Night had arrived, but it was filled not with the usual chirping and hooting of the creatures making their way out of their lairs and nests to feed and breed when the sunlight went out. It was the way of the forests and jungles in Nahuac, an ever continuous cycle where many native creatures lived and died thanks to and for The Source.
Still tonight, many more died in more significant numbers than usual, and thankfully not all of them were children of Nahuac.
Five Maab’tzen was done sobbing. He was done panting. Void, he was even done feeling desperate. As he saw yet another fire break out in one of the low wooden buildings in the tzikob, all he could feel was anger.
The mounted bearded invaders were trying to make yet another run down the main calxatann, the broad street running down the middle of the fort, sure this time, they would be able to conquer the improvised barricade the brave defenders had barely finished before the gates were opened by the infiltrators who had made short work of the sentinels stationed in the ramparts.
Five Maab’tzen could not help but feel partly responsible. Once Kan’tzotz had seen it was their only chance for him to fly fast and accurately and warn the elderly captain in charge of the fort’s security, he tried to convince him just to keep running so they could deliver the ill news together. Maybe those were the crucial heartbeats he had lost trying to make the Bendavee change his mind, stubborn and stalwart creature. Yet the buunkun could not blame him for the delay… for he had not been thinking of anything other than the fear clawing at his hope and consuming his breath.
“l be a matter of jest,” the feathered apprentice spat as he made his way through the narrow space between two barracks. “First, I only didn’t want to be alone. Now, I dread he’s all on his own out there.”
The growling mounts of the charger began yelping. A quick glance over his shoulder allowed Five Maab’tzen to see how several Ocellin rained javelins down on the furious squad making their way towards the barricade, losing several riders and a couple of the mounts, only to then be met with the brave slingers who took potshots at both fanged beasts and rider beasts, both snarling and yowling their lust for battle.
More fell, but the rest did not stop their charge, forcing the nimble slingers to run back to the barricade and quickly dive behind it. As soon as the last slinger was safe behind the carts and baskets, other warriors armed with long-poled spears popped out from the piled-up junk and impaled a few more of the riders, the brutal impact splintering the wooden shafts as if these were but sticks and sending both the riders and the spearmen flying back, the former wounded beyond salvation, the latter shook and with their arms and shoulders sore.
The buunkun was amazed how all this death took place in a matter of a few breaths, while the fire caused even more destruction in the barracks, warehouses, and halls nearest the palisade. Five Maab’tzen could see the rest of the raiding party had finally arrived on foot and kept rushing the gates and their last defenders. The scribe apprentice knew the time for harassing the ever-dwindling mounter charger from the rooftops and from behind the feeble barricades was over.
Now, the killing would be made looking straight into each others’ rival’s eyes.
Another one of the small raider groups had been waylaid by the sound of thrashing behind the brush, louder than the din of battle, growing ever more present and furious. Still, the Ysvalian scouts signaled to follow the rustling and their comrades nodded in silent agreement, fanning out into a fighting formation.
This was exactly what Kan’tzozt was hoping.
The Ysvalidd were of a more disciplined disposition and too set on fighting in throngs that quickly gave space for their members to carry out gallant personal combats, yet they also remained close enough to help those of their numbers who might find themselves in a desperate fight for their lives. He had to give it to them; these invaders seemed truly loyal and supportive with each other as soon as they saw one of their own besieged by the enemy. Too bad they did not take into account the jungle and forests looked favorably upon any who could kill in absolute silence.
This was the third vanguard party the Bendavee forester had stalked, having run out of time to set more traps he could lure the invaders into. Not all had been deadly effective, but the invaders had suffered many injuries and were slowed down enough to give the buunkun time enough to reach the tzikob and warn the garrison so they could round up all the various peoples there and get out of the way of the crushing wave of raider about to hit them in the middle of the night.
Rot be upon their soft kins and feathered bodies; either the inexperienced buunkun did not make it there, falling to some unexpected assailant, or the captains had not listened to a word he said because the Bendavee forester-come-stalker now was pretty sure those were sounds of an all-out battle instead of a fighting retreat.
For a heartbeat, Kan’tzotz thought about not striking against these group of Northmen and slip away into the darkness, set on finding way stones pointing towards the next fortified garrison and hope he’d get there in time and find leaders less stupid than those now fighting a far stronger force without any real chance to win against it.
Then, he almost clicked his tongue in disgust at the stupid leaders who thought they could hold their ground against a wave of steel; at the rot-spreading invaders who had sailed farther south than they should have and at himself because he could not stop thinking about all the Nahuinn back the tizkob who needed a chance to escape. Yes, he almost clicked his tongue; still, he settled for the sound of flesh being ripped open and vertebrae sliced apart as he drove his mercifully quick spear through the rearmost human’s neck, holding her as she fell down to the ground.
We thank the feeder, Kan’tzotz recited in his mind, and she gently deposited the dead female warrior. Now, off to deal with your seven companions, forest-food.
Five Maab’tzeen could not believe he had reached a point far beyond the fighting; mainly due to the fact the fires were erupting in almost every corner of the doomed fort, and still, for some inexplicable reason, he made his way out of the thick of the fight and to a faraway corner the invaders had not yet been able to bring their howling death. But the buunkun had seen too many signs this would change before long.
Five Maab’tzen witnessed as Captain Muxbatan, senior officer and head of the Ocellin regiment, had fallen against the invader’s first charge, ripped apart by one of their monstrous mounts like a jamaque hound would do with a nitah rat. Then, Oxbaxtu had led a group of Mig tainn warriors to protect the traders and artisans lodging in the fort, expecting protection from any threat. Still, none counted on these northerners’ arrival and the unstoppable fury behind their attack. The buunkun suspected few, if any, had reached the Nahuinn citizens in time to do anything for them.
Five Maab’tzen felt like cursing the absurd bravery of the garrison’s captains and the sense of helplessness that overwhelmed him when it became evident nothing he could say would take the urge to fight from their anger-clouded and arrogantly deluded minds.
“Give it to a bored soldier to jump at the promise of battle,” the buunkun shook his head remembering Muxbatan’s brave yet absolutely futile stand and wondered if every other tzikob was also led by a fierce knucklehead and if that was so if there were enough Xibaid to raise all those who would die obeying every other of those fierce idiots’ orders to defend their tzikobs to the last breath. “A land defended by the dead. The very Xibaiin dream come true.”
Five Maab’tzen quite surprised himself with the cynical tone of his hushed words, as he moved silently, dashing from corner to corner and behind crates and baskets, imitating the sudden, well-calculated moves his Bendavee rescuer used back in the forest, hoping his lithe frame made him as least a third as proficient as the heavy lizard man yet knowing full well he was not. That he had come so far was only a combination of mad luck and fear spurring his arse onwards. The buunkun was no hero, much less a stalker. He only was looking out for his life and the chance to make it out of the overrun tzikob and try his luck at reaching another if only to honor Kan’tzotz’s sacrifice back in the forest, so everyone in the fort had a chance to escape the Ysvalidd and live. Now, almost all mahuílid were lying gutted, and those who still resisted were as good as dead.
As he turned a corner around one of the humble potters’ workshops, the buunkun had to hold his beak to stop himself from letting out a cry of terror when he saw a shadow moving and hiding behind one of the pottery shelves.
Hushed words, Nahuiin words, from very young humans’ mouths, doing their best at trying to remain undetectable, which to Five Maab’tzen only meant they were doing it just as wrong as he had while trying to be stealthy. He suppressed a laugh as he imagined all of his silly attempts amid all the surrounding horrors and chirped for the children to be quiet.
“I’m friend,” he tried to sound as reassuring as possible, making good use of his apt command of human speech. “I help.”
“You’re… shaking hand?” The voice of a little female came from behind the obscured shelf. “You… work hand?”
“Hush, Ixbatu!” A male, a little older than the female, admonished her. “He’s buunkun. You know most of them speak funny.”
Well, at least you understood me. Five Maab’tzen signaled for the two children to stay out of sight. And I can perfectly understand you.
The buunkun quickly moved to where the couple of younglings were and was rather taken aback at what he found there. They were not two, but eight little humans, all with terror in their eyes and shuddering in the darkness. His heart fell down a pit in his stomach.
Wyrms up my vent! He silently cursed at his luck. He was not sure he would make it out of the tzikob and fly away with his life, and now he found himself to be this sad bunch of human chicks’ only hope. He let his head hang out for five heartbeats. At least I can drop this crazy idea of flying away from here.
Five Maab’tzen signaled them to stay quiet and follow him.
The killing had gone swiftly until the two scouts made out the muffled thrashing of one of their dying comrades and Kan’tzotz scurrying away from the gurgling warrior.
The Bendavee had no trouble avoiding the wicked barbed spears both enemies threw at him, but he had to concede they were really apt at tracking him, even when he was trying to remain as silent and as cloaked in the forestal darkness as possible. Still, these foreigners persisted. Dogged was the pursuit and Kan’tzotz knew it was only a matter of time they spot their fellow warriors and cry out for help. Because he had seen it; they worked as if they were a single human, coordinating to support each other even if they fanned out to hunt down any enemy stragglers, or as the Bendavvee had realized, any survivors trying to escape from the fort.
It was the plan of feeble-minded hatchling, but Kan’tzotz could see how such an idea could, in its own twisted way, provide him with the only opportunity to shake his pursuers off.
“We follow you, feathered apal,” the oldest among the human children whispered from behind Five Maab’tzen. “We’ll honor your bravery.”
The buunkun just shook his hand without turning around, indicating the boy and all of his companions to stay quiet and lay low. He wanted to correct the boy and tell him to stop it, for he was no apal and certainly not to Náhuinn humans; he was merely a scribe apprentice, a record-keeper who got ambushed by and then trapped an invading force. He certainly was not brave. Still, these were the only other Nauhidd he had encountered on his way to the back of the encampment and the secreted trapdoor under the piles of offal and refuse, as there was nowhere else to go; why, with the rest of the tzikob now ablaze and the no sign of the fighting coming to an end soon, he shrugged made his way to the cuitlantac, knowing his feathers and his jerkin would end up fouled and stinky for days on end.
Then again, he would be a living stinker.
Same as the children, and that was enough for the buunkun to keep moving forward.
Kan’tzotz had completed the circle around Yumawta tzikob, and as he had expected when he saw the blazes growing more and more visible behind the ancient trees to his left, there was not much left untouched by the flames inside the north Náhuinn outpost, and given the acrid taste in the air. The Bendavee took another whiff as he kept on the move, now sadly sure only a handful of the Mig tainn garrison and craftspeople remained alive; he picked up the scent of both Ocellin and humans… but, try as he might, the forester-come-ambusher could not pick out any other known, familiar smells. He felt a short pang of sorrow upon realizing there was no scent of feathers in the smokey breeze.
“Quick! Haste!” Five Maab’tzen muttered in the best human-speech he could muster. “You make fast and no loud chirpings!”
The tiny humans nodded and moved on. Some of them were still smiling at each other for their refuse-smeared faces and bodies.
“No, no dilly-dallying! Haste, you!” The buunkun pressed them on into the forest while wiping… something… off his handsome beak; he did not really want to know what. He shook his hands to get rid of the sticky substance… or was it flesh… or… he did not want to know! He just shook his hands faster and harder, fighting the urge to regurgitate.
Suddenly, he stopped cold on his tracks and tried to bend lower. Maab’tzen was sure had heard the creaking of wood in the vicinity. It definitely had not been the snotty brats. It was farther away as if a heavy mochte eagle had come to rest on a high tree branch, barely able to support the heavy frame on top of it.
The buunkun looked up, but everything was darker than dark. Not even the light of the burning fort could pierce the darkness on the treetops against an almost pitch-black sky.
Five Maab’tzen signaled for the kids to stand still and…
Wait! The sky is never pitch black!
From behind, a wide trunk sprung the form of a Ysvalinn beardling, his tresses long, but the fur in his face still short. He had a barbed spear on his hand and a pleased grin on his beakless mouth. The Náhuinn children cried out in fright at the unexpected sight, and then they jumped and cried louder as another one confidently walked out of the brush. Both were talking and made no effort to mask their voices. The youngest children began to wail.
Five Maab’tzen shot desperate looks around him, his eyes busy trying to find a stone, a stick, anything to try and defend his human brethren. There was nothing he could use, and the conceited warrior that had just revealed herself seemed to read his thoughts and flashed him a side-smile and mockingly shook her head while holding a massive, wicked macahui blade, its serrated edges unbloodied.
Some warriors died without defending themselves, Five Maab’tzen thought, simply and without judgment. He was just assessing the evidence presented to him by the invader who would be his killer. It was a big blade; he had to give her that—a huge knife.
Five Maab’tzen discovered that facing death had somehow made him go numb; his voice sounded distant, detached, inside his own head. While he was on the run, he thought that as soon as he could catch a break, his body would collapse into an aching, quivering mass after all the exertion he had put himself through. Yet, now standing between two enemies, the young buunkun found he certain death gave him a calm demeanor as if he could no longer feel or be surprised by anything else. After all, he thought, what else can happen now I’m before the inevitable; now that all uncertainty is finally gone?
All the Náhuinn children were now sobbing, and a few of them were screaming at the two invaders; one of them, the buunkun, could not make which one was even calling for him, “the feathered apal,” to do something against the “hairy ones.”
I’m no apal, you runts. Five Maab’tzen kept his eyes locked on the woman wielding; no, she was dragging the macahui blade, who looked at him, incredulous and arching one eyebrow. She spoke, but the young buunkun cared nothing about making any sense to her northern gibberish. He was sure she was probably trash-talking him, goading her enemy into making a sudden move so she could argue he had given her an excuse to kill him. Well, fuck that, you invader scum. You’ll be nothing but a cowardly murderer.”
The high branches creaked again as if the tree was in agreement with the buunkun, it’s creaking a curse against the invaders who had brought random, rampant, absurd death to this corner of the forest. Then, as the buukun rose his head, offering his neck and chest in defiance. The enemy laughed at his belated show of acceptance, not yet moving to grant him the death reserved for him. Five Maab’tzen made no sound, and, slowly raising his hands, he half-turned on his heels. As he stood there looking up at the night sky, he noticed a shadow darker than dark falling down from the treetops from the corner of his eye.
There was a loud, wet sound, quickly followed by the sickening cracking of bones and a low, hissed curse, and the children screamed in terror. Five Maab’tzen watched in disbelief as the Ysvalian scout’s head was half-crushed under a massive blanket of darkness, which had its haunch pierced by the wicked spears of the raiders.
A couple of silver points blinked like lonely stars returning to the gulfs beyond the sky.
Another scream of rage and a blurbed warning came from the woman who ran past him, struggling to raise the blade she had taken as a war prize. Further unintelligible screams came from behind the tzikob outer wall, and the buunkun saw how Kan’tzotz shifted in colors, his scales turning a pale grayish in hue. The large Bendavee had trouble remaining on his feet with his leg skewered by the Ysvalian weapon. He was open for her attack, and he barely lifted his own spear to meat the howling warrior coming at him.
Without thinking, Five Maab’tzen snapped his beak, grabbing the woman’s long braid squarely between its mandibles and tugging backward with his whole weight. The pull jarred his sternum and neck, and he could feel his hold would not last. Flashing his eyes down, he followed the line of the woman’s arm and caught a glimpse of the macahui blade’s hilt.
Contorting his body in ways the buunkun never knew he could, he took the hilt of the blade and yanked it free of the invader’s hand, quickly turning ii in an upwards arc, feeling how his arms burned with the effort to wield the enormous weapon.
Then, something cracked, and a hot fluid sprayed his eyes, blinding him as he fell on his back and hit the ground with full force, knocking the wind out of himself. For a heartbeat, there was darkness, yet the sounds of the battle rang on his ears, refusing to quiet down and let him sink into the black around him. Then a powerful grip grabbed the back of his neck.
Great, was his immediate thought, I’m dead, and the Bendavee’s putting me to earth, so I can feed the forest. Five Maab’tzen felt the grip grow tighter and, as if it were lightning, someone pulled him up.
“Quick, Bright Feathers! Let it go!” The Bendavee half hissed, half coughed. “Open your eyes and let it go!”
I don’t have the blade, my arms are light… and one of my wrists is undoubtedly broken.
Five Maab’tzen could feel the lizardman’s handshaking him, and he heard the children were still sobbing, but they no longer seemed terrified.
“Bright apal, spit it out!” The eldest boy said, his voice a mix of amazement, fear, fury, and haste. “Let go of the hair, apal!”
“Five, open your silly beak and drop the braid, you feathered fool!” Kan’tzotz hissed.
“The braid!” The buunkun cried after letting the tuft of tress hair fall. It thudded as it hit the ground. Surprised, he looked down and saw the braid was still attached to the bloody back of the enemy’s skull. He felt his knees grow weak once more, but a firm sahe from the dour Bendavee helped him regain his composure. “How… why… ?”
Kan’tzotz took the buunkun along with him and signaled the human children to run in front of them, so they all could move as fast as possible, limping as he was with his wounded leg and the still-shaken buunkun.
There were shouts coming from behind them, but the Bendavee kept going, and Five Maab’tzen could hear him panting with every step they took, and he shook Kan’tzotz’s hand off, making his best effort to put his arm around the Bendavee’s broad shoulders.
“Here, let me help you,” the buunkun told his savior. “We can—”
Kan’tzotz gently took his feathered companion’s arm and pointed ahead.
“You keep going that way until you find the ravine. There you’ll stay until dawn. Once the sun begins to rise, follow the ravine straight ahead to the foot of the hill. From there, you’ll take the children north, around the rocky side; be sure it’s not the forested side, but the rocky one, understand?. After you all have reached the other side of the hill, sleep until dark. Then, move again and find Banbal tzikob, tell them this one fell to a raiding fleet, not a force but a fleet, brother. Make sure they send out warnings to the other outposts in the region. All of them with no exceptions. Do I make myself clear?”
“We can—” Five Maab’tzen began to speak, but the Bendavee clicked his tongue. Once. Loudly. “Yes, you’ve made yourself clear, brother of a myriad-color scales… you—”
“I stay and buy you the time you need. That’s all. Now, go!”
The buunkun nodded, took a deep breath, and turned to leave when he felt the Bendavee’s hand grabbed his forearm. He turned, and the forested handed him his light spear only to nod and let go of his hold.
Five Maab’tzen nodded again and turned to catch up with the children waiting for a few yards away. He turned his head one last time and saw the Bendavee reach down to retrieve his macahui blade and limp towards the enemy’s screams. He feared this was the last he would see of the Bendavee who had saved his life twice and he, his, once.
“It’s been a whole season, but we’re finally driving them back, and now the skirmishes are taking place near the coastline and around the only beachhead the invader’s control, hunab.”
The human could certainly chirp like an apprentice poet, no doubt. Five Maab’tzen put down his etching stick and the wooden tablet on the ground before him, slowly nodding in appreciation of the warrior’s effort to communicate in Buun.
“Well, that was to be expected. Both sides have paid a dire price, but this is our land.”
“So it is and will always remain, hunab. Now, I report the patrol’s findings: there still is a small band of invaders in the vicinity. They say the enemy is heading towards the waterhole and should get there by sunrise.”
“So, we go meet them, then.” FIve Maab’tzen stood up and signaled for one of the other warriors to fetch him his chest guard and greaves.
“Impossible!” Minanbat’s voice trembled, almost masked with flies’ buzzing and other insects around the bodies.
All the corpses were carefully deposited on their back near the tree roots or under the surrounding brush, their weapons laying beside them, and those with any grievous wounds on their faces had them covered with their own jerkins.
“Are there any other patrols or Ocelinn pride in the area?” Xujtal was genuinely wary. The captain’s grizzled second-in-command knew for a fact they were the only entire Warband on these parts. “One we didn’t know about, hunab?”
Five Maab’tzen walked around the place the Ysvalians had chosen to camp for the night, taking in every detail. Most of them never knew death had come; as the captain walked towards the last batch of dead bodies, he saw something protruding from behind a tree trunk. The buunkun circled around and almost laughed at what he discovered: his eyes centered on a single spot. It was a deep nook between the gnarled roots and rock, from where a rusty harpoon stuck out, its grim adornments swaying even if there was no wind.
“What?” Xujtal looked at his captain in confusion. “The invader’s braids?”
“It’s a sign for me,” hunab Five Maab’tzen nodded and turned to leave.
“A sign, hunab?“ Xujtal still did not understand what it all meant. “What does this tell you, sir? What does it stand for?”
“Confirmation here treads a ghost with the colors of the forest.”