buried in the Mound. And Batu was from a very powerful Clan.
* * *
All day Toru and his mother hung in the sun as the life of the village continued on around them. His father’s body softened in decay. His mother was silent except for intermittent sobs.
Toru tried calling on friends or near-relatives for water for his mother. But those formerly close kept far away. Rivals and acquaintances merely ignored Toru and his mother.
At sunset, Batu brought several men to cut Toru’s father down. They dragged the body without ceremony in the direction of the village dumpsite. With night coming on, his father’s body would be defiled by scavengers.
“Mother,” Toru cried, “I’ll get us free. I swear you will be honored in this life and the next.” He started crying, not for himself but for his mother. Weak from dehydration and despair, consciousness faded.
* * *
“Toru,” a voice said. “Toru, wake up. And, by the gods, do so silently.”
The moon was up, casting weak shadows over the village. The shadow next to Toru resolved itself into his friend Nist.
“Nist,” Tork said through swollen lips. Then he collapsed as Nist severed the cords holding his stretched weight.
Water dribbled over his face, some flowing into his mouth. Toru coughed and rasped, “my mother.”
“You must help me,” Nist said.
Toru forced himself up on quivering legs and shuffled to his mother’s side.
“Hold her,” Nist said.
Toru held his mother’s limp form and again collapsed as her weight shifted from the cut chords to Toru.
Then her dead weight released him.
“Follow me,” Nist said. “I’ll carry your mother.” He started off into the night.
Toru stumbled after him with unsteady legs.
Nist lead Toru on a circuitous route through the village to a section of the palisade under repair. Several posts were missing.
“Help me lift her through,” Nist said.
Toru was steadier on his feet now. He lifted his mother from Nist’s shoulder. She was limp. But she breathed.
Once through the wall, Nist again carried her.
* * *
After the moon had moved a hands width through the night sky, they stopped. Nist produced more water and some dried fruit. A blanket appeared around Toru’s mother.
“I stashed some supplies here before freeing you,” Nist said. “But we can only rest a short time. They will come after us at sunrise.”
“Thank you, my friend,” Toru said after another mouthful of water. “My mother would not have lasted another day. And I could not have born the dishonor of her body also being defiled.”
“Toru, I didn’t always agree with your father,” Nist said. “But I agreed less with Batu.”
“I think Toru is dead. Let me be known as my mother calls me. From now on, call me Tork.” He looked down at his mother. She was now aware enough to take water.
“Two things I swear,” Tork continued. “First, when my mother leaves this world, that she will reside in the grandest Sacred Mound that will ever be known by all the various Peoples.”
Tork got to his feet and started gathering their meager supplies. “Second, I will return and avenge my father’s defiled body.”
Tork gathered his mother into his arms. “We will travel east.”