I danced over top of the dry stones in the river making the far side without slipping. Sounds of pursuit followed me. Whoever it was cared nothing for stealth, limb-cracks and shuffling sounds echoed through the thick green-needle trees. If I could disappear on this side, work my way upstream, and cross again — with the same nimble care — I could double back and lose these clumsy oafs.
My bark-and-leather moccasins, though quiet, were old and if I had to run many more shout-fars I knew they would split and slow me down. I needed to head up into the rocks of this narrow canyon, hide and make repairs.
I’d seen glimpses of my pursuers. Two dark haired, dark skinned and dark clothed shapes that walked wide and sturdy. I’d never seen their like. As I’d wandered past their camp, early the prior morning, I’d cut wide, not expecting smoke or others in the valley. One-eyed Tak and his stories had branded my mind with wariness for strangers.
They caught sight of, or smelled me somehow. I swear to Diza I’d moved like a mink. They made loud calls my way, nothing I could understand. If I harken back, they may have been greetings, but, alone in this new land, Tak would scoff and sneer were he to find I’d been killed for curiosity.
Ten-ten strides from the river on this side, I turned upstream. I cursed the moist earth here, flap-tail dams had no doubt swamped the area, my prints would be as tracks in snow. No choice for it, I picked up speed and ran through the tall trunks, silent as a ghost-cat. I heard a shout, back at the river, and smiled. One of my leaps had been daringly long. The stout men must have tried and failed. Mountain water is bitter cold this high up.
I’d now run at least a shout-far and thought I’d better recross. I veered right, and worked my way through thick green brush. The sound of the river had turned quiet. I pounded my fists as I came across a long flap-tail pond. Diza, that goddess bitch, had vexed my senses. I needed swift water and stones to cross undetected. Here, if I swam I’d be wet for a day. If I backtracked I’d risk an encounter with the dark men. I’d have to walk the dam. It was downstream there two-ten steps. I wove my way through the catching brush, my leather jerkin and pants protection from scratches and noises.
I walked a few steps out onto the ridge of the stick-mud dam. The pond water nearly cleared the rim and my moccasins became soaked. Half way across I scanned up and down the river length. No sign of them. I worked my way to the other side and scrambled up the steeper bank. As I shifted my elk-horn pack, custom carved by my da, Hounta, I turned to look down through the trees and there he was. One of them had stayed on this side and matched my pace.
He stood rock still, his deep eyes, with rough thick brows, drilled into mine. I could have struck him with a well tossed stone. He wore an animal pelt cap and a wolf-skin cloak, the fur long and luxurious. I could tell from the way he stooped his pack must weigh a deer’s weight. To carry that and chase me all this way? I had to wonder at their strength and stamina.
His partner called from across the river behind me, but this man’s eyes never left mine. I’d guess he’d be about my age, two-ten summers. I watched as he planted the butt of his flint-tipped spear in the ground before him, raised his hand to his mouth and give a call.
My own weapon, a fine bow of heartwood and sinew, had snapped in half as I used it to beat away a young knife-toothed cat five nights ago. I’d sunk two fine arrows into its chest but it charged me heedless — I beat at it out of panic (and not a little fear). I carried its small but wicked teeth and much of its hide in my pack. The next day I’d begun making another bow and kept at it as I traveled, heading over this range to the east. But, as of yet, it remained a stave I carried and might now need to defend myself.
I could hear the young man’s partner begin to teeter over the dam. I risked a quick glance and knew I must run or die. I turned back and watched as the solid fellow bent, as if to pull a flint from a sheath, but instead, swung his arm up and gestured with his hand, “flee,” he seemed to be saying. When I looked confused, his motion became more animated. “GO!” He flicked his hand and grunted for emphasis.
I wasted no time, but, still staring into his eyes, gave him a nod, turned and dashed through the woods, zigzagging to keep out of their line-of-sight.
That night, nestled in a high rock crevice, a small fire lit behind a boulder, I dried and mended my footwear. I still had some seal meat from when I left the coast; I didn’t save any of the cat’s flesh — eating such an animal, taking in its spirit would taint my own. The meat tasted foul anyway. So I gnawed on the rich, flavorful seal jerky and vowed to complete this new bow within a day or two. I was a fool to walk these new-land forests without a weapon. I admitted I was anxious to see the other side of this range. The stories of the great sloths, camels and shaggy rhinos had filled me with wonder. And now, with strange, heavy-browed men in the valley — one I was told to journey — this set my mind to ponder the why of my recent escape, or rather, my release.