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He went from the lodge. Quietly and in stealth he went, although secrecy was against his nature, and he cursed the need for guile that sent him alone into the Ice Age night.
Clad in the furs and skins of beasts, he stood beneath the stars, a giant of a man on the far side of youth, telling himself that from this moment on, no matter what happened, he must be young again, strong again, unafraid again.
The world is changing. Nothing will ever be the same. On the hunt to come, if you are to take the prey you seek and return alive to speak of it, you must be all that you have ever been: Xohkantakeh . . . bold hunter and warrior of the People of the Land of Grass!
He stared into the darkness. He did not feel bold. He felt tired, and old. The Land of Grass was far away; youth was farther still, and less attainable.
And now Great Paws has sensed your weakness as a stink upon the wind. He has crawled from his den beneath the snow and mocks you as he prowls the broad hills and steals once more from your snares and caches.
Xohkantakeh's eyes narrowed within the protective recesses of his wolfskin hood as an image flared within his brain. Furred and fanged and standing to a height that made even a giant of a man feel small, the vision burned behind his eyes and seared his tongue with the name of its kind: Bear.
He fought the urge to retreat into the warmth of the lodge and won, but not easily. For the sake of your woman and daughters, you must go forth to hunt this Bear, this Thief, this Great Paws! His brow furrowed in response to the unspoken command; it was the only part of him that moved.
Dire wolves were howling on the ridgetops and in the benighted hollows of distant hills. In the pulsing glow of a red aurora, it seemed to Xohkantakeh that both earth and sky were awash in blood. He grimaced at the inadvertent comparison and gazed upward, observing stars whose positions in the sky assured him that it was spring even though he could feel the hard chill of the winter snowpack beneath his trisoled moccasins. His gut tightened; there was something unnatural about the endless cold, about the unseasonal progression of springtime stars across the bloodred winter sky, and about the coming of the great bear into his hunting grounds now, at a time when . . .
His thoughts stopped in midflow. An owl was sounding in the tamaracks beyond the palisade of dry reeds and deadfall that he had raised to keep wind and predators from his winter camp, making him shiver. In the lore of his people, Owl flew before Death. Unnerved, Xohkantakeh squinted across the compound to see streams of airborne ground snow misting toward him through breaks in the palisade. The wind had breached his defenses. With a sinking heart he knew it was only a matter of time before Great Paws did the same.
"Not while I live!" The vow was a muted snarl. There was boldness in it, and defiance, but dread quickened the beat of his heart as he visualized the enormous tracks he had come across yesterday while journeying alone to the closest of his upriver cache pits. He had not told his woman or two surviving foster daughters of his find. The day had been too special. With his youngest girl confined for the first time to the hut of blood and his eldest girl and beloved woman busily preparing for the celebration that would honor Lanacheela's completion of her first menses, Xohkantakeh had not had the heart to tell them. Shaken and weary as he had been when he returned to camp, his voice would have betrayed his fear of an animal whose foreclaws alone left marks in the snow that exceeded the length of his hand.
A long, willful intake of freezing air steadied his nerves. He knew this bear, this Great Paws, this high-shouldered, short-faced bear that had once moved in and out of the seasons of his life as elusively and dangerously as a haunting. During long-gone moons beneath which he had broken with his tribe and led his little family southward along the great river, there had been times when, feeling himself watched, Xohkantakeh would turn and look back across the miles to see the bear standing like a tawny mountain in the mists of distance. Scarred along its right flank and face, Great Paws would heft its girth upright onto hind limbs as thick as trees and stare back at Xohkantakeh; like a man the bear had stared, like a warrior challenging another of its own kind to combat.
The memory jolted the giant. There was something unnatural about the animal. He had suspected it then, and he had been certain of it yesterday when, after having seen no sign of the beast for over a full hand-count of years, he had looked down at the massive impression of the scarred right forepaw in the snow and known that only one bear in all the world could have made it.
His mouth tightened with shame. How many times had he discovered that monstrous track and, having no desire to confront an adversary of such appalling proportions, hurried his woman and daughters from hunting grounds he would have preferred to make his own? How many summers had passed since the looming presence of the beast had so frightened Xree, the youngest of his foundlings, that the child fled into a marsh and drowned? And, after that never-to-be-forgotten day, how many nights had he sat up until dawn, knowing that the beast followed, waiting in vain for it to fall afoul of his snares or baited meat, feeling it circle his camp while his loved ones slept and he raised a mighty fire and kept his spears at the ready and sang bold songs to inform the bear that he was not afraid, even though his blood ran cold?
Too many, conceded Xohkantakeh. Scowling, he found himself unable to number the hills, valleys, and rivers he had put between his family and Great Paws since realizing that if he traveled far enough during the time when bears lay sleeping beneath the winter earth, Great Paws could not follow across the frozen land, except in dreams.
But this is no dream, for him or for you, thought Xohkantakeh. Great Paws has awakened once more. He has risen from the earth and crossed frozen water and winter land to find you. And now he is close, so close that even if you were to break this best of all camps and run from him again, he would follow. The time has come for you to stand up to this bear. Too long has he hunted and shamed you. For your woman and daughters, you must finish him!
Xohkantakeh growled quietly. The wolves and owl were silent now. Another bird raked the red darkness with its cry. He looked up but did not recognize the call or the small, sharp-winged form momentarily silhouetted against the stars; but in the dark, hemorrhagic light of the red aurora, instinct told him that the omens were bad for him this night. Very bad. He should not leave the compound to hunt. And yet . . .
Great Paws is out there. If he has not come afoul of the snares you set for him yesterday, he will snout out your camp and devour the last of your winter stores. It is the way of his kind. In his eyes, the woman and daughters of Xohkantakeh will be meat. You must protect them. Soon the sun will rise. By then you must be far from here, lest those who call you Man and Father attempt to prevent you from doing what should have been done long ago. When you return to this camp with the hide, flesh, and fat of Great Paws, your females will rejoice, knowing that Xohkantakeh is a warrior once more!
A sudden restlessness was on him; there was fear in it and a heady, almost intoxicating impatience. His gloved hands were shaking as he took his spears, braining club, and spear hurler from where he had left them upright in the snow against the main lodge, next to his eldest daughter's exquisitely made smaller lances.
A dark sprawl of eyebrow arched toward Xohkantakeh's hairline as his glance held on Ika's weapons. He had taught the girl well; in all his days he had never made lances as fine as Ika's. Now, as he appraised them, he had no doubt that the girl would insist on going with him if she knew his intent; her zeal for hunting was surpassed only by her extraordinary strength and skill, and she was afraid of nothing that he knew of. Nevertheless, he could not allow her to accompany him on this hunt, not under this bloodred sky. Not when Great Paws prowled hungry after his long winter sleep.
Again Xohkantakeh growled to himself. Ika was not going to be happy about being left behind, but the time had come to make the girl remember her gender and her place in the order of life. His massive shoulders curled into a shrug of begrudging acquiescence to circumstances beyond his control. Soon, like her younger sister, Ika would become a woman. In the hunting grounds of their ancestors, the laws of the Ancient Ones forbade females to make or use spears. He had found it a reasonable commandment in a land of many warriors, but not so in this vast, uninhabited country into which hea renegade and outcasthad led his woman and adopted daughters so many winters ago. The memory was unsettling; since turning his back on the land of his perpetually warring ancestors, Xohkantakeh had found good cause to break many old taboos. Now he found himself wondering if the spirits of the Ancient Ones were punishing him, after all these years, by sending out of endless winter a marauding bear to make a shambles of his world.
The possibility rankled him. He countered it with unspoken, righteously indignant justification: Only a fool would not have taught his woman and girls the forbidden skills when he had no sons left alive to hunt at his side! And now, thanks only to his defiance of tradition, the giant knew he could go beyond the palisade secure in the knowledge that as long as bold, brave Ika was within his encampment, his beloved woman and youngest daughter would be safe and fully capable of fending for themselves until he returned from the hunt.
And if you do not return? The question took Xohkantakeh off guard; he had not considered it before, nor would he consider it now. The time had come for him to be a warrior once again. Great Paws was waiting.