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I am Black Shell, of the Chief Clan, of the Hickory Moiety, of the Chicaza Nation. But then, truth be told, ten long years have passed since I ventured out from my people. You see, in their eyes I am akeohoosa. It means "dead and lost" in the Mos'kogee tongue. A more precise term would be "outcast." When I was driven from my country long ago, I thought it a divinely bitter irony. The notion of being akeohoosa would have killed a lesser man. At least, that's what I tell myself. It has killed others, generally from despair, loneliness, and guilt.
My people, the Chicaza, have fostered the myth that they are somehow superior, that they hold themselves to a higher standard. Such notions have served them well. By cultivating a code of honor, piety, and nobility, they have had fewer scruples about conquest or manufacturing a reason for war over some perceived slight or insult.
Only when I was finally an outsider did I gain any understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of such a system. You see, most other nations don't like the Chicaza. They think we're rather prickly and arrogant prudes. At the same time, people fear us because the only thing the Chicaza do better than preening, slapping each other on the back, and lying about our innate superiority, is make war. No one takes warfare with the Chicaza lightly.
That curious mixture of awe and dislike has served me well during my years as an akeohoosa. I'm not fond of my people, either.
That fateful day when all the trouble started, I heard the voice of Horned Serpent. It was that terrible Spirit Being -- the great winged snake who flies up into the summer sky -- who told me to run from my first battle. My clan called me a liar when I insisted that Horned Serpent spoke to me. Since the day I was banished, anger has run along my veins like hot liquid. It has spurred me in my wanderings.
What does an exile do? If he's of the Chicaza's Chief Clan -- as I am -- he trades and gambles. The things I trade consist of luxury goods: pieces of precious copper; polished white shell; buffalo wool, medicine herbs and Spirit plants; brightly colored feathers, and unusual carvings or artwork.
As to gambling, I have a facility for games like stickball, chunkey, or akbatle. In addition to those skills, much of my life has been dedicated to mastering the bow. Warriors -- no matter what their nation -- are a proud lot and more than willing to wager just about anything on their ability to drive an arrow through the mouth of a narrow-necked jar at twenty paces. Their temptation really rises when the challenger is a rootless foreign braggart like me.
I travel with five pack dogs. A trader's dogs must be large, sturdy, and sure-footed. Over the years dogs have come and gone, but the ones I traveled south with were among the best I'd ever owned.
My favorite -- and most beloved -- was Fetch. He was more than just a dog, having a partly human soul. He kept my spirits up when things turned miserable. His greatest joy in life came from retrieving thrown sticks, hide balls, or even rocks. He'd been with me for eight long summers, and a better companion you will not find.
Skipper, another of my dogs, was named for his curious sideways gait, his butt traveling a hand's width to the right of his front as he trotted. He was light brown with short hair and an oddly blue left eye.
Bark, well, his name says it all. At command, he'd stay silent, mostly, but if one of the other dogs stole something from him, he'd just plop on his rear and bark his fool head off in indignation. He was charcoal black, with a thick head decorated by old scars. Bark had another talent: When it came to a dog fight, he was terror unleashed.
Squirm? He liked to wiggle out of his packs and had made a study of how to do it without me noticing. I swore he had extra joints in his legs and spine. His long hair was dark brown and sleek, serving to accent the white blaze on his face and the milky bib on his chest.
Gnaw no longer lived up to his name, but as a puppy, several times he almost ended up as stew after chewing off sections of pack leather. He was the fastest and strongest of my dogs. Consequently he carried the heaviest pack. I thought of him as a huge gray monster of a dog -- the image only sullied by the cute white tip on his tail.
For several years my path had taken me south, away from the civilized lands of the Mos'kogee and the other great nations. It led me to the Apalachee, who first conjured my curiosity about the bearded and pale sea peoples. While at Apalachee, I visited the place they call Aute. There I saw with my own eyes the bleached skulls of great and terrifying animals larger than elk. Upon these are said to ride the mysterious hair-faced men from the sea.
Eleven winters past, the invaders -- calling themselves Kristianos -- arrived from the south under the leadership of their chief, Narvaez. The Apalachee had nothing but disdain for the Kristianos, having watched them struggle through the coastal swamps and tidal flats, sick and starving in a land of plenty. In the end the Kristianos built rafts, ate their great beasts, and floated down to the gulf. After that, they simply vanished into the sea.
I had walked among their curious constructions at Aute, and saw the great wooden crosses they hung in the trees. I viewed with awe the mysterious metal left behind, and held pieces of their cloth. I wondered at the remarkable, many-colored beads they had traded off during their stay. My curiosity grew with each new discovery.
The mikko -- as the Apalachee call their high chief -- is named Cafakke, or Great Soil. He has a Kristiano skull in his palace at the capital city of Anhaica. I've held it, studied the narrow bones of the face and nose, and wondered at the man whose souls once resided inside that fragile bone. It was then I decided to follow out the source of the legend. For -- fool that I was -- I anticipated making a fortune in trade if only I could obtain a sample of their goods. The great chiefs in the north would barter fabulous wealth for such exotic oddities.
I need not bore you with the story of my route down through the Timucua lands, my time trading among the Uzachile towns, or the trouble I had with the holata, or chief, at Ocale town. In a sense this story begins one late afternoon when I approached White Bird Lake town. For those who have never traveled that way, it is a land of pine forests, occasional hardwoods, and palmettos. Open areas -- sometimes cleared by wildfires -- are lush in grass and the soils are sandy enough for the cornfields to produce. Settlements tend to be inland from either coast, away from the threat of storms, though occasional great tempests do flatten areas of forest as they roar across the peninsula from one body of water to another.
The peninsular people are warlike, as ready to fight with their cousins a half day's walk away as with the Calusa and Tequesta to the south or the Uzita to the west. Most of their towns are built around one or two low mounds that serve as supports for the chief's house, charnel house, or perhaps a temple. A log fortification is usually thrown up on an earthen embankment around the town's perimeter -- just enough to allow the defenders to shoot between the gaps.
When I say the people are warlike, it's not like among the great nations of the north, where trained armies are unleashed by a slighted minko over some perceived insult. Instead these villages and towns are in a state of constant intermittent raiding.
At times, however, some war chief -- called a paracusi in the Southern Timucua tongue -- will manage to defeat enough of his neighbors to create a loose sort of nation relying on tribute from conquered towns. Such chieftainships -- if you can even call them that -- are fragile, easily sundered, and generally in a constant state of flux. They rise and fall based upon the charisma and cunning of individual leaders.
Such was the case with a fellow by the name of Irriparacoxi, a newly risen leader among the mostly disorganized Southern Timucua villages.
When a man is made chief in these lands, he takes the name of the town where he rules. Thus, a man might be named Red Hawk, but he will be called Holata Ahocalaquen, or Chief Ahocalaquen, from the moment he is confirmed. I thought it was confusing, but that was how the Timucua did things.
Irriparacoxi, which would translate as something like "high war councilor and combat chief," had subjugated most of the towns south of Ocale territory and north of the Calusa and Tequesta. Controlling such a large block of land, he was happily earning tribute from his subject towns and -- more important as far as I was concerned -- very taken with himself. Like the puffer fish of the seas, petty chiefs can blow themselves up beyond their true importance and greatness.
Remember, I was born and raised Chicaza. I know all about created self-importance.
That day I was walking at the head of my pack dogs, my trader's staff in hand. The trail was wide, well-trodden, with palmettos, pines, and oaks on either side. Spring was in full flower, the air almost muggy. An afternoon sun was squatting in the western sky -- the southeastern breeze perfectly scented with honeysuckle, gallberry, phlox, and firebush, all in bloom. The very air seemed to buzz and vibrate with the hum of insects.
Overhead, flocks of herons were winging north, their trilling hoots floating down over the land. Mockingbirds called in lilting voices from the brush. I could see an osprey circling over a marsh off to the west. I took a deep breath, and the damp musk of vegetation and rich soil filled my nostrils.
The pack dogs heard her first, pricking their ears, tails rising as they inspected the brush off to the side. Then low growls broke out as the woman raised her head from where she used a sharpened clamshell to cut palmetto fronds.
At my hand sign, the dogs went quiet, panting as they watched the woman. Squirm tried, as usual, to shake his way out of his pack. I snapped my fingers in rebuke, and Squirm shot me a "you caught me" look.
"Greetings," I called out in my halting Timucua.
The woman straightened, and what a sight she was: tall, with raven-black hair falling down past her hips. Her broad shoulders reminded me of a swimmer's, and her arms were smoothly muscled. Some men might have thought her round breasts too full, but on her tall frame they just seemed perfect. A brown skirt hung from a thin waist, held in place by a knotted rope. Gleaming thighs and shapely calves made her long legs the stuff of any man's dreams.
Then her eyes met mine. Dark -- like a midnight sun -- they pierced me as if reading my very souls. A slight smile curved her lips, and a knowing eyebrow lifted. Evidently she was used to be being stared at by men.
Wryly, she said, "Forget it. I belong to the Irriparacoxi. He's a very jealous man."
I had a little trouble with her accent, but responded, "What makes you think I'm interested in you?"
She gestured at the panting dogs resting under their heavy packs. "Your tongue's hanging out farther than theirs. What's the matter? No women where you come from, Trader?"
None like you. In defense I said, "Women enough." Gods, she was marvelous. I watched her bend down with a lithe movement to pluck up the armful of fronds she'd cut. She gave me an irritated scowl as she picked her way through the grass to the trail. She looked even better up close, with a triangular face and a curiously delicate and straight nose; her firm chin balanced soft lips and wide cheekbones. My obvious infatuation filled her with a dancing amusement.
"So you're the famous northern trader," she stated skeptically.
"You knew I was coming?"
"Word came down a couple of days ago. We heard that the Ocale chief didn't think much of you."
"He had the silly notion that I was a Potano spy."
"No." I indicated my trader's staff with the white feathers dangling from its top. "I'm a trader...doing what traders do. I haven't even been in Potano country. They live over by the east coast. I followed the central trail south."
Was she being insufferable on purpose? "Because I've never been down here before. I've got northern goods to trade for things like spoonbill feathers, Taino tobacco, and sea turtle shell. Goods they don't have up north." Time to take the offensive. "So, why are you out here all alone?"
She was giving me a thoughtful appraisal, as though I were a deer haunch. "I came to discover what sort of man you are."
That threw me. "Why would you care?"
I kept trying not to stare at her breasts, or that narrow waist, or the way her skirt hung on those rounded hips. Was she a sorceress casting a spell on my souls? What would it feel like to run my fingers down her cheek, to see her smile at me?
"We all have our reasons," she whispered absently.
It took all my control to keep from gaping like a fool. What man wouldn't?
"You travel alone?" she asked.
"For the time being."
"Where's your woman?"
"I don't have one."
"Are you that difficult to get along with?"
"No. I've just never found the right woman. Most don't like leaving family, clan, and home. Trading can be a lonely business, never long with the same people." I shrugged. "It takes a certain sense of adventure to be a trader's wife. You've got to be footloose." I smiled. "Free."
"And you don't think a woman wants to be free?" Her head cocked, as if something important balanced on my answer.
I gave that some thought before replying, "Trading just isn't for women. Traders spend a lot of cold nights sleeping on the ground in the rain. There are days with poor food, or an empty belly. What I own is carried on my back or by the dogs."
"But you are beholden to no man."
"Only myself and the Power of trade," I agreed, then smiled. "Fortunately, having only myself to talk to, I win all the arguments."
"Is that important to you? Winning arguments?"
"I was making a joke. I do that. Make jokes at my expense. It keeps me from taking myself too seriously."
"Why?" It was as if she were trying to see right down inside my guts, as if somehow sitting in judgment. Judgment for what?
"Let's just say that if you get slapped around a lot by life, it's better to have a sense of humor," I grinned. "And believe me, life does have a habit of hitting you when you're not looking."
Her lips curled into a knowing smile. But thoughts churned behind her eyes -- masked by a long-practiced control? Why did she keep looking at me that way? Not that I minded. A woman like her could turn her attention my way anytime. The fantasies she ignited started following their own path...to a snug bed.
"Forget it," she repeated. "I'm the Irriparacoxi's."
"Wife?" I asked, gesturing the dogs to follow as she started down the trail and I matched her pace.
She shot me a scathing glance and made a disgusted sound. "Luckily, no. But then, were I a wife, I could at least divorce him. As a bound woman, I'm his to do with as he pleases." A pause. "And he'd kill you just for looking at me wrong, let alone for trying anything else."
That explained a great deal. She was property. Bound women had only a slightly higher status than slaves. I could guess what her life had been like. "You've been around the wrong kind of men for too long."
"And you're different? I'd wipe the drool off my chin before walking into Irriparacoxi's great hall and announcing myself."
"He'd kill me just for drooling?"
"When it comes to me, yes."
"Then I'll drool carefully."
"Most men do."
I gave her another sidelong inspection. She was shooting similar looks my way, as if weighing something.
"You have a name, I take it?"
She smiled. "I've had lots of them."
"How are you known to Irriparacoxi?"
"In Timucua it translates as Pearl Hand. In private Irriparacoxi calls me...other things."
"I am pleased to know you, Pearl Hand. Among the traders I am known as Black Shell. A man of the far distant Chicaza."
"Yes, I know. You have something of a reputation, Black Shell. Even here we have heard of your legendary feats. They say you're quite a gambler."
I shrugged. "Sometimes I get lucky at a chunkey game." I reached back and patted the pack on my back. My chunkey lances and bow were protruding from the alligator-hide case I carried. "And on occasion an arrow goes where it's supposed to. Other than that, it's just talk."
I watched the muscles tighten in her delicate jaw. "Irriparacoxi fancies himself as a warrior. While chunkey is not a game played around here, his ability with a bow is seldom bettered by any of his warriors. Is that why you have come? To challenge him?"
I gave her a noncommittal grin. "Not particularly. Here, on the peninsula, if one will go south, he must pass through the Irriparacoxi's country. Unless, of course, he wants to wade through the swamps off to the west in the Uzita lands."
"But you will trade?"
I shot her a glance. "If Irriparacoxi has anything I want."
Pearl Hand couldn't quite hide the calculation behind her controlled expression. She shifted her load of fronds. "What's in the south?"
"Rumors. Stories about bearded pale-skinned men. I've seen the metals, the beads, and the magnificent cloth. Some of the stories are as fantastic as the stories we tell at home to frighten little children. I've heard that these strange men ride giant beasts. Among the Apalachee, I've even seen the alleged skulls of such. The way it's told in the north, the strangers have great floating palaces that ride upon the waves, and their war armor is made of magical metal. I want to see if these stories are true."
"Then you're a fool."
Her level gaze met mine. "Trader, the stories are true. But the last thing you want is to meet the Kristianos. Unless, that is, you wish to spend the rest of your suddenly short life as a slave. They raid for captives along the coast. Those they take are herded into the floating palaces and sailed out to sea. In all of my life, I have never heard of anyone returning. The rumors are that most slaves are worked to death within a single season."
"Where? I mean, they can't have that much work in the floating palaces."
She gave me the same look she'd give an idiot. "They have great islands out in the sea. The slaves there work cutting down trees, clearing fields, mining, growing things, and building huge earthworks. Some of the stories I've heard make no sense, but on one point, no one disagrees: These are brutal men with terrible ways."
"I still want to see them."
With a note of exasperation she asked, "Why? So you can become a slave?"
"I'm protected by the Power of trade."
"They obey no laws or rules, Black Shell. And they have no respect for Spirit Power, at least as far as any of us can see. Walk up to them expecting them to honor the Power of trade, and they'll either kill you for the sport of it, or clap one of their metal collars around your neck and lead you off by a metal chain."
"Everyone believes in the Power of trade."
She gave me a pitying look. "Not the Kristianos."
"You seem to know a lot about them."
"When I was a little girl they tried to build a town. My mother went to them, searching for my father."
"I don't understand."
She threw her head back in a most provocative manner, her long hair swaying. "I'm Chicora. Does that mean anything to you?"
I nodded slowly, remembering the stories. "From along the coast up north. The bearded white men have been there twice over the years."
She continued giving me that look, as if I were remarkably dim.
I tried to understand. "They took your father...stole him for a slave? And your mother went looking for him?"
Her expression hardened, her mouth thinning with irritation. "My father took my mother from Chicora, kept her until they had filled their great boat with slaves. But on that last night -- in the confusion as they were packing -- she escaped. When her family discovered she was carrying a bearded brat, they disowned her. For reasons beyond my understanding, she went back looking for the man when the Kristianos landed a few years later. I was very small then, having but five summers. The Kristianos didn't do very well building their town. Some of the things they do are inexplicably stupid. They were starving to death surrounded by food: things they wouldn't think to eat. Finally they loaded up and sailed off into the sea."
She was kind enough to ignore my gaping stare as I studied her face, the thin nose, the line of her jaw.
She gave me a humored glance. "You want to see one? A Kristiano? Holata Mocoso has one just over west of here. White men show up every so often; their big boats get wrecked by storms. The survivors, the ones Mother Sea doesn't suck under and drown, wash ashore. Usually in a pathetic state."
"Yes, I would like very much to see one. I have so many questions."
The look she gave me sent a shiver down my spine. "They are evil, Black Shell. By ones and twos, they even seem likable. But if they come in groups, run. Hide, for if they capture you, it's worse than dying on a square."
She referred to the log square onto which captives were tied and slowly tortured to death. Could they really be that bad?
"And you?" I couldn't help but ask, "You're one? Or at least half of one! Is this really true?"
She turned those gleaming midnight eyes on mine. "Oh, yes, Trader." Then she performed a saucy sway of her hips. "So, if they're completely evil, what does that make me?"
"Enticing," I said in Mos'kogee.
To my shocked surprise she smiled as though coming to a decision, and replied in precise Mos'kogee, "And just what would you do with me?"
I gaped at her, suddenly speechless.
Fully aware of my fluster, she added, "Just what I'd expect from a man."
I glanced down at my packs, calculating. What would it take to persuade Irriparacoxi to trade for this woman?
Reading my expression, she laughed in a cunning way. "More than you've got, Trader."
We'd see.Copyright © 2010 by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear