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"The story telling is superb.
I fell in love with this book."
Forgotten Tales of China
by Lisa April Smith
A Few Thoughts From the Author
It was while reading Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, written by the eminent scientist and Pulitzer Prize winning author Jared Diamond, that I experienced my eureka moment. I had to set my next book in ancient China. It would be an epic novel with each segment having its own characters and story, similar in format to those written by James Michener and Edward Rutherfurd. I knew it was an incredibly ambitious project that would require extensive research, but the idea of combining my love of storytelling, archaeology, sociology, history, anthropology and China was irresistible. I set out to do the required research and lost myself in it, never bored, daily revitalized by exciting new finds. After a year my imagination would no longer be contained. Characters and plots filled my days and nights. Ten years after beginning, Forgotten Tales of China, the first in a series, was born.
The book is set where it had to be, in Northeast China, near modern day Beijing, never far from the Yellow River. So important to China’s history, the Yellow River is often referred to as “The Mother River” or “The Cradle of Chinese Civilization.” Over the millennia its course has changed many times due to its penchant to overflow its banks with horrific results. In 1931, flooding killed as many as 4,000,000 and left many times that number homeless. Yet, lured by lush fertile farmland enriched by layers of yellow silt, survivors return.
As a reader, I find myself wondering which parts of a historical novel are based on scientific reasoning and evidence, logical deduction or are simply the product of the author’s imagination. If you share my compulsive disorder, or you’re just curious, you’ll find answers in Author’s Notes, found at the end of each segment.
There are always conflicting theories in science on virtually every subject. You might think carbon dating or isotopic analysis would settle most controversies, but that isn’t always the case. And after one question appears resolved, new evidence, fossils or artifacts are unearthed that either corroborate or confuse the issue.
Heartfelt thanks go to my family, and to Lois Lineal, my dear friend and editor; Haiwang Yuan, author and professor at Western Kentucky University; He Chang Sheng, (aka Campbell Hur) tour guide and professor at Chongqing Jiaotong University; Estella Chung and Marie Toy Len Hill for their generous assistance. I am also indebted to Jared Diamond for his groundbreaking work that inspired this book and his gracious encouragement.
My credentials are limited to my obsession with China, research, history, archaeology, anthropology, sociology – I have a BA degree in the last two fields. In writing this novel, I’ve done my utmost to select material and data from credible reliable sources. Nevertheless, I’m certain that I’ve made some errors, and for that, I humbly apologize.
Lisa April Smith
The People of the Cave
Tianyuan, Northeast China
40,000 Years Ago
Weaving their way through trees whose dense overlapping branches allowed the sun to reveal its presence only in dappled splashes of light, five men grasped their spears in readiness. As it was early autumn and the world was warmer than it is today, they wore only loincloths. Sacks slung across their bare chests contained essentials they anticipated needing: cord, leather thongs, a gourd filled with water, extra spearheads, a knife/scraper, multi-purpose scraps of hide and perhaps an amulet. Other than the sound of water rushing in a nearby stream, and the occasional twitter of a bird, the men proceeded in near silence. To communicate, they used a combination of gestures and unarticulated sounds. The People lacked spoken language.
Storm, new to his role, had been named Leader by Wise Old Mother three months earlier, surprising him, as well as nearly every member of his troupe. At seventeen, he was the second youngest member of the hunting party. From the treetops above, to the ground they trod, like the hunters he led, his eyes continuously scanned for signs of carnivores and Strangers. Carnivores, if observed in time, depending on the animal, could either be attacked, avoided or chased off with threatening shrieks. Storm had been taught to fear Strangers more. Unlike the People, they attacked for reasons other than hunger. While two passing troupes might exchange nothing more than threatening stares, gestures, grunts and shrieks, at other times the larger of the troupes would attack the smaller. Wise Old Mother had told Storm of a raid by Strangers which had resulted in the abduction of two women and the killing of a skilled hunter, two nursing infants and a toddler.
As they numbered only five, Storm was keenly aware of their vulnerability. Their mission was to find Strangers who possessed fire, steal a handful of burning brands while they slept, and return fire to the People. The People’s fire pit had died. Fire made food soft for eating and warmed them when days grew short and the earth turned cold. Fire protected them from night predators when Sun God dropped from the sky and Moon Goddess rose to take his place. Fire’s flames produced visions for the chosen, like Wise Old Mother, the mother of his mother and Counselor to the People of the Cave. Without fire the People would disappear like smoke disappears into the sky.
# # #
That night, when they halted to make camp, from habit the Fire Hunters began gathering rocks and constructing a fire pit. It was nearly complete when Rain Sky signed to the others. Without fire, building a pit was stupid. Reminded of the danger of night stalking predators, the men’s faces turned grave. All except Storm’s, who laughed heartily to hide his embarrassment at participating in the useless project. Determined to reestablish his men’s trust in him as Leader, Storm explained the idea he had been formulating throughout the day to protect them when it was dark and most dangerous. They would take turns staying awake throughout the night. If the man assigned as guard believed danger was near, he would rouse the others. But before he finished conveying his plan through signs and grunts, it occurred to him that their valuable spears were limited in number, and without light the likelihood of downing an animal before it killed or severely injured one of them was minimal. However, the rocks from the useless fire pit would make fine projectiles to chase off night prowlers. This he relayed – proud of himself and chortling – by alternately assuming the part of a wolf, first slinking toward his prey, then, as himself, hurling imaginary stones, and finally, the thwarted predator limping away. Soon, all were adding to the pile and taking turns at pretending to be various startled animals.
During the night, Axe, the second assigned guard, alerted by the telling sound of ground cover being disturbed, roused his companions. The men crouched in readiness, each cradling a rock. Seeing nothing in the darkness and hearing nothing further, after a time Axe began to doubt what he had heard. But then, a snapped twig and a perceptible rustling in the brush was followed by a torrent of hurled projectiles, an angry hiss and the sound of one or more animals fleeing. With the first light, after what remained of a restless night, they found fresh footprints of two large cats. Elated by their success, the men congratulated Axe for staying awake and preventing them from being mauled and killed.
Storm hid his disappointment at having been overlooked for praise. It had been his idea to post a guard – his idea to use rocks to defend themselves against predators. Even Courage, his older brother, had forgotten. Later, when the Fire Hunters halted to examine the ashes of a cold abandoned campsite, he reminded himself of Wise Old Mother’s good counsel. There would be other times to prove his worth as Leader.
From the youngest infant to Wise Old Mother, the eldest, the People numbered thirty-one. A half-century earlier, when the troupe was led by Great Leader, their numbers had soared to fifty-seven, a large population to command and feed, given the game and vegetation within a radius of fifty miles of the cave and the limits of their communication. Great Leader had not only been an exceptional hunter, he was an excellent peacekeeper and administrator. After his death, rather than die from starvation or the resulting violent in-fighting, many members had taken their belongings and left forever.
Berry was one of a few of the cave’s current occupants who had any interest in learning about the past and Great Leader. Away from the cooking odors that clung to the dead fire pit, away from the restless members of her troupe – the last to eat and the most likely to be beaten – the nine-year old girl hid in the darkest corner of the cave. Huddled against the rough limestone walls, she focused her attention on those most likely to be aggressive. As the lowest ranking member of the troupe Berry was justifiably worried. When Storm was made Leader, things had improved for her. Like Wise Old Mother, Storm believed fighting was bad for the People of the Cave. With his strapping brother at his side, Storm stopped disputes before there were injuries. Without fire and their Leader, anyone might lash out for no real reason.
Tree Hide, Berry’s mother, second lowest in rank, was among the females kneeling in the fading light, near the cave’s entrance, hulling hazelnuts and setting the meats on woven rush mats before them. Named for the thick disfiguring scars that went from her scalp to her waist, the result of falling into a fire pit as a toddler, Tree Hide paused to guide the mouth of the writhing infant in the sling she wore across her chest, to her nipple. Since her belly had begun to swell with new life her breasts held little milk. She often wondered if this one would die before it would walk, like all but her worrisome daughter.
On the ash-strewn ground, behind the work circle, where little light reached, two boys played a game that consisted of stacking small bones. When the pile toppled, the one who placed the deciding bone received a punch from the triumphant winner.
The People who had left would return before dark. If the fire hadn’t died all would be different. During the day, except for one or two individuals assigned to guard the fire – usually mothers of newborns or an injured adult – the cave would be empty. The rest of the troupe would be out hunting, gathering edible plants and shellfish.
Three days earlier, since the People were harvesting fruit and planned to return that same day, they took no fire with them. Instead, they left Wise Old Mother, who had volunteered to remain behind, with a well-banked pit and an ample supply of dry bamboo logs for fuel. When they returned, they found her spread across the cold ashes, neither alive nor dead, but wandering in a land between. Her bizarre condition, combined with the death of fire, was considered an omen that they had angered a ghost ancestor, or perhaps the powerful Fire God himself.
Wise Old Mother had been shaman and advisor to the People for most of her adult life. Because of her great age, she was the People’s best source for recalling important past events – winters when the rain never ceased, a summer when swarming insects darkened the sky and devoured everything in their path, months of a terrible killing illness. When the former leader died, before potentially deadly disputes got under way, she named Storm as his successor, surprising many if not all. Other men surpassed Storm in skills important to the People, but no one had dared to contest her choice. Even so, had she died her loss would be profound but not devastating. The loss of precious fire was far worse. No one, including Wise Old Mother, could relate a time in the People’s past without fire.
There had been much disagreement on what to do with Wise Old Mother before the Fire Hunters departed on their mission. More than one troupe member wanted to place her outside the cave so her spirit could quickly join her ancestors in the other world. But they had been overruled by Storm. The Leader directed that she was to be cared for, until she recovered, he returned, or all agreed that no breath left her nose or mouth.
From the side of the cave, atop a bed of pelts, Berry heard Wise Old Mother grunt in her sleep. Rain, assigned as her caretaker by her husband Storm, rose to check the old one. When she returned, Rain signed her explanation to the others, “I think Wise Old Mother met ancestor in land between live and dead.”
Since vocabulary was limited, communication was slow and easily misinterpreted. Facial expression and tone aided by adding emotion. To convey I think/perhaps/maybe Rain wiggled her head from side to side. Wise Old Mother was a cupped hand at her breast to indicate woman/mother/breast, joined with a vocalized “iii-eee” to signify wise/revered/old. Live/walking/running, virtually all forms of movement, was a circular gesture, speed conveyed by the speed of the hand. Dead was an abrupt dropping of the hand with a tight-lipped stare and a grunt. Met was a combination of touching the side of the eye socket for see/watch/look and bringing that same hand to block one’s view.
Tree Hide peered into the darkness where her daughter could frequently be found, if she hadn’t disappeared for days, as the troublesome girl had recently taken to doing. Using her free hand to sign, and angry vocalizations to convey irritation, she ordered Berry to come and help with the work.
Berry hunched her shoulders, ducked her head to indicate submission and joined her mother. Soon she too was hammering nuts with a rock and adding the tasty meats to the growing pile. The girl was lulled by the repetitive tap, tap, tapping until Angry Boar, the unpredictable male she most feared, entered the cave. As soon as the Fire Hunters were out of sight, Angry Boar let his anger at not being chosen for the all-important mission be known. Berry’s chest tightened as she prepared to receive the kick or blow he chose to deliver. She feared, with their Leader gone, Angry Boar might defy the Rule that no girl be forced to couple before she bled. He might penetrate her just as he had Infant Deer. Only seven when it took place, Berry remembered it well. Infant Deer had not realized that her cries would produce no assistance or mercy. She had tried to resist and had received, in addition to the painful penetration, a battering that had left her limping and minus a tooth. Even so, the hunter had received no more than a scowl for the crime from the last Leader, and less from the others. A high-ranking hunter and skilled toolmaker was not punished because a low-ranking girl had been penetrated a few seasons early. Infant Deer had been held responsible for breaking the Rules and sentenced to shunning until the next time Moon Goddess grew round. To Berry’s great relief, Angry Boar strode past her.
Accustomed to finding what he sought in near darkness, Angry Boar retrieved his tool-making kit before returning to the cave’s entrance and the last of the day’s light. Placing a water buffalo hide on his lap to protect his bare legs, he began pounding a block of quartz with a rock, deliberately turning the core in his hand as he expertly chipped away its surface.
The boys ceased playing their game to cautiously edge closer. Since communication required the use of both hands, as much as facial expressions and sounds, interactive instruction was rare. If one wished to learn, one observed and practiced later. Berry watched to see if Angry Boar would snarl bare-teethed at the pair. Seeing that he didn’t she was surprised, but not shocked. They were the sons of high-ranking mothers and therefore temporarily accorded their mother’s rank until they reached manhood. Low ranking boys would not have been treated as kindly.
Rank determined everything. Her mother lacked the patience and will to clarify the intricacies of rank and Rules to Berry. Her mother’s mate had done so. Left crippled after being attacked by a boar, Twisted Legs was the sole adult male limited to tasks done only by women and children.
“Rank and Rules given ancestors by kind god,” he had explained. Without rank and Rules, the People could not survive. Living alone with no one to hunt with, no cave to hide them and no one to protect or care for them when they were injured or ill, they would soon die. Only males so violent that they had been driven from their troupe lived alone. That was why gods became angry when Rules were broken. If a god was angry anything could happen. Game could disappear. Swarms of insects could destroy the plants the People needed for food. Many could grow sick and die. The cave would be silent because no infant would be left to screech. When she sought him for comfort – after others had eaten their fill and her stomach growled with hunger, or she had been pummeled by a high-ranking child – Twisted Legs told Berry that all this had happened in the past.
She often thought that without her mother’s mate she would have withered and died, like every sibling that had come after her. When she was sad he tickled her or found other ways to make her smile. When she was younger and less adept at hiding what she scavenged, he fed her from his own meager portion.
“People need Rules and rank, but why me bottom?” Berry had complained, the year earlier, when she was eight.
“Rank like tall tree. Big storm make tree lose arms. Lightning make tree two,” Twisted Legs explained, demonstrating the tree first whole and then suddenly split. “Like tree change, rank change.”
“What about you? Can lightning change you rank?”
“Man who no kill game with spear and run away, low rank, always. But soon you woman. Then rank change.”
“How?” she had signed.
“You no ugly like mother. If high-rank hunter take you mate, you rank better. I see countless time.”
“What if he have mate and she beat me?”
“You better than today/now.”
“What if high-rank hunter want couple, but no want me mate?”
Frustrated, Twisted Legs scowled. As usual, the stubborn girl was right. Rank determined who was permitted to demand coupling. “Learn skill. Woman skill. Important woman skill.”
Berry crept to her mother’s mate’s side. “Wise Old Mother know many woman skill. I learn quick. I watch and learn from her,” Berry proposed. Twisted Legs signed. “Wise Old Mother track game much good. Wise Old Mother know every/all bush, root, leaf, tree, People eat – where grow and when ripe.”
“I know too.”
He scowled at the girl’s impudence. “Wise Old Mother know all leaf and root People eat if game hide. She knows if baby die before walk. Fire tells her. You know this all?”
Berry looked away not entirely convinced. But since that exchange, intent on acquiring her wisdom, she had stayed as near as she dared to Wise Old Mother. She paid close attention when others came to Wise Old Mother with complaints of aching bellies, pains or bloody stools, to see which herb she extracted from the many small bags she carried inside her large sack. She watched intently when hunting, for indications of game, how decisions were made and the results.
At night, as others noisily snored and passed wind, Berry would mentally review all she had learned.
Now nine, she knew that her ability to remember sites for edible foliage, clean water, old shelters and grassy areas where small game hid and large game came to graze, surpassed every adult troupe member except Wise Old Mother. One winter day she had recognized a hackberry tree solely by its ridged gray bark. She had pointed it out to the others. Seeing none of the sweet purple berries that would dot its foliage when the days were long and mosquitoes swarmed, the others had laughed at her. But Berry saw that it stood near the hill with three ridges at the top. She would know how to find that tree again and recognize others of its kind.
And then there were numbers. The People had signs from one to five, indicated by raised fingers. Both hands splayed meant countless. Berry associated the front and hind legs of a deer or wolf with four. Five, was the fingers of her hand. Six was one hand and the thumb of the other. One hand and three fingers was the same as the legs of two deer. The splayed fingers of both hands no longer meant countless to her, but two fives. The People cared little about numbers. Nevertheless, Berry continued to discover new ways numbers were useful. Last fall, as leaves began to change colors, in her secret mountain niche where she liked to hide, she decided to keep track of moon cycles. Each time the Mother Moon was round, on the first day she added a single shell to a pile. She now knew that the time for cold lasted four or five full moons and ended with new leaves budding. The next pile now contained seven shells and the leaves were still green. Surely, it was good to know these things.
She would be the only one of the People to know how many days the Fire Hunters were gone. To keep track of this, yesterday, as she watched them depart from her secret sanctuary, she decided to add tiny bones to a separate pile. Two bones. Two days.
However, Berry knew that she was unable to predict the future by looking up at the sky or into the fire. And with Wise Old Mother wandering the other world between life and death, learning more from her seemed doubtful.
On the morning of their fourth day, the Fire Hunters were agitated. Having broken the Rule that ordered the People not to travel more than two days from the cave and two days to return, they feared that they might be angering a god. Now in unfamiliar territory, other than the comforting stream they continued to keep on their right, every hill and rock formation was foreign to them.
As Leader, Storm did his best to conceal his distress. He worried about the success of their mission and the fate of those back in the cave. He had left only three adult men to provide meat for countless women and children. Were they able to find enough fruit, leaves and roots so that their bellies didn’t growl in pain? Had there been fighting? Without calm strong men to remind the others of Wise Old Mother’s teachings, there would be fights. Angry Boar and Bent Nose would surely fight. Both were angry when Wise Old Mother named him leader and now . . . now, he didn’t know if she had joined their ancestors or returned to life to counsel the People. Perhaps he should have taken one of the two with him. But both were troublesome.
When the sun was high, Rain Sky pointed to a small flock of hawks circling – a likely indication they had spotted a fallen animal that would soon die or be unable to defend itself. All eyes turned to Storm: accusing, adamant, beseeching. Like his men, his belly ached. Besides the meager dried rations they had brought with them, their diet had consisted of the scant vegetation they had stopped to gather. Determined to fulfill their mission he had insisted that they ignore the animal tracks they had seen. The thought of meat made his mouth fill with saliva and his stomach growl in anticipation. The People had gone without food longer, but the hawks and the animal they were poised to attack was not far off.
“We follow bird,” he signed. “Look/see/watch for Stranger.”
They soon reached the source of the hawk’s attention – a now lifeless porcupine. Fortunately, its quills had discouraged less ingenious scavengers. The birds, who had succeeded in tearing away parts of the animal’s unprotected head before the Fire Hunters arrival, shrieked angrily at having been forced to retreat to the sky.
Storm ordered Snake and Axe to skin and divide the carcass. As the impatient pair worked, each time one yelped in pain caused by spines, the waiting men laughed. But soon, all were cutting their portions into manageable chunks and thrusting them into their gaping mouths.
While the meager meal was not nearly enough to sate the men’s hunger, it had revived their morale.
# # # The sixth day of their mission the Fire Hunters made two discoveries. The first, soon after they awoke, startled them. The source of the reliable stream that had guided them was two rivulets. They chose the broader and deeper of the pair to follow. The second discovery, found near midday – fresh human feces, and not far off, a footprint – generated overall excitement.
Pursuit slowed and the initial elation ebbed when the trail took them further and further from the rivulet. The trail also led to the more difficult to read rocky terrain, forcing the Fire Hunters to disperse and regroup when one found a recently overturned pebble or other evidence of disturbance. The sun was still high when Storm heard Courage cackle with pleasure as he pointed to a thin wisp of white smoke rising over the trees. The men’s initial delight quickly turned serious as each realized the mission was nearing its perilous climax. Concerned they might attract unwanted attention from what Rain Sky, the People’s best tracker, had informed them was a large troupe of Strangers, the Fire Hunters cautiously advanced from thicket to thicket. Finally, peering around a grove of dense bamboo, Storm saw what he thought was a shelter in the distance. Like his men, he could determine little else. He would send a scout ahead.
"Look much good. Return here. Tell us thing you see,” he signed to Snake, selected because the wiry young man was known for noiselessly imitating his namesake.
After a lengthy tense interval Snake reappeared, eager to relate all he had observed. “Three fire pit. Countless Stranger. Countless large shelter cover in hide. Tall grass around. One boy with stick on leg.” The scout raised his hand chest high to indicate the height of a child of seven or eight and feigned a limp. “Countless woman. Much good woman. Countless baby. Countless small child. Two old/tired bull protect camp.”
“Three fire pit. Two old/tired bull,” Storm repeated, amazed at the number of fire pits and that only two elderly males had been left to protect such a large camp with numerous women and children. The People never built more than one fire at a campsite. One was all that was needed. Why had the Stranger men left what had to be all their women and young children in the open, with only two old/tired bulls to protect them?
“Stranger dying/weak/ill/starving?” Storm asked Snake, first, using the gesture for Strangers, then, holding his abdomen and grimacing as if in great pain.
“No. Strong,” Snake responded. “Countless much good woman.”
“Some meat. Countless hide on shelter. Big sack on pole,” Snake replied.
The situation Snake had described puzzled Storm. They had found Strangers with fire, but the circumstances were not at all what they had anticipated. He knelt to consider how to proceed. Three fire pits and countless big shelters indicated a troupe far larger than the People. The Strangers had numerous adult men who left their women and children virtually unguarded. Why? Had sickness killed all the Stranger troupe’s men or were they hunting? Except for those left to feed the fire – usually women expected to go into labor or nursing a newborn or an individual who would slow travel because of a severe injury – the People traveled as one: weapon wielding men to kill game or defend against aggressive Strangers; women and children foraging when they weren’t needed to flush small animals.
“Maybe, Stranger men return night, protect woman, children and meat,” Courage signed to Storm. “Big danger night. Maybe, much good, we go today/now.”
Reluctant to jeopardize their lives and this most important mission, Storm withheld approval. Wise Old Mother had counselled that Strangers were to be avoided. Fighting with Strangers was dangerous. Even if the People stole meat and weapons and women, and weren’t injured in the process, Strangers seeking revenge, or the return of their possessions, might track them back to the cave. From infancy, the People were taught to conceal the cave that sheltered them. A troupe far larger than theirs could slaughter every man and child and take the women. On the other hand, Strangers would care little if all that was taken was a handful of firebrands or coals.
“Much big danger night,” Courage repeated. “If/maybe Stranger men return camp before night. Five few/little Fire Hunter. Much countless Stranger.”
Storm could not dispute his brother’s advice. With so many Strangers and such a large camp, surely one would awake and alarm the others. What if the Stranger leader posted guards as he had done?
“Tomorrow, maybe all Stranger move/go/walk,” Axe warned. “Now, two bull.”
Axe, usually slow to grasp ideas, this time was right, Storm thought. He had not considered coming upon a camp containing women and children with only two old bulls protecting them. They had been gone countless days – countless days without fire and little food for the People. They had no choice. Five strong men against two old bulls. They would steal fire today, before Stranger men returned.
“Fire pit? Smoking? Flame? Stick or coal? ” Storm asked Snake.
“One with smoke – thin smoke,” Snake signed. “Much far. No see stick. No see coal.”
Firebrands were far easier to grab and run with, Storm thought, but if they weren’t available, as often happened with banked fires, or those that relied on dry dung for fuel – they would have to take smoldering embers. With speed critical, they would have to prepare in advance.
“We go today/now,” Storm signed. “Take no food. No hide. No weapon. Take only fire. If no fire-stick, take hot lump. Make ready.” With that he reached into his sack, removed a scrap of hide and tucked it into the rope around his waist that held his loincloth.
While transporting fire was chiefly the job of women, the men knew the method, even if no member of the People completely understood the reason. Each man stripped branches of foliage, selected the greenest leaves, removed flammable twigs and stems, and prior to stuffing them into his sack, gently crushed the remains to trap vital oxygen and provide a better buffer from the searing heat.
"We go now/today. Take fire and woman,” Snake suggested, as he slung his bulging sack across his chest.
Storm observed the excitement in his men’s eyes. The idea of stealing women, in addition to fire, was tempting. Perhaps a god had led them to this place, on this day, for this reason. But stealing women along with fire increased the chance of failure. Having survived a lifetime of hunts old bulls could be dangerous. Their mission was to return to the cave with fire, not women. Fire. “When near, I decide. Take fire today. Maybe/if take woman. I decide,” Storm signed, thumping his chest with his fist for emphasis and turning to his elder brother for support. Courage could be stubborn, quick to anger, but as anticipated, he stepped to Storm’s side. Not finished with his directions Storm dug into his memory for the sign with the meaning he needed – a tactic for raids – used by the Great Leader and more recently, against the People. As the men began turning away the sign for chaos came to him. Calling them back with an insistent grunt, he signed, “We make much crazy. Shout! Make much crazy. Kill infant. Kill bull. Crazy! Woman, child much fear, run.” Storm paused to check each man’s comprehension. One by one they repeated the critical signs.
The Fire Hunters darted from one protected position to the next until the trees dwindled and they had to rely on intermittent clumps of bushes. Able to survey the site for himself, Storm saw that beyond the rim of tall grass it was exactly as Snake had described, but far more imposing than his imagination had supplied. Three fire pits. Many shelters, covered in hides, all sturdier and better constructed than the Peoples’. Women and girls in clusters, standing, kneeling, walking, making rope, smoking meat on frames, cooking, grinding grain, caring for swaddled newborns, crawling infants and toddlers. Two muscular bulls stretching a black bear skin over pegs that had been hammered in the earth. A noisy, alarmingly large bustling site. Stunned, Storm froze.
“Take woman and fire,” Courage, at his shoulder, signed. “Take only fire. You decide.”
Yanked back to reality Storm was about to give the command to steal only fire when he heard an unfamiliar sound, not laughter, more like a bird’s trill. Scanning the site for the sound’s source he soon realized that it emanated from a young slender woman who appeared to be communicating with a boy who had a pole strapped to his leg. Her gestures were graceful, and unlike the People’s straight hair, the mother and boy’s hair curled in gauzy ringlets. If the god that led them to this place willed it, this woman would be his and she would sing her bird song for him.
Courage tapped his arm. “Take woman. Take only fire. You decide.”
Storm scanned the faces of his expectant men and realized that he could not steal just this one woman for himself and expect continued obedience. He turned his attention to the nearest pit. It flamed, and from its jagged silhouette, he knew it was fueled by wood. It contained easily carried firebrands. Storm signed his decision. They would steal two women. He indicated the one he wanted for himself, with a menacing look that said he would tolerate no objections, and invited suggestions for the other.
Snake pointed to a slight female suckling an infant. The other men grimaced and signed that she was too scrawny. Their choice was the nearest broad-hipped female. Storm nodded in agreement. Females with broad hips were considered the most able to survive childbirth, and therefore, desirable. By this time, his men were noticeably agitated. As Leader, he too was nervous. To add to his worries, the sun had fallen dangerously low. Noting a steep incline jutting out of the grass Storm amended his plan to one used from time to time when large predators were suspected of lurking nearby. “When we attack, you go high ground,” he instructed Snake, indicating the mound. “If see Stranger man, howl/yell warn! Stay/remain until I sign ‘go.’”
The Fire Hunters crept closer in the deep grass. They were ten paces from the nearest fire pit when a woman spotted them and screamed, a strange shrill chilling shriek.
The raiders raced into camp grunting, yelping, howling. Axe, the first to reach the lean female, tore the suckling infant from her arms and flung it as far as he could. When the infant landed with a sickening thud the horrified mother screeched.
Rain Sky grabbed a toddler by a leg and pounded her soft skull against the hard ground. The grisly contents – brains, blood and gore – splattered the dry earth. Frantic to escape the mayhem, terrified women scooped up infants and toddlers and fled in every direction toward the protective woodland. As this was taking place, Storm raced toward the bull near the woman he desired.
Wielding the hammer he had left on the ground, with bared teeth and growling in rage, the leathery bull lunged at him. Storm plunged his spear deep in the old man’s chest, snapping ribs and pinioning him. Wresting the spear free ended the dying man’s suffering. Looking around Storm saw that the second bull lay bloody and motionless.
A third bull had emerged from a hut holding a knife, but his powerful brother had no difficulty downing the Stranger with a mighty blow to his skull and then stabbing him with his spear.
Scanning the frenzied scene Storm raced to Bird Song, slowed in her attempt to escape due to helping her hobbling son. When she realized that they could not outrun their pursuers, she threw herself at Storm’s ankles and pulled the boy down beside her. Pointing to herself, the youth and the dead bull Storm had killed, she pleaded with him with her birdsong warble.
Even her whimpering pleased Storm’s ears. With no knowledge of the Strangers’ language, he thought that he understood what she was desperately trying to communicate. The dead bull had been her mate. She would come with them willingly provided he took the youth. Storm scanned the camp to assure himself of the mission’s success. The site contained no further threats. His men were unharmed. Women, with one or more children in their arms, had fled or were fleeing. Each raider, with the exception of himself, and Snake standing watch, held several firebrands. Courage and Rain Sky had the broad-hipped woman who was powerless against them. Knowing he could kill the youth at any time, he signed to the woman, “Come with me and I take boy.”
Terrified for herself and her son, the woman rose, her head ducked in obedience.
Storm flung the boy over his shoulder and grabbed the woman’s forearm before grabbing a firebrand from the pit. Leaving, he saw the skinny female Snake had wanted, alone, keening over her lifeless infant. Remembering the youth lacked a mate, he signed for Snake to try for her. If her resistance was strong, he was to leave her and immediately join the other Fire Hunters.
Snake sped to the fire pit, grabbed a firebrand then raced to the woman who seemed unaware of anything but her dead infant. Tugging gently on her arm he waited until she faced him. “Come with me, Pretty Mouse. We feed and protect you,” he signed.
Dazed, she looked down at the lifeless infant she had borne two months earlier and back up at the face of a man who had not taken a direct part in the slaughter. She knew enough of his signs to know that he wanted her to go with him. Given to this troupe in exchange for food by her starving family the summer before, she had been beaten, spat on and starved. She belonged to all and to no one. Now the only reason she had to live was dead.
“Come! We feed and protect you,” he repeated and smiled.
His eyes were kind and not threatening. The hand that grasped her arm held without hurting. Perhaps these masters would treat her better. If not, she would kill herself. “Yes, I come with you,” she signed back.
They joined the others running from the camp. With the fading sun at their backs, the eight raced past the grove of trees where the raiders had waited for Snake. The Fire Hunters, heady in triumph, oblivious to underbrush clawing their limbs and torsos or the abuse their toughened feet received from jagged rocks, ran with pulses racing and sweat dripping into their eyes and down their backs. The women, struggling to keep pace, trying to avoid stumbling, falling and injuring themselves, then being painfully yanked to their feet, ran. Well after random thickets became a dense forest Storm signaled the group to halt. They hadn’t seen or heard pursuers, and with his added burden, he was near exhaustion. He set the boy on the ground.
Thinking it was time to rid them of this unwanted burden, Courage raised his spear and looked to his brother for approval.
The youth’s mother, the woman Storm would name Bird Song, looked at him in horror and flung herself at his feet, warbling her pitiful cries.
“No!” Storm, conveyed by raising his hand, shaking his head and grunting.
“If/maybe Stranger follow,” Courage argued. “Stranger boy with sick/injured leg make much slow.”
Storm saw absolute agreement on Axe and Rain Sky’s faces. Only young Snake withheld taking sides in the dispute. But he had promised the woman on her knees pleading with him to spare what surely was her son. “No! I decide! First I carry. Then Courage carry. Then Snake carry. Then Axe. Then Rain Sky.” And to Bird Song he signed scowling, “Make boy obey or we kill and eat boy flesh/meat.” Eyes filled with terror, she responded with soft trills to him, and then with a single gesture and firm trills to the boy. Seeing the youth’s head drop, Storm was satisfied that the pair had understood enough of the warning.
Snake was the first to notice that scarcely any smoke rose from the Fire Hunters’ sticks. “Fire sick. Fire die.”
On examination, of the ten sticks the men had collectively taken, only two smoked. Storm knew, with proper attention the firebrands could be revived, but that would take time. Nevertheless, it had to be done. While he and Rain Sky revived the fire-sticks and prepared them for travel, the other three men secured the captives.
As he tied her wrist to his, the scrawny woman, intent on gaining the favor of her captor, signed to Snake, “Tell me about you camp,” touching her mouth for tell and interlacing her cupped hands for shelter.
Snake replied, “Our shelter dry, always, Pretty Mouse. If rain fall, People cook. Shelter warm, always.”
Elated that he had comprehended most of her signs, and that she had grasped a few words of her new masters’ language, she asked, “How far?”
Misunderstanding the question but intent on continuing the conversation, Snake signed, “Our ancestor give shelter inside hill/mountain,” before noticing Rain Sky distributing the fire-sticks and Courage, with the Stranger boy already slung across his back.
“Obey and keep pace and you live,” Storm signed to the captives. “No obey and you die.”
To the men’s astonishment, Pretty Mouse trilled something to her fellow captives, who had looked to her for interpretation before they meekly dropped their heads.
# # #
After the sun had dropped below the treetops and before filtered light entirely disappeared, Storm directed his men to halt for the night. As they gathered stones to construct the fire pit and kindling to burn, he wondered if they were pursued. Did Stranger men leave their campsite for days to hunt, or did they return each day at dusk? When they returned and saw the results of the raid, they would surely follow. He was reasonably confident that they were safe from vengeful Strangers for the night, but they would take turns staying awake to guard. The captives might try to escape. Tomorrow and the day after and the day after that . . . Stranger men, who vastly outnumbered them, traveled without women or children and could move quickly. They might track and find them. It was important to leave as few traces of their passing as possible. He hoped that it would rain. A heavy rain washed away footprints. The trail would be harder to follow. And at daybreak, they would urinate on the fire pit to cool it and scatter the stones and ashes before leaving.
Checking the site and captives Storm saw Bird Song kneeling, her arms around her unyielding son, and the scrawny one trembling, both women careful to avoid looking at the men lustfully appraising them. His mind supplied images of fighting over who coupled with which woman first. Or last. Or the manner and degree resistant women should be beaten. Broken limbs, whether his men’s or the women’s, slowed travel. Fire Hunters arguing, fighting or coupling would be too busy to be aware of predators or pursuing Strangers. “No coupling! I Storm, Leader People of the Cave, order no coupling.” Seeing resentment in every man’s face, including his brother’s, he added, “We thank kind/good god help us take fire and woman. We thank kind god no Fire Hunter dead. We countless day from home. We must return with fire. No fire, the People of the Cave quick dead. With fire, they live and tell stories about much brave Fire Hunters. No coupling before/until we return with fire.” Seeing that he now had his brother’s backing, even if Rain Sky continued to sulk, Storm added, “Obey, or I kill all captive!”
The men grunted their acceptance while the captives turned to Pretty Mouse for her attempt at interpretation.
As he lay on the ground, surrounded by snoring men and distant dogs howling, Storm noticed the broad-hipped captive lifting her head to stare at him, one of her wrists was securely tied to Courage and the other to a tree. Often deliberately inviting his men’s attention, she would be troublesome.
He too was anxious to couple with Bird Song. To touch her curling hair. To stroke her soft smooth skin. Thus far her son obeyed and did what he could to be little trouble, attempting to walk, helping to gather rocks. It was difficult not to admire the brave Stranger youth who had repeatedly faced death with no show of fear.
But the scrawny female, the one Snake named Pretty Mouse, was the great surprise. She understood the People’s language and explained it in Stranger trills to the other captives.
Countless years had passed since the last captive had been taken. Wise Old Mother’s stories said that the old Leader had given a captive as a mate to one of the men. Storm hoped she had awakened from her sleep so that she would counsel him on what to do with the captives. If she had joined their ancestors, he would have to decide with only the Rules to guide him. But captives were Strangers not People. Captives were slaves. There were no Rules about slaves. Wise Old Mother had told him about fights over a captive slave that led to the death of two hunters. Storm remembered her counsel: it was better for a Leader to give captives as mates than keep them slaves. This he would do. Taking Bird Song for his own would not be challenged. Snake had no mate. As one of the Fire Hunters, he had earned Pretty Mouse for his mate. That decision would not be challenged. Only the broad-hipped woman remained. He would like to give her to his brother. But Axe and Rain Sky also wanted her, if not for a mate, then for coupling. If one of the three lacked a mate, the decision would be simple. But each had a mate. Unless his decision was considered just, there would be much anger. And anger turned to fighting. As Storm deliberated, the woman he had named Bird Song grieved and worried. She had not wanted the savage to take her son. She had pleaded with him to spare him if she agreed to come willingly. The savage had misunderstood. Because of her, Falcon was in terrible danger. Her mate was dead. Although his shriveled cock had lately been of little use to either of them, he had dealt kindly with her and her son, and his rank provided her with respect. Clearly, the savages were not men but animals. They couldn’t speak. They slaughtered infants. They didn’t know how to use flint to make fire. They didn’t know how to construct a simple litter to carry her son. Yet, in one way they had surprised her. After halting to make camp, the men hadn’t raped the women, as Leopard Claws’ men would have done in their place.
The gods could be generous, evil or mischievous. Days earlier, the bony female was a slave of the proud Leopard Claws. Now slaves themselves, she, her only child and dull-witted Yellow Flower had to rely on their former slave when the savages issued commands. Or perhaps she deliberately told lies. Was it a lie that the savage’s leader had ordered his men not to rape them? How were they to know?
She wondered when Leopard Claw men would return to camp. They could be there tonight, screaming for vengeance, making plans to track and slaughter the Savages at dawn. Or they might return in four or five days, as they often did. It would depend on the game they killed. Bird Song heard her stomach growling in protest. The savages carried no provisions. Impossible to guess how many days had passed since they had eaten. When they reached the dry camp that Snake had boasted of, if those left behind were starving they might slaughter and eat them. Falcon could have been roasted and eaten at the same fire that now warmed them were it not for her captor and defender, the same man who had killed her mate. He appeared to be young, younger than herself, far too young to lead a band, but clearly he was leader to this group of five, so he had some status in his band. Doubtless, he had a mate, maybe two. But if he would take her for himself, even as a slave, he might continue protecting them.
Aware that Storm was not snoring and possibly awake, Bird Song inched closer until her back touched his chest and her thigh met his. With his breath warm on her neck she felt his cock rise and harden. She turned to face him and opened her legs for coupling but he abruptly pushed her away. He had rejected her. She had offended the group’s leader and her son’s sole defender. She shivered in terror. Without moving closer the savage leader reached out to stroke her face until her trembling ceased and her eyelids grew heavy. Tomorrow, she thought as she drifted into sleep, she would teach the Savages how to make a litter to transport her brave son. With two savages carrying him, they would move quicker, but Falcon would not suffer with pain that he fought hard to hide, and his leg would have a better chance to heal straight.
With the fire seekers gone ten days, the remaining People of the Cave had been scavenging, once again with little success. Without fire for protection, the need to return before nightfall severely limited their range and repeated trips to the same areas had exhausted edible vegetation. To hunters left behind, it seemed as though game aware of their boundaries, had relocated beyond their reach. Frustrated ravenous men needed no excuse to quarrel. Now, any excuse provoked a brawl. Violence that began with men moved quickly to women and children. Not even irritable infants were safe from outright neglect or a pinch from an irritable mother with little milk in her breasts.
Every day brought Berry new painful bruises. Only nightfall brought temporary relief. While those around her slumbered, a dream awakened her. In that dream Wise Old Mother had nodded, smiled at her and beckoned her to approach. Too excited to sleep, Berry was convinced that it was a message. Knowing she could be beaten, and with only the light of a full moon to guide her, she wove her way through the jumble of prone bodies until she reached Wise Old Mother atop her hide pallet. Berry wondered why she had been summoned. Perhaps Wise Old Mother was thirsty. With profound reverence, Berry dripped water from the drinking gourd kept beside the Old One, on her parched mouth. It was too dark to know whether Wise Old Mother’s lips had parted, and whether she had accepted the offering. Nevertheless, having come this far, Berry placed her smooth brow on Old One’s leathery one. “Remember me? I Berry, child Tree Hide,” she communicated in signs and whispered grunts that she hoped would be understood in the same way Wise Old Mother foretold the future by looking up at the sky or into a fire. “This night you come to me in dream. Perhaps, you stay because you fear if you join ancestor People of the Cave get pain/suffer.”
Wise Old Mother’s moan caused Berry to initially pull away, before realizing the moan meant that the Old One knew she was there. She took the bony hand in hers. Wise Old Mother squeezed hers in return, a strong squeeze.
Berry signed, “I know I low-rank girl, but I watch you and learn much. If you want, after you dead, I use what I learn for People of the Cave.” Kneeling on the cool ash-strewn ground, she waited, hoping for more from Wise Old Mother. Nothing. Her breathing was shallow but regular. People around her snored, grunted and passed gas. But if one awoke, she would be seen and punished. Berry inched out of the cave.
With a full moon and no prying eyes to concern herself about, as she had done many times before in daylight, her hands and feet located the familiar ridges she used for climbing. Upon reaching her aerie niche, Berry climbed in and wrapped herself in an old tattered hide, given to her by Twisted Legs. Looking out at the innumerable brilliant stars piercing the black sky, she saw a stunning spectacle she had never witnessed before – a cascading spray of glittering lights. Watching, amazed by the magical beauty, she sat immobilized. It wasn’t until the last ember faded and the night sky returned to its familiar stillness that she wondered whether anyone had seen what she had? Anyone? A Stranger or night animal. A wolf. An owl. But no wolf bayed and no owl hooted. The night was silent. Could this be an omen from Wise Old Mother sent only for her eyes?
# # #
Peeking out of her niche the next morning, Berry saw People exiting the cave below, walking without purpose, their heads down, and heard their howling. Wise Old Mother was dead. When the Old One’s ghost had joined her ancestors tens and tens of stars had fallen like rain. If Berry had any doubts that it was a sign meant only for her, they were gone.
But how was she, the lowest ranking member of the People, going to make them understand? Grieving their great loss, if she showed herself today, they would vent their anger on her. She would have to hide until Leader Storm returned. He too had been chosen by Wise Old Mother for his position, surprising many, who had expected his older brother to be chosen. Only he could be made to understand. Only a Leader had the power to make the People understand. The days the Fire Hunters had been away equaled the fingers of both her hands. If only he would return soon, before fighting left nothing but dead bodies and starving skeletons. Until then, she would live and forage alone with only Wise Old Mother’s ghost to protect her.
Before crawling out of her niche, Berry added a spearhead she had found to her sack. The tip was dull, but the chipped sides were knife sharp. While she had never held a spear, a few high-ranking women owned and carried them. At times, they participated in attacks. Her sack contained leather thongs. Having watched the making of spears, she knew that all she needed to make one was a branch of the right length, thickness and strength.
Clinging to the cliff’s walls she slowly made her way laterally, to a ledge hidden from sight by shrubs, to rest, before descending unseen to the ground. After running to a grove of trees well out of sight of the cave and its inhabitants, Berry wiped the blood off her arms and legs, the results of scraping against sharp limestone. Pleased her injuries were no more than scratches and would soon heal, she began searching for the right branch for her spear. Making one proved far more challenging than Berry had anticipated. Her thong knots were lumpy. The shaft she had selected was uneven from the small branches she had torn off and it was far from perfectly straight. The hard wood proved difficult to properly notch, so the stone arrow tip pointed to one side. Nevertheless, when the task was finally completed, Berry was pleased with her new weapon.
Holding the shaft in both hands she lunged and thrust as she had watched hunters do countless times, before concluding that stabbing a moving animal would take a great deal of practice, and with her misaligned spearhead, was probably impossible. Reluctant to give up so easily, she tried a new tactic: pivoting from the waist while swinging her spear horizontally, growing increasingly confident with each swat. The stone tip was hard and heavy. She could stun a small animal with a single strong whack and kill one with repeated blows. And if she found a carcass with meat remaining, she would be able to chase off birds and small predators. Surely, Wise Old Mother would approve.
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