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Alkamar, the village in the moonlight

One night chief Old White was woken by Beak, a hunter in the clan.

"Soldiers," Beak grunted.

Old White was awake at once. "Far away?"

"They have horses. They will reach the pass before sunrise."

"Then we still have time to avoid battle. Give word to break camp."

"They are led by a renegade from one of the ten clans," Beak hissed. "We must kill him, or he will lead the soldiers after us again."

Old White nodded thoughtfully. "Tell the women to take the children into the hills. The rest will prepare themselves for battle."

The clan packed in darkness. Infants kept silent as they were lifted from warm cots. Dogs growled deep in their throats, but did not bark. Some shadows moved, and then the earth huts lay dark and deserted in the little valley.

Beak squatted behind a rock in the pass, clutching a wooden spear, point dried over glowing coal and sharpened on sandrock. Soon darkness would die, but new light had not yet been born. Now the spirit flow was at low ebb, and only the strongest will could keep the mind alert. He grunted. It was a good time to attack.

The soldiers rode in single file through the darkness, dressed in chinking birnies, bows and battle axes on the pommels of their saddles. The renegade ran at their head, dressed in the long leather shirt of the hill people.

Beak stared at the soldiers with slitted eyes. Even the children of his clan would have heard the clopping hooves and rattling weapons a long way off. He expected such from the emperor's soldiers, but he could never understand how somebody from the ten clans should join the enemy to fight his own.

Beak did not reflect why this man had chosen to serve Kraken, the emperor of the lowlands. If the clan ran, the renegade would lead the soldiers after them again. So Beak waited with the other hunters of his clan. The renegade had to die if the clan was to live.

When the soldiers reached the pass, a fall of rocks cut into their force and split the line of riders in two. Warriors with white death stripes painted across their cheekbones melted out of the darkness.

"Kill! Kill!"

The hill people sent a hail of arrows down onto the soldiers before charging with weapons drawn.

"Kill! Kill!"

Beak let the anger take over, blood red and screaming in his ears. Spear in hand he leapt towards a soldier, seeing only a white throat before him.

"Kill! Kill!"

Before he had cleared the rock, a pain burned in his temple. He stumbled and tried to clear his head. This is too soon... not the enemy... who? Beak forced himself to his feet, twisted and caught a glimpse of Kato, son of chief Old White, with a stone in his hand. Kato hit him again with the stone, once, twice, and then the red rage gave way to darkness in Beak.

After the battle the hill people went among the enemy soldiers and killed those that had been too wounded to escape. The hunters counted the cost of the victory. The renegade lay dead among the enemy soldiers, but so did chief Old White and four other warriors from the clan.

"Where is Beak?" asked Brother Little, one of the hunters.

No one answered. No one had seen Beak for some time, although he was not among the dead. Nor could they recall having seen him during the battle. Their spirits fell as they contemplated what might have happened to him. Many a winter he had brought home food enough to keep the youngest members alive until spring came. And in all their battles with the Enemy, Beak had always led the first charge.

Old White had left two sons, Kato and Kajite. The clan turned to Kato, the elder brother, who was their chief now.

"The renegade is dead. They will not hunt us for a while," Kato sighed.

They all nodded.

"Beak must have been captured," said Kato.

"Shall we set off after them?" asked Sintaje, the youngest of the hunters, just one year from being a boy.

"We won't catch the soldiers, they have horses. They're far away by now," answered Kato.

"We can't leave Beak in the hands of our enemies. If he's still alive then we must rescue him. When have Kraken's soldiers been able to outrun the clan in the Mother Mountains?" protested Sintaje.

"Enough men have lost their lives tonight," replied Kato wearily.

Kato was the chief, and no-one contradicted him.

Day dawned over the hills as the hunters took care of their wounded and made ready to leave. They sliced meat from the dead horses, made small cuts along each side of the slices and stretched them out to dry in the sun. They collected the knives, swords and axes from the dead soldiers, but left the armour, as such things were of little use in the mountains.

The hunters of the clan emptied their hearts and cut the heads off their dead enemies, sticking them on poles by the entrance to the pass. When the soldiers returned with a larger force and found the heads of their dead comrades, they would think twice before going after the clan. It would buy them maybe one year of peace, telling the Emperor's soldiers that they were not welcome in the Mother Mountains.

They wrapped their own dead in blankets and carried them into the hills, where they would be laid out for the brown eagles circling the peaks. Then they left without a backward glance. All knew they would not return to this place for many years. There were other secluded valleys in the Mother Mountains, and only the foolish would remain in a place that was known to the enemy soldiers.

Of all the people in the clan, Sister Omeh grieved the most for Beak. She had been engaged to marry the warrior. Her broad hips were just made for child-bearing. And her powerful shoulders could be loaded with a day's worth of wood without causing her to lose her footing. Though she worked hard all day, she hummed contentedly to herself and always had a smile to spare. But now Omeh smiled no more. The others cried by the graves of their dead, but Omeh did not even have a body to grieve over. She sat outside their camp, refusing to eat or drink, singing softly all the time.

"Once the eagles flew,
white-winged and brave,
over the hills

But Kraken hunted them,
with his soldiers
he hunted them so long

The white eagles are gone
Only brown eagles are left
And my lover is gone

My lover is gone,
but he will return to me,
when the raven is dead."

Even when Kato, the new chief, asked Omeh's father for her marriage price, she did not stop singing. Omeh's father cuffed her and told her she was mad not to marry the chief but she just looked at him with bleak eyes:

"The white eagle is gone
Only brown eagles are left
And my lover is gone."

The whole clan feared for the future. Their new chief was a man made crazy of love. Kato's eyes flickered and he brooded constantly, and no one dared talk to him. They could all see that this maddness stemmed from Omeh's behavior.

The hill people knew more sorrow than others. The men died in battle with the enemy soldiers. The women and children starved during long winters, when they lived on the run. From birth they had been taught to love hard and grieve hard, and to continue life. If not, the emperor of the lowlands would steal their freedom.

But Sister Omeh refused to forget Beak no matter how much pressure they put on her. In the end Omeh's father went to Sister Moon, the medicine woman, and asked her to intervene. She looked at him and nodded. The whole clan rejoiced, but did not see the troubled eyes of the medicine woman.

Sister Moon told Omeh to eat and rest, and then she retreated to her hut. The village could hear soft drumming for three days and three nights before she appeared again.

"Tell all to prepare for the wedding feast the next full moon, when Omeh will be married to her lover," she told the clan. "This is what the white eagle told me: There will be no wedding, and there will be a wedding. The marriage will be short, and it will last forever. The son will die, and he will live forever."

Such talk was strange, even from a medicine woman, but the clan breathed a sigh of relief. There would be a wedding, and everything would return to normal.

Kato sent runners with invitations to the other clans in the Mother Mountains. Some of these had their own names, such as the Hot Springs Clan and the Western Clan, but all were part of the hill people. There were smaller clans too, but these were really only family groupings.

Kato was chief of the Rawhide Clan. Even the others who belonged to the hill people looked upon the Rawhide Clan as wild animals. They built their earth huts in remote valleys, where they married and raised their children. They seldom met others or traded with other tribes. They had few weapons of iron, and they wore loincloths and headbands of still deerskin, not the felt or softer leather used by others.

The Rawhide Clan never announced their arrival. On the rare occasions when they visited other tribes they appeared from nowhere. One moment the hillside was bare, the next a handful of warriors stood there with weapons raised.

When the runners came with the news that the chief of the Rawhide Clan was about to marry, the chiefs of the others tribes set off, loaded with gifts and speeches, for even though they regarded them as wild animals it was thought best to remain on good terms with them.

Much of the cost of the wedding was born by the inheritance from Old White. For several days stew bubbled in clay pots and meat hissed on spits. Kato offered sacks of juniper berries pressed to juicy rolls, cakes made of nuts, bitter-tasting roots that turned sweet over the fire, meat from young mountain goats and two whole roasted deer. The deer's bellies were suspended between stakes, and water, meat, herbs and salt lumps were placed in the sunken bags. Red-hot stones were put in the broth, and when these lost heat the women replaced them with hot stones.

The sun shone down upon the wedding day and the clan looked forward to the celebrations. Omeh remained with the women in a separate hut. They rubbed the juice of chewed roots into her long, straight hair until it shone blue-black. She put on a soft, embroidered deerskin dress, lined with pelt from the snow hare. All the time she hummed to herself, and there was a strange light in her eyes.

Kato sat round a great fire with his guests, boasting of all the warrior sons he and Omeh would have together. The others listened with half an ear, anticipating the great feast to come later in the evening. The men were all thin and sinewy, with large heads and powerful features. The gods of the mountains carved their faces from stone, the sun burned their skin to a dark bronze, and the winter storms left deep lines across their cheeks and foreheads. Their faces were almost hairless, apart from eyelashes and brows, and now and then, on some older man, a straggly moustache.

Suddenly Beak was among the circle of hunters. It took a moment before they recognised him. His clothes were just rags. His face was pale, and there was a red scar on his temple. Hatred and shame had carved furrows over his forehead and cheeks. Beak stared at them, eyes narrowed to burning slits.

Kato sat up, a sheepish smile on his lips.

"Beak, so you managed to... "

Beak jumped across the fire, a knife appearing in his hand.

"Kill! Kill"

Kato raised his arms, but was unable to ward off the blow.

"Kill! Kill!" came the cry again.

The heavy knife carved through Kato's fingers, and then the chief tipped over, blood from his throat spraying the chest and face of Beak.

"Omeh!" Beak shouted.

Kajite leapt to his feet. Again the knife in Beak's hand blinked, and a long gash opened on the face of the chief's brother. Beak thrust the limp body aside and looked around the camp.

Omeh ran towards him, feet light as air and shiny black hair flying in the wind. Beak received her as she threw herself into his arms.

He stared at the circle of men that had waited for the wedding. They looked back with confused eyes. Never had any man returned after being captured by the enemy's soldiers. And never had they seen a bride like her, white deerskin dress streaked with blood and eyes burning with love.

Omeh spat on the dead body of Kato, and then she grabbed the hand of her lover and ran off.

No one tried to stop them as they fled the camp. Some of the guests from the other clans boasted about giving chase, but nothing came of it. When they saw the faces of the hunters of the Rawhide Clan, they quickly changed their mind. Not even the Rawhide Clan would be able to track a hunter like Beak. Nor did they relish the thought of entering narrow defiles and passes where he might be lying in wait.