The Sorcerer weaves the mystery of the cave paintings into the story of a youth, crippled by a bear's attack, who had become useless to his hunter society. In his attempt to win respect he apprentices himself to the tribe's witch doctor in order to learn the secrets of sorcery.
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By Anne Eliot Crompton, Leslie Morrill
The Permanent PressCopyright © 1971 Anne Eliot Crompton
All rights reserved.
A whisper in gentle air, a momentary flicker among golden grasses — was it movement? Or was it only the startle of her timid heart?
Grass still clamped in strong determined jaws, the pony mare swung up her head. Standing straight and still, she looked into the quiet autumn noon. She looked up the near slope, where brown grasses waved among patches of early snow. She looked through the sunlight that warmly dappled the gray rocks and glinted in the grass. A light wind stirred.
Uneasily the mare chomped, looking about. Then she swallowed her mouthful and wrinkled her soft nose to the breeze which came meandering down the slope. It brought a strong smell of pony: of sweat, hot horsehair, and stallion.
Very faintly the mare detected another scent on the soft wave of air — a perplexing, unplaceable scent. She snorted, clearing her nose, and stretched out her head on its short neck and tried again.
It was, after all, a pony smell. And it was stale. Now the mare understood that a dead pony lay somewhere over the hilltop, a stiff dark shape rotting in brown grass. As the scent became clear and reassuring the breeze died.
But still the mare was restless. She was a heavy, compact creature with a strong bite and a savage kick; she could take care of herself. But her soul was still that of her ancestors — tiny, graceful animals, whose only defense was instant flight. From these timid little beings she inherited extreme wariness and caution. So now she pricked up her ears, one forward, one back, to catch the slight sounds of noon: flies buzzing, ponies chewing, the hrrrm of a distant herd-fellow.
And once more the mare looked intently about for the stealthy shadow she thought she had seen. She looked directly toward Lefthand.
He sensed her gaze aimed at the hillock behind which he crouched. He trembled. If he did not clamp his teeth shut they would chatter. The hand that gripped the spear shook hard, and he had to press it against the ground to stop its jiggling.
But Lefthand knew that excitement, like fear, could travel through air and betray him. The mare's thought, vaguely spreading toward him, must not meet his own thought driving at her like a spear. He must relax. He looked down at the dead grass around his knees, at the autumn light rippling on the rock under his hand. He drew a long silent breath and tried to think about something less exciting.
The first image that came to mind was that of his father's hand, pointing. "Lefthand," he seemed to hear his father say, "you and Onedeer creep down the north side. Remember, go slowly. We will be coming up on the south side. Start throwing when you hear the wolf howl." Provider had pointed out the strategy with a strong jabbing finger. His hand did not tremble, his voice was steady. It might have been the game, "you be the pony," that Lefthand had played through his childhood, but it was not.
Lefthand squirmed forward on his stomach to the brow of the hill overlooking this hollow. Parting the grass with careful fingers he peered through and down and immediately felt sick!
The ponies were real. Fat and solid in the early morning sunshine, their shadows dark beside them, they were scattered far across the hollow like pebbles tossed by a carefree hand. Beside Lefthand on the hilltop, Onedeer hissed astonishment. He turned his head toward Lefthand and their eyes met, signaling profound excitement. Never before had they seriously stalked real ponies!
The herd was completely relaxed and unsuspecting. All the heads were down, nuzzling in the grass. No hint had reached the ponies of the presence of four hungry people. They did not feel yet the fierce gaze of greed upon them.
When the boys began the long crawl down into the hollow, the sun was low, the morning fresh and cool. Lefthand crept craftily from rock to bush to hillock. Stooping or crawling he hurried across open spaces and dived into coverts. Once hidden, he raised himself cautiously and checked on the herd. Each time he looked, the hollow was nearer, the ponies bigger. If the ponies suspected a moment too soon, all would be lost; the speed of those stubby, galloping legs could not be matched by human strides.
Once a flicker of light caught Lefthand's eye, slanting sunshine glinting momentarily on Onedeer's head. Instantly Onedeer vanished behind a boulder. Another time Lefthand glimpsed a gray mound squirming hastily into a thicket. That was Onedeer's rear end.
Apart and yet together the boys worked their slow, careful way down the hill, stopping short whenever a pony raised its head. Now it was high noon, hot and shrill with fly-song, and Lefthand was within spearing range of the nearest quarry.
By now the men must have reached the top of the opposite hill. In his mind Lefthand saw them. They were rising slowly, cautiously, from a prone crawl to their knees and from their knees to their feet. If they were seen now it might not be disastrous, for they were disguised. Lefthand's father, Provider, wore a black pony skin with the coarse mane flopping down his back. Bisonhorn's pony skin had once been red and white, but it was now so old and worn that the hair had rubbed off. It was a limp, shapeless thing. But it still smelled of stale pony. Lefthand imagined the men slowly standing, raising their spears.
No, that was the wrong thought! He was shaking again, probably reeking of excitement. He must think of something calm.
Deliberately he daydreamed a fire, surrounded by night. Low it burned. It sank into embers and in the embers appeared a rounded, blackened shape, crinkled and crisp — a haunch of pony! So vivid was the image that Lefthand wiggled his nose, waiting for the rich smell to flood him with delight ...
A chomping, pulling sound woke him from his dream.
The mare had decided. All was well. Her timidity had deceived her. Now she had her nose deep in the grass.
Very, very slowly Lefthand raised himself on his knees and spied around the hillock.
Broadside to him, ten steps away, the little brown mare grazed happily. Winter-heavy, her coat hung almost to her knobby knees. Her short, stiff mane bushed over her eyes. Her back and the upper half of her beautiful round barrel gleamed red in the sun. Where her side curved widely down to her belly she was shaded dark, dark brown.
Lefthand could not stop trembling. He shook from hunger, and from the muscular exhaustion of the long crawl. He shook from hope. But most of all he shook from the cold fear of failure.
When Lefthand and Onedeer were little boys they had stalked hares, creeping up behind them as they sat nibbling. But hares had eyes standing out from their heads. The glossy eyes would turn back at the boys while the hare crouched and nibbled. As they came closer the ears would twitch. In that second of indecision, before the hare decided to run, they could jump and catch him. Onedeer had it figured like that, and once he actually did catch a hare. Lefthand would snatch a breath, dart in, and the hare would be off with a flick of his long hind legs and gone. Lefthand would seize grass. He had never caught a hare.
Now he was too old for stalking hares. He was stalking a pony and this time the price of failure would be a cold stomach. The reward of success, on the other hand, would be a charred, crisp pony haunch! There was the haunch, ten strides away. It took a slow step forward, the small hoof daintily lifted and set itself down, as the mare reached for more luscious grass.
Beyond the mare, a shadow twitched. Lefthand blinked. That was no hump of rocky earth piled beside the snow patch! That was a young colt! Brown-stippled white, he lay on brown earth beside white snow and shook his head and cleared his nose and lay still again, fuzzily folded over neat little hoofs. Head up, eyes closed, drenched in sunlight, the colt dozed.
Beyond the colt the slope rose to the near horizon where the men must be waiting. Among the patches of snow and scrub Lefthand saw movement. Here and there stirrings shook light as sound shakes air. A hump of snow wandered onto grass; a tail flicked from a bush. Under the sleepy sun the southern slope was quietly alive with ponies.
Lefthand was gripped from behind. Strong breath panted in his ear. Onedeer had sneaked up without a whisper of sound or a flicker of shadow. Still the mare grazed, moving slowly forward, still turning her lovely broad side to the boys, who knelt together trembling, gripping their spears in sweaty, sticky hands. Would the wolf never call?
Sound shattered air.
Up jerked the mare's head. Her hindquarters tensed. She looked away, upslope from the boys.
Up jerked Lefthand's spear. But Onedeer's grip on his shoulder tightened in a warning clench. It was not the wolf's call they had heard. It was the stallion's call.
Heads rose out of bushes all up and down the hill as the herd came to attention. Black, brown, and gray heads looked up toward the horizon, all the ears pointed, the muzzles muttered. The little colt rocked himself up and came to stand with his mother.
Over the rim of the southern hill a pony came flying. Black against the deep blue air she bounded. She came leaping down and a second pony hurtled onto the skyline. Bigger, blacker, with mane and tail long enough to flap in his wind, the stallion rushed down upon the black mare, shrieking his shivering declaration.
The mare stopped. She threw her weight onto her front feet. Her whole hind end rose into the air as she kicked the stallion in the jaw. Down in the hollow the boys heard the whack.
The stallion rolled back on his heels. He shook his head and came on again. As he reared, the mare doubled quickly under him and bit at his knees. She galloped away at an angle, the stallion up and after her. He circled and came at her from the front, and the two ponies reared and pawed, twisted and bit.
"Now!" thought Lefthand. "Now!"
The herd's attention was centered on the combatants. The brown mare's cheek was turned well away from him, her ears were pricked toward the horizon. Behind her he saw the legs of the colt, and knew that those sharp young eyes were also turned away, looking uphill.
They might move before the wolf called. He might not have a chance like this again. Now was the striking time.
Lefthand drew his spear back, tilting the point slightly toward the sky, a little higher than the mare's side appeared to be. The spear would describe a neat arc. He rose to his feet.
The mare caught the motion, a flicker in the corner of her eye. Her pricked ears heard the gasp. She screamed an ear-jarring warning to the herd. She was in flight in the same moment. As Lefthand's spear drove forward in its prescribed arc the mare bounded. At her side the colt jumped, muscles flowing strongly under the baby fuzz.
Instantly the wolf howled. Two figures stood suddenly on the skyline. Shaggy and short, they looked at that distance like two bears.
Spears flew in the moment, two from the hilltop, one from the hollow, as Onedeer and the men cast into the herd.
But even as the spears arced through the air the shocked herd came to life. With warning screams and snorts the ponies flung themselves into flight. The hillside rumbled and shivered under their rush. Lefthand's little brown mare dashed away on shining hoofs as his spear dove harmlessly under her belly. Beyond her Lefthand saw the colt's swift legs gather and stretch.
The thunder passed and stilled. The beautiful, fat ponies who had cast dark round shadows on the morning earth became fast-flying diminishing specks in the distance.
Now the slope lay empty under the noon sun, bare between the hungry men looking down and the hungry boys looking up.
Four clean bone-tipped spears lay like children's toys, lost in the stubble.
The meat rack stood naked in the gray dawn.
Between four gnarled, wind-stunted oaks Provider and Bisonhorn had lashed sapling stakes. The stakes were tied more or less horizontally from tree to tree and crisscross, high enough above the ground to hold long strips of meat for smoking. Around the base of the oaks tools were left lying, ready for joyful use: narrow bone blades, heavier blades, and stone axes. But the rack stood empty, a stark network against the sky. From a distance it might have appeared a natural growth of branches. Like everything else in camp it was slapdash, impermanent, fragile as life itself.
Down from the lowering sky came snowflakes, hesitant and soft. One by one at first, they spiraled down to spatter and melt on the hard earth. But as the cloud cover steadily grayed the white flakes came faster, a shower of light through pale air. They no longer melted as they fell, but flake clung to flake with cold, sticky fingers. They whitened the ground.
The meat rack turned white, its harsh lines softened and fuzzed with snow. The two torn skin tents, leaning feebly together as though for comfort, sagged even farther under the new weight. The fire, dying in its circle of stones, hissed at the snowflakes that fell ever faster into its heart.
Lefthand and Onedeer sat huddled in their skin jackets, staring into the glow. Lefthand was vaguely remembering some dream or vision — something black and hot crackling among embers. If he could keep this picture in his mind, hopefully, his stomach might be deceived and forget that it was empty. He combed his thick dark hair with his fingers and scratched lice. He stared into the fire where vision faded to sad reality. Reality was a sleeping fire, an empty meat rack, a grimly chill morning.
There was some hope. New snow had already obliterated the boot prints of the departing hunters. Squinting through sleep-heavy eyes from his tent, Lefthand had watched Provider and Bisonhorn go out into the predawn dark. Black silhouettes darting against firelight, they had snatched up their spears, slung bone blades on thongs about their waists, and discussed strategy in whispering grunts. Lefthand had watched Bisonhorn point briefly toward the tents where he and Onedeer still lay, bundled warmly in reindeer robes. He had seen his father's rejecting gesture. "Naaa," he said with his sweeping, outthrust hand, "they can sleep, we don't need them!" Bisonhorn agreed with a flap of his hand and the two shadows stalked away, leaving the firelight clear.
Lefthand was reminded of a wolf he had once seen leaping through juniper bushes. He had crouched in a thicket and watched the lean red form leap back again and dodge away at an angle, a streak of red among dark green spikes. Once outside the junipers the wolf paused, in plain view of Lefthand, and looked back. Ears pricked, tail high, he looked where a whining scuffle bent the low bushes. Then he turned and trotted away, expressively satisfied from nose to swinging tail. He went off to hunt by himself, leaving his puzzled cubs sniffling on his trail.
Across the fire Onedeer sniffed, loud and wet, and then he coughed. Onedeer's eyes were blue, the mild blue of a spring sky, but dull and miserable. Coarse, sunny hair rumpled his head and wisped to his shoulders, hunched under their thin covering and topped with a layer of snowflakes. He sat across the little fire from Lefthand and leaned over it, soaking up warmth. Suddenly he hunched lower, as though trying to hide. Exasperation sharpened his sad eyes.
Out beyond the thickening veil of falling snow a strident, squeaky voice scolded, boasted, laughed. As it came nearer, Onedeer slumped farther and farther under his jacket. If he had had the energy, Lefthand would have laughed.
Out of the snow-mist came the owner of the squeaky voice. Jaybird was little; when they stood together his brown hair brushed Lefthand's ribs. He had Lefthand's brown eyes, but in his round face they were gleeful, snapping eyes. His thin arms clasped a bundle of twigs against his chest. He opened his arms and dropped the twigs in an untidy heap.
Jay did not walk but pranced toward the fire, his ragged cloak flapping about his lean, lifting legs. At the edge of warmth he stopped, drew back his head, stared at Lefthand, and stamped. Then he swished the cloak behind him like a nervous tail.
Lefthand had to smile.
A larger form slowly took shape through the snow. A woman waddled toward Onedeer and dumped an armful of twigs and branches in an orderly pile within reach of the fire. It was Onedeer's mother, Bright. No one ever looked at Bright enough to notice that her once sunny hair was no longer bright, and her face had lost its flashing good cheer. It was still a friendly face, brown like a late autumn valley, with two blue pools shining in its shadows.
Excerpted from The Sorcerer by Anne Eliot Crompton, Leslie Morrill. Copyright © 1971 Anne Eliot Crompton. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
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