The stench of burning flesh made Ogbogu de Hairoun’s eyes water – salty, stinging tears of loss and terror. It took every last shred of willpower to not make a sound, to lie still amongst the carnage, to not jump up and reveal himself only to fall in a flurry of arrows and iron.
To join those he’d shared life with on their journey to the land of the dead.
His face was covered in blood and gore, his naked body hidden in a knot of broken limbs and stinking entrails. All around him, the bohio was strewn with the dead bodies of the Hairoun tribe of the Oniats that had taken him in as a child, raised him as one of their own and eventually accepted him as their bohike.
The Cambrian army had attacked the timber walls of the yucayeque as the sun began its journey across the sky and the Hairoun were in the middle of their morning prayers. Fast and furious, flaming arrows and battering rams had announced their arrival, catching the night watch off-guard and their relief unprepared, despite the signs of their impending attack. As the flames spread and the Cambrians broke through the defenses, the sound of sharpened iron rending flesh and bone filled the air.
The screams of the Hairoun warriors were rivaled only by those of their fallen women and children, all drowned out by the thundering war horns and vulgar battle songs of the Cambrian soldiers themselves. Up close, fishing spears, small daggers and batey balls were no match for the heavily armored and mounted attackers. Even the most valiant Hairoun were felled quickly and brutally.
Cambrians were not known for their mercy. They were, in fact, infamous for seeking out both the cacique and bohike, believing their capture and violation would lead to quicker claiming of the gold and slaves they so treasured.
As a result, in the face of attack, both of the leaders of the yucayeque would fall back to the bohio, disguising themselves as common Naborias while decoys took their place in battle at the front. Should the decoys be captured, having no vital information to impart, they would often be publicly slain as an example and the Cambrians would then seize the yucayeque, enslaving the able-bodied before pressing on, leaving behind a token force to enforce their rule.
The hope was that a rebellion could then be mounted quickly and the yucayeque retaken.
It rarely worked out that way, though, as the Cambrians quickly figured out the ploy and there was always someone willing to barter for their lives, preferring the uncertainty of the Cambrian’s self-serving promises over the preservation of their people.
It was how the northern provinces fell so quickly, in less than 10 years, and the Cambrians were able to continue their push south towards Orikeno, the lone Oniat province still not under Cambrian control, despite their relatively small army.
The Hairoun yucayeque, a trading partner with the Orikeno that had resisted a more formal alliance, lay on the outer fringes of Orikeno, and represented the Cambrians first victory against the final obstacle to fulfilling what they saw as their manifest destiny.
It was a victory won, as most of those before it had been, through betrayal.
Colombe de Hairoun stood near the front of the ravaged bohio, facing three Cambrians dressed in blood-drenched armor, nicked and gore-covered swords resting at their sides. He tried to ignore the necklace of Hairoun ears hanging from the belt of one of the soldiers as he removed the blood-soaked Mao he’d donned at the beginning of the battle when he took his place as his brother’s decoy, the cacique Guabano be Hairoun.
He held the unsealed parchment in his hand as if it were a shield.
“I am not the one you seek,” he stuttered, struggling with the harsh Cambrian tongue. “I am your ally.” Hot tears streaked a path down his dirty cheeks.
Two of the Cambrian soldiers laughed mockingly, hands eagerly gripping the hilts of the swords at their sides, while the other, the one with the necklace of ears, snatched the parchment from Colombe’s hand and read it.
Slowly, his smile turned to a scowl and his eyes narrowed.
“You are the one that made possible our attack?”
“Yes,” stammered Colombe. “It was with my help you were able to take the village by surprise. I am the decoy for the leader of the village, selected to die so that he may live and rouse our…the people to rebellion against you. I have no interest in dying today.”
The Cambrian soldier’s face softened a bit, almost as if sympathy for the traitorous savage had somehow penetrated his war-hardened heart. Colombe’s body so relaxed in response that it hit the ground several seconds after his head, which had been severed with one swing of the Cambrian’s sword.
“These savages may speak our language,” the soldier scowled, “but they obviously cannot read it. While he spoke the truth, the scroll he carried ordered his death as a traitor to his own people and therefore completely untrustworthy to the crown.”
The other two soldiers laughed again, one reaching down to retrieve Colombe’s head by its long-black ponytail and slinging it across his shoulder.
“Your father will want this for his collection, I believe, Lord Bludwerth”
The three soldiers gave a final glance around the bohio and, satisfied there were none left to slay, exited.
Ogbogu remained still in the silence that followed, though it took less effort than before his knowledge of Colombe’s betrayal. He lay there for two more days until the sounds of the Cambrian army had completely subsided. They had no interest in occupying such a seemingly insignificant village, and no cause for celebrating such a minor victory, and had continued their long journey south.
Obogu tried to rise from his hiding place of drained flesh and shattered bones but his own bones were stiff and he could not stand completely upright, instead crawling to the front door of the bohio. He kept his eyes on the door both out of fear a Cambrian soldier might storm through it, and not wanting to look into the faces of the dead surrounding him. Though it was slightly ajar, it was not enough to release the stench of death from the room.
Before the door lay the headless body of Colombe and Ogbogu paused to examine it. It had stiffened somewhat but, other than the absence of his head, could have been mistaken for someone sleeping on the ground. The left hand was clenched into a fist so tight, the fingernails had apparently cut into the palm as a thin trickle of blood had congealed there.
On its small finger was the cacique’s ring, a thin piece of ceramic painted red and white, the outer edges trimmed in gold.
Ogbogu pried open the hand, finger bones cracking in resistance, and removed the ring, placing it upon his own. Fists clenched, he whispered a prayer to Opiel Guabiron, asking for Guabano’s spirit to be granted entry to Coabey, the realm of eternal peace and reward, then muttered another one to Moboyas, that he take Colombe’s spirit and grant it eternal destruction.
Rolling the body over with his foot, Ogbogu lifted the bloodied Mao from the ground and placed it over his head and onto his shoulders.
Forcing himself to stand, he exited the bohio into the fading light of the evening. The coqui were singing and a cool breeze blew through the yucayeque, wafting conflicting smells of charred flesh and fruits.
Smoke hung lazily over the fallen yucayeque as a few small fires still burned here and there. Other than the sound of the cocquis, there was no sign of another living being.
Ogbogu leaned back against the wall of the bohio and sobbed.