Continued from Chapter Twelve
["The Mastodon Diaries" is rated NC-17 for Violence, Language, and Graphic Sexual Content. Reader discretion is advised.]
A fearsome storm was moving into the valley from the north. Purple-black clouds clotted the night sky and the frigid breath of angered Spirits gusted across Turkey Lake, buffeting the hide-covered shelters and raising gooseflesh on Dzeh’s arms.
Staring at the idol on the ground, he could not believe his eyes. The sacred statue, offered to Hare Spirit on Klizzie’s behalf, lay beside Muhl-dar’s outstretched hand. It had been intended as a gift to the gods, sanctified by prayers in Tsa-ond Cave. To see it in the newcomer’s possession turned his blood to ice.
Only a dishonorable, Spiritless man would dare steal a prayer offering and risk the wrath of the gods. Muhl-dar was clearly such a man; the proof was there on the ground for all to see. Dzeh wished he’d never agreed to become Trading Partners with this chindi from Eel Clan. He wished he had never set eyes on Muhl-dar.
Gasps arose from the onlookers when they realized what had spilled from the stranger’s odd cloak. Even those who were not from Owl Clan, those who hadn’t witnessed Dzeh’s heartfelt prayers to Hare Spirit, recognized the revered fertility symbol for what it was. To steal such an idol was sacrilege.
Dzeh looked into his fellow clansmen’s startled faces and saw his own disgust etched in their furrowed brows. Vengeance smoldered in their eyes as they waited to see how he would respond to this insult.
The punishment for stealing a spiritual offering was death, befitting the crime. Exiling the offender was not an option. Muhl-dar’s outrageous actions had proven him too untrustworthy to be released; if allowed his freedom, he might return to Tsa-ond Cave and defile it again. There was only one way to prevent another desecration...kill the offender.
Thunder rolled across Crouching Cat Mountain as rain began to fall in sleety drops, drumming the ground with a frenzied rhythm that matched the beat of Dzeh’s turbulent heart. The events of the day -- Klizzie’s betrayal and now Muhl-dar’s -- had razed his trust. His fingers trembled as he picked up the tiny idol. Squeezing it in his palm, he straightened his back and turned away from the stranger from Eel Clan.
“This man is no longer my Trading Partner,” he announced to the onlookers.
Lin and Wol-la-chee understood the importance of his proclamation and stepped forward to haul the stranger to his feet. Muhl-dar tried to shake them off, but they gripped his arms tightly, holding him captive. When Day-nuh tried to come to his aid, two men from Badger Clan moved in to block her way. She objected with a shout and tried to dodge around them, but they latched onto her arms and held her firmly in place.
“Sculleee!” Muhl-dar roared, trying to free himself.
Lin wrapped an arm around Muhl-dar’s throat, preventing him from going to her.
Gini ran to her brother and cried, “They’re hurting him! Please, stop them!”
He ignored her pleading. She was a child who didn’t understand the seriousness of the situation. Turning to face Lin and Wol-la-chee, he said, “Do what must be done.”
They pulled Muhl-dar away from the crowd and he protested with angry-sounding words. Day-nuh shouted again, too, in the foreign language that meant nothing to the clansmen.
“Nooo!” Gini screamed. She threw herself at her brother’s feet, bowing low out of respect and fear. “Please, please do not hurt him! I will do whatever you ask. I will take a mate and move away, if that is what you want. I am sorry I called you a chindi, honest I am. Please do not be angry any more. Do not hurt Muhl-dar and Day-nuh!”
Her supplication affected Dzeh more than he dared let on. He loved his little sister and felt like a brute for striking her earlier and disregarding her cries now. Yet he knew what was required of him as a clansman and as head of his own hearth. He was obliged to follow certain rules and the situation with Muhl-dar was intolerable. Dzeh had no choice but to order his execution. Gini might not understand it now, but someday, when she was grown, with a family of her own, she would recognize the reasoning behind his decision and the necessity of the Clan’s strict customs.
Looking again to Lin and Wol-la-chee, Dzeh said, “Take him to the ball field. Bind him to one of the goal posts...” The next words stuck in his throat like sharp fish bones. He swallowed, trying to wet his dry mouth and coax the necessary orders from his tongue. It was without pleasure that he finally said, “Stone him.”
As Muhl-dar was dragged away, Day-nuh’s shouts grew more frantic. Dzeh signaled the Badger clansmen to remove her, too. Gini shrieked and ran to help Day-nuh battle against her larger captors.
The two females were no match against the brawny men and Day-nuh was hauled to the Shaman’s hut.
Gini turned and faced Dzeh with balled fists. Tears streamed from her eyes. “I *hate* you!” she screamed. “I wish they would stone *you*!”
Lightning flashed in the distance. Two heartbeats later a rumble of thunder galloped down the mountainside like a stampede of panicked bison. Dzeh said nothing to his sister. Her words stung, even though he knew she didn’t truly mean what she said. It was with a heavy heart that he shouldered his way through the gawking crowd to follow his uncle and cousin and their struggling captive to the ball field.
The onlookers fell into step behind him. Impatient to punish the stranger for his wrongdoing, they became more agitated as they neared the field.
Muhl-dar continued to protest, elbowing his captors, shouting to Dzeh at the top of his lungs, “Stop this, Dzeh! Let Scully go! Dzeh...! Let her go, you fucking son-of-a-bitch!”
His words were meaningless, but his tone brought an unexpected pang of guilt. Dzeh felt the weight of Muhl-dar’s bracelet around his wrist and his thoughts flew to Klizzie. She had convinced him to accept this ornament, initiating the partnership. What would she say when she found out what was happening now? He looked over his shoulder, past the incensed mob, beyond the wind-battered huts and spitting bonfires, to where the mountain loomed pitch-black and empty on the western horizon.
Where was Klizzie?
The crowd surged forward. They grew more excited at each of Muhl-dar’s shouts and collected rocks as they marched toward the northernmost end of the ball field, arming themselves for the execution, their eyes glowing with fiery anticipation.
Dzeh did not share their enthusiasm. He walked with hunched shoulders, squinting against the sting of rain. The wind harangued him; he heard the Spirits’ rage in each icy blast. Was this the storm he had foreseen in his nightmare? Klizzie was missing, just as he had dreamt she would be. His heart was pounding in the same dreadful fashion. Would the mysterious female Spirit be arriving soon to take Muhl-dar away? Another roll of thunder rattled the dark hills. Dzeh glanced at the sky, expecting to see the fiery eyes of Snake Spirit staring back at him.
But no angry eyes gazed out of the swirl of clouds; only the rain, needle sharp against his upturned face, spewed from the purple-black sky.
Unlike his fellow clansmen, he didn’t stoop to gather stones as he walked. He clung to the carved idol while he pictured Klizzie, not Muhl-dar, being punished for her misdeeds, for mating with her cousin and then lying about it. The image of her lashed to the post while the Clan hurled stones at her set his arms shaking.
Dzeh had witnessed a stoning once. He had been a boy of just eight years at the time, the same age as little Gini, yet he could still remember the way the strangers cried pitifully for leniency and the sickening thud of stone hitting flesh and bone. The offenders had been two strangers who deserved their fate, caught stealing food from Owl Clan’s winter cache during a season when supplies were extremely scarce. Their deaths had been lingering and horribly painful.
The same would be true for Muhl-dar now, and for Klizzie, too...if he exposed her awful secret.
Up ahead Lin and Wol-la-chee stood beside the goal post with Muhl-dar held firmly between them.
Dzeh walked up to them. “Strip him of his clothes,” he ordered.
Two men from Badger Clan stepped forward, eager to help Lin and Wol-la-chee remove the stranger’s foreign garments. Muhl-dar became enraged when they laid their hands on him. He struggled with formidable strength as they wrestled him to the ground. Lin and Wol-la-chee pinned him in place while the others tugged at his clothes. They yanked his sleek, black cloak from his thrashing arms and tossed it aside. His heavy footwear and tight leggings were more difficult to remove; he kicked and bucked, but the men finally managed to take those off as well. They let the clothes lie in the mud while they stripped him of his inner garments.
When the stranger was naked the men positioned him in front of the post and forced him to sit. He continued to battle like a wounded bear until the men twisted his arms behind his back and lashed his wrists to the goal post with rawhide lacings.
Dzeh walked up to him and held out his left hand, palm up. Cradled in the well of his palm was the small idol. He showed it to Muhl-dar.
“A man shapes his own future,” he said. He let the figurine drop from his hand. It landed on the ground between his Muhl-dar’s bent legs. “Your misdeeds have determined yours.”
Muhl-dar ceased his struggling to stare down at the idol. Uncertainty crossed his face. He lifted worried eyes to meet Dzeh’s stare. Rain and mud slicked his naked body. The wind whipped his hair and raised gooseflesh on his arms and chest. “Where’s Scully?” he demanded, his voice sounding ragged and afraid.
Dzeh didn’t understand his words and interpreted them as a curse. Backing away, he told the others, “You may begin.”
The first stone clipped Muhl-dar’s left shoulder. His eyes darted from person to person; his breathing quickened. When the next stone flew at him, he ducked his head and drew his legs together, trying to protect his face and genitals. The second rock struck his right knee, splitting the skin and drawing blood. An anguished cry burst from his throat.
Dzeh closed his eyes, unable to watch, unwilling to join the others as they tossed more stones.
This will be Klizzie’s fate, he thought with revulsion, if I expose the truth.Muhl-dar howled again and Dzeh shivered at the sound. Spirits be damned, he did not want to lose Klizzie and he could not listen to her die this way. He would not reveal her secret, even if it meant angering the Spirits and bringing disaster to them all.
* * *
Klizzie knelt on a rocky outcropping at the top of Crouching Cat Mountain. Hands held flat atop her bare thighs, she turned her face to the sky. The bitter northerly wind rattled the beads in her hair. Closing her eyes against the prick of sleet, she began to pray to Owl Spirit for guidance.
“Owl Spirit, I hear your voice in the wind. Please, hear mine.” She reached for the small, doeskin pouch that hung from her neck. Grasping it in her right fist, she felt for the totems inside. She pictured the items in her mind: a brassy nodule of pyrite, a spotted snail shell, an owl feather, the razor-sharp tooth of a badger, a bit of mastodon bone, carved by Dzeh with the tiny smiling faces of their future children.
Her voice trembled, yet she spoke with conviction. “Owl Spirit, I seek your patience to help me remain calm in the face of what is coming. I seek your wisdom to learn the lessons of the world, hidden in every leaf and stone and drop of rain. I seek your strength to fight my greatest enemy -- myself.”
There was no doubt in Klizzie’s mind that she was to blame for her troubles. She had caused Dzeh’s anguish, invited her own punishment, and she wasn’t looking to give excuses for her misdeeds. Mating with a kinsman was an unpardonable sin, everyone knew it; she knew it, too, even at age fourteen. She could offer no justification for what she had done.
“Help me act with humility and purity. Prepare me so that I may come to you with clean hands and an honest heart, so that when my life ends, my spirit can fly without shame.”
Klizzie’s lies distressed her as much as her original wrongdoing. And now she was burdened with a new secret about Muhl-dar. Dzeh must be told of it, she knew, but her fear of his reaction held the truth prisoner in her lungs. She would need the power of Owl Spirit to help her release her unspoken truth.
The wind whistled over the rocky summit, pummeling her, tugging at her hair, howling past her ears. She braced against it. Determined to do what was right, she repeated her prayer, and was prepared to continue repeating it until she received divine guidance.
“Owl Spirit, I hear your voice in the wind. Please, hear mine.”
The sky released a torrent of chilling rain. Lightning sizzled in the east and was followed only moments later by a crack of thunder.“I seek your patience to help me remain calm in the face of what is coming toward me. I seek your wisdom to learn the lessons of the world, hidden in every leaf and stone and drop of rain...”
* * *
Mulder struggled against his bonds. The rawhide strips, painfully tight, bit into his wrists and cut off the flow of blood to his fingers. He shivered uncontrollably in the frigid downpour. His teeth chattered from cold and fear.
Blood streamed from a wound on his forehead and swamped his eyes. He tried to blink it away. The tribesmen flickered in and out of view, a blood-red blur of shifting legs, writhing arms, and gaping mouths. Their shouts reverberated in his ears, as if he sat at the bottom of a deep, black well.
Where had they taken her? Was Dzeh with her?
Twisting as far as his restraints would allow, he tried to locate her. Was she in the village behind him, lost in the deluge and dark? Where was Dzeh? Mulder’s panic escalated.
Find her, help her! his mind screamed.
More stones sailed at him. They struck him hard, one a direct hit to his chest, surprisingly painful, bruising his breastbone and forcing the air from his lungs.
Another quickly followed, hitting his jaw and knocking his teeth together. Blood spurted from his lip and the taste made his stomach roll.
The next stone slammed into his right cheekbone, just missing his eye. The impact hurt like hell. He tried to duck, but was held fast by the restraints. Being tied this way, helpless against his assailants, he was reminded of his recent confinement in Calumet Mercy Hospital, waiting for that awful insect creature...Pincus...to attack him in his bed. Scully had arrived in the nick of time. She’d saved him. But who would save him now? And who would save her if he died?
He had no doubt the tribesmen intended to kill him. Leaning forward as far as he could, he screamed at them, “Goddamn mother-fuckers! Let me go! Goddamn you!”
A bolt of lightning split the sky, illuminating the mob. Mulder used the brief flash to search again for Scully. He found nothing but outraged faces, upraised fists and more stones.
The world blackened in the bolt’s aftermath, seemingly darker than before. A luminescent image of the tribe floated like a ghostly chimera in his memory. Thunder shook the valley, setting the muscles in his legs quaking.
His dread soared when another stone careened into his neck, momentarily cutting off his breath. It was followed by a wallop to his shoulder. Then a glancing blow to his upraised shin.
Pleasestoppleasestoppleasestop, he chanted to himself.
Were they stoning Scully, too? Or was Dzeh raping her first?
“Nooooooooo!” he bellowed, inviting a hailstorm of stones. Another flash of lightning exposed his enemies, hideous brutes, mouths twisted with hate. Thunder vibrated the earth. “I’ll kill you! I’ll fucking kill you if you hurt her!”
A blow to his temple rocked his head backward and caused an explosion of light behind his eyes. It was followed immediately by a lightning strike so close he could smell its fiery ozone, feel its pull of static. His hair bristled; his skin tingled. Thunder cracked and the concussion hammered his chest. He thought he heard screams, saw feet running.
Gulping for air, swallowing blood and rain, he waited for the next stone...waited...waited...
Rain, only rain beat against his bruised, torn skin, so cold it numbed his pain.
He tried to shout, but managed only a whisper. “Scully...please, please...”
Then he thought he saw her walking toward him, silvery white in the dark. Her wet hair, flailing in the wind, appeared blood-red around her pale face. Even at this distance he could see she was crying. She held out her arms to him. Oh, God, how he wanted to bury himself in her embrace.
When she was only a step away, she knelt at his feet and stroked his swollen face. Her touch was a reprieve from the pain. Tender. Healing.
“Wh-where are they?” he asked, meaning the angry tribesmen.
The sound of her voice released fresh tears. He didn’t try to hold them back.
“I’m c-cold,” he told her through chattering teeth.
“I know,” she answered. Her words hummed like the wind.
Was it the wind?
Maybe she wasn’t really there.
Panting, shivering, he desperately wanted to reach out and touch her, to prove to himself that she was real, that this wasn’t a hallucination, but the restraints held him back, reminding him again of Calumet Hospital and Pincus.
Scully had believed him...saved him...
Behind her a shadow crossed the field, coming toward them. Was it Pincus? Shit, shit, shit. Mulder was trembling uncontrollably now. He hurt all over and he couldn’t see out of his swollen right eye. His lips felt numb, his wrists raw. He thought he saw Pincus’ red insect eyes.
Look out, Scully!
He mouthed the words, trying to warn her, but no sound came from his raw throat. Scully remained kneeling in front of him, silvery as a specter, her back to the threat. Tears glossed her sympathetic eyes.
The approaching shadow took form. Not Pincus. Not an insect creature with red eyes. It was a man.
Oh, Christ it was Dzeh. He was coming back. He was coming for her!
Dzeh strode with confidence through the rain, stopping when he stood directly behind her. He sneered at Mulder, then bent to kiss her shoulder. A chuckle rumbled deep in his chest, sounding like distant thunder. He dragged his lips from her shoulder to her neck.
Don’t trust him! Mulder wanted to shout but his breath was caught in his throat.
Scully held herself perfectly still, allowing Dzeh to kiss her. Only her teary eyes revealed her revulsion.
Get away from her! Leave her alone! Mulder struggled to free himself, hell-bent on stopping Dzeh. He couldn’t let him hurt her. Not again. He’d been a coward before. He’d let Scully down. Oh, God, if she knew the truth she’d leave him. Panic overtook him at the thought of losing her. He squeezed his eyes shut.
I’m sorry, Scully, he told her silently, sincerely. I’m so sorry...
When he opened his eyes again, she and Dzeh had vanished. Nothing but darkness remained.
Mulder swallowed another mouthful of blood and imagined he was drowning. He’d lost her. He’d lost Scully...and his heart was disintegrating beneath the crushing weight of his own guilt.
* * *
Scully sat on a bed of sleeping furs with her knees drawn up and her hands bound behind her back. She was being held captive in the medicine man’s hut. He sat opposite her on the far side of the hearth, alternately sipping tea and smoking a foot-long pipe. The herbs in his pipe put out a pungent odor. Or maybe it was his tea that smelled bad. Whichever, he appeared very relaxed. From the odd smile on his face she suspected his pharmacopoeia included mood altering substances.
Drying plants hung upside-down in bunches from the shelter’s rafters. The walls were lined with rows of tortoiseshell bowls that contained colorful powders and dark liquids. Several painted masks hung from a bone support toward the back of the hut. Two live hens preened in a reed cage near the door.
The medicine man was an elderly man, the oldest she’d seen in the camp, with snow-white hair and no beard. She wondered if he shaved it or if he simply didn’t grow hair on his face. Either way, his lack of whiskers emphasized the swirling, black tattoos that decorated his face. Curvilinear designs circled his eyes and striped his cheeks and chin, giving the impression of claw marks.
He wore a spotted cape, trimmed with shaggy fur like the mane of a horse. A green amulet carved into the likeness of a frog hung from his neck on a beaded cord. A large ivory fang dangled from his right ear, adding to his ferocious appearance.
For two hours he’d been watching her through half-closed eyes, saying nothing while she railed at him. She’d demanded to be released, called out repeatedly for Mulder and swore a blue streak.
“Where’s Mulder? Mul-der,” she shouted, her voice growing raspy. “I know you know what I’m asking. Where...is...Mulder?”
Was the tribe hurting him? Clearly they’d been angry about the carving, but how angry? Enough to kill him?
The medicine man remained silent, smoking his pipe and watching her with glittery, black eyes.
She struggled against her bonds, but the rawhide lacings were as tight as ever. She needed something to cut them. The medicine man was wearing a knife on his belt. If he fell asleep -- or passed out -- she might be able to get to it and cut her restraints without waking him.
A gust of wind shook the hut. Scully could hear rain beating against its hide roof. An occasional crack of thunder startled her with its intensity.
“Is Mulder out in that? He better be alive, you son-of-a-bitch.”
She had to believe he was. The alternative was too dreadful to bear.
The medicine man held up his small drinking bowl, offering her tea.
Would he untie her if she agreed to drink some?
Better not take the chance, she thought. The tea might contain herbs that would make her sleepy. Or worse, he might be trying to poison her.
“No thanks,” she said, shaking her head.
He shrugged and prepared another bowl for himself. After settling cross-legged on his bed, he sipped his drink and continued to watch her.
The storm was growing more intense. Thunder vibrated the ground and the medicine man paused mid-sip to gaze skyward. His herbs swayed from the quaking rafters.
The next hour passed with excruciating slowness. The medicine man finally dozed off. As soon as his eyes were closed, she tried searching her coat pockets, hoping to find something to sever her restraints. Unable to reach inside far enough to grab hold of anything, she decided to try to steal the medicine man’s knife instead. She was half way to him when Gini startled her by pushing through the hut’s door flap.
The girl sidestepped around the sleeping man and hurried to Scully’s side. Crouching behind her, she sawed through the bindings with a stone knife.
Scully massaged her wrists and rose to her feet. Damn, her ankle still hurt. Trying her best to ignore the pain, she limped after Gini, around the medicine man and out of the hut.
“Where’s Mulder?” she asked as soon as they were outside.
Gini signaled for her to be quiet, then beckoned her to follow as she led them toward the ball field. Rain flattened the girl’s hair and soaked her tunic. She seemed not to notice as she hurried through the village.
Smoke rose like phantoms from the blackened remains of rain-drenched communal fires. A crooked finger of lightning sizzled in the western sky, touching down somewhere behind the mountains. It revealed low clouds roiling overhead. Torrents of rain continued to fall. Not a soul was about; the violent weather was evidently keeping the tribesmen huddled around their hearths.
Gini stopped when she reached a long, low structure at the southernmost edge of the camp. She motioned for Scully to wait while she went in. Not a minute later, she emerged with a bulging sack slung over one shoulder. With another wave of her arm, she led them south, sneaking like a shadow beneath the flailing limbs of a butternut tree and out onto the field.
A flare of lightning revealed the nearest goal post and Scully spotted a slumped figure at its base. She recognized him immediately...Mulder, stripped of his clothes, head lolling to one side. Blood glistened darkly on his pale skin.
Panting with fear, she disregarded her injured ankle and ran to him.
Oh, God, was he dead? Contusions mottled his skin. Blood striped his chest, limbs and face. His right eye was so swollen the lashes all but disappeared in its reddened crease, and the split on his lower lip was caked with blood. The ground around him was littered with fist-sized stones. It was easy to guess what had happened here and the image prompted a flare of anger and stinging tears. She knelt in front of him and stroked his battered cheek.
Air stuttered from his lungs and he stirred. “Scully?”
The rasp of his voice unraveled her, sending tears spiraling down her cheeks. She kissed the crown of his bent head.
“Oh, Mulder.” She drew back, restless to examine him. The doctor in her wanted to assess the damage, plot a course for his treatment and recovery.
He opened his one good eye to look up at her.
“Guess I ticked ‘em off.”
She chuffed at his understatement. “Can’t take you anywhere.”
His grim half-smile cracked his bloodied lips. “Untie me.”
Gini set down her pack to crouch behind him. She used her knife to cut the rawhide at his wrists. Freed from his bonds, he brought his arms stiffly to his sides.
Blinking back tears, Scully tucked away her emotions and began to skim her palms gently over his head, arms and ribs, exploring every inch. Miraculously he appeared to have no broken bones.
His bluish skin felt ice cold beneath her hands. He was still bleeding from a cut on his knee and another at his hairline. It was likely he had suffered a concussion. And she had no doubt he was in shock.
“Let’s get you dressed,” she murmured, reaching for his jacket.
His leather coat was sodden with mud. It would do little to keep him warm.
“Gini, get his other things, please.” Scully pointed to his boots and pants, tossed carelessly to one side.
The girl hurried to gather the clothes while Scully eased Mulder away from the post. He paled and gasped when she moved him.
“T-take it easy,” he said, teeth chattering.
“Sorry.” She draped the jacket over his shoulders and carefully snaked one of his hands into a sleeve. “We have to get you out of here. Can you walk?”
“I-I think so.” With a hiss of pain, he inched his other arm into its coat sleeve.
Gini brought his other clothes. She stood by his feet, nervously glancing back at the camp as she offered him his undershorts.
“Sk-skip those,” he said. “N-not worth the effort. Sk-sk-skip the sh-shirt, too. J-just give me my p-pants.”
Getting him into his jeans wasn’t an easy task. The pants were wet and his chilled, bloody legs refused to cooperate. Scully and Gini worked together to guide his feet into the leg holes. Mulder grunted with discomfort when they tugged the jeans up to his thighs.
“You’re going to have to stand for the last part,” Scully warned him.
He nodded, looking as if he might vomit. Using the goal post and Scully’s shoulder for support, he managed to rise to his feet. She pulled his pants up, noticing as she fastened them that his hips and waist had thinned from their month in the Pleistocene. And it wasn’t likely he would be putting on weight anytime soon, not wherever they were headed now.
As if reading her mind, he asked, “Where t-to?”
She pivoted to study each direction. Going west, back the way they’d come, meant climbing the mountain. Another range hemmed them in to the east. Heading north meant hiking back through the camp. That left only one choice...south.
“That way.” She nodded toward the woods flanking the ball field’s southern end. “Let’s get your boots on.”
She signaled Gini to set the boots on the ground near his feet. That’s when she noticed the small, carved idol half buried in the mud.
Mulder saw it, too, and with effort, he tried to bend down to pick it up.
“Leave it,” she said.
“It might be our ticket home.”
“It’ll bring us nothing but more trouble.”
“Or more visions.”
“So now you’re saying you believe my visions really were visions?”
Doubt clouded his one good eye. “I-I don’t know, but we--”
“Mulder, that figure did not cause my visions.”
“Then what did?”
“I don’t know, but--”
Gini interrupted their argument by tugging on Scully’s sleeve, whispering urgently and pointing away from the camp. Her message was obvious: get moving!
“Come on. We need to go.” Scully positioned herself beside Mulder.
Apparently too exhausted to argue...or maybe too disoriented...he allowed her to drape his arm around her so that she was shouldering his weight while they hobbled toward the woods. Gini trailed them, carrying her pack and Mulder’s extra clothes.
When they reached the edge of the field and it became obvious that Gini intended to follow them into the trees, Scully turned to her and said, “You can’t come with us. You have to go back.” She used gestures to reinforce her words, shaking her head at the woods and then nodding enthusiastically while pointing to the village.
Gini’s brows drew together. She rattled off a lengthy argument, keeping her tone insistent while taking care not to speak too loudly.
Scully stood firm. “No, sweetie, we can’t take you. You have to stay here.”
The girl looked to Mulder, clearly hoping for his support. When he shook his head, too, her shoulders sagged and her eyes pooled with tears. Obviously crestfallen, she stuffed Mulder’s clothes and her knife into her pack and then offered them to Scully.
Moved by her generosity, Scully knelt to give her a heartfelt hug.
“Thank you,” she whispered into her ear, embracing her. Rain continued to pour over them. “For everything.”
Gini returned her hug and sniffled against her neck.
Scully’s heart ached at the thought of leaving this child. She’d been helpful, attentive and kind to them since the day they first met, sitting beside Mulder’s sick bed during his entire illness and welcoming them with obvious delight when they found the tribe the second time. It saddened her to think this was going to be the last time she would ever see the girl.
“No tears, okay?” She pulled away and looked into the Gini’s sad eyes.
The girl snuffled. “Han-ker-cheef?”
Scully looked back at Mulder with raised brows. He fumbled through his pocket, withdrew his handkerchief, and held it out to Gini, who took it and used it to blow her running nose.
“Tahn-kew,” she said, returning it. Then her expression changed from sad to stern. She began jabbering in an insistent voice and signaled for them to wait.
“Where is she going?” Mulder asked.
“She seems to be looking for something,” Scully said.
They watched as she ran along the edge of the field, peering intently into the woods.
“We shouldn’t be hanging around.” Mulder glanced back at the village.
His legs were trembling so badly Scully worried he would collapse. She took hold of his arm to steady him. “Give her a minute,” she said.
Apparently finding what she’d been looking for, Gini waved them forward.
Scully helped Mulder to her. She heard the sound of rushing water before she spotted the stream. It skirted the ball field, running from the lake to the woods, and was perfect for their escape. Hiking in the water would conceal their tracks, as well as provide them with plenty to drink.
Gini must’ve had the same idea. She was urging them into the stream and whispering earnest instructions.
“Ye-tsan Ne-ahs-jeh Din-neh-ih. Ye-tsan Dzeh,” she said.
Scully nodded, hoping the girl was telling them the stream would lead to hospitable territory where they weren’t likely to encounter any more unfriendly natives.
Before she could thank her one last time, Gini rushed forward and wrapped her small arms around her waist. Scully returned her tight embrace.
“Nih-hi-cho,” Gini said before pulling away and turning to Mulder. She hugged him hard, too, then looked up into his eyes and repeated, “Nih-hi-cho.”
Mulder bent to kiss her forehead. “Take care of yourself, pipsqueak,” he murmured.
She nodded as if she understood, then rose up on her toes and pressed a kiss to his bearded, bruised cheek.
The girl’s show of affection brought a lump to Scully’s throat, and it was a moment or two before she could say, “Come on, Mulder. Let’s go.”Together they waded into the stream and turned south, leaving Gini standing on the bank.
* * *
As soon as Muhl-dar and Day-nuh were out of sight, Gini hurried back to the goal post and picked up the fertility idol from the muddy ground. She wiped it clean on her wet tunic and then rolled it in her palm, trying to feel its hidden life force.
Nothing out of the ordinary emanated from the tiny figurine. It felt like any old bit of bone.
The discovery disappointed and confused her. She knew Dzeh had taken the idol to Tsa-ond Cave to be blessed by Hare Spirit, the fertility god, so she expected it to be warm with the life force of a new baby.
Prodding the idol’s hard, swollen belly, she whispered, “Are you in there, little baby?”
Wind howled past her and rain splashed in puddles around her bare feet. The idol remained silent. Even when she held it up to her ear, she could hear no heartbeat or tiny cry.
Could the baby be inside Dzeh already? Klizzie had told her that babies crawled through a man’s be-zonz during mating. Maybe Hare Spirit put the baby into the idol and then it somehow got from there into Dzeh during his prayers in Tsa-ond Cave.
This seemed like a very crazy way to make babies! If Hare Spirit was powerful enough to put a baby into a statue, why didn’t he just put it directly into Dzeh?
For that matter, why not put babies into their mothers instead of statues or fathers? Then there would be no reason for women to mate at all. No need to move away from family, no need to share sleeping skins with strangers, no need to let boys put their big be-zonz--
Ugh! Gini didn’t want to think about it. She was remembering that awful stallion with his mare again, the mare’s eyes rounded with fear as the stallion pushed his enormous be-zonz into her. Gini was *not* going to let that happen to her. She didn’t want to share sleeping skins with a man; she didn’t want him to put his be-zonz between her legs. She especially didn’t want that mean, ugly boy Chal touching her!
If Dzeh was expecting her to willingly live with Chal and Badger Clan, he was in for a surprise. She wasn’t going to join with any boy *ever*.
She was going to run away...tonight.
She’d been planning it all day, intending to sneak off during Jeha’s Joining Ceremony, knowing the long celebration would keep everyone too busy to notice she wasn’t there. But then Dzeh ruined everything by dragging her to the stupid ceremony. She’d tried to get away, even insulted him in front of all the clansmen by calling him a chindi. But instead of being embarrassed and releasing her, he hit her! And then the fight started with Muhl-dar and the idol fell onto the ground...
Well, it was fish down the river now, and things had actually turned out for the better. Now she could follow Muhl-dar and Day-nuh instead of traveling on her own.
She fervently wished they’d invited her to come along with them. She wasn’t sure why they didn’t want her, because she was good at finding and preparing food. And she was strong; she could carry almost as much as Klizzie. She knew how to fish and scrape hides and smoke meat. She could even make pemmican.
They would see for themselves soon enough. She would prove to them how helpful she could be. All she needed to do was remain out of sight for a few days while she followed them, then when they were too far from Turkey Lake to bring her back, she could show herself and everything would be fine.
Squeezing Dzeh’s idol in her fist, she started across the wet field, heading for the base of Crouching Cat Mountain where the clans had piled the prizes for the winners of the ball games. She would gather supplies from these rich stores before starting after Muhl-dar and Day-nuh.
She found the goods covered with a tarp of heavy mastodon hide to protect them from the weather. Rain continued to pelt her as she rolled back the fur. Her tunic flapped wetly in the wind. Water ran in numbing streams down her body and she clenched her teeth to stop their chattering.
Not all the prizes had been left beneath the tarp. Fragile items had been put elsewhere for the night. But she wasn’t interested in those pretty but useless things anyway; she would have no need for embroidered tunics, feathered hats or fancy baskets while traveling. A sturdy pack and some basic gear was all she would need or want to carry. Wiping rain from her eyes, she quickly located a suitable travel pack.
She began filling it with only the most essential items: fishing line and hooks, flints, a spare knife, a couple of scrapers.
There was one item she knew she would need but couldn’t find here: a water bag. She considered sneaking back into camp to get one, but decided it wasn’t worth the risk of getting caught. Spotting the Clan’s large gourd of honey, she decided to dump it and take the container.
The gourd was sealed with pine pitch, which Gini scraped off with her knife before upending the container. Thick honey poured out onto the ground, and she scooped up fingers-full to eat. It tasted sweet and wonderful and she wished there was some way to take it with her. But it was too heavy to carry and she needed the gourd for water in any case.
She cleaned her sticky fingers on a deer hide, then turned her attention back to her travel pack. Only the fertility idol remained to be placed inside.
It was wrong to take it, she knew, but Muhl-dar seemed to want it so badly. He’d risked his life for it. It would make him happy if she brought it to him. Maybe he would give her a big hug and forget any thoughts about sending her back to the Clan.
“Don’t worry, little baby,” she said, gently tucking the figurine into the pack and covering it with a soft, sleeping blanket. “You will be with your new mother and father soon. Until then, I will watch over you.”
She stood and shouldered the pack. It was reasonably light. Grabbing the gourd, she headed south after the others.
In no time she spotted them. They were moving very slowly, most likely due to Muhl-dar’s terrible injuries. They waded through A-Chi Stream, dodging boulders and downed trees. They carried a mysterious light-stick that projected a fiery beam onto their path, making them easy to track even from a distance.
A-Chi Stream ran from Turkey Lake to Tacheene far to the south, where the soil was so red it was said to have been painted by the blood of warring Spirits. Gini had been there last year for an autumn feast with Ant Clan. The territory was dry, she remembered, with few trees and many enormous anthills. Strange creatures called armadillos roamed the blood-red countryside, ravaging the mounds and gorging on insects.
The people of Ant Clan had been generous hosts, but they practiced many peculiar habits. They bound the heads of their babies with tight strips of animal hide, causing the infants’ skulls to become pointed. Men and women alike shaved their own pointed heads and painted their bald skulls with the red pigment of their land. When boys became men, they pierced their lower lips and plugged the holes with large, circular bones. Women tattooed their chins with striped designs. The oddest thing these people did to themselves was to file their two front teeth into sharp points! They were the ugliest people Gini had ever seen.
To the south of Ant Clan Territory lay a body of water called Endless Lake, rumored to be so vast it was impossible to glimpse its opposite shore even on a clear day. No one had actually ever gone there to see it for themselves because it was located beyond Ye-tsan Basin, a mysterious valley that was said to be the home of massive serpents, creatures bigger than the largest bull mastodon and meaner than a wounded she-bear. Only a desperate person would enter such a place.
It scared Gini to think of going to Ye-tsan Basin and meeting up with giant serpents, but it seemed a better choice than returning to Turkey Lake where Dzeh would surely kill Muhl-dar and send her to live with Badger Clan. She would rather face countless giant lizards than be forced to share a sleeping skin with Chal.If Muhl-dar and Day-nuh decided to go to the Basin, she would go, too.
* * *
“Want me to carry the pack?” Mulder asked. He trailed Scully by a step or two, trying to keep up as they waded downstream. He ached all over. Standing was excruciating; walking was worse. He felt like dying.
“I’ve got it,” she said. Flicking on her flashlight, she aimed its beam to guide him around a boulder.
“How long have we been walking?”
“Three hours and twenty-three minutes. That’s nine minutes longer than the last time you asked.”
It took Mulder a moment to make sense of her answer. His mind wanted to float off to a warmer, drier place, preferably in the 20th Century, where his head didn’t throb and he could see clearly out of both eyes. His right eye was swollen completely shut, wreaking havoc with his depth perception. He couldn’t walk a straight line if his life depended on it. And he couldn’t feel his legs from the knees down, they were so numbed by the stream’s frigid water. He repeatedly lurched to the left, tripping over his own feet, no matter how hard he tried to focus his one good eye on the beam of Scully’s light.
“Why is it so cold?” he asked.
“It’s the Ice Age.” She glanced over her shoulder to give him a concerned look.
“But it’s June...isn’t it? Do we have to walk in the water?”
She turned her attention back to the stream. “Yes, if we want to hide our tracks.”
He wanted to ask why they needed to hide their tracks, but he was pretty sure he should know that already.
Instead he asked, “Where are we going?”
“You asked that nine minutes ago, too.”
Had he? “Well, what did you say?”
“South, as far as I can tell.”
South. He pictured sunny beaches. Maybe it would be warm there instead of raining icy pellets. Sleet pinged off his soaked clothes, stung his exposed skin. He drew his collar up around his neck when he realized he was shivering uncontrollably.
The world was pitch black beyond the narrow beam of Scully’s light. From the patter of rain overhead, Mulder guessed they were walking beneath a low canopy of leafy tree branches. The stream seemed to twist and turn, although that might just be an illusion. He felt dizzy, disoriented. And whenever he looked away from Scully’s light, he saw stones flying at him. They appeared so real he flinched every time.
Angry faces hovered like specters behind the onslaught of imaginary stones. He thought he heard them shouting. When another stone suddenly hurtled toward him, he lifted his arm to protect his head. The motion hurt like hell. Pain zigzagged across his ribs.
“Scullee!” he shouted, and then lost sight of her behind the steam of his own breath. His legs gave out and he sank to his knees.
Cold enveloped him to his waist, cutting him in half. He felt the sickening sensation of spiraling down into a bottomless pit.
“Stay with me, Mulder.” Scully’s voice sliced through the fog in his head, stopping his dizzying freefall. “You’re going to be okay.”
She was kneeling beside him, holding him. Her flashlight bobbled as she tried to maneuver beneath his left arm, disorienting him further. He felt his stomach roll and grabbed onto her. “Scully!” he pleaded, wanting her to stop the world’s awful spinning.
“I’m right here. I’ve got you.”
She hooked his left arm around her neck and shouldered him into a semi-standing position. He cried out in pain when she pushed him toward shore, making his legs move, dragging them both from the stream.
They collapsed on the rocky bank, a few feet from the water’s edge.
“Mulder? Can you hear me?”
He nodded, too exhausted to speak.
Her arms embraced him. He let his head drop to her shoulder...tried to catch his breath...stay awake.
She rocked him. Kissed his hair. Was she murmuring...something...? He couldn’t make out her words.Curling into a ball, he rolled into her lap...grateful for the warmth of her body...and the gentle timbre of her voice. Trying to listen, he sank into blackness.
* * *
An hour later Scully still cradled Mulder’s head in her lap. He was sleeping on his side, knees drawn up and hands tucked into his armpits. Even in the dark she could see the bruises that mottled his face, the dried blood caking his brow and his swollen right eye.
The severity of the tribe’s assault frightened her. She’d assumed the mate exchange would ensure their safety, but apparently they’d participated in the loathsome custom for nothing. Compliance hadn’t earned them the tribe’s trust or protection. She’d been naive to believe it could.
A strip of pale daylight was beginning to emerge from behind the hilltops. Although the rain had stopped, she shivered from fatigue and exposure. The frigid air reminded her more of December than mid-June. Jesus, if it was this cold in summer, what must it be like in winter? She hoped they would be home long before they ever had to find out.
Caressing Mulder’s cheek, she tried to coax him awake. The tribe would soon discover they were gone. They should keep moving, put as much distance between themselves and the village as possible, in case Dzeh decided to come after them.
“Mulder?” His skin felt ice-cold. “Wake up, sweetheart.”
The endearment slipped easily off her tongue, surprising her with how natural it felt. Had he heard it? She blushed at her presumptuousness. Mulder didn’t share her feelings, at least not yet; he hadn’t seen their son in a vision the way she had. But for her, the unexpected foresight had caused a fundamental shift in her view of their relationship.
Funny, two weeks ago she’d been agonizing over their future together, wondering how she could reconcile her love for him with her inability to give him children. It seemed wrong to encourage his advances...until she’d cradled their son in her arms. Then everything changed.
Learning she would bear a child -- Mulder’s child -- eased her worries about a fruitless and lonely life. The future was suddenly full of promise. And it included Mulder in a way she’d been hoping all along, yet hadn’t realized how much until this very moment.
Devotion welled up in her so earnest and strong it swept her old uncertainties away. Mulder was not a perfect man, but he was perfect for her, and she hoped their child would grow to be just like him, searching for the truth and railing against the lies of men, even if it meant he also believed in Bigfoot, witchcraft and aliens from outer space. There was no doubt he would make her proud...make them both proud. How could he not? His conception, his birth, his entire being would be nothing short of a miracle.
Mulder shifted fretfully in his sleep, interrupting her thoughts. She tried to soothe him by stroking his face.
He moaned when she touched him. “Klizzie?” he murmured.
Her hand froze mid-stroke. She glanced at his lap, checking to see if he was aroused, and then immediately chided herself for her presumption. He didn’t have an erection and even if he did, it wouldn’t necessarily mean anything. He was only dreaming.
The possibility that he may have impregnated Klizzie during the exchange arose again in her mind. She tried to push her worry away. Maybe he’d withdrawn before ejaculating. Had he thought to do that?
Even if he had, withdrawal was a notoriously unreliable method of birth control. She could only hope that Klizzie wasn’t at a fertile point in her cycle.
At least her own current infertility removed any concern about becoming pregnant by Dzeh.
Contracting a sexually transmitted disease was unlikely, too, given that Europeans introduced most venereal diseases to the New World. Dzeh and Klizzie should be free of gonorrhea, syphilis and other known STDs, including AIDs, which was too recent to be a consideration.
She and Mulder were both clean, she knew, so there would be no transmission the other way.
It was possible Dzeh and Klizzie carried diseases that were extinct in modern times, to which she and Mulder had no immunity. It was even more likely that she or Mulder could infect the others with a modern day contagion. The introduction of a communicable disease like measles or small pox to a prehistoric population could alter history in any number of catastrophic ways.
Jesus, yesterday the decision to participate in the exchange had seemed a personal choice. Now she realized their actions carried consequences beyond themselves. Everything they did here could inevitably impact the future.
Why hadn’t they considered this sooner?
Mulder moaned again. “Scully?” he mumbled, sounding confused.
“It’s okay. I’m right here.”
He rolled his head until he was looking up at her with his one good eye. “I was having a nightmare.”
“So I gathered,” she said, helping him sit up.
“I dreamt I was playing the worst dodge ball game of my life.” He tentatively touched his swollen eye. “Guess it wasn’t a dream. How long have I been out?”
“Only an hour. Feeling better?”
“No, but let’s get going anyway.” With a deep groan he lurched to his feet. Wobbling on unsteady legs, he offered her a hand up.
She took it and pulled herself to a standing position. Then she grabbed their pack from the ground.
“Any food in there?” he asked, licking his swollen lower lip.
She opened it and discovered beneath Mulder’s boxers, it was full of dried meat. She pulled out two stiff strips, gave one to him and took a bite of the other herself. “S’good,” she said, shouldering the pack.
He eyed the meat suspiciously. “Did I see my dirty underwear in there?”
“Yes, but this is no time to be picky. Eat it. It’s all we have and you’re going to need your strength.”
He sniffed the meat. Then took a small bite. “Not bad,” he admitted. “Where’d you get it?” He took a larger bite.
“Gini.” They began hiking south, Scully in the lead. “She freed me from the medicine man and brought me to you.”
Mulder was quiet for few minutes.
“We’re never going to see her again,” he finally said.“I know.” She thought once more about the threat of contagion and the potential consequences of their contact with the tribe. “It’s for the best.”
* * *
Daylight crept across the pre-dawn sky like a slinking cat. The rising sun, obscured by a low-slung overcast, brought no warmth. Klizzie slept curled on her side on the summit of Crouching Cat Mountain. The ground around her bristled with frost and she shivered in her sleep. She was wearing only her short fur skirt and a lightweight summer cloak made of thin doeskin. A dusting of snowflakes dotted her shoulders and hair.
Dreaming of soft sleeping skins, a warm hearth fire and Dzeh’s breath on the back of her neck, she didn’t see the pale Snowy Owl that circled overhead. It spiraled lower. Only when it flapped its broad wings to settle on a nearby boulder did Klizzie awaken from her comforting dream.
She gasped when she saw the bird. The arrival of the owl -- her Clan’s totem -- was an undeniable omen. It was possible the bird carried a message from Owl Spirit. But was its news good or bad? The owl ruffled its white feathers, turned its head and winked at her with one golden-green eye.
Trying to control her panting breaths, Klizzie rose slowly to her knees to face the heavenly messenger. It met her surprised stare with a tranquil gaze.
Emotions churned inside her heaving chest: fear, hope, reverence, wonder. She had prayed to Owl Spirit for guidance and there he was!
She supposed she should say something, maybe repeat her prayer, but her voice was hiding deep within her throat and her words refused to come out. She found she could not even whisper an apology for her reticence.
Maybe the bird could hear her thoughts! Quieting her mind as best as she could, she allowed her prayer to take shape inside her head: Help my spirit fly without shame...help my spirit fly without shame...help my spirit fly--
The owl turned its head and fastened its gaze upon the village. A heartbeat later it rose from its stone perch and flapped skyward, where it rode a current into the valley. Klizzie watched it hover above the huts like wood ash caught in an updraft.
She finally found her voice and yelled, “Help my spirit fly without shame!”
Suddenly the bird dove, spiraling into the center of the village as if hunting mice. She felt her stomach lurch as the owl plummeted. Its talons raked the ground before it flew up again, with a writhing snake dangling beneath its belly. The bird headed south across the ball field toward the forest. The sight of it -- swift, graceful, beautiful -- filled Klizzie with optimism and awe. When it disappeared over the trees, it seemed to take her troubles with it.
Rising to her feet, Klizzie felt buoyed by the morning’s extraordinary beginning. A Spiritual visitation was a rare occurrence and a great honor. She was eager to tell Dzeh of it so he could ask the Shaman to interpret its meaning. She must try to remember every detail: the owl’s actions, the wind’s direction, the sun’s position. Anything and everything might be important.
Not wanting to let a single memory slip away before she could share it, she broke into a run and hurried toward the village.
When she arrived at the bottom of the hill, her heart was pounding and her chest aching. At the outermost edge of the village she slowed to a trot and headed for Lin’s hut, believing she would find Dzeh there. Up on the mountain she had been certain he would welcome the news of her spiritual encounter, maybe even believe it meant the Spirits had forgiven her for her misdeeds. And surely if the gods could forgive her, he could, too. But the closer she drew to Lin’s hut, the more she felt seized by doubt. She began to worry she might have misinterpreted the meaning of the owl and Dzeh would not be as forgiving as she’d hoped.
No one was up yet, so Klizzie passed between the huts unnoticed. The communal hearth fires remained cold and black, extinguished by last night’s downpour. They dotted the village like bruises and the sight of them made her feel strangely alone. It looked as if the Clan had abandoned the camp in the night and no one had come to tell her.
Outside Lin’s hut, she paused to catch her breath and gather her courage. She knew she had disappointed Dzeh and could not fault him if he no longer wanted her as his mate, but she also wondered how she could bear to live without him.
Perhaps his anger toward her would thaw once he heard her account of the owl’s visit.
She pushed aside the hide door and entered the shelter.
A fire blazed in the hearth, casting a warm glow on the sleeping occupants. Their bodies formed hills beneath their furs. Dzeh’s sleeping skins, however, were empty.
Uncle Lin raised his head when a cold draft, let in by Klizzie, ruffled his gray hair.
“Where have you been, my Niece?” he asked, keeping his voice low.
She came to him and dropped to her knees, bowing out of respect. “I have been praying, Uncle, on the mountaintop.”
Lin propped himself on one elbow. He looked at her with kind eyes. “Did the Spirits answer your prayers?”
She felt joy swelling inside her at the memory of the owl. “Yes, Owl Spirit appeared to me,” she said, breathless with the wonder of it.
Lin sat up. “Did he speak to you?” His startled tone caused several of the others to stir and waken.
“No. He flew from the mountain to the village, where he plucked a snake from the ground and carried it away.”
“A snake in the village?” Lin’s gray eyebrows drew together. “Where did Owl Spirit take this snake?”
“South, into the woods. What do you think it means?”
By now most of the hut’s occupants were awake and listening.
“The elders must hear your story and discuss its meaning.” Lin rose from his bed. His eyes fell on Dzeh’s sleeping skins. “Where is your mate?”
Klizzie shook her head. It was possible Dzeh had gone to the hut where she had slept with Muhl-dar yesterday morning. Perhaps he wanted privacy to think about the things she had told him.
She was about to mention this when she noticed Gini’s bed was also empty. A spear of worry struck her heart.
“Where is Gini?” she asked.
Lin glanced around the hut, a look of indifference on his face. No doubt he assumed she was sleeping at the hearth of a cousin or friend. It wasn’t unusual for a child to spend the night in a bed other than her own. The entire Clan watched out for every child, treating each like a son or daughter. They were all kin, after all.
But Klizzie remained fearful, remembering last night’s storm. Had Gini been out in it? She couldn’t recall the last time she’d seen the girl. Yesterday she’d been so intent on her own problems she’d paid little attention to Gini.
At that moment Dzeh’s cousin Wol-la-chee pushed his way through the hide door into the hut. He was breathing hard and his face was flushed as if he’d been running.
“The strangers have escaped,” he announced.
Lin’s eyes rounded. He rose and shouldered past Wol-la-chee, out of the hut.
Wol-la-chee glanced at Klizzie. “Are you coming?” he asked, and then followed after Lin.Klizzie remained frozen in place. The strangers have escaped? What had he meant by that? What happened last night while she was on Crouching Cat Mountain?
* * *
Needing to empty her bladder, Gini shouldered her pack and climbed out of the broad-limbed hackberry tree where she’d spent the night. It was too bad the tree’s berries weren’t ripe, she thought as she hopped to the ground. They would make a convenient breakfast.
After relieving herself, she headed to the stream, picking her way carefully through dense greenbriers. Thorns pricked her feet and scratched her legs, but she ignored them, intent on locating Muhl-dar and Day-nuh.
She had last seen them beside the stream where they stopped to rest. Not wanting to get too close, and preferring the safety of a tree for sleeping, she’d hiked a short distance into the woods where she located the hackberry. She intended to wake and return to the stream at dawn, but sleep had hung onto her until the sun was halfway up in the sky.
Quickening her pace, she arrived at the bank to find Muhl-dar and Day-nuh were gone. That was good, she thought. They needed as much of a head start as possible to outdistance Dzeh’s search party. As long as they stayed their course, following the stream, she could find them easily enough. They were traveling slowly, both suffering from injuries. If she jogged, she could easily overtake them by mid-afternoon.
There was no doubt Dzeh would come after them. Muhl-dar’s crime had been serious and Dzeh was very angry. Even so, it was unlikely he would lead his search party any farther south than Ant Clan territory. Ye-tsan Basin lay beyond that and no one would willingly travel there.
Gini began scrounging the wooded bank for breakfast. Juneberry plants were plentiful, but their small fruits wouldn’t be ripe for another moon yet, so she passed them over and collected greens instead: chickweed, sorrel and violets. She particularly enjoyed the sweet flavor of the violet blossoms and popped one flower after the next into her mouth as she gathered enough food to satisfy her empty belly.
She carried the greens to the edge of the stream where she sat to eat. The chickweed tasted a little bitter, but the tart flavor of the sorrel washed her tongue clean. Watching the shallow brook churn southward, she kept an eye out for frogs or turtles. Their meat would make a fine meal later in the day.
A gentle breeze was blowing from the west. Gini was thankful it no longer carried the smell of snow or rain. She hoped the clouds would clear soon, allowing the sun to shine. Traveling would be so much more comfortable with dry hair and clothes.Finished eating her greens, she bent to drink from the stream. The water tasted cold and sweet. She took long, satisfying gulps before standing and lifting her pack to her shoulder. Hunger sated and thirst slaked, she began jogging downstream in search of Muhl-dar and Day-nuh.
* * *
The entire village was in turmoil. People circulated from hearth to hearth, speculating about the strangers’ motives and the location of the missing girl.
Rumors spread quickly that the chindi from Eel Clan had used powerful magic to conjure up last night’s storm and free himself from the goal post. He then cast a spell on the Shaman, rendering him unconscious, and released the red-haired woman. It was soon discovered that several items were missing from the pile of goods intended as prizes for the winners of the ball games. Already considered a thief, Muhl-dar was blamed for stealing the goods. He was also accused of kidnapping little Gini. Only the Spirits could know his evil intentions, but there was conjecture that he would make a slave of her. Or worse, cook and eat her for his supper. After all, Eel Clan men were cannibals, capable of any atrocity.
Many people were helping to search for the strangers and Gini. Klizzie checked and double-checked every hut in the village, hoping to find the girl. Wol-la-chee led a party of men up Crouching Cat Mountain to comb the fields and explore the stony summit. Uncle Lin headed east into the hills, taking four skilled trackers from Badger Clan with him. A group of boys hiked around Turkey Lake, calling Gini’s name and looking for signs that she and the strangers might have gone north. Dzeh scoured the woods to the south, accompanied by three experienced hunters from Turtle and Owl Clans.
By mid-afternoon, the disappointed search parties returned to the village. Last night’s rain had obliterated any prints, making it impossible to track the runaways. Dzeh sat with a group of eight or nine men around Uncle Lin’s hearth, discussing what they should do next. Klizzie was present, too, although she remained respectably separate from the men, sitting half-hidden in shadows by the wall. Her eyes were red and swollen from crying and she occasionally sniffled.
“Of course they took her!” Dzeh pounded his fist against the ground. “Where else would she be?”
“A saber-toothed cat or--” young Chal began.
Dzeh cut off the boy’s ominous speculation. “No. She is *not* dead.”
“Being eaten by a cat might be preferable to--” Wol-la-chee let the remainder of his thought go unspoken when Dzeh aimed a storm cloud expression his way.
“The most logical direction for them to go is south,” Lin said.
“Maybe they are hiding on the mountain to come back and kill us in our sleep,” said Wol-la-chee’s nephew Ghaw-jih.
“If they intended to kill us in our sleep, they would have done so already,” Lin said.
“They are running away like thieving cowards,” said a pale-eyed tracker from Otter Clan.
“And the most likely direction is south. There are mountains to the east and west. And the Tkin Glacier lies to the north.”
“But the glacier is six days hike away.”
“That is true, but heading toward an ice sheet is a useless journey. Following A-Chi Stream will lead them into Ant Clan Territory.”
“And Ye-tsan Basin beyond that. Who would go there? It is full of giant serpents,” said Ghaw-jih.
“They will probably veer east or west before they reach the Basin,” Dzeh said, concurring with his uncle.
“They could just as easily veer east or west before Tkin Glacier, too,” Wol-la-chee pointed out.
Lin combed his fingers thoughtfully through his long gray beard. “Klizzie saw an owl visit our village this morning.”
Everyone turned to stare at Klizzie. Dzeh wondered why she had kept such important news from him, but then remembered Klesh and her inclination to keep secrets.
Lin continued, “She said the owl caught a snake and carried it into the woods to the south.”
The Shaman, who had been listening without speaking until now, pulled his pipe from his mouth and said, “It is a sign. The strangers went in that direction.”“They might be following A-Chi Stream,” Lin said. “It would cover their tracks and provide fresh drinking water.”
“Then we will follow the stream, too,” Dzeh said. “When we find the strangers, we will kill them and bring Gini back.”
“We must be careful. Muhl-dar is a powerful man if he can conjure up a storm like the one last night,” Lin said.
All the men nodded in agreement.“I am not afraid,” Dzeh said, rising to his feet. “The longer we sit here talking, the further away he gets. Already he has a full day’s start. My sister is with him and I will not wait a heartbeat longer.” He looked intently at the others. “I need two men to come with me.”
Wol-la-chee jumped to his feet. “I will go.”
“So will I,” Lin said, standing.
Chal stood, too. “May I come, Uncle?”
Dzeh studied the boy’s earnest expression and nodded his consent.
“I want to go,” Klizzie said from her place by the wall.
“Absolutely not.” Dzeh’s face blazed at the thought of traveling with her. They hadn’t had an opportunity to talk out their differences and a personal discussion would be impossible on the trail. The others would be at their sides every step of the way and Dzeh did not want them to know Klizzie’s terrible secret.
“But--”“No! You will stay here.” Having given his final word, he went to collect his travel pack. With the Spirits’ help, Gini would soon be back in her own bed and Muhl-dar and Day-nuh would be dead.
* * *
“Scully, what was your favorite penny candy when you were a kid?”
Mulder trailed her by a step or two. It was late afternoon and the sun was finally shining. They’d been traveling non-stop since dawn, with only short breaks for drinking or relieving themselves.
“Red or black?”
Still heading south, they were following the stream but no longer wading in it. The current was swift here, the banks steep and rocky, sloping downhill, winding through a forested gorge of evergreen trees and giant boulders. The clamor of rushing water ricocheted off every tree trunk and stony outcropping. The air smelled like fermenting fruit. Moss and damp earth softened their footfalls.
“Red.” Scully stepped carefully over a tangle of tree roots, each one the size of Mulder’s arm. Her limp was becoming more pronounced, but she pressed onward without complaint. “What about you? What was your favorite?”
Mulder limped, too. His head throbbed where he’d been struck above his right eye. Every muscle in his body protested the endless downward trek. He pushed a drooping tree branch out of his path and continued on. “I liked those wax lips.”
“You did not.” She glanced over her shoulder to give him a disbelieving scowl.
“No, really, I did. Sam used to buy the Dracula teeth and I’d get the lips, then we’d put them on and try to scare Mom.”
“Bet it worked.” Scully returned her attention to the uneven ground.
“Why Twizzlers?” he asked, trying to concentrate on anything but the pain in his ribs or his godawful exhaustion. When a bird shrieked overhead, calling “Thief! Thief!” he hunted for it in the foliage. He glimpsed a blur of feathers before the jay disappeared into the branches.
“I liked the flavor and they lasted a long time,” she said.
“Fire balls and Sugar Daddies last a long time, too.”
She shrugged. “Fireballs were okay, but Sugar Daddies stuck to my braces.”
He tried to picture her as a girl with braces, but had trouble filling in all the details. Had she worn her hair long or short? Was she skinny? Chunky? Something in between? No doubt she had freckles. He could imagine her surrounded by a bunch of giggling girlfriends. He guessed she’d become a loner only later on...after meeting him. “Bet you were cute with your mouth full of wires.”
“I wasn’t, believe me. Bill called me ‘tinsel teeth.’ It was a very traumatic time,” she said, not sounding traumatized at all.
“Well, your smile turned out pretty.”
She grunted and he wasn’t sure if it was in response to his comment or the sudden dip in the trail. She held her arms out for balance and teetered from one moss-covered stone to the next. He waited until she was on even ground before attempting to descend the embankment after her.
Thankfully the path flattened out at the bottom of the incline. Mulder didn’t think his calves and thighs could hold out much longer against the inexorable pull of gravity.
They walked without talking. Every twenty or thirty feet, sunlight spilled through the canopy, spotlighting the ground. Mulder concentrated on each whitewashed pool, challenging himself to overtake the next one without asking Scully to please stop and rest. One more, one more, he chanted in his head.
“We don’t really talk much, do we?” Scully suddenly asked.
“I just told you about my wax lips; what else do you want to know?”
She stopped beneath the next sunbeam and turned to face him, skin luminescent, hair glowing like fire. “Mulder, is there any chance...?” Her face flushed and she glanced away. Her discomfort was obvious. She seemed to be trying to gather her courage.
Either unable or unwilling to look him in the eye, she focused on a point somewhere in the middle of his chest. “Did you...” She paused to clear her throat. “Did you withdraw from Klizzie before you...?”
It was his turn to blush, although not from embarrassment. His discomfort was borne of guilt. He’d been hoping this subject would never, ever come up. There was no way he was going to tell her the truth. Explaining how he’d copped out while she surrendered herself would heap insult onto injury. Especially now, knowing that her sacrifice had been for nothing.
He must have paused too long before answering because she hurried to explain, “I-I’m asking because a pregnancy would...could have...far-reaching consequences...catastrophic even...what I mean is...your actions...*our* actions could, uh, change the course of history...couldn’t they? Shouldn’t we be worried?”
So it was the future of mankind, not his night with Klizzie specifically that was bothering her. Feeling both relieved and disappointed, he shouldered past her to take the lead. “Ever hear of the ‘Cosmic Censor’?” he asked.
“No. What does it have to do with us inadvertently changing history?” Her voice joggled as she hurried after him. She sounded irritated.
“Plenty. It’s Stephen Hawking’s solution to the Grandfather Paradox.”
“The Grandfather Paradox: ‘Can a man travel back in time, father a child who turns out to be his father, making him his own grandfather?’”
“That’s the one.” He realized the conversation was U-turning back to his night with Klizzie, so he quickly went on to say, “Hawking claims the Cosmic Censor -- an omnipotent entity who watches over time travelers -- intervenes to prevent the occurrence of such paradoxes. The Censor operates something like this: if a man goes back in time and attempts to alter his personal history, for example by trying to prevent his lover from being killed in a car accident, then the Cosmic Censor arranges things so that the woman is killed some other way. No matter how many times the traveler attempts to prevent his lover’s death, she will always die.”
“So you’re saying this Cosmic Censor won’t allow us to change history even by accident.”
“According to Hawking.”
“You believe that?”
“Scully, you said it yourself. ‘Although multidimensionality suggests infinite outcomes in an infinite number of universes, each universe can produce only one outcome.’”
“I didn’t have the Cosmic Censor in mind when I wrote that.”
“Maybe not, but I take it you meant that the future can’t be altered.”
The wet ground was becoming spongier as they approached a lowland area clogged with cedars, fallen trees and spiky, yellow bog plants. Feeling hemmed in by the broadening stream and the thickets of prickly vegetation, Mulder slowed his pace to sidestep the increasing number of puddles. A paw print in the mud caught his eye. It obviously belonged to a large cat, reminding him of the saber-toothed tiger that had chased them into a tree their first night in the Ice Age. He glanced around for more tracks. Without their guns or even a spear, they were sitting ducks for a saber-tooth, or any of the massive carnivores that roamed the Pleistocene landscape.
“Let’s keep going.”
Mulder slogged through a sea of knee-high weeds, vivid with yellow blossoms, each one speckled with crimson dots. The flowers poked at the sky like bloodied swords.
“Scully, right after we arrived you mentioned something about a megafaunal extinction.”
“That’s right. A major extinction took place around 11,400 B.P., killing off the megafauna: the mastodons, mammoths...saber-toothed cats. Why?”
Unable to find solid footing, Mulder decided to change his course. He veered away from the stream and headed out of the marshy lowland toward higher ground to the west. “Any chance it could have been caused by a couple of time travelers?”
“That’s not funny.”
“Hawking could be wrong.”
Zigzagging around downed trees that bristled with dead branches, Mulder found firmer ground. He tried to gauge their direction by the position of the setting sun, but the dense canopy made it difficult to be accurate. Not that he was an accomplished navigator even when out in the open...or with a map, for that matter. He decided to follow the upward slope of the ground and worry about reconnecting with the stream later, after he was sure they’d circumvented the swamp.
“Mulder, according to Hawking’s theory, Jason Nichols must have failed when he tried to kill himself at the Biomedical Research Facility.”
Mulder had thought that very thing at the time. Although he’d watched both young and old Nichols burn to death, the paramedics had recovered only one body from the fire. “That might explain how we got here.”
“Jason Nichols continued his experiments.”
“Or Lisa did. Nichols’ compound -- and time travel -- were eventually discovered by someone. I think he might have been at Hill Air Force Base with Lisa the day we ended up here.”
“Then he might be able to get us back, too.” She sounded hopeful.
He hated to disappoint her, but it was unlikely that Jason Nichols or anyone else would be helping them. “Only if he knows we’re missing, Scully. Chances are, no one saw us on the Base in the first place.”
* * *
Office of Colonel R. Beck
Hill Air Force Base
May 14, 1998
“Airman Greenwood found it, sir, during his 0600 perimeter check.” Captain Linden stood at attention while Colonel Beck sat behind his desk and examined the faded ball cap.
The “Black Sox” insignia was unfamiliar to him. “Where?” he asked, turning the cap over in his hands.
“Approximately 700 meters southwest from Hangar 19, sir, just off the tarmac.” Linden kept his eyes aimed at a point somewhere above Beck’s head. “Greenwood followed two sets of tracks to the fence, where he discovered a breach and a pair of wire cutters. Footprints led only one way, sir...in.”
“The intruders are still on Base?” Beck asked, incredulous. He resisted the urge to pound his fist against his desk. Keeping Nichols’ experiments classified was crucial. General Kaback would shit bricks when he heard about this.
“We’re searching for them now, sir.”
Beck gave the Captain an intimidating stare. “Find them. Quickly and quietly.”
Linden saluted and Beck returned the gesture.As soon as the Captain was out the door, Colonel Beck picked up the phone and dialed General Kaback’s number.
* * *
Season of the Mastodon Feast
Shadows engulfed the lowland bog as the sun slipped below the horizon. Gini navigated the gloom by following a swath of yellow loosestrife. The pale blossoms highlighted the course of the stream like tongues of fire, guiding her through the murky swamp. She knew she should have stopped long before sunset to locate a proper tree to sleep in, but she’d wanted to put the wetlands behind her before bedding down, especially after spotting cat tracks alongside those of Muhl-dar and Day-nuh.
Now she was caught in the dark, halfway across the swamp. She listened for the growl of cats and the hiss of snakes, but all she could hear were shrieking crickets and harrumphing frogs, seemingly unconcerned by the splash of her hurrying steps.
Nervously humming a song to allay her fears, Gini waded as fast as she could through the ankle-deep water, black as eel skin and just as alive. She knew the swamp was filled with crawling creatures, some of which would be good to eat if she could see them. But now, in the blinding dark, each slithering fish and tickling spider felt like the tap of dead spirits against her skin.
Nothing was quite so scary as a night spent alone. Gini had always bedded down by firelight, surrounded by aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings. She was accustomed to the rustle of sleeping skins, soft snores, and occasional coughs. People moved about during the night, men returned late from the Prayer Lodge, women rose to nurse their babies, children scurried outside to relieve themselves. Mothers sang songs to coax their little ones to sleep. Fathers told tales. The hearth fire crackled. The lodge was safe and pleasant.
Gini missed Klizzie and wished she’d had a chance to say goodbye. Thinking of Dzeh, however, renewed her resolve to never go back. She would have a new family; she would live with Muhl-dar and Day-nuh, and maybe visit their kin in Eel Clan. She would help tend their hearth and care for their children. They would be happy to have her stay with them and would never, ever send her away to live with a boy she did not like.
It worried her that she hadn’t seen Muhl-dar and Day-nuh since mid-afternoon. She had fallen behind when she stopped to hunt for food. The three fat frogs she’d caught had tasted good, but searching for them meant losing sight of the others.
She plowed forward through reeds and mud. Fireflies blinked on and off, hovering over the loosestrife like winking eyes. Were the Spirits watching her?
At long last she reached the far side of the swamp and higher ground. A sigh of relief shuddered from her chest when she located a sturdy shagbark. She scaled its rough limbs and quickly settled into a notch that held her like a giant hand.
Satisfied she would not fall, she slid the pack from her shoulder and opened it. She rooted through its contents until she found the tiny, bone figurine.
“We will sleep here tonight,” she told it. She hung on to it tightly, careful not to drop it while she stowed her pack in the crook of an upper branch.
Pack secured, she leaned against the tree trunk and examined the idol. It glowed silvery-white in her palm, lit by the rising moon. She stroked its swollen belly.
“Would you like to hear a story or a song, Little Baby?”
She listened for an answer, but heard only the whisper of leaves and the faint howl of a distant wolf.
“Don’t be scared.”
She kissed the tiny figurine and then began to sing. Her high-pitched voice wavered in the thin night air.
“The red deer sleeps in a bowl of tall grass;
“The wolf pup sleeps in a rocky den;
“The eagle chick sleeps in a nest of twigs atop a loblolly pine;
“But you, my Little One, sleep in my arms, close to my heart, until you wake again.”
She thought of Muhl-dar and Day-nuh camped somewhere downstream. Did they sleep holding onto one another? If she shouted their names, would they hear her?“There is no need to worry, Baby,” she told the figurine. “As long as they follow the stream, we can find them.”
Continued in Chapter Fourteen.
Special thanks to mimic117 and jeri for beta of Chapter 13.
See The Mastodon Diaries Dictionary for an explanation of the paleo-indian terms and names.