Continued from Chapter Nine
["The Mastodon Diaries" is rated NC-17 for Violence, Language, and Adult Content. Reader discretion is advised.]
“Let’s go inside, by the firelight,” Mulder said, tugging Scully to her feet. He wanted a better look at her new scar.
Once inside, he added a stick of wood to the glowing coals. The fire crackled to life and brightened the cave with flickering light. Scully let the fur blanket slip from her shoulders to the ground. Dressed only in black camisole and panties, she drew the camisole up to her breasts to expose her stomach. She faced the flames while Mulder knelt to examine the quarter-sized scar that marked her otherwise unblemished skin.
“Tell me about your vision,” he murmured, running his fingers over the puckered knot a few inches from her navel.
She stood motionless, allowing him to examine her with his eyes and hands. “Most of it made no sense,” she said.
“Tell me anyway.”
“Images came and went. They followed no logical order...at least none that I could discern.”
“But you sensed they were snapshots of your future?” He glanced up into her eyes.
She looked frightened.
“More like video clips, but yes, I got the impression I was looking at the future.”
He turned her so that he could inspect her back.
There was a cherry-red exit wound on her back, just above her faded tattoo. No mistaking it -- it was a bullet wound, only a week or two old.
She peered at him over her shoulder. “You were there.”
“Well, that’s some relief, at least.” If her vision represented their future he was glad to know he was part of it. “It implies we get back home. You realize that, don’t you?”
“Yes. Unfortunately, I didn’t find out how or when. Or if the future is immutable. Suppose the things I saw are only one possibility?”
“An infinite number of futures?”
“Built upon an infinite number of actions, here or possibly in the future.”
“Our future selves saving our past selves’ asses?” This was getting more convoluted by the minute. “Let’s assume that what you saw was *the* future -- the one and only future. Do you remember anything that might help us get from here to there?” He rose to his feet.
She pulled her camisole down over her stomach and turned to face him. The firelight etched lines of worry into her shadowy expression. “I’m sorry, Mulder, I don’t.”
Cupping her cheek, he tried to smooth her frown with his thumb. Did she really not remember? It scared him to think she might not. He relied on her calm logic, and right now they needed her rationalism more than ever. They needed her to remember what she saw.
“Think, Scully. Were there any references to Lisa Ianelli, time travel, Flux Space, tachyons, anything?”
“Nothing like that. We were...driving in a car.”
“I don’t know.” Her voice quavered with uncertainty. “Across a desert.”
He wanted to help her remember. He *had* to help her. “Great Salt Lake, outside Hill Air Force Base?”
“I don’t think so, but I’m not sure.”
He released her cheek and let his arm drop to his side. Damn it, this was frustrating. “What else?” he asked, trying to keep any hint of annoyance out of his voice. Scully’s vision had clearly left her shaken and he didn’t want her to clam up because of his insensitivity.
“We exchanged Christmas gifts.”
Christmas gifts? “In the car?”
“No, later. Or maybe earlier. I don’t know.” She shook her head dismissively.
Don’t give up, Scully. Not yet. “What about the bullet wound?”
“I remember being shot. I remember the pain. And I remember getting my tattoo removed, and learning about your sister.”
His sister, dead for almost twenty years. Jesus, please don’t let it be true.
“Scully, is it possible this Arbutus Ray person was lying to you? Maybe she worked for Old Smokey.”
“Maybe. All I can say is that I believed her.”
“But she might not have been privy to the truth. Someone might have lied to her or...or...” He was grasping at straws, he knew. He couldn’t bear the notion that his sister might be lost forever -- after all his searching, all his hoping.
“Mulder, you believed her, too.” She put a hand on his arm. Tears of sympathy glittered along her lower lashes as she looked up at him. Evidently she knew he would find her words difficult to accept. “You seemed...relieved.”
Anger welled up in him at this revelation. “Relieved to learn my sister was dead? Does that sound like me? Does it make sense?”
“Right now, nothing makes sense.” She leaned toward him and rested her cheek gently against his chest.
His arms circled her as if by instinct. She felt small in his embrace, but not as vulnerable as he had supposed. She was telling him the truth the way she had seen it. He hated her words, but he appreciated her honesty, and her integrity purged him of his momentary anger.
He placed a kiss on the crown of her head. Lingering there, he wondered what answers a second vision might provide.
He also wondered if there was something here in this particular location that had triggered her foresight. Were they standing in or near a Flux Space portal?
Scanning the cave, his eyes settled on the painted wall with its larger-than-life Serpent Holder. The alien-looking creature stared back at him with an unreadable expression. If the painting had any answers, it was keeping them secret.
His gaze traveled down the wall to the tiny carved idol on the ground below the Serpent Holder’s feet. Scully had been holding it when she collapsed. Had it caused her vision? Maybe it was a nexus of some sort, or at the very least, contained powerful Pleistocene magic. Staring at it, he felt certain of one thing: his paranormal radar was picking up another signal.
* * *
Mulder tucked his shirt into his pants and buckled his belt. He’d hardly slept a wink all night, tossing and turning, worrying about Scully’s visions and their uncertain future. It was only after they made love again around 4:00 a.m. that he was finally able to drift off.
He nudged her sleeping form before collecting their travel packs and the water bag. “Rise and shine.”
She groaned and crawled out from under the fur blanket. His eyes skimmed her trim curves with appreciation. She wore only her underwear, and his pulse quickened at the sight. He let his brain replay their lovemaking: both rounds of it. Jesus, she made him feel eighteen again.
She sat and tilted her head left to right, snapping the bones in her neck.
“Come on, Scully. Let’s go.” He tugged the blanket out from under her, then rolled it into a tight cylindrical bundle, which he stuffed into one of the packs.
She said nothing, but stood to get dressed. He let her be. She wasn’t angry. This was just her usual morning reticence. He’d learned years ago to keep his comments to a minimum until she was ready for morning conversation. His Chatty Cathy act seemed to grate on her nerves at this early hour, especially here in the Ice Age where there were no Latte Grandes to take the edge off.
He rolled the second blanket while she slipped into her jeans and turtleneck. Getting lucky twice in one night had put him in good spirits this morning. He felt like humming a few bars of “Love Me Tender” while waltzing her around the cave, but knew better than to try it.
“Hungry?” he asked.
“Mm,” she grunted. Donning her jacket, she headed out of the cave.
Almost as an afterthought, he retrieved the tiny carved idol from where she’d dropped it last night. If it had sparked her “vision” -- which he wasn’t entirely convinced was a vision, despite her new scar -- it might prove useful by helping them find a way home. He stuffed it into his jacket pocket.
“Wait for me.” He hurried after her, weighted down by the packs and spears, but buoyed by a night of sweet love.
He quickly caught up with her and together they followed the path down the hill to the stream where they’d left the dead sloth the previous day.
As they approached the carcass, something about it seemed off to Mulder. It looked blacker than he remembered. And its fur appeared to be...moving.
“Uh, Scully? Do you see that?”
“I see it.” She stopped, causing him to nearly run her over.
He set down his things and grabbed the binoculars from his jacket pocket.
“Shit,” he said, looking through them, his good mood evaporating.
He passed them to her.
“Ants,” she said without emotion.
He took a step forward, but she placed a hand on his arm to stop him.
“Don’t, Mulder. There are species of ants that can take down and kill a large mammal, including a human.”
Thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of ants covered the sloth, animating its body in the creepiest way and obscuring the ground beneath it.
“That was our breakfast.” He hated the petulant whine in his voice, but dammit, he’d risked his life to kill that sloth.
“Survival of the fittest, Mulder...or, in this case, the fastest.”
This was infuriating. The meat was right there, not fifteen yards away.
“Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
“You could try scaring them off with your gun,” she suggested dryly, reminding him of yesterday’s wolves and his wasted bullet.
“Very funny.” He paced, stopped, paced some more, then turned to squint at the insect-riddled corpse. “Maybe we could eat the ants, too. They’re protein, aren’t they?”
“I doubt the meat is safe to eat, with or without the ants. It’s been sitting unrefrigerated all night.” Turning around she walked past him, heading upland along Klizzie’s marked trail.
That was it? She was just going to walk away? He looked again at the ants. They’d already devoured most of the meat and were starting to dismantle the skeleton.
He reluctantly followed after Scully.
“We should have known better,” she said when he caught up with her.
“Ants, vultures, wolves -- something was bound to take that meat. We should have cut it up and cooked what we needed immediately. We didn’t think ahead.”
“So next time we’ll know better.”
She leveled her gaze at him. “We’re working blindfolded here, Mulder. We may not survive a next time.”
* * *
Dzeh selected a shady spot away from the bustling activity of the camp where he could sit and work in quiet. His mouth felt drier than last season’s pine nuts and his stomach flopped like a hooked fish. The late morning sun jabbed his eyes, making his head pound.
Damn the Spirits, he regretted drinking so much wo-chi last night.
The evening had been rowdy and pleasant. Forty or more men from Owl, Badger and Otter Clans had crowded the Prayer Lodge to share stories and jokes, pray to the Spirits, play gambling games and drink wo-chi.
Lots of wo-chi.
The potent liquid had been brewed specifically for the nightly revelries during the days-long Mastodon Feast. The drink was essential to the celebration; its fermented honey allowed the various Spirits to enter the men’s bodies and minds, blessing them with visions and insight, as well as giving them a sense of contentment and camaraderie.
Unfortunately, the departing Spirits usually left storms in Dzeh’s head the following day.
He tossed his tool kit to the ground beneath a broad butternut tree. Trying to minimize the thunder inside his skull, he eased himself slowly onto the grass. Thankfully there was no wind to rattle the leaves over his head and needle his oversensitive ears. As it was, a faint whiff of roasting meat from somebody’s breakfast fire threatened to empty his stomach. Breathing through his mouth, he arranged himself cross-legged on the grass and slowly opened his tool kit.
The small leather pouch held a hammerstone, a few lumps of raw chert, several knapping tools made from bone, and three unfinished spear points. Dzeh withdrew his favorite knapper and one of the unfinished points. His head hurt too much to pound new points, so he left the hammer and unworked chert inside the kit.
Swatting away a pesky deerfly, he wondered why the boy Chal hadn’t come by to see him earlier this morning as he was supposed to. Dzeh had told his father to send him after breakfast so he could meet him, ask a few questions. Dzeh wanted to gauge the boy’s competency and his character before arranging a Joining with Gini. If this Badger Clan boy was to become Gini’s mate someday, he would need to possess an honorable disposition and adequate survival skills.
It was well known that the men of Badger Clan were skilled marksmen. They were shrewd traders, too, and their women were expert cooks and tanners. Klizzie’s Badger Clan aunts had taught her how to work skins into supple hides -- the softest Dzeh had ever felt.
Overall, the people of Badger Clan were principled and generous. Their ways were not too contrary to Owl Clan’s. There were some, of course, like Klizzie’s chindi cousin Klesh and her no-account brother Tse-e, who were contemptible men, but every clan had its share of rotten fish. To their credit, the Badger Shaman was a powerful medicine man; his clan seldom went hungry or became ill.
Badger Clan would make an acceptable family for Gini...if the boy proved to be healthy and strong. And kind-hearted. Dzeh refused to Promise his little sister to the hearth of a mean-spirited man.
Thinking of these things, worrying about Gini’s future, Dzeh began to meticulously chip flakes from his partially finished spear point. He used his bone knapper to shape the stone until it resembled a laurel leaf approximately the length of his middle finger.
The familiar activity calmed his queasy stomach and helped quiet the drums in his head.
It also brought him closer to the spirit of his father.
Dzeh had learned to make spear points by watching his father and uncles. Knowing how to work the stone properly was a skill crucial to the Clan’s survival. His father had taught him how to make raw chert more pliable by exposing it to intense heat, burying it in a shallow depression and then building a fire on top of it. Once the rock cooled, it could then be chipped into tools that would remain sharp even after repeated use on long hunting excursions.
Chert was not a common stone in Owl Clan’s territory. There were no natural sources; the Clan had to trade for it. With only a few pieces left in his kit, Dzeh hoped Turtle Clan would be bringing a new supply with them to the Feast. He would trade several of Klizzie’s well-tanned hides for each fist-sized chunk.
Dzeh considered himself a fairly shrewd trader, getting the better deal more often than not. He glanced at the unusual ornament fastened to his wrist. Muhl-dar’s remarkable bracelet.
Much to his delight, Dzeh had recently discovered the bracelet glowed in the dark like a lightning bug when he pushed one of the prongs on its side. The symbols on its smooth face changed moment by moment, too. The men of Eel Clan must be very clever to create such a mysterious ornament. An Eel Clan boy would make a worthy mate for Gini if their ways weren’t quite so foreign.
Dzeh wondered where his strange Trading Partner was right now. Was Muhl-dar following Klizzie’s stone markers to Turkey Lake?
Four days had come and gone since Owl Clan had arrived at Tabaha Lodge. Otter Clan showed up the following day. And last night a messenger from Turtle Clan had appeared, out of breath and full of exciting news. Turtle Clan was only a day’s hike away. This news energized the entire camp. The Mastodon Feast would begin as soon as all four clans were settled in.
In the meantime, there was much to do to get ready.
The women were hurrying today to set up additional shelters, collect more firewood, harvest fresh greens, roots, and berries. The older boys were fishing for bass, pickerel and bullheads in Turkey Lake, while the girls gathered snails along the shore and hunted for duck eggs in the reeds. Even the smallest children added to the stores by trapping turtles and frogs, or scooping fish eggs into gourds.
Berries and fish eggs were fine things to eat, but bigger game would be needed to feed the mouths of four hungry clans. The men planned to hunt mastodon at dusk tonight, the time of day when the animals were most likely to pass between First and Second Camel Mountain on their way to Turkey Lake for an evening drink. The narrow gorge between the hills was a perfect spot for an ambush, and not too far away to haul a butchered carcass back to camp. Yesterday’s scouting party had reported finding fresh mastodon sign along the trail there. Last night, the men had prayed to the Mastodon Spirit for a successful hunt and offered copious amounts of wo-chi to all the Spirits.
Dzeh wondered if the Spirits’ heads ached as badly as his this morning.
Reasonably satisfied with the overall shape of his spear point, Dzeh began honing its edges razor sharp. Then, using a groove cutter, he forced away more pieces of stone to form flutes down the center on each side. These grooves would eventually cradle the spear’s wooden shaft.
He was almost finished when the boy named Chal finally appeared. He came within a pace or two of Dzeh and then waited to be invited to sit.
Who-Neh’s son looked younger than Dzeh had expected and seemed somewhat undersized for a boy of twelve years. But he was tanned and muscled and, overall, appeared healthy. At least he bore no obvious defects.
The boy was dressed in a Badger Clan breechclout and leggings. A new tattoo marked his reddened left shoulder with a spiky design, common among his kin. Two curving claws dangled from his pierced ears, indicating the boy had successfully killed his first bear. Not an easy thing to do, even for a grown man.
This boy Chal showed potential, it seemed.
“You are late,” Dzeh growled.
The boy bowed his head. “Sorry, Uncle. My father slept late this morning. I only just learned you wanted to see me.”
Chal was not Dzeh’s nephew, of course, but the boy used the formal title out of respect.
Dzeh remained silent, ignoring the apology, making Chal stand and wait a while longer.
It was no surprise that Who-Neh had remained late in his sleeping skins this morning. The talkative man had been the last to bed. The entire camp heard him singing and laughing his way from the Prayer Lodge to his hearth where Ho-Ya greeted him with angry words.
Dzeh shook his head. Although these were Klizzie’s kin, they left much to be desired. Ho-Ya had less sense than a clubbed catfish and Who-Neh, while friendly, was the sort of man who would gamble his last good knife in a betting game. If their son turned out to be equally dim-witted, Dzeh would look elsewhere for Gini’s future mate. There were other boys in Badger and Otter Clans, although admittedly most were older and ready for mates now. Dzeh was not willing to give Gini away to an older man; she was too young to share a sleeping skin just yet. If he couldn’t find a suitable match for his sister this season, no matter, he could wait a year or two.
“Sit,” he ordered Chal. “Show me how the men of Badger Clan make spear points.” He tossed the boy a lump of raw chert and a hammerstone from his kit. The stones landed with a soft thud in the grass at young Chal’s feet.
The boy crouched to inspect the uncut stone. Nervously licking his lips, he picked up the hammer. His hands shook a little as he positioned the rock for the first blow.
“That chert is valuable,” Dzeh reminded the boy just as he was about to take his first strike.
Chal nodded, serious and respectful. He repositioned the chert. Taking aim, he struck the rock. His angle was good, the impact well considered. A perfect flake broke loose from the chert. The boy swallowed hard, turned the stone and struck the back with equally fine results.
Dzeh watched without comment while Chal hammered the chert into a well-shaped point. The boy had skill.
“You will join tonight’s mastodon hunt,” Dzeh said. “You will be my hunting partner.”
Chal’s eyes rounded. “B-but, Uncle, I have never hunted mastodons.”
“Then you will learn how tonight.” Dzeh nodded at the boy’s new spear point. “Lash that to a stout shaft. Bring it with you.”
The boy stared at him, dumbstruck.
Dzeh returned his tools to his kit and then rose to his feet, taking care to hide the discomfort in his head from the boy. Walking away, he called over his shoulder, “Don’t worry, Nephew. It has been at least two years since I had a partner killed during a mastodon hunt.”
* * *
Three days had passed since Mulder and Scully’s night in the cave. Three days of arduous hiking. Three days without a decent meal. Three days without sex.
Fucking Ice Age.
Fucking uphill all the way to goddamn nowhere.
The forest lay behind them. Ahead was another mountain, its summit worn smooth by eons of advancing and retreating glaciers. Miniature evergreens, dwarfed by constant wind and lack of soil, dotted the rocky landscape. The sky was clear, but a breeze was blowing, high-pitched and constant, sounding like whale song as it vibrated across the stone. Mulder’s clothes flapped in the cross-draft. He squinted against the sting of his wind-whipped hair. His arms, weighted by both packs and the spears, felt ready to snap.
He glanced back at Scully. She limped along several paces behind him, favoring her left ankle.
Why had he insisted they go to Hill Air Force Base in the first place? He should have known better. These things never ended well. Had he *ever* trespassed on government property without regretting it? Ever? Even once? Why should this time be any different?
He waited for Scully to catch up, one stiff step at a time. Honestly, the poor woman seemed doomed to follow him straight to Hell. What had she done to deserve this terrible fate?
“You must have been an ax murderer in a former life, Scully,” he said.
“That’s funny, because I’ve been thinking about becoming one in this life.”
Obviously she was still pissed.
He was feeling pretty damn pissy himself, but he decided it would be in his best interest to keep his attitude under control. “Good thing there are no axes here. Maybe you’ll get lucky and we’ll end up in the Bronze Age next time.”
She limped past him, her expression ice cold as she trekked slowly, painfully uphill. “Don’t think I won’t stone you to death.”
He trailed after her, keeping his distance. “How is it my fault you tripped and hurt your ankle?”
She turned to glare at him over her shoulder.
“Watch your step,” he said, pointing to the uneven terrain ahead. His warning was meant to needle her more than help.
“Cause and effect, Mulder,” she said, returning her focus to her feet. “It was you, was it not, who chose to ignore FBI protocol and lead us on this unauthorized investigation into a classified U.S. military facility where you breached a clearly marked security fence to illegally trespass on government property, which caused us to wind up in a...a time warp or Flux Space or whatever, sending us 12,000 years into the past, completely unprepared, I might add, to this...this godforsaken place with stampeding mastodons and hungry saber-toothed tigers and giant killer sloths, where...where there are no bathtubs or coffee shops or taxi cabs or...or...” She paused to take a breath before ending with, “and then I hurt my ankle. That’s how it’s your fault.”
“That...that’s one way of looking at it.” He nodded. “You sound upset.”
She stopped walking and pivoted to face him. “I am upset, Mulder. I’m hungry, sweaty, and my goddamn ankle hurts.”
“Want me to carry the waterbag?” He reached for the bag that hung from her left hand.
She shrugged him off. “I’ve got it.”
“I don’t mind. Really.”
Her hair writhed in the wind as her stormy expression unexpectedly vanished when she looked into his eyes. Voice softening, she said, “I know, Mulder. It’s just...” Her voice gave out and tears filled her eyes.
He set down the packs and spears and took her into his arms. She leaned heavily against him while he stroked her tangled hair. His heart ached, seeing her hurt, knowing he was the cause of it. “Do you want to rest for a minute?”
“No, we’re almost to the top.”
It was true. Another one of Klizzie’s markers waited for them fifty yards ahead on the crest of the hill.
“We can rest when we catch up with Klizzie and the others,” she said, pulling away.
He took hold of her hand, unwilling to let her go just yet. “We have no idea when that’ll be. You should sit for a few minutes. Check that ankle.”
“If I take off my boot, I may not get it back on. It’s the only thing keeping the swelling down.”
“Then I’ll carry you,” he offered, opening his arms.
“No, thanks.” She backed away and winced when she put weight on her injured leg.
“Come on, Scully. You can barely walk.”
“I’m fine. You’re already carrying everything else.” She indicated the supplies.
He stooped to gather the packs in one hand and the spears in the other and then presented his back to her, bending at the knees, prepared to carry her piggyback. “Get on.”
He glanced over his shoulder at her. “Just do it, Scully. Don’t argue.”
“I’m too heavy.”
“Hardly. Just to the top of the hill.”
“It’s too far.”
“No, it’s not. Get on.” He crouched a bit lower to entice her.
“Just to the marker?”
Still looking unconvinced, she took hold of his shoulders and climbed onto his stooped back. The spears and packs made holding her awkward, but she truly didn’t weigh much. He was glad to do this for her. “Comfy?” he asked.
“Yes.” She gasped when he straightened. “Don’t drop me.”
“I won’t drop you.”
He took a tentative step, testing his balance. Once he was sure of his footing, he strode up the hill toward the marker.
Scully hung on as if for dear life, arms clutching his neck, thighs locked around his ribs. He liked the way her panting breath tickled the upper ridge of his left ear, and he couldn’t help but notice the cushiony press of her breasts against his upper back.
“Doin’ okay?” he asked.
“I’m fine. How about you?”
“Hardly know you’re there.”
As light as she was, his thigh muscles were burning by the time he crested the top of the hill. His discomfort vanished, however, the moment he looked into the valley on the other side.
“My God.” Scully’s words puffed against his cheek.
Grassland covered a gentle downhill slope from where they stood to a vast blue lake at the bottom. The lake was shaped like an open hand and it sparkled in the bright afternoon sun. On its southwestern shore was a village of fifty or more domed shelters: tidy, peaceful, the grass already worn thin between the huts. Several cooking fires burned in the open spaces and Mulder could smell their smoke. He heard laughter, muted by distance; saw men, women and children, dozens of them, going about the business of life, cooking, washing, building more shelters, swimming in the lake.
He remained still, overwhelmed by the scene in front of him. He felt caught in a current of timelessness, like starlight that has traveled across the universe, only to arrive brand new in an already ancient place. Between heartbeats he felt as if he was living twenty thousand lifetimes. Space and time expanded beyond the scope of his vision, beyond his power of physical perception, beyond all human comprehension.
It was with both regret and wonderment that he realized this infinite moment was only the tiniest fraction of a whole.
“We made it,” Scully said, her voice thick with emotion. She slid from his back.
He helped to steady her once her feet touched the ground, all the while staring with unblinking awe at the community below...at their salvation.
* * *
Gini and Jeha waded into the lake, leaving behind the group of girls who were collecting snails along the pebbled beach. The two friends were after duck eggs, not snails. Each carried a basket they’d woven out of broad cattail leaves and lined with down. Gini had stuck a yellow bullhead-lily into hers for luck.
They hadn’t gone far when she spotted a nest. She splashed through head-high reeds, frightening the mother duck off her perch. While the duck squawked at her from the rushes, Gini emptied the nest, carefully placing four ivory-colored eggs into her basket.
Jeha was more interested in talking about boys than in collecting eggs. Standing knee deep in weeds and water, she idly swung her empty basket. “Moasi kissed me last night,” she said, her voice high-pitched with excitement.
Cool mud oozed up between Gini’s toes as she waded deeper. The sun beat down upon the crown of her head and heated her dark braids, while blossoming azaleas, waterlogged lilies and newly hatched pollywogs scented the air.
“What did it feel like?” she asked, not half as excited about boys or kisses as her older friend.
“Warm and...a little wet.”
Gini crinkled her nose in disgust. She took a few more steps, plowing through buckbean and stargrass. A cluster of glossy water beetles skated out of her way. “It was wet?”
Jeha giggled and then lowered her voice to a whisper. “He put his tongue in my mouth.”
“Yuck!” Gini’s shout flushed out another duck. It flew up over the lake, scolding the girls as it went. Gini turned to stare at her friend. “Why did he do that?”
Jeha shrugged. “I liked it.”
For Spirit’s sake, Gini thought, Jeha was becoming more foolish with every passing day. Why would anyone want a boy’s tongue in her mouth?
“Well, I am never going to let a boy do that to me,” she said. “I would rather suck on a rotten egg.” She spotted another nest hidden in the rushes a few paces away. It cradled five eggs. Curling her toes into the mud for firmer footing, she edged her way between the reeds to the nest.
“You will be singing a different song once you are Promised,” Jeha predicted.
“I am not going to be Promised. Ever. Klizzie said I did not have to.”
“Then why is your brother meeting with Chal this morning?”
“What?” Gini spun to face her friend, nearly dropping her basket of eggs. “Where did you hear that?”
“Ho-Ya told my mother at breakfast. Chal is with Dzeh right now. I saw them together myself before coming to fetch you.”
“Nooo!” Gini wailed. “You must be mistaken.”
“Gini, I saw them with my own eyes. Chal was sitting with Dzeh beneath the butternut tree at the edge of camp. They were making spear points or something.”
Gini felt bees begin to buzz in her stomach again.
Jeha waded past her, removed the eggs from the nest and added them to her own basket. “I think Chal is handsome, although not as good-looking as Moasi.”
Handsome? How could she think such a thing? Chal was a skinny, rude boy with hair like a porcupine. He wasn’t the least bit handsome. Gini was about to say so when she heard a shout from one of the girls on the beach.
“Gini! Jeha! Come quick!”
“What do you suppose is the matter?” Jeha asked.
“Let’s go see.” Gini led the way, splashing toward the shore.
When they reached the other girls, they found them gaping at Crouching Cat Mountain. “Look,” one of the girls said, pointing a finger at the mountain’s sloping meadow.
There, halfway down the hill, two hikers plodded steadily closer to camp. The man was dark-haired and tall. He carried two spears and a heavy pack. The woman was shorter, her head crowned with hair the color of fox fur. Both wore strange, foreign garments.
“Muhl-dar! Day-nuh!” Gini squealed. She dropped her basket and began to run to the newcomers, pushing her legs as fast as they would carry her.
* * *
“Muhl-dar! Muhl-dar!” Gini’s high-pitched shout carried halfway up the hill.
“That’s Gini,” Scully said, breathy with exertion and excitement.
Mulder shared her enthusiasm. They’d made it. They’d found the others. After more than two weeks of hiking and hunger, the end was in sight. He hadn’t expected to feel such a rush of overwhelming relief. He swallowed a lump in his throat as he watched little Gini run pell-mell toward him, braids flopping, her white smile evident even at this distance. A knot of children raced along after her, equally exuberant.
When Gini reached Mulder, she hurled herself into his outstretched arms.
“Muhl-dar! Muhl-dar!” she gasped, clinging to his neck with a fierce grip.
He let his spears fall to the ground to lift her off her feet. She wrapped her thin legs around his waist and hugged him hard. Chattering non-stop, she gulped for air even as she spoke. He patted her braids and waited for her to talk herself out.
It was a long wait; she evidently had a lot to say.
“I think she missed you,” Scully said.
Mulder peered into the happy child’s eyes and smiled. “I missed you, too.” His gladness at seeing Gini was prompted by more than relief, he realized. This young girl had wheedled her way into his heart. In many ways she reminded him of Sam, and her greeting felt like a homecoming.
The other children soon surrounded Mulder and Scully. Some hopped with excitement. Others hung back, not knowing what to make of these strangers. One girl gathered Mulder’s fallen spears and volunteered to carry them back to the camp.
“Fine, fine,” he told the child, guessing her intention. “Lead on.”
They started downhill together, high-spirited and noisy. One child ran ahead, presumably to notify the rest of the camp. Not that a messenger was necessary. The people in the village had already spotted the newcomers and were hiking out to greet them. Mulder spotted Klizzie among the crowd. She waved her arms and shrieked with delight when she recognized them.
Mulder held onto Gini, letting her ride his hip as they walked down into the valley. She beamed with pride, giggling and yammering as she tugged at his short whiskers and kissed his cheeks and nose.
At the bottom of the hill Klizzie greeted Scully with a warm embrace, tears flooding her eyes. Mulder noticed Scully had tears in her eyes, too, and it put the lump back in his throat to see her so happy. The two women held each other for several long minutes while the crowd of curious onlookers grew.
When Klizzie finally broke away, she turned to face Mulder.
Mulder set Gini on the ground. He wanted to thank Klizzie properly for all the stone markers she’d left along the trail; he and Scully never would have made it without her help. Unable to express his gratitude in words due to the lack of common language, he leaned down to embrace her and accept her gentle kiss on his cheek.
“Thank you, Klizzie,” he whispered into her ear, hoping she would understand the depth of his appreciation from the heartfelt tone of his voice.
Over Klizzie’s shoulder, Mulder saw Dzeh and a group of men approaching at a trot from the camp. They bristled with weapons and Mulder was unsure how to interpret their spears and knives.
But he needn’t have worried. Dzeh stepped forward to welcome him with a broad smile. He displayed his wristwatch and pointed with pride at the bear claw necklace around Mulder’s neck.
Mulder caught himself reaching out to clasp the other man’s hand -- a 20th Century habit, unrecognized here in the Ice Age. Apparently a whack on the back was the accepted form of greeting. Dzeh thumped Mulder repeatedly, jarring him with unexpected force, using every ounce of strength in his muscular arms.
In an effort to divert his enthusiasm, Mulder pointed to the spears and asked, “What’s all this?”
Dzeh launched into a long explanation, not a word of which Mulder understood. Meanwhile, the women were circling around Scully. They clucked their tongues in a sympathetic manner as they pointed from her injured ankle to one of the village huts.
The men’s conversation became more animated. They closed in on Mulder, separating him from Scully as she was led away by the women.
“Scully?” he called to her, looking over the men’s shoulders.
“I’m okay, Mulder,” she yelled back. “I’ll catch up with you later.”
Gini was the only girl to remain behind with Mulder and the men.
“A-woh-tso.” The men repeated the word several times while they thrust their spears at some unknown imaginary prey. They tugged Mulder’s arms. Someone offered him a new spear.
“I’m not very good at charades, guys. Are you going hunting?”
“A-woh-tso,” Dzeh said again.
Mulder leaned down to whisper into Gini’s ear, “What’s a-woh-tso?”
She giggled and then held her fists at the sides of her mouth and pointed her stubby index fingers straight out. “A-woh-tso,” she repeated.
Ahhh. A-woh-tso. Mastodon.
The men were going on a mastodon hunt.
Dzeh clapped Mulder on the back and smiled. That’s when it hit him. He was going on the mastodon hunt, too.
* * *
Twelve clansmen, armed with stout spears and stone knives, jogged silently through a forest of alder and waist-high buckthorn. They headed northeast along an almost imperceptible deer trail that circled Turkey Lake. Mulder ran with them, gripping a spear in his left hand, leaving his right free to draw his gun if need be.
The hour was late, the sun low in the sky. Horizontal fingers of misty light pierced the forest, painting the leaves gold while camouflaging the men with leaf-shaped shadows. The scent of chokecherries and damp earth flooded Mulder’s nostrils as he ran. He tried to guess how the men intended to capture and kill their prey -- a-woh-tso, mastodon. A surprise attack, most likely, concealing themselves in the half-light of dusk in order to ambush the unsuspecting animals.
It seemed impossible that a dozen men armed only with spears and stone knives could bring down a beast the size of a dump truck. But clearly they’d done it before, many times; their shelters, constructed of mastodon bone and skin, were proof of their skill and daring.
The men’s nakedness made them appear alarmingly vulnerable in this wild landscape. Bare-chested and barelegged, the hunters wore only loincloths. Dzeh had insisted Mulder change out of his jacket and jeans and dress in a loincloth, too, before leaving the camp. The stern clansman had plucked at Mulder’s sweaty 20th Century clothes and held his nose. Mulder took the hint. The garments’ strong odor would alert their prey and spoil the hunt.
Dzeh had also argued against Mulder wearing his boots, pantomiming heavy footfalls, clapping his hands loudly with each exaggerated step. Mulder refused to leave them behind, however, noise be damned. His feet weren’t callused enough to go barefoot, even after so many days of hiking.
Mulder quickly changed out of his smelly clothes. He was hungry -- hollow to the bone hungry -- and he knew Scully was, too. The sloth had been their last decent meal and that had been days ago. He was willing to do whatever it took to fill his and Scully’s empty stomachs. He had no intention of freeloading; he would pull his weight, even if it meant coming face-to-face with a ferocious, long-toothed, eight-ton behemoth.
Finding Scully before he left, he handed off his dirty laundry and kissed her on the cheek. “Back in a jiff,” he promised.
“Be careful, Mulder.”
“Hey, it’s me,” he said, using his “What could go wrong?” tone of voice. He left her with the Klizzie and the other women, and hurried off after the hunters who were already trotting single file toward the woods.
About a mile from camp, the trail opened into a clearing. The lead runner -- a muscular, older man with long, gray, corkscrewing hair -- slowed to a stop. He held up a hand that looked big enough to palm a basketball. The other men stopped, too, lifting their noses into the air, cocking their ears. Mulder also listened, trying to hear what they heard: bird calls, the scramble of small woodland creatures, the men’s quiet breathing.
They were standing in a corridor of felled trees. It reminded Mulder of the logging roads in Washington State’s Olympic National Forest, only the trees here had been broken, not cut by chainsaws. The throughway emerged from a narrow gorge between two rocky hills to the east. It continued west, downhill to the lake about a hundred yards away. Mulder faced the setting sun and glimpsed the last rays of daylight reflecting off the water. He guessed the route was a regularly traveled thoroughfare for the mastodons, a passage through the mountains to the lake. Evidently, the hunters expected to meet the animals during last call at the local watering hole.
That’s when he felt it, an almost imperceptible trembling beneath his feet. The men grinned, nodded, and exchanged rapid hand signals.
The older man with the basketball hands stooped to gather something from the ground. Mulder recognized this man; he’d seen him at the last camp, along with Dzeh and two or three of the other hunters. His name was Lan or Lon or Lin. Whichever, he was smearing his chest and arms with mud.
Once covered, he became almost invisible in the waning light.
Dzeh and the others, including the nervous boy with a Mohawk haircut who had shadowed Dzeh the entire way from camp, moved forward to join Basketball Hands. They took turns scooping up handfuls of mud and rubbing it on themselves and each other, effectively camouflaging their bronze skin -- arms, legs, faces, torsos, front and back.
Dzeh beckoned Mulder with a wave and offered him a handful.
Mulder moved closer and allowed the other man to coat his back and shoulders with the chilly goop.
Jesus, the stuff smelled terrible. It reeked of...
Shit. It was mastodon dung. The men weren’t camouflaging their skin; they were disguising their odor.
Dzeh daubed Mulder’s face and hair and then pointed to the pile, indicating Mulder should dig in.
Face wrinkled in disgust, Mulder knelt and plowed his fingers into the heap. He scooped up a generous portion. The men grinned as he held his breath and slathered his chest and thighs with it.
Lan/Lon/Lin used more hand signals to divide the men into two groups. A barrel-chested man with a spiky tattoo and a haircut similar to the boy’s led one group across the corridor. They moved quickly, silently, while the second group, which included Mulder, remained on the near side, spreading out and taking positions behind trees and shrubs.
Dzeh crouched beneath an evergreen, down-slope to Mulder’s left. The boy hid in a patch of tall ferns upland to his right. Mulder squatted behind a toppled tree, which had a trunk as big around as a tanker truck.
Then the men waited. The sun sank below the horizon and the forest fell into shadow. Mosquitoes whined in Mulder’s ears, but didn’t bite, put off by the drying layer of dung on his skin. Somewhere behind them, an owl hooted from the upper branches of a distant tree.
Suddenly the mastodons were there. A large herd, moving single file through the corridor. Despite their size, they traveled in near-silence, the soft huff-puff of their feet on the trail the only sound they made as they glided toward the lake like ghostly battleships. Mulder had expected thunderous footsteps, snapping trees, crashing branches -- not this eerie quiet. He watched in wonder, crouched in his hiding place, as the first mastodon passed by, enormous and gray and nearly invisible in the twilight. Its ivory tusks glowed like twin specters, eight feet long and as thick as a man’s arm. They pointed straight ahead, parallel to the ground, and appeared to float, unconnected to anything. The sight numbed Mulder’s limbs, set his heart hammering. He clamped his jaws together to keep his teeth from chattering, giving away his position.
A second animal passed. Then a third. Mulder wondered when the men would attack, tried to guess their strategy while he silently cursed his ignorance of their language and their ways. Dzeh remained rooted to his spot to Mulder’s left, hunkered down, eyes trained on his prey. Mulder could just make out Dzeh’s hands positioning the shaft of his spear into a strange foot-long handle. Mulder had no idea what this tool was used for. He gripped his own spear more tightly and continued to wait.
At least a dozen mastodons plodded toward the lake. Several babies trotted by, too, just as silently as their mothers. More adults followed the youngsters. When the last animal had passed, the clansmen simultaneously rose from their positions. No one called out or gave any signal; the hunters knew from experience what to do, when to attack. A half step behind them, Mulder rose to his feet and sprinted after the others.
The men didn’t speak or shout. They moved as stealthily as their quarry, forming a U-shaped line behind the herd, closing in as they drew nearer to the lake. They were twelve small men tiptoeing on the heels of hulking shadows and the mastodons seemed completely unaware of their presence.
Mulder tried to anticipate what would happen next. Glancing left and right, he noticed all the men had attached the strange foot-long handles to the ends of their spears, just as Dzeh had. The handles folded back on the shafts, which were held shoulder high, parallel to the ground.
Many of the mastodons were already in the lake when Mulder heard the first faint whistle of a spear sailing through the air. It was followed by the wet slap of its point penetrating a hide. The struck animal roared. The noise was horrible; a screech like train brakes, followed by the huff of panicked lungs.
The herd instantly became an earth-shaking stampede and the night exploded with sound...whooping shouts from the hunters...cries of alarm from the mastodons...noisy splashes of water as the animals plowed into the lake to escape the danger behind them. Several thundered into the woods, cracking into trees, splintering branches.
The men ignored the runaways to pursue the one wounded animal. Four hunters let spears fly in quick succession, aiming at the beast’s heart. Mulder could now see the advantage of the strange handles the men had attached to their spears. These devices added leverage and distance, hurtling the lances 200 feet with impressive accuracy. Each weapon sank a foot or more into the mastodon’s flesh, an impossible depth if thrown without the handle.
The men closed in on the injured mastodon. Two more spears found their mark. Still on its feet, the beast squealed each time it was hit. It tried to shake the spears loose, but they remained deeply imbedded in its side. Mulder was now close enough to see inky streams of blood leaking from its wounds. The animal tossed its head in anger and fear. It trumpeted again. Abandoned by the herd, it turned to defend itself.
Mulder had faced monsters before, but nothing chilled him like the fury he saw in this beast’s bulging eyes. When the enraged mastodon prepared to charge, Mulder’s senses left him. His arms hung like dead weights at his sides. His ears became deaf to the commotion around him. Time slowed to an immeasurable crawl and he felt as if he were watching events unfold through the wrong end of a telescope.
The mastodon lowered its head and laid back its ears. It pawed the ground and aimed its tusks upland toward the mountains.
Then it was galloping uphill. Nearly a dozen spears bristled like picadors’ lances from its blood-streaked sides, jouncing with each tremendous stride. The hunters scrambled out of its path, their mouths opening as if to scream. Mulder heard none of their cries in his now silent, slow motion world. He turned to look uphill where he saw the boy with the Mohawk haircut standing in the middle of the path. The boy watched, frozen in place, as the mastodon came straight for him.
Mulder drew his gun. Relying on a decade of training and practice, he raised his arms, aimed his weapon, and waited...waited...waited for the charging mastodon to pass him broad side. He seemed to know instinctively that a shot to the animal’s impenetrable skull would prove useless. He needed to make a well-placed shot to the heart or lungs. When the moment came and the mastodon passed within five feet of his outstretched arms, Mulder pumped the trigger and let every single bullet fly, hoping like hell to hit something vital. Each shot penetrated the animal’s hide, smacking a puff of dust from its fur. The mastodon continued to rage forward toward the frightened boy. The boy closed his eyes. Mulder felt his stomach pitch. He still squeezed the trigger, deaf to the click of the gun’s empty clip.
Please, please, please, he prayed...
Abruptly the mastodon faltered, stumbled, went down on its front knees. Its forward momentum carried it skidding uphill. Its gargantuan tusks dug into the ground like plow blades, furrowing the earth and sending debris flying into the air. Amid an explosion of dust and pine needles, the giant beast lurched to a stop right at the boy’s feet.
The boy’s lance dropped from his hand and he collapsed to his haunches.
Mulder had spent every round but managed to save the boy’s life.
Mulder’s hearing returned when the hunters surrounded him. They clapped him on the back and shoulders. Their laughter ricocheted off the trees as they whooped with relief. Impressed by Mulder’s gun, they took turns touching it, pulling back with startled surprise when they felt the warmth of its barrel. “Pow, pow,” they shouted again and again, mimicking Mulder’s stiff-armed stance. He let them pass the gun around. Without bullets it was no longer a danger. One after the next, the men took a turn pointing it at the motionless mastodon.
Dzeh seemed particularly pleased by the shooting. His eyes shone with pride as he strutted back and forth between Mulder and the boy. He nodded repeatedly at his wristwatch, reminding everyone of his partnership with Mulder.
The boy was beginning to regain his color. Two men helped him to his feet. They pounded his shoulders, too. Buoyed by their praise, the youngster retrieved his fallen spear. He walked on shaky legs around the corpse. “Ut-zah!” he yelled at it, and then thrust the spear into the animal’s side.
“Ut-zah-ha-dez-bin!” the men replied. They repeated the phrase again and again. Dzeh encouraged Mulder to say the strange words, too.
With his tongue twisting around the unfamiliar language, Mulder tried his best to repeat, “Ut-zah-ha-dez-bin!”
This caused more laughter and more cheers.
Finally, the man with basketball hands cleared his throat, silencing the others. He gave a short speech. The men nodded, faces solemn but eyes lit with satisfaction. When the impromptu meeting was finished, a messenger was dispatched to the village to tell the clans the good news.
Then the hunters fell upon the carcass and, using their spears as carving knives, they began to butcher the meat.
Mulder watched in awe as the men sliced open the mastodon with quick precision. It reminded him of Scully with scalpel in hand, poised over a body on her autopsy table. Like her, the men seemed to follow a predetermined approach. In only minutes, they had peeled back the skin to serve as a tarp, keeping the meat clean as they piled it in chunks.
Spirits ran high as they gutted the carcass. Several men climbed completely inside it to carve out the organs, while others worked to remove large sections of fat. The men in the belly yelled up to those outside to be careful whenever a spear gouged too deeply and poked straight through, threatening their safety. The smell was godawful, but Mulder lent a hand. He borrowed Dzeh’s knife because he wasn’t able to get the hang of cutting with his spear the way the other men did.
Mulder admired the skill of these men, their bravery and their commitment to their families. He felt honored to be included in their close-knit group. As a man who usually eschewed teamwork -- at least off the ball court -- he found himself shedding his customary independence. For perhaps the first time in his life, Fox Mulder felt as if he fit in. Up to his elbows in blood and entrails, he realized with pleasant surprise that he felt genuinely happy.
* * *
Klizzie combed and braided Day-nuh’s hair into cornrows while the injured woman sipped a bowl of medicinal tea concocted by the Shaman to alleviate the pain in her swollen ankle.
“You are lucky it was only a sprain,” Klizzie said as she began a new braid. She was also lucky the Shaman knew how to make strong tea.
Day-nuh sat perfectly still, propped on furs, naked beneath a wolf-skin blanket, while Klizzie knelt behind her and worked on her hair. The tea was obviously beginning to take effect; Day-nuh’s head lolled sleepily and she hummed in a quiet, tuneless way. She was freshly shampooed and bathed, and she’d eaten, too, thanks to Klizzie, who had prepared a hearty meal before taking her to the lake to wash. While Day-nuh bathed, Klizzie returned to camp to arrange a shelter for her. Of course, tonight, Dzeh, not Muhl-dar, would share this hearth with the fox-haired woman. As was customary, the Trading Partners would seal their partnership by exchanging mates. Klizzie planned to take her own bath as soon as she finished getting Day-nuh ready. She wanted to be clean and presentable when Dzeh’s new partner came to her bed. It was important that she impress and please Muhl-dar, to help build a lasting bond between the men.
After tonight, the four of them would be like kin. Muhl-dar and Day-nuh would be accepted and welcomed as permanent members of Owl Clan.
“Klizzie...?” Day-nuh murmured, and then her question wandered off like a lost calf.
“What is it, Sister?” Klizzie asked, using the honorary title prematurely. She didn’t think it would do any harm; after all, she and Day-nuh would be true sisters in the eyes of the Clan after tonight.
Patiently waiting for the fox-haired woman to say more, Klizzie tied off the braid she was working on with a row of beads: one of white bone, two blue stones and then a bangle of mother-of-pearl. The pearl sparkled whenever Day-nuh laughed, which was more frequently now that she was on her second bowl of tea.
Klizzie eased the near-empty bowl from her limp hand and set it aside. “I think you have had enough,” she whispered.
She continued to plait Day-nuh’s pretty, red hair, weaving in additional beads, along with strands of fresh sweetgrass. Dzeh would be pleased to see her decorated in the Owl Clan fashion. It would make her appear less strange. It would also make him proud that his mate loved him enough to help prepare her for this night.
Klizzie’s heart filled with happiness at the thought of pleasing Dzeh. He was an honorable man and a fine mate. Generous, patient and tender. He listened when she gave voice to the ideas that were inside her. He provided her with a loving home. Some women were not so lucky.
“There, that is done,” she announced, finished with the braids. “Now I will oil your skin so you will feel soft and smell sweet.”
Day-nuh nodded in sleepy agreement before closing her eyes.
Klizzie put away her extra beads, tucking them into the soft, fringed pouch she used for storing them. Then she stirred the fire in the small hearth beside the sleeping skins, adding another stick of wood. The hut was pleasantly warm. It wasn’t a large hut, like the ones used by families with many children and cousins and aunts and uncles, but it was tall enough for a woman to stand up in. And it had plenty of room for sleeping skins and storage, too.
Earlier she had brought Day-nuh and Muhl-dar’s packs here and set them to one side. She also added some additional items she thought they could use, such as fresh drinking water, a change of clothes, and more soap root. To be honest, she hoped the soap would encourage them to bathe more often. She wondered if it was the custom of Eel Clan to wait so long between washings.
Well, at least she had gotten Day-nuh clean for tonight’s exchange. And if the men were successful on their hunt, then they would bathe later, too, to wash off the blood and dung. She had no worry that Muhl-dar would come to her bed smelling bad.
Klizzie gathered the perfumed oil and held it briefly beneath Day-nuh’s nose.
The sleepy woman barely opened her eyes.
“Mmm,” she hummed. “S’good.”
Klizzie chuckled, glad to see she was feeling comfortable. Her swollen ankle looked painful. After her bath, Klizzie had wrapped it with the softest strip of deerskin she could find. Then she propped the injured leg on a pile of folded furs to help prevent more swelling and bruising.
“You will like this,” Klizzie promised. She rubbed a bit of the oil between her palms, then positioned herself behind Day-nuh and began massaging her bare shoulders.
“Mmmmm. That’s nice.” Day-nuh’s chin dropped to her chest.
Klizzie massaged her ivory white skin, working down her arms to her hands. She rubbed her elbows, her wrists, and each finger, then moved on to her chest, where she used circular strokes to smooth oil onto her breasts and belly. Pausing to inspect the fearsome scar at her navel, she wondered what could have caused such a wound.
Day-nuh giggled when she tried to oil her ribs.
“You are ticklish?” Klizzie asked as she repositioned herself to rub the other woman’s legs. She lifted the blanket off. “You have very pretty feet,” she said, when she began to stroke Day-nuh’s toes. “They are so soft!”
Her own feet were thickly callused from going barefoot. Day-nuh’s feet felt as if she walked on clouds all day.
Klizzie avoided the injured ankle, kneading the stiff muscles of her calves and thighs instead, astonished by the number of tan speckles that dotted her pale skin. They were more numerous than stars in the sky.
“We are done, Sister,” she said at last, and set aside the oil. She gently patted the woman’s cheek to wake her.
Day-nuh seemed to rouse a little. “Klizzie...” She took her hand and gave it a squeeze. “Thank you.”
“Tahnk-ew.” Klizzie remembered hearing this word before, back at Toh-ta Lodge. She didn’t know what it meant, but Day-nuh seemed sincere and appreciative. “Oh, I almost forgot,” she said, remembering the necklace she had brought for Day-nuh to wear tonight. She scrounged through her pack and pulled out a beautiful carved amulet that hung from a soft deer-hide cord. “This will bring happiness and luck,” she said, slipping the necklace over the other woman’s head.
Day-nuh fingered the carving -- a small red fox.
Klizzie had chosen it because the color of the stone matched Day-nuh’s hair exactly.
“It’s beautiful,” Day-nuh murmured. Then her eyes brightened. She held up a finger. “I have something for you, too.”
The words came out in a jumble, meaning nothing to Klizzie, but she waited while Day-nuh retrieved her Eel cloak and searched through its marvelous pockets. She withdrew a silver cylinder, smoother and shinier than any water-polished stone, and held it up for Klizzie to see.
“What is it?” she asked, impressed by the pretty thing.
Day-nuh smiled and separated the cylinder into two halves. Then she twisted the bottom of one half until a blood red finger poked up from inside. Klizzie wasn’t sure what to make of it. Whose finger was it and why would anyone keep such a ghastly thing?
She was even more shocked when Day-nuh pressed the bleeding finger to her lips. Was she going to eat it?
Oh! It stained her lips red! Klizzie leaned closer. The thing was not a finger after all; it was paint!
“May I?” Day-nuh asked, pointing the paint stick at Klizzie’s lips.
Klizzie nodded and let the other woman color her lips. When Day-nuh was satisfied, smoothing the paint with her finger, she searched her pocket again, and this time she pulled out a container that looked like a small tortoiseshell. She opened the little shell and inside was a smooth, shiny surface that reflected the firelight the way a pond reflects the sun. She held it up to Klizzie’s face.
Oh, Great Spirits! It was her own face! She recognized her eyes and mouth from seeing them reflected in the lake water. But never had she seen herself so clearly as this!
“May I hold it?” she asked. She reached for the shiny tortoiseshell to indicate she wanted a closer look. Day-nuh smiled and handed it to her.
Klizzie could not stop staring at her own dark eyes, fringed with long, straight lashes...and her smooth nose, a little curved and somewhat flat...and her lips! Blood red with Day-nuh’s paint. She smiled, only to be stunned by the whiteness of her teeth and the two crescent-shaped dimples that dented her cheeks.
She might never have stopped looking at herself if not for the strange popping noise that suddenly echoed up from the lake.
Worry glittered in Day-nuh’s eyes. She tried to stand. “Gun shots. Mulder--”
“Sit, Sister, please. You will hurt yourself.” Klizzie indicated her bound ankle. “I will see what is the matter.”
“But I have to--” Day-nuh blinked dizzily and fell back against the furs.
“Remain here. I will bring back any news.”
Day-nuh closed her tired eyes, succumbing to the effects of the tea. Klizzie returned the tortoiseshell container to her, thanked her and apologized for leaving so quickly. She gave Day-nuh’s cheek a quick kiss before grabbing her things and rising to her feet.
“Klizzie, wait...” The words stretched out in a long, drowsy fashion. For a moment the exhausted woman seemed to forget what it was she intended to say. Then she held out the paint stick. “This is for you.”
Klizzie gave her a questioning look.
“I want you to have it,” she said, and held the paint stick a little higher.
Klizzie took it. Impressed by the other woman’s generosity, she leaned down to kiss her again before hurrying from the shelter.
Out in the village’s common area she found a group of concerned men and women looking toward the lake, discussing the odd popping noise in uneasy voices.
“It came from the direction of the hunt,” one man said, pointing northeast.
“What could make such a noise?”
Speculation was cut short when the excited cry of a messenger resounded from the nearby woods.
“We killed a mastodon!” he yelled. “We killed a mastodon -- there will be a feast tonight!”
* * *
The Men’s Prayer Lodge was the largest structure in the camp. Oblong in shape, it had a single door, which faced west to catch the last light of the setting sun. The broad, domed roof was constructed of animal hides, sewn together with sinew. The roof was supported by shoulder-high walls built of mastodon skulls, which had been stacked one atop another, fitted together like spooning lovers. Tusks and slender saplings provided additional height, making the interior space tall enough for a man to stand upright with his arms raised.
In the center of the lodge was a large fire-pit, which offered light and warmth, as well as a spit for roasting meat. An open area around the fire was used for speeches, dances, prayers and storytelling. Furs lined the floor along the room’s perimeter, providing comfortable seating. Thirty men could sit in the lodge with room to spare. Fifty became a tight fit. Tonight, more than eighty men and boys crowded the lodge to hear the story of the mastodon hunt.
Because the lodge was oblong and not circular, some seats were preferred over others because they offered superior views of the speakers and the fire. Dzeh sat in one of these better spots, between his Uncle Lin and his Trading Partner Muhl-dar. A hearty meal of roasted mastodon had left him sated, and several draughts of wo-chi fogged his head in a most pleasant manner. A bite of raw heart fresh from the kill had inundated him with the Mastodon Spirit’s generosity.
As was custom, the men had let the women finish butchering the mastodon and transport its meat, hide, bones and organs back to camp, while the hunters cleaned themselves in the lake. After their bath, they dressed in fresh garments for Prayers of Thanks in the Lodge.
Influenced by the Mastodon Spirit’s generosity, Dzeh lent Muhl-dar his best buckskin tunic. After all, the newcomer had nothing clean to put on after his bath. Dzeh had a spare, and Muhl-dar was his Trading Partner now, so why not?
The tunic was a fine one, supple and soft, decorated with handsome quillwork and fringe. Klizzie had outdone herself making it. It fit comfortably and would last many seasons.
“Take it,” Dzeh had insisted, pressing the garment into Muhl-dar’s arms.
“No, no, no.” Muhl-dar shook his head and pushed back, making further objections in his own strange language.
Although Dzeh didn’t understand his words, he understood the his hesitation to accept the shirt. A gift was an obligation that required compensation at some point. Perhaps Muhl-dar felt unable to settle such a large debt. It was possible he was not as well off as Dzeh had first assumed.
Even so, he needed something to wear.
“This tunic is of little value,” Dzeh lied, attempting once more to give the garment away. “The hide is of inferior quality; the seams poorly sewn. Please, take it off my hands.”
Muhl-dar appeared reluctant and a bit embarrassed, but he was finally persuaded by Dzeh’s persistent arguments to take the tunic. Slipping it over his head, he emerged with a broad grin lighting his face. The shirt fit as if made for him.
Cleaned, dressed, and cheered by their successful hunt, the men gathered in the Prayer Lodge to celebrate. They recited all the official prayers and then settled in for a long night of storytelling and feasting. Regaling each other with tales of past exploits, they relived every hunt that remained outstanding in their memories. And they coaxed Muhl-dar into telling and retelling his version of tonight’s hunt at least six times over. It didn’t matter that they couldn’t understand his foreign words. The wild motions of his hands, the varied expressions of his face, and the inflection of his voice lent excitement to the tale. They gasped each time he leapt to his feet to pantomime the action. Again and again the hunters interrupted his rendition to add their own perspectives, filling in minute details for the benefit of those who had not been present.
While Muhl-dar pointed his gun, another man played the role of the mastodon. A third mimicked fear-stricken Chal, caught in the path of the raging beast.
“Whe-hus-dil...pow, pow, pow,” the hunters shouted, describing the noise of Muhl-dar’s weapon to those who had remained in the camp and heard it only from a distance. The hunters held their ears, rounded their eyes, laughed with relief when the man who was pretending to be the mastodon sank to his knees.
“Bih-din-ne-dey!” Lin exclaimed, and all the men cheered.
The story became grander with each telling. After the third or fourth performance, it became embellished beyond all recognition. But whenever Muhl-dar seemed reluctant to repeat his version of events, the elders plied him with more wo-chi. A sip or two more were enough to loosen his tongue and get him back on his feet.
Muhl-dar’s gun was passed around the circle many times while he reenacted his tale. Dzeh laughed heartily when Muhl-dar took on the role of each hunter, exaggerating each man’s heroism, fear, and shock. He laughed doubly hard at Muhl-dar’s impersonation of himself.
This was a fine night. Dzeh felt more at ease than he had in many days. Forgotten was his vision about Muhl-dar’s unlucky return. The arrival of his Trading Partner had turned out to be a good omen after all.
“Enough!” Muhl-dar announced. He collapsed onto his haunches beside Dzeh and refused to get up again. “Enough, enough.” He held up his hands in protest.
“Eee-nuff!” Dzeh bellowed good-naturedly, causing the men to laugh and repeat the word.
The men’s moods remained high throughout the evening. Exhausted of tales about their hunting prowess, they now exchanged ribald jokes, some at Muhl-dar’s expense, as they passed around more roasted meat and more wo-chi.
“Do Eel Clan men ‘pow, pow, pow’ when they make love to their mates?” someone asked, triggering an uproar of laughter. Similar questions followed -- questions that would be unseemly anywhere but here. Muhl-dar took their ribbing in stride. He clearly understood some of what they said because he joined in their hilarity, insinuating that Eel Clan men were endowed like stallions and made explosive noises whenever they ejaculated.
This brought up an important matter, Dzeh realized.
“Eee-nuff. Beh-gha,” he said, his tone suddenly serious. He clamped a hand on Muhl-dar’s arm to draw him close. This conversation was between Trading Partners, not for the general assembly.
“Beh-gha?” Muhl-dar repeated the strange word. “Beh-gha means enough?”
“Yes, yes! That is right. Beh-gha. Eee-nuff.” Dzeh said. He leaned toward his partner’s ear and lowered his voice. “We must discuss tonight’s arrangements.”
Muhl-dar shook his head, not understanding.
Dzeh tried again. “Klizzie has prepared the shelters.” Using hand signals, Dzeh made the signs for “shelter” and “two.” “I will take you to yours. You will lay there with Klizzie on the sleeping skins. I will go to Day-nuh and lay with her. You know how it goes.” He smiled and Muhl-dar smiled back, nodding his head as if he understood every word. “Tomorrow we will officially be Partners. Hozo-go nay-yeltay to. May we live in peace hereafter.” He clapped Muhl-dar on the back.
“Hozo...?” Muhl-dar stammered, his grin fading a little.
“Hozo-go nay-yeltay to.”
“Hozo-go...uh...nay-yeltay to?” Muhl-dar’s tongue twisted around the unfamiliar words. His pronunciation was poor, but he managed to repeat the phrase fairly accurately.
“Yes, hozo-go nay-yeltay to.” Dzeh laughed, glad to get this formality out of the way.
* * *
“This the place?” Mulder asked, hooking a thumb at the domed shelter. He and Dzeh stood under the stars at the edge of the village. Fifty or more similar huts separated them from the lake.
Dzeh pointed and nodded, and then turned to go.
“Wait, wait,” Mulder said, staggering a little as he grabbed Dzeh’s arm. Dzeh steadied him and chuckled as Mulder unsuccessfully tried to shrug out of the borrowed buckskin tunic he wore. “Your shirt. I should give it back.”
Dzeh wagged his head and yammered something in a friendly tone. He slapped Mulder’s back a few times, pointed repeatedly at the buckskin shirt, tugged at Mulder’s disheveled hair and short beard. Between his good-natured gesticulations and his broad smile, he convinced Mulder to keep the tunic.
“*You*...” -- Mulder prodded Dzeh in the breastbone with a stiff index finger -- “are a real gen’rous guy, y’know that, Dzeh ol’ buddy? Nice of you t’gimme the shirtoffyerback.”
Nodding in agreement with everything Mulder said, Dzeh spun Mulder to face the hut’s entrance.
“Here? This place?” Mulder asked again, forgetting Dzeh’s previous instructions.
Dzeh gave him an affable shove. Then he turned and walked away on unsteady legs, and in no time, disappeared into the dark.
“Gen’rous guy,” Mulder repeated to no one in particular.
Bleary-eyed and a little dizzy, he tried to focus on the entrance to the hut. He reached for the flap of hide that served as the shelter’s door. He lifted it and considered shouting, “Hi, honey, I’m home!” but was distracted by the unusual numbness in his fingers. Couldn’t feel the flap...door...whatever. He grinned as he kneaded the supple material. Nope, couldn’t feel a damn thing. His hand might as well belong to someone else. HA!
He ducked his head to peer through the door. The hut’s interior was lit by the dim glow of the hearth. In the bed beside the dying fire was the rounded shape of Scully, sound asleep beneath the furs.
Awww, Scully. Sleeping Scully. His beautiful, beautiful Scully.
Hi, honey, I’m home.
Stepping across the threshold, Mulder walloped his forehead on a bone support. “Damn it!” He rubbed the sore spot. How was it possible to feel pain in his head and nothing at all in his fingertips?
Too late he realized he’d spoken out loud. “Shhhhhh,” he said, finger raised to his lips. He let the door-flap-thingy close behind him.
Taking a deep breath, he tried to steady himself enough to walk a straight line from the door to the bed without falling on his ass. Dzeh had helped him stay upright on the way over from the men’s lodge. Left to his own devices, however, he wasn’t sure he could make it across the room. He tried to gauge the distance. Hmm. Three steps? Four? Concentrating on his rubbery legs and unfeeling feet he attempted one crooked step toward Scully. Oops! He lurched to the left.
Arms held out to his sides, he managed to maintain his balance, but just barely. “If at first you don’t succeed...” His next step carried him forward, more or less. “Suck a lemon and you’ll ‘suck seed’!” The joke made him chuckle. It was an old joke, something his father used to say.
Scully stirred beneath the blankets.
“Shhhh,” Mulder said again. “Scully’s tryin’ t’sleep.”
Wow, he hadn’t felt this tipsy since...since...since never. He rarely drank, which was probably why the wo-chi had gone straight to his head.
Wo-chi. It was a strange word. Sounded like something you’d say to a baby. Wo-chi-wo-chi-wo-chi. Again, he laughed at his own joke.
Another deep breath. Concemtrate, consimptrate, constanrate...
Man, it smelled good in here! Like mint and...and...fabric softener -- those flowery-scented sheet-things you toss in the dryer, the spring-time fresh ones. Or was that toilet bowl cleaner?
Didn’t matter. In his fuzzy state of mind, everything seemed right with the world...if you discounted that little time travel booboo.
Aw hell, so what if he and Scully were a gazillion years from where they were supposed to be? They were safe. They had each other. Did anything else really matter?
After all, the Ice Age had lots of benefits over the 20th Century. No pollution, no nuclear weapons, no government conspiracies or alien invaders. “No, expense reports. HA!”
Beneath the covers, Scully shifted again. Just a twitch. Mulder clapped his hand over his mouth. Shhhhhh. “Didn’t mean t’say that ow’loud, Slully...umm...Scully,” he whispered from behind his hand.
He expected her to growl at him for making so much noise, but apparently she was down for the count -- probably exhausted from their hike and the late hour and her injured ankle.
Poor Slully. Scully. She sluffered in slilence...shlit! Suffered in silence. Well, most of the time anyway. Not that she didn’t have good reason to compain...complain.
Better get undressed, he decided. He wasn’t thinking straight. And he loved Scully. And wooooo! That wo-chi had him feeling *good* -- like he had nothing but clouds for brains.
He shrugged out of Dzeh’s tunic and let it drop to the floor. That left him wearing only his loincloth and belt, and the belt held his holster and gun. Couldn’t sleep in that. He fumbled with the buckle. His unfeeling fingers had trouble with the clasp, but he managed to unfasten it on the third or fourth try. He let it fall to his feet, too, and the gun thudded loudly when it struck the dirt floor. “Shhhhhh,” he told it.
He took a tentative step. Then another. Uh-oh, he leaned too far to the right. Whoa! Gyrating to maintain his balance, he found himself at the edge of the bed. When he was satisfied he wasn’t going to tip over, he shucked his loincloth and tossed it in the general direction of the door.
Ready to take that one final step into bed, he glanced down at his feet. Oops. Still had his boots on.
The boots proved more difficult to remove than the tricky belt. He sat on his haunches and plucked at the laces. His fingers refused to close around the damn bows. After several unsuccessful attempts, he said, “Fuck it,” and left them on.
Lifting the fur blanket, he half-fell, half-rolled into bed. Scully stretched a little, but kept her back to him.
Scully, beautiful Scully. The woman who meant everything in the world to him. She lay on her side, facing away. He counted her breaths. One, two, thr--
“You smell pretty,” he whispered. She did! Like flowery fabric-softener sheets...or toilet bowl cleanser...whatever.
Burrowing beneath the blankets, he drove his nose into her neck and sniffed. Mmmmmm. Too bad his hands weren’t working the way they were supposed to. He wanted to touch her skin. Reaching for her anyway, he clumsily placed an unfeeling palm on the curve of her waist. Warm. Bare. He could tell that much, at least. Intending to stroke her ass, he found himself cupping her breast instead. He squeezed. She stiffened.
“You were expecting someone el--”
Ummm...that didn’t sound quite like Scully. He lifted his head to peer at the woman beside him only to find Klizzie was staring back at him over her bare shoulder. Shit! He was in the wrong hut. The wrong bed. His hand was on the wrong breast! He released his hold and scrambled backward, out from under the covers.
“I’m...oh, jees...I’m sorry, Klizzie...I didn’t...I musta...this was an honest mistake...I’m really--”
He yanked the blanket off the bed into his lap, covering himself and uncovering her. Now *she* was naked. And she didn’t seem the least bit concerned.
“Muhl-dar?” She sat up.
“Yeah?” he asked, trying to sound casual.
She smiled. A brilliant, come-hither, turn-a-guy’s-legs-to-jelly smile. Then she crawled toward him, and, oh God, her breasts bounced in the most delightful way.
“Pinch me?” he squeaked, hoping he was asleep or at the very least unconscious.
She reached toward him and he thought maybe she was going to pinch him. But instead she tugged at the blanket covering his lap. He hung onto it.
“Huc-quo,” she said, still smiling her man-eating grin. “Klizzie nih-tsa-goh-al-neh be-zonz. Klizzie, Muhl-dar, de-ji-kash. Be-zonz yeh-zihn. Lanh?”
She tilted her head in the cutest way and licked her lips. Her hand crept up his bare leg...knee...thigh. He wasn’t entirely sure, but he thought she might be wearing lipstick and it looked a lot like Scully’s shade. Was that possible?
Snaking her warm, little hand beneath his blanket, she groped his lap. When her fingers found his penis, she gave him a squeeze.
“No! Klizzie... Don’t.” He backed away.
Her happy smile disintegrated as her eyes blinked in surprise. Biting her lip, she now appeared nervous.
“De-ji-kash.” She beckoned him into the bed with a wave of her trembling hand. “Klizzie yah-a-da-hal-yon-ih Muhl-dar. Day-nuh yah-a-da-hal-yon-ih Dzeh.”
Day-nuh? And Dzeh? The fog began to lift from his brain, leaving him feeling sober...almost.
“Where’s Scully?” he demanded. He grabbed Klizzie’s arm and gripped her hard. “Where’s Dana? Where is she?”
Klizzie tried to smile again, but failed. Her eyebrows peaked with worry. “Day-nuh, Dzeh, yah-tay-go-e-elah ta-bilh.”
He had no idea what she was saying, but it couldn’t be good if Dzeh and Scully’s names were spoken in the same breath.
Mulder rose unsteadily to his feet.
What the hell was going on here? Klizzie wasn’t acting like this was a simple mix-up. She was acting as if she’d been expecting him to show up in her bed tonight. Which could only mean Dzeh had purposely led him here, which could only mean he was intending to...
Son of a bitch. This was a deliberate swap. Mulder stumbled out of the shelter into the cool night, oblivious to his nudity.
He found himself facing dozens of identical huts. Jesus, which one was Scully in?
“Scully?” he called, becoming more frantic as a vision of Scully, naked in Dzeh’s arms, took shape in his head. He sprinted for the nearest hut. He would search every damn one if he had to. “Sculleee!”
* * *
Scully awoke to the steam of a sigh on the nape of her neck. Mmm. Mulder. He’d returned, safe and...
Aroused! His erection prodded the small of her back as he spooned against her.
He caressed her bare arm, and she responded by nestling deeper into his embrace. He smelled good, like soap root and lake water and...alcohol?
“Out partying late, Mulder?”
The entire camp had been in a celebratory mood after receiving the news of the successful mastodon hunt. There would be plenty to eat for days.
Mulder’s arm curled lovingly around her. She glanced at his watch. 3:52 a.m.
“Musta been some party,” she murmured, feeling content and sleepy. Her belly was full, her body clean. The tea the Shaman had given her earlier had stopped the awful throbbing in her ankle. She hadn’t felt this good in days.
Not since the night she and Mulder had made love in the cave.
Heat blossomed in her abdomen at the memory. She moaned when his fingers skated up her naked thigh to settle in her curls.
“You must be reading my mind,” she whispered.
He snuggled closer, pressing his hips into her buttocks, poking her spine with his rigid penis. He kissed her neck, her shoulder, his long beard tickling her--
Wait a minute... Long beard? It’d been a month since Mulder last shaved, but his whiskers weren’t *that* long.
And Mulder had traded his wristwatch to--
Scully lurched out of Dzeh’s embrace and turned to glower at him. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she demanded.
He remained where he was, grinning shyly and looking a bit bleary-eyed.
She yanked the fur blanket off him and covered herself with it.
“Wrong bed, mister. Get out.”
He reached for her again and she shoved his hand away.
“I said, get out!”
She scooted from the bed, beyond his reach. He chuckled and came after her. Grabbing her by the wrist, he pulled her back onto the furs.
“Let go of me, Dzeh. Let--”
His mouth covered hers, silencing her as he pressed her gently but firmly down onto the sleeping skins.
Continued in Chapter Eleven...
Special thanks to super betas Jean Helms and mimic117 for their excellent help with Chapter 10. These ladies are gems. I couldn't ask for better MastoBetas (hee hee, I love that term! Thank you, Inya.)
Thanks, too, to the Mastoholics for their continuous enthusiasm and encouragement. I particularly appreciated their patience and support when I left them hanging at the end of Chapter 9 to write a post ep. Thank you, gals. I love each and every one of you.
See The Mastodon Diaries Dictionary for an explanation of the paleo-indian terms and names.