The war club crashed into the knight's cheek and once it dug in, a chunk of flesh tore loose. Old Tast had stuck teeth of the dreaded jokose into holes on the side of the club so that when he delivered it to his enemies, the teeth mimicked the bite of the vicious beast.
Tast had only a moment to see how it worked on the knight. The sight pleased him greatly.
The sun was high in the sky and not covered by any clouds. It was a good day to kill and, if it must be the way, a good day to die. The Knight, Andrés Guerrero de Vív, knew this better than anyone now.
The entire group of travelers, five in all but now one less after the untimely demise of the good knight Guerrero, ignored this one-armed stranger when he appeared in the road. The group would not ignore him again. A man with a collar around his neck, connected to the wagon by a chain, was next.
"You are outnumbered here, savage!" the barbarian slave, Aitor Abaroa, said.
Old Tast and Aitor circled one another. The barbarian was covered in sweat. The band of fools chose poorly when they decided to enter the land of Tast's people when its summer was most oppressive. The slave was much larger than Tast but the collar indicated to him that this man had been subdued before and was now fighting for the enemy. Old Tast would never allow such cowardice. He'd die before the enemy turned him into something he wasn't. He put the club back on his belt and took out his slaku. This weapon with its crescent handle and two parallel blades would serve him well against the hulk.
The slave took a longsword from the wagon, held it high in the air and charged at Tast. Flies were interrupted from their communion on the knight's corpse as the barbarian ran near.
Old Tast slashed his stomach and rolled out of the way. The cut was not deep, however, and the fight was far from over. Another slave, this one thinner but very tall, came out of the wagon wielding a bow.
"Lobo," the thin slave shouted, "ride! Keep the little one safe!"
"Aye, Bikendi!" came a call from the wagon and it took off past them, kicking up a trail of dust. The slender slave, Bikendi, fired an arrow at Old Tast and struck his shoulder. Tast cut the arrow with his slaku, in order to make the arrow easier to pull out as much as to showcase how sharp his weapon was to the enemy.
"Come, brother, let us destroy this infidel," said Aitor. Bikendi Abaroa laughed.
"Infidel?" Old Tast said. "Seems you were called that once but now, like beaten hounds, you sniff your master's ass and thank him for the smell!"
The truth in Tast's words stung Aitor deeper than any blade. He let out a harsh battle cry and charged.
As Aitor brought his sword down, Tast deflected the blade with his slaku and it fell from Abaroa's grasp.
The giant barbarian grabbed Tast's throat and squeezed it.
Old Tast could feel the lifeforce being pulled from him and even the constant slashing of Abaroa's arm with the slaku did not dissuade him, for his anger was mighty.
Old Tast brought his head forward and slammed it against the barbarian's. The impact did as much damage to Tast as it did Aitor Abaroa but it caught the barbarian off guard and a moment's confusion was all Old Tast needed to end the behemoth's life. He thrust the twin blades of the slaku into Aitor's jugular and kept pushing. The barbarian thrashed wildly to break free but Old Tast could not be moved. Blood flowed from the barbarian's neck and he gurgled.
Bikendi Abaroa let loose another arrow but Old Tast blocked himself with Bikendi's brother. The arrow entered the back of Aitor's head and the arrowhead emerged between the slave's eyes. Old Tast smiled and let the barbarian fall at his feet.
"We must drive the devils back to the sea!" Old Tast shouted above the council. The elders were being served kassin, the sacred purifying black drink, during this debate. Tast's kassin had long since gone cold.
"We understand and even agree with your sentiments, Tastano," the oldest of the elders said, acknowledging Old Tast's full name and title -- Great Warrior, the one who unites the people, the defender. He was a brittle old man, stuck in his ways. "However, we fear that it may be too late. We can scarcely feed our women and children, let alone have rations for our warriors."
"So we take fewer warriors," Tast said. "We already know that the devils are no match for our great men."
"You underestimate the enemy at your own peril, Old Tast," the elder said and his eyes glanced at Tast's missing arm. The arm was amputated after a snake bit it and the arm went bad. Not using Tast's full name was on purpose and the elder knew that Tast would notice. The knowledge made him smirk. "They ride on the backs of great beasts and can hunt one of our men down in mere moments."
"The beasts can be killed, old man." Tast said as he rushed to the old fool. He was standing so close to the elder now that Old Tast could smell the kassin on his breath.
"Go home, warrior," said Thuro from behind Old Tast. He placed a hand softly on his shoulder.
"Soon there will be no home to go to, my friend," Tast said, lowering his voice and turning to Thuro, fellow warrior and friend since boyhood. The years had been far kinder to Thuro. The hardships of Tastano's life forced him to become tougher, strengthened his resolve. Thuro, on the other hand, had all the softness of a man who was content to let things happen around him.
"All the more reason to go to beautiful Nila and your brave new child. We face the end of our times, Tastano, and the moments are ever more precious for it." A tear welled in Thuro's eye. Old Tast turned so he did not have to see it.
He took up his club and slaku from the pile of weapons in the middle of the circle of men, attached them to his belt, and left the council grounds. No, foolish Thuro, he thought. All the more reason to fight. All the more reason to live.
Arrows flew at Old Tast. He ran from the road deep into the woods and Bikendi Abaroa followed. The barbarian was in a strange land, however, and Tast knew it far better than he. He disappeared into the wilderness and, for all Abaroa knew, could be clear on the other side.
Tast cupped his hand in the stream and took the water to his lips. He found it nourishing. He gazed at the great waterfall. This land was his as it was his father's and his father's father before him. It was the foreign devils that strove to take this land. It was the foreign devils that took Tastano, Great Warrior, and reduced him to a brigand, a roadside murderer and thief. His disfigured reflection in the water recalled to memory the desperate measures Tast had been reduced to. The travelers might have brought his people fire and famine but their deaths would bring them life. Old Tast stomped in the water, causing the reflection to fall away.
The sound of feet on the grass broke his concentration. It was not a human sound. No, this is a sound Old Tast had been trained to notice since he was a small boy practicing with his first wooden slaku. It was the sound of the dread jokose.
Old Tast spun around just as the jokose raised on its hind legs and let out a fierce growl. It was a large creature and quite long, much longer than the bear although like it in its face and its lethal claws. When it moved, it rivaled the speed of the hounds that Old Tast kept in the village as pets for the young boys and girls. Old Tast took his great club in hand and braced for impact.
"You are not the enemy that hounds me, jokose," Tast said, "but if you wish to expel me from your land, I will treat you as I would the foreign devils."
The jokose got back down on all fours and stared at Old Tast as it considered the battle ahead. The beast ran at Tast and pushed him back into the stream. The jokose raised on its hind legs again and came down at Old Tast. The warrior brought his club to the jokose's face. The blow was nothing to the great creature. The jokose raised up again and came down much faster and harder, slashing Old Tast's chest and arm, making him drop the club.
With all his strength, Old Tast grabbed the jokose's paw and pushed him away. This gave Tast enough time to stand up as the beast came at him again. Tast punched the jokose's face, hard and fast, bringing his lone fist into the creature's eyes and nose. Old Tast screamed his war cry at the beast as he brought blow after blow upon it. The jokose growled and tried to push back on Old Tast but the warrior would not move. All of his bottled up fury and rage was unleashed upon the animal that was lord of these woods, the apex predator.
The jokose turned away from Old Tast and ran back into his domain.
Old Tast, bruised and bloodied, found his club in the stream. He raised it into the air and let out his war cry again, screaming until his voice broke.
Somewhere, Bikendi Abaroa heard the defiant cry, and followed it. He knew that it was a call, that he was meant to hear it, and he welcomed the fight ahead.
Nila took the red paint and applied it to Old Tast's skin. She did not want him to go but knew that he must. She did not know what he would do but she knew that he had to do something. The baby would get all it needed from her milk but she would not be around to give it if they could not find food. Food, however, was just one of Old Tast's goals. As Nila finished, she looked at him naked before her, painted black and red. The colors covered his old battle scars. They were the colors of War and Death.
"There is a boy with them," Tast confided. "The one they call Rendón. He is the one I seek."
"Will you kill him?"
"If I must," Tast said.
Nila nodded. A nearby fire illuminated her oval face. "A child for our child, if you must."
"A child for all of us, Nila. The old law of one death for one death cannot be observed in these desperate times. They have not honored it, bringing death and disease to our land, and we can no longer afford to honor it ourselves. I will slay every one of them if I must. I will travel to whatever wretched place they come from and kill all their people if it will restore our people. If it means that my son will one day bury me and not the other way around."
Nila took the baby back into her arms. Old Tast kissed his son's head and embraced them both.
"When will you be done?" she asked.
"That is something we cannot know."
"I will pray for death to find them."
"I have become Death, my Nila, and I will find them. I swear that I will find them and they will know who I have become."
Weakened by his injuries, Old Tast's movements down the road were slow but purposeful. He had to catch up to the old man and Rendón. Fortune was in his favor because others desperate like him, other brigands, had stopped the wagon. Nothing had happened yet but soon the old man would have to fight them off by himself. Tast did not think an old man could be much of a match for a group of brigands but Old Tast's last three opponents did not think he was a match for them either. Their bloodied corpses bore witness to that lie. Still, Rendón was Old Tast's target and he must not allow the others to beat him to the boy. He would fight the other brigands and the old man if he had to.
The warrior was not in good shape. His step was slow after losing so much blood. He limped down the road when he heard yet another set of feet behind him. These were human.
"You heard my call," Tast said.
"You are hurt, savage," Bikendi said. "You should give up."
"I will make a cup with your skull, slave, to drink my kassin from and then I will rest."
"You are an ugly, stupid bastard," Bikendi said and he drew a knife.
"I hope that you are better at close range than you were with your bow, Abaroa," Old Tast said and he raised his club.
Tast ran toward Bikendi and the slave kicked the dirt up to Old Tast's eyes.
Bikendi dug his blade into the wound on Tast's shoulder and twisted the knife.
Tast screamed and dropped his club again. He grabbed Bikendi's arm and shoved him away. He remembered the strength of the jokose and grabbed his club. Tast swung the club and dug the teeth into Bikendi's stomach.
Bikendi howled in pain and fell to his knees.
The pain in Tast was overwhelming. He grabbed Bikendi's shoulders and turned him facing away and took out his slaku. Old Tast brought his face next to Abaroa's right ear.
"You have my kassin cup, Bikendi."
Old Tast took the slaku and released Bikendi's head from his shoulders. He tore Bikendi's tunic off and wrapped his severed head in it. Tast collapsed in exhaustion.
Still, Tast knew that now was not the time for resting. Even though his body was sore and bleeding and his mind was exhausted and overwhelmed, this was not the end. He would not rest until he saved his people.
What his family and tribe needed of him and what his body demanded were not the same and rest was forced upon Old Tast. He lay there on his back -- shoulder, arm, and chest bleeding, his muscles pushed beyond their limits. He looked down the road at the wagon and the brigands, those luckier than he, surrounding it. He should be down there fighting for what was his but he was not. He couldn't stop his eyes from closing and he fell into a deep slumber.
The shaman cut Old Tast's flesh with the claw of the jokose. The small cuts were made just above Tast's ribs. They would make him harder in battle. No weapon would pierce him after the jokose claw ritual.
"Come," the shaman said. "We will go to water." The shaman was old like the elder but the shaman's flesh was leathery and covered in arcane tattoos. His body had become a canvas depicting the ancient mythical struggle for order and stability. The shaman's body suggested a victory for the people. Tast hoped that would hold truth in his own time.
The shaman led Old Tast to the waterfall but he stopped at the edge of the water.
"You will wash away this world. You will forsake your village life though it is not the season for war. Go, Tastano, and emerge an instrument of undoing."
Old Tast walked into the water. The stream was not enough for the cleansing so he continued until he reached the waterfall. Tast cupped the falling water in his hand and poured it over his head. The process took longer because Old Tast had only one hand. He closed his eyes and imagined the life he was leaving behind. He could not know how long it would be until he would see Nila and his child again. He thought about what he had to do and all of the lives he would end. He would not mourn for them but rather celebrate their passing. Their death throes would signal the return of life to his people. Once water had been poured over him seven times, he turned and walked back to the shaman.
"Are you ready, death dealer?" the shaman said, according to the ritual.
"I am," said Old Tast. And he was.
The brigand was searching Old Tast for anything worth stealing when the warrior woke up. Tast pushed the slaku against the thief's neck.
"Where is Rendón?" he said.
"I know no Rendin," the thief said, mispronouncing the name.
"The boy. In the wagon. Where is he?" Old Tast pushed the slaku harder against his neck.
"They got away. The old man, he's got magic. He killed the others."
"Magic?" Tast said. The brigand nodded.
Old Tast looked around and saw the brigand's horse nearby. He stood up and shoved the brigand.
"I am taking your riding beast. You will have to walk to shelter but be quick for night falls and you are a stranger in this land."
The brigand did not argue with the warrior and watched as Old Tast went over to the horse. There was a small pack on its back and he put Bikendi's head in it.
"What are you doing with that severed head, old man?"
"I will drink from it," Tast responded as he mounted the horse and rode off to Rendón.
Desi Rendón de Bolívar sat in the wagon clutching the golden necklace in his small hands. All was lost in this expedition to the strange new land. His father had been killed along with every other person he'd ever known. Before he died, Desi's father told him that the necklace would be his responsibility now and that the old man, the one they call Lobo, would take him to where the necklace could be used and there they'd cast it into the sacred waters and unleash its power -- the power to rule over this foreign land and become king, as was his destiny.
Lobo drove the horses harder. Night was falling and that meant that the terrible things in the dark would come out and hunt them. For all of his great power, the night still terrified Lobo. He said a silent prayer for God to see them to victory. However, Lobo's God was not the same as Old Tast's God and Tastano had already made a petition of his own.
Old Tast rode next to the wagon. He had no experience with these beasts and the horse did not trust him. Still, he had made it this far. Tast left Bikendi's head behind, attached the weapons to his belt and prepared to jump from the horse onto the wagon. Just as he made the jump, Lobo sent a small explosion that killed the horse. This must be the magic the thief spoke of, Old Tast thought.
Tast landed on top of the wagon and reached in for Rendón. Lobo brought the wagon to an abrupt stop and Tast fell forward off the wagon. He landed on his wounded shoulder and winced in pain.
"Demon," Lobo shouted, "I cast you out!" He raised his hands and the clouds moved in the sky.
"You are the foreign devil!" Old Tast shouted, raised his club and lunged at Lobo. An invisible force pushed the warrior back and he skid on the ground. The wizard sent another small explosion that erupted on the ground near Tast.
"Desi, run!" the wizard yelled. Tast saw a small figure leave the wagon and slowly run away. He was clutching the golden necklace. This is what Tast was after. He must steal the necklace for himself and return it to The Great Sun, from whom it was stolen. Only then would balance be restored and everlasting fortune be bestowed upon Tast's people.
He dropped his club to the ground. Lobo laughed a deep, booming laugh.
"You are spineless," Lobo said. "I thought your warriors fought to the death instead of cowering like little rats."
"I am not done fighting, foreign devil," Old Tast said and he detached the slaku from his belt and threw it at Lobo. The twin blades entered his chest and he fell back. Old Tast grabbed his club and ran over to the old wizard and the jokose teeth bit into his skull over and over and over.
Rendón's small legs could not take him far but he ran as best as he could. He did not know where to take the necklace or even if it would work. Lobo seemed to believe strongly that it would but the boy had his doubts. None of that seemed to matter now that he was all alone.
"Stop there, boy," Old Tast said. Rendón stopped. Not out of obedience but because he was frozen in fear.
"Leave me alone," Rendón said. His voice was unsteady.
"I can't do that. You should have known there would be consequences when you entered my land unwelcome and brought death to my people."
"I didn't do anything."
"Your people did. That's all that matters."
"I am only a child."
"Many of my people that I have had to bury were only children as well. Do you mourn for them?"
Rendón did not respond.
"The sins of your people are yours to bear now just as the deaths of my people are little deaths of me. I will not hurt you but I will not save you and I will be taking that necklace. If you are strong, you will find a way to survive on your own. If you are not, you will get the fate your people deserve."
The boy was trembling.
"Give me the necklace or I will take it from your corpse."
Rendón held it out. Old Tast grabbed it and put it around his neck.
"Stay off the road at night. Learn the sound the jokose makes when it moves in the woods. Do you believe in God?"
The boy nodded.
"You will need Him," Tast said and he walked away.
Desi Rendón de Bolívar walked away from the road into the wilderness. He had adapted so many times recently to loneliness and now his solitude was absolute. He closed his eyes and listened to the strange wind blowing on the strange trees in this bizarre land and Rendón let the darkness change him.
Old Tast returned to the dead horse, where he left Bikendi's head. It was half a day's journey to the Great Sun but he did not have a moment to waste. He held the head up into the air and it reminded him that he desperately needed a drink.
Copyright © 2015 CT McNeely.
CT McNeely's fiction has appeared in places such as Thuglit, All Due Respect and Flash Fiction Offensive. With his wife, he edits the pulp fiction magazine Dark Corners and runs the independent press Double Life Press. He lives with his family in Arkansas where he is plotting the domination of the publishing industry.