Autumn, 38,000 B.C.
Fires lit the woods behind them. For the past day, the flames had chased K'ruk and his daughter higher into the snowy mountains. But it was not the choking smoke or searing heat that K'ruk feared most. He searched behind him, seeking to catch a glimpse of the hunters, those who had set the forest afire in pursuit of the pair, but he saw no sign of the enemy.
Still, he heard the howling of wolves in the distance, great beasts that bowed to the will of those hunters. The pack sounded closer now, only a valley away.
He glanced worriedly toward the sun as it sat near the horizon. The ruddy glow in the sky reminded him of the promise of warmth that lay in that direction, of their home caves tunneled under green hills and black rock, where water still flowed and the deer and bison roamed thickly in the woods of the lower slopes.
He imagined those home fires blazing bright, spitted meat dripping fat into the sizzling flames, the clan gathering together before settling in for the night. He longed for that old life, but he knew that path was no longer open to him-- and especially not for his daughter.
A sharp cry of pain drew his attention forward. Onka had slipped on a moss-slick rock and fallen hard. She was normally surefooted, but they had been in flight for three long days.
He hurried to her and pulled her up, her young face shining with fear and sweat. He stopped long enough to cup her cheek. In her small features, he saw whispers of her mother, a clan healer who had died shortly after Onka was born. He curled a finger in his daughter's fiery hair.
So like your mother's . . .
But he also saw more in Onka's features, those aspects that branded her as different. Her nose was thinner than any of K'ruk's clan, even for a girl of only nine winters. Her brow was also straighter, less heavy. He stared into her blue eyes, as bright as a summer sky. That shine and those features marked her as a blended spirit, someone who walked halfway between K'ruk's people and those who had come recently from the south with their thinner limbs and quicker tongues.
Such special children were said to be omens, proving by their births how the two tribes-- new and old-- could live together in peace. Perhaps not in the same caves, but they could at least share the same hunting grounds. And as the two tribes grew closer, more were born like Onka. These children were revered. They looked at the world with different eyes, becoming great shamans, healers, or hunters.
Then two days ago, a clansman from a neighboring valley had arrived. He had been wounded unto death, but he still had enough breath to warn of a mighty enemy, a blight spreading across the mountains. This mysterious clan came in large numbers, hunting for such special ones as Onka. No tribes were allowed to harbor such children. Those that did were slaughtered.
Upon hearing of this, K'ruk knew he could not jeopardize his clan, nor would he allow Onka to be taken. So he had fled with his daughter, but someone must have alerted the enemy about their flight.
I will not let them have you.
He took her hand and set a harder pace, but before long, Onka was stumbling more than walking, limping on her injured ankle. He picked her up as they crested a ridge and stared down into the forest below. A creek cut along the bottom, promising a place to drink.
"We can rest there," he said, pointing. "But only for a short--"
A branch snapped off to the left. Dropping into a wary crouch, he lowered Onka and raised his stone-tipped spear. A slender shape appeared from behind a deadfall, cloaked and booted in reindeer leather. Their gazes met. Even without a word spoken, K'ruk knew this other was like Onka, one born of mixed spirits. But from his clothing and from the way he tied his shaggy hair with a leather cord, it was clear he was not of K'ruk's clan but from those slender-limbed tribes who came later to these mountains.
Another howl rose behind them, sounding even closer.
The stranger cocked his ear, listening; then a hand rose and beckoned. Words were spoken, but K'ruk did not understand them. Finally, the stranger simply waved his arm, pointed toward the creek, and set off down the wooded slope.
K'ruk considered whether to follow, but another baying of the enemy's wolves set him off after the stranger. He fled, carrying Onka to keep up with the man's agile passage. Reaching the creek, they discovered others waiting for them there, a group of ten or twelve, some younger than Onka, others hunchbacked elders. They bore markings from several clans.
Still, the group shared one common feature.
They were all of mixed spirits.
The stranger came forward and dropped to a knee before Onka. A finger touched her brow and ran along her cheekbone, plainly recognizing Onka as one of a similar kind.
His daughter in turn reached and touched a marking on the stranger's forehead: a pebbling of scars in a strange pointed shape.
Onka's fingertip ran over those bumps as if finding hidden meaning there. The other grinned, seeming to sense the child's understanding.
The stranger straightened and laid a palm upon his own chest. "Teron," he said.
K'ruk knew this must be his name, but the stranger spoke rapidly after that, waving to one of the elders who leaned heavily upon a thick gnarled staff.
The old man came forward and spoke in K'ruk's people's tongue. "Teron says the girl may join us. We are heading through a high pass that Teron knows, one that is yet free of ice, but only for another few days. If we can make it ahead of the enemy, we can break the hunters from our trail."
"Until those snows thaw again," K'ruk added worriedly.
"That won't be for many moons. We will have vanished by then, our trail long cold."
A fresh howling of wolves in the distance reminded them that the trail was far from cold at the moment.
The elder recognized this, too. "We must go now before they fall upon us."
"And you will take my daughter?" He pushed Onka toward Teron.
Teron reached and gripped K'ruk by the shoulder, squeezing a promise with his strong fingers.
"She is welcome," the elder assured him. "We will protect her. But on this long trek, we could use your strong back and sharp spear."
K'ruk took a step away and gripped the shaft of his weapon more firmly. "The enemy comes too swiftly. I will use my last breaths to turn them from your trail or hold them off long enough for you and the others to reach the pass."
Onka's gaze met his, already teary-eyed with understanding. "Papa . . ."
His chest ached as he spoke. "This is your clan now, Onka. They will see you to better lands, where you will be safe and where you will grow into the strong woman I know you can be."
Onka broke free of Teron's grip and leaped at K'ruk, wrapping her thin arms around his neck.
With grief choking him as much as his daughter's arms, he pulled Onka free and passed her to Teron, who hugged her from behind. K'ruk leaned and touched his forehead to Onka's brow, saying good-bye, knowing he would never see his daughter again.
He then stood, turned, and strode away from the creek, heading up the slope toward the howling of wolves-- but all he heard were the plaintive cries of Onka behind him.
Live well, my child.
He climbed more swiftly, determined to keep her safe. Once he reached the ridgeline, he sped toward the baying of the hunters' beasts. Their cries had grown more raucous, rising from the next valley over.
He ran now, loping in great strides.
He reached the next crest as the sun sank away, filling the valley below with shadows. Slowing, he descended more cautiously, warily, especially as the wolves had gone silent now. He ducked low, sliding from shadow to shadow, staying downwind of the pack, careful of each step so as not to snap a branch.
At last he could spy the bottom of the valley, noting the stirring of darkness below. The wolves. One of the beasts shifted fully into view, revealing a shape unlike any wolf. Its mane was heavily matted. Scars marked its massive bulk. Lips rippled back to reveal long, yellowed fangs.
Though his heart pounded in his throat, K'ruk remained crouched, waiting for the masters of those monstrous beasts to show themselves.
Finally, taller shadows folded out of the trees.
The largest stepped into view and revealed the true face of the enemy for the first time.
K'ruk went cold at the sight, terror icing through him.
No, it cannot be . . .
Still, he tightened his grip on his spear and glanced over his shoulder.
Run, Onka. Run and never stop.
About the book:
A war is coming, a battle that will stretch from the prehistoric forests of the ancient past to the cutting-edge research labs of today, all to reveal a true mystery buried deep within our DNA, a mystery that will leave readers changed forever . . .
Snippet from A Fine Balance
- Rohinton Mistry
Snippet from The Shadow Lines
- Amitav Ghosh