Continued from Chapter Seventeen
["The Mastodon Diaries" is rated NC-17 for Violence, Language, and Graphic Sexual Content. Reader discretion is advised.]
Final Days of the Mastodon Feast
Klizzie’s tears came as regularly as heartbeats after the hunters returned from Ye-tsan Basin. Grief-stricken over the loss of Gini, and still suffering from bouts of dizziness and nausea from her pregnancy, she remained with her Aunt Ho-Ya, while Dzeh moved into a flimsy lean-to at the edge of the village.
The lean-to was constructed of rough cedar and cast-off mastodon hides -- foul things, full of holes and parasites. It broke Klizzie’s heart to think of Dzeh living there.
As the days passed, Dzeh’s hair and beard grew unkempt, and his skin and clothes became caked with dirt. He declined to participate in the Games and he ate alone. He avoided Klizzie and the others, keeping to himself except to drink wo-chi with Klesh after sundown. Klizzie often spotted the two of them together, hunched over Dzeh’s meager hearth beneath the pines, where the sun never shone and the ground was always damp. The two men spoke in low tones, growling like dissatisfied wolves about the injustices of the Spirits and the wickedness of strangers.
Dzeh ignored Klizzie whenever she came to his shelter to beg him to return home. On six separate occasions she visited him, and six times he rebuffed her, standing mute with arms crossed and eyes focused in the direction of Ye-tsan. Only Klesh seemed to be welcome at his fire.
Klesh had taken up permanent residence in Klizzie and Dzeh’s old hut. He still wore his mask of grief, so the Clan tolerated his presence. He fanned the flames of Dzeh’s foul temper with stories about Tse-e’s death and Muhl-dar’s depravity, repeating his outrageous tales so often, Dzeh and many others at Turkey Lake began to accept his version of events as the truth. Some even started treating Klizzie with the same contempt that Klesh showed her, because they believed her baby was the offspring of Tse-e’s murderer...the chindi who had desecrated Tsa-ond Cave and stolen a small girl from her family’s hearth.
Great Spirit Mother, Klizzie missed her Little Chick. Gini’s absence left an ache in her chest that refused to be assuaged. The Shaman prescribed strong teas to help her mood, but they brought terrifying nightmares, not peace of mind.
In her dreams she often saw Gini caught in the jaws of giant serpents. The girl shrieked for help, and Klizzie tried to run to her, but found she couldn’t because her feet were fastened to the earth, as if stuck in the tar pits she’d seen as a child in the east. Trapped this way, she could only watch in horror as Gini was devoured alive.
She would wake from these dreams screaming. Her frantic shouts frightened everyone in her aunt’s hut. Ho-Ya did her best to console her, holding her or bringing her fresh tea.
The others whispered among themselves when they thought she had fallen back to sleep.
“The Spirits are angry with Klizzie,” they said.
“They are punishing her.”
“Perhaps they will punish us next.”
She did not fault them for their suspicions. What they said was true. The Spirits were angry, although not for the reasons they assumed. Hare Spirit was punishing her for misleading the Clan, allowing them to think her baby was Muhl-dar’s, not Dzeh’s. Hare Spirit had specifically chosen Dzeh to plant this child inside her, answering years of heartfelt prayers, finally accepting the carved fertility idol. She was showing disrespect -- to Dzeh and to Hare Spirit -- by keeping her secret.
She longed to confess the truth to Dzeh and be comforted by him, but he continued to shun her, and his coldness was the worst punishment of all.
As summer wore on, Klizzie’s sadness became so profound she climbed daily to the topmost cliff of Crouching Cat Mountain to recite prayers and search the skies for Owl Spirit, hoping the magnificent bird would return and bring with it a change of luck.
The owl failed to appear and Klizzie’s melancholy increased.
This day was like the others before it. As the sun began to set, Klizzie crested the mountain and knelt on its broad stone outcropping, overlooking the valley and the village. In all directions the forest was spotted with the golden hues of coming autumn. The lake shimmered as brilliantly as ever, but she knew its depths were growing colder. Her breath fogged the air as she clutched her totem pouch firmly in her right fist and prayed:
“Owl Spirit, please hear my voice. 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. I seek your strength to fight my greatest enemy -- myself.”
She repeated the prayer three times, but Owl Spirit remained hidden.
Disheartened and tired, she opened her pouch and pulled out a bit of carved mastodon bone, an old gift from Dzeh. On it he had engraved three tiny smiling faces, depictions of their future children. She let her fingers travel over its finely etched surface as she studied the first portrait and conjured in her mind a son with wide eyes and intelligent brow...like his father.
She began to weep for everything she had lost. Far below her the clans played blanket toss by the lake, oblivious to her tears. Squeals of laughter echoed off the hillsides, breaking her heart with their gay sound. Gini’s voice seemed to reverberate among the others, as if her spirit were there, playing among the living. To hear it was almost unbearable and Klizzie covered her ears as she cried.
The Mastodon Feast was drawing to a close. Only a few days remained before the clans would pack up their prizes and move to their separate autumn camps. Owl Clan planned to travel to De-Ji-Kash, a lowland forest where large herds of stag-moose were known to graze on an abundance of fallen acorns. Distracted by rutting season, the animals would fall easy prey to the hunter’s spears, providing the Clan with warm hides and smoked meat for the upcoming winter.
It would be a blessing to leave this place and all its bitter memories, although Klizzie worried her future held no real happiness no matter where she went. Dzeh no longer loved her and Owl Spirit seemed to have abandoned her.
If her circumstances were to improve, she would have to find a way to make it happen without Owl Spirit’s help, she decided. For the sake of her child she had to at least try.
The sun sank behind the hills, casting the village in shadow. Klizzie dried her tears on the hem of her tunic and tucked the carved bone back into her pouch.
Her stomach rolled in its usual dizzying way when she rose on unsteady legs to head down the mountain.
“Lay still, my little one,” she murmured to her unborn child. She rubbed soothing circles over the budding mound of her abdomen. “We have something important to do.” Her decision was made. “We are going to tell your father the truth about you...right now.”
Somehow she would make Dzeh listen. She was not going to let his anger -- or her own fears -- deter her one moment longer. She had worried too long about his reaction. Yes, he would be furious to learn she had not consummated the mate exchange. And he had every right to be. In all likelihood, her failure to fulfill her part of the ritual had cursed the Partnership, making Dzeh and Muhl-dar’s falling out her fault.
By extension, that meant Gini’s death was her fault, as well, she realized.
Ready to claim responsibility for her wrongdoing, she was prepared to face whatever punishment Dzeh and the Clan deemed appropriate. She was not a girl of fourteen anymore, cowering behind lies, covering up her poor choices and selfish actions. She was a grown woman, soon to be a mother. No longer could she tolerate deceit. The child she carried was Dzeh’s, not Muhl-dar’s, and saying so was the only way to appease Hare Spirit and set things right. For the good of her unborn child and for the good of the Clan, she must expose her secret.
She walked with determined strides down the hillside, trampling a swathe through the tall, dying grass. The meadow undulated around her, tossed by the brisk evening breeze, hissing as she moved through it. The air chilled her shoulders and rattled the beads in her hair. She ignored its icy fingers, intent only on finding Dzeh and making him listen to the truth.
Glittering communal fires drew her forward. They glowed like cat’s eyes in the growing dark. She aimed for the most distant one.
If anyone called out to her as she walked past, she did not hear it. If her aunt waved to her, she did not see it. She saw nothing but the flame of Dzeh’s hearth, and the closer she came to it, the harder her heart thrummed inside her chest.
“I *will* tell him the truth,” she repeated as she walked. She clung to her totem for courage. “I will.”
When she reached Dzeh’s lean-to, she found him sitting beside the hearth with Klesh as usual. The two unlikely companions squatted on the ground, a gourd of wo-chi balanced between them. She wondered if they had only just begun their drinking, or if their minds were already clouded.
As expected, Dzeh acted as if she were not standing within his view. Klesh on the other hand leered at her with lust-filled eyes. A nasty smirk split his grotesque face, deepening the scar on his left cheek.
“Cousin Kliz. How are you feeling today?”
His question was not asked in kindness. He was needling her...purposely reminding Dzeh of her pregnancy.
As a woman, she had no right to make demands of this kinsman, or of any male, so it took exceptional boldness to steady the quaking in her limbs and say, “Leave us.”
Klesh’s evil smile vanished and his eyes grew fierce. He growled, “I am a guest at Dzeh’s hearth. Are you?”
She glanced at Dzeh to see if he would intervene and invite her to stay, but he remained as he was, eyes averted, arms draped over the hills of his knees. His hands and feet were black with filth. Scraps of food spotted his beard. She would have been repulsed if not for the single tear that glistened along the lower lashes of one downcast eye.
Perhaps he did not hate her so completely after all.
“Dzeh?” She kept her voice soft. “Please, let me speak with you...alone.”
It seemed she waited a lifetime for him to answer. Her pulse thundered inside her ears, so loud she was afraid she would miss his words should he decide to speak.
Fat dripped from a half eaten carcass on the spit above the fire, sending up smoke when it spattered into the flame. Its greasy smell made her feel lightheaded and sick to her stomach.
“Dzeh?” she prompted again. Please, please do not send me away.
To her relief, he exhaled an assenting grunt and nodded his head.
Thank the Spirits, he was finally willing to let her explain.
Klesh rose to his feet, his displeasure obvious. “Come to feed him more lies, Kliz?” he sneered.
Dzeh lifted tired eyes to Klesh. “Go. Now.”
“She is here to deceive you.”
“Leave my hearth,” he said softly but firmly.
“She wants only to please herself. She is a lying chin--”
“She is my mate!” Dzeh shouted, springing to his feet, startling them both. His face was flushed and his dark eyes blazed with indignation. He balled his fists as he took a threatening step toward Klesh.
Both men were muscular, almost equal in size and strength. They had lived physically demanding lives and were capable of crushing a bison’s throat with their bare hands. Only their courage set them apart. And Klesh was not a courageous man.
Taking a step back, he chuffed in disgust. “The wo-chi has made you a fool tonight, Dzeh. I will return tomorrow when your thinking has cleared.” He glowered briefly at Klizzie and then stalked away.
Klizzie could no longer still her trembling. The encounter with Klesh had scared her, but the fury that was burning in Dzeh’s eyes frightened her even more.
He aimed his anger at her. Through clenched teeth, he said, “What is it you want to tell me?”
She dropped to the ground at his feet, bowing low out of habitual respect. It was hard to imagine this man had once loved her. Now he seemed as unforgiving as a winter storm.
The fault is mine, she thought. It had been her terrible betrayal that had turned his heart to ice.
“I want to apologize,” she said, not lifting her eyes to meet his gaze. When he said nothing, she continued, “I have lied to you and now must tell you the truth.”
“You have lied *again*?”
“Yes,” she said meekly.
“How am I to believe you when you find it so easy to lie to me?”
“Because...you must. What I am about to tell you is the truth.”
“No. Klesh was right; you are here to deceive me.”
She peered up at him through a blur of tears. “I am not here to deceive you, Dzeh. You are my mate. You have satisfied my heart for more than four years. I have loved you. I love you still. Have you forgotten the way we--?”
“You lied to me, Klizzie!” he bellowed. “You let me believe Klesh forced himself on you. You kept your secret for four years!”
“Yes, I-I am sorry for that.”
“And now you say there is another lie between us?”
Her throat tightened. “Yes,” she whispered.
He crouched beside her and took hold of her chin, gripping it tightly in powerful fingers. His lips curled into a snarl. “Why should I want to hear it?”
“Because...because...” Oh, Spirit Mother, please help her speak the words. “Because the baby I am carrying is yours, not Muhl-dar’s.”
His hand dropped away and his breath came in short, audible gasps. When he stood she thought he might strike her, but he strode a few paces toward the woods, only to return and squat again in front of her. “Why do you say this?”
It was time to tell him the worst. She opened her mouth to speak, but the words wouldn’t come.
“Klizzie, do *not* lie to me about this. It is important. Why do you say the child is mine and not Muhl-dar’s?”
“Because...I never...Muhl-dar and I...we did not...”
When she paused too long, he snarled, “You did not what?”
“We did not go through with the exchange.” There. It was said. “I am sorry. I tried to please him, really I did, but he did not...he did not want me.”
Dzeh’s mouth hung slack for a moment; surprise rounded his eyes. He shook his head, as if she were speaking in some foreign language that he could not comprehend. Finally he took hold of her shoulders and pulled her into a sitting position. He leaned close and whispered so softly she could barely hear him, “You went against Clan tradition?”
“And Muhl-dar did not...he did not mate with you?”
“This is not just another lie?”
“For what reason would I make up such a thing?” Surely he could see she was afraid to confront him this way. “Why would I admit I broke a Clan custom when I know how angry such a confession would make you?”
His eyes traveled over her face while he considered her words. Doubt creased his brow; bitterness thinned his lips.
“If what you say is true,” he said at last, his tone hesitant, “then the child you are carrying...?”
“Is yours. Hare Spirit answered your prayers.”
A surprising thing happened next. Relief washed the lines of uncertainty from Dzeh’s face. He loosened the grip on her arms.
“I believe you,” he said.
“And you are not angry?” She did not think it was possible.
“Klizzie, I am...pleased.” He drew her into a tentative embrace and shyly kissed the crown of her head. “We have wanted a child for so long. And Spirits be honored, we are finally going to have one.”
It felt wonderful to be held by him. So much so she was loathe to question his unexpected reaction to her confession. She had missed his companionship and his loving caresses. The return of his affection brought her joy, easing the awful ache in her heart. “Oh, Dzeh, I am eager to tell Ho-Ya this news.”
He drew back, a look of alarm on his face. “You cannot announce this. Everyone believes the baby is Muhl-dar’s.”
“So we will tell them the truth.” She felt confident in the circle of his arms.
“You will tell them you broke Clan custom and did not consummate the exchange? Klizzie, they will punish you for defying the ways of the Spirits.”
Her confidence wavered. “But...it was Muhl-dar who refused to participate in the ritual.”
“Do you think that will matter? They will blame you, not him. They will say you did not make yourself appealing enough.”
Her old doubts returned. Was there more she might have said or done to convince Muhl-dar that night? Again she reviewed the events in her mind, examining each of her actions. The way she’d washed and oiled her skin, plaited her hair, donned her finest jewelry. She’d perfumed the sleeping skins with cedar and sweetgrass. Followed every custom. Acted properly submissive, polite and good-natured. Done everything she could think to please Muhl-dar, yet he still refused to mate with her.
It was possible she’d misunderstood his unfamiliar Eel Clan gestures and words, misinterpreted his wishes, unwittingly insulted him. Or maybe she was simply too plain-looking and common for a man who was accustomed to finely constructed garments, glistening wrist ornaments and a mate with red hair and eyes the color of the sky.
Whatever the reason and no matter how many times Klizzie considered the possibilities, in the end she remained baffled, unable to pinpoint a specific cause for Muhl-dar’s dissatisfaction, yet blaming herself for his ultimate rejection.
“Perhaps the fault was mine,” she admitted.
“It does not matter.”
“But it does.”
“No, we will keep this secret between us.”
Astounded, she looked into Dzeh’s troubled eyes. “You would lie to the Clan?”
“To save you, yes.”
This revelation shook her. For as long as she had known him he had obeyed every rule and lived in accordance with Clan customs. It was not like him to defy the traditional ways.
Something had changed him during his trip to Ye-tsan. His disheveled appearance, his self-imposed isolation, his complete disregard for his surroundings...these were obvious differences. But it was his willingness to overlook her failure with Muhl-dar, and then deliberately lie to his kinsmen on her behalf, that indicated his spirit was transformed.
“My mate,” he spoke with great tenderness, and it relieved her to hear the devotion in his voice. He gently captured her cheek in one roughened palm. “Since the last moon I have been questioning our ways.”
Since the last moon? As long ago as that? Again she was stunned.
“Klizzie, I think some of our customs may need...reconsideration.”
Surely he did not think deceit was better than honesty. “Which customs?”
“The ritual exchange, or...sending girls to live with strangers when they mate.”
So that was it. He was blaming himself for Gini’s death.
Shame weighted her heart. Dzeh was not the cause of his sister’s death. Klizzie was the one who had broken the rules, mating with her cousin and not mating with Muhl-dar, lying to Dzeh and the Clan about it. Surely their misfortunes were the result of her wrongdoing.
Before she could set him straight and apologize again, he said, “They will banish you, Klizzie, or stone you. I cannot watch it. I cannot lose you. The night that Muhl-dar was stoned I decided to keep your secret about Klesh. Tonight I am promising to keep both your secrets.” Cradling her, he said with conviction, “We will tell no one.”
She listened to the beating of his heart while she clung to his solid arms. Deep inside her belly their baby moved for the first time, a tiny flutter, barely perceptible, like a butterfly’s wings against an outstretched finger.
“Muhl-dar is dead,” he said, and pressed his lips to her forehead. “No one need ever know what we have said here tonight.”
* * *
Hill Air Force Base
May 14, 1998
“Why isn’t it working?” Lisa asked, her voice shrill in the tight confines of the cockpit. She glared at the blinking console, a deep crease dividing her dark brows and a frown thinning her lips.
Jason powered down the engines and the craft went silent. He was discouraged, too. They had been sitting in the stuffy cockpit all morning, bumping elbows and arguing, while they tried unsuccessfully to open a portal to the Stone Age. “Let’s try it again...from the beginning.”
“It’s useless. We’ve been through it half a dozen times.”
“So, we’ll go through it again until we figure out what’s wrong. We can get this to work.” He consulted the onboard computer and reevaluated the readings. Making an adjustment, he fired up the engines once more.
Lisa huffed with impatience. “We’re wasting our time.”
“If we don’t bring Agents Mulder and Scully back, our time -- and everyone else’s -- will no longer be an issue...because it won’t exist for any of us. Start the GPM on three...one, two, three--”
Lisa did as he asked, initiating gravity pulse mode. The aircraft vibrated and the low hum of the drive climbed steadily until it reached a teeth-rattling whine.
She raised her voice to be heard above the noise. “What are we even looking for?”
“An opening, like a tear. You’ll know it when you see it.”
“Don’t we need to be airborne?”
“The GPM can warp space/time no matter where the craft is located. And we only need one thin breach to transmit the electronic data.”
She looked doubtful.
“Trust me, Lisa. It’ll work.”
It *had* to work. For the last four hours, while they’d been dicking around with the drive, Agents Mulder and Scully had lived through another entire month in the Pleistocene. Anything could have happened to them. They might have lost their cell phones or become separated from one another or been seriously injured. Only the fact that time in the present was still progressing linearly gave Jason hope that both of them were still alive.
“This is all your fault,” Lisa suddenly accused.
“What are you talking about?”
“Last night’s test...you sabotaged it, didn’t you?”
When had she guessed? And how? He’d been so careful, giving nothing away.
Deciding to lie to her, he pretended not to understand. “Lisa, I didn’t--”
An ear-splitting roar ripped through the craft, cutting off his protest. The air in the cockpit shimmered, rippled and began to separate.
He’d seen this before. Time was folding back on itself, converging and loosening simultaneously, opening a passageway from one era to another.
The noise was deafening, like the tearing of metal. It vibrated his teeth. He tasted bile in the back of his throat when a sudden decrease in pressure caused his stomach to contract.
A thin fissure began to pulsate between them, dividing the cockpit in two. Expanding lengthwise, the way a crack grows through a broken windshield, it split the aircraft, cutting directly through the console and out into the hangar.
Lisa’s mouth opened in startled surprise. The fissure began to jitter until it resembled an arc of electricity more than a crack. She reached toward it.
“Don’t touch it!” Jason warned. His voice sounded dissonant, tinny in his ears as it was sucked into the rent where it echoed off some invisible wall in another time.
Lisa jerked her hand back. Jason thought she was going to scream, but she only stared in wide-eyed astonishment as dust spewed out of the crack in fluffy, white globs. It reminded Jason of cottonwood seeds, carried in clumps on the breeze over his boyhood home in Grande Ronde Valley.
For a moment he saw himself as a young boy again, standing beneath the shedding cottonwoods in the east pasture of his father’s Oregon ranch. The trees had been planted a century before to provide a windbreak, to protect the livestock during lambing. The scene looked real, but he knew he was experiencing a flashback. This was a consequence of the time distortion. He was actually in Hangar 19, still in the cockpit of the experimental aircraft, with Lisa sitting in the co-pilot seat.
And yet...he could smell the sheep’s wool, feel the seed drifting across his upturned face, as if he were standing upon his father’s familiar, green pasture, encircled by emerald mountains and the shelter of cottonwood trees. This was the life he had traded for a lab at MIT, before anyone might have guessed the son of a sheep farmer would grow up to discover time travel...and trigger the end of humanity.
He turned away from his boyhood to focus on his keyboard. The keys were furred with dust...the flotsam and jetsam of time, a byproduct of the tearing process.
“Ready?” he asked Lisa.
She nodded, dislodging several clumps of lint from her long, curling hair.
While she locked onto the frequency of the agents’ cell phones, he typed a short message, data that would overwrite the phones directories and be stored in the memory.
“Let’s hope their batteries aren’t dead,” he said, hitting Send to transmit the electronic data, “otherwise, we’re all fucked.”
* * *
“Third reminder, Mulder: fill the gourd with fresh drinking water.” Scully was kneeling beside the hearth, sorting through their belongings and packing only the necessities. The rest she would leave for their eventual return. She was dressed for the long hike to Turkey Lake: jeans, jacket, boots.
Mulder was still barefoot and bare-chested. He stood at the cave’s entrance, looking out at the valley through his binoculars. Clearly he was in no hurry to leave. “In a minute,” he said in a distracted way.
So far he’d done nothing to help them prepare for the trip.
“You said you weren’t going to fight me on this,” she reminded him.
“Am I fighting?”
“You’re not doing anything. That’s the problem.” She loaded smoked meat into the pack, enough to last until their arrival at the village.
Mulder lowered his binoculars and peered over his shoulder at her. “I *am* doing something. I’m conscientiously objecting.”
“We agreed to this, Mulder.” Flints. Fishing line. Where was the knife? A quick search revealed it beneath a birch bark platter.
“I only agreed to go back; I didn’t agree to like it,” he said. “I believe my last words on the subject were, ‘You explain it to Gini and I promise to go along.’ Unless you had a heart-to-heart with her while I was sleeping last night, you still haven’t told her.”
Scully paused at her packing to glance at Gini’s bed. The girl was still asleep, which was unusual...she almost always got up first. “Actually, your last words were, ‘I’ll do my best.’”
“What makes you think this isn’t my best?” He returned his gaze to the valley, binoculars to his eyes.
“Please fill the gourd, Mulder.”
“M-hm.” He remained standing where he was.
She was in no mood for his childish protests. Taking Gini back was the right thing to do. They’d discussed it. Agreed to it. A delay wasn’t going to make it any easier. Irritated, she jammed the flints and fishing line into the pack. The hides and Gini’s scrapers would stay behind, she decided. As would the turtle shell. They’d bring Mulder’s two best spears and leave the rest. “Are you going to wear your jacket or should I pack it?”
“Do I have to decide right now?”
“Yes, Mulder. Were leaving right after breakfast. Quit stalling.” She grabbed the gourd and tossed it at him. It hit his right buttock -- her intended target -- before it ricocheted into the stone wall and then bounced out of the cave. They listened to it clatter down the hillside.
“I’ll *wear* the jacket,” he said. Frowning, he crossed to where Gini was lying buried beneath the beaver blanket. “Hey, pipsqueak,” he said, squatting beside her, “rise and shine. Help the ol’ man get some water.”
Gini didn’t stir.
“Do I have to tickle you awake?” He inserted a finger beneath the furs.
Scully expected Gini to giggle and pop her head out from beneath the covers, but she remained motionless.
Mulder’s tone warned her that something was seriously wrong.
“What is it?” She was immediately on her feet and heading to Gini’s side.
“She feels hot.” He stood back, allowing her room.
She knelt and drew back the blanket, then placed a hand against Gini’s forehead. The girl’s skin blazed with fever.
“It isn’t serious, is it?” Mulder asked, concern creasing his brow.
Even in her sleep, Gini rolled away from the daylight. Dark circles shadowed her closed eyes. Dried blood crusted one of her nostrils. Her face was deeply flushed and sweaty, and petechiae dotted her cheeks. Scully sifted through the possible causes: bacterial infection, sepsis, Meningococcal meningitis. A tiny moan vibrated in Gini’s throat when Scully tried to gently pull her into a sitting position.
“Gini? Gini, sweetheart...wake up.”
Whimpering, she curled into Scully’s embrace. “Noooo. Hurt.”
Scully brushed a strand of sweat-soaked hair from her fevered cheek. “Where does it hurt?”
“Show me,” Scully persisted.
Gini groaned, but pointed to her elbows and knees, then hugged her stomach.
Mulder hovered nearby. “What is it? What’s wrong with her?”
Ignoring his question, Scully lifted Gini’s shirt to check her stomach and limbs. Although flushed, she was without a rash, making measles or chicken pox unlikely. Her skin was fiery to the touch and Scully estimated her temperature to be above 102. She gently pressed her abdomen.
Gini doubled over and groaned.
Another moan came when Scully flexed her arms and legs.
“Mulder, I need your flashlight.”
He quickly retrieved the light and passed it to her. “Batteries aren’t too good,” he warned her.
It was true. The light was weak. She shook it in a useless attempt to brighten the beam, then aimed it at Gini’s closed mouth. “Open. Let me see your tongue.” She demonstrated by sticking out her own tongue.
Gini did as she was asked and Scully examined her tonsils. She found minimal inflammation and no “strawberry tongue” typical of scarlet fever.
The girl’s lips were pale and dry.
“Mulder, get some water, please.”
His head bobbed and this time he hurried from the cave without argument.
By the time he returned, Scully had settled Gini closer to the hearth. She’d removed her sweaty shirt, wrapped her in a dry sleeping skin and stoked the fire in an effort to ease the girl’s shivering.
“Here.” Mulder passed the gourd to Scully.
She knelt and held it to Gini’s lips. “Drink a little, sweetheart.”
“No want,” she protested, batting feebly at the air.
“You have a fever. You need to drink. Take a sip.”
“Noooo.” She covered her mouth.
Scully gave Mulder a pleading stare. He had a better rapport with the girl and was more likely to persuade her to drink.
He sat down beside Gini and scooped her into his lap, furs and all. “Comfy?”
She looked miserable. Sweat ran in rivulets from her hairline, yet she shivered violently in her cocoon of furs. Mulder gestured for the gourd and Scully passed it to him.
“Take a sip, pipsqueak.”
“Do it for me.”
“No want. Peese.”
“I’ll give you a reward if you drink a little.”
“What is re-woord?” she asked.
He dug into his pants pocket and withdrew a rawhide cord strung with twin car keys.
“When did you make that?” Scully asked, surprised by the gift.
“Before or after our talk?”
“After. I figured it might take the sting out of...” -- he glanced at Gini -- “you know.”
“In other words, it’s a bribe.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of a peace offering.” He jangled the keys, distracting Gini from their conversation. “The difference is moot, though, since we aren’t going anywhere.”
We’re leaving as soon as she’s well enough, Scully thought, but didn’t say the words. This was not the time to bring up the subject. Gini didn’t need the additional upset. “Don’t look so pleased, Mulder. This isn’t over.”
He offered the keys to Gini, who fingered them without much enthusiasm.
“You want ‘em?” he asked.
She nodded, so he looped them around her neck.
“Now,” he said, and held the gourd to her lips again, “take a drink.”
She did as he asked, swallowing with obvious discomfort.
“A little bit more,” he urged.
She looked uncertain, but tried to comply. Halfway through her swallow, she began to choke. “Oh...no,” she said, before vomiting on the cave floor beside Mulder’s knee.
She began to cry.
“It’s okay.” Mulder comforted her by stroking her hair.
“M-make m-mess,” she hiccupped, staring at the puddle with tear-filled eyes.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Scully said. “Mulder, why don’t you move her to the other side of the fire?”
While Mulder resituated her, Scully mopped the floor with one of the rabbit skins. The puddle was small and contained identifiable bits of last night’s supper. It was also tinged with blood.
“Her nose is bleeding,” Mulder announced, drawing Scully’s attention away from her task.
She looked up to find him wiping Gini’s face with his handkerchief.
A nosebleed would account for the blood in her stomach, and she’d had dried blood around her nostrils earlier.
Mulder caught Scully’s eye over the top of her head and mouthed, “What’s wrong with her?”
She wasn’t sure. It could be anything from a non-specific flu to something as serious as Dengue Fever. She hoped it was the former; they had no way to treat anything more virulent.
“Let’s talk about it later,” she suggested when she saw Gini eyeing the travel pack, concern peaking her brows.
“Where go?” she asked, her voice muffled behind Mulder’s handkerchief.
“Nowhere, pipsqueak. Trip’s cancelled.” He checked to see if her nosebleed had stopped. Apparently satisfied it had, he set the handkerchief aside, and asked, “Would you like to hear a story?”
She nodded, teeth chattering, eyes sunken with fatigue.
While he told her a tale about a pair of enchanted car keys, Scully set the vomit-soaked rabbit skin outside. When she returned Mulder was describing the curative properties of the new “medicine necklace.”
“They’re magic,” he said.
“Mulder...” Scully gave him a stern look.
“What’s the matter, Scully? You don’t believe in magic?” He met her frown with a smile. “Okay, think of it as the power of suggestion. You aren’t denying the success of the placebo, are you?”
He had a point. Without any real medicine to help Gini feel better, the keys might act as a sort of sugar pill.
“What majik?” Gini asked, eyelids growing heavy.
“Powerful medicine. It can make your bellyache go away.”
“Head hurt, too.”
“It’ll take care of that, too. Just hold the keys in your hand, like this...” -- he tucked them into her palm and folded her fingers around them -- “and then say the secret words.”
“Special words, known only to us; they make the magic work.”
“Tell see-krit words.”
“Okay, but remember, they’re powerful. And secret...you mustn’t tell anyone.” He put his lips to her ear and whispered.
He glanced at Scully to see if she was at all curious.
“All right, what are these secret, powerful, magic words?” she asked.
Gini looked to Mulder for permission. When he nodded, she said, “I believe.”
* * *
“I know your secret, Cousin,” Klesh mumbled to himself as he hunkered beside the hearth in Klizzie and Dzeh’s hut...his hut now, for as long as he decided to stay. Jabbing the coals with a scorched stick, he brought the fire to life. Sparks snapped and fizzed toward the roof. “The Clan elders will be like bees on a honey thief when they hear it.” It was going to be a pleasure to watch. Owl clansmen were such sticklers for rules.
What was the punishment for failing to consummate a mate exchange, he wondered? Stoning? Banishment? He hoped the latter. It would be gratifying to see Klizzie exiled and forced to live on her own, as he had been.
His banishment had been unreasonable and unmerited, and it still rankled that Klizzie went blameless while he suffered. He had not forced her to lay with him as everyone thought. She’d been eager to exchange a night on the sleeping skins for a pretty hair ornament. Then when Dzeh and the others discovered the arrangement, she said nothing. Nothing! She let them punish him, while she kept the ornament. It had been a rare trinket, too, not easy to get. He’d taken great risk stealing it from a kinsman in Coyote Clan.
Where was it now, he wondered? Did Kliz still wear it and remember their night together? The idea made him smile. He often thought of that night, of her lying beneath him with her young legs spread and her arms tight around his neck. She’d smelled as sweet as plum blossoms and there had been no repulsion in her eyes.
It had been a long time since he had lain with an agreeable woman.
Maybe he would ask Kliz tomorrow what became of the ornament...before telling her he overheard her confession to Dzeh.
Klesh was pleased with himself for thinking to hide beneath the cedars while they talked. He’d heard every word. Imagine...Dzeh and Klizzie, coconspirators in a lie. The idea made him laugh out loud.
The strange Eel Clan bracelet rattled on his wrist when he tossed two crooked tree limbs onto the glowing coals. The wood caught fire, brightening the room.
He rose to retrieve his travel pack from its hiding place between two wall supports. It was dirty and bloodstained, made from Tse-e’s tunic, stripped from his dead body and tied into a ragged bundle. He carried it to the hearth, where he sat and opened it. It contained only one item: the red-haired woman’s thunder weapon, left behind in the woods after the mastodon stampede.
He had been lucky to find it.
Lifting the weapon, he held it up to the firelight. It was heavy in his hand, cold and solid, and it gleamed like polished stone.
If only he could discover how to spark its thunderous clap. Some magic incantation perhaps. Or a heartfelt prayer to the Spirits. If the red-haired chindi were still alive he would make her tell him its trick.
He held the weapon in outstretched arms the way she had done when she put a hole through Tse-e’s hand from a distance of twenty paces.
“Order me away from your campfire again,” -- he pretended to aim it at Dzeh’s startled face -- “and...boom!”
* * *
Hill Air Force Base
May 14, 1998
Colonel Beck stood at attention while General Kaback deplaned the Lear...two hours behind schedule. Apparently his debriefing with Senator Matheson in Washington had taken longer than anticipated. Beck wasn’t privy to the reasons why the Senator was concerned about the missing agents or how deeply he was involved in the Project, but the General had evidently considered a face-to-face worth the delay.
Beck squinted against the brightness as Kaback bulldozed toward him like a tank. Behind the Lear, scorched air rippled above the tarmac, distorting the desert to the west.
Sweet Jesus, it was hotter than a fox in a firestorm out here.
The General strode past a contingent of security personnel without so much as a sideways glance. He stopped directly in front of Beck. “Where are they?” he demanded.
“They” were the missing agents, of course. Beck wondered if he should tell the General the truth or stall until Nichols managed to make some progress on getting the agents back. The General had been told only that they’d breached security during last night’s flight test, not that they’d been tossed back to the 1930s.
“Haven’t been recovered yet, sir,” Beck said.
The General’s graying brows drew together until the scar above his right eye vanished into one of the jagged crevices of his deeply lined forehead. “Why the delay?” he growled. His abrasive baritone suited his imposing physique like canon fire to a battleship.
“We’re on it, sir,” Beck answered evasively.
Kaback gave him a god-awful glower, and the color of the General’s skin reminded Beck of rare-cooked steak. “Take me to the craft,” he ordered. “I want to see it for myself.”
Did Kaback suspect the truth? He was aware of the aircraft’s true purpose, of course, but had he put two and two together and guessed where the missing agents really were?
“Yes, sir.” Beck gestured toward a waiting jeep.
Five minutes later they arrived at Hangar 19. The General practically vaulted from the jeep to march directly to the hangar’s small side entrance. Beck hurried after him, sweat gluing his uniform to his back. He had a whopper of a headache and heartburn worse than when he was flying tactics in the Gulf.
Mercifully, the temperature inside the hangar was at least thirty degrees cooler than out on the tarmac. Goosebumps sprouted beneath his sweat-soaked uniform as he stepped into the shadowed interior, and it took a second or two for his eyes to adjust to the relative dark.
“What the hell happened in here?” the General barked.
Beck wasn’t sure. He’d been here with Nichols and Ianelli only an hour ago, when they were still struggling to open a hole through time. The hangar had looked like it always had.
Now cottony mounds of dust floated in the cool air, carried by unseen drafts and settling like snow on the concrete floor. The ship was covered in it.
Kaback plowed across the hangar to the aircraft, stirring up dust in his wake. Lint attached itself to his uniform and bristly scalp.
“It worked, didn’t it?” he asked once he stood beneath the plane’s starboard wing. He stared up, all his former bluster gone, replaced by slack-jawed astonishment. Maybe even a little fear.
Beck felt a little fearful, too. He’d been overseeing this project for ten months, had believed in it, truly believed, and yet when faced with the real possibility of time travel, he had to lock his knees to prevent them from buckling.
“Yes, sir. We...uh...we think...”
Beck was at a loss what to say. Time travel would change everything. In war, it would be the ultimate advantage. In peace...who could predict the potential?
The General walked beneath the plane and ran a hand over the landing gear, striping its dusty surface with wavering fingerprints. “Forward or back?”
“Excuse me, sir?” Beck’s feet seemed fused to the floor, unable to carry him to the General’s side.
“The missing agents!” Kaback snapped. “Did they go forward or back in time?”
The General’s brows lifted, again hiding his battle scar. “Can we recover them?”
“I’m not...” Could they?
“Yes we can.” Jason Nichol’s voice. The scientist was standing on the top of the portable staircase leading to the cockpit. An arrogant grin split his youthful face.
Lisa Ianelli appeared in the doorway behind him, also smiling. Together they descended the steps. Their footfalls clacked loudly on the metal stairs, echoing against the hangar’s far walls.
“When?” Kaback asked.
Nichols’ smile lost some of its flash, and uncertainty made his voice quaver when he said, “Two hours, more or less.”
Both Beck and Kaback checked their watches. Damn, that didn’t give them much time.
“Secure a restricted area and assemble the appropriate people,” the General ordered Beck. “Who’s on hand with the most experience?”
“Stroehmer’s on Base. Pearsall is better, but he’s at Nellis.”
“Send for him. I trust him.”
“Oskar Stroehmer?” Jason Nichols asked, all trace of smugness gone from his voice. He was now standing in front of Beck and the General, flanked by Ianelli. “Are you talking about Dr. Oskar Stroehmer?”
The General eyeballed him with open distrust and hostility. “You know Colonel Stroehmer?”
“No...uh...” Nichols pushed his glasses up his nose. He suddenly looked as nervous as an airman flying his first combat mission. “I read a couple of his articles on concommitive memory lapse and HTR.”
Hypnotic Thought Reform, sometimes referred to as psychological coercion or coercive persuasion. In a word, brainwashing.
“That’s a bit outside your field, isn’t it?” Beck asked.
“Yeah, I...it was something I studied as an undergrad.”
“Retrieving the FBI agents is your only concern, Mr. Nichols,” the General growled. He turned his gunmetal-gray eyes on Beck. “You know what to do, Colonel. You have two.”
Two hours to fly Pearsall up from Nevada, assemble Stroehmer’s team, and prepare the necessary space and equipment. It was going to be tight.
* * *
Mulder spooned against Scully, enjoying the feel of her back against his bare chest...not to mention the heat of her smooth, rounded ass in his lap. They were lying on their fur bed, he was dressed only in his boxers, she wore her camisole and panties. A low, warm fire crackled in the hearth nearby. Savory woodsmoke scented the air, blending with the musty odor of the mastodon blanket and the faint perfume of Scully’s shoulders, creating an intoxicating, yet comforting, aroma. Golden firelight flickered across the stone walls, seeming to bring Mulder’s petroglyphs to life. Below his dancing stick people, Gini slept soundly in her bed several feet away. Her nose hissed as if congested, but her breathing was steady and unlabored.
By the end of the day she’d been feeling better. Her fever seemed to have lessened and she managed to keep down some water and several bites of cooked goose.
“Told you those keys were magic,” Mulder had said to Scully after he put Gini to bed for the night.
She frowned, but he could tell she was relieved Gini was recovering. “It must have been a 24-hour flu,” she said.
“Bet you were one of those kids who told all the other kids there’s no such thing as Santa Claus.”
“Easter Bunny, too.”
“Spoilsport.” He’d chuckled, grazing her cheek with a kiss and feeling grateful that Gini’s illness had turned out to be nothing too serious.
Now he wrapped an arm around Scully and drew her to him.
God she smelled delicious, a mixture of river water and wind, dried grass warmed by the sun, and the tart, yellow plums they’d eaten for dinner. He whispered against her nape, “I want you.”
“Hmm,” she said, committing to nothing.
Several seconds passed and when she said nothing more he traced her arm from her bent elbow to the ivory curve of her shoulder with his fingers. “Honey?”
“‘Honey’?” Her tone registered surprise.
He could picture her eyebrow arching.
“It’s an endearment,” he teased, circling her shoulder with his thumb.
“I know what it is...it’s just...”
“Just what?” He kept his voice low so as not to wake Gini.
Scully twisted to peer over her shoulder at him. Her eyes glistened with love. “You’ve never called me that before.”
“Shame on me.”
She closed her eyes, hiding her liquid gaze, and snuggled closer, which caused her backside to rub delightfully against his stiffening cock. He pressed his hips forward, increasing their contact and his pleasure. She hummed with apparent appreciation.
“Mulder...” Her head rolled beneath his chin. Her eyes remained closed.
He brushed a finger across the shadowed fringe of her lashes, traced the curve of her jaw, outlined her lips. His hand moved down to caress her exposed neck, then to tease a nipple into a firm point beneath her camisole. Her body grew limp, yielding to his fondling.
“We can’t...” she murmured.
“Why not?” He breathed the question into her ear. Taking hold of the lobe with his teeth, he ran his tongue over its satiny flesh.
“Gini...” she protested feebly.
Gini’s arrival four weeks ago had put an abrupt end to their spontaneous intimacy. Any display of passion in front of the girl was out of the question. But Mulder had managed to steal a few kisses, and occasionally persuaded Scully to let him explore her body like this, after dark, while Gini slept. She always halted his advances before things progressed too far, much to his disappointment. Sweet Jesus, he missed making love to her...more than he would have thought possible. How the hell had he gone five entire years without her, when now five minutes seemed intolerable?
Releasing his hold on her ear, he whispered, “She’s asleep.”
“She won’t wake up.”
“You don’t know that.”
“She’s exhausted. Down for the count.”
“She’s a very light sleeper.”
It was true; Gini woke up at least two nights out of every three, coming to their bedside to complain that she’d heard a tiger growl or felt a bug crawl across her leg. These were just excuses to get into bed with them. They indulged her habit, letting her settle between them, where she would immediately fall asleep. Sometimes Mulder would carry her back to her own bed; sometimes he let her stay the entire night.
“We’ll just have to be quiet,” he said. “You can be quiet, can’t you?” He grinned and slid his hand from her tight nipple to the waistband of her panties, where he nudged his way inside to cosset her soft curls. His cock twitched, caught between her tailbone and his abdomen, growing harder when he felt her thighs part ever so slightly.
“Mulderrr...” Her halfhearted warning sounded more like a satisfied purr.
He reached lower, probing for her damp opening. When his thumb grazed her clitoris, she gasped.
“Let’s take this outside,” she said, pulling away.
Satisfaction and frustration hit him in equal measure when she stood. He felt chilled without her, yet the lusty expression on her face filled him with eager anticipation.
He grasped her outstretched hand and pulled himself to his feet. Placing his palm against the small of her back, he guided her toward the cave’s entrance.
“Wait.” She stopped when they stood beside Gini. She crouched and placed her palm against the girl’s cheek.
“Don’t wake her,” Mulder warned, feeling impatient.
Scully gave him a reproving frown, and whispered, “She’s sick, Mulder. Don’t be so selfish.”
He pouted, tugged at her arm, and drew her to her feet. “Hey, I’m suffering, too.”
Her eyebrows climbed. “Oh, really. With what?”
“Nano...that isn’t a grandmother fetish, is it?”
“No, not nan*a*philia. Nan*o*philia.”
“Sorry I’m not current with all the paraphilias. What is nan*o*philia?”
“Sexual attraction to a short partner.” He loomed over her and waggled his brows.
His teasing brought a smile to her lips. “I suppose that’s better than some of the alternatives.”
“Very true. Like ophidiophilia...” He paused to see if she recognized the term. When she shook her head he supplied the definition. “That’s arousal from snakes. Or siderodromophilia...arousal from trains. Or iantronudia...arousal from exposing oneself to a physician by faking an ailment. I have that one, too.” He grinned and pushed her past the hearth, out into the cool night. “Come on, Scully. Let’s play doctor.”
She let him steer her down the rocky slope, beyond the golden glow of firelight toward the river. Somewhere in the distance a lion roared, causing them to pause.
“You sure it’s safe out here?” she asked, not really sounding concerned.
Crickets whined in the grass at their feet, the noise pulsing like a billion high-pitched heartbeats. A persistent bullfrog at the river’s edge punctuated the din with a throaty love call. In the tree branches overhead, which looked like black lace against a purple satin sky, a night bird sang to its mate. Every wild creature seemed to be up at this late hour, eager to pair off, to copulate before the season was past and their chance to reproduce lost. Mulder felt equally impelled to join with Scully, to claim her again as his mate after so many nights apart.
“The only predator you have to worry about is me.” He growled and took her in his arms.
“Miss me?” She smiled up at him.
“You have no idea.”
He bent to kiss her. Excitement flushed his skin when her tongue entered his mouth. Christ, would he ever get used to that pleasant, astounding feeling? He hoped not. It sent a lightning bolt of desire straight to his groin. He moaned against her lips.
She was standing on tiptoe, hands holding his face, while he fumbled with the hem of her camisole, his fingers seeking and locating the small well of her navel, orienting themselves to the landscape of her body before moving down the gentle swell of her abdomen.
He laid his palm there, soaking in her warmth, when the idea of pregnancy poked at him, momentarily suspending his passion. Her period was more than two months late, and although she’d tried to soothe his uncertainty by offering logical reasons for it, he remained troubled by the possibility of a child.
He broke their kiss to bury his face in her neck and hide his anxiety. Still cradling her belly beneath splayed fingers, he tried to discern any sign of new life...a flutter or heartbeat, a hint of consciousness.
He detected nothing, yet his worry would not abate: if she were pregnant, the child might not be his.
Could he love another man’s child?
“Will you change your name to Mulder when you marry me?” he asked, pulling back to watch her expression.
“Is that important to you?”
He’d never really considered it before. It was the prospect of a child that made it suddenly significant. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“Staking your claim?”
She amazed him, the way she could bulls-eye his motives. “I don’t like how territorial that sounds, but there’s some truth to it. Does it bother you?”
“No,” she said without hesitation.
He knew she already saw him in the role of father. Her vision had provided that unlikely perspective. If only he could see himself as clearly and unflinchingly as she seemed to.
No doubt time would lessen his uncertainty. He smiled inwardly at the irony of that. Time. If not for an accidental trip through time, they might never have come to this point in their relationship.
“Take me, Mulder...beside the river.” Her voice sounded so sultry and full of physical need he wanted to lift her off her feet and take her right where they stood. “Make love to me in the grass by the shore,” she urged, but held him in place, her arms locked around his neck, her lips sliding over his.
Desire cycloned through him, battering him from breastbone to pelvis with the overwhelming desire to be inside her. He scooped her into his arms and carried her down the hill with long, determined strides. She smiled against his neck, nuzzled his beard, and he tried to capture her tongue when it tickled across his lips.
“Minx,” he said, before covering her mouth with his.
She dug her nails into his back. Her left arm was hooked around his shoulder, clutching him, while her right hand cradled his head and bit into his scalp.
Breathless, she asked, “Do you have any idea how much I want you?”
“I think so.”
She seemed weightless in his arms, which made him feel weightless, too, as he followed the sound of gurgling water to the clearing beside the river. The lovesick bullfrog went silent when they approached, no doubt made nervous by the rustle of his footsteps. The grass felt velvety and cool beneath his bare feet, a perfect bed to lie on, but Scully was so light in his arms, so feminine and sexy, he was loath to put her down. He felt like a caveman, carrying her this way, his cock rock hard and his intentions very ungentlemanly.
“What is it?” she asked. “What are you waiting for?”
“Just trying to decide the best approach,” he said. “Any preference as to how we do this?”
“Well...” She peered up at him through lowered lashes, and gave him a coy smile. “If you’re letting me choose...”
“Yessss...?” He found himself incredibly turned on by the mere hint that she might have a favorite position. “Tell me.”
Her fingers furrowed his hair, raking his scalp and giving him gooseflesh. “I want...” She paused, looking suddenly shy.
“You want what?”
She cleared her throat and lowered her voice to a murmur. “I want you to take me from behind.”
Those words, spoken in that tone, sent a jolt of pleasure sizzling to his erection. His balls tightened in anticipation, and he set her carefully on her feet.
She wasted no time, peeling her camisole up over her head, baring her breasts to the cool night air. The silky garment fluttered to the ground and landed like a cloud beside her on the grass.
The sight of her half-naked body made his cock ache. He stripped off his boxers, then reached out to cup her breasts in his hands. Pleasant creamy mounds, pliable, rigid only at the tips. He centered her nipples in his palms and gently kneaded her flesh. She leaned into his caress, closing her eyes. Ecstasy surged through him at the plump feel of her. The idea of making love to her, out here, on the grass...it set his heart hammering.
His hands slid from her breasts, down her ribs, to her panties. He shoved them down and off her hips. They caught for a moment at her knees, until she wriggled and they fell to her ankles. She stepped out of them.
Completely, gloriously naked, she rose up on her toes to meet his kiss. Her erect nipples stuttered across his chest, tickling him, singeing twin paths on his oversensitive skin. Encircling her waist with his arms, he drew her toward him. Her pubic bone bumped his cock. His fingers dug into her backside and he slammed their hips together, ground into her, growled against her mouth, “God, I want you.”
“Then take me,” she said, her words slippery beneath his frantic kisses, “from behind.”
Oh, God, yes.
He loosened his grip and she turned to present him with her backside. Her skin glowed silvery white against the black night, and his eyes followed the shadowy indentation of her spine down to the two perfect halves of her ass. Each pale buttock was branded with the outline of his recent, crushing grip.
Placing one heavy hand on her shoulder, he pressed steadily downward. “Get on your knees,” he rasped, not recognizing his own voice.
She glanced back at him, eyes wide with astonishment, yet a smile quirking her lips. She lowered herself slowly, gracefully into a kneeling position. He collapsed behind her. Nudging his legs between hers, he spread her thighs. He gripped her shoulders with both hands and urged her to bend forward, until she was positioned on all fours in front of him.
His fingers trailed along her ribs to her hips. He rocked back on his heels to look at her. God, she was beautiful. Her center was hidden in shadow, an enticing black fissure separating the pale spheres of her ass.
He inhaled. Her scent was pungent and earthy, muskier than he remembered.
Instinct told him to plunge into her beguiling depths and thrust relentlessly until he came, but he worried it might be too soon. They’d left the cave only minutes ago. Without foreplay, would she be ready?
Rather than ask and risk a predictable but perhaps not honest “yes,” he slid his hand between her legs and insinuated a finger into her folds.
She arched her back. He prodded more deeply, swirling inside her, exploring her moist heat.
This physical reaction always amazed him no matter how many times he encountered it. Here was proof that she wanted him as much as he wanted her.
“You were expecting something else?” she hummed with apparent satisfaction.
“Well, no...it’s just...you’re *really* wet.”
He slipped a second finger inside her. Lubrication flowed out of her, slicking his palm and dripping from his wrist.
She stiffened and gasped, “Wait...stop.”
“Sorry, I...” He ceased his prodding. “What’s wrong?”
“I seem to be a little...tender. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. I’ll be more careful.” He withdrew his fingers, intending to lick her juices from them, but to his alarm he found his hand was covered with blood.
Had he injured her?
“Oh,” she gasped.
He looked up to find her staring at his bloodstained hand with tears in her eyes. That’s when it hit him: he hadn’t injured her...this was menstrual blood...she’d started her period.
“Scully...I-I’m sorry,” he said.
Her sad expression hardened at his words. “You don’t have to lie for my benefit, Mulder.”
“I’m not lying.”
She got to her feet and gathered her camisole and panties, then headed for the water.
“Scully, wait, where are you going?” Erection flagging, he stood, too.
“To clean up.”
He wiped his bloody fingers on his thigh, then jogged after her. “I’ll go with you”
“I’d rather be alone.”
The coldness in her voice brought him up short. “Scully--”
“Mulder, you got your wish, now please go away.” Her voice was thick with unshed tears.
Ordinarily he would have acquiesced, leaving her to recoup her equilibrium on her own, but the apparent magnitude of her disappointment tugged him forward.
“I wasn’t wishing anything.”
She turned to confront him. “No?”
“Mulder, you made your opinion very clear.”
He stopped an arms length away. “Okay, I admit, I didn’t want kids...before.” He tried to choose his words with care.
“And now you’re saying you *do* want a baby?”
“Well, no...not...here, now.” They’d been over this and had agreed the Ice Age was no place to start a family.
She frowned at him before turning again toward the river.
He remained standing where he was, but raised his voice to be heard above the sound of flowing water. “Were you actually hoping for a baby?”
She didn’t answer, so he went after her.
“Talk to me, Scully. Don’t...don’t do this.”
“Bury your feelings. In case you hadn’t noticed, it doesn’t work for us.”
She stopped at the water’s edge, her back to him. She looked so vulnerable, standing naked in the dark, underwear clutched in one fist, a trickle of inky blood inching its way down the inside of one white thigh.
“I don’t want to fight with you,” she said.
“We aren’t fighting.” He reached out to tentatively touch her shoulder. When she shrugged his hand away, he asked, “Are we?”
“No,” she answered immediately, and then changed her mind. “Yes.”
She stared downstream, although there was nothing to look at in the dark. A few lightning bugs hovered above the reeds at the shore, and something -- a frog maybe -- crawled through the grass near their feet.
He studied her profile, lit by a pale moon, while she chewed her bottom lip. The river gurgled over invisible stones, sounding like soft sobs.
“You’re glad I’m not pregnant,” she finally said, sounding bitter.
“I admit I’m relieved...but I’m not glad. There is a difference.”
“Yes, of course. Aren’t you relieved? Just a little?”
His reasons for not wanting a baby were the same as hers for wanting to return Gini to the tribe: time travel, his regression, her accelerated aging, and any number of Pleistocene dangers. This was hardly a suitable environment for raising a family.
And there was also the question of paternity.
Not wanting to bring up that particular subject, he said, “Tell me again why we’re taking Gini back to Turkey Lake.”
She grimaced and her shoulders slumped. Obviously she knew what he was getting at.
“I can’t help feeling sad,” she said, close to tears.
“I know. I’m not happy either. Really I’m not.”
She searched his face, looking for any hint that he might be lying. The surprising thing was he truly did feel regretful. Sure, it was a relief she wasn’t carrying Dzeh’s kid, but that meant she wasn’t pregnant with his either. And there was something sad in that, he realized, despite the inappropriate timing.
“It’ll happen for us. It will. Just not here,” he said.
She leaned against him, giving him one of her silent apologies, and he accepted it by wrapping his arms around her.
* * *
Gini awoke damp with sweat and shivering beneath her heavy beaver skin blanket. Her head throbbed and her stomach ached as if she had eaten spoiled meat. Peering out from beneath the furs, she squinted against the bright light of the fire, and discovered she was alone in the cave.
Where were Day-nuh and Muhl-dar? Their bed was empty. Fear beat in her chest and loneliness closed her throat. Had they abandoned her?
Panicking, she sat up. The sudden motion brought pain to her eyes and neck, so severe it caused her stomach to roll. She covered her mouth with her hand, hoping she wouldn’t throw up again. The mess she’d made earlier embarrassed her; only babies vomited in their beds.
Her stomach settled after a moment. Carefully, she turned to inspect the cave. Her fears lessened when she spotted Muhl-dar and Day-nuh’s belongings. Muhl-dar’s spears leaned against the rock wall next to his eel skin coat and his odd footwear. Day-nuh’s shirt and coat were nearby, too, as was her travel pack. They had not deserted her.
Gini wondered again why they’d filled the travel pack as if intending to go somewhere. What was it Muhl-dar had said? “Trip cancelled”? She didn’t recognize those words, but felt uneasy about them just the same.
She reached for the keys that hung around her neck, grateful for Muhl-dar’s gift. Holding them made her stomach less queasy, just as he had promised. She’d never worn a totem before. It made her feel grown up and she considered asking Klizzie to show her how to make a proper totem pouch for the keys...only...Klizzie was not here to teach her how to stitch porcupine quills to leather, or decorate the pouch with colorful snail shells. Dzeh was not here either to help her discover her guiding Spirit. Without his advice, how would she choose between Muskrat or Fox or Bat...or any of the other many possibilities?
Making the proper choice would be next to impossible without guidance, and it was unlikely Muhl-dar could help...he did not wear a totem. Neither did Day-nuh.
“Where are you?” she whined aloud, worrying again that she’d been left behind. “You have been gone too long!” She wiped sweat from her brow and rose on shaky legs to search for them.
Her stomach bucked, bringing up a sour taste, and her head throbbed as if vultures were pecking at it. She staggered toward the entrance of the cave. It was pitch dark beyond the fire’s light, and she could see no sign of Day-nuh and Muhl-dar outside.
She began to whimper.
River water murmured behind the cloak of night, and its musical sound brought to mind a familiar bedtime song...
“The Spirits are singing and you are safe, my Little One. Hear their voices among the stars, carried down on a kind west wind. Tonight you are secure in my arms; the hearth fire burns brightly beside us. Tomorrow the sun will shine on your face, and food will fill your belly. When you are grown, I will still love you, my Child, and I will hope... The Spirits are singing and you are safe, my Little One. Hear their voices among the stars...”
Klizzie’s pleasant voice trilled in Gini’s memory, singing this favorite lullaby, a cyclical verse that was repeated again and again until she fell sleep. She missed the nightly ritual, and Klizzie’s generous, caring embrace. She missed Dzeh, too...the way he used to rock her in his arms when she was sick, and soothe her oversensitive skin with tender caresses, kissing her nose to make her smile, holding water to her lips to slake her thirst...
No...that had been Muhl-dar, not Dzeh.
Gooseflesh stippled her naked arms. Where was her shirt...Muhl-dar’s shirt? Her memory was in bits, like the leftover flakes of a newly made spear point. She remembered Day-nuh pulling the damp shirt up and over her head...“This needs washing”...rabbit fur buffing her skin...Muhl-dar mopping sweat from her back, neck, chest...“Is that better?”
“Dzeh?” she sniffled, meaning to call out for Muhl-dar, but becoming confused.
She hugged herself and turned away from the night’s chill to return to the warmth of the fire.
Muhl-dar’s coat caught her eye again, and she picked it up. Wrapping its warmth around her shoulders, she thought again of Dzeh’s arms encircling her. She imagined burying her face in his beard.
He hugged her tighter. “Is that better?” he asked.
“Dzeh, I am sick,” she said, snuggling into his embrace.
“You will be better soon.” His kind face was right in front of her. He was smiling. “You have your medicine keys to protect you now.”
The keys...Muhl-dar’s keys? She grabbed hold of them and Dzeh vanished.
Where did he go?
Where were Muhl-dar and Day-nuh?
Her legs were shaking, on the verge of collapse, so she squatted where she was, a few paces from the fire, to try to collect her thoughts. Shivering from the cold, she slipped her arms into the sleeves of Muhl-dar’s coat.
“The Spirits are singing and you are safe,” she chanted, her voice unsteady and hoarse. “Hear their voices among the stars, carried down on a kind west wind.”
A drop of blood fell from her nose to dot her bare knee. She gasped when another trickled over her upper lip into her open mouth.
“Oh no.” She covered her nose with one hand while she searched Muhl-dar’s pockets for the handkerchief. Where was it? More blood ran over her chin, drizzling between her fingers onto the sleeve of Muhl-dar’s fine coat. “Uh-oh. No.”
Quickly she emptied his pockets, frantic to find the handkerchief before she ruined the coat. His phone, badge, keys, the strange eye ornament he called “glasses,” all were tossed onto the ground.
No handkerchief. No handker...no...
Her breath was coming in quick pants. Blood slicked her hand. For a heartbeat or two she wasn’t sure where she was, or why she was alone with a bloody nose and an aching head. She tried to orient herself, eyes searching the cave walls. Blood continued to drip over her chin. Her vision blurred. Muhl-dar’s drawings, countless pictures etched into the stone, suddenly appeared to jump, skip and dance in the flickering shadows of the fire. Sam and Fox rode “bikes,” watched “TV,” played “baseball” -- wondrous activities she could only imagine.
To Gini’s amazement, Sam suddenly stepped out of the rock and stood before her as real as any girl. She had long, dark hair, and wore a “New York Yankees T-shirt,” blue jeans and “PF Flyers,” just as Muhl-dar had described. And she was smiling.
“Hi, Sam.” Gini rose to greet the other girl.
“Want to play a game?” Sam asked. She beckoned Gini with the wave of her hand.
Gini followed her across the cave to the portrait of the man with his spear, holding hands with his mate. Below the picture, the bone idol rested on its narrow rock ledge.
“Let’s pretend we are sisters. And this...” -- Sam took the carving from the shelf -- “is our new baby brother.”
“I know a lullaby.” Gini began to sing, “The Spirits are singing and you are safe...”
A wave of dizziness rocked her. Sam’s face rippled in front of her eyes.
“You okay?” The voice seemed to come from outside the cave, not from Sam. A man’s voice. Muhl-dar’s, maybe? Or Dzeh?
“Quick, take the baby,” Sam said. She pushed the idol into Gini’s hand. “Hide it.”
The carving was not a toy and it was wrong to play with it. They would be in trouble if Dzeh discovered them.
“Hurry, Gini. They are coming!”
Gini felt as if she were moving through water. She blinked when Sam’s face blurred again. The cave swirled around her; the drawings wavered like riverweeds caught in a current. Trying to keep her balance, she slipped the idol into Muhl-dar’s coat pocket.
“They’re almost here!” Sam whispered loudly, just before Gini collapsed and blackness swallowed her.
* * *
Scully plodded up the path toward the cave. Mulder was behind her, hovering too close, making it impossible for her to shed her irrational grief by crying.
She wasn’t pregnant.
Not that she really wanted to be pregnant. To be honest, the idea frightened her...here in this place...facing an uncertain future. Worse yet, there had been no guarantee the baby...if there had been a baby...would have been Mulder’s.
She pushed that thought away. She didn’t want to think about Dzeh, of their night together, of--
None of it mattered now. She wasn’t pregnant. There was no baby. Things had worked out for the best.
And yet, she still felt sad.
Her mood was due to a reduction of estrogen and progesterone in her body, she told herself, changes that precipitated the onset of her period. Hormonal fluctuations were known to cause physical and emotional side effects. Her melancholy would pass when her hormone levels began to rise again in a day or two. She would just have to ignore her grief until then.
As she walked uphill, the cattail down she’d stuffed into her panties to absorb her menstrual flow felt uncomfortable and already unclean. It had been embarrassing to ask Mulder to collect the cattails while she washed herself. More so to break open the seed heads and line her panties while he watched.
To be fair, he hadn’t actually watched her. Without prompting, he’d taken a few steps away and turned his back, allowing her as much privacy as possible without leaving her unguarded, which wouldn’t have been safe. They’d heard a large cat earlier, stalking the valley somewhere to the south. She was grateful for his protection. And his concern.
It hit her again. There was no baby.
Until she’d seen the blood, she hadn’t realized how much she’d already accepted the idea of a pregnancy, wanted it...even though wanting it made no logical sense. Her desire for a child went beyond reason; the baby had become real to her, and now she grieved its absence as if it had been stillborn.
Jesus, she was being ridiculous...illogical and unnecessarily maudlin. She swiped at her tear-filled eyes and sniffled.
“You okay?” Mulder asked, his voice soft.
“I’m--” She stopped herself short of saying “I’m fine,” which was a lie. She’d promised herself -- and him -- not to ignore her feelings, to tell him the truth. It struck her how quickly and easily she could fall back into her old pattern, breaking her vow. At the very first disappointment she had begun to close down and shut him out.
She would have to make a concerted effort to break this hurtful pattern.
Determined to do just that, she steadied her voice, and said, “My emotions are pretty close to the surface. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry.” His hand caressed the small of her back. “I feel bad, too.”
Did he? Really?
She had to believe he did. It’ll happen for us, he’d said, and she knew it would because she’d seen it herself in her vision. Their son. William. Bright eyed, with a fuzz of pale hair sprouting from his sweet-smelling scalp, his tiny lips curved around her nipple as he suckled.
Her breasts tingled at the memory.
How strange. To have such a clear memory of something that hadn’t happened yet.
When they arrived at the cave’s entrance, she paused to face Mulder. The glow of the fire spilled across his bare skin, painting him gold, while illuminating the apprehension in his eyes.
“I shouldn’t have lashed out at you,” she said. “I’m sorry for that.”
He nodded, while her momentary disloyalty slid into the past without comment.
“Let’s check on Gini,” he said.
They entered the cave together. The first thing she noticed was his cell phone lying on the ground beside the hearth, along with his eyeglasses and badge.
He bent to gather them. “Guess she’s been playing again.” Holding the phone out to her, and using his best ET impersonation, he said, “Phone hooooome.”
His joke brought a smile, which vanished the moment she spotted Gini collapsed on the cave floor beside their bed.
“Oh God.” She hurried to the girl and crouched beside her. Placing her hand on Gini’s forehead, she said, “Her fever’s back. It’s worse than before.”
“But I thought she was getting better,” he said, hovering over them.
She pulled open the coat Gini was wearing, looking for anything that might help her make an accurate diagnosis. Over the past twenty-four hours the girl had sustained a high fever and experienced facial flushing, nausea, nosebleeds and blood in her vomit. She’d complained of muscle and joint pains, and headache. And now she was unconscious.
Her skin had an ominous yellow cast. Hoping that this was due to the fire’s reflection and not something more serious, Scully lifted Gini’s right eyelid to examine the whites of her eyes. They, too, appeared jaundiced.
“What’s wrong with her?” Mulder asked for the second time that day.
“I’m not an expert on viral and parasitic diseases, but I’m guessing she might have Yellow Fever...or something very much like it.”
“Yellow Fever? Doesn’t that occur only in tropical places, like rainforests?”
“In the 20th Century, yes.”
She had no idea how widespread a disease like Yellow Fever might be here in the Pleistocene. After all, in their time, camels existed only in deserts, and beavers weren’t the size of small cars. Who knew how viruses might vary from their modern day descendants?
“There isn’t any chance we--” Mulder’s voice cracked. He cleared his throat. “We didn’t give this to her, did we?”
“What happened to your theory about the Cosmic Censor?” she asked, regretting the words as soon as they left her mouth. Clearly he was concerned; her sarcasm was unwarranted. “No, Mulder, we didn’t give it to her. Yellow Fever is an insect-borne viral disease. It isn’t communicable. It’s spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito.”
This information didn’t seem to relieve his unease.
“She’s going to get better though, right?”
Scully decided to tell him the truth. “Without treatment, no. She’s going to get worse.”
“How much worse? She’s not in danger of... She’s not going to die, is she?” His entire body twitched with nervousness.
“Symptoms vary in severity from a flu-like syndrome to severe hepatitis and hemorrhagic fever. Patients can experience delirium, convulsions, coma, bleeding from the orifices and pores.”
They stared at her bare skin.
“She had a nosebleed earlier,” he said.
“Yes, and I saw blood in her vomit, too.”
Mulder squatted and gently stroked the girl’s hair. “She’s not going to die...she can’t die.”
In truth, she very well might. “During epidemics in unvaccinated populations, case-fatality rates can exceed fifty percent.”
“Jesus. There has to be some way we can treat her.”
“Even in our time there’s no treatment beyond supportive care: sponge baths to reduce fever, vitamin K and calcium.”
“So, we can do that, give her those things.”
“Mulder, I don’t know which Pleistocene foods contain vitamin K or calcium. Do you?”
“No, but...” His twitching stilled. “I bet the tribe’s medicine man knows. He treated me.” He looked at Scully with hopeful eyes. “Is there time to get her to him?”
Was there? “I’m not sure, but we should head north at first light. In the meantime, let’s take her down to the river. See if we can lower her fever.”
* * *
Nellis Air Force Base
Mike O’Callaghan Federal Hospital
May 14, 1998
“Yes?” Colonel Simon Pearsall glanced up from his PC.
His aide, a solemn-faced young airman, held out a note. “From General Kaback, sir.”
Pearsall took it and felt for his glasses, which were perched atop his balding head. Sliding them into place, he tried to bring the note’s small handwriting into focus.
Damn trifocals. It was hell getting older.
The note was short and to the point. He was being summoned to Hill and they wanted him there ASAP for...
Too bad the assignment meant working with that idiot Oskar Stroehmer. The man was a hack and a lunatic, the irony of which wasn’t lost on Pearsall. Oskar didn’t know the first thing about memory implantation or selective cognitive drains, yet his clumsiness was responsible for the butchering of countless airmen’s minds over the last ten years.
Oskar should be confined to a mental institution, not practicing medicine in a military hospital.
“Transportation is waiting, sir,” the aide said.
Pearsall stood, slipped the note into his shirt pocket, and picked his hat off the corner of his desk.
Fitting it to his head, he said, “I’m ready.”
* * *
Somewhere South of Turkey Lake
Were they on the right path?
Scully wasn’t sure. Two days ago she’d argued with Mulder about which direction to take. They had been standing beside the river at the abandoned camp where Mulder experienced his “time anomaly” earlier in the summer.
Facing west, he’d said, “I think we should go back the way we came.”
She gazed north, where the land was ribbed like a washboard, furred by yellowing waist-high grass and studded with mounds of fruiting rose bushes. The river snaked through the undulating landscape for as far as the eye could see. “We should stick to the river.”
“It might not be the same river we started out on when we left Turkey Lake.”
That was her fear, too. “Gini needs water.” She lifted the gourd, sloshing it. “More than we can carry in this.”
He nodded in agreement, but continued to stare west. “If it isn’t the same river and we veer too far off, we’ll overshoot Turkey Lake without ever knowing we went past it.”
“If Gini dies of dehydration, it won’t matter, will it?”
She hadn’t intended to snap at him, or mention the possibility of death in front of the girl, but Gini’s condition was getting worse. Listless and irritable, she was refusing all food, and drinking almost nothing. At night she tossed and turned between them as they tried to sleep, clinging to Scully one minute, whimpering against Mulder’s chest the next. During the day, she rode limply on his back, piggyback style, like now, saying little, starring dully at the changing landscape, her head supported between her arm and his neck.
“You know I don’t want her to-- I don’t want that,” Mulder said through gritted teeth, obviously hurt by her insinuation.
Scully reached over his shoulder to caress Gini’s sweaty hair. “I know. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply otherwise.”
He hid his annoyance by abandoning the western path and heading north, following the river as Scully suggested.
Over the next two days they made good time. Skies were clear, temperatures tolerable, and their food was holding out. They hiked all day everyday, stopping only for occasional, brief rests. They continued until well after dark, to the point of exhaustion.
Now it was close to sunset on their fourth day. They were traveling through hilly, forested terrain, and the stream was flowing swiftly through a deeply carved gully. They didn’t recognize their surroundings.
The relentless chug of water drowned out bird calls and shrieking crickets. Whenever they spoke, which wasn’t often, they had to raise their voices to be heard above the din. By unexpressed agreement they limited their conversation to non-controversial topics -- food, water, time, distance -- to avoid starting an argument.
Mulder plodded grimly along, irritated by her, yet extraordinarily tender with Gini. She didn’t call him on his roller-coaster temper; she figured he was as worried about Gini as she was.
They both jumped when the girl suddenly screeched.
“Put her down,” Scully said, dropping the packs and spears.
He lifted Gini over his shoulder and into his arms. She tossed her head and squeezed her eyes shut, then rattled off a string of tribe words, which neither of them understood...until she called for Klizzie in a voice so full of fear and heartache that it stole Scully’s breath away.
“Jesus.” The word hissed from Mulder’s lungs as if he’d been punched in the chest. “Look at her face.”
He knelt, keeping Gini cradled in his arms. Scully squatted beside them. Even in the twilight she could make out traces of blood in Gini’s tears...and on her lips.
“Her mouth is bleeding. Give me your flashlight.”
“It’s not working. Batteries are dead.”
“Damn it, I need to examine her.”
“Try using the light on your watch.”
She removed her watch and illuminated its face. It cast a faint yellow-green glow, which she aimed at Gini’s mouth.
“Her gums are bleeding. And her tongue, I think.”
“I’m not sure I really want an answer to this question, but what’s going to happen to her next?”
Prostration, hallucinations, convulsions, followed by coma...and a few days later, death.
“Children survive Yellow Fever more often than adults. In general.”
“Will *she* survive?”
How far were they from Turkey Lake? Were they even on the right path?
“I don’t know. We’re running out of time, Mulder. We need to get her to the medicine man...as soon as possible.”
He rose to his feet. “Then let’s go.”
* * *
Dzeh brought Klizzie a gutted elk for the final night of the Mastodon Feast. It was a large, muscular animal, fattened by a bountiful summer. The hide was extraordinarily glossy and would make a fine woman’s winter tunic. The broad rack of antlers could be fashioned into many useful tools and pretty trinkets. It was an apology and it was inadequate, but it was all he had to give.
The heart and liver he presented to Ho-Ya, to thank her for sheltering and caring for Klizzie during the many days he’d lived in the lean-to. After Klizzie told her they were reconciled and that he was willing to come home, she opened her lodge to him, too, in her usual generous way.
His next acts of contrition were to bathe, comb his hair, burn his filthy loincloth and return to Klizzie’s bed. He felt reborn in her arms, hidden beneath fur blankets from the prying eyes of her kin, protected from their pity by her love.
Imagine...she loved him still, after the abominable way he’d acted. He didn’t deserve her trust, her understanding, or her forgiveness.
It frightened him to realize how close he’d come to losing her. It frightened him more to think the Clan might discover their secret and punish her. If she were sent away, he would go with her. If she were stoned and killed, he would drive a spear through his own heart.
“We need firewood,” Klizzie said, kissing his cheek before returning to her cooking tasks outside Ho-Ya’s hut. Her face was flushed a pretty pink and the baby’s weight looked good on her.
Tears flooded his eyes as he considered how foolish he’d been for turning his back on her. His grief over losing Gini, and the anger he harbored against Muhl-dar -- a man who in all likelihood was now dead -- had stripped him of common sense.
Humbled and repentant, he bent to kiss the crown of her dark head.
Ho-Ya watched them out of the corner of her eye and smiled. She was kneeling beside the shelter’s door, preparing a light morning meal of greens and nuts for the children, enough to keep them from complaining of hunger before tonight’s feast. Klizzie was crouched next to her, sorting through a basket of freshly picked blackberries, which she planned to mix with honey, seeds and fat, to be rolled into delicious sweet balls for the celebration.
Collecting wood was generally women’s work, but Dzeh didn’t argue the point. He was glad to do it and left immediately to head across camp to the forest.
On his way he passed several women, who were busy with cooking, caring for their babies, and preparing for their upcoming departure. They glanced at him with sympathetic eyes when he walked by, but said nothing. Like everyone else in the village, they assumed Klizzie carried the child of another man, and although it was not unheard of for a woman to become pregnant by a Trading Partner, it was openly considered unlucky. Privately, people said harsher things. They knew Spirits honored good men with babies, and denied children to those they deemed unworthy. Any man who had displeased the Spirits would not be given an opportunity to act as intermediary between the Spirit World and this one, because he was too undeserving to deliver a gift as valuable as a baby to a woman’s belly.
In the eyes of his kinsmen, the Spirits had judged Dzeh a contemptible man, and he would carry their dishonor as long as he allowed them to believe Muhl-dar, and not he, was the father of Klizzie’s child.
But for Klizzie’s sake, it was a misconception he didn’t dare correct. Humiliation was a small thing compared to her life.
The clansmen were gathered in the Prayer Lodge for the day, reciting the final rituals before painting their bodies for tonight’s festivities. They would emerge at dusk, adorned in their finest garments, their skins striped with red, yellow and black pigments. Dzeh would join them eventually -- it was expected -- but he would take no pleasure in the ceremonies this season the way he had in the past.
Entering the woods, he was relieved to be beyond the villagers’ watchful eyes. He quickly headed upland through the eastern forest, letting its shadows cool his shame. He breathed in the reassuring scent of pine and black cherries. Fallen leaves crackled beneath his feet with each step. He wasn’t hunting, so there was no need for stealth.
Most of the blowdowns were too large to lug back to Ho-Ya’s fire, and smaller branches had been picked clean long ago. So he broadened his search, wandering into a birch grove where the canopy was thinner and the sun filtered through the trees’ yellowing leaves. Squirrels scampered unseen in the boughs overhead. Blue Jays screeched at one another, alarmed by his unexpected arrival. An adequate supply of broken tree limbs lay scattered about the dappled glade.
He loaded his arms.
Just as he was ready to return to the village, he felt eyes on his back. He spun to find Klesh standing ten paces away, a mean smile curling his scarred lips. He carried a bloodied spear in one hand and a dead fox in the other.
A fox was not an easy animal to catch. They were intelligent and wary creatures, with keen noses and ears. Most men hunted them with snares. Extraordinary slyness was required to kill one with a spear.
Dzeh nodded at the limp carcass. “That is a fine looking pelt.”
“The Spirits were kind to me today.” Klesh’s gaze flickered to the knife on Dzeh’s hip and then to the wood in his arms. “You are doing women’s work now?”
Dzeh bristled at the insult. “Klizzie is not feeling well.”
“Ah. The baby does not agree with her,” he said smugly. “Or is it the lie she is keeping that makes her feel so poorly?”
Dzeh was taken aback. “What lie?”
“The one about her child’s father.”
Klesh knew! Somehow he’d guessed the truth...or overheard it. Panic flared within Dzeh’s chest.
“You were listening!” he accused.
Klesh tightened his grip on his spear, but didn’t raise it.
“I find it peculiar that Muhl-dar would refuse to lay with Klizzie,” he said, head tilted as if genuinely curious. “She is an attractive woman...and an eager bed-mate...as we both know.”
Fury overtook Dzeh’s panic. He hated this man, and he found himself wishing Klesh would aim his spear, giving him ample reason to kill him where he stood.
Klesh appeared amused by Dzeh’s anger. “Are you sure Muhl-dar did not mate with her?” he asked. “Maybe the baby is his and she is lying to you again.”
“She has no reason to lie.”
“No? With Muhl-dar gone, someone must fetch wood for her.”
The firewood fell from Dzeh’s arms and his hand went to his knife. To his amazement, Klesh burst out laughing. A boisterous, despicable laugh that echoed through the trees and sent the flock of startled jays flying from their perches.
“Do not be a fool, Dzeh. A knife is no match for a spear,” he said, hefting the weapon, while trying to control his laughter. “You are right; Kliz has no reason to lie. She and Muhl-dar did not consummate the exchange.” His smile vanished as quickly as it had come. “What do you suppose the Clan elders would say if they knew?”
Was Klesh threatening to tell them?
“What are you going to do?” Dzeh asked.
“Nothing,” he answered innocently. “I have no reason to expose your secret. Do I?”
His implication was clear. Klesh was expecting something in return for his silence.
“What do you want?” Dzeh asked. He felt trapped in a snare of deceit, fighting for Klizzie’s life.
“I want what most men want.” An unexpected crosswind fluttered his beard. “Loyalty, a little respect.”
“You will never get those from me.”
Klesh shrugged. “I may be willing to accept something else instead.”
“What...do...you...want?” Dzeh growled.
“Access to Klizzie whenever I desire her.”
Rage blazed in Dzeh. “Never! You will not touch her again.”
Klesh nodded, as if they were haggling over pelts, not Klizzie’s life. “The choice is yours, of course. I have nothing to lose either way,” he said, sounding confident, haughty. He turned to go, but then paused and glanced back. “I will give you a day or two to think it over.”
With that, he walked away, leaving Dzeh to watch his scarred back disappear into the forest.
* * *
Hiking with dogged determination, Mulder carried Gini in his arms, while Scully followed several paces behind with the pack and spears. It was three hours after sunup, yet the day was as gloomy as dusk thanks to a thick, squalid overcast.
They were traveling through a lowland forest congested with spindly alders, stunted cedars, and dying hardwoods. The air carried the vinegary odor of rotting vegetation. Gnarled trees, many devoid of greenery, leaned precariously over the stream, which had turned sluggish and murky about two miles back. Bare branches clawed at their coats and snagged their hair, adding to Mulder’s irritation. He dodged a blowdown, got caught in a thicket of prickly vines, plowed onward. The ground beneath his boots was becoming spongier with each plodding step.
Four days of travel were taking their toll. Blistered feet, bone-weary legs, constant fatigue. Mulder’s biceps burned from holding Gini for so many hours. Unable to carry her piggyback anymore, he cradled her limp body against his chest...dead weight that threatened to slide from his shoulder whenever her head lolled.
The boggy terrain sloped gradually downhill to a depression several acres across, where the stream widened into an oily quagmire. Mud clung to Mulder’s boots, slowing his progress. The ground seemed determined to suck him in, reminding him of the case in Coats Grove, where Phil Rich was pulled into the Michigan mud by an orchard of vengeful trees.
“Think we’re going to end up in Karin Matthews’ root cellar?” he asked Scully, working to extricate his left foot without losing his boot.
“It wouldn’t be the weirdest thing that ever happened to us. Ouch!”
He turned to find a branch had caught her hair. While she freed herself, he squinted at their surroundings.
“I recognize this place.”
“How is this swamp any different from the others we’ve passed?”
He shifted Gini from the crook of his left arm to the right, and hissed when blood rushed painfully back into his fingers.
“You doing okay?” Scully asked. “We could stop and rest.”
“No, I’m fine.” He swiveled, scrutinizing the lay of the land. “I know we’ve been here before.”
“Please don’t say we’ve been walking in circles.”
This was where he’d spotted tiger tracks, he was sure of it, where they’d turned away from the stream on their way south, which meant they were going in the right direction after all. Halle-fucking-lujah! He let out a whoop of excited relief.
“Jesus, Mulder, what was that for?”
“Just happy to be proven wrong.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You were right, Scully. This *is* the same stream. This is where we turned off after I saw--” ...the footprints of a saber-toothed tiger. Damn. He shouldn’t mention that.
She looked around her. “I don’t recognize--”
“This is the place and that means we could be at the village before sundown if we hurry.” He slogged forward, hoping to distract her from remembering why they’d avoided the swamp in the first place.
She sloshed after him without objection, evidently not making the connection. He sent up a silent “thank you, Jesus,” and picked up the pace.
Five minutes later they were brought up short when they encountered a basketweave of downed trees. Enormous rotting cedars littered the tarnished water like Pick Up sticks, some half buried in mud, many balanced on top of others at precarious angles. Splintered branches, devoid of needles, bristled from the dead trunks, turning the swamp into a treacherous obstacle course.
“Is there an easier way around?” Scully asked, head pivoting.
Mulder hugged Gini to his chest and climbed up onto the broad horizontal trunk of a fallen tree for a better view, taking care to avoid spearing them with one of its many jagged limbs.
He could see a slight rise fifty yards to the west, which appeared drier, but crowded with evergreens and prickly-looking shrubs.
“We could try that direct--”
He fell silent when he spotted something moving behind the evergreens.
“Mulder? What is it?” Scully asked.
“Shhh.” Whatever it was, it had to be huge to make fifty-foot trees sway like that.
Wood suddenly splintered, cracking like a gunshot and making Mulder flinch as an evergreen bough was ripped from its trunk. Behind the screen of needles, he caught a glimpse of reddish-brown fur.
Scully hissed, “What *is* it?”
It moved again, causing the tree branches to bounce. More snapping wood and crunching vegetation. A giant eye peered out from behind the cedar’s lacy limbs, rolling in its socket, the whites vividly bright.
Did it see them?
Every muscle in Mulder’s body went taut when the animal took a step forward. It had a snake-like snout and long ivory tusks...
Jesus, it was a mastodon. Correction...it was the granddaddy of all mastodons.
Fourteen feet tall if it was and inch, it chuffed, spewing sawdust and bark, and pushed through the trees out into the open, where it glared at them. Its trunk crooked skyward and its maw gaped. A roar like the screech of train brakes poured from its throat, vibrating Mulder’s teeth.
Then it lowered its massive head and charged at them.
“Take cover!” he yelled, jumping from the log into knee-deep water. He nearly tripped when he sank up to his ankles in mud. Gripping Gini, he lunged forward, desperate to find a place to hide.
Behind him branches snapped. Timbers bounced and rolled. Entire trees toppled, crashed to the ground, splintered when they landed atop other downed trees.
The mastodon bellowed again, rattling his spine and his nerves. It was closing in.
Which way had Scully gone?
Mulder glanced over his shoulder as he vaulted a blowdown. She was nowhere in sight, blocked from view by the charging mastodon. Another tree collapsed in the beast’s wake. Limbs spiraled off it, sailing past Mulder’s head, spearing the sodden ground beside him with a deadly thud. He ducked behind the downed tree and crouched over Gini, shielding her body with his. Slivers of exploding bark sprayed his right side, feeling like shrapnel as they peppered his temple and ear. He hunkered lower.
Suddenly, the forest fell silent. He held his breath. Listened. When he heard nothing for a full thirty seconds, he chanced a peek at the devastation.
The mastodon was standing not ten feet away, ears cocked, eyes blinking. It shuffled one step closer before tossing a log the size of a utility pole into the air. The log crashed to the ground and broke in two.
Gini shifted in his arms and mewled against his neck.
“Shhh, baby, shhh,” he whispered.
Had the mastodon heard them?
It huffed, waggled its enormous head, making its ears slap, sending dust billowing skyward. Mulder caught a whiff of its musty hide. Then it suddenly turned away and slogged southward. Was it heading toward Scully? Where was she?
Logs creaked and rolled as it picked its way across the swamp. Mulder’s panic rose as he pictured Scully being crushed beneath the shifting trees.
The mastodon veered west, back the way it had come, its rage evidently forgotten. At the edge of the swamp, it paused to feed once more on cedar boughs. Mulder’s heart hammered his chest as he waited for the damn thing to leave. He wanted to go find Scully, make sure she was okay, that she hadn’t been injured during the beast’s short-lived rampage.
It finally disappeared from view. For several minutes Mulder heard it feeding beyond the screen of trees. Go, goddammit, he silently urged. Gini shivered in his arms. He tried to reposition her so her bare feet no longer dangled in the swamp’s chilly water.
Several more torturous minutes passed. The mastodon’s grunting and munching faded, and then ceased altogether. Mulder couldn’t stand not knowing what happened to Scully a moment longer. Carefully, quietly, he rose to his feet to scan the swamp, lifting Gini with him. He spotted the top of Scully’s head twenty feet away in a well between two crisscrossed trees.
Was she all right? He hoped she was just hiding, being cautious, shaken but unharmed.
Not daring to call out to her, he struggled across the chaos of fallen trees, moving as silently as possible, just in case the mastodon was still within hearing range. It took him a few minutes to get within eight or ten feet of Scully.
“Scully?” he whispered. “Are you okay?”
Her head bobbed and she murmured, “I’m fine. Is it gone?”
He glanced again in the mastodon’s direction. “Yes. You can get up.”
“I-I can’t...I seem to be stuck.” Gripping a branch near her shoulder, she struggled to pull herself from the mud.
“Let me help,” he said, looking for a dry place to set Gini. “Hold on... I’ll be right with you.”
He laid Gini on her back atop one of the many horizontal logs. It was twice as wide as she was, so he felt confident she wouldn’t roll off while he helped Scully.
“Mulder, my foot is pinned. I can’t get it out.”
“I’m on my way.” He climbed over two fallen trees to reach her.
She pointed to the logjam above her legs. The largest timbers were three feet in diameter and fifty or sixty feet long. They bristled with broken branches, some thicker than his arm. No doubt there were as many limbs spearing the mud as there were sticking into the air, fixing the trees to the ground. It was a miracle she hadn’t been impaled with one.
“Are you hurt? Any pain, broken bones?”
“No, I’m okay, just stuck. The tree I was hiding behind shifted when that...*thing* bumped into it.” She dismissed the mastodon with an irritated wave. She was sitting in about eight inches of muddy water. Her right foot was hidden from view beneath the tree. “Maybe you can reach in there and free me. Your arms are longer than mine.”
He moved into position, straddled a branch, and bent down to thrust his arm into the cold mud. Sliding his hand along her leg, he felt his way blindly toward her ankle and foot. He stopped when he encountered wood.
“It feels like you’re caught between two crossed branches and the main trunk of this lower tree. Not much wiggle room.”
He gently squeezed her ankle. “Does that hurt?”
“No, but I can’t pull my foot out.” She tried again to twist free.
“Maybe I can move the log,” he said.
“Move the-- Mulder, it must weigh several tons.”
“I don’t intend to lift the entire thing. I’m just going to shift it enough for you to pull yourself out.”
“And how do you plan to do that?”
Good question. He needed something to use as a pry bar.
He straightened to scan the swamp for a stout branch.
“Give me a lever that is long enough,” he quoted Archimedes, “and single-handed, I will move the world.”
“Or roll this log on top of me.”
That was going to be a problem. “It’s leaning in your direction.”
“Maybe you can break off one of the smaller side branches instead,” she suggested.
“You mean the ones that are as thick as a linebacker’s neck?”
“Or...I could chew off my leg.”
He didn’t laugh at her joke. There was nothing funny about this situation. As a matter of fact, he was beginning to panic a little. How *was* he going to get her out?
Although it made no logical sense, he placed the heels of his hands against the log, braced his feet in the mud, and put all his weight into rolling the tree away from her.
It didn’t budge. Not even a little.
“Mulder, that’s useless.”
He gave the smaller of the two side branches a hard tug and found it was as solid as stone. He tried the second one with the same results.
Gini moaned, drawing their attention. Her head lolled to one side, but she remained otherwise motionless.
“Mulder...you’re not going to like what I’m about to suggest...”
“It’s the only way.”
“No. There’s got to be something else...we just...”
He threw himself at the log again and shoved with every ounce of strength in him, willing it to move. When it didn’t budge, a mix of anger and full-blown panic overtook him.
Son of a bitch! This couldn’t be happening. They were so close. One more goddamn day and they’d be at the village.
He ignored her protest and continued to shove, pitting his 170-pound frame against several tons of waterlogged timber. He refused to consider her alternative. She was about to ask him to leave her and go for help, and he absolutely, unequivocally would not do it.
Fucking tree, fucking mastodon and *fucking* Ice Age! He pushed harder.
“Mulder, stop it!” Her shout sliced through his rage, halting his struggle.
Breathless, he slumped into the mud beside her.
She placed a hand on his arm. He almost shook it off, wanting to scream, “Don’t ask it, Scully. Don’t.”
“Mulder, you have to go for help.”
No. He was *not* going to leave her here, trapped like this, vulnerable to predators and frigid temperatures.
“Who’s going to help us, Scully? Not Dzeh. Not any of them.”
“You’ll have to find a way to convince them.”
He chuffed at her naivete. “And suppose they kill me? Where does that leave you?”
“No worse than if you stay right here.”
The truth of her words struck him like a punch to the gut, knocking the breath from his lungs.
“No, I won’t do it.” Frustration heated his skin. Tears stung his eyes. “I *won’t* go and leave you unprotected.”
“I have the spears.”
He gaped at her. The spears? Two fucking, spindly spears...against a saber-toothed tiger or another raging mastodon?
“Scully, it’ll take me a day and a half to get to the village and back. Assuming I could talk those Neanderthals into coming with me, which I doubt, that means you’d be stuck here, wet, cold and at the mercy of--” He stopped himself before saying more. Listing every possible threat would serve no purpose. Trying to reign in his temper, he lowered his voice. “That’s sixteen hours, Scully...*minimum*. I won’t do it.”
Her expression hardened. “Then Gini and I will both die.”
His eyes flickered to Gini.
“There *has* to be another way,” he said.
“I don’t know. I need a few minutes to think.”
“Every minute you wait lessens our chances.”
He glanced again at Gini.
“Mulder...” Sympathy crept into her tone, drawing his attention back to her. Her eyes swam with sadness. “Sometimes there are no good choices. Sometimes there are just choices.”
Was she thinking about Dzeh and the mate swap? Another godawful non-choice. Door Number One or Door Number Two, what did it matter? Both were equally objectionable, the outcome a disaster no matter which way you went.
“Take Gini to the village,” she urged, quietly. “You can get help and return for me.”
No. “What if--” Tonight, or days from now, he failed to return because the tribe had killed him or delayed him by holding him hostage...she would be left waiting...alone, cold, helpless.
Yet he knew if he stayed and wasn’t able to free her, she would just as surely die...while he watched.
This was a fucking nightmare.
“Mulder, what are you afraid of?”
Her question surprised him. “Right now?”
He could rattle off a whole list of things that scared the hell out of him; his cowardice ran deeper than he liked to admit. But one fear topped all others.
“Losing you,” he answered honestly. He couldn’t lose her, couldn’t be without her, not here, not back home, not anywhere.
His admission caused tears to gloss her eyes. One overflowed her lower lashes and spiraled down her cheek, and its wet trail brought a lump to his throat.
“And you? Aren’t you afraid?” he managed to ask.
She offered him a thin smile, bowed at the corners with false bravado. “Nothing scares me, Mulder.”
He didn’t believe her, knew it wasn’t true in fact. But he understood why she’d said it. She had faith; she’d always had faith. It was one of the things that drew him to her, again and again, whenever his own faith was lacking and he needed propping up.
“You have to trust in something, Mulder: other people, the future, God.”
“I trust you.”
“You need more than that; *we* need more than that.” She glanced at Gini, reminding him that their responsibility was greater than themselves.
“I-I can’t--” His voice cracked and he turned away, ashamed of his fear and selfishness. “This is impossible for me.”
“No, it’s not. Hike north. Follow the stream; go as quickly as you can. You’ll find Dzeh and you’ll convince him--”
“No, I won’t.”
“Yes, you will. Somehow, you’ll do it, because you have to. Because I’ll be waiting for you and I need you to come back to me.”
Please, don’t ask it. He wasn’t that brave. Tears blurred the surrounding forest, while dread deadened his arms and set his heart pounding. He wanted to be her hero, he truly did, but not this way, not by abandoning her.
“Mulder, when I was fighting my cancer--”
“When I was fighting my cancer,” she pressed on, “you never gave up looking for a cure. When Emily was dying, you didn’t give up fighting for her life either. And you didn’t give up when Duane Barry--”
“Please, stop!” He wanted to cover his ears, drown out her rationalizations.
“My point is,” she continued, “you didn’t give up, you *don’t* give up. Whether you’re fighting to save the life of someone you’ve just met, like...like Lucy Householder...or someone you love with all your heart, like your sister Sam.”
And you, he thought. Which was why this was so impossible.
“Look at me, Mulder.”
He did as she asked, and found her eyes were glistening with admiration, trust, and faith...always faith...faith in him.
She reached out and squeezed his arm, then nodded at Gini. “You can save her.”
He heard the rest of her unspoken statement as clearly as if she’d shouted it: “Even if I die.”
Going would give Gini a slight chance to live; staying would kill her for sure.
But how the hell was he supposed to walk away and leave Scully waiting for a rescue that would in all likelihood never come?
Bile prickled the back of his throat, tasting as bitter as his choices.
He couldn’t leave her there to die alone.
And yet that was exactly what he had to do.
Reluctantly, he rose on unfeeling legs to find the things she would need. The pack, the spears. He searched among the dead, gray trees, scattered like corpses in the murky water, until he found them, fallen behind a log, half-buried in mud.
He took them to her and placed them beside her.
“Mulder, take some food with you.”
“I won’t need it.”
“I won’t need it.”
He stripped off his jacket and tucked it around her shoulders. When she began to object, he shook his head. Even with the extra jacket, she was going to be cold, sitting in several inches of chilly mud and water. After sundown, it would be worse. “I’ll just sweat in it anyway. I plan to run the whole way.”
Again her tears overflowed her eyes.
He crouched and cupped her cheek. Of all the unbearable things he’d faced in his life, nothing came close to this, to saying goodbye for what might be the last time.
“I will come back,” he promised.
He leaned forward and kissed her gently on the lips.
“I love you,” he whispered against her mouth, while in his mind he screamed please, please, *please* stay alive until I can return.
She nodded, as if she could hear his unspoken plea. Her thumb caressed his cheek. “I love you, too, sweetheart.”
He would recall those words over the next hours, repeat them in his head again and again, to give him faith, Scully’s faith, to save her life.
Without another word, he stood and went to Gini. He lifted the little girl from the log and cradled her in his arms. Her skin was fiery and looked paper-thin, and her breathing came in short, desperate gasps that made her chest rise and fall as rapidly as heartbeats.
He didn’t dare look back at Scully. To see her trapped there would anchor him to this place as surely as the log that pinned her ankle. So he took one halting step forward, and then forced himself to take another, and another, until he was jogging north to Turkey Lake.
Continued in Chapter Nineteen...
thanks to mimic117
and jeri for beta of Chapter 18.
And a hug to xdks for helping me out of my "apostrophe dilemma."
See The Mastodon Diaries Dictionary for an explanation of the paleo-indian terms and names.