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Stalking The Shadows: Ancient Destiny book 1

May 29, 2015

Here’s a sample of Stalking The Shadows: Ancient Destiny, Book 1.
It’s an E-book available from Amazon, and will be released as an audio book in the summer – abailable from Audible, Itunes etc. I’ll post more should there be any demand.
Thanks,
BJ 
PROLOGUE

Welcome my friend. The dusk is falling; it is the time between twilight and night. It is the sacred time, the tranquil time before the dark. It is time for tales, for warm fires and hot food. Come, join me, sit by my fire, my cave is dry and warm. I have fresh food and warm skins to sit upon; it is safe. Stay awhile and gaze into the fire’s bright heart, let its flickering magic and stirring heat lull you. Look into the shifting flames and behold your dreams.
I am the keeper of memories, the teller of tales. I am wise, for I have heard and seen much during my life. I have seen friends and enemies live and die; I have seen and known suffering, and I have felt compassion and love. I was young when this land was chosen. I was young when mighty tribes clashed. Now I am old, I sleep with a spear beside me still, for despite the peace of our haven, the scarred menace is still abroad and other tribes visit us from time to time. But no matter, I am contented, it is a good land and I live in exciting times.
You don’t know my name, do you? Well, I don’t know yours. But you can call me friend. Let me tell you of our land, of our people; hear the story of mighty men and of the gods. Hear of your ancestors and be proud.
The birds are singing to the sunset; they are returning to their nests. It is the time for my tale, a tale that begins before our birth. This tale begins with another people…
***
Rumours, stories, fear, confusion; they struggled, their fingertips clinging to existence, the chasm of extinction sucking at their heels; it was in all of them now, fluttering just behind their eyes, the shadow of desperation and helplessness. They had done all they could, had tried all they knew, but still they were afraid, still they were hungry, and still the fragments of information, the intermittent contacts made them quake, for this new enemy was strange, elusive, cunning and clever, and still the land changed.
“Shella.” a whisper in the darkness, an expression of tenderness and comfort that was accompanied by a gentle stroking of the arm. The two sentinels, Lok and Klet, sat huddled together next to the meagre glow of the watch-fire, the wind tearing at them with the ferocity of a pack of hunting wolves. They could tolerate the physical discomfort, the wind and the cold, they were both seasoned warriors; it was the niggling fear and uncertainty that made them shiver and set their nerves on edge.
The older man, Lok, saw the expression on the younger man’s face, and with a smile he patted his shoulder. Klet drew strength from this fleeting contact and smiled his thanks. Lok nodded his head in acknowledgment and resumed the long vigil of watching the land.
From their vantage point high up in a small hollow on the hillside they could see the undulating, unbroken glacial plain that stretched as far as the mountains to the north, and the sea in the south. The men who inhabited this land were one of the surviving pockets of Homo neanderthalensis. They were a robust species; tall, proud, strong and viciously territorial. Their features were strong, their foreheads narrow, their jaws and brows slightly jutting. Their bodies and limbs were thick with muscle, and although slightly hunched they were fast and athletic. The enemy was a new breed of man, the Homo sapiens sapiens. They were taller and more wiry; where the Neanderthals had hair and muscle, the Homo sapiens had paler skin and sinew, their foreheads broad, their lips thinner, and their noses sharper. They lacked the power and the strength of the Neanderthal, but they made up for it in intelligence, adaptability, and resilience.
The Neanderthals that lived in the hills, the Impoola clan, had heard rumours about the new enemy, the new men. They heard how they rob and steal, cheat and kill with cunning. How they do strange things with the soil and snow.
“Ware.” Lok whispered. Something moved down on the plain, something small and quick. Lok sprang to his feet and gave a hand signal for Klet to follow. With the ease that practice brought, they each grabbed a bundle of spears, and with exaggerated care made their way down the steep hillside.
He had been tracking the wisent for many days. It was proving to be a difficult hunt, the beast having tested his endurance, running fast through hard terrain. The solitary hunter, Dimek, was a young novice of nine years of age. His father, the young chief of his tribe, had sent him out to prove himself worthy of manhood. It was the rite of passage that every young hunter had to endure. Dimek came from a tribe of Homo sapiens that lived in the hills three full moons to the east. Although still young, he was tall and strong, intelligent and brave.
Now close to exhaustion he knew he would have to make the kill soon, or die in the attempt.
Dimek stopped dead in his tracks, as if he had run into a rock face. There stood two savages, obscenely muscled and as fierce as cave bears. With an arrogance that belied their inferiority, they swaggered towards him and pointed their spears at his pumping chest.
Skilla, the bigger, older man pointed at Dimek’s spear. Dimek knew what he must do, he knew that he must drop his spear onto the ground, but he spat on the ground with contempt.
“Drop yours first.” He growled. The Neanderthals did not understand the strange words, but they understood the intention and the fear in the boy’s eyes. They smiled broadly and looked at each other. Dimek did not move, and neither did Lok and Klet; in the near darkness of the night they stared at each other over the gulf of hatred and confusion. In each other’s eyes they saw something familiar -fury, strength, doubt, and above all, the will to survive. In some ways they were identical, but in other ways they were worlds apart, divided by cruel evolution and fate.
It would have been easy for the two warriors to kill the young hunter. He was outnumbered and weak. But Lok and Klet did not enjoy murder, did not relish dishonourable death. Understanding flashed between them and the warriors lowered their spears.
Dimek could not believe it – he grinned and lowered his own weapon. For a moment, overcome by relief, he found himself wanting to embrace the huge men, but at the last second he stepped back and carried on running in the direction of his prey.
The Impoola clan were encamped in a network of caverns that were set into the walls of a steep valley. It was a good place, and at the moment it was undiscovered and safe. Soon, however, they would have to move on, as the caribou would start their migration. But the caribou, along with the other beasts, were becoming scarce, and the clan was resorting to more dangerous prey. Besides, they sensed danger; for when one new man came, usually others followed.
Lok considered this as he chewed the edge of a bear skin, making it malleable and moist so that he could wear it comfortably. He yawned loudly and considered the ground. Beneath the thin crust of ice and snow, the soil was good. He remembered their last camp. The soil was useless, crumbly and dead. He suspected that they, the new men, had done it deliberately. He had seen them performing strange rituals, hammering the soil with bone and rock, stamping and chanting. Then they added roots and nuts. Lok presumed that they were sacrificing the plants in a ceremony to their gods. He smiled to himself and shrugged; he had seen the elder of his clan give sacrifice. A cave bear, strong and magnificent. They scared it with fire and harsh words and drove it into a cave, then the elder stabbed it through the neck with his spear. The blood fountained high, covering the onlookers in red. The bear screamed, shuddered, and took the top off a man’s skull with a swipe of a claw before he slumped twitching to the rock floor. The clan, all twenty of them, including the elder, Lok and his cousin Klet, gave thanks to the great bear, skinned him, and ate his heart. Afterwards they sealed the cave, the elder sprinkling herbs and cursing the blocked up entrance against scavengers, thieves and malicious spirits.
Lok rose to his feet and walked into his cave. Something troubled him, and he felt uncomfortable and distracted.
“Klet.” He spoke to his cousin, who was squatting at the fire. Klet rose and frowned; Lok gestured and Klet followed him out of the cave. Slowly they made their way out of the valley and climbed until they were on the plain.
It was an easy task. The prints were clear in dawn’s early light, the long broad footprints of a new man that stopped suddenly at the foot of the hill. Lok and Klet grinned at each other when they recognised their own tracks. With veterans’ eyes they followed the footprints, their bodies relaxing into an easy trot. Half a mile from their hill they picked up the deep hoof prints of the wisent.
They looked at each other. They were only lightly armed, and in the open; if the beast was injured, he would charge.
“Back?” Klet asked; Lok shook his head. For a moment they weighed the odds, then in mutual accord they trudged on.
Dimek, in common with all his tribe and people, had been brought up to believe that they were superior, and that the other men were little more than savage animals. Ever since his ancestors had left the hot land, ever since the dawn of humanity, they had believed this. But Dimek was confused and angry. The two savages who had climbed down from the hill could have killed him. As easily as pulling a bird’s neck, they could have speared him and left him in the cold. But they hadn’t; they had smiled and walked away, leaving him alone. When at last he had caught up with the wisent prints, he considered these things – then his heart stopped. His father had told him to go for small prey, snow hare or doe, but Dimek had shrugged his shoulders and smiled, “One day I will be hunt leader. I will prove it.”
The black shape that loomed out of the darkness was huge and menacing. Small eyes seemed to pierce his skull, and the white horns curved into the sky. He was pawing restlessly at the ground with a massive hoof, his hunched back huge, his dewlaps nearly touching the ground. He raised his head; the small bristly mane standing erect, and he grunted. Dimek froze with fear and nearly dropped his spear.
With a speed Dimek never thought possible, the wisent charged, crashing down on him like a black avalanche, snorting and terrible.
Lok and Klet stopped when they saw the first pink stains in the snow. Lok stooped and with his index finger, he smeared a lump of snow into the palm of his hand and sniffed. Klet followed his example and they looked at each other, frowning.
“Wisent?” Klet asked,
“Man.” Lok shook his head.
It would have been easy to return to the caves, easy to retreat, but inside Lok and Klet’s hearts, there was honour and pride. They knew the man they had let go was young and weak, if they meant him to die, they would have killed him themselves; but they had not. They had let him go, so they could not let another man or beast kill him; not when he was on their land. Lok and Klet saw it as their duty to find the boy, alive or dead.
They trotted onwards, sometimes breaking into a run, but always keeping their breathing under control, and their senses as alert and keen as the deer. The blood was getting darker, the snow mushy and thick. Now and then they came across a coarse dark hair, evidence that the wisent had also been injured. They went on until they found the boy.
At the last possible second, Dimek flung himself aside and the wisent roared passed in a cloud of snow. Dimek, stunned and afraid, dropped his spear. Frantically, he searched for it in the pale moonlight, but the wisent bore down on him again, grunting and snorting.
Dimek ran towards the rocky outcrop that marked the end of the range of hills. He sprinted as fast as he could. A rock, half buried by snow stabbed him in the ankle and he fell, sprawling to the icy ground. He could smell it, feel its hot breath and the steam that rose from its huge body. It was nearly on him, then he found a loose rock the size of his fist. With all the strength he could muster, he hurled it at the beast’s head. For a moment, its advance was slowed and then it charged again, forcing Dimek to clamber up the outcrop.
“Skilla.” Lok pointed at a spear that lay on the ground at his feet. Klet picked it up and tested the flint point and nodded, appreciating the excellent craftsmanship. He added it to the bundle that was slung over his shoulder and followed Lok. He was stooping over a small rock. He handed it to Klet and he sniffed and stroked it;
“Wisent.” He said with authority, showing Lok the blood. Warily, with their spears poised, they picked their way up the outcrop.
Dimek had never felt such pain. It started in his leg and shot up his spine, exploding in white heat at the top of his skull. The pain made him gasp. It made his vision star and blur, and made him slip and let go his grip on the rocks. He plunged downwards, hitting his head as he fell. The last thing he remembered was the pain, and the last thing he saw were the hooves of the wisent drumming at the ground as he disappeared into the night.
Lok and Klet knelt beside the crumbled bloody body that lay at the base of the outcrop. The marks and prints showed them that the wisent had tried to clamber after the boy, but had slipped. In his desperation and anger, he had charged and butted upwards. His anger was satiated when one of his horns had gored through a leg, making a ragged tear in the flesh, the white bone visible beneath the dark blood. Klet touched the boy’s bloody and bruised head and face, but the boy did not stir.
“The skilla is kind and quick, wisent is not.” Lok said to Klet. They both felt guilty, wishing they had killed the boy cleanly when they had the opportunity, and not let the wisent tear into him.
Lok put his ear against the boy’s chest and listened for his spirit. He smiled with relief; there it was, faint and intermittent, the boy’s spirit still clubbing the walls of his cave in an attempt to escape.
“Still within.” Klet grinned.
With exaggerated care, they wrapped their skins about Dimek’s leg, and bore him away to their family cave.
***
The chief stood on the crest of the hill and stared into the gloom. The plain was pristine, an unbroken white sheet. Beyond the plain the forest glistened, and the great river shone, resplendent with its mantle of thin ice. He had been waiting and watching for many months, and now he was worried.
“Warriors.” He said, his voice little more than a croak. His ten best men came to his side, huge and skilled, their clubs heavy and their spears sharp.
“My son Dimek went out to hunt his manhood.” The warriors nodded. “He has not returned, and it has been too many seasons. Go and find him. If he is not dead, he has been captured by savages. Do what you must.”
They nodded their heads almost imperceptibly and disappeared, a dark smudge on the horizon.
***
After much persuasion and begging, Dimek received healing from the clan elder. With herbs and leaves, prayers and sacrifice, the wound in Dimek’s leg began to heal cleanly. Soon, Lok, Klet, their family, and the whole clan, including the elder, began to like the skinny child. And in return, Dimek began to love them, treating them as his own tribe. Lok taught him their simple language, and Dimek taught them his, and soon he was assimilated into their way of life. When Dimek was completely healed, Lok and Klet took him hunting, and together, they killed the wisent and the mammoth.
One cold morning, many years after Dimek’s rescue, the sun bright, the snow white and fresh, Lok drew Dimek aside;
“Now we will hunt the snow leopard.” Dimek beamed, only the best hunters hunted the great cats; Dimek had been itching to hunt such a prey. He had dreamt of it, dreamt of making his kill and giving the beast’s teeth to Lok and Klet to honour their kindness.
The next night, under the light of a waxing moon, the snow bright under their feet, Lok, Klet and Dimek hunted the sabre-toothed snow leopard, or the “Flint hookla” as the Impoola called it.
They came from the east, running in a skirmish line, ten men, well-armed and ferocious. The Impoola were hungry, their men weak, but their defence was strong and passionate. The new men barked commands, using harsh words that the clan did not understand.
“Where is he?” they shouted, “Where is the chief’s son?” the women cowered; babies cried, and men fought with spear and rock.
Amidst the turmoil, the Impoola understood one word: “Dimek.” The warriors saw the recognition in their eyes and drove home their advantage.
“Where?” a big man asked a young woman, her baby clutching her breast. She looked up at him, defiance burning in her eyes. The boy had been with them for seven migration seasons; he had been adopted into the clan, he was one of them.
“Where?” the warrior shouted at her. She smiled up at him, and his rage and revulsion boiled over and exploded. He took his stone club and smashed her baby’s skull; she screamed with terror and grief.
Most of the able men were out hunting, but the elder, standing in the shadows of the cave, witnessed the depravity. “I curse your land and your hearts.” He said, his voice low, intense and calm. The warrior turned around to look at the wizened figure. He laughed in indignation, but when the old man’s spear lanced through his stomach, disembowelling him, he squealed like a pig.
The hunt was progressing well, and Klet began to talk to Dimek in hushed tones. “We are hungry.” He began, “The herds are going; it is cold. They know the land will change. Why do the new men eat well?”
Dimek considered this thoughtfully, “We – they.” He corrected himself quickly, “Can grow things and eat from the ground.”
Klet looked confused and raised a shaggy eyebrow, “Bless the land and eat the nuts and berries.” Klet looked disgusted. He didn’t understand how a fully grown man could survive without burnt flesh in his stomach.
For a moment, Lok and Klet looked at Dimek with the eyes of doting fathers. They marvelled at how Dimek had grown, how the muscles of manhood had blossomed and filled out his frame. His eyes were keen and bright, his body strong, and under their tutelage, he had become a good warrior and hunter.
In companionable silence, they followed the prints of a young snow leopard, Dimek watching and learning quickly.
Lok raised a hand, the signal to stop instantly. Klet, followed by Dimek, froze. Lok gave the hand signal for danger, and raised a finger. Instantly, his companions fell to the ground and armed themselves.
Slowly, with exaggerated care, Lok bent down and touched the ground. He waved Klet to his side, and on silent feet, doubled over, he ran to his cousin’s side.
It was in the snow, half buried, but as clear as the stars. Lok picked it up gingerly and sniffed it, his expression grave. He grimaced expressively, waving Dimek to join them,
What Lok held in his hand was unmistakably human. It was a broken spear; the spearhead was well crafted and sharp, the wooden shaft broken off just below the head where a strip of cured hide still clung. On the flint was carved the unmistakable outline of a woolly mammoth, the symbol and god of Dimek’s tribe.
Dimek’s heart missed a beat, jumbled emotions and thoughts crashing in on him. Lok and Klet, their faces like stone, cast wide and found the prints. Ten warriors they agreed, well armed, and on their way to the valley of the Impoola. In silence, and in single file, the last man, Klet, covering their tracks with a leafy branch, the three made their way back to the hills.
“Ware unkakka.” Lok lapsed into his own language, economy of words paramount. With a signal, Klet took the left flank, Dimek the right, and Lok ran slightly ahead, forming the point of the spearhead. In strict formation, they skirted the first hill and ran for the small gap that marked the valley entrance.
They climbed up the hillside and under cover of rock and tree, looked down into their valley. They could see them, eight men, dragging with them women and children. The faces of the men were fierce, but the women and children looked calm and brave. Lok gave a low call, imitating the alarm call of an elk. Apparently out of nowhere, five men appeared, all big, rugged and armed with spears.
Lok took control and deployed his forces around the outskirts of the valley. He waited for the perfect opportunity and then gave the signal to charge. The sight was terrifying and awesome. The men hurled themselves down the hillside and threw their full weight behind their spears. They buried themselves into the enemy’s flesh, causing them to fall to the ground. All except one. Dimek stood. His spear poised, but he did not release it; he stood rooted to the spot, trembling, silent tears flowing down his face.
The internal struggle was over. He recognised the warrior who stood to face him, and could not kill him.
“Dimek, do you speak their savage tongue?” the warrior asked. Dimek nodded, swallowing his confusion. “Tell them to let you go.”
Lok put a protective arm around the boy’s shoulders, and the warrior raised his club. Lok did not flinch, but stared him down until he lowered his weapon.
“I am not a prisoner.” Dimek sobbed. “They saved me; they are not savages, they are good men.”
The warrior did not want to hear Dimek’s words; he was already too set in his ways.
“Most of them are dead.” He smiled. “Come Dimek, we will leave them.”
Dimek did not know what to think or feel. He looked at Lok, at Klet and at the women. He looked at the frail elder who shambled to his side, his talisman around his neck, the woolly rhinoceros horn thudding against his hollow chest.
“Tell them this.” The warrior began, “Tell them that their world is changing. The animals are disappearing; soon they will all die. Tell them that their time is over.”
Dimek translated into the Impoola language, but they said nothing.
“Go Dimek.” Lok said, “Back to your people and your land. Our days are numbered. We will move on and find a new place to call our own.”
The warrior couldn’t believe his ears; he understood every word the ugly animal said. For a moment, a spark of respect flared in his eyes, then, as quickly as it arrived, it vanished, replaced by flat cold loathing, tinged with pity.
Dimek thought his heart would burst with grief. Not even he could bridge the gap, could live in both worlds. He knew he had to return, to his own kind. When he hugged Lok and Klet, his mentors and fathers, he saw that their eyes were weary and full of grief. The women cried openly, and the elder, not wanting to make a scene, sprinkled herbs from his horn on Dimek’s head, and blessed him.
“Wait.” Lok said, and handed Dimek a beautifully crafted wisent headed flint dagger.
“You hunt well.” He said. “This is for strength and good memories.” Dimek did not trust his voice; his lips trembled as he turned and walked away.
The warrior made to follow Dimek, but Lok and his ferocious warriors stopped him. Klet gripped his shoulders and turned him to face the thin scrawny elder. The ancient man walked over to the warrior and stared into his face. The elder’s expression was a mask of hatred and disgust, the lines of age and worry making him look like the very rocks he lived on.
The warrior grimaced when he was forced to look into the elder’s fathomless eyes.
“Hear me.” The elder began, gripping his rhino talisman in his hands, and looking into the man’s soul. The warrior blinked and nodded like a frightened child.
“I hear you.” He whispered, gulping down his fear.
“Remember.” The elder rasped, “I curse your land, and the beasts you hunt. I curse your gods and I curse your heart.” The warrior fell back and was caught by the men who stood behind him, their faces like old ashes. “Go now, go back to your cursed land.”
Like a terrified deer he fled away, never daring to look back.
***
Far away and in a strange land, a baby waited to be born. His host body, not yet created by man and woman, his spirit lingered in the cradling warmth of the high spirits who were waiting for rebirth. Now in spirit a baby, but once, long ago a man, he would wait many decades for birth. In this state, he felt nothing but a sense of destiny. The spirit opened his eyes and saw a figure that bent over him and kissed him on his forehead. The baby cried, the memory of his passed lives purged; once a man, now a spirit he reached out with his thoughts and sensed the other unborn that swam in the waters of being.
“You will be great.” A voice spoke, “You are chosen.” The god Vantis said. He had only said these powerful words on two other occasions in his long ageless existence as guardian of the unborn. He had said it to a person who grew up to be the elder of a small tribe called the Impoola, and he had said it to a man who became a shaman called Drushuk, and he said it now to a spirit who would become a man, a blessed man who would be known as Meddryn, leader of a new breed of holy men.
“Wait.” From across the waters the voice came, a distant whisper born on a warm breeze; “It is not time for him, not yet.” The moon rose slowly, her face a pale disc that kissed the surface of the waters, turning them silver. The god Vantis paused, the baby kicked. “No Vantis it is not his time, not yet.” Slowly, a white radiance, pale and magnificent floated like mist and took the shape of a woman.
“White lady – Modron.” Vantis nodded, one eyebrow raised, his green skin damp and clammy from the depths.
“I have felt great power and great grief. The men who walk upon the land, though weak in body are powerful now, for they have harnessed some of the magic. Soon they will be in danger, for soon the dark gods will come to them. The great cycle is in motion. All that can be done, must be done. Vantis it is time.”

PART ONE

CHAPTER 1
THE OLD ONES
She stood tall, proud, majestic and huge, her form mountainous and dark against the grey sky, her tusks long and curved shafts of ivory, pointed and deadly. She surveyed the land below her, her huge ears flapping gently, her trunk questing. With an effort, she shook her massive head and tried to make for the thick cover of the distant forest, but her joints ached and her great heart pounded with the effort of movement. She knew she was the last of her kind, she knew that soon she too must meet her mate and calves, as she would soon be dead. The thought of death did not scare her or make her feel sad. She had nobody left and was ancient, her calves and mate long since gone. The only feeling that remained within her was the profound sorrow of loss; for the land she had known and loved, the land of her ancestors had all but disappeared, replaced by mire and water.
She remembered when the land was young and white, covered in snow and ice, supporting mighty herds. She remembered when food was plentiful and the only predator was the sabre tooth; but now the snow was all but gone and there was a new predator which hunted on the plains and in the marshes. A predator which was cunning and merciless, who had come down from the caves, running on two legs and using spears, relentlessly chasing, hunting, harrying. She remembered how they had killed her first born, had driven him into a deep pit and waited for his broken heart to still his struggling body, and then they stabbed him, taking his flesh and hide, even his bones. The memory of the men made her feel sick. The smell of them, the fleshy odour of their stinking bodies, and the pungent stench of the bright hot creatures that lurked in their caves belching acrid vomit that made her lungs sting and her eyes water. The men called this new creature fire, but she called it fear.
***
They ran fast, young, strong, fit and ferocious. The lead hunter ran ahead, his eyes casting about the soft ground; his flint tipped spear slung over one shoulder. He stopped suddenly and raised his hand to bring up his men in a circle about him. They sat on their haunches and watched their leader, as with an index finger, he traced the outline of a fresh deep footprint, massive and unmistakable in the mud.
“One of the old ones.” The leader muttered, “The provider.” He leapt to his feet and sprinted towards the distant forest, the rest of his party following.
With a weary tread she walked deep into the forest. She was far from her ancestral grounds, far from where her kin and herd had fallen; she was tired and the pain was returning. Long ago the spears had stabbed her in her side and in her neck. She had been moving fast, and the men had been scattered, unable to throw hard. Nevertheless, the sharp tips had penetrated her shaggy hide and embedded themselves like insects in her thick fat and muscle. At the time, she did not feel any pain, driven by anger and instinct as she was. She hurled herself down the hillside and ran fast for cover. They had chased her, but did not catch her because she knew the secret paths and was able to hide in cover while her wounds healed. That was a long time ago, and now the wounds began to ache again, her joints began to stiffen. Breathing was difficult and she could no longer run. Slowly, like a landslide, she creaked and groaned to her knees, trying to loosen her joints. Then she remembered the great river, the place of birth and death. When she was young she and her mother, the matriarch of the once mighty herd, would submerge themselves in its waters. She remembered the exquisite feeling of weightlessness as she swam in the water. Now she wanted to go back, wanted to feel the same feeling and enjoy the same succour. A deep instinct told her that to the river was where she must go; an ancient memory stirring and echoing within her, reminding her that the great river is where the mammoths are born, and where they die.
It had been a long hunt; over many gruelling days they had tracked the great beast. At last they were in range of her, at last their tribe might taste fresh meat again and enjoy warm skins. The hunting party was a small one, but nevertheless, well drilled and practised. They ran fast, picking out the large footprints easily. In single file they ran, carrying their spears over their shoulders. They were brave men, young and strong, each one capable of wielding his spear with devastating accuracy. The men were naked and covered from head to toe in mud; this not only gave them camouflage, but covered up their odour; although coming downwind of their prey, they knew that if the mammoth located them, they would be trampled underfoot, smashed by trunk, or impaled by tusk. Relentlessly, the hunting party followed the prints into the forest.
Slowly, with a throaty grumble, she crashed through the last of the cover and began to walk into the marshland that lay between the forest and the river. Then her great ears twitched as she heard something faint on the breeze. She stood like a small hill, completely motionless and silent, only her ears moving. Then her trunk moved smelling the thick odour of mud and sweat. Every nerve in her body tingled and adrenalin coursed through her veins, purging her of pain. She galloped quicker than a man could run, through the marshland, towards the great river.
The hunters broke cover and tried to sprint over the marshy ground, but the mud was thick and sucking, making them sink to their wastes. The mammoth’s feet were large and spread, and she had no trouble walking.
Her great heart jumped with joy when she felt the water close over her. She felt elated when the water took her weight and the current carried her. She did not seem to care when she found herself being carried towards the middle of the river, out of her depth, and far from land. She was pragmatic; she knew it was either death by the spear, or by the water. She closed her eyes and a single silver tear caught on an eyelash before it was washed away by the caressing waters. She stopped moving her legs and let herself drift downwards.
Nothing seemed to matter anymore, there was no more pain, no more running, no more grief, just darkness. She let the water gush into her mouth, and like air she breathed it into her lungs. She felt dizzy, felt light headed, but at peace, because she knew this was the order of things, and that she would soon be with her mate and her calves once more. In the silken embrace of the dark waters, she knew that she had outwitted the two-legged creatures, that she had been more cunning, more clever, stronger, and more worthy. As she drifted into oblivion this gave her a good feeling; “I am better” she thought to herself, “I have won.” She touched the bottom and the muddy river-bed engulfed her, and it felt like her mother’s womb.
“Gone.” Dimek the hunt leader said breathlessly as he reached the river shore. In silence, his ten companions joined him, their faces serious; their mud-caked bodies streaked with running sweat. Dimek pointed with his spear at the grey water that gently lapped the boggy shore. It was getting late, the sun a dim disc that seemed to touch the river, the sky dark and pregnant with black storm clouds.
“There.” The hunt leader said simply, “The old ones’ time is over; they go in the river, into the west to die. Now the last one has passed; time is changing fast.” In respect, the hunters bowed their heads in prayer. “She was strong, worthy, fast, brave.” The leader Dimek whispered.
“They gave us all,” a hunter said, “food, warmth.”
“Tools.” His neighbour added,
“Hope.” Dimek sighed and hefted his spear.
Slowly, they got to their feet, “The old ones are gone, now new gods will come to us. We must change many things, how we live, how we die.” The hunters nodded their heads in solemn agreement. “We will speak with our chief and discuss these changing days…” His companions nodded and each of them threw a handful of mud into the grey waters. “May she find her mate and calves, may they know peace and rest.” He wiped a tear from his eye, and led the long run back to their hills and caves.

CHAPTER 2
NEW DAWN
Hamek he chief sat in the entrance to his cave and looked down at the land. It was a grey land, a land of mud and rock, plain and marsh. The pale blur of the forest was visible on the horizon, and the silver river glistened in the distance. He sighed deeply, taking the chill damp air into his lungs. It was getting late, the sun dipping lower, dark clouds towering like mountains. The chief was concerned. It had been over three weeks since he had sent his son, the hunt leader, out to command the hunt. His return was overdue; his tribe needed fresh meat, the last of the season’s stores was beginning to turn; some of the babies’ stomachs were already as hard and round as the rocks of the riverbank.
Absentmindedly, the chief fingered the enormous pair of sabre teeth that hung around his neck. He remembered his grandfather killing the great beast and making a gift of the teeth. Breathlessly and with a huge grin, the young chief had accepted them, though at the time the teeth were far too big for him to wear. That was a long time ago, and now there were hardly any sabre-toothed cats left in the world. The chief sighed deeply. The land was changing too fast, getting wetter and warmer every day; secretly, he feared that the old ones would soon pass into the west with the setting sun. The thought of a land without the provider gods made the chief feel sick and afraid; a land without the mammoths was a land of starvation, death and despair.
With a start, the chief was jolted out of his revelry by a patch of movement down on the plain. He strained his eyes and made out the shape of the hunting party; with relief, he picked out the tall strong form of his son, but with a sinking disappointment, he saw that the hunters carried no slabs of meat, and dragged no carcass.
“Time and change…” He said to himself, as the heavens roared with the thunder, and somewhere a distant glacier cracked and broke.
The night’s darkness brought with it rain, and the rain was as powerful and relentless as a waterfall. In that night of nights, the temperature rose again and the ice began to melt, causing great rivers to join lakes and form vast inland seas. Whole forests were washed away, and neighbouring tribes were drowned and crushed by mud and rock. Where once smooth fertile plains glinted under the gaze of white capped mountains, vast swamps gurgled and leered at the bald crests.
To pierce the blackness of night, fires were lit in caves and people huddled together for warmth, pulling about them the skins of cave bear, ox, deer and mammoth. Below the tribal hills, the plain was a muddy nowhere land of sucking mire and decay. In the darkness, a hollowed tusk was blown and the tribe was summoned to the chief’s cave for a judgment. Man, woman, child, and clinging baby made their way over the slippery rocky summit of the hill and sat at the feet of their chief, a man who had proven his worth in battle and hunt, song, dance and story. The man who wore the spreading antlers of the stag, the mane of the cave lion, and the sabre teeth of the tiger about his neck.
The chief’s cave was spacious, cut deep into the rocky hillside. In the centre of the cave, a fire burnt, illuminating the colourful stylised cave paintings that depicted hunt and battle. Spear wielding men hunted rhino, great cat, wisent, deer and boar. Spears flew through the air and embedded their heads in flesh, sending great beasts crashing to the ground. Other paintings showed the mammoth, huge and splendid; men sat at their feet and gazed up at their benign eyes, symbolic of their relationship. Another painting showed a red battle as tribe clashed with tribe. Men wielded club and spear, rock and bone, crunching clamour, raging fury. Women were on the walls too, naked and mysterious, their bodies green, symbolising birth and nature. The chief’s cave was a testament to his tribe, a history of the hills and of the surrounding land.
In the orange firelight, the faces of the tribe looked to be carved from stone, their features so pronounced and their bodies devoid of fat. Beneath their skins, the men’s bodies were glossy and hard; every muscle clearly defined as if by a sculptor’s chisel. The women were also hard and lean with work; their limbs strong and hard, their stomachs flat and muscled. Some of them were young, their bodies not yet grown; others suckled infants; and a few were old and decrepit, their flesh shrivelled and flaking, after too many seasons.
The chief cut a magnificent and terrifying figure, the shadow he cast was huge and deformed, like some demonic creature, half man, half beast with a flowing mane that extenuated the breadth of his shoulders. He was in the winter of his life, his hair beneath the silver mane grey, but he still commanded respect with his presence, and he was still strong and fit, able to run, swim and dance as well as any young man.
He looked at his son now, and his chest swelled with pride. He saw a big man, able and strong, a born leader of men; but above these ancient qualities, he had the new virtue, intelligence. When the chief was young, this was unheard of and unnecessary. Life was simple: you are strong; you hunt; you kill; you eat; you find a woman and you make a son on her; if you are fortunate, you live long enough to breed many sons, then if you are very strong you die a good death, and are not trampled by hoof, or killed with claw, tooth, horn, antler or drowned or crushed. If you are very lucky and blessed, you die in battle against a neighbouring tribe. That was then, but now life was different, the world was no longer quite as clear, there was too much grey between the black and white of life and death. Now intelligence was something men needed to survive. Gone were the days of the great herds, gone were the easy hunts, now the land was cursed. Now cunning and planning were necessary, now food was so scarce that other tribes went on raiding parties to steel meat.
“No.” The chief shook his head. “I do not envy the world of my grand children.” The chief had no grandchildren yet, but he knew it was only a matter of time, for he saw how the women looked at his sons, how lusty and hungry their eyes were for their strong seed. But his eldest son had not planted his seed, the seed of warriors and hunters; he was biding his time, waiting for the perfect woman to lay with. The chief did not understand this. He had had many children with many women; they were one tribe, one family, collective responsibility, pooling of resources, safety in numbers. “Yes.” He thought, “We are like the herds, like the old ones.”
“Tribe.” The chief began. “The hunters return.” Expectant faces turned to look at the hunt leader and his men. Sheepishly, the chief’s son walked around the roaring fire and stood next to his father. The chief’s face was expressionless as he sank onto his bed of skins and waited for his son to speak.
In the chief’s cave, after the summoning tusk had been blown and heard, and a meeting of judgement was in session, everybody had an equal voice, not even ties of blood carried favour. When the chief saw his son return empty handed from the hunt, secretly his heart sank, as he knew it would mean trouble.
There was only one rule in the cave, those who speak must state their tribal title, their skill or station, and their kin name, the name their father gave them – this simple rule allayed any misunderstanding caused by mistaken identity. In the past, people had been killed; after one meeting, a rock breaker had been killed by a hunter because he took exception to a comment. Afterwards, the hunter learnt that it was the rock breaker’s brother Solek who had made the comment, and not Polek. Ever since this misunderstanding, everyone gave their full identity.
It was after all the chief’s cave, and he was untouchable, unless of course, there was an individual challenge to his authority. This had happened only once before. A neighbouring tribe had stolen a mammoth’s skin from the drying rack. The tribe was in uproar, baying for the blood of the neighbouring chief. In a judgment session in his cave, the chief had decided to wait and ambush the next hunting party. Everyone agreed with this – everyone except for a young man who told the chief he was weak and lacked guts. The chief had laughed at this insult, until the man spat on the antlers and said, “Drown in your coward’s blood, as the fawn drowns in the river. I will have your mane little cub, and your cave, and your women.” He tugged the ceremonial mane, pulling away a strand of silver hair. The chief accepted the challenge and the tribe walked down onto the plain to watch the fight between the chief and the challenger. The battle was fierce and deadly, each man wielding a mammoth’s tusk as a weapon. They clattered and battered each other, opening great wounds and sending flesh flying. Eventually, the chief had won, impaling the would-be chief through the chest. His skeleton still lies on the plain, the tusk growing through him like a living thing, a testament to the chief’s strength and courage. The next hunting season the chief ordered an ambush of the thieving tribe’s hunting party. The chief’s son brought back enough meat to feed the whole tribe for two seasons.
“I am hunt leader, Dimek.” The chief’s son began formerly. Everybody knew who he was, but their heads nodded politely, obeying ancient tradition and custom. Outside the cave, the wind drove the rain. Inside the cave was warm and smelt of hot sweat and tension.
“We killed no meat,” hunt leader Dimek said simply. The tribe erupted in a ferocious sea of angry faces and words – accusations and insults were hurled; white-hot anger filled the cave, a rage born of desperation. They all knew that this meant starvation and death, it meant facing the world without new skins and fur; it meant chaos and a land without order. The chief and the hunt leader waited for silence.
Dimek was just about to speak when a man stood up and gave his title: “Shaman.” He said simply, “My kin call me Drushuk.” Nobody had heard such a title before and they were quiet and interested; forty pairs of glinting eyes fastened upon the man, a man who wore the skins of the wolf and the snow fox, and the teeth of the wild boar about his neck; a man who was tall and thin, bearing little resemblance to the muscled warriors and hunters.
“What is this new thing?” the chief asked Drushuk; his face closed and inscrutable. He remembered the tales his son had told him of the elder who commanded the savages. He remembered, over twenty-three years ago, his son speaking of the feats of magic the elder performed. He had been sceptical then, and now, this new title made him suspicious.
“I.” The shaman began. The chief could not quite place the man’s age; his face was strange, sometimes it looked as old as the rocks, but when the light shifted, the breath of youth seemed to smoothen the creases and wrinkles of age. “I command all that is, and all that is not. I know the ancient magic and the spirits. I have wisdom and power.” The chief considered these words, then shrugged, deciding that amongst warriors, hunters, and strong rock breakers, this man was not a threat.
“Speak then shaman.” The chief said, “Either to me or the hunt leader.” The man cleared his throat and spoke.
“The old ones are gone into the west, sunk under the river into the mud, as the sun sinks beneath the earth. The sky is angry with us, see how it punishes our land with its rains. Our providers are gone into the mud, and our land is cursed. If we are to survive, we must trust and embrace change.” The tribe was stunned, never before had they heard such things, never had a man spoken such words. Words worked by association, quick and business like, too many words were a waste of breath, breath needed for running and fighting.
“You speak well, thinker.” The chief smiled, “But is it true?” he looked at his son, and Dimek nodded.
“Yes, the last of the old ones went into the west, under the great river.” The chief sighed deeply;
“What do the tenders of crop say?” a man stood up and spoke,
“Nothing grows. The soil is as barren as an old sow It’s true; the land is cursed.”
“Share more of your pretty words with us, though some of us don’t understand them, they sound like flowers.” The shaman blushed and shook his head. For years, he had kept his talents to himself, for years he had spoken little, fearing jealousy. Too many men coveted intelligence, too many men would take pleasure in stoving in his head with a rock.
“Keeper of memories, Tolok,” a man intoned, rising to his feet. The chief nodded for him to speak. “Look.” He pointed to the walls, to the vibrant colours that depicted the hunt. The mammoth was in the centre of the cave’s ceiling, massive and majestic, the centre of their world. “The old ones have been here forever. I cannot believe they have gone.”
“Look outside.” Dimek said. “See how the land has changed, how the sky god punishes us. He wants to starve us, to drown and crush us.”
“Shaman.” The chief said, “As your chief I tell you to talk.” Drushuk knew he could not disobey, so with a heavy heart he walked around the fire and stood next to Dimek.
“We must leave.” He said simply.
Like a black cloud, silence descended upon the cave.
“I agree.” Dimek said. “There is nothing left for us here.”
“Chief, ask the women if their babies are happy. Ask them if their children have enough to eat, and if they have enough skins and furs.”
The chief asked. “Tribe.” The chief began, “Are your stomachs full?” they nodded their heads sheepishly.
“There” Hamek said.
“My people are well and able. Do not try to sway them against me thinker.” The chief spat,
“I am not – I, like you, want the best for the tribe.”
“Do you challenge me shaman?” the people leant forward, their faces expectant and excited.
“No.” Dimek interjected, “He does not. Chief, father, you ask him to speak, hear him.” The chief shrugged his shoulders and waved the shaman on.
“I say we should leave. Already the land is changing, getting warmer, thawing; the snows have all but gone and the soil is barren. The water is rising, the gods leaving. I say we should go where new gods will follow.”
“You are renouncing our gods!” a man shouted,
“No, hey renounce us.”
Deep in the chief’s stomach the cold stone of dread settled. He vaguely remembered the words of the single warrior who had returned to the hills. After returning young Dimek, in hysterics, he went to the chief’s cave. When he had his attention, the warrior blurted out, “I, and the land are cursed!” the chief had stood and watched in morbid fascination as the warrior fell to the floor, “The old man, the old man.” He gibbered incoherently, clutching his chest. The blood came, spilling from his nose and ears, and he died.
“Healer, Sel,” a woman said rising to her feet. She was old and wizened, but her eyes still sparkled. “I heal men’s bodies, but him.” She pointed at Drushuk, “I cannot heal his broken mind. He speaks betrayal and cowardice;” the tribe registered their agreement by stamping their feet and yelling.
“What do you counsel?” the chief asked the old healer, raising his voice above the clamour. The chief knew her well and respected her. Many times she had anointed his wounds and mended broken bones with clay and mud.
“We must stay.” Sel sighed deeply and looked into Dimek’s eyes. In them, she saw frustration and anger, strength and courage.
“If we stay.” Drushuk spoke loudly, his voice clear, “If we stay, we will die in these hills, in these caves. If we go, we may have a chance at life.” The tribe was confused, torn between reason and tradition, the old and the new.
“We must let go of our old ways and embrace the new. The land is changing and so must we.” Dimek said, imploring the people of the tribe, willing them to see reason. But when the chief spoke again, drawing himself up to his full height, his son saw how much the tribe loved and respected him, and no matter what he or Drushuk could say, their cause was a lost one.
“This is my judgment.” The chief began, tapping his antlers for silence. “I have heard all, the thinker, the healer, the hunter. The keeper of memories and the tender of crops; but I have not heard from the warriors.”
Instantly, a man stood up from the crowd.
“If we go.” The man said, “If we go, we will fight. If we stay, we will fight. Me and my men will go or stay. We do not care as long as there are heads to break and limbs to smash.” The chief considered this response and then spoke,
“We will remain here until the virgin gives birth. When the new child walks upon the plain we will meet here again and I will make another judgment. In the meantime, we will hunt the elk.” He looked at his son,
“There are no elk, they have run.” Dimek said, his frustration clear,
“The wisent then.”
“Chief, we have seen no wisent, no stag or deer, no ox or great cat for many weeks. We have only seen cave bear, rabbit, boar and the prints of a horse.”
“Very well, let it be horse. And…” He glanced at the knot of women at the far end of the cave, “And you will gather berries and roots. It is true, we must change some things, but not all things. Hunt leader.” The chief’s son nodded his head, “Tomorrow you and your men will hunt.” Dimek nodded;
“We will leave at dawn.” He shrugged.
“It is done.” The chief said and blew a trill blast on his long curved tusk to end the judgement meeting.

CHAPTER 3
MIGRATION
Dawn broke over the grey hills in a dazzling blossom of orange and pink, causing the sky to dance and the rocks to glisten. Down on the plain it was a place of water and mud; the firm ground washed away, leaving only ooze, indistinguishable from the marshland to the west. During the night, the rains had drowned the land, the grassland all but gone, and the distant forest a swamp of green, a place of insect and amphibian.
In dawn’s dim and hopeful light, Dimek and his ten men stood at the foot of their tribal hills and surveyed the once fruitful land. With a sinking of their spirits, they realised that the chief had made a mistake, a mistake that would affect the whole tribe. Dimek sighed deeply and looked at his men with a serious expression.
“I don’t expect you to follow me.” He said, “If you do you will be forever banished from these hills. I ask nothing of you except your understanding. There is nothing here for the young, my father has made a mistake. I am leaving these hills, my people and my life. I am leaving to find better hunting and new gods. I am leaving to find a new land.”
The hunters, all veterans, all friends, stood motionless, open mouthed and shocked. They loved their leader like a brother, had hunted with him more times than they could count. They had shared danger, death and despair, had shared food and had saved one another’s lives on more than one occasion. “Stay with me or hunt the horse and return to the caves, it is your decision, your life.” Still they said nothing, until a man spoke:
“Where will you go?” the tall and strong man asked reasonably.
“I will follow the great river and search out old memories.”
“I have never followed the great river.” The hunter mused,
“Neither have I.” Dimek laughed. The other hunters mumbled their approbation. “They will send warriors when we do not return.” Dimek commented casually,
“Maybe some will come with us.” A hunter said.
“No, I cannot take them away from the tribe; they are needed. I cannot risk injury to my father and kin. No, we can fight.”
They were just about to run towards the forest when a white figure walked down the hill towards them. He was tall and lean, dressed in white wolf and snow fox, a necklace of boar teeth around his neck. The hunters rounded on him, their spears pointing at his head and chest. He raised his hands instinctively, showing he carried no weapons. Slowly, they lowered their spears and allowed the man to speak;
“You are deserting us.” He said simply. Dimek nodded. “You go against the chief your father; you risk his rage. You will never be able to come here again.”
“I know this.” Dimek growled, trying to cover the sadness he felt.
“What you do is wise, if we wait for the new child it will be too late. I wish to come with you, there is nothing for me here.”
For long minutes, they looked at the man, looked at his green intelligent eyes, his pristine skins and his hands, artistic and elegant, his fingers long and dextrous, his knuckles unbroken and uncut, To Dimek, he looked different to the other men he knew. He had something about him that made Dimek feel at ease and comfortable.
“If you come with us, you must do as we do, fight when we fight, hunt when we hunt, run when we run and hide when we hide.” Drushuk nodded,
“We will have many days start on the men who will hunt us. Let us not waste them.” Dimek was just about to signal his men to follow when, next to him, Drushuk stiffened with tension.
Dimek looked at his face and in it he saw fear, wide-eyed and pale like a sickness. Dimek followed his gaze and with a start, he saw the source of his fear. Three men, strong and tall, well armed with spear and club came running towards them. Instinctively, the hunters looked for orders and guidance from their leader, but Dimek said nothing. The three warriors came and stood close to the hunters, weapons at their side.
“Why do you hunt?” a warrior asked Drushuk, his expression open and unguarded;
“I wish to learn the skill. Why do hunters need warriors?” his fear was being mastered swiftly, the pallor beginning to drain from his face and his eyes.
“We are sent by the chief.” A warrior said stepping closer. He was obviously the leader of the three, but Dimek thought there was something about the man’s eyes that reassured him.
“Sent for what purpose?” Dimek asked casually, changing the grip on his spear in case of an attack.
“We…” the warrior began almost bashfully, his ear lobes beginning to glow red with his embarrassment, “Because I…” he looked at the other two men who stood nearby, “and them.” He jerked his thumb at his companions, “have some of the new gift, the gift of intelligence.” Dimek looked at him closely scrutinising his features. It was so, he had the same hungry look in his eyes as Drushuk, but lacked the wisdom and the curiosity to learn everything about the land, about the world. “The chief wants us to learn a second art, the art of the hunt, that way we are more useful, that way we can hunt and fight for him.”
“Are all the others like you?” Dimek asked;
“No, just us, although there is a rumour that one of the keepers of memory has the fire in his eyes and in his heart.” Dimek mentally calculated the odds; eleven hunters against three warriors; true they were strong and well armed, but Dimek’s hunters could handle a spear better than any warrior.
The warrior leader noticed the hunt leader’s expression,
“We are still warriors.” He tried to allay Dimek’s doubts, “We will always be warriors, the best warriors in the tribe as you are the best hunters.” He smiled at Dimek’s companions. “We only want to watch, to learn your art.”
“I cannot go against my chief.” Dimek laughed lightly, “But let me speak with my men.”
“I understand.” The warrior grinned like a small boy.
Dimek gathered about him his hunters and Drushuk;
“They are coming with us to hunt the horse.” There was a murmur of confused voices. “We will hunt the horse and when the time is right I will tell their leader that we are leaving the tribe. If he chooses to follow, he and his men can come with us; if he chooses to return to the hills, we will kill them. We are too many for them.” The hunters nodded their agreement and Drushuk looked grave. “What do you say thinker?”
“I agree.” He replied hesitantly.
“What is your kin name?” Dimek asked the warrior leader when he returned,
“Kapok.”
“Very well, Kapok, you may come.” Dimek smiled at him. Already he liked him; he was open and friendly and handled his weapons with an easy familiarity that the hunter understood.
As their journey into the west began, the hunt leader glanced up at the hills. Dimly, in the grey light of morning, he saw the dark opening of his father’s cave; framed in its dark mouth, he saw a figure dressed in a bear skin, the light glistening off the smooth surface of the sabre teeth that hung around his neck. With a sinking feeling of regret and betrayal, he smiled up at the old man and silently wished for his understanding and forgiveness. He knew that what he did would probably break his father’s heart.
“I will return.” Dimek whispered, “One day I will return to you.” With an effort, he tore his eyes away from the small figure high up and distant. He extended his stride and broke into a trot, leaving his cave, his hills, his tribe behind him.

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