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From a long distance a traveler, or some wild thing, might see within the deep and absolute blackness of night an intense orange light which looked from afar like a glowing coal. If that observer were curious (or hungry, as was often the case), and had the courage to seek a nearer vantage point, he would see a youthful figure seated on a rock staring into a blazing bonfire. The youth, just in his early teens, wore an expression as intense as his fire, which revealed the preoccupation of one engaged both in thought and action. In his hand he held a staff one end of which he had briefly placed in the hottest part of the fire. He withdrew it for perhaps the tenth time to scrape the scorched end with a sharp rock, gradually shaping the hard, blunt rod into a pointed weapon. And as he worked he meditated on the events of the coming day.
There would be a hunt. A lion had killed a child and it had to be destroyed. Living, it would be a constant threat to the neighboring clans. The elders had put aside their differences in order to unite behind a single strategy in which many would participate. As the sun rose, the males of each tribe would advance toward the wild, uninhabited region which spread between them. The clans did not much like each other, and were glad to have this desolate space separating their campfiresa treacherous, rocky area mostly covered with tall grass, and a few trees. It was now known that the beast they sought prowled somewhere within, and their intention was to encircle it. Each hunter would be separated by a considerable distance at first, but gradually they would get closer to each other as they approached their target. A very large circle would get smallerand smaller until the killer lion was sighted somewhere in the middle.
The youth knew what followed. At some point, after the ring of men had tightened around it, the lion would see that it was trapped. At that moment an experienced and watchful leader would give a loud signal to charge, and every man at once would run at it with his spear. They would assail it and harry it as many wolves in a pack combine to attack an animal larger than themselves, striking and worrying and distracting until it was bled, exhausted, and unable to resist its final end.
This was a common method of killing animals, but usually it was used to trap edible gamedeer, pigs, and even rabbits. But this would be no rabbit. The lion was the fiercest and most dangerous creature his people ever encountered; and they encountered it by accident and bad luck only. It was avoided as much as anything alivenever sought out except in the utmost necessity. But now they had no choice. It must be killed.
These were the thoughts that absorbed the youngster, and it was for this very hunt that he was sharpening his spear. Although he stared into the fire as if it alone interested him, as if he were hypnotized into rigidity by its flames and sparks, it was the events of the next day that completely held his mind. He took the spear from the fire and blew on the glowing end; and as he did, his face was illuminated for a moment with an eerie light. Scraping it again for the last time, he felt the still hot point with his finger, set it aside, and looked once more into the fire.
It was horrible to think about. He knew poor Rias, the boy who had been killed. A little child, he thought, torn to pieces by a savage, hungry animal. In his mind he saw everything in terrible detail. His lip trembled, and he felt an unwelcome sickness of fear which he resisted with all of his strength. He lifted the spear yet again and honed it mechanically as he sought to steel himself for the coming day. He was afraid with all his heart, but he also knew that he must conquer his fear; because in moments of great danger, to be afraid is the surest way to die. It was not just a matter of preparing a weapon. Above all, he must prepare himself. The danger not only crouched out there in the wilderness; it crouched inside as well.
Although the lad by the fire wore the skin of an animal, he was not comfortably warm. One side of his body was too hot while the other was like ice. He changed his position, turning his face to the blackness and peering into its depths. His thoughts of the lion were brought from the coming day to the present moment. Might it not be nearer than he supposed, stalking him and watching his every move? He looked and listened intently to the tiny noises of the night. There was no dangerat least no more than usual. Animals feared fire. That was one of the few powerful advantages people had over them. He piled the fire high with twigs and coarser wood and welcomed the crackling response. Then he stabbed the spear into the flank of an imaginary animal, and with a ruthless expression wrenched it from the wound. Tomorrow, in the hunt, he would stand his ground, but now it was time to lie down.
Gripping his newly fashioned weapon, he stepped into the opening of the cave where several families lay asleep. They were all huddled together almost upon one another for warmth, still clinging to their spears and weapons. Their long-drawn breath froze as they exhaled. He lay down next to his mother and felt the warmth of her body. She jerked to feel the iciness of his, grunted, and went back to sleep. In time he too was asleep, breathing heavily.
The youth's name was Zan, which in his tongue meant Hunter. He and his people had a language, but we no longer know it. It was spoken in an era so remote in time that there were as yet no nations upon the earth, no cities, nor written words. Humans lived in caves and hollows or in the crudest man-made shelterswherever they could establish cover from wind and rain, from wild animals, and from each other. Zan and his kindred lived in that dim period when there was no safety but that supplied by strength and cunning, when there were no laws but those imposed by nature and by humankind's own fierce desire to survive. People faced constant danger, and not many lived to be old.
They were frequently hungry and thirsty. They ate only what they could hunt down or gather in their hands, and had to eat immediately what they could not store. Game was perhaps more plentiful in the summer, but meat kept better during the cold months, and the quarry was easier to see in the winter when there were no sheltering leaves on the trees and tracks could be followed in the snow. Animals also might be weakened by hunger during that season of scarcity, and weakness made them easier to kill. So on the whole people ate better in the winter, but game was difficult to bring down at any time, and many days could be spent in frozen, fruitless chases. Animals were swifter and often stronger than the men who hunted them, could hear or smell their pursuers from a mile away, and seemed gifted with a special intelligence that humans neither had nor understood. Given these difficulties, and rarity of success, it was possible to starve in the midst of relative abundance. When the men did manage to bring down an animal the clan had meat to eat, skins to wear, and horns and bones to fashion into toolstruly a cause for celebration.
Homes and shelters were established where there was a source of watera lake, river, stream or spring. Zan's family was lucky, for there was a spring safely within their cave which trickled from its deep, mysterious interior (where only the women were allowed) to the exit and beyond. There also was a river nearby, but the rains had failed for many weeks and it had begun to dry up, so that even the trees flanking it looked parched and sickly.
Zan's people were cold most of the year, but they were as used to it as the animals whose skins they wore. At night Zan slept beneath, and wore each day, the pelt of a goat which his father, Thal, had killed and which his mother, Wumna, had prepared by beating and chewing it until it was soft. Zan was fortunate to have it. Luxury was unknown, and strangers could be envious of a scrap of fur or a bit of food. Tools and weapons, crude as they were, were valued and guarded. A stone blade, which took a week's labor to make, might induce an uncouth ruffian to take a life in order to possess it. It is hard to imagine how much simple things were prized and coveted in that frightful time. Darkness was indeed darker to them then, coldness colder, and the cruelest passions somehow crueler and more deeply passionate.