D r e a m S p a r k l e

   

Volume 1, Number 2

 

PALEOLITHIC

 

The Homotherium Ultimum paused in the act of leaping from the pile of boulders she had just climbed. From her vantage point many feet above the scrub plain, she detected movement below, distant and faint, but movement nevertheless. Even her eyes, perfectly adapted to vision in the badlands she called home, could not clearly see the source of the movement, but the haze of dust that had caught her attention marked its passage as clearly as if she were on its trail.   

Something large traveled across the floor of the plain, something carrying itself high enough above the ground to be a threat. It appeared to be moving in the direction of her kill. A low growl burst from her throat as the Homotherium remembered the satisfying crunch as her giant incisors sank into the neck of the young mammoth. She had almost lost her perch as the terrified beast gyrated frantically, trying to dislodge the doom on its back. In the end, it sank to its knees, bellowing plaintively, and rolling over on its side as its severed hamstrings failed under its weight. She let go then, knowing her prey would not rise again. The mammoth was not yet dead when she began to eat her way in through the animalís belly, seeking the liver.

The remembered memory of the mammoth's sweet flesh made her salivate, and a rumble rose in her throat. With a family to feed and protect, hunting was difficult. She was not about to let some other predator make an easy meal of her hard won kill. Sinking back on her haunches she considered her situation. In a cave many miles to the west, her two cubs, awaited her arrival, and while this threat was still distant, any change in direction would put them at risk. She couldnít allow that. Her mind made up, she rose smoothly to her feet in a single powerful surge. The ground was stony and loose, but her great paws disturbed not even a stone as she made her way quickly down to the plain.

She ran silently, her enormous incisors bared in a snarl. Serrated on both edges and crenulated, those enormous teeth allowed her to slash and rip as well as carry large prey in her jaws. Her elongated forelegs bent and straightened smoothly as she ran and the muscles of her enormous thighs blended seamlessly into her sloped back so that she resembled Pachycrocuta, the bone crushing hyena, although she was larger and infinitely more deadly. There was still enough light in the sky for her to see clearly, and that was good. She preferred to hunt during the day rather than at night. An apex predator, Homotherium feared few living things other than the giant crocodiles and others of her kind. The twilight began to fade, fading now, the shadows dappling her dusty mud colored coat as darkness rushing up over the land on the heels of the sinking orb of the western sun. She lengthened her stride determined to reach her enemy before the light was all gone.

 

***

 

The hunter gazed out across the causeway before him, squinting through the matted locks of shaggy hair that fell in front of his face. From his vantage point on the dunes overlooking the shore, the bridge of land stretching out from the mainland looked impossibly narrow; a long finger of coarse windblown sand and tussock, ridged high at the center and stretching back as far his eye could see. He stared at the low smudge on the horizon hinting at its terminus.

He would not have ventured this way if not for the cat. Alone on the southern plain and 6 days journey out from his cave, he had come upon the remains of one of the great hairy giants, recognizing it as the kill of a dreaded curved tooth cat. The fallen giant was a juvenile, no spear teeth to speak of. It must have strayed from the herd and been cut out by the cat, a female from the size of her spoor. She had left her kill after feeding on the soft belly parts and internals, and the hunter knew he should leave quickly. He was likely within range and therefore a threat to the cat, but the hunting had been poor, and making a quick decision he stooped down at the carcass, peering into the cavity left by the cat's meal. Most of the choice parts were gone, but he pulled out some small organs, and stuffed them, still dripping, into his mouth as he swiftly sliced strips of blubbery flesh from the interior of the dead animal. His stone blade dripped red when he leaned back on his haunches. The hairy one was not long dead. Rising he brushed his bare feet in the ground surrounding the kill, obliterating his tracks, then made for some nearby rocks with leaping strides, leaving only fleeting marks in the dust as he went. It was only a gesture. The big cat could smell as well as see and she would know he had been here, but his belly rumbled comfortingly and the meat he had cut swung heavy at his waist and the hunter was confident. He had avoided the curved tooth demons before, and he would do so again.

Throughout the night he worked his way south, keeping to the shadows and moving from one outcrop to the next, knowing that the cat would not attack him in the night, preferring to wait for the light of day before closing in for the kill. A number of times he heard her coughing roar, always to his north, and he knew she was stalking him, herding him towards the shore. Try as he might, he could not outflank the beast. She was always on his left, always too close to get around.

Maybe it was luck that brought him to the causeway. Maybe it was divine providence. The hunter knew nothing of such ideas. He realized however that the land strip, with its steep dunes angling into enormous breakers on the west and rippling blue shadows on the east, offered him his only chance of survival. This was no simple finger of land, jutting out from the coast. The limits of it stretched to the horizon and strained his imagination. In the far distance, a purple smudge indicated that the strip joined with a large landmass to the south, but no details were visible from where he stood. He took his chance. In all likelihood the cat would not follow him onto the dunes and he would escape to await a chance of return later. In any case, it was too late to turn back now. The sunís early rays, glancing across the water from the east, showed him that the shore stretched naked and exposed for miles in either direction. The scrub where he had emerged lay a good distance to his rear in the north, and he dare not re-enter that domain. There, the cat was supreme. Breaking into a loping stride that he could maintain for hours if necessary, the hunter made his way onto the causeway. The sand glittered in the morning sun as its grains caught and reflected the bright early rays. Glancing occasionally over his shoulder he made his way carefully down the strip, his strong legs pumping under him, stone striker clutched in his hand and matted hair flying in the breeze.

 

***

 

The breaking dawn scattered its dim light over the few scattered shelters of the settlement, catching the mica specks in the chertz flint the woman used to scrape the flesh from the hide she was cleaning. Shivering in the morning air, Ahar glanced around at the sleeping forms rolled up in skins on the lee side of the shelters. She was the only one awake. The rest of her clan lay stretched out in the shelter of the rock face, the children closest in towards the rock wall, the warriors on the outer rim of the crescent of sleeping bodies. Until very recently, she had slept with the children in that group, protected and safe, now she toiled while they slept. Flicking a scrap of flesh from her flint, she mulled over her prospects. Unless something happened to change the dynamics of the tribe, she was doomed to a life of scraping hides and worse.

A handful of moons ago, she had bled, the first flowering of her womanhood. She spent the following weeks in excited anticipation of the tribal ritual she had seen so often before. One of the younger males, an unattached warrior, would approach the elder crones who guarded the children and maidens, offering to take some maiden as wife. This was the tribe's way. Men died sooner than women in their harsh world and unions brought children and fresh hands to the daily rituals. But no one had offered for her. As the weeks passed, the old women began to look at her suspiciously, fearing some evil influence. Ahar knew it was her leg. The right one was crooked and shorter than the other, a defect she had been born with. It never troubled her as a child, and the other children accommodated her, having nothing to compare her with. But now she knew better. She was deformed, different, possessed of a malicious spirit at birth that had twisted her limb and left her increasingly grotesque as she grew up. The men were nervous around her. In her adolescence, when the other girls played at sexual games with the boys, she found no partner. When the time of her binding came, there were none to offer for her either.

After some moons, when it became evident than none would offer for her, she was assigned all the mindless menial tasks of the tribe; tasks she could not challenge with no one to stand up for her. She was already thirteen seasons old, of childbearing age and condemned to drudgery for the rest of her short life unless there was a raid and someone took her. But that was only a remote possibility. She was doomed to life as an aging crone, at the whim of every adult in the group until she was useless and unable to travel when the tribe moved. Then they would abandon her to the wild and move on. She would be food for the predators that always followed camps such as theirs, waiting for the weak and unwary to fall by the wayside. Ahar was not aware of any injustice in this. It was the way things were.

The hormones in her body made her uneasy, but she has little understanding of this. She could not articulate what she felt, for she had no language and no name. Grunts and gestures sufficed for the little communication that existed between members of the group, and their hierarchy was simply the ascendancy of the strongest, a holdover from a long forgotten ancestry where strength was everything and the weak served and perished.

She stood up, struggling with the effort put on her withered leg. Scraping the last sinewy fibers from the hide, she tucked her flint scraper into her hair and picked up the skin with both hands. Holding it away from her body loped down to the nearby stream, her short leg making her bounce and roll with every stride. Her eyes darted from side to side, reading the ground for any sign of predators that may have approached the shelter during the night.

 

***

 

The hunter approached the stream with caution, even though hunger gnawed at his insides. His stomach growled. It had been three days since he had crossed the causeway from the mainland, and he dare not return yet, fearing the cat that had forced him so far south. On the dunes far behind him he had seen signs that the big cats did indeed cross the causeway, and this knowledge had driven him away from the coast, following the bed of a dried up river that had led him inland due south-east from his starting point on the dunes. After a dayís travel the riverbed swung back north, and loath to lose ground, he struck out further southeast, aligning himself with a great rock outcrop he had seen earlier. He had presumed it to be the top of some hill but as his path brought him nearer he realized that the rock was a single massive mass thrust up into the sky from the plain on which he was traveling. The stream he was approaching appeared to flow from the northern side of this rock and the bulk of it now filled his horizon. Crouching down beside the reeds at the bank, he stilled himself and waited, unsure of what he waited for, but aware that something had stirred his senses. The dim light of pre-dawn gave everything a gray aspect and there was a morning haze on the water. A figure appeared out of the haze and stooped on the other side of the bank, not ten paces from where he squatted. He saw now that the figure was not an animal but of his own kind, although subtle differences in the features indicated that this she belonged to a tribe very different from his own.

The female was short and held herself with a peculiar stance. He saw that she favored her right limb, and further inspection showed him that it was shriveled and bent, like the trees on the plains after the fire-from-the-sky struck them.  Her hair was coarse and black and stuck out like a mop from her head and her jaw jutted out belong flared nostrils. The hunter could see her eyes now, somewhat hidden beneath overhanging brows but surprisingly alive and bright with awareness. Her forehead sloped back sharply so that it was impossible to say where it stopped and where the top of her head began. Unconsciously the hunter put up a hand to rub his own prominent forehead, wondering if it sloped as prominently as this woman's. When he realized what he was doing he froze, not wanting to make his presence known yet. He continued to watch the woman, fascinated by her strangeness. She wore no clothing and fine hair-like fur covered her brown tinged body. The hair grew all the way down her arms and legs giving the woman the appearance of a rather starved bear.

 

***

 

Ahar dipped the raw hide into the water and rubbed the surfaces together vigorously, then raised it dripping and began to twist the skin to wring the moisture from it. In doing so, she glanced up and saw a face staring at her intently from across the small expanse of water that separated them. Startled, she jumped up, a guttural shriek escaping her throat. Answering cries echoed behind her and there was a commotion behind the thorn barrier that shielded the shelter from her view. The crouching figure started up and leapt away with surprising agility, running with a long loping stride around the curve of the river where it bent around the immense rock wall towering in the background.

***

Glancing over his shoulder as he ran, the hunter saw armed men burst out of the barrier entrance, carrying wooden staves and flint weapons. They had spotted him. The leaders shook their weapons and whooped as they came, young warriors eager to test their mettle. The stream he was running through was nothing more than a ford at this point, a mere trickle of water over pebbles and nowhere more than three feet deep. The hunter was weary, having traveled for more that four days with little food and almost no water. He realized that his pursuers would soon overtake him. Glancing to his right as he ran, he noticed a gully running up into the mass of the rock alongside the stream he was following. At the head of the gully, a dark opening hinted at a cave. There was no time to weigh options. In minutes his pursuers would round the corner of the rock and see him. The situation was dire, and acting on instinct he leaped back across the stream and scrambled up the gully.

 

Fear gave him added strength and speed as he scrabbled his way up the stony rocks, breath hissing in his teeth as he climbed desperately for the ledge where he had seen the dark opening. With the remnants of his ebbing energy he pulled himself up over the lip and crawled forward on hands and knees into the triangular mouth of a cave, plunging into the cool darkness and pressing himself against the damp rock. His heart thumped in his chest, the fatigue making his knees buckle and his breath come in great gasps which he strove to silence. Silence was imperative, and he squeezed his fingers into fists, willing himself to slow down. As the pounding in his ears abated, he heard faint grunts and yells as the tribe hunted around for his tracks. Crawling forward on his belly, he pushed himself face down onto the ledge, watching the movement below. The men had lost his trail in the water and they were searching the far bank now gesturing excitedly to each other. Presently some of them swung away across the plain away from the rock while two smaller parties went west and east following the stream, trying to find where he had exited the water. No-one bothered to look up at the rock. It hadnít occurred to them that the intruder would double back to the rear of their own camp.

Sighing with relief the hunter wiggled back into the opening. Crouching on his haunches, he moved deeper into the cave, wondering if anything shared this space with him. The answer came in a dry hiss, seeming to fill the darkness around him. The blackness was absolute and he could see nothing before and behind him. Drawing his flint weapon the hunter crouched in a defensive posture, but there was no enemy visible for him to fight. The rustling grew louder and a musty smell began to fill the enclosed space. The sense of imminent danger grew with every instant, the short hair on his neck and arms rising involuntarily. Panicking, the hunter slashed the air in front of him with his flint. The weapon met no resistance but the hissing rose to a sibilant crescendo and there was a breath of air on his outstretched arm. He felt a sharp biting pain on his wrist and then another point of agony a few inches higher. In spite of the pain he did not cry out, aware of the others in the stream below him. Solid rock met his spine as he staggered backwards, falling against the cave wall. He felt lightheaded from the pain. Clumsily he pushed himself into a sitting position. His arm felt strangely weak and agony lanced through the right side of his body as he tried to roll away from his attacker. He felt himself falling to the floor, sensing his fall in slow motion, his mind strangely active although his muscles refused to follow his orders. His shoulder touched the floor and he slumped over, unable to rise or even crawl further.

The cave opening lay before his face, filtering in a dim light. The hunter scrunched his head onto his chest, vainly trying ease the excruciating pain radiating out from his shoulder. He rolled over with an immense effort, and as his sight began to fade he saw an enormous snake, coiled in the recesses of the cave, head poised above a giant hood on which there appeared to be two giant eyes. The eyes watched him, and as consciousness faded, they filled his awareness, enormous in his shrinking field of vision. He gazed at them, watching the eyes shrink, dwindling away slowly at first, then more rapidly, contracting to pin points before finally winking out as he lost consciousness. He had lost his weapon, he thought incongruously as everything faded to black.

 

 

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