Continued from Chapter Nineteen
["The Mastodon Diaries" is rated NC-17 for Violence, Language, and Graphic Sexual Content. Reader discretion is advised.]
Chal was sitting among his Badger relatives when the beating began. Each thudding punch caused his stomach to contract, each groan made him clench his fists in anger. He wanted to stand up for Muhl-dar, battle the outraged mob, stop their vicious onslaught against this man who had saved his life two moons ago. But he was just a boy, and the hulking Owl clansmen were full grown men.
A crack to the back of Muhl-dar’s head felled him and he collapsed with a moan, face down in the grass. He didn’t rise again; he didn’t move at all. Chal hoped that would end the beating. He hoped the men would back off and discuss their next course of action, come to some sort of rational conclusion about the Eel stranger’s fate. When they began to strike Muhl-dar across the shoulders with their spears, Chal could sit still no longer. He became incensed and leapt to his feet.
“Chal!” his mother gasped and grabbed his wrist.
He shook off her hand and took a step toward Muhl-dar and the brutish clansmen.
“Don’t be a fool,” warned Tla-Gin, his eldest brother, a broad-chested man of twenty years.
“It is not your concern,” said their cousin, seventeen-year-old Shush.
Chal scowled at them. “It *is* my concern. Have you forgotten that Muhl-dar saved my life? I owe him the same.”
Without waiting to hear their responses, he sprinted to Muhl-dar’s rescue.
It didn’t matter that he stood no chance against eleven or twelve strapping men with enormous fists and angry hearts. He ignored their size and numbers, and careened full tilt into Wol-la-chee, shouting, “Stop it! Stop it!”
Wol-la-chee elbowed him easily out of the way, before bringing his spear down with a crack against Muhl-dar’s spine. The blade sliced into his skin and blood oozed from the wound.
Chal charged again, kicking Wol-la-chee and his brother Yeh-hes in the ankles and calves. Yeh-hes shoved him backward, causing him to stumble and fall. In a heartbeat, he had his legs under him again and was buzzing at the men like an irritated wasp, grabbing their spears and clinging to their arms, trying his hardest to slow their assault, all the while yelling at them to put down their weapons.
“Go away, boy,” Lin shouted, raising a hand but not going so far as to strike him.
“I will not! What you are doing is wrong.”
Wol-la-chee lifted Chal off his feet and carried him away from the fracas. Tossing him roughly onto the grass, he warned, “Stay there, or I will not be so gentle with you next time.”
Tears of frustration stung Chal’s eyes, blurring Wol-la-chee’s retreating back. Blinking, he spotted Dzeh standing off to one side, watching the beating, but not lifting his spear against Muhl-dar.
He ran to him and positioned himself in front of him. Refusing to crouch respectfully at the elder man’s feet, he straightened his shoulders and stared directly into his eyes.
“Stop them,” he said in his firmest voice.
Dzeh huffed with irritation. “I will not.”
“Why not?” Chal loathed the way his voice whined like a fussing infant. Clearing his throat, he said more forcefully, “No man deserves such cruel treatment.”
“He is not a man; he is a chindi.”
“He brought Gini home.”
Uncertainty rippled across Dzeh’s frowning lips. He glanced at the bear claw necklace and the Eel bracelet Chal was wearing.
“She would not have left in the first place if not for him,” he growled.
“You do not know that. You said yourself she was frightened by--” A knife of guilt sliced through Chal’s gut, silencing his argument. It had been the prospect of Joining with him that had scared her enough to make her run away.
“What is important is that he brought her back,” Chal said when he found his voice again.
“She is nearly dead!”
“And he was trying to save her.”
“Or show us how vile he is.”
“No, Dzeh, he risked his life to bring her here. Cannot you see that?”
Dzeh’s expression turned as inflexible as stone. “I see nothing but a dying girl and the evil man who took her from me.”
Chal followed Dzeh’s pitiless gaze to where Muhl-dar lay flat on his belly, surrounded by a flurry of waving arms and pounding spears. Wallops drummed his back like the hooves of stampeding bison.
Desperate, he searched the gathering of onlookers for allies. The people of four clans stood in a large semi-circle, watching intently but unmoving, not one clansman willing to intervene on the stranger’s behalf. Not even Klizzie, who wept openly as she crouched over Gini, laid out on the ground, receiving prayers from the Shaman.
Not knowing what else to do, Chal rushed the angry Owl clansmen again. Pushing between them, he threw himself onto Muhl-dar’s back. He blocked their attack by spreading his arms like an eagle’s wings.
“Hold your weapons still!” Lin ordered. He tried to pry Chal loose, but the boy clung to Muhl-dar with all his strength.
The Owl clansmen paused, spears held aloft, uncertain what to do next. No one wanted to hurt the boy; it was Muhl-dar who was the enemy.
“Get up!” Yeh-hes shouted.
Wol-la-chee waggled his spear in warning. “We will beat you, boy, if you do not move out of our way.”
“No, you will not!” Chal’s brother Tla-Gin roared. He came jogging forward, Shush close on his heels.
Ten or so Badger Clansmen quickly joined them. Enmity lit their eyes as they paired off toe-to-toe with the riled Owl men. Tla-Gin drew his knife. Several others did the same. Wol-la-chee and his kinsmen aimed their spears at the new challengers.
“Harm my brother, Wol-la-chee, and you and your chindi kinsmen will feel the sting of my blade,” Tla-Gin threatened.
Wol-la-chee thrust his face in front of Tla-Gin’s nose and snarled, “Remove your filthy Badger brother from my sight.”
The goodwill brought about by the Mastodon Feast was disintegrating as easily as a sandstone knife, while generations of fierce competition and festering quarrels were threatening to erupt like lightning bolts from a thundercloud. Chal began to tremble, believing he had sparked this fight. He knew that the slightest provocation would fan the argument into a blood feud.
Otter clansmen hurried from the crowd to align themselves with their Badger kin. Hunters from Turtle Clan joined sides with their Owl cousins. If something wasn’t done soon, many men would be wounded or die on this field tonight, and the hatred spawned by their lost blood would last for countless generations.
“Stop this!” Lin shouted, trying to be heard above the rumble of voices. He pinned his Trading Partner Cha-Gee with a desperate stare. Cha-Gee was Badger. Lin was Owl. “We are not each other’s enemies,” he declared.
Cha-Gee considered his words, and then moved to his side in a show of solidarity.
Painted in the contrasting patterns of their ancestors, these two elders, respected by all, represented two disparate clans. It relieved Chal to see them standing side-by-side, rather than on opposite ends of a spear. If anyone could preserve peace among this pack of wolves, they could.
“It is the Eel stranger who brings trouble upon us, my brothers,” Cha-Gee said, pointing to Muhl-dar. “We must punish him, not each other.”
Grunts of agreement frosted the chilly night air. Heads bobbed as spears and knives were lowered. Behind them the bonfire snapped and crackled, hurling sparks at the sky.
“Tie him up,” Lin said. “We will decide what is to be done when he comes to.”
* * *
The first rays of dawn filtered through the trees, stirring the morning mist with long ghostly fingers. Vapor swirled around stumps and blowdowns, writhing upward from the frigid swamp like steam in Hell’s kitchen. Scully shivered in her well of mud, clutching Mulder’s coat around her trembling shoulders, although it provided little protection against the cold and damp. Her teeth were chattering uncontrollably. She was suffering from the earliest stages of hypothermia.
Food and water. Her body needed food and water to generate heat. Eating and staying hydrated were the best ways to prevent hypothermia in chilly, wet conditions.
With numbed fingers she fumbled through the pack, searching for the last of the smoked meat. She found a plum instead and bit urgently into it.
A breeze stirred her hair.
Please, no wind, she silently pleaded with God, knowing it would rob her of essential body heat and accelerate her declining condition.
Damn it! Why hadn’t she remembered sooner? Ninety percent of heat loss was through the head. She knew that. She did. Yet she was sitting here with her head uncovered. Quickly, she hooded herself with Mulder’s jacket and cursed her lack of focus.
How soon before she became completely disoriented?
Already she was experiencing uncontrollable shivering, loss of coordination, drowsiness. Without treatment, those symptoms would be followed by reduced mental acuity, shock, and decelerated respiration.
Hypothermia patients who are warmed too quickly often die from cardiac arrest. Did Mulder know how to treat her if her body temperature slid below ninety-five degrees? Below ninety?
She clapped her hands and beat her upper arms in an effort to increase blood flow and stave off shock. The motion knocked the jacket from her head and she cursed out loud, “God damn it!”
The spider on the log above her reacted to her outburst by extending one cautious leg into the air as if testing the invisible current of her impatience. Its web, laden with dew, shimmered beneath its weight. Short hairs bristled on its bulbous abdomen, and it worked its charcoal-colored jaws as if warming up for breakfast. Scully knew that most species of spiders had eight tiny eyes located on the top of their cephalothorax, which could detect only light and dark. Where she’d learned this, or why, she tried to recall.
Missy. Missy had taught her about spiders.
“They’re an important part of the ecosystem,” Missy had said, after rescuing one from a jar in Bill and Charlie’s bedroom. She released it into the backyard, then sat down on the grass to watch it crawl away, while she explained the concept of biodiversity and the ecological role of insects to her twelve-year-old sister. Missy planned to join Greenpeace as soon as she was old enough. It was 1976 and baby seals were being bludgeoned to death in Newfoundland.
Dana admired Missy’s concern for all living things, and the grisly news coverage about the seals was disturbing, yet she found it difficult to expand her sympathy to spiders.
A blue-green darning needle careened into the web above her legs, and became entangled. The spider rushed toward it, guided by vibration. Shooting silk from its abdomen, the spider quickly and efficiently buried its victim alive inside a thick, opalescent cocoon.
“Did you know some spider species are social?” Missy had asked all those years ago, nudging the lone spider toward freedom.
“Like bees and ants?”
“Not quite. Worker bees and ants are sterile -- only the queen can lay eggs -- but arachnids in a social colony can all reproduce.” Melissa’s use of the word arachnid impressed her younger sister, which was no doubt why she’d said it.
Both girls were lying on their stomachs to get a bug’s eye view of the yard.
“Most social species live in the rain forests of South America,” Missy continued, “where they build giant hammock-shaped webs. Each nest can contain tens of thousands of spiders.”
Dana rolled onto her back to gaze up at the summer sky. Fluffy white clouds floated across a vivid blue backdrop. She imagined them full of crawly spiders.
“They guard their eggs against predators, move egg sacks to parts of the web with the most comfortable temperatures, and feed their hatchlings,” Missy said. “They don’t distinguish between their own progeny and those of others.”
Dana tried to picture this big, caring family of spiders.
“Group living has its benefits,” her sister went on. Missy planned to live in a commune after her stint with Greenpeace. “Working cooperatively, social spiders can capture prey ten times their size. An individual spider is lucky if it can capture a bug only twice its size.”
Listening to Missy was a lot like listening to Mulder. Their matter-of-fact monotones were comforting, yet their choice of subject matter often left her feeling queasy.
She closed her eyes, shutting out the doomed darning needle and the hungry spider. She felt drowsy. And cold.
“No.” Her eyes snapped open. Sleep was a death sentence. She needed to stay awake and wait for Mulder.
Should she sing? Pray?
Deciding on the latter, she cleared her throat and began. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me... He leads me...”
What were the words?
“Beside still waters; He restores my soul. He leads me...in...?”
She’d recited this Psalm countless times. It should come as easily as breathing.
“He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake...uh...”
She felt more confused with each passing minute. Had she reached the next stage of hypothermia already?
“Even though I...I walk...through the shadow of-- Through the *valley* of the shadow of death--”
A muted growl interrupted her prayer. The sound prickled her scalp and raised gooseflesh along her spine. Her head swiveled as she searched for the source. The swamp was filled with hiding places.
She sat up straighter to peer over the log.
There was nothing there.
Had she imagined the sound?
The growl came again, real and about twenty yards to her left. It sounded like a cat...a big one. She grabbed her spear. It felt spindly and ineffectual in her hands. She held her breath to listen. Water trickled through the swamp, dripping from dead tree limbs; its patter sounded like gunshots to her oversensitive ears. Somewhere to the east a hawk screeched, vibrating her taut nerves. When she heard a twig snap, she jumped and gasped.
Her heart was hammering and she began to tremble uncontrollably. Seized by sudden desperation, she tried to yank her leg free. She knew it was useless, she was held fast, but her panic was overwhelming her. She tugged and twisted her leg. Pain shot through her knee. Damn it, she wanted to stand, to run. The danger would be on her at any second, a killer like the saber-toothed cat that had held her and Mulder captive in a tree their first night in the Pleistocene.
Where the hell was the damn thing?
“I-I w-walk through the valley...of the sh-shadow of death...” Teeth chattering, she faced the invisible threat with the only weapons she had: a primitive spear and her faith in God.
She imagined Mulder beside her, keeping her safe on their branch above the cat...
“I f-fear no, no--”
A pair of yellow-green eyes appeared above the log.
Oh God. It had enormous fangs.
Her prayer unraveled in her panicky mind as she waited for the cat to attack.
* * *
Mulder shook the cobwebs from his head. Sunlight jabbed his eyes. Jesus, what time was it?
Instinctively he tried to check his wristwatch only to find his hands were bound behind his back.
Well, at least he wasn’t tied to a goal post.
He was lying on his side in the ball field, and his head, neck and back ached almost as much as the night he’d been stoned. He licked his split lower lip and tasted blood.
Struggling to rise to a seated position, he focused on the dozens of scowling faces in front of him. It seemed the entire tribe was there, sitting cross-legged on the lawn watching him.
“Hey,” he said, staring back at them.
Murmurs traveled through the gathering, sounding like the hum of tires on the 395 during rush hour.
Mulder cleared his throat. “Have you heard the one about the priest, the rabbi, and the sorry, fucked up son-of-a-bitch who pissed off an entire tribe of Neanderthals without even trying?”
Heads swiveled. Fingers tightened around spears and knives.
“Guess so. Well...how about this then?” He focused his attention on Dzeh, who was sitting front and center. The hunter appeared both pissed and weary beneath his war paint. Was there a shred of compassion left in this old trading buddy of his?
Quickly reviewing the limited number of caveman words he’d learned from Gini, Mulder dredged up a couple of phrases he hoped would prove helpful. “Yah-tay-go-e-elah ta-bilh. Al-khi-nal-dzl.”
Had he mispronounced them? The words were tongue twisters. He’d meant to say he was there to make amends, and hoped that he and Dzeh could bury the hatchet...metaphorically speaking. From the shocked look on the tribesman’s face, he guessed he’d messed up the translation.
He decided to switch gears and inquire about Gini’s health instead. Enunciating each syllable with great care, he asked how she was doing.
Please, he prayed, don’t let her be dead.
Dzeh’s scowl deepened as he glanced over at a group of squatting figures thirty feet away to his right. Mulder recognized Klizzie and the medicine man among them. He guessed the small form stretched out on the ground was Gini. She was wrapped in furs, head cradled in Klizzie’s lap. The medicine man was painting her cheeks with colorful muddy streaks, chanting quietly while rocking on the balls of his bare feet.
Mulder’s hopes fell; a few daubs of paint weren’t going to help Gini in any significant way. Hell, his magic keys were probably more potent. It looked like he’d risked his life and Scully’s for nothing.
Several of the men were now on their feet, pointing at him and talking in raised voices. Dzeh remained seated and silent. The old hunter with the graying beard was pacing with palms extended, apparently trying to calm the malcontents.
Suddenly the boy Chal jumped to his feet and approached Mulder. His daring -- or foolhardiness -- brought gasps from the crowd. A woman with a long face beckoned him back, but he ignored her and came to stand a couple of feet away from Mulder’s outstretched legs.
Mulder recognized the claw necklace he wore -- it had been the one Dzeh had given to him in trade for his wristwatch.
He noticed the boy was wearing that, too.
When Chal caught him eyeballing the watch, he unfastened it and held it out.
Mulder waved him off with a shake of his head, but the boy persisted. He laid the watch at his feet, then tentatively stepped forward and touched one extended finger to Mulder’s belt buckle.
He wanted to trade? “You...you want my belt?”
“Alh-nahl-yah.” Chal made what appeared to be swapping motions with his hands.
The long-faced woman shouted her disapproval. As did several others. Everyone seemed upset. Clearly Chal was going against some sort of tribal convention by offering this trade. Mulder wasn’t sure if the tribe’s objections were general ones or if they were aimed at him specifically.
He supposed it didn’t matter. If he could make even one ally he’d be better off than he was right now.
“Uh...yeah, sure. But I can’t...” He indicated his tied hands.
The boy withdrew a stone knife from the cord at his waist and cut Mulder’s bindings. This unexpected action brought a cacophony of complaints.
“Nih-hi-cho,” the boy announced, causing Dzeh to rocket to his feet.
“No!” he shouted. This was followed by a lengthy diatribe, none of which Mulder understood.
When Dzeh finally wound down, Mulder proceeded to cautiously unbuckle his belt and slide it from its loops. When he had it free, he held it out to Chal.
The boy took it, looking pleased. The empty holster in particular seemed to interest him.
Smiling proudly, Chal lifted the trophy over his head and pivoted for all to see. He accompanied his action by an official-sounding proclamation that caused a variety of noisy responses -- objections mostly, but also a few grudging grunts of acceptance.
An alliance had been made and the idea clearly wasn’t sitting well with most of the tribesmen, yet they refrained from rejecting it outright. Evidently trading goods -- or women -- created a strong bond between the men of this society. Mulder felt like an idiot for not recognizing the importance of it sooner.
Ignoring the tribe’s scowls and distrustful stares, Mulder decided to nurture his fledging relationship with the boy, and maybe leverage it for help rescuing Scully.
“Chal...look.” Mulder dug into his pants pockets. He pulled out everything he was carrying: wallet, keys, pocketknife, an assortment of change. He laid everything on the ground in front of him.
Then he untied and removed his boots and added them to the pile.
Next, he rose slowly to his feet, palms exposed to show he meant no harm. Once standing, he stripped off his tattered jeans. “They’ve seen better days.” He dropped them beside the worn boots. Without hesitation, he stripped off his boxers and tossed them onto the pile, too.
He stood naked in front of the tribe. “That’s all I’ve got. Whaddaya say, buddy? Shall we trade?” With a wave of his hand, he indicated he was giving everything he owned to the boy. All his worldly goods. He hoped it would be enough.
Chal’s eyes rounded in astonished wonder. Apparently this meager collection of 20th Century crap was actually worth something in the Ice Age, which made no logical sense -- not one of those items had helped Mulder survive his wilderness ordeal...well, except maybe his lucky boxers. The old adage that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure was evidently true. Every man in the tribe was practically drooling over the goods.
“Uh...there’s more where that came from,” he said, hoping to sweeten the pot, “back at the swamp.”
An uncomfortable expression furrowed Chal’s young brow, causing Mulder’s heart to lodge in his throat. The boy seemed at a loss. He placed the belt he’d just acquired next to the wristwatch at Mulder’s feet, explaining with words and hand signals that he had little else of value to trade.
Again Mulder waved him off. “Not interested. I don’t want your stuff; I want your help.” Jesus, what was the fucking word for “help”? Gini must have used it a million times. “I want...uh, eda-ele-tsood.”
Judging from the confused looks on everyone’s faces, he’d either gotten the word wrong or this was a new concept.
“Eda-ele-tsood?” Chal asked.
Mulder nodded his head vigorously. “Yes. Scully...uh, Day-nuh is trapped in the swamp. I need your help getting her out.”
He was met with more confused stares. Damn it, why hadn’t he taken the time to learn more of Gini’s language? Using hand signals and a smattering of tribe words, he struggled to make himself understood. “Day-nuh...bilh-la di,” -- he pointed in the direction of the swamp -- “bih-din-ne-dey.” Shit, trying to get his point across was like playing fucking charades. “Ho-nez-cla... Tehi.”
Come on, come on, put it together, kid.
Chal glanced over his shoulder and looked in the direction of the swamp. “Lahn,” he said at last, nodding his head. “A-ha-ne-ho-ta.”
Mulder clapped his hands together. “Yes. Good.”
Chal selected the pair of worn boots from the pile and pushed the other items back at Mulder.
“No, no, no,” Mulder argued. “Take it all. Divvy it up with your buddies. Convince a couple of the bigger ones to come with us.” It was going to take more than one skinny kid and an exhausted FBI agent to move that log.
Chal shrugged, not understanding, so Mulder launched into another round of Caveman Charades. After several excruciating minutes, he seemed to have clarified his intentions.
The boy pawed through the pile and selected the badge and the pocketknife. He carried them to two brutish men who were wearing face paint and hairstyles matching his own. After a bit of negotiation, the men smiled and took the items. Chal looked expectantly back at Mulder.
Would three of them be enough? That log was goddamn huge.
“Dzeh,” Mulder called to his one-time friend. “How about it? Help me,” he said in his most polite cavemanese. “Pretty please.”
* * *
Dzeh shook his head. He would *not* come to the aid of this chindi. If Chal and his foolish Badger kin wanted to throw in with devils that was their business. Crossing his arms, he turned his face insultingly toward the sky.
“Dzeh?” Chal marched over to him. This time he dropped to his knees out of respect. “It is an important thing when a man saves the life of another,” he said, keeping his eyes downcast.
“No one has saved my life.”
“No, but Muhl-dar has saved the life of your sister. Surely that means something to you.”
“I do not see that my sister’s life is saved.” Dzeh couldn’t bring himself to glance her way. To do so would knock the legs out from under him.
Chal was not eager to give up. “It is wrong to refuse the needs of your own kin,” he said.
“And it is wrong to speak with such insolence to an elder,” he growled. “Muhl-dar is no kin of mine.”
Chal appeared to gather his courage. Ignoring Dzeh’s warning about his rude behavior, he said in a voice loud enough for all to hear, “You laid on the sleeping skins with this man’s mate. Your own mate carries his child. That makes him kin according to Clan tradition.”
Dzeh glanced nervously at Muhl-dar to see if he would deny the boy’s claim and expose Klizzie’s secret. To his relief, Muhl-dar didn’t seem to understand what was being said, or he was unwilling to divulge the truth for his own reasons.
Chal gripped the bear claw necklace he wore, reminding Dzeh that he had gone with him to Ye-tsan Basin to find Gini. “Sometimes men who are not kin will help one another.”
Shame heated Dzeh’s cheeks. He lowered his head and said, “That is true.” Muhl-dar was Chal’s Trading Partner now. The relationship was an important one, recognized by the Clan as binding, despite the boy’s youth and impudence. “I will go with you and Tla-Gin and Shush. I will help Muhl-dar.” The words tasted bitter, but it was now a promise and he would not take it back.
* * *
Long after the men headed south to rescue Day-nuh, Klizzie kept vigil beside Gini in the Shaman’s hut. The girl slept fitfully on a bed of silver wolf furs, a chestnut-colored beaver cloak pulled up to her chin. Her face glowed above the blanket as pale as a mid-winter moon. Her hair was tangled and damp with sweat, sticking to her forehead and neck. Klizzie mopped her brow with a scrap of doeskin, moistened with spring water and perfumed with mint. She was grateful beyond words to have her Little Chick returned to her, yet frightened to see her hovering so near the world of Spirits.
Across the hut, the Shaman was heating tea in a tortoiseshell bowl over the fire. He added bits of dried moss and powdered bone, claiming these would help rid Gini of the curse that was invading her body. The Shaman claimed Yellow Spirits were to blame for her illness, evil vapors that hovered above swamps, put there to punish children for their waywardness. They stained the skin and eyes with the waxy hue of honeycomb. They stole the breath and weakened the limbs. They caused blood to seep from the eyes, nose, mouth, even the pores, although this had not yet happened to Gini. Without proper treatment and heartfelt prayers, death was certain.
“It is not too late to help her, is it?” Klizzie asked. She refreshed the doeskin, wetting it again with cool liquid and applying it to Gini’s fiery brow.
“Her life is in the hands of the Spirits.” The Shaman gave her a sympathetic glance. He pointed at the gourd of spring water. “Cool her chest and arms, too.”
Klizzie peeled back the blanket, exposing Gini’s thin, bare chest. She began to massage her ribs with gentle strokes.
“The Spirits are singing and you are safe, my Little One,” Klizzie sang out of habit as she attended to the girl. “Hear their voices among the stars, carried down on a kind west wind.” She wetted the doeskin with clean water from the gourd before wiping Gini’s hands and wrists with it. The girl’s bones felt smaller than she remembered, perhaps because her flesh was no longer supple, but felt like deer hide that had not been properly cured. She patted each small hand, washing them front and back, cooling each curled finger. Sorrow squeezed her heart at the thought of losing Gini a second time. “Tonight you are secure in my arms,” she sang, feeling the sting of tears. They perched on her lashes, hot and blinding. “The hearth fire burns brightly beside us.” One tear overflowed. Then another splashed down her cheek. “Tomorrow the sun will shine on your face, and food will fill your belly.” The room blurred. She ached with worry. “When you are grown...” She was crying in earnest now, not caring if the Shaman saw her. The words of her song stuttered from her tightening throat. “I will still love you, my Child, and I will hope...” She continued to sing, resolving not to stop until Gini awoke. “The Spirits are singing and you are safe...”
* * *
Hill Air Force Base
Hangar 19, Computer Lab
May 14, 1998
“Damn it, we don’t have time for this shit.” Jason paced the length of the lab. Two armed guards stood at attention outside the open door. “Can we get on with it please?” he shouted at them. The guards remained fixed at their post, emotionless and unflinching, just as he knew they would.
“It’s getting worse,” Lisa warned. She was sitting at his computer, eyes glued to the monitor, thumbnail caught between her teeth.
The time model was swirling and expanding at an alarming rate. Jason expected to start feeling the effects of the distortion at any moment.
He crossed the room and leaned over Lisa’s shoulder. “We’ve got to get them back...now!” Raising his voice for the benefit of the guards, he added, “We’re all gonna be fucked if Kaback doesn’t give the damn order!”
“Jason, try to calm down,” Lisa urged.
“Calm down? If we don’t get those agents back where they belong sometime within the next hour, what you see on that monitor,” -- he jabbed the screen -- “is going become a permanent reality. Do you have any idea what it’ll be like to live in non-linear time, experiencing fragments of your life in no comprehensible order? Can you even imagine the disorientation? It’d be like putting your family snapshots through a paper shredder and then trying to make sense of them.”
“Stop it, Jason! You’re scaring me.”
“Good. You should be scared.” He raised his voice again. “Everyone should be scared!”
For the first time in months, Lisa’s perpetual nervousness gave way to what Jason could only describe as steely resolve. “We’re going to get them back. Kaback will give the order. Then I’ll help you.”
She lowered her voice to an almost imperceptible whisper. “I’ll help you end the Project.”
Her offer took him by surprise. “Why?” he asked, mistrusting her motives.
“Because this can’t be allowed to happen again.”
“I thought you blamed me for this.” He jerked his chin at the image on the monitor. “If I hadn’t tried to sabota--”
“Shhh! Keep your voice down,” she hissed through gritted teeth. “I’m not talking about the test or the ship or time travel.”
He knelt in front of her and gripped her hands. “Then what are you talking about?”
“Hypnotic Thought Reform. Stroehmer and Pearsall and anyone else who thinks it’s okay to rape people’s minds and steal their memories. They’re going to wipe our minds clean, too, you know, when this is over.” She was trembling. “I’m scared, Jason. I don’t want them in my head.”
He considered the possibility. “I don’t think they’ll hurt us. It would end the Project.”
“No it won’t. Our part on this Project is over the moment we bring those agents back. Kaback will have our computer records. He can recreate the experiment without us.”
She was right. Leaving the agents in the past would end linear time and, soon after that, all life on the planet. Bringing them back was tantamount to handing Kaback time travel on a silver platter, again ending the world. Either way, Jason and Lisa were caught between a rock and a fucking hard place.
“Lisa, we *have* to bring them back. There’s no option there.”
“I know...I know.” Her eyes darted around the room as if she expected to pluck an answer out of thin air.
“Maybe there is something we can do,” he said, getting an idea. “Maybe we can find a way to make sure Mulder and Scully don’t lose *all* their memories...in case we lose ours.”
“So that they keep investigating the case...” Excitement twitched the corners of her mouth.
“And maybe blow the cover off this experiment and the military’s role in it.” He wasn’t quite sure how they would go about it, but preserving some shred of the agents’ memories seemed to be the only viable solution.
* * *
Early Evening, August 13
Pausing at the edge of the swamp, the first thing Mulder noticed was the merry-go-round of vultures circling overhead. His stomach lurched at the sight of the birds -- six filthy scavengers, slicing his hopes to ribbons from one hundred feet up.
Dear God, please don’t let her be dead.
“She’s this way,” he said to the others, forgetting to use their language.
He charged across the swamp with crooked, splashing steps, cursing the logs that blocked his way. He didn’t waste time looking over his shoulder to see if the others followed him. Sleep-deprived and muscle-weary, he was teetering on the edge of sanity, and the only thing that mattered -- the *only* thing -- was saving Scully’s life.
He neared the tree that held her captive, recognizing it from the way its lethal limbs resembled an inside-out Iron Maiden. To his horror, a massive saber-toothed tiger was perched atop the log between a spray of limbs; its head was submerged in the well that concealed Scully.
The trunk below it was covered with blood. Lots of blood.
A keening moan prefaced his scream, “Get away from her!
Like a madman, he stampeded toward the cat, brandishing his spear.
He caught a glimpse of Scully’s ruffled hair all but hidden beyond the tiger’s slumped shoulders.
Oh God, was she already dead?
He lunged at the tiger and jabbed his spear into its back. Again and again he drove the weapon deep into the beast’s ribcage, bellowing at the top of his lungs, “Leave her alone! Leave her alone!” Only when Dzeh’s strong fingers closed around his arm did he slow his thrusts and realize the tiger was already dead...that it had been dead for several hours. The blood on its fur was drying, and its body sagged. The shaft of Scully’s spear protruded gruesomely from its left eye socket.
Mulder scrambled to her side. His arms and legs shook uncontrollably as he dropped to his knees in the mud beside her, soaking the buckskin leggings and breechclout he’d received in trade for his threadbare 20th Century clothes. Scully’s eyes were closed and her face was as colorless as a ghost.
“Scully?” He touched her cheek and recoiled at its icy feel. “No, no--” He took hold of her shoulders, draped by his jacket, and gave her a gentle shake.
Her bloodless lips quivered. “Mul-lerr,” she moaned.
The slur of her voice wrapped his scoured soul with unprecedented hope, separating him at last from his panic. He lifted her frozen hand to his lips.
“Scully, wake up, sweetheart.”
She was so cold.
“Please,” he begged.
Her lids fluttered. Pale lashes lifted from paler cheeks, revealing liquid blue eyes...beautiful, deep pools.
She gave him a tired smile and rasped, “Back already?”
“A horde of wild Neanderthals couldn’t keep me away.”
Her gaze traveled to his buckskin garments, and then over his shoulder to his unlikely companions. “Haven’t lost your power of persuasion, I see.”
“We’re gonna get you out,” he promised, “But first...”
He leaned in and pressed his lips against hers, kissing her with all the love and relief and passion he had in him.
Tla-Gin and Shush responded with ribald “oh ho’s” and smacky kissing sounds, making him smile and Scully blush.
“Okay, boys, that’s enough.” Mulder rose with renewed vigor and rubbed his palms together. “Let’s get started.”
The men circumnavigated the log, sizing up its angle and weight, all the while chattering about the precariousness of Scully’s situation. They used hand signals for Mulder’s benefit, and in a matter of minutes settled on a plan. Quickly, they gathered branches to use as pry bars and stones to serve as fulcrums.
They chocked the log with deadwood to lessen the chance of it rolling back on Scully’s leg if their pry bars or their strength gave out midway through the job. Then, with levers in hand, they positioned themselves on either side of her. Chal, being the smallest, was charged with pulling her free while the four men raised the tree.
Chal gave a caveman version of a count of three, and the men put their backs to the task.
The tree lifted a fraction of an inch.
“Thala-na-nah,” Chal shouted.
Grunts peppered the air, jaws clenched and muscles bulged as the men strained to raise the log up. Sweat slicked Mulder’s chest and palms, and he felt his grip giving way as his pole bent beneath the weight of the wood.
“Na-e-lahi,” Chal urged, “tehi!”
Mulder glanced at Scully and the boy. She looked so vulnerable, yet trusting as she stared back up into his eyes.
He dug down for every ounce of strength he could muster and shoved harder. “Goddamn son of a bitch, move!” he bellowed.
He felt the tree shift, heard the branch in his hand crack, closed his eyes against the log’s sudden roll.
Tla-Gin shouted a warning and jumped out of the way as the tree rolled toward them.
Mulder’s branch was snapped from his hand. He back-peddled and almost lost his balance. Panic seized him when he looked for Scully and, for a split second, couldn’t locate her.
“I’m okay,” she said from behind him. “I’m free.”
The tree stopped rocking and settled into the mud. Chal had managed to drag her to safety in the nick of time. Mulder began to breathe again.
A cursory check showed him her ankle was bruised and her knee was swollen. Her skin was icy cold and she was shivering badly. He wanted to return immediately to the village so that the medicine man could treat her. But cooler heads prevailed and the men convinced him it would be wiser to make camp so they could rest while she warmed up, then head back at first light.
“They’re right, Mulder, I need to get out of these wet clothes,” she said, siding with the tribesmen. “Besides, you’re exhausted.”
He didn’t care about himself, but could see she needed help now, not eight hours from now. It was beginning to get dark and the temperature was dropping.
In a show of unexpected generosity, Dzeh stripped off his thick fur tunic and offered it to Mulder to give to Scully.
Mulder helped her out of her wet clothes and into Dzeh’s cloak, while the others set up a simple but serviceable camp on the uphill side of the swamp. Selecting a dry spot where the cedars blocked the chilly evening breeze, Dzeh piled tinder and used his flints to start a fire. Chal helped him by collecting wood. Tla-Gin and Shush took charge of dinner. They dragged the saber-toothed cat to the camp, where they butchered it with a great deal of teasing and exuberant mockery. It was obvious to Mulder that the two men had been friends for a long time.
Mulder settled Scully near the fire. Holding her snuggly in his arms, he used the heat of his own body to help warm her. Her teeth chattered as she assured him she was in no danger of succumbing to hypothermic shock, which was a good thing because he had no idea how to treat that.
Chal cut skewers for roasting meat. Dzeh threaded several steaks onto the sticks and propped them near the blaze. Tla-Gin and Shush put on a show for Mulder and Scully, parading around the camp with the dead cat’s grisly head, acting out their interpretation of its death. They’d left Scully’s spear sticking out of its eye and joked with her about her prowess as a hunter, as well as Mulder’s repeated attempts to kill an already dead animal. Mulder didn’t understand everything they said, but their exaggerated antics made him chuckle. Especially when they turned their teasing on Dzeh and Chal, challenging them to harpoon a cat while pinned beneath a tree.
“Thirsty?” Mulder asked Scully for the millionth time.
“I’m fine. That meat smells good, though.”
It did. Blistered and sputtering, it put off a mouth-watering aroma. The chill of the swamp had kept it reasonably fresh, but even if it had been half rotten, Mulder was so famished he would have eaten it anyway.
“Sorry I wasn’t with you when...” He gestured at Tla-Gin and Shush, who were slicing and dicing the remainder of the tiger’s carcass.
Scully delicately touched his bruised lower lip and said, “I think I got the better end of this deal, G-Man.”
With all the things that could have gone wrong over the last couple of days it was a miracle to have her safe in his arms. He’d never felt so relieved about anything in his life.
“Thank you, Mulder,” she murmured as she snuggled closer.
“Going above and beyond.”
“Scully, I love you. There is no above and beyond.”
“Say what you like, you’re still my hero.”
Her hero. Tears sprang to his eyes and he hid them by kissing the crown of her head. “T’weren’t nothin’.”
“Don’t shortchange yourself.”
“Feel free to recommend me for a commendation when we get back to DC.”
“Oh!” She suddenly straightened and began rummaging through her coat pockets. “I can’t believe I forgot--” She withdrew her cell phone.
“Scully, you don’t have to phone Skinner right now. My commendation can wait until--”
“Look.” She powered up the phone and thrust it into his hand.
His jaw dropped when he read the message on the display panel.
“We’re going home?”
She nodded and smiled. “Apparently.”
He let loose a whoop that startled birds from the trees and earned surprised looks from the four tribesmen.
“We’re going home,” he told them with a grin.
* * *
The Shaman’s hut was a low, mysterious place, cluttered with formidable potions and pungent odors. Fistfuls of herbs hung from the bone rafters. Shell bowls and reed baskets littered the floor like leaves beneath an autumn tree. They contained unidentifiable powders, animal parts, dried insects and dark, greasy tonics.
A fire blazed in a small hearth at the room’s center, casting wobbly shadows against the musty, skin walls. The burning wood hissed and crackled like a Winter Spirit. Beyond the haze of smoke, a motionless form hilled the sleeping skins.
Chal tiptoed toward the occupied bed. “Gini?” he whispered.
His stealth was born out of respect, not secrecy. The Shaman was not here; he’d gone to the Prayer Lodge for his evening meal. Klizzie was pacing outside the hut, gulping fresh air and squeezing her totem. Only the Spirits loomed beneath this roof. He could feel their presence as clearly as if they squatted around the fire, joking and chanting while they rearranged the world of men.
Unease had weighted Chal’s young heart ever since his return from the swamp earlier in the day. He had been eager to see Gini and assure himself that she was still alive.
He ducked beneath a dangling tuft of mint and it brushed his bare shoulder like phantom fingers, releasing its scent as he passed, causing gooseflesh to sprout along his arms. He shivered and then scowled at his excessive fear. It was just a simple weed, he reminded himself, not the tap of death.
Leaving it to bobble, he knelt beside the furs.
“Gini? Are you awake?”
He’d been told she’d opened her eyes for the first time late last night. Was she winning her battle against Yellow Spirit?
“I had a dream last night, while I was camped at the swamp,” he told her. Her sunken eyes remained squeezed shut. Pain ribbed her young brow. “In it, you were not sick. You were smiling and happy. You...you were standing in front of me, holding my hand.”
He groped for her hand, and when he found it, he was shocked by its thinness and fire.
“Your hair was plaited with pretty beads.” He pictured the bits of tinkling shells and clinking bone, shimmering like stars in her midnight tresses. The sky had been cloudless and blue, and the air carried the sweet fragrance of plum blossoms. “You were wearing a white doeskin tunic, as pale as fresh snow. And your skin...” -- he released her hand to briefly touch her sunken cheek -- “it was plump and soft, shiny with oil.”
Her eyes wavered behind thin lids, but refused to open for him.
“It was our Joining Day, I think.”
What else could it have been? He was dressed in an impressive cloak of striped fur and a new loincloth, cinched at the waist by Muhl-dar’s belt. She wore his bear claw necklace over her snowy tunic. Earrings dangled from her lobes, bracelets banded her dainty wrists. A shy smile dimpled her cheeks as she stood facing him, her trembling hands tucked inside his, her eyes gazing up at him, wide with trust. Great Spirit Mother, she had stolen his breath away.
The dream was not a long one, finished in the blink of an eye, yet it left him panting and flushed. His heart brimmed with happiness at its memory, and an unspoken vow remained poised on his tongue: Das-teh-do ta-bilh, ta-yi-teh ta-bilh, da-de-yah ta-bilh. Begin together, continue together, depart together.
“Please wake up, Gini. Do not let Yellow Spirit take you away. I-I love you.”
To his amazement, her lashes fluttered and her eyes slowly opened. She blinked at him, confusion peaking her brows.
“It is me...Chal,” he said, thinking she might not recognize him.
She grunted softly, coughed, then rasped, “You still look like a stork.”
This made him laugh out loud. “And you are as ugly as ever.”
She offered him a weak smile before closing her eyes again.
Gathering his courage, he took her hand once more and gave it the gentlest of squeezes. “But I am glad you are back.”
* * *
“I’m not convinced this is a good idea,” Mulder said as he carried Scully across the ball field.
She was wrapped cozily in furs and loving every minute of being held in his arms.
He was still dressed in loincloth and leggings, although not the same muddy garments he’d been wearing in the swamp. She felt a little guilty when she learned he’d had to trade his own clothes to save her, but she was enjoying the way he looked in buckskin. The leggings fit snuggly, showing off his muscled thighs, and the loincloth...well, it barely covered his bare backside, and Mulder had a very nice backside.
She was wearing clan attire, too: a fur skirt and doeskin tunic borrowed from Klizzie. In addition, following Jason Nichols’ cryptic orders, she and Mulder were both carrying their cell phones, hung from stout cords around their necks. They were taking no chance of being separated from the phones.
He frowned with concern as he carried her. “It’s only been two days since we got back.”
Doubt thinned his lips.
“Really, Mulder. It’s time I got out of bed.”
They’d slept through the entire day yesterday, rising only long enough to gorge themselves on roast meat, honeyed nuts, greens and grains and who-the-hell knew what else before collapsing back into bed and sleeping until the next morning.
“Scully, it’s cold out here.”
“It is not.” It was a picture-perfect autumn day. The afternoon sun felt wonderful on her face and it was a joy to hear the happy laughter of children chasing one another around the field. “Besides, I wouldn’t want to miss your coaching debut.”
Mulder chuffed. “I must be out of my mind, thinking I can teach baseball to a bunch of cave kids.”
“You’ll do fine.”
He climbed the gradual slope at the edge of the field and deposited her gently on a patch of sun-warmed grass, where she would have an excellent view of the playing field.
“Let me know if you get cold and want to go back.” He tucked the fur robe more snuggly around her shoulders, then leaned down to kiss her cheek. “Whenever. No need to wait for the end of an inning.”
“Play ball, Mulder. I’ll be fine.”
He captured her lips once more, breathing steam across her cheeks as he kissed her. The phantom pressure of his mouth remained long after he’d straightened and jogged down onto the field.
Kids swarmed him when he whistled and waved them to his makeshift baseball diamond. Flat stones marked the bases around a squat bulge that served as a pitcher’s mound. The playing field was about half the size of a modern ballpark -- perfect for the tribe’s unpracticed players.
Mulder knelt and explained the rules to the excited group of youngsters. Scully was too far away to hear his exact words, but she caught his patient monotone on the light afternoon breeze. He passed around three “baseballs” -- lacrosse retrofits, stuffed with straw and sand, lopsided at best. The bat was a mastodon bone, the radius from a fairly young animal, judging from its size. Mulder demonstrated how to swing and hit, then selected a tall boy and showed him the proper way to hold the bat. Scully smiled at his repertoire of hand signals and goofy expressions as he divvied the group into two reasonably matched teams and positioned them on the field. Before he let the first pitch fly, he glanced in her direction.
She gave him a thumb’s up and the game began.
No one could have been more surprised than the batter when he connected with Mulder’s easy underhand and sent the ball soaring into left field. Mulder had to prompt the kid to run the bases. All the children went wild, shouting and jumping. The half-pint at first base abandoned her post to chase after the ball. She was followed by several players from the opposing team. Five or six kids circled the bases with the runner.
Mulder laughed and shook his head in mock frustration.
After the hoopla died down, he gathered the kids together for a quick review of the rules.
Several curious onlookers soon arrived to join Scully on the slope. They left a wide berth between her and themselves, sitting several yards away. They didn’t appear hostile -- as a matter of fact two or three offered polite smiles. Yet despite their ostensible tolerance it was clear she made them nervous. She was an outsider in a world where outsiders were a threat to the group’s survival.
She was uncertain why the tribe had accepted them back at all, although it seemed to have something to do with Mulder’s unexpected partnership with the boy Chal. Scully didn’t trust this new alliance to be any more binding than the previous one with Dzeh, but apparently it was enough to allow them to stay in the village...at least for now. And thankfully, no one had suggested that she sleep with Chal.
Klizzie had been her usual generous self since their return. Not only had she provided food and clothing, she’d prepared their hut and kept it stocked with firewood.
Dzeh, on the other hand, kept his distance, neither helping nor interfering.
Two-thirds of the tribesmen had left, abandoning the village shortly after their arrival two days ago. Scully didn’t presume the events were connected; the villagers must have begun packing long before they knew she and Mulder were coming back to Turkey Lake. They’d taken everything that could be carried, until only the huts’ bony supports remained behind, looking like a herd of skeletons on the flatland beside the lake.
Down on the playing field another pop fly sparked mayhem. The children ignored the ball and ran after the batter again. Mulder shrugged, then circled the bases with them, singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at the top of his lungs.
Scully smiled and clapped, drawing stares from the other spectators. She didn’t care. Mulder was going to make a great father and she loved seeing the easy way he interacted with the kids.
Her smile quickly vanished. There would be no opportunity to watch him play ball with their own son. In less than two years time, William would be gone and Mulder would be dead.
She shivered beneath her fur cloak at the recollection of her vision. It had seemed unreal, a product of her disorientation in the swamp, and she’d put it out of her mind...until now, when it suddenly returned full force, vivid and horrifying. It made her loath to leave this place, this happy moment. She almost regretted telling Mulder about Jason Nichols’ message.
At the edge of the field, Klizzie and Dzeh sauntered toward her. They held hands and chatted as they walked. A brilliant smile lit Klizzie’s face. Scully took this as a good sign, guessing it meant Gini was getting better. In contrast, Dzeh was frowning, and his stern expression reminded her of the way he’d looked the night of the mate swap. Reflexively, her thighs prickled at the intimate memory of this man, this stranger, and she pressed her knees together. Their act was difficult to reconcile now. At the time, it had seemed the right choice...the only choice. Now she saw it as a foolish and futile sacrifice.
Klizzie stopped when they reached her and dropped into a crouch, eyes gay and hands not seeming to know where to settle. Dzeh remained standing, avoiding Scully’s eyes by feigning interest in the ball game.
“How is Gini?” Scully asked, using the tribe’s language.
Klizzie launched into a long, high-spirited explanation. Catching a phrase here and there, Scully was assured the little girl was recovering. The news came as a great relief.
Unexpectedly, Klizzie threw her arms around Scully’s robed shoulders and hugged her tightly. The young woman’s earnest embrace lasted several minutes, ending only when Dzeh mumbled, “tehi” -- let’s go. He tugged Klizzie to her feet, causing the prying spectators to quickly turn their attentions away from the threesome and back to the activity on the field.
“Thank you, Day-nuh,” Klizzie repeated several times in her own language, her tone thick with gratitude.
Dzeh dovetailed his fingers with hers and drew her away.
As soon as they were out of earshot, a long-faced woman plunked down in the grass beside Scully.
“I am Ho-Ya,” she said in her own language. “Chal’s mother. Klizzie’s aunt.”
Scully did her best to return the woman’s kind smile. “Hello.”
Ho-Ya began to speak quickly, a rat-tat-tat of syllables, which left Scully’s head spinning. She managed to catch only a phrase or two about Gini and Chal and Klizzie’s pregnancy.
“Klizzie is pregnant?” she asked, not certain she’d heard Ho-Ya correctly.
The woman’s jabbering abruptly ceased; embarrassment pinked her lined cheeks. She glanced nervously at the ball field.
Scully repeated her question, clarifying with hand signals.
“My niece has waited many seasons for a child,” Ho-Ya explained. “This is welcome news, even if--” She shrugged and looked again at Mulder.
“Even if...?” Scully wasn’t sure she was translating the woman’s words correctly.
“You know. The child is not of our Clan.” She smiled weakly, looking apologetic. “A gift from Eel Clan is not necessarily bad.”
Scully didn’t understand every word, but her heart began to beat faster.
Ho-Ya nodded. “It happens. People do not make so much of it as they used to. Besides, Chal and Muhl-dar are Trading Partners now. My son thinks very highly of your mate.”
The woman’s point was clear, despite Scully’s inability to translate each word precisely. Ho-Ya believed Klizzie was pregnant with Mulder’s child.
Scully’s arms went numb at the thought. This had been her greatest concern ever since the swap.
Jealousy heated her face. She couldn’t help the feeling, any more than she could stop herself from picturing Mulder and Klizzie together, wrapped in each other’s arms, naked and passionate...not at all like her experience with Dzeh, because Mulder was a considerate lover. He would have charmed Klizzie, made her--
Stop it! It probably hadn’t happened that way at all. And even if it had, whose fault was it? Mulder hadn’t wanted to sleep with Klizzie. He’d begged Scully to leave the tribe instead. But she’d insisted they stay. She pushed him into participating in that unspeakable ritual. If Klizzie was carrying his child, Scully had no one to blame but herself.
Looking down at the ball field, she saw Mulder dusting off a little girl who had fallen and skinned her knees.
Did he know about the baby? Had Klizzie told him the night he brought Gini back?
“A new life is to be celebrated,” Ho-Ya was saying, “no matter what the circumstance. Klizzie and Dzeh, they are happy. I am happy, too.”
“Excuse me,” Scully murmured, rising to her feet. The fur robe slipped from her shoulders and fell to the ground. She left it there, while dizziness bludgeoned her between the eyes, threatening to drop her where she stood.
Scully turned her back on the concerned woman. Her pulse pounded in her ears. Run, run, run, it was saying.
Forcing her legs to move, she lurched down the hillside, desperate to be anywhere but here.
* * *
Mulder felt more than saw Scully limping away from the field.
“My turn, my turn,” an eager boy insisted, tugging Mulder’s leggings.
“Sure.” He handed the ball over, before sprinting after Scully.
He called her name, but she kept on running, favoring her right leg.
Frightened by the way she was stumbling, he increased his speed and quickly closed the gap between them.
“Scully...stop.” He caught up to her outside “their” hut.
She seemed to deflate when he tagged her elbow and he quickly wrapped both arms around her to keep her from falling.
“Scully, what is it? What’s the matter?”
She shook her head and pushed weakly at his chest. “Go away, Mulder.”
Not a chance in hell. He scooped her up in his arms, expecting her to fight him. But she surprised him by burying her face into his neck instead. Jesus, was she crying?
He carried her quickly inside the hut. Coals still glowed in the hearth, radiating warmth into the dimly lit room. Good thing -- she felt as cold as ice. He lowered her onto the bed.
Damn it, she was crying.
“Are you hurt?” He knelt beside her and began to inspect her foot and leg.
She pulled away, swiping angrily at her tears. “I’m fi--” She stopped herself. Anger glossed her eyes and he wasn’t sure if it was directed at him or at herself.
It didn’t matter; her expression was disintegrating into despair.
Eyes bloodshot, complexion blotchy, nose dripping, she turned away from his shocked stare.
“How long have you known?” she asked.
What the hell was she talking about? “Known what?”
“Klizzie?” He reached for her hand, but she shrugged him off. “Scully, talk to me. What’s the matter?”
“She’s pregnant, Mulder!” Her head snapped back to look at him.
“Soooo...” What did that have to do with anything? Was Scully upset because Klizzie was going to have a baby and she wasn’t? “It’s going to happen for you. You said it yourself. You saw it in your vision. I--”
“No, it’s not going to happen for me.” She practically spit the words.
“What do you mean? You saw it--”
“I did, but...” She squeezed her eyes shut.
Mulder could count on one hand the number of times he’d seen Scully cry. To find her this shaken was alarming.
“I’m going to give him away.” Her confession came out in sobs. “I’m going to give up our son for adoption.” She was staring up at him through a blur of tears, her cheeks wet, her mouth twisted with sorrow.
“Why would you do that?”
“I don’t know!” she keened.
This was making no sense. “Well...I’ll stop you. I-I won’t let it happen.”
“You’re going to be dead, Mulder.”
Dead? “When? How? Bruckman wasn’t right, was he?”
He regretted his ill-timed joke the moment it left his mouth. Jesus, he could be such an ass sometimes. She wasn’t laughing or even smiling. As a matter of fact, her eyes widened in disbelief.
“I don’t know,” she said through clenched teeth.
“You don’t know how I’m going to die?”
“No. Your casket was already in the ground.”
Touche. Whether she’d intended it or not, she’d matched his insensitivity. “That’s a pleasant image.”
“No it’s not, which is my point.” Her obvious irritation melted once again into despair. “Mulder, I don’t want to go back if it means losing our baby or losing you.”
He didn’t know what to say to that. He hadn’t seen the things she’d seen. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe her -- he did -- but he had nothing to trust but her word.
“We can’t stay here,” he reminded her. He was growing younger; she was getting older.
“We can’t go either, Mulder. Klizzie’s pregnant!”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
Her mouth opened, and then closed again. She shook her head. He’d never seen her look so miserable. Two more fat tears overflowed her lashes and skidded down her cheeks.
That’s when it hit him. She believed he was the father. She believed Klizzie was pregnant with his child.
He had to tell her the truth. He had to let her know that he and Klizzie had never made love.
But how would she take it? Call him a coward? Hate his guts? Leave him?
God damn it. Why was life so fucking complicated?
“Scully...” he started, then stopped when he didn’t know what else to say.
“Mulder...I’m not blaming you, really, it’s just...it’s...” Her hands lifted in exasperation. “What are you going to do? You can’t leave your own child.”
Tell her the truth, he urged himself. His heart was lodged in his throat, bottlenecking his confession. What could he say? He’d placed the burden of their survival on her. And she’d responded admirably, sacrificing herself to save his ass, while he flouted the rules and endangered her.
Story of their lives.
It would serve him right if she walked out on him...just the way Diana had.
“That baby...that baby is part of you, Mulder. You can’t just--”
“I didn’t sleep with her!” he blurted.
She blinked at him. “What?”
“I couldn’t go through with it, Scully. I know you asked me to, and you--” His world blurred behind a swell of tears. “I-I’m sorry.”
The apology was inadequate, he knew. He didn’t deserve her forgiveness. He didn’t deserve her. He’d let her down. He’d allowed another man to touch her, to make love to her, while he’d done nothing to stop it or match her sacrifice.
His father’s voice echoed in his memory. “Damn it, son, you were supposed to be watching her!”
This was followed immediately by Diana’s parting words. “You’ve been a child with only the responsibility of a child...to your own dreams and fantasies...”
Jesus, he was still putting himself first, disregarding the needs of the people he most loved.
For years he’d known that Scully would be happier, safer without him, and it had been proven ten times over here in the Pleistocene. Nothing had changed. He was the same coward he’d always been. Back in the swamp she’d called him a hero, and for a few moments he’d had the audacity to accept her praise, even dared to believe it was true. What a thickheaded, undeserving hypocrite he was!
Self-loathing swallowed him. He hated himself.
A thin, desperate plea seeped from his clenched throat. “Please don’t leave me, Scully.” He couldn’t bear it. He couldn’t.
“Leave you?” Her eyes widened with obvious disbelief. “Because you *didn’t* sleep with another woman?”
He inhaled sharply. What was she saying? She wasn’t angry? She wasn’t hurt? Disappointed? None of the things he’d predicted?
“You’re not going to leave me?”
“Of course not.”
Relief thundered through his veins, making him suddenly lightheaded and giddy. The truth hadn’t scared her off! She wasn’t going to leave him. She didn’t hate him!
“To be honest, I’m relieved,” she said.
“But you...and Dzeh--”
Now it was his turn to gape. Would he ever be able to accurately predict the way her mind worked? He’d expected her to rip him a new one. He honestly wanted her to blast him for his failings. He felt he deserved her wrath.
“Please yell at me or something, Scully.”
Confusion furrowed her brow. “Why would I want to do that?”
“Because...I let you down?”
“Mulder, I don’t blame you. I did what I thought I had to do. I don’t know if it was the right choice or not.”
He took hold of her hand and this time she didn’t shake him off.
“Sometimes there are no good choices,” he repeated her own words back to her, thinking he understood them now. The best anyone could do was to take a shot and hope they landed somewhere near the target.
“That’s sometimes true. But other times there *are* good choices, Mulder. About a month ago, you asked me to marry you. Remember what I said?”
“A month ago you didn’t know I copped out on the wife swap.”
“Exactly. And I agreed to spend the rest of my life with you anyway.”
Jesus, he’d been wrong to compare her to Diana.
He’d been wrong not to trust her.
Against all odds she loved him, and he began to understand -- truly understand -- that she loved him not for the man he wanted to be, but for the man he already was.
Gathering her into his arms, he buried his face in her neck. “Scully...I need...”
“What do you need, sweetheart?”
Swallowing his tears, he murmured, “I just need to hold you.”
* * *
Grass tickled her palms and bare knees. Cool night air raked her naked skin, pinched her nipples, and stippled her buttocks with gooseflesh.
“Ready?” he rasped from behind her. His voice was scoured by passion. It echoed her own desire.
“Mmmm, yesss.” She’d been looking forward to this and braced herself for his weight on her back. Anticipation tightened her womb.
They were alone at the edge of the woods, not far from the lake or the sleeping village. Lightning bugs winked magically on and off in the nearby reeds. Overhead, the heavens teemed with stars.
He nudged between her legs, forcing her knees wide apart. Warmth radiated from his softly furred thighs. He prodded her entrance.
“Oh,” she inhaled. Moisture seeped from her hidden inner well, lubricating her for what was about to happen. She was eager, ready, so full of want. Her scalp prickled. Her fingers clutched. Her eyes closed as he slowly, steadily pushed into her.
Her walls stretched to accommodate his solid length. The pressure sparked a cascade of intense, fiery waves from her core to the tips of her fingers and toes. She tossed back her head and gasped his name, “Dzehhh!”
His large palms caressed her buttocks, her hips, her ribs. He held himself still within her, while reaching beneath her and cupping her breasts. “Is everything all right, Klizzie? The baby?”
“I am fine. The baby is fine.” She nodded and her ears rang with the tinkle of her beaded braids.
He growled her name and squeezed her breasts. Then his fingers slid away, tickled her navel, caressed the swell of her abdomen, nestled in her curls. He prodded the cleft between her legs, searching for her ulh-ne-ih, the mysterious knot of flesh that could bring her so much pleasure.
She moaned when he found it. His thumb circled and he began to move within her, sliding partway out, only to return a heartbeat later with a firm shove.
Her breathing quickened. His finger rubbed her more rapidly. He increased the pace and depth of his thrusts.
Panting, he draped his body over hers. Her arms quaked, not from his weight or the pounding of his hips, but from her encroaching pleasure. The feeling began as it always did, like the distant rumble of horses’ hooves upon a vast plain, a faint vibration, far off but growing more forceful as the herd stampeded toward her.
Her heart thrummed as the world shook beneath her. Dzeh bucked his hips and his frenzied thrusting conjured the phantom horses’ charge, the furious churning of their legs, the thunder of their hooves. Sweat wetted her skin. Passion slicked her thighs. She gasped for air, choked by her uncontrollable yearning.
“Ha-gade!” Dzeh cried before he sank his teeth into the nape of her neck, overwhelmed by his own pleasure.
The steeds were upon her, and her arms and legs went numb. She held her breath and opened her eyes wide. Oh, Great Spirit Mother, the night was as black and velvety as a new foal’s hide. Lightning bugs floated like embers in the dark. If not for the grass beneath her knees, she would not have known which way was up and which down.
Dzeh gushed into her, warm and fluid. She could feel his pulse against her sensitive inner walls, adding briefly to the heaviness there. Then suddenly the pressure abated, he slowed his thrusts, grew softer inside her.
“Ha-gade,” he said again, claiming her with the familiar endearment.
“And you are mine, too, ha-gade,” she sighed.
He wrapped his arms tightly around her waist, while keeping himself inside her. “I do not want to leave you.”
“Then do not.” She chuckled. Her laugh caused him to slip a little ways out of her.
“Nooo,” he objected, but laughed, too, which broke their connection. He flopped onto his back and pulled her down on top of him.
He looked striking in the starlight, his eyelids heavy with the weight of sated lust. She kissed his nose, his lips. His mouth was warm and yielding beneath hers, his tongue teasing and delicious.
“You are extraordinary,” he said when she drew back from their kiss. He stroked her braided hair, causing her beads to tinkle. “I am a privileged man.”
“We are both lucky.” She laid her cheek against his chest. “A baby is on the way. Gini is with us again. Things are not perfect, but they are not so bad either.”
Grunting in agreement, he seemed on the verge of falling asleep. She rose to her feet.
“Where are you going, my mate?” he asked, sounding disappointed.
“To wash up.”
“I will come with you.” He stood, too.
“No, go to Gini. Sit with her.”
“There is no need. Ho-Ya is with her, and she is getting better each day.”
“I know. But I still worry. Please?”
He drew her to him. “If it will keep your spirit calm, I will go. But do not be long.”
“I will hurry.” She kissed him again before leaving him for the lake.
She’d walked this path so often over the summer, she knew the way without benefit of light. Each step was as familiar as a breath. But autumn had brought subtle changes. The air was colder and carried the scent of falling leaves and fermenting fruit. The grass was worn thin from the countless footsteps of bathers. Crickets chirped in the surrounding brush, sounding more placid than they had three moons ago.
She had changed, too, since her first days at Turkey Lake. She’d exposed her dreadful secrets to Dzeh and discovered he loved her despite them. He hadn’t turned his back on her as she had anticipated. To the contrary, he seemed to love her more than ever.
And now there was a baby growing inside her womb. She brushed the swell of her abdomen with her fingertips. Would this child turn out to be a son or a daughter, she wondered? Either way, she would nickname it Shush-Yahz -- Little Cub -- because she planned to guard it from harm with the ferocity of a mother bear.
At the shore she didn’t hesitate, but waded straight into the chilly water. She would hurry with her bath and return to Dzeh as quickly as possible, just as she had promised.
She crouched in the shallows, gasping when the lake’s icy fingers tickled her ribs. The hearth fire would feel delightful after this cold bath. Dzeh’s arms would feel even better.
She was scrubbing her inner thighs, rinsing away the sticky trail of Dzeh’s passion, when she heard the splash of his footsteps behind her. She could not be irritated with him for returning; he only wanted to protect her, just as she wanted to protect their child.
Before she could turn to smile at him, he kissed the crown of her head.
“I thought you were going to sit with Gini,” she admonished without anger. The stars appeared to dance atop the rippled surface of the lake.
His lips slid to her ear. “Ha-gade,” he whispered before sucking her lobe into his mouth.
Heat blossomed in her belly as his warm palm engulfed her cold, wet breast. She leaned into his caress and covered his hand with her own.
That’s when she felt it: a rough, jagged scar, running from his wrist to his middle finger. This wasn’t Dzeh; it was Klesh!
She tried to scream, but he clamped his hand over her mouth.
“Now it is my turn, cousin,” he hummed, dragging her to her feet.
He pressed against her body and she could feel the hard swell of his erection poking into her back. She struggled to free herself, but his grip was unbreakable.
With a quiet chuckle, he yanked her to the shore and away from the village.
Continued in Chapter Twenty-One...
Special thanks to mimic117 for beta of Chapter 20.
This chapter received
See The Mastodon Diaries Dictionary for an explanation of the paleo-indian terms and names.