Chapter Two

A crow screamed overhead.

The Apache called the black stalker the harbinger of death. They believe one who sees the sleek bird before battle will defeat their enemy. Sacheen closed her eyes and prayed victory would find her brother Elan this day. A throng of bronze-skinned bodies had gathered in the center of the village, and in the distance, tribal drums struck an ominous chord. Warriors whistled and cheered; women clucked their tongues against the roofs of their mouths. The din and clatter meant the bloodbath would begin soon.

Sacheen did not want to watch the battle of knives, not when Elan might die. If her father were still alive, he would say, 'Do not be afraid, little Sacheen. Usen will watch over Elan.' But her father wasn't here. She and Elan had wrapped his wounded body in his favorite blanket and tucked him into a high precipice so the animals couldn't dig him up.

His arms slashed with signs of mourning, Elan had placed their father's personal possessions—tomahawk, knife, war shield, bow and lance—into the crevice while Sacheen watched from below. Near the fissure, he slit the throat of their father's favorite horse and waited until the creature drew his last breath. Separately, they wandered back to camp, each avoiding the trail that brought them here. Her father's ghost might follow them back to the village. The Apache feared dead spirits.

Bitterness lodged in Sacheen's throat. Her father was an honorable man and deserved a good death, not the lingering pain that found him in his final days. "I do not fear death, daughter." Laboring to breathe, he'd placed a hand on her cheek. "I go with peace in my heart into the underworld where the sun knows no rest and food is plentiful. Ponies run free over the vast plains and the buffalo are so heavy, they cannot flee from our swift arrows. You have no reason to mourn me."

But mourn him she did, as did Elan.

With great effort, her father had touched her cheek. "I saved you from a life of torment, my daughter. To promise you in marriage to Uday would have brought you great sorrow." A faint smile lifted the corner of his lip. "Would have brought me great sorrow too."

"Do not speak, Father. You must rest."

"He is an evil man, spawned of a witch."

She fought back tears threatening to spill down her cheeks. "You should have taken his fifty horses, warm blankets and a rifle. If only we had known what he would do when you refused him."

"What do I care of horses, saddles and blankets when your happiness is at stake?" He closed his eyes for a brief time and then opened them. Glassy and dull, he focused on her face. "Do you know what Uday means, Sacheen? To rise…to rise again. This you must never forget."

His last words trampled through her brain now, This you must never forget.

Elan swore to avenge their father's death after Uday mortally wounded him. Dishonored and humiliated when his offer was refused, the warrior had drawn his knife and buried it in their father's chest. Medicine men and shaman came and went from their lodge in the following days, their faces masked in grief. Sacheen knew then her father courted death.

A menacing silence enveloped the crowd now. Sacheen peered between the shoulders of a tall, slender brave and a barrel-chested man. Their chief and Uday's father bound the fighter's left arms together with lengths of leather, leaving their right hands free. Nothing good would come of Elan's challenge. Hate begets hate, and revenge, more revenge.

Torn between pinching her eyes shut and watching the fight, Sacheen mouthed a silent prayer and then peered between her fingers. A thin strap of leather secured Uday's midnight hair at his nape. His center part had been splashed with red—the color of blood. Sweat streamed in small beads from his forehead and dripped onto his ridged, bronze torso. His legs spread and braced for battle, a sinister smile parted the man's lips. The air cracked with his confidence, turning Sacheen's blood to ice.

In contrast, Elan stood tall and proud, his lean, nimble body ready to spring into action. Two long braids, one on each side, touched the bare skin beneath his collarbone. Bright yellow marked his center part, the color of his power. He lacked the years of experience Uday held over him, and had little chance of surviving this battle, yet his dark eyes remained calm.

Recalling Elan's words that morning, panic clenched her heart. 'If I lose, leave this place. You must flee from Uday.' Running his slender fingers down her cheek, he blew an agonizing breath. "Geronimo has surrendered to the whites and soon the Apache will be no more. Promise me, Sacheen. Promise you will find a life far away from here.'

"Do not leave me, Elan. You are all I have now."

'It is not for me to decide.' He took her hand and placed it on his chest. 'Do not show them fear and remember I will always be with you here.'

Against a rush of doubt and terror, the strong, steady thrum of his heart had calmed her.

The drums beat an eerie refrain. The fight would begin.

Uday lunged and Elan avoided the downward thrust of his blade. Metal met metal under a pitiful sun before they retreated. Elan kicked Uday's feet from under him. Bodies rolled and grappled in a cloud of red dust. Clambering to their feet again and straining against the ties binding them, blades slashed through the gritty mist of sand and dust.

Uday's knife found a home beneath her brother's ribs. Gasps and shrieks rent the air. Bright red blood streamed from Elan's wound, staining his breach clout and leggings. Sacheen wanted to cry out her misery but remembered her promise to her brother.

Faster than a viper's tongue, Elan's knife thrust upward and slashed the side of Uday's neck. The man's free hand flew to the wound to stop the gush of blood. His mouth open, his eyes wide, the warrior fell to his knees. With the skill of a seasoned fighter, Elan's hand descended in a blur of speed. He drove his knife into Uday's heart and twisted. The mass of bronze faces fell silent. Uday watched the clouds roll by overhead and began his death chant.

Sacheen closed her eyes on a sigh of relief. Usen had smiled on Elan today. She heard a body topple to the ground and knew her father had been avenged. When she opened her eyes, the clouds overhead had disappeared. The sky turned dark and the wind slashed at the trees. The chief rushed forward to cut the strap binding the living and the dead. Elan jumped to his feet and rushed forward to embrace her.

Terrified of the portent signs from above, the throng dispersed and ran toward their lodges. Sacheen looked toward the fallen warrior and a wave of pity for the man's father washed over her. Kneeling beside his son, the elder's lips moved in silent prayer.

Elan grabbed her wrist. "Come away, Sacheen. He is not worth your pity."

Struggling to keep up with his long strides, she choked out the words, "What will we do now, brother? Where will we go?"

"We will go wherever the spirits guide us. You are free and no longer have to fear Uday."

Through the sudden onslaught of rain, Sacheen looked toward the mountain to where their father was buried. The hair at her nape stood on end. Why did peace elude her?

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