Authors: Lee Duigon
“And now you may return to the banquet hall. I don’t want to weary you,” said the Thunder King. “We’ll talk again before you resume your journey east. For I am pleased with you.”
All around Oziah’s Wood, the Heathen fought among themselves. Some of the camps on the north side were burned down and deserted. The camps on the south side still stood, but their Abnaks were lost. Receiving the news from the north, the Wallekki, the Zeph, and others struck first, believing they were stifling an Abnak mutiny. Those Abnaks who were not killed broke loose and fled. Some of them escaped to the hills where they were most at home, after killing their own mardars.
Twenty-six of them stumbled upon the camp where Hlah and Orth had stopped. By now the people had bark shelters and were eating better. Hlah had put several of the men to hunting and trapping every day and taught them how to do it better. They didn’t do badly, for town-dwellers who had suddenly found themselves living in a forest. Winter notwithstanding, the woods were full of game. And Orth, now called Sunfish, led the people in prayer every night and expounded the Scriptures to them. Now they believed they were in God’s hands, and it gave them hope.
Even so, they might have been massacred, late one afternoon, had Hlah himself not been in camp when the Abnaks came.
“I am Hlah, the son of Spider, who is a chieftain of the Turtle Clan. Who are you men, and why do you come here as in war?”
When they heard him challenge them in their own language, they lowered their tomahawks. Besides, they could see the speaker was an Abnak like themselves.
“What does a Turtle warrior here, with slaves and castaways?” answered a barrel-chested, middle-aged man who had two Wallekki scalps dangling from his belt. “I am Ootoo, son of Beetle, of the Sparrowhawks. I met Chief Spider once, many years ago, when you were but a child. He was a famous man. Does he still live?”
“He lives,” said Hlah. “He is held in great honor in the city of Obann. Sheathe your knives, warriors, and rest here for a while. These are poor people who have nothing worth taking; nor are they fighters. No honor or glory in killing them! They don’t even have any extra food they can offer you as their guests.”
Hlah fully expected to be killed. There was no good reason for twenty-six Abnaks to be here. They could only be here for a bad one.
“We’ve had enough fighting to suit us for a while,” a warrior said. “Let’s hear Hlah’s story, Ootoo, and see if it’s more interesting than ours.”
Of course the people in the camp were afraid. But the Abnaks stoked up the bonfire, sat down by it, and showed no sign of harming anyone. So after an hour or two, they began to come out of their shelters to see what they could see and hear.
Orth called them out. “Don’t be afraid! These men won’t hurt you. I think they’ve been sent here for our good.”
“Who’s that?” demanded Ootoo.
“His name is Sunfish. He’s lost his memory,” Hlah said. “He’s a servant of the God of Obann—the true God, who calls all nations to Himself. Chief Spider is His servant, too, and so am I.”
Hlah told them how God struck down the mardar who commanded the Heathen army in which Chief Spider served; how the Thunder King sent armies to destroy them; and how God saved them every time; how they became His people; and how by a greater miracle God saved the city of Obann and made a slave-boy king of Obann.
“Huh!” Ootoo snorted. “We didn’t do a thing, and yet our allies turned on us. We thought we were going to go into Oziah’s Wood to flush out some rangers. Next thing we knew, we were accused of being rebels. We had to kill our mardar and make tracks! Most of us didn’t get away; at least they died fighting. As for us, the Thunder King will hunt us down—but we’ll make it hard for whoever tries to do it.” The other twenty-five men clapped their hands and cried, “Ho! So!”
“Your story is better than ours, Hlah,” Ootoo said, “but not so different—eh? We’ll both be lucky if we ever see the other side of the mountains again. Burn the cusset Thunder King! He should have left us alone.”
“He turns on those who serve him,” Hlah said. “But Chief Spider and his people serve the living God, who is faithful and merciful. And in the end, God will destroy the Thunder King.”
“I hope he does it soon,” said Ootoo, “and everything can go back the way it was.”
Ootoo and his men carried their own rations: the rich, fatty trail-meat that Abnaks made for winter journeys and an ample supply of venison jerky. Toward the end of the day, Ootoo said they would sleep by the fire that night in their bags and move on early in the morning.
“You are now the Thunder King’s enemies and may never be his friends again,” Hlah reminded them, when morning came and they were about to leave. “If you meet more people in these hills, like these poor people here, do them no harm. If you hurt them, you’ll be doing the Thunder King’s work for him.”
“They ran away from building his road,” said Ootoo. “Probably they’ll all die in the winter—no need for us to kill them.”
Orth didn’t speak Abnak, but he could see the twenty-six men were about to leave. He stepped up to Hlah and tapped his elbow.
“Please tell these good men,” he said, “that God is merciful to them that show mercy. This country is full of poor refugees. These Abnaks could save many lives, if they cared to. And then I think God will save them.”
“Sunfish, these men don’t know God,” Hlah said. “They worship little gods, which they think inhabit trees and ponds.”
“So did you, not so long ago,” Orth said. Hlah couldn’t deny it.
“Ootoo,” he said, “my friend here says that God will favor you if you stop and take care of any refugees you meet, so that they don’t starve or freeze to death. The favor of this God is worth more than you can imagine. He can protect you from the Thunder King. As I’ve told you, He saved us many times.”
Even as he spoke, Hlah thought, “What foolishness!” Defenseless Obannese were Abnak raiders’ natural prey. It was like asking wolves to protect the sheep.
Ootoo puffed out his tattooed cheeks and blew. “Whew! Ever since the Thunder King’s mardars first came to our country and took away our gods, everything has been out of joint.
“When I was young, if a few men wanted to go over the mountains and lift some scalps, they did—nothing more to it. No one could tell them not to go, nor could anyone make a man go if he didn’t want to. We fished and hunted when and where we pleased. And in the winter we slept in furs among our wives and children. Life was good.
“Now they marshal us into great armies full of foreigners; and if a man wants to go back home, they kill him if he tries. The hunting and fishing are poor because they took away our gods. They promised us the spoils of Obann, but all we got is toil and trouble.”
His men nodded vigorously and grunted their agreement.
“I can only speak for myself, as one man among twenty-six free men,” Ootoo said, “but it seems to me, Hlah, that if I help the Thunder King’s runaway slaves, I hurt the Thunder King. That appeals to me! And if your new God can do anything for me, so much the better. I doubt we’ll ever get across the mountains, anyhow.”
“I’ll stick with you, Ootoo,” one of his men spoke up. “Maybe we can raid the Thunder King’s new road. Arm some of these wretched slaves, teach them to fight, and help them to avenge themselves—the mardars won’t like that, eh?”
No, they wouldn’t like it at all: everyone agreed.
After the Abnaks departed, Hlah turned to Orth. “What have you done, Sunfish?” he said. “Ootoo’s heart is changed.”
“I haven’t done anything,” Orth said; “but I think that maybe God has.”
Not all of the Abnaks around King Oziah’s Wood fled to the hills. Some of the fugitives from the westernmost camps managed to get across the river. In sight of the town of Caristun, some two hundred of them crossed the Imperial, assembling on the south bank of the river.
“As soon as they can organize themselves,” Helki told the townsfolk, “they’ll come running to take everything you have. There’s no way to keep them out of this town. The only thing to do is to attack them first—right now.”
“Look at them all!” a man objected. “We’ll all be killed.”
“We’ll all be killed if we wait for them to come to us,” Helki answered. “If you think you can get away during the fighting, God speed you. Take the children with you! But I’m going out there now.”
He spun his staff over his head and set off toward the Abnaks. “Might as well,” he thought. The townspeople couldn’t get away. Even if they could, the winter would kill them as surely as the Abnaks.
Cavall trotted beside him, barking. Angel flew overhead. He spoke to the hound.
“Better stay out of this fight, little brother. It’s likely to have a bad end.” But Cavall only barked louder.
Helki didn’t turn to see whether anyone had followed him. If somehow the children in Caristun could be saved, he would be content. He wondered how many Abnaks he could fell with his staff before they killed him. Knowing Abnaks, he thought a good fight would satisfy them. If they could take his scalp, and the fight was worth remembering, they might be moved to spare the townspeople.
“Helki the Rod!” It was the Griffs, all dozen of them, following close behind him, making noise enough for several dozen. “Giant-slayer!” they cried. “The Flail of the Lord!”
The Abnaks, wet and weary after crossing the Imperial on logs and rafts, could hardly believe their eyes. Most of them just stood and stared; but a few came running to meet Helki and his men, brandishing their tomahawks.
In no time at all the clash came. Helki was used to fighting alone against a group. He kept the rod moving, whirling, striking whom it would and moving on to strike again. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Cavall pull down an Abnak and savage his arm, then leap nimbly aside to dodge a tomahawk. He didn’t see Angel swoop down and rake a man’s face with her talons, although he did hear her shrill cry of attack and a harsh scream answer it. Nor did he see the thirty or forty townsmen who snatched up rakes and clubs and rushed into the fray. He had no time to fix his eyes on anything. Spin, stride, lunge—keep the staff in motion, keep himself in motion for as long as he could: don’t stop moving and become a target. His rod would crack skulls and shatter shoulders, and keep on doing it until a stone tomahawk finally found him.
But suddenly there was no fight. Suddenly the Abnaks were all down on one knee, with their weapons on the ground before them and empty hands raised high—even the ones by the river who hadn’t joined the battle.
“Respite, respite!” they all cried. Helki knew this was what Abnaks said when they meant not to surrender, but to declare they had no wish to fight. It was an Abnak truce, which no man of honor would violate.
Helki stopped moving and rested, panting, on his staff. Angel came down and settled on his shoulder. Cavall, unwounded, sat beside him.
“I agree to the respite,” Helki said, which was the proper thing to say.
“Why do you attack us, Flail of the Lord?” an Abnak chief demanded.
“To protect the people in that town,” said Helki. They could all see Caristun from where they were.
“If you are Helki the Rod, we will not fight with you,” said the chief. “Our fight is with the Zephites and the Wallekki and all the servants of the Thunder King who turned against us. We want their scalps, not yours! We will not harm any of your people.”
Now for the first time Helki surveyed the battlefield. All his Griffs were still alive, and all the townsmen who’d come after them. A few Abnaks lay on the cold ground, but no one seemed to have been killed: the men who were hurt were gasping and groaning, but still alive. The fight must not have lasted even a minute, Helki reckoned.
So he did what was proper, according to the manners of the Abnaks. He took the chief’s hand and raised him to his feet, which meant that he and they would be at peace from then on.
“I am Santay, son of Bug, a chieftain of the Marmot Clan,” the man said. “We have all heard of you, Helki the Rod. You have a famous name—and no man but a great chief would a hawk follow into battle. No man would go up against two hundred men unless the gods favored him.”
“Not gods,” Helki said, “but the one God whom I serve.”
Santay nodded. “The God of Obann shows His might, these days. What man has not seen it?
“Helki, Flail of the Lord lead us, that we might be revenged on the men who betrayed us—who accuse us, the Marmot Clan, of witchcraft! Lead us, and we shall follow. I have spoken.”
Leading these men back across the river and carrying the fight to the Thunder King’s troops around Oziah’s Wood ought to keep the Heathen too busy to prey on Caristun, Helki thought. They might recruit more Abnaks and get help from the rangers in the forest. He might yet meet up with Jack and Ellayne and Martis.
“If you give your oath to fight against the Thunder King from now on,” Helki answered, “then I’ll do my best to lead you. And maybe God will make us prosper, after all.”
It took all afternoon, but one by one, each in his own name, all those Marmot men swore to follow Helki.