The spear slices through the standing reeds, a small section of the field now uneven with the rest of the chest high plants. Some were cut by the stone at the end of the spear, some were bent or broken by the haft. The corner of the wielder’s mouth curves down as he looks at the intact reeds. He is tall, around seven feet, his limbs lanky and smooth, the muscles undefined. His hair is long and untied, but only reaches to just above his waist. His rectangular face is of similar stretched proportions, glowering eyes with thick black eyebrows. He wears leather trousers, trimmed along the seams with just a few feathers on each side. Another man walks up behind him, similarly clothed, though he has quite a few more feathers.
“Atlat! There you are. Wasting your time out here again, I see.”
“The spear is a waste of time! What’s the point of just a small thing on the end? I want a longer spearhead.”
“Hahaha, that would break and be even more useless than you say the regular spearhead is! What a silly idea.”
“You all only need a spear because you’re all so short anyways. I have no need for more reach, just more cut!” Atlat says, turning to face him with a smile.
“And maybe if your limbs were shorter you wouldn’t wobble around all the time, tripping over the air and running into tree branches!”
“Ehhh, did you come out here only to bug me, Mato? Or do you actually have a reason for being out here?”
“I wouldn’t come all the way out here just to talk to you! The hunters are heading out – our watchers spotted some buffalo a day or two’s ride out on the plains. We need everyone we can get, including the slackers.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m coming.Thank the Mystery we don’t have to dance for the buffalo to show up this time.” They both turn to go, walking towards a patch of trees in between the field they’re in and another on the other side. Barely-visible smoke rises in the distance, and wind blows across the plains, just high enough to flutter the plants but not enough to howl. As they reach the trees, Atlat pauses and then walks to the right of one of the light brown trunks.
“Don’t want to walk the same way I’m going?”
“If you walk the same path too many times, you invite evil and misfortune into your life!” Atlat’s voice is not as low as one would expect it to be, but still deeper than most.
“Where in the world did you hear that?”
“It’s just a feeling I get.”
“Atlat, you are one strange guy.”
“Hey, it works!”
Mato laughs and starts to jog, the two of them moving across the plains in the bright afternoon sun.
They stop at the village to get their weapons and horses, meeting up with the rest of the hunters who stand, shifting from foot to foot and looking back at the onlookers, women and children whose eyes are drawn to their fathers and brothers. Atlat draws the eyes of a few gape-jawed kids to his lanky frame, their parents patting them on the shoulder and whispering admonition.
“Atlat! Finally! We were waiting for you.”
“He was busy hunting the wild grass,” says Mato.
“We all train with our weapons, do we not?” Atlat holds out his arms, palms up.
“Some of us go after moving targets, though,” says one of the hunters, and several others laugh.
“Come now, let us be off! The buffalo will not wait forever.”
A days’ riding goes by, and now seven men on horses urge their animals through the fields, several yards away from the bustling herd of buffalo, cropping on the grass and odd weeds that peek up between the subjugating reeds. Mountains can be seen in the distance, peaks cutting through the clouds. As the riders get closer, they slow their steeds to a creep. In the distance, the giant brown heads and dark eyes look around, but do not look in the direction of the approaching hunting party. Once they are thirty feet away, a buffalo jerks its head up and turns to run, the rest following suit. The hunter in front lets out a cry and they all kick their horses to gallop, spears that were held at their sides now raised into the air and shaking. They split into two groups, shooting arrows at the fleeing creatures and, once they are close enough, surrounding the two buffalo that are furthest behind their fellows. Spears plunge and are withdrawn from the thick brown fur, the animals bellowing with each injury and the hunters answering its cries with their own yells, and it shakes its head and curved horns from side to side, but the horses prance just out of reach of the black skewers.
The speared buffalo slow down as time goes by, and the hunters with them, as the rest of the herd fades into the distance. They all follow the trail of dripping blood until the beasts collapse and breathe out a last rough muffled breath. A hunter dismounts and, pulling out a short knife, cuts the throat of the animal while the rest look on, spears still at ready. Mato looks at Atlat.
“You sure are handy with a spear for how much you complain about it, but I don’t think I’ll ever get used to how weird you look on a horse. Almost like it has two extra legs, like some kind of monster.”
“Ehyahh! And my skin is thick from all the snide remarks thrown at me!”
After they are certain the buffalo are both dead, the rest of them hop down from their horses, and all present give thanks for the buffalos’ lives. Several minutes into the ceremony, a cry shoots out from afar, breaking up their chant as all whip their heads in the direction of the high-pitched noise.
“What in medicine’s name was that?”
“A coyote attack?”
“Buffalo don’t usually make that much noise when they’re attacked.” Atlat raises a hand over his eyes and squints.
“And look at how they scatter!”
“Let’s go see what happened.” Mato points at two of the hunters, one after the other.
“You two! Stay here with the buffalo and start preparing them to take back to the village.” The rest mount their horses once again and ride over to the spot from which the shrill noise came, looking all around them as they go. They reach the origin point only to find a third buffalo corpse. This buffalo has been sliced into equally sized pieces at a diagonal angle through its entire body. There are at least twenty portions cut, each clean in cut but leaking thick red blood. Two thirds of the head lay on top, the other third sliding from underneath, lifeless eye open.
“Iquq! What could have done this?” The hunter gawks at the sight.
“There are evil spirits at work, here. This is what comes of hunting in the same spot too many times.” Atlat nods his head as he says this, and the other hunters look at each with raised eyebrows. Mato rolls his eyes.
“Whatever the case, let us take our kills and leave this place. I’d not touch this slaughter for all the white buffalo hides in the land.” The others nod at this and turn their horses back in the direction of those who hung back, but all they see are two riderless horses running off into the distance. Atlat steps forward.
“It must have circled around.” Mato and the rest turn to look at Atlat, eyes wide.
“I would say ‘they,’ but it’s just not possible for any number of people to make such quick work and not leave any trace. Do you have any idea what it is, Atlat?” Mato asks.
“All I know is that I want to put as much distance between it and I as between the land and the sky.” He is still staring straight ahead, eyes unblinking and body taut. Mato looks at him, breathes out, and nods. The wind picks up, the sky overcast and the tall grass rustling all around them, the sound like sand being poured from a pot.
“Which way do we go?” One of the other hunters asks. Mato surveys the surrounding area.
“I say we ride left and keep going in that direction until we hit open ground. There’s something hiding in the fields. It has to be.”
“What about the buffalo?” Another hunter looks at him and frowns.
“What about the buffalo. What about our lives? This thing cut that beast up but did not eat it. Obviously it’s looking for something more agreeable to its palate.”
“Or it’s just killing whatever it finds. No matter the case, let’s get out of here!” Mato waves his hand at them.
They kick their horses hard and bank to the left, each set of eyes turned towards the field to their right, scanning back and forth across the rippling reeds, then turning back to eye the forest. There are still at least two miles until they hit the safety of the trees when one of the hunters in the back points at the field and cries out. The plants he points out are not moving in synchronization with the rest, instead going back and forth as though something were pushing its way through them. The disturbance is as wide as the entire group is spread out but there is still nothing to be seen that is causing the strange movement. The men would spur their horses even more-so if they had not already sped up with the approach of the mysterious being. Their riders lean forward, clinging to the sweat drenched necks. The feeling of rushing air follows them and the sound of slicing, quick and thin comes from behind. A horse lets out a high-pitched keening as its hoof is sliced clean off. Its rider climbs up as the horse falls, standing on the horse’s back, and jumps off, rolling as he hits the grassy ground, but they are both cut to pieces in seconds. The next in line yells and urges his horse to gallop faster, kicking his legs and slapping its neck.
The noise and rippling shreds the area around the fallen horse and rider, reducing them to mincemeat, flesh and grass and dirt flying up into the air as it buzzes. It then comes to a complete stop, the frenetic activity and noise dying down. It then veers out from off to the left side of the riders, catching up to them in an instant.
“How did it do that?” Mato yells, signaling with his hand for them to swerve to the right. They bank hard, almost diagonal to the ground, but one of the other hunters that is not as quick to react is cut to bits, once again temporarily halting the invisible blades. Now it is just Mato, Atlat, and the other hunter. They reach the forest, the horses slowing down to wend between the dense tree trunks, their riders looking behind them. At first there is no movement to be seen but a rushing noise comes, and one after another the sound of blades hitting bark comes from the edge of the forest and they spur their horses, yelling as they go. The trees on the edge creak and bend and all but one fall from the cuts made in them, crashing to the ground.
“It seems to have stopped following us,” Mato says.
“But why? If it can cut through tree trunks as though they were cloud, why stop?”
“Maybe it’s too big to fit in between the trunks,” remarks Atlat.
“You are on the right track, but not quite right.” Kaga appears, hanging upside down from a tree, his legs looped over a low hanging branch, arms dangling. The three men start at the sudden sound of his voice, and they dismount, leveling their spears at the suspended senior. He does not react to their affront, maintaining his upside down grin. “From what I could see before my perch was so rudely cut out from under me, there’s nothing there.” Atlat lowers his spear and stares at the old man.
“How you can say there’s nothing there with what we’ve just seen? Something is out there, probably waiting for us to leave these woods even now!” the hunter says. Atlat waves his hand at him, cutting him off.
“You were watching from those trees?” he says.
“Yes, and I nearly broke a leg jumping off as you all came thundering by, that vicious wind following in your wake.”
Atlat folds his arms and looks at the ground.
“So there’s nothing there.” Mato and the other hunter look at Atlat, weapons still raised.
“Atlat, how can you trust this old man so easily? He’s the only other living thing out here, and he’s not been cut to pieces.” Mato gestures with his spear.
“Yes, how do we know you’re not the evil spirit in disguise?” The other hunter puts his weapon next to Mato’s. As they speak, Kaga’s face is turning red, and he curls up to grab the branch so he can drop down right side up. He lands, crouching from the impact, and then stands up, brushing himself off.
“Honestly, I do not have a way to disprove your suspicion. And also, I think it wise to suspect me. But I don’t think I’d cut down the tree in which I was sitting if I were me.”
“We don’t even know if–”
“Is it in the mountains?” Atlat cuts the hunter off. Kaga’s smile widens.
“And what makes you think that?” Kaga asks.
Atlat taps one foot, arms still folded.
“I… I was thinking about it, that this slicing wind that follows us so accurately, why would it not follow us into the forest? The only reason for that is that whatever is causing it cannot see us – and we are apparently not worth the effort to blow down the whole forest. So it must be looking down on us. Again, if it cannot see us in here, then it must be up higher. The only place it could be is up in the mountains.” Kaga closes his eyes as Atlat finishes.
“Then we can retreat using the trees as cover! Let’s get out of here while we can.” Mato nods and turns to Atlat and Kaga, who are still staring at each other. “You can come as well, old man. Ride with me.” Atlat turns to face Mato, face impassive.
“I will stay here. I will make sure whatever is up in those mountains stays in those mountains.”
“And how do you plan on doing that? Those winds almost wiped us out, and you think you can face that? You don’t even know what this thing looks like! We’ve already lost so many, I cannot lose another.” Mato glares at Atlat.
“And what of the others that come out here, unknowing that death awaits them? At the very least we can get a better idea of what we’re up against. It will think we have retreated but instead just us two will be spying on the beast. It may not notice us if we go alone.”
Mato opens his mouth to speak, but then closes it as he looks at Atlat, who stares back at him.
“I can see I will not be changing your mind, even if we argued for the rest of the day. Do what you will, and may the Great Mystery protect you.” He looks at Kaga. “And you, old man. I hold you responsible for what may happen to Atlat, here. We will return in greater numbers.”
( ©2015 Sean Dorsey )