The scorpion emerged into the shadow of the rock, angular body curved like a miniature dragon, and stopped, waiting. The man who watched was equally still, burned black as the scorpion by desert suns, fined down by hardship to sinew and muscle over heavy bones. The terrain ahead was harsh, a land of small ravines and barren slopes through which thrust frequent outcrops of reddish stone. Determined clumps of sagebrush clung to the ground before him, interspersed with occasional wisps of dry grass, but the great mountains lay behind him at last.
Day was drawing to an end. At dusk the animals came down to drink where a little water trickled from between two rocks to form a pool. Like the scorpion, he would be waiting. His bow could bring down a javelina pig or one of the shy mule deer. There was life enough in this land for those who knew how to take it. He had become a predator, focused on each evening’s hunt and the march that followed, seeking the exhaustion that would let him sleep through the day without dreams.
The sun sank lower and he closed his eyes against the light, shuddering as against that red glare the after-image of the scorpion became the sweetly curved form of a woman surrounded by flame. Sarina! His dry throat worked in a wordless moan. Even now, when he had reduced existence to this mindless struggle for survival, he could not obliterate memory. The image of his beloved still haunted him, and with it, his thirst for revenge.
In anguish he slammed his fist against the rock, and the scorpion skittered away. Damn you, Tadeo, he cursed himself as the pain shot up his arm. You break your hand, you can’t hunt. A hurt beast dies! And why not? he wondered then. Why did he struggle to stay alive when living only meant pain? He talked to himself often these days, but he was not always certain who replied.
If he had thought that dying would reunite him with Sarina he would have let the cursed Westrians kill him during those first terrible days after the battle at the Dorada Buttes. But he had glimpsed her face as the flames engulfed her. If her faith was true she had gone where he could never follow her. And if she was wrong…. she was only ash on the wind, along with Mother Mahaliel and half the men who had followed her to seek a new home in the Golden Land. If she was wrong, she was dead, and there was no hereafter, not even a hell from whose torments he could remember her.
He cradled his fist against his chest until the throbbing diminished, then licked the blood from his grazed knuckles and flexed his fingers. They still work, thanks–but no, Tadeo Marsh would give no more thanks to other powers. He picked up the bow he had taken from a Paiute hunter he had surprised in the mountains a few weeks before. The fellow had taken him for a wildman for the few moments of life that remained to him. A wildman or a madman–he no longer cared. Mother Mahaliel had lied. The Sun was a burning terror, and Sarina survived only in his memory. Therefore he must live until his enemies burned as she had burned and her image haunted their dreams as it did his.
The light was muted suddenly as the sun sank behind the scuptured line of the hills. Tadeo took a deep breath, got his feet under him and rose, moving from the protection of one rock to another, shadow in shadow. He licked a finger and lifted it to make sure the wind was still flowing toward him, then settled into the niche he had identified that morning, where he would have a clear shot at the pool. Now he need only wait while the light faded from the sky and the stars appeared, bright as Sarina’s eyes.
A mimbre tree had rooted itself between the rocks, overhanging the pool. The breeze brought him a faint fragrance from the pale, purplish flowers, their scent cloyingly sweet in the dry air. A few reeds poked through the water where the bottom sloped toward the shore. It was the only point at which a large animal could step to the water. There had been hoofprints in the muddy verge when he found the pool this morning.
But what came to the water was much larger than the deer he was expecting. In the dimming light, it took him a moment to recognize it as a horse. Swiftly Tadeo slid the strung bow over his head and arm, eased back from his perch, and began to work his way through the rocks. He could hear the splash and trickle as the animal lifted its head and then the sound as it drank again. As he came around the outcrop he saw a wiry sorrel pony of the sort they bred in the tribes. There was blood on the saddle. He took a soft step forward, murmuring some wordless reassurance as the sorrel looked up, and grasped the trailing rein.
The horse butted at his chest, wiping a wet nose against his tunic, then, ears pricking, the sorrel head came up again. In the next moment, the man’s weaker ears caught the sound a human makes in pain.
“Ah…” he whispered. “I wondered why you were wandering about the desertâ€¦” Leading the horse, he started toward the sound. For a moment he had been disappointed to realize that the rider was still alive, but that could be rectified, and he might have other things that could be used. Including informationâ€¦ This was a new country, still well to the north of the route he had taken with the Children of the Sun. Tadeo needed to know about roads and water. He needed to know what had happened to the garrisons he had left in Aztlan.
He found the man sprawled an arrow’s shot away, a small fellow with the black hair of a tribesman, his bronze skin gone gray with blood loss. He was dressed in a black tunic, and as Tadeo turned him over a silver medallion swung free, bearing the image of a crowned skeleton dressed in a woman’s gown, carrying scales in one hand and in the other a scythe. The gash in his side was crusted and clotted with gore. Tadeo looped the rein around his wrist and then picked up the man. Best get him away from the water hole if he still hoped to see any animals there, and he would still need to hunt if he decided to keep the man alive.
When he had deposited the stranger below the outcrop where he had spent the day, Tadeo unstoppered his waterskin and held it to the man’s lips. After a moment they opened, and in the next, he was sucking greedily.
“Santa Muerte–” he whispered when Tadeo pulled the waterskin away, and then some more words in mumbled Spanyol.
“You’re not dead yet, though if you don’t speak Anglo I’ve no reason to keep you alive–” grated Tadeo.
The man’s eyes opened, dark and burning with a fervor that reminded Tadeo uncomfortably of Mother Mahaliel.
“Holy Lady Death–” he said clearly. “She send you to save me.”
“That depends on who you’re running from, and why,” Tadeo replied, fingering the hilt of his knife.
“I was priest in Mechica lands, priest of Mictcacihuatl. She comes to me, says she Santisima Muerte too. She wants more worshippers.” He gestured, and Tadeo gave him the water again. “The priests, they don’t like that. They going to sacrifice me. That’s all right, but if I die now, people don’t hear about Doña Muerte and she doesn’t get more. So I run. I tell people in Aztlan about her and some laugh, and some try to kill me.”
And no wonder, thought that part of Tadeo that had once been a general in the armies of the Empire of the Sun. But the part that had seen Sarina die recognized something in this man’s glowing eyes.
“But I bleed plenty now,” he said with a triumphant smile. “My dark lady’s pleased. Blood keeps her living in the world.” His medallion glinted in the failing light, and as Tadeo blinked, it seemed to him that the image bore Sarina’s smile.
“Tell me about your lady,” he said softly.
“She’s queen of the dead, queen of Mictlan. Life in death…death in life…never dies. You know her?” His dark gaze fixed Tadeo suddenly. “You seen death, dark man?”
“Oh yes….” Tadeo said softly. “Too much, or maybe not enough.” Here, he thought, was a theology for those who had been betrayed by Mother Mahaliel. And for me? he wondered then. Sarina, in this dark queen will I find you? He looked down at the wounded man. “What’s your name, priest of Muerte?”
“Eztli…” whispered the other. “Means ‘blood’, in your tongue.”
Go on to Chapter One!
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