By John R. Fultz
This is an excerpt from the novel The Testament of Tall Eagle by John R. Fultz, presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Ragnarok Publications and John R. Fultz, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2015 by John R. Fultz.
When I had survived the fangs of fifteen hungry winters, the People sent me into the wilderness to find my magic.
Already my hair hung below my shoulders, but it held no copper rings or talismans of bone, no gleaming stones or sacred feathers. These things were found in a man’s hair, and I was still only a boy without a name.
I painted my face with pigments of white and indigo, the bright colors of the sky. My father gave me his best knife with a blade of smooth, sharp flint. I asked for nothing more. In the chill morning of early spring I stood bare-chested while Wise Crow sang to the spirits of our ancestors. Green mountains encircled the river valley, hunched giants wearing hoods of snow. They protected Winter Village from harsh winds during the long, cold season. Now was the time when sleeping wonders arose from the melting snows, Father Sun smiled into the valley, and the wild colors of the earth revealed themselves. This season of rebirth was also the time for boys to become men.
Beside me, his shoulders broader, his dark hair a bit longer, stood Son of Bear Killer. We were as close as brothers, although he was my cousin. Our mothers had given birth in the same hour of the same night, and we had grown together sharing the rough games and adventures that all boys share. Now we clutched our fathers’ knives and stared into the sloping woodlands beyond our tiny world. We must go our separate ways, each to find his own way along the Spirit Trail.
“Son of Two Elks,” Wise Crow said to me. He touched my forehead with the feather of an owl. I looked into his wrinkled, toothless face. “Are you ready to walk the path of manhood?”
I nodded, squeezing tighter the hilt of my father’s knife.
“Then find the Spirit Trail,” said Wise Crow.
I ran as fast as I could toward the shadows of the big trees.
“Son of Bear Killer,” I heard him say behind me. “Are you ready… ” The wind stole his words from my ears as I sprinted.
I glanced back at Winter Village before I entered the tree line. What I saw is frozen into my memory as a leaf is frozen beneath the ice of a winter stream. I saw the nearly two hundred teepees of the People, tall cones of buffalo hide painted with the symbols of prosperity, and the white smokes rising like dreams from their pointed roofs. I saw the People, or most of them, gathered at the edge of the village to watch the Rites of Manhood: women wrapped in their splendid buffalo robes, men with chests bare against the morning wind, my father and Bear Killer standing first among them, their flesh etched with the sacred scars of war, their braided hair heavy with charms. Finally, I saw Son of Bear Killer running in the opposite direction, following the river toward the distant plains.
How could I have known the meaning and the power of our opposite paths?
The first day I spent running and climbing. The mountainsides blossomed and long grass grew between the trees. I went far from Winter Village, running until I could run no more, pausing to catch my breath, to drink from a cold stream, and running again. The tiny creatures of the woods fled before me. Once I ran through a cloud of butterflies and found a mountain meadow thick with scarlet flowers. I sought the highlands because I secretly hoped the Eagle Spirit would find me… or the Hawk Spirit. Both were powerful, and either would make me a mighty warrior. I pushed myself toward the tallest peaks, the ones gleaming white against the blue sky. When sunset came I was too exhausted to make a shelter, and I was hungry.
Since the Spirit Trail demands fasting, I lay on a flat, mossy rock and fell to sleep with my stomach growling. The night passed without vision or dream, just a cold and dark period of sleeping and waking to shiver, then sleeping again. I awoke before dawn, chilled to my bones and began running to warm my arms and legs. I ran up a mountainside, along high plateaus and skirted the tops of winding ridges between the greater peaks. Always head upward, the snowy summits and crystal sky filling my sight. The day grew hot beneath the fiery face of Father Sun, and my stomach became a hard piece of clay inside my belly. I drank from a mountain spring, filling myself too full of the icy water, and vomited. I would have to drink slowly, no matter how thirsty or hungry I might be.
Towards the end of the second day I used my father’s knife to cut the branches from a young pine oak. I built a crude shelter against the wind between two tall rocks. I gathered fresh green leaves and brown moss to make my bed. The cool of evening was descending as Father Sun lowered himself behind the peaks. I sat on the edge of a high cliff and watched the sky turning the color of blood, the clouds sailing like purple ghosts. The first stars emerged from the blanket of night.
I thought of White Fawn, the girl I would someday make my wife.
Right now she was fixing the evening meal in her father’s lodge, stirring the succulent hare-meat in a pot of herbs and tender roots. I ignored the stones turning and scraping in my stomach. The glittering stars reminded me of White Fawn’s eyes. I had seen them reflected there when we walked together beside the river. A cold wind brought the touch of night, and I remembered the heat of her hand in mine, the whispered promises we made among the green reeds.
Mother Moon rose thin and sharp above the peaks, like a curving silver knife. In the distance I heard the yipping song of a coyote, which ended my foolish thoughts. I climbed into my rough hut and lay down. I dreamed of coyotes chasing me through the dark, their eyes flaming red as the sunset, their fangs sharp as silver knives.
On the morning of the third day the sharp pain of my hunger subsided to a dull ache. I drank as much water as I dared from the spring, then climbed higher. I climbed in short bursts of endurance, then rested. The hunger had become a growing weakness in me. While I rested, looking across the winding maze of valleys and ravines, a black snake crept up behind me and lay there waiting. When I turned to rise, it hissed and sprang at my foot. Its fangs sank into the leather of my moccasin. In a panic I grabbed it just below the back of its pointed head and tossed it from the side of the mountain. It landed on the rocks far below, and I was sure the fall had killed it. I removed the moccasin and checked the wound. The serpent’s fangs had not broken my skin. I fingered the two tiny holes in the side of my moccasin and stared at the mountain above me. This must be a sign… whatever my guardian spirit would be, it must be waiting for me here.
The top of the mountain seemed terribly far away. It was not the tallest of the great peaks, but its summit was wrapped in a mantle of clouds. I climbed higher. The world fell away below me, a green blanket full of curling blue-gold rivers gleaming in the sunlight. Now I could no more run, only climb straight up. When sunset came, I lay exhausted on a high ledge and watched the stars wink to life above the mountains. In the distant east I saw the faint brown of the wild plains, and my thoughts turned for a moment to Son of Bear Killer. What spirits would he meet down in the flat lands? That night I also had no dreams, or did not remember them. I was too worn with hunger and exertion.
Mother Moon lay behind a wall of clouds when I awoke in the dark. The mountain trembled beneath me. Small rocks and clouds of dust rolled past the ledge where I shivered. Somewhere a brilliant light danced like the glow of a thousand lodge-fires. I raised myself and stepped out onto the ledge rim. A ghostly light blazed atop the mountain, golden and silver and crimson. In the wake of that light strange shadows danced, and boulders tumbled like thunder.
It seemed the mountaintop was aflame, yet I smelled no smoke. Then came the stench of something foul, something I could put no name to. It smelled vaguely like a snake’s flesh, but far more unclean. A terrible cry fell from above, the moaning of a hundred dying elk, their voices joined as one. Yet there could be no elk this high. It was a sound that had never been heard in these mountains. I shrank back as a massive shadow glided down the mountainside some distance from me… I could not tell what it was. A black cloud, yet heavy as a pile of boulders, it seemed to crawl or slither into a deep ravine, dislodging rocks and shale in its wake.
I turned my face to the golden glow above, and in its wavering light I began to climb. It was dangerous, foolish perhaps, to climb so high without daylight, but the Spirit Trail called me forward… up toward the dancing lights. I knew I had made the right decision when I heard the shriek of the hunting eagle. It rang through the gloom like a war cry, and my blood raced. I would find the Eagle Spirit. I would know the eagle magic. I climbed without thought or breath until I crowned the lip of a broad plateau.
At first I could not see it well… the fading lights dazzled my eyes. I pulled myself up onto the flat ground and looked upon something for which I had no name. Something marvelous and beyond my ability to understand.
A second mountain sat atop the first. Yet the second mountain was made of glowing gold, beaded with shimmering crystals set in weird designs. The second mountain had been carved into slim, pointed spires like tremendous teepees of gold. Giant domes of sparkling stone gleamed brighter than Mother Moon at her fullest. Among the spires and domes I sensed the presence of open spaces, lush gardens, and groves of splendid trees, as if nature had woven itself a great lodge in which to house its most powerful spirits. About the base of the second mountain stood a golden wall topped with structures in the shape of mighty spearheads. All these things thrilled me and stole my heaving breath, but it was the eagles that filled my heart with joy.
Between the golden spires a flock of eagles soared. They skirted the surrounding peaks, and sometimes I heard their shrill songs tearing through the sky. Here are the Lords of All Eagles, I thought. The Eagle Spirit himself must live here. These are his people…
I had no idea how huge these eagles were until one of them descended. The light of the golden mountain made it a massive shadow winging toward me. It did not cry out, but I felt the great beating of its wings. They made a wind that nearly knocked me backwards, where I would have fallen to my death. But I knew no fear in the face of that great bird, for it served the Eagle Spirit, and had it not called me here?
Now Father Sun peeked his bright eye over the horizon, and in his first rays I saw that the great eagle was all of white feathers, except for its head which was black. It landed on the plateau in front of me, and it stood taller than a buffalo. It dug black talons into the dirt and blinked at me with eyes like pools of midnight. I stood in perfect calm before this Lord of Eagles, heart thundering in my breast, my arms spread wide to receive its blessing.
A strange voice met my ears. Someone spoke harshly in a language I did not know. It was not the speech of the People, or any of our enemies. It was not the great eagle who spoke, but a tall man who rode on the bird’s back. I blinked, unbelieving my own vision. He was a warrior, this I could tell from his long spear and powerful arms. Plates of gold glimmered along his arms and legs, and the sign of an eagle on a metal disc was strapped against his wide chest. He could have slain me in an instant with his golden spear, and for a moment I thought he might. Yet he only shouted a few strange words at me. His skin gleamed gray as granite in the rising dawn, and his eyes were narrow and dark, staring at me from beneath a golden hood.
“O, Great Eagle Spirit!” I called out. “The Son of Two Elks has come! Share with me your sacred power, and I will honor you all the days of my life!”
Now the great eagle beat its wings again, and the warrior shifted his spear as if to thrust it through my heart. He said something else in his foreign tongue, but it sounded like a curse. He pulled on bird’s neck feathers and it reared backward, raising its giant claws. Without a sound, it wrapped those huge talons about my waist and shoulders. I felt no larger than a field mouse in its clutches. The tips of its claws sank into my flesh like knives, but I did not scream. I had been taught long ago to endure pain without protest. Such is the way of the People.
The world spun beneath me, a swirl of green, brown, and silver. Stars erupted behind my eyes and a fierce wind took my breath. The great eagle flew high above the mountains, clutching me fast. The thunder of its wings deafened me. Father Sun’s fire struck my eyes and blinded me, and the eagle fell toward the deep valleys. I am ashamed to say I lost my senses. Black sleep drowned me, and the last thing I saw was the white breast of the great eagle heaving before my eyes.
I awoke in the calm heat of midday. Pain was my first sensation, then terrible thirst. Running water sang a bubbling song nearby. Stumbling to my feet, I saw that I lay near a swift river that danced along a rocky slope. I shoved my face in and drank deeply. Pushing back my wet hair, I noticed the shallow wounds on my right shoulder, side, and back. The marks of the ungentle talons. On the ground I found a single white feather as long as my forearm. These things were the proof of my vision.
I fell to my knees on the muddy bank and shrieked my own eagle-cry into the sky. I held the white feather in my fist and sang praise to my ancestors. I had found the eagle magic! The spirit of the great bird was now my guardian.
The white peaks were distant now. I had awoken in a deep, green valley outside the People’s territory. After my jubilation and singing were done, my first thought was of our enemies. I must find my way back to Winter Village and so complete the Spirit Trail. I would be nearly a man now. I had discovered my magic. I did not understand yet everything my vision had shown to me, but there would be time to think on it, and time to speak with Wise Crow. My second thought was a remembrance of my hunger. It came upon me like a storm, the assault of a passion long denied. I must eat before I moved any further.
Near the river’s edge I found succulent blackberries and dug up some thick white roots. My craving for meat would have to wait. I drank my fill of river water, washed my wounds, and traveled by the signs of shadows and moss. My heart soared as I walked, and soon I was running again. Now I would hunt with my father and the men. Then I would take the Blood Trail with a war party. Once I had walked the warpath I would be fully a man, and I could take a bride.
Watching the ridges and slopes for signs of enemies, I soon came into familiar lands. Near sunset I saw the sweet smokes of Winter Village rising into the purple sky.
Bearing my white feather, my new scars, and my knife, I returned to the river valley where White Fawn waited for me in her father’s teepee.
. . .
The People greeted me with silence. I walked proudly to the lodge of my father, and those who saw me stared at my fresh new scars. Children ran about the legs of their parents and watched me with open mouths. Even they grew silent at my return. I met the eyes of no one until I saw my father sitting before his teepee. He was finishing work on a new arrow, and he concentrated on the precision of his handiwork until I stood before him. I smelled the cook fire inside the lodge and heard the low singing of my mother Loves the River. Two Elks raised his dark eyes and stood up from his work. I showed him the long white feather.
“I have walked the Spirit Trail,” I said, my eyes never leaving his. With the merest glance of those eyes he could shame me, punish me, or fill my heart with the leaping flames of pride. “I have found the eagle magic,” I told him.
He bent and stood again. In his hands was his great hunting bow. He offered it to me. I wrapped my fingers about the smooth wood and felt the etchings that decorated its length. The string was a length of fine buffalo sinew. With this weapon Two Elks had fed our family for as long as I remembered… and the feathered shafts launched from its string had struck down many of our enemies. I swallowed a dry lump in my throat and blinked. My father placed his big, rough hand on my shoulder.
“Go see Wise Crow,” he said. “Then we will eat the deer I killed today.”
Carrying my father’s precious gift, the testament of his pride for his only son, I crossed the village toward the teepee of the shaman. Women sang at their evening work, and the smell of roasting meats made my stomach grumble. My wounds stung but I hardly noticed hunger or pain. My heart was full of my father’s love. I walked past the lodge of Falling Rock, but I did not see White Fawn or her sister. They must be inside finishing the day’s chores. Falling Rock himself stood with arms crossed, watching me with a firm jaw. I wanted to run to that teepee and pull back the flap, to tell White Fawn I was a man and take her in my arms. But I walked instead to the lodge of Wise Crow and sat calmly in the dirt before his door.
Soon the flap of buffalo hide was pulled back, and a wrinkled hand waved me forward. Inside I sat on the smooth skins and inhaled the scents of dried sumac hanging from the lodge poles. Wise Crow settled his aged bones before me and fed tinder into his evening fire. He gave me cool water from a gourd and I drank deeply. I told him all that happened to me on the Spirit Trail. I showed him the feather and each of my wounds, where the great eagle pierced my flesh. As I spoke, he crumbled a sumac leaf in his palm and stuffed it into his long pipe, which he lit and began to smoke. His hair was long and nearly as white as the pipe smoke which rose to mingle with that of his cooking fire.
When I finished my tale, he offered me the pipe. This was a great honor, so I took it softly into my hands and drew the smoke into my chest. I stifled my coughing as the smoke burned inside me, and my heart seemed to swell in size. Wise Crow began to speak while I smoked.
“You have had a powerful vision, Son of Two Elks. It is good you come to me so that you may fully understand this magic you have found. The tall eagle you saw is your guardian spirit. If you respect this spirit, give it honor and sacrifice, it will watch over you all your days. The warrior who rode upon the eagle’s back was you… as you will one day be. You said the eagle’s head was black, the color of death that we use for war paint… but the eagle itself was white as this feather. This means that the eagle is a pure spirit which will carry you to victory in war… and you will bring death to your enemies.”
I nodded and gave the old man back his pipe, but his words troubled me.
“Grandfather,” I said. “I do not believe this was a vision or dream. It was real. I was awake.”
Wise Crow nodded and exhaled the sumac slowly from his aged lips.
“Dreams… visions… these things are as real as the waking world,” he said. “Some say they are even more real. Do not let this trouble you. Visions are true things… your scars and this great feather bear out this truth.”
“What about the golden mountain?” I asked. “The mountain atop the mountain? It seemed like a great… golden… village.”
“To the Eskarari gold is a sacred metal,” said Wise Crow. “They kill and die for it. This part of your vision means that you will know great wealth. Your village will prosper. All this will be true, if you honor the Eagle Spirit. Tomorrow, go and speak with Eagle Brother. He, too, has the eagle magic… he can tell you many things.”
I watched the fire dance in the old man’s eyes.
“I will do this,” I told him.
“Come,” said Wise Crow, and I helped him stand inside his lodge. He took up a deerskin drum and began to beat upon it with a curved piece of buffalo bone. He led me outside to stand before his door, and the People slowly gathered about his lodge. The drum called to them like a warm fire calls to those bitten by cold. The men with their glorious scars and braids full of charms, the women in their buffalo hide dresses and deerskin shirts, and even the children in their simple loincloths or entirely naked… all gathered to hear the words of Wise Crow and to look upon my success. I saw my father among the waiting men, and farther back my little sister, Wind in Hair, smiling at me. My heart pounded harder when I saw White Fawn smiling near her own father. Just another face in the crowd, but to me the most beautiful sight in all the mountains.
Wise Crow spoke in his loud, rough voice. “The Son of Two Elks has walked the Spirit Trail! He has found the eagle magic! From this day forth, his name shall be Tall Eagle! Let him join the hunt and walk like a man across the earth! Praise to the ancestors!”
The People erupted in cheers. They shouted my new name, the men threw whooping war cries into the night, the women trilled their high songs and yipped like coyotes, and the children ran about my legs making their own wordless noises. I hid the white feather in my belt—it must go into my secret medicine bag. Yet I raised my father’s bow and knife high. The village gloried in my triumph. Sooner than I would have liked, White Fawn’s father guided his family back to his lodge. She waved at me as she walked away. I knew I could see her tomorrow when she worked at the riverside, so I waved a silent promise.
Wise Crow went back into his lodge, and the crowd dispersed but for a few younger boys who lingered in my presence. They wanted to see my fine new bow and hear tales of my experience. But I learned long ago not to weaken my soul with boasting. I ignored most of their silly questions.
“Where is the Son of Bear Killer?” I asked.
“He has not returned,” one of the boys told me.
“Perhaps he died on the Spirit Trail,” said another.
I pushed this one to the ground. “Silence!” I said. “You are too ignorant to know the power of words, so I will not beat you. Speak to me never again!” The foolish boy wiped his eyes and ran off to find his mother.
I sent the other boys away and went to my father’s lodge. Along the way I felt the eyes of men and women still upon me, yet it was not the same. They saw me as a man now, no longer a harmless boy. I carried the eagle magic. I was Tall Eagle.
My mother and sister embraced me while my father carved a haunch of roasted deer. I ate it like a hungry wolf. It was good to be home, and it was good to be a man. I thought only of White Fawn… of the buffalo hunt that lay in my future… and the distant warpath that would bring me glory. I slept that night like a dead man, content yet exhausted, and warm for the first time in days.
In the bright glow of morning my father roused me to show me the arrows he had made for me. A buckskin quiver of twenty fine shafts, set with the feathers of hawk, sparrow, and raven. I went out into the sunrise to practice with my new weapon. This was no boy’s play bow, but the tool of a man, a warrior. My arm would need to grow strong to be worthy of it, my eye be as keen as the eagle’s own. In these things I would be guided by my guardian spirit. When Father Sun lay like a golden disc upon the surface of the river, I knew it was time to speak with Eagle Brother. He was a strong hunter and had taken many scalps in war. I hoped he would tell me secrets of the eagle magic that would save me much trial and error.
As I walked from the clearing where the shooting-tree stood, I saw the People running from their teepees and gathering at the center of the village with much commotion. I hurried to join them and forced my way through the smiling, laughing crowd. The men had all stopped their work and stood in a ring at the far edge of the village, and everyone else clambered behind them to see the wonderful sight.
I stood upon a pile of kindling and looked over the heads of the crowd. I saw my cousin and friend, Son of Bear Killer. He had returned alive from the Spirit Trail. He, too, would be a man.
Then I noticed how high he stood above the men who milled about him, and I saw the miracle he had performed. He did not truly stand at all, but sat proudly on the back of a beautiful four-legged beast. Its narrow head was the color of night with the mark of a white star above its eyes. The rest of its glistening coat was that same shining blackness, and its shaggy tale swished nervously.
All the eyes of the People fell upon my cousin and his fantastic beast. He rode it toward the heart of Winter Village. He did not smile, but his eyes blazed with triumph. He looked thin and hungry, but he sat prouder than any warrior and commanded the awe of his kind.
It was a strong, perfect pony.
Son of Bear Killer had brought the first horse to the People.
He had found the horse magic.
I looked for White Fawn among the shouting, dancing crowd but could not find her.
The Testament of Tall Eagle
will be published June 8 2015 by
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John R. Fultz lives in the North Bay Area of California but grew up in Kentucky. His latest fantasy novel, The Testament of Tall Eagle, arrives on June 8 (Ragnarok Publications). John’s Books of the Shaper trilogy includes Seven Princes, Seven Kings, and Seven Sorcerers (Orbit Books). His short story collection, The Revelations of Zang, is a series of interrelated tales born in the pages of Weird Tales and Black Gate.
John’s work has also appeared in Year’s Best Weird Fiction (Vol. 1), That is Not Dead, Shattered Shields, Lightspeed: Year One, Way of the Wizard, Cthulhu’s Reign, The Book of Cthulhu II, and other fine publications. His website is www.johnrfultz.com.
John’s tales for Black Gate include “Oblivion is the Sweetest Wine” (Black Gate 12), ”Return of the Quill” (Black Gate 13), “The Vintages of Dream” (BG 15), and When the Glimmer Faire Came to the City of the Lonely Eye, which Tangent Online called “an enjoyable adventure that reveals the power of art.” Read an exclusive chapter from Seven Kings, the second book of his Shaper Trilogy, here.