In People of the Canyons, award-winning archaeologists and New York Times and USA Today bestselling authors Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear bring us a tale of trapped magic, a tyrant who wants to wield its power…and a young girl who could be the key to save a people.
In a magnificent war-torn world cut by soaring red canyons, an evil ruler launches a search for a mystical artifact that he hopes will bring him ultimate power—an ancient witch’s pot that reputedly contains the trapped soul of the most powerful witch ever to have lived.
The aged healer Tocho has to stop him, but to do it he must ally himself with the bitter and broken witch hunter, Maicoh, whose only goal is achieving one last great kill.
Caught in the middle is Tocho’s adopted granddaughter, Tsilu. Her journey will be the most difficult of all for she is about to discover terrifying truths about her dead parents.
Truths that will set the ancient American Southwest afire and bring down a civilization.
When the gods close their eyes, the instant is unmistakable.
My heart suddenly thunders.
I cross my arms over my chest and sag against the towering canyon wall, struggling to stay upright.
The night sky is blacker than black, scattered with the blazing footprints of the dead.
Magnificent red sandstone cliffs border this valley. Two-thousand hand-lengths tall, they loom high above me. In my blurring vision, the gigantic rock pillars on the rim appear to sway back and forth, moving like a parade of monstrously deformed animals and people left from the Beginning Time.
I can’t stop it. The cascade in my souls begins …
The firelit village suddenly breathes, exhaling scents of food and sweating bodies, carrying the shrill music of drums and bone whistles that drifts from the crowded village plaza this autumn evening.
I force myself to focus on the chocolate-brown curve of the river that slithers snakelike through the scraggly cornfields and around the thirty pithouses that comprise OwlClaw Village. Partially subterranean and covered with a thick layer of earth, the pithouses are low humps, like giant anthills, scattered across the river terrace. Tonight, people lean against the sloping roofs to talk while they watch the festivities of the harvest ceremony. Ladders protrude from the centers of the roofs, allowing people to enter or exit the dwellings and smoke from the fires inside to escape.
Dogs run by.
Each moment is urgent now. I’m falling …
A woman laughs, and I see her step off a ladder onto a pithouse roof. Wreathed in firelight, she stands for a moment and looks around the village. She wears a gorgeous red cape made from the finest scarlet macaw feathers and carries a sprig of evergreen. Evergreens do not die in the winter, and every shaman predicts this will be a hard one. As she walks away, she holds one hand on her belly, and I think maybe she’s pregnant. Hard to tell with her cape. The wavering light of torches, carried by the dancers, flashes through her black hair. I stare for just an instant. Even less. But it’s too long.
The canyon wall tilts. The path heaves. The gods shove my soul into thin air.
Gasping, my body eats air as if it can’t get enough. So, in the beginning, there’s no fear. Just the light-headed sensation of tumbling through a vast abyss inside my own body.
My mind tries to make sense of it. One thought keeps repeating: My heart. What’s wrong with my heart?
All my life, my heartbeat has been the one friend that’s never left me. It’s always there, reminding me that I’m alive and can keep going through the masquerade of my daily routine. But now it has stopped. While I’m waiting to hit bottom, I’m not alive. Blood no longer pulses in my veins, which means the night is getting really cold, and the rigidity seeping through my flesh seems to be accelerated. As the seconds fly by, my stringy old muscles gradually turn to stone. When the paralysis is complete, even my eyes will be fixed in their sockets.
I stare at the children standing around the edges of the plaza. Their mouths hang open. The Deer Chief—beautifully dressed in white buckskin, with branching antlers mounted on his head—dances his way past them, as he retreats back to the underworld from which he came. His sacred gyrations have lent strength to Father Sun, so he may survive his long journey through the cold winter to come. Behind the Deer Chief, the six Horn priests dance, stamping their feet to shake the rattles on their legs. They move in single file, forming stunning, magical procession of phantasmal figures pounding their way along the cosmic path that leads into the deepest past of our People.
Such a dark, dark night. The feeble gleam cast by the slowly dying ritual fires can’t hold it back.
Why am I still here? Curiosity fills me. When I look down I can see my tall emaciated body—worn down to the bones by the ravages of time and truth—that resembles a painter’s sketch drawn on my buckskin clothing, shades of gray, a little hazy around the edges, arms locked across the chest. One of my legs is straight, the other bent slightly at the knee. The Falling hasn’t erased me yet. But it will. Makes no difference that my body stubbornly insists it’s still here in this world. I feel it seeping outside through the cracks in the light, trailing along the laughter and whistles of panpipes, sailing away on a red cape.
It always takes so long. The moments stretch. Be still. Let it happen.
When the bottom rises up, there will be a jolt, a bizarre aftershock, and my heartbeat will start again. But for now, my lungs are struggling. As though I’m underwater, my vision goes opaque. I must inhabit my death or this will never be over.
What surprises me is the power of my disbelief. I died the first time when I was twelve, but part of my brain still refuses to accept the truth. Not again, it says. I’m stronger than this. But as the protection of my body grows increasingly unreliable, my hold on humanity becomes as tenuous as a ghost’s.
Then it appears.
There, at the corner of my eye, the blaze flickers to life, and I faintly hear her deep voice. It’s tiny now, barely a whisper of flames. She is on a holy crusade. A fight to the death against horrific evil.
Don’t reach for it.
For the past week, her voice has been growing louder, so I’ve felt this coming, but arrival is always a luminous moment of revelation. I tuck my fists into my armpits and hug myself hard, trying not to listen to the faint words slipping from the blazing soul pot I carry in the sacred bundle tied to my belt.
With one hand against the canyon wall, I stagger down the dirt path that parallels the rugged sandstone cliff. I’m riding the lightning bolt now, zigzagging my way into the heart of the big explosion on the mountaintop. Much depends on what I see in the next few moments, or days. There is no telling how long this will take. Maybe I’ll be all right, and no one will die. At any point, the hunt could be sabotaged. Perhaps a man steps out of a pithouse at the wrong time or a child suddenly looks up at me, and I must walk by.
Except for her ghostly whisper and the erratic shuffles of my footsteps on the dirt, there is no sound. This is how it goes: She calls my name. My feet walk, and the world outside perishes in the onslaught of transformation. Dark shapes flash by in utter silence. I see them, but they do not seem to see me. Perhaps I’ve become invisible. I’ve often wondered.
As the instants pass, I force myself to go through the motions of the awakening that will come. Feel for a hold on the wall, clutch a crevice, and hang on tight. Maybe tonight I will simply walk away. But the flame of her voice … As it grows brighter, the world turns teeth-chatteringly cold. Finally, I can’t stop myself. I must reach out for her faint words. When I find them, they are shouts, and light explodes inside me, streaming up to shatter against the roof of my skull, then trickle down inside my head in brilliant rivulets, bathing my thoughts in frosty inhuman splendor.
My body slides down the canyon wall to sit on the ground, and I topple to my side, jerking like a clubbed rabbit.
A strange tranquility comes over me, smoothing out the edges, softening the horror. Is that what I really want? Just to die? To have this over with once and for all? No more struggling to decide if what she tells me is right or wrong. Besides … I deserve to die. My inadequacies, my crimes, are legion. The gods should not have let me live this long.
My body jolts, and my heart slams against my ribs. The hazy village goes quiet and still. People freeze in midstride, arms akimbo, heads tilted slightly to the left or right, mouths open. Their firelit faces seem carved of pale amber ice.
I try to stand up, to flee, but my legs are too weak to hold me up. I’m afraid. Always terribly afraid. Settle into the cradle and let it rock you until you fly apart. Don’t want to. Still quivering, the yawning blackness rushes toward me, and the dark night of the soul descends.
I hear quick steps approach. His cotton kirtle rustles. The long pole he holds before him is an elegant artifact, the legacy of his most ancient ancestors. It’s been polished with sunflower oil and shines like a sliver of firelight. A ceremonial fox skin and a bunch of hummingbird feathers dangle from the top of the pole: the crest of a dead war god who long ago marched upon villages far to the south.
Shaken, I manage to say, “I—I saw BoneDust. D—Did you?”
At this point, he is a dispassionate presence, unobtrusive and totally uninterested in the outcome of this struggle. I’m fighting for my life, and he stands by as a silent witness, fulfilling an ancient duty to gods I no longer believe in.
“Yes, I saw her. She’s finally alone, walking down the river trail. Slide your arm across my shoulders. We have to go find her now. Hurry!”
The next evening …
As the sun sinks below the horizon, dusk settles across the canyon like a mantle of blue smoke, casting the thirty pithouses of OwlClaw Village into shadow. Halos of yellow firelight have just begun to seep up around the entry ladders. But it’s the stunning canyon that mesmerizes me. The towering red cliffs bend inward, hanging over this puny village as though yearning to tumble down and crush it to dust. When I tilt my head back far enough to see the rim, a heady mixture of awe and fear expands my chest. The growing darkness is progressively draining the life from the canyon, turning the sheer walls the deep crimson shade of old blood. It’s eerie. The cliffs whisper and whistle in the night breeze, discussing the world in a language unintelligible to humans. Perhaps they’re speaking to the last crickets singing in sheltered places down along the river?
People run across the plaza, heading for the trash heap where someone found a dead body. A woman in a red-feathered cape.
The stupid fool.
One moon ago, she conspired against the king of Straight Path nation, the Blessed Sun. Surely, she suspected that he’d sent her on this mission to get her out of Flowing Waters Town, so he could have her killed quietly? If he’d done it in town, there would have been questions. People would have been upset and desperate to find the murderer. Taking care of the problem out here, in the hinterlands of the Canyon People, neatly avoided all that.
Near the trash heap, a woman sobs.
I take a moment to arrange the turquoise hair combs that pin my black hair into a bun atop my head. At the age of twenty-six summers, I’m quite a beauty and use it to my advantage at every opportunity. Tonight, my cheeks are painted with parallel lines of white triangles. Blue circles ring my eyes. My small nose is entirely painted black. The magnificent beaded dress I wear beneath my rabbit-fur shawl marks me as a high-status woman from the Straight Path nation to the south, a nation currently embroiled in a brutal religious war: The old gods against the wicked half-human thlatsinas. For this critical night, I’ve taken great pains to look like a Sky Spirit come to earth.
A man shouts, “It’s BoneDust! Dear gods.”
Around the corpse, people gather to mutter and shriek. I keep walking with my head down.
These primitive people will assume it was revenge against the Blessed Sun, or maybe a simple clan vendetta. Maybe even a gambling debt gone wrong.
After all, ritual celebrations draw all manner of men, and crowds are perfect hunting grounds for the soul-sick. For the past few days, hundreds of unknown people have camped around the village enjoying the harvest festivities. They wander through the plaza and between the pithouses at all times of the day and night. Sometimes old scores get settled.
As more people run across the village toward the trash heap, I take the trail that leads to where the trading blankets are spread out at the edge of the rectangular plaza. With twilight upon them, the owners are in the process of closing for the day, repacking their goods in baskets they will carry back to their camps for the night. Only a few colorful blankets are still out. I pass crude pottery beakers from the south, tanned bighorn sheep hides, buffalo jerky from the north, heaping baskets of ricegrass seeds, tobacco leaves, squash, beans, and freshly picked corn, as well as a vast array of beautifully crafted stone beads. Men in bright headbands hurry by me.
I dally, wasting time, picking things up and putting them down. No point in rushing. His habits are as familiar to me as my own. Maicoh will not dare emerge from his cave until full dark.
At the bead maker’s blanket, I admire tiny shale beads from the Green Mesa Villages. Simply exquisite. The tiny hole in the center must have been drilled using cactus spines and fine sand as an abrasive. In the rear, lying near the seated maker, a necklace at least fifty hand-lengths long lies coiled. Made of blue and red stone beads, alternating with dried juniper berries, it’s actually quite ordinary. Any other day I wouldn’t look twice at it, but today the necklace sparkles as though crusted with frost.
“Will you trade that necklace—” I point—“for this bracelet?”
Removing the simple jet band with the turquoise centerpiece, I hand it to the woman. The bracelet is worth twenty times what the necklace is, but I’ve tired of it. I have so many bracelets; it has become hard to choose which to wear.
The bead maker’s eyes widen as she turns it over in her hands. She’s seen at least forty summers. Deep lines carve her tanned forehead. A red-and-black sash serves as her belt. “Happy to.”
The woman takes my bracelet and gives me the juniper berry necklace, which I drape around my neck.
“What’s happening over there?” The woman tips her chin toward the commotion.
“Man found a dead body. One of the Blessed Sun’s priestesses, I heard. Guess she traveled here on the king’s orders to ask the village council if she could build a kiva. You know, one of the subterranean ceremonial chambers down south where they worship the Flute Player, Thunderbird, and the Blue God?”
“Just now? They just found her?”
“Little while ago. Apparently, the killer shoved her body in the trash heap and covered it up. Somebody smelled it and started digging.”
Swallowing hard, the bead maker asks, “Do they know who did it?”
“No, but a man from Sage Village was roughing up some of the Bitter Water clan women last night. They’re searching for him.”
The bead maker looks frightened. “Soon as the king hears, there’ll be a war party headed in this direction. Someone’s going pay for this.”
“They certainly will.”
The woman whispers, “Do you think the news has already been received in Flowing Waters Town?”
Instinctively, I lift my gaze to the high point on the canyon rim where the signal station stands. Made of stacked red sandstone, it is a small fortress, two stories tall. During the day, messengers use polished pyrite mirrors to flash the news to other high signal stations across the canyon country. At night, they send fire signals. It takes less than one hundred heartbeats for messages to reach from here to Flowing Waters Town—and I dispatched the fire signal myself at midnight.
“I’m sure it has.” I smile, and the woman shrinks back like a packrat suddenly glimpsing a bobcat hidden in the brush.
Must be my eyes. On cool autumn evenings like this, my heightened senses are difficult to control. Colors are too brilliant, tastes too intense. Each new scent on the wind feels like a physical blow. Even the touch of the breeze on my skin is almost unbearably pleasurable. I know that my brown eyes have a bizarre feral glitter to them now.
A crowd of men in drab turkey-feather cloaks nod as they pass. One man turns all the way around to smile at me.
I walk away.
Three hundred and four paces. I count each one and halt.
There, like a solitary red eye in the canyon wall, stands the door to his cave, the cave he’s rented for the harvest festivities. People here rent out anything—their houses, caves, rockshelters, or old storage rooms, for which they charge exorbitant fees. The door is made of juniper poles knotted together with cotton cordage and painted the color of old blood. A small window, draped with tan-and-white packrat hide, has been cut in the door at eye level.
I hear the faint tinkling of shell bells, but all my attention is focused on the red door. Is Maicoh in there? Or out about town wearing a disguise? It’s dark enough now. He may be gone. He takes no chances when it comes to his identity. Fewer than a handful of people know anything about his past or what he looks like. But I have spies everywhere. I’ve made a study of the legendary witch hunter. He’s tall, slender to the point of being frail, in his late forties, with black eyes that can burn a hole straight through you. The more interesting tales claim that a blue cocoon of Spirit Power surrounds and protects him. Even more intriguing, he’s often seen in two or three places at once, as though he can simply cease to exist in one place and be reborn in another in an instant.
Turning onto the narrow dirt path that leads to his door, I fight to calm myself.
Dead flowers, like frosty sticks, create a spiked hedgerow to either side of the door.
Breathing deeply, I mount the stone steps cut into the rock and tap lightly on the wood. The hide curtain in the small window sways. My spies tell me he has a weakness for women in distress, so that is the role I will play to gain entry.
Soft sounds inside. Hide boots scuff a stone floor. A male voice asks a question. Another man answers.
The door stays closed.
I shiver and watch my breath frost in the night air.
Down in the village, halos of firelight play on pithouse roofs, giving the darkening town a soft yellow glow.
I tap at the door again.
Still no answer.
Frustrated, I pound on the door and keep up the constant annoying racket for several hundred heartbeats.
By the time the hide curtain is pulled aside from the small window, I’m so excited I’m having trouble breathing.
“Go away.” He has a deep resonant voice.
“Please, it is urgent that I speak with you.”
The curtain slit grows wider, and I see one side of his face. Yes, forties with silver temples and a smooth pale face. His sunken eyes are puffy from lack of sleep. Bone rings grace the fingers that hold the curtain aside. He is, perhaps, the most feared man on earth. Certainly the most sought after.
“Who are you?”
“My name is Blue Dove. I apologize for not sending a messenger to tell you I was coming. But I must speak with you.”
His one eye scans my clothing. “You’re from the Straight Path nation.”
“Why are you here?”
“I came to find you.”
His black eyes are obsidian-hard. I catch a glimpse of a hooded man a few paces behind him. He quickly steps out of view. His son? The rest of his family was murdered long ago.
“Have we met before?” He squints as though searching his memory.
“No, but I—”
“Then I’m sorry, but I’m leaving for the evening. Perhaps tomorrow—”
“I’m ashamed to say that I’ve had spies follow you several times, in many different villages. Forgive me for that.”
The dark eyes hold mine. “For what purpose?”
“I could not come to you when you last visited Straight Path Canyon. My husband would kill me if he knew I was speaking with you.” I have no husband. Not any longer. I took care of that unpleasant problem within two moons.
“I’ve never been to Straight Path Canyon, and I don’t know why you think I can help you, but—”
“Maicoh, please don’t force me to scream your name. You don’t need the attention, not in this village where no one knows who you truly are.” I pause. “Especially not with a murdered priestess on your hands.”
With sudden ferocity, he says, “You have mistaken me for another man. My name is Crane. I’m just a simple Healer. If you need a love potion or a charm, any of the village Heal—”
“I beg you to give me just a few moments.” My voice quavers as I spin around to search the darkness. “Please. My husband is occupied gambling down by the river, but if you do not help me, I’ll be dead by tomorrow.”
He lets the curtain fall closed and says something soft, presumably to the hidden man. Finally, the curtain pulls aside again. “Very well. I’ll see you for a moment. I apologize for being rude. Please, come in.”
“You are very kind.”
He pushes open the red door.
Stepping across the threshold is like entering a god’s bedchamber. A thrill surges through me. The cave smells of cottonwood smoke and leather. Only a few items are visible, a woven grass pot-rest where he places hot pots to cool, a neat line of children’s moccasins arranged along the far wall, a lovely human skull that has been polished to a high luster, the eye sockets stuffed with sacred sage. An elegant staff leans beside the moccasins, as though watching over them. A fox skin and a bunch of hummingbird feathers dangle from the top of the staff. Looks old, old as the world itself.
Somewhere to my left, a door has been opened, because a breeze blows through the cave. Of course, there’s another exit. He is rightly worried about being trapped.
“Let’s talk in the adjacent chamber,” he says. “We’ll be more comfortable by my fire.”
It’s barely noticeable, the way he lengthens the o in more and the stress on the second syllable in comfortable, rather than the first. He speaks the Canyon People’s language fluently, as I do, but traces of his true heritage linger. Maicoh is one of the Straight Path People. Or his parents, who taught him the language, were born there.
“I thank you.”
He leads the way into a smaller cave with a crack in the roof where the smoke from his fire escapes. Bighorn sheep hides cushion the floor around the fire, and a beautiful black pot, decorated with white diamonds, rests in the coals at the edge of the flames, keeping its contents warm. The pungent fragrance of juniper berry tea fills the air. When the flames flicker, a surreal gleam dances over the niches cut into the walls. Each niche holds a special offering: macaw feathers, nodules of turquoise, chunks of jet, bundles of Spirit plants, bowls filled with spiky datura seedpods.
He politely extends a hand to one of the sheep hides. “Please, sit. May I dip you a cup of tea?”
“No, thank you.”
Artfully, I remove my rabbit-fur shawl and preen before him, turning so that the firelight shimmers across my heavily beaded dress, before I sit down.
He looks so common—just a man in a drab antelope-hide cloak, not particularly special or dangerous. He’s thin, almost emaciated, little more than a walking skeleton. His cheekbones put out, and his black eyes sink into their sockets like those of a dead man. Oddly, his shoulder-length black hair and silver temples are his only attractive feature.
I’m disappointed. After all, I know him in a way no one else does. I’ve memorized his disguises and the seedy villages where he hides, the men and women he routinely calls upon, every piece of jewelry he owns, and the minutest details of his two good cloaks. In my mind’s eye, I watch him use his ancient painted staff like a sword, thrusting it forward, playfully swinging it around his head. On such occasions, he has long white hair, stands one hand-length taller, and marches like a warrior in his spider mask and gray deerhide cape.
That particular routine never varies. Staff. Spider mask. Gray deerhide cape. At other times, he appears as an elderly gray-haired beggar, a full hand-length shorter, wandering villages while mumbling to himself. He’s a genius at disguise. His work, after all, is delicate and dangerous.
“How may I help you?”
He sits down across the fire and dips himself a cup of tea. Left-handed. Thick scars on the wrist. At some time in the past, he must have tried to kill himself. Or perhaps he was captured and tortured by the barbarians to the north? I’ve heard that they bleed people to death. Slowly.
“I’ll be brief. I don’t wish to interfere with your evening plans. Will it be the slaves’ gathering at Ground Stone Creek tonight? Or are you meeting Elder Boll at Ten Bears ridge?”
He doesn’t blink. Just stares fixedly at me. “Do you follow your husband as well? No wonder he wants to kill you.”
“My husband doesn’t interest me. You’re the only man who interests me.”
There’s no expression on his face, only an eerie confidence centuries deep. “I assumed you needed a Healer for some injuries caused by your husband. If that is not true, then please leave. I have other duties—”
“I know who you are and what you do, Maicoh, orphaned son of the legendary villains Spots and Cactus Flower.”
His black eyes might be polished jet beads. He sits so still they catch the firelight and hold it like mirrors. “Were you paid to find Maicoh? If so, I can’t help you. I know nothing about him, except what everyone knows. He kills witches, which is why he is so feared, especially by those who are witches.”
“I wasn’t paid.”
“Just a curiosity seeker, then?”
“Of course not. I’m a messenger.”
Offhandedly, as though completely indifferent, he asks, “And what message do you carry for Maicoh?”
My gaze drifts around the cave, taking in the details, before I say, “Your father was the last person to see the Mountain Witch alive. That was thirty summers ago, wasn’t it?”
“I’ve told you, I am not—”
“Stop the charade. I have a proposition for you.”
“Not interested.” He starts to rise.
“You haven’t heard the proposition.”
“Won’t make any difference, so you can leave now. I really am in a hurry.”
When I make no move to rise and obey, he gets to his feet, grabs my arm in a rough grip, and drags me toward the door, where he shoves me out into the cold.
Copyright © Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear
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