Conan the Siksika knew who he was, but others did not realize that the thick-muscled, obsidian-eyed, bronze-hided gladiator was Blackfeet, admitted to the tribe so long ago that he actually showed up on the first lists of the People made by the cavalry with their little books of fancy handwriting. He had come to the Nitzitahpi in the midst of a buffalo-running, the piskun ceremony when a group of buffalo are stampeded over a cliff.
One young bull became enraged when being driven by the whooping people, waving their branches at the small herd they had spotted and hazed to this spot, carefully easing them along until they were close enough to be panicked into full flight. They were thundering, the grass under their feet pulverizing, when one young bull separated and headed straight for an old woman and her grandson, intent on carrying them on his horns into splintering, blood-soaked oblivion.
The old woman put the boy behind her — he was small and her body might protect him, but there was no need because into the space between the old woman and the young bull rushed a man of enormous strength, his long black hair streaming on the wind, his massive shoulders gleaming in the summer sun as he swung a huge stone maul with such force that when it hit the bellowing bull right between his bloodshot eyes, the animal dropped — his skull split.
The boy evaded his grandmother and darted between the glorious man’s muscular legs, intent on scooping out the hot and steaming brains of the bull. It was good and good for him. Conan, laughing a mighty jubilance, joined the boy, slathering the soft fatty tissue between his square jaws. The old woman shook her head, but from that moment on she was committed to this valorous and fearless man.
In the coming days as the band worked hard to process the huge mound of meat at the foot of the cliff, skinning and slicing and smoking and boiling out marrow from the bones, Conan stayed with them, not afraid to do the tedious work that meant the very life of the band. Not everything is swordplay in combat — sometimes a knife is useful for other things.
To pass the time as they worked, the old woman told them tales — not Napi stories but things she claimed she had seen with her own eyes. For instance, she was so old that in her early youth she had witnessed a battle between a Thunderbird and a Water Bull, huge and dark against a thunderous sky slashed with lightning. She had been sent to the lakeside to get camp water in her leather bucket made from the whole skin of a fawn, but she had been afraid — sensing menace — and had been taking time to scan every bit of the way for strange shadows or dangerous omens. She did get her skin bucket filled. But when she turned, what she had feared came to pass.
When the huge bulk of the water bull rose out of the lake, she didn’t run. She was paralyzed. The water sheeted off the beast, faster than it sheeted off the coarse-furred buffalos, and steaming because the animal was so hot, its blood was nearly boiling within it so that it could survive the icy waters of the glacier run-off. It had evolved this way ten thousand years ago when the great mantel of glacier retreated from the whole continent, grinding backwards as it had ground forwards, leaving strange things behind, debris of millennia. The hot beast had shining white tusks as long as she was tall.
Then, just as she had become able to remember what this creature was called, “STUMICK !!” an immense sliding shadow came on the wind, only now and then flapping its leathern wings but all the while clacking its terrible toothed jaws, long as a crane’s bill — longer!. The flying monster attacked the splashing bull beast, still belly-deep in water which in an instant was marbled with blood from both beasts. The bull had a strangely long nose like a hand with which it grabbed that snake-necked featherless bird-thing, pulling it down and down, until the water bubbled with its breath. When the wide wings were entirely limp and merely floating on top of the lake, the water bull, still gripping its neck, swung it around by the neck, like a football player swinging his stripped-off jersey victoriously over his head.
The woman had run all the way back to the lodge, spilling water on every side and though her mother beat her with a stick, she refused to go back that night.
Conan grinned. “I would have gone back. I would have wanted to see that again!”
“Is that story true, granny?” asked the small boy. They were the only lodge in the camp where people were still awake.
“Could be,” she said and handed him her leather bucket. “Now go get us some water.”
“But, Granny, it’s DARK.”
“Go.” He went, his eyes bugging and his hair lifting on his head.
When he was gone, the old woman turned to Conan. “Why are you here this time?”
Conan was careless and relaxed. He didn’t mind telling his plans. “I’ve come to visit Jack the Limping One, who is the Armorer for those in buckskin. I’m told he has a new kind of weapon very effective in these strange times. Steam punk guns.”
Her eyebrows went up. “It’s true that the world has turned a-synchronist now. The glaciers are melting back and people are punching holes in the earth. Strange others are being released on our lands: bankers, engineers. We don’t know what they will do to this place we have inhabited for so long. If they do the wrong thing, the People will die.”
Conan rested on one enormous elbow and looked into the red embers of the campfire. He had not bothered to really dress except for his loincloth which hung below his Adonis belt, and for moccasins because his feet were still tender from the long walk across cactus country, but the mosquitoes, smelling his smoked hide, did not land. A look of deep sadness seeped into his obsidian eyes. “I know,” he said slowly. I am hoping to help find a way.”
“It may be too late. Some are already drunk on money.” She looked around. “Don’t tell the others, but I’ve already seen black helicopters rise out of the lakes, a hellish mating of the Thunderbird and the Water Bull.”
Even Conan could not keep from shuddering. He knew what it meant. Then he heard a sound not unlike a mosquito, but sharper, a zinging from a small flying object. He jumped to his feet. “By Mitra, they’re sending observation drones!” Picking up a stone from the campfire ring, as big as a baseball, and tracking the sound in the dark, he hurled his missile with such force that he knocked the mechanical device out of the sky.
“I’m going to go meet your boy. It’s more dangerous than I thought.”