The tiny hut was dark, but the shadows were beginning to retreat in the purple light of the coming day. Soft scratching sounds came from a corner of the single room. Another rat sneaking in to escape the daylight predators. If the day’s hunting went poorly, he would kill it later and they would not go hungry.
Beside him, his mate slept. He traced her form with his thick fingers, hovering for a moment over her ripe belly. It rippled beneath his hand. Ni grinned at the strength of his unborn child. Before long, his son would see the world outside Ta’s sheltering body.
His son kicked again, reminding Ni of the need to start his day. Ta could sleep until the sun was above the horizon, but he had work to do. His son would need fur to stay warm in the coming snows; his mate would need meat to stay strong for the coming birth.
It was his job to provide these things.
Creeping as carefully as the stalking cat, he moved from the mat of woven grasses. Ta stirred slightly and then slept once more.
Through the tattered pelt doorway, Ni could see the sky brightening and strode forward. Soon, the animals would be stirring from their sleeping grounds, and he had to be hiding along the path before they passed. If he missed his chance, the remainder of the day’s hunting would be long and hard, requiring more energy than he could spare.
Near the entry was the thick stick he’d sharpened to a deadly point, and he grasped it firmly as he pushed the pelt aside. It was a good weapon—much better than the rocks his old clan had used—and it had helped him bring down many animals. It took too many men to bring down a single meal with rocks and Ni hunted alone. He had needed something more, and the stick had made his work so much easier. Hardly a hunt left them in bed at night with an empty belly. Soon those barren hunts must never come. His son could not live if he did not bring home food each day.
A short walk brought him to the trail, and he was happy to see no fresh tracks upon the ground. He was not too late; the animals were still bedded down. Tonight his mate would have a large beast to fill her belly, and his son would grow to be strong.
Settling into the crotch of a towering tree, Ni waited.
And he thought.
He made a vow when Ta first told him of the coming child. His son would not know the hungers he had known. Even in the clan, many hunts had been fruitless. Great bands of men would set out in the morning, boasting of their prowess. Humbled bands of men would return with the setting sun, boastful no more.
Ni had watched his father lead those bands. Quiet and careful, the man had been. Strong and wise, his father had fought for his right to lead those bands. At night, Ni would listen to his father grunt in the caves, talking of those most boastful men and how none of them had the skill to track or to kill. Ni had seen the hateful glares of those men, after his father had gone to his furs for the night.
And Ni had heard the whispering.
One day, the men went out and the worst among them were very quiet. At night, they returned empty handed and leaderless. To hear them tell the tale, his father had been gored during the hunt, but Ni knew in his heart what the truth of it was.
A new leader stepped forward the next day, unchallenged. He stepped into the place Ni’s father had held in the clan, and he stepped into the place the old leader had held in Ni’s home.
Like so many other predators, when a new leader stepped forward, the offspring of the old leader were set upon—to be killed or driven away. So it had been with Ni.
He had only seen ten summers when the men of the clan came at him, beating him with sticks while the women shrieked and jeered—his own mother among them. He was a stout and sturdy boy, not far from joining the hunt even at that tender age, and he warded off their blows as best he could.
So many summers had passed since that wicked day, when he’d been forced out of the caves and into the world beyond. So many winters, when he’d barely lived through the cold and the damp, had come and gone.
After many summers, he had found Ta. Living with a band of wanderers and outcasts, she had never known the comforts of the caves, nor the warmth of a dozen bodies piled together in sleep. She had been hardened by the wind and browned by the sun.
Near a gentle stream, he had hidden and watched her trying to hunt the creatures beneath the waters. One rock and then another went into the cold clear depths, until finally she had reached down and pulled a flopping meal from beneath her feet.
He had loved her in an instant.
When he had stepped forward to show himself, she had growled her fear at him and turned to run away. He’d called to her, but his grunts had meant nothing to this wild thing. She’d screamed back at him as she leapt through the tall grasses, and the chase has been on.
Hunting her like any other of his prey, he had used more brains than brawn. Soon, she hadn’t been able to see him behind her, and she’d assumed he had gone away. It was then that he’d been upon her. She’d snarled, and he’d growled; she’d bit and he’d shaken her teeth away, laughing. She had been perfect.
She still was.
On the path below his tree, Ni could hear the approach of a beast making its way to the feeding grounds. He bared his teeth in pleasure. It was a large male, already fat for the coming winter, and lazy without the urgent need for food.
When the buck was beneath him, he sprang from the tree and on top on the animal, driving his stick into the beast’s side. He pushed and the beast bucked. It jumped and he held tight to its neck. He squeezed the place where the breath of life flowed through it and it thrashed, trying to gore him. Its sharp antlers ripped through the flesh of his arm, and his weapon gouged deeper into the flesh of its flank. He shoved until the stick was driven into the beast and the beast squealed its death cry.
Afterwards, Ni lay panting on top of the animal. The battle had been harder than he’d expected, and his torn arm burned with pain. If he could just rest a moment, the burden of dragging the animal home would be so much easier.
But a growl from the bushes ceased all thought of the task ahead being easy. Ni slowly rose to his feet, standing over the carcass of his hard-won prize. Nearby was the cat or the wolf, and either would not hesitate to take both him and his meal.
Ni gathered what little strength he had, and slowly began dragging his prey home. He had no choice. If the hunting creatures caught him here, in the open, and weakened from his fight, he would lose. If they followed, he could fight them better from his own lair and with the help of Ta. Even round with his child, she was as fierce as the day they had met.
He pulled, stumbling a few steps at a time. He dragged, gaining so few feet of ground he felt like he was standing still. Still, the growling beast never showed itself, and after a while, the growling faded into the morning mist.
The sun was high above him when the hut came into view. He stopped. Ta would come to help him move the beast closer to their home. She would help him skin the beast and ready it for eating.
He called for his mate.
When Ta stepped out into the sunshine, his breath caught. As tired as he was, he could still admire how valuable his mate was to him. She was strong and sturdy, like a deer after the long and bountiful summer. Standing there with her belly rounded by the weight of his son, he could remember exactly what had drawn him to her that day by the river. She was a good mate, and she would be a good mother. She could not be otherwise.
He barked out a command, and she lifted her head in laughter before she obeyed. Na had never ruled this one, and he never would. His own deep laughter joined her own as they labored beneath the weight of his prey.
The skinning took little time, and each of them picked the choicest meats to eat immediately, before the heat of the sun soured their flavor. Ta grunted to him, indicating the beast was too big and the bounty would soon be no more than offal. He shrugged, waving aside her concerns. If too much meat existed for them to eat, he would hunt again when this carcass went bad. Hunting was nothing to him.
She rubbed her precious belly lovingly. Her hand drifted to the clotted line along his arm—too much closer and it would have been his chest, not his arm, pierced and bloody. He knew she meant for him to think about the days and weeks to come. With his son soon to be born, he must think before he risked himself on too big a prize, especially one that would not last long enough to warrant the danger. She needed him now, but she would need him even more once the birthing was close upon her.
He must no longer take the chances like he took today.
Looking down at the bounty before him, he wished for a better way. The meat, if kept from rotting, would last them days. When the snows fell, it would last longer, but it would be too hard to eat without staying in the warmth of the hut, and then the problem of rot returned.
He would think on it another day.
Every morning, Ni hunted while Ta gathered water from the stream and bounty from the fields. Some nights, he would come home empty-handed and they would chew the grains and roots to quiet their bellies. Some nights, he would come home dragging a beast for them to share. Never again did he try for the biggest beasts, but never again would his hunt last them more than one day’s meals.
The cold wind blew through their tiny hut, and each day Ta would add some mud here or grasses there to keep the chill from their sleeping furs. It never seemed enough.
One morning, long before the winter sun had reached above the earth’s line, Ni sat in his hunting tree waiting for a stout beast to take home. His mate was nearly bursting with the son he’d planted there, and she could no longer fetch the water for their home. Already the streams were thickening with ice and the plants were readying for their long sleep. Soon, the hunt would be all they could expect for sustenance, and soon he would be unable to hunt too far from their shelter for fear Ta would need him.
He had to catch something big today, and he had to find a way to make the meat last until the birthing was over.
The wind blew harder, stiffening his thick fingers. He rubbed them together and he blew his hot breath over them to keep them warm.
He stopped. A kernel of thought drifted through his brain. He rubbed his hands together, and they stayed warm.
Grasping two of the dead branches from around his hiding place, he rubbed them together. Nothing happened. He rubbed them together faster, as with his hands on the most blustery of days. They felt warm to his cold fingers. He rubbed them together as fast as he could, and the warmth spread through the wood in his fingers.
If he could take that warmth home, Ta would not need to worry about the chill of the hut. She would be warm as she gave birth, and their son would not be born into the cold world after all. Ni rubbed the sticks together with such ferocity the sound startled a beast wandering up the path toward the hunting spot. As it ran away, Ni saw his first white puff of air.
When the storms came and the jagged white light from the sky landed on the trees, the light would spread and this white air plumed upwards from the spot. He sniffed the air cautiously. It smelled the same. He shuddered. The light from the sky spread in great living tongues of unbearable heat, and the clansmen believed it was a warning from the gods. No one would dare go near the light as it spread over the ground, eating everything in its path.
Suddenly, Ni was very afraid of what he held in his hand. If the clansmen were right, the gods would rain their fury down upon him for touching what was theirs. It was for the gods to create, not Ni. Still, one thought of his son, shivering in the drafts of their hut, and Ni renewed his fury upon the wood.
The gods be damned. His son would be warm. He would make their light, and he would hold it in his hand. Then he would bring it to his mate, as a gift.
Ni rubbed at the pieces of wood until his muscles ached with the motion. Never could he manage more than the tiny white puff of air, and the warming of the wood as it turned to a brownish black. His hands ached with the motion, and his skin became raw with the rubbing. It wasn’t working.
Leaping to the ground and sitting with his back against the tree, he focused all his energy on rubbing at the wood in his hands. Near to giving up, he set his latest attempt down upon the ground beside him, and laid his head in his hands. The sun was dropping low in the sky, far from where it had started its journey, and still he had no meal to bring home for Ta. Shuddering, he thought of another night spent with no food in their bellies, and the cold winds blowing all around their sleeping furs.
A soft crackle, like the step of a mouse through dried leaves, brought his attention to the sticks beside him. The tiny puff of white air from his work had grown, and the hunger of it was beginning to consume the twigs around it. He watched in amazement as first one dry, crumpled leaf caught with a red light and then was gone, followed by another and another.
He picked up a larger stick and set it amongst the hungry puffs. The red light caught hold of the stick and began eating it, too. Setting the stick down, he rose from his hiding spot and scanned the earth for a larger branch to feed the light he’d created.
Just as he spied the perfect food for this new thing, he felt a curious prickling along his foot. He shouted and jumped. The thing had tried to feast upon his own flesh. He kicked at the dirt around it, until it was once again a small thing, and under his control. Grasping the large stick, he thrust it up against the hungry light and it licked along the wood.
Once the stick was glowing with the tongues of red hunger, he kicked the dirt again, killing the last of the light he’d created. The child of it would live on the branch he held until he could get it home, and then it would live as he chose to let it live.
It was only fitting that the child of his creation would serve his own child.
Thus, Ni’s son was born into a warm hut while the snow swirled outside, and while the child’s cries mixed with the snarl of the winter wind, the wind touched him not. While Ta slept, Ni wrapped the squirming boy in the best of his furs, and carried him closer to the fire. This was my greatest creation, Ni thought looking at his son, and now it shall serve you who have taken its honored place.
In the weeks that passed, the snow fell thick and buried the ground beneath it. The tracking of the animals became easier, and their hut was filled with the smells of cooking meat.
And their son, Ka, grew as fat and round as a bear cub.
Every day, Ni would leave for the hunt, slogging through the mounds of snow, while his mate and son remained nestled in the warmth and safety of the hut. Every afternoon he would return, pulling his prize over the drifts.
One morning, as he was on his way to his hunting spot, though, he noticed a track of the sort he hadn’t seen in many years. It was the long flat track of another man. Ni growled his displeasure. This was his territory to hunt. He had claimed it with his blood and his sweat; he would not have another man taking what was rightfully his.
Sniffing the wind, he could just catch the scent the other human, and somewhere in his mind, the smell was familiar. He hissed. This other must be stopped even if it meant returning home empty handed. At the hut, there was enough meat to miss a day’s hunting. He followed the track.
It lead him far away from the trail where he hunted every day. It lead him even farther away from his hut and his family. The track seemed to have no purpose, leading first one way and then another, but always, always, away from his home. Ni paid no attention to the distance he was covering; he only knew he must stop the other one. When the sun was high above his head, Ni could almost smell the man around the next bend, and he quickened his pace.
The memories had faded to a dim gray, but the pain of his beating and the death of his father were still fresh in Ni’s mind. Behind a tree stood the one human for which Ni would kill himself, if only to see the other die. Before him stood the murderous leader of his former clan.
Ni screamed his fury, and leapt toward the hated thing. He would kill it, and like every other beast before, he would drag it home as a prize for his mate and son.
The man laughed and crouched to take Ni, expecting to face the child he’d nearly killed so many winters before. He did not expect to face Ni’s sharpened stick.
Ni stabbed, and found his mark. The crude leader howled in pain and fury, bringing his hands up to protect his remaining eye. Like a wild thing, Ni stabbed again and again while the man beneath him squirmed to get away. Ni would have nothing of it. Each thrust of his weapon a punishment for the death of his father; each drip of blood a small return for the drops of his own blood shed on the day he was driven from the caves.
When finally, the old leader of the clan shuddered once and fell away into the snow, Ni was covered in the thick red retribution he had not known he wanted. Now that it was over, and Ni looked at the old man he had beaten, he was ashamed he had killed so old and frail a thing. It was not a prize to take proudly home to his mate.
He left the crumpled thing lying in the snow and trudged home.
The sky was washed in the blood of his kill by the time he stepped back into the clearing. Ni was tired; more tired than he had ever been from the hunt. All he wished was to wipe away the remnants of his foe, and fall into the arms of his beautiful Ta.
He didn’t notice the stillness of the clearing, but his nose caught the smell he never thought he’d find around his own home.
He shrieked for his mate.
Ta did not come.
He looked toward the shelter where Ta should be cooking, but no smoke drifted forth from the hut. Frozen with fear, he strained to hear the sounds of Ka’s robust cries. The only sound was the whistle of the wind. Racing across the clearing, he hoped for the best, but feared the worst.
His fears were not unfounded.
His fears were not unfounded.
The hut was dark and cool inside. Nothing had changed since he left for his hunting trip. Even the rat was still scratching at its hole in the corner. Ni’s brow furrowed. If some horror had taken his family, some sign of it should be present, but his eyes weren’t seeing it. Eyes that had served all his life to track the beasts he hunted, were now failing him in the most important task of his life.
He called to his mate again. No one answered. His eyes darted to the sleeping mat, and the furs piled high there. Jumping toward the pile, his hands went forward to the lump curled within them.
The furs were piled, but nothing was wrapped within them.
He ran outside, and called for Ta—louder and longer. Turning to face in each direction, he bellowed his frustration and anxiety to the winds, praying to the gods that his mate would answer. Only the wind rustling through the trees called back.
Running into the hut once more, he focused his careful hunting eyes to the walls and the floors. No signs of battle were visible within the hut. Racing outside, he scanned the ground looking for traces of the answer in the snow. In his fear, he had trampled over the strange footprints, but they were there. Many, many men had come, crushing the snow beneath their fur-covered feet.
The exhaustion slipped away from Ni, and the terror clouding his vision disappeared. His mind became clear and the events that had occurred in his absence were suddenly obvious.
The exhaustion slipped away from Ni, and the terror clouding his vision disappeared. His mind became clear and the events that had occurred in his absence were suddenly obvious.
Ni became the hunter once more. His nose caught the scent of a dozen men; his sight fell on the myriad of tracks. Kneeling to the ground, he brushed his fingertips along the curve of a footprint and felt the snow. Not long after he’d left for the hunt, the outsiders had snuck into his camp.
He searched for more clues. The hut was empty, but so were their stores of meat. The fire he’d worked so carefully to build had grown cold. The tiny bed they’d made for their son… His face grew hot with the thought of the outsiders and his son. His blood began to burn again, and he began to lose sight of his tasks.
He cried out in the darkness of his empty hut. If they’d harmed one inch of skin on his son, he would kill them all.
Gathering his furs, and his hunting sticks, he strode from the dwelling Ta had always kept so well. He would find his family, or die trying. And if he must die, he would take the clan with him into hell.
Tracking the band was easy. They had stampeded through the forest like a herd of injured beasts. While his eyes stayed focused on the trail, looking for some sign of his mate, his mind drifted back over the morning. The old leader had been the trap to lure him away from his home. Of that, he was certain. If he’d hunted in his usual spot, he would have heard the commotion, and the old leader had drawn him further away so he could not defend his family.
He sneered at the ways of his former clan. They had behaved like stupid old women, and now they were without a leader. Instead of facing him like men, they had snuck in like rats, stealing from him those things they could never achieve on their own, and now they would die.
It would not be hard to kill them. The stupidest of beasts was always the easiest to kill.
In the gathering darkness, the trail became harder to follow. The clouds, present all day, covered the light of the moon, and he cursed his gods for aiding the thieves. Still, he pressed on. If he could not follow their trail, he at least knew the way to the caves, and they would have no other place to hide.
He sniffed the wind. From somewhere beside the trail, a sickening smell drifted to his nostrils. It was the smell of blood—human blood. Fearing to leave the trail and lose precious time, yet afraid of not knowing the source of the smell, he tentatively followed his nose. His brain screamed that he must not go; the smell was too familiar. One foot and then the other ignored the screaming voice.
He found her just beyond the trail. The dark lump of her furs stood stark against the whiteness of the snow; the dark stain of her life’s blood spread out in a pool around her soft hair.
Falling to his knees beside her broken body, he scooped Ta into his arms, and held her close against his chest. She was cold, but the stiffness hadn’t crept into her limbs yet. He smoothed the sticky mass of hair away from her face, and softly kissed her cheeks. A single perfect teardrop fell across her pale lips.
He howled into the night.
Laying her gently upon the ground once more, he walked slowly back to the trail of his enemies. Hardened to the grief, he put one foot in front of the other. Slowly at first, and then each step quickened his pace until he was running. His mate was gone, but they still had his son. He must save Ka.
And then he must kill the clan.
The darkness was nothing. The snow was nothing. He ran like a devil through the forest, and nothing stood between him and his anger. Before the dawn broke, he came within sight of the caves, made bright and brilliant by the gift of his fire; a gift he would never have given them.
He had another gift they could take, and his fingers tightened around the weapon in his grasp.
He could hear the gleeful cackling of the crones, and the strident cries of his son. He ached to run to Ka, but the coolness had retaken his heated brain. If he ran to his son now, he would surely fail, and he would not fail in this.
As he crept toward the caves, Ka’s screams grew louder, and then fell to silence. Failure or not, Ni broke into a run, and was within the caves before any of the clansmen could move.
He stabbed the first moving thing he saw, and felt the blood spurt along his hand. He kicked at another body and heard the crunch of ribs beneath his heel. Like the devils of their nightmares, Ni was everywhere and the clansmen were afraid. He struck at them, and they cowered before him.
Ka! He could not see Ka. As he attacked the objects of his anger, his eyes searched for a glimpse of the tiny bundle; his ears strained for the hearty shriek of his son. Nothing.
Recovering from their shock, the clansmen returned the attack, leaping at him from every direction. He fended off their blows with his sharpened stick, gouging and rending the bodies that fell within his reach. Like a great cat—blood-crazed after the hunt—he flung himself among them, a high-pitched mewl upon his lips. Like frightened birds, they flew away from his bloody grasp.
In the light of the fire, with the blood of their clan dripping from his hands, he appeared to be some avenging god. First one, and then another, fell prostrate before him, whispering prayers. He laughed at them. Stooping, he picked up a brand from the fire they had stolen and brandished it in their faces.
He called for his child. The people of his childhood family cowered further, sweeping the cave floor with their dirty, matted hair. He bellowed for the child to be brought to him, and they trembled in fright.
He raised his fiery weapon above his head. He would burn them all with the gift they had taken, if they did not give him his child.
An old and scraggily woman crawled forth from the mass of whimpering bodies. Clutched to her chest was a furry package. She held it forth, and from within the folds of animal hide, a single tiny hand pushed forward.
Setting down the fire, he scooped the child away from the crone’s twisted fingers. The babe was safe. He raised a single, meaty fist to crush the female who had kept his son from him, and saw a look of recognition in her eyes.
Staying his blow, he cradled Ti within the folds of his own furs, and turned away. His anger spent, he could not muster enough of his fury to strike down the woman who had taken his son, because she was also the one who had given him life.
Quietly cooing to his greatest achievement, Ni kicked dirt over the fire, snuffing it into embers and then grinding the embers into cold black soot beneath his heel. It was his to create and his to destroy.
As the first pink of the morning sun chased away the darkness, Ni took his child and walked away. The people he once knew lay crying in the darkness of their cave, whining for him to bring back the treasure they had stolen from him.
The fire was dead in the cave, and it was dead in his home, but he knew the secret to creating it again. It was a secret not one of those other creatures would ever discover. As his steps lead down the trail and away from the caves, he whispered the secret of fire to his son.