And It Was Good
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To grasp the world of my origin, child, you must cast your mind back to a time shrouded in modern mystery and supposition. You must try to imagine a world that was ever so much smaller than the one you enjoy. A world that centered around a bright blue jewel of an ocean that still bears a name that means both center and divisor of the land - the Mediterranean. Imagine a land recently ground to powder by the inexorable advance and retreat of vast sheets of ice. A land that grew rich in this new topsoil, flourishing with vast forests and thousands of new varieties of plants and animals as the living slowly reclaimed entire regions from the grip of cold death.
Now, turn your mind to imagining a people on the edge of this new world. A small nomadic group of humans engaged in the daily task of gathering the fruits of the forest, the grassy slopes, and the rocky shores. They wore the skins of animals, and worshipped nothing more than the forces of nature that changed their world in ways they could only watch with awe. Their tools were chipped stones and sharpened bones. Their pleasures were full stomachs, warm embraces, and the simple gift of life for another day.
The year in your calendar was 8241 BC, the people I bring alive in your imagination were mine, for it was into this world that I was born.
Chapter One: Cradle
My mother carried me close to her body in a furred sack carefully sewn for just that purpose. My first views of the world bobbed and wavered as she bent to the tasks of gathering food and materials in the endless trek from camp to camp that comprised each day. I took my first steps across the skin floor of a crude tent that was all the home we knew, and in time I ran with other children as we played and learned along the edges of that interminable trail that was the essence of our nomadic life.
In the summers we would venture into the forest to the north, gathering what we found, visiting places known to have fresh water and an abundance of the plants we used as staples in our diet. The men would trail herds of wild horses through the lowlands, competing with predators for the flesh and blood of the weak and slow. In the winter we moved south to the shorelines and relied upon shellfish and speared fish to see us through the cold, wet months. From time to time we would encounter other nomadic tribes, in truth no more than vastly extended families, and these occasions were filled with a sense of celebration. Stories were told, techniques and skills were traded like coins, and marriages were made.
But from time to time we would also see the others, the Beasts that walked like men, but shared little else with our simple people. To our eyes they were savage giants, standing a full head taller than our strongest hunters, with a power in their hairy, brutish bodies that could tear our most valiant in half with ferocious ease. Their horrid ape-like faces would peer at us from across fields or through copses of forest and we would tremble in fear, making loud noises and arranging ourselves to show our superior numbers, hoping that these displays were enough to keep these Beasts from advancing upon us.
More often than not, the displays were enough, and the Beast-creatures would leave us be. But sometimes it was not enough, and hunting parties would return short of men, the remainder wounded and terrified. Or they would not return at all.
I understand that in this modern time these Beasts have been given a name, called in science by the term 'Neanderthal'. I can assure you that in the time of my girlhood, their name was much simpler - we called them death.
In the winter of my thirteenth year my entire world was changed forever.
My people had retreated to the southern shores once more in the face of the cold, wet season. We had pitched our tents on the rocky shore next to a waterfall that provided us with both water from its cascade and fish in the pools that it formed as it fell towards its final merging with the vast ocean. A few days after we made camp, another tribe that was known to us appeared over the crest of the ridge that marked the edge of this shelter. We had shared this place and others with this tribe in the past, and many marriages had passed between our two peoples. There was much laughing and showing of trophies as the second tribe made their camp and our peoples mixed freely. I was tall and slender, unusually tall for a girl, and as the two peoples settled down to the first fire together I noticed the eyes of many hunters following me as I moved through either camp. I wore my favorite skirt, with my necklaces of shells and bones swaying as I walked, and I painted my arms, chest, and face with red and white clay to show I was deft of finger and eye as well as tall and strong. I knew from the attention I received that these messages were not lost, and I hoped that this winter might find me elevated from girl to woman. Whether I left this place with my tribe or that other, I prayed to the winds and stars that it would be with a strong hunter at my side as husband.
For almost a moon our two peoples mingled at the camp by the falls, and I saw many men come and go from the tent of my mother. I knew that they spoke to her about her daughters, about me. Sometimes I hid nearby and tried to hear the talk that went on within, sometimes I prayed my mother would refuse this one, or accept that one, for the suitors were many, and not all of them were equally appealing. Then it finally happened. My mother came from her tent with a tall man by her side, and she called my name round about the camp until I appeared from my hiding place, trying to pretend that I had been elsewhere. She smiled between us and introduced him to me by name. My heart nearly burst when she said I was to be joined with him that very night, for I knew his name well, and had listened to the stories of his hunts each and every night that the tale-teller's bowl was passed to him around the great fire. He was strong and handsome, with clear eyes and good teeth. The scars that marked him were of clean and noble injuries gained in hunting, and none marked a wound that would give him any weakness. His voice was deep and strong, and he spoke with a knowledge of many things beyond merely the spear and ax. In my simple eyes he was the perfect man, and I went to my marriage that night gladly, with a joyous song in my heart and great hopes for the future.
It was decided that we would travel with my husband's tribe, as they could not afford to lose a hunter this season. After another quarter turn of the moon, our peoples parted ways. My former tribe marked their course toward the setting sun, while my new people turned the other way towards the rocky slopes of the peninsulas. I wept and hugged my old family, even though I smiled with pride at my new station in life, and I watched back along the trail until the very last sight of them was lost in the distance. My husband showed me the signs that were the legacy and holy symbols of his tribe as we walked. He showed me his trophies and told me the tale of each one, and each night I worked with his mother and sisters to make camp and prepare the evening meal. I learned new skills quickly, and soon found the ache in my heart for my own people and their ways fading as I grew to be a part of my husband's tribe.
For two moons we walked, following the jagged coastline continuously east and south along the peninsula. These were good days, the gathering was plentiful, though the game was not as good as it could have been. The hunters often returned empty-handed, and even my husband was defeated by a lack of animals to track. The rest of us fished and gathered meaty shells, and we still ate well enough despite the absence of good hunting. After the first moon had passed, the hunters gathered and decided to stay with the rest of the tribe, turning their spears to the water rather than the empty game trails. I was nearby when this gathering occurred, and I overheard their whispers of the Beasts in the highlands. They blamed the lack of game on these horrid carnivores, and whispered in fearful tones that the sightings were nearer and nearer the coast every day. Over the following days, the whispers spread through the entire tribe, and we began walking each day with our eyes turned towards the ridges, fearing the sight of a hairy head or ape-like eyes appearing over those barriers of stone.
Just three moons after my marriage night, our worst fears came true.
It was past midnight and our camp was quiet, disturbed only by snores and the occasional snap or pop from the central fire. The watchers at the edge of camp were alert enough, but their vigilance could never have been prepared for the horror that descended on us that night.
The first signs of our demise came as a shower of stones, great rocks hurled down on our camp from the ridge above. Like the missiles of angry sky-spirits these stones smashed into our tents, exploded into our fire, and crushed the chests and skulls of many of our people in their beds. In seconds the peace of the night was shattered by screams and cries of the terrified and the wounded. Many of the tents and a few of the people were on fire, and panic turned the camp into a shifting, milling confusion of bodies and shadows. Into the center of this burst the Beasts, and even the bravest of us were stricken mad with fear at the sight of them. Their hair was caked red-brown with dried blood, and they wore strange markings on their chests and faces in that same paint of death. Their eyes were red with blood-lust, and their roars drowned the shrill screams of the people they drove to the ground with terrible blows. These Beasts were horror built upon horror, more terrible than any we had ever seen before, and no one could stand in their way. They were not here to steal and rape as the stories of them told, their purpose seemed nothing short of murder - and worse. I saw my husband fall to a crushing blow, his prized spear splintered like a brittle bone, and I saw his killer fall upon him with gaping jaws, plunging yellowed teeth into his proud neck and drinking from the ripped flesh. I stood in paralyzed horror, watching my husband's life-blood gush into this creature's jaws, and the world seemed to grow dim, silent, and far away. I think perhaps that I managed a half-step towards my dead lover in some foolish desire to join him. Then I remember only a blinding collision with something that struck me from behind, and that horrible scene was stolen by blessed darkness.
I awoke to a feeling of being bounced and shaken rhythmically, with a hard pressure in my stomach and a horrid smell in my nostrils. I raised my head and opened my eyes enough to discern that I was being carried by one of the Beasts, slung over its shoulder with that hard mass of muscle and bone crushed into my stomach, stealing my breath. I vomited immediately, whether from the pressure, the emotions and memories running rampant in my mind, or merely from the smell of my captor. It heaved me from its shoulder with a snarl and I collided with the rocks, almost knocked senseless again. The group of them were climbing one of the ridges, many of them burdened with the bodies of my people, and the steep slope was almost my death as I rolled and slid from the place I had been flung. My fall was arrested sharply as my hair was seized and I cried out in sudden pain. My captor had pursued me agilely down the rocks as I fell, and now dragged me back to its fellows. I was pulled roughly over sharp stones, and at times simply lifted by my hair as it clambered back up to the top of the ridge. These creatures seemed able to climb with a prowess that would shame even my people's most agile hunter, and in what seemed mere seconds I was being dragged along behind my captor as the column marched their way further along the ridge.
My dead husband, my home, and my life were all left behind in that relentless trek. The Beasts walked and climbed further and further west and south, dragging the pitiful remnants of my tribe along with them. At night they would surround us in a circle of their stinking, snoring bodies, and we would be beaten mercilessly if we so much as whispered. No matter how insensate their sleep seemed to make them, the slightest shift or movement on our part would find us the subject of many glaring, fully alert stares. There was no escape, and several more of my dwindling people died under the beatings and mistreatment of these monsters. Nothing that had passed before compared to the horror of seeing these creatures tear apart the body of one of these unfortunate dead, stuffing the meat into their mouths and drinking from the open wounds. Nothing, that is, except the deep sickness that struck when chunks of flesh that had been a friend or loved one were thrown at our feet to satisfy the gnawing hunger in our empty stomachs.
At first we refused in sick disgust, but nothing else was offered, and we were never allowed to search for our own food. Hunger soon became a madness that took more of our lives as some of us broke under the strain and simply tried to run away, only to be stopped by a vicious blow that ended the suffering permanently.
A part of me died the night that I bent and lifted one of those pieces of meat to my mouth.
Our captors did more than simply trek onward on whatever course they followed. From time to time a number of them would break off and disappear into the night. Sometimes we would hear the screams on those nights, and each dawn following such a night would see a number of new prisoners added to our huddled band. We were never allowed to speak amongst ourselves, and communication became a matter of exchanged looks between eyes filled with terror and pain. Our existence became nothing more than walking and fear, and even empathy died under the crushing inevitability of those two truths. We began to compete in a silent struggle not to be the next that died under the cruel attention of our masters. The weaker were often jostled into the path of one of the monsters when too much time had passed and it was time for another to die. Those of the women with strong stomachs discarded their skirts and displayed themselves to the creatures when we stopped for the night, and earned some small reprieve in the savage pleasures of the Beasts when one was lured by these lewd performances.
In time we became as savage to one another as our captors were to us. The simple desire to live another day, even in this horrible condition, drove us to terrible ends, and we went freely.
Three moons after the night that killed my tribe, our group was joined by another that came down from the north and east. This new group was marked in the same fashion as ours, their hair bathed in blood and strange symbols carved and painted on their faces and chests. They too dragged with them a large number of true people, and the two bands joined into one large caravan that continued its way southward. Another quarter moon brought us to a broad land bridge that pointed towards the rising sun. There we met another band of the beats, and my understanding of our situation grew hugely in that meeting.
The band we encountered was not marked in the way of our captors, that much could be seen even when they were still some distance away. When they caught sight of our caravan, they leapt to the tops of large rocks and outcroppings and began to scream and howl, waving their arms and hurling around smaller stones in a terrible display. A number of our captors separated from the caravan and advanced, making their own horrid growls and screams and flipping their bloodied hair about in gruesome display. They spread their arms and postured, baring fangs and showing off their markings clearly. It took only a few seconds of this display before the other pack leapt and tumbled from their perches to wallow and grovel on their stomachs, covering their heads with their hands and making frightened mewling sounds like babes. For a few moments our captors stood and watched this obeisance, then with a terrible howl they surged forward, raging into this other group of their own kind as savagely as they ever had into any of mine. Blood and screams flew to the winds as these animals tore at each other, but as terrible a scene as it was I could see one thing clearly above all else.
The unmarked Beasts were fighting in terror, just as afraid for their lives as any group of my own people had been. When it was over only heads soaked in blood were raised under the fading sun, the entire band of unmarked Beasts lay dead at the feet of our captors.
That night our band of prisoners discovered that the flesh of the Beasts was as sweet as our own.
In the span of another moon our band slowly left sight of the coastline, the unseen path we followed leading steadily east and south. The ranks of my people shrank slowly as we traveled, the weak falling to become the means by which we carried on. Fewer of us succumbed to the trail or made fatal mistakes that would anger our captors. We watched each other carefully every waking hour, constantly on our guard against the first sign of treachery that might mean this person or that was destined to be our next meal. Because of this, our meals became scarce and when they did occur the meat we were portioned was viciously fought over in silent contests. This competition seemed to please our captors, and the Beasts would encourage our silent struggles with hoots and fetid laughter. No matter what we were engaged in; walking, struggling for food, or huddling beneath wide trees in the rain, we were forever held to silence by the Beasts. There were times I believed I would never again hear the sweet sound of a human voice making any other sound than a scream of pain.
A quarter moon after we left sight of the coast for the last time, we came to the banks of a wide rambling, twisting river that flowed through broad alluvial plains. Many of my people, for such was still how I thought of them, were frightened by the breadth of the sky and how much of the world we could see across these wide plains. Compared to the hilly, rocky, mountainous places of our homelands, this place seemed to have a horizon that stretched into infinity. Only sacred mother ocean ever presented us with such a view in the past, but one could not walk out into that open unsheltered expanse atop her waters. We quickly took to walking with our heads down, our eyes upon the mud at our feet and the tracks of the person ahead, rather than risk meeting that awesomely terrible sight. Meeting this waterway forced our course southward once more, but only in a general way as the river wandered back and forth with such irregularity that I was convinced our trek was doubled and redoubled in length. The presence of the river seemed to raise the spirits of the Beasts, despite many days spent walking knee-deep in marsh or trekking across reed plains that sawed at our legs like sharpened stones.
For more than a moon we traveled along the river's shallow banks, in silent awe each day at the new sights we found along the way. Plants we had never laid eyes on, strange animals that we could never have imagined. It seemed that every hour of our journey brought us something new to stare at, marvel at, or tremble in fear at the sight of. One of this new myriad of creatures gave us reason to fear swiftly, and after the day of the encounter many of us found renewed reason to despise and fear this strange new land.
It was an ugly creature, flat-bodied with splayed legs, with jaws longer than my arm and up-thrust spikes like jagged stones in rows along its back. It's pebbled hide was as gray as the mud of the banks we followed, and when it lay still it could not be discerned from those banks save perhaps as a rotted log or loose jumble of stones. It was this perfect camouflage that led us to near disaster that day. Our column had marched past the creature, the advance line of our Beast captors seemed not to see it at all, and it twitched not so much as a muscle as they passed. But when the ragged stumbling line of my people came abreast of the creature, it seemed as though the very river bank came alive with hatred of us. It lunged with gaping jaws, scattering us before it like leaves. The mud beneath our feet slipped and slid in every direction, our flight reduced to stumbling panic. Those terrible jaws snapped closed once, twice, and in a flash the beast was retreating for the water, dragging a woman of my people by one torn and savaged leg. Her screams and outstretched hands vanished into a writhing, boiling froth as the creature spun her over and over in the water. In a few seconds mud and blood and foam were all that marked her death. We stood, crouched, or lay where we had fallen, stunned by the ferocity and speed by which one of our number had been ripped away from us. Even our captors seemed subdued by the spectacle. As we stood there in mute shock, the creature struck again. Perhaps it was the same one, or perhaps another of its kind, I do not know - but the water exploded to emit a long flat missile with grasping jaws that surged up onto the bank with deadly accuracy. Another panic and brief struggle, and one of our Beast captors was dragged shrieking to a watery grave. Our captors urged us forward quickly, but showed some small wisdom in altering our course to lead us away from the river bank, seeming content for the next few days to merely keep the river in sight, and take water from the shallow muddy tributaries we passed. As we walked relentlessly onward, I found myself staring more and more at the backs of our Captors, remembering those shrill panicked screams in my mind, seeing behind my eyes the blood that was all that was left of the Beast that had fed the river-creature.
This land and our new life, such as it was, had not exhausted its store of shock for us, however. Indeed it seemed as though it had only begun. Our trek along the river ended at a sight that left all of my people stunned into a deeper silence than our captors had ever been able to enforce. It was nearing nightfall when we were led from the reed-beds of the plain up onto a raised ridge that ran perpendicular to our course. It seemed at first to be a wide and straight bank of dried mud that led straight toward the river, but as we walked we found patches of the mud had been worn away to reveal thick longs laid under it. These thick trunks had been cut to even lengths and laid side by side, then covered in mud to form a perfectly straight and even path. Though my people could do nothing more than point and stare round-eyed at the feat as we walked, the awe at the sheer enormity of the task was clear on every face. When nightfall came, we saw fires appear in the sky just ahead, seeming to float above the ground higher than a tall man's head. We feared we were being led towards the home of spirits, and many of my people suffered a cruel blow or outright beating before they could be convinced to follow that artificial trail forward. We reached the edge of the wide river, and saw a wonder that made the trail pale in comparison. Fires stood atop high poles on either side of the river, and stretched between these poles was an amazing sight. Great logs had been cut and laid end to end and side by side, lashed together with fibrous things that resembled braided vines. Thick logs jutted up from the water in several places to support this construction's length, and great supports had been built at either end to lift it well above the river's surface.
To us this simple bridge was a marvel of engineering beyond our comprehension, and it took many more beatings before we would set even one trembling foot upon its wondrous surface.
We walked the length of the span, fearing at each moment we would be betrayed and dumped into the depths of the unforgiving river, and by its end we were so numbed to shock that the next expansion of our world, and perhaps the most relevant, was greeted with far less awe than perhaps it deserved. The opposite end of the bridge was crowded by a moderate group of the Beasts that were our captors, marked by their sanguine hair and grisly adornments. But standing in their midst was a creature that was at once man and more than man. It - he - stood as tall as the Beasts, but he stood straight and proud, while they slunk and hulked about him as was their way. He seemed at first to have a skin that was partially oily black hide, but as we neared we saw that he wore skins that had been blackened and made to shine somehow, their cut and sewing so perfect as to fit his form like nothing we had ever seen. Only his head and hands were visible to us, and the skin that we could see was almost silvery white in the moonlight, cast yellow sporadically by the leaping firelight. The pale hair on his head was pulled back and straight, tied into a long plait that ran down his back, and the long-fingered hands he held folded in front of himself ended in perfect nails like glossy talons.
We stumbled down the embankment from the bridge and fell to our knees before this perfect spirit-man. Weeping in silence as we knew that our time in this world had ended. What other reason could a spirit have for manifesting itself to us so blatantly. For a moment he ignored us, seeming to listen with a serene aloofness as our captors jabbered at him with many gestures at our huddled group. Abruptly he raised his hand, not in grand gesture, but rather an elevation of a few inches - hardly moving at all - and the Beasts fell to absolute silence. He turned his head slowly and lowered his eyes enough to look at us kneeling and weeping there, and it felt as though the sky itself had turned its gaze upon us. Those gray eyes held a depth that was suffocating, they spoke in silent tones that were deafening, and despite ourselves many of us screamed in terror as that cold gaze swept over us.
Perhaps it was another minute gesture, or perhaps something else, but somehow something passed between him and the Beasts and they began to move among us. They grasped arms and hair and roughly pulled us into several smaller groups, some of women, some of men, some of children. Whatever criteria that separated us was lost to me, but soon we were divided into a double handful of tiny bands, each with our own contingent of watchful Beasts. As I was dragged into formation with a handful of other women, I saw the spirit-man's eyes flick quickly to me and fix there. My heart froze and my legs went weak, only the grip of the Beast on my hair and arms kept me from falling to the ground under the weight of that stare. My throat had been silent for several moons, but it opened in ragged scream when he moved to follow his gaze, stepping forward and grasping me under the jaw with fingers like ice. Without the slightest effort he lifted me to fully upright with that single grip, and he stared at me for what seemed to be an eternity. Finally his other hand rose towards my face, and I watched the nearing of those perfect nails with the assurance that the flesh would be ripped from my skull.
With a casual flick, he brushed my long hair from in front of my eyes.
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