CHAPTER EIGHT
Continued from
Chapter Seven

Mulder and Scully petroglyphMulder keeps his eyes closed, enjoying the silky warmth of Scully beside him on the furs. They are spooned together, her naked back against his bare chest, his bent knees fitted behind hers, his nose buried in her hair. He inhales, deeply, fully, and feels himself grow hard from the unadulterated scent of her. Wanting to make love, he tries to wake her with a gentle brush of his fingers along her bare arm.

She stirs, sighs with contentment, nestles more firmly into his lap, which causes a delightful friction there.

“Sculleeee...,” he groans. His lips caress the curve of her ear; his tongue searches for the lobe, finds it, sucks. She moans, too, and the sound flows molten in his veins, making him desperate to be inside her. They’ve made love only twice, yet he has already become addicted to the act, to her. Now he wants to make love to her every day for the rest of his life.

He positions himself so he can enter her from behind. They haven’t tried it this way and he’s eager. He nudges between her thighs.

“Is this okay?” he asks, his voice almost nonexistent.

In response, she grinds against him. Oh, God, she feels good. His hands grope her in the dark. Hip, waist...

His exploration stops when his fingers encounter the swollen expanse of her belly. She is...

Enormously pregnant.

No, this can’t be. What the hell is going on?

“Scully?” Explain this. We never agreed to it.

He sits up, rolls her onto her back only to find she isn’t Scully. She is Diana.

His erection goes soft.

Smiling, Diana sweeps her dark hair away from her face, which is flushed with satisfaction. She reaches up to cup Mulder’s cheek with her palm. “It’s wonderful, isn’t it? We’re having a baby. You’re going to be a father.”

“No, Diana, I don’t want this.”

“Of course you do.”

“No, I--”

“Mulder, don’t question it. It’s a miracle.”

Diana transforms back into Scully, who is still pregnant.

Oh, shit...shit...that son-of-a-bitch caveman is lying on the other side of her, his scarred hand placed on her distended abdomen. He sneers at Mulder, arrogant, seemingly victorious. In his free hand he grasps a long snake and the snake’s tail rattles, sounding like laughter.

Jealousy, anger, and confusion swirl through Mulder in equal measure. Is the caveman the father of Scully’s baby?

This isn’t a miracle. It’s a fucking nightmare--

*   *   *

Mulder, wake up. You’re having a bad dream.” Scully stroked Mulder’s cheek, trying to bring him out of his nightmare as gently as possible.

“Scully!” he gasped. His eyes flew open; a look of panic paled his face. Sitting up, he groped the air between them. His hand stopped dead on her stomach, his fingers clutching the fabric of her shirt. “You’re dressed.”

“Yes, so are you. We wore our clothes to bed, remember? It was cold last night.”

He appeared confused and not entirely awake. “You’re not pregnant?”

Where the hell had that come from? “No, I’m not pregnant.”

He released his hold on her shirt, collapsed onto his back and wiped sweat from his face. “Thank God. Wow...that was a *hell* of a night--”

His mouth clamped shut so quickly she heard his teeth clack.

“You dreamt I was pregnant?”

“Uh...the details are kinda fuzzy...” His voice petered out and his eyes looked everywhere but at her.

“Which parts do you remember?”

“It was just a dream, Scully. It didn’t mean anything.” He closed his eyes and drew the furs up to his chin as if intending to go back to sleep.

She remained sitting up. The pre-dawn sky was crimson above the mountain peaks. They were camped next to one of Klizzie’s markers on a hill overlooking a marsh, where weed-choked waters reflected the bloody glow of daybreak.

“Mulder, you were the one who once told me a dream is an answer to a question we haven’t learned how to ask. What question do you think you need answered?”

His eyes opened reluctantly, filled with worry. “I...” Again he stopped.

“You what?”

He took a breath and made a face that looked as if he were preparing to go sewer diving for flukemen. “I don’t think it would be a good idea for you to get pregnant right now.”

A flare of annoyance heated her cheeks. “I shouldn’t have to remind you, Mulder, I can’t get pregnant.”

She threw back the animal skins, intending to rise from the bed.

He stopped her with a tug on her shirtsleeve. “We don’t know that.”

“Yes, we do. I don’t believe in your regression theory. Your missing scar and my fading tattoo are not proof of anything. We aren’t growing younger. Even if we were, it wouldn’t necessarily mean I’d become fertile again.”

Wanting to forego any further discussion about her defunct reproductive system, she rose from the bed.

“Where are you going?” he asked, sounding conciliatory and a little nervous.

“To the marsh. I want to wash up,” she said, tugging her boots on.

She located her jacket, then his, in the semi-dark and searched his pockets for the flashlight. Her hand closed around his jackknife. Better take it, too, since she no longer had her gun.

The loss of the gun still rankled. They’d spent nearly two hours searching for it, leaving Scarface and his sidekick handcuffed to the mastodon skull while they combed the woods.

“Are you *sure* he threw it this way?” Mulder had asked at least half a dozen times.

She grew increasingly irritated each time she answered him. “Yes, I’m sure.”

They both understood the importance of finding the weapon -- for protection and food -- but it had seemingly vanished in the mastodons’ chaotic wake as if into Mulder’s alleged Flux Space. Downed trees, shredded vegetation and muddy prints stymied their efforts, and eventually forced them to abandon their search.

There was some small consolation in the fact that it had been her gun and not his that was lost, since she’d been down three rounds, while his clip remained full.

“Take my gun,” he suggested when she tucked his knife into her pocket. “Please.”

She flicked on his flashlight. “I’ll be fine.”

“Maybe I should come with you.” He started to get up.

“Mulder, I’d prefer a little privacy, if you don’t mind.”

That stopped him, as she knew it would. With a hesitant nod he lay back down on the skins. “Yell if you need me.”

“I’ll only be a few minutes.”

The marsh was located approximately 600 yards downhill from their camp, where the land formed a shallow V between two sparsely treed slopes. The depression served as a catch basin for rainwater and snowmelt. Cattails and duckweed clogged its outer rim, making access to the water a challenge.

Scully picked her way down-slope through thigh-high weeds. Mulder’s waking words continued to nag at her as she tried to find solid footing in the spongy soil. It seemed muddier this morning than last night when she’d come down to fill the waterbag. She began to wonder if she’d taken the wrong path.

Mulder was right -- this wouldn’t be the most opportune time for her to get pregnant. But if a miracle occurred and it happened, she would embrace the prospect of becoming a mother. Wouldn’t he be equally pleased? He knew she wanted children; he’d helped her petition for the adoption of Emily. And although he’d never said anything outright about wanting kids himself, he’d been so supportive throughout Emily’s illness, Scully had just assumed he wanted children...someday...not necessarily with her, but in a general sense. Had she misread him?

She’d also assumed their personal relationship was moving to a more serious level now that they’d slept together. To her, making love meant...well...she wasn’t sure exactly what it meant...but it was more than being friends.

In light of his behavior this morning, however, she could see they had opposing views about their intimate act. Apparently Mulder wasn’t imagining 2.3 kids, a white picket fence, and “happily ever after.”

It figured her dream-come-true would be his worst nightmare. They disagreed on so many things, why should this be different?

Two ducks squabbled for territory several yards to her left. The less dominant flew off, wings thumping the air, indignation nattering from its throat. She panned the reeds with her light. A snake slithered away from her beam.

She took a few careful steps forward, inching closer to the water.

Maybe she was jumping to conclusions. Mulder had never said that getting her pregnant was his worst nightmare. He’d said now was not a good time.

It was possible he’d been having second thoughts about his regression theory. If that were the case, he might be trying to spare her feelings, knowing her fertility was not going to return. Perhaps he was worried he’d gotten her hopes up over nothing. He’d seen her dreams dashed once already, when she lost Emily.

Leaping onto a slippery stone at the water’s edge, she nearly skidded off. Arms flailing, she caught her balance and steadied herself.

Mulder had stood by her when Emily lay dying, until she pushed him away herself, preferring to go through her heartache alone. She’d been afraid to accept his support at the time, fearful his strength would invite her own weakness. And she felt certain if she let herself lose control, she would never, ever recover.

In the months following Emily’s death, she shrank from the truth, unwilling to confront the fact that she’d lost her one and only child and could never have another. She found it increasingly painful to be around Mulder, knowing he had accepted her infertility a long time ago. Then she noticed she was starting to resent him because he still retained the ability to have children, whereas she no longer had the option, and she felt ashamed of her resentment.

Hunkering down on the stone, she blinked away tears, surprised at how angry the inequity still made her feel. She didn’t blame Mulder, either directly or indirectly, then or now, for the things that had been done to her. The theft of her ova, her inability to conceive and bear children, Emily’s death -- none of these had been his fault.

He’d been a victim, too, his family whittled down to almost nothing.

Bending forward for a drink, she sank her fingers into the mud. For just a second, she felt as if she were going to be pulled in. She sat up quickly, withdrawing her hands. Murky water quickly filled the indentations she left behind.

Sometimes she worried that no man would want her, a barren woman. Ridiculous, she knew. An old-fashioned idea. She could name dozens of women without children who lived happy, satisfied lives, who accomplished remarkable things and bettered the world.

But the desire to reproduce was strong. And without the hope of having a family of her own, she often felt incomplete.

The sunrise shone upside-down in the water, tinting it copper. An iris floated just beyond her reach, broken from its stem. A frantic insect ran round and round its sodden petals, searching for an escape. The blossom would eventually become waterlogged and sink, brown with rot. The insect would drown.

Hugging her knees, watching the dawn break, Scully felt isolated, cut off from creation...

Hugging her knees, watching the dawn break, Scully felt isolated, cut off from creation the same way the lost insect was cut off from shore. Bullfrogs hummed on all sides, ballyhooing their territories. Ducks quacked, protecting their nests. The water smelled fecund, milky with fish eggs, teeming with the promise of life. Scully didn’t share their future.

She was a genetic dead end.

She turned off Mulder’s flashlight. The sun had risen high enough to see the silhouette of the surrounding hills, the ducks on the pond, the fluttering rushes. Somewhere up the slope, still in shadow, Mulder waited for her. She had no doubt he was awake, alert, listening intently in the event she cried out for his help.

As always, he was watching her back.

They had made love twice since coming to this place. She wanted desperately to make love again, but now she didn’t know if it was reasonable to encourage him. She loved him with all her heart, and yet in so many ways she hardly knew him. She was unsure how he felt about her, if he had any hope for a future with her, or what his real feelings were on the subject of children.

One thing was certain: if he wanted children, the two of them had no future together. He deserved an opportunity to become a father. He deserved a woman who could give him sons and daughters. She would never ask him to forgo a family because of her defect.

She ran a finger through the water, causing a ripple. They never should have made love in the first place, not until they’d talked all this out. She’d been caught in a selfish moment, overwhelmed to have him back after coming so close to losing him.

And now there was no undoing it.

*   *   *

Mulder hefted Conan’s spear while gauging the distance to his target. Approximately 100 feet across the weedy meadow, Klizzie’s stone marker mocked him. Three throws, three misses. To be fair, he was closing in; his last attempt had sailed mere inches over the top.

“Any last words?” he asked the pile of rocks. “No? Then prepare to be annihilated.”

Three long strides...he hurled the spear, lobbing it like a baseball, high and straight, and with every ounce of power he could put behind it. The shaft wobbled only a little this time. His aim was true. The point made contact, crashed through the stones and toppled the pile with a satisfying clatter.

“Yes!” Mulder’s fist jabbed the air.

“Nice shot, Tarzan.” Scully approached carrying a small basket and two skewered, roasted lizards. Big lizards. Two-foot-long lizards, if you counted their charred tails.

“Where’d you get those?” he asked, relieved to see her with or without food. When she left their bed this morning, she’d said she needed a few minutes to herself. A “few minutes” had stretched into an hour -- as far as he could tell without his watch -- and he’d become worried.

Wanting to go look for her, but not wanting to invade her privacy -- or answer any more questions about his nightmare -- he decided to burn off his nervous energy by practicing with the spear.

Scully set the basket on the ground beside her feet and extended one of the skewered lizards like an olive branch. He accepted it, feeling unworthy after this morning’s foul up. She was wearing her “I’m fine expression, but he knew she must have been dissecting and analyzing what he’d said -- and not said. Concern showed in the tightness of her mouth, in the gloss of her eyes.

As much as he hated to see her worried, he couldn’t tell her the truth: he didn’t want children, not now, not ever. Not even with her. Or maybe especially with her. Any kid of his was doomed and he’d be dooming her, too, to a lifetime of disappointment and heartache if she became pregnant by him.

He was simply not father material, any more than he was big brother or husband material. 

For that matter, most of the time he wasn’t even good FBI partner material.

Best case scenario, their kid would be in therapy for the rest of its life, assuming it wasn’t abducted or killed first. And Scully would grow to hate him, assuming she wasn’t abducted...again...or killed, too.

Then she’d leave him, just as Diana had.

Scully was holding her lizard like an ear of corn and nibbling daintily on a hind leg. Humidity from the marsh had curled her hair today and the morning sun was shining through the frizz, giving it the appearance of a coppery halo. A scrap of meat clung to the corner of her mouth. She looked so beautiful he could barely breathe.

He reached over to wipe the food from her lips. When she didn’t duck away from his hand, he decided to kiss her, wanting...*needing*...the intimacy. Bowing his head, he leaned in and gently pressed his lips to hers. Was it fair to encourage this, knowing she wanted kids and he didn’t? Her fertility would return...probably soon. Wouldn’t it be better to end things now before that happened?

Otherwise, he would end up hurting her...hurting them both.

She was responding to his kiss with such tenderness. He hated himself for it. He was leading her on, giving her false hope. 

He pulled back, uncertain what to do. The idea of losing her scared the hell out of him.

Then again, so did fathering a child.

“You were going to tell me where you found breakfast,” he said, knowing this wasn’t the subject they needed to discuss.

She waved the lizard. The tension seemed to lessen around her mouth and eyes. “There were dozens of these sunning themselves on the rocks by the marsh.”

“How’d you catch them?”

Digging into her pocket, she produced his jackknife. “With this.”

“The lizards just sat there while you sliced and diced?”

“Hardly.” She handed him her half-eaten lizard and then opened his knife to demonstrate. Pointing its blade at an orangey toadstool growing in the damp soil about ten feet away, she said, “See that mushroom?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Watch.”

The knife pinwheeled through the air and landed dead center in the cap of the toadstool, halving it.

“That’s pretty fancy knife-throwing, Jane of the Jungle.”

“You’re no slouch with that spear of yours either, Tarzan.”

“Are you speaking metaphorically?” He let himself smile.

She smiled, too, which pleased him even more than usual because it wasn’t one of her typical barely-there smiles, but a rare teeth-and-gums grin that made up for all of his failed attempts to make her laugh. Especially now, given the way their morning had started.

“Metaphors aside, Mulder, keep practicing. Without my gun, we need all the survival skills we can muster.”

It was true. Three days of traveling had exhausted their food supply. And although the snapping turtle they’d managed to catch and stone to death last night had filled their stomachs, there’d been no leftovers for breakfast.

Procuring food in the Ice Age was evidently going to be a constant struggle since they didn’t know which plants were edible and which were lethal. With no way to safely supplement their paltry meat diet, Mulder was finding himself persistently hungry; he’d already lost an inch or two around his waist, enough to make him cinch his belt a couple of holes.

Scully walked away to retrieve the knife. He felt a flutter of panic as he watched her retreating back.

“Where’d you learn to throw like that?” he asked, needing to connect with her, if only by the sound of her voice.

“My dad. He taught Bill, Charlie and me after giving us Swiss Army knives for Christmas one year.” She returned with the knife, wiping bits of toadstool from the blade and folding it closed. She traded it to him for her breakfast.

Mulder’s knife had once belonged to his father. Bill Mulder had acquired it while in the military soon after Mulder was born and had carried it for years. The grip was worn smooth by constant handling. Whether pacing the shore at Quonochontaug or the floor of his study in Chilmark, Bill Mulder kept a hand thrust into his pocket, turning the knife round and round. He occasionally drew it out to slice an apple or open a letter, but most of the time it remained hidden away...like so much of his life.

A few months after his father had been killed Mulder was packing his belongings in West Tisbury when he found the knife in a packet from the funeral home. He decided to keep it, hoping the weight of it in his pocket and the feel of it against his palm might somehow bring his dad closer, even if posthumously. While holding it, Mulder could almost believe that under different circumstances he and his father might have been Indian Guides for real.

“Melissa didn’t get a knife, too?” he asked.

“Yes, but as a self-proclaimed pacifist, she declined to use it.”

Scully’s brows pinched together and Mulder guessed she was thinking about the violent way Melissa had died.

He quickly steered the subject in what he hoped would be a less painful direction. “Didn’t your mom object to giving you knives as Christmas gifts?”

“Not at all. Mom’s a practical woman. And in the days before cell phones, a Swiss Army knife was probably the most practical thing we could carry. She did insist Dad instruct us on proper handling. Besides, we weren’t *that* young. And Swiss Army knives were an improvement over the BB guns.”

Her mention of the BB guns brought to mind that unspeakable afternoon when he’d accompanied her mother to the monument shop to pick up Scully’s headstone...which reminded him of Duane Barry and Scully’s abduction...which reminded him--

“You were gone a long time this morning,” he said. “I thought we decided you weren’t going to go off on your own.”

She stopped chewing. Downcast eyes hid her emotions. “I wasn’t very far.”

“I called to you.” The fear he’d felt at that moment returned to him now full force. Could he demand she never leave his sight? “You didn’t answer.”

“Mulder, nothing happened. I’m fine.”

He nodded, not wanting to argue. Right now all he wanted to do was get back to the way things had been the day they first made love, when he’d felt on top of the world. He didn’t want to lose the closeness they’d had at that moment, the happiness he’d felt.

He pointed to the basket she’d set on the ground earlier. “What’s in your basket, Little Red?”

His question brought a smug grin to her face. She picked up the container and lifted the lid so he could see inside. “Fresh duck eggs.”

Three large eggs sat nestled in the bottom of the basket. His mouth began to water.

“Scully, I love you.”

The words just popped out -- heartfelt and meaning so much more than “thanks for bringing eggs.”

She seemed to miss his greater meaning, however. Or was purposely ignoring it. “Hope you don’t mind eating them raw.”

“Not at all.”

He fished an egg from the basket. Using his knife, he chiseled a dime-sized a hole into the top of the shell. He handed her the knife and raised the egg to his lips. “Down the hatch.”

He sucked out the contents as if drinking from a cup. Yolk and white slid into his mouth and he bit down on it, breaking the yolk with his tongue. God, it tasted wonderful--

“Oh...” Scully’s gasp drew his attention.

She was staring at the egg she held, a look of revulsion on her face. Tears suddenly swamped her eyes, overflowed her lashes and plummeted in two straight lines past the lowered corners of her mouth.

“What is it, Scully?”

She handed him the egg. Curled inside was the gray, sticky embryo of an unhatched baby duck. The bird was dead.

*   *   *

Tsa-ond was a sacred place, a mountain cave where men had come for generations to express their devotion to the Spirits, to make offerings, and to pray for good hunting, good health, and peace among the clans.

This afternoon a central fire warmed the cave with a flickering golden glow. Dzeh crouched in front of the Prayer Wall, his hands cupping a small bone idol, an offering to Hare Spirit. Behind him, the men of Owl Clan chanted individual prayers. Group prayers would come later, after the Shaman led them in a Telling Ceremony, an exchange of stories about personal spiritual encounters. Each man’s supernatural experience would be held up for scrutiny by the group, evaluated and accepted or rejected as a true spiritual sign.

Today Dzeh had a story to tell -- a dream vision he’d had three nights ago. He was not eager to tell his dream; it was full of mystery and foreboding.

Dzeh reverently placed his offering, a small fertility idol, on the ground in front of the Prayer Wall. He’d carved the figurine from the jawbone of a hare hoping the dead rabbit would speak to Hare Spirit on his behalf. Because rabbits mated year-round, producing many offspring, Dzeh was appealing to Hare, hoping the Spirit would bless Klizzie with a child this season.

The bone idol had been meticulously crafted. Smaller than Dzeh’s thumb, it represented a woman ripe with child, her breasts swollen with milk. She had wide hips, to ensure an easy birth. Too many women were lost during their labor -- like Dzeh’s mother and his oldest sister, Ne-zhoni. He did not want to lose Klizzie this way, too. He would rather she had no child at all than to see her fly off with the Spirits as she struggled to give birth.

The idea of losing Klizzie made Dzeh feel panicked and queasy. He loved her so much. Too much perhaps. Whenever he looked at her, lay with her, even talked with her about trivial matters, such as the gathering of pine nuts or the cleaning of deer skins, his heart beat like skull drummers at a Mastodon Feast. He had been very fond of his previous mate, but his affection for Klizzie outshone that older love as the sun to the moon.

Dzeh’s tiny idol had a nearly blank face, as was custom; only a few shallow notches hinted at features. Its hair, however, was crosshatched to represent braids similar to Klizzie’s. Dzeh had spent many winter evenings incising each precise line. The hands and feet were simple points with no toes or fingers; the fertility Spirits cared little for these parts of the body, attentive only to the reproductive aspects of the offering, which were exaggerated and detailed. Dzeh had polished the entire figure by rubbing it with sand and then bear fat until its breasts and belly glistened.

He murmured placating words to Hare Spirit before leaving the idol and rising to his feet to add a picture to the Prayer Wall.

Several other men stood at the Wall painting images. Small bowls of pigment and binder dotted the cave floor. The binder had been made from a mix of albumen and pinyon gum. The pigments ranged in color from black to blue to red to white. Charcoal, azurite, hematite, and white clay had been ground into powders. Brushes had been prepared by chewing the tips of twigs to remove the pulp, leaving fibers for painting small solid areas, clear lines and fine details. Dots were applied with fingertips.

Dzeh selected a tortoiseshell bowl filled with binder. He added a pinch of charcoal to it and, using his brush, mixed the materials together, creating a viscous black paint. He wasn’t much of an artist -- not nearly as accomplished as his Uncle Lin -- but it was the act of painting itself, not the quality of the image, that mattered. Painting a picture on a Prayer Wall was akin to singing a song to the Spirits during Feast Days or wearing a totem all year round. It was an act of respect, faith, and obedience. It focused a man’s thoughts, opening a path of communication to the Spirit World.

The Wall already held countless drawings made over many generations. Finding an unmarked area wasn’t easy. If a man wanted to paint a large picture, he must draw atop an older one. Feeling humbled by his communication with Hare Spirit, Dzeh decided to paint only a small picture this year. He found a blank space the size of a newborn’s palm between the tusks of a bull mastodon and the outstretched arm of Serpent Holder, a Spirit who held a large snake.

The image of the Serpent Holder was intimidating, almost life-size, and reminded Dzeh of his dream vision. He wondered again if the elders would deem his vision a true spiritual encounter.

In many respects, he hoped not.

Using careful strokes, he sketched the delicate outline of a jackrabbit. Additional paint was needed to color the rabbit reddish-brown and give him white eyes that could see their way between this world and the Spirit World.

When Dzeh was satisfied with his picture, he put down his brushes and paints, and joined the other men in a circle around the fire pit.

Fifteen men and nine boys waited eagerly, yet quietly, for the Shaman to lead them in the Telling Ceremony. Only the smallest children and infants were excluded from this ritual. And women, too, of course, who were busy taking care of the young ones and preparing tonight’s Spirit Feast.

The Shaman walked a circle around the men. He wore a helmet made from the skullcap of a musk ox, its great horns curled low over his ears. White clay painted his face in hopes the Spirits would mistake him for a ghost and allow him access to their world. A silvery wolf-skin cape, trimmed with owl feathers and bone beads, hung from his broad shoulders, open at the front to expose his Owl Clan tattoos -- circular designs that represented owl’s eyes and superior vision. Bracelets of snail shells jangled at his wrists and ankles. Around his neck he wore an impressive amulet made from iridescent heron feathers, clattering muscle shells and the gleaming tusks of a saber-toothed cat.

A fog of burning sage, tangy and pleasant smelling, filled the cave as the Shaman paced, holding a smudge-stick aloft in his outstretched hand. In his other hand he carried a tortoiseshell rattle, which he shook to the cadence of his deep-throated chant. The men joined his chant, lifting their collective voices to the Spirit World. Dzeh’s heart began to beat faster as the chanting progressed. He felt as if the Spirits sat with him at the hearth fire. This both frightened and made him glad.

When the Shaman had gone four times around the circle, cleansing the cave with his trail of smoke and calling to the Spirits with his singing, he took his place among the men, sitting to the right of Lin, the eldest.

Now it was time for the Telling Ceremony.

Foreboding caused Dzeh’s hands to quake and he stilled them by grasping the pouch he wore around his neck. The future held many secrets. Was his dream a premonition or just a simple nightmare?

The men proceeded to tell their stories, going in the order of their ages, starting with Lin. Dzeh listened and waited his turn. Several of the stories were deemed true visions, their ramifications were discussed and appropriate prayers were offered.

The moment finally came for Dzeh to begin telling his story.

“Three nights ago, I had a sleeping vision,” he said before dread seized his throat and stole the force from his voice. The men nodded, encouraging him to go on. He squeezed his totem pouch. Took a full breath. Speaking in a hushed tone, like a mourning dove separated from its mate, he continued, “In my dream, the newcomer named Muhl-dar captured a snake, which he placed in a bone cage. When Snake Spirit discovered the caged snake, he became angry. Snake Spirit released the snake and turned it into a man, then sent this snake-man to seek revenge. After much searching, the snake-man found Muhl-dar living with his red-haired mate at the camp of Owl Clan.”

This brought nervous looks to the other men’s faces. He knew they were thinking it had been risky to welcome the strangers in the first place.

“Muhl-dar fought with snake-man,” he continued, “and defeated him by breaking him into two halves.”

Dzeh glanced over at the Prayer Wall with its enormous painting of the Serpent Holder. For a heartbeat, it looked as if the snake might be severed in two. A spear of panic slashed into Dzeh’s belly.

“Snake Spirit became enraged by the death of snake-man, so he disguised himself as a lightning bolt and traveled to earth in the belly of a giant storm, intending to kill Muhl-dar. The night sky was turned inside out. The stars and the moon were moved from their customary positions as the lightning bolt grew to an enormous size. Cottonwood seeds fell like snow, even though it was not the season for them. Clansmen ran in every direction, afraid for their lives.” Dzeh closed his eyes, recalling the fear he felt when he discovered Klizzie was not by his side. “Those who remained behind heard the chirping of a bird.” Dzeh opened his eyes. “It was followed by the voice of a far-off female Spirit, who spoke to Muhl-dar, and although we could not understand her words, he was able to speak to her in her own strange language, and he became quite excited and happy to talk with her. She took a deep breath and blew the cottonwood seeds back to the Spirit World. Then she swallowed up Muhl-dar and his mate. The people of Owl Clan were sad to see them go.”

That was the end of the dream. He hoped the elders would decide it was not a prophecy, but only a silly nightmare.

Several moments passed while the men considered what they’d heard. Finally Dzeh’s Uncle Lin spoke.

“I accept Dzeh’s vision as a true spiritual sign.”

“I agree,” said his cousin Wol-la-chee, “but what does it mean?”

“It is clearly a bad omen,” said another man. “Clan members were lost and the man named Muhl-dar was at fault for their hardship.”

“If that is true, then why does the female Spirit help Muhl-dar and why is the Clan sad to see him go?” Lin asked.

“It makes no sense,” said Wol-la-chee.

“Who is this female spirit?”

“Who is the snake-man?” asked another.

“Prophecies are often unclear when they are first revealed,” said the Shaman. “Interpreting them is like hunting in fog. Sometimes we must wait until events reveal themselves before we can know whether it is best to charge or run.”

“But it is never desirable to lose Clan members,” argued a man who had recently lost his son to dysentery and fever.

“Maybe someone should return to Toh-ta Lodge to kill Muhl-dar before he cages the snake,” suggested a boy barely into his thirteenth year.

“It might already be too late for that,” said Uncle Lin.

“Then we should send Muhl-dar away when he comes,” said the boy’s father.

“No.” Dzeh shook his head. The dream frightened him, particularly the part about Klizzie. Even so, he was left with the feeling that Muhl-dar was the Clan’s only hope against the vengeful Snake Spirit. Dzeh believed the snake-man intended to cause trouble for all of Owl Clan. He couldn’t explain how he knew such a thing, only that he felt it like the chill of winter across his back. “Muhl-dar is my Trading Partner. He is Clan now and has given us no reason to either banish or kill him.” Dzeh glared at the 13-year-old.

The boy lowered his eyes, looking ashamed.

“All aspects of the partnership have not been fulfilled,” the boy’s father reminded Dzeh. “You have made only a single trade.”

“We will make more,” Dzeh said.

“You will exchange mates with the stranger?”

“Yes, of course,” Dzeh said, knowing the ritual would earn the Clan’s trust. Mate-exchange was the ultimate demonstration of a man’s loyalty -- to the Trading Partner and to the Clan.

“Until Dzeh or Muhl-dar choose to sever their partnership, or Muhl-dar breaks a Clan custom, the newcomer and his mate will be treated as members of Owl Clan,” Lin said. He looked at each man in turn. “We have accepted Dzeh’s vision. We will watch for additional omens.”

Before moving on to the next man’s vision, the Shaman urged, “We must continue to offer prayers to the Spirits for the protection of Owl Clan. I fear difficult times ahead.”

Dzeh silently agreed. Again he glanced at the painting of the Serpent Holder on the Prayer Wall and again he felt the chill of winter run down his spine.

*   *   *

While the men were praying in the cave and the women were preparing the evening’s ceremonial meal, Gini and her best friend Jeha hiked down a gravely trail to the stream to fill waterbags for tomorrow’s journey. Twins Do and Ehdo followed several paces behind, more interested in playing with their dolls than in fetching water. The twins were a couple of years younger than Gini. Jeha was older -- two Mastodon Feasts older -- and was full of talk about this year’s Feast and her imminent Joining Ceremony. Jeha had been promised by an uncle to Moasi, a young man in Badger Clan, one of several clans that would be participating in this year’s Feast. Although Jeha had never met Moasi, she’d heard from a cousin that her future mate was a good hunter and very handsome.

“Moasi has already killed his first bear, you know,” Jeha bragged.

“So you have told me.”

Moasi, Moasi, Moasi. Could Jeha think of nothing else? All this talk about mates and Joining Ceremonies was making Gini’s stomach hurt. She had learned from Dzeh only this morning that he was going to inquire about a mate for her at the upcoming Feast.

“You are growing up, Gini,” he had said after finishing his breakfast. “It is time for you to be mated. I will make arrangements.”

And that was that; he said nothing more and walked away leaving her too stunned to speak. Which was just as well; it would have been inappropriate for her to object in any case.

Gini had gone immediately to find Klizzie, hoping to talk to her about Dzeh’s decision, and the bumblebees it had put in her stomach, but Klizzie was too busy preparing the day’s Spirit Feast to answer her questions.

“We can talk tomorrow. On our way to Turkey Lake.” Klizzie kissed her on the head and hurried away to add pine nuts to the Offerings.

Gini was as nervous as a trapped goose about the idea of taking a mate, moving away to a strange clan, leaving the only family she had ever known. It seemed so unfair. Why did girls have to leave their clans to be mated and not boys?

“My mother is sewing ivory beads and blue jay feathers to my Joining Skirt,” Jeha prattled as they neared the stream. The woods thinned here and the twins ran ahead, wanting to be first to the water. “Ma-ma made the skirt from doe skins as white as new-fallen snow. And soft! You have never felt such soft hides.”

Jeha would look pretty in her Joining Day skins, Gini had to admit. Long hair done up in braids with beads and feathers and a crown of flower blossoms, her perfect skin oiled and perfumed. Jeha stood half a head taller than Gini. Her waist curved in and her hips curved out, and her breasts had begun to swell. Gini’s chest remained as flat as any boy’s and her narrow hips led straight down into her skinny legs, knobby knees and big feet. Sometimes she felt as ugly as a grasshopper next to her older friend.

It struck her this might be a good thing. Maybe Dzeh would not be able to find a boy who would want an ugly girl like her. Then she could stay with Owl Clan and Klizzie.

It was sad losing her best friend. Gini and Jeha had been like sisters all their lives. Now they would never again have the opportunity to play string games or dolls or Find Me. Jeha would become a member of Badger Clan. She would be expected to tend her mate’s hearth, raise lots of children. She would leave Turkey Lake in the autumn and it would be many seasons before Gini would see her again.

If ever.

The twins stripped out of their fur skirts and waded into the shallow brook, while Jeha and Gini settled side-by-side on a low moss-covered rock where they could dangle their feet in the cold, clear water. They sat near one of Klizzie’s stone markers, set out for the newcomers to follow.

Gini wondered if Muhl-dar and Day-nuh had left Toh-ta Lodge yet and if they were following Klizzie’s trail. Or had they decided to return to Eel Clan instead? Gini liked the strangers, especially Muhl-dar, and hoped to see them both again soon.

Maybe Dzeh could find her a mate like Muhl-dar. Gini guessed he was a good hunter and she knew he was handsome -- in a foreign sort of way. Although she had never met Jeha’s future mate, she was quite sure the boy from Badger Clan could not be as good looking as Muhl-dar.

“Does it not scare you a little?” Gini asked, watching the twins splash and chase each other in circles. They looked so much alike, it was easy to lose track of who was who.

“What are you talking about?” Jeha asked.

“Being mated to a man you have not met.” Gini could not imagine it. Klizzie had told her that laying with a man was a pleasant thing, and Gini believed her, but she also wondered why women sometimes cried out in the night as if in pain when they laid with their mates.

Klizzie herself had cried out just last night.

Jeha put on the expression of a grownup. “It is the Clan way. There is no point in being frightened.”

Gini was not so sure. Last fall she had seen a stallion mount a mare. He had climbed onto her back while she whinnied, the whites of her eyes showing all around. Clearly, she didn’t like it. When the stallion finally got off her, his male part hung long and wet-looking.

Did that happen to men?

“Besides,” Jeha said, while drawing shapes in the water with her toe, “it is a worse life to have no mate at all.”

That was true. A woman without a mate had no status and was always last to get her share of meat or skins. If there was not enough to go around, she went without. A woman alone must rely on the charity of the Clan for all things.

“And don’t forget, you must lie with a man if you want babies,” Jeha said matter-of-factly. “You want babies, don’t you?”

She supposed she did. “What does laying with a man have to do with getting babies?”

Jeha laughed. “You are still a baby yourself if you do not know the answer to that.”

Gini flushed with embarrassment, although she was uncertain what it was that made Jeha laugh at her. Klizzie prayed to the Spirits to bring her babies; she had never mentioned any other way of getting them. “If you are so smart, tell me where babies come from.”

Do and Ehdo had stopped their running and now sat in the brook playing a clapping game. Jeha watched them while she explained. “You know that a man puts his be-zonz inside a woman when they lay together, don’t you?”

“Yes. Of course.” Again she pictured the stallion.

“Well, the baby crawls through the man’s be-zonz into the woman. Ma-ma told me so.”

Was that true? It didn’t seem possible. It didn’t even make sense.

“Where does the man keep the baby before he puts it in the woman and how does it fit through his be-zonz?”

“The baby is very small, silly. It grows to normal size *after* it gets inside the woman.”

Well, that made sense at least. Pregnant women were not large, not at first. They grew bigger only as their time drew near. Animals were like that, too. The horses mated in the autumn. By spring, the mares were heavy with foals.

A man’s be-zonz might grow large during mating to allow for the baby’s passage, Gini supposed.

Still, why did people pray to Spirits for babies if they came from men?

Jeha turned away from the twins and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Watch them sometime. See for yourself.”

“Watch what?”

“Our aunts and uncles when they are in their sleeping skins.”

“Jeha, that is not polite!” Gini said, wanting suddenly to be playing games with Do and Ehdo rather than continuing this conversation. Jeha’s talk was making her stomach hurt worse than before. “Let’s swim.”

“If you want.” Jeha laughed again. She stood to remove her fur skirt. “But one day you will see I am telling you the truth.”

Again Gini pictured the stallion’s enormous male part and the bumblebees in her stomach began to buzz more violently than ever. 

*   *   *

Mulder carried the larger pack and the spears, occasionally using one of the spears as a walking stick. Scully lugged the waterbag and the smaller pack, which was intended for storing food but was currently empty. It was late afternoon and they were climbing yet another forested hill. They’d been following Klizzie’s markers and traveling northeast for seven days. Mulder guessed they were covering fifteen to twenty miles a day now that he was feeling stronger.

“There.” Mulder pointed to a stack of fist-sized stones balanced atop a mossy boulder twenty yards upstream.

“Camp now?” Scully asked. She had begun talking epigrammatically around mid-morning and had said almost nothing at all since noon.

Mulder assumed her terseness was the result of fatigue and hunger. Or a reaction to his own irritability. He felt snappier than A.D. Skinner at an OPR meeting.

“We still have several hours of daylight left. Let’s keep going. Maybe we can crest the next ridge before dark.”

They couldn’t stop now -- they had nothing to eat.

“Fine.” Scully switched the waterbag to her other hand and continued hiking.

The path was steep here, zigzagging uphill between ghostly aspens and sparse evergreens, following a channel carved by the stream. Loose stones lined the trail. Granite cobbles and tree roots served as irregular steps. Aspens shivered in the chilly breeze, their papery leaves chattering like teeth.

The air smelled like pinesap and last year’s fermenting chokecherries. The skies were overcast again today. Last night had been downright frigid. He and Scully had huddled together for warmth, fully dressed beneath the sleeping skins.

Their all-night embrace had been for practical purposes only.

They’d made love only once since Mulder’s nightmare, and it had not been particularly satisfying for either one of them. They couldn’t seem to get out of each other’s way, fumbling with their clothes, bumping noses, elbowing and pinching. It was all over in less than ten minutes, which was probably for the best.

Mulder was still embarrassed to think about the welt he’d raised on Scully’s chin when he accidentally clipped her with his knuckles. He’d meant to caress her, but was distracted by a biting deerfly and wound up walloping her instead.

They’d both been in sour moods ever since.

Although unwilling to take the lead in their intimate life -- at least for the time being -- Mulder did volunteer to occupy the forward position on the trail. He set a strenuous pace, hoping to burn off some of his unrequited sexual energy. He wanted to be bone-tired before falling into bed with Scully at the end of each day. That way, he was sure to keep his hands off her and avoid making an ass of himself...again.

Something moved in the woods up ahead, just beyond Klizzie’s marker. Mulder caught a glimpse of shaggy, reddish-brown fur between the tree trunks. He stopped and held up a cautionary finger to Scully.

She came to a standstill a step or two behind him.

“See it?” he whispered, never taking his eyes off the animal. It was shuffling slowly downhill, partially obscured by vegetation as it grazed on leaves. Was it a bear? A gorilla?

“Megalonyx,” Scully whispered, when it came into full view.

“Megalo-what?”

“Giant Ground Sloth.”

Jesus, it looked like some sort of mutant hamster. A ten-foot-tall mutant hamster.

The bizarre animal rose up on its hind legs, reaching a long-clawed paw into the upper limbs of an aspen. It tore off a leafy branch and stuffed it into its mouth. Its arms were massive. Each paw sported six-inch curved claws. Its head was undersized for its brawny body, with a wide face, a flat snout, short, rounded ears, and pig-like eyes set far back on its skull.

“Carnivorous?” Mulder asked.

“No, but dangerous from the look of those claws.”

The sloth hooked another branch and brought it crashing to the ground. It turned an inquisitive eye toward Mulder and Scully and sniffed the air. Seemingly unconcerned, it continued to lazily munch leaves.

God, the thing must weigh three tons.

Three tons of fresh meat.

Thick flank steaks. Tenderloins the size of a man’s arm. T-bones to die for. Mulder’s empty stomach rumbled. He quickly set everything he carried down on the ground...except his most durable spear.

“Mulder, what are you doing?”

“I’m gonna bag us dinner, Scully.”

He hefted the spear, gauged the distance.

“Mulder, use your gun,” Scully urged through clenched teeth.

And waste a bullet? Nnnaaah, the sloth was moving very slowly.

“Mulder--”

Ignoring her warning, he charged the beast, spear raised shoulder high. The sloth stopped eating when it heard him stampeding up the hill. It turned to face him. Rearing up on its hind legs, it honked a warning that sounded like a cross between a grizzly bear and a Mack Truck.

Mulder bellowed right back at him, racing forward, sending a mini avalanche of gravel downhill behind him. He targeted the animal’s heart, gripped the spear, and prepared for impact.

Twenty feet...fifteen...ten...

The sloth swiped the air with an enormous paw as the spear punctured its chest. A thick, curving claw raked Mulder’s face and pain exploded along his left cheek. Blood spurted from the wound.

Ignoring his injury, Mulder thrust the spear more deeply into the animal’s breast.

The sloth roared and pivoted, lifting Mulder to his toes. He clung to the weapon, while the beast flailed an enormous arm, trying to bat him off. He dodged the blow, released the spear and dropped to his knees. Quickly, he scrambled back a step or two.

The injured sloth attempted a charge but staggered sideways instead. It lashed out again and missed Mulder by mere inches before it lost its balance, tottered, and finally collapsed onto its back.

Mulder wasted no time. He clambered up onto the giant’s mountainous belly. Using all his weight, he drove the spear as deep into the animal as it would go.

The sloth gasped, its head lolled, and its limbs went limp.

Balanced on its chest, Mulder let out a victorious whoop.

“Mulder!” Scully rushed forward, fear in her eyes. “You’re hurt!”

“I’m okay.” He jumped to the ground and circled the sloth, practically dancing with excitement. “Do you prefer your steaks medium or well done?”

“You’re not okay. You’re bleeding.” She slowed his restless pacing by grabbing his sleeve. “Hold still. Let me see.” She reached out to probe the wound on his cheek.

“Ow!” He ducked away from her hand, but she was as tenacious as a fat-sucking mutant and was on him again in an instant. “It’s nothing,” he protested, arm extended to keep her at a distance. “We have meat to cut up. Sirloins to grill.”

“You need stitches.”

“Too bad we’re twelve thousand *years* from the nearest hospital.” He tried again to get around her, but she body-blocked him. He settled for inspecting the carcass over the top of her head.

“Look at those drumsticks, Scully. And that rump roast.” He pictured a couple of super-sized sloth-burgers, with a side order of onion rings and a large frosty milkshake.

“I have needle and thread.”

“Hm?” Mulder glanced down. Scully was holding one of those cheapo hotel sewing kits in her hand.

Oh. Crap. He’d forgotten she had that.

She steered him to the boulder that held Klizzie’s marker and, with the point of a finger, ordered him to sit. Then she laid out her needle, thread and a pair of miniature scissors that came with the kit. “I’m going to wash and stitch that wound. Give me your handkerchief.”

He obliged her with the handkerchief but refused to sit. “I killed it, Scully,” he said, grinning. “Did you see me?”

“Yes, I saw.” She washed her hands and soaked the handkerchief in the stream. The minute her attention left him, he returned to the sloth.

“Mulder, I told you to sit.” She went to him and guided him by the arm back to the rock. “What you did was foolhardy.”

Foolhardy? He shook his arm loose. “Tell that to the sloth.” He was hoping she’d be impressed by his success. Not to mention the gazillion pounds of fresh meat. “Still got all my bullets,” he bragged.

“And one nasty cut.”

“How sanitary is that needle?” he asked when she cornered him beside the boulder. “Won’t I get an infection?”

“That’d be preferable to bleeding to death. *Sit*.”

He did as she asked and eyeballed her needle, while she inspected his wound. Gently, she swabbed his bloody cheek with the wet handkerchief. 

“This would be easier without all the whiskers.”

It had been a week and a half since he’d last shaved and he guessed he must look pretty scruffy.

Scully used the waterbag to rinse his cheek.

“Hey, you’re getting my clothes wet.”

She continued to pour.

“That hurts!” He winced more for effect than from pain.

She raised an eyebrow and handed him the waterbag and the blood-soaked handkerchief. “Hold these.”

“Shouldn’t you use some of that soap root or something?”

“It isn’t antibacterial, Mulder. Your own blood will do a better job of cleansing the wound than that root.” She threaded her needle.

“Can’t you just kiss it and make it better?”

“I’m a doctor, Mulder, not your mother.”

“You’re a pathologist.” Her needle stung when it pierced his skin. “Ow! Don’t forget, I’m not a corpse.”

“Shhh.”

“Do I get a reward if I don’t cry?”

“We’ll see.”

She worked fast, quickly closing his wound with careful stitches. The cut was just below his eye. An inch or two higher--

He didn’t want to think about it. He also didn’t want to watch her needle popping in and out of his skin, so he avoided looking at her hands and focused on her eyes instead.

In them he saw determination, self-control and compassion.

She leaned close to tie off the final knots. “Almost finished,” she murmured, and tears filled his eyes -- not from the pain she was causing, but from the devotion in her voice.

He held perfectly still, waiting...

“There,” she said at last. “How does that feel?”

He pouted. “It hurts.”

She tucked the scissors and needle back into her kit, and gave him a sympathetic smile. “Sorry.”

“I didn’t cry. You owe me a reward.”

She gave him a quick kiss on the nose, then took the bloody handkerchief from his hand. “How about we cut up that carcass now? I’m pretty handy with a knife.”

“That wasnt much of a kiss.” Taking a chance, he wrapped his arms around her. Still seated, he had to look up to give her his best puppy-eyed stare. He knew she was more apt to indulge him after he was recently injured. “Kiss me and make me better, Doctor Scully.”

She smiled, and he felt the tide of tension between them ebb a bit. An apology hung on his lips, but he was afraid to speak of their recent rift for fear he might reopen the gulf between them.

“Close your eyes,” she said.

“I can’t watch?” His tone turned petulant but he did as he was told.

From behind closed lids he felt her place a feather-light kiss on the lashes of his left eye, just above the wound on his cheek.

He tightened his arms around her and mumbled into her neck, “What do you know, it worked.”

She kissed the crown of his head. “Better?”

“Yes, thank you. Much.”

*   *   *

Klizzie shivered as she looked up through the evergreen boughs at the overcast sky. Clouds marched like mastodons overhead and a bitter wind was blowing in from the north. The air smelled like snow, which wasn’t unusual at these altitudes, even in mid-summer. She followed the Clan up the southwestern slopes of Sleeping Wolf Mountain. Spruce and white pine grew tall here. A dense layer of rust-colored needles blanketed the ground, muting their footfalls.

“Are we almost there?” Gini asked, whining like a mosquito. She dragged her feet with exaggerated exhaustion.

“We will make camp soon. Tomorrow we will be at Turkey Lake,” Klizzie said, trying to cheer the girl. Gini had been in a somber mood for the past two days, ever since the Clan had left Tsa-ond Cave.

Dzeh had been subdued, too. When Klizzie asked him to share his troubles, he refused to discuss them, saying his head was full of men’s business and she was not to worry, which made her worry even more.

“I’m hungry,” Gini complained.

“You are welcome to the pine nuts in my pouch.” Klizzie nodded her chin at the bag tied to the belt of her skirt.

“I do not want pine nuts.”

“Well, that is all there is.”

That wasn’t true; Klizzie carried an assortment of berries, burdock root and dried meat, but they were packed away and she didn’t feel like stopping to dig them out.

“Uncle Lin has a honeycomb,” Gini said, looking hopeful.

“That is for the Mastodon Feast and you know it.”

The Clan had brought many gifts for the celebration. Furs, spear points, bone beads, but the most prized was the large comb of honey, stored in a hollowed gourd and wrapped tightly with fresh cattail leaves to keep out insects...and hungry children.

“Ask Jeha if she has any more spruce gum,” Klizzie suggested.

Looking ahead to where Jeha walked with her mother and aunt, Gini frowned. “She is busy.”

“She is just talking.”

“Yeah, about Moasi. I have heard enough about him.”

“You will have a mate of your own soon enough. Then you will talk about nothing but him, too, just as Jeha talks about Moasi.”

“I will not.” Gini’s frown deepened.

Klizzie was about to ask her to explain her angry face, but the Clan was stopping. The men and boys were circling around something in the path up ahead.

“Are we camping here?” Gini asked, curiosity replacing her storm-cloud expression.

It was too early to set camp. Something else was going on.

“Let’s go see,” Klizzie said, and she and Gini broke into a trot.

They found everyone had gone as quiet as stone as they gaped at something on the ground. Klizzie shouldered her way through the circle to see what it was they were looking at.

Mother Earth, it was a baby owl and it mewled pitifully, its wings too underdeveloped to fly.

“It must have fallen from up there,” Uncle Lin said, his finger aimed skyward.

Klizzie lifted her eyes to a notch high in the hemlock that towered over the trail. The mother owl was nowhere to be seen. The baby would not last long. A predator would take it as soon as the Clan moved on.

This was a bad omen. The owl was the symbol of the Clan. Its fall from the nest portended a tragedy.

Klizzie felt Gini take her hand. “Can we put it back?” the girl asked.

“Its mother will not accept it.”

“Maybe we can take it with us.”

“It would die just as surely, Gini.”

“But if we care for it and feed--”

The Shaman glared at Gini, silencing her. Turning his attention to the owl, he knelt and spoke loud enough for all the Clan to hear. “The Spirits have thrown this bird here for us to see, and only they can save it.”

Klizzie glanced at Dzeh, who had gone pale. The young owl squealed and Klizzie felt the soft tread of Spirits passing across her flesh.

*   *   *

We should start cutting up that carcass, Tarzan,” Scully said, still locked in his embrace.

He was looking past her at something on the hill. Saying nothing, his arms dropped away and he rose to his feet.

She turned and tried to make out what it was that caught his attention. “Another sloth?

“Uh-uh. A cave.” He walked away from her, heading uphill.

She hurried after him, following him between trees and around boulders. He moved faster the higher he climbed and she scrambled to keep pace.

Sure enough, a cave came into view. She was amazed he’d been able to spot it from below. Camouflaged by shadows, the entrance was nearly invisible.

When they reached it, they found the opening was actually quite large, approximately six feet across and equally tall. It had a wide stone landing, which was flat and offered a spectacular view of the valley below.

Mulder paused at the entrance to dig his flashlight from his pocket.

“Don’t wanna trip on any bears,” he said, aiming the beam into the dark.

He stepped inside and she followed. His roving flashlight spotlighted bats the size of lab rats hanging by the dozens in clumps overhead. Annoyed by the unexpected visitors, they squeaked and wriggled, but stayed put.

The cave was too deep for the flashlight to penetrate all the way to the back. “Anybody home?” he yelled, his voice ricocheting off the rock. “What’s that smell?”

The tangy aroma of burnt herbs and woodsmoke blended with the syrupy odor of the bats.

“Sage, I think,” Scully said. “Somebody must have been in here recently.” 

“Klizzie’s people?” Mulder moved further into the cave.

“Probably. Her marker is just down the hill.”

Mulder’s beam revealed a large fire pit in the middle of the rock floor. Scully walked over to it and crouched.

“Still a little warm,” she announced, fingers testing the ash.

Mulder swiveled, painting the cave with his light as he explored their surroundings.

“What’s that?” she asked when his beam reflected off a small white object lying on the ground by the far wall.

She crossed the cave and picked it up.

“It’s female,” Mulder stated the obvious, spotlighting her palm. “Looks like a fertility idol -- like the Venus of Willendorf, found in Austria. Pendulous breasts, pregnant belly, no facial features to speak of. Similar figurines have been found all over the world.”

“They date as far back as 30,000 years.”

She turned it over in her hand, impressed by its smoothness. It felt strangely warm, almost alive, as if imbued with the faith of its careful carver. She stroked its roundness with her thumb. For just a moment, she thought she detected a heartbeat there.

“Powerful magic.” Mulder turned away, taking his light with him, his attention already focused elsewhere.

“Why do you say that?”

“The 20th Century is full of people, isn’t it?”

She gripped the idol and was startled when she felt what she could only describe as hope tickle her palm. Damn it, she was being foolish, letting this place get to her. The carving was nothing more than a lucky charm, like a four-leaf clover or a rabbit’s foot.

“Wow, look at this, Scully.”

Mulder was examining a painting on the rock wall. He stepped back, broadening the circle of his beam, revealing a stone canvas covered with pictograms.

“Jesus, there’re hundreds of them,” he said, as his light crawled across the wall. Mastodons, bison, men with spears, horses, rabbits, owls...lots of owls. He stopped when he came to a nearly life-size image of a man holding a snake.

Ophiuchus.”

“Who?” She joined him at the wall for a closer look.

“The Serpent Holder.” He ran the light along the length of the snake. “You know, in the sky. The constellation.”

Of course. He’d pointed it out only a few nights ago when they were admiring the Andromeda Nebula. 

Ophiuchus had been a Healer who was struck dead by a thunderbolt from Zeus at the request of Hades, God of the Dead, because he had brought Orion back to life. Gods work.

“The myth of Ophiuchus is years in the future, Mulder,” she reminded him.

He nodded absently. “Yeah. Maybe.” He was using his I’m-agreeing-with-you-without-really-agreeing-with-you tone, which meant that he was formulating some new theory he wasn’t yet ready to share.  

The Serpent Holder loomed over them, staring out of blank eyes. It was unnerving. The way Mulder’s light played across the rock made the snake look as if it were undulating in the Serpent Holder’s hands. A tiny reddish-brown jackrabbit with frightened white eyes huddled next to the snake, looking powerless and vulnerable.

The carved idol seemed to throb in Scully’s palm. She felt suddenly lightheaded, queasy. Doubling over, she cried out as a slash of pain seared her abdomen.

“Scully?” Mulder was instantly by her side, arms thrown around her to keep her from falling. “What is it? What’s the matter?”

“I don’t...I don’t know...” Oh God, the pain was awful. “It hurts...”

“Where?” Mulder’s expression was frantic.

“Here...ooohhhh!” She clutched her stomach, just above her navel.

He aimed his light at her, tugged her shirt up to reveal her bare skin.

“I don’t see anything. What is it?”

She gasped for breath. “I feel...I think...ooohhhh, Mulderrr.” Sinking to her knees, she tried to breathe through the pain.

“Talk to me, Scully. What can I...how can I help?”

“I feel like...I think I’ve been...shot.” But there had been no gun, no bullet. There was no blood. Just pain, terrible pain, burning a straight line through her stomach and out her back.

She reached for Mulder, grabbed him around the neck. Oh God, oh God. The idol slipped from her fingers and fell soundlessly to the ground.

She reached for Mulder, grabbed him around the neck.

 


Continued in Chapter Nine

See The Mastodon Diaries Dictionary for an explanation of the paleo-indian terms and names.

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