"I saw them," said Ju, pointing at the mouth of the cave, pointing towards the land of the ice and snow that grew closer all the time. "A day away. Less. If we wait, they'll be gone."
"How many?" Jo was on his feet, dropping his mate on the ground and reaching for his best spear. "When do we go?"
Jace grabbed a fistful of Jo's covering and pulled him back down onto the fur. "Not now," he said, hitting the back of Jo's head to get his attention. "It is almost dark. Gather a hunting party when it is light again."
Jo grunted and slapped Jace away from the handful of beard he'd grabbed, struggling to stand again. "We hunt now," he informed his mate, who was still struggling for a grip. "Stupid mate, no sense of priorities."
"Always thinking of the furs," Ju nodded wisely, twirling his own spear and shifting from foot to foot. "Better to ignore him now."
A ringing smack on his ear distracted Jo briefly, and he frowned his fiercest frown. "Stop hitting my head. It makes my brains wobble."
"Can't have that." La's dry voice was always unwelcome in situations like this, especially when he was tucked neatly into his own furs, waiting for Krus. "Don't need any less brains than you've got already."
"Your brains are wobbling if you think you can hunt great beasts in the dark," said Jace, pulling him down again onto the furs. "Wait for the light, or you will be lost and never return."
Ju looked out the mouth of the cave impatiently again.
"Nik will be back soon," La reminded him. "Then you'll want to find your furs, too. Wait for the light, if you must go. Stupid savages. Always want to kill big things."
"Stupid stay at homes, always wanting us to wait," Ju shot back, sneering a little, though he had perked up at the mention of Nik. "Always happy when we bring meat, though."
"Meat will be there in the next sun." Krus appeared in the ring of firelight, face streaked fiercely with paint, the paint in his hair matting it into spikes. "I have seen it."
"Like you saw the storm coming?" Jo scoffed, though his hands had wandered beneath the furs and Jace was making happy sounds and he wasn't trying to get up any more.
"He saw the storm," La said defensively. "Just not the time." He lifted the furs, but Krus did not come and he lowered them again to stay warm. The air was already cool inside, and colder outside where there was no fire.
"Useless rain," grunted Jo. "We should hunt now, before there is snow."
"When there is light again," insisted Krus, moving around the fire rhythmically, twisting and turning his body. "We must sing for the success of the hunt now."
"Sing later," Jace gasped, twisting under his furs, where Jo had joined him. Ju snorted in disappointment, but set down his spear, kicking at his empty pallet. Jo was useless until morning now.
"We can sing at the beginning of the light," La suggested, unwilling to emerge into the cold. "Then the light will hear and bless the hunt?" He wasn't entirely sure that the singing helped, but he always humored his mate.
"Sing later," Ju agreed, watching Krus stamp his feet in his circle of movement.
Krus gave up on the singing, but began drumming on his thighs and humming lowly. "We sing under the first light," he agreed, performing his own singing now. "When all of us are here. All of us who are left."
"We will be with the rest soon," said Ju, pulling off his outer layer of covering. "Once we have meat for the journey, then we head for the warm lands and will find them."
"I say find the warm lands now," said Nik, standing in the mouth of the cave, the sky and land behind him dark. He shivered and moved toward the fire. "The snows are coming."
"And we head for the snow tomorrow," said Ju, already by his side. "For the last time. We hunt. I spotted a herd, less than a day away. We will have meat for the long journey."
"Meat," Jo growled, Jace invisible under his body and the furs. "Good."
"Good if you don't stumble like last time and almost die on your own spear," Nik scoffed, sidling up to the fire with Ju draped across his back like another fur. He wasn't shivering any more, and kicked at Jo, who ignored him.
"Jo brought down the mother mammoth," Krus reproved, dark eyes reflecting back firelight. "The trip taught him to not be overconfident. A lesson you should have."
"Don't care who trips, as long as we go to warm places soon," La grumbled, wishing his mate would stop singing and join him. "Warm places, with more to eat than just meat, meat, meat, all the time. It's wasteful."
"Too cold for green food," said Ju, like La was stupid. "The grasses are brown, the trees have died. You should be thankful for the meat we bring you while you weep over your lost plants."
"We are all thankful," said Krus, still dancing his circles around the fire, deftly avoiding Ju and Nik. "You are brave hunters. Sometimes foolhardy. But you keep us fed. And La keeps us fed when there is no meat to be found. And Jace prepares the meat for our journey. You should be thankful for them, too."
"Oh, thank you!" Jace cried out, but it had nothing to do with meat or grains. "Thank you, thank you!"
"Shut up," Nik growled, kicking at the Jo-and-Jace pile again, this time connecting with a thump that brought a yelp from Jo. "People are speaking, show some respect." Ju was laughing, though, and even La was smiling a little.
"See, Jace is properly thankful," Krus grinned, slowing his dance by La's furs.
"Will beat you later," Jo promised Nik, even as he rolled to his back and moaned loudly, Jace hidden entirely beneath the fur.
"No beating before the hunt. Or I will break your spear while you sleep." Ju spoke sternly, and cut off Nik's response by simply tripping him down to the floor, and rolling him until he landed where Ju wanted him. "Then you can hunt green things with La and we will make you sleep with the women when we find them."
Jo said nothing to that; Jace was more interesting to him now than the others, so he ignored them. The others did not make him properly thankful.
"We will have a peaceful rest now," said Krus, satisfied. "My magic has made it so. We will wake refreshed in time for the hunt." Then he joined La in the furs they shared. "The hunters will rest now, too."
"I do not need to rest," argued Nik.
"The hunters will share seed, then rest," Krus corrected himself. "It is their way. It will be a good hunt."
"It is our way, as well," La reminded him, wrapping the furs tightly around them both. "It is everyone's way, I think. You have made your magic, now turn your mind to me."
"He is demanding," Nik observed, grinning as Ju's hands stripped him handily. He had once preferred to keep his coverings on during play, for the warmth, but Ju had insisted the first time and Nik had found it very nice.
"He is like a female dog in heat," Ju countered, then paused at La's low rumble of protest. "Perhaps a bear. And he is as loud as Jace. I hope Krus is quick tonight, or we will sleep through the light and the hunt, from the wakefulness they cause."
"I have a long memory," Krus warned him, "and I alone carry the magic. I suggest you find your own furs and worry not about ours. Light will come soon enough. We should all be quick." Then he turned his attention to La, to follow his words with action.
Jo and Jace had already found their rest, and the others would soon follow.
"La and Jace are slow," Nik grumbled, glancing over his shoulder to where the two were hauling the travois that would carry the meat. "You should have been more careful with them last night."
"I am always careful," Jo answered, waving a little at Jace and grinning delightedly when the gesture was returned. "And I can tell from Ju's limp that he was not on top, last night."
"I do not limp," Ju protested hotly, smacking Jo in the shoulder with the butt of his spear. "I am entirely well."
"He is very good," agreed Nik, his chest swelling with pride. His pride did not seem to be for Ju's well-being. "I like them big and strong. Where did you see the herd, Ju? We must be close now."
Krus stopped and closed his eyes and raised his hands to the sky. "They are that way," he said, letting his arms forward to point. "We are close." Since that was the direction they were already going, they simply carried on.
"You need only take a small one," said La, his voice carrying to them. "We're few, and can't carry so much. A large one would be wasteful. Don't let your pride rule your good sense."
"He whines too much," Ju observed, switching his glare from Nik to La, even so far away. "We will take the largest we can take, as always. It is the manly way."
"Listen to him," Krus commanded. "He is the most intelligent of all of us. A large mammoth risks injury, and we do not need much meat or more furs. Do not anger the spirits by taking more than we need."
"I'll guard us from spirits," Nik boasted, dancing around them and piercing the air with his spear in sharp jabs. "We are great, invincible hunters. Nothing can harm us today, our song was perfect, and the sky is clear!"
"A well-aimed tusk can harm you even under the clearest sky," said Krus ominously. "We will take only what we need. You do not want to slow our journey to the warm lands, do you?"
Nik stopped his dance; he wanted to be in the warm lands again as much as any of them. They had overstayed as it was, and the air was cold around them.
"We will not be harmed," insisted Jo. "We are great and strong and brave. It will be a glorious day."
"It will be a glorious day when we return and have fresh meat to eat," Krus stated, rattling the bones attached to his staff warningly. "But you are right, the signs are good."
"Even the holy man cannot be grim!" Ju crowed, leaping on his back happily and making him stagger and curse. "The signs must have been very good."
"Quiet your screeching," Nik scowled, dragging Ju back to his side with a fistful of curly hair. "You will scare the beasts away, and then no signs will help us, and we will be chewing bones tonight."
"While the great hunters argue, they miss what is right in front of their eyes," said Jace, stopping and lowering his burden. "I see them, at the horizon."
Ju grunted. "I had already seen them," he said quickly. "We are ... we are not close yet. There's no need to be silent."
"Hush," said Krus, shaking his stick again. "We will stay here. Go. The hunt begins."
Jo stretched hugely, grinning fierce behind his black beard, and gave Jace a quick grope and pat before trotting off silently, Ju and Nik fanning out to either side. He was by far their most experienced hunter, despite the bravado of the others, and he had earned the right to lead.
"Run silently," he ordered as he moved. "Look for the sick and old and small, and do not forget that we are only three, not many. If a large one is alone, perhaps, but do not attack until we are all settled."
"We should go for the largest. We are brave and strong," grumbled Ju, but he would follow Jo's lead in this. He wanted to head for the warm lands as well, and the small and old and slow ones were faster to kill. If they got a good shot, they would not even have to track the wounded beast far.
"I see that one is trailing," Nik pointed out, his strides long and swift, but as silent as they needed to be. He would slow when they were closer. "It would be an easy kill."
"Good choice," said Jo approvingly. "It is young and inexperienced. We could bring it back with us today, if we work fast and it dies swiftly."
The three of them angled towards the lagging one, slowing their pace. "They are stupid," Jo whispered, watching the herd with careful eyes. "They do not know hunters, I think. If we are quiet and careful, we could avoid a charge from the others. No hunting cries, today, try to be as quiet as if we were not even here."
"I have a new good hunting cry," Ju protested, before he was hushed with a rap to his skull. "Fine, I will be quiet. I think we should charge screaming, though, as is proper."
"As is proper with twenty hunters," Jo scoffed. "With three, your screams would bring the herd matron, and you would soon be a small red smear on the bottom of her foot. Then who would warm Nik's furs at night?" He shook his head. "If only Krus and La could hunt. More is better."
"Krus has a different part of the hunt," said Nik. "Krus prepared the day for us. But La ... La could hunt, if he chose to. But he chooses instead to play with his grains and make believe that we could get all our food from them."
"If only Jace could hunt," said Ju.
"Jace could hunt," growled Jo, his pride at stake. "But without the women, Jace must cut the meat and prepare it for our travel. Someone must, and so Jace does. He too works for our survival."
"Jace would be a terrible hunter," Ju scoffed, voice still low. "He is too girlish and strange. Krus would be better, but he is small, and his leg is bad. La has no excuse but his strange obsession with green things."
"Jace is not girlish or strange," Jo snarled, then checked himself. "Perhaps a little strange, but it is his way, and he does as much for us as you do. Would you like to prepare your own bedskins and coverings? Smoke the meat and haul it home?"
"No," Ju admitted, shaking his head. "That is work for the women."
"Yet Jace does it cheerfully, so that we all can live." Jo cuffed him to the ground, but not hard enough to do damage. "Now go, flank the beast to the left, and do not advance until I give the signal!"
When it came to hunting, Ju would not play any foolish games. He crouched low to the ground and moved into his position while Jo and Nik did the same. They were not many, but they were enough to do the job. They had to be. And when the job was done, they would haul the meat and some bones back with them and let scavengers deal with the rest. Nothing was ever wasted.
Jo signaled him to wait where he was and so he did, and Jo and Nik continued to move into their positions surrounding the beast. They would eat well tonight, and in a few days, when the meat and furs and tools were prepared, they would move on to the warm lands.
Jo made the hand signal to stay. The beast was looking at him calmly, perhaps not knowing what sort of thing he was. Its coat was long and matted, tusks just starting to sweep up into a lethal curve that would be deadly in a few years. Ju watched, inching forward carefully, as Jo calmly moved even closer. He was almost close enough to touch, now, and Ju held his breath.
Jo's hand beckoned, and Ju moved forward quickly, as Jo raised his spear almost casually and plunged it deep into the neck of the beast. It bellowed, and swung its head, catching Jo before he could dance away and knocking him far.
Ju didn't not see any red spray fly from Jo as he was knocked away, but even if he had, he would still carry out his task. His own spear flew true and he was able to dodge the fury of the beast. Nik caught it in the belly, and between the three wounds the beast bellowed in pain and thundered away. The bellow caused the rest of the herd to trample away also, at a much faster pace. Now they would have to track the trail of blood, but with such deep wounds the beast would not make it far.
"Jo," he said, rising to his full height and running to his fallen friend's side. "Jo, we must follow now. Your spear will kill him yet."
"Go," Jo gasped out, holding his side. "I will follow as soon as I can, and Jace and Krus and La, as well. Finish it quickly, you and Nik, I am fine." He staggered to his feet. "I will walk, as fast as I can. You both did well." There was blood on his face, but he was still speaking, so Ju nodded.
"Follow soon, so you can be in at the kill," Nik urged, already looking away after the running beasts. "Ju, we will lose it. Come!"
With a last look at Jo, Ju ran alongside Nik, swiftly but not as silently as before. They were already losing sight of the herd, but the injured beast was still well within reach, and slowing all the time as he lost more and more blood. It had been a good kill, they should be proud.
"We may need to make the killing blow before Jo arrives," said Ju as they drew nearer. He looked back over his shoulder and saw the others had caught up with Jo, and were following, but slowly. "It is not right to leave him to bleed while we wait."
"He wouldn't want us to wait," Nik nodded, approaching the beast warily. It was still standing, weaving slightly with legs braced wide. It was still dangerous, he knew. "He is moving very slowly. Jace will fret over him and delay him further."
"You are senior," Ju said, making way for him. "It's your place, not mine. Remember to thank the spirits before you drink the blood, though."
"We wait for him to fall," said Nik decisively, "then I will make the last blow and perform my duty. You will assist me."
They stalked around the dying animal at a safe distance until finally its legs gave way and it fell, shaking the ground beneath them. Nik wasted no time approaching it and slashing its throat with his knife, letting a last gush of blood run from it. Ju caught some of the blood in his cupped hands and offered it to Nik.
Nik sipped almost delicately, from the place between Ju's thumb and finger, and Ju raised his hands to his own mouth. Satisfied, he raised his hands, letting the blood run down his arms, and sang a brief song of thanks. Nik joined him, and then they stepped away from the body.
"We've done well," Ju stated, satisfied. "More than enough meat to take us to the warm lands, and the clan. Will Jace and La be able to butcher such a large beast, do you think? Usually there are many women."
"We may have to help," admitted Nik grudgingly. "If we can kill the beast, we can cut it up as well. No one has to know how it was done." He retrieved his knife, and the spears that still pierced the body.
"It is more important to have food," Ju agreed. "And new skins and bones for our camps along our journey. We will do what we must. Women's work or not."
"How nice of you," Krus's voice was dry and unexpected, and Ju jumped a little. "If we did not all help, we would be here for a whole moon, and the snows would cover the body before we were through." He inspected the beast, then nodded approvingly. "It was done well. Did you sing the songs?"
"We did," Nik confirmed, nodding as he cleaned his spear in the tall brown grass. "And Ju and I need to go for a walk. Right now." He stared meaningfully at Ju, who just cocked his head in puzzlement.
"It was a good hunt," agreed Krus knowingly, pulling his own knife out to begin work on the body. "Jo and Jace would already be celebrating, if it were not for the blow to Jo's head. It has made him addled and sleepy. Go, go now, but return quickly."
Nik didn't need any more blessing than that to pull Ju away from their kill.
"He's talking sense now," said La, from where he and Jace were tending to Jo. "He will be well. But you'll have to butcher without him, he needs to rest now. Do you wish to examine him, Krus?"
"Clean his face with water and let him rest," Krus shrugged, though he looked relieved that Jo was not babbling nonsense anymore. "There is nothing more to do for him, it is out of our hands."
"I will not leave his side," Jace stated, only a small waver in his voice betraying his distress. "I will tend him."
"No, you'll help us butcher this giant stinking thing, before the scavengers come and drive us off," La said firmly, tugging him away. "He'll be fine, his head is like a rock anyway."
"I am strong," insisted Jo, though his voice sounded weak. "I will be well soon enough. Tend to the beast and not to me. There will be time enough for you and me later." That was what it took to encourage his mate to take up a knife and begin skinning their prey, letting Jo lie there alone.
"At least you didn't take the biggest," said La, smacking their kill with his fist. "Maybe you're not so thick-skulled after all. We have a lot of work ahead of us, still. It will be dark when we return to camp."
"Work that would be made quicker if the two 'mighty hunters' would stop imitating camp dogs and help," Krus grumbled, glancing over to where Nik and Ju had barely made it into the tall grass before tumbling down together. "Jace, start below the throat. The skin is thinnest there."
"I know," Jace grumbled. "I have done this before. Be sure not to tear the hide, it will make a perfect replacement for the travel shelter, if we are careful. I do not like sleeping in the snow."
"You like sleeping anywhere," La scoffed, and Jace threw a clod of dirt at him, between strokes with his knife.
"It's not sleeping, he likes so much," said Krus but he was diligent as he helped skin the animal. "I might say the same about you, La. The hide will have to be stitched in a few places, with scraps from the old shelter, but it will do well."
"And we plan to stay ahead of the snow," said La as he worked. "Oh look, the mighty hunters return."
Ju and Nik started back for the others, smeared with blood and other things and looking sated at last. Ready to help. "Give me the biggest knife!" said Nik. "We will make short work of this."
They all hoped he was right about that, beneath his bravado, and quickened their pace to get the task done and be home again.
"Jace, my beloved mate, I am thirsty again. Fetch me water?" Jo's voice was still weak, suspiciously so, since he had been seen chasing Ju with a stick not an hour before. Now he was cradling his head and making moaning sounds, and Nik looked at him sideways.
"Of course!" Jace darted for the gourd that held the water, and brought it back to Jo. "Does your head hurt badly? Will you be fit to travel when we go?"
"At this rate we will not go for another many light-times," Krus said, looking meaningfully at the neglected drying racks where the meat hung in strips. "He is well, Jace, do not fetch for him."
"He whines like a pup," Ju sneered. "He is-urk." He was silenced when one of Jo's big hands closed gently around his throat, and Jace shook his head and went back to the drying racks.
Jo finally gave up and fetched his water himself. Had he whined any longer, he may have felt the whole gourd upturned over his head. "It does hurt," he had to add, though, as he sat back down again.
Krus went back to his pots of pigments, where he was crouched by the wall drawing the story of their hunt. Somehow the beast had become twice its actual size, and the spears the three men were carrying were twice as long, but he got the basics of it right. Right down to Jace fretting over his fallen mate, and Nik and Ju celebrating their kill.
"He's not that large," Ju commented, rubbing at his throat and watching Krus work. "Between the legs, I mean."
"Shut up," Nik instructed, peering closely at the wall, then moving to Krus's side. "It is perfect," he declared. "It is good magic, it will ensure many successful hunts. And more celebrations."
"Hunters," La sighed, bending over the hide that he stitched with sinew. "They think of only two things. I think maybe their brains are too small to hold more."
Jace grunted his agreement, while Jo sputtered out his argument. "Do not waste the water," said Krus, not even needing to look at him. "Or it will be you who is sent out for more."
Jo took a careful sip after that, cradling the gourd carefully in his arms.
"Krus," said Nik, glaring at La. "I think perhaps your celebration was not enough for your mate's taste. He seems unsatisfied."
"I am never unsatisfied," La purred, smiling sweetly at Nik. "From Ju's comments, you are the one who might be lacking. If you are having....trouble, you could always ask my mate for advice."
"He does not need advice," Ju argued hotly, before Nik could kill La. "I am always satisfied, as he is. We are mighty hunters, and we do not need to hear about your puny small-person matings."
"More work, less talk of matings," said Krus abruptly. "Go, let me finish. You should be stringing the meat not getting in my way. You can study your manhoods when I am done."
Nik stalked off right away, scuffing the dirt with his toes as he went. Ju remained a little longer, watching as the drawing of himself took shape. "Do we sing again, when you are done?" he asked. "For good luck and safety on our journey?"
"We do," said Krus. "We do. Now go work, I will tell you when. There is still much to do."
Jo was still laughing quietly, holding the gourd. "You just like to make us sing," he accused Krus, when Ju had wandered after Nik. "I have never sung so much as since you joined us."
"Ju doesn't mind," Jace said, stringing meat faster than before. "He sings to his spear and his knife when he thinks no one is listening, and to Nik when he thinks they are alone."
"Singing appeases spirits," Krus announced grandly, standing back to admire his work. "I have seen it in a vision, so we do it often."
"I think he just likes the sound," La whispered to Jace, with a smile.
"Singing calms the warriors, too," Krus added, setting his pots on the ground. "Singing makes peace between men. It is wise, for us to sing for many reasons."
"Jo likes it too," confessed Jace to La. "And it makes him want to mate with me more. None of us mind the singing."
Ju and Nik didn't comment, as they busied themselves with their tasks, but Ju's cheeks were red and it was not from warmth.
"Our tale is finished," said Krus finally. "We have shared the hunt with the spirits. Come now, it is time to let them know that it is here."
They all moved to settle around the fire, Jo drawing Jace to his side and down to the fur, Nik and Ju sitting shoulder to shoulder. Krus remained standing, but rested one hand on La's head. He started the song, voice soaring high and eerie as he described the storm and the lack of food, the loss of the clan and the discovery of the cave. The passages of the moon when injuries made travel impossible, and the fear of oncoming winter. When he described the cave, La joined him, deep voice thrumming through the enclosed space, and Jace closed his eyes, rocking a little.
Jo and Nik and Ju sang the hunt, illustrating with their hands, describing their bravery and cleverness, and the magnificence of the beasts, their gratitude for the kill. Krus nodded approval when Jace and La mourned the death of the animal, and chanted of the difficulty of skinning and butchering.
And they all joined in to offer their thanks, that they were safe, and fed, and that the things they needed would now be plentiful for their journey. They would repair their skins and replace worn weapons and tools and it was all thanks to the animal they had hunted.
The rest of their voices damped down and Krus described what was ahead of them, the long journey but the warm, plentiful lands that awaited them at the end of it. He sang about how they would rejoin with their clan in the warm lands, and things would be complete again.
There was a long silence when he finished, then he said. "The spirits are pleased with us. We will be able to begin our journey two suns from now."
"Two suns!" Jace clapped his hands in excitement. "So soon! And will the journey be easy and swift?"
"Swift, yes, but not so easy," Krus shook his head. "We will all rejoin them in good time and health, though."
"We do not need ease." Nik was smiling at them all, vibrant with energy. "We will see the rest of the clan soon, and sing our new songs."
"The new song of you and Ju," La agreed, "and our hunting songs, and show them our fine new tools and bones and the many seeds I have gathered. I think I have found a way to grind them that makes a paste that is very good."
"Good like eating dirt," Ju opined, but softly, not wanting to cause another argument.
"We will show them all our new things," agreed Krus. "We do have many new things to tell them, and we will have more before we arrive. But what those may be is not for us to know, yet."
"But soon?" said Ju.
"Soon," Krus assured them. "We still have much to do before we can leave. Back to work, everyone, I will join you. Many hands make swift work."
They all did as Krus bade, returning to their tasks of preparing hides and drying meat and making weapons to replace those that could not be repaired. And every one of them thought about their days to come, when they finally reached the warm lands.