The House of Mammoth Bones
by Bill Bowler
The spirit of light had risen above the treetops and its beams were filtering through the branches to dapple the forest floor. Two unseen birds were calling to each other. Zak heard a buzzing near his ear and swatted a fly away. The throbbing in his toe had stopped and the swelling had gone down. The toe was almost back to its normal size. Zak rubbed his sore ankle, stood up, and tried putting his weight on it. The toe was still sore, but Zak could walk. He heard the buzzing by his ear again.
Why should I sit here waiting? Zak thought. I have nothing to do. I don’t care about them. They can’t tell me what to do! Zak looked around. There was no one in sight. I’m hungry. It’s not far to the cave. He clutched his spear and started walking gingerly, limping slightly and favoring his toe.
* * *
The spirit of light hung high above the earth when Zak arrived the foot of the cliff and started up the narrow path. When he reached the top, he heard children’s voices from the far end of the plateau. They were kicking a ball, running and shouting. Old La stood watching them with her back turned to Zak. Zak heard snoring and looked to see Brun dozing on a fur mat beside his fire at the cave entrance.
Zak suddenly felt ashamed. He should be hunting with the others, not here in camp with children and weaklings. Who was Wolf to tell him what to do, whether to hunt or not to hunt? He was always meddling, always interfering. Zak should have stood up to the old man, but it was too late now. The damage was done. Zak was fuming.
Just across the plateau stood the house of mammoth bones. Zak glanced around. No one had seen him. The children were wrestling and running at the far end of the plateau. La’s back was to him. Brun was snoring loudly. Zak had never been inside the bone house. It was forbidden to enter the portal to the spirit world and the seat of Wolf’s magical powers. But why couldn’t he, Zak, possess and command those same powers? The clan would respect and fear him, as he deserved. He was young, strong and smart. Wolf was old, weak and stupid.
Zak looked around again. No one had noticed him. Forgetting the pain in his toe, he crouched, crept quickly and silently across the plateau, and slipped through the arched mammoth tusks into the house of bones. He stood for a moment just inside the entrance way. Embers were glowing dully in Wolf’s hearth, spreading warmth through the interior. The soft furs upon which Wolf, La, El-La and Little Wolf slept were spread out on the floor.
Zak felt the presence of the spirits. This was the entrance to their world. He stepped to the center of the bone house and looked around. The walls seemed to glow as the spirit of light seeped through the cracks between the bones and formed dazzling patterns. Zak’s head began to spin. I am here, he sent his thoughts to the spirits. This is my house.
Near the back wall, Zak saw a long plank set into the earthen floor. He listened again and heard the faint shouts of the children at the far end of the plateau and the sound of snoring from Brun’s hearth. Zak slunk across the floor to the back wall and knelt down. The plank was covered with shapes that resembled the patterns of light in the walls. He slid his hand along the surface and felt the fine lines carved into the wood. Zak sensed the patterns had meaning and the meaning gave power, but he could not understand what or how. The plank was loose and he slid it aside.
The bone staff lay in its fur-lined trench. Its intricate carvings continued the mystery of the patterns in the walls and the carved plank. Zak’s mouth went dry. He licked his lips, swallowed, and touched the staff. Zak felt its power surge through him. Nothing could stop him. No one stood in his way.
He took the staff in his hands and lifted it from its resting place. He closed his eyes, and heard faint murmurings of the spirits and saw the dim outline of the entrance to the spirit world beckoning to him. He forced his eyes open and shook his head. Not now. It was too dangerous. He had to take the staff, get out of the bone house and hide the staff where only he could find it.
Zak carefully slid the plank back over the empty trench. He crossed the interior and peered out through the arch of mammoth tusks. At the far end of the plateau, the children were playing. La still stood with her back to him. Brun was still snoring by the fire. No one had seen him.
Clutching the spirit staff, Zak snuck back across the plateau and started down the path. The way was clear. There was no sign of the returning hunters. Only two small, bright, curious eyes had noticed him and watched him unseen as he headed towards the trees.
Zak entered the forest, his senses sharp and his thoughts racing. He headed away from the plains, towards the river, and then veered off at the fork. This branch of the path led to a clearing and on the far side, in a dense thicket of twisting vines and brambles, Zak saw a huge flowering bush.
Zak ran across the clearing and began to scrape the blade of his spear in the earth near the low branches of the bush. He worked quickly, dug a long, narrow trench, knelt down and placed the staff into it.
“Zak! What are you doing?”
Zak froze. He recognized the childish voice. He rose and turned to face Little Wolf, who had caught sight of him coming out of the bone house and had followed him here.
“Nothing,” said Zak in a flat, emotionless voice. “What did you see?”
“I saw you come out of our house with Wolf’s staff. I snuck away to follow. No one saw me. I am silent as a hunter. Why were you in the bone house? Why did you take Wolf’s staff? Why are you burying it here in the forest? I’m going to tell Wolf.”
Little Wolf’s words fell like stones. Each one struck Zak another blow. He felt like he was sinking in quicksand, but he could still pull himself out. Zak looked coldly at Little Wolf, picked up his spear, and started towards him.
Little Wolf saw the look in Zak’s eyes. He turned and ran.
Zak sprinted, leapt, caught hold of Little Wolf from behind and dragged him to the ground. Zak’s long nails scratched the boy’s arms and chest as Little Wolf struggled to free himself. Little Wolf clawed back, ripping a piece of hide from Zak’s fur cloak, and pushed his thumb into Zak’s eye socket. Zak grunted in pain and let go of Little Wolf to cover his eye. Little Wolf sprang to his feet and ran as fast as he could.
Zak took off in pursuit. Little Wolf dashed back to the forest path and turned towards the river. Zak was not far behind.
Little Wolf rounded a bend, raced across a clearing, and pulled up short at the edge of a bluff that hung high and steep above the river. Little Wolf looked over the edge, down at the rocks and churning torrent far below. He realized he had made a mistake and turned to face Zak as he came racing around the bend in the path.
Little Wolf was cornered. Even if he survived the fall to the rocks below, he could not swim and would drown in the deep, quick-flowing waters.
Zak, his face dead and blank like a mask, moved across the clearing towards the boy. Little Wolf feinted in one direction and then dashed in the other, trying desperately to skirt around Zak and get back to the forest.
Little Wolf was quick, but Zak was quicker. As the boy brushed past him, Zak jabbed his spear tip into the boy’s neck and skewered him like a rabbit. Blood spurted from the wound onto Zak and onto the grass and brush.
Zak lifted his spear. Little Wolf’s feet left the ground. He squirmed and gasped for air, but a gurgling sound came from his throat and his motions slowed and then ceased. His body hung loose and limp from the bloody spear. He was dead.
Zak carried the corpse across the bluff and tossed the body far out over the edge. It fell through the air for long seconds and landed on the rocks below. As Zak watched from above, the white water swept Little Wolf off the rocks and the river spirit pulled him down beneath its turbulent surface.
Zak watched and waited. He heard the sound of white water rushing over the rocks, but no body broke the surface. The forest was silent when Zak finally turned from the edge of the bluff. Little Wolf had disappeared for good.
Zak moved quickly now. He tore broad leaves from a branch and wiped the blood from his spear and fur cloak, and from the grass as best he could. He tossed the bloody leaves over the bank, and watched them flutter down to the water and be swept downstream. Then Zak turned to run.
When he reached the fork, he heard La’s voice calling Little Wolf’s name from the foot of the cliff beneath the plateau. She had discovered the boy was missing, though there was no alarm yet in her voice.
Zak left the path and made his way through the forest undergrowth, circling wide around the spot where La stood calling to the boy.
The spirit of light was touching the treetops when Zak reached the spot where Wolf had told him to wait. There was still no sign the hunting party. He was sweating and panting, but he had beaten them back. He suddenly felt the throbbing in his toe. Zak sat down on the pine needles and pulled off his foot wrap. The toe had turned purple. He sat there, sweating and breathing heavily. He didn’t have long to wait.
Zak heard voices. The band of hunters was coming through the forest towards the place where Zak sat. He sat cross-legged, held his injured foot in his hands, and began to rock in place and moan.
The hunters came down the path, talking loudly and happily, boasting to each other of how many kills they had made, and how big and ferocious their prey had been. Their leather sacks were filled with fresh elk and horse meat. They reached the spot where Zak sat moaning and El-La knelt down to examine his foot. The toe was swollen and blue. White liquid was oozing from the bite marks.
“Can you walk?” she asked him.
“I don’t know,” said Zak. He stood, wincing and favoring the injured leg, supporting himself on his spear.
The front of Zak’s fur cloak hung open. Wolf saw the cloak was ripped, and Zak’s arms and chest were scratched. He noticed brown spots on the handle of Zak’s spear.
“Did you hunt here while we were gone?”
“What? No. I am hurt.”
“You’re scratched and you have used your spear.”
Zak looked down at his chest.
“That? I was resting, asleep, and a wolverine attacked me. I stabbed it with the spear but it disappeared into the underbrush.”
Wolf nodded. “It’s strange for a wolverine to attack a grown man. There must be a nest with young ones nearby.”
“Let’s go,” said Arch. “We’ll help you walk. We are all tired and hungry.” He took his son by the arm, but Zak shook him off.
“I don’t need help. I can walk.”
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Copyright © 2013 by Bill Bowler