“I told you not to eat him!” the man in the black robe said; he was a missionary and a very long way from home, but the local tongue flowed easily from his lips, albeit with a lisping, purling accent. “Come out!”
He was alone, standing on a slight hillock amid the low marshy ground. The log canoe behind him held more — three Cossack riflemen, their weapons ready, a young woman lying bound at their feet, and a thick-muscled man with burn-scars on this hands and arms. He whimpered and cowered and muttered pajalsta — please, please — over and over until he was cuffed into silence by one of the soldiers.
There were several other craft beyond, making up a little flotilla. Beyond them the tall gloom of the cypresses turned the swamp into a pool of olive-green shadow, in which the Spanish moss hung in motionless curtains. There was little sound; a plop as a cottonmouth slipped off a rotting log into the dark water, and muffled with distance the dull booming roar of a bull alligator proclaiming his territory to the world. The air was warm and rank, full of the smell of decay . . . and a harder odor, one of crusted filth and animal rot.
“Come out!” the one in black snapped again; he was a stocky man in his middle years, black-haired, with a pale high-cheekboned face and slanted gray eyes.
They did; first one, then a few more, then a score, then a hundred. The man laughed in delight at the sight of them; the thickset shambling forms, the scarred faces and filed teeth, the roiling stink. One with a bone through his broad nose and more in his clay-caked mop of hair came wriggling on his belly like a snake through the mud to press his forehead into the dirt at the man’s feet.
“Master, master,” the figure whined — in his language it was a slightly different form of the word for killer, and closely related to the verb to eat.
“He sickened,” the savage gobbled apologetically. “We only ate him when he could not work.”
The robed man drew back a foot and kicked him in the face; the prone figure groveled and whimpered.
“A likely story! But the Black God is good to His servants. I have brought you another blacksmith . . . and weapons.”
He half-turned and signaled. Most of the men in the canoes kept their rifles ready and pointed; a few dragged boxes out and bore them ashore. They were open-topped, showing their loads; long knives, steel arrowheads, hatchet-heads. A moaning chorus came from the figures, and hands reached out eagerly. The man in black uncoiled a whip from his belt and lashed them back.
“Who do you serve?” he asked harshly.
“The Black God! The Black God!” they called. Then in the missionary’s language: “Tchernobog! Tchernobog!”
“Good. See you remember it. Keep this man healthy! Set more of your young to learning the smelting and working of the iron! No-one is to hunt or kill or eat such men, for they are valuable! It is more pleasing to the Black God when you eat His enemies than when you prey on each other –”
He let the moaning chorus of obedience go on for a moment while he lashed them with words, then signaled; the young woman was pushed forward. She was naked, a plump swarthy Kaijan girl trying to scream through the gag that covered her mouth. There would be a time for her to scream, but not quite yet.
“And the Black God has brought you food, tender and juicy!” the robed man called, laughing and grabbing her by the back of the neck in one iron-fingered hand. She squealed like a butchered rabbit through the cloth as the eyes of the watchers focused on her.
A moment’s silence, and another cry went up, hot and eager: “Eat! Eat!”
“We shall eat, my children,” he laughed. “But the killing must be as the God desires, eh? Prepare the altar!”
They scurried to obey. When the work was done, the man who commanded their service drew a long curved knife from his girdle; the rippling damascened shape was sharp enough to part a hair, unlike the crude blades of the savages.
“A man is coming,” he said, as they stretched the girl across the piled logs, one holding each limb.
“Man? Which man?” That was from the closest thing the swamp-dwellers had to a chief, and the most intelligent of his converts.
“From the west, and within three hands of days. A tall man, with a cloth wrapped about his head. You are to kill him, for that would be very pleasing to the Black God. Kill him and all with him. You may not hunt each other until this is done!”
They nodded eagerly, a chorus of hoarse cries. “Kill!” It was always easier, telling them to do something they wanted to do, although they were only slowly grasping the concept of united action.
“If you want the Black God to favor you, you must kill his enemies — kill them in fight, on the altar, by ambush and stealth. Kill them! Take their lands! Hunt them down!”
“Kill! Kill the all Tall Ones! Kill and eat!” A vicious eagerness was in the words, and an ancient hate.
“And on that good day, I shall return to bring you Tchernobog’s blessing! Now we shall make sacrifice, and feast.”
He reached down and flicked off the gag, and the sacrifice gave the first of the cries prescribed in the rite, as he swept the blade of the khindjal from throat to pubis in an initial, very shallow cut. The man sighed with pleasure, and swept his arms open and up, invoking the Peacock Angel.
“Eat!” the swamp-men screamed. “Eat!”
Technically, they should be chanting the Black God’s name at this point in the ritual. But it was all the same, in the end. For would not Tchernobog eat all the world, in time? He cut again, again…