‘He is not there again,’ Moon Hawk stated emphatically as she entered the lodge. ‘Three days have—’
She caught her mother’s agitated movement and her eyes flicked over the low-burning fire to the semi-prostrate figure of Bear On The Flat. Her father’s head was inclined to one side in a doze. A good ten years older than Little Face, his body was still firm of muscle, his eye quick and keen. Although a member of the esteemed Fox warrior society, he was more renowned as a fearless hunter than an adventurous warrior. He’d gained five coups in his life, including taking a picketed horse from inside an enemy village, but these honours had not been enough to elevate him beyond being a Good Young Man and he’d never led a raiding party in his own right. Exactly how much he knew of his women’s plan to bring about her marriage to Winter Man, she wasn’t sure. Little Face had soothed his affronted authority as head of the lodge over her refusal of the marriage enquiry from the family of Skins The Wolf, but she’d not told him of their blatant manipulation of Winter Man. Such a course of action was not considered at all proper, and Bear On The Flat, had he been directly told, would have had no alternative other than to call a halt to it.
Moon Hawk eyed the reclining form of her father. He’d not been in the lodge when she’d left to refill the water-paunch, slipping out to a meeting of his clan-brothers after the family’s large evening meal. She’d not expected him back so soon. Turtle and Bobtailed Cat were playing together close to his feet and were making more noise than warriors in a victory parade without any disturbance to him. He couldn’t possibly have heard her own words.
‘He’s asleep,’ Moon Hawk hissed.
Her mother’s grimace bade her be quiet. She was not so certain.
‘I’ve told you about going out on your own,’ Little Face whispered. ‘You must be chaperoned at all times. It is imperative, now, that there must not be a hint of gossip about your character.’
Moon Hawk rolled her eyes, tired of her mother’s constant remonstrations, but the words she heard came from another, deeper, voice.
‘It has always pleased me that my eldest daughter is strong in limb and pleasant of features. It pleases me even more to know that she is chaste like her mother. I would be the proudest man alive if she were to marry well, but I would warn the two of you to step warily. The land you tread has more quicksand than you think.’
With an affected snort and a trembling exhalation, Bear On The Flat resumed his doze, if ever he had truly been asleep. Moon Hawk and Little Face exchanged an astonished look and then suffocated a shared giggle. It was impossible for Bear On The Flat to give his blessing to their scheme, but at least they knew he wasn’t going to reproach them from it.
Little Face began her monthly flow the next day and left the family tipi to take up residence in the small women’s lodge used for such occasions. Late that night, in a bout of high spirits, Bobtailed Cat knocked the entire contents of the water-paunch over an embroidered robe. As quickly as she could, Moon Hawk caught up the edges and took the heavy skin outside.
It was a warm, starlit night without a breath of wind to stir her unbraided hair. Noises travelled in the clear air: horses whinnying far outside the circle of the lodges, the soft, slow beat of a drum and high-pitched voices raised in song, the giggle of lovers, the demanding cry of a baby wanting its mother’s milk.
Moon Hawk spilled the water from the robe away from the door of the lodge and shook the skin several times to ensure that no drops still clung to the fine porcupine-quill embroidery, but it was damp in several places. She stretched it in her arms, ready to throw it over the roof of the sunshade, but drew it back into her body with a gasp. Deep in the shadow cast by the roofing-boughs a tall, slim figure was leaning casually against one of the supporting uprights. He uncrossed his ankles and stepped into the bright starlight. It was Winter Man. Moon Hawk’s heart-beat doubled.
‘I’ve stood outside many lodges waiting to speak to a woman within,’ he said wearily, ‘but this one . . .’ He turned his lazy gaze on to the buffalo-skin tipi, the brightness of the fire within making it almost translucent. ‘You are more closely chaperoned than a Sacred Woman. I thought I’d grow old and lose my teeth standing here.’
A smile crept across Moon Hawk’s lips, and she pulled the edge of the robe up to her nose to hide it from his sight.
‘There’s no need to cower behind that robe. I’ve not come to entice a kiss from you. I have a more willing partner waiting for my touch.’ He inclined his head, indicating some other lodge lost in the darkness. Moon Hawk felt as though a bowl full of icy water had been poured over her head.
‘You trilled well for your sister’s doll. I’ve not heard you trill so well for the return of a Good Young Man.’
Moon Hawk affected an unconcerned shrug of her shoulders. ‘Perhaps your ears were attuned to other voices.’
Perhaps? Moon Hawk’s eyes widened. Was Winter Man openly admitting his interest in her? Could she drop this pretence and at last speak of her love for him?
‘We lost horses to the Shoshone during the last moon,’ he said. ‘Running Fisher is leading a raid against them in retaliation.’ He raised his hand level with his waist and wavered it slightly. ‘The horses of the Shoshone are not the best, but those Bad Lodges need to be shown that we will not tolerate their childish antics. I’m among those going with Running Fisher.’
A chill ran down Moon Hawk’s spine. He was going on a horse-raid. There was nothing untoward about that, she told herself fiercely. Wealth was measured in horses. Raiding horses from an enemy’s herd was the principal way of acquiring wealth. Only frightened men caught wild horses and broke them for riding. There were no frightened men among the Apsaroke. Her father had been on many horse-raids and had never returned without a string of mounts to his credit. Winter Man, too, was well versed in the art. Why was she so fearful for him?
She watched him raise his hands and rest them on the cross-pole of the sunshade roof. The blue-grey starsheen glided over his tautening muscles; it reflected off the abalone shell gorget tied about his throat. His eyes bore into hers, cold and calculating and proud. Far away a coyote howled its mournful cry and the half-wild village dogs answered it in turns. The sound made Moon Hawk’s flesh creep. It was as if they had caught the scent of a fresh carcass.
‘The others ride for wealth,’ he said, ‘but I have prayed to the Spirits. I have spoken with my Medicine. I will return with a single horse, and it will wear a short rope round its neck. I will hear you trill for me and see how well you do it.’
No! No! The words screamed inside her head. She had never intended this, never. To raid horses from an enemy’s herd was bravery enough. Scattered in their hundreds on the hills outside a village, men could take them and escape before the alarm was raised, but a picketed horse . . . A picketed horse was the pride of its owner. It was tethered to a tipi staking-pin outside the door of a lodge; an enemy lodge in an enemy village. One sound, one snort of the horse, one growl of the dogs, and that village would rise as one to rain death on to the intruder. On to Winter Man. He couldn’t do this, not just to flaunt the deed before her, not just as part of this courting game they were playing — she was playing. First Maker, what had possessed her to start it?
She swallowed down the fear risen into her throat. She would have given anything at that moment, made any sacrifice, to have been able to beg him to abandon his quest. Had he known her thoughts he would have hung his head in shame and gone high into the Shining Mountains to wail his grief like a wretched thing. Even though he might forfeit his life, she could not dishonour him that way. She took a breath to force courage such as his through her veins and lifted her head as any proud Apsaroke woman would on such an occasion. She only hoped that there was not enough light in the starsheen for him to see the tears standing in her eyes.
‘Bring a picketed horse to this village and you shall hear me trill for you,’ she said.
Winter Man did not smile. He did not give any sign that he had heard her words. As silent as a cougar, he turned and stalked away into the night.
This completes Chapter 2. Next week we're off on a horse raid... that doesn't quite go according to plan. If you enjoyed this sample please Tweet and/or leave a comment. Thanks.