The Porcelain Doll
The next day Emre' found a shit.
The sun was shining brightly in a crystal blue sky. Its warming rays offset the chilly breezes that occasionally whipped around them, and the Tribe had taken off their heavy coats. They had passed through a sparkling green glade and found a rapidly flowing tributary of fresh snowmelt. They stopped there, for a time, and filled their bladder sacks and canteens. Emre' and Rennie had gone ahead of the rest, checking the path for signs of cats or game, or perhaps other Roamers. The others were preparing to set out after them, when Rennie suddenly came running back down the trail. He was sweated and holding his finger to his mouth for them to be quiet.
"Emre' found a shit, Parker. It's fresh," he whispered excitedly, when he was among them.
"Tracks?" Parker asked, keeping his voice low.
"A pig. Maybe two. Headed into the brush, up the hill. Emre is on it now."
Mak and Tomas dropped their packs and wrested slings and quarrels from them.
"Shoulder your slings," Parker said, "Bring the spears and we'll trap them."
Rosa and Malin loosed the sled, which it had been their turn to struggle with, and the men took what they needed from it. Coco slipped the pack from his back and pulled an evil looking machete' from a sheath under his fur. "This will do," he smiled.
Otter was ready to go, but Bosche fidgeted uncertainly, not knowing if he was to be allowed on this chase. Parker considered the teenager as he yanked a long spear from the sled. He walked to the youth and narrowed his eyes. Bosche' pushed his chest up to show he was not daunted by the challenge. Parker nodded approvingly. "Get ready," he said, and Bosche' beamed triumphantly. He dropped his pack and grabbed a skewering stick from the sled.
"Big shit?" Parker asked over his shoulder as he freed his sling from the pack.
"Big and plenty," Rennie laughed.
"They're well fed, then," Mak grunted. "Should be good eating."
Daniel dropped his pack and looked expectantly at the men. "I want to go," he said, excitedly.
"No!" Ish ordered, and grabbed the boy by his shoulder. "The men cannot watch you and hunt at the same time."
"But I need to learn," Daniel complained, trying the pained expression that had worked so successfully on Parker. But Ish was not as easily affected by the look.
"Too dangerous," she said quickly.
Parker considered the boy for a moment. "Let him come, Ish, he needs to learn," he said. She turned on the man and glared. Parker held up his hand to ward off the argument. "He can run with Bosche'. He'll be OK."
Bosche whined a complaint, but was silenced by a snarl from Mak. "No time for arguments, boy!" the man said.
"Let's move!" Parker ordered, and they dashed off, following Rennie up the road and into the thick brush that lined the hillside.
Ish hesitated, still clinging to Daniel's shoulder. But after a moment, she relented.
"You stay close to Bosche'," she ordered sternly. Daniel jumped and hooted with excitement.
Bosche' struck the boy soundly on the shoulder. "The beasts will hear you," the teenager hissed. Daniel moaned and rubbed his arm, but made no complaint. "Stay by me," Bosche' ordered. "Move like this," he whispered crouching low, and dashing quickly after the others.
Daniel turned before he left. "Watch Doll," he reminded Ish. The woman nodded impatiently and watched the boy rush after Bosche'. Why had Parker let him come along? She imagined the boy limping back from the hunt, scarred and bloody. Or worse, being carried back after being gored by a wild pig. She tossed the image from her mind. To challenge Parker would have spoiled the spirit of the hunt and they needed the meat. She would have to make her complaints later. Rosa and Malin came to her side, and silently, the three women sent their blessings.
"Let's get the fire going," Ish said.
There was a flurry of activity among the people. Doll was alerted by their excitement. She has seen people act this way before and it has always preceded trouble. She moved out of the way of the men as they rushed by, and disappeared into the thick bank of plants ahead. The boy left with them. She considers that, perhaps, this is his departure; that he is leaving her now to the care of these women. This is not such an alarming prospect to her. It has happened this way before.
When the boy is gone, the big woman gazes at her for a moment, with a curious expression in her eyes. Is this sadness? Anger? Doll cannot tell. Then the woman leaves to tend to some other business.
Quietly, Doll awaits the violence she is sure will follow.
It always has.
Daniel stayed as close to Bosche' as he could. It wasn't easy. The young hunter moved quickly on his muscular legs, looking over his shoulder to hiss that Daniel should catch up. Excitement rushed through Daniel's veins as he slipped through the brush, copying Bosche's crouching run.
He had never done anything like this with Uncle. When he was small they had lived off a simulator that created meals from condensed extracts, and later, after the machine had ceased to function, they survived on rations scavenged from the old buildings that lined the hills around the museum. Eventually, Uncle had brought home the meat of birds and burrowing things that had grown too old to flee. But this was new to Daniel, and although branches stung his face and arms as he dashed behind the older boy, he found himself caught up in the blood rush of the chase.
Bosche' raced to the cleft of the hill and then over, following the prints of the men and the disruptions they had caused in the brush. But when Daniel rounded the top of the hill, Bosche' was gone. He stopped abruptly and looked around. Nothing. It was silent. How could Bosche' have just disappeared? He started to call out, to let Bosche' know he had lost him. Then he yelped as something jumped out of the brush behind him and dragged him back into a tangle of thick bushes
"Shhh…" Bosche' whispered. He let go of Daniel. "Lookie. You see there?" He pointed ahead, to an opening in the brush.
Daniel's heart was still racing with surprise, but he followed the line of Bosche's gesture and saw, in a clearing across a deep ravine, two crawling shapes. They were pink with pale tufts of dark fur that sprouted from their backs. They appeared no larger than the burrowing things that Uncle had brought home to eat. But they were far away, and Daniel knew they must be much bigger.
"Pig," Bosche' whispered. "Enough meat to last all the way across the Highlands. If we can catch them, that is." Daniel turned an innocent look on the older boy. "They can be pretty fast," Bosche' explained.
There was a strange animal call from the brush ahead and Bosche' moved towards the sound. Daniel could make out Mak though the thick green brambles. The man whispered something to Bosche', and gestured to a point across the ravine and Bosche' dashed off in that direction. Mak noticed Daniel and winked. He reached into his waistband, slipped out a small blade and tossed it in the boy's direction. The blade landed in the bushes before him. Daniel retrieved it and slid back into his hiding place. Mak pointed to the ground and then to Daniel, signaling that he should stay where he was. Then the big hunter dashed off, moving with surprising grace for a man so huge.
Daniel crouched near the break in the brush. From here he could see the pigs clearly. The animals were strolling lazily up the far side of the ravine. They obviously didn't know the men were hunting them. How would they catch these things, he wondered. He waited, holding the blade in his hands, feeling its sharpness and weight. Slowly, he understood why Mak had given it to him, and wondered if he should have stayed with the women after all.
Parker had hidden in the thickets across the ravine. He rose to signal for the men behind him to stay put. He had hunted pig before. The wild ones were fast but they behaved predictably. He would move across the top of the hill, to the other side of the enclosure, and chase the pigs towards his men. He crouched low and moved silently through the brush, over the brambles and toward a clearing above the animals. The breeze would be at his back as he crossed over the hill. He just hoped it wouldn't suddenly change direction. He could not afford to wait, however. Aat any moment, the animals might sense the trap.
Mak stopped in the pit of the ravine and readied his spear. When Parker broke out above them, the pigs would start to run. Mak was now in the path they were most likely to flee. Otter and Rennie were hiding behind him, in the bushes along the places worn smooth by water flow. The pigs would probably use that natural trail should they get by Mak, or Coco, who was moving closer, crawling towards the game from beneath. Coco was a small man but an experienced hunter, and fast with his blade.
Emre' took his position in a lining of brush not far from where Mak and Coco were waiting. This was the first game they'd seen in a long time and he hoped it was not sick or rotted. He didn't like the way the pigs ambled so slowly. Surely they must have caught Parker's scent by now. He poised his spear and waited.
Bosche' slipped into the thicket behind Rennie, who was rocking back and forth from tension. Rennie turned and eyed his friend curiously. "Where's the kid?" he whispered.
Bosche' rolled his eyes and pointed over his shoulder. "In the bushes up behind."
Rennie shook his head. "Ish will sock your balls if he gets hurt."
But Bosche' just waved his hand dismissively. "Mak sent me here. And it's just a couple of old pigs. What could happen?"
Tomas was further up the hill, watching Parker get into position. This was a great place for the chase. He could see the men below, situated along the most likely places for the pigs to run, which were few. He looked over his shoulder and could see Daniel peeking through the bushes across the ravine. But Bosche' was nowhere near him. Ish would not be happy.
He turned his attention back to the pigs. They suddenly seemed agitated. Something was not right. Tomas sniffed the air. The breeze was dead, yet the pigs acted as if a scent had annoyed them. They seemed frightened, but undecided whether to flee or not. He pondered this for a moment and then saw what scared their game.
Parker moved into position, concealing himself in the brush at the lip of the ravine. When he dashed out of the trees, the pigs should head right for the trap. He peeked out of the brush and checked the men. He could make out the tip of Coco's head, and there was Mak waiting at the bottom of the pit. Just beyond Mak, he could see Rennie and Bosche'. Otter was crouching about 10 lengths away, and Emre' was just beyond him. They were all ready. He waved the signal, and prepared to make his move.
Then he saw Tomas. To his alarm the man was standing and waving. What the hell was he doing? He would alert the prey!
As if they'd heard his thoughts, the pigs suddenly turned and dashed back into the ravine. They were younger than he'd thought, and faster, and they were headed in the wrong direction! The pigs squealed as they fled, and sped back up the other side of the ravine. They'd completely missed the trap!
"Damn to you, Tomas!" Parker yelled, as he rose from of his hiding place. Below he saw the others scramble, giving chase to the pigs. But the fast-footed animals could not be caught that way. Parker watched their flight and quickly realized that something was wrong. If it had been he that alerted them, they should have turned and run directly into the trap. If Tomas had scared them, they should have run towards him, and he would have bagged at least one of them. Something else must have made them flee.
Then he saw Tomas break from the brush and start running in his direction. "Run, Parker," he yelled, waving his arms.
Parker heard a low, feral sound above him, and turned to see just what had spoiled their trap. His mouth fell open in awe of the creature that broke from the brush above him. He crouched into a fighting position as a massive cat growled from the crest of the hill. It was an old beast, as big as bear. Its golden flank was dirty and large tufts of fur were missing in places along its chest. But its teeth were all there. It bared them in a direct challenge. Its roar seemed to rumble the very earth.
Parker screamed back at the cat, to check his own fear. He was prepared to fight, but he these things did not like the difficult meals that men made. It was after the pigs. He backed off and signaled to the others to step away from the path the pigs had taken.
"Go on! Take them! Your meal is running away!" Parker yelled, waving his spear in the direction of the fleeing pigs. But the huge cat only glanced at the pigs distractedly, before it growled and narrowed its eyes on Parker. With a shock, the man realized that the aged predator was not concerned about the pigs; that it probably hadn't even known about them; that it must have been stalking him all along.
As if in confirmation of this, the great cat bared its savage fangs and pressed its huge body into a squat, in preparation for the attack.
"Man hunter!" Emre' yelled when he saw the huge animal preparing to leap on Parker. He rushed into the clearing, where his Chief was about to engage in a loosing battle. Mak and Coco dashed out in front of him, and the three younger men rush up behind. "Parker!" Emre' yelled, "Run!"
Tomas shot from the brush at the crest of the hill and raced across the side of the ravine as fast as he could manage without falling. He saw the others racing towards the fight and felt encouraged that their numbers might intimidate the old cat. The men started screaming as they made their attack, hoping the sound of their approach might scare the beast off.
Daniel couldn't find his breath. He had never seen such an animal as the giant that crawled out of the brush above Parker. Even from this distance, he could feel the vibration of the creature's roar. He saw the others rush into the clearing, yelling and sliding quarrels into the slings they'd ripped from their backs. He felt he should help, somehow. But what could he do? That thing could swallow him with a single gulp. He held out the blade that Mak had given him, as if it might magically ward off the monster. The weapon trembled in his small hands. Then he watched in horrified fascination as the huge cat leapt.
Parker screamed and dove under the beast, thrusting his spear up to slice along its flank, ripping its already mangled coat. It wasn't the first time a cat had underestimated him.
The angered beast roared in pain and landed on the slope just below Parker. It turned, quickly, and swiped a massive paw in his direction. But Parker had already rolled away and the giant claws whistled by his head. He turned and jumped away, thrusting his spear blindly behind him. He felt it strike., heard another angry snarl from the beast, and rolled into a thicket, turning just in time to see the cat leap after him. He tried to bury himself in the thick brush, but a paw lashed out, crushing branches and smacking his head.
Parker's world turned upside down.
Daniel watched Otter, Bosche' and Rennie make it to the clearing. The young men were yelling and screaming so the cat might reconsider its attack. "Hurry," he whispered urgently as he saw the cat jump. Then he let out a small triumphant yell when he saw Parker stab the beast and escape into a thicket of brush that hung over a small drop. Daniel was dizzy with the excitement. He'd never known anything like this. Not even when the Raiders had come into the museum.
But his excitement turned quickly to dread, as he heard something breaking though the brush ahead, coming up the edge of the ravine towards him. His breath stopped in his throat. All the men were in the clearing; and the women were waiting at the stream.
"Who is it?" Daniel called, as the thing came, breaking branches and trampling brush. He wanted to run but his feet would not obey. He lifted his weapon before him, and stood, shivering, a thin whine escaping from his mouth.
Suddenly, something smelly and grunting sped out of the thickets and struck him full force. Daniel's universe turned into an rush of pain and dazzling lights.
Then there was only darkness.
Emre' was struggling to catch up to Mak and Coco as they fought their way through the brush to the place where Parker was fighting for his life. The men yelled taunts at the creature as they approached. But the cat seemed oblivious to them. It lashed out at Parker as the man jumped into a thicket, expertly striking the cat with his spear as he made his escape. Emre' yelled, encouraged by the strike. Then he saw the cat smash down upon the thicket where Parker had taken shelter, and he stopped. The thicket was right above him; it hung on the edge of a drop of at least three men's lengths. He watched in horror as Parker fell right through.
Parker's world was coming back to him. It had been gone for moments as he tried to gather his wits. He'd had to close his eyes to keep the flying dirt from blinding him. He could hear the beast roaring in frustration, but could not tell where it was. Then something hit him on the back of the head and dirt filled his mouth. The cat roared again and he realized the sound came from above him. Above him?
He opened his eyes to see that he'd fallen over a small cliff. The strikes he had felt had not been from the cat, but the pounding of his own landing. He jumped up quickly, wondering where the hell his men were. He felt for his spear but couldn't find it. He reached in his sheath for his blade, but it must have been lost it in his fall.
There was another angry roar from above. Parker looked up to see a huge golden underbelly flying down at him.
"Shit!" he yelled and dodged just as something hissed by his head. The cat landed in the dirt near him, roaring in anger and pain. A quarrel was lodged deep in its side.
"Jump, Parker!" came a voice from just below.
Parker looked down the small cliff to see Emre' standing in the brush beneath. The young man was reloading his sling for another shot. Parker jumped, without hesitation, withou checking to see if the cat followed. He didn't have to. He could hear it thrashing and snarling in the brush.
Parker had heard that sound before and knew the creature was more than just hurt. It was angry. This was no longer just about food. This was about revenge.
Mak and Coco had ran up the side of the ravine, circling the area of the battle, and arriving just in time to see Parker fall. There was a tense moment when they realized they were alone on the hillside with the beast. They fell into position ready to do battle with the most dangerous of the wild predators. Then they watched in amazement as the enraged animal roared and jumped over the cliff in pursuit of their Chief. Tomas suddenly appeared behind them, his chest heaving, his spear ready for the fight. Together the men dashed to the edge and peered over to see Parker make another escape from the now wounded animal.
Emre' was down there too, reloading his sling. The old cat snarled and spat in the brush, contorting its body as it tried to pull the quarrel from its side. The three men eyed one another for a timeless moment. Then, without thinking further, they leapt from the cliff, screaming as they flew into the fight.
Emre' didn't have time to reload. The enraged beast abandoned its attempt to remove his quarrel and bore down on him faster than he could react. He raced away, screaming, only to feel his legs swiped from beneath him. He spun madly through the air and landed in a heap. His eyes and nose filled with dirt. He could not see! He could not flee! He was as good as dead. "Parker!" he cried helplessly.
Then he heard the cat roar again. But it was a frustrated sound. Someone had tagged it! Seizing the moment, Emre' jumped blindly ahead, knowing there was another drop before him, hoping that the fall wouldn't kill him. He shielded himself for a painful landing. But he hit something soft that gave way to the force of his fall. Then it wrapped him up and began to drag him through the brush.
"It's OK! I got you," Bosche' said, pulling Emre' away from the deadly fray.
Otter and Rennie broke through the brush below the fight. They added their voices to the taunts, but the beast did not seem intimidated by the armed men closing in on it. Otter heaved his spear, but his shot strayed and missed completely.
The cat ignored the sound of Otter's weapon crashing into the brush. Its side and back were ablaze with the fire of fresh wounds, but the pain did nothing to subdue its rage. Its mind burned with deadlier fires of hunger and anger. It turned to see the one it had stalked, standing alone now. The cat hissed and spat at the prey. Creatures like this had always been much easier to take down. It moved slowly on the man-thing, ready for the kill. But it reared back as other men fell, suddenly, from above, and landed in a flurry of dirt and screams. The cat paused to calculate this new threat.
"He's mine," Parker said when Tomas, Mak and Coco fell through the brush behind him. He reached towards Mak. The man took a moment to understand and then handed Parker his blade.
The cat was waiting, growing low, studying them. Its eyes were furious and calculating, its body larger than any Parker could remember.
But it was hurt.
"Come to me," Parker whispered, as the wounded beast seemed to weigh the situation. He stepped closer, watching the cat's hindquarters for the telltale flex of muscles that would signal a swipe of its paw. He had learned this from his father who had learned it from his father before him. "I am bones of the earth," Parker chanted low. "And you can never break me!"
The cat roared and jumped. It huge paw hissed through the air. Parker timed his strike perfectly. He stepped back and lashed out, feeling his sword connect with the flailing paw. The cat howled again, shocked at its prey's speed and strength. The beast finally realized the danger it was in, and made to flee.
But Parker had been wounded. This was no longer just about survival.
He moved for the wounded animal, hearing its slashing paws whistle through the air in front of him. But he knew these creatures, had slain them before. He felt its fear.
The beast was about to jump again. Parker backed away quickly, preparing to slash, but the thing suddenly reared up and howled. Another quarrel was poking out of its backside and blood flowed freely from the wound. Parker looked to see Rennie, standing in the brush, brandishing Emre's abandoned sling. He nodded at the youth, and then moved on the screaming animal. It had realized, too late, the danger of the men that had surrounded it.
Parker struck and struck again, his muscles glistening in the sunlight as he hacked at the hissing cat, his strikes rending terrified screams from the beast. His flailing blade rained thick droplets of red on the green thickets around him. Eventually the great cat neither screamed nor moved.
The battle was over.
The men circled around the dead animal. They were out of breath and the sweat of their close call ran into their eyes. But they were alive! They were triumphant! They looked on their Chief with renewed admiration.
Parker screamed and held his bloody sword high. He had beat death again! He laughed, and his men quickly joined him. Parker saluted them with a wave of his weapon. He walked to Rennie and hugged the young man tightly.
"Good shot, boy!" he said. Such a compliment was no light matter from an old warrior like Parker. Rennie beamed, blushing in the glow of his Chief's approval. And the man went on, hugging each of his men in turn. The men returned his embrace easily, feeling fortunate to have such a warrior to follow.
"My spear went wild, Parker," Otter said, embarrassed, when the Chief came to him. But Parker would not hear it and squeezed the young man, just as he had the rest.
"You fought good," he whispered in Otter's ear.
This was a good hunt. No one was hurt. They had lost the pigs, but the cat would do.
Then they saw Bosche' and Emre' crawling from the brush, wiping the dirt and twigs from their faces. Parker approached Emre' to salute his bravery. But he stopped short when he saw the concerned look on the young man's face.
"What?" he asked, annoyed, prepared for Emre' to ruin the moment with some unnecessary criticism of his plan. But the young hunter had other concerns.
"These cats travel in pairs, Parker," Emre' said, urgently. "Where is the boy?"
Daniel sat up slowly, painfully. His head was filled with a dull throbbing. Where was he? He had been waiting for something, right? He opened his eyes and shock awoke him completely. He was covered in blood!
The sight jogged his memory. He had been waiting for the men to catch the pigs, and then he had seen the giant cat and watched as it jumped on Parker and…
His thoughts fell away at a sound of something approaching. Something huge. He could hear it tromping over branches and smashing its way though the thickets.
Where was the knife that Mak had given him?
He moaned, searching blindly in the dirt. But it was nowhere! He let out a desperate cry and curled into a ball as some massive thing crashed noisily out of the thickets.
Then it called his name.
"Daniel!" Parker said, rushing to the boy's side. There was blood everywhere. Daniel peeked out from behind his hands and the man sighed. "He's alive!" Parker called, relieved. "Ish would have killed me," he said, softer. He stood the boy up and checked him for wounds. "Where does it hurt, boy?" he asked, urgently.
The boy grimaced and rubbed his forehead. "Right here" he sighed. Parker moved Daniel's hand and searched his scalp. The boy's head was indeed bruised, but there was no open wound. The blood could not be his. Then who or what did it belong to?
A laugh broke through the brush behind them, and Parker looked up to see Mak holding something huge and limp. It was bleeding from a gash in its chest. The butt of a small blade protruded from the wound.
It was a pig.
Both men looked at the boy, their eyebrows raised in question.
"Oh, there's the knife," Daniel said.
The men eyed each other for a moment, and then burst into laughter. Alerted by the sound, the other hunters rushed to the scene and soon all of them were rolling in fits.
Daniel watched the display curiously, moaning as he rubbed his aching head, and wondering just what was so damned funny.
The boy has returned, carried on the shoulders of the thick man with the thin, sharp eyes. The young men follow him, carrying a dead thing that has been impaled on sticks. There is much excitement and that sound called 'laughter'. Doll does not understand this revelry. When the older men arrive the women gasp, and silence ensues. These men also carry something, but it is much bigger. It's head dangles back and its mouth hangs open, displaying huge sharp teeth. The unmoving creature is hung on sticks that the men carry on their shoulders. They drop the beast to the ground and the women stare at the thing in silence. Then hoots and cheers break out among them, and the men dance about, holding their spears and slings high. The young women begin to move among them, embracing them, kissing them. Celebrating their triumph.
But the older woman remains silent, her eyes still fixed on the dead beast. Her gaze moves slowly to their leader, and he looks back at her. A ghost moves across the woman's face, and something behind her eyes flickers. After a moment, she walks to the man and embraces him.
Doll hears the woman's tears. She sees the woman's body rocking gently against her man. Their silent embrace stands out in the midst of the celebration. Doll is transfixed by it.