Raven sought silence for thought, and let only the horse on stone and Fire share his solitude. "Death's touch makes life taste sweet," he whispered.
"Death reminds me how Sun’s warmth feels against back and how joyful clouds shine."
Fire sighed and curled a flame.
Raven's eyes reflected Fire’s cheerful glow and he whispered to her, "Your smoke is sweet, and yes, you chatter and hold back darkness." He stared into her heart until his eyes rose on a finger of flame and lingered on darkness at bay. His beaten, bruised body rested, but not his thoughts, which raced like leaves before an autumn Whoosh. He wondered upon life's mysteries, birth's joys and death's sorrows. How can the sky be so full and yet so empty? At night, the stars are so many I cannot remember them all, and the sky in the day is so blue, like a bottomless lake. He thought of spring, soft grass, flowers and Sun's warmth. Fire purred reassurance, horse nodded in agreement, and sleep eased upon him without his knowing.
In the mid-morning, he groaned and awoke as if in a fog. His vision cleared as he blinked sleep from his red swollen eyes. Every muscle hurt, his jaw ached, his head throbbed and torn skin stung his cheek. He clenched his teeth and made a painful fist of swollen fingers. His nails, smashed and blackened, reminded him of falling rock. It would have been easy to remain beside Fire, resting, but he had a goal, and he had a somber thought. Death follows like my shadow. Death listens to my heart, and counts my breaths. Death can take me at any time. Does it wait until I forget? I must leave my mark! He closed his mind to his pains, stuffed smoked red dear meat into a deerskin bag, and went back to the high forest of leaning trees.
The footsteps, through snow, he had left on his first visit ended near the center of broken earth. He found his spear embedded point-down beside the hole. It stood like a symbol that mocked him and called him foolish. The trees around him still leaned, and clouds still moved above. Did it happen? Did I fall into earth? Nothing changed. Trees still lean, clouds still move. My fall changed nothing. If death had taken me, would trees still lean and clouds move? For a breath or two, humility lowered his eyes. As if to evade a swarm of gnats, he shook his head and whispered. "My mark."
He heaved the largest rocks he could lift onto the sunken earth; the ground shook and collapsed as the shoulder-width hole expanded to the length of his body. When no more earth collapsed, he stopped but did not rest. Nearby lay the branchless trunk of a fallen pine. He winced as frozen bark bit into his swollen hands, he grunted white breath, hoisted the root end of the tree to his shoulder, and staggered toward the hole. After another deep breath, he aimed the pine's butt and heaved the tree into the hole. Bark split, crusted ice shattered, dust rose against the snow, and the tree slid like a huge fish beneath white waves. A length high as his waist stayed above the ground. He groaned and shoved his swollen red hands into his coat, against his warm skin. "Now, I have an easy way out of the… Rabbit Trap."
* * *
Raven found no more art in the cave, only the mammoth engraved in stone and wandering fingers over wet clay. He engraved the outline of a browsing bison beside the mammoth. The work of etching flint against stone was slow and painful for his bruised lacerated hands. He preferred charcoal. Maybe scratches stay longer. Charcoal can rub off. Water down stone could wash away. He tried to bring a red deer to life as seen face-to-muzzle, but it came forth like no beast he had ever seen. It had a hog's nose, a wolf's ears and a mammoth’s legs. One foot looked like a man’s foot. Across the distortion, he scratched many lines up and down and from side to side to hide the beast. He did not look at it again.
Suns rose and fell without his knowing as he searched for beasts in every shadow-eclipsed rock, anticipating new discoveries, new treasures and messages from his animal friends. Well away from the bison, a gray wolf floated where only a wolf might go, in a secret place snug as a den. He did not disturb the finger marks in clay. He thought each fingertip print held magic from some man's life. He got to know each. Some were women, others seemed to be children, but most, perhaps, belonged to hunters. Maybe one was an artist. He tried to find which fingers they might be. Not the small ones; they belonged to women. They made him think of Wyana.
* * *
Chupo and Tala sat close to Fire and close to each other near their cave’s opening. They listened to night bird calls outside. Behind them, around other Fires, people slept, gossiped and dozed.
“It is a good night,” Tala whispered close to his ear. “It is a warm, peaceful night.” She moved her hand along his arm and shifted closer.
Chupo sighed and put his arm around her waist. Night birds outside the cave suddenly fell silent. He leaned forward onto his knees and listened. “Something dead is nearby,” he whispered. “And it moves.” A gust of wind entered the cave and he smelled death.
Tala also smelled rotted flesh and held her hand over her mouth and nose. “Maybe it is only what wind brings from far away.”
Chupo stood up slowly. “No, it is bad smell coming closer.”
Rim and Torn came behind him. “We smell rotten flesh.”
Chupo picked up his spear.
Other hunters behind him stood armed and alert. A wind gust burst into the cave and troubled Fires flared. The putrid odor thickened, and from the dark stepped a red, bloated corpse.
Chupo stepped back as if struck.
All the hunters stepped back and their women cowered behind them.
Chupo gripped his spear in both hands, with its flint tip forward, as he took an uncertain step toward the figure.
The huge, deathly figure wore a red fox cloak that shimmered in Fire’s light, and its eyes were dark sockets in its crimson face. “I talk to the dead!” The corpse screamed and the words echoed from the walls, “dead…dead.”
Chupo took another step forward with his ready spear.
“The dead look for bodies to replace those they lost. They want your bodies.” The demon man yelled, and Chupo stepped back. It held a hornbeam staff in its crimson hand, and impaled upon its end, the rotted corpse of an opossum bobbed. Maggots crawled from the opossum’s vacant eyes and its flesh oozed yellow liquid. The bloated corpse thrust the opossum at Chupo and said in a thunderous voice, “I can call the dead to take your body or I can drive them away.”
Chupo had never feared any man or beast, but this man - this thing - spoke to the dead. It looked like a man but smelled dead. Chupo heard fearful cries behind him. Someone vomited and he smelled the sickness. He fought nausea threatening to empty his stomach. He backed up two steps but kept his spear ready, and choked back the bile rising in his throat. “Who are you?”
“I am Deadwon. I talk to the dead. They want bodies to replace those they have lost. They want your bodies. I can let them come, or drive them away.” Deadwon spread his arms wide, shook his putrid staff and maggots fell from rotted flesh. “I am Deadwon.”
Someone whispered, “What does he want?”
“What do you want?” Chupo said.
Deadwon walked past Chupo. He ignored him and yelled to those who cowered. “The dead demand obedience. They speak to me. I am their voice. Obey me.”
Chupo fought the urge to drive his spear through Deadwon’s red skin. He feared not for himself but for his friends. He repeated his question. “What do you want?”
“You must prepare a chamber, where I will talk to the dead and drive them away, or invite them to stay. You must bring me roasted meat and warm furs. Gather wood for my fire.”
* * *
Chupo did not serve Deadwon as he had demanded, but those who feared him the most met his demands. They brought him bison meat, warm furs and wood for Fire. They prepared a chamber for him at the back of the cave.
Chupo stood below his cave and watched clouds roll toward the prairie, the same clouds he had seen the day before that had drifted the other way. Spring soon, winter weakens. Squirrels look out from their tree caves. They sniff for spring's scent. Watch the squirrels. They know. A grim furrow wrinkled his brow. The promise of spring brought him no joy. Death threatened his people, death that came upon them in the night. He turned to the cave and listened to subdued voices, not the usual quarrels and laughter. A black night it was. The stench of death came first. We all smelled the stink drift into the cave. We heard no steps. He appeared like a dark gathering. I saw red, bloated death and the stench took my breath. I should kill him, but he speaks to the dead.
Chupo spun to the sound of steps behind him, and crouched with his spear ready.
Wyana stopped in mid-stride. Fear shone from her eyes. "Have you found Raven?"
Wyana cringed at his tone.
"He will come back." Chupo softened his voice. "We need him and his magic."
* * *
In Deadwon’s chamber, grease mixed with red clay, covered rocks, stones and pebbles. Firelight glared from red cave walls. The empty eyes of rat skulls, bird skulls, and deer skulls, skulls fanged, antlered, horned and beaked, stared from every shelf, crack and crevice. Fingers like fat, red worms clutched a polished hornbeam shaft. Long red fingernails curled and red hands swelled into fat, hairless arms from huge shoulders uncut by muscle. A fat neck supported an equally fat and hairless head coated in red.
Deadwon reached toward Fire and his black twin crept along the red floor. He smeared black ash around his eyes, squeezed to slits by fat, to set ablaze his crimson, hairless face. He grunted, leaned on his staff and lurched to his feet. The red fox cape draped over his shoulders swept the floor and gathered Fire’s light to cast it away like a torch. On the end of his hornbeam staff bobbed the rotting opossum. Through its fur and over its putrid flesh, maggots crawled. He brought it close to his nose to savor the stench.
Deadwon came into the valley not as a hunter or toolmaker, not to cure ills or sooth wounds, but as a parasite living off the hunting of others. Every practiced gesture, every dabbed color, he used to evoke fear. He had watched the females in the outer chamber and planned to make his choice. He had watched the young one of only fifteen winters. First, he must make their fear of him absolute.
* * *
Spring comes, Raven thought as he stepped from the rocky slope and into the forest. Yes, Whoosh blows cold, but Sun burns brighter. Snow is not deep.
"Raven comes," Tala yelled into the cave.
“Raven comes," someone repeated.
"Raven comes," said another, and another.
Like termites from a nest, they swarmed from the cave.
Surprise halted Raven at the base of the slope. They surrounded him with grim faces. He smelled their fear and saw it in their eyes.
Chupo stepped through the circle of the frightened. Confidence did not light his eyes as his lips stretched in a hard line. He gave Raven no chance to ask. "Death has come into the cave. Deadwon has come."
Raven raised an eyebrow. "Who?"
Chupo looked toward the cave. "From the place where Sun dies, a bad magic man has come. He talks to the dead. Dead, who, he says, seek new bodies."
Raven looked toward the cave. "A man speaks to those in cold sleep?” His voice lifted in disbelief. "Why would any man speak to the dead? What could they have to say?” He shuddered. "I know what I do. I capture beasts on stone that Fire brings. Does Deadwon do that also?"
"No. He does nothing good, only bad."
"Why have you let him stay?”
Chupo had asked himself that question. "I could kill Deadwon but that would bring dead spirits to take the bodies of the clan. The killing would be easy. What would happen after? You must see him.” He gestured toward the cave. "Come."
Someone called, "Raven, do you have magic?"
Raven had no time to answer. "Deadwon comes," someone whispered.
A fearful silence fell and a chill descended. Raven felt the change as fear darkened grim faces. Even Chupo stood subdued.
Like grass parted by Whoosh, people moved and a path opened.
Sudden as vomit spews, death's stench strangled Raven. The stink threatened to empty his stomach. So putrid was the odor, it invaded not only his nose, but also his skin and hair. It engulfed him. Into his sight with intimidating boldness strutted what could only be death's attendant. Red and bloated as a Sun-heated corpse, the man, if that was what it was, thrust his menacing bulk where laughter once reigned.
Raven stared, though he wished to look away and flee. Disbelief held his eyes. He saw death walk and breath moved its hairless chest. Its bald, blood-red head turned and its black-rimmed eyes, cold as a snake’s gaze, weakened his knees.
"This is Raven," Chupo said. "Raven has a greater magic. Not death magic. He has life’s magic."
Deadwon's sinister eyes widened for an instant and then his repugnant stare intensified.
Raven wished Chupo had not spoken those words. They cast him into death's path.
A long-nailed finger, red as dripping blood, pointed at Raven's chest. "You!” Deadwon screamed. "The dead walk in your footsteps and reach for you. Smell their breath. See their need for a body in my eyes. They hunger for flesh and only I can drive them away."
The words, the foul stench of death, and the red, bloated man caused fear to rise in Raven's throat. His pulse roared against his ears, but fear was no more a stranger to Raven than death. He knew fear in darkness, yet he entered. He had feared Big Man but he stood against him. His fear of Big Ice had been no less, yet he had walked upon its belly, defying death's open jaws. He challenged death in rock when first entering Horse Chamber. Fear reminded him that life was a possession fought for and guarded. As if his tongue were dead flesh, he could not speak. His feet dragged across stones as he walked toward Deadwon and his spear hung forgotten in his sweat-slicked hands. He stopped before Deadwon, only an arm's length away.
A twitch leaped across Deadwon's face as his eyes widened. Fat and menace narrowed them as Raven blinked.
Someone gasped, frightened by Raven's foolish approach. He swallowed his fear and gagged on the putrid odor of Deadwon's staff. The opossum had given its blood, breath and meat, but not so men could live.
Raven lifted his shaking hand, and his fingers touched Deadwon's clammy chest.
He did not hear someone’s frightened whisper, "No!”
Deadwon's eyes narrowed. He bellowed, "I speak to the dead."
Raven stepped back.
Deadwon shook his maggot-infested staff. He turned quickly and stepped from sight into the entrance of his chamber. Fear lingered behind him, thick as the red stain on Raven's fingers.
Raven stood alone in silence, in death's sour stench. Even Chupo had deserted him as Fire fled into ash.
Chupo had not gone far. He waited below the cave where air blew fresh and Sun fell warm.
Raven stepped from the cave and took deep drafts of cleansing air into his lungs. He sat beside Chupo. Neither man spoke for several long moments, until Raven dared break the silence.
"Deadwon not good."
Chupo only grunted and again there was silence.
"Not a man like hunter," Raven whispered.
Chupo glanced toward the cave. "He takes our women when he wants. He brings no good into the cave. Your touch angered him. Now he speaks to the dead."
Both men looked toward the cave as if expecting something to appear.
"He may call them to take your body."
Raven suppressed a shudder.
"Do you fear?”
"Yes." Raven examined the red clay on his fingers. He rubbed them against a rock and the color came away. "Only red clay mixed with fat. Maybe he is only man. Maybe death will take him if my spear rips his heart."
"No!” Chupo said abruptly. He came halfway to his feet and then settled back. He looked right and left nervously. "No," he said in a controlled voice. "To kill him will bring death to all, but maybe, maybe your good magic, if you bring horse or bison onto wall, death will not come."
Chupo did not fear death by combat. He did not fear death by cave bear's jaws, or tiger, not as he feared the cold death Deadwon represented. He did fear death that stalked through darkness without sound or flesh.
"I can bring beasts onto the walls of your cave," Raven said with confidence. "It is the magic of life, of Fire, of good."
* * *
Deadwon realized an old fear. Not since driven from dominance over the people near bad water had he come upon a man who dared stand before him. This one had the courage to touch him. Yes, he saw fear in the man's eyes, but he also saw something else in those cold gray eyes, as if the man held secrets that gave him courage. He must die. He must die so others know fear. He must die not by flint, but by unseen death in dark. I wait until he is alone in the dark. Then call dead to work through my hands. As a hunter snares a rabbit with a leather noose that tightens about throat, he will die slowly.
Deadwon put his red-painted hand on the opossum's green flesh. Maggots crawled over his fingers. His huge belly shook as he giggled and thought of Raven's death.
* * *
In Chupo's cave, Raven squatted in the dark beside shredded oak. The angry voices of his Firestones echoed. "Fire always good." He glanced at Chupo who sat silent. I have brought mammoth, reindeer and horse onto rock and they are my friends. They, like death, come from places unknown. He looked again at Chupo. "Many things are good. Trees are good, grass, flowers, and the smell of rain on the ground. More things are good than bad. Only a few things are bad, like…" He did not speak the name, for he knew that somewhere in the cave Deadwon lurked, doing whatever he did.
Fire makes me strong, as always. She brings good things with her light and warmth. Even her voice is good. Crackle, she says, and I hear reindeer's hooves snap against stone. Hiss, she says, and I hear the swish of a bison's tail. With her ashes I can cover my body black, to protect me from death. He stripped to white skin and with cold aches, he coated his hairy legs, thighs, belly, chest and face. Every part he could reach became the color of Fire's bed. This is good; I am a part of Fire, like smoke. I am strong with this magic. Will find beast on stone. Ho-oo, bison. Ho-oo, reindeer, mammoth and horse, where are you hiding?
He hunted shadows and studied every wrinkled rock that caught Fire's glow as he searched for shape and form. He bribed Fire many times with oak and elm, and she shifted across the wall, but no beast appeared. "Ho-oo, bison. Ho-oo, reindeer, mammoth and horse," he called, but as dusk turned to night, and as night drifted to morning, not a hoof, antler, or tusked head appeared.
Chupo stayed in the cave most of the night, watching Raven's black mysterious form rise from beside Fire and pace before the wall. Raven's shadow drifted beyond Fire like a winged predator circling Sun. Chupo stayed until he thought he saw Deadwon's red face and black-rimmed eyes peering from the darkness. If it were a cave bear even twice his size, he would have stood with his spear ready, but Deadwon… Chupo feared no other man or beast, but he fled from Deadwon's threat.
Raven stumbled into Sun with fatigue heavy upon him from his efforts to see the invisible. "I will try again tonight," he muttered to Chupo at the edge of trees. "Let Deadwon have this cave for now. We will go where horse watches from wall. Let him have it, until I find strong friend on rock, a friend of life more powerful than death."
* * *
Deadwon awoke to silence, and did not hear subdued voices that should have come from the other chamber. He waddled to the shelf where roasted deer should be waiting. Only the skulls of skunk, opossum, and turtle were set on red clay. First anger, then worry, lifted his hairless brow. "It is the new one with strange gray eyes who does this," he grumbled to his only companions, the maggots. "They must fear me, as they fear death. I will make them. I will show them."
From the shuffle of his feet, a deer's leg bone clattered across the floor. He hurried to another shelf and found a rawhide cord. He wrapped it around both hands, and with an angry jerk, he snapped the cord taut. "He will die."