The cat rested through the day, occasionally looking out of half of one eye, toward where the new members of the pride passed back and forth, all of them making believe the cat wasn’t there. The cat passed semi-conscious moments reflecting on how easy it would be to leap up, dive out of the cleft, and then latch on to one of them, the smallest appearing to probably be the most delectable. But, for some reason he couldn’t quite grasp, his taste for fire cooked fish had grown, while his taste for raw living meat had lessened considerably. Also, the new members of the tribe ignored him, as if they knew they were in the pride. How was he, the dominant male cat he was, supposed to react to new pride members who had never been approved of, welcomed or even inspected in any way for pride membership?
The fall into the river had been more devastating than the cat could have imagined, prior to his great leap. There’d been no air he could take in, ice cold water moving fast toward a deadly waterfall, and then the swim, as short as it had been, had almost been terminal. The fur that thickly covered the rest of his body was almost nonexistent along the entire stretch of his belly. The pain from his belly skin’s flat impact with the water remained with him, and every move was discomforting, if not agonizing. Night time would come, but the cat wouldn’t hunt. Possibly, the younger human would catch and cook more fish, although with the addition of more members to the pride, what fish prepared might have to be fought over.
The human he’d attacked up at the encampment had provided no sustenance at all. His attack had never been intended to be the beginning or culmination of a hunt. The attack had been to warn the humans that a great predator already roamed the territory they were thinking about entering and occupying.
The other humans from on top of the canyon wall would be coming. The cat knew their intent because the warriors spent no time examining their surroundings up above. All of their attention had been on the valley below, with its lush forest floor and the rapidly moving river winding its way from, and to, distances too great to estimate much less travel.
The fall from the cliff had been too high, and the cat had not known how high before impacting the water below. Without the ability to lay where he was, and take the time to heal up. the cat also knew he might not have survived the aftermath of the fall at all. The humans around him worked with such vigor and constant noisy industry that other predators gave their wedge of southernmost valley land a wide berth. The cat sleepily knew about all of that but couldn’t really put it together properly in his still lightening damaged mind. What he did know for certain was that he needed to remain right where he was until his body had healed itself sufficiently, and that being among the humans, especially the young boy who came constantly approaching to check on him, was allowing for that.
Cetan tried to get the boy to understand that he and the younger warrior had not lost the lean-to. Instead, they had gained the assistance of two experienced older women, and the energy output of the smaller children.
“We have to hunt in order to store meat for the winter,” Cetan said. “Only meat will have the energy inside it to let us endure the cold, as our clothing is not sufficient to the task alone. You’ve got to use your ability to fish in order to supply us while we hunt, and the females while they work to make our area more comfortable and defendable.”
“Fine,” Tama replied, “but what are we supposed to spend the night in? We had the lean-to for one night and now that’s it?”
Cetan looked over at the exhausted sleeping cat, and then back toward the two fire pits and the lean-to. The children worked and played at running back and forth from the river’s edge, carrying small armloads of the flatter polished and black riverbed stones. They carefully embedded stone after stone into the surface of the hardening mud. The rain had passed. The direct sun and wafting winds would make short work of drying the mud flat their encampment was bordered on. The flat stones the kids laid were beginning to form an exposed floor of black rock. Cetan realized that the flat area would give anyone inside the lean-to almost complete protection from stepping into the mud when going back and forth to the demanding fire. The fire had to be fed all through every night and every day. Lighting a new fire every day was too hard and too depleting of what little fire-making supplies Tama carried in his leather pouch.
The two older women were busy stripping fern fronds, before bending and inserting them through the closely spaced ribs that made up the side and top of the lean-to. It was obvious that they had performed the task many times before. The speed that they worked at was near blinding to watch, and the result was a forming set of walls that were so tight that it couldn’t be compared at all to the loose mess the boy and warrior had built earlier.
“What are the kid’s names?” Tama asked.
“Chert and Mura,” Cetan replied. “And the old women are Aurora and Night Moon, with the bigger one being the Moon one.”
“Those are strange names,” Tama said, “why did these kids and women get dumped on us?”
“Most probably we were here at the right time, at least for them,” Cetan replied. “They came to be without family or kin for some reason or other. To be without family, and not welcomed into another family in the tribe, is to be isolated and eventually turned out, as they obviously were.”
“Banished because they lost their families?” the boy asked, shocked. “How can they get banished for that? They didn’t do anything.”
“How did you get banished?” Cetan asked, his voice low and quiet.
“It’s not the same thing,” Tama replied, also lowering his voice, so it wouldn’t carry all the way over to where the women and kids worked away.
“The same result, though,” Cetan whispered, “for us both.”
“What does ‘Chert’ mean?” Tama asked.
“Interesting name,” Cetan replied, “that special flint you have in your pouch is probably what the makers and nappers call chert. I’m not sure though since that’s not something I was allowed to know. Maybe she knows, although she’s a woman so she can’t know much. Women don’t get to know the ways of the warrior, not in my old tribe.”
Tama looked over at the sleeping cat, wondering how much time he’d need to recuperate.
“They’re coming back,” he said after a few silent moments passed between them.
“Whatever the cat encountered up there is likely headed this way,” Cetan agreed. “The cat wouldn’t have bothered unless that was on his mind. This is his territory and winter’s setting in. The cat’s not looking to expand or change his territory with winter coming. He was seeking to protect it.”
“Something happened when my tribe headed south,” the boy said, his face tipped up to look at the top of the canyon wall across the raging waters of the rain-fed river.
His eyes remained unfocused, however.
“Something happened before they left too. My father, the greatest hunter, was killed. The tribe turned its back on me. They headed south, leaving me behind, and now return to winter into a forest area they’ve never wintered into before. Something happened. What do you think?”
“I don’t know,” Cetan replied. “I’m too young a warrior, so I never got into the inner sanctum, the passage of rites or even leadership of any of the hunting bands. My own tribe was hard enough to try to understand. I don’t know your tribal ways at all. Did they banish many others before you?”
Tama thought hard. “I don’t know. People disappeared from time to time but there was no announcement or ceremony. They were just gone and never came back.”
“No matter how much we prepare, and no matter what we build until your old tribe gets here, we can’t beat a whole tribal band of warriors. It would only take them a few minutes to finish us off.”
“Unless we take it to them,” Tama said, an idea beginning to form in his mind.
The warrior sat with one of the captured spears across his lap. He worked at the tightly wound shrunken leather, trying to remove enough to see how it was put together while, at the same time, making sure that it didn’t lose any of its strength.
“Take what to them?” Cetan asked, looking up.
“Hasti took it to them last night,” the boy said, nodding toward where the cat lay in its cleft sleeping away. “It cost him but, from the sounds we heard, I’m willing to bet it cost them a lot more.”
“I’m not so sure that ‘costing them’ would do very much to stop the tribe from coming down here to settle into the valley for the winter,” Cetan said, stopping his work. “Whatever is driving them back here has to be a pretty powerful force, even if we don’t have any idea about what it might be.”
“I looked up and saw them standing on the top of that cliff,” the boy said, still watching the cat, noting that although the animal slept deeply, its ears seem to perk and move with the flow of words that were passing between himself and Cetan.
“It was too far, so I couldn’t recognize any of them, or even if they were from my tribe, but the way they stood didn’t give me the feeling that they were defeated and running from another band of humans or another tribe like our own.”
“Which would mean what?” Cetan asked.
“They’re running from something,” Tama said, his voice low and contemplative, “and the difficulties of living through winter are a whole lot less of a threat then what is driving them toward us. That same threat may come for us, as well.”
“The valley itself is protective, but the best place in the valley to defend happens to be right where we are. Nothing can come up the falls from the south, the river completely blocks approach from the east, the forest is way too thick and filled with fallen branches and bracken to the west, and that leaves only the north. Anything coming at us has got to come from the north, wedged in between the forest and the river.”
“Is that why you picked this spot?” the boy asked.
“No, it just looked really nice,” the warrior laughed, soon joined by the boy.
“You’re saying they’ll want this exact spot?” Tama asked once they stopped laughing.
“Maybe not if we take it to them, as you described,” Cetan said. “We can meet them before they get here. Maybe they’ll be convinced that we are more powerful than we are, and have more people.”
“They’ll figure it out soon enough,” the boy said. “How about if we try to prove to them that we would be more beneficial to them if we guarded this end of the valley. They will have to deal with your tribe coming in soon enough, and they don’t know that I think.”
“And I know my tribe?” Cetan asked although it wasn’t really a question.
“You do, but how you tell them about the tribe is up to you, isn’t it?” Tama asked, feeling that the question Cetan had asked bothered the warrior. “They abandoned you, as my tribe abandoned me. My people might take to you better than me, especially if you help them beat back your old tribe.”
“What about the females?” Cetan asked, looking over to visibly marvel at the work the two women and two children were accomplishing.
“We are six with them but only a cast-off warrior and a boy without them,” Tama reflected.
“And the cat and beaver?” Cetan said, staring over to where the cat lay.
“Your tribe has settled the issue, I guess,” the boy replied, “but how my tribe will treat them is a different matter entirely, especially after last night.”
“When should we go?” Cetan asked.
Tama swelled up inside at the compliment. Cetan was defraying to his judgment. Nobody in Tama’s life had ever deferred to his judgment, not even his father.
“We leave now, but where should we go up the wall, and aren’t we leaving the women unprotected?”
“The women are banished,” Cetan replied. “They’re untouchable to anyone who knows. We’ll leave the extra spears. We have to travel light and there’s no way we’re going to attack an entire warrior band and survive. We have to move downriver and cross where the cliff face is lower, climb up and then make our way back. If they are coming they’ll also be coming that way. Women and children can’t make the descent down the main vertical wall.”
“We better tell them where we’re going,” Cetan said, rising to his feet, “and you need to take that little spear and get another fish, however you do that. They can clean it and prepare it while we’re gone. They might need it to feed Hasti when he comes out of his sleep, as we don’t want him to get too hungry in our absence. Go talk to them first.”
“Me?” Tama said, standing up.
He looked toward where the two women worked, seeming oblivious to the presence of the boy and warrior. The two children had almost completed putting together their single layer of river stones connecting the lean-to fire pit to the forming shelter’s open front edge. Tama took two steps toward the lean-to but then changed direction and ran toward the water. He didn’t look back, as he departed north to get to the special place where the rocks were big enough to allow clear water pools to form on the downriver sides of their protruding surfaces.
Cetan laughed to himself. He picked up the extra spears and headed over to where the women worked, noting that they were using the extra branches he’d tossed aside to expand the shelter. If he and the boy survived the afternoon confrontation with Tama’s tribe they wouldn’t be spending the night out in the open, as the boy feared.